Updated in 2022.
Perhaps you have some free time on your hands.
Maybe you’re taking a vacation from work. Maybe you’ve just graduated university. Maybe you’ve just retired.
You want to take a vacation, and you’ve always been interested in South America.
But where should you start?
If you’re completely new to South America, this is not a question you should take lightly. Due to the relatively high crime rates and relatively low levels of English in the region, you’re going to want to ease your way into things down here.
This is something I failed to do, and I regret it – at times, I was close to swearing off Latin America forever. More on that in a future post.
Anyhow, with that in mind, here are the best countries to visit as a first-timer to South America. If I could go back to the time when I knew nothing of the continent, these are the places I would go to first.
After having now spent a total of around 7 months in the country, I can confidently say that Peru is the number 1. choice for someone looking to test the waters of South America.
It’s safe, the food is top notch, English levels are high among the 18-30 age range and its geography and cultural attractions are breathtaking. Basing up in either Lima or Cusco will provide you with a nice balance of western amenities and distinctive Latin culture.
If your goal is to learn Spanish, you’ll be happy to know that the Peruvian accent is one of the easiest for English speakers to understand – it’s much clearer than Caribbean Spanish, and much slower than what you’ll encounter in Chile or Argentina.
Check out our city guides for Arequipa, Lima, and Trujillo to start getting familiarized.
By all accounts, Peru is a solid choice for first time visitors to South America
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Number 2. on the list is Chile.
This country is a good jumping off point for a few reasons. First of all, it’s the safest country in South America. It’s very unlikely that anything bad will happen to you here. Much of the country is also highly developed, meaning that you won’t have to go without first world amenities like hot water or good Internet.
Also, things in Chile are generally much more efficient than other latin countries. Things generally run on time and service in everything from grocery stores to restaurants are a cut above other countries in the region.
However, Chile isn’t perfect. Chilean Spanish is notoriously hard to understand, and I noticed that English levels among even young people were surprisingly low. Also, if you’re into latin culture, the country will seem a bit bland. It would be easy to mistake Santiago for an American city of the same size. Also, it is one of the most expensive countries in South America.
Check out our city guides for Santiago and Valparaiso to learn more about Chile.
If you’re budget isn’t super tight, I’d suggest checking it out as one of your first destinations.
My third suggestion is Ecuador. Although I’m not a huge fan of its bigger cities, there is no denying that this country is absolutely beautiful.
Geographically, it has it all: beaches, jungles, mountains, sierra. If you’re into outdoor activities, this is the place to be. The country has impressive infrastructure, and getting around by bus is cheap and efficient. Also, they use the American dollar so you won’t have to deal with confusing exchange rates that make you wonder how much you’re spending.
Unfortunately, Ecuador is more expensive than Peru or Colombia, and it’s bigger cities (Guayaquil and Quito) are not particularly safe. But if you take the time to get out of the more populated areas, you won’t regret it. Definitely look into Cuenca, Manta, and Salinas.
Also, English level are slightly lower than in Peru.
I recommend visiting Peru before Ecuador.
Fourth is Argentina. Buenos Aires is a great city to visit as your first South American destination because it’s modern, picturesque and safe by Latin American standards. In fact, it’s known as “The Paris Of South America.” It’s a smooth transition to latin culture and lifestyle if you’re coming from North America or Europe.
However, if you’re looking for sun, salsa, and good old latin warmth and hospitality, Argentina isn’t the best choice. The people here aren’t unfriendly, but they aren’t as welcoming or willing to help you out as in other South American countries.
The country itself is a bit of an island in the sense that they don’t really consider themselves “Latin American” but rather more “European.”
Many people here are descendants of Italian, German or French people. Whereas in other South American countries, you can spot some similarities in mindset, lifestyle and values. Argentinians kind of have their own thing going on.
Also, despite statistics that may state a high level of English, in my experience the English levels are shockingly low. This is especially true outside of Buenos Aires. This isn’t the best place to come if you don’t speak any Spanish.
Finally, we have Colombia. A phenomenal country. Friendly people, beautiful women, stunning landscapes.
But it’s not for beginners.
Despite what some may say, Colombia is not a safe country. If you plan on drinking, going out and meeting women here, you have to be on your guard. I know a handful of people who have been robbed at knife or gunpoint, drugged or assaulted. Both locals and foreigners. Even the nicer areas of Bogota, Medellin and Cali aren’t exempt from this sort of thing.
The vibe of Colombian cities is decidedly sketchier than the aforementioned four countries, and if you’re new to Latin America, this may be uncomfortable.
If you do decide to break your South American cherry here, I suggest going with a friend or two and a few weeks of Spanish lessons under your belt. This will make things a lot easier.
And there you have it! My Latin Life’s top 5 South American countries for first timers.
As always, if you have any thoughts, leave them in the comments below.
Until next time,