Welcome to the August edition of the Visit South America series. This is a monthly contributed post on traveling to South America, in preparation for my 2-year backpacking which started first week of August 2015.
I’m currently in Brazil, and I’m definitely raring to write my own South America posts. In the meantime, traveler Dan Harati shares with us his top ten experiences in this beautiful continent as well as some tips on how to do them. Read, share, and let us know in the comments whether you’ve done any or all of these yourself!
Trying to think of my top 10 places in South America was very hard since there were so many places I visited during my year of travel there. I made a small twist and decided not to choose places but experiences instead.
These, then, are my top 10 experiences (and the places which have to do with them) in the continent. I promise I won’t say a word about Machu Picchu!
1. Cruising the Amazon River for 7 Days
One of the things I had in my mind which made me plan my trip in South America was the Amazon River. I had been dreaming of this since I was a kid, so for me, there was no question of “if,” but only “when” and “for how long.”
Cruising the river actually meant lying in my hammock for about a week (depending from where to where and if you are going up/down the stream), eating in the “dining room” with the locals, and enjoying the amazing scenery. For some, it is a way to get home, but for me, it was the experience of a lifetime.
How to do it?
I went upstream from Manaus (Brazil) to Tabatinga (the triple border of Brazil with Colombia and Peru). Adding Belem out on the coast, those were the three main stops. Put in mind that from one spot to the next, it takes 5-8 days, depending on the season and tide, and if you are up/down the stream.
2. Exploring a “Lost City”
All around South America, there are many cities which belonged to the Maya and the Inca people which were never discovered. Most of those that have been discovered became tourist attractions, but fortunately, not all.
In northern Colombia, for example, not too far from Santa Marta, is what they call “The Lost City” (Ciudad Perdida). It is 1,200 years old and was “discovered” only in 1972. Luckily for the locals and their heritage, it was not harmed and today you can visit only a very small part of it, while most of it is still covered by the jungle.
How to do it?
You cannot go on your own, you must go with an agency authorized by the government. It will take you a minimum of 5 days of walking (return) while spending about a day and a half in the city itself. This trek is not cheap, but definitely worth the experience.
3. Scuba Diving with Hammerhead Sharks in the Galapagos
I love scuba diving; I always try to go diving in places I visit. In South America, the Galapagos Islands are the place to dive. This is one of the few places in the world that you can dive with hammerhead sharks with no harm (they are supposed to be one of the most aggressive ones in the family).
The Galapagos Islands have many excellent dive sites, some of which are known to be the best in the world. However, some sites are recommended only for experienced divers since they have strong currents (we are talking about the middle of the Pacific after all).
How to do it?
There are some specific dive sites for hammerhead sharks. I went to Gordon Rocks, one of the sites with really strong current. We went down to around 14m; the sharks swim at around 10-12m, so we were able to look up and see their silhouettes with the sun rising from the surface. It was not a very long dive, and we saw plenty more, but the hammerhead sharks are one thing I will never forget.
4. Trekking the Andes at an altitude of 5,000m (16,400 feet)
South America has some of the best treks in the world, in jungles, along the coast, up in the mountains, and some in the desert. If there is one place that can be called the “trekking capital of the continent,” it will probably be Huaraz in Peru.
There are some mountains you can climb and beautiful treks you can take from Huaraz. One of them takes you up to 5,000m and is one of the most popular ones in the continent. It is called “Huayhuash” after the name of the mountain range it is in.
How to do it?
You have more than one way to go to this trek. You can go with an agency or just hire a guide and rent a donkey. You can also go on your own with a map, rent a horse, or combine more than one option. We are talking about an 8-day trek in high altitude, so you must prepare wisely and prepare your body as well.
5. Having my own 20 Capuchin monkeys
Volunteering is one way for you to extend your stay in South America. There are many places where you can volunteer; some people choose to dedicate time to help communities, orphaned kids, or organic farms.
I LOVE MONKEYS, so I volunteered at an animal shelter for 2 weeks. The way I look at it, I was playing with monkeys for half a month and had the time of my life. (If you don’t like shelters, though, check out the top destinations for seeing animals in the wild.)
Honestly, though, it was hard! I was in quarantine, so for 2 weeks, I started my day early in the morning, and fed, cleaned, and treated the monkeys all day. After 3-4 days, I already knew all 20 monkeys by name. I could tell if they were hungry, tired, or not feeling well. I got so attached with them, I found it hard to leave.
How to do it?
There are many places to volunteer in South America. I went to a village called Via Tunary and stayed in Machia Park. I was assigned to the quarantine area, but there are more areas in the park you can choose from. If you love animals like I do, this is highly recommended.
6. Climbing an active volcano
Volcanoes have always fascinated me. I don’t know what it is about them, but I was always drawn to them. It might be the shape, it might be the power of the lava coming out of them or that may come out in any given time with no warning, or maybe just the fact that in a way, they are a tunnel connecting us to the bowels of the earth.
Between Cali in Southern Colombia and Quito in Northern Ecuador (and its capital) is what I call “volcano land.” Some are active, some are dormant, while some are extinct, but there are so many of them. However, it was not where I had my chance to climb an active volcano. I had do go all the way to Villarrica in Southern Chile.
How to do it?
Villarrica is a nice small town in Southern Chile, but it is rather touristic. People go there for horseback riding, kayaking, and trekking, among others, but the number one reason is to climb Villarrica Volcano (last eruption was on March 2015). You can do the climb through any of the various tourist agencies, and it will take around 6 hours to reach the crater. Sometimes you can even see the lava!
7. Going on a Multi-day Solo Trek (for the first time)
I have gone on a lot of trekking expeditions during my South America trip, in different landscapes, with different people, and always with amazing views. After some day treks that I did solo, I decided it was time for me to take it to the next level: a multi-day trek on my own.
Trekking solo is not so hard, but you do need to be prepared in many ways. You need to have all your gear, food, and cooking utensils. Most important of all, you need to prepare yourself mentally, as you would definitely not see anyone for a couple of days.
How to do it?
I decided to start with the “Fitz Roy” trek in southern Argentina, an easy one, and then I did the 2-day trek (Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre). I left El Chalten (Argentina) in the morning, walked all day on marked trails with a map, slept in a camping site, and returned the following day. It was my first solo multi-day trek, but it was not my last one.
8. Feeling the Mighty Forces of Nature at the Iguazu Falls
Nature is powerful, we all know that, but there are some places you can see and feel it without even opening your eyes.
I personally think water is one of the strongest things in nature; you just need to see the mighty Iguazu Falls to appreciate it! Iguazu is one of the most visited places in South America, and for a good reason.
The falls is actually composed of 275 individual waterfalls. The whole thing is around 3km wide and the highest falls is around 80m in height, even higher than Niagara Falls. The whole area is so overwhelming you would need a minimum of one full day to see it and you still won’t see all parts of it.
How to do it?
The waterfalls can be accessed from Brazil and from Argentina (no connection, you must go through the border crossing). I personally recommend visiting the Brazilian side first, which will give you a panoramic view, and then visit the Argentinean side which is closer to the falls.
9. Visiting the Southernmost City in the World
Since I was a kid, I was always interested and drawn to explorers. Reading about them, looking at maps, studying about them at school, and hearing names of places like “The Beagle Canal” and “Tierra del Fuego” made go want to see these places with my own eyes. It is why I went to Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, where Ushuaia, the so-called southernmost city in the world, is located.
Tierra del Fuego is between Argentina and Chile, and the Argentinean side is more popular and visited. There is a lot to see, and you can easily spend a week there or more.
How to do it?
Unless you arrive by plane, you will need to cross the border twice. The big city in the area is Ushuaia, from where you can leave for several multi-day treks, nice day trips to glaciers and lakes, cruises to see penguins and sea lions, and the one and only Tierra del Fuego National Park where you can do short day trips. You can easily spend 2-3 days in the park alone.
10. The Carnival in Brazil
I saved the best for last. The Carnival in Brazil is definitely an event to remember. I experienced it in the beginning of my South American trip, but it was so memorable it stayed with me for a long time. The Carnival is a 6-day, round-the-clock party, and it happens everywhere in the country, not just in Rio!
The Carnival is celebrated in different parts of Brazil on different dates, so for almost 2 weeks, the whole county is celebrating. No matter where you celebrate it, though, make sure to make it to the winners’ parade in Rio de Janeiro. It’s an experience by itself.
How to do it?
I did my research, and I decided to celebrate the carnival in Salvador de Bahia. Its reputation is for a “crazy” carnival, the biggest one, and I was planning to leave after 3 days for a “local” one. I had such an amazing time, though, that I decided to stay there for a whole week. That was probably one experience I will never forget in my life.
There you go, ten experiences in South America that were the highlight of my yearlong trip there. What are yours? Do share in the comments!
All photos (except for Iguazu Falls) are copyright of Dan Harati.
About the Author
Dan Harati started his travels back in 2006 and never stopped since. He likes going to places off the beaten track, inspire others to travel, explore new countries, and scuba dive whenever he can. He is a chef, so local and street food is always on his list. He has traveled in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, East and South East Asia, the South Pacific, Australia, and Africa. Follow his adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
- The Tale of Tonyo the Brave - June 14, 2022
- Things To Do in São Paulo, Brazil: Visit the Consolação Cemetery - October 31, 2021
- Solo Travel Tips: Brussels, Belgium - February 17, 2021
Amazing trip! Which Brazilian city did Dan go through to get to the Iguaçu falls?
This is why I dreamed of travelling around the world. Getting inspired with blogs such as this. And with the fact that you’ve gone to the world’s second most populated country, so awesome! I was expecting to see photos of Christ the Redeemer but still, that Iguazu Falls made your travel interesting, Plus the festival! Maybe then someday, I can get to travel South America, making this as my guide. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Wow this is a great list! I already hear the samba rhythm while reading your post. Carnival I guess is our must activity when we visit brazil. Hopefully soon.