A South America Travel Primer
Explorer in Residence, Graeme Bell, on South America’s must-have experiences.
It took my family three years to circumnavigate South America. We explored every country of that spectacular continent and immersed ourselves into the lore, geography and culture.
The continent holds many secrets and it is our honor to share a few of those secrets with you.
The “Golden Circle”
A designation of my own invention, this magical circle includes northern Argentina, southern Brazil, Uruguay (and mysterious Paraguay). From the refreshing air and culture of Buenos Aires to magical Rio de Janeiro and west to Salta at the foot of the Andes. The Golden Circle is the most prosperous zone in South America, a fertile land rich in history and natural wonders. It is no coincidence that this is also the most inhabitable region of the continent, free of the hardship and rigors of the Amazon jungle, towering Andes or windswept Patagonia. It is here that many a traveler has found a home.
The formidable and enchanting Andes
The mountain range dominates the western coast of the continent, running parallel to the Pacific from northern Colombia until disappearing into the ocean, a thousand kilometers from Antarctica. From southern Ecuador to central Chile, the cold Humboldt current and Andes have worked together to create a 5,000 kilometer long strip of desert (if you are a courageous surfer looking for empty, overhead peaks and crushing barrels, look no further, a 4×4 is highly recommended). High in the Andes chewing coca leaves helps to alleviate altitude sickness and we marveled at the ability of the mountain people to endure and thrive in terrain at times as inhospitable as any on the planet. The Andes offer sublime opportunities for exploration and adventure, as the mere scale and elevation present challenges and obstacles in a world of peaks, volcanoes, lakes, llamas, alpaca, ice, history and a clear blue sky. This is a world of silence and strength, of visceral beauty and hard fought freedom.
The diversity of Brazil
Brazil is immense (the size of the USA less Alaska) and it can take weeks to traverse overland as the infrastructure deteriorates north of an imaginary boundary line of latitude between Brasilia and Rio de Janiero. The tempo of the coast discourages haste and it is all too easy to find yourself relaxing on the beach, coco gelato in hand. Southern Brazil is fertile, blessed with superb lakes and rivers and was extensively colonized by non-Iberian Europeans, particularly Italian and German. The unintentionally secretive “alpine” village of Gramado offers skiing, bratwurst, apfelsaft, chocolate, beer and sauerkraut served in buildings built by men dressed in lederhosen and the city of Blumenau boasts the second largest Oktoberfest in the world!
In Macapa, a bustling, weathered city on the northern banks of the Amazon river, we were affectionately called “gaucho” (cowboy), which is the northern nickname for southern Brazilians. The ferry journey from Macapa to Belem along the mighty Amazon river took 36 meandering, illuminating hours, our fellow sailors the hardy people who had survived for centuries in a living, breathing jungle evolved to consume all. A day’s drive from Amazonian Belem, we found ourselves in the flooded Lencois Maranhenses, a desert which fills with sparkling pools of fresh water in the wet season. We explored the desert in our Land Rover, sleeping beneath a spectacular, glittering sky, safe and alone. While the impressive southern cities attract the most visitors, we found the true heart of the country far from the Sao Paulo megalopolis. But, between you and I, Florianopolis is a particularly well kept secret.
If you are a carnivore, Uruguay and Argentina offer asado, the South American barbecue, which is second to none. The “Golden Circle” is home to fine wine and cheese and who can refuse an excellent beer at the end of a long day? The Brazilian churrasco is so much more than just a meal and Peru offers many culinary delights, particularly in Miraflores, the misty suburb of Lima where many cultures compete to tempt your taste buds. The fresh produce markets of South America offer an astounding array of affordable fruit and vegetables and the traders will warm to you instantly if you engage in trade with even basic Spanish.
The people and culture
South American culture revolves around family and labor. In general, Colombians and Brazilians are incredibly hospitable, Argentines and Chileans are serious and soulful, Peruvians and Bolivians are tough and as formidable as the Andes. Venezuelans are beleaguered yet optimistic and the Guyanese are either Caribbean, Dutch or French. Portuguese and German descendants form the ruling class in Brazil and Spanish descendants dominate the economies of the continent while the Inca and their cousins turn the wheels. South Americans value time, they try to find balance and are not consumed by the Western timetable. You cannot fight the siesta!
We made friends who became family, we were accepted, respected and inspired by so many people who taught us valuable lessons about love and life. We adore South America and left the continent with a firm promise to return. And return we will.
Book a privately-guided tour of South America.
Your Next Adventure!
- Your Own Private Expert Guide & Vehicle
- Your Schedule, Your Budget, Your Preferences
- Private Tours for 20% Less Than Premium Group Tours