South America Travel Guide
South America, a wonderful landmass with long standing cultural traditions and diverse natural offerings is slowly becoming one of the world’s top tourist destinations. With a pleasant mix of European cultural and linguistic characteristics and each country’s own unique traditional charm combined with varying and textured natural richness, there will be little time to be bored on this fascinating continent.
One of the continent’s most striking features is the world’s largest area of tropical rainforest which traverses nearly ten South American countries, including Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and French Guiana. Treks and trips into this wild jungle offer an escape from the comforts of the developed world unlike any other. With flora and fauna abounding and stunning scenery a common fixture, this may just be the life changing experience you need.
But natural offerings on the continent don’t end with the Amazon. The sprawling Andes mountain range is a sight to behold, with endless activities to partake in whether high atop the soaring peaks or deep into cascading valleys. From snow capped active volcanoes and ancient Inca settlements to expansive national parks, tours of the Andes will leave one feeling invigorated and revived.
Stunning tropical beaches provide picture perfect settings for the most relaxing of retreats in South America. Among the most picturesque places offering the best beaches with a bonus of amazing wildlife, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are hugely popular with travelers coming from around the world.
Arduous yet rewarding hiking trips to the summit of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina will make for an exhilarating trip, with stunning views rewarding every glance.
There are few places on earth that provide the scenic beauty of the ‘Lost City of the Incas’, Machu Picchu, while also showcasing the rich and ancient traditions of the indigenous Inca peoples. Built in the stunning classical Inca style and dating back to the 1400s, this is a manmade wonder not to be missed.
South American climates vary from tropical to temperate, with much of the continent offering fine and sun kissed climes. The Atacama Desert is considered one of the world’s driest places but most other parts of South America are blessed with ample rainfall to make visitors enjoy the sunshine all the more.
South America has an overwhelming array of awe-inspiring natural and manmade attractions; with something to suit all tastes, visitors can choose from the ecological wonders of the Amazonian rainforests, the enigmatic ancient ruins of the Mayan and Inca, a myriad of paradise islands and beaches or the magical snow topped peaks of the Andean mountain range.
The 19 islands in the Galapagos chain are truly a showcase of evolution in the animal kingdom. Few places on earth contain creatures that do not automatically run in fear from humans, offering a special experience for those with a fondness for animals. It’s an exclusive, restrictive environment but undeniably unique in the world.
The Amazon rainforest is regarded as the ‘lungs’ of the planet, such is the scale and importance of its lush jungle. The six million hectares of this essential conservation area is one of the most biodiverse regions on earth, containing myriad species of flora and fauna that haven’t even been discovered yet.
As exotic time-forgotten destinations go, few can match the mystery embodied by the massive stone figures sunk into the earth on Easter Island. There’s nothing else quite like these Polynesian monoliths, which lure thousands of visitors each year to ponder the meaning and marvel of the stone heads.
The southern reaches of Chile look like something straight out of a fairytale. Glaciers, snowy peaks, granite towers, impossibly blue alpine lakes and not a trace of human settlement make this national park a sacred place revered by nature lovers worldwide.
Few towns in Latin America embody the essence of Spanish colonialism like Cartagena. Perched on the edge of the Caribbean, the 16th-century fortress, walled city and plazas are incredibly charming. Superb white beaches and a shockingly well-endowed array of eating, drinking, shopping and sleeping options provide all the support needed for a long leisurely stay.
This extremely popular, fun and scenic beach on the edge of Rio’s concrete sprawl epitomizes the tropical beach experience. Check out the skimpily-clad locals tanning, playing and socializing as only Brazilians can do. Ipanema is a kaleidoscope of people, vendors and scenery which provides endless hours of entertainment.
This sprawling city high in the Andes was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th to 17th centuries until the arrival of the Spanish. As the Spanish built their churches and buildings on the exquisite stone foundations laid by the Inca, a unique fusion of both cultures came into existence. The cobbled streets of Cusco are one of the most interesting and colorful sites in South America.
The world’s highest navigable lake is the source of many legends. The forefathers of the Inca were born from its waters, and went on to build the impressive city of Tiahuanaco. The engineering of its ruins boggles the mind, proving what a powerful culture the Inca once were.
One of the most mysterious places in South America is this vast barren plain in Nasca covered in gigantic geometric images. Some of them are several miles long, begging the question of how a human without aerial assistance could have created such detailed and proportionate images in the year 500 BC.
- Buenos Aires, Patagonia
- Foz de Iguacu, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo
- Easter Island, Lake District, Patagonia, Santiago, Valparaiso
- Galapagos Islands, Quito
- Falkland Islands
- French Guiana
- Arequipa, Cusco, Lima, Machu Picchu
- Montevideo, Punta del Este
- Caracas, Margarita Island, Merida
Things to See & Do
South America encompasses every natural environment imaginable. The world’s largest tropical rainforest covers much of Brazil, while the high alpine realm of the Andes runs like a spine down the continent. Scattered between are the planet’s driest deserts, wide-open Argentine plains and the stunning glacial landscape of Chile’s Patagonia region.
This incredible geological diversity translates into an imposing wealth of outdoor adventure. Superb skiing, trekking and mountain climbing exists in the Andes and its surrounding environs, while the vast coastline presents ample activities for water enthusiasts. All the snow and rain in South America creates countless rivers and lakes for rafting, kayaking or just boating around. Best of all, there is colorful culture and unique wildlife intertwined everywhere you go.
When to Go
The climate of South America is as varied as they come. The Amazon Basin is a soggy steamy land of heat and rain, while the Atacama desert of northern Chile is as dry as anything on earth. As you gain elevation in the Andes, conditions become colder and snowy. Where you plan to visit should greatly influence the month you travel.
Most South American countries contain both lowland tropical and highland alpine environments. With the Andes forming a long spine running the length of the continent, conditions begin to change as you head into the mountains. Warm wet conditions are the norm in the lowlands and around the equator. Just remember that the seasons in South America are exact opposites of those in the northern hemisphere.
Southern South America Argentina as a whole experiences cool dry weather, except for a small tropical region in the far north. December to March is the hot season, with temperatures often reaching 30°C. Winter, from July to October, can be quite chilly (particularly in the extreme south). The best time for a visit is between June and October.
Chile’s long thin geography gives it every climate possible except tropical. The northern desert regions are so dry that some places have never seen rain. The Central Valley, including Santiago, has a pleasant Mediterranean climate where rain falls only in the chilly winter months. Coastal areas stay mild and dry, but the far south near Antarctica is a mixed bag of unpredictable weather and extreme winds.
Equatorial South America Brazil dominates the eastern equatorial region of South America. This huge country is hot, rainy and humid thanks to the Amazon Basin. The best time for a visit is during the mild winter season between June and August. Southern Brazil gets heavy rain during the winter months, so come prepared with a good rainjacket.
Peru’s weather is either wet or dry. Its high period for travel falls in line with the dry season of May to October. This is the time for hiking in the mountains, as well as visiting the Amazon Basin. November through April is the rainy season when much of the highlands are cloudy and muddy. Coastal Peru is typically mild and dry all year, while the tropical eastern lowlands are hot and humid.
Elevation determines the weather in Ecuador, which is either wet or dry. The mountains get their dry season between June and September, while the lower valleys are dry from September to December. Ecuador’s lowlands enjoy springlike temperatures year-round, averaging 24°C. Heavy rains in July and August definitely put a damper on travel.
Northern South America Colombia and Venezuela are quite tropical and experience the same wet-dry dichotomy as the rest of South America. The rainy season comes in the winter between June and October, while summers are typically dry from November through May. Coastal areas receive the most rain, and the mountainous regions tend to be cooler and drier.
Most international flights to South America originate in the US cities of Miami, New York and Houston. If you can’t find a direct flight from your country it’s easy to book one to America first, then make a connection to the South American country of your choice. Buenos Aires (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Lima (Peru), and São Paulo (Brazil) are the main international gateways. These major Latin air hubs are useful for making connecting flights to more remote destinations in the region.
The cheapest times to fly to South America are during the spring and fall shoulder seasons. November to March is a busy period since it’s the prime summer high season in South America, while the winter months from May to August coincide with the summer holiday period in the northern hemisphere.
From the US: New York’s JFK International Airport and Miami International Airport are the main US points of departure with daily flights to nearly every capital in South America. Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles also have less frequent service to major South American destinations.
From Canada: Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Ontario’s London International Airport and Vancouver International Airport handle the most direct flights to South America. Canada is the second-busiest point of origin for flights to the region, and offer widespread service.
From the UK: dozens of direct international flights are scheduled each day from London, with less frequent service from other major airports around the UK. Numerous connecting flights also run to South America passing through Madrid, Milan or Zurich along the way.
From Australia and New Zealand: there are ample daily direct flights from Australia and New Zealand, particularly on Argentine airline Aerolineas Argentinas. Sydney has the best selection of flight destinations, with less frequent flights from Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland.
From South Africa: flights from South Africa to South America and few and far between, but those that exist depart from Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Cape Town International Airport or Durban International Airport. Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Sao Paulo (Brazil) handle the most flights from South Africa.
The immense region of South America is a fascinating realm of indigenous and Spanish-flavored culture spread out over 13 similar but unique countries. Moving around this lightly developed part of the world requires patience and a sense of adventure, but the interaction with locals makes it well worth the time and effort.
Traveling around South America requires a country-to-country approach. Unlike many other parts of the world, South America lacks a comprehensive rail or road network. Rail and coach links between neighboring countries are virtually nonexistent, which means overland travelers often need to make their way to the border before negotiating the next leg of the journey.
Bus: Long distance international coach travel in South America is more developed than the train options, and remains a popular choice for travelers with plenty of time. Most bus companies provide seamless cross border tickets, reducing long wait times at immigration checkpoints and increasing overall safety. Chile and Argentina have the most developed and reliable coach network, though some bus service exists in all South American countries.
Air: Faced with slow, rugged and potentially dangerous road travel, many travelers opt for a flight when moving between countries. The presence of regional budget airlines has increased sharply in recent years, providing a quick and relatively inexpensive means of covering distances. Domestic airports can be found all over South America, even in some surprisingly remote areas.
Train: Train travel is a good option when moving around within individual countries. Argentina and Chile have an excellent rail network covering much of their territory, while lesser-developed destinations like Bolivia offer few services. In the Amazon Basin and along the coasts, boats and ferries offer an interesting and convenient way to travel short distances.
Car: While it’s possible to rent a vehicle in most South American countries, driving yourself is not always the best option. The roads throughout most of this vast region are in poor condition, subject to inclement weather and occasionally haunted by bandits. But driving yourself certainly ensures the most amount of adventure and greatest flexibility.
Where to Stay
In all but the most impoverished countries of South America, visitors will find a complete range of accommodation options. Major cities and important tourist destinations usually have a decent selection of luxury hotels or resorts, but don’t expect anything nicer than mid-range hotels in the countryside.
Some of the best lodging is found in historic monasteries, Spanish-colonial villas and other creative buildings. Old haciendas are another excellent choice, especially in Ecuador. They simply ooze character and always offer a unique and memorable experience.
It shouldn’t be hard to find a room at short notice unless it’s a major festival week, national holiday or during the peak travel season from June to October. The top-end lodging tends to book up first, so it’s best to make a reservation. There are ample hostels, budget inns and humble lodges nearly every place you go in South America. They are shockingly cheap, and usually comfortable enough, though amenities like air-conditioning (or heaters) are rare.
Hostels and residenciales: due to the economic nature of South America, the vast majority of accommodation falls into the hostel category. They can be found in even the smallest towns, and the quality varies widely. Room rates are always incredibly low, although you’ll have to do without creature comforts like a television, air-conditioning or a heater.
Hotels and hosterias: luxury hotels are fairly easy to find in the big cities like Lima, Santiago and Buenos Aires, but less so in the countryside. In general, the more touristy the destination the better the range of hotels. South America excels at mid-range hotels and hosterias (akin to a bed and breakfast), where you get excellent value, an interesting atmosphere and often a morning meal.
Camping: there is a decent camping scene within the national parks of South America. If you don’t care to haul your own tent with you, most parks have wonderfully rustic cabins and lodges a day or two into the wilderness. They are very affordable, modestly apportioned and guarantee spectacular views.
Bungalows: bungalows are most commonly found on the beaches and islands, but an increasing number of bungalow-style nature resorts are popping up in the interior. These simple detached cottages are designed to blend in with their surroundings. They tend towards the budget end of the spectrum, but can occasionally be luxurious and exclusive.
Haciendas: Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador have an impressive roster of old ranches known as haciendas. These former plantation houses often date back 200 years, offering a rare glimpse at rural life before the demise of the colonial era. Antique furnishings and cozy charming rooms are the norm, and the prices are comparable to upper-end hotels.
Health and safety
There are a number of health considerations when visiting South America. Food and water often present travelers with stomach problems, so play it safe. Drink only bottled water or soft drinks, and take a quick look around the restaurant before committing. Food should always be adequately cooked, and fruits peeled.
Tropical regions like the Amazon Basin are home to countless insects, spiders and reptiles. Keep your skin covered to prevent mosquito bites and watch where you’re walking when out in the countryside. Altitude sickness is a big concern when traveling in the highlands. Cities like Quito, La Paz and Cusco are at extremely high elevations, so take it slow and easy when you first arrive. If you get seriously ill, head straight to the closest big city, where you’ll find South America’s best medical facilities. Service and quality varies widely, so don’t expect too much. Your country’s consulate is always a reliable help in a pinch. Minor illnesses are easily treated at local pharmacies, which exist all over the region.
Crime: petty crimes and theft are fairly widespread throughout the urban areas of South America, so use all your common sense when traveling in places like Caracas (Venezuela) or Rio (Brazil). Tourists are always prime targets, and often fall victim to more serious crimes such as kidnapping and sexual abuse. It pays to read up on the risky parts of South America before you go.
Regional conflicts and terrorism: even though South America seems to be perennially unstable, most of the conflicts are localized and short-lived and rarely suck in travelers. Colombia has a deserved reputation for kidnappings, although things have greatly improved in recent years. Venezuela is just as dangerous, particularly in its big cities.
Most of the protests in the region are against ruling governments. While they usually cause little more than transportation quagmires for travelers, one can never be sure when the situation will explode. It pays to know the political climate of your travel destination before and during your trip.
Diseases: it is highly suggested that travelers to South America get inoculated against yellow fever, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis. Mosquito-born illness such as malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever exist in the tropical regions, but your best defense is simply covering up and using repellant. Mosquitoes thankfully cannot survive at higher elevations.
Adverse weather: the rainy season brings a lot of precipitation to South America and can occasionally cause flash flooding and mudslides. In the highlands, heavy snowfalls often lead to avalanches although the ski resorts rarely pose a risk. Earthquakes are also a regular feature in South America.
Women travelers: South America is one part of the world where women travelers generally do not receive the best treatment. Incidents of sexual abuse, intimidation and theft are relatively high compared to other regions so it is suggested that women don’t travel alone. The most dangerous situations for women tend to happen after dark and while trekking. Having a companion greatly reduces the potential for trouble.
Work and Study
Those who want to learn the Spanish or Portuguese language will find a large number of language schools in South America’s major cities. Both universities and private language institutes offer a range of classes, while private tutors are easy to find in the larger cities.
If you’re a native speaker of English and wish to immerse yourself in Latin culture there are many jobs available in South America teaching English. Most of the jobs are in the big cities such as Santiago, Lima, La Paz and Quito with privately-run language schools. The only drawback is the pay, which is low by Western standards. But the trade-off is quality time spent with the locals.
There are also plenty of volunteer jobs for those with a desire to do humanitarian work. The less developed countries like Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay are often looking for people with skills in agriculture, social work and other infrastructure fields.
Work and study visas are fairly easy to get if you can fulfill the enormous paperwork requirements and prove that you’re working for a recognized organization. Many foreigners simply work illegally for a short time using their tourist visas.