No longer just the domain of backpackers and the brave, South America has something for everyone, writes Katrina Lobley.
For many first-timers heading to South America, it's all about Peru. "For people who have never been there, when they think of South America, unconsciously they're thinking Peru," says Martin Ruffo, Intrepid Travel's product manager for the Americas.
"They're thinking Machu Picchu, they're thinking the Inca Trail most of the time - and that's reflected in the number of passengers we carry to Peru." Ruffo, who hails from Argentina, says when it comes to tourism, "Peru has its act together". "There are a lot of flights linking major destinations and it's really easy, in eight to 10 days, to visit Machu Picchu, the Amazon jungle, Lake Titicaca and come back to Lima to fly out."
Australians, it seems, can't get enough of Peru - over the past decade, our visitation has more than doubled (from 16,534 in 2004 to 36,373 in 2013). Besides Peru, Ruffo says, Australians are interested in multi-country trips such as combining Argentina with Brazil, which is basking in the twin sporting glories of securing not only this year's World Cup but also the 2016 Olympics.
As for emerging destinations, Ruffo rates Colombia as one of the biggest surprises. "It's relatively unspoilt and the people are still incredibly friendly. My boss was in Colombia a couple of months ago - she took the wrong local bus and the bus driver stopped, turned the bus around, waited at a bus stop for another bus to come and explained to the bus driver where she wanted to go."
In new developments, the arrival of Bolivian regional airline Amaszonas has put Madidi National Park - home of tapirs, caimans, capybaras and macaws - onto Intrepid's radar. "Bolivia is Peru's poor sister - no one talks about Bolivia - but it's a magical destination," says Ruffo.
For travellers worried about safety in South America or getting about without knowing the language, Ruffo recommends combining a tour - to learn the lie of the land - with independent travel afterwards.
As for reaching the continent, Australians are likely to fly with LAN or Qantas into Santiago, with onward connections from there. Aerolineas Argentinas, which flies direct from Sydney to Buenos Aires, is saying adios to the route from April 2.
Why go? Peru is so haute right now when it comes to gastronomy. With more than 55 corn varieties and 2500-plus kinds of potato, the country's rich bounty was ripe for elevation to fine-dining tables once civil conflict ended in the late 1990s. Beyond the dining tables are ancient marvels: the Incan city of Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines and the developing Moche archaeological route in the north.
Which tour? Intrepid Travel is launching a food tour in June (from $2444 a person twin share). Chimu Adventures' seven-day horseback trip (from $3770 a person twin share) takes riders from Cusco to Machu Picchu, staying in remote lodges along the way. Over-55s can sign up for a 23-day adventure ($4690 a person twin share) with World Expeditions that starts in Argentina and ends in Bolivia but focuses mainly on Peru, with a peaceful trek along an alternative ancient trail to Machu Picchu. See intrepidtravel.com, chimuadventures.com, worldexpeditions.com.
Don't leave Lima without ... exploring the Larco Museum, built atop a seventh-century pre-Columbian pyramid, which showcases pottery and gold treasures from ancient civilisations.
Why go? The Galapagos Islands exude sheer animal magnetism. The archipelago, teeming with wildlife unafraid of humans, helped Charles Darwin form his theory of evolution when he noticed the finches on each island had slightly different beaks. Today, the islands are on the travel wish-lists of those who want to see marine iguanas, sea lions, giant land tortoises and birds such as the blue-footed booby and frigatebird. In the high-altitude capital of Quito, get your bearings on the World Heritage-listed city by climbing the Basilica del Voto Nacional, studded with iguana and turtle-shaped gargoyles.
Which tour? It's not only grown-ups who fall for the fauna of the volcanic islands straddling the equator. Give creature-obsessed kids something to tell their mates with a family adventure. The Classic Safari Company's seven-night cruise (two adults and two kids, from about $15930) includes snorkelling, kayaking and shore excursions. From Quito, you can also visit Amazonian Ecuador. World Expeditions' four-day stay at Napo Lodge in Yasuni National Park ($1340 a person twin share) includes visits to parrot clay licks and canoe rides to see giant otters. classicsafaricompany.com.au, worldexpeditions.com.
Don't leave Quito without ... riding the quaint Tren del Ecuador past stupendous volcanoes.
Why go? From the flamingo-filled lakes and desert salt pans of the north to rugged Patagonia in the south, Chile's geographical diversity is extraordinary. It has a sophisticated transport system, mouth-watering seafood and excellent wines. As for islands, photogenic Chiloe is a charmer while Easter Island's 887 monumental statues remain as intriguing as ever.
Which tour? Australian travellers can familiarise themselves with Santiago through Peregrine Adventures' three-day Santiago Stopover tour (from $570 a person twin share) that visits Chile's largest winery and city neighbourhoods. Peregrine also has a four-day Easter Island stopover (from $1730 a person twin share). Bunnik Tours' 12-day Ultimate Chile independent tour (from $4995 a person twin share) takes in volcanic caves, geysers and the Atacama Desert. peregrineadventures.com, bunniktours.com.au.
Don't leave Santiago without ... admiring La Chascona, the quirky Santiago home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda.
Why go? It's party central. To make like an Argentinian, take a siesta and start thinking about dinner at 10.30pm. Known as the Paris of South America, Buenos Aires is a potent combination of grand European capital and cheeky Latino attitude. This is the place to tuck into a juicy steak, watch a football game or admire the candy-coloured houses of the bohemian La Boca neighbourhood. Beyond the capital, spectacular Iguazu Falls is a popular drawcard.
Which tour? To explore more of the countryside, venture to the colonial town of Salta in the north-west. It's the base for World Expeditions' four-day trip ($860 a person twin share) to gorges, a winery and an old Indian fortress. Go on Trafalgar's 14-day Patagonian Grand Adventure (from $6690 a person twin share) to lunch with a family on the Patagonian steppe before heading to Chile's Torres del Paine National Park and Argentina's Los Glaciares and Tierra del Fuego national parks. worldexpeditions.com, trafalgar.com.
Don't leave Buenos Aires without ... admiring Plaza Dorrego's tango dancers on a Sunday afternoon.
Why go? South America's largest country has beauty by the bucket-load: just think of the curve of Copacabana Beach, the Amazon's flooded forests and the colonial towns that time forgot. Brazilians are among the world's most sociable people - their sheer joie de vivre is on display at Carnival time. They're also football-obsessed. For the World Cup, which kicks off in June, the normal visa fee for Australian citizens has been waived for ticket-holders (see socceroos.com.au/ticketsandtravel for ticket information and Football Federation Australia's preferred travel partners). Brazil is also gearing up to host the 2016 Olympics.
Which tour? Rio's Carnival is now over for another year but youthful travellers can still get plenty of Rio time on Contiki's 10-day Argentina and Brazil Experience (from $3099 a person twin share).
Don't leave Rio de Janeiro without ... riding the cog train up through lush forest to visit Christ the Redeemer, the 40-metre-high statue on Corcovado.
The writer travelled to Peru courtesy of Intrepid Travel and LAN Airlines.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Born near Queensland's iconic Big Pineapple, travel writer Katrina Lobley grew up always wondering what lay beyond. Over two (and counting) decades she's explored 22 of the 50 US states.
BEFORE YOU GO
Check the Australian government's smartraveller.gov.au website - it carries detailed advisories and alerts on everything from political unrest to disease outbreaks, natural disasters and more. South America also calls for common sense. Take out travel insurance, leave the bling at home and, once on the ground, be alert - keep pockets zipped and purses close to hand in crowded places.
Most parts of South America - except for Chile and the Galapagos Islands - are on Australia's list of yellow fever-declared places. Only certain medical centres issue yellow fever vaccination certificates, so check before making an appointment. Ask the doc what other vaccinations are recommended for the areas you're visiting.
Altitude sickness can kick in at elevations of more than 2500 metres above sea level. Medication can help alleviate symptoms such as headache, vomiting and nausea when visiting places such as Cusco (3400m) or Lake Titicaca (3800m) in Peru, La Paz (3640m) in Bolivia or Quito (2800m) in Ecuador. Steer clear of upset stomachs by sticking to bottled water, and washing your hands.
Your Spanish is on the rusty side? You know zero Portuguese? Apps can help. WordLens ($4.99 with one language pack) translates words captured on a smartphone's camera and doesn't require an internet connection. With the free Google Translate app, type, speak or photograph the words you want translated.
Chances are you'll fly to South America with LAN or codeshare partner Qantas. Qantas has three direct Sydney-Santiago flights a week, while LAN flies Sydney-Santiago via Auckland six times a week. Aerolineas Argentinas ends direct Sydney-Buenos Aires flights from April 2. qantas.com.au, lan.com, aerolineas.com.ar.
... NOT TO FORGET
This country's got everything, from charming high-altitude cities (La Paz is 3640 metres above sea level) to the world's largest salt flat, and lowland Amazon rainforest. For a trip with a difference, volunteer with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi and help rehabilitate rescued wildlife at three parks around the country. intiwarayassi.org.
Colombia has put decades of civil conflict behind it to emerge as one of South America's hottest destinations. Intrepid's eight-day Cafe Colombia tour (from $1440 pp twin share) includes staying at a coffee estancia between the mountain cities of Bogota and Medellin before finishing in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. intrepidtravel.com; colombia.travel.
The New York Times travel hot list recommends visiting the Uruguayan Riviera's Rocha region before it's spoilt with overdevelopment. For sheer swank, try Punta del Este (known as the St Tropez of South America) or, from Buenos Aires, travel across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo or Colonia with its World Heritage historic quarter. southamericatravelcentre.com.