Best Places to Visit in Central and South America
From misty rainforests to ancient archaeological sites, Central and South America boast a variety of destinations that appeal to all types of travelers. But choosing just one vacation spot from all of the excellent options available can seem daunting, so U.S. News ranked the top places to visit in the region based on factors like culture, dining and attractions, as well as traveler votes and expert opinions. Do you have a favorite destination in these regions? Vote below to determine the best places to visit in Central and South America. (Note: Some of the below destinations may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Check with the CDC and the U.S. Department of State before traveling.)
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Argentine Patagonia is a true treat for all travelers, not just those with a penchant for adventure. From its diverse wildlife (such as Magellanic penguins, Andean cats and southern elephant seals) to its majestic mountains and jaw-dropping glaciers, this region showcases Mother Nature at its best. Even the most amateur of photographers will appreciate the palette of incredible colors on display here. Can't-miss places for first-timers include the Argentine Lake District, Mount Fitz Roy and the Perito Moreno Glacier.
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Machu Picchu#2 in Best Places to Visit in Central and South America
Travelers in search of Instagram-worthy vistas and a once-in-a-lifetime adventure should consider visiting Machu Picchu. Nestled within a tropical Peruvian forest almost 8,000 feet above sea level, this UNESCO World Heritage Site can only be reached by hiking the 27-mile Inca Trail or taking a train to Aguas Calientes. Once on-site, visitors can learn about some of the theories surrounding Machu Picchu's existence as they explore its approximately 200 religious, ceremonial, astronomical and agricultural structures. When it's time to retire for the night, stay in nearby Cusco, which sits about 45 miles southeast of the Inca Trail trailhead.
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With its scenic beaches, leafy mountains and lively nightlife, Rio de Janeiro makes for a fun getaway any time of year. Whether you're looking to attend the city's larger-than-life Carnival celebration (which takes place every February) or explore Brazil's gorgeous natural landscape, Rio has it all. While here, don't miss a visit to Christ the Redeemer, a 98-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ that sits at the top of Mount Corcovado. After taking in the attraction's sweeping city views, head down to the coast for a stroll on world-famous Ipanema Beach.
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Costa Rica is a natural wonderland. The tropical country features volcanoes to hike and lush rainforests to traverse on foot or by zip line. Plus, it boasts a refreshingly laid-back culture. Relaxation-seekers can immerse themselves in the "pura vida" lifestyle and bask at the beaches in Guanacaste or along the Nicoya Peninsula's roughly 80 miles of coast. No visit would be complete without walking around historic San José and trying traditional delicacies like picadillo de chicasquil, a hash-like dish made with tree spinach.
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Some of South America's most incredible scenery can be found in Chilean Patagonia. Must-visit destinations here include Tierra del Fuego, the southeasternmost point of Chile, and the penguin-filled Isla Magdalena. Additionally, the area is home to storied sites like Cape Horn – the southernmost tip of South America that requires years of experience to expertly sail around – as well as Porvenir, a small settlement known for its charming Victorian houses and picturesque surroundings.
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The Galápagos Islands are best known for their colorful creatures, ranging from giant tortoises to seals to penguins. The islands are also famous for helping Charles Darwin develop his theory of natural selection. Today, animals still reign supreme (of the more than 120 islands, islets and rocks that comprise the Galápagos archipelago, only four are inhabited by humans). Getting here will cost you, as the remote islands sit about 600 miles off of the coast of Ecuador, but the plentiful wildlife-viewing opportunities make the trip worthwhile.
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Formerly the capital of the Inca Empire before it was invaded and occupied by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Cusco, Peru, showcases a unique blend of Andean and Spanish cultures. In the Plaza de Armas (a large square in the historic downtown area that once represented the exact center of the Inca Empire), visitors will find two Spanish churches – Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús and La Catedral. Cusco also features multiple museums that display various historical artifacts, including the Museo Inka and the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.
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Torres del Paine National Park#8 in Best Places to Visit in Central and South America
Reaching this remote national park in Chilean Patagonia isn't easy, but travelers say that beholding the ice fields of Grey Glacier and the soaring peaks of the Cuernos del Paine are more than worth the trip. And with 448,000-plus acres of diverse land to explore, visitors will find boredom near impossible. Some of Torres del Paine's most popular trails include the challenging W Trek (a multiday feat past stunning lakes, mountains and glaciers) and the easier Mirador Las Torres hike. Before venturing into the wild, be sure to stock up on essentials in a nearby city like Puerto Natales.
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Colorful colonial architecture and stunning beaches come together in this vibrant Colombian city on the Caribbean coast. The popular old town area, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features structures that date back to the 16th century, including a roughly 7-mile stretch of walls that helped fend off naval attacks for centuries. Today, the walls provide excellent vantage points for gazing at the city and sea. The nearby Rosario Islands, with highly regarded beaches and coral reefs, offer equally breathtaking vistas.
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Easter Island#10 in Best Places to Visit in Central and South America
A bucket list destination for travelers all over the world, this remote island (a Chilean territory) is about 2,000 miles off of the coast of Chile and enchants adventurers with its distinctive moai statues. These curious stone statues can be found throughout the island, but to ensure you don't miss the island's must-sees and unique history, hire a local guide to show you UNESCO World Heritage-listed Rapa Nui National Park. Of particular note is Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater located on the southeastern coast that was the main quarry for the moai.
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Quito#11 in Best Places to Visit in Central and South America
Not only does Quito, Ecuador, boast one of the highest elevations for a capital city (sitting more than 9,350 feet above sea level), but the entire city is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take time to get yourself acclimated to the altitude by admiring the historic city center's buildings, which are some of Latin America's best-preserved and least altered. To learn more about Ecuador and to view an impressive collection of pre-Colombian archaeology and Inca artifacts, peruse the Museo del Banco Central. When you're ready to climb higher, head to the TelefériQo gondola for unparalleled views of Quito.
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Overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Belize offers scenic shorelines and some of Central America's best dive sites. Snorkeling and diving in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the Great Blue Hole are major draws, but so are the country's ancient ruins and relaxing beaches. To see Xunantunich and Caracol, two of Belize's best-known Mayan ruins, venture about 75 miles southwest of Belize City to the Cayo District.
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Despite having a population of more than 9 million Peruvians, the capital of Peru is one of South America's best kept secrets. Its pre-Columbian roots and founding by Spanish conquistadors make it especially appealing to history enthusiasts. Travelers can tour everything from the active archaeological site at Huaca Pucllana to the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, one of the city's best examples of Hispano-American Baroque architecture. Following a busy day of sightseeing, visitors can get a taste of Lima's fresh seafood in popular local dishes like ceviche and conchas negras (black clams).
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It's hard not to fall in love with the wide boulevards, alluring architecture and Parisian-style cafes of Buenos Aires. In addition to its good looks, Argentina's capital city is teeming with culture. Plan to visit its world-class National Museum of Fine Arts, colorful Palermo neighborhood and bustling Corrientes Avenue, where you'll find an array of theaters, bars and tango clubs. Also save time for watching the city's residents, who proudly call themselves porteños, while sipping an espresso at a charming cafe.
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Bogotá#15 in Best Places to Visit in Central and South America
High in the Andes, the Colombian capital has seen a revival in tourism in recent years. Bogotá has been the cultural center of the country for centuries, offering architecturally interesting buildings that line charming cobblestone streets. To get an overview of the city's rich heritage, travelers should check out the Botero Museum's incredible art and the Gold Museum's priceless treasures. Additional must-dos include exploring the beautiful flora at Bogotá Botanical Garden and climbing Monserrate, a central hill with a church and shrine at its peak.
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