Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Central & South America
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.
Nicknamed the King of the South, snow-capped Osorno Volcano is one of Chile’s most visible landmarks. Towering over Lake Todos Los Santos and Lake Llanquihue, the conical volcano can be seen from as far off as Chiloé. The volcano’s near perfect shape is the result of some 40 craters scattered along its base. The volcano has erupted 11 times during the 18th and 19th centuries, but always in these craters; never at its peak. Today, a windy road leads visitors to the base of a ski resort, where chairlifts ferry passengers to a point near the volcano’s peak — a worthwhile excursion even for non-skiers simply for the stellar views of the alpine lake below. Experienced climbers can make the full-day trek to the summit of Osorno.
The highlight of any trip to Iguazu Falls is this massive complex of cascades that form a narrow chasm some 150m (500ft) long and 80m (262ft) high. The roaring falls and veils of spray create an awesome, full-sensory experience, which can be enjoyed from any number of vantage points.
The postcard-perfect view is from the Brazilian side, at the top of a 2km (1.2mi) trail ending in an elevator trip to the top of this natural wonder. To explore the falls up close, however, you'll need to take the Devil's Throat catwalks skipping across the deceptively calm waters atop the roaring falls. From there, you can watch as millions of liters of water drain violently into the river below.
Serious fans can splash out on a helicopter ride above the falls, available next to the visitors center on the Brazilian side.
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 closest archaeological site to Lima is Pachacamac, a pre-Inca collection of sand-blasted pyramid temples and palaces spanning 1,500 years. Over the centuries the now-ruined city developed into one of the Inca’s most important religious and administrative centers.
Though all that remains is largely the rubble of walls and stepped foundations rising from the surrounding dusty desert, there are excavations and reconstructions to see, including a rebuilt Inca complex called House of the Chosen Women.
The site was inhabited by the Huari people prior to 800 AD, and later by the Inca, who built their Temple to the sun on the main square. Itshma was the name given to the state surrounding Pachacamac and the religious ceremonial temples built to honor the coastal deity, Pacha Camac.
Praia Vermelha is one of Rio’s smallest beaches but also one of the most scenic. Tucked inside a protective cove that keeps the waves at bay, the beach is covered in coarse sand with a slightly reddish hue. Flanked by the spires of Morro da Urca and Morro da Babilonia, Vermelha Beach offers ground level views looking up at Sugarloaf Mountain. To reach the top of the iconic peak, ride the cable car from Vermelha Beach to the top of Morro da Urca, before transferring over to a second car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Or, to combine a hike with the ride to the top, a steep trail ascends Morro da Urca from the sands of Praia Vermelha, which is accessed by walking the paved walking trail that leads away from the beach.
As the oldest known city in the Americas, the archeological site of Caral is among Peru’s most impressive ruins and makes a popular day trip from nearby Lima. The UNESCO World Heritage listed site covers an area of around 60 hectares in the arid Supe Valley and was first inhabited between 2600 BCE and 2000 BCE.
Although initially discovered back in 1948, recent excavations of Caral revealed an elaborate complex of temples, sunken plazas and some of the largest terraced pyramids in the world, leading archeologists to ponder the possibility of Caral being the fabled ‘Mother City’ of ancient civilizations. Now open to the public, the site has garnered acclaim for its beautifully preserved ruins and intriguing collection of artifacts, which include a quipu (a unique knot system used by ancient Andean civilizations) and a number of musical instruments fashioned from animal bones, but significantly, no trace of warfare or weaponry.
Dazzling shoppers on Buenos Aires’ central Florida Street, the Guemes Gallery, or Galería Güemes, is one of the city’s finest gallerias, making headlines as the highest building in Argentina when it first opened in 1915. Designed by legendary Italian architect, Francesco Gianotti (the brains behind the landmark Confiteria del Molino building on Plaza Congresso), the domed atrium towers 87 meters over downtown Buenos Aires and still offers spectacular 360-degree panoramic views from its 14th floor observation deck.
A striking composition of Art Nouveau styles, the Gallery’s decadent interiors are a breathtaking college of ornamental archways, beautiful ironwork, sculpted granite walls and exquisite stained glass. The upper floor apartments are equally impressive, having hosted a smattering of famous names over the years, most notably writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, to whom a photography collection is devoted to on the 2nd level.
More Things to Do in Central & South America
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.
The swanky beachfront suburb of Miraflores is one of Lima’s most sought-after zip codes.
Miraflores is where you’ll find Lima’s best restaurants, shops and hotels, plus the waterfront mansions and high-rise towers of the city’s movers and shakers. It’s also home to lovely parks and gardens, beaches and promenades.
Some ancient history remains in Miraflores, including the Huaca Pucllana, the remains of a pre-Inca mud-brick temple.
Paragliders come to Miraflores to leap off the area’s rocky cliffs over the sea. The beaches are popular, but the coast tends to be rocky rather than sandy and the better beaches lie further south.
Lima’s most bohemian district, the lively coastal neighborhood of Barranco first became popular towards the end of the 19th Century, drawing an influx of poets, writers and artists to the seaside resorts of Las Sombrillas and Barranquito. Although it was integrated into the capital territory in 1860, Barranco retains its village-like feel, with its striking colonial architecture and brightly painted buildings standing in stark contrast to the modern high-rises of neighboring Miraflores.
Best explored on foot, the elegant Plaza San Francisco is the starting point for a walking tour, home to the 19th century Iglesia San Francisco, and encircled by boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Nearby, the Bajada de los Baños ravine is the most popular hangout during the daytime, where the flower-lined Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) makes a romantic spot for watching the sunset.
The modern city of Lima is dotted with historic ruins and sacred sites, known as huacas, and the imposing archeological site of Huaca Pucllana is one of the city’s largest and most important ancient monuments, located in the coastal Miraflores district. Built around 500 A.D, the complex was once an administrative and ceremonial center of the indigenous Lima Culture civilization, constructed from hand-made adobe bricks and dominated by a 22-meter tall central pyramid.
The impressive pre-Incan ruins are now a popular tourist attraction, affording unique views from the top of the central mound and dramatically floodlit in the evening hours. There’s also an on-site museum displaying artifacts like tools, ceramics and textiles unearthed during excavations, a workshop area displaying ancient textile and ceramic making techniques, a small park growing key plants used by the Lima Culture people and a spectacularly sited restaurant that looks out over the ruins.
Cartagena’s strategic significance as Europe’s conquest of the Americas intensified cannot be overstated. Some say that if the British had won the 1741 Battle of Cartagena, that South America would now speak English. They didn’t, largely because of massive El Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and most formidable Spanish colonial fortress in the hemisphere.
Begun in 1536, almost immediately after the conquistadors arrived, the massive megastructure sits atop San Lazaro Hill, with flawless views across the harbor. Bristling with cannons and other armaments, it was enlarged and re-fortified in 1657 and 1763 as part of an ongoing arms race against other European powers. A marvel of military engineering, the compound’s angles and parapets offer maximum coverage, and are connected by a warren of secret tunnels threading the mountain of stone.
Cartagena’s Catedral de San Pedro Claver, so close to the sea wall, seems unduly imposing for such a sanctified site. Begun in 1575, when this was a very rough neighborhood, its unfinished fortifications were destroyed in 1586 during a tiff with Sir Francis Drake and his pirate crew, and rebuilt by 1602.
Its namesake, San Pedro Claver Corberó, did not arrive until 1610. The Spanish-born priest arrived in Cartagena, then a slave-trading hub, as a novice priest. Horrified by the treatment of African captives, sold to a motley crew of middlemen on what’s now Plaza de los Coches, the young man became an activist, writing in his diary, “Pedro Claver, slave of the slaves forever (3 April 1622).”
Pedro would not only baptize newly enslaved arrivals right in the cathedral’s courtyard well (which was already controversial), but he would then explain to the newly saved that they deserved all the rights held by other Christian citizens of the Spanish Empire.
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.
The Bridge of the Americas spans the Panama Canal, which is perhaps the most important public works project in history. Made of steel and reinforced concrete, the bridge is 5,425 feet long, and at high tide, the clearance is 201 feet, under which ships crossing the canal must pass.
Twenty million U.S. dollars went into building the four-lane bridge, which replaced smaller ones and greatly increased road travel and capacity over the canal. It was inaugurated on Oct. 12, 1962, and allows the passage of cars, bikes and pedestrians.
The Bridge of the Americas was originally called the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, named after the ferry that used to operate on the canal before the span was built. Panama aptly renamed the bridge, since it not only connects the capital with the rest of Panama, but also unites Central and South America.
When Magellan passed through the strait bound for Chile for the first time, he cruised on past the tiny Magdalena Island, famous for its thousands of penguins. Today, travelers make it a point to stop at this scenic island that’s northeast of Punta Arenas to explore the rocky shores and get up close to the playful penguins.
Visitors can follow well-marked paths to a popular lighthouse for impressive views of the empty island, but it’s the friendly penguins that walk side-by-side with travelers that really draw tourists to this natural haven outside of the region’s capital.
Panama City's oldest surviving neighborhood is also its most defensible, a tejas-tiled cluster of primly painted colonial buildings at the tip of a heavily fortified peninsula. These ramparts successfully protected the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific Coast, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After decades of neglect, Casco Viejo is finally being revitalized. New hotels and restaurants, some quite elegant, are occupying the centuries-old buildings. Iconic landmarks like El Arco Chato (Flat Arch), which may date to neighborhood's founding in 1671; the 1798 Metropolitan Cathedral; and many other pretty plazas, palaces, markets, and gold-gilt churches have been refurbished, as have the narrow streets, draped in flowery French balconies, which connect them. Well worth a wander.
Palm-lined Amador Causeway is famed for the fantastic views of Panama's skyscraping downtown, a yacht-strewn panorama across the Panama Bay to the graceful steel span of the Bridge of the Americas at the entrance of the canal. Scenic running paths follow the water, paved with stones used in the Canal's construction, along a causeway that stretches almost 3km (2mi) into the Pacific, connecting the city to three small islands: Noas, Perico and Flamenco.
Visitors from around the city and world come to here to play, plied by upscale shopping centers and local vendors displaying their wares to crowds strolling the causeway. It's also the city's hippest nightlife district, home to elegant bars, casual clubs and other entertainment venues.
Located four miles south from the shores of Ambergris Caye, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the most visited snorkeling and diving area in Belize. Part of the Belize Barrier Reef, the reserve covers approximately three square miles and is divided into various zones according to marine habitat. The most popular zone is called Hol Chan or “small channel” in Maya -- a 30-foot deep “cut” in the reef where all sorts of marine life have now gathered in one area, making it one giant aquarium. The channel has beautiful live corals and an abundant variety of fish that includes angelfish, turtles, nurse sharks, hog fish, snappers and many other species.
The second most popular zone of the reserve is Shark Ray Alley, a shallower area where nurse sharks and stingrays are plentiful. Grass beds and mangrove areas make up the other zones of the reserve and require a more personalized expert guide -- and while less visited.
The textile mill at Awana Kancha is an entertaining and culturally-rich stop on the journey between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Set 30 minutes outside of the Cusco city center, this popular artisan outpost is a budget-friendly place to experience alpacas and Andean culture.
With no entry fee, visitors to Awana Kancha can marvel at traditionally-dressed women and the colorful textiles they spin before your eyes. Using the wool of alpacas, llamas, guanacos, and vicunyas, the women create patterns using natural dyes that have existed in the Andes since the time of the Inca. What’s more, in addition to the textiles, visitors have the chance to hand-feed llamas or nurse baby alpacas with milk from a bottle. The name Awana Kancha literally translates as the Palace of Weaving, and the fine works of handicraft which are on sale at the co-op are arguably nicer than you’ll find in larger markets.