Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring
Andean peaks, Amazonian rainforest, Patagonian glaciers, Inca ruins, colonial towns, white-sand beaches and vertiginous nightlife: the wonders of South America set the stage for incredible adventures.
From the snow-capped peaks of the Andes to the undulating waterways of the Amazon, South America spreads a dazzling array of natural wonders. This is a continent of lush rainforests, towering volcanoes, misty cloud forests, bone-dry deserts, red-rock canyons, ice-blue glaciers and sun-kissed beaches. As landscapes go, there aren't many other places on earth that offer so much variety.
You can hike past ancient temples first laid down by the Inca, contemplate the awe-inspiring power of Iguazu Falls, or spend the day watching wildlife from a dugout canoe on one of the Amazon's countless igarapes (narrow waterways). You can barrel down Andean roads by mountain bike, go white-water rafting on Class V rivers and surf amazing breaks off both coasts. And once you think you've experienced it all, head to the dramatic landscapes in Tierra del Fuego, go eye-to-eye with extraordinary creatures in the Galapagos, and scramble up tableland mountains in the Gran Sabana for a panorama that seems straight out of the Mesozoic era.
* A first timer's guide to South America
* Bolivia: The wild, weird and unadulterated country no one talks about
* Peru and Bolivia: Cast adrift on Lake Titicaca
South America's diversity doesn't end with geography. You'll find colonial towns where cobblestone streets lead past gilded churches and stately plazas little changed since the 18th century. You can haggle over colourful textiles at indigenous markets, share meals with traditional dwellers of the rainforest and follow the pounding rhythms of Afro-Brazilian drums corps. South America is home to an astounding variety of living and ancient cultures, and experiencing it first-hand is as easy as showing up.
La Vida Musical
Nothing compares with hearing the rhythms of Colombian salsa, Brazilian samba, Argentine tango and Andean folk music in the place where they were born. Buenos Aires' sultry milongas (tango clubs), Rio's simmering garrafeiras (dance halls), Quito's salsotecas (salsa clubs) – all great places to chase the heart of Saturday night. Yet this is only the beginning of a great musical odyssey that encompasses Peruvian trovas, soulful Ecuadorian passillos, fast-stepping Brazilian forro, whirling Venezuelan merengue, steel-pan Guyanese drumming, Paraguayan harp music and more. Simply plunge in – though you might want to take a dance class along the way!
South America's Top 10 Experiences
1. Machu Picchu
A fantastic Inca citadel lost to the world until its early-20th-century rediscovery, Peru's Machu Picchu stands as a ruin among ruins. With its emerald terraces and steep peaks that echo on the horizon, the sight simply surpasses the imagination. This marvel of engineering has withstood half a dozen centuries of earthquakes, foreign invasion and howling weather. Discover it for yourself, wander through its stone temples and scale the dizzying heights of Wayna Picchu.
2. The Amazon
Home to the greatest collection of plant and animal life on earth, the awe-inspiring Amazon encompasses more than 7 million sq kilometres. There are countless ways to experience its astounding biodiversity: trekking through dense jungle, visiting indigenous villages, flying over the vast green expanse of undulating waterways, slow-boating between river towns or lounging in a jungle lodge after a day spent wildlife-watching. Nine countries share a bit of the famous rain-forest, all of which have excellent bases to experience it first-hand.
3. Rio de Janeiro
Few cities in the world enjoy more seductive charm than Brazil's Cidade Maravilhosa (marvellous city), but calling Rio merely marvellous doesn't quite cut it. Flanked by striking Atlantic-blue waters, sugary-white sands and a mountainous backdrop of Crayola-green rainforest, Rio's cinematic cityscape has few rivals. And once its soundtrack kicks in – a high-on-life siren's song of bossa nova and samba – Rio's raw energy seizes you with the come-hither allure of a tropical fantasy. You'll have no choice but to follow.
4. Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a beautiful metropolis with gourmet cuisine, awesome shopping, frenzied nightlife and gorgeous locals. It's a European-like, cosmopolitan city encompassing both slick neighbourhoods and downtrodden ghettos, but that's the appeal. You can experience classic cafes, amazing steaks, surprising architecture, energising futbol games and, of course, that sultry tango. It's elegant, seductive, emotional, confounding, frustrating and full of attitude – and there's absolutely no other place like it in the world.
5. Lake Titicaca
Less a lake than a highland ocean, Lake Titicaca in Bolivia is the highest navigable body of water in the world. In Andean tradition it's the birthplace of the sun. Here, banner blue skies turn to bitterly cold nights. Among its fantastical sights are the surreal floating islands crafted entirely of tightly woven totora reeds. Enthralling and in many ways singular, the shimmering deep-blue Lake Titicaca is the long-time home of highland cultures steeped in the old ways.
6. Salar de Uyuni
Who knew feeling this cold could feel so good? While the three- to four-day jeep tour through the world's largest salt flat will leave your bones chattering, it quite possibly could be the singular experience that defines your Bolivian adventure. The salt flat in its vastness, austerity and crystalline perfection will inspire you, while your early morning exploration of rock gardens, geyser fields and piping hot springs along with the camaraderie of three days on the road with your fellow 'Salterians' will create a kinship not likely to fade any time soon.
7. Glacier Perito Moreno
Possibly the world's most dynamic glacier, the Perito Moreno in Argentina advances up to 2m per day, which means plenty of exciting, spine-tingling calving. It's supremely accessible, too – you can get very close to the action via a complex network of steel boardwalks, perfectly situated near (but not too near!) the glacier's face. Everyone stands there, watching in suspense, for the next building-size chunk to sheer off and slowly tip into the water below, creating thunderous crashes and huge waves. Trust us, it's awesome.
8. Iguazu Falls
The thunderous roar, the dramatic cascades, the refreshing sprays, the absolute miraculous work of Mother Nature – nothing prepares you for that flooring first moment you set eyes upon Iguazu Falls. On the Brazilian side, the wide-eyed view of the whole astounding scene stretches out before you in all its panoramic wonder. In Argentina, get up close and personal with the deafening Devil's Throat, which provides the fall's single most mind-blowing moment. In all, some 275 falls deliver one of the world's best wows in unforgettable fashion.
9. Otavalo Market, Ecuador
Every Saturday the world seems to converge on the bustling town of Otavalo in the Andes, where a huge market spreads from the Plaza de Ponchos throughout the town. While the crowds can be a drag and the quality is immensely changeable, the choice is enormous and you'll find some incredible bargains here among the brightly coloured rugs, traditional crafts, clothing, Tigua folk art and quality straw hats. Nearby, the squawks and squeals of livestock drown out the chatter of Kichwa-speaking farmers at Otavalo's equally famous animal market.
10. Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Take a step back in time as you explore the gracious 18th-century cobbled streets and fascinating history of former smugglers' haven, Colonia del Sacramento. Then check out the great bar and restaurant scene and the gorgeous position on a peninsula of the Rio de la Plata. All this and its super-accessible location a short hop away from both Montevideo and Buenos Aires make 'Colonia' a classic tourist town, but even on weekends it's worth dodging the crowds and letting yourself get seduced by the town's eternal charms.
When to Go
High Season (Dec–Mar)
* It's high season in Brazil and the Atlantic coast; beaches and festivals (such as Carnaval) are big draws.
* The best time to visit Patagonia, though expect higher prices.
* It's dry season in the Amazon, making for fine wildlife-watching.
* Fewer crowds and lower prices make this a good time to visit Buenos Aires, Rio and other coastal destinations.
Low Season (Jul–Aug)
* In Chile and Argentina, many services close at beach resorts, and mountain passes can be blocked by snow.
Midrange Budget: US$30–90 (NZ$42-125)
* Budget jungle lodge in the Amazon: US$50 to US$80 per day
* Excursions: hiking and cycling tours, from US$50 per day
* 3½-day boat trip from Manaus to Belem: from US$100 (hammock fare)
This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring (13th Edition) by Regis St Louis, et al. © 2016. Published this month, RRP: NZ$44.99.