Best Hidden Latin American Destinations

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The best secret Latin American destinations are, obviously, lesser-known. Most countries have million-plus cities like Puebla, Mexico or Cali, Colombia that offer just as much cultural cache as the capitals, yet at a lower price and with a more local vibe. Adventure tourism Latin American destinations like Banos, Ecuador are well-known regionally but are often missed by those who haven’t yet traveled to South America.

Lasting memories

Finally, notable and unique places like the inactive volcano of Anton Valley, Panama or the extraterrestrial landscape of Chile’s Valle de Luna are simply unlike anything you’ll find back home.

These are the places people remember for the rest of their lives.

You don’t have to fly to these locations directly, but consider making them a part of your next travel itinerary. They could be the difference between having a good vacation and having an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

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Latin American destinations need to be near the top of your travel bucket list, particularly if you live in North America. With cheap flights from the US and Canada, a robust tourist infrastructure, and destinations both north and south of the equator for year-long travel, Central and South America are simply home to some of the best travel countries in the world.

You can spend months in a major capital like Mexico City or Bogota and still feel as though there are tons to see. Enjoy a dream vacation on a sunny white-sand beach in Cancun or a gorgeous ski resort in Las Llenas, Argentina. These well-known spots are worth their reputation.

When it comes to going off-the-beaten-path, Latin America offers more than any other region. All of the spots listed below are affordable, interesting, and safe when you take basic precautions. Couple them with a trip to a nearby capital or tourist hotspot, or enjoy your entire trip in the nearby area.

Sometimes, it’s just fun to know you’ve seen something few others back home have witnessed. Here are our top five secret vacation spots for your next trip to the Spanish-speaking world.

Puebla, Mexico

A mere hour-long bus ride from El D.F. is Mexico’s fourth-largest city, Puebla. Unlike the capital or another well-known spot like Oaxca, this World Heritage site was never widely inhabited by the indigenous population prior to colonization. It became a waypoint between Mexico City and the port town of Veracruz in the mid-1500’s, building its own unique culture along the way.

Puebla’s one-of-a-kind history makes it a standout among the many amazing hotspots in Mexico. While there’s an incredible cultural cache of museums and architecture here, Puebla is perhaps most famous for its cuisine. The dishes are distinctly dissimilar from the other regions of Mexico, yet just as delicious.

Mole poblano is the signature dish, and you’ll find the best version of it in Puebla’s historic center. Chalupes, cemitas, and tacos arabes simply don’t get much better than they do out here, and the chance to dine with a view of some incredible Baroque architecture draws more and more tourists every year.

That being said, Puebla’s walkable streets and college-town vibe keep it more low-key than the boisterous Mexico City or even the tech-hub of Guadalajara. You can easily make it a weekend trip during your stay in the capital, or spend an entire vacation immersed in the architecture, museums, and local clubs and bars.

Cali, Colombia

Colombia’s 21st century rise has been nothing short of meteoric. The tragic violence for which the country was so well-known has largely receded, leading more and more travelers and expats to South America’s gateway country.

Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena still draw the most tourists, but Cali is slowly moving up the ranks as a notable city in its own right. Let’s be clear here: the crime rate is higher than the other big Colombian cities, though it’s a mere fraction of the violence of the cartel days.

Take the usual precautions when you’re in Cali – don’t walk alone at night, keep an eye on your phone, and stick to the nicer neighborhoods. These are the same rules you should follow in any foreign country.

Once you’re settled into your hotel or hostel (we recommend something in Miraflores), ask your host where to start taking salsa classes. Many schools offer free lessons for beginners. No matter your level of experience, you’ll quickly fall in love with this fast-paced style of dance.

Cali is well-known as Colombia’s capital of salsa – which is saying a lot, since the entire country is enamored with the Caribbean-rhythmed moves. Caleño-style salsa is quicker than the en linea style found in the north, with faster music and steps. It’s something you’ll need to spend a bit of time learning, but salsa isn’t as hard as you might think – especially since the friendly locals will help you get the basics down.

Beyond salsa, Cali offers just as many cultural and historic sites as the other population centers, only with a lower cost of living and a hotter climate. It’s the preferred city for those looking to see Colombia at its most culturally rich. Be ready to live life like a local and dance until the sun rises over the statue of Cristo Rey.

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Baños, Ecuador

Baños is fairly well-known amongst frequent travelers to South America, but it lacks name recognition among those who haven’t gone near the equator. Once you arrive, you’re likely to spot other tourists in this small town of 12,000. You may not see them when you venture out into Baños’ many hills, mountains, and rivers.

Baños is by far Ecuador’s most notable spot for adventure sports, and is one of the can’t-miss Latin American destinations for anyone into rafting, zip-lining, rock climbing, and anything else that gets your adrenaline running. After your tour, you can relax in a thermal bath in-town while sipping on some of the most delicious hot chocolate you’ll find in your life. It’s a place for both adventure and leisure.

Baños is known as the “gateway to the Amazon,” as it’s nestled in the mountains which give way to the rainforest. If you decide to go further into the Amazon itself, make Baños a definite stopover on your way. You won’t regret it.

Anton Valley, Panama

Small towns built around the craters of volcanoes aren’t tough to find in Central America. What makes Anton Valley different is its proximity to Panama City, its cooler climate, and the sheer size of the volcano – the second largest inhabited one in the world.

Like the rest of the places on our list, Anton Valley isn’t a well-known tourist location, even among those who visit Panama. Take the opportunity to get to know the locals by hiring a tour guide in the many nearby mountains. El Chorro Macho, the valley’s most beautiful waterfall, is worth a visit as well. You may just end up having the place all to yourself for a swim.

Anton Valley is simply a lush, tranquil area near both national parks and a short bus ride away from the capital. It’s a place to visit and stay as long as you like, enjoying the natural world from a comfortable settlement with views you won’t find anywhere else.

Valle de la Luna, Chile

If you really want to get away from people, why not go to space? Chile’s “Valley of the Moon” is aptly named given the rock formations and colorful mountains surrounding this arid desert. The place hasn’t seen precipitation in hundreds of years, meaning you won’t have to pack a rain jacket.

Valle de la Luna isn’t for everyone, but if the pictures you’ll find online excite you as much as the prospect of seeing something truly unique, plan a trip to this northeastern Chilean locale. Nearby San Pedro offers everything you’ll need to relax and sleep at an affordable price, with a few museums and historical sites worth visiting. From San Pedro, rent a bike or join a tour van over to the Valley. Take lots of pictures – the sights you’ll see here are simply unlike anything currently in your camera roll. Be sure to bring plenty of water (it’s a desert, after all) and stay hydrated as you explore the region. At times, you really will feel like you’re on Mars.

Actionable Steps


1

Choose your Latin American destinations

A major yet lesser-known city for the culture? A smaller town known locally for its activities? Or perhaps somewhere really out of the way where you’ll have an experience all on your own? Each of the secret vacation spots on our list can be paired with other locales, but knowing where you’d like to start is key.

2

Plan ahead

In general, it’s easy to play it by ear when you’re staying somewhere popular. Lesser-known spots have less in the way of accommodations, tour guides, and the like. The upside is you’ll pay less, but you have to make sure your flight and hotels are booked before you go.

3

Start your adventure

There really isn’t much more to it – you just have to go. Going off the beaten track means having an adventure your way; you’ll figure things out as you go along. Just be sure to stay safe, have fun, and for all that’s holy – wear sunscreen!

About the Author


Michael Power

Michael Power

World-Traveling Expatriate

Since 2012, Michael has been living abroad full-time as a world-traveling expatriate. He spent his early 20s as an international high school teacher in South Korea. After visiting over 20 countries he’s excited to share what he’s learned with other aspiring nomads. You can currently find him in South America, probably at the nearest salsa club.
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