Covering a large area, the continent of South America is a wonder which is well worth discovering.
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From the sub-tropical jungles and steamy falls of Iguazu to the frozen Antarctic waste of Tierra del Fuego, that one country contains so much diversity that it defies belief. This diversity is reflected in the enigmatic but colourful Argentine people. They define the fiery Latin American temperament of being fiercely patriotic. Even so, history tells of more than one occasion when hell-bent self-destruction of their country was imminent. This split personality seems to run through every aspect of their lives - the romance of Evita sits alongside the swaggering machismo of the gaucho cowboys, and the daily siesta is still adhered to while life around the country moves at a blinding pace.
However, strange as it may seem at first, after a few days it all seems to make sense. Why sleep at night when you can sleep during the day and party all night? It's not all tango either, visit Buenos Aires and you'll find a city capable of rivalling any other in the world for the range and variety of entertainment on offer.
It all goes towards understanding the country's immeasurable romanticism, where a street kid from Buenos Aires can become the world's greatest footballer, and throw it all away again; and an actress can capture the heart of a nation. Come and fall in love for yourself.
See & Do
• Buenos Aires
The Argentine capital is at once a traditional and avant-garde city. A sprawling place of more than nine million inhabitants, Buenos Aires is most easily defined by its neighbourhoods: Recoleta with its world famous cemetery, Palermo Hollywood with its designer bars and worldwide cuisine or San Telmo where the visitor can buy antiques in a market surrounded by colonial style buildings. Then there's elegant Puerto Madero and La Boca where the first Genoese immigrants settled in red, blue and yellow houses along picturesque Caminito Street.
Buenos Aires is also well known for its great soccer stadiums, tango music and dance. The wide selection of cultural institutions such as the recently opened Latin-American Museum of Art (MALBA) shouldn't be ignored. This is very much Argentina's cultural capital as well as being the seat of government. There is also a wealth of beauty and history here, and no tourist can leave the city without visiting Palermo Park and the Plaza de Mayo, surrounded by such symbolic buildings as the Cabildo (town hall), the cathedral, and the Casa Rosada, the government's headquarters.
Argentina's second city, Cordoba is less frenetic than the capital to the south-east. At the heart of the wide northern part of the country, in colonial times the city rivalled Buenos Aires as the administrative and government centre.
In the 17th century Cordoba was arguably the more important of the two, and the architecture that survives from this period indicates the wealth and influence the city possessed. The colonial buildings of the historical quarter are the grandest found anywhere in Argentina, and have been preserved even as Cordoba's political importance has declined. Highlights include the cathedral (built in 1574), the Cabildo (the town hall dating from1588) and Argentina's oldest university.
Besides this rich history Cordoba also possesses several cultural institutions that count among the country's best. Most notable among them is the Marquis of Sobremonte Provincial History Museum (Museo Histórico Provincial Marqués de Sobre Monte) whose 26 rooms contain a collection of artefacts from colonial and post-colonial days in the region.
• The Pampas
West of Buenos Aires the plains of the Pampas cover a vast swathe of Cordoba, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires provinces. It is a magical expanse of incomprehensibly wide open spaces and an unbroken horizon. This is also the land of the gauchos, the legendary Argentinean cowboys that epitomise the machismo culture of the country.
The territory contains several attractions of note. One of the best ways to experience the Pampas is to stay at one of the colonial style ranches, which still farm cattle in the traditional gaucho way. Tourists are invited to sample the life of a Pampas cowboy, with gaucho style barbecues and traditional activities of horse riding, hunting and fishing.
• Iguazu Falls
The Iguazu Falls are inarguably one of the world's natural wonders. Surrounded by dense jungle vegetation and incredibly varied fauna and flora, the Iguazu River divides into 275 separate channels, which plunge over the lip of a horseshoe over three kilometres in length.
The falls are encompassed by the Iguazu National Park. The surroundings are almost as much of a tourist draw as the falls themselves and you can bathe in the warm water of the river and enjoy spotting the myriad fish, insect and mammal life that has made its home in this unique eco-system. Many of the inhabitants are threatened species and you'll be very fortunate to catch a glimpse of some of the rarer large animals such as the giant otter or the jaguar.
• Salta and the "Train to the Clouds"
Salta, one of the best-preserved colonial towns in the whole of Argentina, is of great historical interest. The Spanish-inspired architecture is shown off to best effect in the central square, which contains the cathedral and town hall.
Salta is most famous for the train that leaves the town and climbs up to the high puna above. For this reason, the train is called "El Tren a las Nubes" (literally "The Train to the Clouds"). One of the world's most spectacular train journeys the route crosses the La Polvorilla viaduct, over 4,000m above sea-level and itself over 60m in height.
• Mendoza and the West
The Mendoza province and its eponymous capital is Argentina's wine growing region. In the shadow of the Andes, and South America's highest peak - Aconcagua - the manmade irrigation channels have turned the arid central plain into an agricultural oasis.
The city of Mendoza itself sits at the centre of a spider's web of irrigation. It is a lively city and nearly 500 years old, but is characterised by the wineries that surround it rather than anything intrinsically beautiful in itself. These vineyards are the central figures in the Argentinian wine industry and many of them offer tours and tastings.
There are few places on earth that can match Patagonia for natural beauty. The landscape is simply breathtaking, with prehistoric forests, deep blue-green lakes and massive glaciers.
The best of the region is undoubtedly the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Los Glaciares National Park in Santa Cruz province with its Moreno Glacier centrepiece, a constantly moving behemoth of ice. It is one of the few places where you can see icebergs calving, as the glacier spills into Lake Argentino. This southern tip of the Andes spine is an incredibly bleak place, with severe granite mountains and sparse vegetation. It is an incredible wilderness that can't help but fascinate.
Bariloche is the capital of the Andean part of Patagonia. A popular destination in winter when the surrounding mountains offer some of the continent's best skiing, it is likewise popular in summer with climbers and trekkers who come to try their skills on the imposing peaks. The coast of Patagonia is as fascinating as the interior - the Valdes Peninsula juts out into the South Atlantic and in its shelter you can see southern right whales during the breeding season of May-December.
• Tierra del Fuego
If there are few places on earth like Patagonia, there is nowhere on earth like Tierra del Fuego. This very tip of the continent is shared between Argentina and Chile and it is hard to imagine a more inhospitable territory. The "land of fire" lies on a geological fault and the entire peninsula is characterised by volcanic activity. The geography bears evidence of the violence of the earthquakes that have shaken the land in this location. The territory has literally shattered into fragments.
On the Argentinean side of the region you'll find the most southerly city on earth, Ushuaia. The city is the embarkation point for Antarctic surveys and, as such, it is very much a working town.
The Tierra del Fuego National Park is an amazing region of jagged coastline, massive spiked peaks and glaciers. The best way to get here is to catch the "Train at the End of the World", a steam train that runs from a station just to the west of Ushuaia into the park.
Topping most people's lists of places to see is likely to be the Amazon region, a vast swathe of tropical rainforest, which can be explored by boat along the Amazon River. Although famously diminishing in size due to deforestation, the jungle is still a remarkable area, home to a seemingly infinite array of creatures and plants. One of the most impressive sights is the Foz do Igiazu, or Iguazu Falls, whose waters gush at a staggering rate over a precipice into the Iguazu River.
Most visitors seek to visit the lively city of Rio de Janeiro, where the beaches and general revelry are a major draw for party-loving travellers. Most famous for its wild carnival, held usually in February, the city is fun at any time of year and shouldn't be missed.
Brazil also has some charming colonial towns that are well worth visiting. Olinda and Salvador are two of the most attractive. Their cobbled streets are drenched in old world atmosphere, and both are home to their own riotous carnivals and some delicious local cuisine. And if you tire of sightseeing, there are plenty of idyllic beaches along the 7,000km of coastline.
See & Do
The Amazon is a region of superlatives - the longest river, the largest rainforest - even the state, Amazonas, is Brazil's biggest. This is a place that evokes images of verdant jungle alive with cries of bird and beast, as well as silent but deadly creatures such as the infamous piranha and anaconda. Amazonas is home as well to several indigenous tribes whose numbers, tragically, are dwindling.
For nature enthusiasts, boat trips can be arranged locally and range from daytrips to weeklong journeys. Bear in mind, though, that much of the fauna stays deep within the jungle, so some of these expeditions offer little more than glimpses of alligators and butterflies on the riverbanks. For a true wildlife experience, the Pantanal can often be a better option.
• Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro undoubtedly competes with worldwide cities such as Sydney for occupying the most beautiful setting of any city in the world. At the heart of Guanabara Bay Rio is the ultimate coastal city, stretching its length lazily along miles of pristine white beach, with the bulk of Sugar Loaf Mountain rising to the east and the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking the city from in land.
It is the beaches that define Rio. Copacabana and Ipanema are the two most famous and both are stretches of amazingly white sand, permanently drenched in sunshine. The beach functions as the social centre of the city. It is here that the locals and tourists spend most of their leisure time, baking in the hot sun through the day, or chilling out at the seafront bars and restaurants when evening falls.
Another cultural experience, Carnival is a pre-Lent celebration finishing on Ash Wednesday, which means that it usually takes place in February and whenever anyone wants to visit. Over a full night of celebrations, the city centre comes to a standstill as brightly decorated floats and costumed dancers fill the streets with light, colour and noise. Rich and poor alike delight in these inimitable celebrations that truly define the cariocas.
• Iguazu Falls
Mother Nature definitely favoured Brazil when it came to handing out spectacular scenery. Not only is the country blessed with lush rainforest, mighty rivers and endless beaches, the thundering Iguazu Falls (Foz do Iguazu) are arguably the most impressive waterfalls in the world. Straddling Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, the falls stretch across four kilometres, hurtling down 82metres into the Iguazu River. The sheer scale of the falls - quite apart from the dramatic beauty - makes the name, literally "great waters" in the local Tupi-Guarani language, seem something of an understatement. Not surprisingly, the falls have been nominated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
• Gaucho country
In the far south there's a region that has most visitors wondering if they are in Brazil. It's as different from the northern states as, say, Germany is to Jamaica. Such is the diversity of this vast country. The southern states that border Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina are home to Brazil's gauchos (the local version of a cowboy). With temperate conditions and a population that finds its roots predominantly in Europe, the south is a place of pine forests, huge ranches and agricultural wealth. The cowboy tradition, South American style, is alive and well with gauchos elegantly attired in flat black hats, baggy pantaloons and leather boots. The cuisine is distinctive too; succulent barbecued meats and local cheeses are washed down with wine or maté, a nourishing tea drunk from a gourd.
The country is home to a dizzying variety of musical traditions, from the well known, such as bossa nova or samba to styles rarely heard outside South America, such as the carnivalesque marchinha or more modern electro-acoustic sounds. Across the country rhythms are beaten out on upturned beer crates at the beach, fingers on steering wheels or with spoons against coffee cups in roadside cafés. It's not just about rhythm: the lyrics, too, are often rich and powerful, the sensuous sound of Brazilian Portuguese adding a further layer to the music.
With influences from Africa and Portugal as well as many regional variations and a myriad of unique instruments, visitors to Brazil are guaranteed an aural treat. Live concerts featuring big names can be found year-round in many towns and cities, and local talent is on display at bars and restaurants everywhere.
With the longest continuous coastline in the world (4,600miles/7,700km) Brazil's bound to have a good beach or two. While most people think of the famous Rio beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, there are many more beautiful ones to be found up and down Brazil's coast, with the Northeast winning the competition hands down.
The coast north of Salvador is home to Linha Verde, the "Green Line", an increasingly popular "eco" area with over 100 miles of pristine beaches and a wonderful climate. Tropical conditions prevail right along the north eastern coast with white sand beaches, coconut palms and clear waters comparable to the Caribbean.
Most trips are likely to start in the capital Santiago, itself a microcosm of the extremes evidenced in the country as a whole. Its setting alone is enough to make you hold your breath - the mountain backdrop to the east forming a constant orientation point wherever you go. With over five million inhabitants Santiago is no stranger to bustling crowds and all the pros and cons that go with such enormous conglomerations.
It is Chile's splendid natural scenery though that attracts most visitors. The southern region encompasses a large part of Patagonia, the place of myths and legends that, though not as "undiscovered" as you might think, is one of the last places on earth where you can find genuine remoteness. This region of iridescent lakes, ice fields and snowy mountains is home to an astounding array of flora and fauna and offers limitless opportunities for hiking and discovery.
Equally enticing is Easter Island far into the Pacific, with its infamous moai stone figures looking out to sea; and the volcanoes and lakes of the southern Lake District are incredible natural spectacles. Chile is a favourite destination with adventure enthusiasts and sporty types. The country has some world class ski resorts as well as numerous possibilities for climbing and trekking.
For those who prefer some relaxation, the Pacific coast running down the entire length of the country offers innumerable beaches. And of course you're never far from some of the world's best wines.
See & Do
The bulk of Chile's 14 million inhabitants live in or around Santiago. The capital city was founded in 1541 at the foot of Santa Lucia Hill, under the gaze of the snow capped Andes mountains. A city crammed with Western influences, fast food outlets mix with department stores ready to grab the pesos of the affluent Chileno professionals living here. Plaza de Armas is at its heart and is also a good starting point for exploring its streets, colonial architecture, shopping malls and markets. The main area lies between the Mapocho River to the north and Alameda to the south. The commercial heart of the city exists in this same zone, however most companies will be found further to the east around Providencia and Las Condes.
As you'd expect from a South American capital city, Santiago can be a riotous place at night. There are numerous places to eat,with the more upmarket and diverse of which are found around the lively area of Las Condes. Expect large amounts of meat on the menu - steaks are big business in Chile. There are bars and clubs to suit all tastes and budgets too, centred mainly on Calle Suecia and Bellavista. Calle Suecia is the more expensive option. Bellavista is where you will find the locals out for a drink on a Friday and Saturday night, when the area is swinging. Going out Santiago style can involve anything from dancing the salsa in Latino bars to more European style nights out in large clubs playing anything from techno to house to Euro-pop.
• Valparaiso and Vina del Mar
A short hop from Santiago, Vina del Mar is one of the country's most popular beach resorts, mainly due to its proximity to the capital and to Chile's second city, Valparaiso. The beach is not as spectacular as that in La Serena (see below), but this pleasant stretch of coastline nonetheless makes for an ideal escape from the city if you don't have time to travel very far. Nearby Valparaiso is the country's main naval port and is worthy of exploration in its own right. Perched up on the hills facing the sea, one of the joys of visiting the city is the ride up on one of the small funicular railways. Chic restaurants can be found in the small winding streets which are full of character.
• Easter Island
Isolated, mysterious Easter Island lies in the heart of the South Pacific. The origins of its early inhabitants are not fully understood and there is still speculation over the history of the colossal stone figures or moai for which the island is famed.
In fact the moai are just one of many unusual phenomena here. There are over 15,000 archaeological sites on the island, containing ahu, ceremonial platforms which have been carbon-dated to the 8th century; petroglyphs, and pictographs, many dating from the later Birdman Cult. The most cost effective way to visit the island is on a stopover for a couple of days on a LAN Chile flight to other islands in the South Pacific or to New Zealand.
• Torres del Paine National Park
The Torres Del Paine National Park (Parque National Torres del Paine) has to be one of the highlights of a trip to Chile. Nestled in the mountains of Southern Patagonia close to the border with Argentina, it has become world famous for its astonishing natural beauty and diverse wildlife. Ecosystems, fragile and unique, are preserved here having benefited from being a world biosphere reserve since as far back as 1978.
This area is possible to visit on organised single day trips during the summer months between November and April, or for the more adventurous, hikes lasting several days or even weeks will open up much of the park's natural beauty.
• Penguin reserves
Few people would pass up the opportunity to see penguins in their natural habitat and Chile is one of the best places to do this (unless you're planning a trip to Antarctica). There are a number of penguin reserves or Pinguinira in Patagonia, where you can see the comic antics of the Humboldt or Magallanic penguins up close.
The easiest to get to is the Seno Otway reserve, 50km from Punta Arenas. A visit here will provide you with a unique opportunity to watch Magallanic penguins around their burrows. They're present from Sep-March and nesting season is from Dec-Feb.
The central region of Chile is host to numerous vineyards producing world class wines. One of the most productive areas is the Rio Maule Valley where there are over 20 vineyards, some of them big names, others small, organic co-operatives. They have one thing in common though - they generally produce a good standard of wine and most welcome visitors for tastings (and of course purchases). The Casablanca Valley near Valparaiso is home to vineyards which produce the chardonnay grape. It is possible to take tours around these either organised from Santiago or from the wineries direct if travelling independently.
• Skiing and snowboarding
Chile is becoming increasingly popular with skiers both domestic and international as more and more people recognise the fantastic snow and scenery the country offers. It is possible to ski just one hour from Santiago and there are several resorts within a few hours. Portillo is the most famous, having in the past held the world downhill ski record. Valle Nevado is the most developed and modern of the Chilean resorts, also providing the largest ski area in South America with its two neighbours of El Colorado and La Parva.
This was one of the first homes of civilisation on the continent and the ancient sites of the country are the most enigmatic in the Americas. Although the Chibchas were the dominant tribe, they were only one of several discrete people in the region, of which the most interesting were the feline worshippers of San Agustin, a remarkably sophisticated society. Other sites such as Ciudad Perdida - the lost city of the Tayrona people - only discovered in 1975 are considered as significant as Machu Picchu from an archaeological point of view.
The country's post-Colombian history is just as fascinating, with some of the earliest colonial cities on the continent being located here. Cartagena, established in the 1530s is a must-see, fabulous example of a fortified early colonial settlement, and nowadays the port of call for many cruise ships. The fabulous beaches of the coast, near to Santa Marta, or the Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providencia make this the most popular region for international visitors.
See & Do
In common with other South American capitals, Bogotá throws together worlds old and new, rich and poor. From museums replete with pre-Colombian relics to Modern Art, colonial barrios and churches that take you back centuries to hubs of modern architecture and all the conveniences of modern living - Bogotá shows visitors first one face then another. Choose what you wish from the vibrant tastes, sights and sounds of a thriving Latin metropolis.
A must-see is the Museo del Oro, which contains many relics of pre-Colombian history and is perhaps the most important museum of its kind in the world. The Museo Nacional displays exhibits ranging from historical to contemporary art. The Iglesia de Santa Clara and the Iglesia de San Ignacio meanwhile should both be visited if only for the ornately decorated interiors.
The colonial barrio of La Candelaria is the oldest quarter in the city and has many preserved or restored buildings, once home to viceroys, judges and other luminaries of the Spanish Empire. It can also offer cheap accommodation and food. Head for the Cerro de Nuestra Señora de Monserrate for panoramic views of the city. This ancient sanctuary is famous as a site of miracles. Reach it by cable car.
If you fancy something more upbeat the Zona Rosa is the place to party with its bars, clubs and restaurants providing the latest music from Latin and Western charts.
Cartagena de Indias is widely reputed to be the most beautiful city in Colombia as well as its hottest (literally) tourist spot. The old town offers colonial splendour preserved within an ancient wall and presided over by its distinctive clock tower. Here narrow lanes are crowded in by leaning houses before opening into picturesque plazas, which hide treasures such as the Palacio de la Inquisición and the colonial mansion Casa del Marqués de Valdehoyos.
To tour the city you can take a horse and buggy ride around town or ride one of the tourist chivas, which by day will take you around the major tourist sites, including the Castillo San Felipe and La Popa. By night they are chivas rumberas (a rumba is a party) and they will provide live music with rum and a stop-off to allow you to party on the colonial fortifications.
Cartagena was colonial Spain's greatest fortified settlement on the Caribbean coast. Any pirate worth his sea salt attempted to capture it for the treasure it stored. The 17th-century Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is the mightiest of Cartagena's several forts. It was built to be totally impregnable. Its unique sloping walls that both deflected cannonballs and were difficult to scale were never breached.
• Santa Marta
Dating back to 1525, Santa Marta is the oldest Spanish colonial town in Colombia with a beautiful cathedral and the must-see attractions of Santo Domingo convent and San Francisco church. The city is also famous as the place where the "Liberator", Simón Bolívar, died in 1830. The Villa Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino where he spent his last days is now a national monument and the building is virtually unchanged since those times.
The Museo Bolivariano de Arte Contemporáneo and the Museo Tayrona now lie within its walls.
Medellin, north of Bogota on the Codillera Occidental is the capital of the state of Antioquia, an area renowned for its mineral riches as well as coffee plantations. The city is deservedly famous, or infamous, as being the one-time home of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drugs tsar gunned down here in 1992.
There are several sights of note, Cerro de Nutibara offers a panoramic view of the city and contains a replica of an authentic Antioqueño village. The Metropolitan Cathedral is claimed to be the world's largest brick building while the city's Jardin Botanico has an extensive range of all Colombian flora, including the orchids for which the city is famous.
Medellin also hosts the country's biggest flower festival each year, although the traditional parade of horses that launches the festival tends to over-shadow the flower oriented events. Medellin was the home of Colombia's most respected artist, Fernando Botero, and the sculptor's work can be found in the Fernando Botero Park.
• San Andres
This small archipelago of islands in the Caribbean Sea lies over 600km from the Colombian coast, right in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. San Andres is the largest island, with Providencia lying off its north coast. The latter island is linked to diminutive Santa Catalina (just 1 km sq) by a floating wooden pontoon bridge. All the islands have a piratical history, and legend has it that the lost treasure of the notorious privateer Henry Morgan is still hidden somewhere here.
The easy-going, friendly atmosphere, tax-free shopping and immense natural beauty make the islands a great place for a Caribbean holiday. Take a tourist bus round the island and visit Captain Morgan's cave and the blowhole, where a jet of water spurts impressively heavenward.
• San Agustin
One of the most enigmatic sites in the whole of South America, San Agustin was home to an ancient civilisation that experts believe inhabited this region from 1000BC-1500AD. Little is known of the people that lived here, apart from the fabulous stone monoliths of jaguars that they left behind in their hilltop villages, which readers of Louis de Bernieres might recognise from his stories of a mythical South American mountain settlement.
The ceremonial buildings, including baths and cemeteries, indicate this must have been a relatively sophisticated culture. Alto de los Idolos is the best site to see remnants of the San Agustin people but there are numerous places within a couple of hour's travel where you can see relics of the culture. The surrounding scenery is spectacular, including the deep gorge carved by the Magdalena River, which forces the water into a raging torrent.
Manizales is the capital of the state of Caldas and a university town and coffee centre. The city is of most interest as the gateway to the Parque De Los Nevados, one of Colombia's most spectacular national parks. It contains three massive volcanoes, one of which, the 17,000ft Nevado Ruiz, erupted as recently as 1985. The eruption was the world's worst since 1904 creating a devastating avalanche of mud, ash and lava that destroyed the nearby town of Armero and resulted in the deaths of over 25,000 people. The scenery in the park is jaw-dropping beautiful, especially the Lago Verde in its huge caldera and the snow-covered cone of Nevado Ruiz itself.
It isn't easy to get around the park - you'll need a 4WD. The park is located a two-hour drive south-west of Manizales.
The islands today are a protected habitat, where visitors are strictly controlled. The population of tortoises, sea lions, iguanas and rare bird life remains relatively undisturbed by man, and seeing these creatures in their natural habitat is an incredible and unique experience.
Although if you don't visit the Galapagos you will undoubtedly miss out on the best that Ecuador has to offer, that isn't to say that the country doesn't have more. The capital Quito mixes its Spanish roots with the trappings of a modern city, while Cuenca seems relatively untouched since colonial days. The country also contains some of the world's most spectacular volcanic scenery, including the massive cone of Cotopaxi - the world's highest active volcano.
Elsewhere you can discover ruins of the enigmatic Incan settlements, deserted Pacific beaches and the endless variety represented by the rainforest. It is a land of wonders indeed.
See & Do
Ecuador's capital Quito is a typically South American city in that it blends old and modern in almost equal measure. Its best regions are typically colonial in character. The historical centre ("El Centro Historico") is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Centre and is definitely the area of most interest to tourists. It is a grid of plazas and cobbled alleys, with distinctive white washed houses unbroken by modern buildings.
An exploration of El Centro Historico can be as long or short as you please. Small churches from the 16th century might not be everyone's cup of tea, but you should at least take time to visit the Monastery of San Francisco as well as the cathedral.
When you tire of the older attractions, modern Quito is almost as fascinating. North of the old centre, La Mariscal is vibrant and surprisingly modern. Here you can indulge in shopping through department stores or hanging out in the bars and pavement cafés and watching the world go by along the Avenida Amazonas. It is also the centre for entertainment and nightlife.
Look out for the statue of the Virgin on the El Panecillo hill. The hill offers the best views over the historical centre and the city.
Physically a thousand miles off the Ecuadorian shore but, metaphorically a million miles away from anywhere on earth, the Galapagos Islands contain the world's most isolated and arguably important closed eco-system. Although expensive to visit, if you've come as far as Ecuador and don't visit the Galapagos it would be a mistake. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a part of the world as untouched by man as it is possible to be.
A volcanic chain of 13 major and numerous minor islands, the Galapagos is home to Earth's most significant population of Giant Tortoises, the most long-lived animals on earth, which gave the islands their name ("galapagos" is Spanish for "saddle", similar in shape to the shells of some tortoises). The islands and their surrounding waters literally teem with rare and unique life, with birds such as the blue-footed booby, large species of iguanas and the indigenous Galapagos sea lions being the most famous support acts to the tortoises.
Access to the islands is strictly controlled. Independent travel to the Galapagos is practically impossible; you should arrange your travel with an experienced operator. Tours of the islands are by chartered boat, and boat operators in the islands book spaces on arriving flights, so you usually buy your flight and tour together. Flights arrive at Baltra from Quito or Guayaquil. Cruises last anything from four days to several weeks.
• Cotopaxi National Park
Ecuador's rich ecological diversity is protected by a network of 20 national parks that both preserve the natural environment and seek to make it more accessible to the growing number of international visitors. The most visited of them all is the Cotopaxi National Park, situated around the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi (Ojos in Chile is higher but is not "active").
The park covers just over 30,000 hectares. You can hike or mountain bike around the various trails around the mountain's foot and visit the lakes, wildlife projects and Incan ruins that fall within the park's boundaries. Limpiopungo Lake at 3,900m represents a decent achievement for anyone. But if you're feeling really adventurous, hiking from here to the base of Cotopaxi's cone and climbing its permanently glaciated summit is possible. Ice-climbing experience and the appropriate equipment are essential. Inexperienced climbers should only climb with guides.
Ecuador was one of the areas of concentration for the Inca civilisation and the country is littered with Incan ruins. The most significant and best preserved of these ruins is found at Ingapirca - 1.5km from the modern market town of the same name.
Before the coming of the Spanish, the Incas had conquered the local indigenous population, and Ingapirca was originally a site established by an earlier race called the Cañaris. Although much of what survives are ruins from the Inca expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries, it is built on the foundations of a lot earlier settlement, which dates back to prehistory. This explains the vast array of pottery and other artefacts discovered at the site and on display in the Ingapirca museum, the place to start and finish your tour.
Guides will show you the ruins of the palaces, store houses and outbuildings including the Akllahuasi, which was the home of the "Virgins of the Sun". Ingapirca's Temple (of the sun) is notable for its good state of repair (albeit with some restoration) and also because it is the only such Incan temple yet discovered that is oval in shape. The altar here was most likely used for sacrifices, some speculate human.
• The Southern Pacific Coast
The Ecuadorian Costa boasts some simply stunning beaches and, this close to the equator, the weather is as perfect for a beach holiday as you can get.
Located on a southern promontory above the mouth of the Guayaquil Gulf, and only two hours from Ecuador's biggest city, Salinas is the country's most popular beach resort. It offers everything you might expect from an international coastal holiday resort, with a long pristine beach, offering all the usual activities, from scuba diving to jet-skiing. The town itself is pleasant, with hotels, bars and clubs as you might expect.
In fact it is only one of a string of resorts that stretch all the way up the coast. Other notable resorts include Manta, Puerto Lopez, and the surf capital of Montañita. Not far from Puerto Lopez is what is arguably the country's best beach, Los Frailes, and the Machalilla National Park.
• The Esmeraldas Coast
Called the "Green Province", Esmeraldas combines the sunny beaches of further south with a wider variety of attractions, and can boast its own culture in the Afro-Ecuadorian population, borne out in the Caribbean style cuisine, the laid-back pace of life and the Marimba folk music.
From the main city of Esmeraldas you can reach some of the country's best beach and dive sites. Atacames is the city's main resort, offering a beautiful beach. People fancying a quieter pace of life can head for Sua, a small fishing village a bit further south. The best place to visit in the region is San Lorenzo, a tiny fishing community to the north, close to the Colombian border. The train from Ibarra used to run here but hasn't done so since the last serious El Nino. There are plans to re-open it in future. The town has some stunning beaches. Rather more interesting is the surrounding mangrove swamps and the inland rainforest, La Chiquita.
• Cuyabeno Reserve
One of the largest protected areas in the country the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve covers a massive expanse of over 600,000 hectares in the north-east corner, deep in the rainforest.
Most visitors enter via Lago Agrio, but with such an expanse to explore you'll find it necessary to move around if you want to see the entire area fully. Most people settle for a day or two exploring the mangrove swamps and lakes of the region, home to various creatures including caiman and freshwater dolphins. The surrounding forest is just as rich in life, and is a rare chance to see the capybara, the world's largest rodent, in its natural habitat.
Most famous among these is, of course, the Incas. This amazingly sophisticated civilisation came to prominence in the 15th century and in just one hundred short years had established a culture that spanned the whole country and even encroached on the most inaccessible peaks of the Andes. The most famous symbol of this age is of course, Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, located high in the Andes.
For the visitor Peru is just about perfect; history, culture and natural beauty in equal measure.
See & Do
• Machu Picchu
Undoubtedly Peru's jewel, a trip to Machu Picchu is an unforgettable experience. This mountain top Incan city is stunning due to its remoteness. It actually disappeared from human knowledge for centuries, before being "discovered" by the inquisitive missionary's son Hiram Bingham (who followed local knowledge to the ruins).
The complex is divided into the city and the terraces that were used to grow the sustaining crops of coca and hardy staples. Highlights in the city include the Torreon (also called the Sun Temple) and the Three Windows Temple. There are many other relics however, and it is essential to pick up a guide so you can trace the numerous items believed to have religious or astronomical significance
You can access Machu Picchu by catching the daily train from Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo (otherwise known as Aguas Calientes) from where a mini-bus ascends to the site itself. An alternative way of getting to the ruins is to walk the Inca Trail, a four day trek to the site from Cusco. If you travel alone, you must stick to the marked routes and camp at the designated campsites. The number of trekkers who can use the trail each day is limited and you are required to obtain a permit in Cusco at least five days before commencing your trek.
Peru's capital city was founded by the bloodthirsty Pizarro following his defeat of the Incas. In shape and form it is a classical Spanish colonial development. The modern centre is a 21st century city, but the buildings in the old town are a stunning example of Spanish New World architecture, full of elaborate stone work, verandas and balconies. Visit the churches of San Pedro and San Augustin, erected by the Spanish in the early years of the settlement. The grand houses of the colonists are likewise excellent examples of architecture transplanted directly from Spain, Casa de Riva Agüero being possibly the finest. There are a few others open to the public that are worth visiting as well.
The cultural institutions of the city are the finest found anywhere in the country. Most concentrate on pre-Columbian times and in the National Museum and the Rafael Herrera Museum of Archaeology (Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera) you can see art and artefacts from the Incas and the preceding cultures that inhabited Peru up to colonial times. The latter museum contains the largest collection of pre-Columbian art.
• Lake Titicaca
The world's highest navigable lake, Titicaca forms part of the boundary between Peru and Bolivia. Located high in the Andes it is a unique eco-system. The floating islands of Unos in the middle of the lake have been well-documented but their unusualness never fails to amaze first-time visitors. These vast rafts, made of reeds and lashed-together boat hulls, are home to an indigenous population of lake dwellers who spend their entire lives on the waters of Titicaca.
Puno is the nearest city and although somewhat bland in itself, its people are endlessly fascinating. Various indigenous mountain tribes have made their homes here and the result is a hotchpotch of Peruvian culture.
It is recommended that you spend at least one night by the lake outside of Puno or any other town. Away from artificial light after nightfall, the clarity of the air at this altitude and the reflective qualities of the water mean you are treated to a spectacular natural light show as millions of stars are mirrored in the water of the lake.
Once the capital of the Incas, Cusco was never completely colonised, at least architecturally speaking. The old town displays some intriguing glimpses of Inca architecture, which has survived 500 years of Spanish influence. The city was said to be deliberately shaped like a puma, although modernisation makes it hard to see nowadays.
One part that is easy to identify is the head of the beast, depicted by the impressive Sacsayhuaman fortress. Its angled walls forming formidable diagonals are typical of Incan architecture, constructed from massive stone blocks which tessellate perfectly, held in place by their own weight. This was once the backdrop for a bloody and decisive battle between the conquistadors and the Incas, when Incan leader Manco used the fortress as his base for an uprising.
Iquitos is the main city in the Peruvian Amazon and is located in the remote north-east near to the Amazon's confluence with a couple of major rivers. It is a charming enough city. You should make your first port of call the Amazonian Museum.
The museum is located on the riverside promenade Tarapacá Malecon, which is still the focus for the city's daily life. In the evenings this is where Iquitos's inhabitants have their pre-dinner stroll, and it's a pleasant place to spend a bit of time. The grand 19th-century mansions here are relics of the rubber barons, who made their fortune from the commodity during Iquitos's boom years. Rather less typical is the accurately named Iron House (Casa de Fierro) which was actually designed by Gustav Eiffel and formed part of Paris's 1881 world fair (which also featured Eiffel's more famous construction, the Eiffel Tower).
From Iquitos you can take river cruises along the Amazon itself or the other rivers such as the Ucayali or to one of several wildlife parks in the vicinity where you can get to grips, albeit in a slightly sanitised way, with the charms of the Amazon forest.
• Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve
One of the largest protected regions in the world, the National Reserve offers the chance to experience the Amazonian basin in all its natural glory. This expanse of nearly 21,000 sq km of virgin rainforest encompasses wetlands, lakes, rivers and of course thick vegetation. It's remarkably diverse and the wildlife population more than matches the geography for sheer variety. As well as monkeys, countless birdlife and other familiar jungle creatures, you'll see such seemingly incongruous creatures as pink freshwater dolphins and giant turtles, besides the fearsome caiman and crocodiles.
The region is still home to indigenous tribes including the Boras, Yaguas and Cocamas. Most of the villages are on the periphery of the reserve, making them relatively easy to get to. Others, like the Cocamas, are rather more remote requiring that you arrange visits in advance and allow extra time for travelling there. The usual way through the reserve is via canoe from Lagunas or Nauta, both a day's fast-boat ride upstream from Iquitos. Guides will take you on tours lasting anything from a few days to a couple of weeks.
Perhaps it's the political pedigree of the country, with its enlightened history of being the continent's first welfare state and the first to grant equality. Or it's football talents - Uruguay hosted and won the first ever World Cup.
Uruguay doesn't have the Amazon rainforest, nor the Andes but instead offers a rich cultural heritage. Throwing off the yoke of Spanish rule as recently as 1825, Uruguay still displays much of its erstwhile colonisers' style, evident in the architecture of old Montevideo. The country is also the heart of that most South American of characters - the Gaucho. With much of the country's interior given over to ranching; the swaggering macho cowboys of the plains make their presence felt.
The 500km of coastline, split between river and ocean, boasts stretches of beaches with shimmering white sand. The most famous resort is at Punta del Este, where the open mouth of the River Plate delta meets the Atlantic coast. This is just one among several on the Uruguay Riviera. The Atlantic coast towards the Brazilian border offers a unique terrain to explore. The sheltered waters of the lagoons here are a haven for plethora of wildlife.
See & Do
Uruguay's friendly capital is renowned for its beautiful parks, 18th-century buildings and home to the country's most important monuments. Occupying a central stretch of the beautiful River Plate coast, Montevideo is often seen merely as an overland short stop between Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. It is no accident that this is one of South America's most visited cities and popular amongst South Americans themselves.
A stroll through the Mercado del Puerto is an undoubted highlight. Since 1867 it has been a meeting point for sailors and local merchants and nowadays boasts upmarket shops and restaurants. It remains a great place for people-watching, packed as it is with parridillas (barbecued steak stalls) and guitar players. East of here is the old town containing the city's oldest buildings, many dating from the mid-19th century and still displaying Spanish styles.
Museo del Gaucho de la Moneda is a great place to learn about gaucho culture. A South American answer to the North American "cowboy", the gaucho symbolises the continent's ranching culture. The museum exhibits a variety of gaucho artefacts such as bolos, cooking utensils and antique paper money and coins. The museum should certainly be on the itinerary for visitors heading to Tacuarembó.
• Vineyards and Wineries
While it lags behind Chile and Argentina in reputation, Uruguay does produce its share of quality South American wine, which is rapidly earning a reputation as the world's finest. The country has over 9,000 hectares under cultivation with most of the grapes harvested manually. The wineries produce a variety of wines using different types of grapes, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Uruguay's famous Tannat.
Many of the vineyards are within an hour's drive from Montevideo. In San Jose, Castillo Viejo is one of the largest wineries in the country. Tours are available with advance reservations.
• Rocha Department
Nestled against the Brazilian border in the northern part of the country, the Rocha Department is home to some of Uruguay's most popular natural destinations. It is a vast area of national parks, palm groves, coastal wetlands and seaside villages. In Cabo Polonio, the evocatively named village of Punta del Diablo ("Devil's Point") is without doubt one of the most picturesque places in the country.
The Banados del Este Biosphere Reserve is one of the only areas in the country where the butia palm exists. The reserve is also home to more than 250 bird species and engulfs a number of national parks including the Santa Theresa National Park, which features more than 60 kilometres of trails.
Just a couple of hours drive west of the Uruguayan capital, this 17th-century Portuguese town is officially known as Colonia del Sacramento. Although it was originally founded in 1680, with the intention of rivalling Buenos Aires, it is now just a quiet sleepy village with a small population of 10,000.
The old town here is one of Uruguay's prime attractions. Protected by UNESCO, the sycamore-shaded cobblestone streets and abundant colonial architecture offer a great getaway that takes travellers back in time. Colonia is also home to both the country's oldest church (founded in 1699), and the only bullring in Uruguay. With guesthouses tucked away in colonial buildings, and open-air bars and restaurants, it is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital.
• Uruguayan Riviera and Punta del Este
Attracting wealthy Argentines and the rich and famous from all over the world, the beaches of the Uruguayan Riviera are some of the finest on the continent. The Riviera itself is a series of beach communities east of Montevideo where the Rio de le Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Offering a unique mix of tranquility on the bay side and wildness near the ocean, the jet-set peninsula offers miles of beautiful white sand beaches along with exquisite restaurants and a thriving nightlife. Playa Brava hosts the brunt of the action with sky scraping condos and ritzy clubs.
• Hot Springs
Using the ranching town of Salto as a base, travellers can explore several of Uruguay's hot springs, which have led to a string of resort settlements. Each of the hot springs caters to its own particular clientele with everything from campsites and cheap eats to top-notch hotels and fine dining. The one constant is the warm mineral rich waters, although there's a corresponding breadth of experiences available, from plunging unchaperoned dips in out-of-the-way ponds to pampered massages by manufactured pools.
Termas del Daymán is the only hot spring fun park in South America, complete with colourful trampolines and waterslides and deep pools and waterfalls. Just outside Salto itself, the Salto Grande Hot Springs is a fine place for relaxation at the five-star hotel nestled in a forest reserve. Surrounded by woods and known for its bridges and floating gardens, Arapey Springs is a beautiful destination, while the Almiron Hot Springs remain the only salt-water springs in the region. Those who want to relax in thermal waters and get a taste of gaucho life with a stay at an old cattle ranch should head to the San Nicanor Springs.
Tucked away in the middle of the country, this small town is the spiritual centre of gaucho culture. It is surrounded by open land of fertile valleys, wandering streams and picturesque villages welcoming visitors to the heart of Uruguay.
Founded in 1832, the town is about a five hour drive from the Uruguayan capital. More than anything it is known for the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha, a wild gaucho festival that has been running since 1986. Always set in the first week of March, it features amateur and professional riders from Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil along with a gaucho parade and crafts from around the region. Participants dress in traditional costumes, show off their gaucho riding skills and music, and roast meat skewered onto knives over an open fire.