Whether rid­ing the vol­canic slopes of Co­topaxi on horse­back, snorkelling the reefs of Belize or zoom­ing across the salt flats of Bo­livia – Cen­tral and South Amer­ica are packed with thrills…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Upfront - WORDS DANIEL NEIL­SON

♦ PRO­DUC­TION EDITOR ♦ Booking the first flight to Latin Amer­ica, to bag him­self an ad­ven­ture


WHERE: Mato Grosso do Sul & Mato Grosso Ig­nore that the pub­lic face of the Brazil­ian Pantanal is the pi­ranha, and just dive (fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing) into the world’s largest wet­land re­gion – either by boat or by driv­ing the 147km Transpan­taneira across Mato Grosso. The Pantanal is home to more than 1,000 bird species while its long list of mam­mals in­cludes the gi­ant river ot­ter, wolf, tapir and jaguar. WHEN: Most visit be­tween April and Novem­ber, but the best time to see mam­mals in the wild is be­tween July and Oc­to­ber, as dry sea­son ramps up. HOW: For the north­ern Pantanal, fly into Cuiabá and it’s a 1.5hr drive to the Transpan­taneira; for the south, fly into either Co­rumbá or Campo Grande.


WHERE: Belize coast The Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try of Belize might be tiny but its coast leaves a big im­pres­sion. The co­ral reef here makes up roughly a third of the 900km­long Me­soamer­i­can Reef. Ex­plore charm­ing cayes (Am­ber­gris and Caulker), snorkel with nurse sharks in the Hol Chan Ma­rine Re­serve and plunge into the Blue Hole, a 300m-wide, 125m-deep chasm, sink­ing past cir­cling reef sharks and javelin-like sta­lac­tites. WHEN: Year round. HOW: There are no di­rect flights from the UK to Belize City; most re­quire overnight stays in Miami or Dallas. Boats and dive gear can be hired lo­cally.


WHERE: An­tigua The faith­fully pre­served colo­nial town of An­tigua is the launch pad for some of the con­ti­nent’s best moun­tain-bik­ing. Ride through Maya vil­lages, learn­ing about their cul­ture and tra­di­tions over three-day trips, en­joy­ing heart-stop­ping views of Gu­atemala’s puff­ing vol­ca­noes along the way and en­joy­ing some thigh-bust­ing as­cents and gnarly de­scents. Fin­ish with a tour of a co­op­er­a­tive cof­fee plan­ta­tion – the cy­clist’s favourite brew. WHEN: Year round. HOW: Cy­cle tours, in­clud­ing plan­ta­tion stops, can be booked through the lo­cally based Old Town Out­fit­ters (ad­ven­


WHERE: Are­nal Vol­cano Na­tional Park As well as ex­plod­ing with wildlife, Costa Rica is a coun­try that erupts from the ground, too. Its vol­cano belt is pro­tected by the Are­nal Vol­cano Na­tional Park and, un­til a few years ago, the fire and brim­stone here could still be reg­u­larly seen spout­ing from its name­sake vol­cano. Even more in­ter­est­ing is some of the wildlife that can be en­coun­tered while hik­ing the many trails around the park, from cheeky ca­puchin mon­keys and cu­ri­ous coati to ar­guably the coun­try’s most sought-af­ter bird, the re­splen­dent quet­zal. WHEN: Dry sea­son is be­tween De­cem­ber and April (though re­mem­ber, this is still the rain­for­est) but it can also be pretty hot dur­ing this time. April to July is a good time to visit, as a cooler com­pro­mise. HOW: The park’s trails can al­ways be ac­cessed in­de­pen­dently, but a guide will help you to find the most ex­cit­ing wildlife, with lo­cal tour op Ja­ca­mar Nat­u­ral­ist Tours (arenal­ run­ning pop­u­lar tours of the for­est in­te­rior.


WHERE: El Sal­vador Surfers have long known that El Sal­vador is one of the world’s great places to ride the waves. And with plenty of trav­ellers hav­ing at least taken the odd les­son al­ready, why not test your­self in surf coun­try. There are dozens of surf­ing schools and camps in El Sal­vador, and don’t be too in­tim­i­dated by the pic­tures of huge waves; there are plenty of places for be­gin­ners to prac­tice just find­ing their feet. WHEN: El Sal­vador’s peak sea­son of big, con­sis­tent swell is be­tween April and Oc­to­ber. HOW: If you want to join the surf com­mu­nity, El Sal­vador Surf Camps (el­sal­vador­sur­f­ host vis­i­tors from ev­ery­where. For be­gin­ners, try classes at Las Flores Re­sort (las­flo­res­re­


WHERE: Co­topaxi Na­tional Park Co­topaxi is the high­est ac­tive vol­cano in the world, and there are few bet­ter ways to ex­pe­ri­ence it up close than by rid­ing its slopes on horse­back and sleep­ing on its rum­bling belly. The ‘Av­enue of Vol­ca­noes’ in cen­tral Ecuador of­fers drama on a scale rarely seen. Set out from the ha­cien­das on four hooves to ex­pe­ri­ence what Ecuado­rian cha­gra (cow­hand) life is like on the tough high­land plains. WHEN: Year round, but there are clearer skies from June to Septem­ber. HOW: Tierra del Vol­can (tier­radelvol­ of­fers sin­gle- and multi-day horse rides from two ru­ral ha­cien­das around the park.


WHERE: Broko­pondo District You can just imag­ine the great ad­ven­tur­ers of old trekking through the wooden vil­lages of Suri­name, ex­plor­ing caves and trav­el­ling its lush jun­gle-fringed rivers. De­spite be­ing the small­est coun­try in South Amer­ica, it of­fers some of the big­gest ad­ven­tures, not least high up in the canopies where Suri­name’s wildlife likes to hang out. Join them on sa­faris that takes you deep into the jun­gle and let you loose on the zip-wire at Ber­gen­dal Ad­ven­ture Cen­ter. WHEN: Year round. HOW: In­de­pen­dent travel is pos­si­ble, though Orange Travel of­fers a wide range of ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing the canopy tour (or­angesuri­


WHERE: Cusco The Inca Trail may get all the head­lines, but the Cho­que­quirao of­fers an im­pres­sive al­ter­na­tive, per­haps even ri­valling Machu Pic­chu for sheer spec­ta­cle. The city of Cho­que­quirao is much big­ger for starters, and only an es­ti­mated 40% of it has been un­earthed. Spend­ing four-to-five days walk­ing to its Inca ru­ins and back of­fers one of the most spec­tac­u­lar hik­ing trails in Latin Amer­ica, cross­ing high moun­tain passes and dis­cov­er­ing ex­quis­ite Inca stonework long the way. WHEN: Dry sea­son here is May to Novem­ber. HOW: You can do the trek alone, though it is tough with­out porters. Dozens of out­fit­ters in Cusco of­fers trips, with Cho­que­quirao Trail Tour Op­er­a­tor (choque­quirao­ well re­garded.


WHERE: Puerto Natales The word ‘wild’ barely cov­ers it. Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park, largely in Chilean Patag­o­nia, is South Amer­ica’s final hurrah be­fore crash­ing into the ocean, with the prospect of Antarc­tica not too much fur­ther south. The scenery is in­com­pa­ra­ble: a rugged wilder­ness of scal­ing moun­tains, vast lakes, dra­matic glaciers and dense forests. The most com­mon hik­ing route is known as the ‘W’, and can be walked in around five days from Camp Tor­res (two hours from Puerto Natales). WHEN: Sum­mer (Nov–early Mar) brings larger crowds but warmer weather. Book sites early. HOW: Ex­pe­ri­enced walk­ers can do the ‘W’ in­de­pen­dently, or guided walks are avail­able lo­cally at Fan­tas­tico Sur (fan­tas­ti­co­ or through Er­ratic Rock (er­rati­


WHERE: Rur­ren­abaque Some­times get­ting there is part of the ad­ven­ture. A plane from La Paz takes you to a grass run­way in Rur­ren­abaque, from where a nar­row boat winds through the Ama­zon for over five hours to a rus­tic, but com­fort­able, lodge in the heart of the Ma­didi Na­tional Park. And that’s just for starters. This lauded eco-tourism project is staffed by the re­mote San José de Uchu­pi­a­monas com­mu­nity, with guides who’ve lived there all their lives. See frogs the size of your thumb­nail and spi­ders the size of your hand. Words don’t quite sum it up. WHEN: Year round. HOW: Trips are booked through Chalalán Eco-lodge di­rectly (cha­, with boat de­par­tures sched­uled for around 7.30am.


WHERE: Galá­pa­gos Is­lands The trip of a life­time. The Galá­pa­gos Is­lands, a vol­canic ar­chi­pel­ago drift­ing 1,000km off the tip of Ecuador in the Pa­cific Ocean, first en­tered the pub­lic con­scious­ness in the 1800s, af­ter Charles Dar­win first re­turned with ideas that would later form his ‘The­ory of Evo­lu­tion’. Since then, count­less na­ture pro­grammes have high­lighted its bio­di­verse wonders, from lum­ber­ing high­land tor­toises to dart­ing ma­rine igua­nas. Sim­ply un­miss­able. WHEN: Year round. HOW: High-end cruises (for up to 15 days) fol­low set itin­er­ar­ies; mean­while bud­get trav­ellers can fly in­de­pen­dently and pay the park fee on ar­rival.


WHERE: Roatán Stand-up pad­dle­board­ing (SUP) is the surf­ing we can all do, re­gard­less of age or abil­ity. As such, it makes a fine way to ex­plore the tran­quil seas off Hon­duras. Make your first stop Roatán, an idyl­lic is­land 60km off the main­land coast. It lies on an an­cient reef and its twin­kling Caribbean wa­ters are known for their whale sharks and depths teem­ing with trop­i­cal fish and sway­ing forests of fan co­ral. WHEN: Year round. HOW: SUPS can be rented from Steve’s Paddle Shack (roatan­pad­dle­; tours in­clude a boat ride through the man­groves or snorkelling.


WHERE: Salar de Uyuni The Bo­li­vian salt flats are one of the most oth­er­worldly places in Latin Amer­ica. This white wilder­ness, spot­ted with oc­ca­sional cac­tus-filled ‘is­lands’, is the planet’s largest salt flat. When the rains come, and a layer of wa­ter set­tles upon it, the whole area be­comes a vast mir­ror. But that’s not all, it also har­bours vol­ca­noes as well as caves filled with mum­mi­fied bod­ies. Tours by 4WD typ­i­cally last for a cou­ple of days, and are worth it. WHEN: Year round. HOW: Book a tour in ad­vance or just turn up at Uyuni – it’s so close that you can pick some­thing up on the day. Al­ter­na­tively, Bo­li­vian Mile­naria run tours of the flats in style (bo­livi­amile­


WHERE: Léon Re­gion, Nicaragua If it’s Nicaragua, it must be vol­cano hik­ing. The smok­ing be­he­moths of the Léon Re­gion guard the western Pa­cific edge of the coun­try, with many of them still ac­tive. Con­cep­ción and Maderas are par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing and spec­tac­u­lar as­cents, while Masaya is still very ac­tive and may even af­ford you the chance to see magma. San Cristóbal is the high­est peak at 1,745m, with some tour ops of­fer­ing the chance to bed down on it overnight. WHEN: Year round. HOW: Some can be hiked in­de­pen­dently, but tours with Quet­zal Trekkers (leon.quet­zal­ also do­nate prof­its to help chil­dren in the area.


WHERE: Salta Salta is the gate­way to An­dean Ar­gentina, with its food and cul­ture hav­ing more in com­mon with Bo­livia and Peru than Euro­pean-styled Buenos Aires. Take time to wan­der the sleepy streets of this pretty, colo­nial city, then strike out to ex­plore the moun­tains and vol­ca­noes of the An­des. The fa­mous Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) can be taken to its ver­tigo-in­duc­ing viaduct, but it’s bet­ter to ex­plore the moun­tains on foot. WHEN: Year round. HOW: Ar­gentina Trails (ar­genti­na­ run ex­cel­lent hik­ing trips up into the An­des.


WHERE: Cali Salsa is one of the most pop­u­lar dances world­wide and, let’s be hon­est, one of the sex­i­est. This dance may have orig­i­nated in the Caribbean, but it de­vel­oped its own style in Cali, Colom­bia. And with Salsa Caleña now danced in classes and night­clubs the world over, what bet­ter place to go learn its quick, skip­ping steps than the Cap­i­tal de la Salsa? Af­ter all, there are more salsa schools and teams in Cali than any­where else in the world. WHEN: Year round. HOW: Head along to Tin Tin Deo (tintin­ to dance like a pro, or to Sa­bor Man­icero for lessons (salsa-classes-in.cali-colom­


WHERE: Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur In the crys­tal-clear aqua­ma­rine wa­ters around Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur lies a wealth of sea life, and the best way to see it is from a kayak. Pad­dlers come from all around the world to kayak off the coast here, and the rea­sons are swim­ming un­der their hull. Grey whales ar­rive off the west coast to calve yearly and are given to play­fully nudg­ing boats to re­quest a tickle or a scratch; blue and hump­back whales can also be spied here. One of the most pop­u­lar spots for kayaking is around Isla Es­píritu Santo, a scrap of land in the Gulf of Cal­i­for­nia. This UNESCO Bio­sphere Re­serve is full of sharks, tur­tles, dol­phins and even a snorkel-friendly colony of sea lions, not to men­tion whale sharks. WHEN: The best time to see whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez is from Nov to Feb; grey whales can be spot­ted be­tween Jan and Mar. HOW: Baja Out­door Ac­tiv­i­ties (kay­ac­tiv­i­ op­er­ate multi-day tours swerv­ing the is­lands of the Sea of Cortez and west coast of Es­píritu Santo.


WHERE: Caribbean coast Im­merse your­self in the world that in­spired the mag­i­cal re­al­ism nov­els of Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez. The north-western area along Colom­bia’s Caribbean coast is high on the list of many trav­ellers, es­pe­cially the UNESCO-pro­tected city of Carta­gena, known for its colour­ful colo­nial build­ings and laid-back at­ti­tude. Other high­lights in­clude the fos­sils around Villa de Leyva and the hill­side vil­lage of Barichara, the ‘Pret­ti­est Town in Colom­bia’ ( pictured)! WHEN: Avoid when rain­fall is high­est (Jun–nov). HOW: Avianca ( fly non-stop to Bo­gotá from the UK (11 hours), with con­nect­ing flights to Carta­gena (2.5 hours).


WHERE: Ma­moni River There is, frankly, fan­tas­tic white­wa­ter raft­ing across much of Cen­tral Amer­ica. But its south­ern­most na­tion surely has the pick of the wa­ter sports, from sea-kayaking its twin­kling coast to raft­ing through the rapids thread­ing those dense jun­gles. The lat­ter can also en­joyed by all ages and skills, from Class II fam­ily trips (gen­tler rapids) to the more se­ri­ous Class IV ad­ven­tures along the Ma­moni River. WHEN: Year round – but the wa­ter is low­est at the end of the dry sea­son (Apr–may). HOW: Trips raft­ing into the jun­gles of Panama, or even just float­ing by the city, can be found at Ad­ven­tures Panama (ad­ven­tures­


WHERE: Start in Ge­orge­town Guyana is one of the con­ti­nent’s hid­den trea­sures. It is a land dom­i­nated by thick jun­gle, thun­der­ing wa­ter­falls and long, twist­ing wa­ter­ways, but few ven­ture there. One of the best ways to ex­plore this di­verse na­tion is to hop into the cab of a 4WD and head off on a self-drive tour. The high­lights in­clude the crash­ing Kai­eteur ( pictured) and Orinduik Falls, as well as rain­for­est hikes, canopy tours and river rides, al­though be pre­pared for some tough roads. WHEN: May to Au­gust is the rainy sea­son, when travel (par­tic­u­larly driv­ing) can be trick­ier. HOW: There are no di­rect flights from the UK to Ge­orge­town, Guyana, with most flights go­ing via Bos­ton. 4WD tours are best booked be­fore­hand.


WHERE: Tacuarembó The free­dom of the pam­pas, nightly get-to­geth­ers over meat and lo­cal red wine, the horse rides and cul­ture of the Uruguayan gau­cho (cow­boy)... a few days spent on an es­tancia (ranch) in Uruguay is an ed­u­ca­tion in it­self, and one you won’t soon for­get as you wan­der the range and get used to a sad­dle be­tween your thighs. New­bies soon get a feel for it, and the chance to help out on a real ranch adds a dash of lo­cal re­al­ity to the whole ex­pe­ri­ence. WHEN: Year round – but Nov–apr are milder. HOW: Es­tancia Pan­agea is a work­ing ranch in Tacuarembó (+598 99 836 149) where vis­i­tors are ex­pected to muck in and will be taught to ride.


WHERE: San Pe­dro de Ata­cama WHY: The ‘su­per ob­ser­va­to­ries’ in the Ata­cama desert were built there for one ob­vi­ous rea­son: it has some of the clear­est skies on the planet. Stargaz­ers have long been flock­ing to the lit­tle hip­pie town of San Pe­dro de Ata­cama to won­der at the uni­verse. Spy the Rings of Saturn at South Amer­ica’s largest pub­lic ob­ser­va­tory, or just crane your neck sky­wards – you won’t be dis­ap­pointed. WHEN: Year round – but try to avoid full moons. HOW: Sev­eral stays com­bine stargaz­ing trips, with Tierra Ho­tels (tier­ra­ho­ just one op­tion.


WHERE: Orinoco Delta Venezuela may have its trou­bles (see FCO for travel up­dates), but you can’t deny its sheer beauty. The jut­ting moun­tains, crash­ing wa­ter­falls and the huge lakes of the north-west are sim­ply breath­tak­ing, and ex­plor­ing its ex­pan­sive Delta by boat is a rare chance to get up close to a unique ecosys­tem, ripe with croc­o­diles, pri­mates and a range of birdlife. WHEN: Year round. HOW: Hike Venezuela ( of­fer three- or four-day ex­cur­sions by boat into the Delta, stay­ing in tra­di­tional Warao-style huts.


WHERE: Cor­co­v­ado Na­tional Park Cor­co­v­ado Na­tional Park is among the most bio­di­verse places on the planet. It lies on the Osa Penin­sula and is one of the few re­main­ing de­cent­sized low­land trop­i­cal forests in the world, home to the planet’s largest pop­u­la­tion of scar­let macaws and plenty of rare finds. It is highly pro­tected and vis­i­tors must be ac­com­pa­nied by cer­ti­fied guides. WHEN: Avoid wet sea­son (Jul–nov). HOW: Com­bine a tour with a stay at Drake Bay Wilder­ness Re­sort (drake­ or Luna Lodge (lu­


WHERE: San Martín de los An­des The Seven Lakes in the Ar­gen­tinian Lake District make up some of the most hand­some scenery in a coun­try well-en­dowed with sights. Head­ing out from San Martín de los An­des, a few days’ moun­tain bik­ing in the area of­fers a close-up view of its snow-capped moun­tains, rid­ing sin­gle-track roads around mir­ror-flat lakes. Try to com­bine with a visit to a Ma­puche vil­lage, to learn about the cul­ture and be­liefs of the re­gion’s indige­nous peo­ple. WHEN: Make the most of the sum­mer (Sep–mar). HOW: Cy­cling and mo­tor­bike (if you want to go full ‘Che’ Gue­vara) trips can be ar­ranged with An­des Track (an­, who can also set up Ma­puche vil­lage vis­its as well.

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