Updated March 9, 2020
We have gathered here around a cyber version of a bonfire on the beach, from different corners of South America we now call home, or from even farther away. Our tales of travel adventures are as numerous as the leaping flames.
But soon, the conversation turns to the best small towns in South America and the disbelief that not everyone around the fire has visited them. No, not the large metropolises and major tourist resorts or landmarks, but the lesser-known, small villages that travelers might miss on their sojourn through the continent.
Listen in a bit to the experts speak, and jot down their favorites so you can put these destinations on your own itinerary.
At the foot of Machu Picchu, Perú you will find the small town of Aguas Calientes. When I went to Machu Pichhu, I much enjoyed walking the streets of Aguas Calientes.
There are also other trails to enjoy, like El Camino Incaico to see the majestic ruins, passing through the jungle to the village, and the banks of the Urubamba River. The finishing touch was the three hours I spent at the thermal pool.
Aguas Calientes has restaurants of every kind, and accommodation for every budget, from camping and hostels to five-star hotels.
Carolina Ortiz Jerez, the author of Viajes y demases, is also a professor of History and Geography and an amateur photographer. Discovering new cultures and different people has always been her main inspiration.
Alcântara is in the northern state of Maranhão, Brazil, stuck in time with cobbled streets, vibrantly colored buildings of teal and tangerine, and Portuguese tiling from the 17th to 19th centuries when the colonial town was erected.
Arrive by catamaran, visit the Historic Square's rocky ruins of a church and tour the now-museum, originally the home of the first Portuguese family who settled here. And for lunch, eat a family-style homemade moqueca at Bela Vista!
Nikki Pepper is a creative living on Wall Street. As Deputy Editor of travel, food and philanthropy site OhThePeopleYouMeet.com, she manages over 50 contributors from around the world, oversees the site's social presence growth and covers destinations through her own travels.
Two of our buddies agree on Baños, Ecuador. It's small, friendly, safe, and a very good value for the money. It has a spectacular geographical setting with easy access to both the Andes and the Amazon jungle. There are plenty of adventure activities, or just soaking in the hot springs for which the town is named.
There are lots of nearby attractions, including waterfalls, hiking through lush forests and gorges, hot thermal springs, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting.
In terms of staying there, there are great hotels for every budget, from basic backpacker digs to the luxurious Luna Runtun and Samari Spa Resort, and plenty of culinary variety for all budgets.
David Capaldi is the founder of Blue World Journeys and has visited over 70 countries, including 17 of the 20 countries that make up Latin America. He set up Blue World Journeys to share his passion for the region with others, to encourage people to see a little more of the world and to dig a little deeper below the surface in order to have a culturally enriching visit to a country as opposed to a typical bland resort vacation.
Katie Coakley is an unrepentant traveler, craft beer snob, whiskey lover, a survivor of high-altitude backpacking, Icelandic snorkeling and jungle trekking in Colombia. You can follow her at https://katieonthemap.com
A warm hilltop paradise in the Santander Sierra that is also one of Colombia's national monuments. It has great ice cream shops and cobblestone strolls without the tourist saturation of the more well-known Villa de Leyva. I can't think of a better place to daydream the world away.
Hike El Camino Real (a pre-Incan trail) downhill to Guane (and ride the bus back up), or go hang gliding or river rafting in nearby San Gil. There are two local museums in town, including the house of Aquileo Parra, Colombia's president from 1876-1878.
Accommodation is mostly run by local families out of their colonial-era homes, and you will find rooms for both lower and higher budgets.
Kali Kucera is President of AndesTransit, and personally oversees the curation of thousands of routes, back-road secrets, and the collective social wisdom of his beloved bus traveling buddy community. An inspiring storyteller and writer, Kali rekindles in his audiences the passion for adventure and the lost art of exploration. Follow his and other traveler's adventures here on the AndesTransit Blog or on Twitter and Instagram at @andestransit.
Chugchilán is in the center of the Quilotoa Loop, one of the most stunning places in Ecuador's Andes. The area is known as a day hiker's paradise and in just one day you can access highland plains, tropical cloud forest, and one of the most beautiful crater lakes in the world via horseback or hiking.
You will also find traditional markets that take over tiny neighboring towns on specific days of the week and small communities specializing in vibrant paintings, cheese making, and carpentry.
One of my favorite activities here is to wander the flat plateau overlooking the spectacular Toachi canyon, which takes you through stunning landscapes and past small family farms with homes constructed from natural materials and families working by hand in their fields.
Chugchilán is a rural community with accommodation options for backpackers ($15/person per night including breakfast and dinner), mid-range travelers ($30/person per night also including breakfast and dinner), or higher-end (though not quite luxury) accommodations are available in eco-friendly cabins at $100/night for a double including all meals, hot tub, sauna, and an incredible property. Chugchilán is definitely accessible by land, public bus, private transport, or even sometimes by milk truck!
Nicole Will has extensive experience guiding tours and is passionate about sharing Ecuador with the world in a unique and inspiring way.
For us, El Bolsón was an unexpected stop. We had not put it on our itinerary, but a problem with the bus made this small town become a place that we would always remember.
In our case, we were traveling as backpackers and had no problem finding everything we needed in the town: quiet lodgings and an overwhelming abundance of nature easily accessible by public transport that left us with precious collections of images, not to mention the incomparable cuisine Argentina.
Fran and Virginia are a couple from Barcelona, Spain, and the blog about their journeys can be found at https://365sabadosviajando.com
José Ignacio is where a true traveler goes. Punta del Este is the major hub of the area, but head 30 minutes outside the city and another world lay before you.
I personally like José Ignacio because of the people, food and architecture. Hotels like Playa Vik offer travelers such a unique take on hospitality, it gives you the feeling of being in someone's home, but more like your home. The town can be completed by bike and don't forget to dine at La Huella.
Freddy Charles Reinert is the co-founder of Sienna Charles, and designs effortless, exclusive experiences for the world’s most discerning clientele.
I would be tempted to say any of the small towns along Chile’s Carretera Austral – to spend several months hitching the highway, savoring what each pueblito offers. But having to choose just one place, it would have to be Las Grutas in Argentina’s northern Patagonia – but only in the low season. (During the summer high season, almost a million Argentines come per month!)
Las Grutas is perched on limestone bluffs overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean. At dawn and dusk, waves of burrowing parrots paint the sky.
At low tide, the sea retreats over two kilometers, leaving behind warm-water restingas, or pools in the ocean’s bedrock. You can walk for kilometers along the coast, taking in the wild nature and brilliantly colored landscape at Piedras Coloradas, all the way to the fossilized-oyster bed of Cañadón de las Ostras. Inland are Salinas de Gualicho (perfect for stargazing) and the legendary Lost City of the Caesars at Fuerte Argentino.
Las Grutas is on the migratory route of birds (checkout Vuelo Latitud 40 reserve), as well as whales and dolphins. Tour the world’s southern-most olive groves or an alfajor bakery. Oh – and be sure to dine on the scrumptious giant Patagonian oysters, found only in this region! There is lodging for all budgets, including over a dozen campgrounds (some open all year). Be warned, though, that few services exist at the height of the austral winter (June, July) when lodging is much cheaper.
Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet, and translator. She has authored 10 guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 150 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa; 18 anthologies and 12 chapbooks – including the collections of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and Notes from Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017). For several decades, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels on Facebook.
A straight shot by bus from Lima, Paracas is on the coast of Peru and has everything from budget to 5-star accommodations. Every morning there are 2-hour boat rides to Ballestas Islands to see the throngs of wildlife. Another place to catch wildlife and beautiful desert landscapes tumbling to the sea is the Paracas Nature Reserve.
Several museums feature the mysterious Paracas people of deformed skulls and magnificent weavings, and who made the enigmatic Candelabro de Los Andes, a giant figure carved on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
A life-long adventure traveler, Jacquie Whitt, and co-founder Vidal Jaquehua, a licensed native Peruvian tour guide, teamed up in 2009 and launched Adios Adventure Travel. They have the insider's guide to everything you need to know about traveling in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Since I came to know Salento, in the coffee zone of Colombia, I always thought it was my perfect retreat. The beauty of its valleys and the friendliness of the people can not be explained with words but with experiences, no matter what kind of traveler you are. Plus, right next door is the Valle de Cocora, an unforgettable landscape with large palm trees over 60 meters high.
Valle de Cocora gives the traveler many interesting activities and spectacular green landscapes, where wax palms rise up to the sky. Hiking, horseback riding, visiting coffee farms, discovering orchid gardens ... basically all that you want to enjoy nature and the culture of coffee. In this place, the people of Salento are full of delightful shops and typical paisa houses competing in beauty and color to attract the attention of visitors.
Salento is one of the oldest and quaintest villages of Quindío, and a place to wander aimlessly and before exploring the Valley of Cocora on one of the famous Willys.
José Miguel Redondo is a blogger of https://www.elrincondesele.com, coordinator, and editor of travel content Cadenaserviajes.es and Los40viajes.es and a collaborator with other publications.
Pau García Solbes is a travel blogger and responsible for communications at BuscoUnViaje.com. He is licensed in Information Sciences with a specialty in journalism and has worked with numerous publications in related issues about the internet, new technologies, and tourism.
In the heart of Argentina's beautiful Lake District, San Martín is the little sister of larger Bariloche to the south.
In summer it's a perfect base for walking out into the surrounding hills or for taking boat trips on the aptly-named Lago Hermoso (Lake Beautiful!) and in winter you can enjoy some of South America's best skiing and snowboarding.
Oh, and great steaks and wine, of course!
Dan Clarke is Director of Real World Holidays, a UK-based travel company that specializes in tailor-made holidays in South America. It was founded in 2004 by people who had already traveled all over the continent and, quite simply, had fallen in love with it.
Visit this wonderful Portuguese colonial town midweek and you’ll have it to yourself and the locals. Strike up some conversation over some potent cachaça and you’ll feel like you belong here. Unless you are looking to gorge yourself on some of the continent's finest platters prepared by the best chefs then avoid Tiradentes during the nine-day culinary festival in August.
Should you prefer tranquility along the cobblestone streets and 18th-century churches then come at another time and find the plethora of hiking trails through the naturally beautiful surroundings free from the crowds. Equidistant from both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in terms of mileage but really, worlds away when it comes to style and authenticity.
Richard McColl is a Colombia-based freelance travel writer, foreign correspondent, and author. When he is not writing (www.richardmccoll.com) he can be found hosting his weekly radio show “Colombia Calling” or running his Casa Amarilla hotel in Mompós. He is an editor and contributing author of the new book entitled: “Was Gabo an Irishman? Tales from Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia” available on Amazon.
The small pueblo of Toro Toro located in the province of Potosí - but to which you arrive from Cochabamba - is the base for exploring the Parque Nacional Toro Toro. The park covers more than 16,000 hectares of great importance to paleontology and spelunking and offers different routes to explore the place, accompanied by an obligatory guide.
The most recommended are Ciudad de Itas and Umajalanta (rocks sculpted by erosion and a journey inside a cave not suitable for claustrophobics), Vergel, and el Cañón de Toro Toro (seeing this and possibility of spotting condors is priceless). The town of cobblestone streets and adobe houses is not overrun by tourists. The people are friendly and smiling, and the nights are so serene as only in the highlands can promise.
Nati Bainotti, from Argentina, has journeyed since she was 18 years old. At She has traveled throughout South America, Europe, and Africa. Since 2013 she has written in different publications, and since 2014 traveled by bicycle. Last year she self-published her first travel journal, "Crónicas por Latinoamérica" and started the project #5países5murales to paint a mural en every country she visits. Follow her at mividaenunamochila.com
The bonfire has burnt to mere ashes and charred wood, and you too are probably caught up in dreaming of these delightful places. Go to andestransit.com to make your plans to get to any of these great places!
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