I want to be in South America

05:42, Jun 10 2014
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Revellers from the Uniao da Ilha samba school perform from their football inspired float.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Revellers from the Mocidade Independente samba school light up Rio in fluorescent green.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Revellers from the Uniao da Ilha samba school give a new take on the Rubik's cube.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Revellers from the Mocidade Independente samba school show there's no gender bias in what you wear.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: A member of the Uniao da Ilha samba school mounted on a flexible pole tips out over a crowd of thousands in Rio.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Members of Uniao da Ilha Samba School show there's plenty of clowning around on the big night in Rio.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Members of Uniao da Ilha samba school don't carry glow sticks - they are glow sticks.
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CARNIVAL: Former Brazilian model Monique Evans dances with the Mocidade Independente samba school at the Carnival parade in Rio.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Revellers from the Mocidade Independente samba school looked to space for their float theme at the Rio Carnival parade.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Tens of thousands of people cram into grandstands lining the streets of Rio to watch the city's celebration of samba.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Members of Mocidade Samba School brought some Old World flare to the parade.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Members of Mocidade Samba School embrace the spirit of the party at Carnival Rio.
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CARNIVAL: Drum Queen Bruna Bruno from the Uniao da Ilha samba school dances at the head of the pack.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Members of Mocidade Samba School show there's no shortage of love at the Rio Carnival parade called "blocos de rua".
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Members of Mocidade Samba School weren't monkeying around when they said they'd dress as apes.
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CARNIVAL: A carnival float of Mocidade Samba School depicts a religious scene.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Drum Queen Mariana Rios from the Mocidade Independente samba school leads her team in the Rio Carnival.
Rio Carnival
CARNIVAL: Revellers from the Mocidade Independente samba school make their alien dream a reality in Rio.

For many first-timers heading to South America, it's all about Peru.

"For people who have never been there, when they think of South America, unconsciously they're thinking Peru," says Martin Ruffo, Intrepid Travel's product manager for the Americas.

"They're thinking Machu Picchu, they're thinking the Inca Trail most of the time - and that's reflected in the number of passengers we carry to Peru." Ruffo, who hails from Argentina, says when it comes to tourism, "Peru has its act together". "There are a lot of flights linking major destinations and it's really easy, in eight to 10 days, to visit Machu Picchu, the Amazon jungle, Lake Titicaca and come back to Lima to fly out."

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Horse riding in the snow.
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Southern Ice Field in Patagonia.
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Iguanas at Punta Albemarle in Isabela island at the Galapagos National Park.
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A scuba diver swims next to a Leather Bass close to Wolf Island at Galapagos Marine Reserve.
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A baby fur seal is seen among rocks at Foca island in the northern city of Piura.
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A giant tortoise is seen on a road at Santa Cruz island at Galapagos National Park.
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Tourists enjoy the landscape of the Salar de Uyuni or Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia.
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A general view of the Salar de Uyuni.
Results: The world's best landmarks
Machu Picchu remained abandoned and undiscovered for nearly 400 years. Now this enigmatic World Heritage Inca site is an obligatory stop on any South American tour.
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Dusk at Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3800m above sea level.
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A shepherd sporting a chullo hat in the Peruvian Andes.
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Tourists enjoying the view of Sao Paulo's sprawling metropolitan area. The city is sometimes referred to as the New York of South America.
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The nearly two million residents of Quito, Ecuador, fill the narrow valley of the city.
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Sugar Loaf mountain, as the sun rises in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Besides Peru, Ruffo says, travellers are interested in multi-country trips such as combining Argentina with Brazil, which is basking in the twin sporting glories of securing not only this year's World Cup but also the 2016 Olympics.

As for emerging destinations, Ruffo rates Colombia as one of the biggest surprises. "It's relatively unspoilt and the people are still incredibly friendly. My boss was in Colombia a couple of months ago - she took the wrong local bus and the bus driver stopped, turned the bus around, waited at a bus stop for another bus to come and explained to the bus driver where she wanted to go."

In new developments, the arrival of Bolivian regional airline Amaszonas has put Madidi National Park - home of tapirs, caimans, capybaras and macaws - onto Intrepid's radar. "Bolivia is Peru's poor sister - no one talks about Bolivia - but it's a magical destination," says Ruffo.

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ABSTAINING: The sole surviving giant Galapagos tortoise known as Lonesome George walks away from a pool on Santa Cruz Island in May, 2009.
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Sea lions swim near San Cristobal at Galapagos Marine Reserve.
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Iguanas at Punta Albemarle in Isabela island at the Galapagos National Park.
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The view from the top of Bartolome Island in Galapagos.
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A scuba diver swims next to a Leather Bass close to Wolf Island at Galapagos Marine Reserve.
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GALAPAGOS ISLANDS: There are giant sea turtles, sea lions, hammerhead sharks, bottle nose dolphins, iguanas, and more.
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A baby fur seal is seen among rocks at Foca island in the northern city of Piura.
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A giant tortoise is seen on a road at Santa Cruz island at Galapagos National Park.
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A Zayapa red crab perches on a rock at Punta Albemarle in Isabela island at Galapagos National Park.

For travellers worried about safety in South America or getting about without knowing the language, Ruffo recommends combining a tour - to learn the lie of the land - with independent travel afterwards.

PERU

Why go? Peru is so haute right now when it comes to gastronomy. With more than 55 corn varieties and 2500-plus kinds of potato, the country's rich bounty was ripe for elevation to fine-dining tables once civil conflict ended in the late 1990s.

Beyond the dining tables are ancient marvels: the Incan city of Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines and the developing Moche archaeological route in the north.

Which tour? Intrepid Travel is launching a food tour in June (from $2690 a person twin share). Chimu Adventures' seven-day horseback trip (from $4150 a person twin share) takes riders from Cusco to Machu Picchu, staying in remote lodges along the way.

Over-55s can sign up for a 23-day adventure ($5162 a person twin share) with World Expeditions that starts in Argentina and ends in Bolivia but focuses mainly on Peru, with a peaceful trek along an alternative ancient trail to Machu Picchu. See intrepidtravel.com, chimuadventures.com, worldexpeditions.com.

Don't leave Lima without ... exploring the Larco Museum, built atop a seventh-century pre-Columbian pyramid, which showcases pottery and gold treasures from ancient civilisations.

ECUADOR

Why go? The Galapagos Islands exude sheer animal magnetism. The archipelago, teeming with wildlife unafraid of humans, helped Charles Darwin form his theory of evolution when he noticed the finches on each island had slightly different beaks.

Today, the islands are on the travel wish-lists of those who want to see marine iguanas, sea lions, giant land tortoises and birds such as the blue-footed booby and frigatebird. In the high-altitude capital of Quito, get your bearings on the World Heritage-listed city by climbing the Basilica del Voto Nacional, studded with iguana and turtle-shaped gargoyles.

Which tour? It's not only grown-ups who fall for the fauna of the volcanic islands straddling the equator. Give creature-obsessed kids something to tell their mates with a family adventure.

The Classic Safari Company's seven-night cruise (two adults and two kids, from about $17534) includes snorkelling, kayaking and shore excursions.

From Quito, you can also visit Amazonian Ecuador. World Expeditions' four-day stay at Napo Lodge in Yasuni National Park ($1475 a person twin share) includes visits to parrot clay licks and canoe rides to see giant otters. classicsafaricompany.com, worldexpeditions.com.

Don't leave Quito without ... riding the quaint Tren del Ecuador past stupendous volcanoes.

CHILE

Why go? From the flamingo-filled lakes and desert salt pans of the north to rugged Patagonia in the south, Chile's geographical diversity is extraordinary. It has a sophisticated transport system, mouth-watering seafood and excellent wines.

As for islands, photogenic Chiloe is a charmer while Easter Island's 887 monumental statues remain as intriguing as ever.

Which tour? Travellers can familiarise themselves with Santiago through Peregrine Adventures' three-day Santiago Stopover tour (from $627 a person twin share) that visits Chile's largest winery and city neighbourhoods.

Peregrine also has a four-day Easter Island stopover (from $1904 a person twin share). Bunnik Tours' 12-day Ultimate Chile independent tour (from $5498 a person twin share) takes in volcanic caves, geysers and the Atacama Desert. peregrineadventures.com, bunniktours.com.

Don't leave Santiago without ... admiring La Chascona, the quirky Santiago home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda.

ARGENTINA

Why go? It's party central. To make like an Argentinian, take a siesta and start thinking about dinner at 10.30pm. Known as the Paris of South America, Buenos Aires is a potent combination of grand European capital and cheeky Latino attitude.

This is the place to tuck into a juicy steak, watch a football game or admire the candy-coloured houses of the bohemian La Boca neighbourhood. Beyond the capital, spectacular Iguazu Falls is a popular drawcard.

Which tour? To explore more of the countryside, venture to the colonial town of Salta in the north-west. It's the base for World Expeditions' four-day trip ($947 a person twin share) to gorges, a winery and an old Indian fortress.

Go on Trafalgar's 14-day Patagonian Grand Adventure (from $7364 a person twin share) to lunch with a family on the Patagonian steppe before heading to Chile's Torres del Paine National Park and Argentina's Los Glaciares and Tierra del Fuego national parks. worldexpeditions.com, trafalgar.com.

Don't leave Buenos Aires without ... admiring Plaza Dorrego's tango dancers on a Sunday afternoon.

BRAZIL

Why go? South America's largest country has beauty by the bucket-load: just think of the curve of Copacabana Beach, the Amazon's flooded forests and the colonial towns that time forgot. Brazilians are among the world's most sociable people - their sheer joie de vivre is on display at Carnival time.

They're also football-obsessed. Brazil is also gearing up to host the 2016 Olympics.

Which tour? Rio's Carnival is now over for another year but youthful travellers can still get plenty of Rio time on Contiki's 10-day Argentina and Brazil Experience (from $3411 a person twin share).

Don't leave Rio de Janeiro without ... riding the cog train up through lush forest to visit Christ the Redeemer, the 40-metre-high statue on Corcovado.

The writer travelled to Peru courtesy of Intrepid Travel and LAN Airlines.

BEFORE YOU GO

STAYING SAFE

Check thegovernment's safe travel website - it carries detailed advisories and alerts on everything from political unrest to disease outbreaks, natural disasters and more. South America also calls for common sense. Take out travel insurance, leave the bling at home and, once on the ground, be alert - keep pockets zipped and purses close to hand in crowded places.

VACCINATIONS

Most parts of South America - except for Chile and the Galapagos Islands - are on the list of yellow fever-declared places. Only certain medical centres issue yellow fever vaccination certificates, so check before making an appointment. Ask the doc what other vaccinations are recommended for the areas you're visiting.

MEDICAL KIT

Altitude sickness can kick in at elevations of more than 2500 metres above sea level. Medication can help alleviate symptoms such as headache, vomiting and nausea when visiting places such as Cusco (3400m) or Lake Titicaca (3800m) in Peru, La Paz (3640m) in Bolivia or Quito (2800m) in Ecuador. Steer clear of upset stomachs by sticking to bottled water, and washing your hands.

APPS

Your Spanish is on the rusty side? You know zero Portuguese? Apps can help. WordLens translates words captured on a smartphone's camera and doesn't require an internet connection. With the free Google Translate app, type, speak or photograph the words you want translated.

AIRLINES

Chances are you'll fly to South America with LAN or codeshare partner Qantas. Qantas has three direct Sydney-Santiago flights a week, while LAN flies Auckland-Santiago six times a week. Aerolineas Argentinas ends direct Sydney-Buenos Aires flights from April 2. qantas.com.au, lan.com, aerolineas.com.ar.

... NOT TO FORGET

BOLIVIA

This country's got everything, from charming high-altitude cities (La Paz is 3640 metres above sea level) to the world's largest salt flat, and lowland Amazon rainforest. For a trip with a difference, volunteer with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi and help rehabilitate rescued wildlife at three parks around the country. intiwarayassi.org.

COLOMBIA

Colombia has put decades of civil conflict behind it to emerge as one of South America's hottest destinations. Intrepid's eight-day Cafe Colombia tour (from $1440 pp twin share) includes staying at a coffee estancia between the mountain cities of Bogota and Medellin before finishing in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. intrepidtravel.com; colombia.travel.

URUGUAY

The New York Times travel hot list recommends visiting the Uruguayan Riviera's Rocha region before it's spoilt with overdevelopment. For sheer swank, try Punta del Este (known as the St Tropez of South America) or, from Buenos Aires, travel across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo or Colonia with its World Heritage historic quarter. southamericatravelcentre.com.

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