Best family vacations in South America, from Peru to Chile
Best family vacations in South America, from Peru to Chile
Video: Best family vacations in South America, from Peru to Chile
You may not have thought of South America as a family trip. The vast continent is actually a fantastic place to walk with kids – it’s full of otherworldly landscapes, sand dunes, dinosaur sites, cable car heights, national parks and super beaches. For parents with an adventurous streak, there’s no better place to bring the family. From Ecuador to Uruguay, here are some of our favorite places.
Playas de los Monos in Ecuador
Photo: Stephanie Frias
If Ecuador isn’t on your list of South American destinations, be prepared to move it to the top spot. In addition to being home to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is a relatively small country with a mainland teeming with dazzling landscapes. It’s especially easy with kids because the country is so easy to navigate with highways, airlines and extensive bus routes.
An added bonus is that Ecuadorians adore children, and it shows. Travel-related fees are usually waived for children in most places, shopkeepers often offer free gifts such as lollipops on a stick or stickers for the little ones, and it is customary for a man to surrender his seat on the bus for his mother.
Ecuador is only the size of the U.S. state of Colorado, but within its borders travelers can find Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world; Quilotoa, a crater two miles wide and filled with water; the Andes range; the Amazon rain forest; and the city of Baños. Baños is known for its natural hot springs, waterfalls and many outdoor adventures such as zipper lining, bungee jumping, canyoning and rafting.
Kids getting their faces painted
Photo: Stephanie Frias
The coastline also boasts more than 1,000 miles of pristine Pacific beaches that are lush and tropical in the north and have high cliffs, sandy slopes or mangrove forests in the central and southern parts. Playa los Frailes, in fact, has been called one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Completely devoid of infrastructure, the pristine moon-shaped beach with a clear aquamarine bay is protected by the Macilla National Park.
As for the capital, Quito is a dazzler with a picturesque historic center that includes the 377-foot Roman Catholic Basilica del Voto Nacional, a spectacular cable car ride that reaches nearly 13,000 feet in height that kids will love, and nearby Mitad. Park del Mundo, which marks the equatorial line and abounds with museums for adults and children. Families can do all sorts of fun science-related activities to explore the phenomenon of this delicate global location.
Ecuador’s other two major cities, Cuenca and Guayaquil, have beautiful historic architecture, extensive pedestrian areas and park networks, and enviable waterfront locations. Note: When traveling in high places like Quito or Cuenca, take it easy for the first couple of days so you and your children can adjust to the altitude.
Family taking a selfie in front of Machu Picchu in Peru
Photo: Stephanie Frias
It’s impossible not to think of Peru without conjuring up images of the iconic Machu Picchu … and the days and days of trails that lead to it. But Machu Picchu is not just for trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts. It’s also very easy to do with kids if you get around the trails. After arriving in Cusco from Lima, the train will take you to the small town of Aguas Calientes. From there you can check into your hotel; our kids were crazy about the treehouse-style cabins at the Rupa Wasi Eco Lodge.
The next morning, you can take a bus to the very top of the citadel, the most Instagrammable spot in Machu Picchu. Let the kids wander around as long as they like, then send them back to town again. Be sure to buy your Machu Picchu train tickets and Peru Rail or Inca Rail tickets in advance. You can buy bus tickets for the last leg at the kiosk when you first arrive in Aguas Calientes.
Cuzco itself, the ancient capital of the Incas and then the main center of Spanish colonial power, is an exceptional city to walk with children of all ages. The city’s main historic center is closed to traffic on weekends, allowing families to gather and children to play under one of the most stunning cityscapes in South America. If you go during the rainy season, the ripples of tourists are reduced to an acceptable level. You might be lucky enough to be there when the city hosts a family-friendly daytime carnival and allows the kids to soak in the fine dust and foam party without any parade chaos or drunken parties.
Peru is a big country, and there’s more to see than just Inca ruins and Cusco. Check out the often bypassed inland towns like Trujillo, which has the ancient Moche pyramids and desert scenery. Or visit Ayacucho, with its 33 historic churches and the most important battlefield associated with Peru’s War of Independence, or Arequipa, filled with colorful monasteries and convents, historic squares and inspiring architecture.
Along the coast, the Paracas National Reserve is a must, where kids can kayak alongside flamingos or take kitesurfing lessons in the bay. Families can take a day cruise to the Balestas Islands, also known as the “Poor Man’s Galapagos Islands,” to see blue-footed deer and sea lions. Near Paracas, a tiny oasis village named Huacachina rests in the middle of the tallest sand dunes in South America. Let the dunes enchant your children on buggy, sand or kayak rides.
Last but not least is Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian border, the highest navigable lake in the world. Here the last remaining indigenous families still live on their floating islands and handmade cane boats. You can take excursions to visit this unique community and interact with the few people who still practice this aquatic lifestyle.
Two kids on salt flat in Bolivia
Photo: Stephanie Frias
Bolivia is a secret gem that rarely leaves a mark on family travel circles. But listen carefully to your parents: we think that’s about to change. Bolivia is the most centralized country in South America, located between Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. Although it can be more difficult to navigate than other South American countries, the remote and rare experience within the country is worth the extra effort.
Most travelers come to Bolivia to explore the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt plain at more than 4,000 square miles. The unimaginable scenery is a magical white glow of salt particles and natural pools that fascinate children and their parents alike. In addition to Uyuni, another attraction is dinosaur tourism. Family travelers will love everything about dinosaurs, including museums, theme parks and actual dinosaur footprints found in both cities and remote locations.
Although there seem to be dinosaur sites everywhere, the two most notable are Torotoro National Park in Potosí province and Cretasico Park near Sucre. You can visit Torotoro National Park by taking a tour from the small, remote town of the same name, walking through desert and canyon landscapes in search of authentic dinosaur footprints. Inside the national park, more than 2,500 unique prints from the Cretaceous period (120 million years ago) have been documented. Children can see the prints exactly as they were found in the field, intact and undisturbed. Guides tell stories about how dinosaurs lived in the area and why they may have disappeared, and they let you touch, stand next to, and lie inside the prints.
Cretacico Park in Sucre, Bolivia
Photo: Stephanie Frias
The second key location, Parque Cretácico, is just three miles from the beautiful city of Sucre. This fully interactive, state-of-the-art Jurassic Park was built around a concrete mine where a wall of more than 5,000 dinosaur prints from more than 15 species were accidentally discovered in the 1990s. It is believed to be the largest collection of dinosaur prints in the world. The park is full of replica sized, animated and sounding dinosaurs that visitors can walk by and under. There are also several museums, a video presentation and an artificial range where children can pretend to be archaeologists.
Other attractions in Bolivia include the historic city of Sucre and the highest capital, La Paz. Sucre, nearly 400 years old, is filled with ancient white buildings topped with Spanish clay roofs, stunning colonial churches and quaint cobblestone streets. It is known as one of the most affordable places on the continent to take Spanish lessons or salsa dancing. La Paz, for its part, has the largest and longest network of cable cars in the world, reaching an elevation of 13,000 feet at more than 27 miles — and still growing. Other attractions in La Paz are the Valle de la Luna, a field of large eroded rock formations similar to the barren lands of the United States, and the Witches Market, where products of “black magic” are openly sold, including shrunken skulls, dried animal fruits, feathers, frogs, and more.
Pumalin Park in Chile
Photo: Stephanie Frias
Chile seems to have one of the most well-developed infrastructures in South America. With its widespread tourism, incredible national parks, and extensive paved road network, it hardly feels like a developing country. Still, with the country being 2,653 miles long and regions so far apart, it’s important to plan carefully to find the best places to visit with children.
In the far north, near the Bolivian border, the Atacama Desert is an icon. Located between the Andes and the cold Pacific Ocean, it is one of the driest places on the planet. Its striking and unique landscapes are often compared to the horizons of Mars or the Moon. You can admire its geysers, ride its sand dunes, admire the pink flamingos in its salt marshes, and even take night astronomy tours in one of the best places on the planet with dark skies. All of these tours are easy to arrange from the city of San Pedro de Atacama.
The Bio-Bio region, located in the center of the country, can settle into the city of Los Angeles and hike through nearby wild landscapes such as the spectacular Laja Falls, four amazing waterfalls that form a horseshoe shape; Nevados de Chillán, a volcano and glacier riding resort; and the secret beach of Playa Ramoncho. International Guesthouse El Rincon is the perfect base for families–with cabins, suites, and eco-domes in the forest just north of Los Angeles.
Chile also shares the Patagonia region with Argentina. One of the most picturesque and family-friendly parts of the far south is Chile’s Los Lagos region. With easy access from Puerto Montt, travelers can visit the northernmost parts of Patagonia with its fjords and glacial lakes. We recommend the ultra-modern Pumalin Park, Chile’s largest national park, covering nearly a million acres. The Amarillo area has an excellent variety of quality campgrounds and plenty of hiking trails suitable for kids to see glaciers, temperate rainforests and wildlife.
The Cathedral Basilica and Sanctuary of the Lord and the Virgin of the Miracle in Salta, Argentina
Romantic tales of international immigrants, vibrant cowboy culture, wine country and picturesque colonial towns are enough to lure many curious travelers to Argentina. But to appeal to a discerning crowd of young travelers, parents will be thrilled to discover some intriguing places beyond Buenos Aires and the vines.
Start in the Far North, in Salta, a stunning historic city that looks more like Europe than South America. Vast plazas full of fountains, grassy hills and tall trees are surrounded by ornate colonial architecture and gorgeously wide sidewalks that are perfect for strollers. The town is safe for walking and best appreciated on foot. Stay in the Tres Cerritos neighborhood, where boutique hotels neighbor wealthy hilltop residences that mimic Beverly Hills in California. Choose Kkala Boutique for the heated pool, family-friendly lofts and in-room hot tubs. Don’t miss San Martin Park with its duck pond and kayaks, great streets and countless playgrounds.
A little further south, the traditional ranches of Tafí del Valle in the province of Tucumán are steeped in the famous Argentine culture and ranching of Argentines. At Estancia Las Carreras, children can milk cows, ride horses and play in pastures and streams. They can even learn the art of making empanadas and artisanal cheese.
Further south, the Argentine province of Rio Negro is known for its 130-mile swaths of pristine beaches, accessed by the Route 1 or Camino de la Costa. Many of the beaches, such as Punta Perdiz, offer incredible ocean coves with shell-covered beaches and calm waters. Camping is free, and families can spend their days swimming, snorkeling and paddling with Magellanic penguins.
Farther south, the Valdes Peninsula, which is a patch of land off the northeast coast of Chubut Province, is the easiest place to see Patagonia’s ocean wildlife. On a simple safari trip (independent or guided), the whole family can be within reach of Magellanic penguins, sea elephants and southern sea lions. You can also see endangered right whales, killer whales and several species of dolphins, which often visit the protected bays and beaches of the Valdes Peninsula.
La Mano sculpture in Uruguay
The tiny country of Uruguay lies between Argentina and the southern shoulder of Brazil. Located on the Atlantic coast, Uruguay boasts progressive policies and beautiful beaches. Along with Chile, it is also one of the safest places for family travel in South America. The coastline stretches 410 miles with many sleepy surfing towns north of Montevideo, such as La Pedrera and Barra de Valizas.
While Punta del Este hosts a trendy scene full of babes in bikinis and cocktail bars, it’s also great for families. Don’t miss Playa de los Dedos, where kids can crawl on a palm sticking out of the sand. North of Punta, Jose Ignacio is much quieter and has beautiful stretches of coastline. Or head north to Punta del Diablo, near the Brazilian border. This fishing village has many colorful houses overlooking the water, as well as surf schools that teach kids and beginners how to handle the waves.
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Latin American adventures for the whole family
In general, traveling in Latin America is much easier than you imagine, and if you follow certain simple guidelines, your vacation will never turn into a story of a failed family trip.
So, where in Latin America can you vacation with your children?
Despite the fact that most countries in Latin America is just perfect for a vacation with the whole family, you should still avoid traveling to some regions that may not be safe for a number of reasons. They can be dangerous because of their geography (high mountains, deep precipices and active volcanoes) or they have bad stories about drugs and gangs. You wouldn’t lose much if you removed Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Northern Mexico from your list of likely travel destinations in Latin America. These are not the best places for family vacations. However, with a few safety rules, you can safely travel as a family to other regions of Latin America.
How to protect the health of family members when traveling to Latin America?
Find out in advance what immunizations you need to travel to these countries and get the necessary vaccinations before you travel. This is important because yellow fever is widespread in some Latin American countries. You should also consider the fact that vaccinations are contraindicated for nursing mothers and babies under the age of two. In such cases, it is best to consult your doctor.
The best way to avoid contracting yellow fever is not to go into remote corners of the jungle. It is advisable to wear long-sleeved clothes when hiking in the jungle, so you can avoid insect bites. Also, you should always have a first aid kit with the necessary medicines.
When vacationing with children, try to visit mid-level restaurants and avoid local fast food restaurants.
How can you turn a trip to Latin America into a fun adventure?
Let the children take the initiative in planning the itinerary of your trip and design an itinerary that takes into account the interests and wishes of all family members. It’s also important that your trip itinerary include visits to both recreational and educational sites. Divide equally your time for relaxing on the beaches of the hotel and visiting cultural and historical sites along your route.
The top ten best travel destinations in Latin America for traveling with children
1. Playa del Carmen (Mexico)
This is one of the safest places in this tourist destination. It is easy to get here: there are many flights connecting Cancun with Playa del Carmen. There are amazing beaches and one of the largest resorts for families – Riviera Maya. Some of the most interesting activities in these areas include visiting Chichen Itza and the Mayan ruins in the coastal town of Tulum. Children will enjoy a ferry trip to Cozumel. If you want to take a break from the kids, you can always leave them at the hotel’s Kids Club and head to one of the best nightclubs in Mexico.
2. Granada (Nicaragua)
Nicaragua is a great option for a family vacation. The locals are incredibly friendly, the prices are pleasant, and the country itself is considered one of the safest countries in Latin America. It’s on the shores of the lake and combines the charm of a colonial city with a modern twist. You can go with your children to the lake, but don’t forget about the treacherous Pacific Current of Nicaragua, so it’s best to take only older children to the beach.
3. Manuel Antonio National Park (Costa Rica)
Costa Rica is definitely one of the most suitable places in Central America to travel with children. In Manuel Antonio National Park, you can admire howler monkeys and spider monkeys roaming the beach, take a short hike through the rainforest and hunt frogs. There is also a large selection of high-level hotels where you can stay.
4. tamarindo (Costa Rica)
Costa Rica is so good for vacations with kids, there’s another great place to stay: the Pacific coast town of Tamarindo. Local activities include day trips to rainforests, visits to volcanoes and canoeing through mangrove thickets. A longer trip from these places can be made to the rainforests of Monteverde and the Arenal Volcano National Park, where you can admire the active volcano of the same name.
5. Panama Canal Zone (Panama)
Many families underestimate Panama when in fact it has great beaches and many interesting cultural sites that children will enjoy exploring. Rent a boat and take a fun day trip from Panama (itself an interesting place to explore) to an Emberá Indian tribe village. Such a trip will allow you to admire the picturesque surroundings of the canal and the majestic dams. In addition, your children will be fascinated to count the number of different species of birds (there are at least 30) that can be encountered during this water trip.
6. Cotopaxi National Park (Ecuador)
Here you can admire in one day a variety of interesting villages located in the lagoon Quilotoa, and visit the national park, which was created to protect one of the highest volcanoes in the world. There are many hotels in the form of ancient farmsteads. Among the most exciting attractions in these places are horseback riding and fun games for the kids in the hotel pools. The only thing worth considering when traveling to these places – the possibility of mountain sickness, so it is desirable to strengthen your physical preparation.
7. Machu Picchu (Peru).
This country should definitely be included in the list of places to visit as a family. However, a trip to explore the archaeological sites of South America will be more interesting for older children who are interested in history. It is also worth taking into account the fact that it is quite difficult to get here and there is considerable altitude. But a few days traveling around Cusco and a trip to Lake Titicaca are worth it to visit this wonderful country.
8. Torres del Paine National Park (Chile)
A trip to these places will appeal to those families who like to explore the wilderness. Chile is one of the most economically developed countries in South America, which, combined with excellent infrastructure, makes it a great option for travelers with little ones. If you’re the adventurous type, you can safely go camping and spend the night in a tent – it’s perfectly safe here!
9. Amazon (Brazil).
If you are traveling with children, forget Rio and go to the Brazilian town of Manaus, where you can make a trip on the Amazon. You can opt for a river cruise or just take a day trip through the Amazon forest.
10. Buenos Aires, Argentina
If you want to find a place with a European flavor in South America, then feel free to go to Buenos Aires. The cobblestone streets of this city combined with impressive European architecture amazes you, and you will be delighted by the delicious food and delightful tango of local dancers. There are also quite a few great museums and plenty of entertainment for the young. From here you can go on an excursion to Iguazu Falls or to Patagonia, where you can admire many interesting sights and travel through the desert.