When researching the best places for travel, there are always a few bucket-list items that you would like to check off. Every destination has its main attractions but sometimes it's easiest to have someone sort out the details for you. Storylines aims to be that someone by covering all the best day trips and tours for each region around the world. Let's start with Latin America. While there are a plethora of tour options in South America, we have narrowed down our top ten day trips. Additionally, we have researched and recommended reputable guided tour groups to allow for the best experience possible. So, get your departure dates ready and grab your passport because South America, here we go.
Disclaimer: Storylines is not affiliated with any of the tour companies mentioned throughout the article.
South America highlights tour
While it is possible to see many of these sites at your own pace, sometimes it's best to let a local guide organize it for you. There are many advantages to hiring a local guide; they know the terrain and can take you around safely while educating you on the sites and history. Moreover, by hiring local guides you are actively supporting the local economy and encouraging responsible tourism. It also makes your travel experience easier. However, not all tour guides are created equal. We prefer individual or small group tours where you get a more personalized experience from the guide, whereas larger group tours can be more exploitative.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia & Peru
Our first day trip is to Lake Titicaca, a large freshwater lake in the Andes on the border of Bolivia and Peru. As such, you can choose to tour here from either country. However, the closest city is La Paz in Bolivia, a destination in itself often overlooked by travelers. Sitting high up in the Andes, the city's views of mountains everywhere you look make it worth the trip alone. At 11,975 feet, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and offers excellent hiking tours, some of which take you to Lake Titicaca. Note, if you have not already come from a high altitude it is important to acclimatize before undergoing any rigorous trekking.
Bolivia Hop Lake Titicaca Full Day Tour can pick you up from your accommodation by bus. They educate you on the unique altiplano culture, the local islanders and their unique terrain on the highest navigable lake in the world. They will also take you to all the main attractions and cultural sites including the fishing village of Copacabana, Isla del Sol, Taquile Island, Pilkokaina temple, the Yumani Fountain and the Inca stairway.
El Valle de la Luna, Chile
Also known as Moon Valley, El Valle de la Luna is located in the north of Chile in the Atacama Desert floor. The unique landscape has various colors and sand formations likening it to the moon, hence the name. Personally, we think the red rocks part of it is more in line with Mars.
The best way to visit El Valle de la Luna is via a day trip from San Pedro, a small city about 17km from the desert paradise. We highly recommend booking a day tour as the Atacama Desert is the aridest non-polar desert. With the desert bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the East, it is also one of the most unique and scenic deserts in the world.
Check out Vulcano Expeditions, run by local guide Christian Fernandez, a passionate explorer and tour guide of the Atacama Desert. His one-day trip to El Valle de la Luna also includes Valle de la Muerte, aka Death Valley, an otherworldly wonderland of sand dunes that also offer excellent sandboarding. Christian provides sandboards for those who wish to participate. The full-day tour ends with sunset at one of the best panoramic views in the Atacama Desert: the Great Dune. For hiking enthusiasts, ask Christian about his other tours trekking up one of the many volcanoes in the area.
Iguazú Falls, Argentina & Brazil
The famous Iguazu Falls, one of South America's top attractions and seven wonders of the world, is located in Argentina on the border with Brazil. As such, you can view the falls from both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides. However, the best way to get there is to fly from Buenos Aires to Foz do Iguaçu International Airport (IGU) in Brazil. This can be done in one day and there are tours facilitating this.
Although Buenos Aires is quite far away from the falls, we recommend a tour from here because it's one of the great South American cities…the Paris of South America. Tip: stay in La Boca!
One reputable day tour from Buenos Aires is Signature Tours. A driver picks you up from your accommodation in the morning and takes you to Jorge Newbery Airport. After the roughly two-hour flight (included in the tour price) you will be met by your local guide at Puerto Iguazu Airport who will take you on a short drive to Iguazu National Park. Along the way, your tour guide will provide you with an overview of the region. Upon arrival, you will be led on a beautiful guided walk through the national park as you learn about the local flora and fauna.
The waterfalls are spectacular and rated up there as the best with Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The guide will take you up the catwalks right to the top of the falls, where you can picnic or just stand in awe of the volume of water cascading over.
Sugarloaf Mountain, Brazil
There are a few must-see attractions in Rio de Janeiro, including the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking the city. However, another excellent vantage point of the city is catching the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated on the mouth of Guanabara Bay on a peninsula, it juts out 1299ft over the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, you can visit Sugarloaf on your own by just buying a cable car ticket to the top although there are several tours that make it a more cultural experience.
One low-key tour is led by local tour guide and visual artist Tatiane, who is extremely passionate about her city and offers a range of different day trip tours. On this particular one, she leads you on the famous Bondinho guided walk around the city while you learn about the history of Rio, including visits to the historic place of the city's foundation.
Try an authentic Brazilian caipirinha cocktail before catching the cable car up to Sugarloaf and take in some spectacular views of Rio while creating unforgettable memories. Also recommended is Tatiane's day trip to Niterói, Santa Cruz Fortress and Contemporary Art Museum (MAC), one of the premier art galleries in Brazil.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Arguably the most famous must-see attraction in South America and historical travel destination in the world is Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley of Southern Peru. People from all over the world travel to trek the iconic Inca Trail leading to the old ruins of an ancient civilization perched on top of a mountain 7979 ft high in the Andes. The ancient Inca citadel dates back to the 15th Century and is a surreal sight to behold. It is possible to do Machu Picchu in a day from Cusco with a local guide for the route.
Note: due to the high altitude, it is highly recommended you spend a day in Cuzco to acclimatize first, otherwise you could be susceptible to altitude sickness, which is not fun (this writer knows first-hand).
Cuzcoperu.com provides the best tour for Machu Picchu (that does not involve hiking the Inca trail). They will pick you up from your accommodation in Cusco super early in the morning and take you to the train station in Ollantaytambo. The two-hour train ride will take you to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu village) where you will then board a bus to your final destination, the Inca Citadel and ancient city of Machu Picchu. From there, just explore, take some pictures and feel the magical energy of this extraordinary ancient civilization, after which, you will be taken back on the afternoon train ride and back to your accommodation in time for dinner.
Valle Nevado, Chile
For all the adventure sports enthusiasts: Valle Nevado is located only a one and half hour drive east of Santiago, Chile's capital. If you happen to be in town during summer, the Valle Nevado offers many excellent hiking trails. However, if you are a keen skier or snowboarder, then aim to get here during the winter as Valle Nevado is one of the highest and largest ski centers in South America. The quality of the snow is excellent and the views are even better. Luckily, it can all be experienced inside a day!
Chilean Ski has day trips to ski in Valle Nevado. Run by locals, they will pick you up at 6am from your hotel in Santiago and provide everything in the tour price, including ski/snowboard equipment and ski entry tickets. You will enjoy some of the best skiing and views in South America and be back at your hotel for a well-earned Chilean wine by 5pm.
Note: there is no ski instructor so it’s recommended that you have some ski or snowboarding experience.
Parque Tayrona, Colombia
Parque Tayrona, or Tayrona National Park, is a large nature reserve on the Caribbean coastline in northeastern Colombia. About an hour's drive from Santa Marta, it encompasses 150 square km of dense rainforest, pristine beaches, coastal lagoons and even some archaeological sites.
Day trips are possible from Santa Marta, Colombia's oldest city which is worth exploring due to its fascinating history of being the original portal for the Spanish to enter Colombia. Santa Marta also has beautiful beaches, yet none as remote as the hidden gems you will find in Tayrona.
Take a look at Colombia4U which offers a range of day trips and tours in and around Santa Marta. The best day tour is the Pueblito Chayrama in Tayrona Park. The tour picks you up from your accommodation in Santa Marta and includes breakfast, lunch and park entrance fees. They will lead you on a beautiful nature walk through the forests and beaches with the final destination of the ancient ruins of Pueblito Chayrama. The entire day trip takes around eleven hours and ticks all the boxes of beautiful nature, secluded beaches and fascinating history. If you are so inclined to stay longer, there's plenty of unique lodging throughout the reserve.
Amazon Rainforest, Brazil
One of the last few remaining frontiers, the Amazon Rainforest is one of the most fascinating nature reserves on the planet and spans several countries. It is also one of the world's best places to see wildlife. While the bulk of it is in Brazil, it also covers areas of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, among others. Obviously, the Amazon Rainforest is massive and you could easily spend weeks exploring, but for those more pressed for time, it is possible to see parts of the jungle in a day by helicopter.
Helicopter tours operate from the Brazilian jungle city of Manaus, the gateway to Amazonia. You can fly to Manaus from Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. Manaus Jungle Tours offers a great one-hour flight that takes you over several sites including the right bank of the river Negro (riverine), Anavilhanas Archipelago, the meeting of the waters, bridge of the Rio Negro and Ponta Negra beach, among others. Note: the tour requires a minimum of four persons.
The world-famous Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage listed archipelago located in the Pacific Ocean about 1000km west of the South American continent off the coast of Ecuador. They are renowned for their nature and wildlife which are both strictly preserved. You will find iguanas, tortoises, geckos, snakes and lava lizards, as well as an array of bird species and marine life. All the animals have evolved and adapted to survive in this remote and harsh environment, which made it such an area of interest to Charles Darwin
Whether you arrive by ship or plane, it is possible to do day tours to the Galapagos islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela.
Day Tours Galapagos offers a range of tours to different islands. One such day trip is the Bartolome Island Tours which runs for 8 hours. The vessel will pick you up from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and includes about 80% hiking and 20% snorkeling. Expect to see penguins, sea lions, turtles, white-tip sharks and an abundance of birds. You will experience nowhere as raw and unspoiled as the Galapagos Islands.
Patagonia is another of the world's great nature reserves. Where you have the behemoth of the Amazon rainforest in the north of South America, Patagonia comprises the south of the continent, spreading across Chile and Argentina. Arguably one of the most diverse landscapes on the planet, Patagonia has rainforests, mountains, fjords, glaciers, lakes, deserts, steppes and tablelands. Yes, it truly has it all with some of the most scenic walks around the world.
However, due to the sheer size of Patagonia, it is impossible to see in one day trip. Therefore, we have selected another helicopter tour option to view the incredible Andes Mountains section of the reserve.
Blue Altitude Group is a local tour company running a highly commended Patagonia Glacier Landing Flight. Leaving from Ushuaia city in Argentina, the 30-minute flight takes you around the summit of the majestic Mt. Olivia, through Olivia River Valley, Carbajal Valley, Tierra Mayor Valley and to the Emerald Lagoon, formed from a melted glacier which gives it the beautiful emerald green color. From there you fly even higher to the summit of La Cloche Mountain where you will do an ice landing. Have your camera ready because these are some of the best nature panoramas you've ever seen.
Storylines MV Narrative is a luxury residential liveaboard lifestyle ship circumnavigating the globe every 1000 days to experience bucket-list destinations including the best of South America. To learn more about our ship and our community of global citizens, check out our website here.
Note: Storylines is in no way affiliated with nor does it endorse any of the tour companies in this post.