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In this day and age, it’s easy to daydream about traveling. Because of social distancing and isolation, two important things are happening: folks are anxiously looking to travel in the not-too-distant future, and they’re looking to visit safe, hidden, and undiscovered or secret vacation spots, preferably, in secluded destinations. Latin America has a tremendous number of places that fit this description to a tee. And, we’ve been working hard to identify South American getaways where physical distancing and minimal crowds (if any) go hand in hand with the destination.
This is our list of the Top 15 Best New Hidden Gems in South America for 2021, in no particular order.
The Galapagos Islands may be one of the more famous places in South America, known all over the world, but the truth is that the Galapagos National Park, which makes up approximately 97% of this fascinating archipelago, typically only sees around 75,000 visitors per year. That is less than the number of people who might typically pack into a stadium to watch a massive sporting event.
In order to really experience the endemic fauna and otherworldly terrain of this pristine location, your best mode of transportation and exploration is a small expedition vessel with a limited number of passengers and plenty of space. Add to this the fact that the Galapagos Islands are pretty isolated, and you’ll find you can enjoy a genuine secluded vacation experience in the Enchanted Isles.
Lake Titicaca has the title of being the “world’s highest navigable body of water”. It is also one of South America’s largest lakes. Along its northwestern edge, you’ll find the town of Puno, known for its rich cultural traditions, including festive dance and folkloric music presentations and performances. This remarkable place is quite unique, and for being an important destination in Peru, its population is relatively small, coming in at under 150,000.
Perhaps the thing that makes this destination a hidden gem is the fact that many of the attractions here involve outdoor activities. Small tours of the lake’s fascinating floating islands, coastline, and surrounding natural areas are a great way to experience the magic of this spot. That said, you may need to acclimate to the altitude first as 12,566 ft (3,830 m) above sea level is pretty high. Also, in the evening, you may find that the temperature certainly dips; after all, this climate is fitting of a tundra, which is both exciting and worthy of dressing in warm layers.
La Guajira, in the northeastern-most region of Colombia, rests along the Caribbean ocean and borders neighboring Venezuela. It is one of the country’s most stunning places given the juxtaposition of desert-like coastline against crystalline ocean mixed with impressive salt flats. It is home to native and endemic flora and fauna and a handful of indigenous communities.
One of the most beautiful spots to explore in this region is Los Flamencos Sanctuary. This designated wildlife reserve is home to an extensive number of American flamingos and is located in the vicinity of Camarones, a small fishing village next to several marshes and estuaries, and the Tapias River. There are plenty of birds that also nest and reside here, which makes this spot a great place to visit if you’re a fan of nature, wildlife, and secluded destinations.
Resembling a magical oasis, this destination truly is a hidden gem. The park’s undulating sand dunes transform into freshwater lagoons, especially between the months of January and May, which see frequent and increased rainfall, creating a landscape akin to a “flooded desert”. This little-populated, scenic place is a protected area dedicated to the conservation of precious ecosystems that look like a postcard beach plucked out of the Caribbean and inserted into a grand desert –in the same country where dense jungles abound!
Whether you like to take it slow as you walk along the endless sandy expanse or prefer to engage in exciting activities, this South American treasure offers you plenty of alternatives. Your choice: calm or excitement. The latter allows you to drive up and down the dunes on buggies as if riding a roller coaster. This national park, in Northeastern Brazil, is located close to São Luís do Maranhão, a city that feels like an island, where you can taste Brazilian crab soup. This idyllic vacation spot is perfect for children and adults alike. Take the whole family!
If you find your personal sanctuary lies deep inside a mysterious tropical forest, silently pulsating with curious exotic animals peeking from behind lush foliage, beckoning you to deep-dive into their warm and humid habitat at high altitudes, Ecuador’s slice of a natural biological corridor is your new nook of happiness. A mere three-hour drive from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, this enchanting spot harbors over 400 different unique species of birds. So, bird lovers, bring your binoculars!
Spanning from Panama to Peru, the Choco Bioregion is the stretch of the Andes where striking fauna and flora still abound, even while these precious ecosystems are slowly becoming more endangered by man’s ever-expanding concrete jungles. The Mashpi Reserve has protected 6,180 acres of forest to preserve these wondrous species for generations to come, and Mashpi Lodge is an avant-garde blend of sustainability and modernity. Perfect to visit year–round, this off-the-beaten-path hotel is a leader in ecotourism and your ideal headquarters for a truly secluded adventure where cloud forest and rainforest meet.
If you’re the kind of traveler who seeks the tranquility of falling water, or the kind of explorer that delights in tracing peculiar waterfalls, look no further than La Macarena National and Ecological Reserve Park! Located southeast of Bogota, the capital of Colombia, just about in the center of the country, this isolated mountain range is home to some curious water torrents as well as several enormous waterfalls. There is even a multi-colored river National Geographic deems as seemingly taken out of The Garden of Eden. As for the flora, botanists can rejoice: you can find 50 known species of orchids here.
The Serranía de la Macarena region encompasses four different ecosystems that allow for remarkable biodiversity to flourish. There are several species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and primates. The stars of the show here, even more so than the anteaters, jaguars, and cougars you may encounter along your journey, are the pink dolphins swimming in the rivers! The curious rock formations guard the secrets of indigenous cultures, as evidenced by the fascinating petroglyphs of ancient civilizations found hidden within this region.
We continue with awe-inspiring natural reserves! This time, farther south along the continent, in Peru.
The Tambopata National Reserve is a sanctuary in Southeastern Peru dedicated to preserving subtropical rainforest ecosystems and to protecting them from illegal gold mining. It is part of Vilcabamba Amboro, a wildlife corridor that extends into neighboring Bolivia. Some fascinating animals to observe amidst rich vegetation that flows from hills to plains are the giant otter, Peruvian spider monkey, capybara, tufted capuchin, harpy eagle, rufescent tiger heron, king vulture, and golden-tailed sapphire.
Avid campers who prefer to set up at the shores of peaceful lakes will have a field day when visiting this place! There are plenty of oxbow lakes here, and some are lined by palm trees that host all kinds of colorful macaws, filling the air with birdsong. If you’re fond of hiking, you’ll want to wear comfortable, breathable clothes, as this rainforest has many rivers and streams that you’ll likely traverse as you explore. For this same reason, waterproof boots are highly recommended, since you’ll encounter several swamps from which to admire these stunning ecosystems.
Nature has a beautiful way of demonstrating that reality is a hundred times better than fiction. Some of the most obvious examples are Chile’s very own Marble Caves! Located in the breathtaking Chilean Patagonia, these unique caves are found at General Carrera Lake -one of the largest in the area- which connects this country to Argentina.
These caves present a mesmerizing color palette that goes from the purest white to a vibrant electric blue. Once you reach General Carrera Lake, you select a boat tour or, if you’re feeling a bit adventurous, kayak through these beautiful caverns. Just be careful! The weather tends to be on the cold side of the thermometer! Over thousands of years, water, wind, and climate have shaped these magnificent geological formations made of minerals such as calcite, quartz, graphite, and many more. These caves are also known as the Marvel Cathedral.
The area that surrounds the lake has plenty of accommodation options for every budget! Plus, it’s a great place to relax and unwind while you explore the mystical Patagonia region.
Picture this: you’re walking on the desert, the toasty golden color of the sand contrasts perfectly with the sky’s deep blue. As you keep moving forward, the wavy horizon line slowly reveals what seems to be a mirage: a magical green-watered oasis with lush palm trees scattered around it. It’s not a dream, though. You’ve reached the beautiful Oasis of Huacachina.
Located in the district of Ica in Peru, Huacachina is the perfect spot to relax and unwind amidst dunes, excellent stargazing spots, and unique experiences. If you need some excitement in your life, you can practice tons of sports here like sandboarding or, if you want a more relaxed time in this off-the-radar destination, you can arrange a romantic and secluded candle-lit dinner in the middle of the desert.
Huacachina is also a great spot to start an adventure in Peru! Some must-see destinations like Paracas and Nazca are pretty nearby!
Traditionally one of the least visited national parks in Ecuador, due to its proximity to the more famous Cotopaxi National Park, Llanganates National Park has gained a recent “cult following” amongst many history buffs because of its associations with one of the most dramatic events in early Ecuadorian history. It is said that somewhere within the startling, mysterious surroundings of Llanganates lies buried Atahualpa’s treasure. This powerful legend has called to the ambition of many treasure hunters and adventurers.
The Llanganates Mountain Range offers very rewarding treks through a rugged landscape dotted with lagoons, cloud forests, and even a rather eerie moorland covered in thick mist. This stunning, little known, but very beautiful region is well worth the time and offers a more mythical approach to the values and lore of Andean culture.
This region encompasses nearly half of the total landmass of Colombia. A vast, sprawling tropical plain that lies to the east of the Colombian Andes and the north of the Amazon, the Llanos are comprised of remarkably biodiverse ecosystems. Dotted with scrubby pastures, grasslands, and prairies, home to traditional cattle ranches, this gorgeous region of Colombia is seldom visited by outsiders. Home to impressive droves of cattle over many thousands of acres, these lands are home to Colombia’s ‘cowboy country’ and offer a window into a truly unique cultural experience as well as amazing outdoor activities, including horseback riding, trekking, camping, and bird watching. Be sure to check on the season, seeing as widespread flooding is very common!
All in all, Los Llanos is a pure diamond in the rough! Proof of this is that it’s not on the radar when it comes to mass tourism, and you’ll bask in the fantastic perks of large open spaces, fresh air, and fun activities. Connect with the destination itself and the fascinating culture and biodiversity you’ll find in the Colombian plains.
One of the lesser-known types of ecosystems is the estuary, a convergence of river environments with ocean waters made at the tidal mouth of a large river. These sites are often endangered due to human development and encroachment and are seldom made into national parks or reserves. In the Gulf of Guayaquil, at a startlingly short distance from the city proper, highland rivers meet with the saltwater from the Pacific Ocean -this marriage of waters forms the largest estuary along the western coast of South America.
The Churute Reserve, recognized as an essential wetland by the Ramsar Convention since the nineties, is home to many wildlife species, many of which are endangered. Going for a walk through the designated boardwalk paths or taking to the estuary itself on canoes offers a veritable adventure into one of the most incredible ecosystems imaginable. Its status as a protected reserve and the fact this region competes with all of the other amazing destinations in the wonderful country of Ecuador make this a little-known destination that is well worth your consideration if you’re looking for experiences off the beaten path, but close to a big city like Guayaquil.
The contiguous Ischigualasto Provincial and Talampaya National Parks, in the northernmost part of Central Argentina, cover a combined total of 275,369 hectares. Against the backdrop of breathtaking mountain landscapes, the property is a conservation treasure of global importance.
Red sandstone cliffs, reaching a stunning 656 ft (200 m) in height, tower over Talampaya National Park, offering an amazing backdrop for trekking. Ischigualasto Provincial Park features the multi-colored landscapes of Valle de la Luna or “Valley of the Moon”, which really come into their own at night. This desert environment contains several rare and endemic species of flora and fauna, unique to this part of the world. Hard to access due to its remote nature, you really need to put in a bit of planning to make it out to these amazing regions.
Created in 1972, Los Roques National Park aims to protect a marine ecosystem comprised of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds. The largest marine park in the Caribbean Sea by a wide margin, it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful natural areas of Venezuela. The coral reefs host some of the most beautiful underwater fauna and flora in all the Caribbean.
The Park has exceptionally beautiful beaches of white sand and crystalline waters, which make for an amazing destination for professional and recreational scuba divers. Among other attractions are the Virgen del Valle celebrations in September, and the Lobster Festival in November. Los Roques is a veritable hidden treasure in one of the most beautiful and least visited countries in South America.
The Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, marked by the dramatic nature of its sheer cliffs emerging from the calm waters of the Atlantic, towering over pristine, tropical beaches, is one of the least known sites in all of Brazil. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site almost 15 years ago, its enforced limits on visitors and distance from the mainland make Fernando de Noronha a truly secluded destination. The imposing Morro do Pico, a jutting hilltop that towers over the blue waters and white beaches is perhaps the most iconic element associated with this small set of islands.
Rugged cliffs, hidden sand dunes, secret coves, and the charming colonial architecture of its single small settlement, make for startling contrasts and a pleasant experience. It’s also a magnet for surfers from around the world, featuring some of the best waves in the Atlantic. If you enjoy far–flung sites or like to put in some time with a board, Fernando de Noronha is well worth your consideration.