South America travel highlights: The 10 must-see natural wonders

With the world's longest mountain range, the highest waterfall, the driest desert and the largest expanse of rainforest, South America is wonderful, in the truest sense of the word – from top to tip, this continent is a succession of natural wonders. Here are 10 of the finest.

PERITO MORENO GLACIER (ARGENTINA)

Creeping down from the Southern Patagonian Icefield, this 30-kilometre-long, powder-blue glacier regularly advances to form an ice dam across Lago Argentino. The most spectacular time to be here is when the volume of water behind the "dam" causes the glacier to violently rupture, an event that occurs about every four to five years. The most intimate look at the ice comes with a guided walk on the glacier itself. See Los Glaciares National Park, www.losglaciares.com/en/parque 

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The trek to the incredible Rainbow Mountain

Nina Karnikowski takes the high road to one of the world's natural wonders in Peru.

THE AMAZON

The superlatives alone are mind-boggling. The Amazon Basin covers an area almost the size of Australia, with 20 per cent of the water that runs off the Earth said to flow down the Amazon River. Half the world's remaining rainforest is here, as well as emblematic animals such as piranhas, toucans and pink dolphins. Expedition cruise ships ply the waters, and there are primeval highland experiences among hummingbirds and cloud forest in Peru and Ecuador.

ATACAMA DESERT (CHILE)

If the Amazon is defined by water, the Atacama is defined by the lack of it. Claimed as the driest desert in the world, the Atacama has areas that are said to have never seen rain. Volcanoes rise from the rust-coloured plateau, and salt flats gleam like distress flares. And when there's even a hint of rain, the seemingly lifeless desert bursts miraculously into colour as long-dormant wildflowers suddenly sprout. See www.chile.travel/en/where-to-go/north-and-the-atacama-desert 

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GALAPAGOS ISLANDS (ECUADOR)

What's so naturally wonderful about this bleak archipelago, 1000 kilometres off the coast of the continent, is its docile wildlife. Long isolated from the presence of humans, its animals now display a remarkable nonchalance around visitors. Blue-footed boobies hold their ground, forcing you to walk around them, iguanas eyeball you as you eyeball them, and Galapagos sea lions will likely adopt you as a playmate when you take to the waters. See www.galapagos.gob.ec, www.galapagos.org 

IGUAZU FALLS (ARGENTINA/BRAZIL)

Iguazu Falls might be a fraction of the height of Venezuela's world-topping Angel Falls (which are sadly all but off-limits to visitors due to the country's political turmoil), but their dimension is extraordinary. Forming a 2.7-kilometre-long curtain of water across the border of Brazil and Argentina (with Paraguay just down the street), the falls are composed of 270 discrete waterfalls with up to 6.5 million litres of water pouring through the rainforest and over the stepped cliffs every second. Take a boat into the Devil's Throat and you'll be wringing litres of that water from your clothing. See www.iguazuargentina.com 

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CERRO TORRE (ARGENTINA)

The Andes are arguably the most dramatic mountains on earth, blasted and scoured into outrageous shapes by fierce winds, ice and a brutal climate. Among a multitude of astonishing peaks, Cerro Torre stands apart. The needlepoint 3128-metre peak appears too narrow and fragile to survive against the conditions, and yet it remains firm as one of the world's most challenging mountaineering peaks. The simpler way to view it is on a day hike from El Chalten to Mirador Maestri. See Los Glaciares National Park, www.losglaciares.com/en/parque 

SALAR DE UYUNI (BOLIVIA)

Surround yourself with sparkling salt and an almost incomprehensible sense of vastness at the world's largest salt flat, covering an area bigger than Lebanon. Gleaming salt stretches unbroken to the horizon, and when the high-altitude flat covers with rain (usually in the December-to-April wet season), the earth turns into a giant mirror – a vast sky above, and a vast sky at your feet – with mind-bending mirages. Arguably South America's most photogenic location.

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The mind-blowing Iguazu Falls

The spectacular Iguazu Falls, crashing through the boarder of Brazil and Argentina, are like no other waterfalls on earth.

TORRES DEL PAINE (CHILE)

South America's most recognisable mountains are a tangle of bent, broken and beautiful peaks and pillars. Look across the glacially blue lakes laid out across the foot of the massif and it's the gnarled, black-tipped cuernos (horns) peaks that dominate. But head through the Ascencio Valley, either on a long day walk or as part of the famed W Trek, and you ultimately climb to a high and barren lake, where the torres (towers) soar 1500 metres overhead like enormous granite pickets. Humbling and magnificent. See Torres Del Paine National Park, www.conaf.cl/parques/parque-nacional-torres-del-paine   

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CANO CRISTALES (COLOMBIA)

The so-called "River of Five Colours" is a seasonal wonder. Each year between about September and November, a small river plant erupts into the most brilliant shades of red and purple, creating a colourful phenomenon that's seen Cano Cristales described as the most beautiful river in the world. To see this annual blush, you need to fly into remote La Macarena and hike to the river.

RAINBOW MOUNTAIN (PERU)

Rivalling Cano Cristales as South America's most colourful sight is this curious mountain in southern Peru. The well-named Rainbow Mountain (or Vinicunca, to use its formal name) is striped in colours so vibrant – gold, turquoise, wine-red – as to seem unnatural and hallucinogenic. The colours come from minerals in the earth, though it looks as if somebody dribbled paint down the slopes. Once seen only by hikers on the challenging multiday Ausangate trek, Vinicunca is now the focus of day trips from Cusco.

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