My top 19 highlights – dip your toe in South America and discover an unbelievable adventure that will force you to stay longer!
Over 9 months of overland travel through 5 countries in South America and briefly touching Colombia and Brazil – including a quick side-trip for some sailing in the US – doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s on offer, so here’s my…
…in no particular order.
Itinerary? What itinerary!
Don’t be afraid, you can wing it!
What just under 9-months of overland travel looks like…
The maps for Argentina and Chile are the same as crisscrossing borders between these 2 countries is inevitable, so it’s easier to display this route on one map.
1. Ushuaia – sail the Beagle Channel
Striking Ushuaia is my favourite rest-stop in Argentina and an excellent base for travel to the surrounding region. Once you arrive, you’ll definitely want to Wait-a-While in the ‘Southernmost city in the world’.
Take a relaxing sail on Darwin’s adventurous 1833 route through the Beagle Channel, whilst watching playful sea lions bask on a rocky shoreline.
Hike in the stunning 630-square-kilometre world-famous Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Ushuaia is also a popular base to start your trip to the Antarctic. Missing the last boat by a few days due to heavy snow and the season cut short, need to return.
2. Walk on Perito Moreno Glacier
A little moon-walking on 2.6-million-year-old Perito Moreno Glacier will blow your mind. You won’t believe your eyes at the expanse of one of the ‘last advancing glaciers on earth’.
3. Salta – ride the ‘Train to the Clouds’
If you make it to Salta, then you must indulge in the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) day trip its most dramatic panoramic scenery.
The incredible natural beauty whilst the train hugs mountainous terrain, climbing to a height of 4,200-metres is breath-taking.
In the very northern region of Argentina, Salta hosts a plethora of art exhibitions, music festivals, parades, shows, and cultural events throughout the year, and is a hive of activity.
The Gaucho parade is fantastic for people-watching.
4. Mendoza – wine-tasting
Not only does Mendoza offer a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere with wide tree-lined leafy roads and gorgeous colonial architecture, but you may also catch the popular Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia (National Grape Harvest Festival).
As a great producer of Argentina’s wine and olive oil, pampering yourself with a little wine-tasting is obligatory.
More posts on Argentina.
5. Southern Patagonian Fjords – 4-day ferry
The rustic ferry glides through the spectacular rugged Southern Patagonian Fjords, whilst you traverse the icy untouched and mesmerising cloaked waterways.
Exiting into the Pacific Ocean for 12 hours, you enter the Fjords once more to snake through its hypnotic ambience.
6. Pucón – climb Vulcán Villarrica
Although a smallish town by Chile’s standards, Pucón offers many adventure activities such as trekking in the splendid Parque Nacional Huerquehue.
Pucón’s highlight is climbing active Vulcán Villarrica in the snow, which has been erupting since 1552.
7. Santa Cruz – wine-tasting
Head to Santa Cruz in Chile’s beautiful Colchagua region, for the outstanding picturesque vineyards and a spot of delicious wine-tasting.
More posts on Chile.
8. Salar de Uyuni – Salt Flats
Imagine a place so surreal that you feel as if you are in a dreamlike trance once you arrive – Bolivia’s expansive salt flats Salar de Uyuni is such a place.
9. Rurrenabaque – jungle trekking
If your spine survives the 14-hour bone-shattering road from Trinidad to Rurrenabaque (Rurre) – one of the worse bus rides I’ve ever experienced – you’re rewarded by living inside a wildlife documentary.
Rurre is the jump point for jungle treks into the remote Amazon’s Madidi National Park, but also the Pampas to hunt for the elusive pink freshwater dolphin, infamous beast-swallowing Anaconda, or fish for the man-eating but tiny piranha fish.
10. Lake Titicaca – relax
Chill the hours away relaxing whilst admiring the cold deep, crystal-clear Andean waters that gently ripple the shores of Lake Titicaca’s Copacabana.
At just over 3,800-metres above sea level when the sun dips, intensely saturated hues exude an impossibly rich palette. Traverse the lake whilst exploring alluring islands and Incan history.
11. Sucre – ‘White City’
Bolivia’s ancient capital Sucre is a delight. Surrounded by soaring mountains and nestled in a valley of just over 2,800 metres above sea level, this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site city emanates charm and peacefulness.
Watch Shamans perform their mystical craft in a colourful market, whilst wandering the stunning white-washed architecture in the renown “white city”.
More posts on Bolivia.
12. Machu Picchu – Salkantay 5-day trek
I’ve never met anyone that didn’t want to see magnificent Machu Picchu at least once in their lifetime – have you?
Acclimatise in bustling and touristy Cusco first before organising your trek to Machu Picchu. The demanding 75-kilometre 5-day Salkantay Trek takes you from 2,700-metres until you climb to over 4,600-metres. From hot steamy jungle and gorgeous valleys to freezing snowing conditions – but the scenery will leave you breathless.
13. Arequipa – colonial architecture
Amazing Arequipa is aptly named the ‘White City’ because of its dazzling Spanish-influenced white architecture, but also hosts wonderful museums and indigenous craft markets.
One of those cities that you instantly fall in love with, Arequipa is my favourite city in Peru and from where you organise your intrepid trekking adventures.
14. Colca Canyon trekking
Rated as a ‘moderate’ trek, I found the 3-day trek Colca Canyon challenging and rate the last day’s vertical 5-kilometre trek back up the canyon as ‘difficult’.
The dramatic vistas whilst spotting majestic Condors swooping down within metres of your head is definitely worth the pain and muscle burn.
15. Tri-border, Amazon – 3-day barge
For those of you that crave a unique intrepid and non-touristy adventure, then take the 3-day rustic barge into the Amazon River to balmy Iquitos – followed by a crammed speedboat to the unsavoury Tri-border where Peru, Colombia, and Brazil converge.
Be blown away by isolated village life whilst gliding along the Amazon trying to spot the elusive pink dolphin.
16. Puno – Sillustani burial tombs
You either love or hate Puno.
More posts on Peru.
17. Unwind in Baños de Agua Santa
Locals flock to Baños not only to relax with some soothing hydrotherapy in the famous Virgen Hot Springs, whilst gazing across to the calming cascading waterfall but also for exhilarating extreme sports and numerous colourful parades.
18. Cuenca – home of the Panama hat
Stunning colonial architecture and home of the Panama hat – be captivated by a tapestry of local Andean faces and Cuenca’s abundant history.
19. Loja – relax
Underrated laid-back Loja exudes a pleasantly relaxed feel and judging by the inquisitive stares from locals, the town doesn’t see too many gringos.
Nestled in the sweeping Cuxibamba valley at 2,100 metres high, Loja is graced with lovely colonial churches and beautiful squares.
More posts on Ecuador.
Why visit South America?
If the extensive Amazon, Patagonian glaciers, unique flora and fauna, Incan ruins, jungle treks, world’s driest desert, or surreal salt flats doesn’t call to your adventurous spirit, then maybe the second-highest mountain range and highest navigable lake in the world are enough to entice you to travel to this amazing continent.
Understand that even during 9 months, you’ll only see a fraction of this massive continent and a handful of countries.
Visiting only 5 countries during 9 months, you may travel overland faster than us or fly everywhere and see more, but for me, it’s not about marking things off a check-list – it’s about absorbing a country.
Each country offers unique cultural experiences with diverse and fascinating natural wonders.
Apart from backpacking and staying in mostly decent hostels offering a double room with private bathroom (lush), we only took tours to places too hard to organise independently.
Remember, overland travel through South America is slow and not for the light-hearted as it can also be dangerous. But, don’t let this inconvenience put you off. Instead, be street-wise and go with your gut feel – if it doesn’t feel right, it’s not.
Hope you enjoyed this wrap-up of my Top 19 highlights during the 2011 South American trip. Comment below if you need more travel information.
Have you been to South America? What was your favourite experience?
You may also enjoy reading my post on Venezuela from an earlier sailing trip. I’m yet to publish a couple more posts on this tumultuous country.