We all have been to tourist places, spots where imitation culture is peddled for inflated prices like a disappointing Disneyland. You've been trapped. In our industry we say there are Tourists and there are Travelers. The Tourist is usually headed for a weekend to a popular destination without much background information, and thus falls into the conventional destinations that were designed for them when traveling abroad. The Traveler on the other hand has a guide, has done their research or simply finds a way to push past the “tourist places” and into the real culture of the area.
In our fourth entry in this series, it's time to head down to South America and explore some of the best and worst spots on this eclectic continent. Prepare to take in culture, color, delicious food and some truly incredible music. Check out our articles on Asia, Europe and North America to find even more authentic destinations to visit—and tourist places to avoid!
(One note, if you haven't seen some of these tourist places, many of them are worth a visit—we just recommend you explore beyond them.)
Tourist Place: Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is an absolutely iconic site, one of UNESCO's new wonders of the world. Its history as the royal getaway of an ancient Incan emperor is fascinating and its location high up in the mountains is breathtaking. So let's get this out of the way, Machu Picchu itself is not the problem. Management is.
It's constantly flooded with people, it's expensive, you're required to have a guide and often you can't spend more than a few minutes in each location. According to visitors, it feels a bit more like Disneyland than a piece of Incan history.
Traveler's Trip: Cusco, Peru
Once the capital of the great Incan Empire, today Cusco has a wealth of Incan, pre-Incan and colonial history. One notable location that you can't miss if you visit the city is Coricancha, the Incan temple dedicated to the sun god Inti. Or head to the outer rim of the city and check out Sacsayhuamán, an ancient Incan citadel whose giant stone walls are fascinating.
In short, Cusco holds a tremendous amount of Incan history in and around the borders of the bustling town—we recommend it if you're looking for your Incan fix instead of the oversaturated Machu Picchu. (Of course, you can always visit both)
Tourist Place: Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Is it beautiful and iconic? Yes. This destination is considered one of the new seven wonders of the world, and it's earned that reputation… but the sad truth is that it's better admired from afar then up close. Plenty of traffic and constant overcrowding drain the joy from this wonderful site. It is breathtaking from up close or far off, but prepare to fight through crowds for the former.
Traveler's Trip: Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Fashionable, famous and full of sun—Copacabana is one of those special beaches that you should see in your life if you can. Walk along the iconic Copacabana boardwalk whose black-and-white tiled swirling design is reminiscent of Lisbon's streets. One spot in particular to stop off is the Copacabana Palace—a protected national monument whose luxurious design brings back memories of iconic movie stars and old world royalty.
Tourist Place: Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
Located in the quaint town of El Calafate, this place offers a small stroll and a couple attractions outside of the glacier. However, if we're being honest, there's not much of anything to do in the town besides see the Perito Moreno glacier and grab a bite to eat. The glacier is advancing and is quite the sight, but it's not the only one in Argentina…
Traveler's Trip: Viedma Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina
Located in Los Glaciares National Park—like Perito Moreno, Viedma is a large Argentinian glacier that is beautiful to behold. Unlike Perito Moreno, it is located in Patagonia and thus will be the better option for those of you looking to really get in touch with nature. Instead of hanging out at a small tourist village, you'll be trekking through the beautiful wilderness of Argentina—and it's a great destination for those looking to experience Patagonia along the way.
Tourist Place: Villa Baviera, Chile
Trigger warning: This is certainly the most problematic destination on our list. Villa Baviera presents itself as a charming German themed getaway. Prepare to see people dressed in Lederhosen, chowing down on Schnitzel, and dancing the traditional German Schuhplattler dance. The dark secret? This tourist trap used to be a Nazi torture camp.
Villa Baviera was once known as Colonia Dignidad, a cult with deep Nazi ties that housed a number of infamous war criminals. On arrival you would see a large watchtower, once used for lookouts to prevent escapees. The searchlights may be gone, but the barbed wire fence has remained.
This article here does a great job of spelling out all the insane details of this colony's history and makeover—and the film Colonia starring Emma Watson shows the colony during its former Nazi era.
Traveler's Trip: Easter Island & Rapa Nui National Park, Chile
If you're looking for a historical sight that isn't full of Nazi symbolism (which… hopefully you are) Easter Island is one of the most iconic sights on the planet and lives up to it's fame. 887 Moai, Polynesian statues, dot the landscape and are remnants of the civilization that once inhabited the land. Definitely see Ahu Tongariki, an area where 15 Moa have been re-erected. After checking out the Moa, head to Anakena beach for some white coral sand and sunny waves.
You will have to take a boat or a flight to get to Easter Island, so if that doesn't sound appealing we also recommend the Chilean Lake District for some old world charm and beautiful Pacific views.
Tourist Place: Swing at the End of the World, Ecuador
This is a location that has gone absolutely viral on social media and for good reason. This swing lives up to its name—it looks like you're swinging right off the side of the edge of a steep mountain! Unfortunately, the key word above is “looks”, a lot of this location is helped by clever camera angles. The swing isn't on an edge, but rather a slope that simply looks like an edge from the correct perspective.
On top of that, prepare for a 30-40 minute wait just for about 3 pushes from a friend. This is much more of a photo op than a genuine experience.
Traveler's Trip: The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
For you science fans out there, this sight can be considered almost holy given its instrumental role as the setting for Darwin's discovery of the theory of evolution. Named after the giant tortoises that inhabit the island, this UNESCO world heritage site is a beautiful bastion of South American wildlife.
Visiting most parts of this destination can only be done as part of a guided tour so as to protect the National Park. There are however a couple sites that individuals can visit to scuba dive. Be sure to book a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station, and keep an eye out for those finches!
Tourist Place: Taxi Services
Our final warning actually is not a location, but rather a service to be careful of. Taxis. Now, there are plenty of taxi services and drivers in South America who are completely legitimate and reputable. Unfortunately, it's a common scam to take tourists on scenic routes to your destination which usually ups the cost considerably. And definitely beware of any broken taxi meters… this is a classic trap.
Some say radio taxi services are more reputable, but the truth is that any taxi driver can choose to pull these tricks—radio or not.
Traveler's Trip: Uber/Driver Agencies/Rental Car
While you could run into the same issues with an Uber driver, the reality is that they are supervised by an international corporation rather than a local taxi service and thus are often held to at least a baseline standard of quality.
Perhaps the best (and most expensive) choice is outside of taxis and Ubers altogether. Hiring a driver through a reputable agency will be the safest choice for you on your travels if you're looking for a chauffeur. And then of course there's always the trusty rental car. (Although beware of mysterious rental car damage… another scam)