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Where to Go in South America: A Cheat Sheet to the Continent's Countries and Territories

A word of warning: Once you touch down in South America, there's a high chance you won't want to return home. Yes, it's a big place, with 13 countries spread across thousands of miles made up of dizzyingly high mountains, steaming jungles, amazing beaches, and some of the world's largest cities. To be clear, there is no such thing as a unifying South American culture -- from French Guiana to Brazil to Chile, it's breathtakingly diverse -- and any list proposing an exhaustive survey of the country's coolest must-see destinations will automatically fall short of doing the continent justice. However, with so many bucket-list sights and countless fascinating communities calling South America home, an assist in planning is always a welcome thing. With that in mind, we're spotlighting the country's 13 countries and territories to help you get your bearings for when you start planning your next adventure.

Colombia

Cartagena/Oyster

Cartagena/Oyster

A short flight from many major airports in the United States, Colombia is undergoing a long renaissance that has put it back on many travelers' radars lately. That's in part due to the continually improving safety situation, recent peace deals that have ended the country's civil war, and massive urban renewals in cities like Bogota and Medellin. The latter is known as the City of Eternal Spring, and is a perfect place to explore for a few days, particularly for fans of Colombian artist Fernando Botero (or for lovers of all things hip and trendy). Bogota, on the other hand, is the big and brash capital, with wild nightlife and amazing historic sights. Up north, Cartagena has been charming visitors for decades, with its colorful and impeccably preserved walled city, hipster-heavy Getsemani neighborhood, and the lively beaches of Bocagrande. It's not all big cities in Colombia, though. The country is home to rainforests, towering mountains, gorgeous beaches, and amazing national parks as well. 

Check out our full travel guide for Cartagena.

Medellin Hotel Pick:

Ecuador

Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz/Oyster

Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz/Oyster

For such a relatively tiny nation, Ecuador packs a major punch when it comes to incredible destinations. However, you'll need to account for the fact that Ecuador's arguably most famous sight is far away from the mainland, and can be quite expensive to reach. The Galapagos Islands are a major reason why many travelers arrive in this country -- and we'll admit that they're everything you could hope for and more. These 19 islands are some of the most biodiverse places on earth, with surreal landscapes to match. Keep in mind that you'll be paying steep fees and taxes to reach the archipelago, and should plan your trip well in advance of arrival. Additionally, surges in tourism have had an adverse effect on the islands' ecologies, so be aware of the impact you may be having. 

Back on the mainland, there are sights to see in spades. Quito remains one of Latin America's most enchanting cities, and is within an easy drive of several of the country's most famous active volcanoes, including Cotopaxi. The stunning colonial city of Cuenca also draws legions of travelers to its beautiful architecture and atmospheric streets, without the accompanying chaos sometimes found in Quito. For beachy escapes, check out surfer-ready Montanita or Playa Los Frailes, which is within Machalilla National Park. 

Check out our full travel guide for the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Islands Hotel Pick:

Brazil

Praia do Arpoador, Ipanema/Oyster

Praia do Arpoador, Ipanema/Oyster

Brazil alone could merit hundreds of entries in any must-see list. It's the world's sixth most populous country, the largest Portuguese-speaking nation on the planet, and fifth-largest country by land mass. In fact, the entirety of Europe would fit inside of Brazil's borders. It's also a country of dizzying contrasts, and is a melting pot of indigenous, European, and African ancestry where native languages and cultures are still isolated (though increasingly endangered) within the deepest reaches of the Amazon basin.

Rio de Janeiro is, of course, the most iconic of Brazilian destinations, despite its reputation as a dysfunctional, crime-ridden place. That's because there is arguably no other city on the planet with such a striking setting -- between steep granite mountains, golden sands, and crashing surf. Beach neighborhoods like Ipanema and Copacabana have had a long life in the collective cultural memory because of their raucous beach scene, but inland neighborhoods like Santa Teresa, Lapa, and the Centro all have their share of sights, including stunning street art, galleries, museums, live music venues, and lively bars. Head to Pedra do Sal on a Monday night for a taste of how thousands of locals get down to samba and funk music.

Sao Paulo is the largest city in the Americas, one of the largest in the world, and the financial engine of Latin America. It holds amazing museums, a thriving art scene, fascinating street life, a massive patchwork of trendy neighborhoods like Vila Madalena, and some of the continent's best nightlife. Up north, Salvador is home to a lovely historic district and thriving Afro-Brazilian culture, while Brasilia, the nation's capital, features a collection of striking modernist architectural gems. Brazil has plenty for nature lovers as well, including long journeys up the Amazon River and unbelievable oceanside landscapes, like the seaside dune deserts of Lençois Maranhenses National Park.

Check out our full travel guide for Rio de Janeiro.

Sao Paulo Hotel Pick:

Peru

Machu Picchu/Oyster

Machu Picchu/Oyster

It certainly isn't the most bargain-packed country in South America -- at least when it comes to travel -- but that's in part because Peru has some of the world's most famous sights. Making the journey to Machu Picchu is a must, though there are plenty of things to see and do beyond marveling at the famous Inca ruins. 

For starters, there's Lima, the nation's sprawling capital with a legendary foodie scene. Yes, classics like pisco sours and ceviche are perhaps the most well-known of Peru's culinary traditions, but chefs are opening exciting new restaurants in trendy districts like Miraflores and Barranco. The city also has striking, cliff-flanked beaches, and is packed with historic sights and museums. 

Heading inland, Cusco and Machu Picchu are must-sees for most travelers. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city of Cusco serves as a launchpad for those trekking to Machu Picchu, and is filled with a range of charming hotels. The town itself merits a few days of exploring, at least. Machu Picchu is even more inspiring in person than it is in photographs, but beware that it can be crowded. In fact, measures are in place to restrict the number of visitors coming at any one time. This, of course, means advanced planning is necessary, and that it won't come cheaply. 

Other major draws here include the city of Iquitos, which serves as a jumping-off point for travelers looking to explore Amazonian Peru. For something less hot and humid, the Nazca Lines -- a mysterious set of pre-Colombian land art -- sit near the city of Nazca in Peru's southern deserts. The Colca Canyon is another must-visit for nature lovers. To put things in perspective, it's twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. For more contemporary culture, the city of Arequipa, in Peru's south, is the second-largest in the country and is home to both modern foodie pursuits and stunning colonial charms, while being surrounded by three towering volcanoes. 

Check out our full travel guide for Machu Picchu.

Cusco Hotel Pick:

Bolivia

M M/Flickr

M M/Flickr

Landlocked after losing its maritime claims to Chile in the 19th century, Bolivia is now one of the world's highest-altitude destinations. There are three main destinations for travelers within Bolivia. La Paz, the nation's capital, is the highest capital city on earth, and -- much like Medellin in Colombia -- the city has been undergoing a major overhaul in recent years. These days, modern boutique hotels sit amid chaotic neighborhoods, while major undertakings to connect El Alto and Zona Sur have helped unify the city's sprawling landscape. It's a riot of humanity, and includes sights like gorgeous Plaza Murillo and the bizarre Witches' Market (which sells the spiritually-infused and often wild wares that give the market its name).

Most travelers arrive in Bolivia with an interest in seeing its natural landscapes, which include high-altitude plains and massive mountains. Salar de Uyuni, which consists of some of the most beautiful salt flats, might be the most famous sight in the nation. In dry season, these are seemingly limitless landscapes of white stretching in all directions. In the wet season, Salar de Uyuni becomes a massive mirror, reflecting blue skies, mountain peaks, and the flamingos that stop here during migrations. Lake Titicaca, to the west of La Paz, is considered by some to be the cradle of Inca civilization and is loaded with ruins and stunning natural scenery.

Guyana

Stefan Krasowski/Flickr

Stefan Krasowski/Flickr

Guyana, one of the smallest countries in Latin America, is also one of its most culturally unique. The official language of the country is English, and most residents speak a creole form of the language. It's also the only country in the Western Hemisphere where Hinduism is the major religion, in part because a majority of the country's citizens are descendants of Indians brought to the colonies as indentured servants. In Georgetown, the nation's capital, a lively celebration known as Mashramani takes place on February 23 and includes floats and bands (and a bit of rum, of course). Hindu holidays like Phagwah and Diwali are also popular festivals in the capital. For tourists, though, it's the county's natural treasures that have the most allure. These include Kaieteur Falls, which is five times as tall as Niagara Falls and surrounded by dense rainforest, as well as Mount Roraima and the Kanuku Mountains. Keep in mind that tourist infrastructure isn't well developed in Guyana, and this destination is best for tourists who can be flexible and have a healthy sense of adventure. Additionally, crime -- both petty and violent -- can be ongoing concerns in some areas, so caution needs to be exercised. 

Uruguay

Ambrose Little/Flickr

Ambrose Little/Flickr

Argentina's neighbor to the north -- and often considered its cultural sibling -- Uruguay has a lot more to explore than travelers might think at first. In recent years, the nation has undergone some serious liberalizing -- recreational marijuana use, abortion, and gay marriage have all become legal. That unshackling may also be correlated with a renewed energy in the nation's main capital, Montevideo. Neighborhoods like Pocitos and Punta Carretas are seeing an uptick in new boutiques, studios, galleries, cafes, and foodie haunts opening in recent years. Parts of the city can still be a little sleepy, or dangerous (the historic center is pretty by day, but can feel a little dodgy at night), but it's worth exploring for at least a couple of days.

Elsewhere, Colonia del Sacramento is one of the oldest cities in Uruguay, and is popularly visited on ferry day trips from Buenos Aires. Founded in the 17th century, the city's historic core is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has spectacular sunset views (keep in mind that summer weekends can be very crowded in town). Punta del Este is the most popular beach town in the country -- and sees thousands of Argentine and Uruguayan vacationers in January and February -- though we recommend putting your adventurous pants on and heading to Cabo Polonio. Here, the lack of running water and electricity only contributes to the away-from-it-all vibe, though be prepared to journey over abandoned roads in 4x4s and on foot through massive sand dunes to arrive at the pristine, otherworldly beaches here.

Punta del Este Hotel Pick:

Suriname

David Evers/Flickr

David Evers/Flickr

Like its neighbor to the west, Guyana, Suriname is a nation that's ethnically diverse and something of an exception in the region. Ethnically, the nation is a mix of Indian, African, Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese, and Dutch descendants, and that's on display perhaps no more vividly than in the country's small capital of Paramaribo. Festivals are a big deal in town, and the most popular include Holi (the Hindu festival where colored powder is thrown and plenty of drinks are ingested), Wandelmars (which takes place around Easter), Keti Koti (which commemorates the freeing of slaves), and the week-long celebrations leading up to New Year's Day. The city itself includes a UNESCO-designated historic district, and can be an interesting place to explore. If you're the outdoorsy type, explore the relatively untouched jungles in Suriname. Plus, wildlife tours of the nation's awe-inspiring rainforests include everything from sloth-spotting to monkeys, tamarins, and tropical birds.

Chile

melenama/Flickr

melenama/Flickr

Chile is all about extremes, with one of the world's longest coastlines and some of the highest mountains all sharing a nation that averages only 110 miles from its western edge to its eastern one. In between, you'll find amazing cities like Santiago and Valparaiso, as well as thousands of miles of pristine nature -- just head south to Patagonia for proof of the latter. 

Most travelers will touch down in Santiago, which is certainly worth exploring for more than a few days. The arts are booming in town, and raffish performance spaces and venues are creeping up across the city, in barrios like Bellavista and Barrio Italia. Check out galleries and spaces like Centro Gabriela Mistral and La Peña del Nano Parra for art or live music. Trips up to Cerro San Cristobal are also popular for views out over the city, while Patio Bellavista is a buzzy spot for live music, cocktails, city views, and a number of different food vendors. Alternatively, Valparaiso -- considered the academic heart of the country -- has a bohemian vibe through and through, while coastal Iquique has pretty beachscapes and lively nightlife. 

As the Andes form the spine of the nation, it's no surprise that outdoor pursuits are a big reason many travelers come to Chile. Patagonia, in the nation's south, is the stuff of legends, where jagged mountain peaks hold hidden-gem valleys, pristine lakes, and colonies of animals found almost nowhere else on earth. Torres del Paine is the most famous of Chile's national parks, and its W trek offers stunning views of the Andean peaks. Traveling along Chilean Patagonia's coast puts you in touch with colonies of seals, sea lions, whales, and penguins. Punta Arenas is the biggest city in the region and its airport is generally the way in and out of the area. Travelers who want to feel like they've reached the end of the world, head to the Tierra del Fuego, which is shared with Argentina and feels world's away from the rest of the planet.

Santiago Hotel Pick:

Paraguay

Marissa Strniste/Flickr

Marissa Strniste/Flickr

The second of South America's only landlocked nations, Paraguay has had a rough go of it over the course of centuries -- often at the hands of its neighbors (though colonial legacies have certainly done nothing to help the nation flourish). For travelers, the nation's charms are more low-key than its neighbors, which include Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia. Still, the capital of Asuncion has a clutch of colonial relics to explore, and its gallery scene is growing as the years pass. Museo del Barro is the place to head for a glimpse at ancient sculptures and archaeological relics. Walking tours are a great way to explore the city itself. In the country's east, two major sights draw travelers. The Jesuit Missions of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue are a UNESCO-designated pair of sites that hold ruins of the Jesuit community's missions along the Parana River. Farther north is an altogether more mighty demonstration of power. Iguazu Falls, which are technically shared by Brazil and Argentina, are just across the border and a relatively easy day trip from Paraguay's wild Ciudad del Este. On the other hand, Saltos del Monday is within Paraguay and has impressed more than one traveler with its own might. Elsewhere in the country, Parque Nacional Ybycui has jungles packed with wildlife like monkeys and coati. 

Argentina

Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires/Oyster

Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires/Oyster

Like Brazil, Argentina is one of the largest nations in South America, and that means covering the whole country on one trip is next to impossible. And yet, plenty of travelers try to do just that every year. Buenos Aires is -- without a doubt -- the most visited spot in the country, and while it's often compared to certain French cities across the Atlantic Ocean, we're here to tell you that its vibe is completely different. Buenos Aires is both opulent and raffish -- graffiti covers almost every surface, street protests are extremely common, and colonial buildings are just as likely to hold antique markets as they are tenement apartments or trendy new homes. Cafe culture is huge here, the tango looms large over the city's culture, and the Sunday antique fair in San Telmo is a must-do. Elsewhere in the city, trendy Palermo is a sprawl of all things upscale and hipster, with everything from luxury goods to vegan food on offer. Nightlife starts late and goes well past dawn, and the city has a well-deserved reputation as one of South America's best places to party.

Other cities in Argentina draw their share of interest, including Mendoza, which is the gateway to the nation's legendary wine region. Mendoza sits at the base of the Andes, and this dramatic setting -- coupled with a slower pace of life than is found in Buenos Aires -- makes it something special altogether. Meanwhile, Cordoba blends its old traditions as one of the nation's academic hearts with colonial relics, modern cultural pursuits, and fascinating art collections to create a city that's both dynamic and engaging. In the northwest, Salta serves as a compact gateway to the rugged landscapes found in that corner of the country. 

Natural sights almost defy superlatives in Argentina as well. Iguazu Falls, in the country's subtropical north, careen with mighty fury along the Iguazu River, while Peninsula Valdes and Puerto Madryn, along the south-central Argentina coast, are prime spots for whale watching from June to December. Even farther south, the Perito Moreno Glacier, in Los Glaciares National Park, is a spectacular sight, and Ushuaia serves as a compact Alpine-looking hub (and the southernmost city on earth) for those who wish to explore the rugged landscapes of the Tierra del Fuego. 

Buenos Aires Hotel Pick:

French Guiana

Mandy/Flickr

Mandy/Flickr

Like Suriname and Guyana, French Guiana can feel altogether removed from the rest of South America. It's a territory of France and operates on the euro, with French being the main language as well. While the presence of France's military and government has kept the nation relatively stable and safe, it can also be expensive and challenging to navigate. The capital is Cayenne, which is home to a bustling and ethnically diverse Central Market that's a must-see for visitors here. You'll find everything from Asian street food to locally made arts and crafts. Aside from this, there are a number of historic sights and museums throughout the city, though most fall on the smaller side of things. French Guiana is most historically famous for the Iles du Salut, formerly a brutal island prison colony that ended with the deaths of nearly 80,000 prisoners, many in jail for political offenses. These days, it's a haven for wildlife and even has a lovely beach. For travelers looking for more scientific pursuits, French Guiana is also home to a space center run by the European Space Agency.

Venezuela

ollie harridge/Flickr

ollie harridge/Flickr

Venezuela is in the midst of one of the Western Hemisphere's most troubling political and humanitarian crises. Its citizens contend with food and medicine shortages, unreliable electricity, wildly inflated dual-currency schemes, record-high unemployment, political instability, ongoing violence, and soaring crime rates. And despite the U.S. government's sometimes antagonistic warnings about the nation's political situation, travelers do make their way here -- and hopefully will someday return in greater numbers, if things improve. Major attractions include Angel Falls, which is the world's highest waterfall and careens surreally out of a mountaintop inside of Canaima National Park. Offshore, Los Roques National Park is flanked by white-sand beaches and neon-blue water. While Caracas is in dire straits, there are smaller cities like Barquisimeto, UNESCO-designated Coro, Maracaibo, Merida, and Carupano that are faring a bit better in terms of safety. Whether or not travelers should come here is up to them, though ongoing tension with the United States means that the travel situation is unlikely to change or improve any time soon. It's also important to note that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for Venezuela

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