Things to do on a South America Vacation That Will Make Your Friends Envious

Central & South America

Milky Way in the Atacama Desert, Chile

There are experiences on a trip to South America which you can enjoy that are different and unusual… and you don’t have to hack your way through the Amazon jungle or climb the Andes Mountains. 

If you are like me, you love to tell your friends about the places you’ve visited where you had a unique experience. South America has its fair share of these without having to climb the Andes Mountains, swim with piranhas in the Amazon River, or trek the Inca Trail. All of the following ideas are for the average traveller on South America travel.

What Are Some Fascinating Things to Do in South America?

Take a Helicopter Ride Over Iguassu Falls

This waterfall is shared by three different countries – Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. However, just about all visitors will view it from Argentina and/or Brazil. Iguassu Falls (or as the Argentineans call it, Iguazu Falls) has the largest average annual flow of water, more than any other waterfall in the world. About three-quarters of the total length of the falls are on the Argentinean side. The most impressive part of the falls is called Devil’s Throat, shared between both sides. One way to really experience the dramatic majesty of these falls on Argentina tours is to take an unforgettable helicopter ride from Foz do Iguacu on the Brazilian side.

You will fly over the Visitor’s Centre. Heading towards the national park, you will see the surrounding jungle expanding deep into Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. You will then fly over the falls and get as close to them as possible, enjoying the aerial views of both the Brazilian and Argentinean side of the falls, as well as Devil’s Throat. The pilot will circle around the falls a few times to allow everyone to take photos from all angles. The ride lasts 10 minutes.

Iguassu Falls helicopter tour
Iguassu Falls helicopter tour

Stargaze in the Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert stretches a distance of 1000 kilometres/620 miles to the north of Santiago. It is known as the driest place in the world with some areas having no recorded incidence of rain. The spectacular landscapes are breathtaking. There is exceptional nature in the form of salt flats, lagoons, volcanoes, natural hot springs, and geysers. The night sky is beyond belief and has been recognized as the clearest sky anywhere. In fact, several countries have set up observatories here to study astronomy. So, if you undertake a stargazing tour here on a Chile vacation, you will be rewarded with an amazing experience. The tour lasts for at least 2 hours with an astronomer-guide who will teach you how to “read the sky.” There will be several different telescopes available, each one aligned to provide different views of the sky and to enable you to see even planets not visible to the naked eye. You will see Saturn, the moon’s surface, and much more. Note the tour does not operate on full-moon nights.

Astronomical tour in Atacama Desert, close to San Pedro de Atacama town in Chile
Astronomical tour in Atacama Desert, close to San Pedro de Atacama town in Chile

Cruise on the Amazon River, Brazil

I can’t think of many other places where you are, in certain respects, in unchartered territory than the Amazon region. The rainforest stretches across nine countries and contains half of the earth’s remaining tropical forests. The Amazon River is the second-longest river in the world. On Brazil travel, you can take a cruise starting from Manaus. Situated in the heart of the rainforest, Manaus is the largest city in the Brazilian Amazon and is located on the Rio Negro a few miles before it meets the Rio Solimoes to form the Amazon River, properly called the Meeting of the Waters. This will be one of the highlights on your Amazon cruise. You can choose various types of cruises depending on your taste and budget. From small motorized canoes and speed boats to 5-star luxury ships, these are all available. So, what are you going to see? First, you will see amazing wildlife, animals, and birds such as tamarin monkeys, three-toed sloths, scarlet macaws, Amazon River dolphins, giant otters, anacondas, caimans, piranhas, jaguars, and much more. You will also visit villages deep in the heart of the forest where few outsiders venture on a jungle walk. What more can you ask for.

Aerial view of the Meeting of the Waters, Amazon, Brazil
Aerial view of the Meeting of the Waters, Amazon, Brazil

Visit Floating Islands in Peru

When in Puno, it is almost certain that you will visit the nearby Uros Floating Islands. These are a group of around 44 man-made islands within Lake Titicaca. This lake is the largest lake in Central and South America. It is sandwiched between Peru in the north, which possesses 60% of the lake’s area, and Bolivia in the south, and is located on the Altiplano basin of the Andes Mountains. These islands are actually made of tortora rushes as are the houses and the residents’ boats. This is probably the Peruvian section of the lake’s major attraction. The original purpose for these islands being built was defence – they could be moved if a threat arose. Now they are a major tourist attraction, which is important to their economy. Until recently the only option for visiting the islands on a Peru vacation was in the daytime on a tour. Recently, there has arisen an opportunity to stop over on the islands to get a better experience of life here. The biggest island has several buildings including a school, post office, and souvenir shops. The people of the Uros Islands, who predate the Incas, speak the Aymara language.

One of the Uros Islands in Lake Titicaca, Peru
One of the Uros Islands in Lake Titicaca, Peru

Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

First, what is a favela? Also known as “the slums” or “shanty towns,” favelas are home to some of the country’s poorest citizens. If you look up from Rio’s beaches, you can see them sandwiched between the hills above the ocean. So, why visit one on Brazil tours? The favelas used to be dangerous, but today their inhabitants are very welcoming. Rio de Janeiro consists of 500 different favelas with a third of the city’s population living in these towns. It is suggested not to go on your own but on an organized tour. You will experience the day-to-day lifestyles of the locals and receive an insight into their situation. Some tours include interaction with the inhabitants. Some of the proceeds of operating these tours go to the local community to improve their conditions.

Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, with surrounding mountains, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, with surrounding mountains, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Tango Away in Buenos Aires, Argentina

I knew the tango was an inseparable part of Argentinean culture. This was reinforced when I saw tango demonstrations being conducted in the streets of Buenos Aires. I guess this was the equivalent of busking. However, in order to experience the best of the tango, go to a tango show – usually combined with dinner – where you will see professionals do their thing. The tango is a dance that has influences from African, Native American, and European cultures. Dances from the ceremonies of former slave peoples helped shape today’s modern tango. The dance originated in the lower-class districts of Buenos Aires. There is no shortage of clubs offering excellent quality tango shows. On Sunday evenings, the bandstand in Belgrano Park has free performances where you can, on Argentina tours, also participate in free tango lessons. If you want to have a private lesson on how to dance the tango, there are a number of tango schools which provide this. More earthy and authentic are the milongas or tango gatherings where everyone takes part. These range from mid-afternoon affairs in the city’s exquisite Art Deco tea salons to late-night events behind unmarked doors deep in the suburbs.

Argentine tango in La Boca District, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentine tango in La Boca District, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Meet the Cowboys of South America in Argentina

If you are in Buenos Aires on an Argentine vacation, you are well positioned to head to a traditional estancia (Spanish for a ranch) to enjoy a day learning about the life of a gaucho on the pampas of Argentina. The gaucho was a nomadic and colourful horseman and cowhand of the Argentine and Uruguayan Pampas from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century and has remained a folk hero similar to the cowboy in North America. A day tour will be action-packed as it will include ranch-activities such as horseback and carriage rides to explore the ranch, a performance by the gauchos of their amazing horse-riding skills, and a barbecue lunch called a parrillada, which includes a drink of mate made from yerba mate leaves steeped in hot water.

Gaucho show in Argentina
Gaucho show in Argentina

Stand in Two Hemispheres at the Same Time in Ecuador

Naturally, the name Ecuador is derived from the country being located on the equator. Just outside the capital, Quito is what is called The Middle of the World, a huge Equatorial monument. Technically, the true equator is approximately 240 metres/250 yards away from this monument. This is actually the highest point on the equator anywhere. The monument is quite impressive as it is 30 metres/100 feet tall. So, on your Ecuador vacation, you straddle a yellow line and claim to have been in both hemispheres at the same time. Close by is the Intinan Solar Museum where you can check out Ecuadorian history and culture. In the museum, you are encouraged to walk in a straight line, which is difficult, supposedly because walking on the equator affects your sense of balance. There is a demonstration showing that water poured into a drain travels neither clockwise or anticlockwise when right on the equator but once you do the same thing a few feet away, it then goes in one direction or the other, depending on which side of the equator you are standing.

Middle of the World monument near Quito, Ecuador
Middle of the World monument near Quito, Ecuador