Whether scaling the volcanic slopes of Cotopaxi on horseback or snorkelling the reefs of Belize, Central and South America are packed with thrills. Daniel Neilson reveals the best...
Ignore that the public face of the Brazilian Pantanal is the piranha, and just dive (figuratively speaking) into the world’s largest wetland region – either by boat or by driving the 147km Transpantaneira across Mato Grosso. The Pantanal is home to more than 1,000 bird species while its long list of mammals includes the giant river otter, wolf, tapir and jaguar.
Where: Mato Grosso do Sul and Mato Grosso
When: Most visit between April and November, but the best time to see mammals in the wild is between July and October, as dry season ramps up.
How: For the northern Pantanal, fly into Cuiabá and it’s a 1.5hr drive to the Transpantaneira; for the south, fly into either Corumbá or Campo Grande.
The Central American country of Belize might be tiny but its coast leaves a big impression. The coral reef here makes up roughly a third of the 900km-long Mesoamerican Reef. Explore charming cayes (Ambergris and Caulker), snorkel with nurse sharks in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and plunge into the Blue Hole, a 300m-wide, 125m-deep chasm, sinking past circling reef sharks and javelin-like stalactites.
Where: Belize coast
How: There are no direct flights from the UK to Belize City; most require overnight stays in Miami or Dallas. Boats and dive gear can be hired locally.
The faithfully preserved colonial town of Antigua is the launch pad for some of the continent’s best mountain-biking. Ride through Maya villages, learning about their culture and traditions over three-day trips, enjoying heart-stopping views of Guatemala’s puffing volcanoes along the way and enjoying some thigh-busting ascents and gnarly descents. Finish with a tour of a cooperative coffee plantation – the cyclist’s favourite brew.
How: Cycle tours, including plantation stops, can be booked through the locally based Old Town Outfitters.
As well as exploding with wildlife, Costa Rica is a country that erupts from the ground, too. Its volcano belt is protected by the Arenal Volcano National Park and, until a few years ago, the fire and brimstone here could still be regularly seen spouting from its namesake volcano. Even more interesting is some of the wildlife that can be encountered while hiking the many trails around the park, from cheeky capuchin monkeys and curious coati to arguably the country’s most sought-after bird, the resplendent quetzal.
Where: Arenal Volcano National Park
When: Dry season is between December and April (though remember, this is still the rainforest) but it can also be pretty hot during this time. April to July is a good time to visit, as a cooler compromise.
How: The park’s trails can always be accessed independently, but a guide will help you to find the most exciting wildlife, with local tour op Jacamar Naturalist Tours running popular tours of the forest interior.
Surfers have long known that El Salvador is one of the world’s great places to ride the waves. And with plenty of travellers having at least taken the odd lesson already, why not test yourself in surf country. There are dozens of surfing schools and camps in El Salvador, and don’t be too intimidated by the pictures of huge waves; there are plenty of places for beginners to practice just finding their feet.
Where: El Salvador
When: El Salvador’s peak season of big, consistent swell is between April and October.
Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world, and there are few better ways to experience it up close than by riding its slopes on horseback and sleeping on its rumbling belly. The ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ in central Ecuador offers drama on a scale rarely seen. Set out from the haciendas on four hooves to experience what Ecuadorian chagra (cowhand) life is like on the tough highland plains.
Where: Cotopaxi National Park
When: Year round, but there are clearer skies from June to September.
How: Tierra del Volcan offers single- and multi-day horse rides from two rural haciendas around the park.
You can just imagine the great adventurers of old trekking through the wooden villages of Suriname, exploring caves and travelling its lush jungle-fringed rivers. Despite being the smallest country in South America, it offers some of the biggest adventures, not least high up in the canopies where Suriname’s wildlife likes to hang out. Join them on safaris that takes you deep into the jungle and let you loose on the zip-wire at Bergendal Adventure Center.
Where: Brokopondo District
How: Independent travel is possible, though Orange Travel offers a wide range of activities, including the canopy tour.
The Inca Trail may get all the headlines, but the Choquequirao offers an impressive alternative, perhaps even rivalling Machu Picchu for sheer spectacle. The city of Choquequirao is much bigger for starters, and only an estimated 40% of it has been unearthed. Spending four-to-five days walking to its Inca ruins and back offers one of the most spectacular hiking trails in Latin America, crossing high mountain passes and discovering exquisite Inca stonework long the way.
When: Dry season here is May to November.
How: You can do the trek alone, though it is tough without porters. Dozens of outfitters in Cusco offers trips, with Choquequirao Trail Tour Operator well regarded.
The word ‘wild’ barely covers it. Torres del Paine National Park, largely in Chilean Patagonia, is South America’s final hurrah before crashing into the ocean, with the prospect of Antarctica not too much further south. The scenery is incomparable: a rugged wilderness of scaling mountains, vast lakes, dramatic glaciers and dense forests. The most common hiking route is known as the ‘W’, and can be walked in around five days from Camp Torres (two hours from Puerto Natales).
Where: Puerto Natales
When: Summer (November–early March) brings larger crowds but warmer weather. Book sites early.
Sometimes getting there is part of the adventure. A plane from La Paz takes you to a grass runway in Rurrenabaque, from where a narrow boat winds through the Amazon for over five hours to a rustic, but comfortable, lodge in the heart of the Madidi National Park. And that’s just for starters. This lauded eco-tourism project is staffed by the remote San José de Uchupiamonas community, with guides who’ve lived there all their lives. See frogs the size of your thumbnail and spiders the size of your hand. Words don’t quite sum it up.
How: Trips are booked through Chalalán Eco-lodge directly, with boat departures scheduled for around 7.30am.
The trip of a lifetime. The Galápagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago drifting 1,000km off the tip of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, first entered the public consciousness in the 1800s, after Charles Darwin first returned with ideas that would later form his ‘Theory of Evolution’. Since then, countless nature programmes have highlighted its biodiverse wonders, from lumbering highland tortoises to darting marine iguanas. Simply unmissable.
Where: Galápagos Islands
How: High-end cruises (for up to 15 days) follow set itineraries; meanwhile budget travellers can fly independently and pay the park fee on arrival.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is the surfing we can all do, regardless of age or ability. As such, it makes a fine way to explore the tranquil seas off Honduras. Make your first stop Roatán, an idyllic island 60km off the mainland coast. It lies on an ancient reef and its twinkling Caribbean waters are known for their whale sharks and depths teeming with tropical fish and swaying forests of fan coral.
How: SUPs can be rented from Steve’s Paddle Shack; tours include a boat ride through the mangroves or snorkelling.
The Bolivian salt flats are one of the most otherworldly places in Latin America. This white wilderness, spotted with occasional cactus-filled ‘islands’, is the planet’s largest salt flat. When the rains come, and a layer of water settles upon it, the whole area becomes a vast mirror. But that’s not all, it also harbours volcanoes as well as caves filled with mummified bodies. Tours by 4WD typically last for a couple of days, and are worth it.
Where: Salar de Uyuni
How: Book a tour in advance or just turn up at Uyuni – it’s so close that you can pick something up on the day. Alternatively, Bolivian Milenaria run tours of the flats in style.
If it’s Nicaragua, it must be volcano hiking. The smoking behemoths of the Léon Region guard the western Pacific edge of the country, with many of them still active. Concepción and Maderas are particularly challenging and spectacular ascents, while Masaya is still very active and may even afford you the chance to see magma. San Cristóbal is the highest peak at 1,745m, with some tour ops offering the chance to bed down on it overnight.
Where: Léon Region, Nicaragua
How: Some can be hiked independently, but tours with Quetzal Trekkers also donate profits to help children in the area.
Salta is the gateway to Andean Argentina, with its food and culture having more in common with Bolivia and Peru than European-styled Buenos Aires. Take time to wander the sleepy streets of this pretty, colonial city, then strike out to explore the mountains and volcanoes of the Andes. The famous Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) can be taken to its vertigo-inducing viaduct, but it’s better to explore the mountains on foot.
How: Argentina Trails run excellent hiking trips up into the Andes.
Salsa is one of the most popular dances worldwide and, let’s be honest, one of the sexiest. This dance may have originated in the Caribbean, but it developed its own style in Cali, Colombia. And with Salsa Caleña now danced in classes and nightclubs the world over, what better place to go learn its quick, skipping steps than the Capital de la Salsa? After all, there are more salsa schools and teams in Cali than anywhere else in the world.
In the crystal-clear aquamarine waters around Baja California Sur lies a wealth of sea life, and the best way to see it is from a kayak. Paddlers come from all around the world to kayak off the coast here, and the reasons are swimming under their hull. Grey whales arrive off the west coast to calve yearly and are given to playfully nudging boats to request a tickle or a scratch; blue and humpback whales can also be spied here. One of the most popular spots for kayaking is around Isla Espíritu Santo, a scrap of land in the Gulf of California. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is full of sharks, turtles, dolphins and even a snorkel-friendly colony of sea lions, not to mention whale sharks.
Where: Baja California Sur
When: The best time to see whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez is from November to February; grey whales can be spotted between January and March.
How: Baja Outdoor Activities operate multi-day tours swerving the islands of the Sea of Cortez and west coast of Espíritu Santo.
Immerse yourself in the world that inspired the magical realism novels of Gabriel García Márquez. The north-western area along Colombia’s Caribbean coast is high on the list of many travellers, especially the UNESCO-protected city of Cartagena, known for its colourful colonial buildings and laid-back attitude. Other highlights include the fossils around Villa de Leyva and the hillside village of Barichara, the ‘Prettiest Town in Colombia’.
Where: Caribbean coast
When: Avoid when rainfall is highest (June–November).
How: Avianca fly non-stop to Bogotá from the UK (11 hours), with connecting flights to Cartagena (2.5 hours).
There is, frankly, fantastic whitewater rafting across much of Central America. But its southernmost nation surely has the pick of the water sports, from sea-kayaking its twinkling coast to rafting through the rapids threading those dense jungles. The latter can also enjoyed by all ages and skills, from Class II family trips (gentler rapids) to the more serious Class IV adventures along the Mamoni River.
Where: Mamoni River
When: Year round – but the water is lowest at the end of the dry season (April–May).
How: Trips rafting into the jungles of Panama, or even just floating by the city, can be found at Adventures Panama.
Guyana is one of the continent’s hidden treasures. It is a land dominated by thick jungle, thundering waterfalls and long, twisting waterways, but few venture there. One of the best ways to explore this diverse nation is to hop into the cab of a 4WD and head off on a self-drive tour. The highlights include the crashing Kaieteur and Orinduik Falls, as well as rainforest hikes, canopy tours and river rides, although be prepared for some tough roads.
Where: Start in Georgetown
When: May to August is the rainy season, when travel (particularly driving) can be trickier.
How: There are no direct flights from the UK to Georgetown, Guyana, with most flights going via Boston. 4WD tours are best booked beforehand.
The freedom of the pampas, nightly get-togethers over meat and local red wine, the horse rides and culture of the Uruguayan gaucho (cowboy)... a few days spent on an estancia (ranch) in Uruguay is an education in itself, and one you won’t soon forget as you wander the range and get used to a saddle between your thighs. Newbies soon get a feel for it, and the chance to help out on a real ranch adds a dash of local reality to the whole experience.
When: Year round – but November–April are milder.
How: Estancia Panagea is a working ranch in Tacuarembó (+598 99 836 149) where visitors are expected to muck in and will be taught to ride.
The ‘super observatories’ in the Atacama desert were built there for one obvious reason: it has some of the clearest skies on the planet. Stargazers have long been flocking to the little hippie town of San Pedro de Atacama to wonder at the universe. Spy the Rings of Saturn at South America’s largest public observatory, or just crane your neck skywards – you won’t be disappointed.
Where: San Pedro de Atacama
When: Year round – but try to avoid full moons.
How: Several stays combine stargazing trips, with Tierra Hotels just one option.
Venezuela may have its troubles (see FCO for travel updates), but you can’t deny its sheer beauty. The jutting mountains, crashing waterfalls and the huge lakes of the north-west are simply breathtaking, and exploring its expansive Delta by boat is a rare chance to get up close to a unique ecosystem, ripe with crocodiles, primates and a range of birdlife.
Where: Orinoco Delta
How: Hike Venezuela offer three- or four-day excursions by boat into the Delta, staying in traditional Warao-style huts.
Corcovado National Park is among the most biodiverse places on the planet. It lies on the Osa Peninsula and is one of the few remaining decent-sized lowland tropical forests in the world, home to the planet’s largest population of scarlet macaws and plenty of rare finds. It is highly protected and visitors must be accompanied by certified guides.
Where: Corcovado National Park
When: Avoid wet season (July–November).
The Seven Lakes in the Argentinian Lake District make up some of the most handsome scenery in a country well-endowed with sights. Heading out from San Martín de los Andes, a few days’ mountain biking in the area offers a close-up view of its snow-capped mountains, riding single-track roads around mirror-flat lakes. Try to combine with a visit to a Mapuche village, to learn about the culture and beliefs of the region’s indigenous people.
Where: San Martín do los Andes
When: Make the most of the summer (September–March).
How: Cycling and motorbike (if you want to go full ‘Che’ Guevara) trips can be arranged with Andes Track, who can also set up Mapuche village visits as well.