South America: Natural attractions

By Karen Phelps

As more Kiwis look to South America for adventure, Karen Phelps compiles a bucket list for the continent

Get to Machu Picchu early to escape tourist hordes. Photo / Getty Images
Get to Machu Picchu early to escape tourist hordes. Photo / Getty Images

The Christ Statue, Rio de Janeiro

Admittedly I was sceptical. Why on earth would I want to visit a giant statue of Jesus? It's hard to define but there is something very special about this site that makes it one of the highlights of South America. Maybe it's the gigantic proportions (39.6m tall, 30m wide). Or possibly it's the awe-inspiring views of Rio de Janeiro spread out below. The Rio de Janeiro Christ statue is an essential attraction, even if just to travel up to the top of the 700m Corcovado mountain to marvel at how this huge statue was even built in the first place.

The Pantanal, Brazil

This unique wetland covering more than 100,000km is in Brazil, although parts do extend into Paraguay and Bolivia. Why go? The incredible diversity of plant and wildlife. With ecosystems ranging from Amazon rainforest to woodland to grasslands, the Pantanal is home to a mind-blowing variety of plants and animals, some of which are endangered.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil

The thundering sound of water crashing over rocks, sunlight making rainbows in the mist and fine spray moistening your skin all make this one of the most spectacular attractions in South America. Straddling Argentina and Brazil, the name Iguazu in the Guarani language means "great waters". Situated in the jungle, you will also no doubt see some of the mammals and reptiles, insects and butterflies that live in this unique ecosystem. Ensure you take time to explore the falls from both the Argentina and Brazil sides - both are distinct and well worth a visit.

Perito Moreno, Patagonia, Argentina

The first panoramic view of glacier Perito Moreno is unforgettable as this huge tower of blue-white ice rises from the lake. Perito Moreno is over 5km long and around 60m high. Watching the glacier is like seeing a live show, as sporadically ice breaks off with a deafening crack before it crashes into the water below to become a floating iceberg. The site is now easily accessed by a modern walkway system. You can also book a tour to walk on the glacier.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Words cannot describe the amazing and diverse vistas you will encounter on a tour to Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni. Pink flamingos, mineral-rich pink and green lakes, volcanic landscapes with steam rising from the ground, bubbling mud, hot water springs, spectacular canyons, sandy landscapes with rock formations that inspired the work of Salvador Dali and, of course, the star attraction - the magical 12,106sq km salt flat. Tours can be taken from Chile, Tupiza or Uyuni in Boliva and range in length from one to four days, depending on your starting point and time available.

Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The striking Isla del Sol is the jewel in the crown of Lake Titicaca. Reminiscent of a Greek island but without the hordes of tourists, you can easily catch a ferry across from the township of Copacabana on the mainland and walk from one end to the other of the island to be picked up by the ferry again.

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

It's already on most people's bucket list - and for good reason. For some a luxury cruise is the way to go, but if you are on a budget you can actually visit the three main islands by yourself and see most of the wildlife that you would encounter on a boat tour. You won't see the wildlife in the same concentration, but you will get a perspective on the islands away from the crowds.

Carretera Austral, Patagonia, Chile

Petrified forests rising from the landscape, crystal blue lakes, virgin forest and mountains capped in snow. This 1240km highway runs from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins and on the way showcases some of Patagonia's most stunning scenery. Sparsely populated, the largely shingle road of the Carretera Austral is about as remote as you can get.

Machu Picchu, Peru

It's one of the most famous ruins in the world and few people can visit Machu Picchu without rating it as a one-in-a-lifetime experience. There are several options for visiting the site - walking or catching the train or a van. Machu Picchu still has a mystical quality, but only if you can get there early in the morning before the main busloads of tourists invade the site.

Old City, Cartagena, Colombia

This colonial walled city and fortress is a Unesco site and has some of the most beautifully preserved 15th-century architecture in South America. The newer part of the old city is where many of the wealthier tourists flock for up-market shops, bars and restaurants. But also be sure to pay a visit to Getsemani, the older zone, for here you will see the crumbling architecture as well as get a better feel for the local culture. Of course, its location on the sea means many beautiful Caribbean islands are just a quick boat ride away.

South America Checklist

GETTING THERE: Lan Chile flies six times a week from Auckland to Santiago, and on to many points throughout the continent.

- NZ Herald

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