South America embodies a soul that’s found nowhere else in the world. And each country has its own traditions and cultures; from the melancholic Argentinean tango to the ancient Inca ruins of Bolivia.
The two largest countries in the continent, Brazil and Argentina, are perhaps the most diverse and most travellers to South America choose to combine a trip to both countries. Brazil is a blend of diverse cultures: Portuguese, native Indian, African, European, Middle Eastern and Asian all living in this wild and exciting land. While in Argentina its European influences dominate its art, architecture, literature and lifestyle. But what both countries do have in common is the Iguazú Falls, the spectacular 275 cascading waterfalls which are taller than Niagara Falls and possibly one of the most unforgettable sights in the world.
North of Argentina is Bolivia, a country nestled between the Andes and the Amazon rainforests. Because of its isolation, the country has retained the ancient traditions of its ancestors, making it a fascinating and mysterious place to visit. Bolivia’s neighbour, Peru, is just as captivating; its history dates back to the Inca Empire with Machu Picchu, its most illustrious symbol. The countries in the northern end of South America including Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela might not be as renowned for their ancient wonders as the other countries but what they do have is a natural beauty - spectacular landscapes, tropical rainforests, and pristine beaches – that makes them inimitable.
South America climate
South America can be split into four climatic zones: tropical, dry, cold and temperate. Depending on which area of the continent you’re visiting, the elevation and weather factors including rain and wind contribute to the climate variations, making it unpredictable and erratic in some areas.
When to fly to South America
Argentina and Brazil, both in the Southern Hemisphere, can be visited all year round but most people prefer to travel during the peak season – mid December to early March – when the weather is hot and humid. But if you’d rather avoid paying higher prices for South America flights and accommodation, then the best time to go is in winter between the months of June and October. Chile, also in the Southern Hemisphere, has climactic variations from the north to south. The north can be visited at any time of the year while central and southern Chile should be avoided from June to September when snowfall can get heavy.
The Andean countries including Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru have two distinct seasons: wet and dry, and depending on the altitude and proximity to the equator, each country’s peak season will differ slightly.
Bolivia has the most unpredictable weather in South America, thanks to its topography and altitude. Generally the best time to visit is during the dry season between May and October. Peru is another country with complicated weather due to its high elevation and close proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The best time to visit is summer, from January to March when days are hot and humid.
Getting around South America
Internal South America flights are the most convenient, but not necessarily the cheapest way to get around from one country to the next. While visiting Brazil, for example, internal flights are notoriously expensive so it’s a good idea to get air passes which allows you to take a few internal flights and is cheaper than purchasing tickets separately. Or if you’re planning on travelling between Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, you should consider buying a pass that will allow for two stops in each country.
Buses are the next most popular form of transport, to some the only form, and provide a cheaper alternative to flying and a great way to see the country. However it’s not always advisable to take overnight buses especially in Ecuador and Peru where armed robberies on night buses are not uncommon.
In addition to being expensive, hiring and driving a car can be dangerous and inconvenient but taxis in most major cities are available and can be hired for long journeys.
Cycling isn’t encouraged in the majority of South American countries – particularly in Colombia and Guyana – where the quality of the roads can be poor.
South America insider information
- For an unforgettable trip, head to the mountainous region of Patagonia in Southern Argentina. Hike in the Andean national parks or visit Carmen de Patagones, a charming colonial city.
- See Brazil’s magnificent wildlife in the Pantanal, the largest flood plain in the world. Visit the home of the endangered Hyancinth Macaw and watch jaguars, giant armadillos, capybara and the Brazilian Tapir pass you by.
- Visit Lake Titicaca, the birthplace of the Inca civilization and the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake sits on the border of Peru and Bolivia and on the Bolivian side of the lake is the Isla Del Sol where you’ll find Pilko Kaina and the Chincana complex, both Inca ruins. On the Peruvian side are the Las Islas Flotantes or floating islands, handmade from totora reeds and home to the Uros tribe.
- The small colonial village of San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most popular destinations in Chile. Stop by the archaeological museum that houses well-preserved artefacts or explore the boiling geysers, sand dunes and canyons.
- Wander through the cobbled streets of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Explore its colonial mansions, monasteries, 17th century forts and cathedrals.
- Head to the remote Isla Bartolomé in Ecuador’s legendary Galápagos Islands. Here you can snorkel with the penguins; swim around the rocks with the sea lions or just watch the mockingbirds from atop Pinnacle Rock.
- The Iwokrama Forest in Central Guyana is well worth a visit. The 916,760 acre virgin rainforest is home to some of the world’s largest freshwater fish, otters, freshwater turtle, the Anaconda, caimans, and South America’s largest cat, the jaguar and bat.
- Take a trip to the Jesuit reducción (settlements), Trinidad & Jesús, in Southern Paraguay which have well-preserved Baroque ruins including monuments and churches built in the 18th century.