Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Central & South America
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 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.
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.
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.
Keeping a watchful eye over the people of Rio de Janeiro, the iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue (Cristo Redentor) sits atop Corcovado Mountain at 2,300 feet (700 meters) above the city. Unveiled in 1931 and voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, this impressive monument is often credited as the most iconic site in Brazil.
The lost city of Machu Picchu is the most famous archaeological site in Peru and, arguably, all of South America. The UNESCO World Heritage–listed collection of temples, terraced hills, and plazas was once the mountaintop citadel of the ancient Inca empire. It may now be world famous, but Machu Picchu still hasn't revealed the mysteries behind its construction, function, and eventual demise.
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.
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.
A postcard-perfect paradise of white-sand beaches, swaying coconut palms, and sapphire-blue water rife with marine life, Tortuga Island (Isla Tortuga) is an ideal spot to swim, snorkel, or bask in the sunshine. The island is only accessible from Costa Rica’s main cities via a scenic boat ride across the Gulf of Nicoya—an extra perk for your vacation.
Although visitors once flocked to Arenal Volcano for its impressive lava shows, the 5,437-foot (1,657-meter) volcano has stayed quiet since its last eruption in 2010. However, Arenal and the surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park remain a hot spot for visitors to Costa Rica, and is especially popular among those seeking hiking trails, swimming holes, hot springs, bird- and wildlife-watching, and sweeping views of the tropical rain forest.
More Things to Do in Central & South America
With brightly-colored buildings, colonial landmarks, and bougainvillea-covered balconies, Old Town Cartagena is known for its beauty and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Highlights include the leafy Plaza de Bolivar, the striking Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj), and the Gold Museum (Museo de Oro).
Some historians say that if it weren’t for San Felipe de Barajas Castle (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas), South America would now speak English. The 14th-century fortress protected the coastal city of Cartagena from English invasion, allowing the Spanish to maintain their rule. Besides the role it plays in Colombia’s history, the castle attracts visitors with its panoramic harbor views.
The mighty Amazon River and its enormous, thickly forested basin are the heart of South America and the guardian of 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh water. Visitors from around the globe come to Iquitos to cruise the river’s storied waters and catch a glimpse of diverse fauna both above and below the surface.
Panama’s Monkey Island on Lake Gatun is home to four monkey species—mantled howler, white-faced capuchin, Geoffroy’s tamarin, and lemurine owl monkeys)—as well as crocodiles, toucans, sloths, iguanas, and numerous exotic birds. Riverboat tours to the island offer visitors the chance to observe the monkeys and other wildlife.
It’s easy to see why Rio de Janeiro was nicknamed the “Marvelous City” when you’re gazing down at it from the heights of Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Açúcar). From its soaring 1,300-foot (396-meter) summit, the city unfolds around you, with views of the iconic Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, the Tijuca Forest, and the Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue standing tall atop Corcovado Mountain to the west.
Tall and cone-shaped, the modernist Rio de Janeiro Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao) doesn’t look like a typical church. The unusual design was constructed between 1964 and 1979 by architect Edgar Fonseca. One of Rio’s most important religious structures, it is dedicated to St. Sebastian, the city’s patron saint.
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.
Bogotá’s main square is built on a grand scale, from a landmark statue of Simón Bolívar to the 16th-century La Catedral Primada. In between is a colorful crowd of vendors, travelers, and downtown workers. A starting point for exploring the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, the Plaza de Bolivar is a key stop for visitors to Bogotá.
With sweeping plains, rocky mountain trails, and glassy lagoons, Ecuador’s largest and most-visited national park is a spectacular setting for an outdoor adventure. Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Cotopaxi National Park is most famous for the much-photographed Cotopaxi volcano, the highest active volcano in South America.
Panama City's oldest and hippest neighborhood comprises a Tejas-tiled cluster of pastel colonial buildings at the tip of a heavily fortified peninsula. These ramparts successfully protected the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific Coast; today they make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with plazas, churches, and narrow streets.
A cluster of tiny islands off the Peruvian coast, the Ballestas Islands (Islas Ballestas) are often touted as the “Peruvian Galapagos,” famed for their spectacular variety of birdlife and rugged coastline of soaring cliffs, rocky beaches, and remote sea caves.
Decorated with more than 2,000 brightly colored tiles in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the Selarón Steps (Escadaria Selarón) is one of Rio de Janeiro's most vibrant and striking landmarks, marking the boundary between the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods.
The world-famous Panama Canal is a must-see for visitors to Panama City, but to fully appreciate it, head to the Miraflores Locks. The engineering marvel in action is a mesmerizing scene, with some 700 tons (635 tonnes) of machinery, reinforced against the mighty Pacific, and cargo-laden ships squeezing through with just inches to spare.
Rio de Janeiro’s legendary Copacabana Beach evokes images of white-sand shores, sun-kissed volleyball players, tourists sipping agua de coco out of bright green coconuts, and bikini-clad revelers partying long into the night. And for the most part, that’s pretty accurate. Add in a touch of local carioca (Rio residents) flavor and a splash of the obscure, and it becomes obvious how thousands of people easily spend entire days (and nights) wholly entertained on the world’s most famous beach.