South America is my favourite place to travel (so far). You could spend a lifetime experiencing South America and still not see everything.
After spending years visiting different places, on and off the beaten track, I still want to go back and have even more places I’d like to see.
However, I’ve realised that most people ask me where they should go if they have three weeks to see what South America has to offer.
I always recommend spending more time (if you can), but for those that have 21 days to see South America…this is for you. Ideal time to visit – Spring (September-November). Note, the weather in Patagonia can be unpredictable and South America itself is very unpredictable. Don’t expect everything to run smoothly. If you can do a longer trip to add buffer days for the unpredictability, that would be wise.
Day 1: Fly into Santiago (travel day).
I love Santiago for sentimental reasons, however if you have 21 days only, I’d limit my time and use it as a base to visit other areas. Personally, I’d also skip Valparaíso. I know it’s touted as one of the top places to see in Chile, but in reality it’s a big port city that can be dangerous. It’s fun for a day visit, but there’s much more to offer on this continent.
Meals at: Mestizo, Santiago ($$$, Chilean Cuisine), Bar Nacional ($$, Chilean Cuisine), José Ramón 277 ($$, Chilean sandwiches + Beer), La Terraza ($, Chilean Cuisine).
Things to see: Museo Precolombino, Cerro Santa Lucía, Cerro San Cristóbal (don’t walk alone), Persa Bío Bío (flea market in Santiago with food), Mercado Central (central market, food options here too).
Day 2: Fly to Calama to visit the driest non-polar desert in the world, San Pedro de Atacama.
Flights from Santiago to Calama leave at all hours of the day and it’s a two hour trip (from $67 round trip). From Calama, either rent a car or get an airport transfer (~$50 return) to your accomodation. For renting a car, book in advance. For the airport transfer, you can just rock up. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro is for tourists. You can jam-pack your days here and see most of the top sights on a 3 day trip. If you can spare the time, more days can space things out more, but since we are seeing South America in 21 days we’re cutting it short.
You don’t need to book any tours in advance, go to the main street and shop around. Almost every store is a tour agency that offers packages tailored to you. Tell them your time in San Pedro, what you want to see, and they’ll give you a plan and price.
My recommended tours for a 3 day, 4 night trip.
Day 2: visit Valle de la Muerte at sunset. Less touristy than Valle de La Luna (which is saturated with crowds, and closed off at sunset now). Sand-boarding here is another fun activity if you’re up for the physical challenge.
Day 3: San Pedro de Atacama
AM: Geysers del Tatio. An early morning wake up call and drive to the impressive geysers is a must see. Dress warm and pack swimmers if you want to swim in the thermal springs.
Lunch: La Picada del Indio is delicious and well priced.
PM: an afternoon to relax, see the town, shop, and eat. The church of San Pedro is really beautiful and the roof is made of cactus.
Then at night go to an astronomy tour to see the stars and learn about the constellations that can be seen in San Pedro.
Day 4: San Pedro de Atacama
AM: Purilibre, an absolute highlight of San Pedro for us. Off the beaten track, no entry fee, a beautiful easy hike through a valley to natural thermal springs. The temperature isn’t too hot, it’s perfect for the desert sun.
PM: Laguna Cejar – the lagoon that’s so salty you float with ease. Yes, this is a double swim day, so depending on your preference and timing maybe swap this in and out for another afternoon with something else. However, the geysers is a tiring tour so you might want to schedule in rest for an afternoon.
Where & what to eat: Adobe ($$), Emporio Andino ($$), pisco sour ice cream, pisco sours with pica pica.
Day 5: San Pedro to Salar de Uyuni for a 2 day tour
This day is spent crossing the border, seeing Laguna Verde, Laguna Colorada and impressive geyser “Sol de Mañana”. Try to get the tour that passes by the Polques hot springs, they’re especially amazing at night (due to stargazing) if you get to stay in the nearby hotel.
Day 6: Salar de Uyuni tour
Full day on the salt flats. Here’s where you can take those famous photos you see where perspective is distorted. And, you can only see hexagonal salt as far as the eye can see.
Arrive in Uyuni in the afternoon, and get on the overnight bus to La Paz or pay for the much shorter flight if you can afford it the following morning.
Day 7: La Paz to Cusco.
La Paz is a big city that is fun in itself. There’s the witch market, Cholita wrestling, impressive cathedrals, nearby death road, and impressive valleys out of town. From La Paz you can also fly to Rurrenabaque, a great base to visit the Amazon. It’s also a great place to get a bus to Copacabana to visit Lake Titicaca. Given we’re on a time limit, we’re cutting it short here and heading straight for Cusco (1 hour flight).
If you have the energy head into town to see the main plaza and central market.
Day 8: Cusco
Cusco is one of the prettiest cities in South America. History is alive here in the capital of the Incas. You can easily spend a long time here.
Spend the first full day seeing the sites of Cusco, the main plaza, central market, and historic sites nearby (Qorikancha, Saqsaywaman). Puka Pukara & Tambomachay are also Incan ruins nearby that are worth a see.
Spend the evening eating Peruvian cuisine and drinking pisco sours.
Day 9: Sacred Valley
Do a two day tour to the Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu. In the Sacred Valley, you’ll see impressive Incan ruins and the salt mines of Maras.
Spend the night in the pretty town of Aguas Calientes.
Day 10: Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu
A bus will take you from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Walk around this wonder of the world and hike up to Huayna Picchu (if you’re up to it).
Huayna Picchu has a great view of Machu Picchu down below, is the home of the temple of the moon, and was said to be the place of Incan Priests.
For Huayna Picchu: book a few months in advance, and don’t book if you’re scared of heights.
Get the bus back down to Aguas Calientes and catch the scenic train back to Cusco.
Spend the night in Cusco.
Day 11: Cusco to Santiago to then visit the south
Fly to Santiago for an overnight layover.
Enjoy Chilean food and maybe see a thing or two on your list in Santiago. Barrio Lastarría is a suburb worth a visit with great bars, food, and pretty streets. OR stay in the airport hotel and order room service after your busy past week and a bit.
Day 12: Santiago to Puerto Natales
The south. The south is my favourite place in South America (the south south yes). I’m sure you’ve heard of Patagonia. It’s a magical place that you could spend the whole 21 days in with ease. Maybe I’ll make a separate itinerary for 21 days in Patagonia in the future.
Puerto Natales isn’t the nicest town, but this is the base to visit one of the jewels of Chile. Torres del Paine National Park. Spend this day getting to the park or if you booked a tour spend the night in a hotel prior to being picked up the next day.
If you want to stay in cabins in the park or book tours, book in advance. If you rent a car you can be more flexible.
You can see Torres del Paine in many ways, private tour, hiking, private vehicle, or backpacking on a budget. Check out my previous post on Torres del Paine itself via hiking or via car. You can book in advance with the tour, or get a local bus to the entrance of the park, or if you have a private car drive to the entrance yourself. The W & the O trek are 4-6 days long. If you have the time and enjoy hiking, it’s worth it. You can do self-guided hikes for a fraction of the price, or pay to have transfers, accomodation, food, and guide covered.
I’ll write two alternative itineraries depending on if you do the W trek or if you do it solo in a car (a van you can sleep in is worth it).
Day 13: Torres del Paine
W trek tour: Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine transfer. Hike to the base of the Torres del Paine in a full day hike. Spend the evening at Pehoé Campsite.
Car: Visit Glacier Grey and feel the bracing winds.
Day 14: Torres del Paine
W trek tour: hike to the Francés Glacier Lookout Point. Stay at Pehoé Campsite.
Car: Visit Mirador de los Cóndores, take in Lake Pehoé, and walk to see the Cuernos del Paine.
Day 15: Torres del Paine.
W trek tour: hike to Grey Glacier Lookout Point. The W trek gets you much closer to Glacier Grey, than if you arrive by a car to the lookout accessible by road.
Car: Hike to the refugio closest to the base of the Torres del Paine, either Refugio Chileno or Las Torres. Stay the night here before heading the rest of the way. Doing this breaks up your hike to the iconic towers and allows you to get up early to enjoy the view before the crowds arrive.
Alternatively, you can hike to the base of the Torres del Paine in one day. It’s a full day hike. I’d recommend waking up at 5 am to get to the lookout before 12pm to beat the crowds.
Day 16: Torres del Paine
W trek tour: Entrances trek. Then transfer back to Puerto Natales bus station. Either stay the night in Puerto Natales or head towards El Calafate.
Car: Hike to the base of the Torres del Paine in the early morning. Take in the views in glorious silence. Most people start to arrive after 12pm. Spend the afternoon hiking back to the welcome centre. Drive back to Puerto Natales and spend the night before you head off to your next adventure.
Day 17: El Calafate
Arrive in Calafate. Spend the day enjoying the town and getting your tour purchased to see the impressive Perito Moreno glacier.
In town, there’s an ice bar, ice cream shops, fancy restaurants, and quaint markets. A stroll around Lake Argentino is a relaxing way to spend the afternoon too.
Day 18: Perito Moreno & mini trekking.
I’d recommending splurging on the mini trekking. It’s worth it. It includes a boat ride near Perito Moreno (a glacier that is actually growing, not receding), hiking on top of the glacier itself with crampons, and takes you to the viewpoints to see panoramic views of Perito Moreno. Witness as the glacier calves (when huge ice chunks thunder into the water).
Fly to Buenos Aires in the evening.
Day 19: Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is a city worth seeing.
Spend the day seeing the Obelisk, Casa Rosada and Puerto Madero.
Other places to see in Buenos Aires include the Ateneo Grand Splendid, the famous cemetery, and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
In the evening, go to a tango show.
Day 20: Iguazú Falls
Fly to Iguazú Falls, a two hour flight from Buenos Aires. Head straight to the park and spend the day on the Argentinian side. It’s bigger than the Brazilian side and has more angles. You can also get up close and personal at the Garganta del Diablo.
If you have an extra day, see the Brazilian side as well, it’s also worth it.
Day 21: Fly home.
Fly from Puerto Iguazú to Buenos Aires. From BA, you’re heading home!
There. That’s the action packed 21 days where you try to ‘see it all’.
This itinerary is for those that have never been to South America and want a taste of everything. I’ll work on ones for nature lovers, city lovers, Patagonia, and the north in the future.