South America is a continent of superlatives: the highest, the driest, the largest, the deepest, the rarest… Well, you get the idea. Superlatives galore can be found from Caracas to Tierra del Fuego. Every traveler can find something that interests him or her. Nature lovers will love the well-preserved national parks, while shoppers can choose between luxury boutiques in major cities like Rio de Janeiro or the colorful markets of Andean villages. You can explore lost cities of ancient civilizations and feast your eyes on beautiful landscapes. You can treat your taste buds to the local cuisines almost everywhere you go. It is your choice! And South America gives you a lot of it… In this article a great overview of 20 absolute must-sees in South America. The ultimate food for you bucketlist ✔️
Table of contents
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The capital of Ecuador, Quito, is unique among the capitals of the world. It is the highest capital in the world (La Paz is higher, but not the legal capital of Bolivia) and also the closest to the equator. Founded by the Spanish in 1534, Quito's colorful Old Town is one of the best-preserved, least-altered, and largest in all of America.
Located in the northern highlands of Ecuador, the city is surrounded by volcanoes that can be seen on a clear day. Quito is the only world capital threatened by active volcanoes.
Cartagena is a large city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia† It was founded in 1533 by the Spaniards, who named it after Cartagena, Spain. During the Spanish rule in South America, the city was the center of politics and economy.
Cartagena is a fairly modern city today. The historic center and fortress is considered to be the largest fortifications in South America. The city of Cartanega has a rich cultural scene, with festivals throughout the year; museums and art galleries.
Also read: Tour through colorful Colombia
3. Los Glaciares National Park – Argentina
They don't do things in a small way in Los Glaciares National Park. The park is not only Argentina's largest national park, it is also home to the largest ice sheet outside of Greenland and Antarctica – an ice sheet covering 47 large glaciers feeds. The most famous of these is the Perito Moreno Glacier; unique among glaciers in that it advances while others retreat. It is something few people have seen with their own eyes and therefore an absolute must on the list of must-sees in South America.
The park is also home to Argentino Lake, the largest in the country. The park is also known for its ecology and biodiversity with the well-preserved Magellan Subpolar Forest and the Patagonian steppe.
4. Pantanal – Brazil
The Pantanal can be difficult to get to – access is usually by plane or boat – but once you're there… Oh! The Pantanal, mainly located in Brazil (some in Bolivia and Paraguay), is the world's largest tropical wetland and encompasses an area the size of Washington state.
While not as famous as its Amazon sisters, the Pantanal is the best place in South America to see wildlife ranging from jaguars to capybaras.
5. Ushuaia – Argentina
If you like to visit remote places, put Ushuaia on your bucket list. Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, is considered the southernmost city in the world.
Indeed, the train to the end of the world ends here. Nestled among the mountains along a bay, Ushuaia is very scenic when it's not cloudy or windy, which it usually is.
The former penal colony has a museum and is a good place to see penguins, killer whales and seals. For anyone with a thick winter coat and perseverance, Ushuaia is one of the must-sees in South America.
6. Tayrona National Park – Colombia
If protecting the environment and its inhabitants while enjoying beautiful views is on your top list, you'll love Tayrona National Park on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Tayrona, the second most visited national park in the country, is a protected marine reserve that encompasses both land and sea. You will find a great biodiversity in the flora and fauna here. Wildlife includes 300 species of birds, over 100 different mammals, and 70 species of bats.
Tayrona is probably best known for its spectacular beaches, which are set in deep coves, backed by mountains and shaded by coconut palms. However, due to the strong current, most beaches are not suitable for swimming.
7. Colca Canyon – Peru
There's a reason why Colca Canyon is the third most visited tourist destination in Peru is: breathtaking views. The canyon is one of the deepest in the world, but not the deepest in Peru, although it is more than twice as deep as the US Grand Canyon! It is not for nothing that this gigantic canyon is on the list of must-sees in South America.
When you get tired of the scenic views, you can feast your eyes on the sky, where you can spot Andean condors and the largest hummingbirds you've ever seen. Villages are a good place to buy local handicrafts.
8. Atacama Desert – Chile
The Atacama Desert is unique: it is the driest nonpolar desert in the world and rains perhaps only once every four years. It stretches for about 1600 km (1000 miles) along the coast of Chile, located between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.
Also read: Chile, the land of extremes
The soil is similar to that on Mars; portions took the place of Mars in the movie Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. Vast salt flats, active geysers and intense blue lagoons are just some of the extraordinary features of this region.
9. Angel Falls – Venezuela
Angel Falls is definitely a scene driver in Venezuela's Guayana highlands. It is the tallest continuous waterfall in the world – 15 times higher than Niagara Falls, which is shared by Canada and the United States. Water flows more than 950 meters (3.200 feet) down the Auyantepu Mountain into the Rio Kerepacupai Meru. Unfortunately, security leaves a lot to be desired in Venezuela and that is why this waterfall is virtually inaccessible. Still, it definitely belongs on the list of must-sees in South America. We can only hope that the country will be safe to travel again in the future.
The waterfall is named after American Jimmy Angel who became the first pilot to fly over the falls in 1937. Getting there is an adventure with airplane and riverboat rides.
10. Cusco – Peru
Cusco has a colorful historical past Located at an altitude of 3400 meters in the Andes Mountains, Cusco was once the capital of the mighty Inca Empire. Then, in the 16th century, it was conquered by the Spaniards, who virtually decimated the Incas. Although it is not the national capital, Peru's constitution calls it the historical capital of the country.
Remains of many Inca sites can be found in the surrounding area, while Spanish colonial heritage can be found in the Old Town.
11. Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia
Salar de Uyuni, located in the Andes is really a must see. in South America. Located nearly 3700 meters above sea level, it is the world's largest salt flat. Located in southwestern Peru, the salt flat is covered with a thick crust, which supplies salt and coats a brine. The salt flats are as flat as you can get and with the rugged terrain it looks different, especially after rain when the Salar turns into a giant mirror.
One of the most unusual places to visit in South America, it is also an important breeding ground for flamingos.
12. Lake Titicaca – Peru & Bolivia
Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, stretches across the border of Bolivia and Peru. At a height of just over 3.800 meters (12.500 feet), it is considered the highest navigable lake in the world, although there are smaller lakes higher than this. It is yet another record in the list of must-sees in South America.
Many of the 41 islands are inhabited, including the floating islands that the natives make with heavy reeds. About 500 species of aquatic life live in the lake, which has a large population of waterfowl. According to the local belief, the sun was born on Lake Titicaca.
13. Easter Island – Chile
Traveling to Easter Island can be time consuming as it is the most remote inhabited island in the world. The nearest inhabitants are almost 2000 kilometers away. But it's not the remoteness that this Chilean territory is known for.
It's what you'll see when you get there: nearly 900 primitive statues carved by early Polynesian inhabitants. These awe-inspiring statues, called moai, may have been carved about 1000 years ago. Most of the statues are carved from solidified volcanic ash, using obsidian for the black eyes.
14. Amazon Rainforest
If you lived long enough to count that high, you could count 390 billion trees in the Amazon rainforest. This statistic is mind-boggling, of course, but the Amazon rainforest is an amazing piece of real estate, covering about of the Amazon River basin.
It is the largest tropical rainforest in the world. Sixty percent of the rainforest is in Brazil with large chunks in Peru and Colombia; neighboring countries have a small share. The rainforest is certainly full of unique flora and fauna.
15. Torres del Paine National Park – Chile
It may be in remote Chilean Patagonia, but Torres del Paine National Park is one of Chile's largest and most visited parks. Why? Well, the scenery is quite spectacular. The Torres del Paine (Paine means blue in the local aboriginal language) is just an amazing sight you will see.
The three peaks dominate the landscape in the Paine Mountains. In addition to mountains, the park is dotted with glaciers, rivers, forests, and steppe, making it a hit with outdoor enthusiasts. The park is therefore on every list of favorite must-sees in South America.
16. Buenos Aires, Argentina
With 17 million inhabitants, Buenos Aires has the fourth largest population in America. Located on the Rio de la Plata on Argentina's coast, the city is known for its cosmopolitan flair. Due to its architecture and rich cultural life, Buenos Aires is the most visited city in South America.
A must-see here is the Recoleta, a residential area known for its history. The Recoleta Cemetery is the neighborhood's most famous attraction; it is where Eva Peron is buried.
17. Galapagos Islands – Ecuador
If you want to get a glimpse of what prehistoric animals used to be like, head to the Galapagos Islands. It is quite expensive to travel here, but connoisseurs know exactly why these islands are among the absolute must-sees in South America. The animals are like no other place on earth, and include giant tortoises and scary-looking iguanas.
They were the impetus for Charles Darwin's controversial 19th-century book, On the Origin of Species. Located about 18 km (900 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, this archipelago of 550 large islands was formed – and continues to be formed – by volcanic action.
18. Iguazu Falls – Brazil and Argentina
One of the most unique must-sees in South America, Iguazu Falls has to be seen to be appreciated. Words don't do it justice. They really live up to their name, which translates as 'big water': they are the world's largest waterfall system, with 275 waterfalls of various sizes – Devil's Throat being the largest.
For much of its ocean journey, the Iguazu River flows through Brazil, but, seemingly in a spirit of international cooperation, most of the falls are in Argentina.
19. Rio de Janeiro – Brazil
If you visit Rio de Janeiro, you just have to take a samba class; even The Girl from Ipanema does the samba, Rio's most popular dance. Besides the samba, this cosmopolitan city is known for its carnival, bossa nova and Copacabana beach.
Perhaps the most famous landmark is the statue of Christ the Redeemer that sits atop Corcovado Mountain. Rio hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics, although the locals have an overwhelming preference for football: the Maracana Stadium is one of the largest football stadiums in the world. Both the Christ statue and the stadium are must-sees in South America.
20. Machu Picchu – Peru
Machu Picchu is a beautiful representation of the Inca civilization before the Spanish came. Nestled in the Peruvian Andes, it served as a palace for the emperor, a fortress, and a site for religious ceremonies where human sacrifices were made to appease the gods.
Also read: Inca Trail Machu Picchu
Untouched by the Spanish, the site was abandoned after the conquest, only to be “discovered” by an American professor in the early 20th century. Built of polished stone, Machu Picchu is a fascinating example of classical Inca architecture. With its spectacular views, Machu Picchu is Peru's most visited tourist attraction.
Which of the 20 must-sees in South America is your favorite?