Choosing the best country to visit in South America can be difficult, especially when everyone you know is more than willing to offer up their opinion! Will you feel at home in the high mountains of Peru or are you looking for adventure in the Amazon rainforest?
Remember, everybody is different and while one traveller may love a particular place, another may hate it – and vice versa! The truth is, all of the countries in South America offer incredible opportunities for intrepid travellers. Deciding which countries make it onto your itinerary is really a matter of considering what you want to get out of your trip!
To help you work out which South American country is best for you to visit, we asked the advice of our well-travelled Facebook community and put together this guide! Whether you’re looking for crazy parties, world-class hiking or exotic wildlife, there is a destination in South America to suit you!
This article contains a wide range of opinions about the best country to visit in South America. It is not meant to throw shade on any particular destinations not mentioned, but to celebrate the culture and diversity of South America as a whole.
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7 Best Countries to Visit in South America
Best Country in South America for Trekking, Food and History
Peru is a country that has plenty to offer travellers, no matter their interests. In our poll about where to find the best food in South America, Peru stole the show with 57% of the vote!
Don’t miss these incredible Peruvian foods when you visit and learn about the history of ceviche, Peru’s national dish! The country is also home to some mouthwatering drinks and exotic fruits. Make sure you dedicate some of your budget to embark on a food tour too. This will allow you to experience the cuisine to the fullest.
History lovers will adore Peru for its fascinating past. Incan ruins scatter the landscape and many of them are free to visit. If you’re looking to visit some of the most impressive, pencil Machu Picchu, Choquequirao and Sacsayhuamán into your Peru itinerary.
Peru was also voted the top country for trekking in South America by our community. Of course, there are a number of incredible hikes in Peru, including Rainbow Mountain and the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. However, once you get off the beaten track, you’ll continue to find mind-blowing treks all over the country.
Must-see spots in Peru:
- Find the heart of Peru’s food scene in the capital, Lima. Home to Central, owned by Michelin starred chef Virgilio Martinez, this restaurant is repeatedly voted as one of the best in the world. Try the ceviche here.
- Trekking to Machu Picchu really is one of the best South American experiences you can have. Whether you book early enough to take on the Inca Trail or are a little underprepared and have to opt for the Salkantay or Lares, the journey is way better than the destination.
- Fly over the enigmatic Nasca Lines and marvel at the mystery behind the markings. Make sure you do your research when looking for an airline, safety is taken more seriously by some companies than others.
Best Country in South America for Partying
If you are hunting for a party, look no further than the backpacker haven of Colombia! This country has shrugged off its dark and dangerous past and is now one of the most popular South American countries for travellers.
Personal safety is no longer the concern it was and now friendly, educated, stylish Colombians have helped reinvent the country and release it from the drug cartels that once ruled. Colombia is an upcoming destination that offers travellers a variety of landscapes, rich culture and crazy parties!
Each city has its charms but they all have one thing in common… Chiva Tours! Ride around the city in a blinged-out, open-sided bus and let the drinks flow. The music will just get louder and louder and before long everyone on board will be as rowdy as they are drunk. It’s an experience, to say the least!
Although Colombia only came out top in one of the polls that we ran, backpackers love it for its laidback lifestyle, adventure opportunities and breathtaking coastline.
Psst…! It is also a South American hotspot for digital nomads!
Must-see spots in Colombia:
- Colombia’s Cali is the world’s undisputed capital of Salsa, one of South America’s best dances. Salsotecas pulsate well into the night and many hostels offer free classes. This should save you from becoming an embarrassment when you give it a go after too many aguardientes!
- Head to Caño Cristales, also known as the Liquid Rainbow. This magical river runs red and green, a rare effect caused by algae. It used to be off-limits as it was FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) territory but increasing stability has all but eradicated their presence in the area.
- If you’re at a loose end and the night is still young (in Colombia, the night is always young), then head to one of the thriving bar districts in Bogotá. Check out Zona T or Zona Rosa as it’s also known. This area is crammed full of the best bars and clubs the city has to offer.
- The Lost City Trek is wildly more challenging than other treks around the continent but arguably even more beautiful. The route takes you through waist-deep rivers and sends you scrambling up steep rock faces. There are no porters or horses on this trek so you must carry all of your things.
Best Country in South America for Beaches
When it came to the poll for the best beaches in South America, Brazil was the clear winner with 61% of the vote. Brazil is so synonymous with idyllic beaches that the Brazilian even have an expression: “é minha praia”. This is Portuguese for ‘that’s my beach’. Much like the English say “that’s my cup of tea”!
Brazil’s impressive coastline stretches for 8,000 kilometres which is further than the distance between London and Mumbai (and that’s not even including the river beaches along The Amazon)!
There are over 2,000 beaches in Brazil, from buzzing Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio, to more secluded tropical hideaways far up north in Bahía. Don’t just stick to the vast golden sands either, the toasty Atlantic waters create the perfect environment for water sports. Surfing, windsurfing, kite surfing and even diving are all common pastimes for locals and travellers alike.
Although safety was once a huge concern for travellers to Brazil, the country is beginning to rise as a backpacking destination. Events like the Rio Carnival now draw in around 1.7 million tourists a year!
Must-see spots in Brazil:
- The island of Florianópolis is home to great hiking, beautiful beaches and just the right number of backpacking hippies. Connected to the mainland via a bridge, Florianópolis is easy to reach and has great transport links.
- The beach paradise of Alter do Chão is hidden deep within The Amazon and is as laid back as they come! Getting here involves jumping on a boat for 1-3 days to the city of Santarém, before boarding a bus for the rest of the trip. Alternatively, you can fly into Santarém from either Belem or Manaus.
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s old capital, may seem a bit too cosmopolitan for “true backpackers” but this city oozes fun and personality. From Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain to perfect beaches and favela tours, Rio is a city that will keep you occupied for much longer than you’d expect.
Best Country in South America for Wildlife
Ecuador is one of the smaller countries in South America, which makes it very easy to travel around. It is one of the few places in the world where you can have breakfast on the beach, lunch in the mountains and dinner in the rainforest! With this incredible collection of environments all so close together, it’s no wonder that Ecuador came top of our wildlife spotting poll.
From seeing caimans and spider monkeys in the rainforest to glimpsing an Andean fox high in the mountains and a humpback whale off the coast, it’s hard to stop staring at the world around you for fear of missing something special.
But it’s not only the mainland that offers an incredible array of species. The Galapagos Islands are a bucket list experience for any nature lover and allow you to get up close to giant tortoises, sea lions, marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies. Exploring the Galapagos Islands is a little like being in an Attenborough documentary but you don’t have to look for the wildlife – it will find you!
The country is also home to fascinating history but regularly overlooked in favour of neighbouring Peru. This means that historical sights such as Ingapirca are much less crowded than many other Incan ruins across the continent.
Must-see spots in Ecuador:
- If your budget stretches, hop over to the Galapagos Islands. The cheapest way to do this is to fly from Guayaquil to either Baltra (Santa Cruz) or San Cristobal. From either of these islands, you can spot a wild array of animals, go on tours or jump on a speed boat to another island. If you don’t want the headache of arranging the trip for yourself, check out one of the many Galapagos cruises available.
- If you are near the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, then set aside a day or two to make your way to Mindo Cloud Forest. Here you will see more hummingbirds, butterflies and reptiles than you thought possible! Keep your eyes peeled and you may even see a toucan or two scrambling about above your head!
- Coastal town Puerto Lopez is home to humpback whales from June to December when they flock to the area to mate and give birth. Sightings are virtually guaranteed during this time and tours can be arranged in most hostels for just $20USD per person.
Backpackers Also Love…
Two words: wine and steak; enough said! Because of its climate and environment, Argentina is arguably the best place in the world to taste both of them. Pretty much anywhere in Argentina, you will find a prime steak and a good glass of Malbec for much cheaper than at home. Although Peru stole the top spot on our food poll, Argentina tied with Colombia for second place. That means there is plenty for foodies here!
As well as coming in second for food, Argentina and Chile also came joint second in the trekking poll. Shared home to the wildlands of Patagonia, some of South America’s best hikes are located here, including Argentina’s famous Fitz Roy Trek.
If you’re visiting Patagonia, don’t miss the amazing Perito Moreno Glacier. Intrepid explorers can embark on an ice hike here or jump into a boat to get up close to the glacier.
Travellers love the passion that Argentina exudes. From the sultry tango dancing in the bars of Buenos Aires to the animated welcomes and the feverish nationalism, this is one country that doesn’t do anything by halves.
Must-see spots in Argentina:
- The famous wine region of Mendoza is a must-see for wine lovers. Free tastings are available on every street corner and tour companies offer trips to vineyards all day, every day. The bodegas are some of the finest in the world and the snow-capped mountains offer a spectacular backdrop for the wine terraces!
- Known as “Paris of the South” Buenos Aires really does have a Parisian feel to it. Trees line the streets whilst cafes on every corner provide the perfect rest stop. The city doesn’t stop when the sun goes down either! The Tango clubs are renowned world-over so make sure you go, even if it is just to watch!
- Feast on Asado (barbecue) at an estancia (ranch). Home to Argentina’s famous gauchos, a stay at an estancia will showcase the hard graft that it takes to be a traditional cowboy.
Chile stretches 4000 km north to south and is one of the longest countries in the world. This immense distance means it stretches over 10 climatic zones, each with dramatically different weather patterns and wildlife.
Ice caps and glaciers rule the south whilst the world’s driest desert dominates the north. In between is Patagonia, Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and the Valdivian temperate rainforest, which teems with life.
Surprisingly, Chile didn’t come top in any of our polls. However, it came in joint second with Argentina for the best hiking in South America. Patagonia is undoubtedly the best place to trek, with epic multi-day trips like the W Trek and shorter day hikes like Cerro Castillo Laguna ticking all the boxes for backpackers.
Although Chile came in joint fourth position (with Brazil) for our history poll, Easter Island is a must-visit destination for those who love learning about the past. Most known for its mysterious Moai statues, it is said that these monolithic human heads look inland towards their creators to protect them.
Must-see spots in Chile:
- Located in the middle of Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park has to be seen to be believed. Aquamarine lakes nestle amongst towering, snow-capped peaks, leaving visitors in a state of awe. Whilst it is possible to go in winter (April to September), tours are limited because of bad weather and short days.
- Valparaíso, close to Santiago, is a colourful example of a South American city. Explore the hills that make up this ex maritime haven and marvel at the constant sensory overload. Street art explodes over every corner and the cities’ funiculars are a great way to save your legs on all the hills!
- Often skipped by backpackers due to cost, Easter Island is well worth a visit if your time and budget allow it. Located over 3500 km from the mainland, the island is steeped in mystery and lures visitors from the mainland year-round.
We were pretty surprised to see that Bolivia didn’t get more votes in our numerous best countries in South America polls. After all, it is a backpacker hotspot and the cheapest country in South America! Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t yet receive as many travellers as some of the more famous South American countries…
However, there is no denying that Bolivia is a country of extremes and this can be challenging for travellers to adapt to. Altitude sickness, witch markets and cholita wrestling are just a few of the strange things you can experience in this unique South American country!
The Salt Flats are Bolivia’s most famous attraction and are best visited in the rainy season. If you time it just right, you get to see the point at which the earth meets heaven!
While there is a definite backpacker trail through Bolivia, few travellers head to the east of the country and sadly, miss out on the gems there. There are incredible wildlife spotting opportunities here and this part of the country is home to one of the most spectacular national parks in South America: Kaa-Iya of the Gran Chaco.
Must-see spots in Bolivia:
- Head to Uyuni to check out the Salt Flats. Go between December and April and you’ll get the full mirror effect where sky meets earth. Following a day on the salt flats, most tours will take you further into the Altiplano. Here you can witness flamingos in bizarre coloured lagoons and steaming geysers!
- Just outside the city of La Paz is the infamous Death Road. With steep drops of up to 1000 metres, no safety barriers and barely enough room to squeeze two cars past each other, it is easy to see why the road got its name. Now closed to traffic, it is possible to cycle down this 60 km road on a specialised mountain bike.
- Santa Cruz de la Sierra is off the gringo trail but well worth a visit. Head out on a sloth spotting trip or book an adventure with Nick’s Adventures to see whether you can spot a jaguar in the wild.
What is the Perfect South American Country For You?
Regardless of the results from our poll, it is important to remember that what one person loves, another hates. To choose your ideal South American destination, you will need to consider what makes a great trip for you and what you enjoy doing.
For example, if you love beach days, a country like Brazil is going to be perfect, however, for shoestring travellers who love breathtaking landscapes without the crowds, landlocked Bolivia may be a better choice.
Let us reiterate once more, South America is an incredible and diverse continent and it is pretty much impossible to make the wrong choice when it comes to deciding which country to visit!
What is your favourite country in South America? Let us know in the comments below!