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Best holiday destinations in South America

Best beaches in South AmericaCharming EcuadorMachu PicchuGaucho

By Mark Hodson, Sunday Times Travel Writer and Editor of 101 Holidays

Latin America is one of the world’s most exciting travel destinations, yet it remains relatively undiscovered by British holidaymakers. There’s a tremendous variety of experiences on offer in South and Central America, from mountains and jungle to vibrant cities and paradise beaches.

The 2014 World Cup opened the eyes of many people to that Brazil’s stunning landscapes and warm people. That sentiment has grown further with the 2016 Olympics in Rio. There has also been growing interest in the food and wine of South America. Wine from Chile and Argentina is already well loved, but Brazilian, Mexican and Peruvian cuisine is increasingly fashionable in the UK.

As enticing as it is, Latin America is also challenging. For a start there is a language barrier. Spanish is spoken across most of the continent, with Portuguese the language of Brazil. The only country with any volume of tourists that is English speaking is Belize in Central America. Elsewhere, even in the most cosmopolitan cities independent travellers struggle without some of the language. That’s partly why this is a holiday where you need a tour operator to organise the whole thing and help you along the way.

The other challenge is the sheer size of the place. Unless you have six months to spare, don’t even think about travelling vast distances across multiple countries. Each of the main tourist destinations – Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Ecuador – has more than enough to keep you busy for several weeks. If you want to do another country, it’s often best to plan another trip in the future.

Cool beach barsIncredible waterfallsCarnival timeThe Sugar Loaf cable car

Brazil

Brazil has some of the world’s finest beaches along a 5,000-mile coastline. You can stay in hip hotels, dance to samba, try your hand at surfing and watch dolphins from the shore. Highlights include trendy Trancoso and stylish Buzios, a favourite of well-heeled locals. Our tip for the best “secret” resort is Fernando de Noronha.

A visit to Rio de Janeiro is a must, and it’s probably where your journey will start and finish. The city beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon are spectacular, and the big tourist draws of Sugar Loaf and Corcovado don’t disappoint. But Rio is about more than sights: it’s a place to enjoy life, dining at churrascaria steak houses, drinking caipirinha cocktails and dancing until the early hours.

Brazil is also increasingly popular with families. Try this family itinerary which includes the beaches of the Costa Verde and the Pantanal, the largest wetland on the planet, where you can stay on a working cattle ranch, go in search of jaguar and go piranha fishing.

See more family adventures in Brazil, a full selection of travel ideas and the best time to visit.

Best holiday destinations in South AmericaUros Floating IslandsRafting on the Urubamba RiverSee colourful wildlife in the Peruvian Amazon

Peru

Most people that have travelled in South America rank Peru amongst their favourite destinations. There is a plethora of adventures, cultural sights, natural beauty and luxury to enjoy. An expert tour operator will put together an itinerary that helps you get the most out of this spectacularly diverse country, whether you want a private or group tour.

For a high-octane visit, this 12-night Where Condors Soar Adventure includes hiking to Machu Picchu, mountain biking through the Sacred Valley and white-water rafting down the Urubamba River. If you feel even more adventurous, try a 10-night Inca Trail Trek which includes a few days in the colonial town of Cuzco and some nights under canvas as you make your way to Machu Picchu.

If you’re travelling with teenagers, Tourdust has a great 12-day family Inca Trail trip that also includes the Sacred Valley and Cuzco.

For a more comfortable overview of Peru, this 12-night Flagship Peru holiday features the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Cuzco and the Amazon. Peru also has some classic train rides and this Amazon and Altiplano tour includes a trip on the iconic Orient-Express Hiram Bingham train and a luxury cruise through the Amazon.

This three-week group tour combining Peru with Bolivia is a great way to tick off a lot of the sights including Lima, the Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca, La Paz, Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Machu Picchu and a jungle lodge in the Amazon basin. It’s particularly popular with solo travellers who make up about 40% of groups.

Peru is also growing in popularity with families. This family adventure includes a stay in a nature lodge set in the Colca Canyon, home of condors, and a train ride to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, along with a trip to Machu Picchu.

Find more Peru holiday ideas, offers and the best time to visit Peru.

Torres del Paine National ParkEaster IslandSalar de Tara, Atacama desertWine-growing

Chile

The phrase “Land of contrasts” is a travel brochure cliche, but Chile really does offer staggeringly diverse and dramatic experiences, from the salt canyons and volcanoes of the Atacama Desert in the north – one of the driest places on Earth – to the icebergs and glacial fjords of the Torres del Paine National Park down south in Patagonia.

The capital Santiago has plenty of charm and is close to many renowned vineyards. You can also spend time on beaches and go hiking in the Lake District.

But one treat you should not miss is a trip to Easter Island which is not just one of the most remote places on Earth, but its ancient monumental statues, known as moai, will mystify and astound you.

GlaciersLuxury accommodationMendoza wine regionGaucho

Argentina

Argentina is a magnificent country, from the heady atmosphere of the capital Buenos Aires – where tango dancers can be seen in the streets – to the stunning wilderness of Patagonia. One of the undoubted highlights is the wine country of Mendoza where you can enjoy private tastings of the finest malbec.

You can head into the pampas to stay on a private estancia where you can head out on horseback with the Gauchos and try your hand at polo.

Patagonia is a spectacular contrast – a vast region of snow-capped mountains, brilliant blue lakes and stunning glaciers. Head to Los Glaciares National Park to see the best of the area.

Find more holiday ideas in Argentina.

Land IguanaCharming EcuadorFascinating EcuadorSpecial wildlife encounters

Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

Ecuador is arguably one of the most under-rated holiday destinations in South America. Many people are aware of the Galapagos Islands  – where Darwin worked on his Theory of Evolution – but fewer are aware of the remarkable sights on the mainland. Combining the two in a single holiday is an unforgettable experience.

Most visits start in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, which is set amid mountains and combines colonial architecture with colourful markets. It’s worth exploring further to discover the beautiful city of Cuenca, the volcanic landscapes of Cotopaxi National Park, the Amazon jungle and the mountains and glacial lagoons of Cajas National Park.

You can visit Ecuador on a private holiday or escorted tour.

The best way to explore the Galapagos is on board a small specialist cruise ships, allowing you to visit a number of the islands and appreciate the diversity of its volcanic landscapes and – of course – unique wildlife. Expert English-speaking guides will allow you to up close with seals, birds and giant tortoises without endangering them. The ideal length for a cruise is four to seven days but you can also choose a land-based holiday, staying on Santa Cruz Island and taking excursions to nearby islands.

The Galapagos are always a big hit with children. Check out these family trips.

Costa Rica

In Central America, Costa Rica has quickly emerged as one of the most popular destinations in the region, mainly for its diverse natural environment that encompasses mountains, volcanoes, wildlife, rainforest and beach. It’s also a small country with good-quality hotels, an excellent road network and a reputation for safety, so it’s easy to get about by road.

For couples, we recommend a Wild Coast and Cloud Forest holiday which includes a stay at La Paloma Lodge in the jungle with views over the Pacific Ocean. From there you can explore Corcovado National Park and Caño Island marine reserve. Other stops include Villa Blanca, an eco-lodge surrounded by rolling hills, and Arenal Manoa, under the shadow of an active volcano, from where you can enjoy forest hikes and horse riding.

For an introduction to Costa Rica, from less than £1,200 per person, Value Costa Rica: The Essential Highlights is a 12-day tour that includes the Tortuguero Jungle Reserve, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Arenal volcano and beach time.

You can also take a volunteering holiday in Costa Rica, combining a tour of jungles, volcanoes and beaches with work on a project to introduce animals back into the wild.

Guatemala and Belize

Neighbouring Guatemala and Belize in Central America are dramatically different, but the contrast makes them a perfect two-centre holiday. Guatemala offers colourful indigenous culture, volcanoes, mountains and the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, hidden in the jungle canopy. English-speaking Belize has white-sand Caribbean beaches, world-class diving and snorkelling and the chance to experience activities such as cave tubing, horse riding and zip lining.

As an example of how the countries can be combined on a two-week holiday, this Guatemala and Belize Odyssey kicks off in the  colonial cobbled streets of Antigua in Guatemala, and includes time at beautiful Lake Atitlan which is ringed by volcanoes, and at Francis Ford Coppola’s La Lancha Lodge from where you can explore Lake Peten and Tikal.

In Belize you’ll stay at the Ka’ana Boutique Resort and Spa set in the rainforest before arriving on the Caribbean coast, staying at the Mata Chica Beach Resort on Ambergris Caye.

Find more holiday ideas in Guatemala and Belize.

Majestic tall shipsDreamy beachesExplore via shipOne of our Alcion groups

Other holidays in South and Central America

There is almost no limit to the many types of holidays you can enjoy in Latin America, and many more great countries. Chile offers an intoxicating mix of mountains, lakes, forests and glaciers – the Atitlan Desert is said to be the driest place on Earth and is surely among the most starkly beautiful. Colombia is exciting and colourful, while Nicaragua is rapidly emerging as a destination in its own right.

You can explore the region on a tall ship sailing cruise, including this itinerary through the Panama Canal. You can join a cultural walking tour with a choice of destinations including Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Costa Rica, or if you’re interested in ancient history, an archaeology tour in Peru, Mexico or Guatemala and Belize.

If you’re looking for a personal challenge, and don’t mind roughing it, how about joining an overland truck adventure? This selection of trips in South America includes the classic 15-week journey between Quito and Rio driving through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil including Iguazu Falls, Torres del Paine National Park and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

For more luxurious group adventures, the specialist operator Journey Latin America has a choice of Discovery Journeys, which use a mixture of public and private transport and combine off-the-beaten-track experiences with the must-see sights. For example, Alcion is a 22-day adventure through Central America.

Although Cuba is classified as being in the Caribbean, it is arguably an extension of Latin America marooned off the coast of Florida and – because of the repressive communist regime – stuck in 1970s. It has stunning beach resorts such as Cayo Ensenachos but the most exciting places are visit include the capital Havana and the colonial city of Trinidad.

It’s also possible to combine a visit to South America with a trip-of-a-lifetime in Antarctica – most trips to the region start with a flight to the south of Argentina, so if the great white continent is on your bucket list, this is perfect opportunity to tick it off.

Last updated: 26 January 2017

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