When planning an international vacation, many people bypass South America and head straight for its older, more refined cousin, Europe . But South America has some of the biggest and best attractions in the world—literally—and these superlative destinations are not to be missed.
Consider one of these South American journeys for your next big trip, and get ready for a major adventure.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The Largest Salt Flat in the World
Traveling in Bolivia is not for the faint of heart—high altitude, unpaved roads, and steep cliffs sans guardrails are a constant. You’ll need to pack patience and, if you’re a planner, make sure you always have a plan B (and C, and D), as protests, roadblocks, and mudslides are always a possibility.
But that’s no reason not to visit, especially to the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar, as it’s commonly called, is a salt flat situated nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. There are two seasons in the Salar: wet (when I was there), when the flat is flooded and creates a giant mirror, and dry, when it looks like a salt desert.
You’ll start the journey in the town of Uyuni, which is over an hour away from the salt flat. En route to the main attraction, your driver will stop at little markets for you to buy goods from local artisans , including alpaca knitted hats and gloves. You’ll also stop at a large train cemetery where trains and the tracks they sit on are no longer used. Most of the trip is off-road driving, and you’ll see llamas more frequently than other vehicles.
As you approach the Salar, the scenery starts to change dramatically, the landscape turning from farmland and fertile ground to a stark expanse at the edge of the Salar. Once you arrive, be prepared to take in awe-inspiring views and snap photos. (Thanks to its seemingly endless landscape, you can play around with the perspective to get some hilarious shots, from standing on someone’s hand to popping out of a potato chip bag.) While everyone is clicking away, the driver prepares lunch, and soon you’ll find yourself feasting on chicken, rice, and beans in the middle of a flooded salt flat. The experience is utterly spectacular.
Now, this trip is not without risk, and there are variables you cannot control, like the condition of the vehicle or the condition of your driver. Ours was taking frequent sips of what was likely beer , and kept nodding off behind the wheel (we sang to keep him awake). But hey—it’s all part of the adventure that Bolivia promises.
Note: U.S. citizens require a visa, which can be obtained at the border. Your paperwork needs to be in order, including proof of a Yellow Fever vaccine. The visa costs $135 and is valid for five years. Crisp U.S. dollars are the only way to pay; some of my bills were refused and I was sent away to find better ones.
The Southernmost City in the World
Ushuaia is the South American gateway to Antarctica, but with its remote location and incredible beauty, it stands strong as a destination on its own. Situated at the Fin del Mundo —end of the world—Ushuaia offers majestic views of the Andes and boasts a lively vibe, with plenty to do for an active few days.
Definitely take a half-day boat trip around the Beagle Channel, where you can see islands such as Isla de los Lobos (Sea Lion Island) and Isla de Párajos (Bird Island). Many operators offer these tours, but I chose an eight-passenger boat over a larger one so I could get closer to the islands and have better views of the wildlife.
About an hour’s drive away from Ushuaia is Estancia Harberton , a historic ranch and working nature reserve. Walking around the property, you’ll see plenty of educational exhibits featuring the local region and its inhabitants—including real whale bones! The main attraction, however, is nearby Isla Martillo —a penguin colony. You’ll take a 15-minute boat trip to get there, and I recommend going with Pira Tours , as it is the only operator that has an agreement with the ranch and the government to allow passengers to disembark on the island. (But don’t worry—the guides take great care to ensure the penguins are undisturbed.)
Back in Ushuaia, don’t forget to enjoy some local culinary delights. Restaurants are proud of their daily catch, and centolla (southern king crab) is a popular dish you should definitely try.
Note Argentina requires U.S. citizens to pay a $160 reciprocity fee, good for 10 years, if arriving on an international flight. New rules went into effect earlier this year and the fee must be paid online prior to arriving in Argentina. You’ll need to show your receipt to Argentine immigration and, possibly, before boarding your flight in the U.S.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
The Driest Desert in the World
San Pedro de Atacama is situated in the Altiplano —the Andean Plateau, or high plains—and is surrounded by the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. Though interestingly enough, when I arrived, the region was still recovering from four days of historic rain . The rainfall was so significant that the military shut down several attractions—including the world-famous El Tatio Geysers —because the flooding had made the areas unsafe. But not to worry—this is certainly not the status quo in San Pedro.
The small, dusty oasis of a town stretches only a few short blocks and has only dirt roads (some of which were washed away when I was there!). The center of town hosts a few restaurants and shops, which revolve around the small church in the main square.
But the great part about San Pedro de Atacama is that it’s a great jumping off point to discover the other highlights of the region. In addition to the Geysers, there are plenty of majestic landscapes, including Toconao (a small village), Reserva Nacional de Flamencos (National Flamingo Reserve), and Lagunas Altiplánicas (high-altitude lakes in the middle of the desert). Plenty of wildlife abounds in (and en route to) each of these places—think alpacas, vicuñas (a relative of the llama), and flamingos.
Topping off my visit to the region was a hike in the Valle de la Luna . The literal translation is the Valley of the Moon, and otherworldly it was. The terrain—sand mixed with salt that looks like snow—combined with the altitude makes you feel like you’re no longer on Earth.
Note: Upon entry, Chile requires U.S. citizens to pay a $160 reciprocity fee, good for the life of your passport, if arriving on an international flight. I entered Chile by bus and avoided the fee.
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Photo of car driving across the Salar courtesy of Shutterstock . All other photos courtesy of Lori Sussle, Alana Kanter, and Chris Bonanni.
Lori loves traveling and the outdoors, and her adventures prove it. Lori left a great marketing job in 2012 to fulfill one of her biggest dreams—to immerse herself in South American culture. She's back on U.S. soil but when she's not gallivanting or looking for her next full-time marketing gig, she's dreaming up new adventures around the globe. Say hi to Lori @smplythreecents and visit her blog, Simply Three Cents.More from this Author