We love leaving the beaten path behind, no matter where we travel, and often make a conscious effort to add lesser-known places to our itinerary.
That’s why we’re very excited to share our favourite hidden gems in South America with you. The continent is full of secret spots that deserve far more attention than they get.
Going there can be very rewarding. First, you get to avoid the crowds. Nothing is more amazing than having a tourist attraction almost to yourself.
Second, we have picked stunning locations for you that should be on everybody’s bucket list. We include a wide range of places, from wildlife spots to ancient ruins and natural wonders. Going off the beaten path in South America allows you to explore all of those great locations.
So let’s dive into some of the lesser-visited places in South America you need to see on your next trip!
Hidden gems in South America
#1 The Altiplano, Bolivia
The Altiplano in Bolivia is easily one of the best places to visit in Latin America.
Many travellers have heard of the Uyuni Salt Flats, and tourists flock to the area. But most only spend one day taking pictures and then fly out the next morning.
Did you know that the area behind the Uyuni is just as stunning as the salt flats themselves? They are home to thousands of flamingos, who live in the colourful salty lagoons.
You can discover fascinating landscapes and rock formations and spend the nights in salt hotels. Plus, you can also go through the Altiplano to cross over to the Chilean Atacama Desert or vice versa.Do you want to know more about the journey from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni? Then read about my experience in my
The best way to explore the Altiplano is by joining a tour in Uyuni. You don’t need to book anything in advance, as it’s easy enough to make arrangements in town. However, if you are on a tight schedule or prefer to get more information beforehand, check out this tour which consistently receives good ratings.
#2 The Pantanal, Brazil
The Pantanal is one of the best-kept secrets of South America. Everyone goes to the Amazon to see wildlife, but did you know that the Pantanal is a wetland area as large as 29 American states?
It’s full of wildlife and you have lots of opportunities to see capibaras, macaws, anteaters and even jaguars. Plus, the area is perfect for outdoor activities like hiking or canoeing.
While the Pantanal spreads out across Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, the easiest way to visit is by flying to either Cuiaba or Campo Grande in Brazil. While you can, in theory, get a rental car and organise everything yourself, we highly recommend you join a tour.
An experienced tour guide will know the best spots to see wildlife and can help you track down animals. We highly recommend Julinho from Pantanal Trackers, who can customise your tour according to your expectations.
#3 Cocora Valley, Colombia
If you want to see wax palm trees, the highest palm trees in the world, you need to head to the Cocora Valley in Colombia. This natural wonder is one of our favourite hidden gems in America.
You can find the Cocora Valley in western Colombia, close to the town of Salento. Salento itself is already worth a visit to see the colourful houses and explore the coffee plantations in the area.
From here, you can easily visit the Cocora Valley on a day trip. Depending on how much time you have and whether or not you enjoy hiking, you have the choice between going for a short walk amongst the palm trees or hiking on a trail that loops through the valley.
Both options are great, although we highly recommend you do the full hike if you have enough time. You have the chance of exploring lush meadows and trekking through rainforests. About half-way through the hike, you can then stop at Casa de las Colibris, to enjoy a hot chocolate and watch hummingbirds zip through the jungle.
After climbing up to a viewpoint, you then end up in the area where the palm trees grow. Some of them reach a height of up to 60 metres, making the Cocora Valley an impressive sight.
If you’re looking for more information, we have a whole blog post written about the Cocora Valley and how to organise your hike.
#4 Trujillo, Peru
Have you ever heard of Trujillo in Peru?
Most travellers who visit Peru head to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. If you want to learn about the ancient civilisations of South America, though, you should also visit Trujillo. This town is one of the many hidden places in America that are fantastic to visit but haven’t caught the attention of the crowds yet.
Next to Trujillo, you can find the remains of two ancient pre-Inca civilisations.
The first one is Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the world. The extensive ruins have received UNESCO World Heritage status and you should expect to spend at least half a day exploring them.
Besides Chan Chan, you can also find the Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol nearby. Those ruins, while located almost next to Chan Chan, date back to a different time period and civilisation. The Moche people lived here and both ruins you can visit were the centres of their ceremonies.
The Huaca de la Luna is especially interesting, as the Moche built multiple temples on top of each other. Archaeologists have found six temples so far, and thanks to the building technique, many paintings on the outside of these temples have been preserved.
The best way to visit both Chan Chan and the Huacas de la Luna y del Sol is to take a taxi from Trujillo. Both sites are located a little bit out of town, but quick to reach by car.
#5 Cabo Polonio, Uruguay
Cabo Polonio is one of our favourite South American beach destinations. And fortunately, it hasn’t made it on the radar of most international tourists yet.
The town of Cabo Polonio lies around 7 kilometres away from the closest road, and the only way of accessing it is through trucks that regularly shuttle people between the highway and the village. In Cabo Polonio itself, you can follow the footpaths and strips of sand that loosely connect the houses.
Cabo Polonio is famous for its relaxed atmosphere and for its colony of sea lions. When walking along the beach, you will see the animals playing out in the water or relaxing on the rocks near the lighthouse.
Even though Cabo Polonio is a remote destination for most international travellers, locals know about the beauty of the place. Therefore, if you are travelling in high season, make sure to book your accommodation in advance.
#6 Chimborazo, Ecuador
The Chimborazo in Ecuador is another great item on the list of hidden gems in South America. This inactive volcano is the highest mountain in Ecuador, and due to its location close to the equator, its summit is also the point farthest away from the centre of Earth.
If you have enough climbing skills, you can ascend to the summit of the Chimborazo. Don’t attempt this if you’re not experienced with climbing on ice!
As an alternative, and this is what we did, you can go for a day hike on the Chimborazo. This gives you lots of opportunities to enjoy the mountain and observe how the scenery changes as you walk. The best option is to go up the volcano by car and then make your way down.
At first, you will walk through a rocky landscape. If you haven’t had enough time to get used to the altitude, you might find this part very challenging. Fortunately, as you walk downhill, breathing becomes easier. The landscape slowly turns green and you get the chance to see Vicunas as you continue the hike.
The best way of doing any such hike is with a tour guide who knows the area. You can find some tour operators in Riobamba, or you can check out this tour which you can book online.
#7 Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
We have already Trujillo in Peru, which is one of the hidden gems in South America where you can see the remains of ancient civilisations.
Another great place to travel to is the Lost City in Colombia.
The only way to reach the ruins of the Tairona people is by trekking through the jungle for three days. It’s an exhausting but also very rewarding hike, where you get to admire stunning landscapes along the way.
Plus, you will walk past local villages and catch a glimpse into the culture of people living in these remote mountains. Along the way, you will cross rivers, swim in waterfalls and sleep in hammocks.
In order to hike to the Ciudad Perdida, you need to join a guided tour. Most tour operators have offices in Santa Marta, but since only a limited number of people can do the trek each day, it’s best to book in advance.
We went with G Adventures and can highly recommend them. Our local Wiwa guide taught us a lot about the people living in the area, and we ended up having an amazing time. Check out their tours to learn more!
#8 Potosi, Bolivia
When putting together this list, Daniel and I discussed whether Potosi counts as one of the hidden gems of South America.
Daniel, being Spanish, had learned about Potosi in school while I had never heard of it until I started planning my trip. Potosi was once the richest town in the Americas, and it is well worth adding this unusual place to your itinerary.
You can find Potosi in the Bolivian Andes, at more than 4,000 metres above sea level. While walking around town, you can still admire the colonial architecture from back in the day when the Spanish founded the city.
The reason why Potosi became one of the richest cities in the Americas is because of the nearby silver mines. These days, not much silver remains in these mountains, but locals still mine to extract valuable minerals.
Going on a tour through the mines is one of the best things to do in Potosi, but also one of the most disturbing ones. Often, the mine shafts from colonial times are in a much better state than the ones dug out recently. Workers regularly die in accidents, and if the mine doesn’t collapse on them, they get lung cancer from inhaling all the dust.
Potosi is one of those places that are eye-opening but also have beautiful sides. Visit the Casa de la Moneda, where the Spanish minted their money, or admire the many churches and monasteries. You won’t regret coming to this town.
#9 Paracas, Peru
If you want to see wildlife but also want to get off the beaten track in South America, you should head to Paracas.
Many people call Paracas “the poor man’s Galapagos”, as you can see sea lions, penguins and lots of birds without having to buy an expensive ticket to Galapagos.While Galapagos isn’t as cheap as Paracas, you can visit the islands without busting your budget. Want to know how? Then check out our
Seeing wildlife is not the only thing you can do in Paracas. Nearby the town, you can also visit the Paracas Peninsula, a National Reserve that is famous for its red sand beaches and archaeological finds.
The Paracas civilisation lived in the area. If you visit the local museum, you can learn more about them and even see their “mummy bundles”, in which they wrapped their dead.
#10 Jesuit Missions, Paraguay
The Jesuit Missions in Paraguay are easily one of the most underrated places to visit in South America.
In colonial times, the Jesuit founded those Missions for the Natives. The local population could live here and the Jesuits could westernise them and teach them about Christianity. In return, the Jesuits would protect them from becoming enslaved.
Even though the Missions are in ruins today, they are so significant for the history of South America that they received the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. While walking through the ruins, you can still easily imagine how majestic these buildings once were.
When visiting, you have the choice of going by rental car, joining a tour or visiting the ruins by public transport. Taking a bus is quite easy, and we have written a whole guide on how to go there by public transport.
#11 Mindo, Ecuador
If you’re looking for one of the best natural destinations in South America, you should head to Mindo in Ecuador.
Ecuador is famous for its biodiversity, which is amongst the highest on the planet. In the cloud forest of Mindo, you have the chance to see many of the different species that live in this country.
Head to the Butterfly Farm, for example, to see lots and lots of different butterflies. This is also a great spot to watch colourful hummingbirds zip around.
Mindo is also a great place if you enjoy adventure sports. One of the most popular activities in town is to raft down the river in a tube. You can also find a zipline nearby, which carries you through the cloud forest.
Or you can learn about the cocoa plant, which is native to Ecuador. At the chocolate factory, you can learn all about the processing of chocolate and can then try different types of black gold yourself.
And the best part? Even though Mindo is one of the hidden gems of South America, you can easily reach it from Quito. There’s enough to do to keep you busy for a few days, but if you’re short on time, you can also visit on an organised day trip.
#12 Guatape, Colombia
Are you looking for a getaway in South America that is still relatively unknown but easily accessible from a big city?
Then you should head to Guatape, which you can find just next to Medellin.
The town is known for its colourful houses and the dramatic landscape that surrounds it. The area consists of turquoise lakes and strangely-shaped islands, and it’s easy to spend a few days here to relax.
One of the best things to do in Guatape is to climb to the top of El Peñol. This rock sits almost randomly next to a lake, and you need to climb 700 stairs to get to its top. While it takes a while to go up, the view you have from up there is well worth it.
Plus, you can find a cafe at the top, so you can enjoy a cold drink while you take in the view.
Another must is to go on a boat ride and see some of the villages in the area. You might be able to spot Pablo Escobar’s mansion from the boat, as the drug lord used to visit Guatape regularly.
And finally, another great thing to do here is to just relax in the town itself. Most houses are painted in bright colours and it’s easy to get lost in the maze of alleys and enjoy the colourful atmosphere.
#13 Iquitos, Peru
We have another wildlife-related destination in South America that you shouldn’t miss. Iquitos in Peru is the biggest city in the world that does not have any road access, because it is located in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.
While everyone knows about the Amazon, not many travellers actually make it here. That means that if you visit Iquitos, you can easily spend a week in the area and only see a handful of other tourists.
The best way to explore the Amazon is by staying at a jungle lodge. Most are accessible only by boat and offer lots of different excursions and activities. You might go fishing for piranhas or explore the waterways while looking for monkeys and sloths.
Some also offer you to visit a local village, where you can learn more about the traditional way of life in the area.
The variety of activities, paired with the great chance to see lots of wildlife, makes Iquitos not just the perfect place for adventure travellers but also a great destination for a family vacation in South America.
Do you want to know more about why you should visit Iquitos? Then check out our post about all the reasons to visit the Amazon in Peru!
#14 Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Do you want to go off the beaten path in Argentina? Then you should head to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, which you can find in the North of the country, close to the Bolivian border.
If you’ve travelled a bit through Argentina, you’ll be surprised by how different this area is. Colourful mountains frame this valley on both sides. Make sure to come early enough in the morning to see the sun light up one side and bring out all the different colours of the rock.
Another great thing to do in the area is to visit the local villages. Humahuaca consists of adobe houses and cobblestone streets, and it’s the perfect place to try llama meat. You should also stop in Purmamarca, where you can buy local handicrafts.If you want to learn more, check out our post about the best things to do in the Quebrada de Humahuaca!
Last, the Quebrada de Humahuaca is also home to the ancient ruins of Pucara de Tilcara. Visit them to learn more about how the people here managed to survive in this hostile environment hundreds of years ago already.
#15 Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island is not exactly an unknown place. Yet, even though most people have seen pictures of the Moai statues, most tourists don’t make it here, which is why we decided to include it as a hidden gem of South America.
To get to Easter Island, you can either take a plane from Santiago de Chile or catch the weekly flight from Tahiti. Both options are expensive, but those who decide to visit this island, get rewarded with a fascinating culture, stunning beaches and the chance to see lots of Moai heads.
Easter Island is easily one of the most exotic places in South America. The people who used to live were culturally much closer to the people of the Pacific. Seeing one of the traditional dance performances is one of the highlights of a stay here.
All across the island, you can see the Moai heads. If you want to know where they come from, head to Ranu Raraku, the island’s quarry where the heads were carved. This is a great place to see the statues in various stages of finishing and to wonder about how people then managed to transport them across the island.
Of course, you can find more hidden gems in South America. The ones we listed are our personal favourites that we think everyone should know about.
Do you have any other advice? Which ones are your favourite places that most travellers haven’t heard about yet? Let us know in the comments below!
Also, we have lots of resources that will help you plan your trip to South America. Make sure to head over to our Destinations page to filter posts by country. Or take a look at the following posts which you might enjoy:
- The 18 best things to do in Peru
- Get off the beaten path by staying on an estancia in Uruguay
- Going to the Amazon? Then check out our jungle packing list!
Until your next adventure!
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