The world's driest and oldest desert is a 1,000km-long plateau of unique otherworldly beauty – a place of salt flats and emerald lakes, ancient lava fields and far horizons, dotted with 6,000m peaks. Atmospheric settlements like San Pedro de Atacama – a lively traveler’s hub – contrast sharply with over 170 ghost towns. In September and October, rare spring rains can spark stunning floral blooms in southern Atacama.
Picture an area the size of the UK, with steamy Amazon jungle and high Andean páramo, bird-filled cloud forest and mangrove-lined coast. Add majestic colonial cities by snow-capped volcanoes, and the unique evolutionary wildlife lab of Galápagos. Ecuador's culture is equally diverse: colourfully-clad Quichua – descendants of the Incas; lowland tribes steeped in the lore of rainforest and shamans.
Patagonia would be a unique and wonderful country all by itself. Iconic sealife throngs its long coast: whales and elephant seals, albatross and penguins. Inland, lonely steppes mix with jewel-like lakes and epic peaks of national parks like Torres del Paine. Rustic mining and ranch towns complement old Welsh settlements like Gaiman and Dolovon for characterful human presence.
The world’s largest seasonal wetland – and Brazil’s wildlife spotting HQ – is home to almost 700 bird species and around 80 mammals, all easily viewed without the dense vegetation of its far more famous counterpart: the Amazon jungle. Enjoy night treks, canoe rides and horseback hacks to see capybaras, anacondas, monkeys and hyacinth macaws. Porto Jofre is also the world's top spot to see habituated jaguars.
The Inca Trail is a journey and a destination rolled into one, waymarked with natural and cultural rewards. High windswept tundra and humid cloud forest mix with hidden ruins reached by ancient paths. The legendary final destination of Machu Picchu is spectacular but the world of traditional Quechua villages traversed along the way is equally memorable.
Ecuador's island offshoot was a pirate hideaway until its uniquely evolved bestiary provided an evolutionary bonanza for a spellbound Charles Darwin in the 19th century. The landscape – forest, smoking volcanic features, sweeping coast – is as breathtaking as its wildlife that shows no fear of humans – from seals and penguins to giant tortoises and salt-snorting iguanas. Each of the archipelago's islands offers varied geography and ecology.
Manaus is the base for the northern forest, including the wildlife and pristine jungle environment of Jaú National Park. Cruise past tropical archipelagos, looking for pink river dolphins and giant otters. Or encounter native culture canoeing to Yanomami and Tukano villages. In the southern forest, spot some of the 550 bird species and multiple types of monkey, as well as giant capybaras grazing the riverbanks.
Straddling the Argentina-Brazil border, the world's finest cascades stretch 3km and tower higher than Niagara. There are over 270 falls, and you’ll need to border-hop for the full experience. The Brazilian side has rainforest walks and catwalks above the cascades, while Argentina allows you to cruise upriver on a zodiac – navigating rapids to reach the Devil’s Throat Canyon.
Coca leaves are an important traditional crop in countries like Bolivia - a mild stimulant and excellent for altitude sickness. But it also makes the vile, weirdly glamorised drug cocaine. La Paz’s cocaine bar draws tourists, as do cocaine-themed drug tours in the Amazon. Please avoid. They are not only illegal but take money away from legitimate and far worthier initiatives.
Brazil's vast coastline is fringed with spectacular beaches, but for years visitors opted for famous city beaches like Rio's, leave the idyllic secluded strands to beach bums. Now, all-inclusive resorts are springing up in places like Ceara, Bahia and Rio's Green Coast, which aim to keep visitors in the resort rather than out contributing directly to often struggling local communities. Avoid.
It sounds like a wonderful and worthy cause – but travelers are waking up to the fact that all may not be as ethical as it seems. A revolving door of short-term, unqualified volunteers mean that the children – many of whom may have emotional or mental problems – are abandoned again and again. Worse – when orphans become a “business” thanks to the availability of travelers’ cash, fake orphanages may be set up to lure well meaning volunteers in. Nasty stuff.
Hand-made indigenous crafts are brilliant mementoes – but they're also a target for fakers keen to get gringo dosh for mass-produced tat. Ditto fake 'indigenous' sites such as the floating reed island village in Lake Titicaca, where visitors are taken to be fleeced. Buy 'handicrafts' direct from makers in their own regions. That way, they get the money directly too.