If I had to describe my experience of South America in one word, it would be ‘breathtaking’.
I knew I would enjoy my first trip to this incredible continent but I couldn’t have anticipated how the natural beauty of the region would astound me on a daily basis. I was captivated by the landscape, the vibrancy of the culture and the passion of the local guides for their local areas.
Travelling with two friends over 3.5 weeks April/May 2017 we were fortunate that there were less tourists around as we were travelling in shoulder season but every day weather wise was perfect for the activities scheduled.
If you are planning a trip to South America, these remarkable places to experience are well worth your time.
#1 Iguazu Falls
Visiting Iguazu Falls was a 'must do' experience for me for South America and I loved every moment of my time visiting one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
The entire experience felt magical and I was amazed by every view I had of the falls. The falls date back around 150 million years and there are approximately 275 falls with water flowing around the rate of 1.5 million litres per second.
Touring the Argentinian side first we had spectacular views and got closest to the top of the major falls known as the Devil's Throat. Standing at the top of the falls surveying their beauty, watching flocks of birds flying around in the mist and listening to the roar of the water was incredible. There were also many opportunities to see native Coati up close as they wandered on and off the paths around the falls.
The next day we toured the Brazilian side of the falls where you get an entirely different perspective of this natural wonder and we saw a Toucan near the top of a tree. If anyone reading this is wondering whether you need to see both sides of the falls, for me the only answer would be yes. The panoramic views of the falls from the different locations are astounding and in Brazil, when you can walk to a platform in the middle of the falls the experience is beyond words.
It is hard for me to describe the majesty of the falls, the sense that we were experiencing a gift of nature, the thundering sound of cascading water and some of the most beautiful rainbows I've ever seen.
An optional experience but one I'd also recommend was taking the boat trip into the falls, we got up close to a few smaller falls before being completely saturated under another. I was covered in torrents of water and unsure whether I could breath but seeing the falls from every possible angle was well worth it. Perhaps next time I'd do the helicopter ride as well.
#2 Machu Picchu
Visiting Machu Picchu is one of those stand out, once in a lifetime, memorable experiences. Rediscovered in 1911 it is now a UNESCO world heritage site and there is no doubt that it has a rightful place on the list as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
The day began with the train ride to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo, the Vistadome train was beautiful and the short train ride watching incredible scenery was a joy. From Aguas Calientes we caught a bus up a necessarily small road that zig-zagged its way up the mountain, taking us to the entry of Machu Picchu.
Once in the archaeological site the preservation of the ruins is astounding, 80% of the site is original Inca construction and you can see the agricultural, urban and industrial areas, with the different terraces designed for agriculture, gardening and use as retaining walls.
#3 Amazon Basin – Posada Amazonas
After flying from Lima to Cuzco and on to Puerto Maldonado, we made our way by bus and boat to Posada Amazonas lodge in the Amazon basin, where we stayed for 3 nights.
The lodge is built in a 2000 hectare private reserve and the lodge is run by Rainforest Expeditions in conjunction with the native community of Infierno, who receive 70% of the proceeds from the lodge. The long-term partnership demonstrates a deep and genuine commitment to sustainable tourism that is highly beneficial for the local community and the environment. In the next few years the lodge, which was built by the local community will be run 100% by them and our local guide Silverio was fantastic.
On the first evening we climbed over 30 metres to see the view out over the canopy of trees. The next day we headed to Tres Chimbadas Oxbow Lake where we were extremely fortunate to see a wide range of wildlife including the resident family of Giant River Otters, Capybara, Hoatzin and White Caiman. We also discovered that there are 4 species of Piranha in the lake and the red species is the most aggressive. Later we visited the Centro Nape who produce medicines out of forest plants, a few of which we got to taste.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the lodge, doing other hikes and seeing more wildlife including Squirrel Monkeys, Brown Capuchin Monkeys, Scarlet Mackaws, Pale-winged Trumpeters, different species of Tarantulas (which I now know are non-venomous) and we heard Howler Monkeys. We also saw some magnificent rainforest, including what would probably have to be the biggest tree I've ever seen, it was a magnificent giant ceiba tree. There are hundreds of stairs involved in each days activities though (which came as a surprise to me) so it is important to be aware that a fair degree of fitness and mobility is needed to get the most out of the experience.
#4 Misiones Jungle - Yacutinga Lodge
Yacutinga Lodge is located on a peninsula about 2 hours from Iguazu Falls. It was built on part of 1000 hectares of protected land as a sustainable tourism initiative to help protect the remaining forest in the region, only 6% of the original forest still exists.
They only have 20 rooms, there were only 8 guests when we stayed and we were the last guests for the season.
On nature walks we saw lots of butterflies and birds, often seeing the most beautiful hummingbirds and during our kayaking adventure we saw monkeys crossing the river via a natural tree bridge.
#5 Sacred Valley
We visited Chinchero, a small village surrounded by unbelievable mountains, where we saw Inca ruins from the 15th century, unearthed predominantly in the 60's and 70's and learnt a little more about pre-Incan culture.
We visited Urpi to see Ilama, Alpaca, traditional weaving and natural dyeing techniques before Ollantaytamba, the only place left in Peru where there are still genuine Incan descendents living in some of the original Incan houses. For two nights we stayed at a former monastery San Augustin Monasterio De La Recoleta.
Flying into Cuzco is a delight, surrounded by incredible mountains it is 3310 metres above sea level, with a population of around 500,000. As many houses have tin roofs they were glittering like jewels in the sun as we flew in.
Cuzco was the Capital of the Incan empire, which originally spread from lower Columbia to the top of Chile.
We visited Koricancha Temple which was an ancient Inca palace, San Cristobal viewpoint which provided stunning views over the city and we visited outlying Incan ruins, including Sacsayhuaman which was a great Inca temple.
Originally parts of the main palace were covered in gold but we were told that in the Inca period gold and silver were not perceived in the same way they are today. For the Inca people, gold symbolised the sweat of the sun and silver the tears of the moon.
Three key symbols of Inca culture we were also introduced to are the Condor, Puma and Snake. The Condor represents the upper world, the Puma this world and the Snake mother earth, the underworld.
#7 Lake Titicaca
Catching the train from Cuzco to Puno takes 10 hours but the ride on the Andean Explorer full of old world charm is an excellent choice.
The train is extremely comfortable, the open air observation car at the back is a great experience as was the three course lunch! Most of the trip is through vast expanses of land and there are quite a few town passes, where much to my surprise at times there was only centimetres between the train and people or stalls.
Puno lies on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and we spent a fantastic day out on the water getting to know a little more about pre-Incan culture. We visited the Uros Islands, floating islands man-made from totora reeds, followed by Taquile Island visiting the community of Huayllano. In each case the island inhabitants are still living as their ancestors, following ancient traditions, although it is evident that modern culture is having an increasing influence.
Over 30 million people live in Peru and over 10 million of them live in Lima, the city where it never rains.
A half day city tour is a great way to see the main sites, including the busy downtown area, Plaza Mayor and the 17th century San Francisco Monastery. We were dropped in Miraflores after our tour where we had a fabulous lunch with spectacular water views at La Trattoria di Mambrino.
After lunch we walked through Parque del Amor (Lovers Park), seeing the large sculpture El Beso (The Kiss) before taking a taxi to explore Barranco, another lovely district with an artistic feel overlooking the Pacific.
We were recommended Panchita in Miraflores for dinner and thoroughly enjoyed it, we were positive there was no room for dessert but our waiter Carlos gently insisted we share one between three of us. It was possibly the nicest sorbet I've ever had, cinnamon and coconut sorbet that somehow reminded me of a bread and butter pudding my Grandmother used to make.
#9 Buenos Aires
Flying over the snow capped mountains of the Andes to Buenos Aires was beautiful.
With the population of greater Buenos Aires being around 13 million it feels like returning to a major metropolis. Recoleta is an excellent place to stay, there are great cafes, restaurants and weekend markets, you can also see a magnificent magnolia tree that is over 200 years old.
In addition to a city tour, we visited Palermo park and saw the gardens showcasing over 165 different kinds of roses, did a tour of the Opera House, visited Tigre and saw a Tango Show in a fantastic venue and I do recommend you do the tango lesson first just for fun.
Although we only visited for coffee I'd recommend Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires, as an ideal lunch location. Highly recommend also is visiting Alvear Palace Hotel, we enjoyed drinks at the rooftop bar before having a wonderful dinner there, excellent service and great atmosphere.
Flying into Santiago it was exciting to see expansive mountains, some snow-capped and the city dwarfed by the height of the surrounding ranges.
Incredibly the second time we flew into Santiago, when I was staying to do a city tour the next day, they had experienced an earthquake about 7 on the richter scale only hours before we arrived and there was no damage, everywhere was simply business as usual. The guide said their buildings are all built to withstand earthquakes and that was just a mild tremor!
Recommended experiences in Santiago include the funicular ride for some great sights of the city from the top of St Christopher Hill, Santa Lucia Park, visiting the private museum full of original artefacts, exploring the park in Vitacura and trying another Pisco Sour with an empanada for lunch.
We enjoyed everywhere we stayed for different reasons and I can recommend the locations we used below, in addition to those mentioned above, if you are looking for well-located, safe places to stay.
Lima – Allpa Hotel & Suites
Iguazu Falls - La Cantera Jungle Lodge
Cuzco - Unaytambo Boutique Hotel
Puno - Sonesta Posada Del Inca Puno
Santiago - Providencia Panamericana Hotel
Buenos Aires - Ayres de Recoleta Plaza Apart Hotel
Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) - Casa Del Sol Boutique Hotel (which looks like it has a lovely spa I didn't get to try)
For overall trip planning we would also recommend:
Essential Spanish Words and Phrases
Good morning: Buenos dias
Good afternoon: Buenas tardes
Good evening/night: Buenas noches
Please: Por favor
Thank you: Gracias
One of my friends took a Spanish translation book which was very useful and highly recommended for inclusion as part of your packing list.
If you have extra time in the above locations some of the recommendations we were given while away, include:
Paracas National Reserve in Peru a few hours south of Lima.
Condor Canyon in Peru out of Cuzco to see Andean Condors in the wild.
Rainbow Mountain in Peru for the more adventurous.
At the time of travelling it was necessary for Australians to pay an entry fee of USD117 for Chile, a reciprocity fee of USD100 for Argentina (paid online before we left) and a AUD216 Visa was required to enter Brazil which had to be organised pre-departure. As these requirements can change at any time it is essential you check with your travel agent when organising your trip to clarify what you need to organise.
In terms of packing I highly recommend (as someone who didn't have these) - high quality walking/hiking shoes with a cushioned sole that you have worn in and quick drying clothes. Other must haves include the necessary vaccinations, sunscreen, hat and tropical strength insect repellent.
I cannot speak highly enough of the trip, it was an amazing experience, so great I've jumped at the chance to see more of South America next March on a trip to Patagonia.