We spent nine weeks travelling around South America, visiting five of the southern countries. A whirlwind of new aromas, sites, landscapes, and culture, our South America itinerary provided an ever-changing environment.
Below are the highlights of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, followed by our itinerary map.
Highlights of Argentina
We visited five regions of Argentina, each with its own distinct differences. Below are the highlights of the things to do in Argentina.
First-time visitors to Argentina: start here for our complete Argentina travel guide
Things to know before including Argentina in a South America travel itinerary
- Language: Spanish is spoken with an Argentinean accent that pronounces the “ll” and “y” as “sh” and “j”, respectively.
- Currency: Argentinean Pesos.
- Safety: Petty crime, including personal theft, is common in Argentina, so vigilance is needed.
- Intracity Buses: Surprisingly comfortable buses are a common way to travel long distances between cities in Argentina. Affordable first-class seats recline like a bed, and meals are served.
- Hotel Taxes: Tourists paying with a foreign credit card do not have to pay the 21% hotel tax in most cases. Look for this savings in the fine print on hotel pages on booking.com.
- Siesta: Outside of Buenos Aires, most of the towns we visited take a siesta resulting in nearly all retail and often tourist establishments closing from 1 pm to 5 pm daily.
- Mealtime: Many restaurants open for dinner at 6 or even 8 pm as traditionally, dinner is late.
- Tipping in Argentina: A 10% tip is customary in eateries.
- SUBE card: A SUBE card will save significant money on public transportation in many cities in Argentina. Click here to find the nearest place to get a card.
Buenos Aires – the capital of Argentina
A modern cosmopolitan city, Buenos Aires has it all. Argentina’s capital is also its largest city. Fresh and exciting, it’s filled with culture, history, and tango. We only spent a week here but could easily have stayed longer.
Salta – Purmamarca – Cafayate
From the wine-growing region of Cafayate to the salt flats of Purmamarca, we explored the diverse and colourful landscapes surrounding Salta in our own vehicle. In Salta, we uncovered interesting history and architectural variety before spending an exciting evening at peña (regional folk concert).
One of the seven wonders of nature, Iguazu Falls is a seemingly endless display of powerful waterfalls cascading over a 2.7-kilometre stretch of the Iguazu River at the corner of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. An impressive example of nature; it is worth the effort to get here. Be sure to allocate time to see the falls from both the Argentina and Brazil sides and to shop in Paraguay.
Santa Fe – Rosario – Cordoba
Not on the typical tourist track, we visited Santa Fe for personal reasons, adding Cordoba and Rosario to make our road trip more exciting. What we found were agricultural plains, intertwining waterways, friendly people, and Spanish-influenced architecture.
The northern tip of Patagonia was our southernmost point in Argentina. San Carlos de Bariloche’s strong German influence is obvious in its architecture. From Bariloche, we had one of our best days as we crossed the Andes mountains with Cruce Andino using five buses and three boats.
Highlights of Chile
Like in Argentina, we visited five distinctively different regions of Chile. Below are the Chile highlights.
First-time visitors to Chile: start here for our complete Chile travel guide
Things to know before including Chile in a South America itinerary
- Language: Spanish is spoken with a Chilean accent that is difficult for even Spanish natives to understand.
- Currency: Chilean Pesos.
- Safety: Chile is often rated as the safest country in South America and in Latin America. However, caution against petty theft is still necessary.
- Hotel Taxes: Tourists paying with a foreign credit card do not have to pay the 19% hotel tax in most cases. Look for these savings in the fine print on hotel pages on booking.com.
- Tipping in Chile: A 10% service charge (tip) is often added to your bill in restaurants, cafés and pubs. Look for it before you double-tip.
- Memorials: Memorial structures (rather than crosses) mark road fatalities and serve as a too-frequent reminder to watch our speed.
- Earthquakes: Much of Chile is located in an active seismic zone resulting in frequent earthquakes. We felt two while we were there.
Santiago – the capital of Chile
Another cosmopolitan city striving for international success, Santiago, Chile is an oasis in the arid landscape. It features an eclectic mix of contemporary and historical architectural styles.
The world’s driest nonpolar desert is full of vivid colours, flamingos, and salt flats. Stargazers know the Atacama desert has some of the world’s clearest skies. Altitude sickness aside, the archaeological and geological sites in the region are worth exploring.
La Serena, Coquimbo, and Isla Damas
La Serena and Coquimbo are coastal communities, offering an ideal place to relax on the beach or head north to Isla Damas to see the penguins. The nearby Elqui Valley is the other region well known for stargazing. An hour south, don’t miss the petroglyphs at Valle del Encanto.
Valparaiso and Viña del Mar
The port of entry for cruise ships heading to Santiago, Valparaiso, is a colourful, avant-garde artist community built on steep hills covered in street art. If you are looking for a quieter version of this city, head to nearby Viña del Mar.
Osorno volcano rising from the lake is the identifying feature of this town. The charming German colonial architecture features an iconic wood slat facade. Be sure to schedule an extra day to visit Chiloe Island.
Highlights of Uruguay
We visited three coastal cities in Uruguay.
First-time visitors to Uruguay: start here for our complete Uruguay travel guide
Things to know before including Uruguay in a South America itinerary
- Language: Spanish with an Argentinean accent (see above).
- Currency: Uruguayan Pesos.
- Safety: Uruguay is considered one of the safest countries in South America, but caution against petty theft is still necessary.
- VAT (IVA) Taxes: If you purchase expensive items that you are taking out of the country, you can get the 15% IVA tax back (this seems to change often).
- Restaurant Dining: Many restaurants offer tax-free dining for tourists; simply ask.
Montevideo – the capital of Uruguay
A port city with European charm, Montevideo is the capital of South America’s most progressive country. Uruguay is an agricultural nation, with wool and beef being two of its primary exports.
Punta del Este
With beachfront resorts, restaurants, bars, and fun, Punta del Este is where well-to-do Argentineans vacation. Famous for some of its unusual artwork, it is a more expensive city to visit than either Montevideo or Colonia.
Colonia de Sacramento
One of Uruguay’s oldest cities, Colonia de Sacramento’s charming old town is an easy day trip via ferry from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Once here, the provincial charm will captivate you.
Highlights of Brazil
Travelling via cruise ship, we sailed along the Brazilian coast on the Azamara Pursuit, hitting five Brazilian ports: Rio de Janeiro (for two days, including New Year’s Eve), Santos (the port city and beach town of Saõ Paulo), Buzios (former fishing village), Paraty (Portuguese colonial village), and Itajai (a stopover city for the Volvo around the world yacht race).
Although we skipped the Amazon, our exposure to the Brazilian rainforest in Iguazu Falls was enough for me to contract dengue fever. As a result, I highly recommend a strong insect repellent in the Brazilian rainforest.
Things to know before including Brazil in a South America itinerary
- Language: Portuguese.
- Currency: Brazilian real.
- Crime: Brazil doesn’t rate so well, with one of the worst violent crime rates in the world. Unfortunately, it also has a high rate of petty crime, and visitors must use vigilance or will likely fall victim. See these safety tips for Rio de Janeiro.
Building a South America itinerary
Most of the countries on this page are huge, and ground transportation times between regions are long. With so much to see and only nine weeks to do it all, we flew between major regions, drove within certain regions, took boats across the Andes, and cruised the Brazilian coast.
Our flights to South America and our internal flights were all on LATAM using South American Air passes.
Our South America itinerary map
Driving in Argentina and Chile
In general, the roads are good (not great), even in the desert. However, and I can’t stress this enough, Google maps often tried to send us down old dirt roads when nearby modern roads were available for the same journey.
We used RentalCars.com for the three rentals that went smoothly. As a conglomerator, they offer cars from local and international dealerships, often at better prices. Most importantly, they have English-speaking customer service and a reputation for solving problems.
We are pretty sure had we used RentalCars.com in the Atacama desert, we would not have had to pay $273USD for two shock absorbers (one which they admit was fine, but they “replace in pairs”). Unfortunately, we had booked directly with Europcar, and they deducted the cost from our deposit, and we had no recourse.
We have used RentalCars.com since that experience and have been happy.
We travel on New Zealand passports; therefore, in South America, we only require visas to enter Paraguay. However, every country has different rules for citizens of other countries. For instance, friends travelling on USA passports needed visas to enter Brazil.
To learn what visas you need, visit either your own country’s state department or ministry of foreign affairs page or the ministry of the exterior or external affairs page of the country you are visiting.
We don’t leave New Zealand without travel insurance. It’s a personal choice that has paid off well for us as we have ended up in hospitals on four continents and had a wallet stolen in the USA, resulting in a missed flight.
We have partnered with InsureMyTrip, because they are the best option to compare plans and find the right coverage for you. They have thousands of travel insurance plans and a one-of-a-kind recommendation engine to help travellers find the right plan. Most importantly, they will be there for you before, during and after your trip if you should need anything – especially help with a claim with the provider. Get a free quote from InsureMyTrip here.
A few final South America itinerary planning tips
- The southern hemisphere seasons are summer (December to February), autumn (March to May), winter (June to August), and spring (September to November).
- Cars drive on the right, the steering wheel is on the left (same as the USA).
- If you don’t speak Spanish (or Portuguese while in Brazil), you might want to bring a translation tool or hire a tour guide. In high-traffic tourist areas and top hotels, there is usually an English speaker, but don’t rely on it.
- While credit cards are widely accepted in South America, they are not used everywhere. Cash is often required. In Chile, a 5%- 10% service fee is often added when credit cards are used.
- There is frequently a charge for water in restaurants; plus, some Argentinean eateries also add a ‘curierto” or cover charge.
- A single kiss on the cheek is a common greeting (and goodbye), even with people you meet for the first time.
- Don’t miss these South American safety tips for travellers.
Want more? Be inspired by these worldwide highlights.
Save on your trip with these resources
We use these aggregator companies to save time and money. They do the work for us by providing a list of options, prices, and reviews for anywhere we are travelling worldwide. Plus, we have personally had positive customer service experiences with all of them:
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Hotels: we use Booking.com as they consistently return the best rates and their reviews are from actual guests. However, for self-contained lodging, use VRBO
- Cars: we use RentalCars to find the best deals and dealer ratings.
- Private guides: we often hire private guides from Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: we start at InsureMyTrip as they are the best option to compare plans and find the right coverage for you.
Before you book the rest of your trip: Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
Save for later
If you found these tips on visiting South America to be helpful, please share the article on social media, and save it for later on Pinterest.
What will you include in your South America itinerary?
Disclaimer: We worked with tourism boards in Chile and Argentina, and we were frequently provided with complimentary entrances, tours, accommodations, or sample items in order to gather the information necessary to write our reviews. However, the opinions expressed here are strictly our own.
What an informative post! I have never been to South America and honestly feel overwhelmed every time I try to start planning an itinerary. So many great tips and beautiful places here!
Wow this post sure got me missing South America … and my beloved CHILE. You mentioned so many of my favorite spots!
How cool I found this, visiting the region in the fall. Bookmarking!
What a fantastic journey and itinerary! I would love to follow in your footsteps. Montevideo looks like the best fit for me, but Argentina has always been on our travel bucket list. 😉
I have never been to South America, but I hope to spend a significant amount of time there on a round-the-world trip we are planning for a couple years from now. This post will definitely come in handy then!
So many of these places are on my bucket list including Atacama and the salt flats. I’ve been to Brazil but only Manaus, so I want to see more of Brazil as well. Thank you for all of the tips and information – this looks like an amazing trip!
I would love to go to South America especially Argentina. This is such an informative post. I have saved your post for future.
It’s really interesting to read your itinerary, Rhonda, as I’ve been loving your South America posts. NINE weeks of travel? I’m so jealous, but what a great way to see the area. I’m especially keen to visit Argentina and the Bahia area of Brazil.
Wow, this is what you call an itinerary! We are off to Argentina for two weeks at the end of October, very excited about Iguazu Falls and Patagonia but unfortunately don’t have time for Salta and the north.
Loved all the details you’ve included so others can be prepared. Wow! Nine weeks?! What a luxury to have so much time to explore. I’ve always wanted to see Iguazu Falls, but you’ve pointed out several more sights I’m adding to my list, too!
My family lived in Central America when I was a child and when visited all the countries of South America, but that was SO long ago I have no memories and would love to go to Argentina and Patagonia!
I loved reading through this guide and enjoyed your beautiful pictures. My husband and I spent 5 months travelling through South America about 10 years ago and it brought back some lovely memories of our favourite places. e.g the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had in Bariloche! We never made it to Paraguay or Uruguay and would love to go back.
Great itinerary. We have only been to Colombia, in South America. It was amazing, and we want to check out more South America now. We will definitely keep this for later when we explore more of South America. 🙂
You provided such wonderful details about these South American stops. I like the coverage of safety Hotel tax and all the small details.
I love this post! Though the only South American country I’ve visited is Ecuador, living there for three months made me really want to visit more of the continent.
I’d love to visit South America!
Alissa A Apel
I’d love to go to Argentina. My son Isaak befriended a kid that moved from there to here. He didn’t know any English. Isaak would draw him pictures, and motion things for him to understand what was going on. I think it would be a great place for Isaak to see. We had him research it last year.
You went a ton of places! They all have special things in each photo.
I think if I had to choose one photo to hop into I’d pick: Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. I like street art.
L. Diane Wolfe
I can see why you visited so many. It would be difficult to pick just one. Chile and Brazil would be on my list.
Really great information. I’ve always wanted to go to South America but didn’t know want I really needed. Really beautiful photography.
Your South American trip looks wonderful! Our daughter-in-law is from Chile, so we have been there several times. I would love to go back and travel more widely to other countries. The Atacama Desert is spectacular!
Always enjoy your trip photos looks like a nice trip great tips and advice 🙂
Have a funtastic week 🙂
Alex J. Cavanaugh
Just amazing all the different architecture you saw within the countries. Each was unique.
Wallet stolen in the USA? Figures.
Your post makes me wistful. My parents were Christian missionaries, and we did our first mission trip to Santiago and Temuco, Chile, in 1970 when I was 11 years old. After language school in Guadalajara, Mexico, we returned to Chile in 1972. We lived in Viña del Mar, Puyehue, and Osorno, for eight months, but due to the stresses of the Allende government, we were transferred to Asunción, Paraguay, where I graduated from high school in 1976. I visited Yguazú the first time when I was 14 years old, and I have traveled to Uruguay and Argentina, as well. My parents served in Paraguay until 1983, and we all returned for a visit in 2001. I long to return to the southern cone of South America, and I envy your travels. Thanks for sharing!
Ryan K Biddulph
What a trip Rhonda! Fabulous. I have seen little of South America. Only Peru. 3 weeks at that. Due for a long, comprehensive trip to enjoy it. My Ecuadorian-American buddy has oodles of suggestions for Ecuador and I would love a return trip to Peru.
I loved all the things to know before visiting. Well done and very complete for those that want to travel to South America.
Have a fabulous day, Rhonda. ♥