From lost cities to Devil's Island: 20 great adventures in South America for 2021

·12 min read
The spectacular dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park - Getty
The spectacular dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park - Getty
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1. Succumb to football fever, Argentina

As the outpouring of grief over the death of Diego Maradona confirms, to say that the Beautiful Game is an obsession in Argentina would be a huge understatement. So passions will be soaring in June and July as the country co-hosts the Copa América, with La Albiceleste vying to capture the trophy. Follow the fans between stadiums in Buenos Aires, nearby La Plata and Mendoza, where you can also kick back with a silky malbec in a chic winery. Finish with roars even louder than a cup-final crowd at the world’s largest waterfall system, thunderous Iguazú. 

A 13-day, football-focused itinerary with Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) costs from £3,465pp tailor-made, including flights and excursions such as a tour of Boca Juniors’ legendary home stadium, La Bombonera. Tournament match tickets on request.

2. Pack your polo gear, Argentina

From Paraguay through the Pampa to Patagonia, rural culture revolves around the horse. Playing gaucho is one way to immerse yourself; another is polo, a quintessential Argentine pastime. You’ll find opportunities for both at traditional country estancias (cattle ranches) such as Los Potreros in the Sierra Chicas south of Córdoba. Or try a two-hour polo taster on the outskirts of Buenos Aires at the grand mock-Tudor Estancia Villa Maria.

A seven-night package at Estancia Los Potreros (00 54 911 5900 6468; estancialospotreros.com) costs from £2,913pp including flights. A 12-night tailor-made Classic Argentina itinerary with Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547760; abercrombiekent.co.uk) costs from £6,035pp including flights and polo at Estancia Villa Maria. 

Polo is a quintessential Argentine pastime - Getty
Polo is a quintessential Argentine pastime - Getty

3. Ski a snow cone, Chile

This winter might be a bust for skiers in Europe, but set your sights south between July and October and you might yet carve fresh powder within the year. Chile’s best-known resorts include Valle Nevado, close to Santiago, and the unmistakable yellow hotel of Portillo above the emerald Laguna del Inca. Farther south, base yourself at andBeyond Vira Vira, a hacienda and lodge in the Chilean Lake District, to enjoy downhill skiing, ski-touring, boarding and heli-skiing on active volcanoes in Villarrica National Park.

A seven-night ski week package at Hotel Portillo (0056 2 2361 7000; skiportillo.com) costs from $1,230pp (£909). andBeyond Vira Vira (00 56 2 2755 2148; andbeyond.com) offers a four-night package from US$2,970 (£2,235), including skiing and other snow, land and water activities.

Experience the culture

4. Explore echoes of Africa, Brazil

Music, dance, food, religion – so many aspects of Brazilian life are infused with echoes of Africa. Discover this complex legacy with visits to a Roda de Samba and “Little Africa” district in Rio, a quilombo (settlement founded by people of African origin) in Paraty, and the Congada de São Benedito em Ilhabela, where you’ll absorb stories, dance, rhythms and chants with strong Bantu influences. Afro-Brazilian is arguably most vibrant in Salvador, where you can admire the dance-fight crossover Capoeira and explore the mysteries of the syncretic Candomblé religion. 

TravelLocal’s (0117 325 7898; travellocal.com) tailor-made, 14-day Brazil’s African Legacy tour costs from £3,140 excluding international flights. 

5. Roam atmospheric missions, Paraguay

This little-visited landlocked nation boasts an array of mesmerising historic sites, constructed not by ancient indigenous empires but by evangelising Europeans: the ruined, rust-red Jesuit missions of Trinidad and Jesús, ornate carved friezes and porticos offer a reminder of past glories. For a counterpoint to the monuments of the Ruta Jesuita, explore the Chaco, an expanse of savannah and wetland bustling with birdlife – flamingos, spoonbills and giant storks – caiman and deer; you’ll also encounter indigenous Guaraní communities and Mennonite pioneer settlements. Elsewhere, rainforests flanking mighty Iguazú Falls host coati, iguanas, macaws and toucans.

The 12-day, tailor-made Signature Paraguay with Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) costs from £3,730 including international flights.

Trinidad de Parana Jesuit mission - Getty
Trinidad de Parana Jesuit mission - Getty

6. Trek to the ‘Lost City’, Colombia

The city of Teyuna was built in the remote Sierra Nevada de Santa  Marta mountains by the Tairona  culture from the 12th century, then abandoned after the Spanish conquest; hidden and largely forgotten until looters stumbled upon it in the 1970s. The Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is now the centrepiece of the most Indiana Jones-esque of adventures: a five-day jungle trek in the company of an indigenous guide, sleeping in hammocks and cooling off in the Buritaca River. 

The seven-day Colombia – Lost City Trekking small-group tour with G Adventures (0207 313 6936; gadventures.com) costs from £441pp, excluding flights; several 2021 departures are planned. 

Ciudad Perdida - Getty
Ciudad Perdida - Getty

7. Meet the ‘Cloud people’, Peru

Think Peru, think Inca – but venture north to discover ancient sites constructed long before Machu Picchu. Near Trujillo, the Moche culture built huge, frieze-adorned adobe pyramid temples of the sun and moon in the early centuries AD, before the succeeding Chimú established its capital of Chan Chan. The Chachapoyan “Cloud People” later created the ridge-top fortress of Kuelap. 

The 14-day Lost Treasures of the Cloud Warriors group tour with Wild Frontiers (020 3925 9269; wildfrontierstravel.com) costs from £2,895 excluding international flights; departs May 29 2021. Other similar tailor-made itineraries are available.

Go on an adventure

8. Make a break for Devil’s Island, The Guianas

This year marks half a century since Henri Charrière’s page-turner Papillon first thrilled English-speaking readers with tales of daring escape attempts from French Guiana’s harshest penal colony – and “Devil’s Island” in the Îles du Salut still fascinates today. Explore that once-forbidding archipelago on a greatest hits tour of the three Guianas. In the French department, you’ll also see the European spaceport at Kourou; visit a maroon village inhabited by the descendants of former enslaved people in Suriname; and roam Guyana.

The 15-day Discovering the Hidden Guianas small-group tour with KE Adventure (01768 773966; keadventure.com) costs from £5,215 excluding international flights; four departures in 2021. 

Devil's Island - Getty
Devil's Island - Getty

9. Play gaucho, Uruguay

Sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, the compact (in South American terms) nation of Uruguay shares traits with both, yet has its own distinctive personality. For beach chic and Portuguese heritage, head to fishing village-turned celeb haunt José Ignacio, and amble the Unesco World Heritage-listed cobbles of Colonia del Sacramento, founded in 1680. If viticulture and ranch life are more your scene, tour the cellar doors of Carmelo’s wineries, and saddle up with gauchos at a traditional estancia.

A 15-day, tailor-made, self-drive tour with Audley Travel (01993 838496; audleytravel.com) costs from £3,680 including flights.

10. Drive some dunes, Brazil

There’s sun, sea, surf and abundant sand on Brazil’s laid-back northeast coast – most strikingly in Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, a 600-square-mile expanse of dunes up to 131ft high, interspersed after rain with jade-green freshwater pools just begging to be swum. A 4x4 odyssey tracing the coast explores the mangroves and lagoons of the vast Parnaíba Delta before dialling down the pace at the low-key palm-fringed beach haven of Jericoacoara.

Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) can tailor-make an eight-night northeast Brazil itinerary for £2,996pp including flights; Lençóis Maranhenses is most picturesque from March to October.

Indulge

11. Savour the Taste, Peru

Peru boasts 3,800 varieties of potato, plus tomatoes, quinoa, chilies, cacao and cuy (guinea pig), and with Spanish, Africa, Chinese, Italian, Japanese and indigenous culinary influences, its cuisine is making waves globally. Explore ancient flavours and modern innovations on a tour exploring Lima’s street food, Andean pachamanca earth-oven feasts, craft breweries, and coffee farms. Peru celebrates its bicentennial in 2021.

A 10-day Peru Real Food Adventure group tour with Intrepid Travel (0808 274 5111; intrepidtravel.com) visiting Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, costs from £1,36508 excluding international flights; six departures in 2021.

Peru is heaven for food lovers - Getty
Peru is heaven for food lovers - Getty
Wonder at wildlife

12. Scuba with sharks in Galapagos, Ecuador

The Enchanted Islands’ wildlife is magical enough on land, where blue-footed boobies dance, giant tortoises lumber and Sally lightfoot crabs scuttle across salt-snorting heaps of marine iguanas on black volcanic shores. Beneath the waves, though, it’s truly jaw-dropping: encounter hammerhead sharks, manta and eagle rays, turtles, athletic sea lions, pregnant whale sharks and a host of endemic species, including Galápagos penguins and those curious marine iguanas. Join a liveaboard dive boat to access the most dazzling sites around Darwin and Wolf Islands.

An eight-night, tailor-made trip with Original Diving (020 3911 0431; originaldiving.com) costs from £5,510 including flights, dives and land excursions.

A Sally lightfoot crab - Getty
A Sally lightfoot crab - Getty

13. Join Kate Humble in a primate hotspot, Colombia

Colombia’s natural wonders fly rather under the radar – yet with habitats encompassing Andes and Amazon, the vast Los Llanos plains and both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, it’s a biodiversity hotspot. Join naturalist Kate Humble to track the country’s 41 primate species – notably such rare and charismatic endemic monkeys as the cotton-top tamarin in Tayrona National Park – as well as giant anteaters near Villavicencio, and vividly coloured toucans in Rio Claro and El Paujil reserves.

Wildlife Worldwide’s (01962 302086; wildlifeworldwide.com) 12-night Colombia’s Rare Primates with Kate Humble group tour, costing from £6,795 including flights, departs Nov 11 2021; similar itineraries can be tailor-made. 

14. Feel the roar power, Guyana

The world’s largest single-drop waterfall, Kaieteur Falls, plummets 741ft – more than four times the height of Niagara – into the verdant rainforest of central Guyana, a luxuriant hinterland alive with animals. The booming call of howler monkeys pierces the pristine tropical forest of Iwokrama, where you might spy tapir, toucans, and possibly even jaguar from the canopy walkway. To the south you’ll discover a land of giants: oversized river otters in the Rupununi River and 6ft-long anteaters in the savannah around Karanambu Ranch.

Rainbow Tours’ (020 7666 1260; rainbowtours.co.uk) 14-day Guyana Nature Experience small-group tour costs from £5,995pp including flights; several departures scheduled for 2021.

Kaieteur Falls - Getty
Kaieteur Falls - Getty

15. Discover the Sacred Land of the Anangu, Ecuador

The Amazon rainforest is no homogeneous green blanket: its 2.6 million square miles encompass countless different ecosystems and communities. A showpiece of indigenous ecotourism is the rustic-luxury Napo Wildlife Center in Yasuní National Park – reputedly the most biodiverse place on the planet. Here, the Kichwa Añangu people share their knowledge of their traditional homeland, guiding wildlife-lovers through the rainforest in search of some 600 bird species, including macaws, toucans and the prehistoric-looking “stink bird”, the hoatzin, plus tapirs and ocelots; canoe trips yield sightings of giant otter and caiman.

A four-day package at Napo (00593 98 927 6879; napowildlifecenter.com) costs from $1,332pp (excluding international flights.

Head off the beaten track

16. Chase a different rainbow, Peru

The kaleidoscopic hues of Vinicunca, the ridge dubbed Rainbow Mountain, attracts busloads of day-trippers from Cusco for the breathless ascent to the 1,760ft viewpoint. But there are more appealing candy-striped peaks to snap: trek instead to Palccoyo and discover the equally photogenic Montaña Colorado in the Vilcanota range – not only is it quieter, but at 16,338ft, it’s also a slightly less head-spinning challenge. 

Explore (01252 884709; explore.co.uk) includes the Palccoyo hike in a 14-day Heights of Peru and Machu Picchu small-group tour, which also features the standard Inca Trail and Lake Titicaca. From £2,230pp excluding flights; five departures scheduled between May and October 2021.

Vinicunca - Getty
Vinicunca - Getty

17. Trace a new route, Chile

The groundbreaking Ruta de los Parques is a 1,700-mile scenic route that links 17 reserves in Chilean Patagonia. Spanning one-third of this thinnest of countries, the initiative aims to promote both conservation and local economies; it’s also a gift for travellers, opening up less-visited but equally epic landscapes. A 4x4 journey along the Carretera Austral allows plenty of time for epic hikes between the jagged limestone towers of recently gazetted Cerro Castillo National Park, across the ice of the Calluqueo Glacier, and among the guanacos in Parque Patagonia.

A 14-night Carretera Explorer self-drive trip with Pura Aventura (01273 676712; pura-aventura.com) costs from £4,680pp, excluding international flights.

Sail away

18. Cruise the continent

A new luxury cruise itinerary promises a 75-day, 45-stop voyage around South America, bookended by Caribbean sun. The continent’s diverse stories unfold at sites including the ancient adobe city of Chan Chan and mysterious Nazca Lines in Peru; the Afro-Brazilian traditions of Salvador and Paraty in Brazil; the dark past of Devil’s Island in French Guiana; and the colonial-era architecture of Lima, Valparaiso and Buenos Aires. Natural wonders abound, too, sailing alongside blue-footed boobies on the Ecuadorean coast, past the fjords and glaciers of Chilean Patagonia, and up the Amazon to Manaus.

Silversea’s (020 7340 0700; silversea.com) 75-day Grand South America voyage costs from £29,070pp including flights, departing Fort Lauderdale on Jan 3 2022. Four shorter segments are also bookable.

Take the kids

19. Summit the perfect peak, Ecuador 

Conquering the cone of Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s Fuji-rivalling pin-up, is an achievable 19,347ft challenge that fits nicely into a family adventure tracing the Avenue of the Volcanoes, spotting llamas and vicuñas on the slopes of mighty Chimborazo, and admiring the blue-green waters of Quilotoa’s crater lake. Youngsters revel in the colours and sounds of Otavalo’s traditional market and Amazoonico rescue centre.

A 14-night tailor-made Volcanoes & Jungle family tour with Stubborn Mule Travel (01728 752751; stubbornmuletravel.com) costs from £11,850 for a family of four, including flights; best May to October.

Cotopaxi - Getty
Cotopaxi - Getty
Try something different

20. Sleep under salt, Bolivia

The world’s largest salt flat provides some of the planet’s most dramatic scenery. Lose all sense of scale in the white expanse of the Salar de Uyuni, most eye-popping after rain transforms it into an endless sky mirror. Sleep in a hotel built of salt during a rail-based tour of Bolivia and Peru.

A 20-day tailor-made Peru & Bolivia rail tour with Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512400; ffestiniogtravel.com), visiting Machu Picchu and the Nazca lines, costs from £10,500 including flights.