Primarily located in the Southern Hemisphere, 12 countries make up the continent of South America. Due to the vast size of Brazil, Portuguese is the most spoken language on the continent by population, with Spanish as a close second, followed by English, French, Dutch, and official indigenous languages like Quechua, Guarani, and Aymara.
South America offers a variety of experiences for travelers. From a well-preserved colonial history and increasingly embraced indigenous cultural roots to natural landscapes including highlands, jungles, and coastal regions, travel in South America is popular throughout the world. With such an abundance of countries and a never ending list of activities, where do you explore first?
Use this guide to learn more about popular activities to try in South America and their need-to-know details.
The highlands of South America primarily consist of a long stretch of Andes Mountains, Guiana and Brazilian Highlands, and varying plateaus. Cross off a major bucket list item and visit an Incan treasure, Machu Picchu, hidden in the high Andes Mountains. In Bolivia's highlands, Salar de Uyuni beckons adventurers from around the world to explore its prehistoric landscape.
Depending on the elevation, you'll find glacial adventures in Chile and Argentina, mountain treks (like South America's tallest mountain, Aconcagua), and heavy forest (mostly found in northeastern South America).
Culture & Food Tours
Many South American countries are home to some of the most well-preserved colonial and religious structures in history. Paired with unique cuisines influenced by a variety of ethnicities, the continent offers culturally rich experiences. From architectural history tours to museums, galleries, and food and wine tastings, South America is an ideal destination for culture buffs.
Head to Cartagena de Indias in Colombia to experience the continent's most well-preserved city, experience life on a ranch at an estancia, or feel your heart beat in sync with the rhythm of African Candombe drumming in Uruguay.
Many South American destinations have strong food traditions, and it is possible to travel just to enjoy these. Some highlights include sampling Peru's gastronomic scene and tasting one's way through the best steakhouses in Argentina.
From the Galapagos Islands to the continent's three major river basins (Orinoco, Paraná, and Amazon), South America is a wonderful place to enjoy unspoiled nature and unique wildlife. The Amazon Forest, for example touches a number of countries in South America and covers most of the world's rain forestry.
Take an ecological adventure through the South American biomes and join a tour to trek through safe, routed areas where you could see birds, jaguars, monkeys, anacondas, and other spectacular fauna and flora. Some tours, like in the Amazon, even have a connection with some of the outlying indigenous tribes and will arrange a stop there.
Planning Your Trip
Use this information to help plan your trip to South America. The large continent has a myriad of climates, altitudes, terrain, and activities -- making itinerary logistics a bit overwhelming.
Best Time to Visit South America
South America's size makes it difficult to give just one recommendation on "the best time to go". While the continent's seasons are the opposite of North America's (our winter is their summer), you'll find the definitions of "summer" and "winter" might differ in some countries depending on altitude and distance from the equator. On average, the best time to visit many South American countries is during their "summer," December to April, when it is warm.
- Northern South America: Being closer to the equator lends South America's northern countries the privilege of having milder temperatures. Head to Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana during November and May for the most warmth. For highland treks, however, shoulder season hikes offer the best weather. If that doesn't fit your schedule, you'll find you can visit most of these places year-round without feeling an extreme difference in temperature.
- Central South America: Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia run along the Pacific coast, which greatly affects seasonality. While some (more northern) towns may have consistent temperatures year round, these countries generally have a dry, cold season between June and September, and a warmer rainy season during December and June. If you head to the highlands of Brazil -- on the Atlantic -- winter (May - October) is your best bet, as you'll avoid torrential rain.
- Southern South America: Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay fit the "opposite seasons" definition well. Head to these countries December - April for beach time and sunshine (or ride the shoulder seasons). If you are going to Patagonia in Chile, beware of the strong winds that exist regardless of temperature.
What to Look For In a Tour to South America
Before deciding on what type of South American tour you’d like to take, determine what would be the most important takeaway you’d want to leave with.
- Are you seeking to unravel the secrets of a mysterious destination?
- Are you searching for a bit of history and unique architecture unlike anything you've ever seen before?
- Or, are you a geology fan looking for a massive adventure that would leave you with unreal pictures for an epic vacation photo series?
Whichever you choose, it is imperative that you confirm seasonality and weather trends. Also check out operator reviews, and inquire about insurance and group sizes. Be sure to also confirm if there are rental fees, meals, or license/training that is included or required.
Typical Tour Costs
Parts of South America are affordable to explore, while others more expensive. This directly affects prices of tour packages. If you seek "bucket-list" adventure treks, pricing for popular guided trips like Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, Islands, the Amazon, and Patagonia tend to be on the higher end.
Tour packages in South America range from $500 to $5,000 depending on the excursion, amenities, and trip duration.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
If you can, budget for and rent all gear onsite if you choose to do any camping or adventure activities. For outdoor excursions, adequate footwear, sunblock, and a windbreaker/rain jacket should be brought along, regardless of season. You'll also find packing on-the-go toiletries like hand sanitizer, wet wipes, and toilet paper may be necessary for long treks and bus rides (especially in northern parts of South America).
Other Tips for Travel in South America
- Budgeting & currency: Outside of pricey tours, South America is still a favorite among travelers who want to try cheap, delicious food, sleep in standard or luxury accommodations for a fraction of the cost, and see some of the world's greatest natural wonders. With the exception of Ecuador (which uses the US dollar), most countries in South America use their own currency.
- Transportation: There are many ways to travel through South America. Plane, bus, train, and sometimes even boats, can get you to where you need to go. Keep in mind: how fast it takes to get you there is based on your budget. When comparing transportation options, be sure to compare flights with ground transportation prices. Many tourists book buses with the expectation that it will be more affordable but sometimes domestic flights can be both low-cost and faster. Flights are quite inexpensive when flying intercontinentally, for example.
- Accommodations: Unless you are on a multi-day outdoor excursion (where you'll likely be camping), you can find both luxury and standard hostels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and home rentals throughout most cities and towns. With the exception of booking accommodations during high season, you can generally wait until a couple of weeks before your trip to book a stay. Inquire with your tour provider whether lodging is included in your tour package.
Health & Safety
For all travelers and destinations, make sure you are up to date on routine vaccinations. Some popular attractions (like a Cusco visit to Machu Picchu) require a yellow fever vaccination, so be sure to bring documentation. Check the CDC website for updates on vaccinations and travel health notices.
Another health concern to note: South American food is delicious, but be sure to avoid using tap water and ice (unless you're in Patagonia, where the Glacial water is quite tasty). Purchasing food in unsanitary conditions, or buying meat during hot months from vendors who aren't using a refrigeration system, should be avoided.
Some countries in South America have a reputation for being considered dangerous, however, many of those claims stem from social unrest, government corruption, and local strife from previous decades. Today, travelers can visit most South American countries with the same standard precautions as they would in North America.
Review these safety tips to ensure a safe, enjoyable journey through South America:
- Pickpocketing and robbery is common in big cities, so alertness and discretion is advised when exploring.
- Refrain from displaying jewelry and valuables to help prevent you from becoming a target.
- Be sure to book daytime buses as much as possible, find a partner to travel with, and avoid roaming secluded areas alone.