This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through an affiliate link, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support.
Also, we are living in strange and unsettling times so please make sure to check local guidelines before traveling to this destination, as I haven't updated individual posts with current travel information because this changes so often.
Already have the well known highlights of South America locked into your itinerary and now you are looking for some more offbeat South America highlights? Then read on to find out the best of off the beaten path South America.
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 sunrise over the Salt Flats in Bolivia, learn to tango in Buenos Aires and do some hiking in Patagonia.
And I’m sure that all of those places they 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, and Venice 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 South America highlights of my four months traveling there were in places that I hadn’t heard much about before – the more offbeat destinations. 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 ten favorite off the beaten path South America destinations that really wowed me.
Best Offbeat 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 (menu of the day) that we had during our seven 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.
Where to Stay in Minca: Stay at the hostel we stayed in – beautiful Casa Loma – which has incredible views and a very chilled vibe. Another popular hostel is Casa Viejas by Masaya which is located 20 minutes out of town on the La Victoria Coffee Farm and has a gorgeous pool.
For a more luxurious stay, you can’t go past Sweet Harmony by Xarm Hotels right in town and with a bar on site.
Villa de Leyva, Colombia
This whitewashed 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 popular destination for Colombian travelers.
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 favorite 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.
Where to Stay in Villa de Leyva: We loved our stay at Hostal Renacer, a peaceful country hostel located in the hills behind town but still within easy walking distance. If you are looking for a hostel closer to the action, then the art-filled Nibiru Hostel is a great choice.
For a more luxurious stay, the Hotel Casa de los Fundadores is highly rated and has a pool and sauna on-site.
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 one of my highlights of 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 favorite 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.
Where to Stay in Salento: Stay at the largest and friendliest hostel in town, Viajero Salento Hostel, which is offers numerous activities and tours, or at the slightly more luxurious Coffee Tree Boutique Hostel, another highly rated boutique hostel located in the countryside on the edge of town.
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 Baños.
Set in a bowl-shaped valley with sheer cliffs on one side, reaching down to the raging river below, Baños is a beautiful town. Our hostel’s roof terrace had gorgeous views out to the surrounding mountains with waterfalls cascaded from above.
Baños 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 hungover 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.
Where to Stay in Baños: I highly recommend the excellent and very social Plantas y Blanco Hostel which has a rooftop bar with panoramic views or stay at the highly rated, family-run Princesa Maria if you are looking for a quieter stay.
We were only in Cuenca for one night to break up our journey between Baños and Mancora in Peru. Short on time after being stranded in a small town in Colombia for ten days due to roadblocks, 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 colorful 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.
Where to Stay in Cuenca: Stay at the best rated hostel in town, AlterNative Hostel, which has a central location and an onsite coffee shop.
For some five-star luxury, stay at the Hotel Boutique Santa Lucia. This beautiful boutique hotel is housed in a 19th century historic home in the Old Town of Cuenca.
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 color 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, marveling 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.
Where to Stay for Colca Canyon: Stay at the popular Oasis Paraiso Eco Lodge in the canyon, which has a beautiful pool and can only be reached on foot or by horse or mule.
Before venturing into the canyon, stay at La Granja del Colca in Cabanaconde which has great views and even the chance of seeing a condor soaring past the window.
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 del Sol is a palette of bright high altitude color.
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 colors, somehow brighter in the thin mountain air.
Where to Stay for Isla del Sol: Stay at Hostal del Sol on the south side of the island after trekking from the north. It has a garden terrace and even hot water showers.
Stay in a seashell with excellent lake views at Ecolodge Las Olas in Copacabana before venturing to the island.
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. Tupiza may not be on everyone’s South America itinerary, but it should be.
Where to Stay in Tupiza: Stay at Hostal Butch Cassidy which offers comfortable private rooms and free breakfast, or treat yourself at the Hotel Mitru which has an outdoor pool to enjoy after hiking in the area.
Stuck in Salta for a few days because of bus strikes, we decided to see more of the province by taking a couple of organized 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 awhile. A local lady feeding stray cats along a tall stone wall; a sea of cats clamoring 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, so it was definitely one of my big highlights of South America.
Where to Stay in Cafayate: For a budget option, stay at social Hostel Ruta 40 which has dorms and private rooms and has a great location. To really treat yourself, book into the Altalaluna Hotel Boutique & Spa, a colonial-style mansion with a spa, outdoor pool, and restaurant onsite.
Villa General Belgrano, Argentina
Possibly my biggest offbeat South America highlights, 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.
Where to Stay in Villa General Belgrano: Stay at charming Hotel Edelweiss right in town which has a swimming pool and tennis court.
Have you been to South America? What were your South America Highlights that you hadn’t heard of before visiting?
The Best Travel Insurance for Your South America Trip
Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your trip. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with – it auto-renews every month unless you turn it off so you don’t have to think about it for longer trips
Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers, and they even have COVID coverage!
Also, don’t forget to pack this awesome water bottle with heavy-duty filter – it’ll allow you to drink from the tap, saving money as well as being more environmentally-friendly.
If you liked this post, check out some of my other South America content:
- A Week in Rio de Janiero: Machu Picchu by the Sea
- Why I Fell in Love with Northern Argentina
- South West Bolivia: Incredible Landscapes on a Four Day Tour
- Exploring Lake Titicaca and the Amazon Basin in Bolivia
- European Charms in Buenos Aires and the Mighty Iguazu Falls
- Dealing with Altitude Sickness on the World Famous Inca Trail
- One Week in Peru: Arequipa, Lake Titicaca and Colca Canyon
- Cusco and the Sacred Valley in Peru: Last Stronghold of the Incas
- Traveling the Mountainous Spine of Stunning Ecuador
- Exciting Times in Colombia’s Coffee Region
- Colonial Mountain Towns and Exploring Bogota in Colombia
- The Beaches and Coastal Mountains on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia