Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Central & South America
Nicknamed the King of the South, snow-capped Osorno Volcano is one of Chile’s most visible landmarks. Towering over Lake Todos Los Santos and Lake Llanquihue, the conical volcano can be seen from as far off as Chiloé. The volcano’s near perfect shape is the result of some 40 craters scattered along its base. The volcano has erupted 11 times during the 18th and 19th centuries, but always in these craters; never at its peak. Today, a windy road leads visitors to the base of a ski resort, where chairlifts ferry passengers to a point near the volcano’s peak — a worthwhile excursion even for non-skiers simply for the stellar views of the alpine lake below. Experienced climbers can make the full-day trek to the summit of Osorno.
The closest archaeological site to Lima is Pachacamac, a pre-Inca collection of sand-blasted pyramid temples and palaces spanning 1,500 years. Over the centuries the now-ruined city developed into one of the Inca’s most important religious and administrative centers.
Though all that remains is largely the rubble of walls and stepped foundations rising from the surrounding dusty desert, there are excavations and reconstructions to see, including a rebuilt Inca complex called House of the Chosen Women.
The site was inhabited by the Huari people prior to 800 AD, and later by the Inca, who built their Temple to the sun on the main square. Itshma was the name given to the state surrounding Pachacamac and the religious ceremonial temples built to honor the coastal deity, Pacha Camac.
As the oldest known city in the Americas, the archeological site of Caral is among Peru’s most impressive ruins and makes a popular day trip from nearby Lima. The UNESCO World Heritage listed site covers an area of around 60 hectares in the arid Supe Valley and was first inhabited between 2600 BCE and 2000 BCE.
Although initially discovered back in 1948, recent excavations of Caral revealed an elaborate complex of temples, sunken plazas and some of the largest terraced pyramids in the world, leading archeologists to ponder the possibility of Caral being the fabled ‘Mother City’ of ancient civilizations. Now open to the public, the site has garnered acclaim for its beautifully preserved ruins and intriguing collection of artifacts, which include a quipu (a unique knot system used by ancient Andean civilizations) and a number of musical instruments fashioned from animal bones, but significantly, no trace of warfare or weaponry.
Cartagena’s strategic significance as Europe’s conquest of the Americas intensified cannot be overstated. Some say that if the British had won the 1741 Battle of Cartagena, that South America would now speak English. They didn’t, largely because of massive El Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and most formidable Spanish colonial fortress in the hemisphere.
Begun in 1536, almost immediately after the conquistadors arrived, the massive megastructure sits atop San Lazaro Hill, with flawless views across the harbor. Bristling with cannons and other armaments, it was enlarged and re-fortified in 1657 and 1763 as part of an ongoing arms race against other European powers. A marvel of military engineering, the compound’s angles and parapets offer maximum coverage, and are connected by a warren of secret tunnels threading the mountain of stone.
Cartagena’s Catedral de San Pedro Claver, so close to the sea wall, seems unduly imposing for such a sanctified site. Begun in 1575, when this was a very rough neighborhood, its unfinished fortifications were destroyed in 1586 during a tiff with Sir Francis Drake and his pirate crew, and rebuilt by 1602.
Its namesake, San Pedro Claver Corberó, did not arrive until 1610. The Spanish-born priest arrived in Cartagena, then a slave-trading hub, as a novice priest. Horrified by the treatment of African captives, sold to a motley crew of middlemen on what’s now Plaza de los Coches, the young man became an activist, writing in his diary, “Pedro Claver, slave of the slaves forever (3 April 1622).”
Pedro would not only baptize newly enslaved arrivals right in the cathedral’s courtyard well (which was already controversial), but he would then explain to the newly saved that they deserved all the rights held by other Christian citizens of the Spanish Empire.
Cusco’s Cathedral of Santo Domingo is a colonial gem, boasting an altar of silver and a magnificently carved choir. The building stands on the site of an Inca palace, and was built from stone blocks removed from the nearby Inca city of Sacsayhuaman by the triumphant conquistadors.
The elaborately decorated cathedral was built from 1559 to 1654 on the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas, and is filled with colonial artworks, artifacts and richly decorated chapels. The most famous artwork is a Last Supper painting by Marcos Zapata featuring a meal of local guinea pig served with an Inca corn beverage. The highly ornamental facade features two domes flanking the chapels and nave, built in a Gothic-Renaissance hybrid style.
The Bridge of the Americas spans the Panama Canal, which is perhaps the most important public works project in history. Made of steel and reinforced concrete, the bridge is 5,425 feet long, and at high tide, the clearance is 201 feet, under which ships crossing the canal must pass.
Twenty million U.S. dollars went into building the four-lane bridge, which replaced smaller ones and greatly increased road travel and capacity over the canal. It was inaugurated on Oct. 12, 1962, and allows the passage of cars, bikes and pedestrians.
The Bridge of the Americas was originally called the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, named after the ferry that used to operate on the canal before the span was built. Panama aptly renamed the bridge, since it not only connects the capital with the rest of Panama, but also unites Central and South America.
A lush Atlantic rainforest, Tijuca National Park is an absolute wonder it is the world’s largest urban forest which covers 12.4mi² (32km²) and was a result of incredible forward thinking by Emperor Dom Pedro II.
In 1861 he saw the deforestation of the land around Rio and ordered that Tijuca be replanted to secure the water supply for future citizens. It was replanted over ten years ago and still plays a key role in making sure Rio has fresh water.
The national park includes the Corcodova which offers stunning views from its summit where the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer is situated. It also offers fantastic picnic areas, many waterfalls and some great walks.
Wildlife in the park includes insects, ocelots and howler monkeys. The reintroduction of birdlife has been particularly successful and it is a birdwatchers heaven.
More Things to Do in Central & South America
When Magellan passed through the strait bound for Chile for the first time, he cruised on past the tiny Magdalena Island, famous for its thousands of penguins. Today, travelers make it a point to stop at this scenic island that’s northeast of Punta Arenas to explore the rocky shores and get up close to the playful penguins.
Visitors can follow well-marked paths to a popular lighthouse for impressive views of the empty island, but it’s the friendly penguins that walk side-by-side with travelers that really draw tourists to this natural haven outside of the region’s capital.
Jaco Beach is known for its black sand beaches and close proximity to Costa Rica’s capital city. But it’s also widely recognized for its diverse landscapes, breathtaking beauty and endless options for outdoor fun. The vast shores and crystal blue waters attract as many out of town travelers as they do locals.
Travelers can learn to surf, snorkel and swim in the clear ocean waters off the coast of Jaco. And those who want to experience the diversity of Coast Rica’s ecological landscapes can tour nearby Manuel Antonio National Park, the Carara biological reserve or the Damas Island Estuary. There are rain forest canopy tours, whale watching trips and beach side horseback riding adventures, too. Whether visitors are looking to unwind or eager to explore the shores of Jaco Beach offer the best of both worlds to travelers.
Dazzling shoppers on Buenos Aires’ central Florida Street, the Guemes Gallery, or Galería Güemes, is one of the city’s finest gallerias, making headlines as the highest building in Argentina when it first opened in 1915. Designed by legendary Italian architect, Francesco Gianotti (the brains behind the landmark Confiteria del Molino building on Plaza Congresso), the domed atrium towers 87 meters over downtown Buenos Aires and still offers spectacular 360-degree panoramic views from its 14th floor observation deck.
A striking composition of Art Nouveau styles, the Gallery’s decadent interiors are a breathtaking college of ornamental archways, beautiful ironwork, sculpted granite walls and exquisite stained glass. The upper floor apartments are equally impressive, having hosted a smattering of famous names over the years, most notably writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, to whom a photography collection is devoted to on the 2nd level.
The textile mill at Awana Kancha is an entertaining and culturally-rich stop on the journey between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Set 30 minutes outside of the Cusco city center, this popular artisan outpost is a budget-friendly place to experience alpacas and Andean culture.
With no entry fee, visitors to Awana Kancha can marvel at traditionally-dressed women and the colorful textiles they spin before your eyes. Using the wool of alpacas, llamas, guanacos, and vicunyas, the women create patterns using natural dyes that have existed in the Andes since the time of the Inca. What’s more, in addition to the textiles, visitors have the chance to hand-feed llamas or nurse baby alpacas with milk from a bottle. The name Awana Kancha literally translates as the Palace of Weaving, and the fine works of handicraft which are on sale at the co-op are arguably nicer than you’ll find in larger markets.
Panama City's oldest surviving neighborhood is also its most defensible, a tejas-tiled cluster of primly painted colonial buildings at the tip of a heavily fortified peninsula. These ramparts successfully protected the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific Coast, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After decades of neglect, Casco Viejo is finally being revitalized. New hotels and restaurants, some quite elegant, are occupying the centuries-old buildings. Iconic landmarks like El Arco Chato (Flat Arch), which may date to neighborhood's founding in 1671; the 1798 Metropolitan Cathedral; and many other pretty plazas, palaces, markets, and gold-gilt churches have been refurbished, as have the narrow streets, draped in flowery French balconies, which connect them. Well worth a wander.
Palm-lined Amador Causeway is famed for the fantastic views of Panama's skyscraping downtown, a yacht-strewn panorama across the Panama Bay to the graceful steel span of the Bridge of the Americas at the entrance of the canal. Scenic running paths follow the water, paved with stones used in the Canal's construction, along a causeway that stretches almost 3km (2mi) into the Pacific, connecting the city to three small islands: Noas, Perico and Flamenco.
Visitors from around the city and world come to here to play, plied by upscale shopping centers and local vendors displaying their wares to crowds strolling the causeway. It's also the city's hippest nightlife district, home to elegant bars, casual clubs and other entertainment venues.
It is a mesmerizing scene, the massive machinery - some 700 tons of it, reinforced against the mighty Pacific - of iconic Miraflores Locks in operation. It is particularly impressive when Panamax barges, specifically designed to thread the world's most important shipping bottleneck with only centimeters to spare, slides through.
You can watch it all from the four-story Miraflores Visitor Center, a fascinating museum complex adjacent to the locks. Peruse the exhibits and enjoy the short film to fully appreciate the scale of the awesome undertaking that was the Panama Canal. Three observation decks and an onsite restaurant offer outstanding views.
Located four miles south from 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 approximately three square miles and is divided into various zones according to marine habitat. The most popular zone is called Hol Chan or “small channel” in Maya -- a 30-foot deep “cut” in the reef where all sorts of marine life have now gathered in one area, making it one giant aquarium. The channel has beautiful live corals and an abundant variety of fish that includes angelfish, turtles, nurse sharks, hog fish, snappers and many other species.
The second most popular zone of the reserve is Shark Ray Alley, a shallower area where nurse sharks and stingrays are plentiful. Grass beds and mangrove areas make up the other zones of the reserve and require a more personalized expert guide -- and while less visited.
Pacaya Volcano is considered Guatemala’s most active volcano and is believed to have first erupted approximately 23,000 years ago. Pacaya has erupted a number of times since and has had an active status since 1965. It stands at more than 8,300 feet (2.5 km) at its tallest point and is part of the Central American Volcanic Arc.
One of the most notable eruptions was in 2010, when Pacaya erupted multiple times in one day, raining ash on a number of towns, including part of Guatemala City. Schools and the airport were affected by the raincloud of ash, causing the president to declare a state of calamity. This was further complicated by torrential rain from Tropical Storm Agatha, which had caused flooding and landslides in the region. In March 2014, Pacaya erupted again, and officials discussed whether to evacuate several thousand people who lived near the volcano’s base. This eruption sent another huge ash cloud into the air and caused a number of flights to be diverted.
Quito’s unmissable historic center, or ‘Old Town,' extends over 320 hectares (790 acres) and is the largest historic center in the Americas.
Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Quito has taken great pride in restoring its colonial buildings and sprucing up its public spaces to ensure that both locals and visitors continue to breath life into the old town.
Life is certainly not lacking in Quito Old Town. The streets and plazas constantly buzz with colorful locals and vendors selling everything from roasted peanuts to giant roasted pigs,. Tourists drink it all in as they shuffle between the overwhelming number of restored churches and chapels, convents and monasteries, mansions and museums.
And of course, there are plenty of bars and restaurants and shady plazas to rest in when sightseeing fatigue kicks in.
A leisurely walk through the narrow streets of Old Town Cartagena, with bougainvillea spilling off second-floor balconies and brightly painted Colonial houses, invites visitors to escape into the past. The bustle of daily life mixes with the historical architecture of this walled city by the ocean. In addition to the beautiful boutique stores, numerous restaurants, and colorful street vendors, there are many treasures to see around town and just outside the city walls. The leafy Plaza de Bolivar serves as a good place to start a tour in Cartagena and to see some of the local culture and buy fruit from the colorfully dressed women known as palanqueras. Next to the plaza, the free Gold Museum (Museo de Oro) displays pieces that tell the history of the Zenú indigenous tribe. The nearby Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición) provides a rather gruesome look at Colombia’s past and the Spanish Inquisition -- some of the torture devices used on the accused are on display.
Not nearly as foreboding as it sounds, the Channel of Las Hope (Ultima Esperanza) is in fact a calm inlet stretching from Eberhard Fjord to Monte Balmaceda. In 1557, Spanish explorer Juan Ladrillero gave the channel its ominous name when he believed navigating it was his last opportunity to reach the Strait of Magellan, though he was met with a dead end.
Boat expeditions up the channel offer stellar views of Balmaceda Mountain and the Serrano Glacier — accessible via a short hike — where visitors walk on the surface of the glacier, visit ice caves or kayak amid ice bergs on Serrano Glacier Lake. Wildlife enthusiasts can spot cormorants, sea lions, dolphins and a variety of shore birds nesting along the banks of the channel.
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.