South America top 20 things to do: Great southern lands

From surreal sunsets to ancient ruins, Brazil's neighbours enthral.

With all eyes on Brazil, host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, avoid the crowds and overinflated prices and head to its neighbours, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.

I spent four months travelling through these countries, and here's my pick of the top 20 things to do.


Indulge in food and wine

While the food throughout the continent is top-notch, you won't want to weigh yourself after leaving Argentina. The steak in Buenos Aires lives up to the hype and, with a parilla (steakhouse) on almost every corner, you won't have trouble finding somewhere to unleash your inner carnivore.

We loved the giant cuts of bife de chorizo (New York cut) and juicy bife de lomo (tenderloin) at Parilla Pena (Rodriguez Pena 682, Buenos Aires), with a side of papas fritas (thick-cut fries) and a bottle of malbec. Those with a sweet tooth should head straight to Bariloche, where you can gorge on handmade chocolate at any number of stores (Del Turista or Mamuschka), then go hiking, fishing or skiing while riding the sugar high.

Sundays in Palermo, Buenos Aires

The whole city seems to head to the trendy, leafy, cosmopolitan barrio of Palermo, with its cobblestone streets and designer stores. The grid-like streets are full of bars, restaurants, pubs and bakeries. Nightclubs don't start until midnight, so it's no wonder the weekend markets that circle Plaza Serrano don't begin until midday.


Take a seat at an outdoor table and watch the passing parade of fashionable portenos (Buenos Aires locals) and their french bulldogs, or if you prefer something more active, hire one of the conspicuously orange bicycles at La Bicicleta Naranja (Nicaragua Palermo 4825, Buenos Aires) and follow the network of separated bike paths to Parque Tres de Febrero. Here you will have fun dodging the hundreds of locals walking, cycling, jogging or rollerblading around the central Rose Garden Lake.

Take a break, grab a chorizo sandwich from the nearest street vendor and ask for an extra slice of bread to feed the geese.

Hiking in El Chalten

On a clear-sky day, El Chalten is so beautiful the setting is almost surreal. Nestled in a valley in the Patagonian region of Argentina, El Chalten is the gateway to the snow-capped Cerro Torres and Fitz Roy Mountain. Of the many hikes throughout the Los Glaciares National Park, we walked from town to Laguna de los Tres, an eight-hour round trip covering 25 kilometres. The trail is dominated by spectacular views, especially as it nears Laguna Capri and the distinctive Fitz Roy peak emerges from behind the trees. It is mostly flat, with some hills that will leave you breathing hard, but it's quite manageable, until just after the Poincenot campsite.

Signs implore only experienced hikers to venture beyond, but after an hour's climb up a slippery, snow-covered trail, you will be rewarded with vistas of Laguna de los Tres, Laguna Sucia and Lago Viedma, along with much closer views of Fitz Roy Mountain.

Perito Moreno Glacier

A bonus of visiting one of the few advancing glaciers in the world is that you are guaranteed to witness the spectacular sight of huge chunks of ice crashing into the water. The only warning is an eerie cracking sound, before a huge splash. Part of the Parque National Los Glaciares, the Perito Moreno Glacier is viewed from a series of elevated walkways and platforms that protect the parkland.

Every couple of years, the glacier forms a dam on Lago Argentina and, as the water flows under the glacier, it creates a bridge of ice. If you time your visit right, you may be lucky enough to see the bridge collapse in spectacular fashion.


Atacama Desert

Nothing quite prepares you for the beauty of Chile's Atacama Desert. From the high-altitude geysers to the imposing volcanos that dot the Andes, the landscape has an otherworldly feeling. With its dust-filled streets and colourful adobe buildings, the desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama has plenty of quality restaurants, many with live Andean music.

Our favourite, Adobe (Caracoles 211, San Pedro de Atacama), has a variety of local dishes on the menu and a courtyard firepit to keep you warm on cold, starry nights. There is also plenty to do here, including sandboarding, hiking and horseriding, or take a dip in Laguna Chaxa, where you can experience the closest thing to weightlessness in the salty water.

Road tripping

Campervan company Wicked opened its first South American outlet in Santiago a few years ago, so many of the graffiti-covered vans are near new and in excellent condition. The vans have a dining area that converts to a double bed, and a kitchenette with sink and gas camping stove.

Setting off from Santiago, we give ourselves 12 days to get to Chile's Atacama Desert, driving through the lush wine regions and cactus-dotted desert, spotting foxes, huge condors and camel-like vicunas. One of the highlights is the high-altitude border crossings between Argentina and Chile, the highest of which is 5800 metres (Mount Everest base camp is 5364 metres).

At this altitude, the van's top speed is 30km/h, and heads and bodies feel heavy and tired because of the lack of oxygen. Just when we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we see another group attempting the crossing on bicycles.

Camping in Patagonia

With its imposing glaciers, turquoise lakes and stunning snow-capped peaks, Torres del Paine National Park has it all.

The same can be said of its weather, which can be sunny one day and windy, raining and snowing the next, always a challenge for hikers and campers. All visitors must register and pay an entrance fee of 18,000 pesos ($35) on arrival before watching a presentation on park rules (no open fires, don't feed the animals and take all rubbish with you). Like most visitors, you can choose to hike the famous W trek, camping at sites or staying in refugios along the way. The horn-like Cuernos peaks are spectacular and, in good weather, French Valley is one of the most beautiful parts of the park. If you have the time and stamina to reach the back side of the W, you will find impressive views of the finger-like Torres or, for something different, go trekking across Grey Glacier.


One thing that surprises about Santiago is its wonderful views of the dusty mountains that ring the city and almost blend into the sky.

You can't go anywhere in town without feeling their presence, but the best way to view them is from the city's high points. San Cristobal Hill is 300 metres higher than the rest of Santiago and is a favourite spot for young locals, who head up the cable car each Sunday to enjoy a barbecue in the park.

At the base of the hill, the suburb of Bella Vista has plenty of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, for post-barbecue outings.

If you want some history with your views, Santa Lucia Hill is a wonderful option. It's not as high as San Cristobal, but houses an 1820s fort. It has lovely gardens, fountains and cobblestone roads, and the castle is used as a reception centre.


Uyuni Desert

The only way to see the dramatic landscapes of the Uyuni Desert is on a four-wheel-drive tour between the southern Bolivian town of Uyuni and Chile's Atacama Desert, although the trips can start at either town. Dodgy operators have plagued this popular border crossing, but if you ask around for recommendations and are prepared to pay more for the experience, it will be one you will never forget.

You will see high-altitude lakes in colours such as aqua, white and even red, thousands of flamingos in their natural environment, a smoking volcano, and swim in hot springs, but the dazzling white salt flats will impress most, especially at sunrise when the stars are still out and the light reflects off the crunchy, patterned ground.

It will feel as if you have discovered another planet.

World's most dangerous road

Hundreds of vehicles have plunged over the edge of this clifftop road, about 60 kilometres outside the Bolivian capital of La Paz, so you may question your sanity while mountain-biking down the three-metre-wide dirt track, dubbed the world's most dangerous road.

Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking takes groups on the five-hour ride, which starts at an altitude of 4700 metres, stopping frequently to point out the more dangerous sections. Safety is paramount. Riders are fully briefed on how to use the brakes and gears, and a bus follows the group to keep an eye on stragglers and pick up those who are struggling.

It is suitable for all skill levels, but more than 20 bike riders have died in the past 15 years, so it is no walk in the park. The hairpin bends and 1000-metre drops are hard to ignore, but it's an exhilarating experience set against incredible mountainous backdrop - a must for adrenalin junkies.

Lake Titicaca

The world's highest navigable lake straddles Bolivia and Peru, with each country home to some of the most picturesque sunsets.

The Bolivian town of Copacabana is set on the lake in a horseshoe bay surrounded by rolling green hills. The sunsets are best enjoyed from the lakefront bars with a pisco sour in hand or the hillside Las Olas Hostal (Calle Michel Perez, Copacabana) which has quirky villas with hammocks and plenty of windows to enjoy the views.

Spend the day exploring Inca ruins on the aptly named Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), about an hour's boat trip from Copa. Stay the night at the basic yet comfortable Hostal Inti Kala (Yumani, Isla del Sol), so you can watch the sky turn a surreal blend of purples and pinks.

Peru's famous Uros Islands are also magical in the warm afternoon light. The sight of houses, schools and hospitals, all on reed-covered floating blocks, is something to behold. The community is modernising, too, with many now using solar energy to power small televisions and other electricals.

In these high-altitude parts, spectacular evening storms are also common, so expect the ultimate thunder and lightning show, as we saw from our room overlooking the lake at Hotel Titilaka (Huencaya Tililaca, Puno).

La Paz

Strolling along the narrow alleyways of the Witches Markets in La Paz is not for the squeamish. Along with dried frogs, medicinal plants and an unidentifiable assortment of potions sold by local witch doctors, dried llama foetuses hang proudly on display.

They are said to bring good luck to new homes when buried under the foundations, as an offering to the Earth Mother, Pachamama.

For souvenirs you will actually be able to get through customs, there are plenty of stalls selling Andean rugs, woven bags and purses, and really cheap, locally made guitars.

Cuzco and the Sacred Valley

Ask any traveller to Peru what is top of their list and Machu Picchu is the likely answer. Perched high on a mountain and with some of the most impressive stonework in the world, the lost city is truly breathtaking. But go early. Even at 8am, the number of tourists is overwhelming.

The Sacred Valley, home to the Incas' fertile agricultural land, is less touristy but just as beautiful. Spend several days exploring the towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo and their terraced ruins.

Cuzco, the capital of the Inca empire, is a World Heritage site. A stroll through its streets reveals remains of the palace of the Inca, Qurikancha, and the 12-sided stone. On Christmas Eve, the central square, Plaza de Armas, comes alive with a huge fairy-lit market selling natural Christmas decorations and alpaca knits.


If you are past nightclubbing until the sun comes up, you may think the beachside party town of Mancora in north-eastern Peru has nothing to offer.

Yes, there are beachfront clubs that pump music from wardrobe-sized speakers and, if you are staying nearby, you will likely not sleep well, but if you want a relaxing beach holiday, where you can surf and chill out with a daily session of yoga, we have found the perfect place.

Samana Chakra is right on the beachfront about one kilometre from the main part of town. It has luxurious hut-style accommodation with outdoor bathrooms, an in-house restaurant and an infinity-edge pool.

If free daily yoga classes are too strenuous, massages are also available. (Lots 5 and 6, Lagunas de Mancora, Mancora, Peru).


Cocktails in Cartagena

The historic walls of the port city of Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean coast once protected the colonial town from pirates, but they now serve a much more welcoming purpose, as home to two of the city's most picturesque drinking spots. La Casa de la Cerveza (House of Beer) has views towards the city's lagoons and the imposing fort Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.

Cafe del Mar is ideal for sunset cocktails overlooking the ocean. Its comfortable outdoor lounge settings are good for groups, while high bar tables perch next to the cannons that line the historic wall.

The drinks can be pricey, so if you are on a budget but still want to enjoy a drink with your views, enterprising street vendors scale the wall at dusk, so sit further along the wall and buy a beer for a fraction of the cost.

Stay in a cubby on the Caribbean

A popular day trip out of Cartagena is to Playa Blanca, a dazzling white beach on the nearby island of Baru. Unfortunately, word of its beauty has got around, so during any tour, you share this piece of paradise with hundreds of tourists and locals touting everything from beaded jewellery to fruit platters and oil massages.

A great way to avoid this is to visit Playa Blanca overnight (most tour providers will drop you off for a fee), where you can stay in basic beach shacks for about 40,000 Colombian pesos ($23) a double.

The quieter places tend to be further down the beach, away from the spot where day-trippers arrive. Once they leave for the day, you have this amazing spot almost to yourselves. However, should the quiet pizza bar underneath your accommodation turn into a nightclub after dark, there is not much you can do but join the party.

Be a beach bum

An untouched wilderness on Colombia's north coast, Tayrona National Natural Park has some of the most pristine beaches in the country. Cabo San Juan de Guia is arguably the best, with its famous palm-fringed double bay.

To get there, pay a 37,000 peso entrance fee at the main park gate at Zaino. Catch a minivan (2000 pesos a person) to Canaveral, where you walk a further two hours through steamy rainforest to Cabo. It's a beautiful but strenuous hike, so it's best to pack light or hire a horse to carry your gear (16,000 pesos a bag).

Once there, tents and basic camping equipment can be rented for 25,000 pesos a night a person, or even less for a hammock, but you have to line up with scores of others to get a spot.

Other sites in the park are more relaxed, and there are plenty of walking trails and quiet beaches where you can swim, snorkel or crack open a coconut and chill out on the Caribbean.

About one hour east of Tayrona Park is Palomino Beach, where you find all manner of tourists hoping to prolong their travels by busking or selling braided bracelets on the sand. The little development here consists mainly of bamboo beach huts with palm-thatched roofs, ramshackle bars and a small kiosk where you can hire surfboards.

The thick Colombian jungle spreads all the way to the sand, where travellers light bonfires and watch the sunsets. The Dreamer Hostel is the only place in town with Wi-Fi and has beautiful gardens, bungalow-style doubles and dormitories, a swimming pool, restaurant and a bar that keeps a steady beat until midnight.


If you are looking for a slice of the real Colombia, head to Salento, a small village in the middle of the country's coffee region. Its brightly painted houses, coffee shops and bars seem straight from the set of a western. Cowboys and their tethered horses meander up and down the street. Stands selling gelato and beer sit side by side in the cobblestone square, while touts implore passers-by to catch a colourful Willys Jeep to the nearby Valle del Cocora, home to some of Colombia's most stunning scenery.

Towering wax palms, mist-covered valleys, rushing rivers and waterfalls are accessible by trail on foot or horseback. A three-hour hike to the hummingbird sanctuary is well worth the effort.

The hummingbirds are plentiful and their wings so fast you will feel the whir as they buzz past. For a luxurious stay only a stone's throw from Salento's main square, try Hotel Salento Real. The service and modern decor are excellent.



The bustling Plaza Grande in Quito's old town is a great spot to take in the colonial architecture while people-watching. The north-west side of the plaza is home to the white, arched Palacio de Gobierno (Presidential Palace), guarded by uniformed sentinels, while on the south-west side is the domed Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito, built in 1562.

It is one of many beautiful churches throughout the city, including the gothic basilica, which has beautifully filigreed steeples that provide a fantastic view of the city. At night the pedestrian-only Calle de la Ronda comes alive with street performers and crowds flocking to restaurants, bars and clubs to listen to live music.

The street's historic buildings have been refurbished and its history as home to Quito's bohemian artists, musicians and poets is now celebrated.


Each Saturday, the town of Otavalo hosts a huge food and artisan market that attracts Ecuadorians from near and far.

It's also a popular day trip for travellers out of Quito. The two-hour drive through beautifully green agricultural land, past colourful rose farms and huge lakes is well worth the effort.

There's plenty to see nearby. The indigenous village of Peguche is home to a small weaving community, where guests can be taught how to spin wool then colour it with natural dyes.

Walk to the lookout at Laguna Cuicocha, a deep-blue lake that fills the giant crater of the extinct Cotacachi volcano, then head to the village below and give your credit card a workout in the many shops selling high-quality leather goods.

The writer travelled at her own expense.



The bottom line

Ladies, there's no better way to be branded a tourist than to wear a full bikini bottom at the beach. G-string equals blend in.

Avoid alcohol at altitude

Don't drink at altitude. Unless you want to feel like an 80-year-old with emphysema.

Taste the local cuisine

Trying new foods is a wonderful part of travel but the Peruvian delicacy of guinea pig is not for everyone.

Listen to the music

Music is a way of life. It's danced to until the early hours and you won't catch a bus without being forced to listen to it playing from someone else's mobile.

Don't fear flying

With runways that seem too short, mountainous airport approaches and chaotic boarding procedures, flying within South America can feel like taking your life into your own hands.

Safety isn't always first

Safety is not always a priority. The first you'll know about the existence of a professional cycling race is when the peloton of 100 cyclists is coming at you on the wrong side of the highway.

Be flexible with sleeping arrangements

When there's nowhere else to sleep overnight during a road trip, truck stops aren't a bad option, just remember to wear thongs in the shower.

Plan your escape route

Just because you're staying in a decent hotel doesn't guarantee they won't lock you in at night, with no escape due to blocked fire stairs.

Suspect everyone

The thief who steals your backpack will be the guy you least expect. It's not the players in the school hockey team staying at your hostel - it's their coach.

Wise up

When a Colombian says he knows former AFL player Ben Cousins, he's trying to sell you drugs.