South America expert Chris Moss picks the best of the coming season on this dazzling continent, from cities and islands to restaurants and wine regions
The Spanish word for best is mejor. Latin Americans, as fiercely competitive at life as they are on the football pitch, love to tell travellers about their country's mejor beach, city, festival, food, dance - anything, really, except mejor politician.
Invariably, national pride precludes any semblance of objectivity. No Argentine would ever recommend a Brazilian meal. Peruvians would sooner quaff battery acid than a glass of Chilean pisco.
Summer in South America is special. The ocean mists lift and bring sunshine back to Lima and Santiago de Chile. South America hits the beach, big style - January and February are peak holiday months in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
Punta del Este gets balmy, Rio bakes, even chilly Patagonia warms up, and the national parks of the south are open for hiking, biking, camping and dips in the lakes - well, some of them. The Pantanal gets its life-giving rains, opening up new channels into the enchanting flooded forests. It's cruise season in Tierra del Fuego, the Falklands and Antarctica.
I'm taking the long view, balancing recent discoveries with tried and tested highs and those deep, rich memories that won't go away.
Best city: Lima
The competition for mejor ciudad in South America is stiff, what with Rio's enduring romanticism, Santiago's gentrified districts, and the resurgence of La Paz and Bogota in recent years.
Lima gets my vote both as best overall urban experience and also as the most significant turnaround in fortune; even a decade ago it was regarded as an annoying, not very salubrious, stopover en route to elsewhere.
But Lima is a culinary powerhouse, has half a dozen of the continent's best hotels, and boasts good museums and fascinating art spaces, from gritty Callao Monumental to Mario Testino's MATE gallery.
Peru's indigenous identity is also still in evidence and the boho clifftop Barranco district affords visitors a break from the hubbub. Limenos are friendly and, despite the overpopulation and teeming traffic, they manage to find time to stop, help and swap a smile with foreign visitors.
As summer arrives, the murky garua (sea-fret) retreats and the sky turns blue - with a dash of pollution, maybe, but enjoy the sun and the renaissance while they last.
Best beach: Jose Ignacio, Uruguay
From November to April, the south-east corner of Uruguay hosts one of South America's hippest beach scenes. Punta del Este is the main city, but cooler spots are to the north, at La Barra and, especially, Jose Ignacio, which comes to life with pop-up restaurants, international DJs and a rich mix of Europeans, Americans and Latin Americans flying in for a weekend or longer.
Hot hangouts include the dashing Playa Vik hotel, La Susana Beach Restaurant for delectable fish and seafood and, inland, the Alto de Ballena winery and Garzon, where Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallman presides over his fire-inspired kitchen.
Best site for archaeology: The White Rock and Espiritu Pampa, Peru
After Pizarro's conquistadors garrotted Atahualpa in Cajamarca, the Inca empire was effectively terminated. However, a neo-Inca state was established by one of Atahualpa's brothers in Espiritu Pampa, aka Old Vilcabamba.
From 1532 to 1772, four emperors ruled over a small area 73 miles (117km) west of Cuzco, until the Spaniards arrived and cut down Tupac Amaru, the last indigenous Sapa Inca (emperor).
Visited by Machu Picchu "discoverer" Hiram Bingham, Espiritu Pampa was excavated in the 60s and again in the 80s and this year opened to the public.
A range of hikes, from a one-day sprint to multi-day treks through the cloud forests, take the intrepid to the stone walls, houses, artificial terraces and a bridge of the fated Inca stronghold.
Best wildlife: Pantanal, Brazil
It would be great to move on from the Pantanal, perhaps to Ibera in Argentina, which has a similar wetlands topography, to the unspoilt highlands of Guyana, or to a corner of the Amazon where boats open up pristine backwaters.
But the Pantanal has jaguars, and giant anteaters, and river otters, and so many birds big and small, and some species, such as wood stork and ibis, in such jaw-droppingly large numbers - that it remains an easy winner; it also boasts good lodges and floating hotels, warm Brazilian hospitality and, importantly, ease of access on good roads from jet-friendly airports.
October, when the waters are still low, is arguably the very best month of the year - it's warm, a little bit rainy, and visitor numbers are lower than in July or after Christmas. Exploring on foot, horseback, on two wheels and by boat you get to see the vast wetlands system from all angles.
Best island: Old Providence, Colombia
At that sweet spot between rustic and regenerated, Providencia, or Old Providence, is one of the most appealing little islands in the Caribbean.
Close to Nicaragua but part of Colombia - its status was only ratified in 2012 - those who call the place home don't care too much about politics or anything else on the mainland and, in fact, are more at home speaking English creole than Spanish.
Only a little over four miles (6.5km) long and two and a half miles (4km) wide, the island suits a week of off-grid bliss (there's Wi-Fi in hotels but you won't want it) with boat trips to go snorkelling round the bays and islets.
The trip, by jet to San Andres and then either prop or catamaran to Providencia, is part of the adventure.
Best cruise destination: Galapagos
You can visit plenty of South America's rivers and coasts by car, small boat, kayak or on foot, but to see the more exciting edges of the Galapagos archipelago you really do have to travel by self-contained ship. This is the only way to limit visitor numbers and the other egregious impacts that human traffic inevitably incurs.
Each island delivers its own wonders, from Santa Cruz's giant tortoises and sea turtles to the cute Galapagos penguins and flamingos on Floreana.
Don a snorkel and share the cool blue Pacific with flightless cormorants, marine iguanas and hammerhead and white-tip reef sharks.
A small non-luxe vessel is the best option for intimacy and service and is a way to keep your carbon footprint as low as possible.
Best wine region: Colchagua Valley, Chile
One hundred miles (160km) south of Santiago, the Colchagua Valley - situated between the Andes and the coastal mountain range - is known for its balmy Mediterranean climate, automobile museum, steam-powered "wine train" and esteemed wineries such as Casa Silva, Montes and Santa Cruz. The granitic and volcanic soils and hot sun are best suited to red wines - carmeneres are outstanding.
Many vineyards host tours and tastings, while the Lapostolle Clos Apalta has Relais & Chateaux residences and a superb restaurant. The Vina Vik hotel and winery, in the Millahue valley - just north of the main Colchagua region - is a Bilbao-inspired, titanium-roofed architectural wonder with commanding views of the vine rows; particularly lush in summer as harvest approaches. In spring this year, Puro Vik, with 19 glass-walled bungalows and a wine-themed spa, opened.
Best value for money: Argentina
With inflation running at more than 50 per cent and prices changing daily, it's hard to get a hook on what's going on in South America's second-largest economy.
In August, when primaries saw pro-market president Macri trounced and the likelihood of a return to Left-leaning populist politics, the Argentine peso lost a fifth of its value.
But, prices that rise for locals are still generally on the downward curve for those bearing harder currencies. As I write this, a £1 coin will get you 70.32 pesos ($1.80). Given that a plate of delicious grub from a leading restaurant at Buenos Aires' recent Masticar food fair cost between $100-$200 and a three-course lunch at La Cabrera, one of the most acclaimed parrillas (steakhouses), costs just $643 - with a glass of wine thrown in - it's clear luxuries can be enjoyed at cut-price.
With similar value to be had when purchasing local flights, bus tickets, hire cars, Airbnb rooms and local services, now's a good time to visit - and the pre-summer shoulders of October and November are glorious in Buenos Aires and the central region.
Hotels, which tend to work in US dollars, are the exception to the rule.
Best food and drink: Sao Paulo, Brazil
Sorry Lima, apologies La Paz, no beef Buenos Aires - but South America's richest, biggest, most insanely populated metropolis (city: 12 million, metro: 21.5 million) has the cash and kudos to attract big-spending diners - and draw in chefs from all around this continent-sized country.
From famed D O M, where Alex Atala concocts his award-winning and adventurous Amazonian creations, to Mani, headed by gifted Euro-Brazilian fusioneer Helena Rizzo, to informal Mocoto, which specialises in sertaneja (country) cuisine, the level is world-class.
Hotels like the Palacio Tangara, Emiliano, Fasano and Unique also hit very high indeed when it comes to cheffing, cocktail bars and hedonism.