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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Central & South America

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Panama Canal
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By any estimation among the grandest public works projects in the history of humankind, the Panama Canal is an engineering triumph that cost US$350 million, claimed some 27,000 lives, and transformed global trade forever. Today, it is undergoing a massive and politicized US$5.3 billion retrofit, reinforcing its place as the strategic lynchpin of world shipping, surrounded with international intrigue on a scale we civilians can only imagine. Travelers can enjoy the canal in several ways, beginning with the excellent Miraflores Locks Visitor Center just outside the capital. More ambitious explorers can book a variety of tours taking in all or part of the 77km (48mi) trip across the continent.
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Tijuca National Park (Parque Nacional da Tijuca)
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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.

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Jaco Beach
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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.

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Bridge of the Americas (Puente de las Americas)
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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.

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Awana Kancha
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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.

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Magdalena Island (Isla Magdalena)
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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.

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Casco Viejo
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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.

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Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador)
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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.

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Miraflores Locks
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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.

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Quito Old Town
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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.

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More Things to Do in Central & South America

Old Town Cartagena

Old Town Cartagena

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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.

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Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

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Rincon de La Vieja National Park is one of the country’s most diverse ecological areas. Surrounding two volcanoes, Rincon (active) and Santa Maria (dormant), the park is also home to an extraordinary display of local flora and fauna, while being a part of the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste World Heritage site.

While the plant life is impressive on its own, especially considering the enormous concentration of purple orchids here, it’s the concentration of volcanoes that really wows visitors. The Rincon de La Vieja volcano gave rise to the park’s name and contains nine separate but contiguous craters. It is one of the largest of the five volcanoes in the Guanacaste region and is believed to be over a million years old. Despite being considered active, it has not erupted since the early 1980s. The park does see a lot of volcanic activity, including vents, fumaroles and boiling mud pots and has at least 32 rivers that flow down its sides.

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Channel of Last Hope (Ultima Esperanza)

Channel of Last Hope (Ultima Esperanza)

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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.

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Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano

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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.

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Lost City (Ciudad Perdida)

Lost City (Ciudad Perdida)

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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.

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Gumbalimba Park

Gumbalimba Park

6 Tours and Activities
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Puerto Madero

Puerto Madero

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Once a lackluster cargo port, the waterfront area of Puerto Madero is now one of Buenos Aires’ most fashionable districts, teeming with upmarket restaurants and glitzy nightclubs. Marooned from the mainland by the Rio de la Plata estuary, the largely pedestrianized island is celebrated for housing some of the city’s most architecturally stunning buildings. Luxury apartments, plush hotels and high-rise office towers dominate the area, encircling a stylish waterfront plaza and backed by an expanse of naturally preserved parkland.

The barrio’s pièce de résistance is the iconic Puente de la Mujer, or the Woman’s Bridge, an artistic swing-bridge that connects Puerto Madero to the mainland hub of Plaza de Mayo. The futuristic design by Spanish sculpture Santiago Calatrava, is said to symbolize an abstract tango dance and casts a striking silhouette on the city skyline.

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Recoleta

Recoleta

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The ritzy Recoleta neighborhood draws visitors in the numbers for a wander through Buenos Aires’ up-market residential streets and public parks.

For most visitors, the main attraction is the Recoleta Cemetery, an ornate necropolis so large it’s like a mini city of states and marble sarcophagi. One of the most famous tombs is that of Eva Peron (Evita).

The enclave also attracts thousands of people for its weekend crafts market, held on Plaza Francia outside the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

Museums and art galleries, lovely plazas and parklands are another feature of Recoleta.

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Plaza Sotomayor

Plaza Sotomayor

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This one-stop Valparaiso destination is home to plenty of Chilean history, art and culture. As a result, travelers will find lots to explore on a visit to Plaza Sotomayor. Named after Rafael Sotomayor, this popular city square lies in the middle of the city’s historic district. Visitors can get up close to the Chilean Navy headquarters, and pay homage to fallen sailors at the plaza’s central monument dedicated to the Battle of Iquique. Afterwards travelers can make a stop at the National Council of Culture and the Arts before wandering to the nearby Customs House or Estacion Puerto, where commuter trains arrive and depart from other Chilean cities.

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Ascensor El Peral

Ascensor El Peral

39 Tours and Activities

Ascensor El Peral may not be Valparaiso’s oldest elevator, but visitors say this classic ascensor offers a quick trip to Cerro Alegre and the city’s Museu de Bellas Artes. The rickety ride saves travelers the trouble of climbing steep—if scenic—slopes. While the trip itself isn’t necessarily picturesque, quiet overlooks offer up a chance to take in the view. Visitors can take another ascensor, the nearby Concepcion—the city’s oldest elevator, down the hills for a slightly different look at the landscapes.

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Paseo Gervasoni

Paseo Gervasoni

33 Tours and Activities

Travelers who want a taste of culture and local life will find what they seek on a stroll through the Paseo Gervasoni. This popular walking street winds through massive murals of colorful art depicting images of daily life, portraits of famous Chileans and abstract drawings as well. Visitors say it is an outdoor Mecca where travelers can soak up brilliant local artwork while they also soak up the sun.

Incredible views of the crystal blue bay provide the perfect opportunity to watch ships sail in and out of the bustling harbor and a variety of restaurants, cafes and bars offer outdoor seating that’s ideal for people-watching.

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Tierra del Fuego National Park

Tierra del Fuego National Park

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Running north from the Beagle Channel, the Tierra del Fuego National Park offers visitors the chance to follow easy walking trails along scenic rivers and bays. The park’s forests of beech are home to coastal birds such as cormorants and albatross. Argentina’s only coastal national park protects the southernmost stretch of Andean-Patagonian forest, ideal for hiking, climbing and outdoor water sports. Bring a kayak to sail from remote beaches, and your binoculars to spot otters, beavers, petrels and condors. Walking trails lead to the park’s beaver dam, a lookout over the stunning coastal scenery of Lapataia Bay, and around Lago Roca. A seaside trail connects Ensenada and Lapataia for more lovely views of the coast. Campers can stay overnight in the park at campsites at Pipo, Ensenada and Lago Roca.
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Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Hol Chan Marine Reserve

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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.

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Cerro Concepcion

Cerro Concepcion

57 Tours and Activities

Perhaps the most scenic of Valparaiso’s popular cerros, Cerro Concepcion is home to quaint shops, unique art galleries and picturesque views of the stunning Chilean countryside—as well as a whole lot of rolling hills. On clear days visitors can gaze out over the dunes of Concon and even see as far as far off Vina.

The climb to Cerro Concepcion may be steep, but quiet cafes perfect for people watching offer up the ideal place for travelers to catch their breath. Afterwards, the hidden side streets, colorful murals decorating old building walls and spectacular views offer up enough reason to wander slowly from the heights of Valparaiso Heaven back to the reality down below.

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