Avoid the obvious! 15 alternative things to do in South America

Avoid the obvious! 15 alternative things to do in South America

South America’s Gringo Trail is a well-trodden path for good reason – it’s brilliant. Nothing quite beats seeing the sun rise over Machu Picchu, or partying in Rio, but why limit your travels to the places you’ve already seen in a million Instagram stories? There are thousands of alternative things to do in South America that allow you to escape the crowds, discover treasures and spread out that backpacker budget. Here are 15 awesome and alternative things to do in South America, so that when you head out on the trip of a lifetime, you know where to find the real magic.

things to do in South America - three girls sitting on swing by bamboo hut

📷 @maessenva

1. Party hard at Carnaval de Barranquilla, Colombia

Rio Carnival is one of the best parties on Earth, but did you know that Colombia’s version is even more raucous? Up on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is the city of Barranquilla, and every February it explodes with a display of Colombian customs with a cheeky Caribbean twist. While a few in-the-know backpackers have caught on, it remains relatively unknown in traveller circles despite being the second largest carnival in the world. This means there’s more chance to rub shoulders (or more likely booties) with locals. While the parades are excellent, it’s the street parties centred around picos (giant sound systems), that are the real winner.

things to do in South America - woman in carnival outfit with feathers

📷 @ugurarpaci

  • How long to spend? Four days (if you can handle it).
  • Best time of year? The festival takes place in February – check for the exact dates as it varies each year.
  • Cost: €50 for a three-day pass for the parades. Or pay nothing, skip the parades in favour of the street parties and save money for booze. There are concerts and beach parties happening during the carnival with big name artists, so if you want to check them out, expect to cough up for the ticket.
  • Hostel highlights: Most backpackers base themselves in Cartagena or Santa Marta and bus in for the festivities. You’ll want to stay somewhere that gets in the party spirit, so check out Drop Bear and La Brisa Loca in Santa Marta and Media Luna and Mamallena in Cartagena.
Check out all of our hostels in Barranquilla

2. Be wowed by the Salar de Tara, Chile

South America’s other-worldly landscapes aren’t confined to Bolivia’s legendary Salt Flats. The equally-incredible Salar de Tara is ideal if you don’t want to wait for other travellers to move out of the feckin’ way before you can get the perfect snap. Salar de Tara is located at 4,300 metres above sea level within Los Flamencos National Reserve, home to the same stunning lagoons, mountains, salt flats and flamingos you find in Bolivia.

things to do in South America - salar de tara, chile

📷 @diegojimenez

  • How long to spend? One day.
  • Best time of year? September to November or March to May.
  • Cost: €30+.
  • Hostel highlights: Your best base for Salar de Tara is San Pedro de Atacama. Casa Voyage Hostel is a sociable hostel located in a 250-year-old heritage home. Enjoy leafy grounds decorated with murals and plenty of fire pits to share stories around.
Check out all of our hostels in San Pedro de Atacama

3. Wildlife watch on Isla del Plata, Ecuador

Can’t afford to fork out a couple of grand to visit the Galapagos? Join the club. Fortunately, South America has a couple more wallet-friendly options which grant you access to astonishing wildlife without you having to take out a payday loan. Isla del Plata is home to flocks of blue and red-footed boobies, albatrosses and sea lions, plus snorkelling here reveals untouched reefs alive with colourful fish. From June to September, humpback whales have been known to wave hello to passing boats. Another of the best alternative things to do in South America for wannabe Attenboroughs is a visit to the Ballestas Islands near Pisco in Peru, where you can hang with dolphins, penguins and Peruvian pelicans.

things to do in South America - pelicans sitting on a rock in Viña del Mar, Chile

📷 @diogonp

  • How long to spend? One day.
  • Best time of year? June to December.
  • Average backpacker budget (per day)? €45+.
  • Hostel highlights: Isla del Plata is an easy day trip from Montañita. Esperanto B&B Surf and Backpacker Hostel is a great shout for ocean views, tasty brekkies and learning to surf, or if you are in search of the party, head to Kamala Surf and Backpacker Hostel.
Check out all of our hostels in Montanita

4. Soar over Kaietur Falls, Guyana

Iguazu and Angel Falls may make the cover of magazines, but Guyana’s alternative is one of the most unique things to do in South America. Kaietur Falls boasts many an accolade: it’s four times higher than Niagara and twice the height of Victoria Falls. It’s also the world’s largest single drop waterfall in terms of the volume of water flowing over it. One of the reasons it’s so unknown is its remote location deep within Guyana’s section of the Amazon in Kaietur National Park. The falls are only accessible by plane, but what an adventure!

things to do in South America - Kaietur Falls, Guyana

📷 @davidstanleytravel

  • How long to spend? One day.
  • Best time of year? January or July (the end of either of their two annual rainy seasons).  
  • Cost: A tour of the falls should cost between €135-270, which is pretty reasonable when you consider you’re essentially chartering your own plane!
  • Hostel highlights: Armoury Hostel is a lovely spot in the heart of Georgetown who can help you book your trip to the falls. The hostel enjoys 360-degree views of the city and the Atlantic Ocean, a hammock lounge and plenty of table tennis tables.
Check out all of our hostels in Georgetown

5. Hit the waves on Colombia’s Pacific Coast

Surfers have long been flocking to northern Peru and Ecuador to check out the waves, but did you know that Colombia’s Pacific Coast rivals its neighbours in the south? This section of coast is wonderfully untouched, so whether you’re paddling out or lounging around, you never have to worry about being in anyone’s personal space. Prime hangouts in the region for those with surf skills include Cabo Corrientes, Playa Guachalito and Juanchaco if you’re highly experienced – the waves here can be real monsters. Newbies are best heading to El Valle or El Almejal Beach, where you can take classes.

things to do in South America - people standing on the beach near The Humpback Turtle Hostel

📷 The Humpback Turtle Hostel

  • How long to spend? How long is a piece of string? Some stick around for the whole season.
  • Best time of year? April to December, or between July and October if you fancy whale watching too.
  • Cost: You can probably survive on €25 per day on this stretch of coastline, but surf lessons will cost you around €20+ a pop.
  • Hostel highlights: The Humpback Turtle couldn’t be any cooler if it tried. Located in the jungle just off the beach, enjoy waking up to the sound of the waves and honing your surfing tekkers all day long.

6. Get wobbly-kneed at Colca Canyon, Peru

When it comes to The Andes, the mountains get all the glory don’t you think? But what about the canyons? The most jaw-dropping is Colca Canyon in Peru, an enormous 3,270 metre hole in the earth almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. As well as being one of the best alternative things to do in South America, Colca is the regular stomping (or gliding) ground of Andean condors – the largest flying bird in the world, with a wingspan of three metres. Enjoy a day trip for bird watching and visiting the best lookouts, or hit the canyon floor with a 60-kilometre hike over two or three days. The trek is not for the weak of thigh but is worth the muscle pain for the natural hot springs, indigenous villages and unbelievable vistas.

things to do in South America - woman sitting by colca canyon, peru

📷 @thewanderingcass

  • How long to spend? One to three days.
  • Best time of year? May to November.
  • Cost: A three-day hike costs €60, including food and accommodation.
  • Hostel highlights: Arequipa is the jump-off point for Colca and has a whole host of fun hostels for you to choose from. You can’t go wrong with Wild Rover if you’re looking to mingle.
Check out all of our hostels in Arequipa

7. Have exotic animal encounters in The Pantanal, Brazil

Rather than Bolivia’s Las Pampas or the Amazon, check out the Pantanal – the world’s largest tropical wetlands. At around 75,000 square miles, the Pantanal is roughly the same size as the US state of Washington! The wetlands are located on a land-locked river delta and are called home by the highest concentration of wildlife on the continent – 11,000 species in fact, including giant river otters, anacondas, jaguars, toucans and anteaters. It’s also said to be home to more than 10 million caiman crocodiles. The major perk of the Pantanal is how visible the animals are. Unlike the jungle, there’s nowhere to hide here, particularly during dry season.

things to do in South America - two toucans in a tree

📷 @dmadventure

  • How long to spend? One to four days, depending on how much cash you have to splash on waving at jaguars.
  • Best time of year? July to October, when the rains subside and the animals come out in search of water.
  • Cost: Around €180 per day for a tour.
  • Hostel highlights: Hostal Portal do Pantanal in Campo Grande is a homely spot with great communal areas for meeting fellow travellers, plus they have a pool and are able to book tours.
Check out all of our hostels in Campo Grande

8. Cruise across Lake General Carrera, Chile

Lake Titicaca will never stop inspiring awe, but it’s time for South America’s second largest lake to step into the sun. Located in Patagonia, General Carrera is so vast it’s shared by both Chile and Argentina. Hop on a boat tour or in a kayak and explore the Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary – a labyrinth of vibrant blue caves formed over 6,000 years by water erosion. Whether you opt to hike the shore, sail, or go horse riding or fishing, you’re guaranteed a mesmerising backdrop.

things to do in South America - Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary in Patagonia Chile

📷 @pabloheimlatz

  • How long to spend? Two to four days.
  • Best time of year? October to December.
  • Cost? Around €50 for a boat tour to the caves.
  • Hostel highlights: Campamento Nandu is a chalet-style hostel set in lush grounds beside the lake.

9. Discover hiker’s heaven in Huaraz, Peru

If you haven’t got time to make it down to Torres del Paine, check out Huaraz where you can hike your socks off amidst snow-capped mountains and lakes so pretty they may bring a tear to your eye. This hiker heaven has treks suitable for all time scales and fitness levels, but be aware that the altitude takes some acclimatising to. Check out Laguna Paron and Laguna Churup, but if you’re short on time, Laguna 69 is the must-see spot.

things to do in South America - snow capped mountain and lake in Huaraz

📷 @karen.miles.161

  • How long to spend? Five days.
  • Best time of year? May to September.
  • Cost: Many of Huaraz’s best hikes can be done for free as they’re so well sign-posted.
  • Hostel highlights: Alpes Huaraz is a family-run place complete with an in-house massage parlour, chill-out areas and decent bar. For a peaceful place to rest your head, try La Casa de Maruja, a popular choice with hikers.
Check out all of our hostels in Huaraz

10. Hang with the cool kids in Montevideo, Uruguay

While it’s markedly more relaxed than the likes of Buenos Aires and Lima, there’s still plenty to keep you entertained and a cool nightlife scene to explore in Montevideo. The city is full of hip barrios plastered in street art and full of boutiques, markets and great bars and cafés. Montevideo also has some extraordinary beaches – check out the white sands of Playa Verde and Pocitos Beach, or Honda Beach if you want to surf (or hang out with surfers). Oh, and did I mention Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalise weed…?

things to do in South America - man sitting by the sea looking at the sunset

📷 @giuliano_alessandro11

  • How long to spend? Four days.
  • Best time of year? December to February.
  • Average backpacker budget (per day)? €40.
  • Hostel highlights: Hostel Charruas is a dreamy spot complete with a fairy-light strewn garden, hammocks and bar.
Check out all of our hostels in Montevideo

11. Get an adrenaline rush in Tena, Ecuador

Rather than sourcing your adrenaline fix in Baños or Chile’s Baker or Futaleufu Rivers, check out Tena – a town in the Amazon Basin, with two rivers boasting rapids ranging from Class 1 to Class 4. Around Tena there are caverns, waterfalls and backwaters to explore via kayak, or you could opt for some canyoning, a bungee jump or a spot of zip-lining. Tena is surrounded by National Parks and eco-reserves, so it’s a great starting point for exploring Ecuador’s wilderness.

things to do in South America - two girls by a waterfall in tena ecquador

📷 @jeniffermledbetter

  • How long to spend? Two to four days.
  • Best time of year? December to July.
  • Hostel highlights: Tena Naui is a relaxed hostel nestled on a mountain above the clouds, while eco-friendly Hostal Pakay is surrounded by jungle and organises fab tours.
Check out all of our hostels in Tena

12. Climb Villarrica Volcano, Chile

Rather than tackling the well-worn path of mountains like Bolivia’s Huayna Potosi or Cotopaxi in Ecuador, take on Chile’s Villarica Volcano – a perfect option for first-time mountaineers. The volcano is alive and kicking, so once you reach the peak at 1,400 metres, you’ll be treated to the sight of bubbling lava in the crater below. Quite the photo op!

things to do in South America - Villarrica Volcano, Chile

📷 @willianjusten

  • How long to spend? Two days.
  • Best time of year? November to April.
  • Cost: €40.
  • Hostel highlights: Alma Nativa in nearby Pucon is great if you fancy lounging around in hammocks in a sunny garden.
Check out all of our hostels in Pucon

13. Explore Amboró National Park, Bolivia

South America is full of tropical national parks, but Amboró secures the victory in terms of biodiversity. This little-known spot, one of my favourite alternative things to do in South America, is home to 900 species of bird and 177 mammals, including rare delights like spectacled bears, ocelots and pumas. This jungle paradise is known for its cloud forests, waterfalls, and fauna straight from the pages of a story book.

things to do in South America - girl looking at tree Amboró National Park, Bolivia

📷 @sanderlenaerts

  • How long to spend? Two days.
  • Best time of year? May to November.
  • Average backpacker budget (per day)? €100.
  • Hostel highlights: For city vibes, stay in Santa Cruz. Check out 360 Grados or Backpacker Suites. For something in the countryside, stay in Samaipata at Hostel Serena.
Check out all of our hostels in Santa Cruz

14. Hike the Lost City Trek, Colombia

While it’s hardly a secret, Colombia’s Lost City trek is considerably less busy than the Inca Trail, so if you’re after incredible ruins at the end of a serious physical challenge, this is the hike for you. Ciudad Perdida is located deep in the Sierra Nevada National Park on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The site is rumoured to date back as far as 800AD – making it 650 years older than Machu Picchu. The hike, which must be completed with a guide, is 45 kilometres, but the going is tough as you’re hiking through thick jungle. The pay-off is worth it though, because you will feel like Indiana Jones at the end.

things to do in South America - two girls at Lost City Trek, Colombia

📷 @maloupts

  • How long to spend? Four to six days.
  • Best time of year? October to April.
  • Cost? €300.
  • Hostel highlights: Rest your weary body at Costeño Beach, an old coconut farm that’s been transformed into one of South America’s coolest hostels. Take a surf lesson if the hammies can handle the leg work out, enjoy a salsa class or just lounge by the ocean.

15. Check out ancient carvings in El Mollar, Argentina

Rather than forking out a fortune to jet to Easter Island, visit Argentina’s Menhires – gargantuan granite carvings of animals and men, some of which weigh in at more than four tons. The prehistoric statues are located in El Mollar, an archaeological reserve in the north of Argentina. Other underrated spots for archaeological wonders include San Agustín in Colombia, or Chachapoyas in Peru.

things to do in South America - Menhires stones in El Mollar, Argentina

📷 @jlcernadas

  • How long to spend? One day.
  • Best time of year? October to December.

What do you think of our list? If you know of any weird, wonderful and alternative things to do in South America that you want to share with fellow backpackers, let us know in the comments.

To search amazing hostels in South America, download the Hostelworld app!

About the author:

Amy Baker is the author of Miss-Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America, and founder of The Riff Raff, a writers’ community that supports aspiring writers and champions debut authors. You can follow Amy on Twitter here.

Keep reading: ⬇️

🌟 The best cities to visit in South America

🌟 The ultimate guide to backpacking South America

🌟 Backpacking with a disability – South America edition

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About The Author

Hope Warren

Travel habits include stretching my budget way beyond its means, making it to the gate with seconds to spare and constantly daydreaming about my next adventure. Social media and content executive and #HostelworldInsider. 🌍 Favourite place on earth: Yangshuo, China. 🏡 Favourite hostel: O De Casa - Sao Paulo, Brazil. 📷 Follow me on Instagram: @hopewarrenx

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