Karl Cushing travels the diverse continent in search of the most thrilling destinations
Making like an explorer on a journey down the mighty Amazon River into the Amazon jungle is a true rite of passage. Crossing six countries — Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil — there are multiple jumping-off points to choose from, including Leticia in Colombia, Iquitos in Peru, and Manaus in Brazil. Gritty Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city and once the continent’s richest, still has some grand European-style buildings, not least the Amazonas Opera House. Boats take visitors to see the ‘Meeting of Waters’, a long stretch where the contrasting black and brown waters of the Negro River and Solimoes River meet but don’t mix. Or, try a smaller entry point such as Puerto Maldonado in Peru, on the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers. Here, visitors can fly in before taking to the river for a canoe ride to their riverside lodge — Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica is a popular choice — from where they embark on guided hikes into the rainforest, visit sites such as Monkey Island and explore Tambopata National Reserve. Some of the most easily accessible stretches of Amazon rainforest can be found in Ecuador, including Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve, although trips here can prove more expensive than in other countries. For clients on a budget, it’s worth considering Bolivia, which offers some great value options out of Rurrenabaque, a short flight from the capital La Paz, with conditions for seeing wildlife best during the dry season from May to October.
This vast area of tropical freshwater — the world’s largest wetland region — sprawls over Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, and is a must-see for nature lovers. Not only is it brimming with wildlife but, given the typically flat, open terrain, the animals are actually far easier to spot than in the Amazon jungle. Divided between the southern and northern Pantanal, it’s typically accessed via plane to Cuiaba or Campo Grande with remote ecolodges, or fazendas, providing accommodation deep amid the wildlife and offering guided tours by 4×4, boat or on horseback. Highlights include birdwatching and tracking the region’s healthy population of jaguar, best seen in the dry season from July to October. As the Pantanal is the Brazilian equivalent of cowboy country, a visit wouldn’t be compete without a ride or two on a Pantanal horse, which also allows for incredible up-close encounters with local wildlife. Other activities worth sampling include swimming and snorkelling in the amazing clear ‘natural aquariums’ of Bonito in the southern Pantanal, such as Aquario Natural and the Rio da Prata.
These days, the sympathetically renovated Spanish colonial splendours within this Caribbean coastal gem’s aged city walls house a slew of luxurious hotels and boutiques, while the edgier Getsemani district promises a livelier nightlife and better value. Tours of Cartagena often take in its strong connections with the works of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The city is also a great place to plan a boat trip to the Rosario Islands or recover from a hiking trip to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in Tayrona National Natural Park.
Argentina’s Ibera Wetlands
The protected freshwater wetlands of the Ibera Provincial Reserve, northern Argentina’s answer to the Pantanal and the second-largest wetland in the world, are home to a staggering variety of wildlife. There’s everything from giant otters to howler monkeys and caiman, all of which can be seen on day and night safaris with local gaucho guides on horseback, by boat or dugout canoe or just on foot. Even today, few make the journey to this region, which has a unique character far removed from the rest of the country and is also easier to get to than the Pantanal. A stay in the area is also readily combined with a trip to Iguazu Falls on the border with Brazil — one of the continent’s must-see sights — and ties in well with a tour of other northern Argentina highlights, such as the towns of Cafayate, a jumping-off point for exploring the Calchaquíes Valleys; the foodie haven of Salta and surrounding wine country; and the ruins of the Jesuit mission at San Ignacio Miní.
The world’s second-highest capital at 9,350ft above sea level, the key attractions of Quito include its reinvigorated old town; the quaint, cobbled Calle La Ronda; the Teleferico heading up Pichincha Volcano; and the buzzing nightlife of Mariscal. From Quito, the bustling Saturday market in Otavalo makes for a popular day trip while the rainforest and cloudforest areas, such as Bellavista, Mashpi and birdwatcher’s paradise of Mindo, are just a few hours’ drive to the north. Alternatively, a short flight will get you to the pretty town of Cuenca, gateway to some memorable hiking in the beautiful Cajas wetlands, or within reach of the country’s excellent Amazon region lodges, such as Sani Lodge and La Selva. Flights to the Galapagos typically stop off in coastal Guayaquil first.
Straddling Bolivia and Peru, the continent’s largest lake was a sacred place for the pre-Inca civilisation of Tiwanaku, whose main city, now marooned some distance away, once graced its shores. Boat trips on the lake from the Peruvian port town of Puno typically take in Taquile and the man-made floating islands of Uros, constructed of woven totora reeds, where homestays with local island families are possible. On the Bolivian side, the more laid-back town of Copacabana, with its backpacker vibe, is closer to the Isla de la Luna and Isla del Sol, where the Incas believed the sun god was born.
La Paz, Bolivia
Set in a massive crater, the elevated streets of the world’s highest capital are quite literally breathtaking — it can take a bit of time to acclimatise, but it’s well worth the effort. Top attractions include The Witches’ Market, taking the Mi Teleferico cable-car up the crater and tackling the bike ride down the world’s most dangerous road. The ancient site of Tiwanaku and Copacabana for Lake Titicaca are within easy reach and it’s also a jumping-off point for trips to the Bolivian Amazon, accessible via a short flight to Rurrenabaque.