Tucked into the mountains and hidden away in the caves of Central and South America is a veritable treasure trove of ancient mementos. From 600-year-old Machu Picchu to 29,000-year-old rock paintings, not to mention a site or two that constitute arguably the earliest evidence of human habitation in the world, Central and South America offer a literal tour of ancient history.
It's the multiple layers of great civilizations that make Peru so intriguing. Wander around colonial cities preserving the legacy of Spanish conquistadors, visit the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco, explore the lost city of Machu Picchu and ponder the enigma of Nazca Lines. It also has some of the most spectacular and varied scenery in South America.
The Peruvian Andes are arguably the most beautiful on the continent and the mountains are home to millions of highland Indians, who still speak the ancient tongue of Quechua and maintain a traditional way of life. The verdant Amazon Basin, which occupies half of Peru, is one of the world's top 10 biodiversity 'hot spots'—a species-rich area of tropical rain forest that will make your head spin when you start to learn about its ecology. The coastal deserts, with their huge rolling dunes, farmland oases and fishing villages, are underappreciated by travellers but offer the opportunity to get off the Gringo Trail in a big way.
Although it was built some 550 years ago, less than 100 years ago Machu Picchu was discovered. Perched atop a rugged ridge, blanketed by cloud forest and nestled into nearly impassable terrain, this “lost city of the Inca” remained a secret simply because it was so hard to find. Machu Picchu provides a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of the Inca, while a newly reconstructed stone path makes for a hiking journey along the very road the Inca used to enter their secret hideaway.
From salty-desert top to glacier-crowded bottom, Chile is jammed with enough geysers, mountains, beaches, forests and volcanos to keep adventure nuts slavering for a lifetime. Travelers are mostly drawn to the its spectacular Pacific coastline and Andean highlands. Despite having the most European community in South America, indigenous traditions persist in the Andean foothills and in the southern plains, while some of South America's finest national parks draw trekkers and guanaco spotters alike. Over the last two decades, Chile has become the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wines to the United States.
For hundreds of years, Brazil has symbolised the great escape into a primordial, tropical paradise, igniting Western imagination like no other South American country. From the mad passion of Carnaval to the immensity of the dark Amazon, it is a country of mythic proportions. Perhaps it's not quite the Eden of popular imagination, but it's still a land of staggering beauty. There are stretches of unexplored rainforest, islands with pristine tropical beaches, and endless rivers. And there are the people themselves, who delight the visitor with their energy and joy. São Paulo is the world's second most populous city.
Argentina is geared up to thrill—from nights tangoing in the chic quarter of Buenos Aires to gaucho riding in the grasslands of the Pampas. It is also a merry-go-round of incongruity: traditional cream teas in the Welsh community of the Chubut valley, the birthplace of the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, stomping ground of Maradona, source of Evita worship, museums of meteorites, huge numbers of dinosaur fossils, celebrity spotting on the ski slopes of Bariloche, and home to the southernmost city in the world. Argentina has more than 20 national parks, indigenous markets, must-see scenery and a worldwide reputation for delectable lamb, beef and wine. It has the tango and of course it has Buenos Aires—Buenos Aires is bursting with galleries, original fashion boutiques and one fantastic dining experience after another.
In the northeast, where Argentina meets Brazil and Paraguay, there’s the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Iguazu Falls. The falls consist of 275 cascades spread nearly 2 miles including the famous 'Devil's Throat'. The biggest and most brilliant rainbow in the world around Iguazu falls provides fantastic experience. Also, the nature of 'The Iguassu Natural Park', listed as World Natural Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1986, is also mysterious, where thousands of wonderful trees, birds and animals are abundant and easily seen.
If the thought of an Antarctic cruise holiday makes your teeth chatter, you might be surprised to know that, during the November-to-March season, temperatures usually range between twenty degrees and forty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Highs in the fifties are not uncommon. As a rule, the Falkland Islands are a bit warmer, with average highs in the fifties and lows in the forties to high thirties. Weather on South Georgia Island is harder to predict. Its rugged topography makes for highly changeable weather patterns, with dull rain followed by fine sunny days. Tie your hat on! Sudden, intense katabatic winds and short-lived squalls known locally as "williwaws" are a fact of life on South Georgia.
What will you see on your Antarctic journey? Sights change rapidly during the austral summer season. Local flora and fauna must pack a lot of living into these few warm months, so each cruise departure is, in effect, travelling to a different Antarctica, Falklands or South Georgia Island. November to early December offers the spectacular courtship rituals of penguins and seabirds, wildflowers on the Falklands and South Georgia, and the highest level of research activity. Mid-December to January see the emergence of penguin chicks and seal pups, escalating whale sightings, and longer days creating incredible light conditions for photography. February to March bring whale sightings at their best, blooming snow algae and increasingly numerous fur seals on the Antarctic Peninsula. Though it isn't a passive destination, rest assured that travel to the Deep South doesn't require great physical exertion or feats of special fitness.
In Antarctica, everything is in a state of permanent flux; a slow moving primordial symphony of shifting snow and creeping ice. With the promise that no two expeditions will be alike, your vacation will assuredly be one of the most unique and exclusive experiences of your lifetime. You’ll enter the ranks of the legendary explorers, and the relatively few to date who’ve journeyed there. And depending on where you’ve already traveled, you might even join another mythical society—the exclusive group of travelers who’ve actually set foot on all seven continents.
The Antarctic Peninsula thrusts out past the Antarctic Circle, lunging vainly towards the Andes, across the infamous Drake Passage. As far as the Antarctic is concerned, the peninsula is the most densely populated location on the continent, sprinkled with vast research bases and minute outposts alike. At the height of the summer season, the human population numbers over 3,000 - not counting tourists. That figure shrinks to less than 1,000 during the intensely chilly winter.
Antarctic Sound also know as, Iceberg Alley, is accompanied by views that can only be described as amazing. Huge open skies, enormous icebergs, low clouds, sudden weather changes and constant surprises from the hugely abundant wildlife you see will keep you in a constant state of awe. Travellers will discover colonies of Adelie penguins, and ice floes also provide a floating resting spot for various seals.
Penguins and dolphins, sea lions and iguanas, tropical birds and giant tortoises—this collection of species comes together in a single destination on the equator. It's no surprise that these islands are so special. Their remoteness from other landmasses and the absence of human settlements until the past century allowed their animal inhabitants to live with little fear of predators. As a result, the islands have an abundance of animals, birds and reptiles that are easily viewed, with or without binoculars.
The islands are best known as the home of giant tortoises that can weigh up to 500 lb/227 kg and live over 100 years. Visitors will also see marine iguanas (the only seagoing lizards in the world); scarlet-breasted frigate birds; blue-footed, red-footed, masked and Nazca boobies; tiny penguins at home in the tropics; mammoth sea lions; and giant, graceful albatrosses. About half of the species are endemic to the islands, found nowhere else on Earth.
Volcanic in origin, the archipelago has 13 large (and six lesser) islands whose terrain is mostly stark and barren, consisting primarily of a lava rock- and cacti-filled landscape in an arid climate. However, the highlands of the larger islands are dominated by volcanos and cloud forests, with lush vegetation and cooler temperatures.
One of the most famous visitors was Charles Darwin, whose five-week stay in 1835 led him to note that some species of birds had changed both physically and behaviorally because of their environment and evolved into distinct species over time. His famous book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and the theory of evolution were influenced greatly by what he saw there.
These days, most visitors see the islands as part of a cruise tour. Small boats, or pangas, drop travelers off on individual islands, where knowledgeable naturalists introduce the lifestyles and mating rituals of the native species. Swimming and snorkeling are possible at most sites and are often enhanced by curious sea lions, sea turtles, an occasional penguin and scores of tropical fish. The marine environment of the Galapagos is a protected area.
Strict rules imposed by the Galapagos National Park require that licensed guides accompany all visitors and that visitors stick to the 60 designated sites on the islands, most of which are uninhabited. Visitors may walk only on marked trails and cannot touch or feed the animals, even though the animals often come close.
The Galapagos Islands lie 600 mi/970 km off the coast of Ecuador. Thirteen of the islands are larger than 6 sq mi/15 sq km, and the rest of the archipelago is made up of six smaller islands and more than 100 islets. The entire area (approximately 3,089 sq mi/8,000 sq km) straddles the equator, which passes directly through Isabela, the largest of the islands, representing more than half of the entire surface area of the islands combined.
The entire chain of islands is the result of volcanic activity. There is an oceanic "hot spot" where the islands of Fernandina and Isabela are now located and where all islands to the east once were. There, magma rises from the Earth's mantle to form the volcanic islands, some of which continue to be shaped by recent eruptions. As the Nazca plate moves slowly southeast, at approximately 1.6 in/4 cm per year, it takes the islands with it. Over time, this series of events has produced the current archipelago.
The Galapagos Archipelago is so far from other landmasses that the islands were ignored by humans for centuries. Tomas de Berlanga, a bishop of Panama in route to Peru, wrote the first account of the islands in 1535, telling the king of Spain he had seen tortoises big enough to carry a man. His tales put the islands on the map. European rivals of Spain, including British pirates, used the islands as a refuge in the 16th and 17th centuries in their attacks on the Spanish colonies in South America. Whalers also began using the islands in the late 1700s, where they, too, hunted tortoises and birds for food and seals for fur.
Ecuador, which claimed the islands in 1832, officially designated about 97% of the islands a national park in 1959 to protect them from development. In 1978, UNESCO made the islands a World Heritage site. The Galapagos Marine Reserve was created in 1998; it is one of the world's largest after the Great Barrier Reef and recently created reserves in Antarctica and Hawaii.
In March 2007, the same year the World Heritage Committee added the Galapagos to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites in danger, the Ecuadorian government signed a national decree that declared the islands' management as a top priority, favoring its conservation and protection. Initial results are hard to quantify, but this step implies that stricter rules may be put into effect regarding development on the islands.
As it stands, permission is not required to build a hotel, but tour operators must secure permits to enter the national park, which is managed by the Ministry of Tourism. Some boats are authorized to disembark onto various islands, but others must anchor in the waters offshore. As of 2012, no vessel is permitted to visit the same site more than once in a 14-day period. Illegal immigration to the islands, illegal fishing, introduced species and poor education of the local population remain dangers to the Galapagos.