Things to Do in Central & South America
On the shores of the Guatapé Dam and surrounded by lush islands, the 19th-century town of Guatapé is one of Colombia’s most photographed sites. It’s not hard to see why—the town’s brightly painted buildings and serene natural setting make for some stunning shots.
Selvatura Park is a popular nature-adventure park in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Located just outside Monteverde, the park contains over 850 acres (344 hectares) of ecologically diverse forest. Attractions include zipline and suspension bridge tours, hummingbird and butterfly gardens, natural history walks, and reptile exhibitions.
The star attraction of the Cerro Verde National Park is also its most menacing – the Santa Ana Volcano (Volcán Ilamatepec), El Salvador’s biggest and most active volcano, last erupting as recently as 2005, when the force of the eruption flung car-sized rocks for more than 1.5 km.
Scaling the 2,381-meter peak of Santa Ana is a popular challenge for hikers, a 1.5-hour trail climbing up from the scenic San Blas Plateau and affording spectacular views of the neighboring Coatepeque caldera and Izalco volcano. From the summit, the views span the entire National Park, but equally impressive is the otherworldly terrain found at the top of the volcano and hikers can walk around the rim of the crater, looking out over the four nested calderas and an emerald green crater lake.
Iguaçu Falls (Cataratas do Iguaçu), the largest waterfalls system in the world, are truly awe-inspiring to behold. Though Argentina boasts better trails around the falls, Brazil is blessed with the best views of this natural marvel’s 275 separate cascades, which span the border between the two countries. Take in full-frontal views of Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo), San Martin Island, and more from the short-but-sweet catwalks that wind their way around the Brazilian side of Iguaçu Falls.
Once the site of a quiet fishing village, Tamarindo Beach has become one of Costa Rica's most popular stretches of golden sand. Surfers travel from across the globe to ride Tamarindo's waves, but you don’t need to be a pro to hang 10 here. There are spots nearby that are calm enough for first-time wave riders to learn.
The narrow Beagle Channel, separating Argentina's island chain of Tierra del Fuego to the north from remote Chilean islands to the south, serves as a waterway for the world's southernmost city, Ushuaia. It’s also one of the most important bodies of water in South America.
The largest rain forest on Earth, the Amazon spans more than 2 million square miles (5.5 million square kilometers). Home to around 40,000 species of plants, several thousand species of birds, more than 400 mammals, and millions of different insects, it’s one of the planet’s vital organs—and an adventurer’s playground.
The attractively designed and well-run Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve grew out of a mission by a couple of American expatriates to care for stressed-out birds that had been mistreated as pets. Biologist Lloyd Davidson and business partner Pat Merritt purchased nine acres containing old-growth mahogany, Spanish cedar, fig trees, and other local species. They opened to the public in 2003 and now take care of more than 100 birds.
In a wooded area interspersed with coffee plants, the residents stay in large aviaries visitors can walk through, but get out in controlled sessions to climb on visitors’ shoulders. Tropical birds, owls, and hawks recover from past abuse while eating a proper diet. Butterflies and wild parakeets make a regular appearance while orchids line many of the trails. If the tropical heat gets to be too much, there’s a cool natural bathing hole on site.
Appropriate to the name, there are five kinds of Macaws at this bird park, though occasionally some leave to go live on their own. Many species of parrots and toucans make this a colorful—and noisy—place to visit.
Part of the property was previously a coffee plantation, so those plants live on and are harvested for shade-grown coffee. Beans from here and another farm the owners have go into the coffee brewed and sold by the bag on site. There’s also a historic coffee roasting house for demonstrations.
The snow-capped cone of Osorno Volcano is one of Chile’s most recognizable landmarks. Towering over Lake Todos Los Santos and Lake Llanquihue in the Andean mountain range, Osorno is the starting point of Chilean Patagonia and is a magnet for adventurous outdoor enthusiasts who come here to ski, hike, and trek.
Genipabu is a beach village known for its large sand dunes and freshwater lagoons. There are a few different ways to explore the mounds of shifting sand, with varying degrees of adrenaline — from camel rides to sand buggies to sand-boarding (esquibunda or skibunda) down the hot dunes and into the cool water.
The winds shifting across the sand means that the landscape of Genipabu is always changing. The sands pile up into dunes that rise and fall, creating ridges and mounds across the shores and eventually plunging into the sea. Certain areas of the dunes are accessible only by certified dune buggy drivers, who will ask if you want your ride “with emotion” or without, to determine the level of desired thrills. Sand boarding into the lagoons’ fresh water is a great way to beat the heat.
No matter the method of adventure you choose, the unique landscape and natural beauty of both the sand and water at Genipabu is worth seeing. Afternoon is a particularly popular time to visit, with the sunset being a highlight for many.
More Things to Do in Central & South America
Around 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) south of the shores of Ambergris Caye, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the most-visited snorkeling and diving area in Belize. Part of the Belize Barrier Reef, the reserve covers about 3 square miles (7.7 square kilometers) and is divided into zones according to marine habitat.
With its parched desert plains and wind-sculpted topography, it’s easy to see how Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) earned its name. The sharp sandstone peaks, glittering salt deposits, and crater-like depressions make for some dramatic photographs, and watching the sunset over the valley is an unforgettable experience.
The first ships sailed through the Panama Canal in 1914, shaving nearly 9,000 miles off what was otherwise a very long sailing trip around South America. The engineering marvel transformed global trade, and today, 100 years after it was first installed, the canal has once again been expanded with new locks and widened existing ones, modernizing Panama Canal transit by allowing larger ships to pass from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean side to Colon on the Atlantic Ocean side.
At Mindo Butterfly Farm (Mariposas de Mindo)—tucked in the ethereal Ecuadorian cloud forest region—get up close and personal with more than 1,000 species of butterflies at all stages of the life cycle. Even travelers not crazy about butterflies will be charmed by the small koi pond, fluttering hummingbirds, and picturesque surroundings.
Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfalls system in the world, are truly awe-inspiring to behold, spanning the border between Brazil and Argentina. Though Brazil boasts better views of the falls, Argentina is blessed with about 80 percent of this natural marvel’s 275 separate cascades. Paved trails and catwalks wind their way around the falls—sometimes reaching within an arm’s length of the water—and a free train connects the main trailheads.
Looking down over the city from its hilltop perch, the Sebastian de Belalcázar Statueand Viewpointis one of Cali’s most iconic landmarks, erected in honor of the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1536. Built in celebration of the city’s 400th birthday, the statue depicts Belalcázar leaning on his sword and pointing towards the ocean as he looks out over the city below.
As well as being an important monument, the Sebastian de Belalcázar Statue also marks one of Cali’s most popular lookout points, with views stretching out over the city below. For the most atmospheric experience, visit in the evening hours when locals gather to watch the sunset and food vendors and street entertainers work their way through the crowds.
Towering 10,341 feet (3,152 meters) tall at the edge of Bogotá, forested Mt. Monserrate (Cerro de Monserrate) can be spotted from across the city. Set like a pearl on the summit is the Monserrate Sanctuary, a 17th-century church whose shrine is a major pilgrimage place for Colombian Catholics.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is the archaeological site of an ancient indigenous city in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thought to have been a commercial center for trade around 700 A.D., its population probably ranged between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants. Hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years, the Lost City was found in 1972 when treasure hunters followed a series of stone steps leading up to an abandoned city.
The Lost City is open to visitors, but the trip is not for the faint of heart. The nearly 30 mile trek takes visitors through farmland and jungle on an unforgettable six-day journey. Part of the adventure includes trekking over mountains filled with exotic plants and animals, climbing stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in indigenous villages.
Upon arriving at Lost City, climb more than 1,000 stone steps to the top of the site for incredible views of the surrounding mountains and jungle. Take time to explore the more than 250 stone terraces that were carved out of the mountainside, each of which was a space for living and working. The different areas of the city were joined to the fields by a network of cobbled paths and stairs, and an irrigation system channels rainwater downhill to avoid damage and erosion.
Members of local tribes, including the Arhuacos, Koguis, and others, continue to maintain many of their ancestral beliefs and customs. They visited the site regularly before it was widely discovered, and gave it the name Teyuna. This trek takes you through some of their villages where life has remained unchanged for centuries.
With its succulent meat markets, charming Old Town, and easygoing pace of life, Montevideo is one of the most underrated cities in South America. Far less crowded than Buenos Aires across the Rio de Plata, Montevideo has a leisurely vibe as relaxing as it is welcome. This isn’t to say it’s slow, however, as the bustle of people on the waterfront is one of the city’s highlights. Officially, the Rambla of Montevideo (Rambla de Montevideo) stretches 13.5 miles along the city’s waterfront. Here you’ll find joggers, walkers, and skaters all enjoying the riverfront parks, or maybe children just flying a kite while their parents sip mate in the shade. It’s the public gathering place to take in the sun or simply go for a stroll, and on the warmer days of summer and fall, is the place to pack a bikini or board shorts and spend a day on the beach. Given its length, the Rambla is broken into many zones for different parts of the city, and one of the most popular is Rambla Sur which runs the length of the Old Town. Head to the section by Playa Pocitos for the popular, wide sandy beach, and if you like to start your day with the sun, there’s nothing better than a sunrise jog along the Uruguay coast.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park is the ultimate “one-stop shop” for Costa Rica’s natural attractions. Expect fuming volcanoes, gushing waterfalls, sky-high ziplines, natural hot springs, and more—all within just a couple of hours of the popular Guanacaste coast.
Visitors to Fort Bulnes, located atop an unforgiving hillside, will surely take note of the unprecedented lengths colonizers went to in order to stake their claim on such inhospitable land.
Ancient shipwrecks that line the coastal route between this popular destination and Punta Arenas serve as a reminder of just how treacherous travel could be. While the fort’s museum, which explores the colonization history in Southern Chile and replicas of a historic church, jail, post office and stables are definitely worth the trip, visitors agree that it’s the epic views from scenic trails and the ancient watchtower that prove to be most memorable.
Totumo Volcano (El Totumo) ranks among Cartagena’s most popular day trips. A small volcanic caldera has become a top attraction—a naturally heated bath of grayish brown silt. After bobbing around in the soupy mix, head to the lagoon next door to wash off the mineral-rich mud, thought to have therapeutic properties.
With 15 gigantic stone-carved moai lined up on a 200-foot-long platform and a remote location framed by the looming Rano Raraku volcano and the crashing ocean, Ahu Tongariki is nothing short of spectacular. For many visitors, this is the star attraction of Easter Island, and looking up at the towering figures, the largest of which stands 14 meters tall, it’s hard not to be in awe of the Rapa Nui people, who achieved the seemingly impossible feat of carving and moving the 30-ton stone boulders to their waterfront perch.
Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial site ever made on the island, featuring the largest number of moai ever erected on a single site, and each statue is unique, with only one featuring the iconic red-rock “pukao,” or ceremonial headdress. Even more astounding, considering the size and weight of the statues, is that the site was almost completely destroyed by a tsunami in 1960, with the rocks flung more than 90 meters inland. The ahu has since been painstakingly restored, a project that took Chilean archaeologists Claudio Cristino and Patricia Vargas five years and was finally completed in 1995.
This 8,373-foot (2,552-meter) smoking peak is one of Guatemala’s most accessible active volcanoes. Its upper reaches feature lava formations formed by recent flows, as well as vents that puff up steaming hot air, while its summit affords spectacular views of nearby volcanoes including Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego.