What do you think of when someone mentions South America?
Trekking the mountains of Peru? Eating steak at a restaurant in Argentina? Or do you have some wild ideas about the drug trade from watching “Narcos” on Netflix?
Whatever you’ve heard, I can guarantee one thing: South America will exceed your expectations.
The continent is so diverse that you can see beaches, glaciers, jungles and deserts all in one trip.
Do you want to experience South America’s vibrant culture and take in its wild natural beauty? Do you want to connect with open and passionate local people and explore the continent’s captivating past?
With so many options, it can be hard to know where to begin. That’s why I’ve put together a bucket list of can’t-miss highlights for anyone planning a trip to South America.
11 Epic Activities to Cross off Your South America Bucket List
1. Sleep in a hammock: Parque Tayrona, Colombia
Did you know Colombia has a Caribbean coastline? Yes, you read that correctly. I’m talking white sand beaches and palm trees.
Where beach meets jungle, Parque Tayrona (Tayrona National Natural Park), accessed from Santa Marta in the north of the country, is a dreamlike stretch of back-to-back beaches on the Caribbean coast.
Get there by hiking through the jungle, then stay the night in a softly swaying hammock on the beach.
During your day hike, check out the pre-hispanic ruins of Pueblito (Village). You can learn about the ancient Tairona people of the region.
Click here to join our team!
2. Explore the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu: Peru
There’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
You can trek original Inca paths from the city of Cusco to reach the ruins of this pre-colonial citadel nestled high in the Andes Mountains.
Machu Picchu is thought to have been a royal estate built for King Pachacutec around 1450. It wasn’t discovered until 1911, the Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) having never found it during their entire period of colonization in the Americas.
The Inca Jungle Trek is an exhilarating tour option with mountain biking, rafting and ziplining along the way.
3. Meet crazy critters on the Galápagos Islands: Ecuador
The islands where Charles Darwin developed his theory of natural selection, Las Islas Galápagos (The Galápagos Islands) have an astounding array of wildlife.
Take a multi-day cruise around the islands and snorkel with sea lions, turtles, penguins, marine iguanas, sharks, dolphins, rays and more. Over 20% of the marine species are endemic to the islands, meaning they can’t be found anywhere else on the planet!
The down side is that Galápagos cruises can be pricey. Galaven offers some mid-range cruises, and G Adventures has some lower budget options. If you’re flexible with your travel plans, it’s also possible to fly out to the islands and find a last-minute deal for a majorly reduced price.
4. See the world’s largest waterfalls: Argentina and Brazil
If you plan to spend time in Argentina or Brazil, consider a trip to the enormous network of waterfalls that make up Iguazú, the biggest falls in the world.
Catch a stunning view of all the waterfalls from the Brazilian side or get up close and personal on the Argentinian side. Better yet, stay two days and do both!
If the sheer size and scale of the falls aren’t impressive enough, try a boat ride right up to the base of the falls on the Argentinian side.
5. Watch the sunset from Sugarloaf Mountain: Brazil
Nothing beats watching a sunset. So you shouldn’t pass up watching one from the top of an iconic mountain overlooking one of the most exciting cities in the world… Rio de Janeiro.
Spend the day checking out Rio’s beaches, dancing samba or sampling the local street food. (Chicken coxinha, anyone?) Then take a cable car up the famously shaped, protruding Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) to see a sunset like no other.
The mountain sits at the mouth of Guanabara Bay and rises 396 m (1,299 ft) above the sprawling city of Rio de Janeiro. The views from the top are indescribable, so you should probably take a few pictures.
6. Take a crazy photo at the Uyuni Salt Flats: Bolivia
You can’t visit Bolivia without taking a trip to Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Formed from dried-up desert lakes, this attraction has an ethereal, mirror-like surface that will take your breath away.
At an enormous 10,582 square kilometers in size, the salty desert stretches out as far as the eye can see. Its enormity distorts all sense of perspective, making it a classic place to take wacky photos!
Fancy yourself a bit of a travel photographer? Don’t leave without taking some crazy snaps. Put your hand out while your friend stands far away, and it’ll look like you’re holding a tiny person in your palm. See how creative you can get!
7. See pink dolphins in the Amazon River: Brazil
If you plan on traveling to Brazil, don’t miss a visit to the Amazon rainforest. The world’s largest tropical rainforest spans several countries and can also be visited from countries other than Brazil, such as Colombia and Peru.
The journey is long but well worth it to see the astounding variety of flora, fauna and wildlife. You could spot piranhas, bats, spiders and even a jaguar or caiman!
The star of the show is the pink dolphin who resides in the Amazon River. Take a boat trip from the city of Manaus, Brazil, to spot these beautiful creatures swimming in their natural habitat.
Be wary of swimming tours, as they can lead to overfeeding and ultimately harming the dolphins. The best way to see these creatures is probably by booking a river cruise with Ney Eco Adventures.
8. Go sandboarding in the desert around Huacachina: Peru
Calling all thrill seekers! You’ve undoubtedly heard of snowboarding, but have you ever heard of sandboarding?
Well, in the desert around the tiny village of Huacachina, Peru, sandboarding is a daily activity.
Feel the wind in your hair as you reach the top of sand dunes in a buggy. Then test your skills sliding down to the bottom on a board. It’s a great stop on your South America tour, especially for adrenaline junkies.
Check out private sandboarding tours here.
9. See South America’s best views on the W Trek in Patagonia: Chile
The incredible W Trek has probably become the most popular hike in South America. And for good reason!
This four-to-six day hike through Torres del Paine National Park will take you past dramatic mountains, natural granite towers, gorgeous glaciers and deep forests.
Camp along the way, refilling your bottles with clear, natural glacier water. Or stay in the world’s first entirely sustainable geodesic dome hotel.
There are plenty of tour operators to take you on this trek, but it’s also possible to go without a guide. Just make sure you’re well prepared!
10. Visit the reed islands of Lake Titicaca: Peru and Bolivia
At 12,500 feet (3,810 meters), Lake Titicaca may take your breath away in more ways than one! The lake crosses into both Peru and Bolivia, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re traveling South America overland.
The area is home to the indigenous Uru people who still inhabit islands on the lake. But these aren’t just any islands. They’re actually floating islands, made entirely out of reeds! The natives also have reed houses, reed furniture and reed boats. They even use parts of the reeds in their cooking.
Although some communities prefer to steer clear of tourism, it’s possible to visit some of the islands to experience their lifestyle first-hand.
11. Meet the locals
The last (and maybe most fulfilling) activity on this list is one you can do anywhere in South America. Befriend the local people.
Kick a football with some kids in Buenos Aires, befriend your Galápagos tour guide or find a salsa partner in Medellín. Meeting natives is the best way to learn about a country, go off the beaten track, connect with the culture and pick up the local language!
Try FluentU free for 15 days to learn Spanish through authentic videos before and during your trip. Spanish is the primary language around the continent. (You’ll want to study Portuguese if you visit Brazil!)
FluentU takes a huge collection of language video clips from real-world sources—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and uses it to generate personalized Spanish lessons for each learner.
By watching real-world videos, you’ll also learn about the culture. Talk about killing two birds with one stone! You’ll be ready to talk about sports and pop culture with inhabitants of every South American nation.
Now that you know what you can’t miss on your trip, it’s time to start planning your ultimate South America itinerary!
How many of these adventures will you manage to cross off your South America bucket list?
Hanna Greeman is a language lover and global traveler. After graduating in Spanish and Italian from the University of Bristol, she has lived in Colombia, Peru, Italy, Australia and Thailand, and traveled across four continents. When not working as a freelance writer, catch her salsa dancing, reading or seeing live music.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.