South America is a continent filled with natural wonders. From the world’s largest rainforest to the highest waterfall, this region contains some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on Earth. For the nature lover, a trip to South America promises encounters with unique wildlife and unspoiled natural environments that can be found nowhere else on the planet.
To showcase the most spectacular natural wonders, we compiled this list of the top 10 in South America. In creating the list, we consulted reputable publications like National Geographic and looked at sites designated as UNESCO World Heritage areas for their ecological significance. The natural wonders on this list represent South America’s most iconic, biodiverse, and superlative landscapes that inspire wonder for their grand scale and beauty.
The wonders span the continent across nine different countries and represent a range of biomes from tropical rainforests to arid deserts to glacial mountains. While the entire list cannot fully encompass the diversity of South America’s nature, it provides a survey of the most outstanding, unique, and celebrated natural offerings across the continent’s landscapes. From Brazil’s mighty Amazon to Argentina’s towering waterfalls, these breathtaking wonders showcase South America’s magnificent contribution to the natural heritage of our planet.
1. Amazon Rainforest
Spanning about 7 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles), the Amazon Rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest on Earth. This iconic jungle covers much of northwestern Brazil and extends into Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and other South American countries. The Amazon accounts for over half of the planet’s remaining rainforests and comprises the most biodiverse tract of wilderness in the world.
Over 40,000 plant species, 2.5 million insect species, 2,000 birds and mammals like the legendary jaguar, and tens of millions of microorganisms call the Amazon home. Massive trees form a thriving canopy that houses incredible wildlife. Exploring the winding Amazon River and tributaries provides glimpses of creatures like pink river dolphins, emperor tamarin monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws and anacondas.
The Amazon Rainforest plays a vital role in regulating the world’s climate and carbon storage. Sadly, deforestation threatens this fragile ecosystem and the indigenous communities inhabiting it. About 20% of the original forest has already been lost. Protecting what remains is crucial to fight climate change and preserve medicinal plants and ecological knowledge.
The sheer size and diversity contained within makes the Amazon Rainforest a natural wonder like no other. As the magnificent heart and lungs of South America, the Amazon nurtures the planet and human imagination alike.
2. Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil
Spanning the borders of Argentina and Brazil, Iguazu Falls are the largest waterfall system in the world. This immense cascade of 275 individual waterfalls stretches for nearly 3 kilometers (2 miles) along the Iguazu River. The diverse Devil’s Throat, Bosetti, San Martin, and other falls display nature’s power and beauty on a massive scale.
Iguazu Falls was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding beauty and biodiversity. Viewing platforms, catwalks, and boat tours allow visitors to experience the falls from different vantage points. The thundering rush of water crashing over the cliffs makes a deafening roar that fills the air. Rainforests surrounding the falls teem with wildlife from colorful birds to sly coatis.
The falls vary in size and form from narrow streams to towering 70-meter cascades. During the rainy season, the already mighty Iguazu Falls swells to an even more incredible intensity. The clouds of mist billowing from the falls drench the surrounding jungle, producing frequent rainbows in the process. But any season is a good time to visit and feel humbled by the raw force of nature on display.
Iguazu Falls stands as one of the planet’s most remarkable displays of the elemental power of water. Its lush setting in the heart of South America makes this a treasured natural wonder. The sheer vastness and beauty of these iconic falls is an unforgettable experience for any world traveler or nature lover.
3. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Spanning over 10,000 square km (4,000 square miles), Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flat. This immense crystalline landscape looks like an endless white desert stretching to the horizon. Walking on the salar’s surface feels like you’ve reached the end of the Earth where the sky meets the land.
During the rainy season, a thin layer of water covers the salar, creating a giant mirror that flawlessly reflects the skies and clouds. This transforms the scene into a dreamlike expanse with no distinction between the heavens and ground. In the dry season, the salar’s cracked polygons create an otherworldly mosaic texture. Islands rising from the flats are inhabited by giant cacti thriving in this strange environment.
Sunrise and sunset paint dazzling colors across Salar de Uyuni. Its flatness and lack of visual references create a disorienting effect and sense of infinite space. Staying overnight on the salar allows you to experience total isolation in this strange wasteland. The immense salt flats contain over half the world’s lithium reserves, forming an important resource for Bolivia.
Salar de Uyuni’s sheer vastness and singularity elicit an existential awe of nature’s raw wonder. The emptiness overwhelms your senses with ripples of blinding salt as far as the eye can see. Visiting this uncanny landscape is a surreal experience that bends your perception of what’s possible on Earth.
4. Angel Falls, Venezuela
Plunging 979 meters (3,212 feet), Angel Falls is the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall located in southeastern Venezuela. Part of Canaima National Park in Bolívar state, this cascading marvel drops from the edge of the Auyán-tepui mountain into the Churun River below. Angel Falls is a must-see for any waterfall lover or adventure seeker visiting Venezuela.
The waterfall was named after American aviator Jimmie Angel who first flew over the falls in 1933. Auyán-tepui means “Devil’s Mountain” in the indigenous Pemon language which hints at the danger and mystique surrounding it. Hiking through the lush jungle terrain to reach vantage points offers spectacular views of Angel Falls pouring off the mesa cliffs. The waterfall’s towering vertical drop also makes it one of the world’s most popular BASE jumping sites.
Accessing Angel Falls requires commitment but offers huge rewards. Most visit on multi-day tours starting from Canaima village which include dugout canoe trips and bush plane flights. The remote wilderness location atop the flat-topped tepuis minimizes human impact but makes journeys here more challenging. The effort required enhances the sense of accomplishment upon seeing the falls in all its thunderous glory. Pouring from a tabletop mountain and plunging nearly 1,000 meters, Angel Falls is a true wonder of nature.
5. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galápagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago located over 900 km (560 miles) off Ecuador’s coast in the Pacific Ocean. Their extreme isolation and unique ecology inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection after his visit in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle. Today, the Galápagos remain a living laboratory where endemic species continue evolving in their habitats.
The 13 major islands and over 100 smaller islets each boast their own distinctive landscapes and biodiversity. Many of the animals and plants are endemic, meaning they exist only in the Galápagos. Iconic species include the giant tortoise, marine iguana, blue-footed booby, Galápagos penguin, and Darwin’s finches. Observing finches was crucial to Darwin developing his theory of natural selection.
Almost the entire archipelago is protected as a national park to safeguard the fragile ecosystems and rich biodiversity. Visitor access is highly regulated to minimize human impact. Sites are closely monitored and marked trails help protect the environments. Yet there are plenty of activities to explore the islands. Boating allows up-close encounters with famously fearless wildlife. Snorkeling and diving reveal more animals like sea turtles, penguins and whale sharks. Visiting the Galápagos lets you observe the varying adaptations and behaviors of life that inspired Darwin.
6. Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert stretches across a 1,000 kilometer (600 mile) strip of northern Chile and features some of the most extreme aridity on Earth. Some areas of this desert have never received a single drop of rain in recorded history. The Atacama’s utterly barren landscape looks more like Mars than any earthly desert.
Yet amidst the lifeless terrain exist stunning natural wonders. Under the clear night skies, the lack of moisture makes the Atacama home to the world’s best astronomical observatories. The desert also contains dramatic salt flats, steaming geysers, and colorful mineral deposits. High in the Andes above Atacama lie pristine lakes and reservoirs that draw in wildlife like pink flamingos.
The desert has supported ancient civilizations for thousands of years, with sites like Pukará de Quitor dating back to 900 BC. Later cultures like the Inca left their mark on the land as well. Remoteness and aridity have preserved these archaeological sites exceptionally well.
The Atacama is a popular spot for tourists today. Visitors often stay in San Pedro de Atacama and take day trips to nearby attractions like Moon Valley, the Atacama Salt Flat, and the El Tatio Geysers.
7. Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the most spectacular sights in Argentinian Patagonia. Located in Los Glaciares National Park, this giant glacier measures 30 km (19 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) wide. What makes Perito Moreno so unique is that it is one of the only few glaciers worldwide that is actually advancing rather than retreating.
A shining blue wall of jagged ice towers 74 meters (240 feet) above Lake Argentino in stark contrast to the arid brown surroundings. Perito Moreno is constantly in motion, advancing roughly 2 meters (6 feet) per day. The glacier’s steady progress periodically cuts off the circulation between the southern and northern parts of the lake. This pressure causes dramatic ruptures where huge chunks of ice shear off into the water below.
Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Visitors can get very close and even walk on parts of the glacier’s surface. Viewing platforms allow you to really appreciate Perito Moreno’s enormity and raw natural power. Boat tours provide an up-close look at the glacier’s southern face. The cracks, crevasses, and ice caves create an ever-changing landscape. Listen closely to hear the glacier calve and the thunderous sound it makes as it advances.
8. Aconcagua, Argentina
Towering at 6,961 meters (22,838 feet), Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas and the highest outside Asia. It’s also the second highest of the Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each continent – second only to Mount Everest. This colossal mountain is located in the Mendoza province of western Argentina near the border with Chile.
The sheer imposing mass of Aconcagua is a sight to behold. It stands alone, rising nearly 7,000 meters above the surrounding landscape. Despite its intimidating presence, Aconcagua is technically considered only a challenging non-technical climb. Yet the extreme altitude, wind, and cold still pose significant risks. About 3,500 people attempt the summit each year, but only about 30% succeed. The two most common routes are the Normal Route and the Polish Glacier Route.
Aconcagua Provincial Park surrounds this natural wonder, protecting the fragile alpine environment. Wildlife like the Andean condor and vicuña can be spotted here. The mountain also holds spiritual significance for the indigenous Inca people.
9. Caño Cristales, Colombia
Caño Cristales, located in the Serranía de la Macarena national park in Colombia’s Meta province, is a remarkable river known as the “River of Five Colors” or “Liquid Rainbow.” This nickname comes from the river’s vivid display of red, yellow, green, blue and black colors for a few months each year.
The phenomenon occurs when the Macarenia clavigera riverweed blooms during the moderate months between the extreme wet and dry seasons – generally from July to November, with peak colors in June and November. The delicate balance of water flow and sunlight penetration during this period allows the aquatic plants to produce their striking colors. This spectacle happens nowhere else on Earth.
Caño Cristales lies in a biodiversity hotspot, where the Andes, Amazon and Orinoco regions converge. The area harbors many endemic and rare species, but faces threats from deforestation and, in recent years, overtourism. After being closed to visitors during the pandemic, the river has shown some recovery. Authorities have now reopened access but with tighter restrictions to balance tourism revenue for local communities with preservation of the fragile environment.
10. Pantanal, Brazil
The Pantanal is considered one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth and the largest tropical wetland in the world. Located mostly in Brazil, with smaller sections in Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal spans over 180,000 square kilometers (70,000 square miles) – an ecosystem bigger than several countries, including Greece or England. This massive floodplain is filled with a mosaic of rivers, forest islands, savannas, and grasslands that experience dramatic seasonal flooding.
During the rainy season from November to March, up to 80% of the Pantanal can be submerged under up to 3 meters of water. This seasonal flooding cycle allows for an incredibly diverse collection of flora and fauna to thrive. Over 1,000 bird species, 300 fish species, 400 mammal species, 480 reptile species, and over 9,000 different plant species inhabit the lush Pantanal. Some iconic animals found here include the mighty jaguar, capybara, giant river otter, hyacinth macaw, and giant anteaters.
The best way to experience the splendor of the Pantanal is by boat or canoe. Gliding through the waterways allows you to spot wildlife along the banks, go fishing for piranha, and take in the spectacular sunsets over this fertile floodplain. The transience and richness of this land makes the Pantanal one of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in South America. Though threatened by development and climate change, conservation efforts aim to protect this vital ecosystem and its incredible biodiversity.