Maybe for some, it took 21 things, or 22, or 57 or 92. For us, it was 23.
I would hate to imagine I would ever have missed out on a single one of these things when backpacking South America!
I know there’s more to do and see and experience, seeing as South America is such a diverse continent, home to many of the best places to visit in the world.
In the North, you’re wearing flips flops and factor 50 sunscreen, and in the South, you’re wearing 2nd hand charity shop navy blue tracksuits and huddling in a blanket outside of Ushuaia airport.
Or at least ... we were!
When exploring South America, one minute you’re at sea level and then a 12-hour bus ride later you’re at the highest administrative city in the world.
But one thing that never changed for me was the kindness, patience and generosity that we experienced from people along the way. It never faltered, not once!
So please read this list and take notes and maybe add a few to your own bucket list of must do things in South America.
But just remember one thing ...
It is the people of South America that make it one of the best backpacking destinations in the world.
It is the people that made these experiences so memorable and it is because of the people there that I will forever hold our 4 months spent there with such fondness in my heart.
So in absolutely no particular order, let’s begin!
During our most recent visit to South America (while driving our camper down from Alaska to the base of Argentina) we managed to take a luxury cruise around the Galapagos Islands.
Oh how things have changed since we first started this blog and wrote this guide all the way back in 2016!
Almost everything else you read in this guide stems from our first backpacking adventure, and they truly are still amazing South American experiences to have.
But if your budget allows it, then I would (without a doubt) recommend you try and prioritise a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Everyone has heard of them for one reason or another, and they truly are like no place else anywhere on Earth.
With no natural fear of predators, the animals here have evolved in a way entirely different to their same species elsewhere around the world.
You can literally walk right up to almost any animal here and it has no instinct to hide.
And their seclusion has also led to unique changes in colour and size, again in ways you cannot see anywhere else.
Such as the giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, and of course the small Galapagos penguins.
For a better rundown of how to get here regardless of budget, check out our super in-depth guide on how to visit The Galapagos Islands.
As a part of a tour into the jungle, We spent 3 days cruising down ancient Amazonian tributaries looking for pythons, dolphins, caiman, sloths and monkeys.
The evenings were filled with swimming in the river and the nights lying in hammocks listening to the deafening call of howler monkeys.
I held a caiman in my bare hands, then drank terrible Brazilian beer and spear-fished in the dark hours of the night. Our guide taught us how to fish for piranha and how for hundreds of years the natives had used trees to communicate with each other.
I left the Amazon tired, sunburnt and eaten alive by bugs ... I would not hesitate to go back again.
I have already opened my heart up to our experience of 7 days going down the Amazon on a local riverboat ferry. It’s something I don’t think I have the heart to do again, so just make sure you read the article.
If you get the chance then do it, but just one piece of advice, take your own food!
Thankfully nowadays you can book a cabin online which means the process a whole lot easier and more enjoyable! You also get a far better idea of what to expect!
You can spend hours walking the streets of Rio and spending long afternoons lying on the never-ending Copacabana beach.
But for me, the best way to truly appreciate the beauty of this city is to get the cable cart to the top of Sugarloaf mountain.
Find the not-so-secret bar hidden amongst the trees, order a drink and a burger and gaze out across the city in style.
What an incredible moment this was!
The park borders both Argentina and Brazil, and from all accounts we were told that the Argentinian side is the way to go, and so we did.
From our experience, if you go then be sure to also go from this side, and spend the extra money on a boat that takes you under the waterfall. The power of the waterfalls is phenomenal, so go prepared!
So few people seem to visit this place when they’re in Rio, and I can’t imagine why. It was in fact one of the very first things we did in South America.
It’s incredibly vast and it feels so ancient. We got some great travel photos in there as well. We did get lost for a couple of hours which was fun (you can avoid this with a tour!).
But luckily we found our way back as Cazzy decided to take a hypo and we’d almost run out of sugar.
After 2 weeks being going down the Amazon and being in the rainforest, we quickly found ourselves in Buenos Aires, and what a culture shock it is!
It literally feels like we were right back home, seeing as all the buildings are a myriad of European architecture; one minute you feel like you’re in France, and next in the middle of Berlin.
It’s a fantastically diverse city, and the nicest way to experience it is to take one of the walking tours (you can opt for free if you don't want extras).
If you're passing through the continent, you cannot miss one of the best cities in South America.
A trip to The Bolivian Salt Flats has to be one of the most famous things to do in South America. You must have seen pictures from people who have been there, and it’s likely you will at least recognise them, check out a couple of our own below.
I can’t remember anywhere else I’ve been that you can lie on the floor like a child and play with toys and for it to be considered normal! So much fun and endless possibilities. Our props of choice: Godzilla and The Incredible Hulk.
You can choose to see the salt flats in one day (like we did) or opt for a tour that takes you to all the surrounding areas too which has amazing landscapes and breathtaking views.
After a painstaking 3 and a half hour uphill trek we found ourselves at the top of a ski slope in the southernmost city in the world; just to realise that the ski season had long gone and there wasn’t much of the glacier left.
This didn’t stop me from making the most of it, and this has to be one of my fondest life memories so far as I made the most of the situation and decided to slide butt-first down my first ever glacier!
Perito Moreno glacier is one of Patagonia's most infamous tourist spots, and it’s not surprising.
Giant blocks of ice drop off throughout the day and as they hit the water it lets out an echoing roar, similar to thunder in the distance. It’s really cool to see, and a place you’re unlikely to ever be able to visit elsewhere.
You can take tours of the glacier including boat tours and even walking on the glacier at certain times of the year, which is pretty darn cool.
We didn’t try Couchsurfing until we reached Santiago in Chile, which was about 2 months into our trip. But we’d experienced nothing but good-natured kindness from the Chileans and thought it must be worth a go.
Our hosts, Carlos and Gabi, were awesome and they took us clubbing and taught us how to make Caipirinha and how to Salsa dance. I’m pretty sure you can’t get an experience like that elsewhere!
So if you’re feeling confident then one of my top travel tips would be to go for it! Meeting and staying with locals will allow you to meet some truly amazing people.
So few people get to experience this awesome thing to do in South America and I consider ourselves truly lucky to have been able to go.
We decided to rent a car from Santiago, and it was only because of the people we stayed with from Couchsurfing that we were able to get this advice!
After driving for an hour along muddy snowy roads in a gutless 1-litre rental car, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere surrounding by snow-capped mountains and resting in natural hot spring baths with not a single person around except for 3 local workers.
On the way out we did get stuck and the workers had to help push the car out of the mud (and in doing so I covered them in mud as the wheels spun it up at them), but you can ignore that minor issue.
That same rental car from Cajon del Maipo drove us over 800 miles over 4 days through the heart of Chile where we got to see even more of the “off the beaten track” sights that tourists don’t normally get to see.
This included volcanoes, waterfalls and vast inland lakes.
We were happy to make the most of it too, as Chile has by far the best roads you’re likely to find elsewhere on the continent and driving is certainly the best way to see South America.
Also, from our experience, we would say Chile has to be the best country in South America.
For more advice on roadtripping Chile, I recommend this article from a fellow travel blogger who hired a motorhome and drove all the way through Chile.
Again, the kindness of the local Chileans won us over as our host for the night took us outside and gave us a personal lesson about the stars in the sky and allowed us to use his own telescopes to look at them.
Without pollution and clouds, the Atacama desert in northern Chile is one of the best spots in the world to look at the skies, and as your eyes adjust you get the unique opportunity to view millions of different stars that you never get the opportunity to witness back home.
Whether you opt for a tour to take you to the best spots, or do it on your own.
This was certainly one of the most unexpected things to do in South America, and we only had the chance to do it due to the kindness of our host.
Picture spending a night in a freezing cold tent after a long day of hiking, to then find yourself being forced out of bed at 4am to climb for another hour and a half to the summit of a mountain. Picture the exhaustion and weariness.
And then picture yourself at the base of what is known as the Three Torres, looking across a sheltered bowl of water thousands of meters above sea level, and watching it light up to different colours as the sun slowly crests over the horizon.
This was my all-time favourite moment from 4 months in South America. If you get the chance then you have to go.
Perhaps the exhaustion makes it all the more rewarding, but either way be sure to take a sleeping bag so you can watch the sunrise in warmth. Or maybe even take a tour to help make the process of booking your stays a lot less stressful.
There’s a hostel in Lima, Peru, (called Zig Zag Hostel) where you get the choice to volunteer every Saturday by taking food to the poorer citizens that live in the “slums” of the city.
It’s dreadful really as those living behind the wall are not allowed into the richer parts of the city, and if the police spot them they are escorted back.
We went and helped give out food, and meeting the happy smiling mothers and children was really heart-warming and it’s great to know initiatives like those are underway, but the problem does seem to stretch quite far in the city.
Either way, it was a fantastic experience and a real eye-opener, so if you find yourself in Lima then stay in the same hostel. It also helps that it’s an awesome place to stay and really cheap! You can check it our here.
In case you’ve never tried it before yourself, Samba dancing is hard ... really hard!
It’s also exhausting, and for someone like me, with no rhythm and white skin, you do feel a bit out of place at a local traditional Friday night Samba party.
But it was great fun and allowed us to really immerse ourselves in the local culture. I’m grateful for our hostel’s owner being generous enough to invite us along so that we could make fools of ourselves.
Being something we’ve always wanted to try, and despite an ever-depleting reserve of funds, we decided to put our trust in 2 locals and head off paragliding.
And after a 2-hour drive, and one or two near-death experiences, we were airborne at 4,000 feet high above the Bolivian capital of La Paz.
My instructor caught some sort of air current and we just kept going higher and higher until I started to feel nauseous. But regardless, the rush and the views were spectacular, and even though I have a fear of heights, it didn’t bother me for one second.
Paragliding high above the stunning Bolivian landscape has to be one of the best experiences in South America.
Peru is definitely one of the best countries to visit in South America and, with 3 weeks surfing in Bali coming up, I decided to get a local to see if he could teach me how to actually stand on a surfboard; and for less than £20 I had my own private 2-hour session in the warm Peruvian waters off the beach of Lima.
I can only marvel at his patience, and despite the odds, he pulled it off and I actually managed to stand up a few times. Bali, here I come.
Who doesn’t dream of finding themselves atop their own private island in the sunny Caribbean?! Well, I guess I came a bit close with Isla del Sol.
After an hour's hike, I reached one of the highest points of this island that lies in Lake Titicaca which borders Bolivia and Peru. The views were stunning and the weather was great, what more do you need!
You can reach this island by ferry that runs twice a day back and forth from mainland Bolivia. We stayed a night in our own private beachside hut and ate food at a local restaurant.
It's fair to say, this is definitely one of the most underrated things to do in South America.
In the Atacama desert in northern Chile, there’s a place they call Moon Valley, and it’s not surprising as it bears a resemblance to the blank expanse of the moon, or to us, planet Mars.
There’s plenty of tours that run there, and just make sure you’re ready for the sunset, check out our shot below.
I would never have guessed that I’d write that sentence at any point in my life!
But it did happen, I promise. In La Paz, there’s a curiously entertaining event that occurs where native Bolivian women dress up and fight like WWE wrestlers in the middle of a school auditorium.
Well worth a trip and great fun for the family, just don’t mess with them.
Oh, and if they start walking around the crowd, don’t make eye contact or else like me you’ll get a nice juicy kiss.
After 3 months in this continent, we thought it right to give something back, and after generous donations from friends and relatives back home we were able to donate £500 to a centre in La Paz that supports around 150 children who are close to life-and-death complications due to a lack of type 1 diabetic care from their government.
Hearing their stories was heart-wrenching and I’m so glad we helped just a small amount. But after that day we vowed to do more and we have a few projects underway that will hopefully make much more of an impact on their lives.
This was by far the most worthwhile thing we achieved in our time there and helped show me just how lucky we truly are in the UK.
Well, there you have it, my ultimate list of 23 best things to do in South America.
Even if you're not planning a trip there anytime soon, I hope this list has helped you understand why you should visit South America.
If you have things to add then please write them in the comment section below, as I would love to read them, as I’m sure others visiting this continent would also find them useful.