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It probably won’t surprise you to learn that here at Viva Expeditions, conversations around ‘the best places to visit in South America’ can get quite heated. Oh, we all have our favourites, of course, which makes the planning of tailor-made itineraries for our clients all the more exciting – just you wait to see what we have in store!
From the tropical north in Colombia to the glaciates south of Patagonia, our experts’ collection of favourites makes for quite the interesting read.
Want to know what we love most?
Tara – Glacier Alley, Chile
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Tara’s gaze drifts off when she takes a pensive moment to decide. It’s a big call, we know, but she eventually takes a big sigh as she recounts the first time her eyes locked on Glacier Alley. First mapped by European explorers in the 18th-century, Glacier Alley is about as evocative as the name suggests. A narrow stretch of the Beagle Channel – the body of water that separates Tierra del Fuego from the Isla Navarino in southern Patagonia – this avenue of majestic glaciers is like a string of treasures pearls, one that’s framed by arresting snow-capped peaks and the deep fjords of southern Chile. The first thing that strikes you about Glacier Alley, Tara insists, is the gargantuan size, of everything. Everything is bigger here, she says, grandiose and utterly breath-taking. To Tara, a trip through Glacier Valley on an expedition ship is one of the most humbling experiences South America offers, one of its most exquisite corners and the treats at every turn – the tumbling waterfalls and vertiginous rocky cliffs – make it seem like a fairy-tale land. Glacier Alley is icy wilderness at its pristine best.
I wasn’t going to argue with that.
Flavio - Chapada Diamantina National Park, Brazil
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Flavio has quite a few tricks up his tourist-sleeve, not just because he was born and bred in Brazil, but because he has travelled South America so extensively. Still, his heart is very much taken by Chapada Diamantina, one of the least-visited but most magnificent national parks in Brazil. Set on a high plateau flanked by dramatic rocky cliffs, Chapada Diamantina is all about ethereal flooded caves of a thousand shades of sapphire, sky-reaching waterfalls whose mist fades before the water even hits the bottom and a crazy maze of excellent hiking trails and old mining towns. This place is absolutely huge (larger than many European countries, in fact) and a trip here – in the central-eastern state of Bahia – is very much about choosing a side of the park to explore for a few days. A handful of old mining towns offer great springboards to visits, whether you wish to hike, cave-dive or take dedicated trips to explore the otherworldly caves.
Emma - Bonito, Brazil
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Emma also rates Brazil as her #1 South American favourite although she prefers the more tropical side of the country and, for her, Bonito’s the bees-knees. The mecca for eco-tourism adventures in the country (if not the continent) Bonito is home to the reputed ‘cleanest and clearest river on earth’ – the Rio do Prata – although what Emma loves most isn’t only admiring Bonito’s over 40 natural assets but the fact that there is SO much to do, in all of them. Adventure is the name of Emma’s game and, to be quite honest, Bonito is perfect in this regard and it’s actually surprising that the place remains Brazil’s most hidden of secrets. The jungles are full of fantastical creatures and the caves, waterfalls and rivers offer a startling array of active pursuits, be it snorkelling, swimming, kayaking, rafting, caving, scuba diving, canyoning and endless hiking to waterfalls and through wildlife-brimming rainforests. What Emma loves most about Bonito is the fact that the place doesn’t “greenwash its asset”: everything is about environmental protection here. “This means you can’t wear sunscreen when snorkelling some rivers and it means that some places only allow 20 visitors a day. These guys are serious about protecting their treasures and, for me, that’s reason enough to visit”. Bonito only comes under visitor’s radars when they’re planning a trip to the Pantanal – one of South America’s best wildlife-watching destinations – which is only about 100km away but, according to Emma, is a spectacular attraction in its own right.
Pia - Cartagena, Colombia
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Pia certainly loves South America’s natural highlights yet what sets her heart aflutter is an outstanding architecture that tells a fascinating story. “Add a few palm-fringed beaches and a smattering of idyllic islands and I’m sold in a heartbeat”. Cartagena is Pia’s pick-of-the-bunch because, in all honesty, if you’ve got your sights on resplendent colonial architecture in South America infused with an abundance of tropical delights, then you may as well go for the best. A colourful treasure-trove of grand proportions, Cartagena is that postcard-picture town history lovers adore except here the sparkling Caribbean waters beckoning for island trips vie for your attention. Tropical, dreamy, fascinating and addictive: that’s Cartagena in a heartbeat. Colombia’s swift rise in tourism ranks has brought Cartagena under the tourist-radar in recent years yet the town and its stunning archipelago of coral-fringed islands remain unspoiled and uncrowded. Pia loves recommending Cartagena to travellers who are on a whirlwind trip through South America and looking for a ‘relaxing yet enchanting’ spot to chill-out for a few days.
“There’s nowhere more idyllic you could go.”
Carmen - Villa La Angostura, Argentina
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Carmen says if there’s a destination in South America worthy of a “Garden of Eden” tag, then Villa La Angostura is it. Cradled by the luscious wilderness of the Nahuel Huapi National Park in Patagonia and set on the north-eastern shores of its namesake lake, Villa La Angostura is the kind of place one could live “forever and then some”. Most people head to Bariloche on the southern end of the lake to explore this incredible lake region, leaving Angostura is some kind of heavenly anonymity. A small and picturesque village revered by local holidaymakers looking for a quieter reprieve and outstanding scenery, Villa La Angostura is super close to the border with Chile and makes a fantastic base for explorations in both countries. There are hikes to elevated viewpoints to tackle, splendid boat trips, horseback riding and, if you head here in winter, about the best skiing in the whole continent. Yet for Carmen, an avid foodie if ever you met one, Villa La Angostura isn’t just a springboard for great adventures. The sheer array of exceptional restaurants and cafés, some offering astonishing scenery to boot, is the icing on the cake.
Rachel – Northern Peru (yep, all of it!)
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You know Viva’s Director has spent an insane amount of time in South America when she just can’t be pinned down to name one specific location. “All of it?” I ask. Yep, she answers…all of it. Just between us, Northern Peru is a bit of a scoop, a region that still remains way off the beaten-path despite the fact that this is one of the continent’s most visited countries. Then again, everyone heads to Machu Picchu and the central Andes (for very valid reasons) leaving the north uncrowded and still, for the greater part, unexplored. Yet there’s a monton to see and do here, as South Americans would say, a cache of lost ancient cities in superlative settings, sensational archaeological treasures and some of the best surfing beaches not just in the continent but in the world. Rachel’s pick of the bunch (took some persuading, mind you) is the town of Trujillo and nearby site of Chan Chan, the largest mud-carved ancient city on the planet. The Chimu civilisations thrived in this region (and up to southern Ecuador) and the legacy they left behind is, in Rachel’s words, ‘out of this world’. A culture-vulture and lover of ‘variety, in everything’ Rachel heads to Northern Peru every chance she gets. She believes this region offers a little of everything that makes Peru such a great travel destination and, apparently, the ceviche is to die for.in everything’ Rachel heads to Northern Peru every chance she gets. She believes this region offers a little of everything that makes Peru such a great travel destination and, apparently, the ceviche is to die for.in everything’ Rachel heads to Northern Peru every chance she gets. She believes this region offers a little of everything that makes Peru such a great travel destination and, apparently, the ceviche is to die for.
So there you go.
Saul – Salt Flats, Bolivia
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Saul shouted ‘Salt Flats!’ long before I even finished my question although he immediately followed it with a caveat. According to him, the best part of a journey to Bolivia’s Salar Uyuni is including it on a 3-day traverse from Uyuni all the way south to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. He finds this trip beyond amazing and so does everyone’s who’s been there and traversed that. The Salt Flats are a breath-taking highlight but it’s not only about the expanse of white that makes this journey unforgettable, it’s also the full kaleidoscope of sensory overloads that one simply doesn’t get when one visits on a day trip. It’s about being totally lost in a world of white and endless horizons for days on end, about the spectacularly starry nights seemingly in the middle of nowhere and about emerging on the edge of the Atacama Desert in Chile, a spellbinding place if ever there was one. The juxtaposition of different landscapes and visual feasts is unrivalled and on a 3-day trip across the Salt Flats, you’ll be privy to some of the most unique scenery on earth whilst being totally disconnected from the rest of the world.
And doesn’t that sound a little bit special?
The interesting thing about our expert's collection is that almost none of them are your run-of-the-mill big-name attractions. There's something to be seen in that. South America's world-famous attractions are inarguably what entice people to visit, yet it's the startling discoveries in-between that make for unforgettable memories. If ever there was a place that epitomises 'the journey above the destination' then this continent would have to be it. So don't just fly in, tick boxes and fly out. Stay awhile and take a look around. You'll be amazed at what you can discover.
Contact us here, at Viva Expeditions, to know more.