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A Beginner’s Guide to South America

The continent has endless appeal. Here’s how to choose where to go first.

Performers celebrate with music on South American streets
Hi, I'm Karen!

Karen is a Scottish freelance travel and culture writer based in the US. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, and Condé Nast Traveler.

From the driest desert in the world to lush rainforest and shimmering glaciers, the diverse landscapes of South America form a beguiling stage for some of the world’s greatest adventures. This is where you’ll find thrilling cities within reach of staggeringly natural beauty, ancient ruins, and more. But with 12 unique countries, each with their own distinct culture and appeal, it can be tricky to decide where to begin your South American trip. To help you choose, here’s what makes each country special.

1. Best for beaches: Brazil

A Rio beach in Brazil.
Rio's beaches are iconic.Photo Credit: Catarina Belova / Shutterstock

Few places rival Brazil when it comes to spectacular beaches (and bikini body confidence).

South America’s largest and most populated country, Brazil has had a massive cultural influence. From samba to Pelé, Brazilian cultural touchstones are recognized worldwide but there’s nothing like actually being in the captivating country and soaking up the sun and colorful atmosphere on the most famous beaches in the world, Copacabana and Ipanema. After Rio de Janeiro, head for the beaches of nearby Ilha Grande and Búzios, or go north to the glorious beach-studded coastline of Bahía.

2. Best for culture: Argentina

Argentina tango dancers.
Argentina's where to see tango.Photo Credit: Antonio Franco / Viator

Dance the night away in culture-heavy Argentina, one of the most popular destinations in South America.

Home to a rich literary scene and world-renowned museums, including the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA), Argentina does not disappoint when it comes to cultural attractions. The best-known manifestation of Argentine culture, however, is tango, so be sure to take in a show, check out the street dancers in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, and learn a few steps yourself.

3. Best for history: Peru

Sacsayhuaman in Peru.
Travelers explore Sacsayhuaman.Photo Credit: Antonio Franco / Viator

History buffs will want for nothing in Peru, a country awash with archeological ruins and a rich associated history.

A land of gold, Peru was once home to the world’s largest empire. Visitors to Cusco can see relics of Inca riches, as well as artifacts from pre-Inca civilizations, at the Pre-Columbian Art Museum before visiting such archaeologically rich ancient sites such as Sacsayhuaman, Písac, Tipón, and the world-famous lost citadel of Machu Picchu (all of which can be reached in a day trip).

4. Best for nightlife: Colombia

A Colombian party night.
Colombia is known for its music.Photo Credit: Amanda Voisard / Viator

Expect reggaeton all night (and day) in Colombia, and come prepared for a lively party atmosphere.

From loud mega clubs to secret salsa places, Colombia is home to some of the continent's best nightlife. Night owls will want to make a beeline for Bogotá or Medellin, but Cartagena, Cali, and Barranquilla are also great cities to have a fun night out without breaking the bank. If you’re unsure of where to go or are traveling alone, join a nightlife tour to soak up the scene. (You can even treat yourself to some Colombian emeralds, too.)

5. Best for Indigenous cultures: Bolivia

A woman in traditional dress walks in Bolivia carrying wares.
A woman in traditional dress walks in Bolivia.Photo Credit: NiarKrad / Shutterstock

Indigenous peoples and culture thrive in Bolivia and you can learn all about it on your next trip.

Home to the largest Indigenous population in South America, Bolivia is the ideal place to learn about the cultures that have thrived there for thousands of years. You can visit Lake Titicaca to learn how the Uro people have long lived on its floating islands; stay in an Indigenous-run ecolodge in Madidi National Park, one of the world’s largest protected wildlife areas; and book a tour to the Uyuni salt flats, which includes visits to Indigenous villages as well as geysers, hot springs, and flamingo-dotted lagoons.

6. Best for waterfalls: Guyana

Angel Falls in South America.
Angel Falls is unforgettable.Photo Credit: Douglas Olivares / Shutterstock

Nature lovers should beeline for Guyana, home to many-a waterfall and more.

As travel to the world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls in Venezuela, is not currently recommended due to a Level 4 US Travel Advisory, consider Guyana instead. In Kaieteur National Park, within the Amazon rainforest, the 741-feet (226-meter) Kaieteur Falls is an impressive sight and renowned for the highest volume of water flowing in a single-drop waterfall. Travelers can visit it as part of a multi-day adventure tour from the capital, Georgetown. (While you’re there, you might even be able to catch a cricket match or two in this English-speaking South American country.)

7. Best for diverse landscapes: Chile

Chilean mountains and hikers.
Hikers won't be disappointed by Chile's mountains.Photo Credit: Antonio Franco / Viator

Long and skinny Chile has all your landscape wants and needs covered, from the arid north to the freezing south.

This staggeringly long, thin country is one of the world’s most geographically diverse. From the lunar-like landscape of the Atacama Desert in the north to the jagged peaks and glacial lakes of Patagonia in the south, a trip around Chile is like visiting multiple different countries in one. If there’s one thing outdoor adventurers shouldn’t miss, it’s hiking around the unspoiled mountains, glaciers, and lakes of Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park.

8. Best for getting off the beaten path: Paraguay

Paraguay wetlands and birds.
Local birdlife in Chaco.Photo Credit: FranckV / Shutterstock

Make for Paraguay, an underrated South American destination, for an overall quieter experience.

Sitting at the very heart of South America, little-visited Paraguay is often overlooked by travelers intent on hitting up the continent’s best-known attractions. However, from the historic architecture of Asunción to the numerous bird species and enormous cacti of the Chaco, there is plenty to merit getting off the beaten path and spending some time in landlocked Paraguay.

9. Best for wildlife: Ecuador

Ecuador horses by a big mountain.
You'll encounter horses and more in Ecuador.Photo Credit: Jonatas Neiva / Shutterstock

Lovely Ecuador has access to the Amazon and lots of wildlife spotting opportunities to enjoy.

For a small country, Ecuador packs a punch, squeezing in surprisingly diverse landscapes, from Andean peaks and dense Amazon rainforest to sandy beaches and smoking volcanoes. One of the biggest draws here is the diverse wildlife—the country is home to more than 300 species of mammals, including the rare Andean spectacled bear, several breeds of monkey, 2- and 3-toed sloths, and capybaras. Cotopaxi National Park and the Mindo Cloud Forest are two top wildlife destinations in Ecuador, while the Galápagos Islands is renowned for its unique animals.

10. Best for food: Uruguay

Uruguay octopus.
An octopus dish in Uruguay.Photo Credit: Luiz C / Tripadvisor

Vegans may struggle, but meat eaters will find a lot to love about Uruguay and its cuisine.

Like neighboring Argentina, Uruguay has a deep love of big steaks and bold red wines. Visitors shouldn’t miss experiencing an asado grill, which traditionally begins with offal before the full parrillada (steak, chops, ribs, and sausages) is served. Some foodie travelers plan their trips around visiting the legendary Parador La Huella restaurant in the beach resort of José Ignacio, which mixes up the traditional grill by serving fresh seafood. Meanwhile, wine lovers can book tasting tours to Uruguay’s wine country. (Don’t skip the mate, either.)

11. Best for adventure: Suriname

Suriname boats on the river.
Travel on boats when in Suriname.Photo Credit: Marcel Bakker / Shutterstock

This petite destination packs a punch when it comes to adventure activities in South America.

South America’s smallest country is a little-explored, densely-forested playground for adventurers who can eschew roads and make their way around the country via its many rivers. Suriname—where you’ll find Dutch and Sranan Tongo spoken widely—has a wealth of nature reserves and protected parkland, which are best experienced by staying in an ecolodge that offers excursions.

More ways to explore South America

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