Travel writer Sarah Baxter shares her expertise on exploring the vastness and variety of South America, whether you have two weeks or six months... a fantastic list of top tips and locations not to be missed.
1. Get into the Inca
Ecuador • Peru • Bolivia
Duration: 1-2 months
At its zenith, the Inca Empire stretched from Colombia to Chile, but get the deepest insight by focusing on the civilisation’s heartlands. Start in UNESCO-listed Ecuadorian capital, Quito. Head south down the Avenue of the Volcanoes, via Cotopaxi National Park, to the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. Cross into Peru to visit the Inca baths at Cajamarca and the fortress of Kuélap (which pre-dates the Inca by 1,000 years). Skirt the Andes to reach Cusco, former Inca capital; many sites lie nearby – not least mountain-perched Machu Picchu. Consider Pisac and the terraces of Moray too. Next, Bolivia: sail on Lake Titicaca – visiting Isla del Sol, alleged birthplace of the Inca – before hitting capital La Paz and the shimmering Uyuni salt flats.
Two weeks? Pick Peru, wending from Lima to Cusco, with a hike or train trip to Machu Picchu.
2. Gallop with gauchos
Chile • Argentina • Uruguay
Duration: 3-4 weeks
Want to channel a cowboy vibe? Begin in cosmopolitan Santiago, and head into the vineyards of Chile’s Maipo Valley for your first taste of the good life. Cross the Andes into Argentina, to continue slurping in Mendoza. East lies the enormity of the pampa – cowboy heaven. Visit San Antonio de Areco’s gaucho museum and bed down in a remote ranch to spend days riding across the wilderness and indulging in fine steaks and wine. Pause in buzzing Buenos Aires, then catch the ferry to Uruguay. Book into an authentic ranch before tucking into an asado (grill) at Montevideo’s meat-full market.
Two weeks? Combine Buenos Aires with a ranch-stay in Corrientes province.
3. Explore Patagonia
Chile • Argentina
Duration: 3-5 weeks
Wildernesses don’t come much wilder than Patagonia. Start in Puerto Montt, Chile. From here, a fjord-nibbling ferry weaves down to Puerto Natales, gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. Hike here, before crossing into Argentine Patagonia and Los Glaciares National Park. North lies El Chaltén, a good base for great hikes, and the calving bulk of Perito Moreno Glacier; south is Tierra del Fuego, accessible via a breathtaking ferry ride. Rejoin civilisation by flying back from Ushuaia (the world’s most southerly city) to Buenos Aires.
Two weeks? Fly from Santiago to Patagonia and back to Buenos Aires, allowing plenty of time for outdoors exploration.
4. Swallow the Amazon
Brazil • Venezuela • Colombia • Ecuador
Duration: 2-3 months
This trip showcases the enormity of the Amazon. Hug the Brazilian coast, travelling north via African-influenced Salvador, to Belém. Board a riverboat to sail inland along the Amazon, scouring the banks for wildlife en route to Manaus; from here, smaller vessels inch down narrower tributaries for better for wildlife-viewing. North is Venezuela, home to the wildlife-rich Gran Sabana and Los Llanos. Continue into Colombia, to explore coffee country and the colonial gem of Cartagena. South, via Bogotá, is Ecuador: hike in the northern cloud forests before flying to remote lodges in the Oriente.
Two weeks? Head to Ecuador, to stay at a Amerindian-owned ecolodge in the rainforest.
5. Hit the road
Colombia • Ecuador • Peru • Chile • Argentina
Duration: 2-4 months
The Pan-American Highway runs for over 10,000km from the US/Mexico border to the tip of South America. Panama’s impenetrable Darién Gap is an obstacle, so start in Colombia instead (don’t miss the pre-Columbian site of San Agustín). Next, trace the spine of Ecuador, via Quito, Mt Chimborazo and Cuenca; in Peru, enjoy fine dining in Lima and volcanic architecture in Arequipa; stargaze in Chile’s otherworldly Atacama Desert; and plunge into Argentina, bound for Tierra del Fuego where the road – and the world – comes to an end.
Two weeks? Drive Chile’s wild Carretera Austral, from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins.