This post is a version of a list I wrote for my lovely friend Ella when she got married last year (she plans to honeymoon in South America later this year). It’s based on my travels to South America in 2009-2010. Hopefully, this list is a good compilation of things to try (see, do, eat) whilst in South America, since it features the things that stuck most in my memory four years after I actually had the experiences. Since I was writing with newlyweds in mind, some things are better suited to couples, but I did this trip with a friend and had a blast all the same. The other thing to note is we didn’t get everywhere in South America so this list has some glaring omissions of the South American continent, particularly Brazil. We only had three months and were trying to learn Spanish so we didn’t even try to fit in Brazil – instead, we followed the Andes from Colombia, through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
Maybe vegetarians should skip to ‘B’.
Also known as a parrilla or parrillada, an asado is perhaps the most essential thing to do – and eat – whilst in Argentina. Asado is the South American equivalent of a barbeque, but with every imaginable part of the cow. Some of the cuts include: bife de chorizo (sirloin), bife de costilla (T-Bone), bife de lomo (tenderloin), cuadril (rump), ojo de bife (ribeye), tire de asado (ribs) and vacio (flank). You might also find blood sausage, liver, tongue and more… but all grilled to perfection.
Boy, was this city a surprise. I never could have guessed that the capital of Colombia would be so charming, and so cosmopolitan!
We were there over Christmas and some of the highlights included corn on the cob and camomile tea at the night markets, and a cable-car trip up Mount Monserrate, from which there is a breathtaking view over the city. We did this at sunset and the views as the house and Christmas lights came on across Bogota were outstanding. Try a Colombian-style chocolate caliente – a cup of hot cocoa… with cheese. Yes, together.
A cup of fresh camomile tea at the night market
The view over Bogota from Mount Monserrate
You dip the cheese in the chocolate…
Cusco is best known as being the gateway to Machu Picchu, also known as the best thing I have ever seen in my life and a ‘must-do’. Bring a jumper because the high-altitude air can be fresh.
Machu Picchu aside, this town is a beautiful place to spend a few days. Lush green mountains surround you on all sides. Descendants of Incas wander the cobble-stoned streets with their llamas. If you can be there around New Years Eve, take part in the hundred-year old Quechuan traditions said to bring health, love and wealth in the new year.
Cusco town square
Yellow is the preferred colour around the New Year, as people of Cusco believe that it brings good luck.
Choosing a bag of grapes as part of a New Year’s tradition – at midnight on New Year’s Eve, eat a grape each time the clock chimes, making a wish for each (twelve wishes, how awesome!)
Dulce de leche
This is a staple in Argentinean cuisine. It’s a thick, sticky caramel sauce – which literally means ‘sweet milk’ – that is paired with anything and everything, from toast to icecream to medialunas (Argentinean croissants). Try it in an alfajores, which is a sweet biscuit found in every deli or street food stall in Argentina.
While you’re tasting the food from street vendors, also try a choripan, which is basically a tiny, delicious hot dog, and empanadas, which are basically little pies.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Portenos are obsessed with this lady, the wife of former President Juan Peron and First Lady of Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s. She was only 33 when she died, but not before touching many hearts through her feminist and philanthropic work. Check out her Pink Palace (Casa Rosada) and sing, “don’t cry for me Argentina”. Or just look at the Palace, if subtlety is more your style. From there, visit Evita’s tomb in Recoleta Cemetery (it sounds creepy, but the tomb and the rest of the Cemetary is truly outstanding… just go in daylight).
The Pink Palace
Also known as soccer, if you’re Australian.
The atmosphere of a game of football in South America is unparalleled. If you can, try to catch a game somewhere on the continent. Friendly locals and hostel/hotel receptionists are usually in the know and able to make a recommendation about which games are good (and safe – the games themselves can get pretty rowdy and some neighbourhoods surrounding the stadiums aren’t safe.)
The Boca Juniors football stadium in Buenos Aires is famous for being the home of Maradona. If you can’t catch a live game, there is a mini museum there and you can also take tours of the stadium when a game isn’t on – there’s something impressive about seeing the stadium empty.
A word of warning: when we visited the La Boca neighbourhood, we were given strict instructions by our hostel receptionist to be very careful to avoid the streets around Caminito and the stadium. Particular neighbourhoods and even single streets in Buenos Aires are known to be very unsafe. If you stray on to one, there is a high risk of being robbed, likely at gunpoint, during night or day. We asked the receptionist to mark the unsafe areas on a map so we could be sure not to end up in the wrong part of town. In the safe areas of Buenos Aires, we had no trouble at all and never felt unsafe.
Unless you’re speaking exceptional Spanish, expect to be called this. Try not to be offended.
Now, I stayed in backpackers, so I am no authority. But I’ve been told that Buenos Aires has some of the best luxury boutique hotels in the world. Portenos (those from Buenos Aires) know how to do hospitality and they know how to do romance, so it comes as no surprise.
Look into staying at the Miravida Soho Hotel and Wine Bar or the Casa Calma Hotel.
Cusco to Machu Picchu, Peru
The Inca trail is the number one experience I am asked about by friends who want or are planning to go on a trip to South America.
There are three things to know about the Inca trail: firstly, it’s always busy. Secondly, it usually closes in the month of February for maintenance. Thirdly and most importantly, it books out months and months in advance, so if you want to walk it to Machu Picchu, you have to know the dates you wish to go and reserve a spot.
For some people, hiking the Inca trail is a dream. But for us, we wanted to see Machu Picchu but didn’t really mind how we got there. We weren’t travelling South America on a fixed itinerary – we wanted the freedom to stay longer in a place if we liked it and the flexibility to go wherever we were recommended by a fellow traveller or a new local friend. Therefore, we didn’t know when we would be in Peru. Overall, it didn’t make sense for us to reserve a spot on the Inca trail for these reason.
We chose the alternative – a guided hike to Machu Picchu that we could book from Cusco when we arrived. There are literally thousands of vendors in Cusco that offer these sort of guided hikes, for far less than the cost of the official Inca trail hike. I chose a three day hike which spent part of two days on the Inca trail and one days on another trail. For me, this was a great balance – I got to see part of the Inca trail and the hype (magnificent views/narrow ledges from which you could drop to your death) but I also got to experience a quieter, more peaceful trail through the mountains of Peru.
There are plenty of junctions in South America; the junction between the borders of Brazil and Argentina (Iguazu Falls), the junction between Argentina and Chile (the Andes) and perhaps the most well known: the junction between Northern and Southern hemispheres at equator in Ecuador.
Or more specifically, Inca Kola is a truly disgusting soft drink that is iconic in Peru. You can’t really miss it – it’s BRIGHT yellow – and it’s worth a taste.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Of the 48 neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, La Boca is the most famous and the most colourful. La Boca was the home of Italian settlers when they first arrived in Argentina and has a strong European atmosphere (and really good Italian food). Watch a couple dance the tango, as often happens in the Italian pubs and even in the street.
Some other neighbourhoods worth visiting are:
- The trendy neighbourhood: Palermo (particularly Palermo Chico, Palermo Hollywood, Palermo Soho, and Palermo Viejo or old Palermo)
- The neighbourhood for the rich: Recoleta
- The historic neighbourhood: San Telmo
Mendoza is the capital city of the Mendoza Province in Argentina and famous for it’s vineyards. There are countless vineyards – between olive plantations – spread across the foothills and high plains of the Andes.
Hire a bike or scooter and ride between local wineries (responsibly) sampling the local wine… or join one of several tours available.
Whilst in Mendoza, try a glass of Malbec.
Nature parks and reserves
South America is kind of like Australia. It’s big and has a load of variety. From the dry, red plains in the north, to the Andes in the west, and glaciers in the south. Choose your adventure and see the best of it in the many spectacular national parks through the continent. For example:
- Parque Nacional los Glaciars. Home to Glaciar Perito Moreno, one of the world’s biggest and probably prettiest glaciers in the world. It grows 2 metres bigger every day!
- Ischigualasto Provincial Park: A UNESCO site home to the world’s oldest dinosaur remains. Appropriately, it is also known as Valle de la Luna (Valley of the HoneyMoon)
- Reserve Faunistica Peninsula Valdes: A UNESCO site home to some of South America’s best wildlife.
Colca canyon, in one of the many National Parks in South America.
Travelling overland in South America is pretty special because the countryside is so diverse. By travelling overland, you will see the Andes, plains, salt-flats and other kinds of terrain. Plus, you will find the transition to the altitude easier.
The view from a bus ride from Peru to Bolivia
If you’re still altitude sick, try a cup of coca leaf tea, or these…
Turns out, they were the only thing that worked for me.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Port of Buenos Aires opens up onto the Rio de la Plata. In operation since the 1800s, the Port has recently been revamped and is sometimes referred to as Puerto Nuevo or ‘new port’. It is surrounded by wonderful restaurants that serve up fresh seafood, including a great Brazillian-style restaurant (Rodizio Madero) that is on the pricier side but also serves every cut of beef imaginable.
You can take evening cruises up the river. The harbour is also the point of departure for boat trips to Montevideo in Uruguay.
Quechua people are from the Andes of Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia. Some are descendants from the Incas, others trace their historical roots to the Chancas or Huancas peoples. Try to soak up as much of their incredible, colourful culture, music, art and stories as you can.
Taken in Bolivia by my friend with permission
Buenos Aires, Argentina
We stumbled upon this restaurant in a happy accident on our last night in South America.
This restaurant is a great splurge, for around $60.00AUD you can treat yourself to a most delicious degustation with wine pairing.
Everything closes in Argentina for afternoon siesta. Join them. Especially useful if you’ve had a big asado with wine for lunch.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
There are plenty of places where you can catch a tango performance. Some areas, like La Boc, have performers for the tourists. Some bars and clubs have tango performers. You might catch a performance in the street and you can even take tango lessons yourself.
San Telmo is a good place to search out tango performances, at some of the many historical bars and restaurants.
Uyuni to Ushuaia,
Bolivia to Argentina
Uyuni is in the very south of Bolivia (near the border with Argentina) and is home to the world’s largest salt flat (hint: bring sunscreen). At the very opposite end of Argentina is Ushuaia, the southern most city in the world (and where cruises to Antarctica depart from). Each is an amazing attraction in its own right, but a truly special journey would be to travel by bus and train from the top to the bottom, passing by all that Argentina and Chile have to offer in between.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
We heard it from our Argentine friend that portenos think that they are more European than South America. But there is still something to be desired about the coffee there (if you want good coffee, go to Colombia! Specifically, a little town amongst coffee plantations, called Salento). Las Violetas is a historic coffee house on one of Buenos Aires’ most important streets. It was built in the 1800s with Italian marble and French stained glass and probably does the most authentic Italian coffee, English tea and Devonshire scones in South America.
The most important produce in Argentina, perhaps after beef. Argentina makes some seriously delicious (and cheap) wine.
While we are on the subject of alcohol, you must try a Pisco Sour when in Peru. It’s much better than Inca Kola (I promise).
Okay, ‘X’ was always going to be a little difficult, but it’s true that South America is a land of extremes. From the warm Caribbean in the north to the icy Tierra del Fuego in the south. But most of all, I didn’t expect the cold that we faced in the Andes, even in the peak of summer. Bundle up to explore. And once you’re used to it, why not head to the ice, mountains and glaciers of the South? Or go all out and see Antarctica?
A herbal tea that is shared between friends. The taste is a little strange to begin with, but sweeten it with some sugar and you will soon be addicted.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Zamba (not to be confused with zumba) is an Argentinean traditional dance. Zamba is like the tango’s less sexy sister and you will see it danced on the street just as often.
Like for the tango, there are plenty of dance lessons available throughout Buenos Aires.
What’s on your list of things to do and see whilst in South America? If you have any questions, leave them in the comments – I would be happy to try and help!