Highlights Of South America

Where to go, what to see, how to get there

Machu Picchu And The Inca Trail

Standing 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level, South America’s most legendary marvel needs no introduction. When explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered the Inca citadel in 1911 he inspired adventurers from all over the world to make the pilgrimage to its craggy perch high in the Andes, where they encountered the sublime geometry and seemingly inexplicable stonework of one of the world’s greatest wonders.

Today, the stream of visitors is bigger than ever: more than one million people flock to this UNESCO World Heritage site each year, many of them by hiking the four-day Inca Trail that winds through the mysterious ruins and heart-stopping landscapes of Cusco’s Sacred Valley. What they see is beyond words: a royal pleasure-refuge that opens a window to an entire vanished civilization.

Machu Picchu highlights

If you arrive on the Inca Trail then you will hike past the other well-known ruins of Huiñay Huayna, Puyapatamarka and Sayajmarka, before being greeted by a sunrise from Inti Punku, the Inca sun gate, as the threshold to Machu Picchu. And if you arrive by bus, then it’s worth a walk for the view.

The Guardhouse was used to defend the two main entrances and is now one of the best places to take panoramic pictures of Machu Picchu. Climbing Huayna Picchu, the sugarloaf mountain that overlooks the citadel, gives you another perspective. But ensure you get there early because only 400 people are allowed to go up daily.

Don’t forget

In an effort to protect the rapidly eroding ruins, authorities have enacted limits on the number of people hiking the Inca Trail to 500 per day--including porters and guides. You’ll need to book several months in advance to secure your permits, or explore one of the excellent alternatives.

Within the grounds, the perfect Incan stonework of the Temple of the Sun can’t be missed. Also visit the Intihuatana, mysterious rock that was used for making solar calculations. Other places of note include the living quarters of the Inca royal family and the symbolic geometry of the Temple of the Three Windows.

Along the Urubamba River, and near Machu Picchu, there are waterfalls perfect for hiking. Mandor Falls is known as a nature haven worth the hike, and here you can see butterflies, exotic birds, and coffee plantations.

Machu Picchu facts & figures

  • Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a 2007 worldwide poll.
  • Bingham was actually searching for the last Inca stronghold to fall to the Spanish--Vilcabamba--when he came across Machu Picchu.

  • Scholars are still debating the purpose of the citadel, but the most widely accepted theory is that it served as a summer retreat for Pachacutec, the greatest of the Inca emperors.

  • Machu Picchu’s ruins are part of a system of sacred sites that dot the Sacred Valley around Cusco.

  • The Inca Trail can be hiked in anywhere from three to seven days, depending on your preferences and fitness level.

  • Poet Pablo Neruda described his visit to the ruins as one of the culminating experiences of his spiritual life in his book The Heights of Machu Picchu.

  • Inside are more than 600 terraces, thousands of steps and over 150 buildings which range from sanctuaries and temples to baths and houses.

Getting to and around Machu Picchu

There are only two ways to reach Machu Picchu; by foot via the Inca Trail trek, or by train to the town below the ruins, Aguas Calientes (now known as Machu Picchu Town).

Most visitors arrive by train from either Cusco or Ollantaytambo, then spend a night in the uninspiring but functional Aguas Calientes before getting up before dawn for a coach ride up the switchback mountainside to the main entrance.

Guided tours usually last for the morning, followed by some free time to explore the ruins on your own. Be prepared for the crowds, particularly during the peak months of June through August. But if you’re planning on staying for two days, you can stick around until late afternoon when most of the daytrippers thin out to enjoy some relative peace and the gorgeous early evening sun over the ruins. The park closes at 6pm.

Rio de Janeiro

Yes, the stereotypes about sun, sand, and samba are all true. But Rio de Janeiro is infinitely more than beaches and bossa nova. From sweeping views of the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) to shimmering tropical landscapes to pumping beats at all-night street parties, the cidade maravilhosa seduces nearly everyone with its warmth and energy.

This energy peaks, famously, in Carnival, an orgy of music and mayhem that’s like a religious revel for the cariocas (Rio locals). But whether you experience the city while hang-gliding from the surrounding hills or while looking longingly at the Ipanema girls passing by, Rio’s vibrant, pleasure-loving spirit will penetrate the depths of your soul.

Rio de Janeiro highlights

The two best-known attractions are often noted as the highlights of a trip to Rio: Pão de Açúcar and Cristo Redentor. The former, Sugarloaf Mountain, has a two stage cable car that gives you stunning 360-degree views as you rise the 748m (2,454 ft) to the top. Seeing the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer at Corcovado peak is usually reached by taking the cog train.

The train, slowly, takes you through the Parque Nacional de Tijuca and you can hike through this rainforest to the top--or enjoy that another day. Down by the coast you can take in the sun and relax as you enjoy the world-famous beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema.

Don’t forget

Brazil utilizes a reciprocal visa system, which means US and Canadian citizens require visas because Brazilians do in both countries. These should be obtained before arrival and will give you a 90-day stay.

Make sure you don’t miss the iconic stairway of Escadaria Selarón and the colorful mosaic that was created by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón. A lot of people look to tie a visit in with Carnival. If you do then the famous floats from the samba schools are a must-see.

If you love sport, specifically soccer, then watching a game at the Maracanã stadium or taking a tour around it is sure to be a highlight. Alternatively, you can relax by sailing across the gorgeous Baia de Guanabara. For street parties and live music, spend an evening in the vibrant Lapa district.

Rio de Janeiro facts & figures

  • During the five days of Rio’s Carnival, the keys to the city are officially handed over to King Momo, a mythical jester who symbolizes misrule.
  • The city hosts over 200 samba schools, which compete in the great float parade during Carnival.
  • Maracanã stadium is the site of the biggest soccer match in history, the so-called maracanazo of 1950, when 173,850 spectators watched Uruguay defeat Brazil in the finals of the World Cup.

  • The city has become infamous in recent years for its favelas, impoverished shantytowns with high crime levels.

  • Rio was once the capital of both Brazil and, briefly, the entire Portuguese empire: Prince Regent João VI transplanted his entire royal court there when Napoleon occupied the Iberian Peninsula from 1808 to 1822.

Getting to and around Rio de Janeiro

Most people arrive to Rio de Janeiro by air at one of the two major airports: Galeão or Santos Dumont. From here you can either get a taxi or metro to your hotel. By bus, you would usually arrive from São Paulo or Salvador.

Getting around is simple enough by train and bus, giving you access to pretty much all of the city. Tours are a great option for those on limited time, or for an in-depth visit to a particular spot in the city.

Most people visit between December and March to enjoy the summer weather, so be prepared for crowds--particularly on the beaches--at this time of year. It’s also the wettest part of the year, so keep that in mind.

Ilha Grande

One of Brazil’s few unspoiled retreats, Ilha Grande (Big Island) is a place for those who seek virgin rainforests and pristine sands. As a former leper colony and prison complex, it only became a tourist spot in the 1990s, when a handful of bars and guesthouses appeared in tiny Vila do Abraão, which till then had been a sleepy fishing village.

Even today, this island getaway just southwest of Rio de Janeiro is largely unsettled; a place of dirt roads, palm trees, and rustic skiffs bobbing alongside the docks. A place for hiking, snorkeling, and listening to the crash of waves on one of South America’s loveliest beaches.

Ilha Grande highlights

Tropical beaches and Atlantic, state-protected rainforest attract beach dwellers. From this beautiful backdrop you can enjoy an afternoon surfing at Praia Lopes Mendes. If that’s not your thing then you can tour the moss-covered ruins of the island’s former prison colony.

Don’t forget

The only way to get to Ilha Grande is by boat, which docks at the biggest town on the island. There are plenty of places to eat and relax but there are no cars or banks, so be sure to bring money.

Hiking to the top of Papagaio Peak is one of the most popular activities on the island and takes around four or five hours on a round trip. A fun twist on this hike is to go at night (around 2am) with a group in order to enjoy the sunrise from the top.

Most of the local beaches offer diving trips. You can rent touring boats for a few hours to head off exploring. When the day is drawing to a close, head down to the docks at Vila do Abraão and watch the sunset with the locals.

Ilha Grande facts & figures

  • Ilha Grande’s picturesque present belies its violent past: its Lazareto and Candido Mendes prisons housed political and other prisoners until the 1980s.

  • The island has a total of 86 beaches, some with nearby waterfalls.

  • Private cars are forbidden on the island; the only vehicles are a single police car, fire truck, and garbage truck.

  • A variety of sporting activities are available on Ilha Grande, from diving to trekking to sailing.

Getting to and around Ilha Grande

Due to its checkered history, the island is unspoilt in the main. You can only get there by heading to one of the ports: Angra dos Reis is the most popular (around two and a half hours from Rio de Janeiro) but you can also go to Mangaratiba and Conceição de Jacarei before heading across on the hour-long ferry ride.

With no roads or cars on offer, many people use the largest town of Vila do Abraão as a base and do hiking trails away from there. You can walk the whole island in around four to five days.

Uyuni Salt Flats

Crossing Bolivia’s great salar (salt flat) at Uyuni is like stepping into a Salvador Dali painting, where earth and sky melt into one another in a liquid mirage. When it’s dry, the world’s largest salt flat is an infinite expanse of blinding, ski-slope white. When it’s wet, it becomes a mirror that uncannily merges with the sky’s blue, making you feel you’re hovering over an abyss.

Most travelers choose to explore the flats in a jeep ride that lasts several days, but even day trippers to this corner of southwestern Bolivia will never forget the vast dreamscape. A truly surreal experience at the top of the world.

Uyuni Salt Flats highlights

The first thing to do here is to explore the psychedelic rock formations of the awe-inspiring Bolivian altiplano. One of the most popular spots on the tour is the train cemetery. The town used to be a distribution hub and many trains were abandoned here, granting the perfect photo opportunity.

Coral-like structures on top of the ancient volcano at Isla Incahuasi make for a beautiful climb to the top, where you can then enjoy 360-degree views of the landscape. Your trip is likely to take you through the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina. Here you will be able to spot llamas and vicuñas along the way.

Don’t forget

Being 3,660m (12,000 ft) above sea level, altitude sickness is something to consider if you’re sensitive to it. Make sure you keep hydrated, and local Soroche pills are usually recommended to carry.

Also, tours cost a set amount but sometimes there will be a cost to enter somewhere (such as Incahuasi).

Elsewhere on the tours, you can watch flamingos dance as they fish for brine shrimp in the many salt pools, take a look at the ancient burial grounds around the village of Coquesa and enjoy the hot springs at the Sol de Mañana geyser field at an altitude of 16,000 feet.

Looking for luxury lodging? The Luna Salada Hotel is the place to stay on the Uyuni Salt Flats. Pure indulgence and hot tubs await in this lodge built entirely from blocks of salt.

Uyuni Salt Flats facts & figures

  • The Uyuni salt flat is the world’s largest, covering almost 8,050 sq km (5,000 sq mi), at an altitude of 3,660m (12,000 ft).
  • The salar is a vital part of Bolivia’s economy, producing some 20,000 tons of salt for human and animal use each year, as well as lithium for use in batteries and other electronics.

  • Most tours set out from the army base of Uyuni, or alternatively, from the village of Tupiza. Several days are necessary to take in all the area’s highlights.

Getting to and around Uyuni Salt Flats

There are four options to get to the Uyuni Salt Flats. Airlines--BOA and Amazonas are both recommended--have daily flights from La Paz (as well as connecting flights through the city). Alternatively, you can get a tourist night bus, which is a 20-hour round trip and comes with hot meals, English-speaking staff and oxygen in case of altitude sickness.

You can also pay for private four-wheel drive transport but this is more expensive. The final option is to get a train or bus to Oruro from La Paz and then change to another train that gets you to Uyuni. From Sucre or Potosí, your only option is a Trans de 6 Octubre bus.

You can wait until you arrive at the salt flats to find a local tour outfitter, but it’s usually best to arrange your excursion in advance with a reliable specialist. There’s a huge difference between good and bad operators, and after a mammoth journey you don’t want the whole experience marred by a shoddy outfitter.

Patagonia

Blue glaciers, crystalline lakes fed by Andean snowmelt, windswept pampas stretching out to infinity: Patagonia’s vast emptiness haunts the imagination of all who visit it. Memorably described in classic accounts by Charles Darwin and Bruce Chatwin, this primeval wilderness brings adventurers to what feels like the end of the world.

And though its rugged terrain in southern Argentina and Chile is dotted with human outposts, notably the towns of Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, its real glory is its unspoiled natural landscapes—the mountains, forests, and wildlife of its massive national parks. Arriving here, one feels an abiding awe in the face of nature’s silence.

Patagonia highlights

The two big national parks of Nahuel Huapi and Los Alerces in Argentina are must-sees. Here you can take a trip around to see turquoise lakes and centuries-old forests. Torres del Paine National Park is in the Chilean part of the region and is ideal for hiking as you get to know the mountain landscapes on foot.

At the foothills of the Andes, in the province of Rio Negro, Argentina, you can go skiing in the European-style resort town of San Carlos de Bariloche. While on the eastern side, you have to visit the mysteriously expanding glacier at Perito Moreno.

Don’t forget

Hiking season runs from September through April as this is the South American summer. November to March tend to be the most popular so if you can go in the shoulder months you may get less crowds and a better deal.

There are scenic harbors to wander at San Martin de los Andes. Or, experience the gaucho lifestyle on the local estancias across Patagonia. Esquel is the Welsh colony where you can meet the locals and discover more about day to day life, and look out on the Straits of Magellan from Punta Arenas, Chile.

Other hotspots include birdwatching along the shores of Lake Argentino at El Calafate; seeing whales, sea lions, and elephant seals at Peninsula Valdés, a UNESCO World Heritage site; and trekking to the ‘end-of-the-world’--Ushuaia--the southernmost city on the planet.

Patagonia facts & figures

  • Patagonia encompasses lands from two countries, Argentina and Chile, divided by the spine of the Andes.
  • For thousands of years, the region was inhabited by nomadic natives, including the Yamanas and the Mapuches, who were largely exterminated when the Argentine government set out to develop the region in the 1880s.

  • The majority of Patagonia is empty tableland, with points of interest principally along the periphery.

  • The region’s remoteness has attracted big-name explorers: Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, and Thomas Cavendish all landed there.

  • The region is home to the southernmost city (Ushuaia) and railroad (El Tren del Fin del Mundo) on Earth.

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived in Patagonia for several years before being cornered and shot by Bolivian soldiers in 1908.

Getting to and around Patagonia

You can fly into El Calafate or Punta Arenas from regional hubs such as Santiago or Buenos Aires. But for the authentic Patagonia experience you’ll want to go overland with a long distance service. You’ll want to book most activities ahead of time with a reliable agent. They’ll take care of transfers and getting you to where you need to be.

Iguazú Falls

With spray from 88 million gallons of water per second lashing your skin and a deafening roar thundering in your ears, Iguazú Falls can be overpowering.

Straddling the nub where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay come together, the hundreds of cataracts on this UNESCO World Heritage site extend for over 3 km (2 mi), culminating in the 91-meter (300-foot) Devil’s Gorge, where rainbows and butterflies dance around a column of white water that awes with its brute force. Two different circuits take you around the national park, but whichever you choose, Iguazú’s torrents will echo in your imagination long after you leave.

Iguazú Falls highlights

Crossing the massive catwalk over the incredible Devil’s Throat is something you will remember for the rest of your life. And, if you get the chance, you can go on night walks along the river and take the train to visit the Gorge after dark, seeing it by moonlight.

Walking throughout the territory of the largest waterfall system in the world, you get to explore the exotic flora as well as get up close with the local coatis (raccoon-like creatures) that call this place home.

Don’t forget

Iguazú Falls borders both Argentina and Brazil so be sure to consider going to each side during your trip. There are 275 waterfalls. While 80% are found on the Argentinian side, the Brazilian part is known for getting great panoramic pictures.

Once you’ve walked the two different tour routes--the Paseo Superior and Paseo Inferior--and taken all the pictures you could dream of, then nothing beats getting drenched on a boat ride that passes under the falls as a grand finale.

Iguazú Falls facts & figures

  • Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca discovered the falls during a wandering expedition through South America in 1541.
  • The site’s name is highly appropriate: Iguazú means “big water” in the native Guaraní language.

  • Periodic droughts can decrease the volume of the Iguazú River by as much as 75 percent, but in the rainy season from November to March, the current surges.

  • The best time to see the falls is during the spring and fall; during the summer, the humidity can be unbearable.

  • The entire area comprises not one but 275 different waterfalls, many with their own names.

Getting to and around Iguazú Falls

Both Argentina and Brazil have international airports near Iguazú Falls: Cataratas del Iguazú (Argentina) and Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil). Flights can be expensive, so if you’re already in one of the countries then you can get an overnight bus from a major city--like Buenos Aires.

Within the town, you can get taxis and buses to the actual falls. Inside, you can walk or use the train to get around.

Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is the definition of extreme: extreme climate, extreme landscape, extreme beauty. Situated in northern Chile between the Pacific coast and the Andes, the red and pink sands of the world’s driest desert give it a strange, martian aura, which contrasts strikingly with its cloudless blue skies.

Even more haunting, though, are the sights that dot the lunar terrain. Geysers, volcanoes, huge geoglyphs of llama caravans. The Atacama pierces everyone who sees it with its stark vistas and unearthly sublimity. Add to all this the dazzling nighttime shows provided by the constellations as they wheel through the southern skies, and you have a travel experience that’s not of this world.

Atacama highlights

San Pedro de Atacama is always used as the base town for forays into the desert and has an inviting relaxed atmosphere for tourists. It overlooks the Licancabur volcano and this, plus Lascar volcano, is well worth a visit.

You can start your day with the spectacular early-morning eruptions that take place at the El Tatio geyser field and end them watching a beautiful sunset from the hills along the Valley of the Moon. Once the sun has set, you can stargaze into the cloudless, pollution-free night sky.

Don’t forget

San Pedro is the hub for a trip to the Atacama Desert, so try to book accommodation as far in advance as possible for the best prices. Temperatures drop as much as 20°C (68°F) at night, so layer up with suitable clothing.

Don’t miss the salt flats of Salar de Atacama and their pools that reflect the Andes in the distance. Cerro Unida and Chug Chug are mysterious geoglyphs left by the nomadic peoples that once roamed the desert and well worth a visit.

Other highlights include getting an adrenaline rush by sandboarding down the 300-foot-high dunes around Death Valley and taking a trip around Oficinas, the abandoned nitrate-mining towns that later served as concentration camps during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Atacama facts & figures

  • The Atacama is the world’s driest desert, recording just 0.3 millimeters of rainfall per year; there are places in it that have not seen precipitation for 40 million years.
  • The desert’s dryness is a result of the Andes, which acts as a barrier to moisture from the Amazon, and the Pacific’s Humboldt Current, which prevents evaporation from the ocean.

  • The Atacama is full of microclimates where pockets of moisture allow guanacos, hummingbirds, mice, and other wildlife to flourish.

  • The cloudless skies make the desert the perfect place for stargazing. It’s home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes.

  • The nitrate deposits in the northern Atacama provoked the War of the Pacific in the 19th century among Chile, Bolivia, and Peru; later these nitrates gave rise to mining boom towns that quickly went bust in the 1930s.

Getting to and around Atacama

San Pedro lies 106 kilometres southeast of Calama. Fortunately, this is across the Chile 23 motorway so the journey is smooth, if long. From Santiago, it’s a 20-hour bus journey but you can fly (with LAN) from the capital to Calama and then get a bus for the final stretch.

Bus companies with semi-bed service are: TurBus, Pullman Bus, Géminis. Once in the town, you can have a day trip (or many day trips) or one that lasts a few days and you will be transported around in a minibus.

The Pantanal

What springs to mind when you think about nature and wildlife spotting in Brazil? The Amazon rainforest? Wrong! The dense jungle isn’t as good for wildlife spotting as you might think. The vast open wetlands of the Pantanal, south of the rainforest, are another matter entirely.

Here the scenery is just as lush and rich, but without a dense canopy obstructing the view you’re guaranteed to see some incredible flora and fauna in the wild. The ever-changing water levels create a landscape of islands, channels and pockets of dry land that can be explored by boat, jeep and even horseback.

Brazil doesn’t do anything in half measures, and the Pantanal is no different. This is the largest stretch of tropical wetlands in the world, expanding to nearly 200,000 sq km (77,200 sq mi) at the height of the rainy season (roughly the size of Nebraska!)

The Brazilian government is well aware of the region’s huge potential for nature tourism, with plenty of investment coming in for hospitality infrastructure and some great lodges. The Pantanal is definitely worth a visit, especially for nature lovers and birdwatchers.

Pantanal highlights

The most popular activities all revolve around wildlife spotting. Trips to the Pantanal generally use some combination of hiking, jeep safaris, boat trips and nocturnal tours to explore the region’s incredible ecosystems.

Some of the Pantanal’s most impressive inhabitants include caiman (alligators), marsh deer, peccary and the capybara--the world's largest rodent, similar in size to a wombat.

This is also one of the best places to spot a jaguar in its natural environment, and sightings are not uncommon (but never guaranteed!). Birdwatching in the Pantanal is unparalleled. It is estimated that the region is home to over 1,000 species of birds.

While in the (figurative) neighbourhood you can also visit Bonito, another natural wonderland, whose very name means beautiful in Portuguese. And they’re not kidding! This ecotourism mecca is known for its crystal-clear rivers, gushing waterfalls and craggy caves, all a product of the area’s natural limestone filtering process. This is a world-class snorkeling and caving area. One look at the underwater dreamworld below and you’ll be hooked.

Pantanal facts & figures

  • During the rainy season almost 80% of the Pantanal is submerged, leaving islands that teem with wildlife dotted across a vast waterworld.
  • The region sees an average rainfall of up to 1,500 mm (59 in) per year. That’s significantly lower than the Amazon rainforest, but the Pantanal basin is inundated by the Paraguay River each year, with water levels rising up to 5 meters (16 feet). The average temperature is 25 °C (77 °F) but can fluctuate dramatically.

  • Keen birdwatchers might catch sight of 15 beautiful parrot species, including the world’s largest--the hyacinth macaw.

  • The ‘Boto’ is a mythological dolphin-shaped creature that locals say transforms into a handsome man who hides his blowhole by never taking off his hat. The locals believe the ‘Boto’ seduces innocent girls, before abandoning them impregnated before sunrise. Watch out!

  • The Pantanal is considered one of the best preserved wetlands in the world, remarkable given that only about 2% of the land is government protected.

Getting to and around the Pantanal

The southern Pantanal has become the most popular region for tourists, with relatively easy connections from Rio de Janeiro and Iguazú Falls.

The main gateway city into the southern Pantanal and Bonito is via Campo Grande, the capital of the Matto Grosso do Sul state, which is served by daily domestic flights and long distance buses.

Tours depart from Campo Grande, starting with a 6 hour drive north towards the Bolivian border. If arriving from Bolivia, the Brazilian border town of Corumbá is the access point.

It’s not really possible (or desirable) to get around the Pantanal on your own steam, and you’ll only experience the best the region has to offer with a properly guided tour. It’s advisable to have your tour and lodge booked and your transfers arranged in advance.

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