Each year, millions of tourists flock to Latin America, the area south of the United States where the official language is Spanish, Portuguese or French, to enjoy its beaches, rainforests, mountains, biodiversity, history, and culture. According to the latest data from 2017, Latin American’s travel and tourism industry contributed more than $349 billion to the region’s gross domestic product (GDP). By 2028, this figure is expected to rise to over $600 billion.
Mexico, by far, is the most visited Latin American country, having hosted 41.5 million international tourists as of 2018. Following Mexico are Argentina (6.9 million), Brazil (6.6 million), Dominican Republic (6.5 million), Chile (5.7 million), Cuba, (4.7 million), and Peru (4.4 million).
If you're concerned about safety, consider that many Latin American countries received favorable scores on the Global Peace Index, a measure of the relative peacefulness of 163 nations worldwide (representing 99% of the world’s population) compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace. The Index measures peace based on 22 qualitative and quantitative indicators, including ongoing domestic and international conflict, societal safety and security (including crime rates), and militarization.
In 2019, the U.S. ranked 128 out of 163, less peaceful than any of the countries listed below. Canada's rank was 6. Read on for snapshots of the four Latin American countries that earned the best scores on the Global Peace Index.
A country's affordability here is judged in light of the Economist's Big Mac Index, which measures purchasing power parity (PPP) by comparing the worth of a Big Mac in each country. For comparison, a Big Mac in the U.S. costs $5.67.
Global Peace Index Rank 2019: 27/163
International Tourists in 2018: 5.7 million
Big Mac Index 2020: $3.42
Chile is a geographically diverse country along South America’s western coast that stretches from the tropics in the northern part of the country down towards Antarctica in the south. The Atacama Desert in the north is the world’s driest non-polar desert, and Chile’s southern region is lush with forests and grazing land, volcanoes, lakes, and a maze of fjords, inlets, and islands. Travelers enjoy Chile for its numerous coastal beach towns—some with world-class surf breaks—an extensive national park system, wine tours, and exquisite natural beauty.
Global Peace Index Rank 2019: 33/163
International Tourists in 2018: 3 million
Big Mac Index 2020: $4.12
Costa Rica is a Central American country bordered by Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the south and situated between the Pacific Ocean on its west coast and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Because of its proximity to the equator, Costa Rica has a tropical climate year-round. Parks and protected areas, which include about 25% of Costa Rica’s land area, help protect the country’s extensive biodiversity.
In addition to enjoying its numerous beach towns, rainforests, volcanoes, and ticos (locals), Costa Rica is a well-known adventure-tourism destination where travelers can experience whitewater rafting, canopy tours, zip-lines, night-hikes through the rainforest, and horseback rides on beaches.
Global Peace Index Rank 2019: 34/163
International Tourists in 2018: 3.5 million
Big Mac Index 2020: $4.78
Sometimes called the Switzerland of South America, Uruguay sits on the southeastern Atlantic coast between Argentina to the west and south and Brazil to the north. Uruguay is known for its wide-open beaches, coastal fishing villages that attract abundant wildlife, including sea lions, seals, penguins, and offshore whales, natural thermal baths, such as the Termas de Daymán in northwestern Uruguay, a love of fútbol (soccer), cobblestone streets, and the gaucho culture with its cattle ranches and skilled horsemen.
Global Peace Index Rank 2019: 47/163
International Tourists in 2018: 1.8 million
Big Mac Index 2020: Not Available
Panama is the last country in Central America and connects with South America proper through Columbia. With the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, Panama is known for its beautiful beaches. Panama is certainly famous for one of the largest engineering projects of the 20th century, the Panama Canal, which helped bridge the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean via a quicker route. The country is also known for surfing, the cloud forests of Chiriqui, its jungles, and coffee.
The Case for Mexico
There are many safe destinations in Latin America, but where does Mexico, the most-visited country, rank? Toward the bottom of the Global Peace Index, with a score of 140/163. Some states within Mexico, says the Index, are far more peaceful than others. Out of Mexico’s 32 states, Hidalgo, Chiapas, Yucatan, and Campeche, scored well compared to Guerrero and Colima.
The Bottom Line
Latin America offers a wealth of things for people of all tastes to experience. To help ensure you enjoy your trip, do your homework ahead of time and research all you can about where you want to go. Use common sense and avoid (or use extra caution in) areas with active travel alerts and warnings. Always check the U.S. Department of State’s Alerts and Travel Warnings to start.