From the darkest depths of Peru to the crystal blue underground cenotes of Mexico, there is something incredibly alluring about Latin America.
However, the best off-the-beaten-track destinations are usually discovered by word of mouth, often among travellers on the road from hostel bunkbeds or over a local beer.
We’ve done the hard work for you and asked some of the world’s most respected travel experts – including those in the know at the likes of Lonely Planet and Secret Escapes, travel bloggers, and frequent travellers in the region – for their favourite under-the-radar destinations in South and Central America, and they didn’t disappoint.
Fom exploring untouched paradise on lesser-known islands to boarding down an active volcano, surfing off the northern coast of Nicaragua, and getting to know a sea lion colony in Uruguay, keep scrolling for your ultimate Latin America travel bucketlist.
Go swimming and caving in the natural pools in Semuc Champey, Guatemala.
Alicia Johnson, Lonely Planet’s destination editor for Central America and the Caribbean, recommends visiting the turquoise pools of Semuc Champey deep in the isolated jungle of Guatemala.
“You’re going to have to work to see what some view as the most beautiful spot in the whole country. [It’s] famed for its great 300m-long natural limestone bridge, on top of which is a stepped series of pools with cool, flowing river water good for swimming. This bit of paradise is difficult to reach, but the sheer perfection of the pools, ranging from turquoise to emerald-green, make it worth it.”
Check out the white sand dunes and rainwater lagoons at Parque Nacional Dos Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil.
- Unsplash/Roi Dimor
Bailey Freeman, Lonely Planet’s destination editor for South America, suggests Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses national park.
“This 1,500km national park is a seemingly extraterrestrial landscape of rolling white sand dunes punctuated with aquamarine pools. Make your trip to the park between March and September, when the vistas are at their most impressive.”
Check out the colonial villages and local markets in Sacred Valley, Peru.
Two of our travel expert sources pinpointed Sacred Valley as a must-see in Peru.
Experts at HolidayPirates said: “If you’re looking for somewhere a little more off-the-beaten-track than the usual tourist haunts of Peru, then be sure to head to the Sacred Valley, a 70-mile narrow strip of land that connects the capital Cusco to the renowned Machu Picchu and is filled with beautiful colonial villages and amazing local markets.”
James Asquith, who became the youngest person to visit all 196 countries and is the founder of travel app Holiday Swap, said: “Most tourists make their way to Cusco to see the incredibly famous Machu Picchu, and it is a spectacular sight, however, don’t overlook the nearby Sacred Valley, and extend your trip to explore the Andes mountains.
“It is much more tranquil here than Machu Picchu, but with scenery to rival the nearby famous ruins.”
Enjoy a slice of untouched paradise on the San Blas Islands, Panama.
If you’re after a postcard-worthy paradise setting, then look no further than the San Blas islands in Panama.
“If you turn up at the yacht club in either Panama City or Cartagena in Colombia, you can hop on a boat and cross between Central and South America, and get the added bonus of stopping through the beautiful and largely uninhabited islands of San Blas,” said Asquith.
“This place looks like untouched paradise with perfect palm trees on sand spit islands surrounded by perfect turquoise waters.”
Use the remote town of San Pedro de Atacama as a base for exciting adventures in Chile.
San Pedro de Atacama is a remote town in the middle of the Atacama desert, the driest in the world.
“This very small town is the final frontier for many before a new, exciting journey,” Asquith said. “Many travellers meet here after either driving south through the incredible salt flats of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia to the north, or driving up the length of the Chilean coast from the south.”
Go surfing off the northern coast of Nicaragua in Aponsentillo.
If you’re looking for an adventure in Central America, traveller @tonicgoodwin, who is currently on the road with her partner, recommended heading to the northern coast of Nicaragua for a spot of surfing, specifically Aponsentillo, which is close to the border with El Salvador.
They sussed out a small surf resort Thunderbomb Surf Camp, whose owner Jonathan, they say, is “super friendly and accommodating.” They’d get taken down to the beaches in 4x4s via dirt tracks for daily surfs – at both dusk and dawn – where they found only locals.
“It’s not like the beaches of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua which is gringo-heaven and super busy,” she said.
Head to Chachapoyas, and use it as a base to visit sights like the pre-Incan ruins of Kuélap, an alternative to Machu Picchu in Peru.
- Shutterstock/Matyas Rehak
Two of our travel experts suggested a visit to Chachapoyas if you’re looking for an alternative to the touristy Machu Picchu, or simply even more culture.
“For history buffs looking to avoid the crowds at Machu Picchu, the spectacular citadel at Kuélap offers the perfect opportunity to explore Peru’s past without feeling the pressure of fellow travellers,” Freeman said.
Reigo Eljas, UK & Ireland country director for lastminute.com, added: “Situated in the mountains in deepest darkest Peru, Chachapoyas, also known as Chachas, remains isolated from other more visited regions of the country.
“Hidden in one of the most remote corners of the high Andes, it boasts innumerable and priceless archaeological ruins – like the pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap – as well as one of the tallest free-standing waterfalls in the world. This is most definitely the region that avid adventurers should head to when they wish to get completely off the well-hiked trail.”
Watch an erupting volcano at Acatenango, Guatemala.
Traveller @hannahjw88 says you should take a hike up Acatenango volcano, just outside Antigua in Guatemala. The erupting volcano in the photo is called Fuego, and you can catch a glimpse if you’re hiking or camping on Acatenango, she explained.
She enoyed sunrise over Antigua at the summit of Acatenango after a “dark, difficult, and bitterly cold 3 a.m. hike.”
Indulge in some of Colombia’s best beaches, diving spots, and seafood in Capurganá and Sapzurro.
Nothing quite says you’re on an exotic holiday like taking a ride in a local’s fishing boat.
Lastminute.com’s Eljas said that Capurganá and Sapzurro, two idyllic villages located in the Chocó region on the Pacific coast of Colombia close to the Panama-Colombia border, provide the perfect alternative for a laidback escape.
“[O]ffering the best of Colombia’s beaches, diving spots, and the freshest seafood, backed by jungle-covered mountains and on the edge of azure waters, both Capurganá and Sapzurro are only accessible by a boat from Turbo or Necoclí, or by a tiny plane from Medellín.
“As two of the country’s least-visited highlights, the little villages are laid-back hideaways from the rest of the country and the beaches remain some of Colombia’s least overrun.”
Take a hike through the Cocora Valley near Salento, Colombia, and enjoy the tall wax palm trees.
- Instagram/ @hannahjw88 @ianjwatt
Traveller @hannahjw88 told Business Insider that Cocora Valley near Salento, a colonial town in Colombia, was a highlight of her trip throughCentral and South America.
She recommends taking a hike through the Cocora Valley, where you’ll be able to admire the view of these tall wax palm trees.
Get out of your comfort zone in the Bolivian Amazon rainforest at Rurrenabaque, Bolivia.
Asquith also recommends the small town of Rurrenabaque in Northern Bolivia.
“If you’re looking to get out of your comfort zone and see the Bolivian Amazon rainforest, then Rurrenabaque is a fantastically hidden and remote spot.
“Landing in the middle of the Amazon by light aircraft is a surreal experience in itself. Not the easiest (or cheapest) place to get to in South America, you will certainly feel at one with nature taking the trip out here in the Amazon.”
Swim in one of Mexico’s thousands of “cenotes.”
- Shutterstock/Simon Dannhauer
Speaking on behalf of Travel Republic, Frank Brehany said that the underground cenotes were a highlight of his trip to Mexico.
“We travelled through ordinary towns and villages and sat and ate with the real Mexicans, and went with them into some of the many underground cenotes. We also saw much of the Mexican wildlife, from giant spiders to snakes and monkeys to huge shoals of fish, along with the odd dolphin and swooping pelicans; what was striking was the isolation, the colour of nature and all of its variety.”
Stay with the indigenous Wachimak community in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
- The Travel Project
Jess Last, one half of The Travel Project, said: “Deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, a long hike from any sign of a dirt road or village, are the Quechua people of Wachimak. A tight-knit community, the people there live off the land and fish from the river. With no running water and an hour or two of electricity a day, it really is back to basics, but that’s part of what makes it so special. The people are so friendly and make you feel like part of the family immediately.
“From volunteering in the local school, playing with the children, fishing, touring the area with the locals to guide you, learning about how they farm the land, or simply relaxing with a swim in the river and reading a book, it really is one of the most magical places I have ever been.”
Admire the view of Cerro Verde national park for miles from the top of the Santa Ana volcano in El Salvador.
Fork out the extra to see Angel Falls in Venezuela.
- Shutterstock/Alice Nerr
Angel Falls is the world’s highest waterfall – and one of the hardest to get to.
“You can visit the Canaima National park mostly by air only, as any overland routes are very dangerous,” said Asquith. “This spectacular waterfall was only open to tourists from the 1990s. The trip to this remote part of the continent is entirely worth it.”
Go back to basics and make friends with sea lions in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay.
- Shutterstock/Ksenia Ragozina
Experts at travel search platform HolidayPirates picked Cabo Polonio, a secluded hamlet on the eastern coast of Uruguay, as a favourite spot.
“It’s still a relatively unknown destination, reachable only by taking a 4×4 drive through beautiful sand dunes and across a beach,” they told Business Insider.
“There’s no running water or electricity, but this is part of Cabo’s charm. Here you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of beaches and if you like seeing animals in their natural habitat then you are in for a treat, as Cabo Polonio is home to the second-largest sea lion colony in Uruguay.”
Lose yourself on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
Eljas said: “For a perfect escape from the stresses of daily life, pack your suitcase and head for Jaibalito in Guatemala. A tiny town located on the shore of Lake Atitlán, Jaibalito is only accessible by a 20-minute boat ride from Panajachel or San Pedro – unless you’re feeling adventurous, in which case you can hike through the jungle from nearby Santa Cruz.
“Taking a trip to Jaibalito feels like stumbling upon a secret that nobody knows about. The laidback local community is incredibly friendly, plus the wonderful views of the lake surrounded by volcanoes will never get old. It’s also ideally located to explore several other small villages that lie around the shoreline of Lake Atitlán, each with its own distinct personality.”
Discover the traditional laidback charm of Isla de Providencia, Colombia.
- Shutterstock/Larissa Chilant
Secret Escapes deputy editor Emma McWhinney recommends Isla de Providencia for any Latin America travel list.
“The stunning Isla de Providencia is a tiny island in Colombia worth discovering. It has retained much of its traditional, laidback charm due to its isolated location and although getting to the island can be tricky, the rewards more than make up for it. You can either take an extra flight or ferry to reach this paradise.”
Check out the local art scene and savoury chocolate in Puebla, Mexico.
- Shutterstock/Madrugada Verde
McClure also said to check out Puebla for the local art and savoury chocolate.
He called it “a beautiful colonial city often overlooked given its proximity to Mexico City. It has a growing art scene ranging from barrio murals to large galleries plus the home of mole poblano, a savoury chocolate sauce,” he said.
Board down Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro active volcano in three minutes.
- Shutterstock/Matyas Rehak
The HolidayPirates crew also advised a visit to the Cerro Negro active volcano in the Cordillera de los Maribios mountains. Central America is known for its hikeable mountains, but this is one of the only ones you can board down.
“Situated within a mountain range in Nicaragua, Cerro Negro is one of the youngest volcanoes in Central America. It’s also one of the only places in the world where you can ride down the side of the volcano on a board.
“Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro is made possible by its soft ash terrain and while the climb to the top of the volcano may be a one-hour hike, when you board down, you can reach the bottom in less than three minutes.”
Take a 4×4 to go kitesurfing in Cabo de la Vela, Colombia.
- Toni Goodwin
Traveller and Instagram user @tonicgoodwin said: “We travelled through the desert and learned to kite surf at Eoletto kite center in Cabo de la Vela, which was very remote.” Again, she added they found only locals there.
Do the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador.
- Hannah Ward
Another of@hannahjw88‘s recommendations was the “Quilotoa Loop” in Ecuador: “We only saw one other gringo while hiking in Quilotoa,” she said.
The loop is a self-guided three-day hike through the Andean hills and villages of Ecuador, according to her Instagram. The total descent is 3,884ft while the ascent is 7,060ft across approximately 34 kilometres, she explained. “That’s if you don’t get lost, which we did, a fair bit.”
Catch some waves in the beach town of Huanchaco in northern Peru.
- Photo by Morre Christophe on Unsplash
Experts at HolidayPirates also recommend catching some waves in the beach town of Huanchaco in northern Peru.
“Many people travelling in Peru don’t make it as far north as Huanchaco, but if you’re looking for somewhere to relax then this beach town is a great choice.
“Close to the city of Trujillo, Huanchaco is a great location for surfing and swimming and is also home to a unique type of fishing boat called the Caballitos de Totora, which has been used for over 3,000 years and makes for amazing photos.”
Check out the national park in the Golfo de Chiriquí in Chiriqui Province, Panama.
Alicia Johnson, Lonely Planet’s destination editor for Central America and the Caribbean, said: “Gulf of Chiriqui in the Chiriqui Province of Panama is home to the Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí, a national marine park with an area of just over 147 sq km, protecting 25 islands, 19 coral reefs, and abundant wildlife.
“The marine park also protects the 30-square-km Isla Boca Brava, a lovely little island with hiking trails and beautiful outer beaches.”
Get away from it all (or take a zipline) in Nosara, Costa Rica.
Last, of The Travel Project, also recommends Nosara, a small village in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, which she calls “the perfect place to get away from it all.
“Here your alarm clock is replaced by the sound of monkeys and the only decision to make each day is whether to go surfing, explore one of the beautiful unspoilt beaches, or enjoy an aerial view of the jungle on the world’s longest zipline canopy tour… or you can just lie back and relax with a cold beer and some of the freshest ceviche we’ve ever tasted.”