If you have visited any part of South America, you will probably have followed many of the places on the well-trodden gringo trail. These are the places that fall naturally onto the itinerary of many travellers and backpackers to this stunning continent. And while there are many places that you will almost certainly have heard of if you have looked into travelling in South America, there are also many places that will be completely new to you. In all honesty, there are so many well-visited but overlooked destinations in this part of the world that you have probably never ever heard of.
We all know of the big ones; places like Machu Picchu, the Amazon Rainforest and Patagonia. You will also probably have heard of Christ the Redeemer, Iguazu Falls and the floating islands. But what about those unique and stunning locations that you have not heard of? What about an island paradise off the coast of Brazil or a destination in Patagonia that is easy on the eyes and your budget? How about a mountain destination filled with cost-effective adventure activities or a colonial city with enough museums to spend weeks exploring there?
There is so much more to South America than the big tourist traps of places like Brazil and Peru. Not convinced? Here are nine locations in South America that you NEED to see if you visit (but in all honestly you have probably never heard of them.
1. Isla Grande
Isla Grande is a truly unique travel experience. Only accessibly by ferry from the Brazil mainland, the only way to get to and around this island is over water. The town itself consists largely of one main strip of bars and restaurants and a few small trails up into the mountains filled with hotels, eco-lodges and hostels.
With regular electricity outages, limited internet access and no ATMs on the island, staying here is a true escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. If you need to cut off and/ or disappear, Isla Grande is the place to do it.
Perhaps the best part about the island is the fact that it boasts some of the best beaches I have experienced in South America. In particular, the beach of Lopes Mendes. Even getting to this beach is an experience. No boats are allowed to pull up on the beach itself, so the only way to get there is to take a water taxi from the main strip to another smaller part of the island. Then you must proceed to walk the twenty-minute up and downhill trek to the beach. Trust me when I say that this walk is more than worth it as you will find yourself on an expansive, quiet beach with the softest sand you have ever experienced.
Other activities you can do on this perfect island is taking boat trips to the many small isles and inlets in the surrounding waters. Again, only accessible by boat, these tours will give you access to your very own private island (for a day at least).
Many backpackers and travellers tend to do one of two things when considering travelling to Patagonia in either Chile or Argentina. Either they leave aside a huge chunk of budget for it or they leave it out of their South America itinerary completely. The location is truly stunning so it is no surprise that people go out of their way to visit this area.
However, with a large influx of American and Canadian tourism, prices have been driven right up and tours and flight costs often fall out of the realistic budget for many travellers. There is, thankfully, another alternative. Introducing the largely overlooked town of Bariloche. Located on the cusp of the Patagonia region in Central Argentina (near the Chilean border), this destination is the perfect place for backpackers looking to get a taste of Patagonia on a limited budget.
The town itself is quaint and for parts of the year doubles as a ski resort. Make sure you look up the time of year you intend to go in case you did not intend on a week of snow sports. Endless chocolate shops line the grey stone town centre and boast stunning views out over the Rio Negro. Make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes and enjoy wrapping up warm with a hot chocolate next to the fire in your lodge of choice.
Just a short bus ride away will take you to the nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park which is where you will find the breathtaking views you associate with the region of Patagonia. Cycle to the gorgeous local brewery to enjoy a beer overlooking the river or head out on the various hiking trails through the park. This is one compromise you will not be disappointed in.
3. Elqui Valley
Elqui Valley is a rich area outside of the nondescript city of La Serena, Chile that is famous for its vineyards, breweries and stunning views. Many people simply take day tours to the area from La Serena but to truly experience this valley in all its glory, you simply have to stay in the small, nearby town of Vicuna (it’s way nice than La Serena anyway!).
The town is truly charming filled with low-rise stone buildings, pretty craft shops and family-run cafes and restaurants. It is possible to take tours to many of the points of interest in the area, but the best way to take everything in is by bike. Rent a bike from the many outlets in town and spend a day visiting many of the sights on the trail from a Hare Krishna commune to breweries and eco-farms, there is something for everyone. There are several bike trails ranging from easy and flat to hard and more inclined. Take a few days to do them all for the full Elqui Valley experience.
4. Valle de la Luna
The Atacama desert in Northern Chile is relatively well known by travellers to the region but mention it to people who have never visited South America and you will usually be met with a series of blank stares. But the Atacama is a unique place to do a multitude of amazing activities from stargazing to geyser tours.
Perhaps the most attractive place for visitors though is a visit to Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna). Think of a landscape straight off the set of Star Wars and you will understand why it has been named as such. This large, unique landscape complete with red rock formations and dried-up salt lakes is probably the closest you will get to land on the moon.
There are two ways to do Moon Valley and that is to bike it or take a tour. While the biking is doable, remember you are biking through a desert so think of extremely hot and dry conditions as well as a LOT of dust and sand. The half-day tours are great as you are driven right into the heart of the valley and then taken on a hike across the various hills and dunes to get the best views. You will also visit a naturally formed salt cave before being taken to a viewpoint to enjoy the sunset over the valley. Highly recommended.
5. Banos de Agua Santa
Despite being a sleepy little town, this place boasts the best adventure activities in Ecuador. Though it is often bypassed by travellers in favour of other locations in the country, if you want thrilling activities and stunning views at reasonable prices then this is the place for you! The main draw for adventure-seeking to Banos is of course the prices. You are looking at half the price you would pay for similar activities in Ecuador’s neighbours, Colombia and Peru.
Take a short bus ride up to La Casa de Arbol to get a picture of the infamous swing that rises out over the mountain’s edge. Other activities include biking into the valley, zip-lining, bridge-jumping, hiking to waterfalls, white water rafting and kayaking. A must-see for money conscientious thrill-seekers.
Many people tout Cusco in Peru as the cultural hub of South America. Yes, Cusco is rich in the unique history and culture of the indigenous people there but high levels of tourism mean that everything has been commodified.
Cuenca in Ecuador offers a quiet and more authentic version of Cusco which is why it is not surprising that it is a popular retirement destination for many Americans. Forget the packed streets full of vendors and costumed locals, Cuenca is quiet and refined but filled with all the old Colonial beauty expected from these old cities.
The historic centre is littered with a plenitude of museums and cultural centres as well as two stunning cathedrals. Pretty parks and squares make for endless opportunities to lounge and soak up the atmosphere. Also with plenty of coffee shops to relax in, this city was made for getting absolutely lost in.
The little surf town of Montanita is a popular resort location for locals in South America but is largely undiscovered by tourists. While it can get busy in the high season, the little town has retained the endless charm and the chill vibes one looks for when visiting a laid-back beach destination.
Located on the coast of Ecuador, just a few hours from the sprawling city Guayaquil, it is easily accessible by bus which has helped to make it the popular vacation destination it has become. The sprawling beach is perfect for walking and is lined with surf shops, quirky cafes and yummy restaurants. With board renting at such a low cost, surfing is definitely the top activity here. For budding surfers, there is plenty of opportunities to take lessons and teachers will bring you to quieter locations to learn (so no fear of being judged by the talent out there).
The beach is perfect for a long evening walk followed by a nightcap watching the sunset over the ocean. This is a great place to spend a few days sunning, relaxing and becoming the surf king or queen you always dreamed of.
8. The Amazon
Okay, okay so I know we have all heard of the Amazon rainforest. But what most people do not know is that you can visit the rainforest from Bolivia and for about half the price you might pay for similar tours from Brazil or Argentina. Yep, the Amazon can be accessed through the little Bolivian town of Rurrenabaque which will cost you about $100 USD by plane. There is a cheaper route which involves a thirty-hour bus journey though it is generally not recommended by travel companies due to road and weather conditions.
Once you arrive in Rurrenabaque, you will have the option of taking two tours. The first is the Pampas tour which will take you into the wetlands of the Amazon. You will stay in accommodation on the water and spend much of your day exploring by boat. You will see a multitude of wildlife including alligators, spider monkeys, toucans, anacondas and you will even have the chance to swim with dolphins!
The second tour offers a more traditional rainforest experience (albeit a more intense one). You will hike into the rainforest and stay within the trees. You will see less animal life but certainly, get a more expected rainforest experience.
As with any tour into the Amazon, remember to bring plenty of high-deet bug spray, sunscreen, malaria tablets as well as long pants and tops.
For many people who make plans to visit Colombia, they have probably never have heard of Salento. However, once you get a glimpse of what is to offer in this great little mountain town, you will put it straight on the top of your bucket list. Salento is located in Central Colombia about an eight-hour bus ride from the sprawling capital of Bogota. This tiny town is filled with infamous colourful buildings and doors as well as endless craft shops to fall in love with.
After you have spent time exploring the stunning town centre, book your transport to the area’s main attraction. Just twenty minutes outside of the town lies the Valle de Cocora cloud forest, an expansive area boasting some of the world’s tallest palm trees (or wax palm trees as they are known). Truly a sight to behold, you can visit in a few hours or make a day out of it with a relatively easy trek.
When you arrive, you can follow the path to see the cloud forest from a distance. Continue the trail through the forest and across several bridges. Trek up to a lodge for coffee and snacks and then follow the road down to find yourself in the middle of the cloud forest itself. Take in the sheer height of the impressive trees and make sure to get a picture hugging one. Marvel at the trees moving in and out of the low-lying clouds.
If you do not want to do the full day of hiking, you can visit the cloud forest from the other side. Instead of following the path into the forest and bridges, follow the road up past the cars and horses and find yourself right in the thick of the tall trees. This is truly a spectacular sight and one not to be missed on a trip to South America.
Bonus Location – Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are far away from the mainland (1000km) but still considered part of Ecuador and South America. This is the location you want to go to to watch rare wildlife and plant species.
Girlfriend vacations in the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are also an ideal location to charter a yacht and enjoy that girlfriend escape within a unique natural setting, exploring endemic wildlife and enjoying adventure activities like snorkelling, kayaking and hiking.