South America is full of incredible travel destinations and it’s difficult to decide where best to spend your time when you are in the planning stages of your trip. Do you concentrate on the icons (Machu Picchu, Christ the Redeemer, the Amazon), thrilling activities (Bolivian Salt Flat Jeep Trip, Sandboarding in Peru, Glacier Hiking in Patagonia), the social element of travel (meet the Incas, visit Amazonian tribes, dance the Tango with an Argentine) or go for a mix of everything?
It’s nigh on impossible to make these decisions before you reach this extraordinary continent, and my advice would be to just pick a starting point, take every experience as it comes and see which things take your fancy. Having said that, everyone’s time is limited (apart from a few lucky ones!) so here are the places that I would make my ‘5 Not to Miss’ if you’re heading to South America:
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The salt flats of southern Bolivia are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Miles and miles of white floors, uninterrupted. The thrill is as much in the anticipation of the 3 day jeep ride from San Pedro de Atacama as it is in the stunning views. It does feel extra special though when you manage to take a photo, which makes it look like you’re sat on a giant banana! Whichever way you’re travelling through South America, this is one not to be missed.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Of all the cities in South America, it was Rio that took my breath away the most and the longest. It has everything, from fun loving people to icons recognised the world over.
If you’re a beach lover you can spend the day showing off your tan on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. If you’re more about the activities then you can head up into the mountains, run off a ramp and paraglide over the city. For those who need a dose of picture-postcard material you only have to hit the Christ the Redeemer statue or Sugarloaf Mountain to get the iconic views of the city. Then there are the favelas, which give you brief glimpse into a totally different side to this colourful place. And I haven’t even mentioned Samba or football…
Cartagena is fantastic not only because of the city itself, but what lies on its doorstep. An old city caged by tall walls, it has a certain mystique about it. Once inside the city walls you are invited into colourful buildings, quaint squares and a maze of cobbled streets.
Once you’ve explored every nook and cranny you can head outside of the city to the mud volcano and have a thoroughly dirty time whilst (supposedly!) nourishing your skin. The main reason I loved Cartagena, though, was the fact that it was the gateway to the San Blas Islands. A two day boat trip out to sea on the way to Panama, these are true paradise islands that should be visited by every traveller in world.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Okay, so this probably isn’t a real shocker to anyone, but Machu Picchu really does live up to the hype. Whether you choose to trek up there over 3 days or you take the leisurely route on the train, the feeling you get when you see the sun rise over this unique place can’t be matched. I’d recommend anyone who is still able, to take the final trek to the top of Waynapicchu which overlooks the city from a different angle. It’s a final hour of trekking pain, but is worth every ounce of effort when you are sat on a rock overlooking this jaw dropping destination.
Still one of my favourite destinations in the world, Patagonia is worth the effort of travelling to the very tip of South America. From the trekking opportunities available around Torres del Paine to the stunning image of the Perito Moreno Glacier, you are consistently impressed around every turn. I’d recommend heading to El Chalten if you are in the El Calafate region, there are some great treks and stunning views like that of Mount Fitz Roy (below). Don’t forget your scarf and woolly hat though!
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Tom Mcloughlin writes Top Backpacking Destinations, a guide to the best places for budget travel around the world. You can follow him (@BackpackerBoy) on Twitter or at the Top Backpacking Destinations Facebook page.