the 10 best travel experiences in South America
be sure to also check out the experiential travel-list [part I]: around the world
Experiential travel is a darn good way of inspiring more immersive endeavors on the road. It can be just about anything beyond traditional sightseeing, but in South America, the options for experience are particularly high adrenaline! From excursions to extreme heights, to strenuous treks, to tasting unfamiliar flavors, to encounters with rare wildlife, to dancing to salsa rhythms, to… well? Let’s just say there’s a pretty long list of incredible things to experience in South America.
We’ve been to Colombia and Brazil ourselves, but what are two Asia enthusiasts to do when creating a South America list such as this? Enlist the most well-traveled folks we know, of course! We asked some of our favorite travel bloggers.
If you’re planning a trip through South America (lucky you!), these are the 10 experiences not to miss:
10 best travel experiences in South America
1. Exploring the Galapagos (Ecuador)
The Galapagos is famed for its unmatched assortment of biodiversity. Go for the one-of-a-kind wildlife experiences, for unmarred beaches, and for a glimpse at flora unique to the islands. While a boat trip booked from the USA can run upwards of $4,000, you shouldn’t let price stop you! If you’ve got more time than money, and a genuine interest in going, show up in Quito for a while. Operators often run flash sales and you can get the trip for a lot less!
Lance + Laura of Travel Addicts say: “One of the most amazing experiences in South America is a visit to the Galapagos Islands. Off the coast of Ecuador, this archipelago is a naturalist’s dream – dozens of species that have evolved into completely endemic groups. Both above and below the water, the Galapagos amazes visitors who have a thirst for learning about nature. It’s easy to see why this was the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
2. Salsa Dancing (Colombia)
South America is a continent celebrated for its rhythms. From tango to salsa to cumbia, you could spend years learning to dance as the South Americans do (or at least trying to). Colombian Cali-style salsa is definitely not your standard, so dancing in a salsa bar alongside those who have spent their whole life learning can be awfully intimidating. If you find yourself in Cali or Medellín, sign up for a salsa class or two before heading to one of the city’s many salsa bars for a real encounter with Colombian salsa culture.
We say: “While I wouldn’t say our salsa dancing attempts were particularly successful, I would have loved to take some private lessons to gain some confidence over the skill. The ambiance of salsa bars is pretty phenomenal, and as a part of local nightlife and culture, salsa dancing in Colombia is a key experience in South America.”
3. Climbing to Skylodge (Peru)
Skylodge is definitely not the kind of hotel you go to “just to crash”. In fact, after climbing 400 meters via ferrata and braving cable bridges at extreme heights, we expect you won’t be feeling so restful at all. Ever seen those transparent, geometric pods suspended off the edge of a Peruvian cliff, some 1,200 feet high? That would be Skylodge, and truly adventurous travelers can sleep and dine there. After the climb up, rest in your pod, enjoy a gourmet meal, and take in a full universe of stars as you fall asleep — we bet you’ll need it for the zip-line ride down.
Jonathan of Two Monkeys Travel says: “In the heart of the Sacred Valley of Cusco, Peru, surrounded on all sides by towering snow-capped mountains and steeped in the magic of ancient Incan culture and folklore, sits the scariest hotel in the world! Perched high on the valley wall, the three space-age aluminium and Perspex ‘sleeping pods’ are suspended by cables from the rock, with stunning panoramic views of the whole area. Jonathan spent an entire day scaling the vertical rock face by ‘via ferrata’ to reach this precarious piece of luxury and became one of the lucky few to stand upon, and step inside, the one-of-a-kind Skylodge!”
4. Scaling the Pichincha Volcano (Ecuador)
Quito is a city characterized by its volcanoes; if you find yourself in the colonial town, the Pichincha Volcano is not just a must see, but a must climb. While you can get to the top with the Quito Teleferico, we recommend braving the ascent on foot — the views from some 15,000+ feet above sea level can give you an entirely new perspective on the city. Insider tip: be sure to start early to miss the crowds and clouds, and bring along plenty of food and water to avoid paying a premium up top.
Illia + Nastia of CrazzzyTravel.com say: “Hiking at Pichincha Volcano, located at the outskirts of the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, was one of the most amazing experiences of our trip to South America. It was our first time to hike at the elevation of 4,784 m (15,696 ft). Surprisingly, we didn’t feel any signs of altitude disease. At the same time the scenery was just stunning: we were surrounded by the wild mountain grasses, mules, wandering around as if they had no masters, breathtaking view of Quito, and unbelievably fresh air we’ve never breathed in before.”
Learn about the trek and more wild excursions at Crazzzy Travel!
5. Spectating a Soccer Game (Brazil)
Futebol may as well be synonymous with Brazil — perhaps there’s no better way to learn about Brazilian culture than by spectating a soccer game. Professional games are played almost year around with the main season running from May to December. Snag tickets from a local friend, hotel staff, or at the box office if you’ve got your Portuguese down. And, oh yeah… don’t forget to scream “GOL!” when your team scores.
We say: “Stunning — that’s the bottom line. For most games, the crowd will start cheering about 5 minutes before kick-off, and so long as the game remains competitive, the crowd won’t stop cheering until the final whistle is blown. Go for the atmosphere and no less than 3 Skol beers. The sounds will take over your senses for about 90 minutes and you will experience some incredible, quality football. ”
Kicking off an adventure of your own? Check out more about how to watch Brazilian Soccer.
6. Trekking in Patagonia (Argentina/Chile)
Perhaps the most surreal landscapes on the South American continent can be found in Patagonia. From the wilds of Torres del Paine to the spectacular El Chaltén, a trip through Patagonia is not only incredible, but unmissable. Looking for the best experience in Patagonia? The 5-day W-Trek comes highly recommended. You’ll venture amongst Patagonia’s most celebrated sites (Los Torres, Los Cuernos, Valle Frances, Paine Grande, and Glacier Grey), camp in unmarred wilderness, and experience one of natures most impressive yet fleeting marvels.
Lia of Bad Girl Lili says: “I recommend hiking in Torres del Paine because, as you’ve seen in photos, it’s incredible. I’d also say visiting El Chalten is amazing, and seeing the penguins outside of Punta Arenas is worth the trip. Finally you shouldn’t miss El Bolson in Northern Patagonia! It’s the fun hippie sister of Bariloche. There are lots of WWOOF-ing opportunities there, and it’s an agricultural paradise.”
For more gypsy adventures, follow Bad Girl Lili’s adventures on Instagram!
7. Cooking Classes (Peru)
Why just eat delicious food when you can learn to make it too? While the modern eateries have earned Peru its status on the global foodie scene, traditional Peruvian cuisine has drawn travelers for years; there’s plenty more to eat than Cuy (but you should try that too!). Because you can’t pack lomo saltado in your carry on, try your hand at a cooking class and bring back all those delicious recipes with you instead.
Michelle of And Off We Went says: “My 10 year old daughter and I did a cooking class with a local restaurant in Arequipa, Peru called Zingaro. We got to try our hand at making Causita de Pollo, Lomo Saltado and even a Pisco Sour. We had fun watching the chef in the kitchen, preparing the food and sitting down to enjoy our meal at the end. Definitely a change from the usual sightseeing.”
Discover more about Peru and other world schooling adventures at And Off We Went.
8. Hiking the Inca Trail (Peru)
One of South America’s most iconic travel experiences is hiking the Inca Trail. While there are quite a few routes that lead adventurers to Machu Picchu, the classic experience is the 4-day, 82km trek past some of the Andes’ most beautiful scenery that enters the park through Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate. Permits are limited to 500 per day (and run out quickly), so be sure to check permit availability before planning the rest of your trip!
Simone of The Aussie Flashpacker says: “One of the highlights of my trip to South America was hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail had been at the top of my bucket list forever and despite being one of the toughest physical & mental challenges I have ever faced, it was even more amazing than I imagined it would be! The whole experience was incredible from the scenery we hiked through to the support we received from our friendly, wonderful porters (& the delicious three course meals they cooked us), to the feeling when we finally stumbled into Machu Picchu to explore this sacred site four days after starting our pilgrimage. It was a travel experience I will never forget and will be hard to beat!”
Explore the best in adventure and luxury travel with the Aussie Flashpacker!
9. Celebrating Carnival (Brazil)
Carnival is technically a celebration that precedes Lent, but more accurately it is just a giant celebration of Brazilian culture. The most important event, arguably, is the the parade in Rio de Janeiro. It brings to life Brazil’s national dance, Samba. And while Carnival in Rio is the most world renowned, the Carnival celebrations in Salvador, Recife, Belem, and Natal are all worth the trip. It will be a whole different dip into Brazilian culture and make you wish you could shake your hips like the Brazilians can.
We say: “You can spectate just about anything from gay balls, to football matches, to concerts, but most significantly, Carnival celebrates Samba, Brazil’s national dance. All year around, you’ll find Samba schools in Rio, practicing for Carnival. We’d also recommend going for the cultural experience. It’s a whole lot of friendly Brazilians who are off work for a week, so they’ll be rearing for an 150 hour party. I hope you are ready to stay out until 5:00am. We did!”
10. Cycling Death Road (Bolivia)
The North Yungas Road, lovingly nicknamed “Death Road” and “the world’s deadliest road” is a downhill bikers heaven (um…). With an impressive 40 miles of downhill road, Death Road attracts over 25,000 travelers each year in spite of the turns and narrow spots that give the road its ominous name. Death Road is an experience that all thrill seekers in South America should have. While there are fatalities on the road each year, our opinion is to be brave, gear up, and get to it!
John + Kach of Two Monkeys Travel says: “Starting at 4,650 meters and descending to 1,200 meters, the deadly combination of up to 600 meter drops, no guardrails, large vehicles and landslides claims on average 300 lives per year, including buses, trucks and even tourists transiting the deadly route. ” On a scale of 1-5, they gave this experience a 5 out of 5. We’d say that’s to die for.
Let Two Monkeys Travel show you how to cycle (and live through) Bolivia’s Death Road!
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In South America, experiential travel can be pretty darn thrilling. From spectating soccer games in Brazil, to trekking the Inca Trail, to exploring the Galapagos, let’s just say there’s a long list of amazing things to do in South America. If you’re planning a trip through South America (lucky you!), these are the 10 experiences not to miss.
Alright, has anyone had these experiences in South America? Anything we missed? Share them with us in the comments below.