Most people’s South American bucket list would read something like this: Rio for Carnival, Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, visit Cartagena, cruise the Galapagos Islands, trek in the Amazon rainforest, watch the sun rise over the Salt Flats in Bolivia, learn to tango in Buenos Aires and do some hiking in Patagonia.
And even though I have only experienced a few of those things, I’m sure that they are all awesome.
I loved Rio although I didn’t visit over Carnival, Machu Picchu was even better than I imagined despite the altitude sickness I suffered on the Inca Trail, the Amazon Basin was teeming with wildlife and it was a fantastic experience despite my broken toe and the salt flats were even more other-worldly than I could have hoped for, even though I put my foot through the thin layer of salt and into the briny water beneath.
Most of the times the visions you have of yourself in these famous places around the world don’t turn out exactly how you imagined them to. Because in our imaginations, more often than not, everything runs smoothly, the sun is shining, we are brimming with happiness and appreciate every moment.
Unfortunately life doesn’t work like that. Well, not for me anyway.
When you have such high expectations of perfection for a place, it makes it very hard for reality to live up to them. Even though Machu Picchu and Rio de Janeiro more than lived up to the high expectations that I set for them, other famous sites over the years such as the Pyramids of Giza, Buenos Aires, Cartagena, Venice and New York unfortunately didn’t quite hit the mark.
I have found that the less expectation I have for a place, the more chance I will like it.
As it turned out, most of my highlights of travelling in South America were in places that I hadn’t heard much about before. They had a chance to really blow me away and they did. These are the places that I instantly think of when I remember my travels in that incredible continent, along with Rio and Machu Picchu.
Here are my favourite unexpected highlights of South America.
Set in the jungle covered Santa Marta mountains above the sweltering city of the same name, Minca couldn’t be more different than most other towns along the Caribbean Coast of Colombia.
A cool and quiet mountain village, Minca only constitutes a small main street and a couple of side streets but it was here that we found the best Menu del Dia (Meal of the day) that we had during our 7 months in Latin America. We ate some of the best empanadas I have ever had and we drunk delicious hot chocolate at a small café that was humming with hummingbirds, one of my favourite birds.
During the three days we spent here we swam and tubed down a crystal clear river and under waterfalls. We hiked past thickets of bamboo and jungled greenery along a quiet road to a small coffee plantation, where we were taken through the production and tasted the final product. We spent long afternoons at our hilltop hostel, perched at a perfect vantage point to look out over the rugged hills and down to the sparkling lights of the chaotic Santa Marta far below. We experienced some of the most incredible sunsets from there.
There was also the cutest kitty that lived there and followed us around a lot of the time. Trav and my brother had to drag me away. I possibly could have stayed forever.
Villa de Leyva, Colombia
This white washed colonial mountain town in the Andes mountains of central Colombia wowed me with its beauty from the first moment we arrived. With its cobbled streets, grand plaza lined with outdoor restaurants and the brilliant white of the Spanish style buildings; it is no wonder that it is a world heritage site.
I was sick with a cold for the three nights we were in Villa de Leyva and it turned out to be the perfect place to relax and recoup. Our days consisted of walking the picturesque streets, visiting the local markets where they have one of my favourite fruits in the world – feijoas, sampling the various desserts around town (and there were a lot!) and reading and relaxing at our incredible Hostel, located in the hills above town. Lazy days in this beautiful place did the trick and I soon recovered.
Salento is the heart and soul of Colombia’s coffee growing region. A sleepy town in a lush landscape of palms and vines, Salento wasn’t on my radar until I started reading up in more detail on places to go in Colombia. The relaxed atmosphere and spectacular scenery made our days here stand out as some of my favourites of our time in South America.
We did another coffee tour with our quirky English Hostel owner and even got involved with grinding the coffee ourselves. I saw pineapples growing for the first time (if you haven’t seen pineapples growing, google it now!), wandered the dusty town and ate the best pizza in months at a German run Restaurant.
My favourite memory from Salento? Hiking through the too-beautiful-for-words Valle de Cocora. A lush valley surrounded by mountains of verdant green, it is home to multiple species of hummingbird and giant wax palms. The wax palms can grow to 60 metres tall and they make you feel very, very small when you are hiking through a valley of them. It was one of the most inspiring landscapes of anywhere I have ever been and I will always remember it.
The weather didn’t cooperate in this small tourist town that translates in English to ‘Toilets’. Despite its unfortunate name and the drizzly, cold weather during our time there, I really enjoyed my time in Banos. Set in a bowl shaped valley with sheer cliffs on one side, reaching down to the raging river below, Banos is a beautiful town. Our hostel’s roof terrace had gorgeous views out to the surrounding mountains with waterfalls cascaded from above.
Banos is known for its myriad adventure activities such as cycling, canyoning and bungy jumping but to be honest we didn’t do a lot during our stay. We were meant to spend one day downhill cycling to a waterfall then getting a bus back, but we were hung over so it didn’t happen. What we did manage to do was eat VERY well at the various ex-pat run Restaurants around town, soak our weary bones in the steaming hot thermal pools, hang out with new friends at our excellent hostel and hike along a ridge above town for the obligatory bird’s eye view. We were hoping to catch sight of the active volcano that sits above town but the cloud cover wouldn’t allow it. So we didn’t really do anything we had planned to do, but we loved the place anyway.
We were only in Cuenca for one night to break up our journey between Banos and Mancora in Peru. Short on time after being stranded in a small town in Colombia for 10 days due to road blocks, we were rushing to get to Cusco to do the Inca Trail. If we had longer, I would have definitely spent a few days in this graceful colonial city. Like most of our time in Ecuador, the weather wasn’t cooperating but it didn’t affect my impressions of lovely Cuenca.
We spent our short time there admiring the numerous churches, visiting a local market, walking the grassy banks of the raging rain-fed torrent of the Rio Tomebamba, and sipping hot chocolate in the mood lit courtyard of a colourful Restaurant near our Guesthouse, listening to the musical talents of the young woman singing. Our short time in Cuenca was only a taste, but it was sweet.
Colca Canyon, Peru
Two different people told me that I shouldn’t bother going to the Colca Canyon as it isn’t that impressive, luckily this didn’t put me off. I liked the sound of a canyon that is reputably the deepest in the world and is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Those people must have been crazy because Colca Canyon is one of the most spectacular places I have ever been.
We spent three days hiking independently in the canyon, between small settlements along the canyon floor. The landscape was dry and the heat intensified as we descended lower into the canyon’s depth. Flashes of colour from wildflowers and patches of green foliage and trees contrasted with the rich browns of the canyon. Snow-capped mountains rose even higher than the canyon rim. The juxtaposition of the red tinted desert and the milky white snow was striking. We saw the gigantic Andean condor, which has a wingspan of up to 3.2 metres, soaring high above the canyon bottom.
Evenings were spent at small guesthouses where we were the only guests and it cost the equivalent of around $4 per night. We ate dinner by candlelight, marvelling at the impossible number of stars in the inky black of the night sky. It was breathtakingly beautiful and a welcome relief from the crowds of the Inca trail.
Isla del Sol, Bolivia
The island of the sun, this large atoll in the middle of the high altitude Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, was believed by the Incas to be where the first of their people were born, along with the sun. Reached by boat from Copacabana, Isla de Sol is a palette of bright high altitude colour.
From the small lakeside village where the boat dropped us, we hiked up to the ridgeline that is the backbone of the island. The blindingly white sand of the beaches and the clear turquoise of the waters reminded me more of the Mediterranean than what I imagined Bolivia to look like, and I walked around with my mouth open in awe most of the day. The hike was slow going for me with a broken toe and Trav was suffering from the altitude but we lost ourselves in the scenery and forgot about our pains, at least momentarily.
After arriving in the South of the island we celebrated with a beer at a Restaurant with tables overlooking the dramatic coastline below. We spent the night in a basic homestay and ate incredible pizza by candlelight under the starry night sky. When I think of Isla del Sol what I remember most is the colours, somehow brighter in the thin mountain air.
Did you know that the real Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were shot and killed in Bolivia rather than in the American South West? I didn’t either. After robbing a bank in the southern Bolivian town of Tupiza, they were killed in a shootout. I also didn’t know that the scenery in South West Bolivia looked like it could be straight out of a Western movie. Red rock canyons, prickly cacti and dusty sienna coloured earth are what make Tupiza such an interesting and beautiful place to visit.
Days were spent horse riding and hiking through the extraordinary landscape, watching the sun set on a hilltop over town under a glowing statue of Christ, relaxing by our hotel pool and eating amazing Bolivian fried chicken. The people were very friendly in Tupiza and one shop woman jumped for joy when I told her I was from New Zealand as I was her first ‘Kiwi’ customer. I signed her visitor book and felt like a celebrity. This was our last stop in Bolivia and I was reluctant to leave.
Stuck in Salta for a few days because of bus strikes, we decided to see more of the province by taking a couple of organised day trips out of the city. One of the trips was to the quiet town of Cafayate. Surrounded by red desert and unusual rock formations as well as world class wineries, Cafayate is a dusty town where life ticks by at a leisurely pace.
Wandering the streets we hardly saw any cars on the road, just a few push bikes. It is a beautiful town with buildings painted in earthy tones of ochre, tree-lined cobbled streets and shops selling arts and crafts. White washed wineries with their well-tended gardens invited you to linger a while. A local lady feeding stray cats along a tall stone wall; a sea of cats clamouring for food. Most of all I liked the way Cafayate feels. My worries melted away from me during the short time I spent in and around that peaceful town.
Villa General Belgrano, Argentina
Possibly my favourite town in South America, visiting Villa General Belgrano felt like being back in Europe, which is probably why I loved it so much. Quiet streets lined with half-timbered buildings. German Restaurants serving steins of beer and rich and creamy dishes on small wooden decks lined with colourful flower boxes. Wooded trails meandered past gurgling streams and still ponds. Fresh alpine air and lots of pine trees. A town in harmony with nature; built to blend into the natural environment.
We were meant to spend one night there but I didn’t want to leave. We ended up spending three which was all we could spare on our increasingly tight schedule near the end of our time in South America. One day we hired bikes and biked up into the hills where there were giant trees full of dome shaped birds nests and a crystal clear river filled with rich green river weed. So many trees. I still dream about this perfect village in the mountains. I want to breathe its sweet air again.
Have you been to South America? What were your favourite places that you hadn’t heard of before visiting?