Nestled between the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and the South Atlantic Oceans, South America is the wilder of the Americas, and a continent of superlatives.
The world’s biggest rainforest and the largest river (Amazon), the highest mountain range outside Asia (the Andes), remote islands (Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and Fernando de Noronha), heavenly beaches (such as in Brazil’s Northeastern region), wide deserts (Atacama), icy landscapes (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego), the world’s tallest waterfall (the 979m Angel Falls, in Venezuela) and one of the largest (Iguaçu Falls, Argentina and Brazil), as well as several other breathtaking natural attractions.
Besides, the work of man has also left rare gems on the continent: ruins of ancient civilizations (Machu Picchu and other Inca cities; the Moais in Easter Island) share the continent with world-class metropolises (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Caracas, Santiago, Lima and Rio de Janeiro), outstanding modern architecture (Brasilia), European architecture (Buenos Aires), the oldest rock paintings in the Americas (at the Serra da Capivara), strong African heritage (in Salvador, Rio and Montevideo), genuine indigenous (Belém, Manaus, Cuzco, Lima, La Paz), charming cities built in the Andes (Caracas, Medellín, Quito, Santiago de Chile) and Eastern culture (São Paulo’s enormous Japanese community), mingled with the fingerprints of Iberian colonizers. Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city and some of its biggest festivities, such as Rio’s Carnival and Belem’s Cirio de Nazaré, the Tango World Championship, and the Vendimia festival in Argentina, are also part of this incredibly diverse and attractive continent.
Countries and territories
Falkland Islands (UK)
French Guiana (France)
Bogotá — a city of contrasts with a hectic balance between the new and the old; the most cultural-minded of South American capitals
Buenos Aires — the city of tango, the most cosmopolitan city of Argentina
Caracas — one of the most cosmopolitan and modern cities in South America, there are lots of theatres, malls, museums, art galleries, parks, well-conserved colonial architecture and even gastronomic restaurants
La Paz — the highest national capital in the world that is built in a canyon
Lima — a curious mix of modernity, large but orderly slum areas, and colonial architecture
Montevideo — the pleasant capital city of Uruguay, situated on the east bank of the Rio de la Plata
Rio de Janeiro — famous for its breathtaking landscape, its laidback beach culture and its annual carnival
Santiago de Chile — capital of Chile with many museums, events, theatres, restaurants, bars and other entertainment and cultural opportunities
São Paulo — a beehive of activity that offers a jovial nightlife and a diverse cultural experience
Canaima National Park — its main attraction is the Angel Falls, at 978m the highest waterfall on Earth
Salar de Uyuni
Tierra del Fuego
Getting to South America has become much easier in recent years due to massive increases in flights to the continent by major global airlines. Although some particular places are still quite hard to reach (i.e. Paraguay, Suriname, northern Brazil), the places that you most likely want to go, such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, are more accessible than ever before.
From Africa: the only (reliable) options worth considering would be the South African Airways service linking Johannesburg with Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires or the Ethiopian Airlines service between Addis Ababa and São Paulo via Lomé. There are also connections of TAAG Angola Airlines from Luanda to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. And Royal Air Maroc flies from Casablanca to São Paulo three times a week. Do realize that demand between Africa and South America is very limited, so even the aforementioned services are infrequent and fares may be quite high.
From Asia: Be prepared for a very long journey, especially if your itinerary includes connecting flights to travel to/beyond the major Asian and South American hubs. There is a Korean Air route between Seoul-Incheon and Sao Paulo (via Los Angeles). Do note that the stop in the United States will require all passengers, including those in transit, to pass through US customs. Air China has flights between Beijing and São Paulo , via Madrid. Emirates has non-stop flights from Dubai to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, this latter continuing services to Buenos Aires. Turkish Airlines has daily flights from Istanbul to São Paulo, continuing services to Buenos Aires. In 2011, Singapore Airlines started flights from Singapore to Sao Paulo via Barcelona. In 2012 Qatar Airways started its daily non-stop service from Doha to São Paulo, continuing services to Buenos Aires. Ethiad Airways has a daily flight from Abu Dhabi to São Paulo.
From Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific: A somewhat surprising number of options exist. LAN Airlines serve Auckland and Sydney from their hub at Santiago, while Qantas introduced a non-stop service between Sydney and Santiago on March 2012. LAN also operates one of the world’s most obscure flights of all – a service linking Santiago-Easter Island-Tahiti. From Perth, Emirates and South African Airways provide affordable flights to South America with a stopover in their respective hubs, around 30 hours total flying time.
From Europe: The entire South American continent once lived under European colonial rule, and the resultant political, social, and economic ties between former colonies and colonizers remain quite strong even today. Portuguese flag carrier TAP Airlines is by far the leading foreign carrier to Brazil, serving a slew of destinations in North and East Brazil, including direct connections from Lisbon to Porto Alegre in South Brazil and to the Brazilian capital Brasilia which otherwise have few other international connections. Spanish flag carrier Iberia flies to most of the former Spanish colonies, although neither Bolivia nor Paraguay are served. KLM flies between Amsterdam and Suriname and Air France links Paris with French Guiana. Of course, such services are not exclusive – KLM also flies to Buenos Aires directly from Amsterdam, and to Lima as well, TAP to Caracas, Air France to Rio de Janeiro and Lima, etc. Other leading European airlines such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Swiss Airlines, and Alitalia also serve key South American gateways from their respective hubs, while South American airlines also operate into several major European cities as well.
From North America: Until very recently, it was virtually inconceivable to reach South America from anywhere other than Miami. Today, however, rapidly developing hubs at Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Mexico City, New York, Newark, Orlando, Toronto, and Washington-Dulles offer viable alternatives. Indeed, airlines such as Air Canada, United and Delta Airlines have successfully begun to challenge the virtual monopoly once enjoyed by American Airlines to several key markets. American discount carriers such as Spirit Airlines and JetBlue (Azul in Brazil) have recently fought hard for and won several route authorities to serve the likes of Colombia, Brazil and Peru, bringing low fares to these markets for the first time. Recently, US Airways started a daily non-stop service from Charlotte to Rio de Janeiro. Given the US airlines’ cutbacks in service, frequency, and cities served over the years, consider high quality Latin American carriers such as Avianca (to Colombia with daily non-stop flights to Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Cartagena), Copa Airlines (Panama’s national airline to hits hub in Panamá City), LAN Airlines (Chilean carrier serving Chile direct and via several other countries), or TAM (to Brazil, including some non-stop flights to other Brazilian cities besides São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, like Belo Horizonte, Brasilia and Manaus).
Beware there are no roads connecting Panama with Colombia, hence it is not possible to drive from Central America. People overcome this problem shipping their cars from Colon for easier transportation (Atlantic side in Panama) to Cartagena or Barranquilla (Colombia), or from Panama City (Pacific side of the Panama canal) to Buenaventura (Colombia) or Guayaquil(Ecuador).
The Pan-American Highway is a series of routes starting in Central America and running to the tip of South America (save for the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia). It’s an interesting option for those with a good vehicle, plenty of spare parts, and a desire to explore the western edge of the continent.
There are no rail connections between Panama and Colombia.
Some cruise liners cover the towns in the lower Caribbean (Cartagena, Santa Marta, Margarita Island). Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Princess Cruises – .
The Union of South American Nations gives visa-free access and a customs union between all countries in South America.
International flights are generally expensive within South America and from South America to other parts of the world. Within each country the national domestic flights can be more reasonable. Therefore, it may be more economical (cost wise) to fly to the border city of one country, cross the border by ground transportation and fly onwards from the other side of the border. For example, for one to go from Lima to Santiago, the traveller might fly from Lima to Tacna, take a bus or taxi to Arica, and fly onwards from Arica to Santiago.
There are no cross-country train services in South America, and with the exception of Argentina and Chile, domestic networks are quite limited, such as a railway in Bolivia, from Oruro to Villazón, passing through Uyuni, Tupiza and some other places, and a railway in Brazil, linking regional capitals Belo Horizonte and Vitória. There are a number of very scenic “tourist trains” though, including the 445km Quito-Guayaquil route in Ecuador.
Buses are the main form of land transport for much of the continent… for longer distances you’re often better off flying but if you like you can use the bus but it may be a longer drive.
Spanish is the official language in all countries except Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, and is widely spoken even in the countries that are not historically Spanish speaking. Portuguese is the official language in Brazil, which comprises about half the population and land area of the continent. There are also many indigenous peoples living in South America who speak their own languages, and if you are really going off the beaten track, you might have to learn them too. In Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, the official languages are English, Dutch and French respectively.
South America has some of the most incredible sights in the world but is a large continent and getting around it can be slow and difficult. The most popular things to see include the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu high up the Peruvian Andes. In terms of natural beauty it’s hard to beat the stunning Iguazu Falls that span that three countries (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay) and the unique Mount Roraima in the frontier between Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. Delightful remnants of Spanish colonialism can be found in many countries but is perhaps best in Cartagena, Colombia. Meanwhile exciting vibrant cities like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro provide the best taste of urban life in 21st Century South America.
South America is a magnificently varied part of the world and tremendously hospitable, South America offers many different alternative travel experiences and destinations. Most any adventurous activity can be enjoyed here in stunning and unique places. Rafting, trekking, jungle hikes, biking, zip lining, bungy jumping, diving, surfing, mountain climbing, para sailing, kite surfing, bird watching, discovering the huge variety of flora and fauna in the jungles and mountains, boating down the Amazon River. Travel Tour Group is a operator in South America such a Classic Inca Trail, Galapagos, etc..
Where to stay
Wearing or carrying items which may identify you as an affluent tourist can be a mistake. You shouldn’t pack anything that you would be upset to lose. Leave expensive jewelry, watches and other items of value at home and only carry what you need. That goes for credit cards and other documents as well; if you have no need for them leave them behind in the hotel safe, only take what money you are likely to spend with you.
Tap water in many countries is not drinkable, it’s wise to purify your own or buy bottled water. Malaria and Yellow fever can be a risk as well on the continent, check with a travel clinic or your doctor before heading out to see if you’ll be in a high-risk area.