Adventure is beckoning, an adventure in South America no less. But with such vast expanses of land and sea to explore – across 12 separate countries – choosing what activities to do can be daunting. That’s why we’ve compiled a few ideas to make your life that bit easier, and to tickle your travel taste buds. Some of the activities we’ve selected are winning classics, and some are a little more unusual – we’ll leave the rest up to you.
The most famous of South America’s arid regions is the Atacama desert, known as the driest desert in the world. A rich landscape of volcanic hills, valleys, timelessly traditional villages, and pockets of fertile oases, and home to the charismatic city of San Pedro de Atacama, this region is far from being desolate and lifeless and has an other-worldly quality.
The combination of altitude, dry climate, and lack of pollution means that the Atacama has the clearest skies on the planet. Either make time in the evening yourself to look at the heavens, take a night-time star-gazing tour, or visit the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations open-air observatory for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A dune pool might sound like an oxymoron, but believe it or not there exists in Brazil a magical place where the sand stretches out in undulating pillows, peppered with the clearest and bluest of rainwater lagoons. This is Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, which translates aptly as the ‘Bedsheets of Maranhão’, a striking and otherworldly landscape seen best from June to August. Go swimming, hire a paddleboard, take stunning photos, or explore the mangroves and villages of this national park.
The colors, sights, and smells of the rich medley of South American cultures are nowhere more heightened than in its delightful patchwork of cities. Many of these cosmopolitan centers are framed in astounding cinematic scenery, launchpads into the adventures on their doorsteps.
From the tango salons, steakhouses, and grand architecture of Buenos Aires, to the effervescent atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro, to trendy Lima in Peru or Bolivia’s twin capitals of Sucre and La Paz – South America is home to some of the most captivating capital cities in the world.
With such diverse geology, it’s little wonder that the coast of South America is studded with clusters of entrancing islands. Perhaps the most well-known of these archipelagos are the world-famous Galapagos Islands with its bizarre spectrum of wildlife, sited off the beautiful Ecuadorian coast. The natural beauty of this place is best experienced by a Galapagos cruise, where you get up-close views of blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises, sea lions, and flightless cormorants on volcanic breeding grounds.
The furthest pinnacle of South America is where you’ll find the rugged shores of Tierra Del Fuego – a stark and fascinating set of islands severed by straits such as the famous Beagle Channel. The world’s most southerly train journey, el tren del fin del mundo (Train to the End of the World), carves its path through these breath-taking landscapes, making a unique way to experience this barren but beautiful part of the planet. Originally constructed to carry freight to the prison colony of Ushuaia (the capital of Tierra Del Fuego), now it is a tourist train with striking views and a captivating story to tell.
It’s not just archipelagos that take the glory in South America – there are several remarkable single islands throughout South America that are well worth a visit. Make time for a tour of Easter Island (Rapa Nui), located far out in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile, to see first-hand a prime example. A staggering open-air museum of famous monolithic figurines called Moai (Easter Island Heads), here you’ll also find beautiful beaches of white coral sand and interesting volcanic geology.
See the passage of time etched out on the land by visiting some of the dazzling valleys in South America. Over the millennia, the meandering river Urubamba has carved out Peru’s Sacred Valley, around which is nestled the most fascinating Inca settlements, such as the villages of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and of course Machu Picchu. Also in Peru, one of the deepest canyons in the world can be found near the white-stone town of Arequipa – the epic Colca Canyon in Colca Valley.
Chile has some great valleys – one of the most popular trekking destinations in Torres Del Paine park is the French Valley, while in the north of the country is the wondrous Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and the multicolored rock of Rainbow Valley. Equally compelling but perhaps for different reasons is Casablanca Valley near Santiago, which is famed for its vineyards and wineries!
Deserts in South America come in all shapes, sizes, and climates. At over 10 thousand square kilometers, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flat, truly a place of wonder – a blindingly beautiful dried-up prehistoric salt lake. It becomes especially unearthly in the rain when the water transforms the flat white land into a spectacular mirror reflecting the sky – a fantastic photo opportunity.
Off the coast of Brazil glistens the enchanting Atlantic archipelago of Fernando de Noronha. This volcanic collection of 21 islands are truly a tropical paradise, where you can explore protected nesting sites of sea turtles, scuba dive with tropical fish and dolphins, and go birdwatching from forest trails. Additionally, Fernando de Noronha is considered a top honeymoon destination in Brazil.
Water is the lifeblood of so much of South America, and there’s no better way to access and experience the mysterious realm of the Amazon Rainforest than by river cruise. The Amazon River basin spans some of the most remarkable sights and wildlife habitats, such as the pink river dolphins of Peru’s ‘Jungle of Mirror’s – Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, as well as being the pulsing heart of so many of South America’s villages, towns, and cities.
In Brazil, witness the meeting of the waters (the confluence of the clear Rio Solimões and the brown Rio Negro), or the breathtaking beauty of the Pantanal (the world’s largest wetland). Watch creatures frequent riverside clay licks, visit the floating restaurants of Iquitos, take a Pampas tour through the Bolivian Amazon, or a cruise along Ecuador’s river Napo.
Argentina and Brazil share one of the most staggering features to visit in South America – the humbling waters of the Iguazu Falls. It’s an astonishing, visceral experience at any time of day, but the opportunity to witness this natural phenomenon by the light of a full moon is not one to be passed up if your visit coincides. Entrancing shimmering light dances to the sounds of the forest’s nocturnal hum and the cascade of the waterfall.
South America is home to some extraordinary topography, and perhaps the most stunning is its epic mountain ranges. The backbone of these is formed from the mighty Andes which is the longest continental mountain range in the world at 7000 kilometers in length, lacing the entire western edge of the continent.
At the foot of the continent is the spectacular Torres Del Paine National Park, a wild and rugged landscape dominated by extreme geology, including Los Cuernos of the Paine Massif, glacial lakes, and monumental glaciers. These, along with the table-like plateaus of Chapada Diamantina in Brazil, the lofty heights of Rainbow Mountain in Peru, the cold blue hues of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina, and the view of Machu Picchu from the craggy peak of Huayna Picchu, are all must-sees of South America’s mountains.
A rich vein of history, traditions, and cultures runs through the heart of this beautiful continent, vestiges of which can be seen in some of the world’s most famous archaeological sites. For the ultimate adventure through time, take the legendary Inca Trail through a beautiful section of the Andes Mountains, to Peru’s top bucket list destination – the Inca Empire’s citadel of Machu Picchu.
Pass through Inti Punku (The Sun Gate), get up close to amazing lithic structures, see the extraordinary circular Temple of the Sun, get a glimpse of the precarious Inca Drawbridge, and marvel at the Incas’ predilection for all things astronomical. The Inca Trail can be enjoyed by nearly everybody provided you are prepared for the trek.
For the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday, revelry reigns supreme across much of the continent as the locals let their hair down the only way they know how during Carnival. For the most spectacular of parties, there’s really only one place to be – Rio de Janeiro. Regarded as the ‘greatest show on Earth’, more than two million people samba their way through the city’s streets, bedazzled by flamboyant floats, filigree-feathered dancers, and the hypnotic rhythms of the batucada, the Brazilian samba style. Whether you only go for the street parties or manage to get a ticket for the main event in the Sambadrome, you’re sure to have a ball.
Perhaps the most rewarding of things to do whilst in South America is to get to know its people, taking the time to interact with those whose local knowledge, heritage and customs will invariably enrich your journey. This colorful continent has a rich and fascinating cultural heritage, from the indigenous tribes of its Amazon to the descendants of famous pre-Columbian civilizations and subsequent Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors and their African servants. Meet the shaman of the rainforest and enter their mysterious realm, see the way of life of the Argentinian gauchos, and learn about the roles of religion and music in modern society. But most of all, embrace the passion, warmth, and kindness of these close, extended families who may well make you feel at home in theirs.
With such a wealth of choices at your fingertips, it’s easy to find planning a trip overwhelming. Hopefully, this list will give you a few good ideas for your trip to South America. Whatever you opt for, we can guarantee that you’ll have the time of your lives!
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