While natural and man-made draws like Iguazu Falls and Machu Picchu are certainly excellent reasons to book a ticket to South America, there are plenty more off-road adventures to experience as well. From lesser-known Carnival celebrations to the world’s largest wetland, South America has plenty to offer travelers that live and trek by Robert Frost’s immortal words of taking the dirt, possibly non-existent, road less traveled.
[Also see our travel article “Ten Incredible Destinations Off the Beaten Path“]
10. Lanin National Park, San Martin de los Andes, Argentina
Torres del Paine National Park is, for good reason, a renowned place to continually have your mind blown by sheer beauty. For a more low-key but no less beautiful trek through Patagonia, try Lanin National Park in Argentina. Lanin has 20 glacial lakes and the towering, now-extinct cone-shaped Lanin volcano, which is a two-day climb. With over 413,000 hectares, the park is unsurprisingly a boredom-crusher. Trek to the Saltillo Waterfall, climb Chivo peak, kitesurf in the summer and ski in the winter, all with fewer visitors but a no less awesome adrenaline rush.
9. Cerro Cora National Park, Paraguay
Landlocked and overlooked, Paraguay still remains at the tail-end of must-see South America. One of the country’s jewels is Cerro Cora National Park, which lies on the Brazilian border. Even where it’s not inaccessible, it’s still pretty much void of visitors. Slather on the mosquito repellent and bring plenty of water as it can get well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit complete with punishing humidity. After cooling down in the Rio Aquidaban, search the savannah for tortoises, monkeys and the elusive jaguar among the red sandstone mountains. The park’s also famous for its historical sites. Visitors can check out pre-Colombian petroglyphs, and the park’s also the site of the end of the Triple Alliance War. There’s a small cabin open to overnight guests behind the visitor’s center, and much like the park itself, it’s unlikely you’ll have to share it with anyone else.
8. Salkantay trek and Choquequirao, Peru
Machu Picchu is deservedly one of the best places to see in South America. Getting there requires taking the train or the well-trod Inca Trail. However, there’s a less traveled alternative, especially outside the July-August high season, called the Salkantay trek. Unlike the Inca Trail, there’s no restriction on the number of people who can go on the trail or permits required. Choquequirao, or the other Machu Picchu, is currently only accessible by a 4-hour drive up mountain roads and then a 12 to 16-hour trek. This place won’t be off the beaten track for much longer though, as there’s plans to open an aerial tramway in late 2015, so the opportunity to share the heavenly views with just a few others and some condors won’t last for much longer.
7. Coyhaique, Chile
[Also see our travel article “Two Weeks in Chile“]
Coyhaique is in a bit of a no man’s land for visitors to Chile, as it’s just too north of tourist favorite Torres del Paine to make it a viable option for visitors with limited time. However, ditching those plans for a few days or a week in Coyhaique and the surrounding area is a gorgeous alternative. From the town center, bike ride to the nearby national park or rent a car to do away with the reliance on guided tours. Along the drive to Capillas de Marmol, stopping will be a frequent occurrence to photograph the stunning scenery, and it only gets better. Capillas de Marmol is a natural marble structure in a glacial lake, which has been smoothed out by the waves, and boats can navigate through the shallow caves. Get back on the road to see a dead forest rising out of a lake, typical southern Chile cemeteries and a receding glacier, all while enjoying the peace and quiet of an undiscovered place.
6. Montevideo, Uruguay
Carnival is synonymous with Brazil, but it’s actually Montevideo that has the world’s longest Carnival celebration. The 40-day long festivity of course includes fabulous women in headdresses and little else, and also integrates traditional Uruguayan culture. The most famous element is llamadas, the iconic drum parades. In Uruguay, drum groups dress up as magicians, old women or medicine men, and play candombe beats, keeping alive a tradition started with black slaves. The other local custom are muras, or political satires, and judges travel the country to see the performances before crowning the winning troupe at the final parade. Rio’s Carnival may be the biggest, but Montevideo’s is the longest, and since it’s lesser-known, it’s slightly easier to get in on the action.