Updated January 14th, 2021.
With 300 national parks across South America, deciding where to visit first can be overwhelming. There are national parks covering vast swathes of wilderness, ideal for hiking. Others are home to some of the most biodiverse jungles in the world, offering a glimpse of some truly astounding wildlife. You’ll even pick up a cracking tan in some of the continent’s more tropical reserves!
For a taste of the continent’s natural wonders, any of these reserves is sure to provide an unforgettable visit. Including everything from bucket list destinations to off the beaten track spots, these are our favourite national parks in South America.
Most Spectacular National Parks in South America
Please note that this list of South American national parks is ordered from the smallest to largest by landmass. We were going to order them by popularity but we couldn’t agree on a favourite!
1. Los Roques National Park (Venezuela)
- Landmass: 40.61km²
- Entrance fee: $60USD for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: Mid Feb-May
Located in Venezuela, Los Roques is the picture-perfect postcard retreat. Powdery white sand beaches, glassy turquoise waters and colourful coral reefs make this the ideal place to escape reality for a few days.
The archipelago consists of around 350 islands and islets. Unfortunately for backpackers, the islands aren’t really geared towards independent travel and the most convenient way to visit is via a guided tour. However, because of this, generally, the archipelago attracts few visitors.
The area boasts a huge array of seabirds and fascinating aquatic life, which led to the Venezuelan government creating the national park in 1972. Considering Venezuela definitely doesn’t make it into our list of safest countries in South America, you may be surprised to hear that Los Roques is actually reputed to be one of the safest areas in the Caribbean. This is in part because of its remote location and also as it has become a somewhat exclusive destination.
How to get there: Unless you have your own private yacht, the only way to get to Los Roques is via plane. Flights leave from Caracas four times a day and the journey lasts around 40 minutes. It is also possible to fly from Porlamar on Margarita Island.
2. Rapa Nui National Park (Chile)
- Landmass: 68km²
- Entrance fee: $80USD (54,000 CLP) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: December-February
Rapa Nui National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site which sits on Chile’s Easter Island. It is one of the most expensive places in South America to explore, both because it is so remote and also because all goods on the island need to be imported.
If you can factor a trip to Rapa Nui into your travel budget, you won’t regret it. This national park is one of South America’s most enigmatic, famous for the Moai statues that were miraculously created using just stone tools in around 1,000AD.
As well as these looming stone statues, the island is home to several natural wonders. There is a pink sand beach, rolling hills and fascinating volcanic landscapes. The area benefits from a sub-tropical climate with average temperatures of 19 °C in winter to 24 °C in summer.
How to get there: The only way to get to Rapa Nui is to fly from Chile. LATAM airlines depart from Santiago daily, with 3 flights per day in peak season and 2 per day during winter. If you are on a budget, try to plan your trip outside of peak season to save on flights.
3. Tayrona National Park (Colombia)
- Landmass: 150km²
- Entrance fee: $16USD ($54,500COP) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: December-January (Closed throughout Feb)
When it comes to Latin America’s most famous national parks, Colombia’s idyllic Tayrona is one that is always mentioned. Renowned for its incredible coastline, Tayrona is located on the Caribbean coast close to Santa Marta and is home to some of Colombia’s best beaches.
Snorkelling and swimming are popular pastimes and the park also plays host to a fascinating variety of wildlife. Iguanas, condors and black howler monkeys are just a selection of the animals which call this area home.
December and January mark the high season and there are two rainy seasons: May – June and September – November. Generally, the temperatures sit between 25°C and 30°C year-round. Every February, the park closes to clean up from the high season and also to allow the local indigenous people time to perform important cleansing ceremonies and rituals.
How to get there: The easiest way to get to Tayrona national park is via bus from Santa Marta. Ask the driver to drop you off at the park entrance but be warned, it is a fair walk to the beaches! Alternatively, you can travel here by boat from Taganga in the morning.
4. Itatiaia National Park (Brazil)
- Landmass: 224.96km²
- Entrance fee: $7USD (R$ 34,00) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: June-August
Brazil’s oldest national park, Parque Nacional do Itatiaia was established in 1937. It sits in the southeast of Brazil, nestled in the Mantiqueira Mountains. Home to flowing rivers, lakes, waterfalls and alpine forests, this park is hugely popular with bird watchers.
The main draw to the park is undoubtedly its hiking trails which offer jaw-dropping views of the surrounding landscape. There are two sections of the park: high and low. Both are well worth visiting as they offer very different experiences. The high area can be reached through an access point around 35km from the main entrance.
During June to August, the temperatures decrease and the rainfall also eases off. This makes it a very desirable time to visit Itatiaia National Park, especially if you are going hiking or rock climbing.
How to get there: Head to Itatiaia city and catch the circular bus which heads to the park. Alternatively, you can travel from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or Minas Gerais. Simply take a bus to the city of Itanhandú then transfer onto a bus heading for Itamonte. From there you can get a taxi to the park.
5. Cajas National Park (Ecuador)
- Landmass: 285.4km²
- Entrance fee: Free
- Best time to visit: June-September
With a landscape reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, Cajas is not what you’d expect from your average South American national park. Deriving from the Quichua word cassa, the name translates to ‘gateway to the snowy mountains’.
The highest point of Cajas sits at 4,450 metres above sea level, meaning that any kind of visit here will need to be prepared for. That is to say, leave yourself time to acclimatise first and bring altitude sickness medication if necessary.
The towering mountains and otherworldly polylepis forests conjure up images of a magical realm reminiscent of a Tolkein novel. If you’re looking to get lost in a fairytale landscape, Cajas National Park will provide the sprinkle of magic you crave.
How to get there: Cajas National Park is located just 33km from Cuenca and can be reached by bus from the city. If you are looking for a hassle-free way to visit the park, consider an organised day trip. In Ecuador, these often offer better value for money than making the journey independently.
6. Cotopaxi National Park (Ecuador)
- Landmass: 333.9km²
- Entrance fee: Free
- Best time to visit: January-March
Home to one of the highest and most active volcanoes in the world, it is this which draws the majority of visitors to Cotopaxi National Park. Many opt to do the Cotopaxi volcano hike, either as part of a group tour or independently from Latacunga. Most trips will take you up to the glacier, however, with a specialised mountain guide, it is possible to reach the summit.
As well as the volcano, Laguna Limpiopungo is another popular attraction within the park. This lake provides a wonderful location for wildlife viewing and there is the chance of spotting hummingbirds, wild rabbits and nesting Andean gulls.
High season is from January through to May, however, the latter two months can be quite rainy. No matter what time of the year you plan to visit, always make sure to come prepared for all weather conditions!
How to get there: Located just a short trip from Ecuador’s capital Quito, Cotopaxi National Park is the ideal destination for a day trip. Hike and bike day trips to Cotopaxi Volcano can be arranged from Quito or you can hop on a bus to Latacunga and then transfer to another bus to reach the park.
7. Tierra del Fuego National Park (Argentina)
- Landmass: 630km²
- Entrance fee: $14USD ($1160AR) for foriegn nationals
- Best time to visit: October-April
Tierra del Fuego is the most southerly national park in Argentina. Awarded national park status in 1960, the park borders Chile and many choose to cross the border from here. Located in Argentinian Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego is characterised by its rugged mountains, sweeping forests and glacial valleys.
Travellers are advised to time their visit with the summer season in the southern hemisphere. This is between October – April, however, be aware that rainfall is at its highest levels in the latter couple of months. The benefits of visiting at this time of year include more daylight hours, warmer weather and good accessibility of trails.
Tierra del Fuego is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination. It offers world-class hiking trails, sweeping vistas and numerous wildlife spotting opportunities. Keep an eye out for guanacos and otters!
How to get there: Buses to Tierra del Fuego leave roughly every hour from Ushuaia.
8. Iguazu National Park (Argentina)
- Landmass: 677km²
- Entrance fee: $25USD ($2000AR) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: July – October, February-April
Situated along the Iguazu River which separates Argentina and Brazil, lies Iguazu National Park. It is home to one of the planet’s most famous waterfalls and although part of the falls technically sits in Brazil, the Argentinian Iguazu National Park is home to around 80% of this natural wonder.
The national park was established in 1934, before later being christened a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. The falls stretch across 2.7km (1.7 miles) and the highest drop reaches 82m (269 feet). This area is known as the Devil’s Throat.
As well as this breathtaking multi-level waterfall, Iguazu National Park is also home to incredible wildlife, including one of South America’s most amazing animals, the coati. See whether you can spot any on one of the many hiking trails around the park but hold on to your snacks!
How to get there: Day trips to the falls can be easily arranged from nearby cities. To travel independently from Puerto Iguazu, head to the bus station where you’ll find departures every 20 minutes or so.
9. Machalilla National Park (Ecuador)
- Landmass: 750.6km²
- Entrance fee: Free
- Best time to visit: July-October
Located on the western coast of Ecuador sits Machalilla National Park. It is home to some of the country’s best beaches, including a black volcanic sand beach and Los Frailes. The latter is famous for its soft sand and rolling hills, however, a large portion of it is closed off to protect the sea turtles which nest there.
Also in the park is Isla de la Plata, commonly known as the ‘Poor Man’s Galapagos’. It is home to a selection of similar wildlife to that found on the real Galapagos islands, including Blue Footed Boobies and even the mighty Albatross.
The Agua Blanca community is located within the park and also well worth a visit. Although the national park is free to enter, there is a $5USD charge per person to enter Agua Blanca. This includes a guided tour of the grounds and entrance to the archaeology museum on site. If relaxation is more your thing, there is a sulfur lagoon too – great if you’ve spent too long lazing on the beach!
How to get there: Boat trips to Isla de la Plata can be arranged from Puerto Lopez or nearby Montañita. To reach the rest of the national park, you can catch a public bus from Puerto Lopez or hail a taxi to take you there.
10. Chapada Diamantina National Park (Brazil)
- Landmass: 1,520km²
- Entrance fee: Free
- Best time to visit: March-May
The Chapada Diamantina National Park is home to some of the best treks in South America. Situated in the centre of Bahia state and west of Salvador, this area benefits from a consistently warm climate. Although March-May is good for cooler temperatures and less rain, this is a year-round destination.
There is no official entrance fee into the national park, however, there could be additional costs if you’re passing through privately owned areas. As the park is so huge and some of the hiking is quite technical, many choose to opt for a specialist local agency to get the most out of their experience.
The longer Pati Valley hikes are some of the most popular multi-day treks, however, there are plenty of shorter walks around the park too. Make sure to check out Brazil’s second-highest waterfall Cachoeira da Fumaça and explore some of the surrounding caves.
How to get there: Lençois is the most popular jumping-off point for trips to Chapada Diamantina and three buses leave the central bus station daily. It is also possible to travel from Salvador by bus.
11. Lençóis Maranhenses National Park (Brazil)
- Landmass: 1,550km²
- Entrance fee: Free
- Best time to visit: May-August
Not to be confused with the Lençois mentioned above, this national park is located in the northeast of Brazil. It is best known for its rolling sand dunes and seasonal blue-green lagoons. You might have seen it featured in Hollywood blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War.
The landscape is one of a kind and something that should make it onto any Brazil itinerary. Hire a 4×4 to tour the dunes or have a swim in one of the lagoons. The temperature is hot year-round, with an average of between 26°C and 28°C. Remember to bring your sunscreen!
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is a popular ecotourism destination and receives an estimated 60,000 visitors every year. It’s a hub for nature and also home to four endangered species of animal.
How to get there: Visitors hoping to explore Lençóis Maranhenses National Park will need to head to the city of Barreirinhas. If you are travelling by plane, fly into São Luís and catch a bus to Barreirinhas from there. This is the main gateway to the national park. If this sounds too much like hard work, there are also day trips from São Luís.
12. Torres del Paine National Park (Chile)
- Landmass: 1,814km²
- Entrance fee: $35USD (25,000 CLP) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: November-March
Arguably the most well known national park in Patagonia, Torres del Paine has long been a bucket list destination for intrepid adventurers. Home to the Cordillera Paine, the mountainous centrepiece of the park, mind-blowing scenery is first and foremost what a trip to Torres del Paine offers.
Patagonia is a mecca for hikers and every year thousands flood to Torres del Paine to embark on the W-Trek and O-Trek, as well as lesser-known day hikes such as Cerro Castillo Laguna. Many hikes can be done without a guide but the more famous will need to be arranged in advance as spaces at the refugios are very limited.
Summer in the southern hemisphere is the best time to visit as during the depths of winter it gets very cold and the snow makes hiking more difficult. Winter temperatures generally hover between 5ºC and -7ºC, if you can handle that you’re tougher than us!
How to get there: During October to April, buses run regularly from Puerto Natales to the entrance of the park.
13. Huascaran National Park (Peru)
- Landmass: 3,400km²
- Entrance fee: starts at $8USD (around 30 PEN for a 1-day pass) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: April-October
Nestled in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range in Peru, Huascaran National Park is characterised by glacial lakes and deep ravines. It is home to some of the continent’s most fascinating wildlife, such as the Andean condor and the spectacled bear.
Unlike some of the other Latin American national parks on this list, there are two very different seasons which impact Huascaran National Park. Dry season is from April to November and the rainy season is from December to March. The dry season is ideal for hikers and it is largely sunny.
There are many popular hiking trails around the park including the celebrated multi-day Santa Cruz trek and the popular day hike to Laguna 69. Huascaran is also a favourite amongst mountaineers: the park has a whopping 26 mountains with peaks of over 6,000m.a.s.l.!
How to get there: You will need to travel to the nearby city of Huaraz to reach the national park. From there, either arrange a trip from the city or hop on one of the local minibuses which takes you to Huascaran.
14. Serranía de la Macarena National Park (Colombia)
- Landmass: 6,200km²
- Entrance fee: $13USD (53,500 COP) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: September and October
This national park is home to Caño Cristales, often dubbed as the most beautiful river in the world. Also known as the ‘Liquid Rainbow’, it is this colourful river that draws the majority of visitors to the national park.
It is important to visit at the right time because the Macarenia clavígera plant only blooms during July and through to October. It is this that causes the river’s unique colour. However, to see Caño Cristales at its most spectacular, you’ll need sunny weather too which is only really likely from September to February. To give yourself the greatest chance of seeing this natural wonder at its best, visit during September or October.
Serranía de la Macarena National Park is arguably one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet and this is reflected in its flora and fauna. It’s home to monkeys, anteaters and even jaguars!
How to get there: It is difficult to reach this national park overland. As such, most people fly from Bogotá to La Macarena. Interestingly, it is far more expensive to visit this place independently than on an organised tour from Bogotà.
15. Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Park (Bolivia)
- Landmass: 7,147km²
- Entrance fee: $23USD (156BOB) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: May-November
The stunning Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Park is one that should not be missed for travellers heading to Bolivia. A visit here is easily combined with a trip to the salt flats and can be easily arranged upon arrival in Uyuni.
The national park is characterised by towering volcanoes, steaming geysers, colourful lagoons and a stunning array of wildlife. Those photos of flamingos with dusty mountain backdrops that you always see on National Geographic? They were likely taken here.
Established as a national park in 1973, this is Bolivia’s most visited protected area. It is home to the famous Laguna Colorada and Àrbol de Piedra, Bolivia’s stone tree.
How to get there: It is all but impossible to explore independently without a vehicle. If you are considering renting one and doing your own journey, the following articles about a DIY trip to the salt flats and planning a South America road trip might help. To visit the park, catch a bus to Uyuni and book a 3-day tour from there.
16. Los Glaciares National Park (Argentina)
- Landmass: 7,269km²
- Entrance fee: $13USD (800ARS) for foriegn nationals
- Best time to visit: November-March
Los Glaciares is Argentina’s largest national park and 30% of it is covered in ice. Awarded national park status in 1937, it was later deemed to be a UNESCO World Heritage site too. Owing to its unique landscape, this is perhaps the closest thing you’ll experience to Antarctica, without visiting the continent itself.
It’s home to a handful of natural wonders, including the Fitz Roy trek and the Perito Moreno Glacier. This is one of the world’s only glaciers that is not retreating! As with any kind of Patagonian destination, this isn’t the cheapest national park to get around. However, reasonably priced group tours to the glacier and other highlights do exist.
As this is one of the most popular national parks in South America, don’t expect to be alone during your visit. December to February are peak times because of good weather but if you are on a budget and would prefer to avoid the crowds, consider travelling outside of these times.
17. Galapagos National Park (Ecuador)
- Landmass: 7,995km²
- Entrance fee: $100 per person
- Best time to visit: December-January
It might be one of Latin America’s most expensive national parks but it is without a doubt one of the best. Visit the island that inspired Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and get up close and personal with a whole range of unique wildlife.
With everything from tortoises older than your grandparents to cute finches that will pick at your leftover lunch, the Galapagos Islands are a haven for wildlife lovers. Although this is a year-round destination, December to January is one of the best times to visit as the water is warm and ideal for snorkelling. Did you know that you can swim with Hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos?
It is a costly option for backpackers but a budget Galagapos trip is still possible. After all, just ask anybody who has been: a trip to the Galapagos islands is worth every cent.
How to get there: The only way to get to the Galapagos Islands is to fly from Guayaquil or Quito on the mainland. Once you arrive on the island, you can either land hop independently, as part of a tour, or hop aboard a cruise.
18. Manú National Park (Peru)
- Landmass: 17,163km²
- Entrance fee: (Included in tour price) – Tour price varies
- Best time to visit: April-November
Situated in the Cusco region, Manú National Park is one of Peru’s most popular tourist attractions. It is made up of cloud forest, Anden grasslands and lowland rainforest, making it one of the best places to see jungle wildlife.
Around 160 species of mammal are believed to live in the park and this includes the rare giant otter. As well as interesting wildlife, several native peoples live in the area, including the Yora and Harakmbut groups.
The park is split into three zones. There is the ‘core zone’ which is only accessible to researchers and scientists, the ‘reserved zone’ for a limited number of tour companies and the ‘cultural zone’. If you want to venture into the ‘reserved zone’ you will need to arrange a visit with one of the tour operators who hold the relevant permit.
How to get there: Hop on a bus from Cusco to Atalaya or Shintuya. From there, you will need to get a boat and continue your journey by river to the park. Alternatively, you can fly from Cusco to Boca Manu airstrip and then get a boat from there. You will need to book a tour to gain any access to the park.
19. Canaima National Park (Venezuela)
- Landmass: 30,000km²
- Entrance fee: $4USD (25VEF) for foreign nationals
- Best time to visit: October and November
Home to the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world, Canaima National Park is best known for being the location of Venezuela’s magical Angel Falls. The park is located in the south-east of the country and was established as a national park in 1962.
It is the sixth-largest national park in the entire world, equalling the size of Belgium! As you’d expect from an area so vast, the park is hugely important to biodiversity and boasts varied fauna.
Although the entrance fees were correct at the time of writing, you should remember that Venezuela’s currency is very unstable and this conversion may no longer be valid when you come to plan your trip.
How to get there: You can only access the national park by flying from either Caracas, Puerto Ordaz or Ciudad Bolívar. The easiest way to explore the park and the one we recommend is by taking an organised tour.
20. Kaa-Iya of the Gran Chaco National Park (Bolivia)
- Landmass: 34,411km²
- Entrance fee: (Included in tour price) – Tour price varies
- Best time to visit: May-November
The Kaa-Iya of the Gran Chaco National Park is the largest national park in Bolivia. It sits on the border with Paraguay in the Santa Cruz region of the country. According to environmentalists, this is the best national park in Bolivia for big mammal spotting and it is possible to see everything from jaguars to tapirs.
Access to the national park can only be arranged via a tour with a certified guide. Those visiting should make sure they book with a reputable provider with a sustainable focus at its core, to limit the disruption to the ecosystem. We recommend Nick’s Adventures for trips into Kaa-Iya of the Gran Chaco.
A 3 day/2 night tour into the park will cost anywhere between $300-$700USD per person and includes local guide, accommodation, meals, entrance fee, night safari, hikes and transport. As with many tours in Bolivia, the price is often cheaper if you are travelling with more people.
How to get here: The only way to visit Kaa-Iya of the Gran Chaco National Park is with a licensed guide. The best place to arrange a tour is in Santa Cruz de la Sierra or online in advance.
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