Get your caffeine kick in Colombia, trek full-circuit in Chile and wind down with vino in Argentina – explore Central and South America anew with these crowd-free and fun-guaranteed activities...
So, you’ve decided to go to Peru, pack your boots and learn about the Incas? Great. But there’s no need to rush into it and do the 'classic' (as in, busy) three-day Inca Trail to get behind the story of South America’s greatest civilisation. Why not warm up with a coastal journey, via Trujillo and Chiclayo, and then turn inland to Chachapoyas.
As well as wonderful scenery, the towering Gocta Falls and fascinating coastal enclaves, you’ll take in archaeological sites relating to the Moche, Chimu, Wari and Chachapoya people – cultures prior to or contemporaneous with the Incas. Now you can head to Cuzco, acclimatize in the wide-open plazas and colonial courtyards, and wander around Sacsayhuaman, before catching the train to do the novel one-day hike Machu Picchu. Warm down with a side-trip to the Tambopata national reserve, Peru’s dizzyling biodiverse southern Amazon region.
Like magnets, the granite pinnacles at the heart of Torres del Paine national park in southern Patagonia draw in intrepid hikers from across the globe. The mighty southern ice-field exerts a powerful pull – it’s one of the largest ice-caps outside the polar regions – but the magic of 'Paine' (pron. "pie-nay"), as locals call it, is the multi-faceted topography: flower-filled valleys, pellucid lakes, walls of blue glacier, and the magnificent rock massif of Paine Grande.
There are myriad ways to explore the park. Many opt for a day or two around Lago Grey; the more ambitious do the popular 'W' two-valleys walk. But if you want a genuine challenge, take on the full circuit, a nine-day medium-high level hike circling the massif, camping en route and taking in the Torres and Cuernos, Grey glacier, lofty Gardner mountain pass and sublime views of the ice-field. Wind down in a dome-shaped suite at the award-winning EcoCamp.
Cuba beguiles, entices, thrills, and, sometimes, confuses. Havana’s colonial architecture, the salsa-beat sway of street life, the stunning beaches and emerald-green interior cannot fail to stir the imagination, but how do you make sense of a country that has lived in a parallel social and political universe for more than half a century? The trick is: the casa particular.
A homestay in Cuba is the only way to see inside the lives of the charismatic islanders, while sharing breakfast and enjoying a coffee on the patio. Across the island, from the capital to romantic Trinidad, beautiful Cienfuegos and cultural hub Santiago, ordinary cubanos open their doors to foreign visitors enthusiasm and curiosity. Their casa is yours, and it beats a government-run hotel, any day.
Colombia has gone mainstream. After years of relative obscurity, booming Bogotá, sultry Santa Marta and the Caribbean fortress-town of Cartagena de Indias are firmly on the map. In these cities, and in renascent Cali and Medellin, a confident, young nation is thrusting forward into an optimistic future.
But to get under the skin of the country, head for the coffee triangle, where you’ll get an eyeful of archetypal tropical South America: green slopes bursting with fresh red coffee cherries, pastel-painted churches, farmers heading home at dusk in vintage Willys jeeps. The three vertices of the triangle – Armenia, Pereira and Manizales – are wonderful, but small towns like colonial Salento make for a more intimate, authentic encounter with locals. You can hike in the nearby Los Nevados national park, saddle up to ride with the Paso Fino riders and visit a coffee plantation to learn about growing, roasting and “cupping”.
Afterwards, settle back with a tasty tinto and cake in one of Salento’s coffee shops.
It’s well known that chocolate, for the original Mexicans, was a food of the gods. Quetzalcoatl gifted the Aztecs “chocolatl”. The Spaniards added sugar, and churros. Across Mexico, food is taken very seriously and a taste-tour is a great way to open up its diverse regions.
Oaxaca is a recognised culinary capital, with excellent restaurants and tasty specialities such as beef enchiladas, mozzarella-like cheese and yummy chapulines (grasshoppers). Food combines naturally with other customs and traditions: a tour of the indigenous villages around Chiapas is an opportunity to try street food while a Yucatan trip via the Mayan sites should end with a beach break near Tulum and delicious fish and seafood ceviches.
Capital Mexico City remains the powerhouse of fine dining and cantinas – cosy old inns, where the tequila flows like a river, laden with little rafts of tasty bites.
A coast-to-coast trip across Central America’s most popular country is only about 200 km as the toucan flies. But Costa Rica is never a diminutive experience. A land of peaks and clefts, ravines and ridges, it could be opened up to cover up a much larger area.
On the Pacific, popular Manuel Antonio National Park is the perfect place to have an encounter with that most magical of mammals – the sloth. Polite, harmless, quiet, vegetarian and cute in an ugly kind of way, they’re easy animals to love, and here they share the jungle here with four monkey species, iguana, armadillo and 180-odd bird species.
Tortuguero national park, on the Caribbean Coast is the place to see turtles nesting and kayak through the mangroves looking out for more monkeys, plus tiger heron, caiman, green macaw and much else besides. Between these two extremes lies a wonderland of volcanoes, canopy walks, hot pools, rafting rivers and other family-friendly adventure playgrounds.
Once known as Alto Peru, Bolivia is South America’s great highland nation: from its capital, La Paz, to its famed silver mine, half the country lies at around the 3,500-4,000 metre mark. Breathless, but in a good way.
Nowhere is this more compelling than in the Salar de Uyuni, a vast salt flat in the altiplano. Around the edge of the pure white lake are multi-coloured ravines and the high peaks of volcanoes. Lakes, like paints on a palette, shimmer green, blue and red. Drive in 4WD into the nearby desert to see standing stones sculpted by wind and weather.
Pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilisations used to cross the Salar on foot; their descendants, artisanal miners, still dig precious salt with picks and shovels. In this extraordinary landscape, nature still prospers: flocks of flamingos, startlingly pink against the white, feed on tiny brine shrimps in the red lakes. The Salar is as flat as the earth’s curvature allows and from space (or on Google Earth) it looks like a brilliant white island or, after a light winter rain, a mirror for the gods.
The world’s most famous fiesta is not only an all-singing, all-dancing street party. It converts what is already the most gorgeous coastal city anywhere on earth into a genuine community celebration. As well as seeing the expert neighbourhood dance troupes file through the Sambadrome, travellers can join in smaller, friendlier celebrations on the beach, in plazas, in the bustling bars and all over the city.
For a break from all the buzz, Rio is a superb art city, with world-class galleries in the historic centre. Santa Teresa, up on a hill, is a leafy retreat from the hot sands and carnival commotion. End your own parade with a slow drive along the Costa Verde to the lovely islands of Ihlabela and Ilha Grande.
Argentina is huge. One way to approach it is a triangle – touching down on three very different points to get a sense of the scale and variety. Buenos Aires is a natural stopover, and a few days strolling round the narrow streets and expansive boulevards – and tangoing across the dance floors at the neighbourhood milongas – is a great introduction to the country.
Fly north for two hours to see one of South America’s most awe-inspiring sights: the Iguazú Falls, which plunge hundreds of feet over a horseshoe-shaped canyon on the Brazilian border. The jungle backdrop, darting swifts, flickering rainbows add to the spectacle.
Swap humidity for desert with a third stop, in Mendoza, Argentina’s vinopolis – a compact, bustling city that sits in the long rain-shadow of the Andes. Several famous appellations are close to the centre, so you can tour the wineries, do some tastings and return to the city for steak and… more wine. Salud!
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