South America has long captivated travellers with its plethora of natural and cultural wonders. Take a quick inventory of continental highlights, and it is easy to see why -- idyllic beaches, snow-covered mountains and tropical rainforests, all of which make a fine backdrop for a memorable holiday.
There is just one catch:
this continent is massive. There is simply no way to see it all (unless
you have a couple of spare years up your sleeve). So if you have been thinking
of going but do not quite know where to begin, here is a quick primer on South
America’s top destinations:
Peru and Bolivia
One of the many classic
South American routes involves bumping around the Andes, visiting the indigenous
villages, colonial towns and ancient ruins found amid those staggering mountain
peaks. Peru is a great place to start. High in the Andes, you will find
enchanting Cuzco, the oldest continuously inhabited city on
the continent and a fine base for exploring archaeological treasures like
nearby Machu Picchu. Other Peruvian highlights include trekking
in the Cordillera Blanca, walking the cobblestone streets of Arequipa, flying over the mystical Nazca Lines and visiting the floating islands in Lake Titicaca.
At Titicaca, you can continue by boat across to Bolivia, home to
enthralling indigenous villages, biologically rich forests, soaring mountains
and the bizarre and beautiful salt flats of Salar de Uyuni.
If time is limited and you
hope to pack a lot into your itinerary, smallish Ecuador is a good bet. It has the
beautiful colonial towns of Quito and Cuenca that are among the best places to study
Spanish in South America (notable for inexpensive one-on-one language schools
and homestays with local families). The famed Andean mountains are never far,
and you can trek through alpine scenery (the four-day Quilotoa loop is popular), mountain bike along rugged
mountain roads, bird-watch in cloud forests or arrange horseback rides on the
flanks of snow-covered volcanoes (try Cotopaxi National Park). You can also spend a few days in a
rainforest lodge in the Amazon. If time and budget allow, tack on a five-day
tour of island-hopping in the Galapagos at the end.
Larger than the continental
US, Brazil is the geographic (and economic) giant of South America. It is also
Latin America's priciest country, so plan accordingly. Planted among
forest-covered mountains, Rio de Janeiro is a
magnificent introduction to Brazil, with a great music scene, alluring beaches
and heady festivals. A few hours away, you can explore remote coastline,
rainforest-covered islands (such as Ilha Grande) and colonial towns like jewel-box Paraty. With more time, you can add a few internal flights
and visit other regions, starting in the northeast in Salvador,
a colourful colonial city that is the drumming heart of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Other options: thundering Iguazu Falls on the Argentine border; Belem or Manaus,
gateways to the Amazon; and architecturally intriguing Brasilia.
If you have not heard by
now, Colombia is open for travel and safer than it has been in decades. Bogota, the high mountain capital, is a cultural
behemoth with salsa-filled nightclubs, charming cafes and intriguing nearby
sights -- including a surreal underground
salt cathedral, 50km north of the city. For other Colombian hits, try
sunning on the Caribbean coast at Taganga or
the pristine beaches of nearby Parque Nacional Tayrona; trekking to the Ciudad Perdida (“Lost
City”), the largest pre-Colombian town in the Americas; or exploring the
photogenic streets of colonial Cartagena and
its neighbouring coral-fringed islands.
Argentina and Chile
Anchoring Latin America's
southern extremes, these two countries have vineyards, lively capitals and
share the laid-back Lakes District, home to hot springs, picturesque villages and outdoor activities such
as hiking, rafting, climbing and skiing. You will find unrivalled adventure in Patagonia: trekking and horse riding against a
backdrop of glaciers, petrified forests, snow-covered peaks and other stunning
The article 'A beginner’s guide to South America' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.