Travel Advice: South America
The last frontier for many British tourists: the mix of uncommonly beautiful sights and common languages (Spanish and Portuguese) should have tempted more of us over the years. Distance however and a certain wariness for personal safety have conspired to keep us away for many years, but today more and more people are discovering the many charms and attractions of this great continent.
Before you go
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office website offers welcome travel advice on a country-by-country basis. Given the occasionally volatile nature of South American politics, it is worth keeping an eye on this before you go:
Flights will be the major expense on this trip: once you get to South America, everything will feel cheap. (Argentina, the one country that had European prices to match its European attitude, went into economic meltdown in 2001 and prices tumbled.)
Most of the major European carriers fly across the South Atlantic. British Airways and allied companies, for example, fly to Bogota, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Santiago. Spanish, Portuguese and Italian airlines may offer better prices – though you may need to take a connecting flight first.
A number of travel operators specialise in trips to South America. Some of the trips can be tailored to suit your requirements; otherwise, price and departure dates will be the most important criteria when choosing your trip.
For such a big and beautiful continent, with so many outstanding places to go and things to see, it is disconcerting to realise that most of the travel companies go to most of the same places.
On the other hand, South America remains a long way away and once you are there, nobody should miss the chance to see Machu Picchu, Corcovado, Titicaca, Iguassu, or the Galapagos. Strange and beguiling names all, gloriously different places to visit.
But there is much more: don’t overlook the delights of Choquequirao in Peru, the missions of Paraguay and northern Argentina, Venezuela’s Angel Falls and the Argentine Lake District.
More young backpackers are heading south, looking for an alternative to the Thailand/ Australia route that so many of their friends are travelling. They head for many of the same spots as the organised tours – though they might opt to hike the four-day Inca Trail rather than taking the picturesque train from Cuzco.
Other magnets for the young include cycling down “The World's Most Dangerous Road” in Bolivia, whale-watching on the Valdes Peninsula in northern Patagonia, relaxing on Chiloe Island in Chile, floating down the Amazon and watching a football match in Rio’s Maracana Stadium.
Be safe, be confident
Safety is a consideration on every holiday, but there is no reason why it should prevent you travelling to South America, or enjoying it when you arrive.
There is terrible poverty and crime in areas of South America. In addition, the threat of terrorism and kidnapping means parts of Colombia and Peru continue to be off-limits to tourists. This will have no impact whatsoever if you plan sensibly and avoid these areas.
Common-sense precautions (avoid wearing jewellery, wear a money-belt, leave valuables in your hotel safe, keep cameras in an inconspicuous bag, don’t block the pavement as you consult your tourist map) will narrow the chances of you being the victim of street crime.
Rio de Janeiro is cited as a dangerous place for foreign tourists. Without question, there are areas that should be avoided. However the city authorities have worked hard to ensure the safety of visitors in popular spots including Copacabana and Ipanema.
From tango and football in Buenos Aires to the southern tip of the continent in Tierra Del Fuego, this is a land of contrasts. It would take time to do justice to the whole country, but other highlights include the Perito Moreno glacier in the south of the country, the wine-growing valleys around Mendoza and the vast, fertile Pampas. A visit (or stay) on a working Estancia would complete a memorable trip.
It seems the days are over when you could sit in the main square in La Paz and wait for the next revolution to happen before your eyes. A degree of stability has not brought wealth to the great majority but does allow the tourist freedom to visit the world’s highest capital city, the colonial grandeur of Sucre and the silver mines of Potosi. Titicaca, shimmering blue waters and isolated from the world, remains the most compelling highlight.
The world’s fifth-largest country has much to offer the visitor. No visit is complete without time spent in hedonistic Rio, but Salvador offers even more of the Brazilian lifestyle of beach, body (and football). Sao Paulo can be daunting by virtue of its size. Manaus and the Amazon are hours away by plane, and a world away in terms of lifestyle and landscape. In the south, the Iguassu Falls are the big draw, but the cowboy country between here and the Atlantic is expansive and rewarding.
4,000 km long: another country whose very size can appear daunting. The dramatic Torres Del Paine National Park in the frozen south contrasts with the arid Atacama Desert in the far north. Santiago, the capital high in the Andes, seems disconnected from the rest of the country, even the relatively nearby seaside delights of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar.
Insiders suggest this is the country that feels most like the South America of your imagination: music, colour, poverty, breathtaking views, hot beaches and cool drinks, elegance and energy. Bogota is a fascinating, vibrant capital; legendary Cartagena and the Caribbean coast recall the history of the Spanish conquest. Other areas remain too dangerous to enter.
While young backpackers relax on the coast, or head inland to idyllic Quito and Andean trekking, others make the (expensive) journey to the Galapagos Island 1,000km or so out in the Pacific, on cruise ship, ferry or by plane. However you get there, the experience will mark you forever.
Capital city Lima is an interesting introduction to South America but the highlights lie elsewhere in this country with three distinct zones. Hugging the Pacific coast in the desert region are the Nazca Lines, mysterious mementoes of long-dead civilisations; in the Andes there is Cuzco, high capital of the Incas and gateway to Machu Picchu, and the southern shores of Lake Titicaca; farther still lie Puerto Maldonado and Iquitos, cities on the upper reaches of the Amazon.
Often overlooked in favour of its much bigger neighbours Argentina and Brazil, this is a peaceful, developed country boasting 500km of fine sandy beaches on the Atlantic and the Rio de la Plata, woods, mountains, hot springs, hotels, casinos, art festivals and numerous opportunities for sport and entertainment. Montevid