Ultimate South America Travel Guide
UPDATED SEPTEMBER 2019
Planning your tour of South America by destination, special interests, time-frame or season? It’s all too easy with your ultimate South America Travel Guide
Faced with the task of planning a comprehensive tour of South America, most people will invariably settle on one specific aim, be it ticking off a bucket-list dream – like hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or spotting exotic wildlife in Brazil – squeezing in as much action in a specific time-frame or simply choosing the best destination of all as far as climate is concerned, at the time you intend to travel.
If you fit into any of these categories and haven’t the faintest clue of where to even begin, this guide is for you!
To make your life a whole lot easier, we’ve compiled a list of the most common ways to plan a South America travel adventure. Here’s an overview of the plans we’ll outline below:
- By Destination (see the Big Five OR plan by country)
- By Special Interest (wildlife watching, wilderness, hiking & other active pursuits, archaeological sites, city-escapes, photography, cuisine and culture, beach getaways)
- By Time Frame (from 3-week to 3-month-long trips)
- By Season (Summer, Autumn, Spring & Winter South America travel ideas)
Ready to hit the virtual road and explore South America, every which way imaginable?
Plan your South America Tour by Destination
Many potential first-time visitors sound overwhelmed when they reach out to us, flabbergasted at the mere thought of planning a tour through what is a very expansive and varied continent. Yet after some light digging, most have very clear ideas of their ‘must-see’. It’s very feasible – if not preferable – to plan every other aspect of a tour of South America around your specific ‘must visit’ destination.
Given one needs to start somewhere…then why not here?
The BIG Five
South America’s top 5 highlights are the poster-kids of the continent and inarguably the main initial draw for so many. In every tour of South America, the in-between experiences can end up being the highlights for you but, regardless, these five illustrious destinations may well be the enticement that gets you on that plane.
What are the big cinco, you ask? That’ll be:
Each one of our Big Five is reason alone to visit South America although when combined into one sensational tour, make for a truly spectacular adventure.
Our Guide to South America’s Big Five is a great resource for understanding more about these magical destinations and how much time you’ll need to see them, either individually or collectively
Travel planning is made easier if you have one specific South American country in your sights. Nothing stops you from popping in ‘next door’ to a neighbouring country once there, of course, but starting from your desired nation is certainly a great option.
Here are our dedicated country guides to the most popular South American springboards of all:
- Top Things to do in Argentina
- Top Things to do in Bolivia
- Top Things to do in Brazil
- Chile’s Best Highlights
- Top Things to do in Colombia
- Best Highlights in Ecuador
- Top Things to do in Peru
- Top Things to do un Paraguay
- Top Things to do in Uruguay
Multi-country itineraries in South America are very easy to plan given the excellent infrastructure. In fact, the majority of visitors here never stick to just one country. There aren’t many visitors who don’t cross borders on their tours. Keep it regional (North, Central or Southern regions) and you’ll enjoy similar climates at the time you travel.
The most popular multi-country itineraries in South America are:
- Ecuador & Peru
- Peru & Bolivia
- Bolivia & Chile
- Chile & Argentina
- Argentina + Brazil
- Argentina & Uruguay
- Argentina/Brazil + Paraguay
The above two-country combinations are ideal if you’re planning a South America tour of about 10-14 days. Anything longer than that and you can easily combine several.
Plan your South America Tour by Special Interest
Very few visitors head to South America with the sole objective of indulging in one special interest. Most people, given the option, will likely indulge in several throughout their journey. Nevertheless, everyone has a passion that outranks all others, right?
See if you can find yours from the popular options below:
Hiking & Outdoor Activities
Choosing the right trek on which to base your South America tour really depends on a wide variety of factors: how much time you have? How experienced are you? How much are you affected by altitude? The two main hiking destinations in South America are the Central Andes (Peru and Bolivia) and the southern half of Patagonia, where the national parks of Chile and Argentina offer a stupendous array of spectacular scenery. We’re also quite impartial to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, which is north of Lima. This is a lesser-touristed region which is ideal for avid trekkers and mountaineers and takes you off the well-trodden trail. Find out more on our Guide to Hiking and Outdoor Activities in South America.
Cuisine & Culture
If you were to ask us, we’d say that ‘feasting one’s way through South America’ is a perfectly reasonable plan to have and if you think that all countries in the continent are ‘same same’ you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover a phenomenal diversity, in almost every respect. There’s certainly a common thread as far as cuisine and culture are concerned, but to think of South American countries as interchangeable would do them – and you – a great disservice. With the sheer concentration of pre-Colombian archaeological ruins, jaw-dropping colonial architecture and mouth-watering array of gastronomies (need we mention some of the world’s best steaks and wines are found here?) South America is a gourmand and culture-vulture’s dream destination. Think Europe with infinitely more exotic flair! Discover your multitude of options on our Guide to Cuisine & Culture in South America.
We’d challenge anyone to find a more photographic destination than South America, the variation in colours and textures here being simply unparalleled – be it the food markets, tapestries, wildlife or just the expansive, breathtaking landscapes. As a photographer, you can go just about anywhere in South America and not be disappointed yet among all the treasures, there are a few that shine a little brighter. Read our Guide to South America Travel for Photography, and don’t forget to pack twice as many memory cards as you think you’ll need.
With the possible exception of Africa, South America probably has the world’s most diverse range of wildlife viewing opportunities. The top 4 wildlife-watching destinations in the continent are the Pantanal (Amazonian wetlands), Antarctica, Patagonia and Galapagos Islands and the Andes Mountains. If you’ve done a double-take at the inclusion of Antarctica here, do note that South America is the preferred springboard for expeditions to the southernmost continent and that’s why you’ll see Antarctica tours usually listed among the best of the continent’s highlights. Lastly, if you haven’t heard of the Pantanal in Brazil, it’s probably a good idea to get acquainted with this spectacular destination, right now. Read all about planning a South America Tour if you like wildlife – and…
South America’s most celebrated cities are in a league of their own, combining old-world flair with romance, grand architecture, music, the arts, stunning landscapes and sensationally buzzy vibes. From the pearl that is Buenos Aires to vibrant Rio and delicious Lima, South America offers a city-escape for every taste. Learn more about planning your trip to South America if you love the buzz of cities.
Relax & Unwind on a Beach
All that hiking, feasting, photography, wildlife watching and city explorations can surely be hard work. Time for a stint of R&R on some ridiculously beautiful South American beach? Yes, we think so too! Now, you may instinctively only think of the Caribbean coastline when you imagine planning a few days of R&R but you don’t even have to travel so far north to find an idyllic stretch of dreamy beach. Don’t believe us?! Then go ahead and drool over our South America Tour Plan to Relax and Unwind on a Beach.
Planning your South America Tour by Time-Frame
We’ve now arrived at what is arguably the most popular tour plan of all, the one that’s dictated by holiday time. For obvious reasons, people tend to need help the most with shorter itineraries and this is, in all honesty, where our combined travel experience is most priceless. We know the logistics of planning a 2/3-week trip, for example, and can tell you – right off the bat – that you’d better not want to squeeze in a lot during such a short time-frame. South America is huge (Brazil alone is larger than Australia) and trying to do too much in too little time will likely result in you coming home exhausted and underwhelmed. South American airports may be nice but that’s all you’ll ever see when zipping from A to B in a hurry. And they ain’t that nice.
So, to this end, here are the most popular plans for visiting South America in a predetermined time-frame:
2 – 3 weeks
The ideal way to enjoy a rewarding yet short tour of South America is to concentrate on one, perhaps two countries, at most. This is especially true if you stick to just one region, being the Central Andes, Patagonia or the Amazon Basin. As a first-time visitor, we’d suggest honing in on the Central Andes, most especially Peru, a country that can easily captivate you for the entire duration of your trip. See our 2/3-week South America Tour Guide for an idea of what that would entail.
3 – 5 Weeks
The most common holiday time-frame of all, a 3-5-week South America Tour will give you more time to breathe, soak up the wonders and actually enjoy the destinations you visit. You still won’t have time to fluff about too much and the pace of this time-frame may still be too fast for some, yet if you can handle the travel speed, a whirlwind 3-5-week South America Tour plan will blow your mind.
How long is a piece of string! The first time I travelled to South America I spent six months travelling around and even then, I felt like there was a lot left to see. That said, if time and money aren’t so much of an issue then with three months you can get a really good taste of most of the best destinations in South America without feeling too rushed. Find out how to plan your 3+ months trip to South America.
Planning your South America Tour by Season
Not everyone’s lucky enough to be able to choose when they travel. Sometimes, our holidays are dictated by the powers that be. Never fear! The great thing about South America being so huge is that no matter what month of the year you visit, you’ll find at least one (but usually several) highlights that are at their visiting prime.
If a seasonal South America Tour is on the cards for you, then these are the month-by-month highlights you’ll want to know about:
Click on any given month to see what’s hot (and not) to see and do:
And to end this mammoth South America Travel Guide, we’ll also point you to our handy Seasonal Dressing Guide – because aside destinations, highlights and time-frames…we’ll also help you pack!
If you want further information on potential South America travel itineraries, head to our dedicated South America Tours page.
By Laura Pattara & Chad Carey.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”