Access to even some of the more remote parts of South America has improved in the past few decades, establishing a now well-etched tourist trail. But if you want to escape the crowds and make a beeline for an unexplored South American treasure, look no further than this list of the places you’ve never heard of, but should definitely visit.
Ranging from Argentinean ghost towns or alternative Brazilian carnival celebrations, to one of the world’s most unique and endangered landscapes, you'll encounter a fresh perspective on South America if you visit any of these places.
1. For history: Epecuén, Argentina
Once a bustling resort attracting 25,000 holidaymakers per year, Epecuén has since found infamy as Argentina’s ghost town. In 1985, its main attraction – a therapeutic salt-water lake – overflowed its banks, flooding the town.
Abandoned to a watery grave for almost 25 years, Epecuén reappeared when the water finally began to recede in 2009. You can visit this melancholy relic of lost years by taking a bus to nearby Carhue (seven hours from Buenos Aires), from where you can walk among the ruins and even speak with former residents.
2. For fascinating culture: Suriname
Suriname’s tourism industry is still in a fledgling state, but don’t let this deter you. Its capital city, Paramaribo, holds UNESCO World Heritage status thanks to its well-preserved colonial wooden buildings, while outside the city you can explore Suriname’s standing as one of South America’s most enigmatic countries with a trip to the communities of the Saramaka Maroons.
Originally groups of plantation slaves who escaped into the jungle in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these communities maintain African traditions and Ghanaian dialects. Controlled tours to the Maroons’ villages are possible with agencies in Paramaribo.
3. For an alternative carnival: Olinda and Recife, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro might draw the most international visitors, but carnival in Olinda and Recife – neighbouring cities in the northeast of Brazil – offers a unique and more traditionally-rooted experience.
For carnival week, the winding, colonial streets of Olinda throng with parades reflecting a mixture of Brazilian folklore and African influences: check out the frevo dancing (clowns dancing with umbrellas) and the maracatu. The latter is a style of drumming originally brought to Brazil by African slaves, and where the players wear lavishly-decorated and extravagant headdresses.
In both Recife and Olinda, submit to the frenetic energy of the carnival blocos: parades of dancing revellers dressed in anything from traditional outfits to Flintstones costumes. Towering above the chaos are the 20ft-tall bonecos de Olinda – enormous, brightly-coloured statues. Don’t miss the most renowned of these blocos in Recife: the Galo da Madrugada. With over 2.5 million dancers, it is the largest globally, and features the giant rooster boneco from which the parade takes its name.
4. For excellent international cuisine: Gustu, La Paz, Bolivia
Bolivia and ‘internationally-renowned cuisine’ rarely appear in the same sentence. However, a food revolution driven by Claus Meyer – world-acclaimed chef and owner of Danish restaurant Noma – is attempting to reinvent Bolivia’s reputation.
Meyer opened Gustu in 2012 with a new take on fine dining, demonstrating what can be achieved with only local, Bolivian ingredients. The restaurant is run entirely by chefs trained in La Paz’s poorest district – El Alto – and acts as a social enterprise providing opportunities for underprivileged youth in the city.
Try a seven course tasting menu with drinks pairings for 640 bolivianos, and watch the magic happen as you dine at the chef’s table.
5. For untouched beaches: Palomino, Colombia
If you’re seeking respite from travelling, the unspoilt, white-sand beaches of Palomino should be next on your itinerary. Although its fame as a tourist haven is growing, Palomino remains a paradise for anyone looking to relax on unspoilt shores beneath the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. There’s not a lot to do here apart from sunbathing or tubing down the river – but, frankly, that’s part of the appeal.
6. For astounding rock formations: Lago General Carrera, Chile/Argentina
Covering 1850-square-kilometres, Lago General Carrera (or Lago Buenos Aires as it’s known in Argentina) is a body of water straddling the Chilean/Argentinean border, five hours south of Coyhaique. Fed by glacial waters from the mountains, silt is responsible for the extraordinary azure of the water, which changes colour throughout the year.
It’s an unmissable sight thanks to the rock formations of white, blue and pink marble in the centre of the lake, a product of 6000 years of erosion. Accessible only by boat, visitors can admire the biggest structure, El Catedral de Márbol (the Marble Cathedral) or appreciate the breathtaking contrast of colours in the smaller cave systems.
7. For abundant wildlife: Parque Nacional Monte León, Argentina
Argentina’s first protected coastline, Parque Nacional Monte León is teeming with marine and aquatic animals. Covering 24 miles of desolate shores, an estimated 70 species of birds, a rookery of 75,000 Magellanic penguins, and a sea lion colony can be found here. Dolphin and whale sightings are also common and an official campground with basic facilities means you can appreciate this stunning national park in closer proximity. Visit during the park’s open months from November through April.
8. For alternative landscapes: El Pantanal, Paraguay
The largest natural wetland in the world, El Pantanal covers 81,000 square miles across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. At threat from poor farming practices and unregulated tourism, this staggeringly diverse ecosystem can be accessed most adventurously from the Paraguayan side, with a trip to Los Tres Gigantes Biological Station.
Near to the town of Bahia Negra, and 600 miles from the capital Asuncion, the station can be reached by bus, plane or boat. With food and lodging provided, you can spend your days searching for the elusive jaguar with one of the station’s guides, or just relax and appreciate the organisation’s work in protecting one of the world’s most unique landscapes.
If you're travelling to South America and are concerned about the zika virus, seek advice from National Travel Health Network and Centre. Explore more of South America with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.