Vast and diverse, South America can intimidate the first-time visitor with its range of unmissable attractions. But thanks to the mix of bewilderingly biodiverse jungle, captivating cities and enchanting – and often empty – coastlines found on these shores, it’s simple enough to find destinations suited to every type of budget and style of trip.
Here’s how to get the most out of this continent, whatever your preference.
For road trips: the Uruguayan coast
Uruguay may often be visited on a day-trip from nearby Buenos Aires, but with its long, scenic coastline, there’s far more to this quirky nation than its capital, Montevideo. A 300km road trip along the coastal road, ruta 10, winds past a range of beach towns and silent, remote shorelines.
Punta del Este, the playground of the South American rich and famous, is the first stop, but a short drive soon finds you in La Pedrera and Cabo Polonio. Encapsulating Uruguay’s relaxed and simple charm, this corner of coastal paradise promises rustic, tin-roofed cabins and miles of unspoilt sand dunes.
For adventure addicts: Patagonia
Encompassing more than one million square kilometres of desolate steppe, craggy, snow dusted peaks and South America’s largest concentration of glaciers, few places in South America have become quite as synonymous with adventure as Patagonia.
Walking-boot-clad visitors flock to hike beside jagged ridges and milky, meltwater lakes in Torres del Paine National Park or to drive along Chilean Patagonia’s only road, the remote, unpaved and utterly enchanting Carretera Austral.
On the Argentine side, Monte Fitz Roy draws climbers with one of the planet’s most technically difficult ascents, while the Chilean fjords, Beagle Channel and legendary Cape Horn present the challenge of a lifetime for kayakers and sailing enthusiasts.
For spell-binding scenery: Canaima National Park, Venezuela
The bizarre, two-billion-year-old table-top mountains (or tepui) of Canaima National Park on the Brazilian-Guyana border of Venezuela are among the world’s oldest landforms – and some of South America’s strangest scenery.
Mount Roraima is the most accessible tepui for hikers. At the top, strange species of flora and fauna have adapted to what is one of the wettest places on Earth, with carnivorous plants and tiny, prehistoric bouncing pebble toads in abundance.
Further into the park, these surreal landscapes are completed by the plunging waters of Angel Falls, the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world.
Angel Falls © Alice Nerr/Shutterstock
For culture: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Few South American capitals can compete with the elegance and allure of Buenos Aires. Lavish, European-style architecture dots the urban landscape, with buildings such as Teatro Colón and Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes offering a taste of this city’s cultural heritage.
Across the capital’s many barrios, the roots of Argentina’s most famous export – tango – still run deep, with a multitude of authentic milongas (dance halls) the best introduction. For a deeper insight, Museo Casa Carlos Gardel offers a look into the life of one of the most significant voices in tango history.
Museums, such as the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, which showcases the work of prominent Argentine artists, also aid Buenos Aires in staking its claim as the most culturally intriguing capital in the continent.
For wine: the Colchagua Valley, Chile
Argentina may have cemented its reputation in viticulture circles, but Chile’s not far behind. With award-winning Carménère – the Chilean signature grape – up its sleeve, the Colchagua Valley is one of the best of the bunch.
Three hours south of Santiago, this region promises wine tasting and fine-dining in unique settings: think sun-soaked terraces above polo fields and neat vines creeping up looming mountainsides.
For wildlife: Rurrenabaque, Bolivia
A bone-rattling 18-hour bus journey or a death-defying 30-minute flight from La Paz lands you in the dusty streets of Rurrenabaque, the gateway to some of the continent’s most astounding wildlife.
From here, two options await: trekking through the dense, sticky heat of Parque Madidi, one of South America’s most diverse areas of rainforest, or boating along the brown, swollen waters of the nearby pampas.
Whether exploring the jungle or wetlands, expect sightings of brightly coloured toucans flitting through the tree canopy, moonlight reflecting in the gleaming, beady eyes of caiman and to be awoken by the discordant roar of howler monkeys echoing for miles.
For hidden historic landmarks: the Sacred Valley, Peru
Few visitors to South America can help but make a beeline for the continent’s most famous historic symbol: Machu Picchu in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Here, the four-day Inca Trail is the most classic route to this historic citadel, but the five-day Salkantay and four-day Lares treks are unique alternatives. By ditching the crowds, intrepid hikers instead embrace soaring 4600m mountain passes, which merge into cloud forest and pass through barely discovered ruins.
For an even greater adventure, the gruelling two-day trek to Choquequirao is just the ticket. Encompassing over 1800 hectares – only around 40 percent of which has been excavated – this system of Inca terraces and stone stairways emerge silently from thick, fog-covered jungle, making the crowds of the region’s main attraction seem a whole world away.
Header image via sunsinger/Shutterstock