Rich in flora and fauna and among the most biodiverse of ecosystems, it’s no wonder why South America has some of the most beautiful and unique parks in the world. With its stunning waterfalls, lush forests, and spectacular landscapes, there is much to explore. The parks offer an exciting adventure worth adding to your bucket list.
These are some of the best and most incredible national parks to visit in South America.
1) Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981, Los Glaciares National Park has massive crystal blue glaciers that are breathtaking to see.
At over 700,000 hectares, Los Glaciares is the largest national park in Argentina. The park owes its name to the many glaciers that are fed by the South Patagonian Ice Field, which covers almost half of the park. After Antarctica, this ice field is the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere!
There are many glaciers to explore in this park with the most famous one being Perito Moreno. This glacier is a near 20 mile stretch making it popular among ice-hikers.
To access Perito Moreno, many visitors go to El Calafete. This beautiful town has its own airport and is conveniently located just an hour away from the famous glacier.
There are various lodging options and restaurants available making this a great place to go if your goal is to visit the Perito Moreno glacier.
Los Glaciares also features multiple mountainous peaks. The Cerro Chalten, also known as Mount Fitz Roy, is an impressive 3,405 meters above sea level and the Cerro Torre stands admirably at 3,102 meters.
These are the highest peaks found on the north side of the park.
Depending on how adventurous you feel, you can choose to either book an expedition or do a self-guided trek.
Close to the peak of Cerro Chalten is the small town of El Chalten. It caters to visitors with many shops and bars around. You’ll be happy to find many restaurants offering delicious Argentinian dishes.
If you have a sweet tooth, there are some incredible craft ice cream shops, coffee shops, and bakeries offering exquisite homemade chocolate. There are also stores that make handcrafted products so you can bring a special gift back for your loved ones.
2) Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile
Bordering Los Glaciares National Park is the Torres del Paine National Park. Visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year, this national park is one of the most popular destinations to visit in Chile.
Featuring three stunning granite peaks that extend as high as 8,000 ft above sea level, Torres del Paine is an impressive sight worth seeing.
Filled with incredible mountain ranges, valleys, rivers, lakes and glaciers, this park offers you the chance to immerse yourself within spectacular, postcard-worthy sceneries.
Go kayaking or canoeing at the beautiful Grey Lake with its massive blue glaciers and floating icebergs or at the crystal clear water of Lake Pehoe where the reflection of the mountains in the water will certainly capture your attention and create stunning pictures.
You can also go ice trekking, rafting, fishing, and even horseback riding in this amazing park.
There are multiple hiking trails with varying degrees of difficulty worth exploring. A few of the most famous ones are the “W” route which takes around three to five days to complete and the full circuit “O” trek which can usually take a week or more.
To get a breathtaking view of the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields, hike the “O” route. This circuit takes you completely around the Torres del Paine mountains and gives you access to some of the highest vantage points in the park.
There are also various campgrounds and picnic areas around the park such as those by Lake Pehoe and Laguna Azul. At certain ranger stations, there are kiosks available to get non-perishable food, but it may be better to bring your own food and drinks.
The best time to visit this park is between October and April when there is less rain, warmer days, and more hours of sunlight (sometimes up to 17 hours).
3) Cajas National Park, Ecuador
Situated about 45 minutes from the UNESCO city of Cuenca in the highlands of Ecuador is Cajas National Park.
This park will keep you occupied with over 165 lagoons, 152 different species of birds and 15 different hiking paths to choose from.
It even has an app, Parque Nacional Cajas, filled with all the information you’ll need for venturing around.
At 3,900 meters above sea level, many experience altitude sickness, which is something to keep in mind before going. It may even be best to spend a few days in Cuenca to get used to the altitude before going to the park.
If you are doing a self-guided hike, the trails around Laguna Llaviucu and Laguna Toreadora are the most recommended.
Hiking around Laguna Llaviucu takes about an hour and a half and is a beautiful scenic route. It is especially great for birdwatchers.
However, the more popular route around Laguna Toreadora, takes about two hours and has a nice restaurant nearby for when you need to replenish after your trek.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, one of the most challenging trails is over 12 miles long and may even require camping along the way.
If you’re unsure about which trail is best for you, then the guide at the visitors’ center can help you choose.
Since the weather can change in an instant, it is recommended to bring sunscreen, wear layers, pack a raincoat and include some waterproof boots for good measure.
4) Huascaran National Park, Peru
This beautiful national park is home to the highest tropical mountain range in the world, the Cordillera Blanca. The tallest mountain in the Cordillera Blanca is Mount Huascaran standing tall at over 22,000 feet.
This park offers a lot to explore, with more than 500 glaciers, over 250 lagoons, and more than 120 bird species to see.
For those of you who are botanists at heart, there are also over 750 plant species, including the famous endangered plant, Puya Raimondi also known as the Queen of the Andes. This incredible plant can grow as high as 50 feet!
For those who are very adventurous, there are more than 100 mountain climbing spots and 25 hiking trails to choose from.
There are also many archaeological sites within the park where you’ll get the chance to see cave paintings, ancient settlements, tombs, and even fortresses.
Just remember when planning your trip that the rainy season is from December to March and the dry season is from April to November so pack accordingly to try and avoid any weather-related surprises.
5) Itatiaia National Park, Brazil
This stunning park is the oldest national park in Brazil. Just 70 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, this park features the highest peak in Rio de Janeiro, known as the Black Needles Peak or Pico das Agulhas Negras, with a height of over 9000 feet!
Filled with waterfalls such as the beautiful Bride’s Veil, many hiking trails, a diverse variety of birds to observe, and challenging peaks to climb, this park is worth visiting whenever you make your way to this incredible country.
Also found in this lush park is a visitors’ center, a Natural History museum, and food kiosks to grab a quick bite before or after exploring this natural gem.
6) Talampaya National Park, Argentina
These intensely unique red canyons attract thousands of visitors every year to the Talampaya National Park in Argentina.
Talampaya means “tala’s dry river”, an apt description of the area as the rivers remain dry for most of the year. With its desert-like climate, expect temperatures to vary greatly throughout the days and nights.
Formed some 250 million years ago, the walls of the gorge can reach as high as 475 feet and although the park is quite huge at over 200,000 hectares, most of it remains inaccessible to visitors.
This incredible park, declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2000, has a welcome center for visitors offering fun souvenirs and a delicious and affordable lunch awaiting you at the park’s restaurant.
To see these amazing rock formations up close, you will have to book a guided tour which takes you around the park in a small truck. The tour will stop at different points so you can take some stunning pictures along the way.
However, it’s best to brush up on your Spanish before going as the tours are not done in any other languages. But even if you don’t know a word of Spanish, just being able to see the deeply red canyons makes the trip worth it.
7) Sajama National Park, Bolivia
Experience the breathtaking icy cap of the volcano, Nevado Sajama. It stands proudly as the highest peak in Bolivia’s oldest national park and is definitely an adventure to add to your list.
Hike any of the peaks in the volcanic group found in the park. The twin peaks, Parinacota and Pomerape, both stand at over 19,000 feet and gives you a stunning view of the Nevado Sajama.
Hiking the Nevado Sajama itself is also a trek many experienced adventurers undertake.
Sajama also offers its visitors many scenic hiking routes around its lakes. The beautiful lake Huanakota gives you the chance to see the majestic Nevado Sajama’s snowy reflection in the tranquil water (along with a flamingo or two).
Geysers and natural thermal springs are also found around the park. It is possible to relax and bathe in some of these hot springs which usually cost a small, affordable fee.
When exploring the trails, you can choose to either do a self-guided trek or a paid guided tour.
The paid guided tour may be worth the cost as it can help to get to those more difficult to reach attractions like ancient burial sites and the must-see mysterious Sajama lines.
The intriguing and expansive Sajama lines are thought to be ancient pilgrimage routes of the indigenous Aymara people. They are around 16,000,000 meters in length, which is dazzling to the imagination and an incredible sight to see.
8) Chingaza National Natural Park, Colombia
This beautiful and unique park with its more than 40 glacial lakes, is also the center of a reservoir which is the main source of clean, drinking water for the people in the city of Bogota.
It is also home to a high-altitude Paramo ecosystem, which leads to a unique biodiversity with flora and fauna endemic to the region.
Upon entering the park, there is an introductory presentation in English or Spanish which highlights the features of Chingaza. You will find hundreds of different plant species including the rare, Frailejones, from the sunflower family, and animals like jaguars, pumas, toucans and the spectacled bear.
There are multiple hiking trails to choose from such as the Siecha trail or the Buitrago trail to explore what this amazing park has to offer.
It also has a well taken care of camping ground equipped with water, light and a fire pit for cooking (just be sure to bring your own charcoal or firewood).
If camping is not your thing, there is accommodation available (hostel style) in the administrative building, which also provides a kitchen and hot showers.
9) Canaima National Park, Venezuela
Nestled within this incredible park is the tallest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls. This spectacular waterfall is over 3,000 feet and attracts many visitors every year.
More than half of this stunning park is also made up of plateaus called tepuis.
Tepuis are table-top mountains slightly reminiscent of the famous table top mountain that I hiked in South Africa. The tepuis date back to when Africa and South America were part of one super continent which could help explain the topographical similarity.
The most popular area of the park to visit is the Auyan Tepui. This tepui is one of the largest plateaus and most notably is the home of the majestic Angel Falls.
Several cave systems can also be found within the unusual and uneven heart-shaped structure of Auyan Tepui, making it an even more intriguing adventure.
Canaima also offers much to explore and you may encounter wildlife such as the cougar and endangered animals such as the ocelot, giant anteater, giant armadillo and giant river otter.
As expected, Angel falls captivates and draws many to this park. Not only is it the tallest, but this waterfall is also fascinating in that the drop is so great that the water evaporates before it even reaches the bottom, creating a dramatic mist that surrounds the area.
Getting to the base of the falls beneath the misty gates is an adventure that many find satisfying in the end.
10) Iguazu National Park, Argentina & Brazil
Spanning across both Brazil and Argentina is the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site of Iguazu National Park or Iguacu as it is known in Brazil.
Known for its massive waterfall, which forms a large bend in the shape of a horseshoe, the Iguazu Falls are a spectacular sight to see and are as stunning as some of the most unique falls found in Asia.
There are various ways to view the Iguazu Falls, but the most popular spot is the Garganta del Diablo, found on the Argentinian side. This is where you’ll get the full experience of the thunderous and crashing flow of the falls.
To get a close-up view and experience the dramatic spray of the falls, you can take a boat ride to the base of it. Be sure to bring an extra change of clothes if you’re undertaking this adventure as you’ll surely get soaked.
There are also train rides available that will take you around the falls. At the well-organized visitors’ center, you’ll get more information about those boat and train rides and about activities like hiking, cycling, and mountain biking.
There are several trails and attractions to keep you busy throughout your visit. With over 2000 species of plants and 400 species of birds, including the elusive Harpy Eagle, you will be immersed in the rich biodiversity this park has to offer.
Many trails take around an hour or more to walk and gives you the chance to explore the park’s 275 waterfalls. The Lower Walk takes you to smaller waterfalls known as saltas and the Upper Walk lets you see many of these amazing falls from above and provides a better view of wildlife.
The Gran Melia Iguazu hotel located in the heart of the park gives you the chance to wake up to the spectacular falls and lush jungle right outside your window.
The park also offers many restaurants including a buffet-style option so there is little need to bring your own food. You can also purchase locally made items to bring back as souvenirs for friends and family.
With many stalls selling great handcrafted goods, you’ll have plenty of options to bring back beautiful memorabilia from your incredible trip.