Imagine facing a sleek jaguar or gazing at a lost civilization’s mist-shrouded temples. Those dreams can come true when you travel to South America. From experiential travel in the Amazon to hiking trips to Machu Picchu, this vast continent embodies adventure. With 18 million square kilometers to explore, why not head to Brazil or Peru this year?
Star Attraction: The Amazon Rainforest
“You see nothing and then boom! The jungle,” says a woman from Manaus, as your plane lands in the Brazilian state capital of Amazonas.
From this remote city of two million, you can take a boat tour into the humid, teeming rainforest. Taste sweet biriba fruit hacked open by a machete-wielding guide. Learn how to shoot a blowgun, use natural herbal remedies, and bring Aztec ants swarming out of their anthill – among other useful life skills.
One day, you find yourself sipping caipirinhas and dining on grilled piranha, as a sweet-tempered three-month-old tapir roams around the lodge dining room and howler monkeys leap through the trees outside. At night,you ride in a canoe and hold a wriggling spectacle caiman by the neck. And the next day, you gape as a female tarantula ventures out of her forest-floor hole.
From pink river dolphins to yellow-rumped casiques, the Amazon rainforest offers a swirling tapestry of experiences. With the help of the right adventure travel agency, you can weave new South America travel memories every day.
Underrated But Essential: The Pantanal Wetlands
“Is that a capybara?” someone exclaims. You look down the road from the mini-van. Yes, it’s the world’s largest rodent, resembling a cross between a cow, guinea pig, and beaver, trotting across the dusty Transpantaneira highway. It’s just another extraordinary moment in the Pantanal.
You may never have heard of the Pantanal before. Yet in these sprawling, tropical wetlands in western Brazil, you’ll find some 80 reptile species, 250 fish species, 100 mammal species, and 700 bird species. Sightings are often even more plentiful than in the Amazon.
On a horseback ride through the wetlands, you thrill to the sight of huge macaws sitting in taruma trees. Climb up a jungle viewing tower, where pygmy owls and Jabiru storks fly up for Instagram-worthy photo ops.
Whether you prefer black marsh deer and crab-eating foxes or black-tailed marmosets and monarch butterflies, you’ll never run out of wildlife wonders on Pantanal travel expeditions.
Star Attraction: Machu Picchu
The cloud-wreathed Andes provide an awe-inspiring setting for the legendary ruins of Machu Picchu, the 600-year-old religious sanctuary of the ancient Incas.
As you suck coca candy, which helps with the 8,000-foot altitude, it’s easy to understand why the temples and terraces set against the backdrop of the green Young Mountain remain Peru’s biggest tourist attraction. Your guide supplies fascinating facts: “Did you know that 70 percent of the site was dedicated to agriculture? Machu Picchu could support up to 600 people.”
A spectacular altar with a sundial graces the summit. “The priest proceeded to tie up the sun on this altar,” says the guide, describing Inca beliefs. “The priest succeeded every year.”
When you hike away from Machu Picchu, it’s hard to tear yourself away from the place that enticed Spanish conquistadors with legends of gold. If you prefer the more luxurious Hiram Bingham Train, pisco sours and beef tenderloin ease your journey back to Cuzco.
Underrated But Essential: Chan Chan
Head to the city of Trujillo in northern Peru to explore the giant adobe ruins of Chan Chan. In this haunting, desert-like setting, the maze of walls recalls video games like Halo or Call of Duty – minus the shooting.
Once, this 14-square-kilometre site was the capital of the warlike Chimu people and home to some 50,000 inhabitants. You gape at huge ceremonial courtyards where hairless dogs trot through, and learn about why victims of human sacrifice were interred in the central well.
Worshipping the moon was once a local custom, and there’s a feeling of remote, windswept, primitive majesty.