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Five Criminally Underrated South American Destinations

One might contend that South America, in and of itself, remains vastly overlooked as an overall tourist destination. There's still something to that argument -- despite its proximity, American travel dreams often reach across the Atlantic or toward Asia. Not much longer. Tourism boards throughout the continent have substantially amped up promotional efforts this past decade and travelers have taken notice. But there still exist vastly overlooked portions of this diverse, gorgeous group of nations virtually untouched by travelers, typically offering luxury and fantastical visuals without hurting budgets. We've gathered experts who know the area best to dish their cherished getaways and local secrets, whether it's the highest navigable lake on Earth, the true physical location of "Dedo de Deus" (God's Finger, pictured above) or an ancient beach city turned colonial archetectural haven where a toucan may steal your cinnamon roll (seriously). Disagree with our choices? Got any to add? Dish it in the comments -- we'd love to hear it. Be sure to read our experts' bios when you're finished. And while you're at it, perhaps you'll enjoy our list of the Five Most Overlooked European Cities too. Without further ado:

Cartagena, Colombia
I've been here / I want to go here

Colombia continues to concern travelers, and its violent past certainly merits a raised eyebrow for tourists. But travel in cities like Cartagena, as frequent traveler Michael Hodson notes, prove that much of the fear is dated, and keen travelers have taken notice. Colombia hosts "the most beautiful and friendly people you will ever meet," he says.

Located on the Caribbean side of Colombia, Cartagena is a beach town that our expert Monica Irauzqui describes as "a hot, sultry city filled with color, music and charm." With a rich history dating back to the Puerto Hormiga peoples in 7000 B.C., much of the ancient flavor has remained intact throughout the centuries despite being co-opted by European conquerors intoxicated by the coastal town's charm. The old sector of the city features many older homes that have been re-fashioned into lovely small hotels. Monica cherished her experience at The Santa Rosa, a renovated 1600s monastery she claims to be taken from a page of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, and where "while at breakfast a toucan stole my cinnamon roll," she recalls. Might want to keep a watchful eye on your Froot Loops.

Despite a plethora of options for adventure and tourism, you should save time to wander through the alleys and thoroughfares of the old walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, where Monica says you can find "tiled roofs, balconies and flower-filled courtyards." If you don't overschedule your time in this classic South American gem, she recommends visiting the mud volcano, heading to the rainforest or snorkeling the crystal-clear waters.

Ouro Preto, Brazil I've been here / I want to go here Its longer name tells its history: "Vila Rica de Ouro Preto" translates to "Rich Village of Black Gold," and rich history stands as a winning point of interest for this strictly traditional UNESCO World Heritage City.Portuguese miners took a shine to Ouro Preto, situated in the Serra do Espinhaco mountains, and transformed the town into a stunning Baroque revivalist city, where from its highest point one can see "Colonial houses with red tile roofs, winding streets, and many churches surrounded by mountains," says expert Monica Irauzqui. Precious metals and stones decorate the gorgeous architecture and building codes remain adherent to high standards set forth by local law. The area also brims with African history, as slaves overcame severe strife and have their stories housed in many local museums.

Also recommended is the nearby tiny village of Congonhas, where Monica claims she tasted the finest Caipirinha in the country -- that is, the popular national drink consisting of Cachaça, sugar and limes. Ouro Preto's surge in wealth led to it becoming a local haven for the arts, where renowned sculptor Aleijadinho, who late in life lost the use of his hands, began fashioning works by strapping a chisel to his wrist. Congonhas features a wide array of Aleijadinho's masterpieces.

Lake Titicaca, Peru
I've been here / I want to go here
Heed these words: "All our clients come to Peru to see Machu Picchu but many leave saying Lake Titicaca was one of the best destinations on their trip," says our resident expert Monica Irauzqui.

Machu Picchu and its surrounding areas have suffered horrifically with recent flooding, leading to a temporary shutdown of tourism at the lauded site. While the beloved site recovers, though, travelers shouldn't lose sight of Peru's diverse treasures. Lake Titicaca, situated 14,000 feet into the Andes on the border of Bolivia and Peru, is the highest navigable lake in the world and largest by volume in South America. The views afforded are almost comically vivid; late at night, "the sky will give you a show of the magnificent stars which you will feel you can touch," says Monica. Hike the area by day to experience unique flora and fauna like Camelids and Vizcacha and witness the Floating Isles of Uros, an island literally constructed of reeds -- houses, boats, anything you can imagine.

It's recommended you check out the island of Taquile, a "spiritual hotspot," where locals play music and may even invite you into their home to cook traditional dishes and show you how they live. Culturally and visually, there exist few more compelling visits in all of South America than Lake Titicaca.

Teresopolis, Brazil I've been here / I want to go here

As you're well aware, giant mountain rock formations that resemble body parts or common objects usually either belong to God or The Devil. In the case of Teresopolis, the jagged centerpiece of Serra dos Órgãos National Park in Teresopolis, the power balance favors Team Heaven, probably due in no small part to it being an index finger pointing toward the clouds -- "God's Finger," to be precise. And it ain't the only heavenly part of this criminally overlooked jewel of Brazil, hidden just an hour outside of the bustling Rio de Janeiro.

Teresopolis hosts cascading waterfalls, superb hiking and a gorgeous shot of Rio should you reach the higher peaks. Known as the "locals' secret" according to our expert Dave Iba, Brazilian celebrities and wealthy retreat to getaway homes Teresopolis and world-class footballers regularly train in the area's Granja Comary. If you're looking for a natural respite from the madness of Rio, scope the horizon for God's Finger and mark off your "Appendages of Deities" checklist.

Huacachina, Peru
I've been here / I want to go here

Want to know what it's like to whip around sand foothills in a post-apocalyptic dune vehicle before stopping to hang ten on sandboards? You should. And no, this isn't Mad Max or Tatooine, though it might be the best bet for Star Wars geeks looking to mimic a Skywalker lifestyle.
Situated 5 km from Ica, a 4 1/2 hour bus ride from Lima, Huacachina is a literal desert oasis and former getaway for Peru's wealthy that now hosts an increasing amount of thrill-seekers looking for new adventure-highs and much more. Hire out a local dune buggy and prepare for whiplash -- with the whole desert in front of them, grizzled drivers take you on an unpredictable tour-de-force that would encourage ecstatic open-mouth smiling if it didn't mean so much sand in your mouth. Experience as well the tradition of sandboarding, a local variant of snowboarding wherein most just give up and end up flying downhill on their stomach, and you'll wonder why Huacachina isn't a go-to stop on Peru itineraries. The rustic little town of 115 thrives off tourism and has seen its ups and downs in recent renovation years trying to appeal to a wider audience, but if local legend holds true, hopefully the center pool's guardian mermaid will bring great fortune in future influx to the city.Many, many thanks to our expert contributors! Check out their bios and their pages for more helpful information: Michael Hodson was a lawyer in Arkansas, USA, before taking off on a round-the-world trip in December of 2008 with two rules: no reservations and no airplanes. His boat will get him back to the States in April and he looks forward to writing a book about his adventure when he gets back, before starting off again. His blog is at www.mobilelawyer.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @mobilelawyer.

Monica Irauzqui, along with her husband Jose, owns Yampu Latin America Tours, a company specializing in customized tours to Latin America. She cherishes traveling with family to all of Yampu's destinations (kids 9 and 11) and she has been to most countries in Latin America. Find out more about Yampu Latin America Tours at http://www.yampu.com. Dave Iba has lived in Brazil for three years, extensively traveling South America along the way. He just started up a blog, Dave's Travels, chronicling his experiences so far. Follow him on Twitter @davestravels. (Image credits: Andre Maceira, Kymberly Janisch, cschneid, Monica Irauzqui)

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Five Criminally Underrated South American Destinations + trip