Colonial Splendor

South America has a stunning array of architectural wonders, where cobblestone streets lead past magnificent cathedrals, photogenic plazas and brightly painted townhouses – some of which date to the 16th century.

Quito Wandering the buzzing streets of the centro histórico (old town) presents dramatic scenery at every turn.

Colonia del Sacramento Uruguay's delightfully picturesque riverfront town is just a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires.

Ouro Prêto One of Brazil's most alluring colonial towns, hilly Ouro Prêto is packed with 18th-century treasures.

Cartagena Colombia's comeliest coastal town has a beautifully preserved center scenically set on the Caribbean.

Arequipa A Peruvian charmer with striking colonial sillar architecture and spicy salt-of-the-earth eateries.

Paramaribo A strange and exotic blend of colonial Dutch buildings and grassy squares in oft-overlooked Suriname.

Big Cities

South America's cities are home to first-rate museums, foodie-loving restaurants and rocking nightlife. You can shop at atmospheric markets, cozy up at an art-filled cafe or spend the day exploring charming neighborhoods.

Rio de Janeiro The Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) lives up to its name with lovely beaches, samba-fueled nightlife and jaw-dropping scenery.

Buenos Aires A place that's hard to leave with colorful neighborhoods, late-night dining, old-world cafes, sultry tango clubs, and French and Italianate architecture.

Lima Sure, it's chaotic, but Lima is a great place for seafood feasts and late-night bar-hopping in bohemian Barranco. Its museums also house Peru's best pre-Columbian collections.

Bogotá The Colombian capital has salsa-fueled nightclubs and an intriguing colonial center – plus fascinating nearby sights such as the surreal underground salt cathedral at Zipaquirá.

Valparaíso A bohemian city and Unesco World Heritage Site that's often considered Chile's cultural capital.

Ancient Ruins

Pre-Columbian peoples left behind a wide-ranging legacy: the awe-inspiring monuments and artfully crafted works in ceramic, gold and stone comprise but a fraction of the great works in existence before the Europeans arrived.

Machu Picchu The godfather of great ruins, this mountaintop Inca citadel is best enjoyed as the finale of a multiday trek.

Cuzco The continent's oldest continuously inhabited city, where you can still find flawless Inca-built walls lining cobblestone streets.

Kuélap Perched atop a limestone mountain, this monumental stone-fortified city is a relic of a fierce cloud-forest-dwelling civilization.

San Agustín In southwest Colombia, the mysterious San Agustín culture left behind hundreds of statues carved from volcanic rock.

Rapa Nui Better known as Easter Island, this Polynesian outpost is home to utterly mystifying moai statues.

Nazca Lines Mysterious carvings in the sand spread across hundreds of square kilometers; scenic flights are the best way to see it.

Beaches

Shimmering beaches wedged between tropical rainforest and deep blue sea: South America has many enticements, including remote island getaways, party-loving surf towns and glittering sands amid big city allure.

Archipiélago Los Roques Due north of Caracas, 300 pristine islands make a magnificent setting for beach-combing, snorkeling and diving.

Arraial d'Ajuda Brazil is spoiled for choice when it comes to world-class beaches; this peaceful town in the northeast is gateway to some of Bahia's prettiest coastline.

Punta del Diablo Forget the overhyped mayhem of Punta del Este; Uruguay's more tranquil summertime getaway is this coastal beauty just south of the Brazilian border.

Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona Fronting the Caribbean Sea, this pristine national park in Colombia has gorgeous beaches and does a fine imitation of paradise lost.

Baia do Sancho On Fernando de Noronha, this is easily one of Brazil’s most gorgeous beaches.

Outdoor Adventures

Adrenaline junkies can get their fix negotiating snow-capped peaks, rushing rivers and pounding surf. Rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, hang-gliding, sandboarding and zip-lining: there are hundreds of ways to get your heart racing.

White-water rafting The heart-thumping rivers – from turquoise to crystalline – that draw rafters and kayakers to the Chilean south.

Mountain biking The World's Most Dangerous Road: the name says it all. This 64km mountain-bike trip outside La Paz takes in perilous descents. Make sure your brakes (and travel insurance!) are top notch.

Hang-gliding Sail high above the forest-covered hills of Rio to a beachside landing on a fantastic tandem flight.

Sandboarding Take a wild ride down 150m-high sand dunes just outside a desert oasis town in northern Chile.

Mountain climbing Strap on your crampons and make your way up 5897m Volcan Cotopaxi, one of Ecuador's most popular climbs.

Dramatic Scenery

Thundering waterfalls, cone-shaped volcanoes and red-rock canyons – the only things missing are the pterodactyls. When gazing upon these natural wonders, you might feel like you've stepped back a few million years.

Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina Head to Brazil's northeast to hike across dramatic plateaus and swim in refreshing waterfalls.

Iguazú Falls Spread between Argentina and Brazil, these are some of the most spectacular waterfalls on earth.

Cañón del Cotahuasi Hard to reach but immensely rewarding is this Central Andean icon, the world’s deepest canyon.

Salar de Uyuni The world's largest salt flats are a dazzling remnant of a vast prehistoric lake.

Roraima In southeastern Venezuela, you'll find otherwordly landscapes of tableland mountains, wind-carved gorges, ribbon waterfalls and carnivorous plants.

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine In southern Patagonia, sparkling glaciers, topaz lakes and sheer granite cliff-faces defy the imagination.

Festivals & Events

Whether you prefer the pageantry of Semana Santa or the revelry of Carnaval, the continent has you covered. From traditional to surreal, here are a few events worth planning a trip around.

Carnaval Many towns in Brazil throw a wild pre-Lenten bash, but Salvador and Rio are the best places to celebrate a few sleepless nights. Paraguay's Encarnación also stages a legendary party.

Mamá Negra This Ecuadorian fest features processions, witches, whole roast pigs, a bit of cross-dressing and plenty of alcohol.

Festival y Mundial de Baile Learn some new moves at this massive tango festival in Buenos Aires in August.

Virgen de la Candelaria In Puno, Peru gives a thunderous street party for its patron saint.

Fiesta del Santo Patrono de Moxos One of Bolivia's biggest bashes includes fireworks, dancing, feasts and wild costumes.

Hiking & Trekking

Against a backdrop of Andean peaks, misty cloud forests and Amazonian jungle, trekking here is world class. Whether you're out for a short day hike or a multiday journey, you'll find limitless options.

Quilotoa Avid walkers shouldn’t miss this scenic multiday Ecuadorian journey, overnighting at simple village guesthouses along the way.

Choro Traversing Bolivia's Parque Nacional Cotopata, the four-day Choro Trek begins amid alpine scenery before descending into the lush, subtropical Yungas region.

Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit Rivaling the big Himalayan treks, this 10-day Peruvian odyssey takes you among alpine lakes with condors circling the surrounding 6000m peaks.

El Chaltén In Argentine Patagonia, El Chaltén offers unparalleled trekking amid glaciers, alpine lakes and craggy mountains.

Ciudad Perdida Like a scene torn from an Indiana Jones film, the trek to Colombia's 'Lost City' is a challenging four-day (return) journey to the overgrown ruins of a large pre-Columbian town.

Wildlife

South America is home to more plant and animal species than any other place on earth and there are countless settings to watch wildlife.

The Amazon Manaus is still one of the top gateways for a journey into the mother of all rainforests.

The Pantanal At these wildlife-rich wetlands, you're likely to see even more animal species than in the Amazon. Cuiabá is one of the top spots to plan a trip.

The Galápagos Needing little introduction, these volcanic islands are home to creatures so tame, you’ll practically be tripping over all the sea lions.

Cloud forests With more than 400 recorded bird species in the area, Mindo’s cloud forests are a mecca for birders.

Parque Nacional San Rafael Paraguay's verdant strand of Atlantic Forest has refreshing lakes, forest paths and superb bird-watching.

North Rupununi Lodges in Guyana make a fine base for exploring the amazingly rich wildlife found here.