Are you considering travelling to South America but aren’t sure yet where to go?
While spending more than half a year zigzagging across South America, I have discovered firsthand that this continent has something to offer for everyone. Whether you prefer vibrant cities, stunning landscapes, challenging hikes or relaxing beaches, you’ll find the perfect place to visit.
All countries in South America have their unique charm, and we’re here to help you choose one for your next trip.
How many countries in South America are there?
Twelve, plus one French territory. We’re going to go with you through all of them and show you what they’re famous for. You’re going to learn about the cheapest countries to visit in South America if you’re travelling on a budget, and we’ll also cover the safest countries to visit in South America.
Plus, we have links to further articles that will help you plan your trip! That way, you can directly profit from our experiences to make the most of your holidays.
Best countries to visit in South America
Is this your first time in South America?
Peru is the best country in South America for first-timers. Whether you want to visit Machu Picchu, dive into different cultures and traditions at Lake Titicaca or watch wildlife in the Amazon rainforest, you’ll love Peru. Some of the best places to visit in South America are located here.
Plus, Peru is home to some lesser-known destinations where you can get off the beaten path. You could lounge on the beaches in Manticore or take a boat ride to the islands of Paracas to discover the wildlife there.
Here are some highlights of Peru that you shouldn’t miss:
- Machu Picchu: When the Inca Empire fell, Spanish Conquistadors plundered most Inca cities. Machu Picchu, however, remained hidden for many centuries. That’s why the ruins are in a much better state than most other former Inca cities. Take a scenic train ride to get here or hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
- Cusco: High up in the Andes, Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire. Today, the city offers a curious mixture of archaeological remains and Spanish architecture. Make sure to visit the cathedral and check out the local market. Cusco is also an excellent base for exploring the ruins of the nearby Sacred Valley.
- Lima: Peru’s capital has plenty to offer. Explore Spanish heritage in the Old Town, find out who settled in Peru before the Incas at Huaca Pucllana or eat your way through Spanish food in Miraflores. Make sure to check out our post about how to have the perfect day in Lima.
- Amazon: The Amazon is one of my favourite places to visit in Peru. You can head either to Puerto Maldonado or Iquitos. There are many reasons to visit the Amazon, but one of the best things to do is to base yourself in a jungle lodge and go on hikes and boat rides to find wildlife. We have a jungle packing list to help you prepare for your trip.
- Lake Titicaca: Lake Titicaca is the largest freshwater lake in South America. Most visitors come to this high-altitude lake to visit the floating islands of the Uros. The Uro people build those islands out of reeds and even construct houses on top. Another highlight of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca is Taquile Island, where you could arrange a homestay to learn more about local culture.
Colombia offers a wide diversity for travellers. You can explore the coffee plantations in the south, learn more about the country’s history in Medellin and Bogota or travel along the Caribbean coast.
More adventurous travellers can hike to the Lost City, an ancient archaeological site that you can only reach after a two-day trek through the jungle.
We think Colombia is one of the best countries of South America to visit, no matter what your interests are because you’re going to find a place you love.
Here are some of the best things to do in Colombia:
- Bogota: Colombia’s capital might not be the most attractive city at first sight, but it’s well worth a visit. You can find lots of things to do both in Bogota and in the surroundings. A street art tour is one of the highlights and can teach you about local culture and recent history. Bogota also offers great museums, and we highly recommend a visit to the Gold Museum, the best museum with indigenous gold exhibits I’ve seen in nine months of travel around Latin America. Finally, a day trip to Zipaquira will leave you in awe at the underground salt cathedral.
- Cartagena: Cartagena couldn’t be more different from Bogota and Medellin. It overflows with Caribbean and colonial charm, is one of the most beautiful cities in South America and is also a great place to visit if you want to spend a few days relaxing on a Caribbean beach. Eat your way through Cartagena’s street food or explore the narrow alleys of the Old Town before heading to a beach for a day.
- Ciudad Perdida: Archaeologists estimate that the Tairona people built the Lost City, Ciudad Perdida, in the year 800. The Tairona abandoned the city in the 15th century, and it remained hidden until the 1970s. The only way to get to the archaeological site is by hiking through the jungle for two days and then spending another two days hiking back. While it’s a great effort, it’s well worth the trip and one of the highlights of Colombia.
- Salento & the Cocora Valley: In Southern Colombia, you can find a colourful town named Salento. Come here if you want to visit coffee plantations and try some freshly brewed coffee. From Salento, you can also head to the Cocora Valley, famous for its wax palm trees. Hiking under the tallest palm trees in the world is a special experience you can only get here.
- Medellin: Medellin has a bad reputation and was once the most violent and dangerous city in the world. Today, it’s known for its street art, trendy bars and nightlife. While here, explore the street art in Communa 13 and learn about the incredible transformation of what was once the most dangerous neighbourhood in the most dangerous city in the world, or enjoy a view from the Santo Domingo Cable Car.
Brazil is the largest country in South America. Just like Colombia, it is known for its diversity. Brazil is perfect if you love beaches and nature or want to experience festivals like the Carnival of Rio. Plus, tropical and sub-tropical climate zones dominate in Brazil, so you can expect decent weather most of the year.
Since the country is very large, you should either focus on one specific area (we went from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, for example) or take flights to get around.
Here are some highlights of Brazil you should investigate for your next trip:
- Rio de Janeiro: In my opinion, Rio is the best city to visit in South America. You can easily spend a week here without running out of things to do. My favourite activity is taking the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain for a fantastic view of the city. You should also check out the Christ the Redeemer statue, relax at a beach and explore the historic centre. If you like hiking, head to Tijuca National Park, a large forest in the middle of the city.
- Iguazu Falls: The Iguazu Falls are the largest (but not tallest) waterfall in the world. You can visit both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides, but the Brazilian side offers better views of the falls. In total, this natural wonder stretches over more than two kilometres, and we highly recommend spending at least a day here to take it all in.
- Pantanal: Everyone has heard of the Amazon, but few people know about the Pantanal, despite it being one of the best places to travel to in South America. After the Amazon basin, this is the largest wetland on the continent. Come here to see capybaras, macaws, otters and even jaguars. The easiest way to spot wildlife is by going with a guide, who can arrange game drives, boat rides and horseriding for you.
- Ilha Grande: You can find Ilha Grande between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This island features some of the best beaches to visit in South America. You can also go hiking through the jungle, swim in a waterfall, or explore the underwater world on a snorkelling tour. Plus, Ilha Grande is a great place to try seafood, which comes fresh from the surrounding shores.
- Lencois Marahenses National Park: The Lencois Marahenses National Park is famous for its sand dunes, lagoons and surreal landscapes. Try to visit during or at the end of the rainy season, or most of the ponds will be dry.
Chile is one of the most beautiful countries in South America. The country stretches for 4,200 kilometres (2,600 miles) along the Pacific coast, crossing multiple climatic zones.
The desert in the north is great if you want to discover odd terrains or see flamingos. In Central Chile, you can climb mountains and further in the south, you can explore the barren and open landscapes of Patagonia.
And don’t forget about Easter Island, a small island in the middle of the Pacific known for its Moai – stone heads left behind by past civilisations.
Here are some of the best places to visit in Chile:
- Atacama Desert: One of the must-sees of northern Chile is the Atacama Desert. The terrains here are as diverse as the activities you can do. Ride a bike through the Valley of the Moon, climb a volcano, search for flamingos in colourful salty lagoons or relax in a thermal pool.
- Torres del Paine National Park: Chile is one of the best South American countries to visit if you like epic landscapes. In southern Patagonia, Torres del Paine is one of the most beautiful national parks. Whether you go for a multi-day hike or you stay in a nearby hotel and explore the park on shorter trips, you’re guaranteed to discover views you’ll never forget. While in Patagonia, we also recommend heading to Isla Magdalena to see hundreds of penguins.
- Easter Island: Not many visitors make it to Easter Island. Yet, this tiny piece of land, 4,000 kilometres away from mainland Chile, is one of the most fascinating islands in the world. Most visitors come to see the Moai, giant stone heads that the inhabitants of Easter Island used to carve. But you can also relax at a beach, go diving or explore the large cave system.
- Santiago de Chile: Wedged in between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, Santago de Chile rewards visitors with plenty of history, culture and gastronomy. When you’re tired of exploring museums and walking around the city, you can take day trips to the mountains, the beach or the wine regions.
When it comes to travelling, you can split Ecuador into four distinct zones that are all worth visiting. First, you have the Galapagos Islands, famous for their giant turtles and unique animals. Along the Pacific coast, you can find beaches and the city of Guayaquil.
In the Andes, be prepared for high mountains, cloud forests and a colourful indigenous market. Finally, Ecuador is the cheapest country to visit the Amazon. Ecuador is the best country to visit in South America if you want to see wildlife, as it features one of the highest biodiversities in the world.
Here are our favourite places in Ecuador:
- Galapagos Islands: The Galapagos Islands are easily one of the best places to vacation in South America. Come here to see unique animals, like blue-footed boobies (which do have really bright blue feet) or sneezing marine iguanas. Galapagos also has perfect white beaches and an exciting history to explore. Plus, you can visit Galapagos on a budget if you skip the cruise and head directly to the islands.
- Quito: Quito is one of the most scenic cities in South America. Surrounded by the Andes, it’s famous for its historic Old Town, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. You can easily spend a day exploring the churches of Quito, tasting Ecuadorian food and enjoying the view from the nearby hills. Once you get tired of the city, head to the nearby equator and take a picture with one foot in the Southern and one in the Northern hemisphere.
- Mindo: Mindo is my favourite place in Ecuador. It’s a town in the middle of the cloud forest, famous for its outdoor adventures. Come here if you want to see butterflies and hummingbirds, ride on ziplines, swim in waterfalls or learn where chocolate comes from.
- Otavalo: Otavalo is famous for its handicrafts market, one of Latin America’s largest indigenous markets. You can easily visit here on a day trip from Quito. Yes, the market mainly takes place for tourists these days, but it’s colourful and lots of fun to visit. For a great experience, come on Saturday, when it spills out into the streets beyond the market square.
- Cuenca: The city centre of Cuenca has been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The Old Town is stunning, and it’s the perfect base for exploring nearby Cajas National Park. Here, you can admire otherworldly high-altitude landscapes and walk through so-called ghost forests.
Argentina is one of the largest countries in South America, and you can easily spend a few weeks here without seeing everything.
Its capital, Buenos Aires, is often compared to Paris, while Patagonia in the south is a great region to visit if you’re looking for quiet and solitude. In the north, you can visit Iguazu Falls or experience the desert and indigenous traditions around Salto.
If you’re interested in culture, don’t forget to stop by a steakhouse and watch a Tango performance. Argentina is also the best country in South America to travel to if you like Italian food. More than 60% of the population have some degree of Italian ancestry, and it especially shows in culinary traditions.
Here are some highlights of Argentina you shouldn’t miss:
- Buenos Aires: Buenos Aires is one of the best cities to visit in South America if you like nightlife, culture and architecture. One of the most famous sights in Buenos Aires is the Recoleta cemetery, where you can visit the grave of Eva Peron, better known as Evita. And while it’s a bit morbid to consider a graveyard a major tourist attraction, it’s so good you have to visit it. Besides that, La Boca, with its colourful houses, is one of the best neighbourhoods to visit.
- Quebrada de Humahuaca: Not every tourist makes it to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a landscape near the Bolivian border. That’s what makes this region even more charming. If you visit, you can see rainbow-coloured mountains and cute villages of adobe houses and cobblestone streets. While here, don’t miss the ancient ruins of Pucara de Tilcara to learn more about the indigenous people that used to live in this desert.
- Mendoza: Did you know that Argentina is one of the best countries in South America to travel to if you like wine? Mendoza in western Argentina is the perfect location for wine lovers. A tour here can take you to the best vineyards. Since the climate is also excellent for growing olives, make sure to incorporate an olive oil press into your visit.
- Ushuaia: The world’s southernmost city offers stunning nature, the possibility to see penguins and also interesting history lessons. Tierra del Fuego, Fireland, is the southern tip of the continent. Many visitors come to Ushuaia for cruises to Antarctica, but you can also visit nearby national parks or head off to explore the rest of Patagonia.
- Iguazu Falls: We already mentioned Iguazu Falls when talking about Brazil, but those waterfalls are so spectacular we have to talk about them again. They are the largest waterfalls in the world, and while the Brazilian side offers better views, the Argentinian side allows you to get close to the falls. If you don’t mind getting wet, go on a boat tour to get as close as possible.
Bolivia might be one of the poorest countries in South America, but it also offers some of the most fascinating landscapes. You have probably seen pictures of the Salar de Uyuni before, the giant salt flats that stretch until the horizon.
Nearby, in the so-called Bolivian Altiplano, a high-altitude plateau in the Andes, you can watch flamingos stand in bright red lagoons.
Bolivia is also one of the best countries in South America if you are interested in history. Potosi, a city in the Andes, was once the wealthiest city in the world. Visiting the nearby silver mines is an eye-opener, not just for understanding history but also for current political topics.
On top of offering spectacular landscapes, friendly people and colonial cities, Bolivia is also one of the cheapest countries in South America. This makes it a great destination if you’re travelling on a budget.
Here are some of the best places to visit in Bolivia:
- Salar de Uyuni: As we already mentioned, the Uyuni salt flats are Bolivia’s most famous landmark. These white salt flats stretch out to the horizon in all directions. It’s the perfect place for taking funny pictures! While here, you should also visit Isla Incahuasi, an island full of cacti that rises out of the salt flats.
- Potosi: At an altitude of more than 4,000 metres, Potosi isn’t an easy city to visit. Yet, it’s worth it for the colonial architecture and the dip into history. One of the highlights of Potosi is visiting the Casa de la Moneda, the mint where the Spanish conquistadors crafted silver coins. Afterwards, head to the silver mines to learn more about the mining history and the horrors that many workers still have to go through today.
- Bolivian Altiplano: If you want to know why I believe that Bolivia could easily snatch the title of “most beautiful country in South America”, you should head to the Altiplano. High up in the Andes, you can discover otherworldly landscapes that you didn’t even know existed. How about geysers and mud pools, followed by a lagoon with bright red water? On top, you’ll see lots of flamingos along the way. One of the easiest ways to visit this region is by taking one of the trips from the Atacama Desert to Uyuni, which stop at all of the highlights.
- Isla del Sol: In the Bolivian part of Lake Titicaca, you can find Isla del Sol. The Island of the Sun is known for its villages and terraced hills. While here, you can go for hikes, meet the local communities, purchase traditional handicrafts and explore pre-Columbian ruins.
Uruguay is one of the safest countries in South America. This often-overlooked nation is famous for its beaches and ranches.
One of the highlights of Uruguay is staying on an Estancia, a traditional South American ranch. Enjoy the slow pace as you learn to ride horses or go for walks.
The coast is popular in summer when you can spend a few days relaxing on a beach and swimming. Once you’ve had enough, head to bustling Montevideo to explore the capital. Or visit Colonia del Sacramento, a town famous for its colonial architecture.
Uruguay isn’t the cheapest place to visit in South America, but it makes up for it in safety and well-kept infrastructure. Here are some of the best places to visit in Uruguay:
- Estancia stay: Staying at an Estancia is a must-do when visiting Uruguay. Want to know why? Why have a whole article about why you should stay on an Estancia, but in a nutshell, it’s a great way of getting an insight into rural life in Uruguay. Estancias are ranches, and many offer activities like horse riding as well as excursions into the countryside. They’re also great places for relaxing or trying traditional food from Uruguay.
- Cabo Polonio: In the summer months, Uruguay is a beautiful beach destination. Punta del Este is known for being popular with the rich and famous, but our favourite beach town is Cabo Polonio. This car-free town is renowned for its colourful houses and sandy paths. Come here to walk barefoot on the endless beach or watch the sea lion colony underneath the lighthouse.
- Colonia del Sacramento: Colonia del Sacramento is a popular day trip from Argentina, but it’s also a worthy destination for an overnight stay. The Portuguese built this town in the 17th century, and it’s now a maze of colonial houses and cobblestone streets. Inside some of the houses, you can find museums. Another point of interest is the lighthouse, where you can see Buenos Aires on a clear day.
- Montevideo: Uruguay’s capital is almost the opposite of cosy Colonia del Sacramento. It’s a modern, bustling city with European architecture, theatres and lots of museums. My favourite was the Museo del Gaucho, housed in a beautiful traditional house, but you can also find art museums or explore South American carnival traditions in the Museo del Carnaval.
Paraguay is the best South American country to visit if you want to get off the beaten path.
Not many visitors go to Paraguay. Most skip this small nation and head to better-known countries like Peru, Brazil or Argentina. Which is a shame because Paraguay has a lot to offer.
One of the most underrated places to visit in South America are the Jesuit missions. You can find their ruins in southern Paraguay, and they’re lots of fun to explore. Paraguay is also worth a visit for its natural beauty. The Chaco and the Pantanal are two large areas great for watching wildlife and getting away from civilisation.
Here are the highlights of Paraguay you should check out:
- Jesuit Missions: We’ve already mentioned that visiting the Jesuit Missions is a must-do on any trip to Paraguay. How often can you visit a UNESCO world heritage site without seeing any other tourists? The Missions date back to colonial times when Jesuits educated and converted indigenous locals in them. After the Jesuits got expelled from South America, they fell into disrepair, but their ruins are well worth a visit.
- The Chaco: El Chaco is an area in western Paraguay. Even though it takes up more than half of the country, only 10% of the population lives here. Those who do have developed and maintained a unique culture. In addition, the Chaco is a fantastic area to spot wildlife, especially if you like birds.
- Asuncion: Paraguay’s capital is a great city to visit if you want to learn about the country’s history. The city dates back to the 1500s, so you can still see colonial architecture in its historic centre. The Casa de la Independencia is a great place if you want to find out why Paraguay was the first South American country to gain independence, and the Cabildo is a must-visit to learn more about the country’s history of immigration.
If you’re wondering where to go in South America and you’ve already been to the better-known countries, then why not consider heading to Guyana next?
We have to admit, we haven’t had the chance to visit Guyana yet. But after spending more than nine months in Latin America and talking to some travellers who have been here, we felt that our list of the best South American countries would be incomplete if we didn’t include Guyana.
Plus, I’ve already looked into travelling here multiple times, so I’m sure we’ll make it eventually!
Here are some of the best places to see in Guyana:
- Kaieteur Falls: Kaieteur Falls are the highest single-drop waterfalls in the world. Surrounded by lush jungles, they are a spectacular sight. To visit the falls, you need to either take a plane or spend five days trekking through the jungle. That means that only a few visitors come here and you can enjoy the falls without any crowds around!
- Visit the rainforest: Guyana is famous for its biodiversity, which you can best explore by staying in the jungle. You can find multiple jungle lodges across the country from where you can go on hikes and boat rides. Don’t miss the canopy walkway in the Iwokrama forest, as it will give you a very different perspective of the jungle.
- Georgetown: Guyana is home to a unique blend of cultures, and the best way to experience them is by staying in Georgetown. Make sure to visit the bustling local markets, stop by the historic City Hall and the Cathedral and then explore one of the rum distilleries.
Suriname is the smallest country in South America (yes, even smaller than Uruguay), but it’s still worth visiting. Like Guyana, this country is often overlooked in favour of one of the better-known nations. That means that when you come to Suriname, you have the chance to get truly off the beaten path.
Most travellers start their trip in Paramaribo, the capital, where you can explore the Dutch colonial heritage. However, the real highlight of a trip to the smallest South American country is an excursion into the jungle.
Here are some of the top things you shouldn’t miss in Suriname:
- Paramaribo: If you want to explore Suriname’s cultural diversity, you should head to Paramaribo. The Dutch heritage quickly becomes apparent when you see the colonial architecture, but the city has much more to offer. Here, you can see synagogues, Hindu temples and cathedrals close to each other, join festivals and try food seasoned with spices from all around the world.
- Brownsberg Nature Park: Do you want to spot wildlife? Then you should head to Brownsberg Nature Park, one of the best areas in Suriname, if you want to see monkeys. The park is famous for its howler monkeys, which make such loud noises that they can keep you up at night. You can also spot birds or hike to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
- Central Suriname Nature Reserve: If you head to central Suriname, you have the chance to stay in remote villages and experience the local culture. Plus, you can experience Suriname’s biodiversity and see the local flora and fauna. Go hiking or rent a kayak to explore the jungle, and then cool down by swimming in a waterfall.
You won’t find Venezuela on the list of safe places to visit in South America. As you might have heard, the country had problems with political and economic instability.
We haven’t had a chance to visit ourselves, and we’re not planning on going anytime soon. However, if you’re an adventurous traveller, Venezuela can reward you with a few unique sites.
If you decide to go, remember to follow local news and catch up on your government’s travel advice before you leave. Always inquire about the current safety situation!
That said, here are a few highlights in Venezuela that you might want to visit or add to your bucket list for when the situation improves. Because hopefully, it’ll get better one day.
- Angel Falls: We’ve mentioned a few waterfalls in this post, but none are as high as Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world. They drop off a table-topped mountain and are almost one kilometre tall! On sunny days, you can often spot rainbows in the mist around the falls.
- Relax on a beach: Along its Caribbean coast, Venezuela boasts white-sanded beaches and small islands where you can spend days relaxing in the sun. Coro is an excellent location on the coast. It was one of the first Spanish cities in South America, and you can still explore its colonial heritage before heading to one of the nearby beaches.
- Hike Mount Roraima: If you’ve seen pictures of Mount Roraima, you’ll notice its odd shape. It’s flat on the top, like a table. But don’t underestimate its size! Climbing will take at least five days before you can enjoy the stunning views from its top.
So now that you’ve learned about the best countries to visit in South America, which one is your favourite? Where are you going to travel next?
We hope we could show you that each of the South American countries is unique, so you can choose your destination based on your personal preferences. No matter if you want to relax on a beach, explore remote jungles or spend days wandering around vibrant cities, you’ll find a place that you’ll enjoy.
Leave us a comment below if you’ve travelled to South America before or are currently planning a trip!
We’ve got a lot of content about South America, so make sure to check out some of our posts that you’ll find interesting:
- From Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo – How to spend an amazing time in Brazil
- Explore the best things to do in Patagonia and visit southern South America
- Find out how to visit Galapagos on a budget
- Discover the best hidden gems in South America
Until your next adventure!
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