This post was last updated on July 26th, 2016
Planes are fast and buses are cheap, but it’s often most fun to explore some of the world’s best scenery by car. Road trips in North America are de rigueur, but not as many tourists think about South America as a great driving destination. Along the coastlines and through the mountain valleys of South America, you’ll find amazing scenery, laid-back locals and beautiful stretches of highway.
For your next vacation, jet south and rent a car for an amazing road trip, like one of these:
A Lakeside Drive in Argentina
Start in San Carlos de Bariloche, a far-western town in the Andes foothills in Rio Negro province. This is a great place to spend a few days before you begin your drive, enjoying the mountain scenery and the shoreline of Nahuel Huapi Lake. If you’re there in the winter, try skiing at Cerro Catedral, or in the summer and fall, fish in the surrounding rivers or hike in the foothills.
From Bariloche, as the town is often nicknamed, head north along the Limay River. This drive is on both paved and unpaved roads, so choose your rental car accordingly. Along the way, you’ll find volcanic rock formations, places for picnics and camping and plenty of photo opportunities. You should end up in scenic San Martin de los Andes in Neuquen province, where you’ll find Lanin National Park. San Martin is famous for bird watching, skiing and the Hua-Hum Pass across the mountains into Chile.
The Plains of Patagonia in Argentina and Chile
The southernmost plains and mountains of South America have countless great drives. To see the most of Patagonia, a region located in present-day Chile and Argentina, instead of heading north from San Carlos de Bariloche, head south and explore the pampas. There are so many beautiful drives in this region that it is difficult to choose one route. Some travelers say they enjoy driving from the mountains to the sparse coastal settlements such as Puerto San Julian or Rio Gallegos.
Chilean Patagonia is exquisitely beautiful, but particularly easy to reach from Argentinian Patagonia. Take the Carretera Austral between Coyhaique and Villa O’Higgins for stunning scenery and four-wheel-drive-only terrain.
The Changing Landscape in Chile
Not sure you want to head that far south? While in Chile, head north to Parque Nacional Lauca, nestled along the borders with Peru and Bolivia. Drive up along Route 11 from seaside Arica, an important port and fruit-producing region, for maximum enjoyment of the changing scenery. You’ll go from the edge of the Atacama Desert to the altiplano, rimmed by towering volcanoes and populated by typical Andean animals such as llamas, alpacas and cougars.
If you’re driving here in the wetter months of January and February, pay attention to weather reports to make sure you’ll have roads dry enough to navigate; some of the unpaved roads will be impassable.
A Taste of the Wine Region in Chile
Explore some of the best of Chilean viticulture by renting a car and exploring the Aconcagua and Central Valley regions of Chile. Start in Santiago, and head first to Casablanca Valley, in Aconcagua. Only 75 kilometres from the capital, Casablanca Valley is a beautiful, verdant area famous for crisp white wines. September to June is the best time for tourism in this area, though if you go in a warmer time of year, you might prefer the spectacular white sand beach at nearby Vina del Mar.
After Casablanca Valley, direct your wheels to Colchagua Valley, about 150 kilometres south of Santiago. Colchagua was voted the “World’s Best Wine Region” by Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2005 and is most famous for its full-bodied malbecs. Stay in San Fernando, which is famous not only for its wine but for its exciting rodeos.
A View of the Coast in Columbia
Wish you had beaches, sea views and the open road ahead of you? Colombia’s coastal highways map out an interesting itinerary for self-driving travelers. To experience the beaches and beauty of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, start in Cartagena and make your way toward the Venezuelan border. Parque Tayrona, near Santa Marta, Magdalena, has beautiful and often deserted beaches. To reach the shore in the park, however, you’ll need to hike a bit, so come prepared for some jungle hiking. Farther north, the towns of Palomino and Camarones also offer amazing beaches and an intimate look into local lifestyles.