There’s something special about South America.
It speaks mostly Spanish and seems more accessible (if not less overblown) to North Americans than “overseas.” About the same size as North America with a third fewer people, twelve countries hail from the continent. Well-traveled heavyweights include Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru.
But you’re already familiar with those. Before setting foot on the landmass, here are five neighboring states to consider.
Once considered the miscreant of the continent for its drug trade, Colombia’s reputation has since skyrocketed. Now one of the safest countries in South America, this tropical and mountainous place is known for its coffee, emeralds, Shakira, lost cities and cocaine. From a sightseeing perspective, you’ll appreciate Bogotá’s old world charm, Santuario de las Lajas’s fairytale looks, and Cartagena’s significance as the first Spanish colony of the New World and viable alternative to Cuba.
Best time to visit: January to March (dry season)
There’s a reason many of you have never visited this country. Its strong-arm dictators and active travel warnings are off-putting to say the least. But “thousands” of Americans safely travel to Venezuela each year, according to the State Department. They do so primarily for the table-top mountains of Gran Sabana, the world’s tallest waterfall (Angel Falls at 3,200 feet) and Venezuela’s overall independence when compared to other countries on the continent (i.e. baseball, not soccer, is the national pastime). What’s more, Venezuela has produced more winning beauty queens than any other nation on earth.
Best time to visit: December to April (dry season)
If you appreciate the style and sensibility of southern Brazil and Argentina but prefer fewer crowds and less corruption, feast your eyes on tiny Uruguay. Here you’ll find calming beaches, hefty steaks, cold maté on lazy afternoons and sub-tropical temperatures. Sometimes called the “Switzerland of South America” for its peaceful ways, Uruguay and its inviting capital of Montevideo are totally fine living in the shadows. With vida this buena, who needs la vida loca?
Best time to visit: October to March (summer)
The second smallest nation in South America is also its most diverse, if not adventurous. Travelers mostly come for the fabled Galapagos Islands, an animal lover’s paradise. The prehistoric Amazon, featuring unsurpassed amounts of exotic wildlife (crocodiles, piranhas, monkeys and tarantulas). The colonial centers of Quito and Cuenca, dating back to the 1500s. And Cotopaxi, the Mount Fuji of South America.
Best time to visit: May to December (January to April for Galapagos)
The highest, most isolated and one of the poorest nations in South America, landlocked Bolivia will never attract beach lovers. But its mostly untouched landscapes are more than capable of leaving a mark. Highlights include the altiplano highlands, which are often compared to Tibet. The picturesque capital of La Paz. The “world’s most dangerous road,” a treacherous 40-mile route through cliff-hanging jungles. And the world’s largest salt flat of Salar de Uyuni, also regarded as “world’s best photo op.”
Best time to visit: May to October
Photo: Paolo Costa Baldi, CC-BY
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter.