Skip the crowds in South America: 5 uncommon destinations
Thousands of visitors travel to South America every year for nature and adventure—from hiking in the high deserts of Argentina to exploring dense jungles in Bolivia to sunbathing on Brazilian beaches. But if you have no experience on the continent, trip planning can feel daunting. How can you create an interesting itinerary without copying the typical ecotourism and party-goer trips popular today? For those seeking a manageable but meaningful escape, here are five unexpected places to explore in South America.
1. Pucón, Chile
Go climb a volcano. Yep, that’s right. Pucón, a small town in Chilean Patagonia, sits in the shadow of Volcán Villarrica, one of only five volcanoes in the world with an active lava lake in its crater. It’s center may be red hot, but the peak is often snow-covered so be prepared to strap on your crampons. After your climb of ice and fire, treat your muscles to hot and cold baths at the Termas Geométricas. Then head to La Maga Parrilla Uruguaya (Gerónimo de Alderete 276) for a well-earned glass of local red wine and a wood-fired steak that will make question America's barbecue hubris. The best time of year to visit Pucón is just after the busy season (December-February). The fall air is brisk and redolent with the aroma of wood-burning stoves.
2. Arica, Chile
For party city amenities (beach-front hotels, bars, and clubs) without the party city pitfalls (namely swarms of tourists), head for the slow-paced town of Arica. Situated a few miles from the border of Chile and Peru, this seaside spot is worth visiting at any point in the year for its warm climate. But if you arrive in the last week of January, Arica will treat you to its traditional Carnaval con la fuerza del sol. After a day of dancing the caporales, morenadas, and tobas through the streets, cool off with one of the region’s famous pisco sours at the bar Barrabas on Isla Alacrán beach.
3. Cabo Frio, Brazil
Pack in outdoor adventure, culture, and relaxation in Cabo Frio, about an hour-and-a-half drive east of Rio de Janeiro. Start your day exploring Cabo Frio’s many sand dunes and clear lagoons and lounge on the beach at Forte or Prainha. Or if you’re feeling more active, try your hand at kitesurfing. History buffs should walk to the eastern end of the city’s waterfront to visit Forte São Mateus, a 17th century stronghold against pirates. In the evening, make your way to the Canal do Itajuru neighborhood for a dinner of picanha na chapa (sizzling steak) followed by even hotter dancing.
4. Jujuy Province, Argentina
Located in the far northeast corner of Argentina, Jujuy Province is one of the country’s most geologically and culturally diverse areas. Travelers to the region can see spectacular views of the Andes mountains, desert scenery, the Salinas Grandes salt mines, and Incan ruins. While there, take a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site (Quebrada de Humahuaca), a valley outside of Tilcara that was part of an ancient Incan trade route. Stop and explore the stone ruins of Pucará de Tilcara, a pre-Incan town and Quebrada’s only publicly accessible archeological site.
5. Bucaramanga, Colombia
Often overshadowed by Bogotá and Medellín, Bucaramanga is one of the most underrated cities in Colombia. The capital of the Santander region is perhaps best known for its parks (there are over 160 in the city) and its mild weather (temperatures range between highs in the 70s and lows in the 60s year round). Sample guanábana (soursop fruit, popular here in frozen fruit bars and as a juice mixed with milk) and arepas (flatbread made from maize) in Bucaramanga’s Mercado Central, and visit historic churches, such as the Catedral de la Sagrada Familia and San Pío, which features several works by the 20th century painter Oscar Rodríguez Naranjo. For aerial views, drive to Chicamocha National Park, a canyon 31 miles outside the city, and go paragliding. Qué chévere.