Entry by Juergen Keller, CEO SouthAmerica.travel |
After thirty-one years of traveling to and through South America – and now living between Brazil and Argentina, with my many European friends asking me, “hey, where should I go in South America?” – I decided to write the definitive “Best Places to Visit in South America” entry. It might help many others decide as well.
Admittedly, there are not really “best to visit” countries; rather it is in my opinion places where you must go to in South America. Therefore, let me start with my favorite South America places, which from the bottom of my heart, I can recommend to see.
“The contrasts could not be bigger”
I am a bit biased, I must say. I spend most of my time in Brazil. I love its people and the peace-loving history of the country reflected in their spirit. Top of the list is the colorful, culturally diverse heartland of landlocked Minas Gerais state. Tiradentes, Congonhas do Campo, Ouro Preto and not to forget: the breathtaking open-air sensation of Inhotim.The contrasts could not be bigger: Inhotim, combining a Museum of Modern Art, modern architecture and modern landscaping – all in one enormous space – contrasting with the colonial gems of the historic towns surrounding it. On top of that, it must be mentioned that the area has the best food of Brazil!
You’ll likely be flying in- and/or out of Rio de Janeiro, so it’s best to reserve a minimum of 3 nights for “the Marvelous City”. Rio has so much to offer, make sure to see more than just the Corcovado and the Sugar Loaf: the historical city center with lunch in the Palacio Imperial, the “Museum of Tomorrow” in the revitalized port area, Santa Tereza’s Parque das Ruinas and the Botanical Gardens are all not to be missed. Discovering how this country – bigger than the continental US, and half of the South American continent – got away from the colonial power of Portugal without any war or force, then you’ll understand why Brazilians are such a warm and welcoming people.
“Make sure to see more than just the Corcovado and the Sugar Loaf”
Certainly, like any city of Rio’s size petty crime does exist. With minimal precautions however this won’t tarnish your experience as a visitor. Only people looking for trouble – trying to purchase drugs in the favelas, for example – will land you in trouble. I always tell my friends that we would not have lived there so many years if it were a dangerous place.
Recently, for the first time ever, I took advantage of some friends’ request to take an Amazon Cruise, and discovered a new passion. Four days, five nights up the river on a modified Motor Yacht, with only 11 cabins. Being a business owner, the best part was: No internet, no WhatsApp, no news…just nature and animals. The total disconnect. Perfect. Whether on land excursions or just hanging out in my hammock and waiting for dinner, a 100% Zen-Moment!
“Parrots flying by, in pairs, groups of six or more, green, yellow, then red”
As a bird lover, I also loved the Amazon Rainforest in Peru! The Peruvian Amazon sits at a slightly higher altitude than in Brazil and therefore is less dense, which makes it the perfect spot for birding. Talking about Zen: this being a tropical rainforest, there is always a thunderstorm around midday, lunchtime. After that storm, the jungle is awkwardly quiet: no wind, no animals to hear. That is the moment to climb up the canopy tower of your lodge and watch how the forest reawakens from the storm. All the sudden parrots flying by, in pairs, groups of six or more, green, yellow, then red, flying over this broccoli-like canopy of green rainforest. Pivot around and you’ll see – in Peru – the white snow-capped mountains of the Andes in the background. And all this just 35 minutes’ flight from Cusco.
Peru, anyway, is maybe the best place for a first visit to South America, even for the not-so-adventurous. Peruvians working in tourism are all very well educated and professional, the infrastructure, hotels, and services are of the highest level and best of all: not much flying necessary. Aside from the 35 minute flight to the rainforest, an overwhelming amount of sights can be seen around Cusco. Best known of them all: Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Lake Titicaca and another of my favorites: Arequipa, the “White City”, and nearby Colca Canyon, with giant Condors circling over your head.
“Food leads to wine, of course.”
And then there is the food of Peru! All those ingredients from the mountains infusion with the seafood from the coast. You have never seen bigger and more colorful corn. Or have you seen blue potatoes? Or quinoa: the white, black and red versions of it? Gotta try it!
Food leads me to wine, of course. Peruvian wines have tremendously improved over just the last ten years. But then there is South America’s other gourmet powerhouse: Argentina. Arguably the best wines of South America or perhaps even of the world! Pair it with a famous Argentine steak, while watching a Tango show in Buenos Aires, the “Paris of the South”.You’ll need to stop there anyway on your way to most destinations in Argentina, so take advantage of it, with 3 nights being a minimum! Then head to the wine growing region of Mendoza and on to Patagonia. Flying into the airport of El Calafate, where you’ll first visit the glaciers, can connect you easily to the Chilean Patagonia with it’s Torres del Paine National Park. Bariloche in Northern Argentine Patagonia is a heaven for skiers and snow-borders.
For those of you interested more in the warmth of the subtropics, head to the North of Argentina, to the Iguazú Falls (“Iguassu” in Portuguese) You can spend a full day in the National Park, exploring several smaller falls and all the vegetation – and birds – with it. Take a boat ride right under the main thundering falls – you will never forget the experience! The falls and the National Park are shared with Brazil and are therefore the ideal waypoint between the two countries. The National Park alone is worth a visit, and staying in a Jungle Lodge is no problem either. Do not wait for the Jaguars: these cats are very shy and can perfectly hide in the forest.
Animals hiding in the forest? Not in the Brazilian Pantanal! Jaguar watching? Yes! A wet savannah-like flat the size of Texas, surrounded by rainforest, cut by rivers full of fish and occasionally all flooded (Don’t worry, everybody is prepared for when that happens around February!). The perfect hunting ground for all types of animals and birds. The Brazilian caiman, a type of alligator, finds so much food in the rivers that they won’t even bother to look at you. Even horses graze right next to them, not even three feet away. Then there are the Capivaras, the biggest rodents of the planet, and giant storks… There are perfect Explorer Lodges in the Pantanal, mostly run by ecologically-careful people. Guides are mostly from the area, and know all the animals and the right places to see them. Make sure you book an English-speaking guide, for they are locals that learned the language, whereas a German- or French-speaking guide is generally not from the area, with more knowledge of the language than the wildlife. There can be a bit of a trade off!
Now to the practicalities: How to get to all these places? How much time do you have, do you need? Let me outline the best itinerary as a base:
Start with Peru! Lima (2) the former Vice Capital of the Spanish Empire, to Arequipa (2), Colca Canyon (2) Lake Titicaca (1), followed by the day train over to Cusco/Sacred Valley (3) Machu Picchu (1)…11 nights in Peru. Fly on to Iguassu Falls (2) – Yes, the Brazilian side of the falls has an international airport – on to Rio de Janeiro (3), to Minas Gerais with Tiradentes, Congonhas, Ouro Preto and Inhotim (4) fly to Manaus for the Amazon River a number of nights, say (3) to (5) and fly out from Manaus to Miami (4 hours) and onward to the rest of the world. 23 to 25 days for this conveniently circular route with no backtracking. If you want to add Argentina with Patagonia between Peru and Iguazú, add a week or so.
The above mentioned circular route only minimizes flying. Take into account that these are big countries. It is worthwhile coming again and visiting each individual country for two weeks at a time. Driving, for the most part, shows you landscapes anywhere from great, to awesome, to overwhelming! And driving in South America is no longer big hassle. Just bring your phone’s navigation app and you are set to rent a car if you wish to do so. I still prefer to have a driver: not too expensive, and more than compensating by knowing where the next radar sits – which is often behind some subtropical vegetation!