From the steamy Orinoco rainforest to the Antarctic glaciers, from Andean peaks to chalk-white tropical beaches, South America’s seven million square miles offers unparalleled geographical diversity and what is perhaps the world’s richest cultural mosaic. It is home to the tough gaucho cowboys, the fishermen descendents of African slaves, blow-pipe hunters of the rainforest, poncho-clad llama herders of the highAndes, Brazilian carnaval queens and Venezuelan beauty queens.The Amazon basin has been described as a mother-lode of natural biodiversity while the little Galapagos Islandswere home to so much unusual wildlife that they caused the history of the world to be re-written. Until not so very long ago the jungles of this wild and unexplored continent were still able to conceal the great Inca city of Machu Picchu and the highest falls in the world (Angel Falls,Venezuela). Even for today’s adventurers the immense rainforest and bleak highlands of South America remain among the most thrilling and mysterious places in the world. Here are 10 places in South America you really shouldn’t miss:
1/ Easter Island (Chile)
If you are looking for the perfect place to get away from it all then Chile’s Easter Island might be just the ticket. Perhaps it is not so surprising that one of the world’s most isolated places (separated from its nearest neighbour by more than 2,000 miles of Pacific Ocean) gave rise to one of its most astounding cultures. Nobody is really sure who the sculptors of the island’s hundred haunting Moai statues were…and it is likely to remain as another of South America’s countless mysteries.
2/ The Amazon rainforest
Covering an area roughly the size of Australia, the Amazon basin is the largest rainforest in the world. It remains the world’s greatest unexplored wilderness and even during relatively fleeting visits – watching macaws flying through the canopy or simply drifting down the current in a dugout – it is easy to feel that you are reliving the experiences of early explorers.
3/ Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (Peru)
“Dead Woman’s Pass”, “Hidden River”, “The Hanging Village”, “Forever Young”. Straight out of Raiders of the Lost Arc or a Tolkien novel, the names of landmarks on the trail to Machu Picchu seem specifically designed to increase the suspense. Many believe that the trail was a deliberate work of art that was designed “to elevate the soul of the pilgrim” on the way to the lost city of the Incas. Few who have walked it would deny that this remains deservedly one of the world’s greatest treks.
4/ Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
The Galapagos National Park (500 miles off the Ecuadorian mainland) is the country’s most famous tourist attraction. Since the unique wildlife of this archipelago lead Charles Darwin to his earth-shattering conclusions the area has remained one of the planet’s most important wildlife observation and research centres.
5/ Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
Tucked into those iconographic hills, beneath the protecting arms of Christ the Redeemer and bordered by the smooth curves of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches…just the thought of Rio is enough to set the heart drumming a samba rhythm. Carnaval (seven weeks before Easter) is the highlight of the year when the city’s beach-babes swap their legendary dental-floss bikinis for feathers and sequins. During carnival more than ever, Rio lives up to its Brazilian nickname – La Cidade Maravilhosa (The Marvellous City).
6/ Torres del Paine (Chile)
Torres del Paine National Park, in Patagonia, is renowned as one of the most beautiful and unspoiled wildernesses on the planet. The great granite peaks of the Paine Massif (land of huge Patagonian hares and condors) stagger down to a series of lakes and fjords (home to flamingos and whales). At the southern extreme of the park, the faces of immense glaciers crash into the sea to form the icebergs of the South Icefield.
7/ Iguassu Falls (Brazil/Argentina)
“If you were to design the perfect waterfall then Iguassu would have to be it,” said Steve Davey in his book Unforgettable Places to See Before you Die. Made up of 275 cascades spanning more than two miles and dropping as much as 80 metres, this is one of the most impressive sights in the world. While most sightseers make just a fleeting visit, the roaring cataracts, rainbows, red earth and rainforest make the area worthy of a longer stop – enough time for real contemplation.
8/ Buenos Aires (Argentina)
Argentina is home to the most succulent steaks, the sexiest dances and the most enticing city in South America. Traditionally known as “the Paris of the America’s”, Buenos Aires is at once cosmopolitan and controversial, dynamic and traditional, historical and vanguardista.
9/ Lake Titicaca (Peru/Bolivia)
The highest navigable lake in the world stretches in a great inland sea, 110 miles long, between two Andean countries. Culturally it is one of the world’s most fascinating areas. The Uru people still live on the man-made islands of lashed-together reed-beds on which they once escaped the attentions of the conquistadors.
10/ Las Pampas (Argentina)
The wide, wild, windswept plains of central Argentina offer one of the continent’s most captivating regions. The untamed romance of Las Pampas revolves around the evocative ranches and los gauchos,Argentina’s own outback hero and the South American cowboy. These plains are also a unique habitat for still more of the continent’s immense diversity of wildlife.