No one warns you about South America. That this is a continent spectacular and awe-inspiring, so filled with wonder, that it isn’t a place you only visit once – South America is a destination worthy of a lifetime’s obsession.
While the bright lights of the big cities might steal the limelight, South America’s natural wonders are the true spectacle. From the breathtaking beauty of Perito Moreno Glacier to the mind-boggling depth of Colca Canyon, the blinding white of the Uyuni Salt Flats to the dazzling star-filled sky of the Atacama Desert, South America is a continent literally bursting at the seams with majestic sights. Be forewarned, you’ll want to return for more.
The Atacama Desert (Chile)
As the sun sets I the Atacama Desert, the beauty of the universe slowly begins to reveal itself. The gentle swish of the Milky Way, the red glow of Mars, infinite stars twinkling with an unimaginable intensity. Texas isn’t the only place where the stars shine bright; this high plateau in northern Chile is a stargazer’s paradise. Telescopes are not needed to appreciate the view, but the Atacama is home to multiple world-class observatories, several of which are open to the public.
By day, the scorched rust-colored landscape resembles the rust-colored landscape resembles the surface of the moon. So much so, NASA uses the rocky terrain to test Mars rovers. At the eastern edge of this, the world’s driest desert, stands the majestic Licancabur volcano, towering over the surrounding landscape at an extraordinary 19,409 feet high. The eerily beautiful Atacama holds other surprises well – steaming fields of ancient geysers, fantastic ridges, and massive sand dunes perfect for sandboarding are all here for exploration and adventure. That is, if you haven’t stayed up all night staring at the starts.
Travel Expert Tip: The rugged landscape is beautiful with the desert, sand and volcanoes in the background. Spend the afternoon walking around the town of San Pedro. There is a small museum, an old church and a lot of shops. A Vacation travel agent can also help you plan special excursions and activities, including horseback riding.
Perito Moreno Glacier (Argentina)
The sound is unmistakable, loud and sharp like a gunshot. What happens next is one of the most exhilarating sights imaginable, as several tons of turquoise-colored ice crash into the freezing waters of Lake Argentino. This is Perito Moreno, a spectacular 19-mile-long glacier that is the crowning glory of Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park. The majestic glacier, one of the few in the world that is still growing, is set in stunning Patagonian scenery. For an unforgettable experience and breathtaking views, don a pair of crampons for a trek across the ice.
Travel Tip: The shoulder season – April, September and early October – is a great time to visit Southern Patagonia. Not only do you have little or no wind, a light dusting of snow up on the hills and the place all to yourself, but you also have the beautiful Patagonian forest painted with reds, oranges and ochres.
Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)
The greatest nothingness imaginable – that’s what it feels like to stand on the edge of Salar de Uyuni. Blindingly white and incredibly surreal, this austere landscape high in the Bolivian Andes is the world’s largest salt flat – an unfathomable 3,800-square-mile expanse of pure white. The remains of a prehistoric lake bed, this is an otherworldly terrain where the only sound is the thick layer of salt crunching underfoot.
Travel Tip: In the spring, when the land is covered in a few inches of water, the Uyuni transforms into a gigantic reflection pool, offering a picture-perfect mirror image of the sky above. This illusion of an endless horizon makes for one of the most remarkable vistas in the world, at times made even more jaw-dropping by the presence of thousands of pink flamingoes who come here to breed for a few months each year.
Iguazu Falls (Brazil/Argentina)
You feel the immense power in your bones, a quivering only heightened by the almost deafening roar of water. Standing in front of Iguazu Falls is a visceral experience unlike any other. Your whole body is taken in as the cool mist slowly soaks your clothes, and your eyes struggle to comprehend the magnitude of what’s unfolding in front of you. Here, set between Argentina and Brazil, is one of the world’s greatest wonders: a series of over 275 magnificent waterfalls that stretch for almost two miles through the lush Atlantic Forest. Eleanor Roosevelt was right, when in 1944, she stood atop the cliffs and sighed with pity, “Poor Niagara.”
Travel Tip: Give yourself time. Most people try to squeeze the visit into two full days. There are plenty of activities and reasons to stay three nights. Visit one of the most impressive bird sanctuaries in South America. Go mountain biking, hiking or kayaking in the National Park, or simply enjoy the hotel facilities which most guests don’t get to do.
Colca Canyon (Peru)
To stand on the edge of Colca Canyon, a two-hour drive from Arequipa, Peru, is to be transfixed by an overwhelming awe. Early morning is the best time to visit, when the golden light creeps across the mountains and into the valleys, slowly bringing the full depth of the chasm into view. Giant Andean condors soar overhead as your mind struggles to comprehend Colca’s magnitude – 11,000 feet deep, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. A feeling of reverence is an appropriate reaction, only compounded by the glorious snow-capped mountains that complete the magnificent view.
Travel Tip: The big highlight of Colca Canyon is seeing the condors. The best time to go is early in the morning to Condor Cross. Having a guide is well worth it, since they can take you to some of the best hiking spots and viewpoints along the way.
Inspired by this article and want to speak with an expert travel agent about how you can plan an unforgettable adventure to see these jaw-dropping attractions in South America? Let one of Vacation’s on-call travel experts match you with an expert travel agent to customize an itinerary you’re gonna love.