Made up of 12 countries and spanning an incredible 17.84 million square kilometres, South America is home to thousands of stunning natural wonders and mesmerising manmade sights. You’ve no doubt heard of the infamous likes of Machu Picchu, Rio Carnival, the Amazon Jungle and Buenos Aires’ salsa scene, but what about the continent’s best-kept secrets?
Just like the Chileans joke that they keep their best fruit for themselves (they do, their strawberries are massive), there are some lesser-known spectacles that you may not have heard of – until now.
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Chile’s Solar Eclipse
On 2 July 2019 the moon will pass between the earth and the sun, casting darkness over northern Chile in the middle of the day. The best place to witness this once-in-a-lifetime wonder is in Elqui Valley, La Serena. Thousands of visitors are expected to pilgrimage to the sight to watch the eclipse, so I recommend booking with a reputable tour company to avoid the hassle of the crowds and guarantee a good vantage point.
The eight-day tour journeys through the buzzing capital of Santiago, the street art-filled streets of Valparaiso and a local winery, before flying you up to La Serena where you’ll be transported to a private viewing area to watch the
Nature lovers flock to Brazil to explore the Amazon jungle, but few detour to enjoy the wonders of the world’s largest tropical wetlands: the Pantanal. An absolute wildlife haven, intrepid visitors can hope to see dozens of caiman, capybaras, macaws, jabiru storks and snakes. The lucky few will even manage to spot the odd tapir, giant otter or jaguar.
June to September is the best time of year for wildlife spotting (particularly to be in with a chance of seeing a jaguar), but the wet season, January to March, is an equally impressive time to visit as all the rainfall makes the Pantanal appear its most lush. Plus, the fact that you can only get around by boat at this time of year really adds to the sense of adventure.
Peru’s “Poor Man’s Galapagos”
The little group of islands off the west coast of Peru enjoys the nickname ‘the poor man’s Galapagos’ due to all of the wildlife it shares with the incredible islands. Much more achievable (and affordable) a trip than one to the real deal, the Islas Ballestas can be reached in 20 minutes by speedboat from the town of Paracas. You can expect to see dozens of penguins, sea lions, and pelicans flying, lounging and swimming around, as well as some amazing rock formations sticking out of the sea, many of which are said to be thousands of years old. The protected islands are home to one of the world’s largest seabird sanctuaries, but with all those birds comes a lot of ‘guano’ – that’s bird poo to you and me.
Back on dry land, I recommend continuing your tour down to Huacachina where the daredevil in you can enjoy hurtling down a massive sand dune, headfirst, lying flat on a snowboard. Only in Peru.
Ecuador’s Active Volcano
Loved for its beautiful conical shape, Ecuador’s second highest summit, Cotopaxi, is utterly captivating. At 5897m in height, it can be enjoyed from afar, but there really isn’t anything like getting up close. You can spend the night at the Secret Garden Cotopaxi simply for the joy of waking up to the other-worldly view of the volcano in all its snow-covered glory (and for the home-cooked food – it’s seriously delicious).
Experienced mountaineers can summit Cotopaxi as part of an overnight climb, but anyone in good health and fitness who has had some time to adapt to the altitude can reach the base camp of Jose Rivas Refuge in around an hour’s trek from the carpark.
Once you’ve recovered from the trek up Cotopaxi with refreshments from the refuge, spend some time posing for pictures with deathly icicles and playing around in the snow making snow angels and racing each other down the slopes using your waterproofs in place of toboggans. Set within the Andes mountains, Cotopaxi looks over the Ecuadorian capital of Quito – another underrated, must-visit destinations while you’re in South America.
Content of this article was contributed by Ron Morgan