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 scenery.

The article 'A beginner’s guide to South America' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.