1. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
One of South America’s most prized wildlife destinations, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are a distinct world unto themselves. Seemingly disconnected from the rest of civilisation, this cluster of volcanic islands – bursting at the seams with unique creatures not found anywhere else – is best explored by small ship, one of the main reasons it’s usually devoid of backpackers. Not the cheapest place to visit in South America, yet one of the most rewarding, the Galapagos have achieved cult-like status amongst experience-craving travellers.
2. Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
The southernmost region of South America is revered for a flurry of reasons: this is one of the least-inhabited corners of the continent, one that is, instead, defined by its sensational landscapes and array of wildlife. Home to magnificent national parks that are a trekker’s dream, Patagonia is all about glaciers, snow-capped peaks and nature at its most dramatic. Your mind will be blown and all your senses revitalised… with a soak in a steaming jacuzzi and a glass of world-class red to top it off.
3. The Atacama Desert, Chile
The driest desert in the world and the most surreal star-gazing destination in the southern hemisphere, the Atacama is an ethereal place to visit. Salt-encrusted earth crumbles under your feet, fiery-red sunsets close the day and the night skies put on a magnificent show. Desolate and harsh yet incredibly enchanting, the Atacama is in the northern fringes of Chile, bordering the world-famous Bolivian Salt Flats. If you have some extra time, you can easily discover both in one unforgettable journey.
4. The Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon is one of South America’s most celebrated highlights and the one destination everyone who visits South America wishes to explore. If you’re not overly keen on roughing it out in a budget jungle lodge – pesky insects and soul-sucking humidity and all – you’ll be pleased to know that there are many options to accommodate your experience of this resplendent wilderness. From luxury lodge-based tours to Amazon River cruises aboard gorgeous river boats (yes, they also come with air-con and window fly screens!) the choices when exploring the Amazon in comfort and style are plentiful.
5. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
We certainly wouldn’t begrudge you heading to the Brazilian party-capital to shimmy it up with the best samba dancers at the annual Rio Carnival, yet let it be known that Rio de Janeiro is actually a pretty spectacular city to discover at any time of the year. Steeped in hundreds of years of fascinating history – as the birthplace of African-imported slavery into the continent – Rio is a powerhouse of attractions. With a great array of museums, fun shopping options, exceptional cuisine and a long list of sightseeing highlights to suit everyone, Rio will bewitch you for days on end.
6. Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
North of Rio, merely an hour’s flight away, is where you’ll find Fernando de Noronha, a UNESCO-listed treasure that’s prized as one of the most ridiculously beautiful marine reserves on our planet. What’s really amazing about this place is that it’s still largely way off the mass-tourism radar, so aside from being totally stunning, it is also blissfully uncrowded. Snorkelling here brings you face to face with one of the most marine-life rich reefs in the world, while beach-bumming on the heavenly stretches of beach for a few days is about as arduous as it sounds.
7. Cusco & the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru
Anyone who’s ever been to Cusco will tell you that a visit to Machu Picchu is just a snippet of the real story in this town that’s dotted with an array of charming boutique hotels and rates one of the more famous (and road-tested) destinations in South America. Wonderful shopping for authentic souvenirs, crafts and artefacts, interesting museums to visit, unforgettable restaurants in which to feast on Peruvian specialities and a plethora of historical and archaeological highlights await in Cusco’s surrounding picturesque valleys.
8. Quito, Ecuador
As a country, Ecuador is ideal for travellers keen to avoid lengthy trips getting from A to B thanks to being a compact yet varied place that showcases a little of everything for which South America is so beloved. Due to shorter travel times and excellent connections, you could be in the high Andes one day and relaxing at a beach eating ceviche the next. Quito is one of those cities that just sucks you in with its innumerable delights and that is, incidentally, the main reason it rates as one of the best expat retirement spots in South America. If it’s good enough to move to… why aren’t you visiting?
9. Cartagena, Colombia
Colombia is one of the most delightful destinations to explore in South America. Amongst the many beautiful hubs to discover, Cartagena reigns supreme. Often rated the most outstanding colonial city in the Americas – no exaggeration, let us assure you – Cartagena is postcard-perfect and has copious substance to back up its incredible gorgeousness.
10. Buenos Aires, Argentina
While it’s fair to say that all of South America’s capital cities hold special appeal, there’s something about Buenos Aires that really sets it apart from the rest. That something is style, charm, elegance and plenty of pizzazz, with enough enchanting neighbourhoods to warrant a whole week’s stay and more shopping and culinary feasting that anyone could ever indulge in during just one visit. No wonder everyone calls this the Paris of the Latin world!
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Whether you’re planning your first visit to South America or if you’ve left many a footprint on the well-trodden Gringo Trail in years gone by, you’ll find these best destinations a wonderful way to discover the continent anew. Seek out the most important historic sites, most revered cultural hubs and most celebrated natural treasures, and soak them up thanks to a style of travel that is slower and more authentic, offering independence and flexibility.