The best travel experiences from North America to South America and Central America

It might span two continents, 23 countries and almost a billion people, but there's a common thread that binds the Americas together: romance. It's undeniable. There's so much that's romantic about this amazing part of the world: the natural beauty, the cultural heritage, the passions, the beliefs and the desires.

There's romance in the tango danced in a Buenos Aires club. There's romance in the snowy mountain peaks of an Alaskan range. There's romance in a beachside bungalow in Belize, and on the city walls in Cartagena, Colombia.

There's so much on offer on these two continents, so many amazing, thrilling, and above all romantic experiences, that it was a Herculean task to whittle them down to just 25 true A-listers. And we haven't even included the Caribbean – for this story we've discounted that lovely group of islands, purely because it was getting out of hand. The Americas has so much to offer; this list merely scratches the surface.

From the tip of Alaska to the very end of Argentina, a journey to the Americas will always be a feast of culture, nature, cities, landscapes, food, wine, art, music – and above all, romance. You can't help but be swept up in it.

NATURE

THE A-LISTER Cruise the Alaskan fjords, USA

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT The Americas begin and end with similarly spectacular scenery. Down south it's Patagonia, while in the north it's Alaska, with its stunning stretches of pristine coastline marked by glacial advances.

MUST SEE AND DO A cruise in Alaska will allow you to see parts of Kenai Fjords National Park that would be inaccessible by land, taking in the magnitude and isolation from the comfort of a ship.

ESSENTIALS Alaskan cruises run from May to September. Holland America Line has cruises from $1399 a person. See www.hollandamerica.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Great cruises are also available in the Galapagos Islands, the south of Patagonia, and along Mexico's Caribbean coast.

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THE A-LISTER See polar bears in Churchill, Canada

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Polar bears. In the wild. You need ask no more than that, really – in Churchill, Manitoba, high in the north of Canada, you have the chance to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.

MUST SEE AND DO The two most popular ways to see bears are on a day trip in a tundra vehicle, or with a stay at a wilderness lodge. Either experience will be a memorable one.

ESSENTIALS Prime viewing times for polar bears is October and November. See www.everythingchurchill.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other great wildlife experiences include seeing caribou in Denali, Alaska, penguins in Patagonia, and pink dolphins in the Amazon.

THE A-LISTER Drive the Icefields Parkway, Canada

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Though the Americas are blessed with plenty of spectacular roadways, this might be the pinnacle, a 232-kilometre journey between Jasper and Banff in Alberta, taking in snowy mountains, deep canyons, glaciers, pastures, and Banff National Park.

MUST SEE AND DO Dedicate an entire day to this drive, stopping at Athabasca Falls, the Columbia Icefields, the Weeping Wall, and Bow Lake.

ESSENTIALS The Parkway is open year-around, though closes during heavy snowfall. See www.icefieldsparkway.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other amazing drives include Highway 1 in California, the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, Canada, and the "Death Road" in Bolivia.

THE A-LISTER Cruise the Galapagos, Ecuador

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT There is nowhere quite like the Galapagos, the archipelago the rest of the world forgot, birthplace of Darwin's theory of evolution and an untouched natural wonder filled with unique wildlife.

MUST SEE AND DO With few land-based accommodation options, cruising is the way to see the Galapagos. All boats have professional guides to show visitors the natural diversity that occurs across the island chain.

ESSENTIALS The Galapagos is a year-around destination. For cruises see www.intrepidtravel.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other wildlife cruise destinations include the Pacaya Samiria Reserve in Peru, the Pantanal in Brazil, and Alaska in the USA.

THE A-LISTER National park hopping in Utah, United States

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Utah has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to natural beauty. The state boasts five national parks – Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion – any one of which would be worth the journey alone.

MUST SEE AND DO Though you can't go wrong in Utah, don't miss seeing dawn at Bryce Canyon or Arches, and check out the adventure hub of Moab.

ESSENTIALS Utah's national parks are open year-around, though spring and autumn are the most comfortable. See www.utah.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other great national parks include Yellowstone in Wyoming, Banff National Park in Canada, and Yosemite in California.

THE A-LISTER Spot macaws at Tambopata Reserve, Peru

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT The Amazon holds many natural treasures, and one of the most spectacular is the macaw. These outrageously plumed parrots can be found in high concentration at Tambopata Reserve, a research base in the Peruvian jungle.

MUST SEE AND DO The best time to see Tambopata's biggest attraction is at dawn, when the birds flock in their thousands to feed on "clay licks".

ESSENTIALS Dry season – May until October – is the most popular time. See www.chimadventures.com.au.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other Amazonian lodges include Refugio Amazonas in Peru, Napo Wildlife Centre in Ecuador, and Cristalino Jungle Lodge in Brazil.

CULTURE

THE A-LISTER See a Broadway show, USA

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT One of the US's quintessential cultural experiences is a Broadway show, something that's bigger than merely entertainment on a stage. There's something magical about the history and legend of this NYC district.

MUST SEE AND DO Though Broadway's longest running show is Phantom of the Opera, the hottest ticket in town is the political musical Hamilton.

ESSENTIALS Broadway shows run year-round. For information on theatres, shows and tickets, see www.nycgo.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS There are great theatre districts in Chicago, Montreal, and Seattle.

THE A-LISTER Watch football at La Bombonera, Argentina

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT There's no sporting experience in the world that compares to seeing football at Buenos Aires' La Bombonera. Boca Juniors matches here are a riot of singing, cheering, dancing, yelling, fireworks, brass bands, streamers… And somewhere down there, a football game.

MUST SEE AND DO Tours of La Bombonera are offered on non-match days; however, the best experience is to see Boca Juniors in action.

ESSENTIALS Argentine football seasons run from August to May. To see a match, use local tour operator www.landingpadba.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS The Americas' best sports stadiums include the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

THE A-LISTER Join a second line parade in New Orleans, USA

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT If, on a Sunday in New Orleans, you see a brass band marching along the street, you're more than welcome to fall in behind them and dance your way around the city. The band is the "first line". You and the other revellers are the second.

MUST SEE AND DO Second line parades have no rules. Join where you like, and depart where you like. Dance as wildly as is warranted.

ESSENTIALS Second line parades happen on most Sundays outside of major events. They're free. See www.neworleansonline.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other great cities for dancing include Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Cali in Colombia.

THE A-LISTER Visit Tikal in Guatemala

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Though not as well known as Machu Picchu or Chichen Itza, Tikal is a bucket list historical site in its own right, a 1000-year-old Mayan city deep in the Guatemalan jungle.

MUST SEE AND DO Though the old city once covered 16 square kilometres, the modern site is much smaller, and can be seen in a day. Don't miss the 47-metre-high Tikal Temple IV.

ESSENTIALS Tikal is open daily – entry costs US$20. See chimuadventures.com.au for travel packages.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other Central American historical sites include Caracol in Belize, Copan in Honduras, and Casco Viejo in Panama.

THE A-LISTER Visit the witches markets in La Paz, Bolivia

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Admittedly, you don't see many actual shamans wandering these markets. However, that doesn't mean you can't gain an appreciation of this hidden culture, as well as delve deeper into Bolivia's superstitious psyche.

MUST SEE AND DO Check out what's on sale: soapstone figurines, dried snakes, herbal remedies, frogs, and even dried llama fetuses. Truly bizarre.

ESSENTIALS The markets are located on Jiminez and Linares streets, between Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz, and are open daily. See www.bolivia.travel.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other great Latin American markets include San Telmo antiques market in Buenos Aires, the Mercade Adolpho Lisboa in Manaus, and Otavalo in Ecuador.

EAT

THE A-LISTER Eat at Central Restaurante, Peru

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Lima is home to an amazing three of the world's top 30 restaurants (according to "50 Best"), and the pinnacle is Central, masterminded by chef Virgilio Martinez, whose tasting menu is grouped by altitude. Ingredients are sourced everywhere from the depths of Peru's oceans to the heights of its Andean peaks.

MUST SEE AND DO Peru's biodiversity is showcased in both of Central's tasting menus, named "Elevations", and "Ecosystems".

ESSENTIALS Set menus start from $140 a person. See www.centralrestaurante.com.pe.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS To sample more of Lima's food scene, dine at Astrid y Gaston, Maido, or Malabar.

THE A-LISTER Eat street food in Mexico City

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Although Mexico's capital has some great restaurants, the real food of the people is dished out by street vendors, who can be found curbside across the city. Feast on the best Mexican cuisine for a few dollars.

MUST SEE AND DO Dishes to look out for include tamales, tacos, tlacoyos – blue-corn dough stuffed with fried meat – and corn slathered in lime, mayo and chilli.

ESSENTIALS Street food stands can be found across the city, open late. See www.visitmexico.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other great street food cities include Oaxaca in Mexico, Salvador in Brazil, and Portland in the USA.

THE A-LISTER Explore Cartagena, Colombia

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT It's impossible not to fall in love with this sultry Caribbean port town, the former base of pirates and marauders, a walled city filled with cobbled streets, flower-covered colonial homes, and a thriving bar and cafe scene.

MUST SEE AND DO Spend an afternoon walking the 13 kilometres of city walls that encircle Cartagena to get a perfect overview of the city.

ESSENTIALS From January to April, Cartagena is cool and dry. See www.cartagenadeindias.travel.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Some of the best-preserved colonial cities in the Americans include Antigua in Guatemala, San Cristobal in Mexico, and Cusco in Peru.

THE A-LISTER See samba in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Samba doesn't begin and end at Carnival. It's a year-round passion, and the best way to experience it at grassroots level is to spend a night at Academicos do Salgueiro samba school.

MUST SEE AND DO Schools such as Salgueiro begin preparing for Carnival as soon as the last one has finished, meaning any time you're in Rio you'll be able to see dancers competing.

ESSENTIALS For info on club nights and entry prices, see www.salgueiro.com.br.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS If you'd prefer to be the one dancing, check out Rio samba clubs Carioca da Gema, Beco do Rato, or Lapa 40 Graus.

OUTDOORS

THE A-LISTER Ski in Aspen, USA

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT There are two sides to this famous American ski resort: the glitzy celebrity side, which only exists for a few weeks around Christmas; and the friendly local side, which you'll discover any other time of the year.

MUST SEE AND DO Aspen has four ski areas: Aspen Mountain, Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass. Each offers something different in terms of terrain and difficulty.

ESSENTIALS Aspen has its own airport, with daily flights from Denver. See aa.com. For more on Aspen resort, see www.aspensnowmass.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other great American ski resorts include Beaver Creek, Jackson Hole, and Park City.

THE A-LISTER Stargaze in the Atacama, Chile

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT It's no surprise the world's highest desert, one of the driest places on Earth, is perfect for stargazing. Astro-tourism is a big deal in the Atacama, with hotels and observatories offering the chance to get up close and personal with the universe.

MUST SEE AND DO Visit Alma observatory, the world's largest astronomical project, for a free tour, and then do a nighttime stargazing experience with Tierra Atacama hotel.

ESSENTIALS For Alma observatory visits, go to almaobservatory.org. For stargazing, see www.tierrahotels.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS "Dark Sky" reserves can be found in Quebec, Canada, New Mexico, US, and Colorado, US.

THE A-LISTER See Iguazu Falls, Brazil and Argentina

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT With 275 different falls up to 82 metres high, and almost 2000 cubic metres of water pouring over them every second, Iguazu Falls is one impressive sight. This is a must-do for all travellers.

MUST SEE AND DO Dedicate a day each to the Brazilian and Argentinean sides of Iguazu – Argentina has the majority of the falls, and Brazil the best vantage points.

ESSENTIALS Entry in Argentina costs $42; in Brazil it's $24. The falls are open year-around. See www.chimuadventues.com.au.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Check out Angel Falls in Venezuela, Niagara Falls in the US and Canada, and Yosemite Falls in the US.

THE A-LISTER Trek in Torres del Paine, Chile

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT The scenery in Torres del Paine National Park, the rugged peaks, creaking glaciers, clear lakes, and sheer isolation and beauty, almost defies description. This is one of the world's most beautiful places.

MUST SEE AND DO While the towers themselves (the "torres") are the main attraction, it's worth setting aside time to do the multi-day "W" trek, which takes in lesser-known highlights.

ESSENTIALS High season in Torres del Paine is November to March. See www.classicsafaricompany.com.au.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other hiking destinations include Cusco in Peru, the Appalachian Trail in the US, and the Fundy Trail in Canada.

THE A-LISTER Horse-riding on an estancia, Argentina

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT There's no better way to get acquainted with Argentina's gaucho culture than by becoming one for a few days, jumping aboard a steed on a working livestock farm near Cordoba and living the cowboy lifestyle.

MUST SEE AND DO While you'll appreciate the beauty of the Sierras Chicas mountain range while riding around Los Potreros estancia, the best part of every day is the barbecue at the end.

ESSENTIALS Six-day estancia experiences at Los Potreros start from $3465 a person, all-inclusive. See www.chimuadventures.com.au.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other estancia stays include Huechahue in Patagonia, Tierra Santa in Uruguay, and Dos Lunas in Cordoba.

THE A-LISTER See sunrise at Machu Picchu, Peru

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Though any traveller can visit Machu Picchu by taking the train, it's only those who have hiked the Inca Trail who see it at its most spectacular: at dawn. The mist clears, the sun breaks the horizon, and there it is, a lost city perched in the Andes.

MUST SEE AND DO The best place for dawn is the Sun Gate, an ancient site of worship and an ideal viewpoint.

ESSENTIALS Visit in dry season, from April to October www.chimuadventures.com.au.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other historical sites in Peru include the Nazca Lines, the Moche tombs around Lambayeque, and the Incan sites in Cusco.

THE A-LISTER Dive the Great Blue Hole, Belize

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT About 70 kilometres off the coast of Belize lies a giant sinkhole that's one of the world's best dive sites. There's sea life on the surface, and fascinating rock formations deep inside.

MUST SEE AND DO Snorkelling over the Great Blue Hole is amazing, but the essential experience is to scuba dive to the dark depths of this vertical, underwater cave.

ESSENTIALS The Great Blue Hole, and many other dive sites, are accessible from Half Moon Caye. See www.huracandiving.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS For more diving, head to Gran Cenote in Mexico, Point Lobos in California, or Cocos Island in Costa Rica.

THE A-LISTER Watch sunset at Ipanema, Brazil

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Very rarely do travel cliches live up to expectations, but this does: sunset at Rio's Ipanema beach, when tourists gather at the beachhead, grab a beer or a caipirinha, settle down on a hot rock and watch as evening descends.

MUST SEE AND DO You could surf at Ipanema, or join a beach football game, but the afternoon is best for simply sitting and taking it all in.

ESSENTIALS Rio is a year-round destination, and sunset at Ipanema is always popular. See www.visitbrasil.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS South America's best sunset spots include the Atacama Desert in Peru, Torres del Paine in Chile, and Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio.

STAY

THE A-LISTER Stay at Vina Vik, Chile

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT This luxury boutique hotel and winery in southern Chile ticks all the boxes for a destination stay: a beautiful location on a hilltop above the vines, 22 rooms designed by a local artists, a world-class restaurant, and a winery producing seriously good drops.

MUST SEE AND DO Vina Vik provides the opportunity to appreciate Chile's artistic culture, which surrounds you at the hotel, as well as it's burgeoning wine-making culture, which can be enjoyed with a tour and tasting.

ESSENTIALS Suites start from $1152 for two people, with meals included. See vinavik.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Chile's best destination hotels include the Tierra Atacama, the Explora Patagonia, and the Singular Patagonia.

THE A-LISTER Stay at the Chateau Marmont, United States

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT This is not merely a hotel stay. LA's Chateau Marmont is emblematic of America's entire pop culture legacy: it's Hollywood and the silver screen; Led Zeppelin and rock 'n' roll; classic Americana whose walls live and breath celebrity.

MUST SEE AND DO The best thing to do at the Chateau Marmont is simply to hang out at the Chateau Marmont. Grab a drink in the garden and people-watch as celebrities and wannabes filter past.

ESSENTIALS Rooms start from $670 a night. See www.chateaumarmont.com.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other classic LA hotels include the Sunset Tower Hotel, the Beverly Hilton, and the Hollywood Roosevelt.

5 must-try dishes from the Americas

The food you can't miss out on.

Tiradito, Peru

Tiradito is the spicier, Japanese-influenced cousin of ceviche – a dish of raw fish that's finely sliced, sashimi style, before being drizzled with citrus juice and topped with a spicy, creamy sauce made of "aji amarillo" peppers.

NYC-style pizza, US

New York-style pizza is a hefty beast, a whopping slice that's dripping with cheese, the sort of monster that needs to be folded in half and basically tipped down your gullet in a greasy, delicious mess.

Bife de chorizo, Argentina

Though many in the Americas – Brazilians, Chileans, Peruvians, Americans – love meat cooked over flames, no one does it like the Argentineans. The prime cut here is "bife de chorizo", a fatty, salty slab of cow, slow-cooked to perfection.

Feijoada, Brazil

There's nothing like a light, healthy lunch of beans stewed with cuts of beef and pork, served with chorizo and rice. Ahem. Feijoada is a national obsession in Brazil, with entire events dedicated to its consumption.

Chilaquiles, Mexico

There's more to Mexican cuisine that tacos and burritos, and this is a prime example: fried corn tortillas drowned in spicy red sauce and topped with chicken, avocado and cheese. Meet chilaquiles: your new best friend.

10 A-list festivals and events

Carnival, Brazil

The Americas' most famous festival takes place not just in Rio but across Brazil. Wherever you go you'll find colourful, raucous and chaotic celebrations of music, friends, culture, and skimpy outfits. www.rio-carnival.net

Dia de los Muertos, Mexico

Mexico's "Day of the Dead" is observed across two days, October 31 and November 1, as locals celebrate friends and relatives who have passed away by taking to the streets for parades, and taking to the graveyards for a party. www.visitmexico.com

Burning Man, US

This annual gathering of society's weird, wonderful, alternative and alt-curious takes place deep in the Nevadan desert, a festival of art, counter-culture, crazy costumes and gratuitous nudity. www.burningman.org

Calgary Stampede, Canada

The biggest rodeo on Earth is a 10-day extravaganza of horse wrangling, bull riding, whip cracking, big hat wearing, pancake eating and beer drinking. More than a million people turn up to see it. www.calgarystampede.com

Inti Raymi, Peru

This Incan celebration of the winter solstice lives on in Cusco, where modern-day festivities involve music, dance, colourful costumes, traditional prayers, and a faux animal sacrifice. www.peru.travel

Fiesta de la Virgin de Candelaria, Bolivia

This is part festival, part pilgrimage, as people head to the shores of Lake Titicaca to honour Bolivia's patroness, Our Lady of Copacabana. It's a four-day festival of eating, drinking and dancing. www.bolivia.travel

Lollapalooza, Various

One of the US's most popular music festivals has been taken to the wider Americas, now calling in to Santiago, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro with a huge line-up of rock and dance acts. www.lollapalooza.com

Los Diablos Danzantes, Venezuela

Otherwise known as the "Dancing Devils of Corpus Cristi", this festival is celebrated across Venezuela by "brotherhoods" who dance around city streets dressed as devils. Then, they all go to mass. www.think-venezuela.net

Tango Buenos Aires Festival y Mundial, Argentina

This 18-day festival celebrates every Porteno's favourite dance, the tango, with public performances that entertain more than half a million people. There's also a massive open-air milonga, or tango club. www.festivals.buenosaires.gob.ar/en/home

South By Southwest, US

Part music festival, part industry conference, this Austin, Texas-based event draws musicians and artists from around the world – some already known, others hoping for their big break. www.sxsw.com

Traveller columnist Ben Groundwater has been holidaying in the Americas since he was a child, and loves the diversity that these twin continents offer. "There's so much to love about the Americas," he says, "but the highlight for me is always the people you meet. It doesn't matter if you're in the US or Brazil, in Peru or Canada, the locals always seem to be so warm and friendly."

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