From the sun-baked saltpans of the Atacama Desert to the rioting vegetation of the Orinoco basin, and from the mangrove swamps of Suriname to icy peaks of Patagonia, South America’s range of habitats has made it one of the world’s hotbeds of biodiversity. The Amazon rainforest is home to one fifth of the planet’s birds, most of the world’s plants and an estimated 2.5 million insect species. For a wildlife enthusiast, there are few places in the world that can compare. And then, of course, there are the Galapagos Islands, which have been described as “the ultimate natural zoo” because of the incredible accessibility of wildlife that seems to have no fear of man. If you’re into your own version of wild life, or if challenging your fear is what motivates you, then South America is still a hotbed of diversity – take your pick:
1/ Rafting: Chile is at the pinnacle of South American rafting, with the incredible Rio Bio-Bio and the Class V Futaleufu River being rated by many as the best stretch of raftable white-water in the world! The Andean Sierras of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia also offer some pretty ‘moist’ adventures of their own.
2/ Diving: With the exception of unique diving around the Galapagos (where up to 35% of marine species are endemic), the best of South America’s diving spots are in the relatively calm waters of the Caribbean. Venezuela’s Los Roques Marine Park, an archipelago of forty-two islands around an immense lagoon, is one of the most impressive dive-sites in the Caribbean.
3/ Surfing: Big-wave cravers meanwhile will find the best hunting grounds on Pacific or Atlantic coasts. Among the most famous breaks are Montañita (Ecuador), Chicama (Peru), Mar del Plata (Argentina), Rio de Janeiro…and anywhere in over 2,000 miles of coastline south of Chile’s El Gringo (AKA ‘the South American Pipeline’). Warmer Caribbean waves can also often be found at Los Cocos (Venezuela) and Barranquilla (Colombia).
4/ Jungle-bashing: The emerald forest of Manu Park (in Peru) has been described as the jewel in the Amazon crown. It is one of the most pristine, yet easily accessible, regions of the Amazon basin. Even in this incredible natural region Manu is unequalled in its number of resident species. Iquitos (Peru), Manaus (Brazil) Tena (Ecuador) and Rurrenabaque (Bolivia) are also major hubs for jungle tours (see Brazil Road Trips).
5/ Climbing Ecuador is unusual in that it offers high-altitude adventure with reasonable accessibility. Even a novice climber can arrive in Quito and arrange a guided expedition up mighty Chimborazo (6,310m) or Cotopaxi (5,897m). The 150mph winds on Chile’s mighty Aconcagua (at 6,960m the highest mountain outside of Asia), however, can challenge even the most determined mountain goat.
6/ Horse-riding: Horse-riding might be the ideal way to travel around South America. It is peaceful, timeless, ecologically sound, adventurous and is perfect for bridging cultural gaps. You can arrange local horseback expeditions or day-rides in most areas of South America but Venezuela, Argentina and Chile offer some truly outstanding long-distance routes (see In The Saddle).
7/ Sky-diving: For the ultimate in South American thrill-seeking throw yourself out of an airplane from 12,000 feet and watch Rio rush up to meet you at 140mph! (See Rio Tourismo Radical).
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