Culturally, South America is a fascinating place and if you’re a fan of wandering around museums, ancient colonial towns, beautiful churches and world-class historical sites, you’ve come to the right place. If you removed the Galapagos and the Amazon from this itinerary, it would make a neat 4-6 month trip, taking in some of the most evocative places on the continent, with ample opportunities to explore.
Click on the hyperlinks in the place names to see the full photo journal
- Buenos Aires: Gorge on steaks, empañadas and dulce de leche in this party-hard capital. Visit Evita’s grave at the El Retiro cemetary and her famous speech balcony at the Casa Rosada. Check out some free tango backdropped by the famous colourful tin houses of La Boca and at the famous Sunday flea market in San Telmo, and if you have energy left there’s world-class museums such as the MALBA gallery near pretty El 3 de Julio park.
- El Bolson: Take some time to chill out in this cutesy hippy town, replete with its own ‘feria artesenales’ (craft market) selling wood carvings; micro-breweries selling fruit beer; stalls selling homegrown berries and organic icecream; check out hip hop battles in the park; hang out in a hostel garden drinking fernet and coke; and if you fancy a day trip there’s lots of scenic treks nearby and beautiful Lake Puelo.
- Chiloé: Take the ferry out to this quaint little island with its intriguing beliefs in witchcraft and the supernatural. See the colourful ‘palafito’ houses on stilts in Castro. Visit the beautiful bright painted wooden churches, eat cheap fresh fish and bask on beaches in Ancud dotted with fortresses and canons; see a whale skeleton in a museum and eat famous local dish Kurranto with mussels the size of your fist.
- Santiago: A real cultural gem, Santiago offers some world-class museums such as the Human Rights museum that will reduce you to tears with its account of Pinochet’s brutal regime. Elsewhere, there’s great international food (a rarity in S America!) in districts like Belle Artes and Patronato; regal Plaza de Armas with its great contemporary art gallery; and stunning views from the top of San Cristobel park reached by cable car.
- Talca: Offering an alternative to the much pricier and more touristy vineyards of Mendoza, Talca is a sweet town, steely in its recovery from a huge earthquake in the 90s, from which you can take local buses and do free/cheap tours of local great vineyards like organic Gillmore Vineyard where you’ll probably get a tour by yourself and you can eat grapes straight from the vine.
- Valparaiso: A Unesco city on a hill, Valpaiso is one big photo op. Take a free walking tour, see beautiful bright graffiti and the relics of old buildings struck by earthquakes that can’t be rebuilt due to their Unesco status. Join in with hippies playing music on the squares until the early hours. Take the old cable car up Cerro Alegre for delicious Churillana and pisco sours; visit an art gallery in an old prison, or hit the beach in nearby Vina Del Mar.
- Sucre: Probably the prettiest city in Bolovia, we spent two weeks here learning Spanish and taking in the local culture. All white colonial buildings and terracota domed roofs, you might think you’re in Italy. From clambering on rooftops of colleges and viewpoints from the Recoleta to learning about Bolivia’s history in Casa de la Libertad, to visting nearby Tarabuco for their annual folk festival, there’s loads to do. The food market in town is an experience in itself. Not for the feint hearted!
- Isla del Sol: Beautiful Isla del Sol is the closest Bolivia has to a sense of the sea, as it’s set on gigantic Lake Titicaca which extends beyond its horizon. Spend a few days climbing Inca steps, walking through pretty farms and cornfields, saying hello to backyard llamas, eating fresh trout, and watching the unique ‘moon rises’ on the clear horizon. Take plenty of sunscreen and jumpers as you’ll get burnt in the day and freeze at night!
- Islas Uros: We were a little conflicted about the ‘floating islands’ as we’d heard some bad things about the tours not being very sustainable, and in some cases, exploiting the island’s inhabitants. We just visited the islands for a day and it was cool to learn about the reed islands, their craft output and how they live, but you get a sense that the tours aren’t giving them the best deal, so overall we’re on the fence about them.
- Arequipa: A delightful city of cathedrals, churches and monasteries, Arequipa was once Peruvian showpiece for Catholicism. Saint Catalina’s monastry – essentially a citadel within the city – is particularly impressive, with ancient relics, nun’s quarters, relief work, and even preserved living quarters so you can see what their lives were like inside the citadel walls. Arequipa is also a great jumping off point for the Colca Canyon trek.
- Cuzco: A nice city, albeit muy turistico. There are some cool museums like the Inka Museum with traditional wear, instruments and even mummies! There’s good food, and the central market is quite buzzy. We visited an ancient Inka temple called Qorikancha but were a bit underwhelmed. Walking tours to surrounding rural Cusco and lookouts are worth the trip, and you might get taught to make a pisco sour! Cathedrals and photo ops of surrounding mountains and cobble streets abound. Worth a few days pre Machu Picchu.
- Lima: Truly the culinary capital of South America, Lima offers world-class food from fantastic cheap local Creole markets selling fresh, tangy ceviche to ‘Chifa’ Chinese joints and Michellin restaurants. Stroll along the choppy sea front in trendy Barranco and check out some art galleries. Explore the pretty squares in town, or take in the sunset on the shore.
- Huanchaco: Dusty surfer town Huanchaco hosts cool bars and a laid-back vibe but the real draw here is the nearby ancient ruins of Huaca de Sol y Luna – preserved adobe sand temples with ancient colourful carvings that rival the ruins of Egypt, and tell the story of how the Moche civilisation lived in 100-800AD. Other ruins Chan Chan and Huaca Arco Iris display symbolic friezes and an impressive wall of fishing net relief work.
- Iquitos: Friendly jungle town Iquitos is the biggest city not to be reached by car, so it has a frontier vibe. There are illegal jungle meat markets and shaman offering Ayahuasca trips and other indulgences. But there’s also an amazing animal sanctuary a short boat ride away, and oddities from the rubber boom era from eccentric ex pats, like an iron house built by Gustav Eiffel (of tower fame) that was carried through the jungle in pieces.
- Amazon Jungle Lodge: An absolute must for Peru, the Amazon is just incredible. Book a lodge for 5+ days, and you’ll spend your days on boats cruising the river with guides pointing out exotic creatures like monkeys, sloths, giant lizards, pink and grey dolphins and (if you have the stomach) adders, tarantulas and bats! You can trek the jungle for giant bugs and killer snakes, swim in the river, and fish for piranhas. We had an amazing guide and stayed in an excellent Lodge (Libertad) and we learnt and saw so much. We will definitely return!
- Cuenca: Take a few days to soak up pretty, cobbled, colonial Cuenca with its museums, wildlife sanctuary, Inka sites and .. err.. bizarre gothic torture gallery. A great place to try classic Ecuadorean food, and also see a traditional panama hat factory! If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s a beautiful, foggy marshland called Parc Nacional Cajas where you can trek through slippy mud along eery lakes. Take several layers as it’s freezing!
- The Galapagos Islands: Words truly escape me. Even if you think you can’t afford it, go. We did it independently and it was surprisingly affordable. The park entrance and any day tours are the main costs, but you can 100% do it easily without a cruise. Snorkel with sealions and giant Galapagos turtles; swim with a pyramid of golden stingrays and nurse sharks; meet the Northern-most penguin and tiny seahorses; see Sally Lightfoot crabs with their galaxy-patterned shells and pink lakes of flamingos; gawp at gnarly marine iguanas and unique blue-footed boobies; spend days on the beautiful sands and in the clear blue seas; go to the great free museums like the Darwin Centre and the Interpretation Centre; snorkel lakes with volcanic cores. This is only half of it! See our blog articles for full details. Oh, and be prepared for sea-sickness!
- Otavalo: Market town Otavalo is a great place to spend a few days, especially around the weekend. Take in the famous Saturday market with its many ponchos and alpaca scarfs, and the nearby farmers’ market for an eye-opening experience of animal trading. There are great restaurants here, and pretty walks to Peguche waterfall via indigenous villages, and stunning high altitude Laguna Cuicocha – just pick a sunny day!
- Salento: Epicentre of Colombia’s coffee district, Salento is a picturesque colonial town surrounded by mountains, with a permanent-holiday vibe. The town centre buzzes with stalls selling patacones and venues for playing explosive throwing game Tejah. Brilliant, cheap coffee tours abound at Don Eduardo’s plantation and nearby Valle de Cocora with its towering wax palms and hummingbird farm is an excellent day trip.
- Medellín: For decades, Medellin was thought too dangerous for tourists. Now the city is opening up and it couldn’t be happier to see you. Take a walking tour to learn of its tumultuous history of ‘the conflict’ under Pablo Escobar, see the Berrio sculpure park, take the scenic Metrocable car up to Park Arvi, drink with the locals on a town square. Visit pretty Guatapé with its colourful murals and climb El Peñol for great views.
- Cartagena: Colourful touristico Cartagena is made up of cobbly, pretty colonial streets, great restaurants, buzzy plazas on which to drink beer, museums, and a city wall dotted with canons. Nearby Volcan de Lodo el Totumo (an organic mud ‘volcano’) is fun to bathe in and escape the heat; Playa Blanca is a pretty (if over-developed) nearby beach. Town itself is great fun – at day, or to party at night. A good intro to Colombia!
- Barichara & Villa de Leyva: Two picture-perfect colonial towns in the Santander region of Colombia, each is worthy of a couple of day’s visit. Barichara (near San Gil) is a stunning cobble stone town with preserved Colonial architecture where you can also eat ‘hormigas’ (big assed ants!) Walk the scenic ancient ‘Camino Real’ trail to Guane, dotted with fossils. Villa de Leyva has a stunning town square (the biggest in S America!) and offers great trails to the lakes of ‘Pozo Azules’ and an amazing pre-historic museum with dinosaur fossils from when the town used to be submerged under the sea!
- Bogota: Bogota has a bit of a rep for being unsafe, so we didn’t do much nightlife here outside of hostels, but the city is definitely worth a visit for its world-class museums like the Police History Museum which offers English tours by cops and houses tons of Pablo Escobar memorabilia and FARC warfare; the Museo de Oro is also brilliant with its shamanic artefacts and sensory displays. The underground Salt Cathedral in nearby Zipaquira is also worth a visit – it’s eerily beautiful.