One of the most difficult parts of planning a trip is deciding the sort of trip you want. Maybe you want a beach vacation where you can kick back with a cocktail in hand. Maybe you want a camping trip that’ll weave you through enormous mountains and glaciers. Maybe you want a jungle adventure where you can spot wild animals, taste local foods, and kayak through crystal clear rivers. Oftentimes, my indecisiveness gets the best of me and I opt for all three wrapped in one, but where in the world can you get that?
Enter South America. With an ideal geographical location, South America is a continent absolutely chock full of biodiversity and ecological variance. It’s a place with some of the most unique and differing biomes — biological and ecological communities — within close proximity to one another. And that diversity packed-in on top of each means you can experience almost every kind of trip in one small country — from a beach vacation to a glacial mountain summit with everything else in between. So, if you’re a traveler with a big adventurous spirit but with small vacation time, here are some of the best places to visit in South America (according to landscapes you might like) that can easily be accessed by visiting almost any country on the continent.
Mountains and Highlands (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile)
Possibly the most famous mountain chain in the world, the Andes are internationally associated with South America’s beauty. Ever since the discovery of Machu Picchu back in 1911, this behemoth of a mountain range has gained worldwide acclaim for being the birthplace and headquarters of the Incan Empire.
The Andes stretch down the continent’s Pacific coast, from Venezuela to Chile, making all the countries within its scope the perfect area for mountain climbers and adventurers alike. You can climb Machu Picchu in Peru, hike Patagonia in Argentina and Chile, explore La Paz in Bolivia, or even summit the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. It’s genuinely difficult to travel to South America without encountering the Andes in some form or another.
Along with these towering mountains comes the beautifully brutal Altiplano. These massive mountain plateaus (which can be found in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina) are known for their high altitude, low temperature, stunningly unique cultures, and beautiful scenery. The Altiplano is a harshly unforgiving landscape that can look at times almost lunar, an intriguing characteristic that has visitors scouring the Web for cheap plane tickets to the continent so that they can see it for themselves. You have the barren Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, the brilliantly orange Atacama Desert in Chile, and volcanoes and geysers that dot the landscape throughout. The Altiplano is genuinely an otherworldly experience not to be missed, and is conveniently located just hours away from major tourist hubs on South America’s west coast.
Jungles (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname)
Just a few hours away from the frostbitten Andes is the steamy Amazon Jungle — the most famous and biodiverse jungle in the world. Ranging from Peru to Brazil with a handful of countries in between, the Amazon takes up most of South America’s northern interior, and can feel just as out of this world as the Altiplano in the exact opposite way.
Hugely lush, brilliantly tropical, and dense with greenery, the Amazon contains all sorts of jungle landscapes, from raging rivers to endless stretches of trees. You can care for animals in a Brazilian wildlife sanctuary, stay with a local indigenous tribe in Peru, or see firsthand how coffee and chocolate are made in Colombia — the experiences are both equally eye-opening and unforgettable.
Deserts (Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Argentina)
Whether up high in the Altiplano or down at sea level, South America has no shortage of sandy deserts that are undeniably worth exploring. Ica, Peru is a picture-perfect textbook definition of a desert, featuring slithering yellow dunes that stretch all the way to the coast. Grab a bus from Lima, pop on a podcast, and you’ll be there in less than three episodes!
You can also check out the black and red sand beaches of Paracas; sandboard in Huacachina’s rolling dunes; or maybe even bundle up in Chile and explore the high-altitude Atacama desert, an entirely different desert experience. Vastly different and anything but barren, South America’s deserts are surprisingly accessible for travelers, regardless of where you are on the continent.
Cloud Forests (Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, Chile)
Cloud forests are perhaps my favorite landscape in the world, and I had never heard of them until I went to South America. Temperate and comfortable, cloud forests are cooler versions of jungles with an equally huge array of wild and plant life. They typically exist in moderate altitudes – not high enough to be cold, but not low enough to be excessively hot.
The frequent fog and rain from these distinct spots make them incredibly dense and lush, but without the overbearing heat and humidity of more tropical jungles. These conditions are absolutely ideal for all sorts of good stuff, like refreshing rivers, picturequese waterfalls, and the beautifully colorful birds and animals that inhabit them. And what’s more, cloud forests often have the perfect blend of temperatures and climates for growing coffee and chocolate, so there’s plenty to see and do. Grab a coffee and sink into a hammock in Minca, Colombia (only 4 hours from Cartagena) or zipline through the rolling hills in Mindo, Ecuador (just a one-hour bus ride from Quito).
Beaches (Every country except Bolivia & Paraguay)
Something quite unique about South America is that, despite it being such a massive continent, almost every single country has its own unique beaches. The northern coast (Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana) is definitively Caribbean, featuring crystal clear water, stunning white sand beaches and world-class scuba diving. The western coast (Ecuador, Peru, and Chile) is much colder and less tropical; the water is dyed a deep ocean blue, but still maintains a lovely assortment of wildlife, ranging from seals and dolphins to penguins and even whales. The eastern coast (Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina) has a mix of both, with warmer oceanic waters, unique dive spots, and picturesque Atlantic beaches. Even landlocked countries like Bolivia and parts of Peru have beaches on Lake Titicaca, and while they are not exactly suitable for bikinis and sunscreen, the coast on the edges of the world’s tallest navigable lake is pretty breathtaking.
South America is unique in so many ways, from its rich Incan history to the beautifully rich cultures that evolved in along with the influence of colonization. But, for me, it’s the ecosystems that draw me in. Where else in the world do you have deserts, mountains, jungles, forests, and beaches all conveniently and neatly wrapped into one of 12 countries? Where else can you arrive at a coast, and within one hour be sitting comfortably in a hotel in the middle of the mountains?
Plan a trip to any of these South American countries, and I guarantee that you’ll have the easiest and best access to some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes right at your fingertips.