The Most Scenic Road Trips Across South America

Valleys of the Yungas Road | Matthew Straubmuller / Flickr
Valleys of the Yungas Road | Matthew Straubmuller / Flickr
Photo of Euan Marshall
9 August 2017

South America is such a vast, plentiful continent with an endless supply of amazing places to visit. Due to its size, however, it can be difficult to cover a lot of it in just one visit. Therefore, one of the best ways to see the continent is by road, taking long journeys around some of South America’s most scenic spots. Here are a few of the continent’s top road trips.

Brazil’s north-eastern coast

Brazil’s north-eastern coast is known for its stunning weather, beautiful beaches and unique culture. Many of the region’s cities are excellent tourist destinations individually, but a great way to see them all is by taking a long road trip from Maranhão all the way down to Bahia.

The journey starts in the city of São Luis, with its beautiful colonial architecture and lively reggae scene, before working its way east through two of Brazil’s most beautiful spots: the gorgeous dunes and lagoons of Lençóis Maranhenses and the amazing secluded beach town of Jericoacoara.

Lençóis Maranhenses / | © Danielle Pereira / Flickr

The route then takes you through a number of the region’s state capitals: Fortaleza, Natal, João Pessoa, Recife, Maceió and Aracaju, as you begin to snake south towards your final destination, the stunning city of Salvador.

If after all that you’re still looking to go a bit further, the towns of Ilheus and Porto Seguro, in the southern parts of Bahia state, are also worth a visit. The entire trip involves around 40 hours of driving, so give yourself plenty of time to enjoy your stopovers.

The Costa Verde

One of Brazil’s loveliest spots is the so-called Costa Verde (Green Coast), between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. With a mix of landscapes, from breathtaking beaches and lush Atlantic jungle to quaint colonial architecture, this coastline is well worth getting to know.

Starting from Rio de Janeiro itself, take the BR-101 headed west out of the city and follow it down to Angra dos Reis, where you can take a quick ferry over to the magnificent Ilha Grande. After touring around this former pirate hideout, leper colony and prison (not all at the same time, thankfully), head to the mainland, back to the BR-101 and marvel at the jungle of the Serra da Bocaina National Park before reaching Paraty, one of Brazil’s most beautiful towns.

With its cobbled streets and slew of well-conserved colonial architecture, Paraty looks completely lost in time and has a distinct fairytale quality to it. Spend some time roaming the pretty streets and be sure to hire a boat to visit the jaw-droppingly beautiful islands and beaches in the surrounding bay.

Paraty, Brazil | © Tupungato/Shutterstock

From Paraty, it’s back on the BR-101 heading for Ubatuba. There are a few potential detours on the way, such as the gorgeous village of Trindade and its trio of stunning beaches. The region around Ubatuba has become famous for its excellent surfing beaches, so before driving into town, stop off at Prumirim or Ubatumirim if you’re looking for waves.

Continuing along the coast will eventually take you to São Sebastião, a region with some great beaches of its own (Maresias, Juqueí) and the departure point for the ferry across to Ilhabela. The last leg will take you further along the coast to the beach town of Guarujá, one of the most popular weekend destinations for Paulistanos from the nearby megacity of São Paulo.

Ruta 40, Argentina

For a truly epic road trip in Argentina, look no further than Ruta 40, the country’s longest road which spans from the northern province of Jujuy on the Argentina-Bolivia border, across the altiplano, through wine country, down past the Andes mountains and into Patagonia. The entire route comprises around 50 to 60 hours of driving, so if you’re looking to do the whole thing, you’d better clear your schedule for a few weeks.

A less time-consuming (but still gargantuan) route would be leaving from Mendoza, the gorgeous city at the heart of Argentina’s wine district. After filling yourself up on Malbec and beef (and letting the effects of the alcohol wear off, of course), head south onto Ruta 40 towards the Lake District.

After a long first leg of your journey, you’ll arrive in the charming town of Chos Malal, a gorgeous little place surrounded by some incredible landscapes. If you can spare the time, a quick detour to the thermal springs of Copahue, on the slopes of the volcano of the same name, is worth a visit.

Journeying further south, you will soon come across one of the most enchanting and dazzling parts of Ruta 40, La Ruta de los Siete Lagos, just past the town of San Martin de los Andes. The road is often narrow and decidedly not well paved, but the views more than make up for that.

The next stop is the jewel in the Argentinian Lake District’s crown – Bariloche and the Lago Nahuel Huapi National Park. In a setting reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, Bariloche is absolutely beautiful and a popular skiing destination for locals.

Breathtaking views out over the seven lakes in Bariloche | © Danielle Pereira/Flickr

The last section of Ruta 40 takes you into Patagonia, past the incredible destinations of Perito Moreno, El Chaltén and El Calafate and their incredible glaciers.

North Yungas Road, Bolivia

Less of a road trip and more of a death-defying day trip, the North Yungas Road is a must for any driving enthusiast. This winding, single lane path snakes high through the rainforest of the Yungas region, connecting the small town of Coroico to the capital of La Paz. Its lack of guard rails and sheer cliffs have given it the local nickname ‘Camino de la Muerte’, simply, Death Road.

Proper highways have now been built around the road, providing a quicker and safer way to get between Coroico and La Paz, meaning that the Death Road is now almost exclusively used for tourism. It is a favorite spot for cyclists, who do the route in groups each morning, so if you are in a car, head out in the afternoon when the cyclists have passed.

Valleys of the Yungas Road | Matthew Straubmuller / Flickr

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Another entry from Bolivia is neither a road-trip, nor even an actual road, but is an incredible driving experience across a unique landscape – the Uyuni salt flats. A massive dried prehistoric lake, Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, with its brilliant white surface that reflects the sky above it. The most common way to explore the salt flats is via a guided jeep tour, but if you’re feeling brave you can rent your own car and do it yourself.

Going it alone is not for the inexperienced, you will be camping under the stars and largely following jeep tracks on the salt flat surface (be sure to bring a GPS!), but it is worth it for this magnificent and overwhelming experience in this unforgettable setting.

Jeep at Salar de Uyuni | © Christopher Crouzet / Flickr

Machu Picchu & Lake Titicaca

Tourists flock to Peru in order to see the abandoned Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and the beautiful Lake Titicaca, the biggest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world. Usually, however, visitors will sign up for package tours to bus them between these locations, meaning you miss out on some of the indescribable beauty along the way. Why not do it yourself?

This trip begins in the city of Cusco, the World Heritage Site that was formerly the capital of the Inca empire and our gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. The drive begins by rolling through the Sacred Valley, in towns and villages such as Pisac, Maras and Ollantaytambo, before reaching Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.

On the way back, circle around and visit the often overlooked ruins of Choquequirao before heading back to Cusco. Now, our journey takes us south-east, towards the city of Puno and Lake Titicaca, but make sure to take a detour and hike the jaw-droppingly beautiful Monte Vinicunca, also known as the Rainbow Mountain.

Lake Titicaca | ©Pedro Szekely/Wikipedia

Chilean Highlands

Beginning in the lovely beach city of Arica, right on the Chile-Peru border, this route takes you way up into the gorgeous Chilean highlands, around some charming towns, before ending in the popular tourist destination of San Pedro de Atacama.

Via the tiny village of Putre, your first big stop is the Lauca National Park, this gorgeous park on the Chilean altiplano with its amazing views and wildlife. There is even a vicuña nature reserve to the south of the park, an excellent opportunity to see these odd animals, cousins of llamas and alpacas, in their native habitat. The route then continues over the picturesque highland plateau and through the Salar de Surire salt flats.

Before heading down to San Pedro de Atacama, be sure to pass by the huge stratovolcano of Ollagüe on the Chile-Bolivia border.

Valley of the Moon, San Pedro Atacama, Chile | © Pixabay

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