A continent of such vast beauty, rich wildlife and a long, fascinating history, South America is home to a whole host of fantastic destinations. Whether your idea of a perfect holiday is sunning yourself on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, hiking in the footsteps of the Incas to Machu Picchu or embarking on a wildlife cruise to the Galapagos Islands, the soil of South America’s countries have much to offer to adventure travellers. But look between the pages of the popular tourist destinations and you’ll find some fantastic places to experience the raw beauty and uniqueness of this corner of the world without the hordes of tourists. Here are our top five unmissable destinations in South America that you might not have heard of before.
Peru’s second largest city doesn’t see the same level of visitors as the likes of Lima or Cusco, yet Arequipa captivates those who set their eyes on the beautiful facades of the city and its charming cobbled streets. Sitting under the watchful eye of the snow-capped Misti Volcano, the white tip of the mountain is reflected throughout the city’s opulent white architecture – the colour of the buildings is due to them being carved from local white “sillar” rock. Spend time wandering around the Plaza de Armas, a beautiful square dotted with exotic palm trees and some of the city’s most important buildings – including the Arequipa Cathedral and the Iglesia de la Compañía. As the sun shimmers on the white exteriors of the architecture you’ll soon realise why Arequipa is also known as The White City. One of the main attractions is the Santa Catalina Convent, with its maze of cobbled alleys and lovely buildings. Walking amongst the peaceful gardens and religious architecture visitors get a feel for how the former nuns in this monastery lived. Anyone with an interest in the Inca civilisation should not miss the opportunity to visit Juanita, the “Inca Ice Maiden” found at the Museo Santuarios Andinos. It’s thought that she was sacrificed around the year AD 1450 on top of the Nevado Ampato where she was discovered in the 1990’s when volcanic ash melted the snow that surrounded her. Moreover, like many other Peruvian destinations, Arequipa has some fantastic artisan markets and delicious restaurants and cafes.
Salento – Colombia
Sleepy Salento is a colourful little town located in Colombia’s famous coffee region. Surrounded by lush valleys, coffee plantations and the famous waxy palms of Cocora Valley, it’s the perfect place for some calm and relaxation after the chaotic cities. Salento has retained its peaceful atmosphere due to being located slightly off the main route from Bogota to Cali, yet it’s close enough to spend a few days of your travels through Colombia without venturing far. The highlight of Salento is Cocora Valley, the location of Colombia’s famous tall waxy palms which also happen to be the county’s national symbol. The walks through the valley are not difficult and can be enjoyed at your own pace, taking in the sweeping views of the verdant countryside that surrounds you. You can also reach Cocora Valley in style by hopping in a colourful 60’s style jeep, an experience in itself! After you have enjoyed a day of hiking in the valley there are various other local activities waiting for you in Salento. Of course, while staying in Colombia’s coffee region, it’s imperative to visit a local coffee farm and sample some of the good stuff while learning about the process behind coffee production. Finally, Salento is the perfect place to engage in a game of tejo – a traditional Colombian throwing sport with an explosive twist! Known as the country’s national sport, tejo involves throwing a steel disc towards a slanted board that has small targets dotted across it. These targets are filled with gunpowder – resulting in a bang when you hit the target. It’s lively, amusing and tends to bring everyone together with some beers and laughter. You’ll find tejo set up in a few local bars in Salento and the locals are normally more than happy to show you the ropes.
Atacama Desert, Chile
It’s hard to compete with the otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Titled the world’s driest desert, the region is famous for its geysers, salt flats, lunar landscapes and hot springs. San Pedro de Atacama itself is a small, picturesque town resembling a set from a classic Western film – with its dusty desert roads and single storey buildings. One of the best landscapes in the area is known as the Valley of the Moon due to the unique stone formations that have formed over millions of years because of the harsh weather. In fact the terrain is so “out of this world” that the prototype of the Mars rover was tested here. Due to the remote location, the sky also provides some of the most beautiful starry views on a clear night. As you wander amongst the dusty red hued rocks of the Atacama Desert, we won’t blame you for momentarily forgetting which planet you are on.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
Argentina has many unmissable destinations, including the rugged mountains of Patagonia, the gorgeous wine valleys of Mendoza and the European flare of Buenos Aires. But one of the highlights of the country has to be the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier, located in the south near the town of El Calafate. There are few attractions in the world that are as unique as this glacier, and unless you embark on an Antarctic cruise there are few places you will find such a depth of ice in one place. The glacier, which is located in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentinian Patagonia, is named after Fransisco Moreno, an Argentine explorer who is credited for his huge influence over the Argentine consolidation of large parts of Patagonia into Argentina. At 250 km 2 (30 km in length and 5 km in width), the glacier is the third largest reserve of freshwater in the world and is fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Unlike most glaciers which are slowly receding due to the effects of global warming, Perito Moreno remains at a steady state throughout the year as it gains mass at the same rate at which it loses it. The national park has created various walkways along the front of the glacier to provide visitors with the most incredible views of this attraction. Standing before this gargantuan ice field with its dancing shades of blue, white and grey, you’ll be speechless at the raw beauty placed before you. Hang around long enough and you’ll likely witness the calving process, where large shards of ice moan and crack before falling from the glacier and crashing into the sea below. As well as strolling along the walkways to take in this beautiful sight, you can experience ice trekking across parts of the glacier, a boat ride to the face of it or a kayaking experience to gain a new perspective from below. Whatever you choose, we guarantee your jaw will drop at the sight of this impressive product of mother nature.
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil
Situated in northern Brazil, a far cry away from the chaos of Rio de Janeiro, lies a landscape so beautiful and so untouched that you’ll want to spend days unwinding in this peaceful location. The ecological reserve is home to thousands of mangroves, lagoons and sand dunes which during the rainy season, fill up with water and provide beautiful shades of blue and green across the park. Due to the hard rock below the sand, the lagoons are prevented from draining and the result is stunning coloured patchworks across the sand, contrasted with the bright white colour of the sand. Popular activities in the park include horseback riding, ecological walking excursions, kayaking, surfing and jeep tours. The best way to enjoy this corner of the world is to journey down the coast to Jeriocoacoara, visiting Atins and other tiny, beach towns on the way. Most of these rustic towns are only accessible by jeep since they have no or limited paved roads, and you can expect a slow and relaxing pace of life where you can thoroughly enjoy a quiet coastal experience.
Matt Gannan is the CEO and Owner of Tucan Travel. Tucan Travel operate cultural tours in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, Asia and Europe, as well as tailor-made holidays in Latin America, Africa and Asia.