South America’s Top 12

27 November 2014

Few destinations offer the diversity of South America, which can take in balmy Caribbean beaches, pink volcanoes and deserts, or gleaming Patagonian glaciers. The continent also offers extraordinary pre-Columbian ruins and art, gracious colonial architecture, contemporary urban dynamism and carnivals galore.

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

These islands are dramatic cones of basalt bubbling away with volcanic activity, and home to extraordinary wildlife that helped Darwin develop his evolutionary theory. The Galapagos’ creatures have been so long isolated from predators that they have little fear. Go swimming and sea lions might sidle up for a look. Get so close to giant iguanas that you can hear them chomp on seaweed. This is one of the world’s most intimate and delightful wildlife experiences.

 The contrast and splendour of The Galapagos

Machu Picchu, Peru

The Incan ruins of Machu Picchu might be crowded with tourists, but retain an Indiana Jones atmosphere. If you’re really adventurous, get there on foot across the four-day Inca Trail. The Urubamba River, far below in its canyon, traps the site in a tight hairpin bend. Above, the cloud-wreathed lump of Huayna Picchu rises like a rhinoceros horn. The magically beautiful ruins are preserved in whole groups of houses, temples, staircases and neat agricultural terraces where alpacas graze.

Lake Titicaca, Peru-Bolivia

Titicaca lays claim to being the world’s highest navigable lake and is a haunted place full of legends – the birthplace of creation, according to the Incas. Copacabana, on the overland route from Cuzco to La Paz, is a good stopover base. Boat trips head out to the ruin-scattered Island of the Sun, with its mountain-view villages, and to the floating reed islands of the indigenous Uros people, who make and sell beautiful wooden carvings, embroidery and beadwork.

Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama is the world’s driest desert, where saltpans shimmer at the foot of pink and purple volcanoes and bizarre rock formations. Adventurous travellers can head into the wilderness on horseback, mountain bike or 4WD. Take a trip to see the salt pillars and flamingos of the Valley of the Moon, and visit the superb archaeology museum in San Pedro de Atacama, which outlines the ancient culture and famous mummies of the Atacaman natives.

 The stark beauty of the Atacama Desert

Valparaiso, Chile

Ramshackle houses and sunny plazas tumble down Valparaiso’s steep hills – a southern San Francisco set against the snowy backdrop of the Cordillera. There are terrific views of the World Heritage city from the summit of the cable car. The heart of the old city features busy street markets crammed with ceramics, leather and jewellery made from lapis lazuli. Like any working class port, Valparaiso also has a raucous (if somewhat seedy) a nightlife and plenty of character.

Puerto Montt, Chile

Puerto Montt is a little piece of Bavaria dropped onto the Chilean coastline. Nineteenth-century German settlers are responsible for the chalet-style architecture, rose-filed gardens and the restaurant flavours. The alpine feel is reinforced by the spectacular lake district that surrounds the town: a region of emerald-green lakes, rivers and waterfalls tumbling over sea cliffs. Go salmon and trout fishing, sailing, mountain biking and hiking in the surrounding national parks, which flaunt snow-capped volcanoes, virgin rainforest and hot springs.

Patagonia, Chile-Argentina

Patagonia, South America’s southern tip, is a frigid wilderness with a scattered population and pristine and rugged landscapes, where granite cliffs and glaciers meet deep fjords. Chile’s port of Punta Arenas is full of weather-beaten old mansions built on the wool and gold booms of the nineteenth century, and is the jumping-off point for visiting Torres del Paine, one of the world’s most beautiful national parks. In Argentina, Perito Moreno Glacier makes for one of nature’s most incredible sights.

 The vibrant streets of Valparaiso

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires’ distinct neighbourhoods are a pleasure for strolling and relaxation. Start with the elegant boulevards and fabulously ornate cemetery of Recoleta, or the cutting-edge fashion boutiques of Palmero. In the nineteenth century, San Telmo was the foremost neighbourhood in town. These days, artists and antique dealers have moved in, producing a raffish bohemian energy and good Sunday markets. And in riverside La Boca, street performers entertain with tango demonstrations, and houses are painted in lurid soccer-teams colours.

Punte del Este, Uruguay

Across the River Plate from Buenos Aires, this is the coolest beach resort on the continent. In summer there’s scant elbow room as sun-seekers in skimpy costumes vie for attention. Watch the sunrise from Playa Brava, then flop over to Playa Mansa for the sunset. Away from the beach, you can horse-ride, browse world-class shops and join the nightlife. Then head to a parrillada, a restaurant specialising in wood-fired meats, for another of South America’s pleasures.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Seductive, sexy and spirited, Rio is a city is in the throes of a transformation, thanks to a booming Brazilian economy and preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games. Humped, jungle-draped mountains back sweeping beaches and creamy apartment blocks. Above stands Rio’s iconic statue of Christ, arms outspread in welcome. Stay in beachside Copacabana or Ipanema, where Rio’s bold and beautiful cavort, roller-blade along the promenades, and enjoy cold beer and barbecued prawns from street stalls.

 Surrounded by beaches in Rio de Janeiro

The Amazon, Brazil

The Amazon isn’t all wild: four million people live in Amazonas state. Belém is a grand colonial city with good restaurants, Manaus a brash metropolis with a famous theatre. But the big attractions are rainforest and river, with their early morning mist, hooting monkeys, flashy parakeets and sudden splash of piranhas. River-cruise ships provide a luxury way to see the rainforest (many also operate from Iquitos on the Peruvian Amazon), but the intrepid can travel by local ferry.

Iguazú Falls, Brazil-Argentina

Higher, wider and wilder, Iguazú Falls are better than Niagara – and there isn’t a honeymoon motel or neon sign in sight. Do the Argentinian side first, which has a more dramatic approach that brings you within soaking distance of the falls and to its best section, the Devil’s Throat. Then head over the border to Brazil, which has the widest, most panoramic views. The surrounding forest is dripping with spray, and full of orchids and butterflies. Stupendous.

Brian Johnston

Born in Nigeria of Irish parents, Brian Johnston has lived in Switzerland,the UK and China, and now calls Sydney home. The widely-published freelance writer and author is a two-time Australian Travel Writer of the Year.