South America is an amazingly diverse continent, stretching from the balmy Caribbean coast in the north to wild Patagonia in the south; the variety of cultures, climates, and landscapes across 13 countries really has to be experienced to be believed.
There are ample opportunities for adventure, witnessing breathtaking nature, marvelling at indigenous and colonial history, enjoying incredible food, wine, and coffee, relaxing on tropical beaches, or getting caught up in the vibrant festivals, music, and dance. World-famous icons of Machu Picchu, Rio’s Copacabana Beach, Iguazu Falls, Lake Titicaca, the Andes, and the Amazon barely have you scratching the surface of what is on offer. Lesser-known regions such as Patagonia, the Atacama Desert and the Pantanal are quickly becoming popular in Australia too.
Travellers to South America are typically couples or groups of friends interested in nature, wildlife, and authentic local culture. They have a strong sense of adventure and are active, opting for independent or small group travel.
Those looking for a physical challenge are drawn to trekking in Patagonia or hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, although you can easily do these destinations without the physical exertion without missing the sights. Peru has recently become a huge attraction for foodies, with Lima now home to many world-class restaurants, food tours and cooking classes.
The ancient Incan Empire provides travellers with an interest in history, archaeology, and culture enough sites and tours to fill a three-week itinerary through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia over and over again.
Travellers seeking a more modern vibrant Latin culture should not miss Rio de Janeiro (all of Brazil really) and the unrivalled nightlife of Buenos Aires in Argentina.
How to get to South America
Air access to South America is generally via Santiago and flights within South America are readily available between all major cities, with LATAM providing an excellent Air Pass that significantly reduces the cost of a ticket and checked baggage.
There is also an excellent coach network that provides very comfortable and reasonably priced transport – perfect for travellers who want to see spectacular landscapes, such as the Andes, up close and personal. Peru has a good rail network and is particularly scenic between Machu Picchu and Cusco, as well as around Lake Titicaca.
Small ship cruises are a great way to see the Amazon, Chilean Fjords and, of course, the Galapagos Islands. Expedition cruises to Antarctica mostly leave from Ushuaia in Argentina, which also provides a spectacular add-on to a South American adventure.
The regions of South America
South America can be divided into three physical regions: mountains and highlands, river basins, and coastal plains. Mountains and coastal plains generally run in a north-south direction, while highlands and river basins generally run in an east-west direction. However, it is often broken down into five regions.
The Patagonia Region is home to the most picturesque landscapes in South America. Situated in Southern Argentina and Chile, this region features the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the few advancing glaciers in the world, as well as pristine Andean national parks, lakes and alpine forests. The lake region also features a wide variety of outdoor activities, particularly in Bariloche, a popular ski resort set in the scenic mountain of the Andes. Further south in Glacier National Park you will find a mountainous landscape dotted with glaciers and a variety of rare and unusual wildlife.
The Andes features some of the most spectacular scenery in South America with its dynamic variation of terrain. There are pristine lakes and rivers, glacier parks, Inca ruins, snow-capped peaks, and lush rain forests, making it a great place for outdoor adventures, including some of the best skiing in the world on the eastern slopes. It is also the longest mountain range in the world, running 4,500 miles along the west coast of South America. It passes through seven countries, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, and Argentina, making it accessible for most travellers bound for South America.
Here you can enjoy the bright blue waters, white-sand beaches, and beautiful coral reefs, which make it an excellent area for swimming and snorkelling. Brazil is a great place to begin your adventure, especially since it has the longest stretch of coastline in South America.
This region encompasses many different types of landscapes, including rainforests, mountains, lakes, and grasslands. It is also home to the largest ecosystem on the planet and over a dozen major rivers. It is situated next to the Andean border in the west and covers over 1.4 million square miles that stretches across the continent.
In the wetlands of the Pantanal, the visitor explores the greatest wildlife South America has to offer. Stay at a nature lodge and take unforgettable excursions into the wild.
Top 10 things to do in South America
A continent as diverse as South America means the array of experiences to be had are endless. Here are just some top experiences to scratch the surface of South America.
Trek Machu Picchu
Marvel in the ‘lost city’ – the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. Even the most jaded of traveller cannot help but be seduced by these iconic ruins, considered to be one of the new seven wonders in the modern world. This stunning site situated on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley is the best-preserved relic of Inca civilisation and South America’s most popular attraction with an estimated 3,000 people visiting on a typical day. Whether you reach Machu Picchu’s isolated location by trekking the world-famous Inca Trail or in the comfort of a luxury train, you are certain to be astounded by its beauty and mystery.
Visit Iguazu Falls
Get soaked on a boat ride at the impressive Iguazu Falls. Widely recognised as one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders, this spectacular attraction boasts more than 250 falls – some of which reach to heights of over 60 metres. La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), is the largest fall in the park and the highlight of any visit. A suspended platform at the brink of the fall allows for a startlingly close view but the Great Adventure Boat Tour enables you to gain a different perspective as you cruise on a motorboat at the base of the falls and feel the power of the falls as you get soaked with mist.
Dance the Tango
Discover Tango, European architecture and vibrant culture in the ‘Paris of the South’, Buenos Aires. The capital of the Republic of Argentina and the country’s largest city, it is undeniably one of Latin America’s hottest destinations. Located on the shores of the Rio de la Plata, the city is famous for its historic architecture, tango parlours and antique shops as well as famous street Caminito where you will have the chance to view the spectacle of impromptu tango dancing and many street performers.
Sip wine in Mendoza
Visit Mendoza, South America’s wine capital with the possibly the most impressive backdrop imaginable: the Andes. This thriving region is a wonderful destination for outdoor enthusiasts all year round with cycling, Andes hikes and much more the perfect payoff for those lazy afternoons exploring local vineyards.
Hike, cycle, climb or cruise your way through jaw-dropping Patagonia. People travel from all over the world to marvel in the Andean paradise of this area with its icy beauty, rugged, towering mountains, and pristine lakes and rivers. Both Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia boast abundant wildlife, from soaring Andean Condor, to the meandering herds of the llama’s close cousin – the Guanaco, and for the very lucky, the elusive Puma. Fill your days, hiking, horse trekking, rafting, all the while soaking in the jaw dropping views. Patagonia is a lot more accessible than other mountain regions in the world and it’s possible to experience incredible landscapes without too much effort or discomfort.
Party at Carnival
Experience the buzz of Brazil’s biggest party – Rio Carnival! Samba in the streets at one of the bloco street parties, dance the night away in the Sambadrome and then relax and recharge with an icy cold caipirinha on the famous Copacabana Beach! The excitement is palpable as the one month build up to the biggest event of the year hits its peak. Visitors and locals mingle and dance on the street under the hot summer sun. Costumes are essential. Feathers, fluoro, flower crowns and fairy wings are everywhere – with a liberal sprinkling of glitter. Music blasts from every corner. Enterprising Cariocas (Rio residents) sell passers-by cold beer, water and soft drinks out of eskies on the street. It seems like almost every store turns into a makeshift bar. Feisty shopkeepers ferry huge bottles of beer out to their colourful clientele perched on wooden crates in the street. Linger a little longer and they are bound to invite you to join.
Marvel at the Atacama Desert
Trek through the other-worldly landscape of the Atacama Desert. This spectacular region covers over 100,000 square kms to the west of the Andes mountains, bordered by Bolivia and Argentina. To say the landscape is unlike anything is an understatement. With over 40 volcanoes (some active), 15,000 square kms of salt flats and the well-named Valley of the Moon and Valley of Mars (also called Valley of Death), geysers and three mountain ranges, you better make sure to pack a spare camera battery and a good pair of hiking boots.
Be amazed by the Amazon
See the spectacular Amazon. As the largest tract of tropical rainforest in the Americas, these rainforests have an unparalleled variation of life. It is well known that best place to see the Amazon is from the river, and cruises offer a unique opportunity to get up close to the dark and exotic beauty and enthralling wildlife of one of the world’s most famous adventure destinations.
See jaguars, pumas, toucans, otters and many more exotic species in the Pantanal. The world’s largest wetland, and the best place for viewing wetland wildlife, this exotic ecosystem offers varied landscapes home to an enormous amount of biodiversity that will keep your camera snapping away.
Overland past the salt flats
Travel from La Paz to Santiago. It’s difficult to comprehend the enormity of Salar de Uyuni, but it is truly a highlight of South America. Blindingly white and impossibly flat, the largest salt flats in the world span an area of over 10,500 square kilometres. On closer inspection you will see that the salt dries into repetitive hexagonal shapes with jagged salty edges sharp to the touch. Continue south across the incredible Altiplano and see its active volcanoes, thermal pools and multi-coloured lakes filled with flamingos.
For more on South America visit www.southamericatourism.com
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