Central America and South America both offer a wide range of travel destinations, from lush rainforests to ancient archaeological sites. Consequently, deciding on a single vacation destination from all available superb options can appear daunting. To assist, Gotripguide.com ranked the top destinations in both regions based on criteria such as culture, dining, attractions, traveler ballots, and expert opinions.
20+ Destinations to Visit in Northern America
Do you have a preferred location within these regions? Vote below to help us determine the top Central and South American travel destinations.
1- Argentine Patagonia
This region of the Andes is nothing short of enchanting. As far as the eye can see, cobalt lakes, azure glaciers, verdant trees, and turquoise skies dominate the landscape. In fact, Charles Darwin once characterized Argentine Patagonia as “limitless” due to its expansive landscapes. Visit the Lake District of Argentina, and you’ll find villages nestled against snowy mountain peaks. Whales can be seen drifting through Peninsula Valdés’ marine wildlife sanctuary if you travel east. In Southern Patagonia, you will encounter deserts that extend into rugged estancias (cattle ranges) and dissolving glaciers. And if you proceed down to the Chilean border at Cape Horn, you will encounter an expansive horizon that extends to the icy edge of Antarctica. Patagonia’s grandeur is limitless.
However, avoid being deceived by the vastness of the frontier; Argentine Patagonia’s rapidly developing infrastructure provides easy access to all main attractions. Rustic highways lead to stunning natural attractions such as the Perito Moreno Glacier and Mount Fitz Roy. Explore this gorgeous landscape to find a region teeming with life. Magellanic penguins and albatross exist in the Punta Tombo conservation reserve, while history remains intact on the walls of the Cave of the Hands.
2- Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is a great place to go if you want to take photos and have a journey you’ll never forget. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is in a tropical Peruvian forest about 8,000 feet above sea level. The only way to get there is to walk the 27-mile Inca Trail or take the train to Aguas Calientes. Once they get there, tourists can learn about some of the theories about Machu Picchu as they look at its 200 religious, ceremonial, astronomical, and agricultural buildings. When it’s time to sleep, stay in nearby Cusco, which is southeast of the historic location.
3- Galapagos Islands
The lonely islands of the Galápagos are full of wild places and animals that are known for not being afraid, like sea lions and seagoing lizards. This makes them a great place for people who want to have thrilling experiences in the wild. After all, where else can you see giant tortoises eating tall grass, short-feathered penguins waddling along the equator, and blue-footed boobies performing their unique mating routine without flinching when you flash your camera? More than 100 years after Charles Darwin went there on his famous trip on the HMS Beagle, adventurers still follow his paths when they go on their own amazing trips.
The Galápagos group is about 620 miles west of mainland Ecuador. It has more than 120 islands, islets, and rocks that are all alone, so there is a lot to see there. But because there is so much to see and do on this long chain of islands, you’ll have to choose which islands to visit. Go to El Chato Tortoise Reserve or Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz Island to meet the famous tortoises with dome-shaped shells that live in the Galápagos. After that, head east to the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn more about Darwin’s work. If you’d rather meet up with sea lions, keep going east to San Cristóbal Island, where the friendly animals bark at each other along the white chalky sands. And if you want a real rush of adrenaline, go to Isabela Island and walk up the active and impressive Sierra Negra Volcano. Don’t forget to bring your camera with you on your trip to the Galápagos.
4- Chilean Patagonia
Wind-swept Chilean Patagonia is a popular travel destination for people who want to see beautiful places and try new things. Glaciers fall into green lakes, wild fjords snake through hardwood forests, and the dramatic peaks of the Andes rise into clouds and mist that swirl around them. It’s not strange that Magellan, Darwin, and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were drawn to the legendary lands of Chilean Patagonia. Spend a day on Isla Magdalena getting to know the funny Magellanic penguins that live there. Then, keep going south to see Tierra del Fuego’s sky-high mountains, pristine glaciers, and lush woods. When you’re ready for some rest and relaxation, head back to your cozy camp for some fresh Patagonian air, seafood, and wine.
With so much to see and do, it can be hard to find your way around Chilean Patagonia. The area is so big (it takes up the lower third of Chile) and has so many different kinds of landscapes that you have to choose where to go. There are three separate places. From Puerto Montt to Aisén, in the north, is the beautiful Lake District. The 620-mile-long Southern Coast is between the Lake District and the southern part of Chilean Patagonia. This southernmost part of Chile has three interesting places: Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, and Tierra del Fuego. You might not be able to see everything, but you should definitely take in the wild feel of this beautiful natural setting.
Cusco is known as the archaeological capital of the Americas. It has a long and interesting past that includes the rise and fall of the Inca Empire and the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. Today, the narrow city streets are filled with things from both times, like centuries-old baroque churches and beautiful stonework. This rare mix of Andean and Spanish styles makes Cusco, unlike any other place on Earth.
In the past few decades, the city has moved out of the shade of Lima, the capital of Peru. Millions of people make the trip from Cusco and the Sacred Valley to see Machu Picchu, which is South America’s most famous sight. The legendary ruins were found by the American explorer Hiram Bingham at the beginning of the 20th century. They are one of the most impressive pieces of old architecture. If you plan to go to Machu Picchu while you’re in Cusco, use these tips to make the most of your time. But don’t just see this UNESCO World Heritage Site when you’re in Cusco. This beautiful city has more to offer than just the sparkling Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) and delicious Andean food. It only takes a day to fall in love with this important city in Peru and all it has to offer.
6- Costa Rica
Many people like Costa Rica because it has green jungles, unspoiled beaches, and a lot of different kinds of wildlife. It’s easy to see why, with its beautiful scenery and wide range of animals, from toucans to monkeys to jaguars. Where else can you walk up active volcanoes, zip line through cloud-covered rainforests, and surf in warm turquoise waters all within a few days? In this small but varied tropical paradise, there are lots of fun things to do outside. Nature lovers can explore the thick jungles, while beachgoers can stretch out on the soft beaches. This “Rich Coast” has so many beautiful things that it’s hard not to admire them.
But this small Latin American country has a different draw for some people: a laid-back way of life. Residents, who are called Ticos, often say the term “pura vida” (which means “pure life”). This guiding idea can be seen everywhere in Costa Rica, from the cosmopolitan central city of San José to the sandy Atlantic and Pacific coasts. To really feel like you’re living the good life, sit back and take in the beautiful scenery. At the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, you can see beautiful butterflies. You can also walk along the Arenal Volcano, meet locals in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, or just relax in a hammock under a palm tree on the Nicoya Peninsula. We’re pretty sure that you’ll also find a pure life.
7- Rio de Janeiro
This big city in Brazil is called the Cidade Maravilhosa, which means “Marvelous City.” Its name is well-deserved. The city is at the mouth of a bay harbor. It has white-sand beaches, lush woods, and green mountains all around it. Rio de Janeiro has beautiful views from almost every direction. From the slopes of Corcovado Mountain, you can see Christ the Redeemer, who is 125 feet tall and looks out over Rio’s beautiful beaches. And from the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, you can look at the picture-perfect scenery that has drawn Cariocas (people who were born in Rio de Janeiro) and tourists for more than 500 years.
But Rio has a lot more to offer than just beautiful views, tropical woods, and blue seas. Here, the city is all about glitz, high fashion, and a laid-back attitude. If you walk down Avenida Atlantica in Copa, you’ll see that the city is full of people in bikinis going to the beach. People in the city also love sports. From the World Cup finals in Maracana Stadium in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 to the volleyball fields in Flamengo Park, the city is always busy. At night, the city streets in Lapa are filled with the rhythmic sounds of samba. And if you go in February, right before Carnival, you can see Brazil’s lively Portuguese mask, which brings people from all over the world to party.
8- Torres del Paine National Park
It’s not easy to get to this remote national park in Chilean Patagonia, but visitors say that seeing the ice fields of Grey Glacier and the towering peaks of the Cuernos del Paine are well worth the effort. And with more than 448,000 acres of land to explore, tourists will have a hard time getting bored. Some of the most famous trails in Torres del Paine are the hard W Trek (which takes several days and goes by beautiful lakes, mountains, and glaciers) and the easy Mirador Las Torres hike. Before going into the wilderness, make sure you have all the things you need in a nearby place like Puerto Natales.
During the time that Spain had colonies in Colombia and South America, Cartagena was a key part of the Spanish kingdom there. The city’s colonial walls, which were built starting in 1586, kept out pirates who were attracted to Cartagena because it was an important business center. In 1984, these walls were named a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are now one of the most popular places to visit in Cartagena and draw history buffs from all over the world.
In addition to its famous walls, the city has an amazing number of historical sites to visit. Travelers can walk around Cartagena’s streets and look at the buildings or spend a day in an air-conditioned museum. Also, with the Caribbean Sea to the west and Cartagena Bay to the south, this South American city has plenty of beaches for even the pickiest sunbathers.
Belize is a small country in Central America. It is about the size of the state of Massachusetts, but it has some of the most beautiful natural scenery on the planet. The coral and turquoise colors of the barrier reef are very different from the huge Mayan ruins that are spread through the country’s lush rainforests. Not only is Belize’s landscape mixed, but so are its past, culture, and people.
Belize has been in the shade of its Mexican neighbors, Cancn, Cozumel, and Tulum, for many years. But now, this Central American country attracts tourists with its thatch-roofed jungle lodges, impressive Mayan sites, hidden snorkeling and scuba diving spots, and laid-back atmosphere. Belize is between Mexico and Guatemala. To the east, it has a coastline on the Caribbean Sea, and to the north, west, and south, it has a lot of wild jungles. Hundreds of tiny islands called cays and atolls face off against the sun-drenched coast of the mainland. Travelers are drawn to these rocks by their swaying palm trees and clear blue water.
Ambergris Caye, which is the biggest island in Belize, is where most people go. During the day, Ambergris Caye has a calm shore with beautiful views of the water. At night, the island comes alive with lively nightlife. Just make sure to save some time on the mainland to discover Belize’s modest charms. This beautiful coastal country has a lot to discover, from its lush Mayan sites to its sparkling waters.
Medellin is the second biggest city in Colombia. It is known as “The City of Eternal Spring” because of its mild weather. Visit Comuna 13, which was once thought to be one of the most dangerous parts of Medelln, to see the bright buildings and creative graffiti that tell the story of the city. Take a ride on one of the neighborhood’s open escalators to see amazing views. For a more Technicolor experience, go to Medellin in August, when the city holds its annual flower festival. There, tourists can see elaborate flower arrangements on display. El Castillo Museum and Gardens, Plaza Botero, and the city’s many parks are also famous places to visit.
12- Easter Island
This remote island, which is a Chilean territory, is on the bucket lists of tourists all over the world. It is more than 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and is known for its unique moai statues. You can find these strange stone statues all over the island. To make sure you don’t miss the island’s must-sees and unique past, hire a local guide to show you Rapa Nui National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rano Raraku, a volcano crater on the southeast coast that was the main source of stone for the moai, is one of the most interesting places.
Quito, Ecuador, is not only one of the world’s capital towns with the highest elevation (9,350 feet above sea level), but the whole city is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take some time to get used to the altitude by looking at the buildings in the historic city center, which are some of the best-preserved and least-changed in Latin America. Check out the Museos del Banco Central to learn more about Ecuador and see a large collection of pre-Columbian and Inca items. When you’re ready to go higher, head to the TelefériQo lift for a view of Quito that you won’t find anywhere else.
14- La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz, Bolivia, is the world’s highest national capital. It is almost 13,000 feet above sea level. Because the city is at a high height, you should give yourself at least a few days to let your body adjust and get to know it. You can shop at Mercado de las Brujas, which is also called “The Witches’ Market.” The market is in a clearing in the mountain of Cerro Cumbre. It sells both hand-made things and raw ingredients that can be used in spells or rituals. Visit the National Museum of Art to see how the city’s design is different from other places. The Baroque-style building made of pink sandstone has statues by Marina Nuez del Prado, who was born in La Paz and is one of the most famous artists in Latin America.
15- Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is on the line between Argentina and Uruguay. It has a mix of European and South American styles that draws people there. This smart city has been called “the Paris of South America” because it has wide boulevards, neoclassical architecture, and a number of museums that are on the cutting edge of art.
But don’t think of its likeness as anything other than a sign of where it came from. The stylish and friendly people who live there are called porteños. They have made the city their own, from the colorful art-filled barrios to the world-class sports stadium to the tango sessions in the street.
In this cosmopolitan city, you can do more than just hang out with artists, dancers, and soccer fans who are excited about the game. Visit the shops in San Telmo, the National Museum of Fine Arts, the beautiful Recoleta Cemetery, or the Palermo Hippodrome to watch a horse race. Just save some time to enjoy the simple pleasures of sipping a cafecito (espresso) and snacking on churros (fried dough strips) in a cozy café, taking a romantic walk along the Rose Garden Walk (Paseo del Rosedal) in Palermo Woods, and staying up late to enjoy the sultry tango sessions that give the city its nightlife.