South America may have first been colonized by the Spanish 500 years ago, but in the last 50 years it’s undergone a second invasion, this time by travellers from the west drawn to its diverse web of cultures, incredible nature, and relative affordability. From the Andes to the Amazon, roaming the South American continent with your home on your shoulders makes for a glorious modern-day adventure. Here we’ve picked five exceptional locations scattered throughout the continent that simply can’t be missed.
The former capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco remains the center of indigenous Quechua life in the Andes, and is a lively, colorful and multicultural city located 3400 meters above sea level in the Southern Sierras. Sharpen your eyes while strolling its streets and you’ll see a range of architectural histories, with grand Spanish colonial buildings erected over and alongside Inca walls and houses. A powerful example of this is Qoricancha, the former Inca Sun Temple, which the Spanish attempted to destroy and replace with a Catholic Church, although much of the lower part of the temple remains. Cuzco is also an ideal base for expeditions to Machu Picchu, the spectacular Inca settlement situated high in a tropical mountain forest. It’s not difficult to see why UNESCO declared Cuzco a World Heritage Site, but the city also has a fun and fast-paced side with terrific Peruvian street food and a cosmopolitan nightlife composed of ragged travelers from around the world.
Raised at an altitude of three and a half thousand meters, and formed from a prehistoric saline lake which dried up 30,000 years, the Uyuni Salt Flats number among the world’s most boggling sights. This vast, ethereal landscape rolls a hard blanket of blinding white to the horizon, with ten billion tons of salt spread across 10,000 square kilometers. Outcrops of bare rock and earth girdle this eerily desolate landscape, and every November it is splashed with color by the arrival of flocks of flamingoes, who come to the salt flats to breed.
Cartagena’s city walls, among the most dramatic and well-kept in South America, run along the seafront and offer fantastic views over the Caribbean Sea. They circle an old town of entrancing beauty and culture, of labyrinthine cobbled streets that open out into tree-lined plazas, always alive with locals and travellers. Established by the Spanish in 1533, Cartagena is a gem of colonial architecture, and horse-drawn carriages still trundle beneath the broad balconies of pastel-colored houses and through the shadows of grand churches today. Simple cafés and a broad fusion restaurant scene thrives in this area, and chilled-out cocktail bars dot the beaches just beyond the city walls. Cartagena has hosted an annual literary festival since 2006, attended by Gabriel Garcia Marquez among many others. And 45 km northeast of the town is a unique natural wonder, the Volcan del Totumo, a mud volcano in the crater of which tourists can take a revitalizing mud bath.
As the vast Iguazu River reaches the border between Argentina and Brazil, it tumbles over the basalt rock of the Paraná Plateau, creating one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. Basalt outcrops separate the site into 275 individual falls, the grandest being a crescent-shaped cataract some 80 meters high, whose vertical descent suffuses the surrounding rainforest with fine mist. Boardwalks, walkways and nature trails run through this jungle, providing a range of views and perspectives, while roaming the rainforest behind your back are jaguars, giant anteaters, tapirs and howler monkeys. The excellent La Cantera Jungle Lodge provides accommodation a short stroll from the falls.
Dance, sport, food and love – Buenos Aires, good air in Spanish, is a city that knows how to live the good life, and there are many reasons it has become one of the world’s most popular cities for backpackers and general itinerants to nest down in for weeks or months at a time. Spend the day strolling the green parks and leafy streets of the Palermo district and browsing the arts and crafts street markets of La Boca. As evening descends, feast on the city’s world-class, highly eclectic restaurant scene, with heaps of budget options, then head back to Palermo to dissolve in the district’s frenzied nightlife. Also be sure to make time for a tango class, and to experience the truly epic atmosphere of a Boca Juniors game at La Bombonera stadium. Sabatico Hostel is a great place to stay, a medium-sized independent venture with a culturally curious and sensitive vibe.