¡Buen Viaje!
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14 Under-the-Radar Destinations in Latin America

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¡Buen Viaje!
SimonDannhauer/istockphoto

¡Buen Viaje!

South and Central America have iconic, bucket-list worthy spots — Machu Picchu, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, etc. — that make the shortlist of many world travelers headed that direction. But adventurers should keep in mind that Latin America offers nearly 8 million square miles of opportunities that encompass a vast array of landscapes, cities, resorts, villages, natural wonders, and much, much more. Here are 14 destinations — sourced from travel bloggers, travel agents, and those who've wandered extensively in these regions — that you can visit in between or in place of some more popular, tourist-laden destinations.

Related: 11 Top Latin American Restaurants Across the U.S.

La Pedrera, Uruguay
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La Pedrera, Uruguay

Located about a three-hour car ride east of the capital city of Montevideo, La Pedrera is a small resort village in the country's Rocha region, "a budding area," according to an Intrepid Travel writer, that has "all of the essentials with none of the pretension," plus "stunning scenery, (and) some of the best sunsets I have ever seen." Its beaches are perfect for surfing, horseback riding, and fishing, and a seafront promenade is great for strolls. Valle de la Luna, an otherworldly landscape of ancient sand formations, is nearby, as is gorgeous Santa Teresa National Park, which earned TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence. For posh accommodations that have been featured in The New York Times, Travel+Leisure, and Conde Nast Traveler, check out Brisas de la Pedrera boutique hotel, which features mid-century style and ocean-view rooms.

Related: 30 of the World's Most Iconic Hotels

Zacatecas, Mexico
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Zacatecas, Mexico

The capital city of the state by the same name, this central Mexican town is considered one of the country's main cultural destinations, and was declared a World Heritage Site in 2010 for its architecture and other features. Many of its buildings are constructed of pink quarry stone, and it has a vast array of tourist attractions that include historical and cultural venues, mezcal and bull routes, festivals, and ecotourism. Visitors enjoy the many churches and cathedrals, including the Baroque and ornate Catedral de Zacatecas, the somber Church of Santo Domingo, and the pink and Gothic Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de Fatima. Other activities include museums and the Sierra de Órganos National Park, about two hours away, which offers hiking, camping, and mountain biking.

Related: 15 Memorable Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico's Culinary Capital

Aysén Region, Patagonia
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Aysén Region, Patagonia

To avoid the crowds of Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park and El Calafate, head to Patagonia's Aysén region, says Upscape Travel's founder and CEO, Brian Pearson. This is a sparsely populated area, he says, where visitors "can find all the same offerings of trekking, kayaking, horseback riding with gauchos, (and) whitewater rafting … surrounded by the same jaw-dropping features" found elsewhere in the region. Aysén is home to many national parks and reserves where visitors can marvel at an incredible diversity of landscapes, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, glaciers, ice fields, fjords, hot springs, and more. Travelers use the 770-mile Carretera Austral highway to explore the region.

Related: 12 Amazing and Affordable Adventure Vacations

Lakes District, Argentina
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Lakes District, Argentina

With Southern Patagonia's growing popularity, says Knowmad Adventure's co-founder Jordan Harvey, Argentina's "Bariloche and the Lakes District are seeing less international travel." This is to travelers' advantage, he adds, "as what was previously the capital of adventure travel in Argentina is as pristine and beautiful as ever" while drawing fewer crowds. Bariloche and the Lakes District have "some of the country's best hotels and restaurants" — for the former, check out the "history rich Llao Llao," and the exclusive Relais & Chateaux Las Balsas. Those who like to plan ahead should know that a total eclipse can be seen from the Bariloche area in December 2020. While there, make plans to sample the town's chocolate, considered the best in Argentina, and visit the nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park, about an hour's drive north around the lake of the same name.

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Kuelap & Gocta Falls, Peru
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Kuélap & Gocta Falls, Peru

If the very thought of Machu Picchu's crowds triggers claustrophobia, there's an alternative: the ancient city of Kuélap in an area of northern Peru known as Amazonas. Knowmad's Harvey notes that these pre-Incan archaeological ruins, built by the Chachapoya, or "Warriors of the Clouds," between 900 and 1400 A.D. are "little known to the outside world," and a perfect place to "find your inner Indiana Jones." A recently opened cable car ferries visitors across a massive gorge to the site, which is also thought to be the largest stone structure in South America, Harvey notes. After exploring all that Kuelap's history has to offer, he continues, a four-hour round trip hike brings you to Gocta Falls, where you can rest your weary legs at the Gocta Lodge, a "hidden gem" with an infinity pool and guest room balconies that include a stunning view of the 800-foot falls.

Arequipa, Peru
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Arequipa, Peru

If you've got Peru in your Latin American travel sights, but are more of a city person, Harvey recommends Arequipa. It's a short flight from the Southern Highlands, he notes, and there you'll find this "sleepier, more classically Peruvian colonial city" at a "comfortable" elevation of 7,600 feet. With cobblestone streets and the nearby, sporadically active Misti Volcano," here, Harvey continues, "you'll find the city a diverse hotbed of Peruvian gastronomy and see few tourists." Stay at the recently opened Cirqa, an 11-room luxury property founded the same year as the city — 1540 — that Harvey notes offers "a stay as immersive in history as Arequipa is."

Punta de Manabique, Guatemala
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Punta de Manabique, Guatemala

Located on a small peninsula that stretches over the northeast portion of Amatique Bay, separating it from the Gulf of Honduras, picture-perfect Punta de Manabique was declared a wildlife preserve in 1999. Guatelmala.com calls it an "ideal beach to see sunsets," and, with ecological features that include rainforest, mangrove forests, seagrasses and reefs, it's also been named one of the 10 best beaches in the country. Al Argueta, author of travel guide Moon Guatemala, writes that, "In addition to the white sandy beaches where four species of sea turtles lay their eggs, there are mangrove swamps inhabited by manatees, and more than 300 bird species, including the endangered yellow-headed parrot." Jaguars, tapir, and howler monkeys also inhabit the nearby savannahs and swamp forests. "All in all," Argueta concludes, "it's one of Guatemala's most wonderful and least-visited wild places."

San Blas Islands, Panama
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San Blas Islands, Panama

With 365 total — or more, depending on who you ask — there's an island or cay for at least every day of the year in Panama's San Blas Islands. A trip to these islands "known for their crystal blue waters and flour-white sand," says Emmanuel Burgio, president of travel boutique Blue Parallel, "is an off-the-grid experience unparalleled by any Caribbean destination." Home to the Gunas, a Panamanian indigenous people, Burgio notes that this remote archipelago has an "abundance of coral reefs and healthy waters make that make San Blas an excellent and unknown area for snorkeling." While companies like Blue Parallel offer luxury tours of the area, it's also possible to travel the San Blas on your own, and the destination's official website offers a variety of recommendations for travel to and from the islands, lodging, and activities such as scuba diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, and sport fishing.

Osa Peninsula and Tortuguero, Costa Rica
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Osa Peninsula and Tortuguero, Costa Rica

These two spots are bucket-list destinations for wildlife and ecotourism enthusiasts. The Osa Peninsula, located southwest of capital city San José, was named "the most biologically intense place on Earth" by National Geographic in 2016. It is, the publication went on to note, "home to 2.5% of the world's biodiversity, including pumas, tapirs, ocelots, anteaters and howler monkeys, as well as more than 350 bird species and marine animals including manta rays, sharks, sailfish, and 25 species of cetacean." On the country's eastern coast is Tortuguero National Park, a complex of marshy islands that serve as a nursery for green, leatherback, and hawksbill turtles. Most travelers to Costa Rica try to decide between the two destinations, but if you don't mind a nine-hour road trip through some of the country's national parks and bustling San José, you can visit both.

Related: 21 Places to Safely See Wild Animals Up Close

Cuenca, Ecuador
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Cuenca, Ecuador

While Cuenca has a fairly large expat community, those who love this city, including food and travel blogger Ayngelina Brogan, note that most travelers only spend a day or two here. "It is best known for the stunning colonial architecture in the city center," Brogan writes. In addition to its notable architecture, for which is has received World Heritage Site designation, Cuenca's visitors are charmed by cobblestone streets, the scenic Rio Tomebamba Riverfront, the factories, museums, and shops dedicated to the city's traditional Panama hat production, sweeping vistas from the Turi Viewpoint, and a number of experiences that highlight the city's historical and archaeological roots. Conde Nast Traveler recently named Cuenca one of "16 Cities to Visit Before All of Your Friends Catch On." For those who like some nature in their travels, El Cajas National Park is only about 40 minutes away.

Related: 15 Bucket-List Destinations Below the Equator

Salvador, Brazil
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Salvador, Brazil

For the more adventurous, here's another of the cities on Conde Nast Traveler's list. This picturesque, pastel-hued town on the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia is known for its vibrant combination of Afro-Brazilian culture, Portuguese colonial architecture, and temperate coastline. Salvador also recently drew the attention of The New York Times travel section, which noted that its "youthful energy and deep musical traditions make for a vibrant, often open-air night life." If you can handle bigger crowds, head to Salvador in late February for its Bahian Carnival, which the Times said makes Rio de Janeiro's version look "like teatime at Buckingham Palace by comparison." Any other time of year, there's plenty of check out as well, including lively music, and culinary, nightlife, and literary scenes.

Mendoza, Argentina
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Mendoza, Argentina

A paradise for oenophiles that don't love crowds, Mendoza is home to more than 1,000 vineyards and a number of wineries where you can smell, swirl, and sip to your heart's content — all with the Andes as a stunning backdrop. Even those who don't love wine will find plenty to do here — the city is known for world-class restaurants and spas, as well as outdoor experiences that include skiing, rafting, horseback riding, fly fishing, biking, and climbing. Accommodations such as the Cavas Wine Lodge merge all that Mendoza has to offer into one — according to TripAdvisor, "Guests are encouraged to indulge in wine, food, luxurious spa treatments and the surrounding natural beauty."

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Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
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Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

While this destination, better known as the Bolivia Salt Flats, is considered one of the most tourist-heavy destinations in Bolivia, it's much less crowded than many other Latin American travel destinations. For instance, about 1.3 million tickets were sold to Machu Picchu in 2018, while it's estimated that about 60,000 people visit the 4,000-square-mile-plus salt flats each year. With fewer people spread out over such a large area, and so many activities and destinations to draw travelers' attention, it makes the cut. An otherworldly, former prehistoric lake that now contains an estimated 10 billion tons of salt, Salar de Uyuni itself offers up different interpretations of the landscape — from cracked, white, alien-like landscapes during dry seasons, to vast expanses of mirror-like water in the rainy season. There's plenty else to do, too, including visiting a train "cemetery" and checking out pink flamingo flocks, archaeological ruins, a Cave of Mummies, a geyser field, and more. There are even accommodations made almost entirely of salt.

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Cosmovitral - Jardín Botánico (vista general) - Toluca México 2008 9588
Cosmovitral - Jardín Botánico (vista general) - Toluca México 2008 9588 by https://www.flickr.com/photos/lucynieto/ (CC BY-NC)

Toluca, Mexico

The capital of the country's central state of Mexico, Toluca is an up-and-coming destination that is filled with things to do. Stroll down the Alameda de Toluca, a park filled with buskers, duck ponds, fountains, pathways, an ice cream shop, and more. The website Visit Mexico challenges visitors to sample the city's culinary offerings — "look for the tortas stalls and try the green chorizo with cheese, accompany it with some cuaresmeños hot peppers and take a drink of mosquito, a delicious fruit liqueur." Travelers can also connect with nature in Toluca's Jardín Botánico Cosmovitral botanical garden, and at the El Capulin Sanctuary, a monarch butterfly sanctuary where visitors can walk amidst thousands of the species that flew more about 2,500 miles to hibernate, grow, and reproduce among the oyamel trees.

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