Travel writer Sarah Baxter shares her top five icons of South America and how to experience them...
Where? Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia
Nothing embodies the exuberance of the Latino spirit quite like Carnival. The scale of the sequin-sparkled antics of the continent’s pre-Lent celebrations (usually in February) are gargantuan and legendary. The street parades and samba moves of Rio Carnival are often lauded as the best, though many other Brazilian cities – Salvador, Olinda, Recife – beg to differ. Each has its own characteristics. Or look beyond Brazil. Colombia’s Barranquilla Carnival is the second biggest in South America, a tirade of flowers, floats, and full-volume salsa, cumbia and African drumming. Bolivia’s Oruro Carnival, held on the high altiplano, is a shindig of extravagant costumes, music and marching that culminates in the ‘Dance of the Devils’.
2. The Amazon
Where? Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guyana
The Amazon is immense. Not only does the river itself run for around 6,500km – from the Peruvian highlands to Brazil’s Atlantic coast – the surrounding basin, riddled with tributaries, seems almost endless. Amazon adventures can be had in several countries. From Manaus, Brazil’s rainforest capital, small-boat expeditions weave down intimate, wildlife-rich channels. In Peru, Manu Biosphere Reserve is home to highlights such as huge flocks of macaws. The Ecuadorian Oriente is speckled with Amerindian-owned ecolodges that offer both natural and cultural immersion while Bolivia’s Madidi National Park encompasses some of the planet’s most biodiverse forest. Offbeat Guyana promises giant otters and 250m-high Kaieteur Falls.
Where? Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia
Mention South America and Machu Picchu inevitably springs to mind. Peru’s ‘lost’ hill-teetering Inca city is at the top of most travellers’ bucket lists – and rightly so. It’s a must, whether you visit by scenic train, classic four-day Inca Trail, or one of the region’s less-used hikes. Nearby Cusco, former capital of the Incan Empire, is another essential visit. But the influence of this ancient civilisation spread far further than Peru’s Sacred Valley. In Ecuador you can journey down the Avenue of the Volcanoes to the hillside ruins of Ingapirca. Or you could hike Bolivia’s Takesi Trail – known as the ‘Camino del Inca’ – which follows sections of Inca pathway over the Cordillera Real and into the Yungas jungle.
Where? Argentina, Uruguay
South America’s vast pampa (grassland) is the domain of the gaucho – the proud cowboys who seem to embody the untamable spirit of this wilderness. Argentina is the classic choice for a gaucho experience – you don’t need to venture far south of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires to find elegant estancias offering melt-in-the-mouth steaks, rich red wines, horse rides across the plains or even polo lessons. Uruguay, a short ferry ride over the River Plate from Buenos Aires, is also ideal for ranch holidays – here you might find a more rustic family farm in which to lean some horse skills.
Where? Chile, Argentina
‘Patagonia’ is a byword for wilderness: just the name conjures images of shard-like peaks, creaking glaciers, lakes in all shades of blue and ancient forests. Chilean Patagonia offers rafting on the Futaleufú River, cruising around the fjords of Puerto Natales and treks into Torres del Paine. Argentina has the icy tongues of Los Glaciares National Park – including the calving colossus of Perito Moreno Glacier – plus lovely lakeland around Bariloche (renowned for its chocolate). Want to go wilder? Take the ferry, via peaks and penguins, to Tierra del Fuego – the ‘end of the world’.