South America is a vast continent with long routes to traverse, so there’s no shortage of long road trips you can take. Some of the most rugged require a four-wheel drive vehicle though. The Pan-American Highway is congested and ugly in a lot of stretches. Plus you know when one oft-listed drive is along a mountain highway called “The Road of Death,” it’s probably not a great place to get behind the wheel, even if you did plan ahead and have universal rental car insurance.
Here are six still-epic road trips that offer great scenery and a sensory experience, but on paved roads. They may not make you feel like you have the whole landscape to yourself, but that also means you won’t need to bring days’ worth of gas or food. You can relax and look out the window on these trips.
1) A Drive Through Peru’s Sacred Valley
We outlined the best stretch of this in an earlier post on the most scenic drive in Peru, but that part is only one scenic route of many in the Sacred Valley. You’ll end up going back the way you came since a bit further at Huacahuasi it turns into a trekking only route across the mountains. Mix it up though in the other direction by driving to Calca and then making stops in Urubamba and/or Ollaytantambo. The former has more luxury hotels, but the latter is the end of the road before you have to hop a train if you want to get to Machu Picchu.
2) From Arica to San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile
This is the great highlands drive in the dry north of Chile, the scenic route through the mountains when heading south from Bolivia.
Instead of taking the Pan American Highway, this can be a multi-day journey that crosses the most scenic parts of the Chilean highlands. It starts in the northernmost port of Arica, with a side trip to Putre, through Visviri and Ollagüe. Stop for supplies in Calama. Then rest up and enjoy most of what a traveler could want in San Pedro de Atacama. There you can reward yourself by sleeping in one of the best Atacama hotels and adventure lodges.
3) Salta to Cafayate Through the Quebrada Canyon
If your idea of a road trip is a few hours in a car instead of a few days, this one packs great scenery into just three hours. The drive from the big city of Salta to the laid-back wine producing town of Cafayate is simply spectacular. It gets quickly into the countryside from traffic-choked Salta and then enters an area of geological wonders. The cliffs and rock formations here are in a variety of colors and the yellows and oranges glow when the sunlight hits them.
If you’re not in a hurry, pack plenty of water and make some hiking stops at marked trails along the highway. You don’t have to get very far away from the road to feel like you have the whole place to yourself.
4) Jericoacoara To Salvador on the Coast of Brazil
Where are the best beaches in South America? On the northeast coast of Brazil of course, where you’ll find sleepy villages, splashed-out resorts dripping with models, and party towns filled with revelers. You can find the perfect spot to stick around a while—Fortaleza or Recife perhaps—as you sample one great beach after another and listen to great music.
You’ll want to take your time anyway since we’re talking about 1,200 miles of coastline. That’s 50% more than the coast of California. Do some surfing, windsurfing, paddle boarding, or kayaking to ward off the car seat stiffness before you roll into colonial Salvador.
5) Lakes and Mountains in Patagonian Argentina
One of the easiest drives in Argentina, but one of the most spectacular, is to rent a car in Bariloche and then drive in a leisurely fashion to San Martin to the North in the Patagonia lake district. You’ll hug the shores of seven lakes along the way and see dramatic Andean peaks either fully or partially covered with snow depending on the time of year. This is truly one of the world’s most scenic drives and along the way you’ll have plenty of chances to eat well and drink excellent wine. Break it up by going skiing in the winter or to going hiking in the warmer months.—or get out on the water The route passes two national parks: Nahuel Huapi and Lanin.
This drive is only 114 miles (184 kms), but if you have your own vehicle you could start in San Martin de los Andes, spend the night in Bariloche, then drive the next day to El Bolson, a hip mountain town 122 miles to the south.
6) The Coast of Uruguay
You probably don’t want to do this trip in January or February, when it seems half the rich families of South America have converged on the beaches here. (If you want to reserve a hotel or villa then, you had better plan a year or two in advance.) The rest of the year it’s more mellow. Start in the capital of Montevideo, head toward Punta del Este, then make your way along the dunes and beaches to reach the last stop of Punta del Diablo. Eat some red meat, drink some local red wine, and smell the salt air. Check out our reviews of the best luxury hotels in Uruguay to figure out where to stay.
Just remember, you don’t want to be flying without a net on these South America road trips. If you’re not 100% sure that your regular car insurance will cover 100% of any expenses when something goes wrong, you might want to spend the price of a bottle of Chilean wine a day and get rental car insurance that works almost anywhere.
Luxury Latin America received financial compensation from Allianz Global Assistance (AGA Service Company) for this sponsored post but all opinions are our own.