With so much variety between and within countries, it would be a mistake to set yourself too ambitious an itinerary. Far better to decide on a region, a type of holiday, or a realistic combination, and plan accordingly. If your first visit fires your enthusiasm, you can always return to see something different.
The further south you go, the greater the variations in temperature. In the far south of Argentina and Chile, winter (June, July, August) can be very cold, with snow and/or rain disrupting transport and closing mountain passes. The southern summer (December, January, February) is the hottest time and the holiday season, with highest prices, fullest buses and packed resorts. As you go north, the seasons become divided more into wet and dry.
The Pacific seaboard, from northern Chile to southernmost Ecuador, is desert, hot and dry December to April, cool and misty May to November. The rest of Ecuador’s coastal lowlands have one wet season in the south (December/January to April/June), becoming two in the north. Colombia’s Pacific seaboard receives torrential rain daily. In the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, it is dry (and coldest at night) from April to October, wet from November to March. The Ecuadorean and Colombian sierras are wettest February to May and October/ November. The Caribbean coasts of Colombia and Venezuela are tropical, with April/May to November the wet months.
East of the Andes, the wet season is roughly November to April, with local variations. In Brazilian Amazonia, the wettest period is March to May. North-eastern Brazil can be exceptionally hot and rainfall very irregular. In the Guianas the rainy season is May-June, December-January in the west, merging into one, November to July in the east, with heaviest rain in May. February is usually carnival time, so anywhere that celebrates will be busy, with a lull until Holy Week.
The Country-by-Country Overview gives the languages spoken. You are strongly advised to learn some Spanish (or Portuguese) before you arrive, not only for survival, but also to gain the most from being with South Americans. Many foreigners learn Spanish at language schools in the continent; the most popular centre is Quito, Ecuador.
Area: 2,780,400 sq km
Population: 34.6 million (1995).
Time zone: GMT -3 hours.
Currency: peso, 1 peso = US$1.
People: Around Buenos Aires, most people are of European origin. Throughout the country about 13% are foreign born. Roughly 15% are mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous). The indigenous peoples are confined to the NW highlands, the Chaco and Misiones in the North and some Tehuelche and Mapuche in the SW; estimates of their total number range from 100,000 to 300,000.
Highlights: Buenos Aires is largely a 20th-century city, with fine avenues, parks, museums. To the west and south stretch the flat pampas, home of the gaucho and large estancias. To the east are coastal resorts along the River Plate and the Atlantic coast, the most famous being Mar del Plata. The country’s western border with Chile is the Andes.
The long, often lonely Route 40 runs from north to south beside this immense natural barrier. From the bleak altiplano, with isolated Andean communities, it passes near the eerie, lunar landscapes of San Juan, the climbing and ski centres and vineyards of Mendoza, the beautiful lake district, heading down to the glaciers, lakes and staggering peaks of Los Glaciares National Park. In the vast, windy, treeless plateau of Patagonia there are the descendants of the 19th century Welsh immigrants, while the coast around the Peninsula Valdés is excellent for seeing elephant seals, penguins, whales and other wildlife. Salta is a good city from which to visit the north-west highlands. In the north-east, between the Rivers Uruguay and Paraguay are wetlands, ruined Jesuit missions such as San Ignacio Miní and the magnificent Iguazú Falls (also reached from Brazil).
Area: 1,098,581 sq km
Population: 7.4 million (1995)
Time zone: GMT -4 hours.
Currency: boliviano, Bs5.2 = US$1.
Language: Spanish; Indian languages of Aymara, Quechua and Tupi-Guaraní.
People: About two-thirds of the population is Indian, the rest mestizo. The highland Indians are either Aymara or Quechua. Lowland Indians are divided into 30 groups. There are also about 17,000 black descendants of slaves, now living in the Yungas.
Highlights: The high altiplano, above which tower majestic snow-covered peaks, is where the ancient Tiahuanaco civilisation flourished and where the Spaniards built the capital, La Paz.
Much of the country’s economy has been built on high altitude mining and the cooperative mines at Potosí provide an insight into the industry’s bitter history. The mingling pre-hispanic Indian cultures, Spanish domination and the hardship of life inspire many vibrant festivals, such as the Diablada of Oruro.
Also on the high plateau are the fantastic salt flats of Uyuni and the coloured lakes, Colorada and Verde, a world of isolation, blinding light and flamingoes. You can climb in the Andes, or trek down into the fruit, coffee and coca-growing Yungas on the eastern slopes of the mountains. Bolivia’s official capital is Sucre, a fine colonial city, while the second city is Santa Cruz, in the eastern lowlands.
Near here are a group of well-preserved Jesuit missions in the Chiquitanía. To the north are Amazonian forests, in which jungle tours are made.
Area: 8,547,404 sq km
Population: 155.8 million (1995)
Time zone: GMT -3 or 4 depending on season, -5 in the far West.
Currency: real, R$1 = US$1.
People: Some 5 million people lived in what is now Brazil when the Portuguese arrived; today there are only 200,000 indigenous people in 221 tribal groups. 53% of the population is white or near-white; 34% is of mixed race and 11% is Afro-Brazilian. European immigration is heaviest in the southern states.
Highlights: First impressions often come from Rio de Janeiro, with its lovely setting – the Sugar Loaf and Corcovado overlooking the bay and beaches, its world-renowned carnival, the nightlife and its infamous slums (favelas).
All Brazilian cities contain contrasting cultures, and rich beside poor, but few have preserved their historical past as well as Salvador in the north-east. Add to this the designation ‘Africa in Brazil’ and you have a major attraction. Throughout the north-east wonderful beaches are at various stages of development, many with good surfing.
Through the north flows the Amazon, along which river boats ply between Belém and Manaus, giving opportunities to venture into the rainforest. South of this vast green wilderness is a tableland, arid in the north-east (the sertão), falling to the Pantanal, in the far west, a seasonal wetland with a wealth of bird and animal life.
The modern capital, Brasília, was built in the underpopulated centre in the 1960s. The country’s industrial heart is the metropolis of São Paulo, whose fortune was based on coffee; the mining heart of Minas Gerais has some of the country’s best examples of colonial architecture in towns like Ouro Preto.
Southern Brazil has a very different atmosphere, with its German and Italian influences, wine-growing, popular beaches and cowboys.
A good centre for exploring the south is Puerto Montt, close to which is the rainy island of Chiloé, the land of seagulls and myths. For a far-flung excursion, you can visit Easter Island with its strange past and famous statues, or, closer to shore, the Juan Fernández islands, where Alexender Selkirk (the model for Robinson Crusoe) was marooned.
Highlights: In all three countries the population is concentrated on the coastal strip, principally in and around each capital. Their orientation is more towards the Caribbean and Europe than South America. The interior has some of the least explored territory on the continent, hardly developed for tourism. Exceptions are the magnificent Kaieteur Falls, good new jungle resorts and the savannas of Guyana, nature reserves in Suriname and possibilities for river travel. French Guiana’s two main attractions are the European space centre at Kourou and the former convict settlement on the Iles du Salut.
People: There is a strong identification with the indigenous Guaraní in Paraguay. Although the majority of the population are mestizo, most people speak Spanish and Guaraní. Estimates put the pure indigenous population between 40,000 and 75,000 in 17 ethnic groups, most living in the empty Chaco. Also in the Chaco lives an important Mennonite community. German influence has been relatively strong.
Highlights: The capital, Asunción, stands on the eastern bank of the River Paraguay, which more or less separates the fertile eastern half of the country from the Chaco. This marshy palm savanna becomes increasingly hostile, impenetrable thorn forest as it nears the Bolivian border. It is rich in birdlife, empty of people other than those mentioned above and not a place to venture unprepared. The towns and villages of the east are quiet and traditional in both customs and agricultural methods. Many display signs of the Jesuit heritage which is best exemplified in the ruins of Trinidad and Jesús in the south-east. In contrast, Ciudad del Este is a duty-free shoppers’ heaven (or hell) on the Brazilian border, close to the massive Itaipú hydroelectric scheme and the Iguazú Falls.
Area: 176,215 sq km
Population: 3.2 million (1995)
Time zone: GMT -3 hours
Currency: peso uruguayo, 8.76 pesos = US$1
People: Almost all Uruguayans are of Spanish or Italian descent; less than 10% are mestizo while a few Afro-Europeans live near the Brazilian border and in Montevideo.
Highlights: From the capital, Montevideo, a string of beaches stretches along the northern shore of the River Plate and on to the Atlantic coast. The most famous is Punta del Este which, in season (December-February) heaves with Argentines, Brazilians and locals. West of the capital is Colonia, the only pocket of colonial building still standing in this part of the continent.
As the Plate estuary becomes the River Uruguay, the last vestiges of the meat canning industry can be found at Fray Bentos. The interior is purely agricultural and many of the estancias accept visitors on a day, or longer basis.
Area: 912,050 sq km
Population: 21.8 million (1995)
Time zone: GMT -4 hours
Currency: bolívar, Bs476 = US$1
People: A large number are mestizo. There is a strong element of African descent along the coast. One in six Venezuelans is foreign born, mostly from Europe. About 1% of the population is Indian, including the Yanomami, who live in Amazonas.
Highlights: Caracas, the capital, is a large, commercial city, at the foot of the Monte Avila National Park, which makes a great escape from the traffic and crowds. Along the Caribbean coast are beaches and national parks protecting reefs and islands, with good diving, especially at Morrocoy. Further offshore is the atoll of Islas Los Roques, the best of the marine parks.
Venezuela’s largest island, Isla Margarita, on the other hand, is favoured by package tours. In the coastal mountains west of Caracas is the Henri Pittier National Park, with superb birdwatching in a variety of habitats.
The three main inland destinations are very different. In the west are the nothern-most reaches of the Andes, with delightful scenery and good hiking; the best base is the university city of Mérida. Through the centre of Venezuela flows the Orinoco River.
The vast central plains (Llanos) offer excellent nature tourism, especially for birdwatchers, often on cattle ranches.
In the south is Amazon-type jungle, while at the Orinoco’s mouth, the Delta is as yet little explored by tourists.
The third area is the Gran Sabana, a region of table-top mountains (tepuis), waterfalls (including Salto Angel – Angel Falls – the highest waterfall in the world at 979m), and wide open spaces on some of the oldest geological formations on Earth.
Cultural tourism takes in archaeological sites, the most famous of which are in the Andes, and the Spanish and Portuguese colonial heritage. Traditional music shows, like peñas in the Andean countries, or tango spots in Buenos Aires, should not be missed, and in Brazil you can learn to dance many of the local steps. Interest is growing in Andean spirituality and shamanism, all part of the ‘mystical tourism’ trend.
Adventure tourism takes all forms and suggestions are given below. Estancias (farms) provide a variety of activities, from sheep-shearing and dairy farming, to wildlife, riding and trekking tours. There are first-class surfing beaches in Brazil and Peru. Diving is best in Colombia, Venezuela and the Galápagos, but check the operator’s accreditation.
All the countries have national parks or protected areas to preserve specific landscapes and/or wildlife. Policies on access differ, but there are opportunities for good nature tourism from the wettest of the lowlands to the highest, starkest Andean peaks.
Travelling in South America is not fraught with danger. The main risk comes from opportunistic crime, principally in the major cities. By using your common sense and taking care of your possessions, this can be minimised. Even in the safest countries, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, the possibility of theft exists, but it is greater in the other countries.
In urban areas, violence is as much a threat as in any part of the world where crime, especially drug-related, occurs.
The only country where there is a threat of being caught up in guerrilla violence is Colombia, but this can be avoided by asking first where you should not go.
The Galápagos Islands, with their unique fauna and flora, are one of the top wildlife destinations on the planet. Those who can’t afford a package there can visit other sites on the Ecuadorean and Peruvian coasts with a wide range of seabirds.
Whale-watching is especially good off the coasts of Ecuador and Argentina. Birdwatching is exceptional, from the riches of the tropics, to the wetland species of such places as the Brazilian Pantanal, the geese and penguins of the cold south, and the condor in the rarefied air of the Andes.
The tropics and rainforests also provide the habitat for countless butterflies and other insects. Mammals include the Andean camelids (llama, alpaca, vicuña and guanaco), the rare spectacled bear, jaguar and other cats, anteaters, sloths, monkeys, bats and rodents small (the guinea pig) and large (the capybara).
Aquatic mammals include seals and sea-elephants in southern waters and river dolphins in the Amazon and its tributaries. Reptiles, such as snakes and iguanas, and amphibians are also common, although frogs are more often heard than seen.
All these animals inhabit landscapes of great beauty: in wet and dry forests, mangroves, estuaries and plains; beside rivers which can be broad and jungle-fringed, or rushing torrents; on the slopes of mountains, snow-capped, volcanic, table-top or green.
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