I never really thought much of the islands in South America; in fact, before I came here I don’t think I even knew of any except the Galapagos Islands and Aruba. Sound relatable? WELL LET ME CHANGE THAT. There are thousands of islands in South America – Colombia alone has 74 – but I’ve picked out the ones I consider the most fascinating, memorable or iconic to visit.
The go-to perception of an island is usually that of palm treed paradise, but you’ll hopefully be interested to see the huge amount of variation in ecosystems and climates creating different island vibes across the continent.
I’m going to start our journey through the must-visit islands in South America up in Venezuela and work my way anti-clockwise so you can follow me around a map. In fact, I’m a nice person; here’s a map to follow:
You’ll see at the end of this post that you also get 2 bonus islands in South America that aren’t actually geographically on the continent, but are considered politically part of it.
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Though not exactly accessible at the moment for obvious political reasons, it would be wrong to leave Isla de Coche off the list of the must-visit islands in South America. It’s a white-sanded, crystal-watered heaven on earth, and a playground for Venezuela’s 1%. The smaller, more exclusive sister of Isla Margarita, this is the perfect place for a tropical break – and maybe a bit of kitesurfing!
While it exudes Caribbean vibes, Aruba is geographically classed as an island in South America. Just off the coast of Venezuela, not far from the islands of Trinidad & Tobago, Aruba is utter paradise, with white sands and seriously beautiful resorts. It’s still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, so the island’s official languages are Dutch and Papiamento (a Portuguese-based Creole) but many islanders also have a very high level of English, which makes it a great vacation destination if you’re worried about language barriers.
Rosario Islands & Isla Barú, Colombia
As mini-breaks go, this is probably one of the most accessible archipelago of islands in South America. With the nearest of the Rosario Islands being less than an hour boat ride from the centre of Cartagena, and Isla Barú accessible within 30 minutes by car, these are a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of the sweltering city.
Isla Gorgona, Colombia
You know how you can venture to the roadless edges of Colombia’s Chocó region to watch humpback whales rear their young? Well, you can also do it from a Colombian island, Gorgona, 28km out into the Pacific Ocean. Far, far from the crowds, Isla Gorgona (with sister island Gorgonilla) is well off the beaten track, making it one of the most unspoilt inhabited islands in South America. To add more intrigue, the island was an Alcatraz-style maximum security prison for 25 years, before its transformation to a tropical national reserve.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
This one goes without saying! Probably the most famous islands in South America, the Galapagos are known for their incredibly well-preserved ecosystems that allowed Darwin to crack the code of evolution theory. By far the best way to explore the many islands and see all the amazing wildlife on the non-inhabited islands is by taking a 5+ day sailing trip. If you have time to also explore Isla Isabela by bike, you can cycle up to the ruins of an old penal colony where prisoners were forced to build their own prison’s walls.
Islas del Sol y Isla de la Luna, Bolivia
Experience tranquility hiking the rolling green hills of these sacred islands surrounded by the peace of the planet’s highest navigable lake, Titicaca. Incas believed these islands to be the birthplace of the sun and the moon. An easy trip from Copacabana, this is a chance to really get lost in nature and see how life has been lived for hundreds of years. Like Islas Gorgona and Isabela, Isla de la Luna was also a state prison for over two decades. I can think of worse places to do time…
Isla Grande de Chiloé, Chile
Ok, who likes penguins? Good, because Isla Grande de Chiloé is one of the many islands in South America that have been blessed with a colony of these adorable flappers! And while there are 10 species that live around this area, the most special to catch sight of is the Humbolt penguin, which is endangered but lives in this area. The island itself is also really beautiful, famous for its colourful stilted houses that hang over the water.
With such a long coastline, it’s no wonder that so many amazing islands in South America are situated off of Brazil, so let’s get stuck into the most trip-worthy! Ilha de Santa Catarina is fairly big, and it is home to half of the city of Florianópolis, which stretches over from the mainland. This was one of my favourite places in Brazil due to the fact that it has towns for every vibe, from fishing villages to samba hubs, from luxury hideouts to fun beach resorts. There are also sand dunes, mountains and a few huge lakes right in the middle of the island. Here’s my mum enjoying it all:
Ilha do Cardoso, Brazil
A Brazilian hideaway with a whole different vibe, Ilha do Cardoso is where you want to go for a campfire chill and a spot of fishing. Expect tranquil rivers of the delta, sleepy colonial towns and miles and miles of uninhabited nature reserve at the point where the states of Paraná and São Paulo meet.
Ilha Grande, Brazil
This stretch of the Brazilian coastline, just west of Rio de Janeiro, is so unbelievably beautiful, and the nearby islands in South America’s Atlantic paradise are no exception. Ilha Grande is hugely popular as a weekend break to sunbathe off the Copacabana hangover on a pristine beach. It’s a car-free zone, but you can still explore easily without a guide. And just for something new, Ilha Grande used to be home to – you guessed it – a maximum security prison.
Ilha dos Frades, Brazil
As if a trip to the north-eastern stronghold of Salvador doesn’t stimulate the senses enough, the city has a popular day-trip to Ilha dos Frades. Its bays are lined by emerald waters, and just to add a little extra cuteness you can find the quaint Loreto church right on the edge of the coast.
Islands in South America… that aren’t actually in South America
These islands “in” South America might be politically considered part of the continent due to their ownership and governance, but geographically sit elsewhere. What I love most about these types of ‘islands in South America that are not actually in South America’ is that the cultures here tend to develop at a different pace to the rest of the governing country, taking influence from the societal norms of both continents.
Isla de Providencia, Colombia
The island I can’t/won’t stop talking about. Isla de Providencia is Colombia’s best slice of paradise, and it’s protected from over-tourism by limited transport charters. Caribbean at heart with all sorts of Spanish and Colombian cultural markers popping up every now and then, Isla de Providencia is the place you’ll never want to leave. It’s tucked up next to Nicaragua, and is a 16 minute flight away from the neighbouring Colombian holiday island of San Andres.
Easter Island, Chile
When you think of ancient civilisations around the world, I’d be surprised if the iconic Easter Island heads – or moai – didn’t pop into your mind. These immense stone figures (figureheads?) really are authentic structures from the Rapanui people hundred of years before the first European colonisers stumbled across the once-barren isle. Now very much lush and green, Easter Island sits in the most easterly part of Oceania, but is accessible by a 2300-mile flight from Santiago, Chile.
So there ends my list of the best islands in South America! Do you have any more to add in the comments section?
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