Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Central & South America
While zip-line tours that take you swishing through the treetops at squeal-inducing speeds certainly have their charm, there are other ways to appreciate Costa Rica’s wondrous wilderness. Unbeknownst to most tourists, the life of the rain forest largely takes place overhead, in the thick jungle canopy of sunlight and opportunity.
Most of Costa Rica’s birds, monkeys, giant anteaters, sloths, snakes and amphibians spend the better part of their lives in the distant treetops, far from the snapping cameras of junior photographers. The key to seeing these creatures (and getting the best shots) is ascending into the trees yourself.
Hence these 16 elegantly constructed Arenal Hanging Bridges—some suspended high above gorges and others stretching far across jungle floors—that line the winding paths of this epic Costa Rican hike and stretch a total of 2.6 km (1.6 miles) across the steeply pitched landscape.
A lush Atlantic rainforest, Tijuca National Park is an absolute wonder it is the world’s largest urban forest which covers 12.4mi² (32km²) and was a result of incredible forward thinking by Emperor Dom Pedro II.
In 1861 he saw the deforestation of the land around Rio and ordered that Tijuca be replanted to secure the water supply for future citizens. It was replanted over ten years ago and still plays a key role in making sure Rio has fresh water.
The national park includes the Corcodova which offers stunning views from its summit where the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer is situated. It also offers fantastic picnic areas, many waterfalls and some great walks.
Wildlife in the park includes insects, ocelots and howler monkeys. The reintroduction of birdlife has been particularly successful and it is a birdwatchers heaven.
Rincon de La Vieja National Park is one of the country’s most diverse ecological areas. Surrounding two volcanoes, Rincon (active) and Santa Maria (dormant), the park is also home to an extraordinary display of local flora and fauna, while being a part of the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste World Heritage site.
While the plant life is impressive on its own, especially considering the enormous concentration of purple orchids here, it’s the concentration of volcanoes that really wows visitors. The Rincon de La Vieja volcano gave rise to the park’s name and contains nine separate but contiguous craters. It is one of the largest of the five volcanoes in the Guanacaste region and is believed to be over a million years old. Despite being considered active, it has not erupted since the early 1980s. The park does see a lot of volcanic activity, including vents, fumaroles and boiling mud pots and has at least 32 rivers that flow down its sides.
Hidden among the mountains about 50 miles (80 km) from Medellin is the beautiful town of Guatapé. Founded in 1811, this town is now situated on the reservoir of a hydro-electric dam that was built in the late 1960s, when more than 7.5 square miles (2,000 hectares) were flooded to create the dam.
The incredible beauty of the reservoir and the views of the lush vegetation on the lake are unforgettable. Ferries on the lake take visitors to recreational areas on nearby islands and to see Pablo Escobar’s former mansion. The boardwalk by the water fills with vendors selling regional food and crafts.
The town is famous for zócalos, decorative tiles along the lower part of the facades of the buildings in the historic center. These tiles in bright colors and patterns are connected to life in the community, telling the history of the town and the beliefs of the people.
Keeping a watchful eye over the people of Rio de Janeiro, the Statue of Christ the Redeemer (or Cristo Redentor) sits atop Corcovado 2,300 feet (700 meters) above the city. It was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
The largest art deco statue in the world, it is 130 ft (39 m) tall and the arms measure 98 ft (30 m) across. Made of reinforced concrete and sandstone the statue was unveiled in 1931.
On a clear day the views from the base of the statue are fantastic. At night the statue is lit up and seemingly hovers over the city as the mountain it stands on is dark. If it is cloudy the clouds light up and the effect can be quite spectacular and ethereal.
A leisurely walk through the narrow streets of Old Town Cartagena, with bougainvillea spilling off second-floor balconies and brightly painted Colonial houses, invites visitors to escape into the past. The bustle of daily life mixes with the historical architecture of this walled city by the ocean. In addition to the beautiful boutique stores, numerous restaurants, and colorful street vendors, there are many treasures to see around town and just outside the city walls. The leafy Plaza de Bolivar serves as a good place to start a tour in Cartagena and to see some of the local culture and buy fruit from the colorfully dressed women known as palanqueras. Next to the plaza, the free Gold Museum (Museo de Oro) displays pieces that tell the history of the Zenú indigenous tribe. The nearby Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición) provides a rather gruesome look at Colombia’s past and the Spanish Inquisition -- some of the torture devices used on the accused are on display.
Copocabana Beach, or Praia de Copacabana, is the Rio de Janeiro of the tourist brochures and deservedly so. It’s a breath-taking 2.5mi (4.5 km) stretch of bright sand that’s filled with people luxuriating in the sun and soaking up the atmosphere.
As night descends the lights go on and football is played until the wee hours. Other groups start singing and dancing and still others are just there to check each other out. The busy sidewalks can get seedy at night so take care.
Behind it rise the Sugarloaf and Morro de Leme and in between is one of the world’s most densely populated residential areas.It is possible to visit Rio and never leave Copacabana, many hotels are situated here and there are plenty of restaurants and bars and some decent shopping.
The stunning beach gets divided up depending on the interests of the beachgoers. There is the family section, the gay section, the ageing-intellectual section and so on; you’ll soon find where you feel comfortable.
At night the beach is lit up and families come to the beach with their barbeques and cook dinner while others come down to watch the sunset.
Ipanema means “bad, dangerous waters” in Indian and it is indeed a good idea to only swim in the designated areas where the locals are swimming as the waves can be big and the undertow strong.
More Things to Do in Central & South America
This popular excursion offers a festive excuse to explore a bit of the Canal, visiting an island that has been "taken over" by four species of monkey: capuchin (white face), howler, Geoffroy's tamarin, and grey-bellied nocturnal monkeys. Boats head out to the island throughout the day, where sharp-eyed photographers might also spot sloths, caimans, and bright tropical birds such as toucans.
Unfortunately, the island's overwhelming appeal has led to strict regulations, and guides are no longer allowed to feed or tease monkeys - so don't count on that National Geographic shot. Trips can be combined with fishing, kayaking, canopy tours, and other adventures.
This spectacular landscape of crashing waterfalls was once held sacred by the Guarani people, who called it Iguassu, or "Big Water." Straddling the border of Brazil and Argentina, Iguassu Falls is an incredible natural attraction of 275 waterfalls of various sizes, making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Puerto Iguazu is the Argentina gateway - from here you can tour the Brazilian side, tour both sides and take other sightseeing tours to nearby attractions like the San Ignacio Mission or the Itaipu Dam on the Brazil-Paraguay border.
While Argentina, with 80% of the falls, has more trails and activities, the Brazilian side, with tours leaving from Foz do Iguacu, offers the finest views. Pedestrian walkways descend into the fierce rainbow-strewn mists of Fiorano Falls, and take in panoramic vistas over the massive flowing curtain of Rivadavia Falls, which cascades across a plateau.
Decorated with over 2,000 brightly colored tiles in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the Selarón Staircase (Escadaria Selarón) is one of Rio’s most vibrant and striking landmarks, marking the boundary between the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods. The brainchild of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, the iconic steps have become one of the world’s most famous pieces of street art, drawing millions of visitors and gaining exposure in international commercials, pop music videos and magazines all around the globe.
Selarón started work on the staircase in 1990 as a tribute to the Brazilian people and his beloved adopted city, covering the 250 steps with an elaborate mosaic of tiles and updating the artwork over the years to include newly inspired tiles donated by visiting artists. Operating a gallery from his home, the artist lived nearby for more than 20 years, but tragically, he was found dead on the steps in 2013, leaving his memory to live on through the unique landmark.
Quito’s unmissable historic center, or ‘Old Town,' extends over 320 hectares (790 acres) and is the largest historic center in the Americas.
Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Quito has taken great pride in restoring its colonial buildings and sprucing up its public spaces to ensure that both locals and visitors continue to breath life into the old town.
Life is certainly not lacking in Quito Old Town. The streets and plazas constantly buzz with colorful locals and vendors selling everything from roasted peanuts to giant roasted pigs,. Tourists drink it all in as they shuffle between the overwhelming number of restored churches and chapels, convents and monasteries, mansions and museums.
And of course, there are plenty of bars and restaurants and shady plazas to rest in when sightseeing fatigue kicks in.
Far from a typical church, the Rio de Janeiro Cathedral is a tall, cone-shaped building that’s distinctive to the downtown Rio skyline. The unusual design was inspired by the Mayan pyramids and was built in the ‘60s and ‘70s by architect Edgar Fonseca. One of the most important contemporary religious structures in Rio, the cathedral is dedicated to St Sebastian, the patron saint of the city, and has received three papal visits.
Standing at 315 feet (96 meters), the hollow interior is undeniably the most impressive part of the building. Massive bronze doors give way to the circular nave, nearly 350 feet (106 meters) in diameter, fit to accommodate 20,000 churchgoers on foot. Four panels of floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows surround the structure, and a skylight in the shape of a cross at the top allows for natural light to flood into the interior. This unique cathedral is a must-see for those interested in contemporary architecture.
Jaco Beach is known for its black sand beaches and close proximity to Costa Rica’s capital city. But it’s also widely recognized for its diverse landscapes, breathtaking beauty and endless options for outdoor fun. The vast shores and crystal blue waters attract as many out of town travelers as they do locals.
Travelers can learn to surf, snorkel and swim in the clear ocean waters off the coast of Jaco. And those who want to experience the diversity of Coast Rica’s ecological landscapes can tour nearby Manuel Antonio National Park, the Carara biological reserve or the Damas Island Estuary. There are rain forest canopy tours, whale watching trips and beach side horseback riding adventures, too. Whether visitors are looking to unwind or eager to explore the shores of Jaco Beach offer the best of both worlds to travelers.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is the archaeological site of an ancient indigenous city in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thought to have been a commercial center for trade around 700 A.D., its population probably ranged between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants. Hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years, the Lost City was found in 1972 when treasure hunters followed a series of stone steps leading up to an abandoned city.
The Lost City is open to visitors, but the trip is not for the faint of heart. The nearly 30 mile trek takes visitors through farmland and jungle on an unforgettable six-day journey. Part of the adventure includes trekking over mountains filled with exotic plants and animals, climbing stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in indigenous villages.
Upon arriving at Lost City, climb more than 1,000 stone steps to the top of the site for incredible views of the surrounding mountains and jungle.
At Carnival time the Sambadrome is the heartbeat of Rio de Janiero. A 3,000ft (700m) stretch of road designed as a 90,000 capacity parade area with stadium seating rising on each side of the road.
Samba schools have 80 minutes to parade through the center of the Sambadrome performing their samba school anthem impressing the crowd with their music, dancing and floats. it is an incredible spectacle; seven teams compete each night in a concert that lasts over ten hours.
During the rest of the year the Sambadrome hosts the occasional music concerts. Some of the more famous names to play include the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Eric Clapton and Coldplay. If its not Carnival and there's no concert then the Sambadrome can be very empty and quiet but it is still a fascinating piece of Rio’s culture and there is a small museum that showcases its history.
Cusco’s Cathedral of Santo Domingo is a colonial gem, boasting an altar of silver and a magnificently carved choir. The building stands on the site of an Inca palace, and was built from stone blocks removed from the nearby Inca city of Sacsayhuaman by the triumphant conquistadors.
The elaborately decorated cathedral was built from 1559 to 1654 on the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas, and is filled with colonial artworks, artifacts and richly decorated chapels. The most famous artwork is a Last Supper painting by Marcos Zapata featuring a meal of local guinea pig served with an Inca corn beverage. The highly ornamental facade features two domes flanking the chapels and nave, built in a Gothic-Renaissance hybrid style.
Sitting in the shadow of big brother and Rio de Janeiro icon, Sugar Loaf Mountain, the Morro da Urca is just as important if only because the cable car trip up to Sugar Loaf includes a stop atop this turtle shell-shaped rock. Not to be outdone by its better-known neighbor, the 720-foot hill, a little more than half Sugar Loaf’s height of 1,300 feet, still offers spectacular panoramic views of Christ the Redeemer and Corcovado, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Guanabara Bay, downtown Rio, and Sugar Loaf itself (something you can’t see when you’re actually on it).
At the top of the Morro da Urca, the visitors’ center provides elevators for special needs guests, restrooms, and souvenir and food concessions. Hiking trails skirt the Morro, starting at Praia Vermelho, but one of the most exhilarating options available, if not exactly popular or cheap, is a helicopter ride around Sugar Loaf and over nearby Copacabana.
Among Bogota’s most popular and spectacular attractions, the Museo del Oro sparkles with more than 55,000 priceless archaeological and artistic treasures. Only a fraction can be displayed at any one time within the main edifice, itself a work of art, ensconced in elegantly and eloquently designed displays of Colombia’s dazzling bounty.
There are four floors of exhibits, signed in both Spanish and English, with audio guides available in a handful of other languages. From delicate filigree nose rings to carefully crafted containers for coca leaves to the famed “Muisca Raft,” depicting the legend of El Dorado, the “Golden Man,” these objects have been innovatively arranged to tell tales of pre-Colombian mining, manufacturing and metallurgy.
The vast protected forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park may be divided by one of the nation’s busiest highways, but this just means easy access for travelers, as well as the possibility of picturesque views without ever having to leave the car.
Lazy travelers can traverse the highway snapping photos of lush landscapes from the comfort of their car seats, while those eager to get back to nature can embark on one of the miles of trails leading to the waterfalls, open pastures and mountain stations that dot the rainforest. An Aerial tram on the eastern side of the park offers open gondola rides through the dense understory and canopy of the woods, where its possible to spot the sloth and other forest creatures that call Braulio Carrillo National Park home.
The gigantic Maracanã Stadium was built to open the 1950 World Cup. It holds the record for the largest attendance at a World cup final as 199,854 paying spectators crammed into the stadium and many more besides.
If you’re after the intense Brazilian football experience complete with the drums, flares, and chanting, then get to a game; otherwise the sports museum inside the stadium with photographs, cups, and Pele’s famous no. 10 jersey is a more sedate experience (enter at Gate 18).
Its official name is 'Mário Filho Stadium' but it's called 'Maracanã' after the small river that runs alongside. In the 1990s it was modified to become an all-seated stadium and now holds under 100,000.
The four main teams of the city play here and it will host the opening of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies. It is being renovated for these events (scheduled to reopen in 2012) and will finally hold around 103,000 spectators.
Though the Brazilians boast of their outstanding views over the falls, Argentina is blessed with about 80% of Iguazu, lovingly threaded by several kilometers of paved trails and catwalks that could keep you occupied for three days. A free "jungle train" connects several trailheads.
The Upper Circuit Trail offers outstanding views over Mbigua Falls and the undulating Iguazu River, before dropping toward misty Bernabe Mendez Falls. The Lower Circuit Trail has more views, as well as access to motorboat trips under the falls, whitewater rafting, and a free ferry to Isla San Martin, with even more to explore. Whatever you do, don't miss the vistas over Garganta del Diablo. No matter where you trek, you will get soaking wet. And that's not a bad thing on a hot summer day in Argentina. Though Puerto Iguazu, 17km (10mi) from the park, is the smallest of the three cities here at the triple border between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, it has a great deal to offer tourists.