South America has something everyone can enjoy. The fourth largest continent in the world is home to a vibrant blend of cultures, fantastic food, fierce football, free activities, chocolate, coffee, rainforests, rivers, music, romance, and passion. Most of it comes at affordable prices, and if you’re U.S.-based it’s pretty much at your doorstep — so really, what are you waiting for?
The continent is also home to majestic levels of ecological diversity, attracting millions of tourists each year to traverse its jungles, climb its towering peaks, and swim in its crystalline seas. It boasts the world's highest uninterrupted waterfall (Angel Falls in Venezuela); largest river (Amazon River); longest mountain range (Andes), driest non-polar spot on earth (the Atacama Desert) and of course, the planet’s largest rainforest (the Amazon). These awe-inspiring natural resources will ensure that a vacation to any one of South America's 12 countries is a totally unforgettable experience from start to finish.
And with a little research and prior planning, South America can be blissfully smooth sailing. Opt for a DIY trip to Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a river cruise through the Brazilian Amazon with Adventure Life, or take an awe-inspiring vacation to the Galapagos islands with a tour company like Intrepid Travel. In South America, the possibilities and combinations really are endless, so immerse yourself in the planet’s dreamiest spots and plan one of these nine easy trips right now.
Island-hop in Ecuador's Galapagos
It’s a challenge to uncover a more bucket list-worthy trip in South America than the jaw-droppingly spectacular Galapagos islands. A chain of 19 islands and dozens of islets formed after a series of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, it’s a magical place that will linger in your mind long after leaving. The Galapagos islands once served as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s seminal work, "The Origin of Species," and today, there are still natural wonders aplenty to uncover. Be sure to head there with a a trusted tour operator as they’ll provide a knowledgeable guide and you won’t want to miss out on any of the fascinating information.
Intrepid Travel offers a fabulously put-together itinerary in their Galapagos Island Hopping trip, and their expert trip leader will take you around the main islands, covering San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Floreana. You’ll stay in modern, air-conditioned accommodations, eat delicious local cuisine (most meals are included), and take some spectacular boat trips between islands.
The Galapagos islands are home to the highest levels of endemism on the planet (species of animal and fauna which only exist there), and an Intrepid trip will grant you jaw-dropping access to some incredible sights. Fancy snorkeling in glass-like waters with hammerhead sharks, graceful manta rays, playful sea lions, and turtles? Yeah, thought so. You’ll also observe giant tortoises in their natural habitat, hike an active volcano, and probably pinch yourself on more than one occasion. Spotting wildlife is easy; you’ll get the chance to get up close and personal with incredibly colorful iguanas basking in the sun on powdery beaches, spot surreal-looking blue-footed booby birds nesting in jagged volcanic rocks, and if you’re lucky, you might see Galapagos penguins. There are also plenty of amazing kayaking trips around blue lagoons with your guide to be had, and the chance to sample hand-made chocolate and artisan coffee from the local farmers. This jam-packed, eco-conscious Latin adventure tour is unbeatable value for your money and will take place among a ready-made batch of like-minded travelers of mixed ages.
To book: intrepidtravel.com, from $1,779 per person
Backpack along Colombia’s Caribbean coast and coffee region
There’s a reason Colombia is consistently voted among the happiest countries in the world; it offers a spectacular combination of breathtaking biodiversity, Instagram-worthy beaches, and friendly people. Just a few hours' flight from New York City lies Colombia’s Caribbean coast and coffee region, which is guaranteed to impress even the most hard-to-please wanders. It’s an easy trip that can be tackled in two to three weeks on your own, via the affordable and safe buses that ferry tourists and locals around. Fly into Cartagena, the sparkling colonial jewel of the country which is comprised of pastel-painted buildings and lively nightlife. From there, catch a bus along to Santa Marta where you can arrange trips to the isolated town of Minca. Nestled in the Colombian Sierra Nevada mountains, Minca offers amazing views overlooking the Caribbean seas and unique backpacker hostels.
Then, head back down the hills to uncover some pristine coastal rainforest at Parque de Tayrona, a protected national park filled with monkeys, lizards, and parrots where you can camp or spend the day. The beach-bum town of Palomino on the coast is also worth a trip — tubing down a river and sunning yourself in a hammock are the main attractions, along with hikes to nearby indigenous communities in the mountains. Next it’s on to the coffee country in Salento, a rural town that offers serene mountain views, amazing architecture, and paisa hospitality with a smile. There are, of course, tours aplenty offering expeditions to these areas (many of which also tie in visits to the cities of Medellin and Bogota), but after years of political unrest, Colombia is shrugging off its reputation as a nation unsuitable for tourists and it’s now super-simple to organize a stand-out vacation yourself, as I did. If you're looking for a tour, Intrepid's Best of Colombia tour takes you from mountains to beaches so you don't miss a thing.
To book: intrepidtravel.com, from $3,677 per person.
Uncover the best of Bolivia and Argentina
Immerse yourself in some authentic Latin culture with an adventure through Bolivia and Argentina. An Intrepid tour takes the stress out of ticking things off your bucket list and incorporates an ethereal experience to the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia. You’ll also be taken to the incredible Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth which boasts flamingos bathing in mineral lakes and an everlasting supply of cacti. If you’re into colonial architecture and eclectic cities, this trip also takes you to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where you’ll dine on great food and explore some incredible neighborhoods as well as La Paz, a city renowned for its incredible markets. Many of the attractions included in this trip can be hard to arrange yourself, but an Intrepid trip is a safe and efficient way to do a lot in a short space of time and includes all accommodations and 16 meals.
To book: intrepidtravel.com, from $2,108 for 15 nights
Get cultural in Paraguay
Lesser-known and understated in its beauty, Paraguay is perfect for the explorer keen to find a road less traveled. You won’t see tourists at every landmark here, and it’s not a country for those in search of lively bars and pumping adventure, but you will find exotic lakes, thriving nightlife, artisan workshops, and impressive colonial towns. The terrain is varied and exciting with the subtropical Atlantic Forest in the east and the dry wildlife of Chaco on the other side of the country.
Cox and King offer a music and culture seven-day excursion for two that includes visits to crafts workshops and artisan villages in the Asuncion area, a day on a ranch with local hosts, and trips to the blue waters of Ypacaraí Lake and the UNESCO World Heritage Jesuit ruins of Trinidad and Jesus.
To book: coxandkingusa.com, 7-day excursion for two from $3,850
River Cruise through Brazil’s Amazon rainforest
Exploring the Amazon jungle sounds like a difficult task right? But if you opt for an eco-friendly river cruise, you can uncover the areas’ mysterious wildlife whilst still enjoying safe and serene boat accommodation. Adventure Life offer a thrilling voyage into the most uninhabited parts of the Amazon Basin which you enter via Manaus (Brazil’s 2016 Olympics city, six hours flight from Rio). After an included night in a Manaus hotel, you’ll set sail for six-nights on the Tucano vessel, an air-conditioned motor-yacht staffed with expert locals who have been born and raised in the forest. My trip with was totally mesmerising. I witnessed the magical meeting of the waters, where the sediment-filled River Negro conflates with the black, nutrient-rich Amazon River, and also had several excursions into the jungle each day. The 6am kayaking trips were a real highlight. We’d slide into our boats before breakfast, as the sun turned from pink to orange across a cloudless sky, and spot multi-colored macaws, blue butterflies and Amazon kingfishers as we paddled along through the flooded forest. We’d watch and wait for botos (pink dolphins) which would often swim around our kayaks as they searched for fish, then return back to our vessel to eat fresh mango, coffees, eggs and tapioca pancakes, before heading out for our afternoon trips in a silent-engine canoe. Canoe trips took us further into the wilderness and our diligent guide uncovered wildlife that I’d surely have missed without him: an orange cobra hiding in the branches of a tree, a baby caiman nestled in the reeds, sloths sleeping in treetops and monkeys - capuchin and howler - leaping from branch to branch. One afternoon we fished for piranha, wrestling our rods with the famed, sharp-toothed fish that would often steal our bait without warning. Back on the boat, when fried, I found the piranha delicious - albeit a little bony but they went down well when the crew brought up some caipirinha cocktails. At night time, we’d venture out in the canoe again, our guide would shine a giant torch into the unending abyss as he searched for the nocturnal creatures. The trip was full of incredible adventure, delicious Brazilian cuisine and non-stop knowledge from my guide. Wi-Fi isn’t an option for the week, but I loved the chance to switch off and tune in to nature. When we finished up and returned to Manaus I was a more than a little sad to leave the jungle. A 7-night trip starts from $3020, with Adventure Life.
6. Take a wine tour in Argentina and Chile
If you’re up for seeing a lot in a little amount of time, and its style, culture and cuisine you crave, head to Argentina and Chile with Peregrine Adventures. Their tour is for wine-lovers starts off in the artistic region of Santiago, with its snow-capped mountains and vibrant markets. Later it’s onto Casablanca Valley, Chile’s fastest growing wine region, and the ambient World Heritage port city of Valparaiso, before a visit to magnificent Mendoza, where the famous Malbec wine is produced. After a stop-off in the relaxing area of Estancias, you’ll finish up in Argentina’s energetic capital of Buenos Aires, where you’ll be able to immerse yourself in its enchanting streets and mix of European and Latin culture, with a dance at a tango bar or rich meal of steak and red wine. Heaven. Prices start from $2,692pp for 10 days.
7. Visit Patagonia
The spellbinding landscape of Patagonia, has long tempted travelers in search of an unforgettable expedition that’s equal parts beauty and adventure. Situated at the southernmost tip of South America, Patagonia is punctuated with dramatic glaciers, towering forests and pristine lakes dotted with islands and inlets. But even though it’s 400,000 square miles of breathtakingly barren land, with a bit of forward planning you can cover a fair amount of ground and see a lot. For organised trekking and established tourism, head to the national parks in the northern lake districts of Argentina (Los Glaciares) and Chile (Torres del Paine) Or, for a luxury travel package where the finer details are taken care of, Quasarex offers a nine-day Patagonia safari which blends spectacular five-star hotel stays with mesmerising ice-hikes and horse-riding expeditions around the glaciers and fjords. A standard eight-night, guided single tour starts at $13,150.
8. Get wet and wild in Brazil’s Iguazu Falls
The Iguazu Falls are world-famous waterfalls of the Iguazu River which flow through Brazil and Argentina, situated in lush and protected land that’s teeming with incredible wildlife. Do the falls yourself, as part of a long expedition through Brazil, or on a flying visit to the area from Sao Paulo or Rio. If you’d rather have the pressure taken off, Audley Travel offers you the chance to get up close and personal with the falls as part of their Brazil In A Nutshell package. Feel the spray of the Falls on your face with their detailed, half-day guide, before heading into the steamy Amazon for a stay in a luxury eco-lodge for three nights, where you’ll enjoy excursions into the jungle as well as piranha fishing and pink dolphin-spotting. Prices start from $3,240pp for 10 nights.
9. Spot jaguar in Guyana
This lesser-travelled South American country with a strong Caribbean culture borders Brazil and Venezuela and is working hard to shed its reputation as turbulent and hard-to-navigate after years of political strife. Today it’s much safer than it once was and is rich in dense forests and colourful ranches, meaning that travellers who don’t mind the rustic edge can enjoy one of the continent’s best-kept ecotourism secrets. Take the pressure off organising something yourself and head to the area with Steppes Travel who’ll take you to searching for jaguars in the Iwokrama Rainforest, paddling in the world’s highest free falling waterfall, Kaieteur Falls, and visiting the colonial capital city, Georgetown. 14 days of pure magic starts at $6,293.