From buzzing city life to stunning natural attractions, charming Old Towns and amazing food, South America has so much to offer for its travelers.
We spent 6 months traveling down the Pan-American Highway from Colombia to southern Chile and visited so many incredible cities along the way.
At first, we didn’t really know what to expect and truthfully we were a bit worried about our safety especially in big metropolitan cities. But after spending 6 months traveling through South America the cities here really exceeded our expectations.
In this post, we’ve put together a list of our favorite cities that we visited during our South America journey.
While some like Lima and Bogota are HUGE and most people have heard of, there are plenty of hidden gems in our list that are still very much under the radar especially for international travelers.
Here are 15 of the best cities to visit in South America:
(We cover these cities in the order that we visited them traveling North to South)
- Cartagena – Colombia
- Bogota – Colombia
- Salento – Colombia
- Medellin – Colombia
- Quito – Ecuador
- Baños – Ecuador
- Cuenca – Ecuador
- Lima – Peru
- Huacachina – Peru
- Ollantaytambo – Peru
- Cusco – Peru
- Pucón – Chile
- Santiago – Chile
- Puerto Natales – Chile
- El Calafate – Argentina
Cartagena is a lively city in northern Colombia that is very popular for international travelers.
Many people plan a visit to Cartagena as a destination of its own but a lot of travelers stop here while backpacking or road tripping through Colombia and pair it up with a visit to Medellin, Salento, and Bogota as well.
Cartagena was actually the first city that we visited during our Pan-American road trip in South America. We had some time to spare while we were shipping our van from Panama to Colombia so we explored Cartagena and it’s different neighborhoods.
For those visiting Cartagena for the first time, you’ll want to set aside a couple of days to explore Cartagena’s Old Town and its cute cobblestone streets.
Cartagena’s Old Town (also called The Walled City) is one of the most colorful and lively downtown areas that we visited in Colombia.
If you have extra time, it’s well worth it to arrange a day trip to El Totumo Volcano where you can float on top of a volcano in gravity-defying mud, one of the strangest but coolest experiences of our time in South America.
Bogota is one of those cities in South America that you either love or you can’t wait to leave.
Truth be told, Bogota can be a little rough around the edges, kind of like New York. As one of the biggest cities in South America, it’s always buzzing full of energy and has a lot of fun things for visitors to do but dealing with this city can be a bit challenging.
We stayed in Bogota for a week while visiting our friend who lives there. During this time we went on a really cool bike tour of the downtown area, ate at some amazing restaurants, visited fun local bars and played a game of Tejo where the main goal is to throw rocks at explosives while drinking beer (two things that shouldn’t go together normally).
But during our time in Bogota, we also experienced some difficulties and mishaps like getting my backpack stolen at a Starbucks and running into sketchy people on the streets.
If you plan to visit Bogota, I highly suggest to put some research and thought into which neighborhood to stay at because this can really influence your visit.
One of our favorite neighborhoods in Bogota was La Macarena. La Macarena is an affluent neighborhood with great Airbnb rentals, tons of cute hipster cafes and unique tapas-style restaurants. We stayed in a few different neighborhoods in Bogota and La Macarena was by far our favorite.
Location: Bogota, Colombia
Read More: 15 Incredible Things To See & Do In Colombia
Salento is a beautiful coffee region in the midst of the lush Colombian jungle. Many people make a point to visit Salento while traveling between Bogota and Medellin.
Salento city itself is pretty small but it’s very colorful and has a charming “small town” feel to it. Salento is only a handful of streets wide, but from here you can arrange a ton of cool activities to do in this region.
One of the most popular places to visit around Salento is the Cocora Valley also known as Valle De Cocora.
The Cocora Valley is a beautiful natural area located 30-minutes outside of Salento.
The Cocora Valley is quite special because here you can find these unique tall palm trees that don’t grow anywhere else in the world. For a small entrance fee of $1 visitors can hike amongst these towering palm trees and go up to a few different viewpoints.
The Salento region in Colombia produces some of the best coffee in the world so a visit to Salento wouldn’t be complete without taking a tour at one of the local coffee plantations.
Finca El Ocaso Salento is one of the highest-rated coffee farms in Salento. For about $6 per person, you can go on a tour of the coffee plantation where you will get to see how coffee beans are grown, processed and even try a fresh cup of coffee at the end of the tour.
Location: Salento, Quindio, Colombia
Medellin gets a really bad rep, especially after shows like Narcos. But during our South America journey, we spent over a month in Medellin and it’s a lot safer, friendlier and more beautiful than most people expect it to be.
True, Colombia has had a rocky past involving drug smuggling and cartel violence. But in recent years cities like Medellin have tried to turn this around.
Medellin’s Comuna 13 was once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Colombia. Now this area is known for its arts scene, especially the colorful graffiti murals that cover most of this neighborhood’s walls.
While you can visit Comuna 13 on your own, I highly recommend going on a guided Comuna 13 walking tour that will take you to all of the main highlights in this neighborhood and tell you more about its history.
During our time in Medellin, we stayed in El Poblado, an upscale neighborhood that has a lot of amazing restaurants, boutique shops, and bars. This is where most of Medellin’s expats and tourists stay at and it was super safe to walk around, even late at night.
Location: Medellin, Antioquia Province, Colombia
Read More: 15 Incredible Things To See & Do In Colombia
We loved Quito. We liked it so much that we even named our puppy after this city.
But as one of the biggest cities in South America, not everyone loves Quito. For one, it’s HUGE and pretty hard to navigate. On our first day in Quito, we even missed our walking tour because we just kept getting lost and we couldn’t get there in time. Nerveless, it’s quite a beautiful city if you keep an open mind to it.
What makes Quito so interesting is that it’s located in the middle of the world – literally. At the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo monument visitors can stand at the center of the Earth with one foot in the northern and one foot in the southern hemisphere.
Quito city itself was built in a Spanish colonial style with different European influences. In Quito’s Old Town you can find a ton of ornate churches and historical buildings from which the gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional is the grandest of them all.
Plaza Foch is a popular spot in Quito for food and drinks, especially for young people. Plaza Foch is a modern plaza in the midst of Quito’s Old Town where you can find a ton of good restaurants, cafes and lively bar scene.
One of my personal favorite experiences in Quito was the TeleferiQo cable car that takes you up to the top of a mountain overlooking Quito. At the top, you can see some really amazing panoramic views of the city, swing on a giant swing or even head out on some longer day hikes into the mountains.
Location: Quito, Ecuador
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Baños is one of those cities that totally surprised us during our South America trip. A lot of people traveling through South America often overlook Baños, but it’s well worth a trip especially if you love thrilling adventures.
Baños has a ton of awesome attractions to offer for those who enjoy outdoor activities and waterfalls. During our time in Baños, we hiked to jaw-dropping waterfalls, zip lined in the jungle, visited picturesque swings, and soaked in natural hot springs.
The best thing about Baños is that most attractions in this town only cost $5-$10 which is super cheap compared to any other country in South America.
The top attractions in Baños that you can’t miss are the La Casa del Arbol swing and the Pailon Del Diablo waterfall.
The La Casa del Arbol (or Swing At The End Of The World) is one of the most iconic spots in Baños. Built on top of a hill with towering volcanos as its backdrop, this swing is extremely popular especially for those who want to get that picture-perfect Instagram photo. But note that if you plan to visit this swing, make sure to come super early as it does get very crowded.
The Pailon del Diablo (or Devil’s Cauldron) waterfall is a giant waterfall with multiple viewing platforms overlooking it. The most popular viewing platform is located to the right of the waterfall offering amazing views of picturesque stairs across from it.
Location: Banos, Tungurahua Province, Ecuador
Read More: 10 Fun Things To Do In Baños, Ecuador
Cuenca was another unexpectedly charming city that we visited in South America.
We stopped at Cuenca for lunch while passing through Ecuador and ended up staying here for a few days.
Cuenca really took us by surprise because we hadn’t really heard of it before, but it was one of the nicest looking cities in South America.
This entire city is made of cute cobblestone streets and beautiful historic buildings with an influence of European architecture. Cuenca also has over 16 different churches and cathedrals in its downtown area, all of which are very elaborate and grand.
The Double Decker tour bus is a great way to get a feel of Cuenca and experience its highlights, especially for first-time visitors.
During the Double Decker tour, we passed most of the major attractions in Cuenca and stopped for a quick visit at the Turi viewpoint overlooking the city.
Cuenca also offers free walking tours in the morning. Going on a walking tour is a great way to learn more about Cuenca’s history and get to know the layout.
Our walking tour guide spoke great English and kept us going at a pretty good pace. During our tour, we covered many different neighborhoods in Cuenca and even stopped at the Panama Hat museum – which surprisingly originated in Cuenca (and not in Panama as most people think).
Location: Cuenca, Ecuador
With a population of 10 million people, Lima is one of the biggest cities in South America.
At first, we didn’t really plan to stop in Lima. But we reached this city around Christmas and ended up spending a few days in Lima relaxing, enjoying good food and hanging out.
To our surprise, Lima was a lot nicer than we expected. Driving into Lima the surrounding area looked very run down and sketchy but the center of Lima itself was super nice and had a lot of international travelers.
During our time in Lima, we stayed at the Hitchhikers Lima Hostel in Miraflores, one of the most popular neighborhoods for tourists.
This hostel was a walking distance to tons of restaurants, bars and to the Kennedy Park, or as I call it the “cat park”.
The Kennedy Park in Miraflores has a lot of beautiful walking paths, green space and for some reason – really cute cats living there that are super friendly and will even let you pet them.
Location: Lima, Peru
Huacachina Oasis is one of the most beautiful places to visit in South America. If you’re planning a trip to Peru, this little desert city is a MUST!
Located 5 hours south of Lima, Huacachina Oasis is a popular destination for those traveling between Lima and Cusco. This is an especially popular stop for backpackers and young people as this desert oasis is known to have a bit of a party scene with fun pool parties.
Huacachina itself is a pretty small city, but there is so much to see and do here to keep you occupied for a few days.
For around $10 you can go on a dune buggy tour that will take you on a thrilling drive across a never-ending desert landscape. As a part of this tour, you will also get to try sandboarding down a giant sand dune.
After the buggy tour, you can climb one of the sand dunes to watch a picture-perfect sunset overlooking Huacachina city from the top.
Location: Huacachina, Peru
When it comes to name recognition, most people have probably never heard of Ollantaytambo. But if you’re planning to visit the world-famous Machu Picchu ruins in Peru, it’s likely that you’ll need to pass through Ollantaytambo city to get there.
Ollantaytambo is an ancient Inca city that is also the boarding point for Machu Picchu trains. But besides being a stop on the way to Machu Picchu Ruins, Ollantaytambo itself is worth a day visit.
Here you can visit the Ollantaytambo Ruins, an ancient Inca city built into the side of a mountain with large farming terraces.
For a small entrance fee, you can climb to the top of these ruins for incredible views overlooking Ollantaytambo City and the surrounding area.
Ollantaytambo also has a few really awesome restaurants and cute little street markets where visitors can purchase local Peruvian souvenirs for much cheaper than getting them in big cities like Cusco.
Overall Ollantaytambo was one of the cleanest and best-kept tourist cities that we visited in South America.
Location: Ollantaytambo, Peru
Beautiful Spanish colonial-style architecture, adorable cobblestone streets, top-notch restaurants, and friendly locals make Cusco one of the best cities to visit in South America.
It’s clean, it’s lively and it’s super safe.
Cusco’s airport and its central location are just a few of the reasons why Cusco is such a hub for South America travelers. From here you can plan trips to Machu Picchu Ruins, Maras Salt Mines, Moray Ruins and many other attractions in the Sacred Valley nearby.
Cusco is a good size city so there is quite a bit to do in Cusco itself, especially around the Old Town area.
The main highlight of Cusco’s downtown is Plaza De Armas, a beautiful city square at the center of Cusco. This plaza features elaborate churches, gardens and ornate water fountains.
Around this plaza, visitors can also find some really cute restaurants with balconies overlooking Cusco’s adorable Old Town.
Location: Cusco, Peru
Pucón is one of the cutest mountain cities that we visited in South America.
It’s kind of similar to Mammoth or Big Bear in California, just add erupting volcanoes, glacier caves, hot springs, lakes with black sand beaches and that’s Pucón for ya.
For international travelers, Pucón is still very much under the radar.
It’s not next to any major cities so many people don’t even know it exists. But if you’re planning a trip to Chile, it’s well worth a detour to visit this beautiful adventure town.
For those that like extreme adventures, we recommend to set aside a day to hike the active Villarrica Volcano, one of the top activities in this region.
If ascending a lava-spewing volcano is not your thing, no worries, there are plenty of other beautiful mountain hikes to do in this region.
While most Pucón visitors end up hanging around the cute downtown area, we spent a week in this region going on various different hikes. We hiked up to a glacier, around little alpine lakes and even spent a night camping on top of a volcano with nobody else around for miles.
Location: Pucon, Araucania, Chile
Unlike other countries in South America, Chile surprisingly doesn’t have many big cities.
Santiago is the capital city of Chile and you could consider it to be the cultural and economic backbone of this country.
Since Santiago is one of the biggest cities in Chile most travelers either fly into Santiago or make a stop here at one point or another.
Compared to other metropolitan cities in South America, Santiago was like a fresh breath of air to us.
We spent a few days in Santiago and with its big freeways, well-kept parks, and clean downtown area it felt like being in the United States. During our time in Santiago, we even went out to sushi with our friends, something that we hadn’t done since we left the US.
Puerto Natales is a cute little mountain town in Southern Chile. What makes this town so special is that it’s the closest city to Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most magnificent parks in the world.
Most people will make Puerto Natales their home base while visiting the Patagonia region in Chile. In Puerto Natales, you can find a ton of hostels, arrange guides to visit Torres del Paine National Park, grab a beer at one of the local restaurants and relax before doing any of the multi-day long treks.
One of the most popular attractions in Puerto Natales is Monumento de la Mano, a giant sculpture that looks like a hand, similar to the one in the Atacama Desert.
The Puerto Natales town is also located next to the water offering amazing sunset views overlooking old pier remains.
Location: Puerto Natales, Chile
One of the last cities that we visited in South America before we finished our trip was El Calafate. We wanted to end our South America trip with a “bang” so we decided to stay in El Calafate for a few days and visit the Perito Moreno glacier.
The Perito Moreno glacier is an impressive glacier that visitors can see from viewing platforms or take a tour to experience it up close. This glacier is very special because it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding or getting smaller.
For a more unique experience, you can also take a guided hiking tour on top of El Calafate glacier – which is a bit pricey at $110 per person, but totally worth it!
Even if you don’t plan to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier, just about anybody traveling through Patagonia stops at El Calafate. This town is often the “middle point” for those en route between El Chaltén and Puerto Natales.
During our time in El Calafate, we met up with some friends, grabbed a few drinks at the local brewery and visited an ice bar – which was a pretty fun and unique experience.
Looking for more South America travel inspiration? Here are a few of our other blog posts covering awesome things to do in South America:
- Guide To Visiting Marble Caves In Patagonia, Chile
- 10 Incredible Things To Do In Peru That You Shouldn’t Miss
- 10 Unreal Places To Visit Along Carretera Austral Highway In Chile
- Guide To Chachapoyas, Peru: Waterfalls, Rainforests & Ruins
- 15 Incredible Things To See & Do In Colombia
Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for nature shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Wasabi Power battery charger and extra battery pack
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
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