1. Amazon Rainforest: Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia & Brazil
The recent catastrophic fires in the Amazon Rainforest brought this magnificent natural wonder under the spotlight once more, proving how prized this complex ecosystem really is. The largest jungle on earth is traversed by its longest river, which meanders over 6,400km, feeding over 40,000 distinct species of flora as it flows. An Amazon Rainforest experience is a unique adventure although you can choose to make it a little more comfortable by opting for a luxury lodge orriver cruise journey. Daily activities include guided hikes through the jungle and long-boat rides in search of elusive wildlife. Although revered as a wildlifehub (given the sheer number of animals living in the Amazon) a visit is primarily about a jungle-life experience.
Irreplaceable, priceless and unforgettable: there just aren’t many adjectives that could ever truly capture the essence of the Amazon.
How to get there: The Amazon is accessible from several countries, the prime options (due to better infrastructure) being Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Every ‘section’ of the Amazon boasts a unique highlight, be it more infrastructure so better lodges from which to choose, or more Amazon River tributaries so ideal for small ship cruising. There are also animal highlights to consider (the amazing pink dolphins, for example, are best spotted in Bolivia) and your general tour itinerary should also be considered when choosing an Amazon access point. Usually, when planning adventure tours through South America, we like to leave the Amazon Jungleplanning last, to see where it’s wisest and most convenient to fit in.
We love to call the Pantanal the ‘hidden side of the Amazon’, the one where the wildlife is ridiculously easy to spot. Yet the Pantanal – the largest wetlands system on earth – is an altogether distinct ecosystem, one that covers almost 200,000 square kilometres of prime wilderness directly south of the Amazon Rainforest. Boasting half the wildlife of the Amazon but in an area that’s 28 times smaller, you can’t even begin to imagine how easy animal spotting is here, in comparison. What helps is the complete lack of dense, high foliage: the verdant horizons are open as far as the eye can see, making every animal sublimely visible. For an exquisite jungle experience, the Amazon is unsurpassed yet if you want to cast your eyes on a wide array of Amazonian animals, however, the Pantanal is the natural wonder you’ll want to visit. This is arguablySouth America’s prime wildlife-watching destination.
How to get there: The Pantanal may be much smaller than the Amazon but the area is still ridiculously huge. Two regional airports service the two main entrances (the northern in Cuiaba and the southern in Campo Grande) with direct flights straight out of Rio de Janeiro. Part of the Pantanal’s anonymity has surely resulted from its remoteness and the fact that this requires a dedicated side-trip from Rio. Yet planning a fluid itinerary that includes the Pantanal is quite easy if you’re heading anywhere near another of South America’s amazing natural wonders, Iguazu Falls. We generally advise our guests to set aside a week for the Pantanal alone, this will include two travel days and five days in the park. Have more time? Even better! The longer you stay, the further inland you can travel and the more chances you’ll have of spotting the most elusive wildlife species, like the jaguar. Simply let us know your South America travel time-frame and what else you’d love to see and we can create a bespokeBrazil itinerary to make the most of the adventure.
The Galapagos Islands are to exotic marine life what the Pantanal is to Amazonian wildlife: its most exceptional home. Widely considered one of the world’s best SCUBA diving and snorkelling destination, the Galapagos Islands offer close-up encounters with unique animals, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. It’s this aspect – the close-up encounters – that makes these islands so desirable. Having had no major predators for hundreds of years, the wildlifehas grown unafraid of human visitors and, if anything, immensely curious. Here, you can waddle with seals on stretches of pristine beaches whilst dodging hundreds of marine iguanas, swim with turtles and hammerheads and be a witness to some of the most mesmerizing courting rituals in the bird world. From the Flightless cormorant to the waved albatross and blue-footed boobie, the sheer concentration of the animal action of the Islands is unparalleled, anywhere on earth.
How to get there: The Galapagos Islands are about 1,000km west off the coast of central Ecuador, easily reached via a 1hr flight either from Quito (the capital) or the coastal city of Guayaquil. Once there, you’ll have the choice of either land-based adventures or multi-day small ship cruising, the latter being by far the best option. On a liveaboard boat, you can explore the outer islands (home to the most distinctive wildlife) and reaching those on day-trips is simply impossible, given only a handful of islands are inhabited. We have a wide range of Galapagos experiences, to suit a wide range of time-frames and budgets and know the best way to incorporate a visit to the Galapagos Islands with your wider itinerary.
4. Torres del Paine National Park: Chile
The hiking headquarters of Patagonia is often dubbed South America’s adventure capital although it’s the natural splendour here, and not the myriad of activities, that make it a superb natural wonder. Defined by its snow-capped granite peaks, glistening glacial likes, wind-swept pampas and spectacular valleys, Torres is the Patagonia of postcards. Home to a wide array of southern wildlife, including untold numbers of guanacos (the llama’s southern cousin) Torres is the ideal destination for the active nature lover. What we love most about Torres is the array of options it offers, which means we can take active guests on arduous treks but also offer easily accessible viewpoints for older guests who may not be as active. South America’s natural wonders should be accessible by everyone, we believe, and Torres del Paine is the one place that allows us to do just that.
How to get there: This is a side of Patagonia you’ll want to visit with a bit of time and you’ll be enticed to add a few extra days to your itinerary when you discover that Torres, our uber-famous Torres, is rather remote and a little hard to reach. There are several options for reaching the park from both Chile and Argentina, although coming through the former (at Puerto Natales) is preferable. There are regional airports on both sides of the fence (literally) and you’ll want road transport to do this park any justice. Distances are considerable and the sheer concentration of things to see and do is mind-boggling. This is one of our most popular small group Patagonia highlights, for great reasons, and a place where Esperanza, our ATV truck, really shows her worth.
The legendary Falls of Iguazu have been gracing dedicated travel brochures since time immemorial. Is there a more iconic natural wonder in all of South America? Comprising over 270 separate falls that join to create the most jaw-dropping cascading spectacle in the world, the Iguazu Falls are a force of nature that needs to be seen by everyone on the planet, at least once. Blowing all its competitors right out of the water (excuse the pun, Niagara) Iguazu is an expansive destination that can be experienced in a myriad of ways. Hop between country borders to get 1001 different views, take sightseeing helicopter flights that’ll blow your mind and enjoy a thrilling speedboat right under Devil’s Throat. No matter how long you stand in awe admiring this incredible treasure, a visit to Iguazu is just never long enough.
How to get there: Iguazu is easy to reach from both Rio de Janeiro andBuenos Aires, with two regional airports taking care of visitors from both sides. The falls, therefore, can act as a marvellous go-between for itineraries that include both Argentina and Brazil. Tours of Iguazu Falls can be short and sweet but can also include some lesser-known treasures that often get overlooked, like the Jesuit Mission ruins of S. Ignacio Mini, one of South America’s most underrated UNESCO heritage sites.
At Viva Expeditions, we’re old hats at this South America travel business yet have never forgotten the excitement and angst of planning the first-ever visit. We know the continent can seem overwhelming, at first, and that many hesitate to visit because they don’t even know where to start planning.
But we do. In fact, that’s exactly what we do best. We know how to include a little of everything that makes South America so special (the history, the culture and particularly nature) and we know just the right questions to ask to help you realize your own South America travel dreams.