South America Travel Guide
South America has long been my favorite part of the world. It is where I got started with long-distance travel and became an experienced backpacker. It is a true land of adventure, with some of the most spectacular and unique landscapes of our planet. As if this was not enough, it is also filled with archaeological treasures and is home to fascinating cultures.
Discover our travel tips, articles, and virtual tours for South America !
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Quick Facts About South America
- 12 independent countries + 2 overseas territories (French Guiana, France and the Falkland Islands, UK – claimed by Argentina).
- The 3 largest countries are Brazil, Argentina, and Peru.
- Key geographic facts:
- The Andes Mountains run along the Pacific coast, from Venezuela to Chile and Argentina, crossing Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It is the geographical backbone of South America.
- The southern part of the Andes is home to a large number of lakes, fjords and glaciers, and constitutes the Patagonia region. It is shared between Chile and Argentina.
- Between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean lies a desert coast, particularly arid in northern Chile and southern Peru.
- On the other side of the Andes, a cloud forest grows, covering the mountains before the large Amazonian plains. The famous Machu Picchu is located in this cloud forest environment.
- The Amazon rainforest covers a large part of Brazil, but also Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and the three Guianas.
- Apart from Brazil which speaks Portuguese, most of South America speaks Spanish.
- Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America (it is a former British colony).
- Suriname, a former Dutch colony, speaks Dutch.
- French Guiana’s main language is French, as it is an Overseas Department of France.
- In some regions, older generations still speak languages like Quechua (the language of the Incas, in Peru), or Aymara (in the region of Lake Titicaca).
- The vast majority of South Americans are Christians.
- The dominant religion is Catholicism, followed by Protestantism.
- Guyana and Suriname have a quite large Hindu population (between 20% and 25% of their total population).
South America, A Continent of Many Records
- The Andes Cordillera is the longest mountain range in the world, with 8,900 kilometers / 5,500 miles.
- The Amazon rainforest is the largest in the world. It is larger than the Congo Basin and the Indonesian rainforests combined.
- The Amazon River is the largest in the world, in terms of volume of water. It is only slightly shorter than Africa’s Nile River, considered to be the world’s longest river.
- Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia, is the world’s largest salt flat, with more than 10,500 square kilometers / 3,900 square miles.
- The Salto Angel, or Angel Falls, in Venezuela, is the world’s highest waterfall, with 979 meters / 3,212 feet.
- Iguaçu or Iguazú Falls, at the border between Brazil and Argentina, is the largest waterfall system in the world, with 275 waterfalls stretching 2.7 kilometers / 1.7 miles.
- The Atacama Desert, in northern Chile, is the dryest place on Earth. It receives on average 15 mm / 0.6 in of rain per year. In some regions, rain has never been recorded.
- Lake Titicaca, shared between Peru and Bolivia, is the highest navigable lake in the world, at 3,810 meters / 12,500 feet above sea level.
- The Pantanal, in Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia, is the world’s largest tropical wetland. With its 42 million acres, it is larger than England.
- Ushuaia, in Argentina, is the southernmost city in the world. It is usually used as a starting point for cruises to Antarctica.
- La Paz, Bolivia, is the world’s highest capital city, at 3,640 meters / 11,642 feet above sea level. Its airport, El Alto, is the world’s highest international airport, at 4,062 meters / 13,327 feet.
- The Ojos del Salado, on the border between Chile and Argentina, is the highest volcano in the world, reaching 6,887 meters / 22,615 feet.
- The Andean condor is the world’s largest bird of prey and one of the largest flying birds in the world.
10 Handpicked South America Highlights
10 fantastic places and experiences in South America, in no particular order.
- Visit Machu Picchu in Peru. This is probably one of the first things that come to mind when traveling to South America: exploring the legendary Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Not exactly off the beaten path, but unmissable.
Apart from the ruins themselves, make sure to hike up one of the two mountains that surround the site, or both! Even better, book a trek ending at Machu Picchu, such as the famous Inca Trail or its great alternative, the Salkantay Trek.
- Experience the immensity of Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia. The world’s largest salt flat is an incredible place and a highlight in any traveler’s life.
Take a few extra days to explore the regions south of the Salar, with mind-blowing high-altitude deserts and colorful lagoons with flamingo colonies.
- Feel the power of Iguaçu Falls, in southern Brazil. Take a couple of days to visit Iguaçu Falls from the Brazilian side and Iguazu Falls on the Argentinan side.
From Brazil, you will be delighted with panoramic views of the whole waterfall system, and be surrounded by huge waterfalls when you follow the lower footbridge.
From Argentina, you get to follow footbridges taking you to the edge of the Devil’s Throat, the most impressive part of the falls.
Take a helicopter flight for an unforgettable view of the falls from above.
- Take a trip deep into the magnificent Canaima National Park in Venezuela, to the world’s highest waterfall: the Salto Angel.
The trip takes you to really remote and wild regions among Venezuela’s tepuis (tabletop mountains unique to this part of the world). Angel Falls is there, flowing from the top of the Auyan-Tepui.
- Experience the majesty and the power of Kaieteur Falls in Guyana, often said to be “the world’s largest single-drop waterfall”.
On top of the incredible beauty of the falls and the landscape surrounding them, it is really striking to know how few people visit this place. Most of the time, you have the place all to yourself.
- Explore the top of Mount Roraima, the highest of all tepuis, in Venezuela. Tepuis are truly fascinating and unique, and the trek to Mount Roraima offers the opportunity to discover what it is like at the top.
It is a totally isolated, pristine, and bizarre world, filled with strange rock formations, pure water, and endemic plants you won’t find anywhere else on the planet.
- Trek to the Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, in northern Colombia. The Lost City is yet another fascinating archaeological site, deep inside the jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – and it is much older than Machu Picchu.
The trek starts in the countryside and gradually goes deeper and deeper into the tropical forest, following turbulent rivers and slowly gaining altitude. On the third day, you are finally able to discover the Ciudad Perdida, with unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains.
- Immerse yourself in the sheer beauty of Patagonia in the Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. You can do one of the famous treks available in the park: the O Trek and the W Trek, referring to the shape of their itinerary.
Whatever you choose to do, you can expect exceptional scenery made of snowy mountains, lakes, and glaciers. Definitely some of the most dazzling landscapes in South America.
- Get a taste of the Moon or Mars on the desert coast of southern Peru (Paracas, Nazca) or northern Chile (the Atacama Desert). Rain is so rare in these regions, that no vegetation can be found (except along the rare rivers crossing the desert).
It is a world of colorful sand dunes, rock formations, and stones. I bet it would not be that much different on Mars, and it is a really awesome experience to travel through these areas.
- Visit the small Torotoro National Park in Bolivia, famous for its dinosaur footprints. In this park, you can see some very different types of footprints, from the giant brontosaur to smaller three-fingered carnivores.
When you look at the footprints, you can tell the dinosaurs were walking in the mud, and millions of years later the mud has turned into stone. Another main highlight of Torotoro is the beautiful canyon of El Vergel, which can be explored as well.
When to Go to South America
It is often said that the best time to visit South America is from September to November – which is spring in the southern hemisphere. However, we are dealing with a huge continent with an enormous variety of climates and environments. Therefore, it is difficult to give a definitive answer for the whole continent – the answer will depend on which part(s) of South America you intend to travel to.
It is beyond the scope of this page to give very detailed information for the whole continent, but here are a few takeaways:
- July-August is great for visiting the Andes, including Machu Picchu, with generally dry weather and pleasant temperatures. It is also a good season for the Galapagos Islands.
- The Amazon rainforest is best visited from April to September.
- Patagonia will offer the best weather in summer, from October to April.
- Many regions of South America can be enjoyed all year round, like northern and southern Brazil, or northern Argentina.
You can also read our detailed guide: When is The Best Time to Visit South America?
I also suggest you refer to individual country guides in order to get more precise and detailed information on where to go in what part of the year.
Also read: When is The Best Time to Visit Iguazu Falls?
Traveling to South America
Generally, South America is not necessarily unsafe for travel, but it of course depends on what destination you choose, if you are traveling alone, and if you take the necessary precautions. South America taught me a great deal about how to stay safe during my travels, spot risky situations, and reduce the risk of getting into trouble.
- Before leaving, do your homework. If there are some areas along your itinerary that are dangerous, you need to know about them.
- Don’t display expensive jewelry, a fancy watch, or an overpriced camera everywhere you go. You want to appear as low-key as you can, and not look like someone who has tons of valuable ready for the taking.
- Always watch your bags, it is easy to get robbed.
- Be very careful if you go out at night, you need to be sure the areas you are going to are safe. If you are not sure, don’t take the chance.
- Avoid crowds, as they are an ideal situation for robbers to attack you, steal your valuables, and disappear.
- Some countries are safer than others. For example, Venezuela is pretty unsafe for a backpacker and is best visited with local travel agencies who will know how to keep you safe. You can read our detailed article about travel safety in Venezuela.
- Always pay attention to your surroundings, make sure nothing looks/feels fishy, or that no one is following you or staring at you.
Getting in and Around
South America is well-connected to the rest of the world through numerous international airports, with major hubs in cities such as São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Bogota. Most travelers will arrive by air, but it’s also possible to enter overland from Central America or by sea.
Traveling within the continent is often done by bus, which is the most affordable and extensive method of transportation. The continent is also known for its spectacular long-distance train journeys, such as the Andean Explorer in Peru. For longer distances or time-sensitive travel, domestic and regional flights can be convenient but more expensive.
Renting a car can provide the most flexibility, but be prepared for diverse driving conditions. In many cities, bicycles are also a popular means of transportation, with numerous cities having dedicated bike lanes and bike rental services.
Accommodation in South America ranges from luxury resorts to budget hostels, and everything in between. Many travelers enjoy staying in locally owned guesthouses or “posadas,” which provide an authentic experience and are usually very affordable.
For those seeking more comfort, there are international chain hotels in most major cities and tourist destinations. Airbnb and other vacation rental platforms can also be an excellent way to find unique places to stay.
Remember that prices can vary significantly depending on the country and the season. It’s always recommended to book ahead during peak times.