Nestled between the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and the South Atlantic Oceans, South America is the wilder part of the Americas and a continent of superlatives.
The world's biggest rainforest and the largest river (Amazon), the highest mountain range outside Asia (the Andes), remote islands (Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and Fernando de Noronha), heavenly beaches (such as in Brazil's Northeastern region), wide deserts (Atacama), icy landscapes (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego), the world's tallest waterfall (the 979m Angel Falls, in Venezuela) and one of the largest (Iguaçu Falls, Argentina and Brazil), as well as several other breathtaking natural attractions.
Besides, the work of man has also left rare gems on the continent: ruins of ancient civilizations (Machu Picchu and other Inca cities; the Moais in Easter Island) share the continent with world-class metropolises (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Caracas, Santiago, Lima and Rio de Janeiro), outstanding modern architecture (Brasilia), European architecture (Buenos Aires), the oldest rock paintings in the Americas (at the Serra da Capivara), strong African heritage (in Salvador, Rio and Montevideo), genuine indigenous (Belém, Manaus, Cuzco, Lima, La Paz), charming cities built in the Andes (Caracas, Medellín, Quito, Santiago de Chile) and Eastern culture (São Paulo's enormous Japanese community), mingled with the fingerprints of Iberian colonizers. Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city and some of its biggest festivities, such as Rio's Carnival and Belem's Cirio de Nazaré, the Tango World Championship, and the Vendimia festival in Argentina, are also part of this incredibly diverse and attractive continent.
Countries and territories
Once known for being a 'European nation in South America', Argentina offers a dynamic and rich cultural life in its cities, and sparsely-populated grasslands, mountains and glacial parks in the south.
This landlocked country is arguably the only one in Latin America with an ethnic majority of indigenous people, and a culture that is much affected by the high altitude of the Andes.
The biggest in terms of area and population, South America's only Portuguese-speaking country offers a huge variety of attractions from the Amazon rainforest to cities such as Rio de Janeiro — here you should take your time and focus on one or a few areas.
A long, thin sliver of land on the western side of the Andes which stands out on any map, this country contains big parts of the Atacama, one of the driest deserts in the world. Chile is also one of the richest countries in Latin America.
After decades of violence, Colombia is again a safe destination, offering coffee, jungles, volcanoes and two coastlines with a strong Caribbean feel.
Crossed by the Equator, this small country offers incredible diversity across its four regions: the Amazon Rainforest, the Andes, the Pacific Coast and the unique Galapagos Islands.
While most only think of the 1982 war and the ongoing dispute with Argentina, this piece of the UK in the South Atlantic has much to offer, including Antarctic wildlife and far-reaching views across remote landscapes.
The French part of South America is also part of the European Union and the launchpad of Europe's main spaceport.
The only English-speaking country on mainland South America, featuring highlands, waterfalls and jungle.
Possibly the least visited country on the continent, in flat Paraguay you can see Jesuit missions, some major rivers and the impressive Itaipú Dam and hear the native Guaraní language.
The historic heartland of the Incas, this country still offers a lot of Inca heritage (Machu Picchu being the most visited site) plus the Nazca lines, made by an earlier culture for a still not entirely clear purpose.
Part of the Netherlands until 1975, this country is a unique mix of Caribbean, Asian, Dutch and Latin American.
As futbol-crazy as its neighbor across the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay also offers great birdwatching and beaches.
You may think only of oil and socialism, but Venezuela also offers jungles, waterfalls, major cities like Maracaibo and Caracas and Lake Maracaibo, one of the biggest lakes / bays (depending on whom you ask) in the world.
- Bogotá — a city of contrasts with a hectic balance between the new and the old; the most cultural-minded of South American capitals
- Buenos Aires — the city of tango, the most cosmopolitan city of Argentina
- Caracas — one of the most cosmopolitan and modern cities in South America, there are lots of theaters, malls, museums, art galleries, parks, well-conserved colonial architecture and even gastronomic restaurants
- La Paz — the highest seat of national government of the world that is built in a canyon
- Lima — the sprawling, Pacific coast capital of Peru is a center of South American cuisine
- Montevideo — the pleasant capital city of Uruguay, situated on the east bank of the Rio de la Plata
- Rio de Janeiro — famous for its breathtaking landscape, its laidback beach culture and its annual carnival
- Santiago de Chile — capital of Chile with many museums, events, theaters, restaurants, bars and other entertainment and cultural opportunities
- São Paulo — a beehive of activity that offers a jovial nightlife and a diverse cultural experience
- The Andes
- Canaima National Park — its main attraction are the Angel Falls, with 978 m the highest waterfall on Earth
- Easter Island
- Iguaçu Falls
- Machu Picchu
- Galapagos Islands
- The Pantanal
- Salar de Uyuni
- Tierra del Fuego
See also the sections on South America in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Before the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century, the continent was home to different native American peoples, the most prominent being the Incas, whose empire stretched across much of the Andes, along the Inca Trails that are popular with trekkers today. Warfare and new diseases the colonizers brought with them had a negative impact on the native population. Eventually the entire continent was conquered by Spain and Portugal, with some other countries establishing colonies in the northwest. The last indigenous polity to hold out where the Mapuche in what is now Southern Chile, who were only conquered after Chilean Independence. As a legacy of this, virtually all of the continent is today either Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking, nevertheless, native culture and language is still alive in Bolivia and Peru and the Guarani language is spoken today by many Peruvians without any indigenous heritage whatsoever.
Following a series of wars in the early 19th century, the colonies became independent and countries emerged largely in the form we know them today. The history of the continent has however not been without trouble, with (civil) wars, coups and periods of dictatorship occurring until the end of the 20th century. Nevertheless, as with North America and Oceania, South America was and to some extent still is a popular destination for immigrants, first from Europe and later on also from other parts of the world.
Geography and climate
Two prominent geographical features of South America are the Amazon rainforest and the Andes. South of the Tropic of Capricorn the landscape is savanna on the east coast and as a rule of thumb, it gets dryer the further west one goes. West of the Andes you can find the driest place in the world — the Atacama desert. Patagonia, covering much of the southernmost 2/3 of Argentina and Chile is cool and dry with steppe and some forest, somewhat reminiscent of Central Asia or the North American prairie.
Much of the continent is situated in the tropics and in these places the climate is defined by wet and dry seasons and constantly warm or hot temperatures (except for high-altitude locations in the Andes). The further south one goes, the more temperate the climate becomes and in Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world) weather conditions are even reminiscent of coastal northern Scandinavia.
Football (soccer) is popular all over the continent, and it is often said that football is not just a sport but a religion. It is common to see children in rural areas and slums playing football in the street, and top level football matches often attract sold-out crowds. By far the most famous rivalry on the continent is that between the two giants of Brazil and Argentina.
Linguistically and religiously, the continent is rather homogenous with Romance languages and Catholicism being the "norm" in almost all countries.
Peru and Bolivia are probably the best places to experience pre-Columbian culture with traditional dishes, clothing, handicraft and language still around together with attractions like Machu Picchu or Tiwanaku.
Topics in South America
Getting to South America has gotten much easier in recent years due to massive increases in flights to the continent by major global airlines. Although some particular places are still quite hard to reach (i.e. Paraguay, Suriname, northern Brazil), the places that you most likely want to go, such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, are more accessible than ever before.
- From Africa: the only (reliable) options worth considering would be the South African Airways service linking Johannesburg with São Paulo and Buenos Aires; or the Ethiopian Airlines service from Addis Ababa to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. There are also connections between Luanda and Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia and Recife with Taag Angola Airlines. Do realize that demand between Africa and South America is very limited, so even the aforementioned services are infrequent and fares may be quite high.
- From Asia: Be prepared for a very long journey, especially if your itinerary includes connecting flights to travel to/beyond the major Asian and South American hubs. São Paulo is the only destination with flights from the Far East. The Korean Air route between Seoul-Incheon and São Paulo involves a stop in the United States (LAX) therefore it will require all passengers, including those in transit, to pass through U.S. customs and immigration. Air China flies to São Paulo from Beijing via Madrid and Singapore Airlines from Singapore via Barcelona. From the Middle East there are some more alternatives; Emirates (Dubai), Ethiad (Abu Dhabi) and Qatar Airways (Doha) all fly nonstop to São Paulo. Of these Qatar Airways continues down to Buenos Aires and Emirates has another line to South America — via Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires.
- From Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific: A somewhat surprising number of options exist. LAN Airlines serve Auckland and Sydney from their hub at Santiago. Qantas introduced a non-stop service between Sydney and Santiago in March 2012, and Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Buenos Aires. LAN also operates one of the world's most obscure flights of all - a service linking Santiago-Easter Island-Tahiti. From Perth Emirates provides affordable flights to Buenos Aires with a stopover in Dubai, around 30 hours total flying time.
- From Europe: The entire South American continent once lived under European colonial rule, and the resultant political, social, and economic ties between former colonies and colonizers remain quite strong even today. Portuguese flag carrier TAP Airlines is by far the leading foreign carrier to Brazil, serving a slew of destinations in North and East Brazil as well as the Brazilian capital Brasilia which otherwise have only limited or absolutely no other international connections. Spanish flag carrier Iberia flies to most of the former Spanish colonies, although neither Bolivia nor Paraguay are served. KLM flies between Amsterdam and Suriname and Air France links Paris with French Guiana. Of course, such services are not exclusive - KLM also flies to Lima, TAP to Caracas, Air France to Rio de Janeiro and Lima, etc. Other leading European airlines such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Swiss Airlines, and Alitalia also serve key South American gateways from their respective hubs, while South American airlines also operate into several major European cities as well. Air Europa also flies to many South American cities via their Madrid hub and connecting flights mainly across Western Europe.
- From North America: Until very recently, it was virtually inconceivable to reach South America from anywhere other than Miami. Today, however, rapidly developing hubs at Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Mexico City, New York, Newark, Orlando, Toronto, and Washington-Dulles offer viable alternatives. Indeed, airlines such as Air Canada, United and Delta Airlines have successfully begun to challenge the virtual monopoly once enjoyed by American Airlines to several key markets. American discount carriers such as Spirit Airlines and JetBlue have recently fought hard for and won several route authorities to serve the likes of Colombia, Brazil and Peru, bringing low fares to these markets for the first time. Given the U.S. airlines' cutbacks in service, frequency, and cities served over the years, consider high quality Latin American carriers such as Avianca (to Colombia with daily non-stop flights to Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Cartagena), and the fastest growing and probably best Hub to South America is by Copa Airlines (Panama's national airline thru its hub in Panamá City), also LAN Airlines (Chilean carrier serving Chile direct and via several other countries), or TAM (to Brazil).
Although it looks like there is a land connection with the Pan-American Highway, there are actually no roads connecting Panama with Colombia through the infamous Darien Gap and hence it is not possible to drive from Central America. People overcome this problem by shipping their cars from Colon (Atlantic side in Panama) to Cartagena or Barranquilla (Colombia), or from Panama City (Pacific side of the Panama canal) to Buenaventura (Colombia) or Guayaquil (Ecuador).
Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have good roads. Night time driving is generally dangerous on this continent.
There are no railroads between Panama and Colombia. So you can't enter the country by train. This is unlikely to change anytime soon as there is no way to cross from Panama to Colombia overland for all but the most adventurous travelers, as there is no road of any kind and the "gap in the road" is made up of jungle that has for a long time been an operating area for organized violent groups.
Within Latin America trains while existent are not often the best option or even an option, as most lines have been neglected for most of the last decades. Some lines do however offer value if not necessarily in terms of transportation, as they cross amazing sceneries. For more on that see below.
As mentioned above, there are a couple of ferries linking Panama and Colombia. As this is the only way to get a car from Central to South America, they are rather popular.
The Union of South American Nations gives visa-free access and a customs union between all countries in South America. With the exception of Suriname, visitors from industrialized countries generally do not need visas anywhere in South America, aside from U.S., Canadian and Australian citizens, who in some countries are subject to visa restrictions or entry fees.
For longer distances, consider flying. In South America international flights are usually from capital to capital with domestic flights from the capital (the exceptions to this are Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro with flights to all over the continent). Some airlines, like Aerolineas Argentinas have remarkable discounts on domestic connections if arriving on their intercontinental flights. The oneworld alliance offers an flight pass which might be a smart choice if you plan a longer South American tour.
There are no cross-country train services in South America, and with the exception of Argentina and Chile, domestic networks are quite limited. Unfortunately for most of the second half of the 20th century networks have been cut and service has been reduced. There has been a renaissance of sorts in recent years, but in most cases it has thus far (2015) resulted in more talks than actual construction. There are a number of very scenic "tourist trains" though, including the 445-km Quito-Guayaquil route in Ecuador. The spectacular "tren a las nubes" (train to the clouds) running on a route that formerly connected Argentina and Chile, but only on a portion within Argentina, is the highest train in South America.
Buses are the main form of land transportation for much of the continent, they represent an economical but slower alternative to flying.
Beyond very cheap chicken buses, long distance buses fall under 3 general comfort levels: Semicama, Cama, Cama Suite. These names tend to shift from country to country.
Be aware that although most of the violence of the Cold war era is over some parts of some countries are still not entirely safe and crossing them by bus might not be a smart idea. For more on that issue read the stay safe sections of the respective country, region or city articles.
|Country||Semicama (Half bed)||Cama (Bed)||Cama Suite (Bed Suite)|
|Argentina||Semicama 40°||Cama-Ejecutivo 55°||Cama Suite 85°|
|Chile||Semi Cama 60°||Cama 65°||Cama Premium 90°|
|Peru||Semicama/Imperial/Especial 40-50°||Cama/VIP 70-75°||Super Cama/Super VIP/Sofá Cama 90°|
|Brazil||Executivo 40°||Semi-Leito 55°||Leito 80°|
You can go from Montevideo to Valparaiso by cruise, touching Falkland Islands, Ushuaia and Puerto Montt. Or with an extension to the Antarctica.
Also along the South American coast from Buenos Aires up to Brazil. You can do all the Amazon River by boat, starting in Peru, through all Brazil.
Between Argentina and Uruguay you can cross Rio de la Plata by ferry.
Spanish is the official language in all countries except Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, and is widely spoken even in the countries that are not historically Spanish speaking. The dialect varies between countries although all are noticeably different from the 'Castilian Spanish' standard found in Spain.
Portuguese is the official language in Brazil, which comprises about half the population and land area of the continent. Note that the dialect is very different to that of Portuguese spoken in Portugal. Spanish and Portuguese are closely related and knowing one will provide you some basic communication ability in the other
In the border area between Uruguay and Brazil some people are near fluent in an ad hoc mishmash of Portuguese and Spanish known as portuñol and it is certainly viable for crude communication if you don't speak the other language, though Portuguese speakers tend to have an easier time understanding Spanish than vice versa.
Much like the English language, expressions and slang terms can change dramatically from country to country or even city to city. As words that have a totally innocuous meaning in one place, can have a vulgar or "dirty" meaning elsewhere it is good to do some research before using words like "coger" (meaning "take" in Spain, and "fuck" in most of Latin America) in the wrong context and possibly offending people.
There are also many indigenous peoples living in South America who speak their own languages, and if you are really going off the beaten track, you might have to learn them too. The most notable indigenous American languages in South America are Quechua (Bolivia and Peru) and Guarani (80% of the population of Paraguay). In Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, the official languages are English, Dutch and French respectively.
A sizable number of the world's largest, longest or highest natural wonders are located in South America. Perhaps the first thing you will notice when looking on a map of the continent is the world's largest rainforest, Amazonas covering much of Brazil. Moreover it also features the world's largest wetlands, Pantanal, Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall as well as the better known Iguaçu Falls. Other bodies of water worth mentioning include the Amazon river (by some measures the world's longest river and the one with the largest drainage basin), the world's highest commercially navigable body of water Lake Titicaca, and the wide Rio de la Plata (between Uruguay and Argentina) which is more like a bay of the Atlantic Ocean.
In the west lies the "backbone" of the continent — the Andes. This mountain chain, which is the longest in the world, contains Aconcagua which at a height of almost 7000m is the highest mountain outside Asia. As the Earth is at its thickest at the Equator, the peak of Chimborazo (6268m) is the point in the world furthest away from the center of the Earth. Right next to these mighty mountains lays the Atacama desert which is the driest and possibly oldest in the world. The white spot in it that can be seen on satellite footage is the Salar de Uyuni. Located at 3,656m above the sea level it is — you guessed it — the world's largest salt flat.
The Galapagos Islands 1000km off the coast feature an unique and fearless fauna. There are several iconic and unique animals on the mainland too, including llamas and other camelids, jaguars, capybaras, opossums and monkeys and on the other hand less pleasant creatures that are poisonous or spread tropical diseases. Another, equally famous island in the Pacific is Easter Island.
While most people would think of South America as rainforest or desert, this is mostly but not entirely true — Los Glaciares National Park in southwestern Argentina will prove otherwise. Overall the climate and landscape of the far south actually recalls Norway or parts of Canada. Here you can find Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city and a gateway to Antarctica. South America also holds the record for the world's highest national capital La Paz and the small mining town of La Rinconada in southeastern Peru which at 5100m above the sea level is the highest permanent settlement in the world. Finally, at Chacaltaya you will find the world's highest located ski resort.
It's certainly not only in the modern times that people have lived and worked in the Andes even at altitudes where you are likely to contract altitude sickness. Particularly in Peru and Bolivia, you will find many beautiful and famous archaeological sites from the age before the Europeans, connected by traditional Inca Trails if you want to get around the traditional way. Among them the most famous is undoubtedly Machu Picchu, but also places like Chan Chan and Tiwanaku are deservedly inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Peru also features the Nazca lines, constructed 1500 years ago for an unknown purpose and only visible from air.
The European heritage includes mining towns in the mountains, unsurprisingly a lot of churches and missions and other colonial architecture along the coasts. Of course, in places like São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile you can also see skyscrapers archetypical to any metropolis in the world. And let's not forget about Rio de Janeiro with its world-famous beaches Copacabana and Ipanema with the Sugarloaf mountain, Pão de Açúcar, in the background.
South America offers a variety of cultural experiences. In the Andes, native traditions and languages still live strong. The east and south of the continent is more of a blend of cultures that immigrants from Europe, Africa and other parts of the world have brought with them; probably the best example of this is the Brazilian carnival.
- Caminhos do Imigrante
- Colombia to Patagonia overland
- El Choro Trek
- Estrada Real
- Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos
- Inca Trail
- Paraguay River
- Voyaging along the Amazon River
- Tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay
- Travel the wilderness in a Jeep on the Salt Plains near Uyuni, Bolivia
- Cycle down the Death Road outside La Paz, Bolivia
- Soak up the sun on the famous beaches of Brazil
- Explore the pristine jungle in the many nature reserves of Suriname
- Bike through old Dutch plantations in Suriname
- Experience a football (soccer) match anywhere in South America
There are a variety of currencies in use in this area, including Euros (in French Guiana), US Dollars (in Ecuador) and Pound Sterling (de facto in the Falkland Islands). Countries with national currencies vary in their external value as well as the possibility of easily exchanging it. While the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar fuerte is worth much less than its official value and you basically have to use the black market if you don't want your stay to become very expensive, other currencies have been remarkably stable in recent years. US dollars are often used parallel to local currencies, and prices of goods worth over a few hundred dollars may actually be quoted in US dollars.
South American cuisine is as diverse and colourful as its people. The continent's wide range of terrains brings forward a broad selection of food products and its many people all have their own ways of cultivating and preparing the land's goods.
After the discovery of the Americas, European settlers and their workers from other parts of the world all brought their own food traditions with them, adapting them to include local ingredients and cooking techniques. They also introduced a new set of meats, crops and spices to the culinary blend. The result is a most interesting mix of flavours. World famous dishes include feijoada, ceviche, empanadas and of course Argentina's barbecued steaks. Widely used ingredients include corn, potatoes, chile peppers and lima beans.
Less well-known in the rest of the world but much used by the indiginous people of South America are grains like quinoa and kiwicha, queso fresco (a fresh cow’s milk cheese) and yuca (also known as cassava). For a taste of traditional Andean meats, try alpaca or guinea pig. To top it all off, enjoy one of the many very sweet desserts, often combined with delicious tropical fruits that grow here.
South America offers a wide variety of drinks, some of which you can only legally consume in their country of origin (that would be Coca-tea, made from the leave of the Coca plant, supposedly a good way to combat the problems high altitude brings with it.). Other drinks include yerba mate and Inca Cola (an alternative to the soft drink from Atlanta).
The types of lodging available are the same as in North America and Europe. For the backpackers the best option is hostel or camping. However, hotel rooms (like most other non-imported goods and services) are with a few exceptions rather affordable compared to North America and Western Europe. Pests are a risk if you are sleeping outdoors, especially in the tropical parts of the continent.
South America has some reputation for crime, with Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela being noted as the most dangerous. Read up beforehand about the individual destinations you're planning to visit. As with anywhere else in the world, the right travel planning can mitigate any dangers.
Wearing or carrying items which may identify you as an affluent tourist can be a mistake. You shouldn't pack anything that you would be upset to lose. Leave expensive jewelry, watches and other items of value at home and only carry what you need. That goes for credit cards and other documents as well; if you have no need for them leave them behind in the hotel safe, only take what money you are likely to spend with you.
Tap water in many countries is not drinkable, it's wise to purify your own or buy bottled water.
Malaria, dengue and yellow fever can be a risk as well on the continent, check with a travel clinic or your doctor before heading out to see if you'll be in a high-risk area, and receive any vaccinations and medication required.