From colonial towns and ancient ruins to beautiful seaside getaways, Latin America is full of hidden gems. While they’re often overshadowed by more famous (and tourist-ridden) destinations, these five places are definitely worth a look for your next vacation.
Instead of Machu Picchu, visit Kuélap or Choquequirao
One of South America’s biggest draws, the Incan citadel welcomes more than 1.4 million visitors from all over the world every year. It’s an impressive site, and the Inca Trail has become somewhat of a rite of passage for travelers — but the sheer number of tourists there can be overwhelming and threatens the integrity of the ruins, putting a bit of a damper on the experience.
A walled settlement built by the Chachapoyas people, Kuélap is hundreds of years older than Machu Picchu and sits on a ridge overlooking Peru’s Utcubamba Valley, some 3,000 meters above sea level. Until recently, it’s been difficult to visit these ruins, but the area now has a cable car, shortening the trip to just 20 minutes plus a 10-minute hike to the entrance of the fortress.
Those looking for a bigger challenge can head to Choquequirao, instead. A partially-excavated complex of Incan ruins, the site welcomes only about 20 visitors per day. The trek is a difficult one, but well worth it. The ruins are as expansive as those at Machu Picchu — for a fraction of the cost and without the crowds.
Instead of Tulum, visit Bacalar
There’s no doubt that Tulum is a great place to visit — it’s got a beautiful beach, ruins that abut the ocean, and excellent food. But the once-quiet town has become a haven for Instagram influencers and welcomed 300,000 visitors in the summer of 2018 alone. It’s been the go-to place for a while now, and it’s losing a bit of its sparkle.
To ditch the crowds, head to Bacalar. This lakeside town, which was designated a Pueblo Mágico by the department of tourism, has remained under the radar, perhaps because it doesn’t have the one thing everyone wants when they go to Mexico: a beach. But it certainly makes up for that with its gorgeous freshwater seven-tone lake, where visitors can swim, snorkel, dive, and kayak. There are also a host of Mayan ruins reachable within a two-hour drive.
Instead of Torres del Paine, visit Cerro Castillo
Chile’s most visited national park, Torres del Paine boasts stunning mountains, blue icebergs, and lots of guanacos. But with the number of visitors rising every year, the park isn’t the haven for peace and tranquility that it once was and hiking trails can get crowded — fast.
Cerro Castillo is jagged peak located in the Aysén region of Chile, named for the fact that it resembles a castle. It’s a quieter, though equally stunning alternative to Torres del Paine and offers visitors a variety of hikes (from one to four days) to take in the mountain in all its glory. The national park is also an excellent place for spotting huemules, endangered south Andean deer that live in the region.
Instead of Rio de Janeiro, visit Olinda
With Christ the Redeemer, Copacabana, carnival, and churrascarias, Rio de Janeiro is a hotspot for just about everyone who visits Brazil. More than 6.5 million international visitors descended on the city last year to take in the sights — and for good reason. But along with the crowds, the city is seeing increasing violence and crime that might have some people looking for alternatives.
Olinda is a great one. It’s not Rio — but isn’t that the point? A colorful colonial town in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, Olinda is considered by Brazilians to have one of the best carnivals in the entire country. Those visiting at other times of the year won’t be disappointed by it’s boho vibe, exceptional art scene, and stunning scenery.
Instead of Costa Rica, visit Baños
Over the last couple decades, Costa Rica has gained a reputation as the place to go for outdoor adventure in Latin America. There’s nothing quite like ziplining through the jungle and hiking up a volcano before relaxing on the beach and enjoying that pura vida life.
Those who are looking for something a little different might consider going further south, to Baños, Ecuador. Formally known as Baños de Agua Santa, the town sits between Ecuador’s two main cities, Quito and Guayaquil, and is home to beautiful waterfalls and thermal baths. It’s become known as an adventure hub, offering ziplining, bungee jumping, rafting, gorge walking, and abseiling — though it’s also a great jumping-off point for hikes to explore the Tungurahua region.