South America is home to dramatic landscapes, archaeological splendours from the past and a dizzying variety of wildlife - the largest collection of plant and animal species on earth, in fact. For the sheer awe factor, it's hard to top seeing Incan ruins through mist-covered cloud forest, spying monkeys and toucans in the Amazon or trekking past topaz-coloured alpine lakes and snow-covered peaks in the Andes. Comprising 13 countries, and home to dozens of indigenous cultures, South America has all this and much more. You can hike past ancient temples first laid down by the Incas, contemplate the awe-inspiring power of Iguazú Falls, or spend the day watching wildlife from a dugout canoe on one of the Amazon's countless igarapés (narrow waterways). You can barrel down Andean roads by mountain bike, go white-water rafting on class V rivers and surf amazing breaks off both coasts. And once you think you've experienced it all, head to the dramatic landscapes in Tierra del Fuego, go eye-to-eye with extraordinary creatures in the Galápagos, and scramble up tableland mountains in the Gran Sabana for a panorama that seems straight out of the Mesozoic era.
Rough around the edges, superlative in its natural beauty, rugged, vexing, complex and slightly nerve-racking, Bolivia is one of South America’s most diverse and perplexing nations. Bolivia is not for the faint of heart: rattling down the World’s Most Dangerous Road into sultry Yungas; soaring breathless above verdant La Paz valleys in a paraglider; pulling a catfish that outweighs you out of an Amazon river (and maybe cooking it for dinner!). Whether your tools are crampons and ice-axe for scaling 6000m Andean peaks or a helmet and bravado for jumping into the abyss on a glider, Bolivia's rocks, rivers, and ravines will challenge – nay, provoke – you into pushing your own personal limits. Bolivians love a parade, and hardly a month passes without a procession of brightly costumed celebrants honoring an important historical date or deity. You’ll hear them from blocks away before the brass bands and whirligigging dancers approach and then envelop you (you may even get to join in). Amateur archaeologists can delve into a rich, multilayered treasure trove of artefacts – Bolivia has South America’s largest percentage of indigenous people, so the culture is still alive and well on the streets, too. Get to know them better by participating in community-based tourism and hiring local guides when you can.
Chile is nature on a colossal scale, but travel here is surprisingly easy if you don't rush it. Preposterously thin and unreasonably long, Chile stretches from the belly of South America to its foot, reaching from the driest desert on earth to vast southern glacial fields. Diverse landscapes unfurl over a 4300km stretch: parched dunes, fertile valleys, volcanoes, ancient forests, massive glaciers and fjords. There's wonder in every detail and nature on a symphonic scale. For the traveler, it's mind-boggling to find this great wilderness so intact. The human quest for development could imperil these treasures sooner than we think. Yet for now, Chile guards some of the most pristine parts of our planet, and they shouldn't be missed. In Chile, close borders foster backyard intimacy – bookended by the Andes and the Pacific, the country averages just 175km wide. No wonder you start greeting the same faces. Pause and it starts to feel like home. You've landed at the end of the continent, and one thing that stands out at this final frontier is hospitality. Buena onda (good vibes) means putting forth a welcoming attitude. Patagonians share round upon round of maté tea. The ritual of relating and relaxing is so integral to the fabric of local life, it’s hardly noticed. But they do say one thing: stay and let your guard down.
Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Cuba is a country of indefinable magic. Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat: behind the sometimes shabby facades, gold dust lingers. It’s these rich dichotomies that make travel here the exciting, exhilarating roller-coaster ride it is. Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo that has grated for more than half a century, this is a country where you can wave goodbye to everyday assumptions and expect the unexpected. If Cuba were a book, it would be James Joyce's Ulysses: layered, hard to grasp, frequently misunderstood, but – above all – a classic. Bereft of modern interference, Cuba’s colonial cities haven’t changed much since musket-toting pirates stalked the Caribbean. The atmosphere and architecture is particularly stirring in Havana, Trinidad, Remedios and Camagüey where grandiose squares and cobbled streets tell erstwhile tales of opulence and intrigue. Yet, despite pockets of preservation, many buildings still lie ruined like aging dowagers waiting for a face-lift. With more funds, these heirlooms may yet rise again. Indeed, thanks to private investment, many of them have already been partially renovated, morphing into spectacular private homestays or retro-themed restaurants proudly showing off their weighty historical heritage.
Peru is as complex as its most intricate and exquisite weavings. Festivals mark ancient rites, the urban vanguard beams innovation and nature brims with splendid diversity. Visitors pilgrimage to the glorious Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, yet this feted site is just a flash in a 5000-year history of peoples. Explore the dusted remnants of Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian ruins in all the Americas. Fly over the puzzling geoglyphs etched into the arid earth at Nazca. Or venture into the rugged wilds that hem the stalwart fortress of Kuelap. Lima’s great museums reveal in full detail the sophistication, skill and passion of these lost civilizations. Visit remote communities and see how old ways live on. Immerse yourself, and you will leave Peru a little closer to the past. One existential question haunts all Peruvians: what to eat? Ceviche with slivers of fiery chili and corn, slow-simmered stews, velvety Amazonian chocolate – in the capital of Latin cooking, the choices dazzle. Great geographic and cultural diversity has brought ingredients ranging from highland tubers to tropical jungle fruits to a complex cuisine of Spanish, indigenous, African and Asian influence. The truth is, fusion existed here long before it came with airs. Explore the bounty of food markets. Sample grilled anticuchos (beef skewers) on the street corners and splurge a little on exquisite novoandina (Peruvian nouvelle cuisine).