How Much Time Do You Need to Visit South America’s BIG 5?

South America’s ‘Big Five’ is by no means an exhaustive list of the continent’s most alluring attractions, but they are the top 5 destinations most travellers seek, particularly if visiting the continent for the very first time. When planning a trip to one, two, three or all five of the continent’s star attractions, it helps to have a good idea about how much time is needed to experience them thoroughly, how easily accessible each destination is and what the best way would be to join them all up and create one totally EPIC tour of South America.

And that’s where we come in!

This guide will help you plan your own unforgettable, unique and personal journey of discovery, through South America’s most sough-after Big Five attractions.

1. Machu Picchu, Peru

The fabled Lost City of the Incas is cradled by vertiginous Andean peaks and hidden in a stunning high-altitude valley in southern Peru. Although its location is rather remote, its popularity has eased the logistical conundrum of reaching it, with the base town of Cusco offering direct flights from the capital, Lima, as well as other major cities across the continent. Machu Picchu is technically visited in just a single day, although acclimatization to the altitude, connecting transport and nearby exceptional attractions (which you really ought to include) means that to do this historical hub real justice you should realistically put aside between 5 and 7 days. The absolute minimum time needed is just 3 days (if catching the train) and if you plan on tackling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, then a whole week is warranted. With a flurry of other historical sights nearby, amazing architectural highlights in Cusco, fantastic food, great markets and several interesting museums, a week of your itinerary dedicated to Machu Picchu will be your best choice yet.

Check out our Machu Picchu tours here

Machu Picchu

The World Heritage Site of Peru, Machu Picchu. Photo credit: Shutterstock

2. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Unlike Machu Picchu, which is surrounded by a host of other attractions of their own right, the Galapagos Islands themselves hold all the appeal in the region and the time needed to visit the archipelago will depend solely on the duration of your chosen cruise. Most visitors choose either an 8 or 10 day cruise (with shorter and longer options also on offer) with cruise duration determining just how many of the dozen or so major islands you get to explore at length. Daily snorkelling, diving and on-land walks offer magnificent experiences and close-up encounters with endemic wildlife, with the main base town acting as a mere springboard. Flights connect the Galapagos to Ecuador’s major hubs of Quito and Guayaquil, and you can safely plan to fly in/fly out in accordance with your cruise, without the need to plan for extra days if you can’t fit them in. All the mesmerizing treasures of this incredible archipelago will be your companions for the duration of your Galapagos cruise.

Check out our Galapagos Islands tours here

Galapagos Islands

Sea lions on one of the Galapagos Islands. Photo credit: Shutterstock

3. Amazon Rainforest, various destinations

The Amazon rainforest is a tremendous wilderness destination, one that is home to some of the most enticing animals on earth and, no matter where you go, your experience will be unforgettable. Of South America’s top travel highlights, the Amazon is the one you can juggle with most, due to its mind-boggling size and the fact that it is accessible from various points in several countries. The most popular areas are easily accessible from Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, with each specific region offering very particular sights and experiences. Some are especially great for Amazon River cruising whilst others offer more on-land hikes. Where you visit the Amazon can depend on your wishes, the time of year you travel, how much time you have at your disposal and where else you’ll be travelling. It is immensely easy to add an Amazon journey from any of the other included highlights on this guide. This natural wonderland may cover an astonishing 5.5 million square kilometres, but on a visit, you’ll be privy to just one enthralling corner of it. Plan on a one-week jaunt into the Amazon to really immerse yourself in the indescribable allure of it all.

Check out our Amazon rainforest tours here

Amazon Rainforest

Amzon Rainforest in Brazil. Take you time to enjoy this beautiful view. Photo credit: Shutterstock

4. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Spend but a day in Rio and you’ll be forgiven for wanting to move there permanently. The de-facto Brazilian capital (sorry, Brasilia!) is really THAT engaging. Rio de Janeiro’s list of attractions is nearly endless and trust us, even with a full week at your disposal, you’ll still leave with the feeling that you’ve barely scratched the surface. And you have. A fantastic springboard for visiting Iguazu Falls and the Amazon rainforest, Rio is deserving of a 3-day stay at the very least or a week-long sojourn if you wish to feel like you can actually take a breather along the way. Outstanding sights, smells, sounds and tastes await the discerning traveller in Rio, a city that has an uncanny way of getting right under your skin. A fantastic city even non-big-city people can’t help but adore.

Check out our Rio de Janeiro tours here

Rio de Janeiro in evening light

Beautiful view of Rio de Janeiro in the evening light. Photo credit: Shutterstock

5. Iguazu Falls, Argentina & Brazil

The thunderous waterfalls of Iguazu are the only gem guaranteed to WOW all visitors to South America, even if they are at the tail-end of their journey and have already soaked up so much amazing natural beauty. Consider Iguazu Falls the ultimate cherry on the South America cake, if you will, the last hoorah that’ll shake you out of your boots even when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more left to shake. With a day dedicated to each of the two sides of the falls (Argentinian and Brazilian) and one day to cross the border and perhaps chillax in a nice hotel, a 3-day visit to Iguazu Falls is pure perfection.

Check out our Iguazu Falls tours here

Iguazu Falls in Brazil and Argentina

The beautiful Iguazu Falls in both, Brazil and Argentina. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Want some help planning a whirlwind trip to South America’s Big Five highlights? We’re here to help! Contact us now and we’ll help you create a unique and personalised itinerary to include all your favourite destinations in the continent.

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.”