A fantastic Inca citadel, a secret held by local Quechua people until the early 20th century, Peru’s Machu Picchu stands as a ruin among ruins. With its emerald terraces and steep peaks that echo on the horizon, the sight simply surpasses the imagination. This marvel of engineering has withstood half a dozen centuries of earthquakes, foreign invasion and howling weather. Discover it for yourself, wander through its stone temples and scale the dizzying heights of Wayna Picchu.
Rio de Janeiro
Few cities in the world enjoy more seductive charm than Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa ( Marvelous City), but calling Rio merely marvelous doesn’t quite cut it. On privileged real estate flanked by striking Atlantic-blue waters, sugary-white sands and a mountainous backdrop of Crayola-green rainforest, Rio’s cinematic cityscape has few rivals. And once its soundtrack kicks in – a high-on-life siren’s song of bossa nova and samba – Rio’s raw energy seizes you with the come-hither allure of a tropical fantasy. You’ll have no choice but to follow.
Whip together a beautiful Argentine metropolis with gourmet cuisine, awesome shopping, frenzied nightlife and gorgeous locals, and you’ll get Buenos Aires. It’s a European-like, cosmopolitan city encompassing both slick neighborhoods and downtrodden ghettos, but that’s the appeal. You can experience classic cafes, amazing steaks, surprising architecture, energizing fútbol games and – of course – that sultry tango. Buenos Aires is elegant, seductive, emotional, confounding, frustrating and chock-full of attitude – and there’s absolutely no other place like it in the world.
Less a lake than a highland ocean, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world. In Andean tradition it’s the birthplace of the sun. Here, banner blue skies turn to bitterly cold nights. Among the fantastical sights of this lake spread across Peru and Bolivia are the surreal floating islands crafted entirely of tightly woven totora reeds. Enthralling and in many ways singular, the shimmering deep-blue Titicaca is the longtime home of highland cultures steeped in the old ways.
Salar de Uyuni
Who knew feeling this cold could feel so good? While the three- to four-day jeep tour through the world’s largest salt flat will leave your bones chattering, it quite possibly could be the singular experience that defines your South American adventure. The Bolivian salt flat in its vastness, austerity and crystalline perfection will inspire you, while your early morning exploration of rock gardens, geyser fields and piping hot springs along with the camaraderie of three days on the road with your fellow ‘Salterians’ will create a kinship not likely to fade anytime soon.
Glaciar Perito Moreno
Possibly the world’s most dynamic glacier, the Perito Moreno in Argentina advances up to 2m per day, which means plenty of exciting, spine-tingling calving. It’s supremely accessible, too – you can get very close to the action via a complex network of steel boardwalks, perfectly situated near (but not too near!) the glacier’s face. Everyone stands there, watching in suspense, for the next building-size chunk to sheer off and slowly tip into the water below, creating thunderous crashes and huge waves. Trust us, it’s awesome.
The thunderous roar, the dramatic cascades, the refreshing sprays, the absolute miraculous work of Mother Nature – nothing prepares you for that flooring first moment you set eyes upon Iguazú Falls. On the Brazilian side, the wide-eyed view of the whole astounding scene stretches out before you in all its panoramic wonder. In Argentina, get up close and personal with the deafening Devil’s Throat, which provides the fall’s single most mind-blowing moment. In all, some 275 falls deliver one of the world’s best wows in unforgettable fashion.
Every Saturday the world seems to converge on the bustling Ecuadorian town of Otavalo in the Andes, where a huge market spreads from the Plaza de Ponchos throughout the town. While the crowds can be a drag and the quality is immensely changeable, the choice is enormous and you’ll find some incredible bargains here among the brightly colored rugs, traditional crafts, clothing, Tigua folk art and quality straw hats. Nearby, the squawks and squeals of livestock drown out the chatter of Kichwa-speaking farmers at Otavalo’s equally famous animal market.
Colonia del Sacramento
Take a step back in time as you explore the gracious 18th-century cobbled streets and fascinating history of former smugglers’ haven, Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Then check out the great bar and restaurant scene and the gorgeous position on a peninsula of the Río de la Plata. All this and its super-accessible location a short hop away from both Montevideo and Buenos Aires make ‘Colonia’ a classic tourist town, but even on weekends it’s worth dodging the crowds and letting yourself get seduced by the town’s eternal charms.
Torres del Paine
The wind is whipping and dark clouds form overhead as the hiking trail suddenly opens to reveal a stunning vista of rugged granite spires soaring high over the Patagonian steppe. These are the Torres del Paine, the proud centerpiece of Chile’s famous national park. Trekking through this Unesco Biosphere Reserve isn’t for the faint of heart – guides say the park sees all four seasons in a single day – but hiking the ‘W’ remains a rite of passage for generations of adventurous travelers.
Stroll through the perfectly preserved streets of Cartagena’s old town and be swept away by the grace, romance and legend of one of the continent’s finest colonial settlements. Inside its imposing walls, much of the Colombian city still looks as it did during Spanish rule – pastel-hued mansions boast elegant wooden balconies, which open onto majestic plazas shaded by magnificent churches. Throw away the map, get lost in the maze of narrow cobblestone streets and discover why this magical place has seduced travelers for centuries.
With its new beach, sparkling coastal promenade and wildly energetic Carnaval, Paraguay’s ‘Pearl of the South’ is billing itself as the local answer to Rio de Janeiro. Though that might be a bit ambitious, there is no doubt that Encarnacion’s unique take on Carnaval is a whole lot of fun, where the crowd dances as much as the participants, spray snow fills the hot summer air and the party goes on well into the early hours of the morning.
Central Suriname Nature Reserve
Cascading rapids rush past smooth boulders and forested islands lined with white-sand beaches. The sun-dappled jungle is hot and muggy, but the beauty of the foliage, birdsong and musky scents outweigh the discomforts. In Central Suriname Nature Reserve, one of Suriname’s largest reserves, you can trek to plateaus with views over never-ending pristine forest, then cool off in a waterfall at the end of the day. At night dance to African drums before gazing at shooting stars in the deep-black sky, in near-mosquito-free bliss.
You’ll feel like you’ve arrived in another world in this bone-dry desert framed by soaring mountain peaks in northern Chile. Days are spent taking in Mars-like rock formations, floating on salt lakes and wandering through a spurting geyser field, followed by evenings gazing at some of the clearest night skies on the planet. Uncommon adventures abound, from sandboarding and mountain-bike rides to scenic hikes through dramatic red-rock canyons, or simply watching pink flamingos and other surprising animal life. Gateway to it all is the traveler hub of San Pedro de Atacama.