South America’s wealth of experiences include many that don’t get the attention they deserve.
For many American travelers, South America remains lesser known. We had just begun to explore this amazing continent when our visit was cut short by my medical emergency in Colombia.
Since then, we’ve realized that we don’t even realize how much we’ve yet to see in South America. Enter our guest author, Bradley Williams, who has spent a considerable amount of time adventuring there. In this post, he shares 5 unforgettable travel opportunities in South America which just may whet your wanderlust.
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Planning a South America itinerary is never easy. Trust me, I know! Despite the fact that I had 4 months to spend there back in 2016, it was so hard trying to nail down exactly what I wanted to see.
There is so much to choose from and so many amazing experiences to be found in each country. Well, all in all, I ended up having a truly unforgettable time in South America, with my chosen route taking me through much of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.
And from my travels, here’s what I believe to be 5 of the most underrated and adventurous things you can try and squeeze into your own itinerary. If you are interested in reading more about the other places I discovered when backpacking South America in 2016, then you can read my full itinerary here.
1. Relaxing in the hot springs at Cajon del Maipo (Chile)
Located just 1 hour from Santiago, the capital of Chile, Cajon del Maipo is a vast gorge cutting through the Andean mountains. You can rent a car from the city for a few days and spend it driving deep into the mountains, discovering small, quaint villages and towns along the way. However by far the best part of Cajon del Maipo are the hidden hot springs you will eventually find.
After about 2 hours of driving, you lose track of tarmac, and need to go a bit off road to reach them. It might be different now, but when we visited back in 2016, you had to drive through a large construction site where they were building new roads and other infrastructure. The final part of the trip required driving through snowy paths that hardly anyone had been to!
We visited in late October, so the whole region was still snowy. In fact, we were the only tourists at the hot springs! We were still allowed in, and the fact that they were so isolated and quiet is what made the experience so unforgettable. It was just my partner and I, sitting there, relaxing in hot springs amidst snow capped mountains all around. True bliss.
Tour the Maipo Region
For some visitors, the ease of a guided tour will alleviate concerns about accessing this beautiful, yet remote area.
From Santiago: Maipo Canyon Volcano and Hot Spring Tour – A full day (12 hours) with pickup from your hotel or hostel in Santiago Centro. A 2-hour drive with bi-lingual guide through the Maipo Canyon includes a 4km hike to stunning volcano viewpoint, lunch with local wine, and afternoon soak in thermal springs. Click here for details and pricing.
El Morado Glaciers and Hot Springs Full-Day Trek – A full day, small group tour includes a 5-hour Andes mountain hike with guide, lunch at El Morado hanging glacier viewpoint, and a therapeutic soak in thermal pools with a glass of wine. Click here for details and pricing.
El Yeso Dam and Colina Hot Springs: Day Trip from Santiago – Spectacular views of scenic Andean vistas and the significant engineering of the El Yeso Dam, combined with a relaxing immersion in the Colina thermal spring-fed pools. Click here for details and pricing.
2. Taking an Amazon riverboat cruise from Belem to Manaus (Brazil)
Our Amazon riverboat from Belem to Manaus is an experience that I am not sure we will ever forget. It was a week filled with extreme ups and downs, but is still one that I look back at with fond memories. Upon departing Belem, you are required to buy yourself a hammock and rope as this is how you will be set to sleep for the week ahead.
The boat is a local passenger ferry that transports locals and goods to remote villages and towns all along the Amazon river. Tourists are more than welcome to join the route, and we were amongst around 7 or 8 foreigners, as well as 5 or 6 dozen Brazilians. As you might imagine, much of the journey is unique and deeply rewarding.
Tip: The Meeting of the Waters of the Amazon and Solimoes rivers is an unusual natural phenomenon that many visitors describe as similar to pouring chocolate into clear water. The rivers run parallel to each other for quite a distance, yet do not mingle.
You can relax for hours on end every day as you slowly float down the Amazon, taking in views of the surrounding jungle and listening to wildlife all around. You also get to experience sudden and powerful Amazonian thunderstorms, which is an experience all in itself.
Tip: Without going into too much detail, there are some downsides to this experience; such as terrible bathroom conditions and onboard food that made every single one of the westerners onboard sick. So you may want to bring your own food!
Guided Amazon Adventures from Manaus
6-Day Amazon Rainforest Jungle Safari from Manaus – A deep jungle experience includes camping in an indigenous caboclo riverside dwelling, jungle night cruise, and day paddling with wilderness survival techniques. Click here for more information and pricing.
From Manaus: Survival Skills in the Amazon Jungle Boat Tour (5 Hours) – An abbreviated introduction to the riches and the dangers of this region, includes a swim with locals. Click here for more information and pricing.
From Manaus: 4-Day Amazon Jungle Adventure – canoeing, camping, fishing, boating and interacting with indigenous families with an English-speaking guide. Click here for more information and pricing.
Manaus: 3-Day Amazon Survival Trip – highlights include jungle hiking, visiting with a local forest family, and a sunrise canoe trip. Click here for more information and pricing.
3. Hiking to Glacier Martial (Argentina)
Patagonia is, without a doubt, my favorite part of South America. The endless array of mountains and glaciers make for epic hiking opportunities all year round. In southern Chile and Argentina, you can easily visit the most popular spots, such as Perito Moreno Glacier and the Torres del Paine National Park.
However, if you venture as far south as Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world before Antarctica), then you should head up to Glacier Martial. It is a roughly 2 hour walk from the main town, and requires you to traverse a small ski location before reaching the base of the Glacier.
At certain times of the year, when the ski resort is open, you can even use the ski lift to help you with the final part. The glacier is a wonderful sight to behold and from its base you have unspoiled views back out across Ushuaia and the surrounding ocean. If you’re feeling brave, you can even hike up the glacier and slide back down; which of course, I did!
4. Spending a night on Isla del Sol (Bolivia)
Isla del Sol easily stands out as one of my top 5 favourite places to visit in South America. It is a large island located in the middle of Lake Titicaca, on the Western side of Bolivia. It is the final major location before you reach Peru, and one that not enough backpackers seem to take time to visit.
It is a short hour or so boat ride from the mainland and, once you arrive, you feel like you’ve entered a completely different world. Isla del Sol is surrounded on all sides by, what appears to be, a never-ending ocean! On the island, you will find hiking trails, old stone ruins and even beaches to relax and sunbathe on.
Fun Fact: The Lake Titicaca area is considered the birthplace of the Inca civilization.
It seems to slowly be getting more and more popular and there are some lovely homestays in which to rest your sleepy head. As well as some small, quaint restaurants; most of which are located in local family homes. All in all, the island has a very peaceful and underdeveloped feel to it, which makes it so charming to visit.
2-Day Private Lake Titicaca and Sun Island Tour from La Paz
Explore traditional, indigenous villages and small islands with private guide and driver. Includes hotel stay and meals. Click here for more information and pricing.
5. Supporting families in the slums of Lima (Peru)
Finally, here’s a pretty unique experience that I bet you’ve never heard anyone mention in Peru! It was only by chance that we even discovered it. When searching for places to stay in Lima, we came across Zig Zag Hostel. In the reviews and descriptions, we found that every week they head up to the slums on the outskirts of town and donate food.
The families living in the slums, of which there are hundreds and hundreds, are incredibly poor and completely locked away from the rest of the city. They are kept behind metal gates and local police pick up anyone who leaves and take them back to the slums. The initiative, run by Zig Zag Hostel, is completely self-funded and very worthwhile.
We spent one morning in the hostel preparing dozens of meals and then headed into the slums for a few hours. In a small building perched high up in the streets, we handed out meals to children and parents from a number of impoverished families. They were so wonderfully friendly and grateful that we also decided to donate some clothes and other trinkets we’d picked up on our travels around South America.
If you happen to find yourself near any one of the experiences above, then I highly recommend you check them out. So much of South America is still untouched and undiscovered, and these are 5 of the most underrated and least tourist experiences to be found on this incredible continent.
Author Bio: After backpacking South America, Bradley has now spent 3 more years discovering more than 3 dozen other countries all around the world; including those in Asia, Central America and Europe. At Dream Big, Travel Far, he and his partner talk more about their adventures and newfound lives as full-time digital nomads.
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