To say South America is diverse just doesn’t quite cut it.
The continent’s 12 countries contrast wildly and many of them are now placed at the feet of cruisers who never fancied the thought of lugging around a backpack. A holiday here holds the promise of Brazilian beaches, Chilean fjords, Argentinian cities, colonial Colombian towns and the endless, undulating Amazon Rainforest. Urban sprawls are replaced with remote expanses in the blink of an eye, bucket lists are obliterated and catching a case of joie de vivre is guaranteed. Grab a glass of Malbec and read on to find out why South America should be on your radar.
THE SCENE STEALERS
South America deserves its crown as one of the true bucket list destinations. No other holiday offers the opportunity to tick off quite so many of the ‘things to do before you die’ as one to this incredible continent.
If you have always wanted to stand at the feet of Christ the Redeemer, the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema stretched out 2,330ft below, you can do so atop Rio’s Corcovado Mountain. Later, you might dance the samba until midnight, or perhaps you’ll save your dancing feet to tango in Buenos Aires.
Machu Picchu is the jewel in the crown of gap year travels to South America and there are few travel experiences more rousing than watching the sun rise over the ancient ‘Lost City of the Incas’. A pre or post-cruise land tour will take you closer to this and other Peruvian highlights, no backpack necessary.
For those to whom money is no object, a short two-and-a-half-hour flight can tick Antarctica off your bucket list. The return flight will deliver you back to the luxury of your ship after a day of wildlife sightings and awesome scenery. If such adventures are beyond the realms of your budget, opt for an itinerary that incorporates a visit to the Falkland Islands instead, where you’ll have equal – if not more – opportunity to spend time with comedic penguin colonies.
The Amazon Rainforest ranks high on bucket lists for many reasons. There are the lazy sloths that idle beneath the rainforest canopy and the rainbow macaws that fly above it. There’s natural phenomenon in the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ in Manaus and there are snippets of the lives lived by mysterious indigenous communities on the banks of the Amazon’s narrow tributaries.
For those who have already ticked Niagara Falls off the list, Iguazu Falls should be next. They are wider than Niagara Falls, their crescent of thunderous cascades roaring over the borders of both Argentina and Brazil. They’re 30% taller than Niagara Falls too and are surrounded by the subtropical rainforest paradise of Iguazu National Park.
Despite its moniker, time spent in Ushuaia – earth’s southernmost city – feels like the start of a great adventure, rather than the ‘end of the world’. The port’s position at the very tip of the Argentine-Chilean border, where the Andes meet the Beagle Channel, make it a magnet for those whose bucket lists favour outdoor pursuits and meetings with Mother Nature. From glaciers to forests, waterfalls, lakes and mountain peaks, the city’s world-famous Tierra del Fuego National Park is a beautiful adventure, as is time spent on the millpond waters of the Beagle Channel.
A cruise to South America also ticks off some of cruising’s great bucket list voyages. Rounding Cape Horn and passing through Drake’s Passage sees cruisers follow in the footsteps of historic trade vessels, ancient discovery ships and modern-day ocean yachts attempting to sail around the world in record speed. Cape Horn has been a major milestone in circumnavigation for centuries. Equally iconic is completing a passage of the Panama Canal, particularly for those who appreciate the marvels of modern engineering. Stretching 50 miles to connect North and South America, the canal – known as the ‘Crossroads of the World’ – takes almost 14 days to transit in its entirety, although much shorter partial transit itineraries are offered by most cruise lines too.
MOTHER NATURE’S ZOO
One of South America’s biggest draws is its wildlife. The continent is the most ecologically diverse region in the world, its vast and varied landscapes having cultivated a thriving ecosystem that is home to more plant and animal species than anywhere else on earth.
The Amazon blankets around 1% of the earth’s surface and 40% of that is spread across South America. As you might expect from a rainforest straddling nine countries, the Amazon is home to millions of species, many of them still undescribed. In fact, a new animal or plant species is found every three days here, according to the WWF.
This is Mother Nature’s zoo, where the shrieks of howler monkeys echo around the jungle canopy and toucans with orange bills as big as their bodies aren’t easily missed in the tropical greenery. Popular excursions here see you spot mythical-looking pink dolphins in Manaus, fish for piranhas in the espresso waters of Santarém and track endangered wildlife such as the elusive jaguar deep into the thick jungle.
While the Amazon Rainforest is an obvious highlight for wildlife lovers, the flora and fauna spills out of the forest fringes and extends across the entire continent of South America.
There are the pom-pom festooned llamas kept as pets in Peru and the comical alpacas that watch from the sidelines as you tick Machu Picchu off your bucket list. The marine wildlife is almost as impressive as the glacial scenery in the Chilean Fjords, where you will stand meters away from penguin colonies and glimpse blue, grey and humpback whales in the icy waters. Look up and you’ll see one of the largest birds in the world, the Andean condor, soaring above the Garibaldi glacier.
When you think penguins, you tend to think of the frozen expanses of Antarctica, yet the shrubby Falkland Islands and its windswept beaches are home to more than a million of them. Five of the seventeen penguin species are found here: King, Rockhopper, Magellanic, Macaroni and the largest population of Gentoo penguins in the world. All visiting cruise lines offer excursions to penguin rookeries, the most popular of which are the Gypsy Cove and Bluff Cove reserves. Penguins share the beaches and rocky outcrops with sea lions and elephant seals, while the waters around the Falkland Islands are known for their marine mammals. Orcas are commonly sighted in coastal waters during the summer and are resident all year round off the coast of Sea Lion Island.
BIG CITY LIGHTS
The cities of the 14 countries and territories that make up this soul-stirring continent have enraptured intrepid travellers for years. Some charm you with their Spanish and Portuguese exuberance and colonial architecture, others leave you open-mouthed with imposing Andes backdrops or stretches of hot sand. It is impossible to see all of South America’s great cities in a single holiday, the region is just too vast, but cruise along its coast and you’ll dip in and out of some of its absolute highlights.
Passion. Joie de vivre. Lust for life. Whatever you choose to call it, Argentinians have it in spades. The steaks are thick, the Malbec is good and the tango lasts long into the night. Buenos Aires invented the dance once described as ‘making love in the vertical position’ and the destination is as sultry as its signature dance moves may suggest. There is an air of Parisian sensuality to the city, only the coffee is stronger and the weather is warmer. Highlights include the marble mausoleum of Cementerio de la Recoleta and the Plaza de Mayo, Argentina’s most famous square and a stage on which the city’s history has played out over the years.
Rio de Janeiro is a highlight for many cruisers to South America. The Brazilian capital is famous for its beaches and beauties, but the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’ or ‘Marvellous City’ offers so much to see and do, it almost seems a shame to retire to the sands of Copacabana or Ipanema, despite their iconic status. Christ the Redeemer is one of the great modern wonders of the world, the city stretched out before him from the peak of Corcovado Mountain. It’s an arresting sight, as is the sunset from Sugarloaf Mountain, a sight that overnight stays in the city will allow you to experience. Many cruise lines time itineraries to coincide with the Rio Carnival, the biggest party on the globe, but worry not if yours isn’t one of them because impromptu samba parties are an everyday occurrence here.
Quito’s Old Town is the largest in the Americas and is so impressive, it saw the Ecuadorian capital become the first ever UNESCO World Heritage City. Its grand churches, monasteries and atmospheric plazas nestle into the Andes, 17th-century facades making way for modern museums and boulevards as the altitude rises and the air cools.
The South American cities are a riot of colour and none more so than Cartagena, Colombia’s characterful capital. Cartagena’s position on the shores of the Caribbean makes for beautiful beaches and the best mojito this side of Cuba. In the city’s colonial Old Town, horses and carriages clatter the streets, offering tired legs a rest after hours spent exploring the 400-year-old city walls of Las Murallas and the imposing Castillo San Felipe De Barajas. Of course, you could just refuel with fresh, zesty ceviche and a bottle of cold Cerveza Aguila beer instead.