From dense jungles to frozen glaciers and vast salt pans to dramatic deserts, Latin America is a destination that will inspire something in every traveler’s imagination.
White-sand Caribbean beaches to the heights of the snow-capped Andes, magnificent pre-Colombian pyramids to the pulsing rhythms of modern metropolises, Latin America is one of the most diverse and dynamic places on earth. There are so many sides to this remarkable corner of the world, and so many exciting adventures waiting for travelers to experience. To help you make your plans, we’ve narrowed Latin America down to eight favorite yet dramatically different facets of this unique and inspiring destination.
South America turns decidedly temperate and nature looms larger than life in Patagonia, a sparsely populated land of mountainous splendor just waiting for you to explore. Climb to the tops of jagged peaks overlooking the frozen crowns of ancient glaciers before relaxing with fine wine in the southernmost city in the world.
The adventurous can spend days trekking in Torres del Paine National Park, located on the Chilean side of Patagonia, with experienced guides taking visitors through crag-lined alpine valleys to turquoise-blue glacier-fed lakes, while porters haul the equipment and prepare gourmet meals. Alternatively, after a day working up an appetite on the park’s trails, check-in at Tierra Patagonia (above), a contemporary alpine lodge that makes the most of this dramatic setting. On the Argentine side, Los Glaciares National Park makes for excellent glacier mini trekking from the comfortable home base of Eolo, an exclusive 4,000-hectare property in El Calafate.
Alternatively, combine Chile’s acclaimed Carretera Austral highway and Argentina’s Route 40 during an epic road trip to get to Patagonia’s core while witnessing the transition of landscapes, from the forests and pampa of the north to the endless horizons of the barren south. Highlights of the route include the spectacular Llao Llao Peninsula, and the awe-inspiring blue waters of General Carrera Lake.
You can also explore Patagonia by sea on the M/V Stella Australis or M/V Ventus Australis (above) on three to-eight-night cruise itineraries that visit the pristine coastline of Tierra del Fuego, including the Tuckers islets and Glacier Alley. If you’re an old hand, try a visit to Chiloe Island; the fifth largest island in South America, Chiloe is famed for its blue and sei whales, Chilean dolphins, sea lions, and marine otters and has been compared to Norway’s Lofoten Islands.
The Atacama Desert
Get cosmic under the cloudless night sky, where some of the world’s lowest levels of light pollution allow for some of the best star gazing on earth. Chile’s Atacama Desert is as far off the beaten path as it gets yet holds endless adventures, including horseback journeys to the Valley of the Moon, an ancient landscape crafted by the elements; mountain biking through the Devil’s Canyon; capturing the majesty of the desert from the famed Mirador del Coyote lookout point; and exploring the geysers of the El Tatio geothermal fields.
One of the most popular ways to see all the sights of this epic wilderness is by hot air balloon, although trouble landing in designated spots sometimes means trips have to be cut short. Book these vertiginous adventures in the charming town of San Pedro de Atacama, where your accommodation options range from the private adobe suites of Awasi and the terrace fire pits and infinity pool of Tierra Hotel, to the serene and sophisticated guest rooms of Explora Atacama.
In the evening, fine Chilean Malbecs can be served, accompanied by views of Licancabur, followed by a private stargazing tour with French astronomer Alain Maury, who had the asteroid 3780 Maury named in his honor.
The Uyuni Salt Flats
An endless stretch of shimmering white occasionally dotted by Andean flamingos and islands lost in time, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flats visually stun visitors right off the bat. Formed after the drying of a giant prehistoric lake and containing some 10 billion tons of salt, the largest salt flat on earth is a landscape that will leave you breathless.
Four-wheel drive tours out onto the salt flats run from a single day to nearly a week and always visit the giant cactus-studded Incahuasi Island and the region’s salt museum, constructed entirely from salt bricks. Extended tours run visitors to the Termas de Polques hot springs and Laguna Verde, where the reflection of nearby Lincancabur, an active volcano on the border with Bolivia, hovers on the arsenic and copper-hued waters.
For the ultimate adventure, tow your own authentic Airstream trailer out onto the cracked salt, which glows at night under the moonlight, for an experience to remember. As part of this unique camping experience, private chefs serve gourmet meals directly on the salt before retreating to leave you alone on the flats to ponder the meaning of your existence.
The Galapagos Islands
Discover what inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution as you follow in the footsteps of giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies through the ever-changing ecosystems of this remote Pacific Ocean locale. Created by volcanic eruptions some three million years ago, the 16 islands of the Galapagos offer myriad exploration and lodging opportunities that immerse visitors in raw nature at its finest.
There are many ways to encounter the Galapagos Islands, both at sea and on terra firma. A short distance from the pristine beaches of Santa Cruz Island, eco-conscious Pikaia Lodge offers active and adventurous travelers luxurious suites (some with private plunge pools), guided land and marine tours using the retreat’s own fleet of yachts, and world-class poolside dining, complete with views across the volcano-studded wilderness.
A unique Galápagos experience inspired by the magic of African safaris, camping takes an upscale turn at the Galapagos Safari Camp, located on its own 55-hectare farm and reforestation project, where animals roam freely and daily diving, cruising, and walking explorations are customized for each guest. The camp’s luxurious, stilted tents feature custom furniture, ensuite bathrooms, and private balconies with sea views; there are even specially-designed tented suites for traveling families.
While delving into the islands from land can be intriguing, most travelers explore the Galapagos from the water. Cruises range from mid-size expedition-style cruises offered by companies like Lindblad-Expeditions National Geographic, Silversea, and Celebrity Xpedition, which offer a full complement of naturalists and guides, through to boutique cruising catamaran tours on the likes of the Stella Maris and the M/V Origin. Alternatively, the private cabins on La Pinta, a luxury yacht that runs regular 11-day cruises through the islands, allow for intimate aquatic adventures in comfort and style.
The Amazon Rainforest
It just doesn’t get more abundant than the Amazon Rainforest, a truly unique and ancient landscape that’s home to the highest biological diversity on earth. While six different countries contain pieces of this verdant wonderland, most people visit from either Peru or Brazil, with the former holding more access points, boasting better infrastructure, and offering access to remote indigenous communities, a rich jungle tradition, and important navigable tributaries of the Amazon River.
You can explore Peru’s northern Amazon aboard Aqua Expeditions’ Jordi Puig-designed Aria Amazon (below), which offers beautifully-appointed hardwood suites from which cruisers can watch the river’s abundant wildlife as they venture into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, home to jaguars, howler monkeys, tropical birds, and traditional native communities. An onboard five-star kitchen serves contemporary takes on authentic Peruvian cuisine, while pink dolphin viewing is at its best from the observation deck’s Jacuzzi.
For an unforgettable southern Amazon jungle experience, immerse yourself in the robust beauty of the deep Amazon Rainforest at one of Inkaterra’s two luxury jungle lodges, located in the Madre de Dios area. The Hacienda Concepcion hosts 19 private cabañas on stilts and daily guided ecological walks, while the Reserva Amazonica is home to a bridge walkway system that allows the intrepid to explore independently.
Although Rapa Nui takes its English name from the arrival of the Dutch in 1722, Easter Island is best known for its indigenous heritage, and the legacy of its iconic Moai statues, towering, brooding volcanic rock effigies crafted by Polynesian tribes between the 11th and 14th centuries. Consequently, the island, located 3,700km off the coast of Chile, is popular with history buffs looking to add some lost culture to their South American odyssey.
There are said to be as many as 800 moai figures scattered across a treeless landscape pounded by the Pacific and punctuated by three volcanic peaks, and while they remain a drawcard for tourists, they are just components of a complex island heritage. A visit to the towering cliffs overlooking the rocky island of Motu Nui will give travelers a true sense of the dangers associated with the ancient Tangata Manu or Birdman cult, followers of which would brave shark-infested waters to swim to the tiny island searching for the season’s first sooty tern’s egg before climbing the sea cliffs to deliver the egg to a patron, promising prosperity to the community for the year to come.
Visitors can learn more about the island’s tradition of basalt stonemasonry at Ahu Vinapu, an archaeological site centered on a stone shrine that faces the winter solstice; and about ancient cultures past at Ana Kai Tangata, where centuries-old cave paintings have been preserved.
Enter the fascinating world of the Incan Empire, which once reached from northern Chile and Ecuador to southern Colombia, and the Peruvian Amazon. Today, the cobblestone streets of Cusco, its ancient but still-beating heart, are lined with international restaurants and artist workshops, while nearby, the Sacred Valley holds more ruins than you could see in a lifetime.
The Inca were a pre-Columbian American culture that peaked in the early 16th century. With a rich, yet complex culture centered around its king, the Sapa Inca or ‘son of the sun’, the Inca did not possess many of the fundamentals associated with ancient civilization, including domesticated animals for transportation, the use of metal, or a written language, but that didn’t stop their construction of one of history’s greatest imperial states.
You can visit the most popular Incan legacy by hopping aboard the Hiram Bingham, a luxury train that offers day trips from Cusco to the ancient mountain-top city of Machu Picchu, which was said to have been built for the Incan emperor Pachacuti. You can even linger longer with a stay at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel at Machu Picchu.
To tap into the region’s rich history, walk the classic Inca Trail, a five-day camping hike that traces the route of the ancient ‘Inca road’ and which arrives at Intipunku, the Sun Gate, in time for sunrise over Machu Picchu. Alternatively, the Salkantay Inca Trail is an easier, lodge-based alternative to the classic Inca Trail, which offers stunning views and which also ends at ancient Machu Picchu.
Afterward, unwind in Pisac, a small town turned artist colony that sits at the heart of the Sacred Valley, once an Incan stronghold, and which holds trailheads to Moray, where agricultural experiments once provided superfoods that fed a civilization 12 million strong.
Famed as the only known fully-developed writing culture in the pre-Columbian Americans, the Mayans were an advanced civilization that excelled in the fields of art, architecture, astrology, mathematics, and even agriculture. At the height of its power, the civilization reached from southeast Mexico through Guatemala and Belize to western Honduras and El Salvador.
From ruins to rainforests, this slice of Latin America reveals layer after layer of mystery and deep-rooted history. Perched on the bluffs over the turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean, the temples of Tulum are a mandatory stop before visiting the massive pyramids of Chichen Itza, where evening light shows play against the carved serpent-adorned walls. Deeper inland the towers of Palenque keep watch over the Peten jungle, home to partially excavated sites like Yaxchilan and Bonampak, which bustled with activity some thousand years ago.
Get lost in time in Guatemala, where ancient Mayan pyramids and colonial cities lie under the shadow of active volcanoes and sprout majestically over the canopy of deep jungle. Walk from site to site through the rainforest at Tikal, the center of the Mayan Kingdom during the classic period, stopping for a catered gourmet lunch along the way. Be sure to visit the boutiques and artisan markets of Antigua, a 16th-century gem dotted with crumbling cathedrals and bursting with bohemian nightlife. Relaxation reaches new heights at Lake Atitlan, an impressive inverted cone lake surrounded by forest-covered volcanoes and ringed by Mayan villages where spas and eco retreats await. Locals here are masters of textile weaving and wear traditional colorful clothing everywhere they go.
The capital of a major Mayan kingdom from the 5th to 9th centuries, Unesco-listed Copán is home to ornate statues and stelae, which make its remote location in Honduras worth the visit. Here travelers can indulge in a private presentation, dinner, and tour with archaeologist David Sedat, head of the onsite Copán 2012 Botanical Research Project. What better way to see one of the finest archeological sites in the Mayan world than with the expert who spent years unearthing its secrets, told by intricately carved stelae and incredible hieroglyphic-encrusted stairways.
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