With no less than 300 national parks and reserves dotting the continent, it’s no easy task to choose the best of these South American wonders. Their jaw-dropping landscapes and robust biomes are as rich and diverse as the region’s many cultures.
In any case, we took a shot at listing what we consider 10 of the most extraordinary national parks for experiencing South America’s natural marvels. Filled with everything from rainforests, steppes and waterfalls, to deserts, mountain ranges and rivers, visiting any of these reserves will prove to be an unforgettable experience for those who love nature and outdoor adventure.
1. Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina
With a name as striking as “Land of Fire,” travelers can only expect Tierra del Fuego to be an out-of-this-world destination …and it is! Situated on the far-flung southernmost tip of South America, this rugged archipelago reflects Patagonia at its wildest – making for a striking region that adventurers will find hard to resist.
The base for exploring Tierra del Fuego National Park is the town of Ushuaia: the most southern city on Earth. At this “end of the world” location, frosted mountains stand guard over the sweeping steppe and windswept trees – a landscape that’s as expressive as its name.
In this extraordinary destination, you’ll have your pick of activities, whether kayaking across halcyon lakes, wandering through teeming colonies of curious Penguins, hopping on a historic locomotive for breathtaking views, or hiking to your heart’s content in this desolate but truly remarkable natural reserve.
2. Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
Nestled in the heart of Argentine Patagonia, a world away from the bustle of Buenos Aires, Los Glaciares National Park mesmerizes adventurers with the barren beauty of its wild, untouched landscapes – which make for the perfect playground of adventure activities.
Whether hiking or horseback riding through this timeless region, or kayaking across glacial lakes and sweeping rivers, you’ll quickly discover how much remains unchanged since the first settlers found their way to this barren yet captivating expanse.
In this corner of Argentina, certain sights simply can’t be missed, including the invincible Perito Moreno Glacier. (Keep in mind, though, that Los Glaciers has another 46 glaciers!). More than a hunk of ice itself, the imposing Perito Moreno glacier sprawls across a 100 square mile area and towers at the height of a 24-story building. Experiencing the majesty of this natural phenomenon will undoubtedly take your breath away as you witness huge chunks of ice crashing into the waters of Lake Argentino. It’s a mesmerizing sight to behold and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for cherishing.
3. Yasuni National Park, Ecuador
Being the home of so many species of plants and animals, the Amazon’s Yasuni National Park is considered by many to wear the crown of the “most biodiverse place on earth.” At this UNESCO-declared Biosphere Reserve, situated in eastern Ecuador, the sheer natural diversity is astonishing. In fact, you’ll have chances to sight some of the park’s 600 species of birds, 120 types of reptiles, 200 different sorts of exotic mammals, and 380 kinds of fish.
With thousands of these animal species around you, you’re likely to spy squawking parrots, hear the raucous roar of a pack of Howler monkeys, and spot the glowing eyes of caiman crocs by night. Whether heading out on excursions by canoe or setting off on intrepid journeys by foot, travel in Yasuni National Park promises sightings of awe-inspiring wildlife …from lush Amazonian treetops to eerie river bottoms. Indeed, you may even spot a creature or two while swinging gently in a hammock.
You’ll reach all this by snaking down the Napo River on a high-powered motor-canoe, which will take you to one of the upscale eco-lodges in or on the outskirts of the reserve. All of this makes a luxury trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon the perfect fit for adventurous couples, families and friends who seek a nature experience like no other.
4. Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador
Located along the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire,” only a short distance outside of Ecuador’s capital city of Quito, Cotopaxi National Park is a spectacular 89,000-acre ecological sanctuary.
The reserve spreads out around the magnificent Cotopaxi Volcano, which itself rises almost four miles above sea level (reaching 19,347 feet or 5897 meters). In fact, the park is most famous for this much-photographed volcano, the highest active volcano in South America.
That towering volcano notwithstanding, the color-filled landscape of the Ecuadorian highlands is also a main attraction, Within the stunning park landscapes of sweeping plains, rocky mountain trails, and glassy lagoons, you might spot small herds wild horses and alpaca, as well as majestic Andean condors soaring above and wild rabbits scurrying below.
Ecuador’s largest and most-visited national park is a spectacular setting for an outdoor adventure, as the pristine environment of Cotopaxi National Park is ideal for scenic horseback riding, hair-raising “volcano biking,” and awe-inspiring hikes.
The best time of year for clear views of the Cotopaxi Volcano is mid-July until early October during the dry, windy season. And if you’re looking for stunning early-morning and late-afternoon views of the volcano, it’s best to spend at least a couple nights at one of the several authentic yet exclusive mountain lodges in the region. In short, Cotopaxi National Park is an astounding area of natural beauty that begs to be explored.
5. Torres Del Paine, Chile
Situated in Chile’s southern Patagonia region, Torres del Paine National Park has built up a legendary status among travelers. With its impossibly blue lakes, snow-dusted mountains, aromatic pine forests and a surprising amount of wildlife — combined with luxury lodges and well-organized adventure activities — the park is one of the most attractive areas in all of South America.
While here, be sure to lay your eyes on the spiky granite peaks of Los Cuernos (“the horns”), as well as beautifully serene lakes such as Sarmiento, Pehoe and Nordenskjold. This UNESCO-protected Natural Heritage Site also possesses its share of wildlife, which means you’ll have chances to view llama-like guanacos, pink flamingos, majestic Andean condors, Andean deer and even cougars that thrive here.
Among the host of outdoor activities at the park are countless hiking routes to stunning glaciers, mineral-rich waterfalls, whitewater rivers and high-altitude lagoons. What’s great is that these hikes are suitable for everyone from expert climbers to leisurely walkers and families. Added to this activity are mountain-bike rides, lake crossings and horseback rides on trails throughout Torres del Paine. All of these make the Torres del Paine experience that much more enjoyable and are sure to result in some of your most spectacular photos in Chile!
6. Tayrona Natural Park, Colombia
Tayrona National Park, located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is home to some of the country’s most gorgeous beaches. The usual jumping-off point for reaching the park is the nearby seaside city of Santa Marta, which — having been the first Spanish settlement in South America — is well worth a visit itself.
From Santa Marta, you can hike through the jungle or take a boat to the park’s pristine stretches of immaculate sandy coast. Sink your feet into powdery sands and walk along the rugged coastline where the jungle meets the sea, taking in the astonishing natural beauty that draws visitors from around the world.
Picture yourself listening to the lapping waves while sampling succulent seafood straight from the nets of local fishermen. Also, where the steamy jungle spills onto the coast, you can take a short walk through virgin forest to a nearby lookout point for breathtaking vistas over the exquisite coastline that stretches for miles ahead.
And if chances for snorkeling, swimming and hiking sound like too much, you can always just kick back, book in hand, and take in the postcard-perfect scenery and sun. No matter what activities you choose in the park, they will be experiences you won’t soon forget.
7. Colca Valley National Park, Peru
While in Peru, discover Colca Canyon – one of the deepest canyons in the world (in fact, it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US). This vast and rugged Peruvian landscape promises no end to your adventure.
With its high-altitude and surreal landscapes, Colca is a place that you must encounter on any Peruvian adventure. The magic of Colca Canyon emanates from every fissure, whether when catching your first glimpse of an Inca ruin in the valley or while marveling at a majestic Andean condor soaring in the skies above. The breathtaking scenery of Colca accompanies you at every turn, as it stretches out over 60 miles (100km), while constantly changing over this distance.
For sightseers, expect to view gently sloping Inca terraces transforming into sheer drops, while local villages punctuate the canyon with shots of culture, their dress and customs shifting in tandem with the landscape. And for avid thrill-seekers, you should also be prepared for anything from scenic horseback rides and hikes and mountain biking to white-water rafting. There’s plenty in store at Colca Canyon.
8. Sacred Valley, Peru
Though sacred places of the Incas are scattered throughout Peru, its Sacred Valley (along with nearby Machu Picchu) that especially conjures up images of ancient civilizations, legendary landscapes, otherworldly mystique, and intrigue.
Along with the valley’s crystalline streams meandering through the hillsides, you’ll also find jagged facades and hidden ancient ruins in this wondrous place where traditional cultures thrive and some of the world’s most iconic sites can be found. In fact, given the abundance of interesting locations and scenic landscapes, a traveler needs several full days to thoroughly explore every highlight, hidden treasure and local community across the entire valley.
Though Sacred Valley is visited by tourists from all over the world, it’s still possible to enjoy your own intimate experience of this picturesque, wild and historic region. It’s teeming with many off-the-beaten-path hikes and nature walks, little-known archaeological sites and quaint colonial towns – not to mention some of Peru’s finest and most characterful luxury accommodation options.
Even on a short visit, include time to explore the imposing Ollantaytambo fortresses and the bustling craft and produce markets of Pisac, still functioning today much as they have operated for many hundreds of years.
Whether you choose to hike the valley’s Inca Trail, or meet members of local indigenous communities, or photograph soaring Condors overhead, there’s something for everyone in the Sacred Valley …and many memories to be made.
9. Iguazu National Park, Argentina / Brazil
A highlight of any trip to Brazil, and in fact to South America more widely, Iguazu Falls National Park is unquestionably a must-see monumental marvel.
Making up Iguazu Falls are no less than 275 separate cascades, some standing as high as 24-story buildings. These falls form an almost 2-mile-wide crescent of chutes spouting over forested cliff edges. Constituting nature at its most powerful, tributaries of Iguazu River converge in unforgettably spectacular fashion at the ominously named “Devil’s Throat.”
This genuine, once-in-a-lifetime experience can be witnessed either from the safety of an elevated observation platform or — for more daring adventurers — an adrenaline-packed boat ride that takes you behind the falls themselves!
The impressive landscape of the Iguazu Falls actually encompasses the two national parks, on the Brazilian and the Argentine sides of the falls. While the Argentine side is larger, the Brazilian side allows visitors the best panoramic view of the falls.
The surrounding rainforest of Iguazu National Park is also well worth visiting. Here, you’ll have to strap on your walking boots for a birdwatching tour or nature hike, or maybe even go on a rough and tumble 4×4 off-road drive through the forest to get completely off-the-beaten track.
Still, you should note that a handful of superb luxury hotels are located in and near the park – another feature that adds to this Brazilian/Argentine attraction that simply cannot be missed.
10. Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil
Imagine sweeping curves of bone-white dunes rippling into the distance as far as the eye can see. Picture this punctuated with crystalline blue pools glimmering in the sunlight, all the while inviting you in for a dip.
Not a mirage, this is Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, a 600-square-mile (1,550sq km) natural phenomenon sprawling out across northern Brazil.
What explains this wonder is wind and water. Every year, strong winds heave the sand up from the coast and shape it into these rippling dunes. Added to this, nearly 50 inches of rainfall annually and subsequently collect in 10-foot- deep pools that form between the dunes.
Witnessing all this at Lençóis Maranhenses is to be filled with awe and wonder as you contemplate the ethereal landscape as you see for yourself how this natural phenomenon.
Being remote and less known than many other parks in South America, this makes Lençóis Maranhenses all the more fascinating. Come for a stay, picnic on the dunes, soak in pools and bring your camera for some seriously amazing photographs!
In short, if you’re seeking great adventure travel experiences during a trip to South America, at least one of these parks deserves a place near the top of your list.
Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator. Surtrek Tour Operator is a well-established firm, specializing in custom-designed luxury tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and throughout the rest of South America.