South America

Nestled between the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and the South Atlantic Oceans, South America is the wilder part of the Americas and a continent of superlatives.

Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest

The world's biggest rainforest and the largest river (Amazon), the highest mountain range outside Asia (the Andes), remote islands (Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and Fernando de Noronha), heavenly beaches (such as in Brazil's Northeastern region), wide deserts (Atacama), icy landscapes (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego), the world's tallest waterfall (the 979m Angel Falls, in Venezuela) and one of the largest (Iguaçu Falls, Argentina and Brazil), as well as several other breathtaking natural attractions.

Besides, the work of man has also left rare gems on the continent: ruins of ancient civilizations (Machu Picchu and other Inca cities; the Moais in Easter Island) share the continent with world-class metropolises (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Caracas, Santiago, Lima and Rio de Janeiro), outstanding modern architecture (Brasilia), European architecture (Buenos Aires), the oldest rock paintings in the Americas (at the Serra da Capivara), strong African heritage (in Salvador, Rio and Montevideo), genuine indigenous (Belém, Manaus, Cuzco, Lima, La Paz), charming cities built in the Andes (Caracas, Medellín, Quito, Santiago de Chile) and Eastern culture (São Paulo's enormous Japanese community), mingled with the fingerprints of Iberian colonizers. Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city and some of its biggest festivities, such as Rio's Carnival and Belem's Cirio de Nazaré, the Tango World Championship, and the Vendimia festival in Argentina, are also part of this incredibly diverse and attractive continent.

Countries and territories

Central America Falkland Islands Brazil Paraguay Bolivia Uruguay Argentina Chile French Guiana Suriname Guyana Peru Ecuador Colombia VenezuelaMap of South America.png
Once known for being a 'European nation in South America', Argentina offers a dynamic and rich cultural life in its cities and the sparsely populated grasslands, mountains and glacial parks in the south.
This landlocked country is arguably the only one with an ethnic majority of indigenous people in all of Latin America, with a culture that is much affected by the high altitude of the Andes.
The biggest in terms of area and population, South America's only Portuguese-speaking country offers a huge variety of attractions from the Amazon rain-forest to cities such as Rio de Janeiro — here you should take your time and focus on one or a few areas.
A long small sliver of land on the western side of the Andes that stands out on any map, this country contains big parts of the Atacama, one of the driest deserts in the world and is one of the richest countries of Latin America.
After decades of violence Colombia is again a safe destination, offering coffee, jungles, volcanoes and two coastlines with a strong Caribbean feel..
Crossed by the Equator, this small country offers diversity in its four regions: the Amazon Rainforest, the Andes, the Pacific Coast and the unique Galapagos Islands.
Falkland Islands
While most only think of the 1982 war and the ongoing dispute with Argentina, this piece of UK in the South Atlantic has much to offer including wildlife and remote landscapes.
French Guiana
The "French" South America is actually part of the European Union and the launchpad of Europe's main spaceport.
The only English-speaking country on mainland South America, featuring highlands, waterfalls and jungle.
Possibly the least visited country on the continent, in the flat Paraguay you can see Jesuit missions, some major rivers and the impressive Itaipú Dam and hear the native Guaraní language.
The historic heartland of the Incas this country still offers a lot of Inca heritage (Machu Picchu being the most visited site) plus the Nazca lines, made by an earlier culture for a still not entirely clear purpose.
Part of the Netherlands until 1975, this country is a unique mix of Caribbean, Asian, Dutch and Latin American.
As futbol-crazy as and in other ways similar to its neighbor across the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay also offers great birdwatching and beaches.
While most people think oil and Socialism, Venezuela also offers jungles, waterfalls, major cities like Maracaibo and Caracas and one of the biggest lakes/bays in the world with Lake Maracaibo (technically a bay, depending on whom you ask).


São Paulo skyline

Other destinations

Machu Picchu in Peru

See also the sections on South America in the UNESCO World Heritage List.


Topics in South America

Topics in Argentina
Topics in Brazil
Topics in Ecuador
Topics in Venezuela

Get in

By plane

Santiago de Chile Airport is one of the major points of entry to South America.

Getting to South America has gotten much easier in recent years due to massive increases in flights to the continent by major global airlines. Although some particular places are still quite hard to reach (i.e. Paraguay, Suriname, northern Brazil), the places that you most likely want to go, such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, are more accessible than ever before.

By car

Although it looks like there is a land connection with the Pan-American Highway, there are actually no roads connecting Panama with Colombia through the infamous Darien Gap and hence it is not possible to drive from Central America. People overcome this problem by shipping their cars from Colon (Atlantic side in Panama) to Cartagena or Barranquilla (Colombia), or from Panama City (Pacific side of the Panama canal) to Buenaventura (Colombia) or Guayaquil (Ecuador).

Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have good roads. Night time driving is generally dangerous on this continent.

By train

There are no railroads between Panama and Colombia. So you can't enter the country by train. This is unlikely to change anytime soon as there is no way to cross from Panama to Colombia overland for all but the most adventurous travelers, as there is no road of any kind and the "gap in the road" is made up of jungle that has for a long time been an operating area for organized violent groups.

Within Latin America trains while existent are not often the best option or even an option, as most lines have been neglected for most of the last decades. Some lines do however offer value if not necessarily in terms of transportation, as they cross amazing sceneries. For more on that see below.

By boat

As mentioned above, there are a couple of ferries linking Panama and Colombia. As this is the only way to get a car from Central to South America, they are rather popular.

Some cruise liners cover the towns in the lower Caribbean (Cartagena, Santa Marta, Margarita Island). Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Princess Cruises.

Get around

The main boulevard in Chuy is also the border between Uruguay and Brazil


The Union of South American Nations gives visa-free access and a customs union between all countries in South America. With the exception of Suriname, visitors from industrialized countries generally do not need visas anywhere in South America, aside from U.S., Canadian and Australian citizens, who in some countries are subject to visa restrictions or entry fees.

By plane

For longer distances, consider flying. In South America international flights are usually from capital to capital with domestic flights from the capital (the exceptions to this are Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro with flights to all over the continent). Some airlines, like Aerolineas Argentinas have remarkable discounts on domestic connections if arriving on their intercontinental flights. The oneworld alliance offers an flight pass which might be a smart choice if you plan a longer South American tour.

By train

There are no cross-country train services in South America, and with the exception of Argentina and Chile, domestic networks are quite limited. Unfortunately for most of the second half of the 20th century networks have been cut and service has been reduced. There has been a renaissance of sorts in recent years, but in most cases it has thus far (2015) resulted in more talks than actual construction. There are a number of very scenic "tourist trains" though, including the 445-km Quito-Guayaquil route in Ecuador. The spectacular "tren a las nubes" (train to the clouds) running on a route that formerly connected Argentina and Chile, but only on a portion within Argentina, is the highest train in South America.

By bus

Bus in the desert of Bolivia, between Potosí and Uyuni

Buses are the main form of land transportation for much of the continent, they represent an economical but slower alternative to flying.

Beyond very cheap chicken buses, long distance buses fall under 3 general comfort levels: Semicama, Cama, Cama Suite. These names tend to shift from country to country.

Be aware that although most of the violence of the Cold war era is over some parts of some countries are still not entirely safe and crossing them by bus might not be a smart idea. For more on that issue read the stay safe sections of the respective country, region or city articles.

South America bus classes
Country Semicama (Half bed) Cama (Bed) Cama Suite (Bed Suite)
Argentina Semicama 40° Cama-Ejecutivo 55° Cama Suite 85°
Chile Semi Cama 60° Cama 65° Cama Premium 90°
Peru Semicama/Imperial/Especial 40-50° Cama/VIP 70-75° Super Cama/Super VIP/Sofá Cama 90°
Brazil Executivo 40° Semi-Leito 55° Leito 80°

By boat

You can go from Montevideo to Valparaiso by cruise, touching Falkland Islands, Ushuaia and Puerto Montt. Or with an extension to the Antarctica.

Also along the South American coast from Buenos Aires up to Brazil. You can do all the Amazon River by boat, starting in Peru, through all Brazil.

Between Argentina and Uruguay you can cross Rio de la Plata by ferry.


If you've studied "Spanish" Spanish, be prepared for some confusion

Spanish is the official language in all countries except Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, and is widely spoken even in the countries that are not historically Spanish speaking. The dialect varies between countries although all are noticeably different from the 'Castilian Spanish' standard found in Spain.

Portuguese is the official language in Brazil, which comprises about half the population and land area of the continent. Note that the dialect is very different to that of Portuguese spoken in Portugal. Spanish and Portuguese are closely related and knowing one will provide you some basic communication ability in the other

In the border area between Uruguay and Brazil some people are near fluent in an ad hoc mishmash of Portuguese and Spanish known as portuñol and it is certainly viable for crude communication if you don't speak the other language, though Portuguese speakers tend to have an easier time understanding Spanish than vice versa.

Much like the English language, expressions and slang terms can change dramatically from country to country or even city to city. As words that have a totally innocuous meaning in one place, can have a vulgar or "dirty" meaning elsewhere it is good to do some research before using words like "coger" (meaning "take" in Spain, and "fuck" in most of Latin America) in the wrong context and possibly offending people.

There are also many indigenous peoples living in South America who speak their own languages, and if you are really going off the beaten track, you might have to learn them too. The most notable indigenous American languages in South America are Quechua (Bolivia and Peru) and Guarani (80% of the population of Paraguay). In Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, the official languages are English, Dutch and French respectively.


Lake Titicaca and traditional handicraft

A sizable number of the world's largest, longest or highest natural wonders are located in South America. Perhaps the first thing you will notice when looking on a map of the continent is the world's largest rainforest, Amazonas covering much of Brazil. Moreover it also features the world's largest wetlands, Pantanal, Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall as well as the better known Iguaçu Falls. Other bodies of water worth mentioning include the Amazon river (by some measures the world's longest river and the one with the largest drainage basin), the world's highest commercially navigable body of water Lake Titicaca, and the wide Rio de la Plata (between Uruguay and Argentina) which is more like a bay of the Atlantic Ocean.

In the west lies the "backbone" of the continent — the Andes. This mountain chain, which is the longest in the world, contains Aconcagua which at a height of almost 7000m is the highest mountain outside Asia. As the Earth is at its thickest at the Equator, the peak of Chimborazo (6268m) is the point in the world furthest away from the center of the Earth. Right next to these mighty mountains lays the Atacama desert which is the driest and possibly oldest in the world. The white spot in it that can be seen on satellite footage is the Salar de Uyuni. Located at 3,656m above the sea level it is — you guessed it — the world's largest salt flat.

The world's largest rodent species, capybara, is endemic to South America

The Galapagos Islands 1000km off the coast feature an unique and fearless fauna. There are several iconic and unique animals on the mainland too, including llamas and other camelids, jaguars, capybaras, opossums and monkeys and on the other hand less pleasant creatures that are poisonous or spread tropical diseases. Another, equally famous island in the Pacific is Easter Island.

While most people would think of South America as rainforest or desert, this is mostly but not entirely true — Los Glaciares National Park in southwestern Argentina will prove otherwise. Overall the climate and landscape of the far south actually recalls Norway or parts of Canada. Here you can find Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city and a gateway to Antarctica. South America also holds the record for the world's highest national capital La Paz and the small mining town of La Rinconada in southeastern Peru which at 5100m above the sea level is the highest permanent settlement in the world. Finally, at Chacaltaya you will find the world's highest located ski resort.

The Pelican, one of the mystical figures in Nazca

It's certainly not only in the modern times that people have lived and worked in the Andes even at altitudes where you are likely to contract altitude sickness. Particularly in Peru and Bolivia, you will find many beautiful and famous archaeological sites from the age before the Europeans, connected by traditional Inca Trails if you want to get around the traditional way. Among them the most famous is undoubtedly Machu Picchu, but also places like Chan Chan and Tiwanaku are deservedly inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Peru also features the Nazca lines, constructed 1500 years ago for an unknown purpose and only visible from air.

The European heritage includes mining towns in the mountains, unsurprisingly a lot of churches and missions and other colonial architecture along the coasts. Of course, in places like São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile you can also see skyscrapers archetypical to any metropolis in the world. And let's not forget about Rio de Janeiro with its world-famous beaches Copacabana and Ipanema with the Sugarloaf mountain, Pão de Açúcar, in the background.

The carnival in Rio is the largest and probably most famous in the world

South America offers a variety of cultural experiences. In the Andes, native traditions and languages still live strong. The east and south of the continent is more of a blend of cultures that immigrants from Europe, Africa and other parts of the world have brought with them; probably the best example of this is the Brazilian carnival.




There are a variety of currencies in use in this area, including Euros (in French Guiana), Dollars (in Ecuador) and Pound Sterling (de facto in the Falkland Islands). Countries with national currencies vary in their external value as well as the possibility of easily exchanging it. While the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar fuerte is worth much less than its official value and you basically have to use the black market if you don't want your stay to become very expensive, other currencies have been remarkably stable in recent years. US dollars are often used parallel to local currencies, and prices of goods worth over a few hundred dollars may actually be quoted in US dollars.


Peruvian ceviche — raw spicy seafood served with vegetables

South American cuisine is as diverse and colourful as its people. The continent's wide range of terrains brings forward a broad selection of food products and its many people all have their own ways of cultivating and preparing the land's goods. After the discovery of the Americas, European settlers and their workers from other parts of the world all brought their own food traditions with them, adapting them to include local ingredients and cooking techniques. They also introduced a new set of meats, crops and spices to the culinary blend. The result is a most interesting mix of flavours. World famous dishes include feijoada, ceviche, empanadas and of course Argentina's barbecued steaks. Widely used ingredients include corn, potatoes, chile peppers and lima beans. Less well-known in the rest of the world but much used by the indiginous people of South America are grains like quinoa and kiwicha, queso fresco (a fresh cow’s milk cheese) and yuca (also known as cassava). For a taste of traditional Andean meats, try alpaca or guinea pig. To top it all off, enjoy one of the many very sweet desserts, often combined with delicious tropical fruits that grow here.


South America offers a wide variety of drinks, some of which you can only legally consume in their country of origin (that would be Coca-tea, made from the leave of the Coca plant, supposedly a good way to combat the problems high altitude brings with it.). Other drinks include yerba mate and Inca Cola (an alternative to the soft drink from Atlanta).


The types of lodging available are the same as in North America and Europe. For the backpackers the best option is hostel or camping. However, hotel rooms (like most other non-imported goods and services) are with a few exceptions rather affordable compared to North America and Western Europe. Pests are a risk if you are sleeping outdoors, especially in the tropical parts of the continent.

Stay safe

South America has some reputation for crime, with Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela being noted as the most dangerous. Read up beforehand about the individual destinations you're planning to visit. As with anywhere else in the world, the right travel planning can mitigate any dangers.

Wearing or carrying items which may identify you as an affluent tourist can be a mistake. You shouldn't pack anything that you would be upset to lose. Leave expensive jewelry, watches and other items of value at home and only carry what you need. That goes for credit cards and other documents as well; if you have no need for them leave them behind in the hotel safe, only take what money you are likely to spend with you.

While tropical storms are rare, flash floods do occur in various parts of South America. Earthquakes and to some extent volcanic eruptions are a risk in the Andean countries, especially Chile.

Stay healthy

Tap water in many countries is not drinkable, it's wise to purify your own or buy bottled water.

Malaria, dengue and yellow fever can be a risk as well on the continent, check with a travel clinic or your doctor before heading out to see if you'll be in a high-risk area, and receive any vaccinations and medication required.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Monday, March 21, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.