It’s often said that the things you work the hardest for are the most rewarding. The same is true with travel. Before the pandemic, many popular and easily accessible destinations suffered from overtourism, being overrun by giant crowds that diminished the overall experience and could even damage or destroy the cultural or natural legacy of the site. That’s why, when you explore off-the-beaten-path — taking the time, energy, and money to go where few have gone before and explore on your own terms — the experience is that much sweeter.
With the pandemic making travelers even more aware of crowds, remote or isolationist travel is on the rise, and one of the best places in the world to stumble on hidden treasures is Latin America. The many countries that make up the whole of Latin America — ranging from Mexico down through Central and South America — have their fair share of popular destinations, from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Machu Picchu in Peru, but take the road less traveled and you’ll discover incredible wonders hidden in the mountains, forests, and bodies of water of this spectacular part of the world. While some of the following remote destinations are popular, all are renowned for being hard to get to but well worth the effort.
Tierra del Fuego, Chile and Argentina
This archipelago of islands hanging off the tail end of Chile and Argentina is as far south as you can go in Latin America; go any further and you’ll hit the stormy waters of the Drake Passage and then, eventually, Antarctica. Apart from the Isla Grande and smaller towns and settlements, these dramatic islands are largely unpopulated, dominated instead by mountains, glaciers, forests, and tundra. As Patagonian tourism has grown in recent years, those seeking an escape from the crowds have taken to exploring the untrammeled islands and channels of Tierra del Fuego, where tourism is possible but amenities are few, making for a more rugged, authentic experience. You can learn more about the region’s history in towns like Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, and Puerto Williams, which is located on Navarino Island. On Navarino, you can also hike the Dientes de Navarino Trek, the southernmost trek in the world. In addition to hiking, boating, and mountaineering in national parks throughout the region, it’s also a great place to see wildlife and marine life like whales, dolphins, and pinnipeds.
Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
If you want to explore an ancient city but avoid the crowds at Machu Picchu, head to Colombia to discover the Cuidad Perdida: the Lost City. Located in the midst of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria mountain range, this city is believed to have been founded in 800 CE, making it even older than Machu Picchu by some 650 years. Perched high on a mountainside surrounded by forested peaks and lush trees, the city is made up of structured terraces and plazas, which are connected by stone roads and pathways. Built by the Tayrona, the city was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest and was rediscovered again during the 1970s. The elaborate stonework and top-of-the-world views are phenomenal, but unlike Machu Picchu, there is no car-accessible road directly to the entrance to the ruins, so visitors need to hike in, which takes anywhere from four to six days. The trek isn’t too difficult, but it does require rudimentary camping and hiking through remote terrain. But in the end, you get to lay eyes on a place that’s stayed hidden from the world, resisting mass tourism and demanding hard work and sacrifice to look upon it.
Isla de Pascua, Chile
The famous Easter Island is high on many traveler’s bucket lists, but there’s a reason it’s a bucket list destination: it’s an expensive, out-of-the-way trip. It takes nearly a six-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, to reach this isolated paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; over 2,000 miles from mainland Chile and nearly half the way to Tahiti. This makes it one of the most remote islands inhabited by humans in the world. In addition to its tranquil island landscapes which include sandy beaches, turquoise bays, rolling green plains, and rocky volcanoes, Easter Island is perhaps most famous for its cultural heritage, created by the Rapa Nui people who still inhabit the island. The best example of this is the Moai statues: large human figures or heads that have been either placed on ahus (ceremonial platforms) or scattered around the island. But around the island and in towns, you can also visit other historic sites, like the Orongo Village on the upper rim of the Rano Kau volcano, and learn more about Rapa Nui culture and traditions from locals.
Canaima National Park, Venezuela
The name Canaima National Park might not automatically ring a bell, but many people would recognize one of its most iconic landmarks: a line of white, billowing water plummeting thousands of feet to the forest below from the heights of a tabletop mountain. Known as Angel Falls, this waterfall was the inspiration for Paradise Falls in the Pixar film Up, and the resemblance is uncanny. And the location of this famous fall, the longest uninterrupted waterfall in the world at over 3,000 feet? Canaima National Park in southeastern Venezuela. This immense national park — whose name means “spirit of evil” in the local Pemon language — is home to some of the most spectacular landscapes anywhere in the world, along with local wildlife like giant armadillos, ocelots, and jaguars. But the stars of the park are indisputably the giant tepui tabletop mountains that rise out of the forests to dominate the skyline. But to reach these “houses of the gods” as they’re called, as well as Angel Falls, isn’t an easy feat: the best natural landmarks in the park aren’t accessible by road, requiring visitors to fly into the small town of Canaima and take a one-day boat trip along a river to see the falls. To visit other tepuis (like the mighty Roraima) and off-grid parts of the park also require boat trips and extensive trekking. There is very little development or tourism infrastructure, so you’re really roughing it.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt flats, are the largest salt flats in the world, stretching nearly 4,000 square miles across the mountainous plateau region of Potosi in southwestern Bolivia. Sitting at almost 12,000 feet above sea level, the salt flats expand for miles toward the horizon, barren apart from the salt crystal formations and the cacti-covered island of Incahuasi in the center of the flats. The stark contrast between the pure white salt and blue sky makes it a popular place for photographers and visitors to take pictures, and during the rainy season from December to April, the salt flats are covered in water, creating a mesmerizing mirror effect. Although there are small towns and tourist accommodations in the vicinity, the salt flats are far from Bolivia’s urban centers, requiring a ten-hour bus drive from La Paz, or four hours from Tupiza, one of the largest towns in the Potosi region. The closest town to the salt flats themselves is Uyuni, which does have a small airport. No matter how you choose to get here, it’s definitely out of the way, but worth the time and planning.
Perito Moreno, Argentina
One of the most iconic destinations in Argentine Patagonia, the Perito Moreno Glacier is truly a sight to behold. Stretching 19 miles in length from its origins in the Southern Patagonia Icefield to its front wall terminus in Lago Argentina, the glacier draws visitors from around the world to witness the might and majesty of its actively calving front wall, which deposits giant chunks of ice into the lake with spectacular crashes. The multi-hued colors of the glacier, which range from white to all shades of blue, is also one of its main appeals. The glacier is located within Los Glaciares National Park in southern Argentina, requiring flights from Buenos Aires to small regional airports; the closest airport is in El Calafate, a backpacker town on the outskirts of the park. From town, it’s about an hour and a half drive to the viewing areas at the front of the glacier. The other landmarks of Los Glaciares National Park, which include Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy (the profile of which you’ll recognize from the Patagonia company logo), are also worth taking the time to discover and explore on hikes and tours.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil
Straddling the border of Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazu Falls are some of the most astonishing waterfalls you’ll ever lay eyes on, as hundreds of individual cascades spew over cliffs in a misty, roaring tumult to combine and create the largest collective waterfall in the world at 1.7 miles in width. The water comes from the Iguazu River, which flows through Brazil and Argentina and is divided into the upper and lower Iguazu by the falls. You can access the falls from both sides of the border, but as it’s located in the remote Iguazu National Park and surrounded by subtropical rainforest, it’s not a walk in the park to get here. Most visitors arrive from the Argentine side. You can either fly or take a bus; a flight from a major city like Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro will be faster but likely pretty pricey. Alternatively, there are buses that travel to the nearby town of Puerto Iguazu on the Argentine side or Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, but the buses require hours of travel, often overnight; from Buenos Aires, it’s a 16-18 hour ride. Either way, you have to go really out of the way to visit these falls, but they are that amazing.
Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peru
To visit the wonders of the Amazon, most travelers head to Brazil. But the northern reaches of Peru also encompass part of the Amazon rainforest, protected as one of the country’s largest national reserves, Pacaya Samiria. Spanning 8,000 square miles, this reserve covers the second-largest protected area of the Amazon and is practically untouched and undiscovered by the outside world. Along its waterways and under the lush jungle and forests, you’ll be able to boat or canoe past pristine Amazonian landscapes and hopefully catch glimpses of the local wildlife, which includes hundreds of species of birds, Amazonian manatees, pink dolphins, jaguars, and monkeys. But getting here is definitely a feat: the fastest way requires a flight to Iquitos from a larger city like Lima, followed by overland or boat transfers further into the park to lodges and camps. But you’ll be experiencing a part of the world few foreign tourists take the time to visit, with the reward of getting the Amazon rainforest all to yourself.
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