Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Viator Travel Awards, an annual awards competition where we – along with our readers, travelers, and fans – select the top things to do and see in each of the major regions we serve, the top things to do in our most popular tour categories, and more.
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Welcome to the 2012 Viator Travel Awards: Central and South America Edition! In the past, we’ve focused on specific tours for each item on this list, but this year we thought we’d feature some of the top things to do in 25 of the most exciting places to visit in the region.
The tours and activities highlighted are chosen based on traveler reviews, data from the millions of people who check out Viator.com during the year, and information on which tours travelers book most often. We think you’ll enjoy reading about the array of activities available in each of these places – it’s the little mental vacation we could all use right now – and we also think this list is a great place to start if you’re planning a trip to Central and South America in 2013.
You’ll find all kinds of activities listed below, including hiking Machu Picchu, horseback riding over the Pampas of Argentina, surfing off the coast of Chile and coming face to face with sea lions in the Galapagos.
Join us for this tour of the Top 25 Things to Do in Central and South America!
1. Climb Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro
Few South American landmarks are as iconic as the statue of Christ the Redeemer reigning proud over Rio de Janeiro, and taking the pilgrimage to the top of Corcovado Mountain is a right of passage for tourists in Brazil. Take a Corcovado Mountain and Christ Redeemer Statue Half-Day Tour where you’ll get to ride the cogwheel railway through the surrounding Tijuca rainforest, before climbing the steps to snap a picture with holy statue, or combine it with a visit to Rio’s other famous mountain with a Corcovado Mountain, Christ Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain Day Tour. Better yet, take a Rio de Janeiro Helicopter Tour where you’ll swoop over the Rio’s famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and come face to face with the legendary monument.
2. Soak up the sun and fun in the “Marvelous City” of Rio
Voluptuous dancers in shimmering carnival costumes or sipping caipirinhas on a white-sand beach – whatever comes to mind when you think of Rio, there’s no doubting that the city knows how to have a good time and there are a myriad of ways to soak up the fun. Let loose in Brazilian style with a rhythmic Plataforma Samba Show; explore the city’s vibrant nightlife; indulge in Brazil’s other dance of passion – football, with a Rio de Janeiro Soccer Match; or immerse yourself in a Rio de Janeiro Small-Group Cooking Class where you’ll uncover the secrets of Brazil’s most beloved dishes.
3. Pick a side at Iguassu Falls
Niagara Falls might be the world’s most famous waterfall, but the mammoth Iguassu Falls outshine their Canadian rival when it comes to sheer size. Straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina, the falls stretch for almost 2 miles – twice the width of Niagara and thundering down from an even greater height. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage site on a Day Trip to the Argentinian Side of Iguassu Falls from Foz do Iguaçu; visit both sides with a 4-Day Iguassu Falls Tour or a 4-Day Tour to Iguassu Falls from Buenos Aires; or get a spectacular bird’s eye view with an Iguassu Falls Panoramic Helicopter Flight.
4. Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru
A rugged mountain trail winding 26 miles (43km) up to Machu Picchu, the mysterious Lost City of the Incas, Peru’s ancient Inca Trail is South America’s most famous trek and among the most iconic hikes in the world. A Machu Picchu Day Trip from Cusco is the easiest way to check out the vast remains – built by the Incan Empire back in 1450 and revered as a sacred place among many – or combine it with an exploration of Peru on a 7-Day Lima and Cusco Tour with Overnight at Machu Picchu. For the ultimate experience, follow in the footsteps of the Incas on the classic The Inca Trail: 4-Day Trek to Machu Picchu where you’ll tackle steep mountain roads, wander through cloud forests and camp in the wilderness, at heights reaching 4,200 meters (13,799 feet).
5. Uncover the mysteries of the Nazca Lines
One of the worlds’ most fascinating archaeological enigmas, Nazca owes its fame to a sequence of geoglyphs dating back to 500BC – a series of giant sand drawings depicting hundreds of animals and symbols, including a monkey, a lizard and a hummingbird – etched into the surface of the red-rock ‘Pampa Colorada’ plain and known as the ‘Nazca lines’. The only way to view the full expanse of the Nazca lines – some of which are several kilometers long – is by plane, so book on a Nazca Lines Air Tour and Ballestas Islands Full-Day Trip from Lima and marvel at the mystifying handiwork of the Nazca tribesmen.
6. Explore beyond Buenos Aires
Once you’ve got your fill of sultry tango, barbecued steaks and all-night parties, take a break from city life and venture outside of Buenos Aires. A Tigre Delta Day Trip from Buenos Aires is a popular option, where you can sample the picturesque scenery with a boat ride along the Delta River or for a change of pace, join the crowds of Argentinians who holiday in Uruguay, just a short ferry ride away. A Day Trip to Montevideo from Buenos Aires takes in the historic capital, renowned for its legendary theater and music scene, or relax in a sleepy seafront town with a Day Trip to Colonia from Buenos Aires, where cobblestone streets take you on a journey through colonial history.
7. Ride with the gauchos in Argentina
Whether you’re a master in the saddle or a novice horse-lover, you’ll still be in for a surprise when you watch the gauchos – Argentina’s notorious cowboys, who’ve earned themselves a reputation as pioneers of the ‘Latino Wild West’. Take a Gaucho Day Trip from Buenos Aires: Santa Susana Ranch where you can practice your cowboy skills on a traditional ranch, before settling down for some time-honored folk music and asado – Argentine-style barbecue.
8. Live like a porteño in Buenos Aires
With Buenos Aires’ unique historical heritage and blend of European and Latino influences, the city’s inhabitants– known as porteños – have a diverse and vibrant culture to dive into. Get a taste of the city’s most legendary export with a Buenos Aires Dinner and Tango Show; unveil the secrets of the country’s famous red malbec wine on a Buenos Aires Small-Group Wine Tasting Tour; or practice some traditional pastry making with Experience Buenos Aires: Empanada-Making Class with Wine Tasting. Sports fans can experience the fervent devotion of Argentine football fans with a Buenos Aires Behind the Scenes Soccer Stadium Tour.
9. Follow in the footsteps of Eva Peron in Buenos Aires
The real-life inspiration for the Broadway musical ‘Evita’ and immortalized by none other than Madonna in the 1996 film of the same name, Eva Peron, or ‘Evita’, remains a much-revered icon in her hometown. Take a Recoleta Afternoon Walking Tour where the iconic political figure is buried amidst an exquisite array of ornate tombs or uncover the stories of the legend on a Evita Peron Tour of Buenos Aires.
10. Ski, sip, or soak in Santiago
The Chilean capital has much more to offer than its lively nightlife and historic buildings, with an incredible variety of scenery and excursions right on its doorstep. Take a Cousino Macul and Concha y Toro Wineries Day Trip from Santiago where you’ll get to sip fine local wines at some of the country’s oldest and most celebrated wineries; scale to heights of 2,855 meters (9,421 feet) and hit the ski slopes in the nearby Andes with a Private Tour: Portillo Ski Resort Day Trip from Santiago; or relax on a Hot Springs Tour from Santiago with Lunch, bathing in a series of open-air mineral baths.
11. Find surf and sand on Chile’s coast
With its rich colonial history and vibrant port towns teeming with colorful fishing boats and historic buildings, Chile’s coastline still offers a glimmer of old world charm. Head to the coast on a Vina Del Mar and Valparaiso Day Trip from Santiago where you’ll get to walk in the footsteps of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in his beachside hometown – a bohemian haven of brightly painted buildings dotted along the steep hillsides; or combine it with a visit to the pretty beach town of Isla Negra on an Isla Negra and Pablo Neruda Museum Day Trip from Santiago.
12. Learn about Quechua culture in Quito
Ecuador’s vibrant capital offers a cultural melting pot with a sizable indigenous quotient blending unique Quechuan traditions with the city’s increasingly modern ways. Those looking for a cultural experience should start out with an Old Town Quito Sightseeing and Food Walking Tour, with an itinerary covering the city’s landmark Monastery of San Francisco, La Compañía de Jesús and the Government Palace, as well as the chance to sample local foods and crafts in a local home. Next, delve into Ecuadorian culinary traditions with a Quito Culinary Tour and Cooking Class and discover how simple, homegrown ingredients are transformed into richly-flavored tamales, sweet pastries and fruity mistelas (cocktails); or take a tour of the famous Otavalo Marketplace with Optional Lunch, where a vast array of traditional foods and handicrafts are on offer.
13. See the incredible animal life of the Galapagos Islands
Undoubtedly Ecuador’s biggest tourist magnet, it’s unsurprising that so many flock to the spectacular Galapagos Islands – the cluster of 19 Pacific islands and islets showcase such diversity of wildlife that the area was once the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Cruise around the main 6 islands with a Galapagos Islands Explorer Package from Santa Cruz Island and you’ll have the chance to spot giant sea turtles, iguanas, sea lions and adorable Galapagos penguins, amidst a landscape of volcanic rock, white sand beaches and rocky inlets.
14. Cruise the Panama Canal
The prized undertaking of American President Theodore Roosevelt and listed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the 71km Panama canal winds its way between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. A number of viewing platforms and hiking routes are available along the canal, but for the best views along the waterfront, opt for the Panama Canal Partial Transit Sightseeing Cruise, where you’ll drift through the famous Panama Canal locks – one of the greatest engineering innovations of the early 20th-century. Alternatively, take in the sights along the waterfront on a Panama City and Canal Sightseeing Tour, where you’ll explore Panama’s fascinating colonial history and landmark buildings.
15. Explore the Panamanian rainforest
Get out of Panama City and discover the country’s varied array of tropical wildlife on an eco-friendly rainforest excursion. Wander beneath a canopy of lush greenery, colorful birdlife and playful howler monkeys on a Soberania National Park Day Trip from Panama City; bathe in natural hot springs and spot over 400 species of bird on a hike to the world’s only inhabited volcanic crater on a Day Trip to Anton Valley: Hiking, Hot Springs and Nispero Zoo; whiz 280 feet (85 meters) above the Gamboa ecological area on a Rainforest Aerial Tram, Gamboa Tower and Forest Exhibitions Day Trip from Panama City; or opt for a Rainforest Hiking and Zipline Tour from Panama City where you’ll get the ultimate bird’s eye view, soaring through the treetops.
16. See the ancient ruins of Tikal
The vast Mayan ruins that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Tikal National Park are one of Guatemala’s most intriguing historic attractions, just a short scenic flight from the urban sprawl of Guatemala City. Explore the vast complex, with imposing temples and elaborate tombs dating back to 4th century BC, on a Tikal Day Trip by Air from Guatemala City with Lunch, where highlights include the 144-foot (44-meter) Temple of the Grand Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks. Alternatively, take a Tikal and Yaxha Overnight Trip by Air from Antigua, where you’ll also get the chance to explore the nearby Mayan archeological site of Yaxha, home to over 500 ancient structures.
17. Check out Colombia’s cosmopolitan capital in Bogotá
A cosmopolitan mélange of colonial heritage, rundown shantytowns and modern skyscrapers, Columbia’s vibrant capital has bags of appeal to the culturally curious traveler. Amble through the cobblestone streets of Bogotá’s old town, taking in the grand architecture of Plaza de Bolivar (Bolivar Plaza) and the acclaimed Museo de Botero (Botero’s Museum) on a Bogotá City Sightseeing Tour with Optional Lunch and Cable Car Ride; enjoy the evening ambiance with a Bogotá by Night City Tour with Dinner, taking in panoramic views from the Mirador de la Calera lookout; or float high above the Bogotá savannah on a Bogotá Paragliding Adventure.
18. Explore the Caribbean city of Cartagena
With its dual status as both a UNESCO World Heritage site and a hugely popular Caribbean resort, Cartagena is one of Colombia’s most visited destinations, crammed with historic architecture and bustling cafes. Zip around the famous centuries-old city walls and explore the Las Bovedas 18th-century dungeons on a Small-Group Cartagena Segway Tour or check off the city’s sights on a Cartagena Hop-On Hop-Off Tour, including the chance to take in the incredible views from San Felipe de Barajas Castle and visit the Rafael Núñez house, Castillo de San Felipe and the Simon Bolivar statue. If the tourist hoards get too much, head to the idyllic shores of the nearby Rosario archipelago on a Rosario Islands Day Trip from Cartagena.
19. Understand the troubled past and promising future of Medellín
Little visited Medellín draws in crowds of revelers for its annual Winter Lights Festival – a spectacular lightshow taking over the city throughout December and January – but the twinkling lights are just one side of the historic town. A city at the heart of Colombia’s notorious cocaine-smuggling history and once home to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellín makes a fascinating base to uncover the truth about the country’s well-documented struggles and scandals. Take a Pablo Escobar Historical Tour of Medellín or a Medellín City Tour with Optional Lunch and Metrocable Gondola Ride, where you can also ride the Metrocable gondola into the surrounding mountains and marvel the works of Medellin born artist Fernando Botero at the Museo de Antioquia.
20. Discover the history and nature of Belize
With 40 percent of the country made up of protected sites, Belize is not only a hotbed of tropical beaches, nature reserves and scuba diving spots, but also boasts a number of rich historic landmarks. Chug across the Mopan River on a hand-cranked 19-century ferry to the ancient Mayan city of Xunantunich on a tour of Xunantunich and The Belize Zoo; uncover the Mayan site of Altun Ha and modern day Belize City on an Altun Ha and Belize City Half-Day Tour or dart between crocodiles and jacanas on a riverboat tour of Lamanai and the New River Safari in Belize where you can hike to the Temple of the Mask, one of the tallest Mayan pyramids.
21. Explore the Uruguayan coastline from Montevideo
Rivaling its cross-channel neighbor Buenos Aires as the ‘home of the tango’ (Uruguayans still contest that the famous dance originated on Argentine shores), laid back Montevideo is the perfect place to soak up the sultry atmosphere with a Montevideo Dinner and Tango Show. Once you’ve explored the city’s renowned theatre district and landmark buildings on a Montevideo City Tour, take a Day Trip to Colonia from Montevideo, where the sleepy fishing village offers a fascinating insight into colonial history with its cobbled streets, historic architecture and UNESCO World Heritage listed old town, or take a Punta del Este Day Trip from Montevideo and enjoy an idyllic seaside resort with glorious beaches and Mediterranean-style villas.
22. Explore the two sides of Nicaragua in Leon and Granada
Two of Nicaragua’s biggest and most historic cities, liberal Leon and conservative Granada both took turns as the country’s capital throughout the 19thcentury, until the hotly disputed battle for the permanent title saw Managua elected as a compromise back in 1858. Today, the respective cities settle for being among the country’s prime tourist destinations, with plenty of sights to keep visitors occupied. The ruins of Leon Viejo and the Cathedral of Leon (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) are key attractions on a Leon Day Trip from Managua whereas a Granada City Tour from Managua with Boat Ride on Lake Nicaragua takes in the city’s colonial architecture and nearby Mombacho Volcano. Or you could explore Nicaragua’s three major cities on a 5-Day Best of Nicaragua Tour: Managua, León and Granada including guided tours of the city’s landmarks, a boat tour on Lake Nicaragua and a trip to the famed Masaya Volcano.
23. Take an Amazon adventure by land or water
The vast Amazon rainforest – a mind-boggling 1.4 billion acres (500,000 sq km) of wildlife-teeming jungle surrounding the epic Amazon River – remains one of South America’s most popular regions and exploring the untamed wetlands is one of the South America’s greatest adventures. Sail deep into the jungle on a Rio Negro Cruise from Manaus to the Amazon River; or see the world wonder in style with a 3-Day Iquitos Amazon Jungle Adventure at Heliconia Lodge or 3-Day Iquitos Amazon Jungle Adventure at Ceiba Tops Luxury Lodge, where you can explore the rainforest tracks and nature trails from the comfort of a luxury lodge. Hardy backpackers can opt instead for an Amazon Rainforest Survival Tour from Manaus where you can put your food-gathering, hunting and canoeing skills to the test and experience life in the wilderness with a visit to a traditional Amazonian village.
24. Go to the ends of the Earth in Patagonia
A popular launch pad for Antarctic cruises, Patagonia – stretching along the southern tip of Chile and Argentina – is a land of snow-blanketed mountains, glaciers and wind-ravaged coastline. Soak up the incredible scenery on a Full Day Tour to the Torres del Paine National Park, where waterfalls, lakes and lagoons offer a picturesque backdrop; sail between islands on a Beagle Channel Sailing Tour: Islands, Penguins and Estancia Harberton, where you’ll drift through penguin and sea lion colonies; or take a 4-Day Chilean Patagonia Tour: Puerto Natales, Serrano Glacier and Torres del Paine National Park where you’ll cruise along the 1,000-year-old Balmaceda glacier and explore the Torres del Paine mountains.
25. Climb the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia
A wonderland of vast fjords and shimmering glaciers, Patagonia’s otherworldly landscapes are a scenic taster of the Antarctic region and home to Argentina’s most famous icy mass – the Perito Moreno glacier. Hikers and climbers can enjoy trekking to a backdrop of glacial streams, glistening lagoons and imposing ice formations on a Full Day Tour to the Perito Moreno Glacier, while uncovering the impressive history of its formation; or undertake an El Calafate Adventure Tour: Hiking Inside El Perito Moreno Glacier where you can navigate the caves and cracks that splice through the glacial mass.
- Viator Travel Team