The Big Loop
- 5 months
This classic South American journey takes in some of the continent's most famous sites, including Andean peaks, Amazonian rainforest, Machu Picchu, Iguazú Falls and the Galápagos Islands.
Start off in Buenos Aires. Spend several days exploring the mesmerizing Argentine capital. Go west to Bariloche for spectacular scenery then head to Chile's verdant Lake District at Puerto Varas. Continue north to Santiago, then cross back into Argentina to Córdoba and gorgeous Salta before re-entering Chile at the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. Head into Bolivia to experience the surreal Salar de Uyuni. Continue to La Paz and on to Peru via Lake Titicaca. Linger at ancient Cuzco and Machu Picchu before going to Lima and on to Ecuador.
From Guayaquil, fly to the Galápagos Islands. Back on the mainland, visit colonial Cuenca and historic Quito. Pass into Colombia to the lush Zona Cafetera and bustling Medellín, then go to Cartagena for Caribbean allure. See beautiful Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, then head towards Leticia and cross into Brazil. Head to Manaus for a jungle trip. Afterwards fly down to Rio de Janeiro for beaches and nightlife. Visit thundering Iguazú Falls and return to Buenos Aires.
- 2 months
For rugged adventure, unparalleled alpine vistas, rich indigenous cultures and colorful market towns, journey down the Andes from Colombia to Argentina. Along the way, you'll pass through colonial towns, cloud forests and surreal desert landscapes.
Fly into Bogotá, taking in the old historic center and lively nightlife. Continue south to San Agustín to explore pre-Columbian ruins, and on to Parque Nacional Natural Puracé, for Andean treks. Then go to Pasto and on to the beautifully set Laguna de la Cocha.
Cross into Ecuador and visit Otavalo for markets and day trips to alpine lakes. Head west to Mindo for misty cloud-forest adventures. Continue south through Quito and on to Volcán Cotopaxi for hikes and majestic scenery.
Spend a few days in Cuzco, then hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Head across shimmering Lake Titicaca into Bolivia for more hiking in the Cordillera Real. Continue south to the Salar de Uyuni, before crossing to Argentina by way of the spectacular Quebrada de Humahuaca. In Argentina end the trip at enchanting Mendoza, near massive Cerro Aconcagua, the western hemisphere's highest peak.
- 6 weeks
Mysterious, windswept, glacier-riddled Patagonia is one of South America's most magical destinations. Patagonia – and the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego – is best visited November through March, and you can see more for less money if you camp.
Travel west into Chile to the Andean hamlet of Futaleufú for outstanding rafting. Take the scenic Carretera Austral to Coyhaique and visit the caves of Capilla de Mármol. Head to windswept Chile Chico on Lago General Carrera, then cross into Argentina to Los Antiguos.
Cross back into Chile at Puerto Natales to hike beneath the granite spires of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Head to Punta Arenas, then south into Argentina's Tierra del Fuego and bottom out at edge-of-the-earth Ushuaia.
Sailing the Mighty Amazon
- 6 weeks
This tough but rewarding journey travels the length of the fabled Amazon, incorporating wildlife-watching, historic cities and beautiful river beaches.
Start in Pucallpa, Peru (a flight or bus ride from Lima). Before hitting the river, spend the night in nearby Yarinacocha, a lovely oxbow lake ringed by tribal villages. From Pucallpa, begin the classic slow riverboat journey north along the Río Ucayali to Iquitos. This northern jungle capital has a buoyant cultural scene and a bustling port, where you can catch a more comfortable cruise into Peru’s largest protected space, Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samiria. From Iquitos, get a boat to the tri-border region of Peru, Colombia and Brazil, and take a break in Colombia's Leticia.
From Leticia, it's three more arduous days to the bustling city of Manaus, which is famed for its 19th-century opera house and buzzing markets. This is also a great base for jungle excursions.
Chug east to Santarém, where you can visit the white-sand beaches of Alter do Chão. Another 3½ days further, and you'll reach culturally rich Belém, a good spot for sampling traditional Amazonian cuisine.
From here, cross over to Ilha de Marajó, a massive river island dotted with friendly towns, wandering buffaloes and pleasant beaches.
Exploring the Guianas
- 4 weeks
They're expensive, they're hard to reach, they're largely unpopulated, and they can be very, very captivating. And they're definitely off the beaten path. Where you start depends on where you're coming from: Guyana via New York, Cayenne via Paris or Paramaribo via Amsterdam. For the sake of argument, let's say you're traveling overland from Brazil.
From Oiapoque in Brazil, cross the border via the new bridge spanning the Rio Oiapoque into French Guiana. You're now officially off the beaten track. Make your way by bus across the verdant, forgotten landscape (complete with burned-out cars along the roadside) to Cacao. From here, embark upon the two-day hike along Sentier Molokoï for some wildlife-spotting fun. Then make your way up to Kourou, where you can witness rockets blast off from South America's only satellite launcher. Take a ferry (or a more comfy catamaran) across shark-infested waters to the Îles du Salut, a former island prison where you can sling up a hammock in the old prison dormitories! Back on the mainland, head up the coast and watch the turtles nesting (April to July only) at Awala-Yalimopo before crossing into Suriname. Hang out for a few days in weirdly wonderful Paramaribo, and set up a tour into the majestic Central Suriname Nature Reserve. From Paramaribo, continue west to Nieuw Nickerie, where you cross into Guyana. Head up to Georgetown, and make a detour by boat up to isolated Shell Beach or to see the spectacular Kaieteur Falls. Back in Georgetown, get a bus south across the majestic Rupununi Savannas, stopping in Annai and Lethem to savor the vast isolation.
The Atlantic Coast
- 6 weeks
Colonial towns, Afro-Brazilian culture, gorgeous beaches and buzzing nightlife set the stage for an epic 7400km ramble up the Atlantic coast. Surfing, snorkeling, forest treks and urban exploring are all essential experiences along the way.
Start off in Argentina, spending a few days taking in the charms of Buenos Aires before ferrying over to historic Montevideo. Follow Uruguay's coastline north through glitzy Punta del Este, dune-fringed Cabo Polonio and the laid-back beach town of Punta del Diablo.
Make your way to Florianópolis, gateway to secluded beaches and stunning scenery, then head up to the scenic colonial town of Paraty, and rainforest-covered Ilha Grande. Continue to Rio de Janeiro for pretty beaches, lush scenery and samba-fueled nightlife.
Fly to Porto Seguro and continue to Trancoso and Arraial d'Ajuda – both enticing, laid-back towns near cliff-backed beaches. Spend a few days in Salvador, Brazil's mesmerizing Afro-Brazilian gem. Further up the coast, visit pretty Olinda, then catch a flight from Recife to the spectacular Fernando de Noronha.
Back on the mainland, travel north, stopping at the backpackers' paradise of Jericoacoara and the surreal dunes of Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses. The final stops are reggae-charged São Luís and colonial Alcântara.
Feature: South America Off the Beaten Track
Cabo Raso For windswept coast and challenging surf head to this remote part of Patagonia. You can overnight in a refurbished ghost town with a war bunker and old buses converted to hostel beds.
Parque Nacional Patagonia This gem of restored grasslands, rushing rivers and snowbound peaks has guanacos, flamingos, foxes and pumas in numbers, meticulously restored by a private conservation foundation, with great infrastructure for camping and hiking.
Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses Come between March and September to see this landscape at its most dramatic, when crystal-clear, freshwater lagoons from rainwater fill the hollows between high, undulating dunes.
Saddle Mountain Get into the wilds of Guyana at this hilltop lodge high up above the Rupununi River. You can go horseback riding on the savanna, with spectacular opportunities for wildlife-watching.
The Chaco Paraguay's wild dusty west teems with wildlife. You can camp out under star-filled skies and spend your day spying macaws, otters, tapirs and countless other living creatures.
Isla Floreana Stay overnight in a simple guesthouse at this remote island in the Galápagos. You can take scenic walks, swim with sea turtles and lounge on pretty beaches guarded by sea lions.
Popayán This lively university town has lovely colonial architecture, grand museums and a celebrated (but affordable) food scene. It's also near the indigenous market town of Silvia.
Kuélap Escape the Machu Picchu crowds at this stunning pre-Colombian citadel in the north of Peru. You can make the most of the experience by overnighting at one of the basic guesthouses here.
Parque Nacional de Aparados da Serra In the south of Brazil, this stunning national park is home to a jagged canyon with waterfalls, scenic lookouts and memorable hiking trails.