South America: All the must-do experiences

Rio de Janeiro needs no excuse to party. This is a city in permanent celebration mode, where the mere setting of the sun is as good a reason as any to break out the drinks and the dancing shoes and have a good time.

So you can imagine what this famously hedonistic metropolis is going to be like in a few weeks time when the Olympic Games begin next Saturday, Australian time. The whole world is coming to Rio, and it had better be ready for a few late nights. 

For travellers, a Rio Olympics – the first ever Games in South America – means a renewed focus on one of the most diverse and fascinating continents on the planet. South America is a haven for adventurous explorers, a place that caters for the full gamut of budgets and interests, from the cheapest beachside hostel in Colombia to the fanciest luxury cabin in Patagonia.

There are, of course, challenges when it comes to tackling South America. The Zika virus is rightly a concern for plenty of travellers, and there's always a certain element of danger involved in exploring this sometimes volatile and potentially hazardous continent.

Those who take a chance on South America, however, will be richly rewarded by some of the world's true travelling highlights. Here, on the eve of the Rio 2016 Olympics and in the spirit of the Games, we set up the podium and cue the national anthems as we prepare to award the continent's champion destinations and experiences.

BEST NATURAL ATTRACTION

GOLD Galapagos, Ecuador

There's no place on Earth quite like the Galapagos, the group of islands tucked almost 1000 kilometres west of Ecuador. Here you find nature at its most raw and untouched, a place of incredible beauty that's home to a huge array of unique wildlife, from the eponymous giant tortoises to marine iguanas, Darwin finches, flightless cormorants, and Galapagos penguins. Throw in boobie birds, hammerhead sharks, whales, and much more, and you have one amazing destination.

MAKE IT HAPPEN chimuadventures.com.

SILVER Patagonia, Chile

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You can't fail to be impressed by Patagonia, by the huge open spaces, the jagged mountain peaks, the glaciers, the rivers, the fjords and the pampas. Patagonia remains blissfully unspoiled, a nature-lover's paradise where getting away from it all is as easy as stepping outside your cabin and taking in the views while breathing in clean mountain air. 

MAKE IT HAPPEN intrepidtravel.com.

BRONZE Pantanal, Brazil

The open spaces of the Pantanal – the world's largest wetland area, in central Brazil – are perfect for wildlife spotting. With no jungle foliage to block your view, it's easy to spot the fascinating likes of capybaras, monkeys, anteaters, peccaries, macaws, toucans, and owls. Even without those animals, just being in the Pantanal, as remote and isolated as it is, is an adventure.

MAKE IT HAPPEN classicsafaricompany.com.au.

BEST MANMADE ATTRACTION

GOLD Machu Picchu, Peru

It must be one of the most photographed sites in the world: the 600-year-old lost city of Machu Picchu, a group of well preserved Incan ruins set high in the Andes. That setting is almost as amazing as the citadel itself, amid the sheer valleys and rugged peaks that typify the area. The traditional way to reach Machu Picchu is to hike the old Inca Trail – though many now arrive by train.

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitperu.com.

SILVER Nazca Lines, Peru

Peru has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to historic attractions – we haven't even touched on the legacies of the Chimu or Moche people – but one of the most fascinating is the Nazca Lines. More than 2000 years ago the Nazca people carved huge, intricate pictures and designs into the desert plateau without ever being able to see their work from above. These days, light planes provide a way to appreciate their work.

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitperu.com.

BRONZE Christ the Redeemer, Brazil

That 635 tonnes of reinforced concrete and soapstone could even be lugged up to the top of Corcorvado Mountain, high above Rio de Janeiro, is a feat in itself. That those materials could then be fashioned into a giant form of Jesus Christ to watch over this passionately religious city is something else. Christ the Redeemer remains one of Rio's premier attractions. 

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitbrasil.com.

BEST JOURNEY

GOLD Atacama to Uyuni, Chile and Bolivia

This is typically a three-day adventure that covers some of South America's most spectacular high-altitude terrain.  Begin in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, a tiny settlement in the middle of the desert, before crossing into Bolivia and calling past Laguna Verde, or green lake, the Laguna Colorado, and on across the altiplano towards the Salar de Uyuni salt lake.

MAKE IT HAPPEN classicsafaricompany.com.au.

SILVER River cruise the Ucayali, Peru

If the remote Peruvian town of Nauta feels wild – and it should – then imagine what it's like to cast off from the banks of that riverside settlement and head deep into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. This is a river cruise into the heart of the Amazon jungle, an area that is flooded for half of the year, and which is home to an amazing array of plant and wildlife. The fact you can do it on a luxury riverboat, however, certainly takes the edge off. 

MAKE IT HAPPEN chimuadventures.com.

BRONZE Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires, Brazil and Argentina

One of South America's classic road journeys takes travellers between two of its best cities, from the rowdy hub of Rio, via the Pantanal wetlands and the beauty of Iguacu Falls, to trendy, cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. This is a well-trodden path with plenty of infrastructure, making it easy for first-timers to the continent.

MAKE IT HAPPEN intrepidtravel.com.

BEST CITY

GOLD Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 

How could it be anywhere else? You've heard all of the cliches about Rio: the beachgoers in their skimpy swimwear, the football obsession, the promenade down by Copacabana, the juice bars, the samba clubs, the caipirinhas… And they're all true. They all exist, and they're all amazing. Rio is rowdy, it's edgy, it's sexy, it's cool and it's fun. What's not to love?

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitbrasil.com.

SILVER Cartagena, Colombia

There's so much romance, history and intrigue in Cartegena that it's very easy to picture yourself in a novel by one of the city's favourite sons, author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This Caribbean port town has a history rich with tales of pirates and pillagers, those who came to loot the walled old town filled with colonial-era mansions and centuries-old squares. These days, the only invaders are tourists.

MAKE IT HAPPEN colombia.travel.

BRONZE Valparaiso, Chile

Most visitors fall in love instantly with the ramshackle city they call "Valpo", and that's understandable. This Chilean town is a rich tapestry of colour, of brightly hued homes that cling to the steep coastal hills leading up from the Pacific. Valpo is a student town, a place to hang out in smoky bars and get to know the locals.

MAKE IT HAPPEN chile.travel.

BEST FESTIVAL

GOLD Carnival, Salvador, Brazil

The sequins and sex appeal of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival are known worldwide, but there are Carnival celebrations that take place across Brazil, and the most fun by far is the party staged in Salvador. This coastal city, up north in Bahia, hosts a week-long extravaganza of samba parades and "carnaval blocos": the roving street bands who spark spontaneous parties. "Fun" doesn't even begin to describe it.

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitbrasil.com.

SILVER Boi Bumba, Parintins, Brazil

Once a year the small Amazonian town of Parintins comes alive for the staging of Boi Bumba, or "Beat the Bull", a retelling of an old folk tale that involves a parade of 10-metre-high floats, actors dressed as riotously coloured snakes, birds and jaguars, and almost the entire population of the region out to watch the spectacle. 

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitbrasil.com.

BRONZE Los Diablos Danzantes, San Francisco de Yare, Venezuela

Venezuelans in the coastal region of Miranda celebrate Corpus Christi, the triumph of good over evil, each year by dressing as demons and taking to the streets. These aren't any old demons, either – the longer a person has been participating in the festival, the bigger their masks and the more elaborate their costumes, making for a visual feast.

MAKE IT HAPPEN think-venezuela.net.

BEST ADVENTURE

GOLD Hiking the Salkantay trail, Peru

There's no doubt Peru's most famous hiking path, the Inca Trail, is spectacular, but it's also immensely popular. To avoid the crowds while still tramping through some of the most amazing mountain terrain you're likely to encounter, head to the nearby Salkantay Trail. Tours still depart from Cusco and end at Machu Picchu, but they also follow a high-altitude pathway used only by local farmers and the hardy few travellers.

MAKE IT HAPPEN mountainlodgesofperu.com. 

SILVER Gaucho training, Argentina

There's no better way to embrace Argentinian culture than by training to become one of the country's favourite sons: the gaucho. These steely-eyed cowboys still roam the pampas near Cordoba in central Argentina, and there are plenty of estancias, or cattle farms, that allow tourists a small window into that horse-riding, steak-eating lifestyle by setting you astride a pony and taking you out for a trot.

MAKE IT HAPPEN chimuadventures.com.

BRONZE Climbing Villarica volcano, Chile

In the heart of Chile's lakes district, a place of rolling hills and sparkling expanses of water, the Villarica volcano stands tall and imposing. It's still active – smoke pours regularly from its concave summit – but that doesn't stop hikers from scaling the peak and taking in the views. The climb is actually relatively gentle, giving travellers an easy chance to say they've been to the top of a live volcano.

MAKE IT HAPPEN chile.travel.

BEST REMOTE CIVILISATION

GOLD Manaus, Brazil

There are more than 2.5 million people who call Manaus home – but still, don't confuse this as being somewhere that's easy to get to. Manaus sits high up in the far north of Brazil, nestled in the Amazon jungle near the confluence of two mighty rivers. The city itself is fairly unremarkable, but there's no better jumping off point for a myriad of wild Amazonian adventures.

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitbrasil.com.

SILVER San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Occasionally you find yourself in a town with such a bizarre location you think, "Who would build their home here?". San Pedro de Atacama is just such a place. This village is isolated in the middle of the Atacama Desert, a place that's 2500 metres above sea level and receives barely a millimetre of rain a year. By its very nature, it's a fascinating town to visit. 

MAKE IT HAPPEN chile.travel.

BRONZE Iquitos, Peru

Iquitos is wild. It has the feel of an anarchic town from an old western film, where laws – and outlaws – are made on the run. It's a city of almost half a million people, and yet it's completely cut off by land from the rest of Peru. If you want to get in, you'll have to fly. It will be worth it though: Iquitos marks the beginning of the Amazon, and the end of civilisation as you know it.

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitperu.com.

BEST FOOD

GOLD Lima, Peru

Lima has a phenomenal three – count 'em, three – restaurants in the top 30 in the world, according to the most recent "World's 50 Best" list. That's an amazing achievement for a city whose love for food might go back centuries, but its fine-dining scene is very much in its infancy. With a host of talented, passionate chefs using techniques from Spain, China, Japan, and the indigenous cultures of the Americas, something incredible is happening in Lima.

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitperu.com.

SILVER Buenos Aires, Argentina

Meat eaters, rejoice: you've found heaven. If beef is your thing, head to Buenos Aires. If sausages are your jam, go no further. If you like smoky barbecued lamb, or big hunks of chicken, or pretty much any animal that can be cooked over fire to tender, delicious perfection, then the Argentinian capital is the place to be. The asado, or grill, is a way of life here. Arrive hungry.

MAKE IT HAPPEN argentina.travel.

BRONZE Salvador, Brazil

The Bahian capital of Salvador is all about street food: spicy, African-influenced cuisine that suits the sultry climate. Start off with acaraje, a fried bean cake filled with prawns that have been fried whole, shell and all, with chilli. Then move on to moqueca, a deliciously fragrant seafood stew, or a tapioca pancake, and finish up with cocadas, sweet coconut-based desserts. 

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitbrasil.com.

BEST DRINK

GOLD Caipirinha, Brazil

Brazilians hold deep passions for many things – football, God, family, going to the beach in very small outfits – but one of the most enjoyable is the caipirinha. It's a simple cocktail, a mix of cachaca, the local sugar-cane spirit, with ice, fresh limes and sugar (don't ask how much sugar). The result is a delicious beverage that lends itself to long days by the beach and long nights on the dancefloor.

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitbrasil.com.

SILVER Pisco Sour, Peru

This is controversial, because both Chileans and Peruvians claim the pisco sour as their own. The Peruvian version, however, includes not just pisco – a Chilean/Peruvian grape brandy – and lime juice, but also a top of foamy egg-white and Angostura bitters, which in our opinion makes it superior. Wherever you have one, however, this tangy, boozy cocktail is sure to hit the spot.

MAKE IT HAPPEN visitperu.com.

BRONZE Malbec, Argentina

There are two types of wine drinkers in the southern parts of South America: those who prefer malbec, and those who like carmenere. Those groups of people are known as "Argentinians" and "Chileans". There's a rivalry, of course, between these neighbouring countries and their respective wine-makers and the grapes they hold dearest. Our preference is for the robustness of an Argentinian malbec.

MAKE IT HAPPEN argentina.travel.

SOUTH AMERICA: THE RECORD-BREAKERS

HIGHEST WATERFALL

Angel Falls, Venezuela: 979 metres

LONGEST RIVER

The Amazon: 6400 kilometres

LARGEST COUNTRY

Brazil: 8,515,767 square kilometres

HIGHEST MOUNTAIN

Aconcagua, Argentina: 6961 metres

SMALLEST CAPITAL CITY

Paramaribo, Suriname: 243,556 people

OLDEST RUINS

Sechin Bajo, Peru: 3500 BC

TALLEST BUILDING

Gran Torre Santiago, Chile: 300 metres

LONGEST BRIDGE

Rio-Niteroi, Brazil: 13.29 kilometres 

BIGGEST POPULATION

Brazil: 209,567,920 people

SMALLEST POPULATION

Suriname: 560,000 people

WHY YOU SHOULD STILL VISIT BRAZIL

The news on Brazil hasn't been good for a while. There's political unrest; random acts of violence; widespread crime; and now, to top it all off, the threat of the Zika virus. 

Even Olympians are being turned off, which is understandable. There have always been risks to travelling in Brazil – right now, however, they're higher than they have been for a while.

And yet, you really should still travel to Brazil. If not now, then at a point in time when Zika is no longer an issue. Because this is a huge country with a giant heart to match, a diverse, beautiful and friendly land that is ready to welcome visitors at any time.

You could point to the natural attractions of Brazil as reason to go there. You could mention the vast tracts of Amazon rainforest, or the wetlands of the Pantanal, or the palm-tree-lined beaches of Bahia, the might of Iguacu Falls, the hills of Rio de Janeiro, or the island paradise of Florianopolis. 

Those would all be good points – but they're not the reason you should visit Brazil.

You could talk about the man-made beauty in this huge country, the widespread arms of Christ the Redeemer, the opulent Copacobana Palace Hotel, the Afro-Caribbean charm of Salvador, or Sao Paulo Cathedral, or the Maracana football stadium. 

Those would also be good points – but still, they're not the reason you should visit Brazil.

The real reason you should visit Brazil is simply the people, and the culture.  You haven't experienced warmth until you've made friends with a Brazilian. These are a fiercely loyal people who will do almost anything for you once they regard you as a friend. You'll always feel welcome with a group of Brazilians.

And their culture is all about the embrace of the good things in life. It's about the importance of family and friends. It's about late-night churrascos and drinks in the open air. It's about yelling yourself hoarse for a football team. It's about the staccato beat of samba drums, the flash of bare skin, the sweaty joy of a dancefloor and a live band.

Brazil can be intimidating through its sheer size and the slight piquancy of danger that permeates every experience. But that's also part of the country's charm. Take a chance on Brazil, and Brazilians, and the rewards will always be there.  

For the latest updates on travel conditions in Brazil, and information about the Zika virus, go to smartraveller.gov.au.

HOLIDAYING IN SOUTH AMERICA: A SURVIVAL GUIDE

LEARN SOME SPANISH (AND A LITTLE PORTUGUESE)

While you could make do with slowly spoken English and impromptu sign language, you'll get so much more out of South America if you can speak the main languages. Take the time to at least learn some basic phrases and greetings.

DITCH YOUR VALUABLES

Even in the safest South American city, if you walk around with chunky, expensive jewellery on you'll be asking for trouble. It's best to just leave all the watches and rings and necklaces at home. 

EAT EVERYTHING

From Peru to Brazil to Argentina to Colombia, in South America you have some of the world's finest cuisines. The trick is to trust the locals and try everything. These guys know what they're doing when it comes to food.

TAKE THE BUS

South American buses are not buses as you know them. These are seriously pimped rides – at their best, they're the equivalent of business class on a plane, complete with waiter service and lie-flat seats. 

DANCE

Latin Americans love to dance. They tango, they salsa, they samba and they swing. You should not, however, be intimidated – this is culture at its most approachable and enjoyable. Give it a shot. Someone is sure to offer you a hand. 

LEARN SOME HISTORY

Who were the Moche people? When did the Quechuans arrive? Who was Simon Bolivar? Why does everyone love Che Guevara? To properly understand South America and its cultural sensitivities, you'll need to do some research.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

The relative safety of many parts of South America can change rapidly. Before you leave, and as you travel, scan travel forums for news of what's happening – where to avoid, which scams to look out for, and tour operators to dodge.

JUST GO

There seems to be a perception among travellers that you need about six months to "do" South America properly. That may be true, but there's no harm in just seeing a small part of it for a fortnight or so. Just go: you won't regret it.

Ben Groundwater, a regular Traveller and traveller.com.au contributor and columnist, first visited South America in 2007. He has returned countless times since. "I love the passion of Latinos," he says. "They are totally committed to everything they love, from family, to food, to that most important thing of all: their football team." 

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