Unmissable South America

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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.

Here's a roundup of top places to see on a journey to South America.

1. The Andes

Image by Alex E. Proimos

The massive peaks - the world's longest continental mountain range - stretch for nearly 8000km from Venezuela to southern Patagonia. There are fantastic trekking opportunities from gateway towns like Huaraz, Peru and Bariloche, Argentina. For those who want to explore indigenous villages among fantastic scenery, the options are near endless in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

2. Machu Picchu

Image by Oisin Mulvihill

Prior to the Spanish arrival, the Andes were the home to some of the hemisphere's most advanced civilizations, which reached their peak under the Incas. The mountain citadel of Machu Picchu - whose exact purpose still remains unknown - was first brought to the world's attention in 1911 by American explorer (and later US senator) Hiram Bingham III. Visiting 'the Lost City', with its dramatic setting amid cloud forest and craggy peaks is spectacular, particularly if you've arrived on foot along the popular but challenging 4-day Inca Trail. Buying entrance and train tickets in advance is key. Visit www.machupicchutickets.com for info. For hiking the Inca Trail, check out www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/treks/incatrail4.html.

3. Galápagos Islands

Image by Seven Bedard

The chain of volcanic islands lies roughly 1000km west of Ecuador and holds a strange and wondrous collection of wildlife, from gigantic tortoises and blue-footed boobies to marine iguanas and insatiably curious sea lions. These creatures proved inspiration to Charles Darwin (who visited in 1835) and his later, groundbreaking work on natural selection. Travel here is pricier than elsewhere in South America, since the only practical way of seeing the Galápagos is on a cruise vessel, visiting different islands on a 5- to 10-day circuit. But for the once-in-a-lifetime experience, it's well worth the investment.

4. The Amazon

Image by Bruno Girin

The largest rainforest on earth is home to a stunning array of plant and animal life. You can watch the green landscape glide slowly from the hammock-packed deck of a puttering riverboat (the buses of Brazilian Amazonia) or take a trek deep into the wilderness. Swimming with piranhas, gliding across flooded forests by dugout canoe and taking edifying walks with naturalist guides are all essential parts of the Amazon experience. Manaus in Brazil is the most popular gateway, with dozens of agencies offering private tours, while a bevy of nearby jungle lodges provide a base for exploring. Other good entry points to the Amazon include Cuyabeno Reserve, Ecuador; Leticia, Colombia; and Iquitos, Peru.

5. The Pantanal

Image by timsnell

This vast wetland area, which spreads across parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, may be less famous than the Amazon, but the wildlife watching here is superb, with over 650 bird species and 80 mammal species, including capybara (the world's largest rodent), giant otters and various monkeys. In fact, owing to the dense concentration of species, your chances of seeing animals here is generally better than in most parts of the Amazon. The key is to visit during the dry season (April to September). Visitors typically stay in lodges (from rustic to lavish) and take day trips on horseback, by boat or on foot in search of wildlife. Cuiaba and Campo Grande, both in Brazil are top places to enter the Pantanal.

6. Iguazu Falls

Image by SF Brit

Set deep in the rainforest, the massive and thundering falls are not one but many (some 275 in all), which straddle both Argentina and Brazil. Catwalks meander through biologically rich forest (keep an eye out for wildlife) and past the deafening waterfalls. While Brazil has the grand overview, Argentina gets the lion's share of Iguazu - and from here you can take a (very wet) speedboat trip to just beneath the roaring falls. If you plan to visit the Brazilian side, you'll need a visa (best arranged in advance). Go early in the morning to see abundant birdlife and to beat the crowds.