A beginner's guide to South America

Ben Box guides you through Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay AND Venezuela

4 mins

Planning a trip

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.

When to go

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.
Language: Spanish.

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.

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.
Language: Portuguese.

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.


Area: 756,626 sq km
Population: 14.2 million (1995)
Time zone: GMT -4 hours (-3 October-March).
Currency: peso; 426.1 pesos = US$1.
Language: Spanish.

People: Over 90% of the people are mestizo; European immigration since the mid-18th century has been concentrated in the south. The largest indigenous group is the Mapuche nation (approximately 1 million), who live between the Biobío and Toltén rivers. In the far north are about 15,000 Aymara Indians and 2,000 Rapa Nui live on Easter Island.

Highlights: This ribbon of a country changes from deserts and Andean altiplano in the north to wet, cold and windy channels, ice fields and amazing mountains in the far south. In between, river valleys delimit various climatic regions and a lake district every bit as beautiful as Argentina’s.

The fine national parks network include the stunning granite peaks of Torres del Paine, the San Rafael glacier, ancient forests, many volcanoes, lakes and high-altitude salt flats. It is an ideal country for adventure tourism: skiing, climbing, trekking, canoeing, cycling (eg along the Carretera Austral in the south), fishing and sailing. Near the capital, Santiago, are several famous vineyards, many beach resorts, the most renowned being Viña del Mar, and the historical port of Valparaíso.

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.


Area: 1,141,568 sq km
Population: 35.1 million (1995)
Time zone: GMT -5 hours.
Currency: peso, 1,020.1 pesos = US$1.
Language: Spanish.

People: From region to region, there is great racial variety. People of European descent live mainly in the centre-west and of African descent on the southern Pacific and Caribbean coasts. There are an estimated 400,000 tribal peoples, from 60 ethnic groups, living in the Amazonian lowlands, the Pacific coast rainforest, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the hot, arid Guajira Peninsula.

Highlights: Colombia has a rich colonial history, seen in cities such as Cartagena on the Caribbean, the capital Bogotá and Popayán in the southern highlands. Evidence of the cultures which preceded the Spaniards can be found in the Tayrona Ciudad Perdida, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, reached only by a one-week hike or by helicopter, the stone statues of San Agustín, the burial chambers of Tierradentro and the magnificent gold museum in Bogotá.

Two Andean cordilleras run the length of the country, with good climbing in places, national parks with hot springs and rare flora and fauna and Indian communities. This is a very fertile country, with a huge array of fruits and flowers and excellent coffee, whose farmers are opening their fincas to tourism. The vast eastern plains give way to Amazonian forests, with Leticia as Colombia’s toehold on the great river.


Area: 272,045 sq km
Population: 11.5 million
Time zone: GMT -5 hours (-6 on the Galápagos Islands).
Currency: sucre, 3,700 sucres = US$1.
Language: Spanish; Quechua.

People: There are many indigenous groups in both the Andes (mainly Quechua) and the eastern lowlands; most have endured great difficulties in maintaining their land and customs. Together they make up over 50% of the population. About 40% are mestizo, many of whom are farmers and fishermen on the Pacific side of the Andes.

Highlights: It is easy to get from Pacific coast to Amazonian lowlands, via the volcanic chain of the Andes, in under a day (if you must), but each region has so much to detain the visitor. The coast has beaches, rare dry forest, a growing interest in pre-columbian archaeological sites and mangroves. The spectacular railway from Guayaquil to the highlands is only one way of ascending to the sierra, with its Indian markets, colonial towns, the Inca ruin of Ingapirca and climbing opportunities. 

Ecuador is famous for its hot springs and, on either side of the Andes, there is great birdwatching in a wide variety of protected areas. This is also good mountain bike terrain. The Oriente (eastern lowlands) is opening up to nature tourism, with a number of specially-designed jungle lodges. The nature destination par excellence, though, is the Galápagos Islands, 970 km west of the mainland.

Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana

Area: Guyana 215,083 sq km; Suriname 53,820 sq km; French Guiana 86,504 sq km.
Population: Guyana 770,000; Suriname 430,000; French Guiana 145,000 (1995).
Time zone: GMT -3 hours (Guyana -4 hours).
Currency: Guyana, Guyanese dollar, Guy$140 = US$1; Suriname, guilder, Sf410 = US£1; French Guiana, French franc, 5.4F = US$1.
Language: in Guyana English; in Suriname Dutch, English, Asian languages and Sranan Togo, the lingua franca; in French Guiana French.

People: In both Guyana and Suriname, the largest ethnic group is East Indian, followed in Guyana by Afro-Guyanese and in Suriname by Creoles (European-African and other descent). In French Guiana, Creoles make up the largest sector of society. In all three countries, the rest of the population consists of many other groups (eg Europeans, Chinese, Bush Negroes in Suriname, Brazilians), within each case an Amerindian population of 4-5%.

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.


Area: 406,752 sq km
Population: 4.8 million (1995)
Time zone: GMT -4 hours (-3 October-February)
Currency: guaraní, G/2120 = US$1
Language: Spanish; Guaraní.

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: 1,285,216 sq km
Population: 23.5 million (1995)
Time zone: GMT -5 hours
Currency: new sol, s/2.62 = US$1
Language: Spanish; Quechua; Aymara.

People: Statistics on the number of indigenous people differ widely, but approaching 50% of the total are highland Indians (the vast majority being Quechua, the rest Aymara), while a mere 2% are Amerindians from the lowland jungles. These are divided into 40-50 ethnic groups. About a third of the population is mestizo and 12% white.

Highlights: Where to start? Cusco, Machu Picchu, the Nasca Lines in the Pacific desert and, more recently, some of the northern archaeological sites such as Sipán, are world famous for their treasures. In all other parts of the country there are places equally deserving of such fame: colonial cities like Ayacucho, Arequipa, Cajamarca and Trujillo, built on or near foundations of pre-hispanic strongholds.

The Incas, of whom everyone has heard, were the last in a long line of civilizations who left remains at ruins such as Kuelap, Chan-Chán, Chavín all serving as good bases for exploration. The museums of the capital, Lima, are good places to get an idea of what there is to see.

Peru has some of the best bird, animal and plant watching in the world, eg in Manu Biosphere Reserve and other south-eastern jungle reserves, while the Ballestas Islands in the Pacific have a high concentration of marine birdlife.

The Cordillera Blanca, best accessed from Huaraz, is a major climbing and trekking centre, but by no means the only one. Near Arequipa are the deepest canyons on Earth, Cotahuasi and Colca, remarkable not just for their physical magnitude and the challenge of kayaking down them, but also for the lives of the people who inhabit them. Peruvian surfers were instrumental in starting international competition and the waves are perfectly suited to it.


Area: 176,215 sq km

Population: 3.2 million (1995)

Time zone: GMT -3 hours

Currency: peso uruguayo, 8.76 pesos = US$1

Language: Spanish.

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

Language: Spanish.

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.

Things to do

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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