arequipa peru best latin american vacation spots
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A trip down south never sounded better.

It’s no secret that we at Thrillist love to travel—in fact, it’s pretty much all we do. And with every new flight, mountain summit, cocktail bar, and hotel check-in, we always learn something new. That’s why we’re in the habit of turning to our team of seasoned editors and global contributors, each with extensive boots-on-the-ground experience, to help you plan your next jet-setting adventure.

When many travelers think of a sweeping vacation destination, their minds often turn to Europe, where the beaches of the French Riviera, the ski chalets of the Swiss Alps, and the blue-domed churches of the Greek Islands await. Yet while throngs of tourists instinctively head across the Atlantic and wait to take snap identical photos of iconic sights, Latin America offers a more laid-back, closer experience with no shortage of awe.

The countries of Latin America are overflowing with fantastic food, sweeping views, paradisiacal beaches, and cities with electric nightlifes unlike anywhere else. To help turn your eyes southward, we’re putting a spotlight on Latin American destinations that more than hold their own against Europe’s best-known destinations. Flights are cheap(ish), the weather can be heavenly, exchange rates are great, and—best of all—when you fly north or south, there’s no jet lag.

To compile this list, we surveyed travel experts around the world—including more than a few locals—to get the inside scoop on the absolute best Latin American vacation spots.

For years the main reason foreigners visited Ecuador was for the turtle-laden Galápagos Islands, while the capital city—with all the food, beer, and architecture of a Bavarian mountain town, but wildly cheaper—remained under the radar. Not for much longer. Perched 9,000 feet up in the dramatic Andean foothills on the side of the Pichincha Volcano, this city of 1.6 million retains the easygoing village vibe despite its mass. The old city is one of the best-preserved historic districts in South America, a UNESCO World Heritage Site replete with public plazas, 40 churches, and 16 convents—one of which is the San Francisco Monastery, whose brewery, founded in 1566, is the hemisphere’s oldest. Other local breweries like Bandido and Páramo offer up suds on par with the best stuff you’ll get in the US or Europe.

The beer is a welcome complement to Quito’s dynamic culinary scene, which is often overshadowed by the Peruvian capital to the south. The ceviche here is on par with Lima’s while newer spots like Urko and Zazu are updating Ecuador’s traditional cuisine. Quito is slowly creeping up on lists of the world’s best food cities. Get there while you can still get a table. –Matt Meltzer, Freelance Travel Writer

Nestled at the feet of three volcanoes and an hour from Guatemala’s international airport, this old colonial capital is the center of the Mayan kingdom turned backpacker idyll. The kaleidoscopic buildings and cobblestone streets attract wanderers looking for respite from the world. The nightlife and outdoors draw hedonists. It’s the jump-off point for Lake Atitlán, Mayan ruins at Tikal or Copán, and hot springs and hiking trips. It’s romance, it’s action, it’s maybe your new home if you let it seduce you. It will try.

To catch the right vibe, nurse an ice-cold Gallo while crammed in the back of a tuk-tuk. You’ll zip by centuries-old facades while the Volcán de Agua rumbles in the distance—if caught at the right moment, there might be actual lava sparks flying through the night sky. The natural beauty (and, frankly, the prices) holds some tourists long enough to start NGOs or for-real learn Spanish. Look for these expats in one of the city’s most iconic bars, Cafe No Se, a cavernous temple to agave spirits started by a gringo from New York. Hostels are dirt cheap, even when they come with a rooftop view of the volcanoes and the glittering city below. –Jackie Bryant, Freelance Travel Writer

An enchanting bayside town on the Costa Verde between Rio and Sao Paulo, Paraty almost seems like it was created by an overzealous AI program that got carried away.. Pristine golden beaches? Check. Glittering, snorkel-ready sea? Check. Soul-warming sun, radiant locals, and catch-of-the-day cuisine—yeah, it’s like a jaunt to the Aegean Sea, minus the jet lag.

Paraty also looks the part, right down to the paint job. Sure, Hellenic blue goes well with whitewash, but there’s a whole rainbow the Greeks are missing out on. In Paraty, storybook colonial houses rock decorative wall patterns, latticed windows, and wise-old wooden doors painted in shades so bold and balanced that Instagram filters can take the afternoon off. The cobbled streets are blissfully undisturbed by motor vehicles—or anything beyond the occasional clip-clop of a horse and cart—and packed with history. For a day trip, head into the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Rainforest) for a dip in Pedra Branca’s idyllic pools, or a slide down one of the natural toboggan waterfalls.

Paraty also throws a thrillingly filthy mud festival alongside lively street parades during Carnival. This patch of Brazil is also famous for its cachaça distilleries (which you can visit for tastings) to such an extent that the caipirinha-constituent spirit was once known simply as “paraty.” So, party on. –Jonathan Melmoth, Freelance Travel Writer

If you know anything about Mexico’s colonial cities, you’ll recognize Guanajuato as the state where the much-buzzed-about San Miguel de Allende resort town resides. But this is so much more than a place to laze about at an all-inclusive: It’s a vibrant melting pot of locals and expats from 60-plus nationalities, with photo-worthy colonial architecture, luxury hotels, impressive gastronomy, and a year-round temperate climate.

Just outside San Miguel is the town of Dolores Hidalgo, where Mexico’s independence movement began in 1810, which is worth a day trip to see how Talavera pottery is made. Continue to Guanajuato for a soak in the region’s natural hot springs, many of which are found hidden in caves. And Guanajuato is one of the only destinations where you can sample local Mexican wine, which yes, is a thing. Wineries like Cuna de Tierra and La Santísima Trinidad will give you a taste of the good stuff. –Meagan Drillinger, Freelance Travel Writer

Known as the Paris of South America, Buenos Aires came by its nickname not just thanks to its chain-smoking population’s refusal to pick up after their dogs, but because no city in South America boasts such international diversity. The port city has European influences in everything from the food to the architecture to the time people sit down for dinner. The side streets are lined with sidewalk cafes, while Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world, recalls the boulevards of Paris. There are more than 100 parks and public green spaces here, many designed by famous Frenchie Charles Thays.

Porteños (a term for locals, translating to “port people”) have been known to brag their city is a little better than the rest of South America (so Parisian!), but spend a few days and tuck into a few steak dinners and you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree. Argentina has some of the best beef in the world, and washed down with a bottle of fine local wine will rarely set you back more than $20. BA is teeming with pizzerias, their pies closely related to Sicilian with big, doughy squares topped with a thin layer of tomato sauce and cheese. If you’re craving afternoon tea like you might find in England, Argentines do that too with their daily merienda, which is served, naturally, with small sandwiches. And much like the Spanish, Argentines tend to eat dinner around 10 pm and party until sunrise. –MM

While the rest of the tourists in Central America are trekking volcanoes and scouring jungles for a glimpse of spider monkeys, Belize’s largest island, Ambergris Caye is having all the actual fun. It’s like having Ibiza just 2.5 hours south of Texas, with nightly party slayage and a medley of diving spots thanks to its herculean barrier reef, the second largest in the world. People here drink and dance the night away in open-air, beachfront Caribbean clubs and the vibe is easygoing. Oh, and everybody speaks English. Locals live by the go-slow, catch-and-kill-time (ask a denizen what that means) lifestyle, and would happily Cha Cha Slide with tourists any night.

If diving’s your thing, a Great Blue Hole diving tour will only set you back around $200. Stay at the slightly remote outpost of Las Terrazas to cure any hangover. Here, Belizean culture meets five-star service, and overwater swings and hammocks await. Better get going—the parties kick off at 11. –Michelle Rae Uy, Freelance Travel Writer

If you don’t want to feel guilty about sleeping through most of the daylight hours during your beach vacation, head to San Juan. The nightlife here tops pretty much any other reason to visit the Caribbean’s unofficial gay capital. Start at Condado, the island’s gayborhood, where you can laze in the sand and dip into the turquoise waters at Condado Beach.

With a drag scene on the rise (Drag Race fans have probably picked up on the high ratio of fierce Puerto Rican queens), San Juan boasts drag queens and kings quirkier and more fabulous than the watered-down bachelorette party performances you’d catch stateside. To get in on the action, check out regular performances at beloved newcomer Kweens Klub or silver fox hideaway Zal Si Puedes Mini Bar. And to really get off the beaten track, slip into San Juan’s thriving underground queer scene, with artsy clubs like El Local, La Respuesta, and Club 77 preaching the funky, after-hours gospel. –Melissa Kravitz, Freelance Travel Writer

Unlike most of the spots on this list, you won’t hear any Spanish in Martinique; this mountainous stunner is still under French control. The island is a blend of natural beauty with sultry Caribbean appeal and the French appreciation for the finer things—but with infinitely better beaches. While many of its Caribbean neighbors opt for sprawling all-inclusives, Martinique swings more subdued with artsy boutique hotels and a purposely unvarnished, understated vibe.

Authenticity reigns supreme here, which translates to snacking on shellfish underneath shady beach palapas, or dancing to Biguine music into the wee hours of the morning while you throw back glasses of potent ‘Ti Punch. Or, skip the punch and go straight for the rum. For hotels, consider La Suite Villa, perched on a cliff with gorgeous views overlooking Fort-de-France. It’s like a high-end funhouse that plays with indoor-outdoor spaces, plus modern art, gourmet cuisine, and in-suite jacuzzis worth splurging for. –MD

For folks living in Florida—or anywhere in the Southeast—Cartagena is an easier trip to make than most of the eastern seaboard. This might explain why, on the weekends, you’ll find the beaches packed with families from nearby Bogotá frolicking next to Americans who’ve learned, as the tourism slogan says, the only risk is wanting to stay.

Of course, anywhere referred to as The Hamptons of Bogotá is guaranteed to be filled with plenty of pristinely white and powdery beaches. The best ones are at Islas Rosario, just off the coast, or in Barú, a tropical Caribbean paradise that’s light on tourists. Inside the city, Bocagrande offers the most entertaining people-watching. If you’re into watching the ocean instead, hit up Castillogrande.

After a day of playing in the Caribbean Sea, have a sunset drink at Café del Mar. You’ll find it on the wall of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a 17th-century colonial fortress that stands over the old city, a walled enclave full of colorful colonial buildings, churches, and delicious hole-in-the-wall eateries. Then, you eat. La Vitrola is the famous, big-name destination restaurant and is worth hitting for its impressively long menu. Quebracho is where to go if you want an epic steak dinner so cheap, you’ll blab about it every time you go out for steaks back home. –MM

Until the 1960s, Buzios was just another Brazilian fishing village, albeit one perched on an eye-wateringly beautiful peninsula jutting out into the ocean. Then, actress Brigitte Bardot popped by and fell in love with it. And as the world fell in love with her, Buzios began to attract A-list attention.

Today, the narrow streets are lined with boutiques, pousada guesthouses, and modern seafood restaurants. From the waterfront promenade, you can see luxury yachts bob in the bay while you breathe in the salty air. Blink and you’d swear you were in Saint-Tropez. Still, the town moves to an unmistakably Brazilian rhythm, especially on weekends when the samba set arrives from Rio to fill the bars and clubs on Rua das Pedras.

To explore the peninsula, charter a private boat (if you’ve got that A-list budget), or hop aboard a schooner like the rest of us. Ogle at the hillside celeb-shacks, stoke up a barbecue on one of the 17 (not a typo) beaches, and snorkel about, lazy and shallow as a manatee. The really energetic might grab a board and catch a wave at Geriba Beach, but there’s no shame in kicking back with another caipirinha instead. –JM

Built from white volcanic rock and blessed with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Peru’s second city has the gleaming look of an Andalusian pueblo blanco with a distinctly Andean flair. The entire historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the baroque basilica, pastel-painted Santa Catalina monastery, and the buzzing Plaza de Armas at its heart. The unmistakable, perfectly-conical backdrop for all this is El Misti, one of three volcanoes surrounding the city. (Don’t worry, they only occasionally misbehave.)

Meals here include local specialties such as rocoto relleno (spicy stuffed pepper) and chupe de camarones (prawn chowder), all washed down with a local beer or ice-cold Inca Kola. And then there’s the incredible chicken: Each of the dozens of family-run pollerias sticks fiercely to its sacred seasoning, and the only way to find out your favorite is to sample as many as your stomach will allow.

For a trip out of the city, head to the Colca Canyon. At 10,730 feet, it’s nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Condor-spot and drink in the view at the top, or ask a guide to show you down to the bottom. Just remember you’ve got to come back up, and apologize to your knees in advance. –JM

Puebla’s claim to fame used to be that it was the only place in Mexico where Cinco de Mayo actually meant something. (Important sidebar: Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexican Independence Day—it refers to the Battle of Puebla, which was fought against the French in 1862. Much like St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo isn’t really a thing elsewhere.) But in the past few years, Puebla has garnered a new reputation as a destination for culture vultures looking to swoop off the beaten path and see the “real” Mexico.

Like Mexico City and Oaxaca, Puebla is a dream for anyone seeking rustic street eats. It’s one of a handful of cities where you can taste Lebanese influences in the cuisine, especially in dishes like tacos árabes (pork tacos in a pita). For finer dining, hit up Augurio, just a few blocks from the cathedral, and sip from the extensive tequila and mezcal menu before tucking into suckling pig in pipian verde sauce or chicharron-crusted prawns. A day trip to the neighboring town of Cholula is a must to see its striking pre-Hispanic pyramid. Another option is Atlixco, a town at the foot of a volcano with an infamously delicious mercado, where you can savor barbacoa, tortillas, morales, and fresh cheeses. –MD

One of Valparaiso’s mantras is “turn off the television and live your life,” which says a lot about the Chilean seaside city’s proudly Bohemian character. Valparaiso’s famously open-minded, artistic culture shines through in its abundance of independent shops, boutique hotels, and collectively owned cafes, all set in historic buildings festooned with colorful murals.

The city is an easy day trip from Santiago, just a quick 1.5-hour drive or bus ride from the capital. After passing the rolling vineyards of Chilean wine country, you’ll know you’re there when you hit the ocean. One of Valparaiso’s most striking features its its hills, where houses bundle on top of one another in a maze of brightly painted stairs and streets that end in imposingly steep and sudden cliff sides (don’t worry—dozens of century-old funiculars are on hand to help you up or down if you’re seeking a view.). The rest of the city is similarly alive with street art and raucous revelers fueled by incredible shrimp, empanadas, and cocktails, making it quite difficult not to feel giddy no matter when you visit. In a city that’s all about embracing life through expression, it’s a place that pops off from the shore to the colorful rooftops. –Charis McGowan, Freelance Travel Writer

The capital of Uruguay was one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite destinations, yet few Americans are familiar with its selling points: block after block of faded Belle Epoque grandeur and Art Deco charm, beaches you can practically roll out of bed onto, a laid-back vibe that existed even before weed became legal, super affordable steakhouses, and tango bars to match its more-hyped neighbor, Buenos Aires. Not to mention a—seriously—near total lack of tourists, even during its month-long carnival season.

Montevideo is a famously secular town, but it does have one religion: chilling and enjoying things. Italian and Spanish immigrants flocked to the progressive country in the 19th century, which is why you’ll find classic pizzerias like Bar Tasende and Bar Las Flores along with traditional Uruguayan smoked meats (un aplauso para el asador—“applause for the grill master”—is the local equivalent of “in God we trust”). Ramble along the 14-mile rambla promenade next to the gorgeous Rio de la Plata at sunset, or head to the nearby resort town of Punta del Este or just cruise up the Atlantic coast for a taste of ocean life. Uruguayans like to joke that everything arrives there 30 years late. Now’s your chance to experience its charms before the inevitable tourism surge. –Daniel Maurer, Freelance Travel Writer

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