Torres del Paine National Park (Dreamstime)
List 29 April

25 of Latin America's best outdoor adventures

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...

1: Boat or 4WD in the Pantanal, Brazil

A boat navigates through the Pantanal, Brazil (Dreamstime)

A boat navigates through the Pantanal, Brazil (Dreamstime)

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.

2: Snorkelling in the world’s second largest reef, Belize

Snorkelling in Belize (iStock)

Snorkelling in Belize (iStock)

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

When: Year-round

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.

3: Mountain bike tours from Antigua, Guatemala

Cycling the streets of Antigua (Dreamstime)

Cycling the streets of Antigua (Dreamstime)

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.

Where: Antigua

When: Year-round

How: Cycle tours, including plantation stops, can be booked through the locally based Old Town Outfitters.

4: Volcano hiking, Costa Rica

Arenal volcano (Dreamstime)

Arenal volcano (Dreamstime)

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.

5: Surfing tour, El Salvador

Surfing off El Zonte beach in El Salvador (Dreamstime)

Surfing off El Zonte beach in El Salvador (Dreamstime)

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.

How: If you want to join the surf community, El Salvador Surf Camps host visitors from everywhere. For beginners, try classes at Las Flores Resort.

6: Avenue of volcanoes, Ecuador

Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador (Dreamstime)

Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador (Dreamstime)

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.

7: Canopy birdwatching, Suriname

A blue-headed parrot in Suriname (Dreamstime)

A blue-headed parrot in Suriname (Dreamstime)

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

When: Year-round

How: Independent travel is possible, though Orange Travel offers a wide range of activities, including the canopy tour.

8: Choquequirao trail, Peru

Choquequirao riuns (Dreamstime)

Choquequirao riuns (Dreamstime)

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.

Where: Cusco

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.

9: Hike Torres del Paine National Park (W) trail, Chile

Torres del Paine National Park (Dreamstime)

Torres del Paine National Park (Dreamstime)

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.

How: Experienced walkers can do the ‘W’ independently, or guided walks are available locally at Fantastico Sur or through Erratic Rock.

10: Jungle boat tour to Chalalán Eco-lodge, Bolivia

Travelling by boat along the Beni River in Bolivia (Dreamstime)

Travelling by boat along the Beni River in Bolivia (Dreamstime)

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.

Where: Rurrenabaque

When: Year-round

How: Trips are booked through Chalalán Eco-lodge directly, with boat departures scheduled for around 7.30am.

11: Wildlife watching, Ecuador

Iguanas on the Galápagos Islands (Dreamstime)

Iguanas on the Galápagos Islands (Dreamstime)

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

When: Year-round

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.

12: Stand-up paddleboarding, Honduras

A couple paddleboarding in Honduras (Dreamstime)

A couple paddleboarding in Honduras (Dreamstime)

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.

Where: Roatán

When: Year-round

How: SUPs can be rented from Steve’s Paddle Shack; tours include a boat ride through the mangroves or snorkelling.

13: Salt flats by 4WD, Bolivia

4WD in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (Dreamstime)

4WD in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (Dreamstime)

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

When: Year-round

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.

14: Volcano hiking, Nicaragua

Concepcíon volcano in Nicaragua (Dreamstime)

Concepcíon volcano in Nicaragua (Dreamstime)

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

When: Year-round

How: Some can be hiked independently, but tours with Quetzal Trekkers also donate profits to help children in the area.

15: Trekking to the clouds, Argentina

Train to the Clouds (Lyn Hughes)

Train to the Clouds (Lyn Hughes)

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.

Where: Salta

When: Year-round

How: Argentina Trails run excellent hiking trips up into the Andes.

16: Salsa classes, Colombia

Salsa competition in Cali, Colombia (Dreamstime)

Salsa competition in Cali, Colombia (Dreamstime)

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.

Where: Cali

When: Year-round

How: Head along to Tin Tin Deo to dance like a pro, or to Sabor Manicero for lessons.

17: Sea kayaking, Mexico

Espiritu Santo Island, Baja California (Dreamstime)

Espiritu Santo Island, Baja California (Dreamstime)

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.

18: Exploring colonial cities, Colombia

Vibrant buildings of Cartagena (Dreamstime)

Vibrant buildings of Cartagena (Dreamstime)

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).

19: Whitewater rafting, Panama

Whitewater rafting (Dreamstime)

Whitewater rafting (Dreamstime)

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.

20: Self-drive 4WD, Guyana

Kaieteur Falls, Guyana (Dreamstime)

Kaieteur Falls, Guyana (Dreamstime)

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.

21: Horseback riding with gauchos, Uruguay

Festival of gaucho culture (Shutterstock)

Festival of gaucho culture (Shutterstock)

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.

Where: Tacuarembó

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.

22: Stargazing in the Atacama, Chile

Star trail in the Atacama desert Chile (Dreamstime)

Star trail in the Atacama desert Chile (Dreamstime)

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.

23: Exploring the Orinoco Delta by boat, Venezuela

Stilt houses on the Orinoco Delta (Dreamstime)

Stilt houses on the Orinoco Delta (Dreamstime)

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

When: Year-round

How: Hike Venezuela offer three- or four-day excursions by boat into the Delta, staying in traditional Warao-style huts.

24: Wildlife tour, Costa Rica

Scarlet macaws in a tree, Corcovado, Costa Rica (Dreamstime)

Scarlet macaws in a tree, Corcovado, Costa Rica (Dreamstime)

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).

How: Combine a tour with a stay at Drake Bay Wilderness Resort or Luna Lodge.

25: Cycling the Seven Lakes, Argentina

Views over the Argentinian Lake District (Dreamstime)

Views over the Argentinian Lake District (Dreamstime)

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.