Maybe you’ve dreamt of South American adventures your entire life or, maybe, the continent has just entered into your travel-radar. Whatever the case may be, planning a first-time visit to South America – an enormous and enormously varied one at that, is an exciting endeavour but it can also be just a wee bit daunting. Where does one even start? Don’t worry—this guide to South America for first-timers will help you get planning.
Most first-time travellers to South America really do have the issue of not knowing where to start although, when asked, can usually fire off an impressive list of highlights they wish to include on their itinerary. Everyone has a South American dream, be it to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, stand under the overpowering cascades at Iguazu Falls or meet all the stunning creatures of the Galapagos Islands and the Pantanal.
The first main point is to note that all of these ‘highlights’, the most famous of places in South America, can be easily reached from any major city in the continent and can all be included into one itinerary. Getting around in South America is easy and convenient and including various countries in a single trip is something most people do, whether they love the buzz of cities, wildlife, photography, culture or hiking in the great outdoors.
Having said all this, it’s important to note that every country is South America offers a multi-coveted travel experience. All of them boast exceptional cities, excellent culture and cuisine, wonderful wilderness and a fair share of wildlife. So choosing the ideal first-time destination may be better achieved when talking about regions, instead.
Divide and Conquer – Choosing Your Ideal Itinerary by Region
Generally speaking, it’s useful to separate South America into three distinct regions, namely the high-altitude Andean region in the centre, the wild southern region (Patagonia, mostly) and the northern tropical, Caribbean region.
South America is also a huge place, so it makes logical sense to start with just one region to save yourself time.
No matter what time of year you choose to visit South America for the very first time, there will be one region that will be at its prime and if you can’t decide where to go first then why not let the climate decide?
- June – September: Dry days and moderate temperatures in the mountainous centre during the northern summer, ideal for hiking and travelling through the Central Andesc
- October -March/April: Moderate temps that are ideal for outdoor adventures in the far south, best for active visits to Patagonia
- November – April: Manageable heat and humidity and less rain in the northern, Caribbean region
Many of these ‘ideal months’ will certainly overlap in various regions due mostly to the fact that some countries – like Argentina and Brazil – are simply huge. This is what makes multi-country itineraries so popular here.
Here’s a look at the three regions in more details.
1. Andean Region – Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador
Best For: cultural experiences, historical sites and close-up adventures across high peaks
The three countries that lie primarily across the Central Andes are the three with the highest percentage of indigenous populations. For this reason, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador are all renowned for offering fantastic cultural experiences and are beloved by those looking for immersive experiences that include, nature, culture, cuisine and history. Here is where you’ll find the most famous archaeological sites and where you can enjoy fantastic road trips that allow you to actually cross those majestic mountains by road, not just admire them from viewpoints.
Of these three Andean beauties, Peru is the most popular choice (thanks, Machu Picchu!) and Ecuador the lesser-known, ideal for those who want to stray off the Gringo Trail just a tad. All three boast amazing highlights – from Lake Titicaca and Salar Uyuni of Bolivia to the Galapagos and fabulous hot springs of the Ecuador highlands – and all three offer excellent springboards for adventures in the Amazon Rainforest.
Bolivia is one of the least developed countries in South America and although this can make for exceptional travel experiences outside the standard comfort bubble, it can also pose the biggest logistical challenges for first-timers, which is why private tours in Bolivia are so popular. If you’re ever going to take a tailor-made private tour in South America, take it in Bolivia.
2. Southern Region – Argentina, Chile, Uruguay
Best For: Overwhelming wilderness, vibrant modern cities, mestizo culture, spectacular mountains, hiking & outdoor pursuits
European immigration has had a much more prevalent role in the evolution of the southern countries and although indigenous experiences still exist in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, you do have to go a little out of your way to find them. Whilst Brazil may be considered by experts to be the economic powerhouse of South America, it’s in these three southern nations where prosperity is most visible and tangible: here is where you’ll find the best infrastructure, most modern cities and a more European flair, overall.
For this reason, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay are ideal for first-time visitors who want a more ‘sanitized’ introduction to South America and are a little apprehensive about jumping in head-first into the arguably more chaotic Central Andean region. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include it in your first-ever visit but you may just want to include it later on in your trip, when you’ve acclimatised – literally and figuratively speaking – to South America travel.
Despite all this modernity, however, the southern nations of South America boast incredible wilderness, most notably down in Patagonia where it’s dramatic peaks, glaciers and expansive national parks overflowing with wildlife that tickle the fancy of wilderness lovers. All three of the nations’ capitals, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Montevideo, boast resplendent colonial-era architecture, fabulous culinary delights, a vibrant nightlife and totally captivating vibes. If you’re after a city-escape, primarily, here is where you’ll want to arrive.
Although each of the three countries boast their own unique highlights (the Atacama Desert and magnificent fjords in Chile, authentic estancia stays in Uruguay and the startling pampas of Argentina) all three share common bonds: world-class wine-growing regions, famous meat-focused cuisines, mate-drinking, siesta-making and a 300-year-old gaucho-culture that’s even tipped to soon be recognised by UNESCO as an intangible treasure.
Interestingly enough, Argentina and Chile can be said to boast the most spectacular peaks in the Andes: not just the highest but, in particular, the most picturesque. Yet because this southern stretch of the Andes lacks expansive plateaus, people never settled in high-elevation areas the way they did in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. This means there’s a distinct lack of roads in Patagonia and most of your sightseeing efforts are centred around hiking from a few key hubs instead, offering a totally different Andean perspective.
3. Northern Region – Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela
Best For: Caribbean/Afro cultures, stunning beaches, tropical wilderness, friendly locals, wildlife galore
The friendliest people, the warmest temps, the most tropical wilderness, the best dancers and the most avid party-makers: this is what primarily defines South America’s northern countries. Alongside the eclectic cultural highlights, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela also boast an impressive array of singular highlights – some of the best in the whole continent.
Brazil has its addictive samba and captivating Rio de Janeiro, its awe-inspiring Iguazu Falls, its famous portion of the Amazon rainforest and its astonishing Pantanal – about the best wildlife-watching tropical destination in the world.
Colombia has its colonial treasure of Cartagena – considered the best-preserved in the continent – as well as a collection of simply stupendous Caribbean islands that make for ideal beachside vacays, especially at the end of a whirlwind first-time tour through the continent.
And Venezuela, although currently suffering through a bout of political instability, is still home to striking Angel Falls, the highest on the planet. Venezuela is the prime destination for wilderness enthusiasts who don’t mind giving up comforts in favour of pristine jungles, cloud-covered mountain plateaus and some of the most unspoiled tropical wilderness in the world. The country may be in turmoil at time of writing and travel here not recommended by most government agencies but keep an eye out on this beauty: when things settle, this will be the next ‘hottest’ destination in South America.
Whether it’s your first or tenth time visiting South America, the continent offers a wealth of exciting options, hidden secrets and lesser-known yet equally enchanting treasures.
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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.”