South America is blessed with some of the most astonishing landscapes on earth. This dynamic continent has enthralled travellers for centuries with its array of natural wonders, ancient ruins and modern metropolises. It holds some of the world’s most impressive beaches, most fascinating cultures and most thrilling adventure activities. To inspire your travels, we're picked six of the most impressive South America journeys to kick-start your trip planning.
1. The Inca Trail, Peru
The four-day hike between Cusco and Machu Picchu in Peru, a spell-binding mountain trek into the Inca past, needs no introduction.
Although just one of the Inca trails you can follow across the Andes, what makes this 33km route so popular is the unrivalled reward of Machu Picchu at its end. The most famous ruins in South America, no matter how jaded you are, they will stop you in your tracks.
Magnificent Macchu Picchu © SC Image/Shutterstock
2. Ruta 40, Argentina
The legendary Ruta 40 (or RN40) runs the length of Argentina. It follows the line of the Andes from the Bolivian border all the way to Patagonia. Running 5,000km it crosses 11 provinces, 18 important rivers, and connects 13 great lakes and salt flats, 20 national parks and hundreds of communities. There’s little wonder it’s one of the most famous attractions in the country.
If you haven’t got your own wheels, head to the section between El Calafate/El Chaltén and Bariloche. Much of this route is paved and buses run its length almost daily in season. Despite the transport connections, the region still retains a sense of isolation. That's thanks to the endless pampas scrubland, interrupted only by the occasional tiny settlement or estancia.
Ruta 40 in Argentina © Kavram/Shutterstock
Inspired by our list of South America journeys? Try our Tailor-Made Travel service and plan a fully personalised itinerary with the help of a local expert
3. Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
The lost city of Tayrona people in Colombia (Ciudad Perdida) is relatively unknown, despite pre-dating Macchu Picchu by some 650 years. It was once one of the centres of the indigenous Tayrona, before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Hidden within the forests of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, it's a magical place. Getting there means setting out on a three-day trek – but the experience makes it all worthwhile. It might be one of the least well known South America journeys on this list, but we recommend you check it out!
Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) in Colombia © Scott Biales DitchTheMap/Shutterstock
Discover why the Ciudad Perdida made our list of the Best Places to Travel in 2020
4. The Circuit, Torres del Paine, Chile
The great massif contained within the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, with the sheer granite towers of Las Torres to the east, and the multicoloured Los Cuernos to the west, is one of Patagonia’s most jaw-dropping sights. The park offers incomparable opportunities for hiking, as well as animal spotting. You are likely to see guanacos – wild relatives of llamas – and ñandú or rhea (like a small ostrich).
To best soak up the charms and wildlife of this rugged landscape, embark on “The Circuit” – a seven- to ten-day hike. An extended version of the popular “W”, this route that leads you around the back of the Torres, giving you some respite from the inevitable crowds.
An island in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile © Sunsinger/Shutterstock
5. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
They might be part of Ecuador, but the Galapagos Islands are almost 1,000 km away from the mainland, scattered across 45,000 sq km of the Pacific Ocean. Getting there is part of the adventure – there are long-haul flights from Amsterdam and Madrid, or connections via Quito (Ecuador's capital) or Lima. From the US, your best jumping-off points are Miami and New York. As a protected area, flights arrivals are limited – so plan well in advance.
Only 3% of the islands's landmass is populated with humans. The rest is a haven of wildlife where you can spot giant tortoises, iguanas and the rare blue-footy booby. Visitors are permitted at 60 designated sites across the archipelago, and visitor numbers are strictly controlled. Most of the sites are only accessible by boat, and you must travel with a guide. For trips to the Galapagos Islands, get in touch with us. Rough Guides works with local experts in the area who can organise the trip of a lifetime.
Marine iguana with blue footed booby on Isabela Island, Galapagos, Ecuador © Reisegraf.ch/Shutterstock
Discover why the Galapagos Islands made our list of the Best Places to Travel in 2020.
6. Serra Verde Railway, Brazil
The Serra Verde Express in Brazil is one of the most scenic South America train journeys. This enchanting ride winds around mountainsides slips through tunnels to traverse one of the largest Atlantic Forest reserves in the country.
In fact, it’s one of our top reasons to visit Brazil’s overlooked southern states. Make sure to sit on the left-hand side of the train for the best views (or on the right if you’re not good with heights).
View from the Serra Verde railway © Danita Delmont/Shutterstock
Top image: Marine iguana with blue-footed booby on Isabela Island, Galapagos, Ecuador © reisegraf.ch/Shutterstock