Visiting islands in South America is the trip from the tropical paradise to the end of the world where only penguins thrive. Some are fun beach destinations, great for swimming, diving or surfing. Others are steeped in history and ancient cultures.
My favorites were those with more wild critters than people, but I must admit that history had its powerful draw, with Inca gods, temples and sacrifices.
Hopefully my selection of Latin American islands, which is totally subjective – after all I had to choose among more than a thousand – will get your excited to explore!
Breathtaking and Uninhabited Islands in South America
Blanquilla | Venezuela | La Blanquilla Island
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Famous for its white sand beaches and spectacular diving, Blanquilla is located about 293 km from Caracas in the southeastern Caribbean Sea. Except for wild donkeys, goats and iguanas, the island is uninhabited.
The island is a popular divers’ destination and is famous for its rare and endangered black coral. The crystal clear waters are full of fish, from French angelfish and porcupine fish to the occasional flying fish.
The island got its name from its dazzlingly white unspoiled sandy beaches.
The best way to visit the island is on your own private yacht, plenty of them throw the anchor in one of many secluded bays. If that is not an option, you can charter a boat.
Fernando de Noronha | Brazil
Fernando de Noronha is a nature lovers’ paradise. But, even the biggest nature lovers have a hard time getting permission to visit this volcanic archipelago located about 350 kilometers off the northeast coast of Brazil.
Since it has been declared a protected national marine park and ecological sanctuary, only about 400 visitors are allowed on the island at one time.
The island is an unspoiled paradise with pristine beaches, a jagged coastline and rich, diverse ecosystems. Scuba diving there is world-class. Warm waters are rich in marine life and you can spot sea turtles, dolphins, rays, reef sharks, colorful reef fish, lobsters, sponges and corals.
The island is also beloved by surfers who come for the large waves at spectacular beaches such as Bode and Cacimba do Padre.
To get to Fernando de Noronha, you can fly from the mainland towns of Natal or Recife, which take about one hour to get you there.
There is only one hotel and about 70 pousadas, family-owned inns that also provide meals. Some are better than others.
Cagarras Islands | Brazil
Cagarra is a five-island archipelago about 3 miles from Brazil’s most famous Copacabana beach. Cagarras islands are protected as a wildlife refuge and are uninhabited. There are no hotels and restaurants on any of the islands.
The only way to visit Cagarras is by taking one of the boat excursions or dive boats from Rio. Most excursions will allow you to disembark, go for a hike, dive, snorkel or swim.
The islands are lush and green and full of wildlife. Many species of birds make the islands their home but you are most likely to see boobies, frigate, and seagulls. Dolphins and many species of fish live in the waters around the islands.
Hiking is fabulous – the trails are rugged and offer spectacular vistas from the steep rock faces.
Most tour boats stop first at the longest island, Ilha Comprida. Its pristine waters full of colorful tropical fish are perfect for diving. There are also a few shipwrecks.
Most boat tours leave from Marina da Glòria in Rio. Book your tickets in advance, it gets crowded.
Islands in South America that are Protected as the World Heritage
Easter Island | Chile
Located in the middle of the Pacific, more than 2,200 miles away from Chile, Easter Island or Rapa Nui for the locals, is one of the most remote spots in the world.
You would not be the first person to get the impression that there is something otherworldly about it. Most people come to Easter Island to see its 900 massive carved stone statues called the Moai.
The statues, some 33 feet tall, have been created by the local inhabitants, the Rapa Nui people, between AD 1400 and 1600. They are believed to represent their ancestors. After they carved them, they moved them to the place on the coast where they are today. How, nobody can figure out. It just adds to the mystery of this fascinating place.
Most of about 7000 island inhabitants live in the main city Hanga Roa. That is where the only island airport is as well. Unless you are coming on a cruise, you will have to take a six-hour plane ride from Santiago to get there.
The best time to come is during the first two weeks in February, during the annual Tapati Rapa Nui festival.
Accommodation is available for any budget, from well-organized campgrounds to luxury resorts.
Galapagos Islands | Ecuador
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Visiting Galapagos Island is on everyone’s bucket list. Darwin put it on the map when he went there to explore its unique wildlife and prove his theory of evolution.
These protected volcanic islands are still well-preserved despite the huge influx of tourists. Cannot blame them really, so many of these critters that Darwin observed do not exist anywhere else in the world.
Massive iguanas that can swim, horrifying sea snakes, giant tortoises and scary-looking sharks are thriving there.
The landscape is rugged and desolate, with rare stunted bushes. Volcanic plumes remind you of the island’s origin.
Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific ocean, about 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador. They are all part of Ecuador’s first national park and UNESCO World Heritage site.
Three of the islands are inhabited and have diverse accommodation, hotels and restaurants. Many tourists use them as a base to make daily trips to observe the wildlife on the uninhabited islands.
The best way to visit is aboard a luxury yacht or liveaboard diving boat, so you do not have to worry about the accommodation, food, or wine.
Islands in South America Worth Visiting for Culture and History
Isla del Sol y Isla de la Luna | Bolivia
Sacred to Incas as birthplaces of gods of Moon and Sun, Isla del Sol y Isla de la Luna are mysterious ancient small islands in the Bolivian Lake Titikaka, t 12,507 feet the highest navigable lake in the world.
The islands have been inhabited since 2200 BC, long before Incas built their amazing temples.
There are no motor vehicles or paved roads on the Isla de la Luna. Only about 800 families live on the island, farming and fishing. The Temple of the Virgins is very well-preserved and was once inhabited by virgins ready to be sacrificed to the Inca gods.
From the Isla de la Luna, a a 30-minute boat ride will take you to the Isla del Sol. The Incan Palace, the Sacred Rock and the Temple of the Sun are the main attractions. The Temple of the Sun, made of squat stone blocks, is the place where the Inca made human sacrifices.
From the temple, a wide, steep and well-used Inca Trail will take you through charming villages to guesthouses, hostels, and hotels
You will hear .locals speak of a two-headed monster snake lurking in Lake Titikaka and occasionally sinking boats. You might enjoy spending some time looking for it.
The islands are easily accessible from the docks in Copacabana, aboard comfortable boats, for an easy 1.5-hour ride
Ilha de Santa Catarina | Brazil
If you want to visit the cultural capital of Brazil, you have to come to Florianópolis and that means coming to Ilha de Santa Catarina. This vibrant city stretches half on the mainland and half on the island. The island is connected to the mainland by three bridges.
Ilha de Santa Catarina is wonderfully diverse. It has several rugged hills covered in pine trees, three lakes, a spectacular beach with pounding waves that attract surfers, huge sand dunes, plenty of museums and galleries (remember, cultural capital), great restaurants and hotels.
The best time to visit Ilha de Santa Catarina is in summer, from December to March. The weather in Santa Catarina is mostly pleasant throughout the year so you could go during Oktoberfest. Yes, Octoberfest. It shows just how many Germans settled on this paradise island. Enjoy great beer, folk dancing and accordion playing and the unexpected but amazing Alpine architecture in the heart of Latin America.
Islands in South America to Visit for Nature and Wildlife
Isla Gorgona | Colombia
For 25 years, in the true Alcatraz style, the Colombian island Gorgona was a maximum-security prison for Colombian most dangerous criminals.
Now a national park, nature has taken over the old prison walls and the eco-tourists have arrived. The island, located in the Pacific Ocean, about 28km from the Colombian coast, is a thriving tropical paradise.
On land, its lush tropical jungle is home to slots, monkeys and so many species of birds. In and under water, colorful reef fish and Humpback whales are entertaining snorkelers and divers.
The park offers cabins and a restaurant to tourists. They are included in the tour package. Since the park is a protected area, you need to explore with the guides.
To get to the island, take the boat from the town of Guapi on the mainland. The boat trip takes about 90 minutes.
Isla Grande de Chiloé | Chile
Most people come to the Isla Grande de Chiloé to see the penguins. Magellanic and Humboldt penguins live and breed on three small islets off the northwest coast of the island, where you can also see blue whales.
The islets are declared a Natural Heritage Site to protect the charming and endangered critters.
If penguins and whales are not enough for you, Isla Grande de Chiloe has more: beautiful stilted houses in all colors of the rainbow hanging over the water, iconic wooden churches, colorful street art, fascinating history, unique culture and traditions and breathtaking nature.
Isla Grande de Chiloé is the biggest island of the Chiloé Archipelago, located off the west coast of Chile. Although close to the Chilean mainland, the island maintained unique spiritual traditions and culture.
The island is covered in lush forests, rocky coastline and spectacular vistas, with the snow-covered peaks of the Andes in the distance on a clear day. Hiking and biking through the national park and all over the island are to die for.
To get to the Isla Grande de Chiloé, take a bus from Puerto Montt to Parqua ferry terminal. Car ferries run every 15 minutes. Busses from Castro go on the ferry directly to Ancud on the island.
Ilha do Cardoso | Brazil
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Located about 170 miles southwest of São Paulo, Ilha do Cardoso is the ultimate escape. It has no proper roads, no cars and no electricity except what is made by solar panels. All it has is 33,000 acres of mangroves, untouched waterfalls, marshes, beaches, and plenty of wildlife. The island has the protected state park status.
If you like it a little wild, you will love this island. It has only 480 permanent inhabitants that fish for a living, and you can meet them at the bar of one of several “pousadas”, traditional family-owned and run inns. That is where you will stay as well.
To get there, you have to go first to Cananéia, São Paulo’s southernmost city. From there, take a ferry to Maruja, a small town at the southern end of the island. It takes about three hours.
Islands in South America to Visit for the Beaches and Fun
Aruba | Netherlands
Just off the coast of Venezuela, in the magical southern Caribbean Sea, Aruba is the place you will come to for its magnificent sandy beaches but you will stay for so much more. Famous island at the tip of South America, Aruba is home of the beautiful pink flamingos which you will find walking on the beach!
You can hike through the Arikok National Park, explore the Quadirikiri cave, try kitesurfing from Armando’s Kite Shack off Malmok Beach, snorkel, water ski, and swim in the protected shoals of the southern and western coast.
Learn to dive and catch some invasive lionfish, paddle through mangroves, or just hang out at one of many beach shacks with a cold beer or pina colada.
Aruba’s smiling people speak Dutch (Aruba is a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands), but also Papiamento (a Portuguese-based Creole.) No worries, most speak English.
Aruba has a huge range of places to stay, from backpacking hostels to an all-inclusive luxury resort. Like so many Caribbean islands, Aruba is expensive.
The local food is fantastic, with so much fresh fish and the fascinating mix of cultures and different cuisines.
The local bus is the best way to explore but a lot you can see by strapping your walking shoes and packing a bottle of water. That is also the best way to meet people and see how they live and what they do.
Isla Barú | Colombia
Less than an hour boat ride from the bustling city of Cartagena, Isla Barú is a natural escape for the city’s busy folks. Its fine sandy beaches, clear blue Caribbean waters, palm trees, great food and welcoming people make Isla Baru a great destination.
The island used to be a peninsula before it was cut off from the mainland. Today it is connected by a bridge.
Most beaches on the island are private, so life happens on the one public beach: Playa Blanca. The long expanse of sugar-fine sand, the views of the bay, the local food and drinks make the beach a lot of fun.
Life on the island is simple. There is almost no wifi, electrical supply is limited so forget about charging your devices. Drinking water has to be imported so you have to be frugal.
Instead of complaining, take advantage of the return to the simpler times and relax on the beach. Watch some sunsets and enjoy fruit cocktails.
There is a bus that will take you from Cartagena to Isla Baru, or you can take a boat from the Tourist Pier near the Convention Center.
Isla de Coche | Venezuela
Isla de Coche or Coche Island is a windsurfing paradise. Windsurfers have discovered the strong winds off many beaches on this small Venezuelan island and now some of the biggest windsurfing championships in the world are held in this island paradise.
Pristine beaches with powdery white sands stretching for miles are other island attractions. With consistently hot weather and clear sky, the island attracts snowbirds from Europe and Canada year after year.
There are more than 80 hotels so there is something for every budget.
Strong winds on the island that are so great for windsurfing and kiteboarding made the island vegetation stunted and sparse.
You can explore it on a bike and visit some of the most magnificent beaches, but you better bring sunscreen and a lot of water.
While you are biking around, go see the famous salt mines, one of the main sources of island income besides fishing and tourism. There are also plenty of birds so bird watchers should bring their binoculars and cameras.
Most people come to Coche from its bigger sister Isla Margarita, by boat or ferry. Some luxury hotels have a helipad for those who do not want to bother with public transport.
San Andres | Colombia
With more than 40 dive sites and magnificent coral reefs, you can imagine that most people come to San Andres in Colombia for its spectacular diving. This Colombian island in the Caribbean Sea, closer to the coast of Nicaragua, was declared a UNESCO world biosphere for its spectacular natural beauty, on land and under water.
Inhabited at different times by Spanish, English, pirates and buccaneers, the island has a wonderful mix of influence in everything, from the architecture and cuisine to the languages people speak and the music they enjoy.
If you get tired of diving, snorkeling and laying on one of the amazing sandy beaches doing nothing, you can visit San Andrés and stroll its modern promenade full of hotels, restaurants, bars and shops.
There is a huge selection of hotels and local guest houses, something for every budget.
The only way to get to the island is to fly from Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, or Cali. A 2.5 hour trip will take you directly to the island’s only airport.
Islands in South America at the Tip of the Continent
Isla Navarino | Chile
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The moody landscape of peat bogs, jagged mountain peaks of the Dientes del Navarino and a dense, mysterious southern Beech forest is the world you will meet when you arrive at Isla Navarino.
Navarino Island is located between Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. The island’s main town, Puerto Williams, is the world’s southernmost city.
Part of Tierra del Fuego, the island’s rugged, forbidding scenery and jagged mountain range attract adventurers planning to brave one of the world’s toughest treks.
For less arduous pursuits, you can try to catch trout in one of the hidden lakes and rivers and enjoy the breathtaking views of the snowcapped mountains all around you. You can also stroll through Puerto Williams and learn about the turbulent history of its original inhabitants Indigenous Yaghàn who lived there 10,000 years ago.
The easiest way of getting to the Isla Navarino is by flying from Punta Arenas in Chile. There is an airport on the island. It takes about 1.5 hours.
The Largest Island in South America
Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego | Argentina
Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego is practically at the end of the world. Considered one of the largest islands in South America.
Located near the southern tip of South America, the island is separated from the continent by the Strait of Magellan. The island is split between Chile and Argentina.
While belonging to the Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fire) archipelago, no fire on this island. It is cold. Cold, dry and windy. The main city on the Argentinian side is Ushuaia, the base for all the adventure tours going south, where it is even colder and windier.
From Ushuaia, you can visit the Martial and Vinciguerra glacier, Lake Fagnano and the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The park, located on the coast, is rich in wildlife and has a large clear lake.
Take a boat trip through the Finis Terrae fjords, you can see the glaciers passing through Cape Horn and Ushuaia.
Why are so many people visiting Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego when it is so cold and inhospitable? Because it is exciting and different and because it is a trip of a lifetime. Who else do you know who went to the end of the world?
Conclusion – Islands in South America
Exploring the islands in South America was like a trip back home. Most people imagine tropical sandy beaches, beach bars, lush jungles and colorful animals. Howewer there is so much more to it, such as the breathtaking snowy islands in Argentina and Chile.
Latin American islands are also ancient, some inhabited for thousands of years. Some have such rare wildlife that had to be protected as parks and wilderness areas. And then there are islands that are so remote and so wild that only the most adventurous are brave enough to visit. Which one are you?