10 Life-Changing Trips to Take in South America
The allure of South America's seductive cities—São Paulo, Lima, Buenos Aires, Cartagena—is outmatched only by its wealth of natural wonders, from the imposing Andes Mountains to the rain forests of the Amazon and the plains of the Pampas. There are countless ways to experience the rich diversity of the world’s fourth-largest continent, but when it comes to planning a life-changing trip in South America, these 10 destinations will not let you down.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Unlike Rome’s Colosseum or the Great Wall of China, as far as checking off the world’s most iconic ancient landmarks goes, Machu Picchu makes you work for it. It takes trains, bus rides, and a strenuous hike (for multiple days, for the most ambitious travelers) to reach this 15th-century Incan citadel on a cloudy mountain ridge over 8,000 feet above sea level. Still, the end result—to look down on, and walk through, one of the world’s highest and most well-preserved ceremonial sites—is worth every bead of sweat, every tired muscle, and every wave of altitude sickness to see with your own eyes. Mountain Lodges of Peru leads week-long treks along the Lares route, which is surrounded by the snow-capped Andes; for a far more expensive but much less work-intensive experience, book a room at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, which puts you within striking distance of the ruins.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil
One of the world’s most beautiful waterfall systems, which straddles almost two miles of the Argentina-Brazil border, is a sight to behold. The thunder and mist are just as magical no matter which side you take them in from, but both countries have their draws. The Brazilian side features a 40-minute trek to the falls (look out for giant butterflies and colorful toucans) that’s great for hikers as well as the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, the only hotel within the national park that sits on the very lip of the falls. The Argentinian side, meanwhile, includes the famous Devil’s Throat—a narrow chasm accessible by jungle train—and the area’s most luxurious new sleep, Awasi Iguazu, where guests of its 14 pine-hewn villas get their own 4WD vehicle and guide for sunrise and sunset tours and visits to local tribes.
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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Ah, Rio. La Cuidad Marvelosa. From the leafy avenues and upscale boutiques of Ipanema to the rollicking nightclubs and world-famous beach of Copacabana, Rio is a treat for the senses. The Brazilian metropolis has skyrocketed onto travel bucket lists ever since it hosted the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games—and the energy persists. Visits to Christ the Redeemer and the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain are musts, of course, as is ordering a caipirinha at one of the city’s endless beachside bars (Bar Astor, steps from the Faena Hotel, comes to mind). The legendary Belmond Copacabana Palace, a favorite of Fred Astaire and Madonna, is always a great place to stay; for something more of-the-moment, the fashionably hip Hotel Fasano offers Philippe Starck–designed interiors and a rooftop infinity pool scene loved by the bronzed and beautiful.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Salar de Uyuni is about as close as it gets to experiencing a surreal Salvador Dalí painting in the real world. At 4,086 square miles, this is the world’s largest salt flat and, thanks to an overall elevation that varies less than a single meter, the flattest place on Earth. The dried-up prehistoric lake is crusty and dry most of the year, but come wet season (January through March), the sheet of rainwater that collects here creates a mirror-image reflection bigger than some Caribbean islands—and creates the illusion that you’re walking on clouds. The place to stay is nearby Hotel de Sal Luna Salada, which is constructed out of salt blocks and features luxurious perks like goose-down duvets, local cuisine, and incredible views.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia
Of South America's many stunning national parks, it doesn’t get more dramatic than Torres del Paine National Park, which manages to squeeze all of Patagonia’s wonders into its 500,000 acres. Don’t forget your camera, because treks through this spiritual wilderness pass by snow-capped granite mountains, glittering glaciers, ice-blue rivers and lakes, and rolling grasslands and pampas, and—if you’re lucky—local wildlife including pumas, guanacos, condors, and huemuls. See the Grey Glacier and Frenchman’s Valley during journeys with Awasi Patagonia, the only lodge here that operates on a private-guide basis, then recharge your muscles in your private outdoor tub.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Chile’s Atacama Desert may be the driest desert on Earth, but this desolate 600-mile expanse is surprisingly full of life. Amid all that sand, you’ll find the Valle de Luna (“Moon Valley”), which has bewitched stargazers for generations thanks to its lunar-like landscape and exceptionally clear skies; fields of steaming geysers; salt flats occupied by multiple species of flamingoes; and some of the most luxurious adventure lodges anywhere. At Elqui Domos, guests spend their days horseback riding and nights in bi-level geodesic domes with zip-away skylight panels. At Explora Atacama, bike tours can take you over riverbeds and salt flats to the base of volcanoes, where demanding hikes will reward you will sweeping views.
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Easter Island, Chile
Roughly 2,300 miles from the nearest landmass, Easter Island is one of the most isolated places on Earth—birthing a culture that went untouched by outside influences for centuries. Early Polynesians built over 900 massive monolithic statues—known as moai—here (as well as ancient rock art carvings) that continue to fascinate archaeologists and all those visitors who lay eyes on them. Of course, that isn’t all there is to discover on this exotic isle. Take in beautiful crowd-free beaches and cave networks during bike rides around the 64-square foot island before sunset at Ahu Tongariki and dinner at Hangaroa Eco Village, whose seafront restaurant always serves fresh fruit and fish.
It doesn’t get more “end of the world” than Ushuaia, Argentina. The world’s southernmost city serves as the main port to Antarctica, but you don’t have to cross those 620 miles to the south to get a taste of the arctic. Penguin colonies make their home right across the channel on Martillo Island, an hour-and-a-half drive from the city and just a 15-minute boat ride from shore. Back in town, local restaurants are known for their rich lamb and king crab dishes (while in season); work off your meal with a walk through the steep, colorful streets lining the harbor.
Cruise down the Amazon
Call us cliché, but cruising down one of the world’s longest rivers—the Amazon, second only to the Nile, snakes over 4,000 miles through South America’s tropical rainforests—is truly a once-on-a-lifetime experience. On a riverboat with Delfin Amazon Cruises, guests get the royal treatment. Onboard, that means fresh-pressed passion fruit and mango juices, nightly turndown, a serene spa, and shoe-cleaning services after every hike. Off-board, it’s naturalist-led excursions into the jungle to spot boa constrictors, squirrel monkeys, and sloths; swim with pink river dolphins; and get blessed by local shamans. Fair warning, though: get ready to go completely off the grid.
Over 97 percent of the Galápagos Islands are protected under national park status—a fact Charles Darwin would be proud of. This, of course, was where the famous scientist came up with his theory of evolution by natural selection; look closely and you’ll still see his findings in the tiny variations in tortoise shells and mockingbirds between islands. The main island of Santa Cruz is a beautiful place to stay (particularly if you are staying at the luxurious Pikaia Lodge), but we suggest taking a multi-day cruise around the rest of them, where you’ll get to swim with sea turtles and marine iguanas, sunbathe with sea lions and blue-footed boobies, and hike the diverse volcanic terrain.
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