South America. It’s big, it’s crazy, and it’s guaranteed to steal a little piece of your heart, no matter which part you visit, and no matter how long you stay for.
The only problem with South America is that there is SO MUCH to see there, that even a lifetime exploring this stunning continent wouldn’t be enough. You’d still find yourself watching a David Attenborough documentary on your deathbed, cursing yourself for having missed out on that very obscure part of the Amazon rainforest that’s home to like, the rarest frog in the world or something.
Thinking of visiting South America but a bit overwhelmed and not sure where to start? Keep reading, my friend, I got you!
When I visited Peru for the first time back in 2011, I went in almost completely figuratively blind. The only two things I knew about Peru was that Paddington Bear came from there, and Machu Picchu looked hella pretty. Like, blow your face off and sweep your feet from right under you levels of pretty. There were also a few random facts that the volunteer company I was going with sent me – random and pointless, things like they eat guinea pig (as a vegetarian this wasn’t high on my agenda), football is huge there (no duh) and llamas are not the same as alpacas (so this one actually did come in handy…).
In any case, I expected to fly off to Peru for six weeks, improve my Spanish, experience a new culture (for basically the first time ever), learn some new hashtag life skillzzz and maybe make some friends. What I didn’t expect to happen was that I’d leave Peru with an already burning desire to go back. That country, that continent, became engrained in me. I left a little bit of my heart there, and I don’t think I’ll ever get that back.
That first not very well thought out but still bloody brilliant trip to Peru inspired two further trips to South America – first in 2013, when I spent 8 weeks traversing solo across Venezuela, Colombia and then back to my heart-home of Peru, then in 2016, when I covered A LOT of ground in a too-short space of time by travelling mostly overland from Brazil through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, back to Peru (of course!), Ecuador and finally Colombia.
What’s the point of me mentioning these trips?
Because all three of them had the same thing in common… I had no plan, no itinerary and no idea what I was doing.
I’m not ashamed to say (okay, so maybe I am a little bit) that I’ve spent months on end in South America and I did it all wrong. All three times. I missed out on a lot of the must sees, must eats and must-dos. I don’t think I participated in a single notable hike, which is especially sad because South America allegedly has some of the most beautiful hikes in the world. I say allegedly because LOL, of course, I haven’t done any of them.
I didn’t have an itinerary for South America, and although I did have a brief idea of what I wanted to see and do there, and did somehow manage to knock most off the list, oh boy do I wish I was more prepared!
Hindsight is a beautiful thing, huh?
Not one to compile an ultimate itinerary of places you MUST visit mainly because there are so many brilliant ones out there already to compete with that I just don’t have it in me (but if you are looking for that kind of thing, please do make sure to check out this ultimate South American itinerary by my fellow Welsh lady Globetrotter GP for more inspo), I decided instead to put my own twist on it, and compile a list (yes, a list, I’m sorry) of unmissable UNESCO Heritage Sites in South America you really should visit if, you know, you’re in the area.
We’ve all heard of UNESCO, right? Actually, the chances are that almost every single person reading this will have visited one at some point in their life even if they’ve never left their home country! There are more than 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites dotted across 167 States on this beautiful planet (1,073 at the time of writing but you know, things change so let’s not take my word on that) – 832 are considered ‘cultural’, 206 are ‘natural’ and 35 are ‘mixed properties’.
But how many of us actually know what a UNESCO World Heritage Site is?
What is a UNESCO Heritage Site?
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a landmark or area specially selected by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) for having special and notable cultural or physical significance. The cultural aspect is important to be considered a Cultural Heritage Site, and the physical significance is important to be considered a Natural Heritage Site.
So no, unfortunately Chris Hemsworth cannot be declared a UNESCO Heritage Site, despite his immense physical significance to not just the world, but the entire galaxy.
According to UNESCO, to be declared a World Heritage Site, a site “must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria“. The full list of criteria can be found on the UNESCO website, if you’re curious.
Now that we’re all up to scratch with what a UNESCO World Heritage Site actually is, I think it’s about time we delve into the glorious world of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South America! There are at least 70 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South America, some of which you definitely will have heard of (Machu Picchu, anyone?) and some of which will have you scratching your head in confusion as you try and figure out a) where it is and b) how on earth you pronounce it (Ischigualasto, for one).
Don’t worry, I’m not about to list all 70. More of a condensed, highlight reel of UNESCO Heritage Sites in South America.
I reached out to my fellow travel bloggers for help with this list, as we’ve already established that I’m a repeat failure when it comes to exploring South America! The response was incredible, which has resulted in a post of epic length – so please, grab a cup of tea, coffee, malt whiskey, your choice, and prepare for a Carl Fredricksen-level of virtual adventure around South America!
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
by Corinne Vail at Reflections Enroute
Stepping off the boat in the steamy equatorial heat onto an uninhabited island populated with blue-footed or red-footed boobies and marine iguanas is an experience I’ll never forget.
We spent five adventure-filled days on board a small boat with only a handful of others (12 total), a local guide, and two boat crew. Our days were spent motoring from island to island gawking at and photographing the amazing wildlife, or swimming in the cool, blue waters with sea lions, manta rays, and so many varieties of fish. Onboard we were treated to snacks and delicious freshly-caught seafood dinners.
It’s not easy getting to this natural UNESCO world heritage site. First, you must fly into mainland Ecuador, take a hopper flight to Baltra where you pay your national park fee of $100 per person and meet up with your boat, but it’s well worth every minute and every dollar. It’s the perfect family vacation with being on a boat, watching animals, and swimming every day. For me, it was the trip of a lifetime, one I would love to repeat over and over again.
The City of Cuzco, Peru
by Jess from Longest Bus Rides
Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu is a gorgeous city. I arrived in the evening, and first saw the metropolis glittering in lights. From the Incan Palace turned museum, to the busy Plaza de Armas, the merging of Incan and Spanish culture is an amazing experience, and the city immediately became one of my favourites!
The presence of massive Incan structures within the city makes it all the more amazing. Listen to local people speaking indigenous languages and try as many restaurants (all price ranges) as possible, where you can try the various corns and potatoes still grown today.
It’s a large city, so stay in the historic centre, which puts you walking distance from all the places you’ll want to see. Similar to Spain, it’s filled with plazas and markets. The largest plaza is the central one, and is a beautiful place which is buzzing with life at all times of day. Even the locals hang out here, and there is plenty of tourist police milling around to help keep crime low.
Cuzco is easily accessed by plane and bus from Lima, Puno, or anywhere else. Also, many places are accessible from Cusco for overnight or day trips, including the Sacred Valley and Salar de Maras, and, of course, Machu Picchu, including the Salkantay and Inca Trail treks.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
by Campbell & Alya from Stingy Nomads
Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina was definitely one of the highlights of our one year travel through South America!
Located in the South of Argentinian Patagonia, 80km from El Chalten, it’s one of the country’s biggest attractions! With an impressive size of 250 km2, the glacier is the third largest freshwater reserve in the world. The park is very well maintained with comfortable wooden paths and bridges, viewpoints and good facilities. You can even drink a cup of coffee or eat lunch with the epic glacier view.
Entry to the park for tourists is just US$25! But for more the more adventurous travelers there are several activities on and around the glacier. You can take one of the cruise boats that comes close to Perito Moreno to be able to appreciate its beauty, and another exciting thing to do here is ice walking on the glacier with crampons and an ice axe. There are two trekking options – 90 minutes and 5 hours.
The easiest way to reach Perito Moreno is to fly to El Calafate, wihch you can do from several Argentinian cities, and then take a bus to Los Glaciares park. It possible to get to El Calafate by bus from elsewhere in Argentina, although be warned that the journey could be quite long and arduous!
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The Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia
by Kate from Our Escape Clause
The Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia is vast–and it’s also a must-visit while in Colombia. Home to some of the best coffee in the world, the lush landscapes, quaint villages, and incredible hiking will ensure that you never want to leave.
We visited the Coffee Cultural Landscape while based in Salento–and we extended our stay three times while there. The laid-back attitude of the town and the incredible beauty of the surrounding nature (we asked ourselves if we had been transported to Middle Earth more than once), kept us completely enchanted during our stay.
If you visit, definitely don’t miss hiking in the Valle de Cocora–home to some of the tallest wax palm trees in the world, the valley is incredibly lush and resembles something akin to Ireland if it were crossed with The Lorax.
Since the UNESCO site covers many towns and villages, there are plenty of options for visiting, but if you want to head to Salento, it’s best accessed by taking a bus from Medellin. The ride is long, bumpy, and uncomfortable–but it is absolutely worth the effort.
Sadly, the world-famous coffee that the region is known for is mostly exported and not enjoyed by the locals, but if you poke around, you’ll be able to find a cafe or two serving a cup of the good stuff (in Salento, check out the Jesus Martin Coffee Shop).
Machu Picchu, Peru
by Patrick from German Backpacker
The ruins of Machu Picchu are probably South America’s most popular tourist destination and one of the New7 Wonders of the World – for good reason!
I was very much looking forward to visiting the ancient Inca capital during my trip through South America, and I wasn’t disappointed! There are several options to reach Machu Picchu and the multiple day trips are probably the most popular choices. While the classic Inca Trail is quite expensive and needs to be booked several months in advance, the Inca Jungle Trail and the Salkantay Trail can be booked for only a fraction of the price directly in Cusco (don’t book in advance online!), and offer great value for your money. All of the different tours have one thing in common – on the last day, you’ll reach the incredible Machu Picchu!
The small town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu will be your base to explore this World Heritage Site. Take your time to wander around the ruins and enjoy the views. If you’re into hiking, you have the option to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu or the Machu Picchu mountain (permits need to be bought in advance) for some breath-taking views (if skies are clear). While the morning was very cloudy, the sky opened up in the afternoon and I had wonderful views on the ruins with the sun slowly setting. Due to new ticketing rules implied last year, tourists have to pick between access in the morning or in the afternoon.
Machu Picchu is one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen and you certainly won’t be disappointed!
Historic Centre of São Luís, Brazil
by Michael from MSCGerber
The UNESCO site of São Luís is definitely not one of the most famous in South America – however, I really loved my time there. There might be some lack of modern renovation like you can see in other old cities on the continent, yet this is exactly what makes the Historic Centre of São Luís so special to me.
While walking around the city, you can feel how old and powerful this place is. In contrary to many of the more famous tourist spots in Brazil, you can experience the colourful architecture that was brought to São Luís by its different European colonialists (namely France, Netherlands and Portugal), almost without any other tourists. To be honest, I think I was the only non-Brazilian person in the area at the time, which is exactly why I loved strolling around.
Another great aspect is that there is no entrance fee nor overpriced restaurants or shops. There are some lovely local places to eat, and you can also buy the odd souvenir or two, but there is definitely no mass tourism running the risk of spoiling its natural charm.
If you’d like to experience an interesting and almost untouched old city – the Historic Centre of São Luís is the perfect choice for you!
Iguazú/Iguaçu National Park, Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay
by Claudia from My Adventures Around the World
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Historic Centre of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil
by Noel from Travel Photo Discovery
Salvador de Bahia, about a two-hour flight from the state of Rio, is a significant UNESCO World Heritage site to visit.
Nominated as the first capital city in Brazil when the Spaniards created their colonial capital, the historic district of Salvador is located directly on a hill overlooking the lower areas and bay, providing security to the new capital of Brazil. UNESCO funds have helped the zone become revitalized with impressive churches, government buildings and museums that have repurposed old mansions and striking architectural buildings into showcases.
The cobbled streets, colourful buildings and unique food of Bahia make this a spectacular place worth visiting if you are headed to Brazil. I would recommend at least two nights to take in the old centre, the newer metropolitan areas, and the coastal areas that are also fun to explore. In fact, if you like the beach scene you should plan to stay even longer, because the water is clear and beautiful beaches are everywhere.
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Ischigualasto Natural Park, Argentina
by Owen from My Turn to Travel
Ischigualasto Provincial Park, meaning ‘land without life’ is a provincial protected area in the northwest of Argentina. Together with the Talampaya National Park, Ischigualasto was named a UNESCO site in 2000.
These two contiguous parks contain the most complete continental fossil record known from the Triassic Period and are of extraordinary scientific importance. However, what is even more appealing to the very few visitors is the otherworldly landscape in the park.
Ischigualasto is also known as ‘valley of the moon’ and this title is apparent in The Painted Valley with its variety of shapes, hues, and different striations of minerals and sediments. Add some irregular rock formations, a field of almost-perfect black spherical shape rocks, and an eerily silence that goes on for miles in all directions, you’d think you’ve stepped onto a distant, forsaken planet.
Getting to Ischigualasto Provincial Park is a challenge due to how off the beaten track it is. The closest village is 90km away at Valle Fertil and hardly anyone speaks English there, not even in the tourist information center, so don’t forget your Spanish phrasebook! After lots of asking around, I managed to arrange for a tour with the owner of Hostel Ischigualasto and it wasn’t cheap due to it being off-season.
I travelled for one year in South America, and the Ischigualasto Provincial Park was definitely the most underrated yet rewarding destination I visited!
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Cartagena de Indias (Port, Fortresses, and Group of Monuments), Colombia
by Heather from Conversant Traveller
In the north of Colombia, Cartagena de Indias is the jewel of South America’s Caribbean coast. Once a hotbed of pirates, legends and romance, today Cartagena’s cobbled streets, bougainvillea-clad balconies and quaint little churches are the stuff of every traveller’s dreams!
Cartagena began life back in 1533 as a major trading port for Spain and her territories. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the old colonial walled city and fortress remain magnificently preserved and are deservedly one of the most popular visitor attractions in the country.
It was indeed one of our favourite stops during our South American adventures. The glittering turquoise sea, colourful architecture and relaxed pace of life made it the perfect place to just ‘be’ for a few days. Sure, there are plenty of sights to see, from walking along the fortress walls and visiting the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, to checking out the free Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and the haunting Palace of the Inquisition.
There are even beaches such as the Playa Blanca just outside the city, or the Rosario Islands if you fancy a spot of snorkelling. Yet the main attraction of Cartagena is simply to stroll through its sleepy flower-scented streets, making new discoveries around every corner. During the day the old town remains relatively quiet thanks to the intense heat (to combat that pop into one of the many cute cafes for an iced lemonade frappe), but by nightfall the place is alive and buzzing. Sultry jazz spills out from world-class seafood restaurants, and couples sit hand-in-hand on church steps, trying to absorb as much of the magical atmosphere as possible during their final night in Cartagena.
South Pantanal, Brazil
by Leanne from The Globetrotter GP
I’d advise you to combine a trip here with a trip to Bonito – the ecotourism centre of Brazil and another opportunity to spot more wildlife and even swim with anacondas!
Historical Centre of the City of Arequipa, Peru
by Jess from Longest Bus Rides
The Historical Centre of Arequipa is a UNESCO site, known for the many buildings constructed of white stone. In fact, standing in front of the Basilica Cathedral at the Plaza de Armas at sunset, its pale stone façade glowing, I felt as though I was in a storybook.
Meanwhile, the Santa Catalina monastery is an experience of color. Surrounded by thick walls colored bright blue or terracotta, all outside sounds are silenced. And, even on a hot day, the air in the patios feels cool and refreshing. Still inhabited by nuns, much of the monastery is now a museum open to the public. If you enjoy photography, this is the best place for all the colorful photos your heart desires.
Finally, you won’t want to miss a walking tour of the historical center, where you’ll visit llamas and alpacas and learn about the textile trade they support. You’ll also learn plenty about local food, such as beer, corn, and the guinea pig.
Getting here is easy, as it’s the second largest city in the country. Also, Arequipa is a jumping off point for trekking in Colca Canyon.
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Canaima National Park, Venezuela
by Claire from Tales of a Backpacker
Canaima National Park in the south-east of Venezuela covers an area of over 3 million hectares, which is about the size of Belgium. The tepui ‘table’ mountains here in the park are classed by UNESCO as a unique biological entity, and are quite a sight to behold! These huge sandstone mountains have sheer vertical walls and almost flat tops, and have inspired stories and legends such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’ and Disney’s ‘Up’. The most well-known of the tepui are Mount Roraima, one of the tallest and easiest to climb (although it is still a 3-day hike to the summit!), and Auyantepui, where the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls, tumbles from its summit.
A journey here is sadly off the agenda for most travellers due to safety concerns in Venezuela, and currently I would not recommend visiting. I came here in 2016, but since then the crisis has got worse, and there are shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies which makes travelling to Venezuela extremely difficult.
However, if you have your heart set on going, the best way to get there is probably across the land border with Brazil from the south. It is possible to arrange tours from the border town of Santa Elena to Angel Falls, and a trek to Roraima, both of which are incredible natural spectacles. Hopefully, in the future, it will be safer to visit Venezuela, and more people can enjoy visiting these natural wonders.
Historic Quarter of the City of Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
by Christina from Wandering Wagars
The historic quarter of Colonia del Sacramento was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is one of only two UNESCO sites in Uruguay.
This picturesque old town captures the hearts of many visitors and is a popular destination for those travelling from nearby Buenos Aires in Argentina. With popular regions such as the Street of Sighs and the Lighthouse located within the towering stone walls, it’s easy to understand what draws the crowds.
Colonia del Sacramento is accessed via the reconstructed 1745 city gate, Porton de Campo. There is no entrance fee and the town can easily be visited in a day exploring on foot. One can easily spend hours admiring the romantic architecture often surrounded by blooming flowers. A favorite is the Street of Sighs, whose cobblestone street is fronted by pink-hued buildings. Inside you will find art galleries, restaurants, and souvenir shops. All maintain notes to their heritage within their stone walls.
by Thais from World Trip Diaries
Tiwanaku (also known as Tiahuanaco) is the capital of the Tiwanaku Empire. It lasted around a thousand years, over 3000 years ago and the place was its spiritual and political center.
City of Quito
by Stephanie from Sofia Adventures
One of the earliest UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Quito was listed in 1978 during the World Heritage List’s first active year. It’s an impressive heritage site, but unless you’re a hardcore UNESCO hunter, you probably won’t be aware of why!
This UNESCO site is stunning – colonial buildings and an intact core, showing what the city would have been like during its Spanish Colonial days. Gorgeous cathedrals and colourful buildings dot the city’s interior, reminiscent of Puerto Rico or other Spanish cities in the Americas. It has always puzzled me why this city, with its beautiful hilltop views, economic prices, and wealth of cultural heritage gets overlooked by backpackers, but whatever the reason, it has definitely helped to keep the city peacefully devoid of hordes of tourists. A city that is nicknamed the “Florence of the Americas” surely should be a bigger draw, but so many tourists skip it and head straight to the Galápagos.
Before arriving in Quito, there are a few things to note. Visiting the UNESCO site is technically free since you don’t need to pay a thing to wander through the colourful streets, but you will pay admittance to visit some of the churches and cathedrals that are part of the inscribed site. Make sure to take advantage of the daylight, as the city is not so safe for tourists out at night. If you want to go out after dark, prearrange your taxi with your accommodations. Alternatively, some of the nicer restaurants in town have their own drivers who will come and get you. Additionally, while not part of the UNESCO site, make sure to see the museum dedicated to the life and work of Oswaldo Guyasamin, La Capilla de Hombre. Even though it has been four years since I visited the museum, the images I saw still haunt and inspire me.
Chan Chan Archaeological Zone, Peru
by Me! Wales to Wherever
Situated a little west of Trujillo, a city in the northwestern area of Peru which is often overlooked by visitors in favour of the more ‘backpacker-friendly’ cities further south, Chan Chan is an archaeological zone of utmost cultural and historical importance.
Chan Chan began its life as the capital of the Chimu Kingdom until around 1470AD when the Kingdom fell and became part of the Incan Empire. The Citadel, which was once 20km² in size is now just 6km² but still the largest city of the Pre-Columbian Era in South America and the largest mud-brick city in the world! The above-pictured wall is apparently older than Jesus, although I’m 99% sure that was just my tour guide trying to wow us with inconsistencies! Still, older than Christ or not, it’s hard to believe that the intricate carvings in the walls and other structures within the city were done entirely by hand long before the existence of JCBs, power drills, and other modern tools.
There are nine rectangular complexes within the adobe, each one surrounded by high, sand-coloured mud brick walls. Even today you can see the basic layout of the structure within the walls, with buildings that were once used as temples, storehouses and more!
Chan Chan is actually listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger, as the once vibrantly painted red and blue mud bricks are at constant risk of erosion due to rain and construction of modern structures within the buffer zone, so if you do visit, don’t touch things you’re not supposed to! Bearing this in mind, although it is possible to visit without a guide (entrance is just 11 soles, which is about £3.50) I’d highly recommend you do go either on an organised tour or by arranging an official tour guide on site. It’ll only cost you around 30 soles, but you’ll receive a lot of insightful and in-depth information about the zone.
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As mentioned a little further up in the article, there are at least 70 UNESCO Heritage Sites in South America, so we’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I’m sure you’ll agree there’s more than enough to bulk up your South America itinerary a little!
In fact, the only thing keeping me from booking a one-way trip over to Brazil right now is, er, lack of money…and time. But if I had either one of those right now, I’d be saying adios Gales and hola, Sudamerica! without a second thought!