4 months, 8 countries, and 200+ hours on buses, and I’m done with the first leg of my round-the-world backpacking trip. While it’s nearly impossible to choose, here is my list of 10 (ok, 15) top experiences in South America. I started with the best (#1) and worked backwards.
Top Experiences in South America
1. Belen Market (Iquitos, Peru)
The most amazing market I’ve ever visited. Chaotic as it is huge, full of life and filth, and more goods than can be summed up in a few sentences. The Belen market is wildly authentic — and just plain wild. It takes over the Belen neighborhood, the muddy streets of the shantytown below, and even the brown water as a floating market in rainy season. From shoes to dead chickens to hallucinogenic plants, Belen has it all.
Read More → Iquitos: An Introduction to the Amazon
2. Otavalo Animal Market (Otavalo, Ecuador)
Otavalo’s Saturday market is often boasted as the largest in South America, and many a tourist flocks to buy textiles and other goods. The less-known animal market, however, is the real highlight. Indigenous people travel from surrounding villages to sell, trade and buy animals in a bustling fenced-in area next to the Mercado Central. Authentic and interesting, you can’t get much more real than guinea pigs in wire fencing, women gripping fistfuls of chickens by their feathers, and pigs squealing from ropes.
Read More → Animals & Textiles: The Markets of Otavalo
3. Bolivia (Yes, the whole country)
OK, I know it’s quite bold to say an entire country is a highlight, but in Bolivia’s case it is. Often overlooked by travelers and tourists alike, Bolivia is underdeveloped and less crowded than most other places we visited. It feels more authentic, so it’s no surprise it makes the top 3. The country is extremely diverse, and has so much to offer – from the popular and unreal salt flats, to the mine at Cerro Rico (also on this list), to La Paz’s amazing gondolas running through the city, to the wildlife of the pampas, to the textiles of the Quechua women to an abandoned train graveyard.
4. Cerro Rico Mine (Potosí, Bolivia)
This one took me by surprise. Entering a real-life functioning mine, and one that reportedly has some of the worst labor conditions in the entire world is not something I planned to do. In fact, I was so unsure I almost backed out mere minutes before the tour began. But the Big Deal Miners tour of Cerro Rico, the mountain where the silver that funded the Spanish empire came from, was so enlightening it made the list. Spending 1.5 hours below the ground with ex-miners was terrifying and hard-to-see, but should be on any backpacker’s itinerary. As a bonus, the city of Potosí was pretty cool, too.
Read More → Potosí & Entering the Mines at Cerro Rico
5. Eating Lunch Menus (Various Countries)
What’s better than a huge, delicious plate of fresh food? A huge, delicious plate of fresh food for $2USD. One of my favorite things about South America is the lunch menu (if you’ve read any of my posts you already know I’m obsessed). These delicious meals are cheap as they are yummy, but what really gets me is the element of surprise. No matter how good your Spanish, the dish names and food lingo tend to change country-to-country, so it’s nearly impossible to predict just what you’ll get. Even if you recognize the dish, it’s hard to say what they’ll substitute when they start running low, or what exactly that off-brown jugo is…or if it contains tap water, but that is a different matter. 4 months on the road meant countless menus, but two of my absolute favorites were Aransaya (Copacabana, Bolivia) and Qori Sara (Cusco, Peru).
6. Walking the Deserted Beaches of Punta Del Diablo (Punta Del Diablo, Uruguay)
I love the beach, so I had to select a beach destination for my list. Punta del Diablo made the cut because it’s beautiful as it is deserted (in the off season, anyway), yet still provides a few beachy restaurants/bars/shops so you’re not 100% stranded. With safe, unspoiled beaches, water ideal for swimming and surfing, and beautiful exotic shells, it was ideal beach. I even made a stray dog friend here who later may have given me rabies (may have not). The massive imposing orange dunes were pretty cool to look at, too.
Read More → Punta del Diablo: Off-Season Offerings
7. Tipón Ruins (Cusco, Peru)
The Tipón ruins aren’t visited nearly as much as the 4 ruins closer to Cusco and is not overly touristy like the rest of the city. I liked them much better than Machu Picchu if I’m being honest. The ruins are really well-preserved, and the still-functioning flowing aqueducts are an amazing feat of architecture, even if I can’t quite recall what the Inca’s had in mind as their original purpose. Tipón is accessible by local bus from Cusco, and offers a challenging hike straight up a mountain to the entry way. It’s good for those who like to “DIY” and work for their sights (including me).
Read More → Tips on Tipón: Ruins & A Sheep Charging Incident
8. Climbing Cruz del Tercer Milenio Cross (Coquimbo, Chile)
There’s a giant cross atop the mountain overlooking the town of Coquimbo. I know, I know, there are giant crosses on mountains everywhere in South America. But this one is different in that it’s larger and you can ride a (very scary) elevator straight to the top for insane views of the town and Chile’s ragged coast. The walk to the cross is amazing, too (even though I got lost), and an eye-opener for anyone who likes to see gritty, real-world streets and how people live in the less-visited towns. Easily accessible from the more popular La Serena.
Read More → La Serena & Coquimbo
9. Trekking on Glacier Perito Moreno (El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina)
I was trying to keep uber-touristy and more popular places off my list, but Perito Moreno was so incredible I had to include it. I’ve seen glaciers before, but they pale in comparison to Perito Moreno’s massiveness. Seeing the glacier itself is unreal, as is trekking on it. The experience included trekking with heavy metal crampons on my feet digging into the ice, peering through circular holes to frigid blue depths, and drinking a whiskey with a glacier ice cube. Amazing!
Read More → Patagonia: Glorious Glacier Perito Moreno
10. Drinking Cheap Beer with Cowboys in Jardín (Jardín, Colombia)
I drink a lot of cheap beer on the road, of course, to remain in budget (sometimes it really is cheaper than water). Also I like beer. But what made sipping beer exciting enough to make this list was sitting on the small cobblestone square of this beautiful Colombian Pueblo amongst real-life cowboys arriving on horseback. People occupied the colorful square tables dotting the square enjoying tintos and beers all day and night with few tourists in sight. We even spotted some drunk horseriding (unclear if that’s legal).
Read More → Colombian Countryside: Jardín & Los Andes
11. Staying in a Treehouse on Brazil’s Coast (Paraty Miram, Brazil)
Because Brazil was one of my favorite countries but somehow didn’t make the top 10, I present a bonus experience. One of my favorite hostels we stayed in was the ReMo, an open-air treehouse located miles up the mountain. The secluded atmosphere and proximity to several deserted beaches with jungle-like hikes made it all the more amazing — not to mention beautiful. And maybe a little terrifying when we heard an approaching machete cutting through the jungle during a secluded hike. But it’s all part of the adventure.
Read More → Paraty Miram: Wrong Bus, Right Hostel
Runners-Up: A Few Other Top Experiences in South America
Here are a few more top contenders to round out the list…
12. Spotting capibaras (and other wildlife) in the Bolivian Pampas → Read More
13. Swinging off the end of the world in Banos → Read More
14. Biking through the Valley of Death in San Pedro de Atacama → Read More
15. Trying not to get robbed in Rio → Read More