8 Epic Routes to Explore
South America is a vast continent with long routes to traverse, so there’s no shortage of choices for a long South America road trip you can take. Some of the most rugged require a four-wheel drive vehicle though. The Pan-American Highway is long, but congested and ugly in a lot of stretches. Plus you know when one oft-listed drive is along a mountain highway called “The Road of Death,” it’s probably not a great place to get behind the wheel.
Here are eight still-epic road trips that offer great scenery and a sensory experience, but on paved roads. They may not make you feel like you have the whole landscape to yourself, but that also means you won’t need to bring days’ worth of gas or food. You can relax and look out the window on these trips.
1) A Drive Through Peru’s Sacred Valley
We outlined the best stretch of this in an earlier post on the most scenic drive in Peru, but that part is only one scenic route of many in the Sacred Valley. You’ll end up going back the way you came since a bit further at Huacahuasi it turns into a trekking-only route across the mountains. Mix it up though in the other direction by driving to Calca and then making stops in Urubamba and/or Ollaytantambo.
The former has more luxury hotels, but the latter is the end of the road before you have to hop a train if you want to get to Machu Picchu.
2) From Arica to San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile
This is the great highlands drive in the dry north of Chile, the scenic route through the mountains when heading south from Bolivia.
Instead of taking the Pan American Highway, this can be a multi-day journey that crosses the most scenic parts of the Chilean highlands. It starts in the northernmost port of Arica, with a side trip to Putre, through Visviri and Ollague. Stop for supplies in Calama.
Then rest up and enjoy most of what a traveler could want in San Pedro de Atacama. There you can reward yourself by sleeping in one of the best Atacama hotels and adventure lodges.
3) Salta to Cafayate Through the Quebrada Canyon
If your idea of a road trip is a few hours in a car instead of a few days, this one packs great scenery into just three hours. The drive from the big city of Salta to the laid-back wine-producing town of Cafayate is simply spectacular. It gets quickly into the countryside from traffic-choked Salta and then enters an area of geological wonders. The cliffs and rock formations here are in a variety of colors and the yellows and oranges glow when the sunlight hits them.
If you’re not in a hurry, pack plenty of water and make some hiking stops at marked trails along the highway. You don’t have to get very far away from the road to feel like you have the whole place to yourself.
See our full post on driving the Quebrada de las Conchas in northern Argentina. You can do this trip in a regular rental car from the city of Salta. If you have a four-wheel drive or solid pickup truck, you can continue the journey on a gravel road through more spectacular scenery in Salta Province.
4) Jericoacoara To Salvador on the Coast of Brazil
Where are the best beaches in South America? On the northeast coast of Brazil of course, where you’ll find sleepy villages, splashed-out resorts dripping with models, and party towns filled with revelers. You can find the perfect spot to stick around a while—Fortaleza or Recife perhaps—as you sample one great beach after another and listen to great music.
You’ll want to take your time anyway since we’re talking about 1,200 miles of coastline. That’s 50% more than the coast of California. Do some surfing, windsurfing, paddle boarding, or kayaking to ward off the car seat stiffness before you roll into colonial Salvador.
5) Lakes and Mountains in Patagonian Argentina Near Bariloche
One of the easiest drives in Argentina, but one of the most spectacular, is to rent a car in Bariloche and then drive in a leisurely fashion to San Martin to the North in the Patagonia lake district. You’ll hug the shores of seven lakes along the way and see dramatic Andean peaks either fully or partially covered with snow depending on the time of year.
This is truly one of the world’s most scenic drives and along the way you’ll have plenty of chances to eat well and drink excellent wine. Break it up by going skiing in the winter or going hiking in the warmer months—or get out on the water. The route passes two national parks: Nahuel Huapi and Lanin.
This drive is only 114 miles (184 kms), but if you have your own vehicle you could start in San Martin de los Andes, spend the night in Bariloche, then drive the next day to El Bolson, a hip mountain town 122 miles to the south.
6) Calafate to El Chalten in Southern Patagonia
I got to experience this one last year when I was on my way to Explora El Chalten adventure lodge. I knew the scenery was going to be nice along the way, but it’s impressive all the way there, with a lake and mountains usually in view.
Then the payoff is when you start getting close to the town of El Chalten and the namesake peak (also known as Fitz Roy) looms in front of you like something from a dream. Take your time with a few stops along the way to enjoy the views, maybe spotting some wildlife too if you’re lucky.
7) Carretera Austral South America Road Trip in Chile
On the other side of the Andes, another road takes you along some spectacular scenery in Chile as well. If you drove the Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) on its whole length, it would take you quite a while: it’s 1,240 kilometers, or 740 miles. It stretches from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. The best time to drive any of this is December through early April. After that it can get iffy with the weather as this is way down south in Patagonia.
Puerto Montt is going to have the widest selection of rental cars, so that’s the easiest place to start if you’re doing this South America road trip on your own. Don’t skimp and get some compact with low clearance either: the further you go, the less chance the road will be paved and as soon as you get off of it to go exploring, you’ll be on gravel or dirt. At some points, you’ll need to use a car ferry to get across a waterway.
Some of the highlights you’ll probably want to explore include Pumulin National Park, Laguna San Rafael National Park, and the top of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. Along the way are lots of lakes, glaciers (including a few hanging ones), marble caves, and stunning mountain view lookouts. There’s not a lot of high-end lodging along this highway, so plan ahead and book stays for the choices that are out there such as Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa and the Valle Chacabuco Lodge that Explora took over this year and renamed the Patagonia National Park Lodge. See more on the park and the conservation efforts that went into it here.
8) The Coast of Uruguay
You probably don’t want to do this Uruguay Ruta 10 trip in January or February, when it seems half the rich families of South America have converged on the beaches here. (If you want to reserve a hotel or villa then, you had better plan a year or two in advance.) The rest of the year it’s more mellow.
Start in the capital of Montevideo, head toward Punta del Este, then make your way along the dunes and beaches to reach the last stop of Punta del Diablo. There you can watch the surfers catching waves. Eat some red meat, drink some local red wine, and smell the salt air. Check out our reviews of the best luxury hotels in Uruguay to figure out where to stay.
Just remember, you don’t want to be flying without a net on these South America road trips. If you’re not 100% sure that your regular car insurance will cover 100% of any expenses when something goes wrong, you might want to spend the price of a bottle of Chilean wine a day and get rental car insurance that works almost anywhere. Or get familiar with the fine print on your credit card and car insurance policy to be sure you’re covered, especially if you’re going on unpaved roads.
The easiest way to be sure you’re covered locally, including off-road travel, is to just suck it up and buy insurance locally from the rental car company. If you book online with Hertz or one of the major online travel agencies such as Expedia, you should be able to see the prices for that in advance and nail it down before arrival. Check rates here: