Machu Picchu in Peru // © 2015 Globus
Feature image (above): Iguazu Falls in Argentina is a World Heritage Site. // © 2015 Collette
The term “bucket list” has become so overused that it has lost its meaning. But in geographically and culturally diverse South America, it’s nearly impossible to talk travel without assembling a list of must-see attractions and must-do activities.
“The continent has a lot to offer,” said Jaclyn Liebl-Cote, director of strategic product for Collette. “In South America, there is just so much to learn about the cultures, influences, environments and cuisine through guided travel. We’ve made an effort to intertwine the destination’s cultures with activities and food experiences during our tours.”
Liebl-Cote says that South America is on travelers’ radar like never before.
“Both Peru and Ecuador have made tourism a top priority,” she said. “For example, you may have noticed that Ecuador purchased commercial space during the 2015 Superbowl. Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and Iguazu Falls have also seen a tremendous increase as bucket-list destinations; special events such as the World Cup last year and the upcoming Olympic Games have really put Brazil on the map.”
South America is the fastest-growing product portfolio for Travcoa, according to Joshua Smith, the luxury-travel company’s product manager for private journeys.
“Machu Picchu, the Galapagos and Easter Island remain popular and provide luxury options, but Chile’s Patagonia and Atacama regions are growing in popularity,” he said, adding that Travcoa’s escorted tours of Brazil, Argentina and Chile are also top sellers, while Colombia is again “on the radar for travelers, as well as Uruguay for those visiting South America a second or third time.”
Don Forster, product and marketing manager for Latin America and the polar regions for Goway Travel, noted that South America’s diverse offerings are a big selling point.
“We feature a choice of accommodation and service levels, from three-star and budget all the way up to opulent luxury, to the point where you can walk the Inca Trail with a luxury option,” he said. “The passion of the local guides and staff — despite how many times they show a visitor their country — as well as their professionalism, is of the highest standard.”
The ideal South America vacation is, of course, best determined by qualifying clients. But to get the ball rolling, here are several of the most memorable experiences that should be on just about any wish list.
Tango and Sip in Argentina
Dance and wine have helped put Argentina on the cultural map, and it’s easy for travelers to enjoy both in their respective birthplaces. Created by immigrants more than a century ago in Buenos Aires, the legendary tango has made it onto UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Clients can learn intricate footwork at a variety of traditional milongas and dance schools.
At Tango Alejandro Gee, psychotherapist and tango expert Alejandro Gee is a well-regarded master of the dance, while at Tango Escuela, instructor Carlos Copello’s talents have graced the stage at El Cabaret, a performance space in the fashionable Faena Hotel Buenos Aires and one of the most sumptuous venues in which to attend a tango show.
Wine enthusiasts should plan a visit to the city of Mendoza, one of the eight members of the Great Wine Capitals network and the largest wine-producing area in Latin America.
“A favorite for foodies and wine lovers, Mendoza has some of the best wineries of the world,” said Veronica Lampon, traveler experience manager for Say Hueque, a tour operator based in Buenos Aires that offers packages including wine tasting and bicycle tours to vineyards.
Gaze at the Majesty of Iguazu Falls
Whether you spell it Iguazu, Iguassu or Iguacu, these magnificent falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil are among the most impressive in the Americas. Parks on both sides are UNESCO World Heritage sites and offer lots of hiking and viewing opportunities.
Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, set within Brazil’s Iguazu National Park, offers exclusive access in the morning and after the park has closed at 5 p.m. On the Full Moon Walking Tour, led by resident biologist Wilson Fernandes, travelers get a chance to witness unique lunar rainbows. Say Hueque, meanwhile, can arrange some truly unique experiences, including wedding proposals in front of the falls.
Indulge in South America’s Original Jet-Set Destination
For decades, Rio de Janeiro has honed its image as a playground for globe-trotters, and it’s once again enjoying a surge of attention, thanks to its role as host of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
No first-time visit is complete without a scenic cable ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and a trip up Corcovado Mountain to see the iconic Christ the Redeemer, a 98-foot statue that overlooks the metropolis. Visitors can enjoy a private sunrise picnic at Christ the Redeemer before the attraction opens to the public, through the historic Belmond Copacabana Palace hotel.
Soccer fans should consider attending a game at recently renovated Maracana Stadium, while sun worshippers won’t want to miss some time on the sands of Ipanema or Copacabana Beach.
Explore the Wonders of Patagonia
The postcard-perfect region of Patagonia, which straddles the border of Argentina and Chile, has become a must-see destination for nature lovers.
“Patagonia should be on everyone’s list,” Liebl-Cote said. “From Bariloche and the lake crossing between Chile and Argentina in northern Patagonia to Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego in southern Patagonia, the beauty, contrast, people and spirit of this area are truly unique.”
Lindblad Expeditions offers a 21-day itinerary onboard National Geographic Explorer, with visits to Torres del Paine National Park and ventures into Chilean fjords by Zodiac, by kayak and on foot. Smithsonian Journeys offers an 18-day itinerary that includes a three-night cruise onboard M.V. Stella Australis, which departs from Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, and travels through the Strait of Magellan to Punta Arenas.
Discover Otherworldly Terrains in the Atacama Desert
The vast Atacama Desert in northern Chile has such a rugged landscape that NASA used it to test equipment it would later send to Mars. But regular visitors can have a much more comfortable visit, thanks to the range of tours and hotels available, especially in and around the town of San Pedro de Atacama. New York City-based Borello Travel & Tours offers an escorted trip that combines the Atacama with an equally noteworthy territory in Bolivia.
“With the Atacama and Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, travelers are not only going to the driest desert in the world, but also the largest salt flats in the world,” said Sandra Borello, the company’s president. “It’s a unique experience for families and for travelers of all ages. It’s for people who want to discover places that are like being on another planet.”
One local hotel, Explora Atacama, also offers a so-called “nomadic journey” from Atacama to Salar de Uyuni, with the option to sleep in converted shipping containers along the way. (Clients might also want to tack on a visit to Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and by some definitions the highest navigable lake in the world.) Santiago, Chile-based Latitud 90 also offers itineraries to the Atacama, as well as to Patagonia and Easter Island.
Walk Among Wildlife on the Islands of the Galapagos
“I remember the first time I set foot in the Galapagos archipelago 10 years ago,” said Kim Vincent, product and business development manager for the Globus Family of Brands. “I was greeted by a penguin and flamingo, and I thought, ‘Where else in the world can you see two intrinsically different species standing side by side?’ After spending several days exploring the various islands and seeing the endemic creatures that have evolved to live only in the Galapagos, I realized the answer was nowhere else. They don’t exist anywhere else. And to see them within arm’s reach is truly an unforgettable experience.”
Like many tour operators, Globus offers multiday cruises among the islands, but via its Monograms brand, the company also offers land-based accommodations in eco-lodges.
Lindblad Expeditions offers a 10-day itinerary onboard National Geographic Endeavour and National Geographic Islander, accompanied by a National Geographic-certified photo instructor. Guests have the chance to observe giant tortoises in the wild and at the Charles Darwin Research Station, learn about the mating rituals of blue-footed boobies and swim and snorkel with sea lions, penguins and sea turtles.
Hike a Trail to Machu Picchu
The ruins of a 15th-century Inca settlement, Machu Picchu has become an iconic site in the collection of pre-Hispanic civilizations — and this remote attraction can be experienced in a variety of ways. Lima, Peru-based Condor Travel offers the four-day Luxury Inca Trail trek, complete with camping cots, hot solar showers and a professional masseuse to revive tired hikers. Travelers might instead opt to sip cocktails on Belmond Hiram Bingham, the most upscale rail link to the destination, while listening to live Peruvian music.
Also in the luxury vein is Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, which offers private tours of Machu Picchu accompanied by an interpreter and a shaman, who also leads a “payment to the earth” ritual inspired by Inca spiritual ceremonies.
Cruise the Jungles
The Amazon — the largest river in the world in terms of the volume of water it carries to the ocean — is graced with exotic natural beauty and wildlife, and one of the most accessible ways to experience it is in Peru. Upscale options that operate out of the city of Iquitos include Delfin Amazon Cruises, which has ships with oversize suites and panoramic views, and Aqua Expeditions, which operates the 130-foot Aqua Amazon, a stylish craft with 12 well-appointed cabins.
“Peru’s Amazon is one of the best areas in the entire region to experience the unique and biodiverse rainforest,” Vincent said. “And, unlike its nearby Brazilian neighbor, there is no visa or fee to get into Peru, which makes it easy to access. In 2016, Avalon Waterways will be featuring the Amazon’s newest luxury ship, Amazon Discovery.”
Amazon Discovery will have 22 cabins as well as a spa, a dining room, an indoor and outdoor lounge and a plunge pool, and it will follow an itinerary that includes visits to local villages, a shamanic healing center and a manatee rescue center.