South America is an endless treasure trove of jaw-dropping natural wonders, hypnotic cultures and extraordinary people. In fact, we at ItinerWord have a particular soft spot for this vast and intriguing continent, having explored its many corners first-hand, written about it all for several years, and many of us have even lived there! Today we may lead the way in travel copywriting and the best content marketing around the world, but our humble beginnings came in beloved South America. As such, we believe that the must-see sights in South America truly are ones for the bucket list; but there are also so many alternatives for those who like to do things a little differently. In this article, we round up some of our top suggestions for alternatives to iconic sights in South America: from wetlands to waterfalls, ancient sites to party cities – keep reading as we share our insider tips.
Icon: Pantanal Wetlands, Brazil
Swap for: Iberá Wetlands, Argentina
The most famous marshlands in South America are found in southern Brazil: the Pantanal Wetlands. Amazing as they are for wildlife sightings and outdoor activities, a great alternative is the Iberá Provincial Reserve – or Iberá Wetlands – in the far northeast of Argentina. Sprawling for a whopping 1.3 million hectares (that’s twice the surface area of the Everglades), this vast stretch of forests, marshes and lagoons is a protected wonderland which teems with life. Capybaras, Jaguars, Giant Anteaters, Howler Monkeys, Caimans and Pampas Deer – not to mention 300 bird species – are among the most intriguing of animals that can be seen in Iberá, one of Argentina’s most biodiverse regions. On top of wildlife sightings, there are Gaucho-style horse rides to enjoy, luxury eco-lodges, boat tours and biking all added to the mix; just some of the many reasons to visit the Iberá Wetlands.
Icon: Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru
Swap for: Trek to Choquequirao, Peru
Machu Picchu really is an unparalleled archaeological site, but for those who want to avoid the crowds and embark on an exhilarating, challenging hike too, then Choquequirao is just the ticket. Emerging from swathes of forest in the middle of the Andes, these Inca ruins are wonderfully secluded and difficult to reach, which is all part of the appeal for adventurers visiting South America. It’s a four-day hike through the Apurimac Valley, covering 40 miles and altitudes of up to 3,050m which only builds the anticipation and makes the reward – laying eyes on enchanting, crumbling ruins in the middle of the mountains – even more special. Further still, unlike visiting Machu Picchu where you’ll be sharing your awe with thousands of other tourists, it’s likely that at Choquequirao, there’ll only be a select handful of fellow intrepid travellers when you arrive; bliss.
Icon: Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil
Swap for: Caño Cristales, Colombia
Perhaps the greatest waterfall system in the world, Iguazu Falls is a marvel of Mother Earth that must be seen to be believed, a true natural wonder of South America. For those who can’t help but feel entranced by the phenomenon of nature’s grandest waterways, then Caño Cristales in central Colombia should be on the hitlist too. Known as the ‘River of Five Colours’, Caño Cristales is stunning to look at with its shades of red, yellow, blue, black and green illuminating the water and creating a magical scene indeed. These kaleidoscopic hues are owed to the type of algae (Podostemaceae) that clings to the rocks between the months of June and November, glowing brightly when the sun shines and making for the most wonderful sight as a result. Visitors can go for a dip in certain parts of the river and combine a tour here with excursions into La Macarena National Park too, incorporating wildlife safaris and jungle hikes to enrich the experience even more.
Icon: Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
Swap for: Las Salinas Grandes, Argentina
While everyone raves about the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, and rightly so, few people know that there are also beautiful salt flats in northwest Argentina too. Found north of Salta and Jujuy, close to the border with Chile and Bolivia, Las Salinas Grandes makes for an impressive backdrop with its 3,200sq miles of salty land edged by soaring mountains. Similar to its Uyuni counterpart, Las Salinas Grandes was once a prehistoric lake that dried during the Halocene glacial retreat, leaving behind seemingly endless deposits of salt along the way. It can be reached by driving the Route 52 road from Purmamarca, which is also a great base for exploring the stunning Hill of Seven Colours and Humahuaca Gorge; this little-known corner of Argentina really is full of both surprising and beautiful landscapes!
Icon: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Swap for: Medellín, Colombia
Copacabana Beach, Christ the Redeemer, Carnaval… there are a lot of reasons to love Rio de Janeiro. But that doesn’t mean that it should be the only fun-filled South American city on your agenda, as Colombia has its own fair share of vibrant urban centres too. Medellín, in particular, is a real cultural hotspot and must-visit destination for those who love music, dance, art and stunning landscapes, despite a tired reputation for violence and drugs. These days, rather than being known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world as it was 20 years ago, Medellín enjoys statuses like ‘Innovative City of the Year’ and ‘Most Liveable City in South America’, just going to show that the town and its people really are shedding their turbulent past. Dance the night away in a salsa bar in El Centro, throw off your shoes and step through Barefoot Park, ponder graffiti in Comuna 13 or modern art in the MAMM Museum, and be sure to zip up on a cable car for unrivalled views of the surrounding Andes Mountains. It’s just like heading up Rio’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, only with fewer crowds!
Icon: Central Wine Valley, Chile
Swap for: Uruguay
South American wine is much-loved around the world, and for good reason. From Mendoza to the Central Wine Valley, the famous wine regions of Argentina and Chile are well-known for their fantastic tasting tours and stunning scenery too; but did you know that Uruguay also has some delectably fine wines up its sleeve? Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Albariño, Pinot Noir and Viognier – not to mention the national favourite, Tannat – all these exquisite varieties of wine, and more, can be sampled on numerous vineyard visits to Uruguay. From the terroirs of Canelones to Maldonado, Rivera to Montevideo, Colonia to Carmelo; compact Uruguay is bursting at the seams with winemakers and cellar doors, many of which date back to the 1800s when immigrants from Europe brought grape-producing techniques with them across the Atlantic Ocean – and we’re lucky they did! A wine tour of Uruguay really is one of the great off-the-beaten track South American experiences.
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