Epic adventures in the Land of Extremes
There are many reasons why travellers might feel drawn to Latin America; its rich history and culture, famously friendly people, beautiful colonial cities or its vibrant music and culinary scenes. Perhaps something some might take for granted though is the sheer scale of some of the most breathtaking places known to man, in this land of extremes. In Latin America everything seems to be the biggest, the widest, the oldest, the highest... This is Mother Nature at her most impressive and is sure to have a profound effect on even the most seasoned travellers.
Some of the names below immediately conjure up images of travel on an epic scale, perhaps too great to even contemplate. Fortunately a sophisticated tourism infrastructure, conservation programmes and the expertise of Latin America tour specialists and local guides make it possible to break loose from our smartphones, escape the confines of our offices and explore these vast and other-worldly places on mind-blowing tours.
Driest non-polar desert in the world - Atacama Desert, Chile
Think of Death Valley in the United States and what images come to mind? Barren, scorched landscapes, punishing heat, crusty salt flats, lonely rock formations and tiny lizards scratching around for sustenance? Now imagine a place 50 times drier than that and you have the Atacama Desert. Spread over 40,000 square miles, the desert receives an average of 1mm rainfall a year, with many weather stations having never recorded a single drop, whilst temperatures can reach 40 degrees during the day but fall as far as 5 degrees at night. The landscape here is often described as "Mars-like", an opinion clearly shared by NASA who use it to test their equipment before sending it up to the Red Planet itself, as well as television producers who have repeatedly chosen it as the best place to replicate its surface.
Atacama is a beloved travel destination, with a huge range of activities and memorable experiences on offer. Enjoying over 300 clear days a year and with some of the world's most powerful telescopes residing here, the Atacama is one of the very best places in the world for stargazing. Also popular are the sunrise excursions to the 80 active geysers of El Tatio, which spurt plumes of steam upwards before disappearing into the cold early morning air at the highest and third largest geyser field in the world, as well as the nearby hot springs for an early morning dip. Perhaps the defining experience of a trip to Atacama though is a late afternoon visit to the Moon Valley to see the lunar landscape tinged beautiful hues of red as the sun slowly sets. Heading north across the Andes, past the dazzling Laguna Verde and Laguna Colorada, will bring you to another natural wonder of the Altiplano; the Salar de Uyuni.
Best time to visit: September to May
How to get there: Fly from Santiago
Where to stay: Alto Atacama - lodges built into the rock face, with open-deck observatory
Where next: Head north into Bolivia to the Salar de Uyuni
Largest salt flat in the world - Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Photo Credit - Nico Kaiser
One of the best ways to understand just how big the Salar de Uyuni is, is to consider the fact that NASA uses it as a reference point to position their satellites in space - such is the enormity of the brilliant white expanse of glistening salt. 10 billions tonnes are spread over 4,000 square miles, some 3,650 metres above sea level, caused by the drying out of a prehistoric lake over 12,000 years ago. It is also home to between 50 to 70% of the world's lithium reserves, making it one of the the most important natural resources in Latin America and a source of genuine optimism for the future prosperity of Bolivia.
Of course tourism is the other main industry here, most choosing to come in the dry season when access is at its best and temperatures are maintained at around a comfortable 20 degrees during the day, before dropping sharply at night. Those who come in, or just after, the rainy season may find certain 'routes' inaccessible, but are instead rewarded with the surreal sight of the mirror effect the water produces, reflecting perfectly the endless blue skies above. Whenever you choose to come, a visit to the nearby train cemetery to see abandoned locomotives is a slightly melancholy, though must-see experience, as is a stay at the salt hotel which, as the names suggests, is made almost entirely out of the very thing that defines one of the most astonishing places on earth.
Best time to visit: June to November
How to get there: Fly from La Paz or by 4x4 from Atacama
Where to stay: The Hotel de Sal Luna Salada, made almost entirely from… you guessed it
Where next: Travel south through stunning landscapes into Chile and the Atacama Desert
Highest navigable lake in the world - Lake Titicaca, Peru & Bolivia
Lake Titicaca sits at an elevation of 3,812 metres above sea level, has a maximum depth of 284 metres and sprawls some 3,200 square miles over Peru and Bolivia; however the mere numbers do not do justice to quite how special this place is. Historically thought of as the birthplace of the Inca civilization and said to hide the mythical city of Atlantis below the still surface, today local communities maintain a traditional lifestyle, so vividly symbolised by their colourful attire, bashful smiles and beautiful reed boats. Visitors spend their days drifting peacefully between the islands which dot the lake, stopping to explore Inca ruins, meet the locals and understand how this magical place influences their customs and way of life.
Lake Titicaca is also home to the Uros Islands - the largest man-made floating reed islands in the world, as well as the world's highest bicycle race - the Ruta Internacional de la Alpaca - which starts from Puno on the Peruvian side. The lake can be accessed either by road or train on both sides of the border, typically from Cusco in Peru and La Paz in Bolivia, and is an integral port of call for all travellers in the region.
Best time to visit: May to October
How to get there: Train or bus from Cusco or La Paz
Where to stay: The Titilaka Lodge on a secluded private peninsula with stunning views of the lake
Where next: Take the train to Cusco and explore the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu
Largest waterfall system in the world - Iguassu Falls, Argentina & Brazil
Around 250 waterfalls stand shoulder-to-shoulder along 1.7 miles of the Iguassu River. The best known of these, and the one that best embodies the epic scale of Iguassu is the Devil's Throat. The name alone conjures up other-wordly images and the facts do not disappoint; 700 metres long, over 80 metres high and nearly twice that in width. The best way to understand the sheer power of the falls is to experience it yourself and get soaked by the spray as you survey the awesome Devil's Throat.
The falls are a third taller than Niagara and twice as wide and are actually wider than the Victoria Falls in Africa in their totality, whilst the surrounding rainforest is home to over 2,000 species of plants and a huge range of wildlife. The national park can be accessed on both sides of the border; the Brazilian side offers panoramic views whilst the Argentine side affords more opportunities to get closer to the action.
Best time to visit: October to April
How to get there: Fly from Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires
Where to stay: The Sheraton Iguazu in the heart of the park, with magnificent views to the falls
Where next: Continue north to Rio de Janeiro or south to Buenos Aires
Largest wetlands in the world - The Pantanal, Brazil, Bolivia & Paraguay
Photo Credit - Marinelson Almeida
So large that it reaches across three countries, The Pantanal is around ten times the size of The Everglades in Florida. 78% of the area is submerged in the rainy season, creating between 54,000 and 81,000 square miles of swamps, lagoons and canals - more than the entire surface area of England! It is home to over 3,500 species of plants, over 700 species of birds, 325 types of fish, 159 different types of mammals and 98 different species of reptiles. The wetlands are best accessed in Brazil and can be explored on horseback, in 4x4s, in boats, on foot or in canoes, depending on the prevailing water levels.
Best time to visit: April to October
How to get there: Fly from Rio de Janeiro
Where to stay: Pousada do Rio Mutum, surrounded by wild animals in beautiful grounds
Where next: Head to Rio de Janeiro or to Manaus for Amazon cruises
Largest rainforest in the world - The Amazon Rainforest, (9 countries)
Photo Credit - Visit Brazil
The numbers boggle the mind; 2.1 million square miles spanning nine South American countries, a river that, at nearly 4,000 mile long and up to 25 miles wide (during the rainy season), is the biggest in the world by volume and has 15,000 tributaries, reaching down as far down as the Southern Andes in Peru. Within the dense jungle lives 40,000 plant species, 1,300 different types of bird, 3,000 different fish species, 430 variants of mammals and 2.5 million different types of insects. 20% of the world's oxygen is produced here and in some places the canopy is thick that rainwater can take ten minutes to reach the jungle floor. Somehow the word epic feels like an understatement.
Fortunately the nearby airports, ongoing conservation efforts and expert local guides make this vast rainforest accessible, particularly in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, without destroying the very essence of what makes it so special. An essential part of any Amazon cruise is experiencing the Meeting of the Waters in Brazil. Here, the dark water of the Rio Negro converges with the sandy tones of the Rio Solimões to create the mighty Amazon river, with the added benefit of it being a great place to spot beautiful pink dolphins.
Best time to visit: May to July
How to get there: Fly from Rio de Janeiro, Quito, Lima or Cusco
Where to stay: Aboard a huge range of boats on an Amazon cruise
Where next: The Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu or Rio de Janeiro
Biggest carnival in the world - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Each year millions of visitors from across the globe descend on Rio de Janeiro to watch some 200 samba schools parade their way through the streets, culminating at the epicentre of the carnival; the magnificent Sambódromo. Parades go on until dawn and costs are known to run into the millions, all in the name of the one thing that Brazilians do better than anyone else; partying!
The first carnivals are said to have taken place way back in 1723 by Portuguese immigrants. Today things are kicked off when the mayor hands the keys to the city to King Momo - the plump and festive 'King of Carnivals' who unfortunately is rather unceremoniously burned to bring proceedings to a close five days later. The carnival marks the beginning of lent and the culmination of weeks of street parties held throughout Rio in the months of January and February, known locally as Blocos.
The best way to experience this once in a lifetime event is with Veloso's Carioca tour which takes you to the heart of the carnival and explores this incredible city over eight unforgettable days.
Best time to visit: February for the carnival
How to get there: Connections from most major cities
Where to stay: La Suite to escape the crowds and relax with stunning ocean views
Where next: Fly south to see the Iguassu Falls on the border with Argentina
Southernmost city in the world - Ushuaia, Argentina
Appropriately nicknamed "The End of the World", Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego is home to over 55,000 inhabitants and thus qualifies for this prestigious title. Port Williams in Chile is actually slightly further south, but with only some 2,500 inhabitants it is thought to be too much of a stretch to label such a settlement a city. Founded by British missionaries in 1870, Ushuaia is today known as the gateway to Antarctica, with daily boats and flights heading out across the Beagle Channel. It is also the starting point of unforgettable cruises around the ice fields, glaciers and fjords of Southern Patagonia.
Curiously it is also home to the southernmost golf club in the world - for anyone brave enough to go up against the famously fierce Patagonian wind - whilst the Southern Fuegian Railway whisks visitors off to the Tierra del Fuego national park on the world's southernmost rail line.
Best time to visit: December to March
How to get there: Fly from Buenos Aires
Where to stay: The Arakur Resort with panoramic views to the mountains and bay
Where next: Depart on a cruise to see Antarctica or the Patagonian ice fields
Highest capital city in the world - La Paz, Bolivia
This one can be a little controversial, but strictly speaking La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia and so can rightly lay claim to the title of the highest capital city in the world; standing at over 3,500 metres above sea level. Quito in Ecuador comes in a rather distant second at 2,850 metres whilst Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia, stands at a slightly lower 2,810 metres.
Both La Paz and Sucre have much to offer visitors besides their soaring altitudes. The former enjoys a stunning location, spread out along the basin and up the walls of a giant canyon, as you can now see for yourself on the world's highest and longest urban cable car which runs between the city and El Alto. At ground level La Paz is best known for is famous for its colourful and chaotic witches market, as well as the bizarre rock formations of the nearby Moon Valley.
Sucre is a UNESCO World Heritage site; a compact and beautiful city full of shady plazas, quiet parks, colonial churches and beautiful whitewashed buildings. It is also close to the Cal Orko and its wall of dinosaur footprints.
Best time to visit: May to September
How to get there: By road from Lake Titicaca or by air from various destinations
Where to stay: El Consulado - seven beautifully restored rooms, full of 1920s character
Where next: To the Salar de Uyuni or drive south to Lake Titicaca
Better with experts
Travelling in Latin America can sometimes be a challenging and unpredictable undertaking for even the most well-versed globetrotters. With our vast experience and expertise, Veloso Tours will carefully create the perfect itinerary for you, handling all the tricky logistics, negotiating the best prices, liaising with local suppliers and ensuring everything flows perfectly during your time in Latin America. All you have to do is decide where to go! Our collection of expert local guides will help bring these wonderful places to life. They'll give you their insider knowledge and offer an authentic and personal perspective that will leave you informed and inspired.
The Veloso Tours website has all the ideas and inspiration you'll need to get you started on your Latin American adventure. Our expert staff would be delighted to work with you to craft an unforgettable journey, full of memories that last a lifetime. Get in touch today and start planning your dream trip with Veloso Tours.