South America is the best continent to travel because of its incredible diversity of geography, climate, nature, culture, food and people. It is a unique region as it’s the only place in the world where the equator, the largest rainforest in the world and one of the highest mountain ranges in the world all meet. It’s a region with great value for money, it’s accessible, not too crowded and has a great variety of destinations to visit with lots to see and do! Also, the ability to travel around a whole continent with only two languages (Portuguese and Spanish) makes it just that bit easier to get to know the people!
This article is based on my visit to 9 countries across South America over a period of nearly 2 years. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!
The Andes Mountain Range
At 7,000 km long, the Andes is the the longest mountain range in the world and stretches from the most southern point in the world at the bottom tip of Argentina all the way past the equator and up to the Caribbean Sea in Venezuela. It is the highest mountain range in the world outside Asia.
The Amazon Basin
The Amazon Basin is an area of 6.3 million km² that is drained by the Amazon river and covers about 40% of the South American continent. The Amazon covers parts of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana (so technically, the Amazon covers part of France!). Although the Nile in Africa is longer, the Amazon River is the largest river in the world by volume and has over a thousand tributaries. Most importantly, the region contains 10% of the world’s biodiversity and 15% of the world’s fresh water.
Meeting of Equator, Andes & Amazon
So what makes this continent so special and unique is that it’s the only place in the world where the equator, the largest rainforest in the world and one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, all meet. The highest point on the equator is situated at Volcán Cayambe in Ecuador and there are lots of other places throughout the continent where you can go from snow capped mountains to lush tropical rainforest in just a matter of hours, which is an incredible experience.
South America is Big
South America makes up 12% of the surface area of the earth and is bigger than most people realise. Historically, it’s been greatly misrepresented on maps, and even in modern maps the sizes of countries further away from the equator are overemphasised. When talking about travel destinations I sometimes hear people comparing South America with continents like Europe or regions like South-East Asia. I don’t believe that this is a fair comparison. To put this is perspective, South America has an area of 17.8 million km² with Brazil alone counting for 8.5 million km² of this. Europe has an area of 10.1 million km² (including the Russian part!) and South-East Asia has an area of 4.5 million km². Size matters in the context of travel because there is generally going to be more to see and do in a larger area and distances may also be longer which means that you will need to think about taking more time for this type of trip.
Located between the two largest oceans on earth, this has a huge affect on climate, although Colombia and Chile are the only countries that have the pleasure of a coastline on both oceans. Some of the climate factors that are affected by the oceans are rainfall variability and ocean current temperatures. Generally, the sea on the Pacific coast to the west is cooler while the sea on the Atlantic coast to the east is warmer. The Andes Mountain range also acts as a rain barrier to the Pacific side of the continent in large areas of Chile and Peru, resulting in some of the driest areas on earth.
A huge number of microclimates are created by the meeting of the equator, the two largest oceans on earth, the Andes mountains and the Amazon rainforest. For example, Peru has 90 microclimates throughout the country and 30 of the world’s 32 climates. South America is home to the Atacama Desert in Chile which is the driest place in the world (after Antarctica’s Dry Valleys), and Tutunendo in Colombia which is the third wettest place on earth.
Whilst some areas in South America clearly have extreme climate conditions, this is not the case across the entire continent. In International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index, South American countries claimed positions 1 (Ecuador), 3 (Colombia) and 4 (Peru) for ‘Best Climate in the World’. This is because these places have a well balanced climate with lots of hours of natural sunlight each day and temperatures that are not too hot nor too cold. All of these countries are situated close to the equator and each country has a coastline, parts of the Andes, and sections of the Amazon within their borders.
Nature & Biodiversity
World's Most Biodiverse Regions
South America is home to many of the most biodiverse regions in the world and the most biodiverse place on earth (I’ve seen various articles sighting different locations to claim this accolade but most are in and around the Amazon region). There is a wealth of life here with thousands of species of plants and animals.
Several countries in South America contain more than 5,000 endemic plant species each. These unique plants provide us with food like Açaí, materials like rubber and are the basis for many forms of modern medicines.
Colonisation: Europeans & Africans
In 1492, Europeans arrived in South America. Many of the indiginous population died after the arrival of Europeans due to disease and war. Unlike many other instances of colonisation around the world, intercultural marriage was tolerated and sometimes even encouraged during the colonisation of South America. Africans were also brought to South America during the times of slavery.
Travel with Only 2 Languages
The most spoken languages are Portuguese and Spanish so if you can speak a little bit of both of these languages, you can have a great experience travelling. Portuguese is the most spoken language in South America but only by a tiny margin so it’s pretty much 50/50 between them. English, French and Dutch are also official languages of countries in South America and languages like German are also spoken in some parts of Brazil.
Best Tropical Fruit in the World
Latin America has the best variety of tropical fruit in the world due to its incredible biodiversity so it is reasonable to assume that South America has an incredible variety to choose from. My personal favorites are Açaí and Guanábana. After spending almost 2 years in South America, I realised that I had never before enjoyed a real tropical fruit juice experience until I tasted the fresh ‘jugos naturales’!
Some of the Best Food in the World
Look no further than the Venezuelan Arepa, one of the best foods in the world in my opinion. Many foods known across the globe have originated in South America such as potatoes which were first cultivated in Peru by the incas. Peru also has famous dishes such as Ceviche (raw fish) and Cuyo (guinea pig). Also, coming from the Andean highlands, Quinoa is just one of many examples of a ‘superfood’ that originates in South America. Drink Coca tea to ease the effects of high altitude, or try Tacacá in Pará, Brazil, to experience your mouth going numb!
Value for Money
Good Value for Money
Only Uruguay (45th) and Chile (60th) are ranked in the top half of Numbeo’s Cost of Living Index of 136 countries around the world. All other South American countries feature in the lower half of the index. So most South American countries are relatively good value for money. Also, if you are travelling to South American countries and spending money earned in a country with a strong economy and currency, you will most likely benefit greatly from the exchange rate.
Accessible & Not Overcrowded
Relatively Low Visa Restrictions
In my case for Irish citizens (European Union), only Suriname requires a Visa and all other countries in South America can be explored without a visa for up to 90 days. Peru provides for up to 180 days without a visa. Other nationalities such as US and Canadian citizens may face higher visa restrictions and have to pay fees and go through timely visa application processes.
Big Airport Hubs
Although South America has a lot of incredibly inaccessible areas, there are many big cities that are large air transport hubs such as São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogotá and Santiago. Even if you haven’t been to South America before, you may have already used a flight route with a connection in one of these city airports.
Low Population Density
South America is ranked 4th out of the 6 inhabited continents in terms of population density. Also, as the second most urbanised region in the world, it has a very low population density outside cities and this means that there are huge areas of the continent with relatively low levels of population. This might sound contradictory, especially if you are reading this in a city like São Paulo, but once you leave the cities you will find masses of land and not many people around.
Not Many Tourists
With only 2.6% of the world’s international tourist visits, South America is still widely considered an ‘off the beaten track’ tourist destination. Only Africa has less tourists when all of the continents are compared in terms of the number of tourists per square kilometer. Europe has 30 times more tourists per square kilometer compared to South America!
Variety of Destinations
Incredible Natural Wonders
The Amazon Basin needs to be experienced first hand and is accessible from several countries including Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname & French Guyana. This region is home to Salto Ángel, the world’s tallest waterfall (yes, that wonderful place from the move ‘Up’ actually exists!), and Mt. Roraima in Venezuela. Further out, both Machu Picchu in Peru and The Death Road in Bolivia sit where the Andes mountain range meets the Amazon Basin.
A high altitude plain called the Altiplano covering Bolivia, Peru and Chile, sits high in the Andes at 3,750 meters. If you can handle the high altitude, you can find Lake Titicaca, the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Atacama Desert. At lower levels in the Andes mountain range Colca Canyon close to Arequipa, Peru, and the Cocora Valley in Colombia are just some of the places within the Andes that enjoy beautiful landscapes.
At the southern end of the Andes is Patagonia. This is made up of Argentinian Patagonia and Chilean Patagonia. In this region you can see gigantic chunks of ice break off Glacier Perito Moreno and you can hike around national parks to see Los Torres Del Paine and Mt. Fitz Roy. A 3 day ferry through the Chilean fjords may also give you an opportunity to see whales and other forms of sea life.
South of the Amazon, the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands, sits at the centre of the continent. Iguazu Falls is situated just a bit further to the South East. To the East of the Amazon and the Pantanal lies the savanna of Brazil. Between the savanna and the coast you can hike in the scenic Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina. Further east you will find the Atlantic Forest which stretches along the coastal region from Natal in the North to Porto Alegre in the South.
Sandy dunes and some of the world’s best kitesurfing spots can be found in the north of Brazil at Jericoacoara and Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses. Sand dune boarding can also be done at Huacachina in Peru or at San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. If you like rafting, you can do this in Baños, Ecuador or Villa Tunari, Bolivia. The beaches of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona in Colombia are overlooked by the highest coastal mountains in the world at Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
For a chilled out beach vibe, check out the North-East of Brazil such as Praia dos Carneiros in the state of Pernambuco or Morro de Sao Paulo and Itacaré in the state of Bahia. You can even find a beach paradise in the middle of the Amazon (read more about that here). Some of the world’s most famous islands skirt the continent with the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Easter Island in Chile. Other islands like Fernando de Noronha in Brazil and Los Roques in Venezuela are home to some of the best beaches in the world.
Iconic Man-Made Landmarks
Discover what remains of ancient cultures from Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines in Peru to the Lost City in Colombia. Many more ruins and ancient burial sites are scattered throughout the Andes. See where nature meets man with cultivation of grapes for wine in Argentina and Chile to the growing of coffee beans in Brazil and Colombia.
There is no shortage of colonial era architecture, churches and plazas throughout South America. These can be found all over the continent from Ouro Preto in Brazil to the Centros Historicos in Quito and Cusco. Other monuments and buildings have also been built such as the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro to the lesser known but fairy-tale-like Santuario de Las Lajas in Colombia.
Climb the steep peaks that look over Rio de Janeiro for some of the most incredible city views in the world or take a cable car to an altitude of 4,000 meters in La Paz. If you like big cities, São Paulo, Brazil, with a metro area population of 21.5 million, is one of the largest cities in the world and has a great mix of cultures and things to do. There are also many other great cities such as Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogotá, Santiago, Cuzco and Medellín that are there to be explored. The cities of the Amazon like Manaus, Iquitos and Belém also have something special about them in their urban wildness.
The People & the Culture
A Culture of Enjoying Life
Most cultures across the continent like to be social and enjoy life. People are chatty, have a good sense of humour and are probably some of the most ‘touchy’ in the world, expressing themselves with more physical contact compared to most other cultures. They also have a very family orientated culture and spend a lot of time with family and at family events. I found South Americans to be very friendly and interesting people. If you want to get out and meet the people, there is no shortage of cultural events, the most famous being Carnaval.
A Culture of Dance
Dancing is something that nearly everyone in South America does whether at a family event, a barbeque or at a bar. Where I’m from in Europe the question is “Do you dance?” whereas in South America the question is “What do you dance?”. There are lots of types of dance from Salsa to Samba to Merengue amongst others and you will have a great time trying to master them!