Do the dipping temperatures have you spying the southern hemispheres for a winter escape?
For those of us craving exotic adventure the allure of South America has never been stronger. It's a continent of mysticism, from hidden jungle cities to high tempo capitals to eclectic festivals. It's a continent of passionate people, incredible wine and raw wilderness. And for Canadians, it's a continent easily accessed; flights from Vancouver to Lima or Toronto to Rio de Janeiro involve only one stop and are more affordable than ever.
In case you need to indulge your wanderlust with some inspiration, here are 10 must-see highlights of lower Central and South America. See you on the trail!
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Why Visit? You've read so much about it and you've seen the pictures; Rio de Janeiro only awaits your visit. The pulsing city is an intoxicating blend of high tempo music, colourful favelas, buzzing beaches, succulent food, and long nights.
Don't miss these highlights: larger-than-life sentinel Christ the Redeemer, standing atop Corcovado Mountain; a ride on the cable car at Sugarloaf Mountain, and a football game at Maracanã Stadium. (It's one of the largest in the world.)
Why visit? Lima is a city of multiple faces, but most romantically it's known as the Ciudad de los Reyes or 'City of Kings'. The colonial architecture that decorates the city is an obvious nod to Peru's 300-year Spanish rule. Exploring the historic centre (a UNESCO World Heritage site) reveals handsome churches and squares that date back to the 16th century. Navigate to the coast to admire the neighbourhoods that appear to sit precipitously along the cliffs.
Don't miss these highlights: Cathedral at Plaza de Armas, San Francisco Monastery and trendy Miraflores district.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Why visit? Often referred to as the Paris of Americas, Buenos Aires is the most visited city in South America. Why? In short: the architecture and culture. The city ranks first in the world for active theatre productions and is second only Edinburgh for cultural festivals. As the birthplace of tango, Buenos Aires is home to countless dance schools. Come dusk, finding a bar with tango dancing is rarely an issue.
Don't miss these highlights: Teatro Colon opera house, Avenida 9 de Julio, Recoleta Cemetery and the colourful Boca neighbourhood.
South America's Bucket List Highlights
Nearest city: Curitiba, Brazil
Why visit? The collection of 275 waterfalls are unlike any other on earth. The best part? They're located in a natural area without commercial endeavors to detract from the sight and sound of the cataracts.
About: Even travellers who have visited dozens of falls find themselves in awe of Iguazu's power and beauty. The tallest of the falls, Devil’s Throat, drops a whopping 80 metres. The spray generates a permanent mist which adds to the site's mysticism. What's more, it’s surrounded by other waterfalls, both thundering and delicate. The result effectively creates a 2.7-kilometre wide wall of water. A stunning 1,500 cubic meters of water flows over the rocks each second. What makes Iguazu especially ethereal is the way the falls thread through the surrounding forest; water appears to spring from the lush landscape.
Nearest city: Cusco, Peru
Why visit? Machu Picchu was built almost 600 years ago as a royal estate. To this day it remains one of the best examples of Incan ruins in South America. Nearby, Sacred Valley epitomizes traditional village life interspersed with well-preserved ruins.
The Sacred Valley was the epicentre of Incan civilization and offers an in-depth understanding of Incan life in the 1400s. Terraced landscapes remain from agricultural pursuits and the basic architecture of the Incans is easier to explore here.
Machu Picchu was built on a ridge that towers over the Sacred Valley. Often identified as a city, it is actually an estate, possibly built for the emperor Pachacuti. Further evidence? Machu Picchu was constructed far more elaborately than an ordinary town. The estate was unknown to the Spanish Conquistadores who decimated the Incans. Hidden in the hills above the Urubamba River it was never ransacked and as such it remains remarkably intact.
Why visit? The city was the capital of the Incan Empire for almost 300 years and magnificently blends Incan majesty with distinct Andean architecture.
About: Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) is the gateway to the splendour that was the Incan Empire. Brightly-coloured textiles and wild fiestas embrace a pagan past without losing the solemn Catholic rituals introduced by Spanish conquerors. The most spectacular ruins are those of Qorikancha, once the richest temple in the empire. Although the gold plating is long gone, the stonework reflects some of the finest craftsmanship of any Incan architecture in Peru. Soaring Andean peaks and exotic cloud forests surround the city, hinting at the incredible beauty that drew the Incans to the region.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Nearest country: Ecuador
Why visit: Isolated by 973 kilometres of ocean, the nearly-barren volcanic islands are home to creatures found nowhere else in the world.
About: The archipelago is one of the most unique and biologically diverse areas in the world; a visit here is life-changing for most. Composed of 13 major and 7 minor islands, much of the island group is protected with limited opportunity to visit. Santa Cruz has the most developed town as well as beaches and trails which lead through the interior. Puerto Ayoro is the hub for most visitors and close to the Charles Darwin Research Station. The island also hosts a tortoise breeding center and flamingo lagoon at Cerro Dragon. Some islands can only be viewed from the water and beach landings are limited at others.
Largest cities: Neuquen, Argentina and Punta Arenas, Chile
Nearest cities: Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas (Torres del Paine), villages of El Calafate and El Chalten (Los Glaciares)
Why visit: The region encompasses two ice fields, the seventh largest desert in the world and the most incredible temperate rainforests anywhere.
About: Most of Patagonia is composed of steppe-like plains almost completely bare of vegetation. It gradually gives way to the lush growth of the Andes. The central region was shaped by ancient volcanic eruptions while the western third has glacial deposits sculpted by erosion.
Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chilean Patagonia includes valleys, rivers, lakes and glaciers. The main feature is the three granite peaks of the Paine Cordillera but the draw for many are the opportunities for trekking.
Los Glaciares National Park contains a section of the Magellanic Subpolar Forest and represents a sample of western Patagonian Steppe biodiversity. 30% of the park is covered by ice.
Lower Central America's Bucket List Highlights
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
Nearest city: Alajuela, Costa Rica
Why visit: The active volcano is an impressive feature of the local skyline and heats dozens of natural springs around its base.
About: In 1968 the volcano that had lain dormant for hundreds of years suddenly erupted, destroying a nearby town. Following years of frequent activity, the volcano has seen no eruptions since 2010. However, it is still considered active.
The Arenal Volcano National Park which surrounds the mountain is primarily rainforest, home to an incredibly diverse bioculture. The rivers are suitable for leisurely floats or exciting white water adventures through class IV rapids. Nearby Arenal Botanical Gardens have some 2,500 species of tropical plants which attract butterflies and birds. A short distance away the Venado Caves offer 2.4 kilometres of spelunking adventure complete with bats and curious colourless frogs.
Nearest towns: Cristobal/Port Colonl (Atlantic), Gamboa (Gatun Lake), Port of Balboa/Bridge of the Americas/Panama City (Pacific)
Why visit: It’s an engineering marvel that took 400 years to plan and complete. It transports both cruise and cargo ships from one major ocean in just half a day.
About: The concept of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was first proposed in the 1500s. Several attempts were made over the next several hundred years. The massive undertaking was started in 1881 by French engineers after completion of survey maps. However, it was all but abandoned in 1889 following a mounting death toll as a result of disease. In 1904 the U.S. took control of the property and engineers reassessed the original plans. After some revisions, construction resumed in 1907 and the canal was completed in 1914. The massive locks, excavated locks and man-made lake were the greatest construction ever undertaken at the time. Even today the canal remains a feat worth seeing - let alone experiencing first-hand!
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