Nestled between the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and the South Atlantic Oceans, South America is the wilder of the Americas and a continent of superlatives.
The world's biggest rainforest and second longest river (Amazon), the highest mountain range outside Asia (the Andes), remote islands (Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and Fernando de Noronha), heavenly beaches (such as in Brazil's Northeastern region), wide deserts (Atacama), icy landscapes (Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego), the world's tallest waterfall (the 979m Angel Falls, in Venezuela) and one of the largest (Iguaçu Falls, Argentina and Brazil), as well as several other breathtaking natural attractions.
Besides, the work of man has also left rare gems on the continent: ruins of ancient civilizations (Machu Picchu and other Inca cities; the Moais in Easter Island) share the continent with world-class metropolises (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Caracas, Lima and Rio de Janeiro), outstanding modern architecture (Brasilia), European architecture (Buenos Aires), the oldest rock paintings in the Americas (at the Serra da Capivara), strong African heritage (in Salvador, Rio and Montevideo), genuine indigenous (Belém, Manaus, Cuzco, Lima, La Paz), charming cities built in the Andes (Caracas, Medellín, Quito, Santiago de Chile) and Eastern culture (São Paulo's enormous Japanese community), mingled with the fingerprints of Iberian colonizers. Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city and some of its biggest festivities, such as Rio's Carnival and Belem's Cirio de Nazaré, the Tango World Championship, and the Vendimia festival in Argentina, are also part of this incredibly diverse and attractive continent.
Countries & Territories
Getting to South America has gotten much easier in recent years owing to massive increases in flights to the continent by major global airlines. Although some particular places are still quite hard to reach (i.e. Paraguay, Suriname, northern Brazil), the places that you most likely want to go, such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, are more accessible than ever before.
- From Africa: the only (reliable) options worth considering would be the South African Airways service linking Johannesburg with Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires or the Malaysian Airlines service between both major South African cities and Argentina(Johannesburg via Cape Town to Buenos Aires). There are also connections between Luanda and Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia and Recife with Taag Angola Airlines. Do realize that demand between Africa and South America is very limited, so even the aforementioned services are infrequent and fares may be quite high.
- From Asia: Be prepared for a very long journey, especially if your itinerary includes connecting flights to travel to/beyond the major Asian and South American hubs. In addition to the aforementioned Malaysian Airlines flight to Buenos Aires (which does of course originate and terminate in Kuala Lumpur), there is a Japan Airlines service from Tokyo-Narita to Sao Paulo (via New York-JFK) and a Korean Air route between Seoul-Incheon and Sao Paulo (via Los Angeles). Do note that the Malaysian Airlines flight makes 2 stops en route, while the latter options involve a stop in the United States that will require all passengers, including those in transit, to pass through U.S. customs. Air China will restart flights between Beijing and São Paulo , via Madrid, in December 2009. If practical, consider the non-stop Emirates flight from Dubai to Sao Paulo, currently the only direct link between the Asian and South American continents.
- From Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific: A somewhat surprising number of options exist. Both Aerolineas Argentinas and LAN (Chile) Airlines serve Auckland and Sydney from their respective hubs at Buenos Aires and Santiago, while Qantas introduced a non-stop service between Sydney and Buenos Aires on November 24 2008. LAN (Chile) also operates one of the world's most obscure flights of all - a service linking Santiago-Easter Island-Tahiti.
- From Europe: The entire South American continent once lived under European colonial rule, and the resultant political, social, and economic ties between former colonies and colonizers remain quite strong even today. Portuguese flag carrier TAP Airlines is by far the leading foreign carrier to Brazil, serving a slew of destinations in North and East Brazil as well as the Brazilian capital Brasilia which otherwise have only limited or absolutely no other international connections. Spanish flag carrier Iberia flies to most of the former Spanish colonies, although neither Bolivia nor Paraguay are served. KLM flies between Amsterdam and Suriname and Air France links Paris with French Guiana. Of course, such services are not exclusive - KLM also flies to Lima, TAP to Caracas, Air France to Rio de Janeiro, etc. Other leading European airlines such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Swiss Airlines, and Alitalia also serve key South American gateways from their respective hubs, while South American airlines also operate into several major European cities as well.
- From North America: Until very recently, it was virtually inconceivable to reach South America from anywhere other than Miami. Today, however, rapidly developing hubs at Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Mexico City, New York, Newark, Orlando, Toronto, and Washington-Dulles offer viable alternatives. Indeed, airlines such as Air Canada, Continental and Delta Airlines have successfully begun to challenge the virtual monopoly once enjoyed by American Airlines to several key markets. American discount carriers such as Spirit Airlines and JetBlue (Azul in Brazil) have recently fought hard for and won several route authorities to serve the likes of Colombia, Brazil and Peru, bringing low fares to these markets for the first time. Given the U.S. airlines' cutbacks in service, frequency, and cities served over the years, consider high quality Latin American carriers such as Avianca (to Colombia with daily non-stop flights to Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Cartagena), Copa Airlines (Panama's national airline to hits hub in Panamá City), LAN Airlines (Chilean carrier serving Chile direct and via several other countries), or TAM (to Brazil).
There are no cross-country train services in South America, and with the exception of Argentina and Chile, domestic networks are quite limited. There are a number of very scenic "tourist trains" though, including the 445-km Quito-Guayaquil route in Ecuador.
Buses are the main form of land transportation for much of the continent... for longer distances you're often better off flying.
The dominant language by far in South America is Spanish, which is the official language in all countries except Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. If you can only afford time to pick up one phrasebook, it makes sense to pick up the Spanish one as even in Brazil, many will be able to understand Spanish with some difficulty. The official language of Brazil is Portuguese, which is to some extent mutually intelligible with Spanish in written form. In Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, the official languages are English, Dutch and French respectively.
Wearing or carrying items which may identify you as an affluent tourist can be a mistake. You shouldn't pack anything that you would be upset to lose. Leave expensive jewelry, watches and other items of value at home and only carry what you need. That goes for credit cards and other documents as well; if you have no need for them leave them behind in the hotel safe, only take what money you are likely to spend with you.
Tap water in many countries is unpotable, it's wise to purify your own or buy bottled water. Malaria and Yellow fever can be a risk as well on the continent, check with a travel clinic or your doctor before heading out to see if you'll be in a high-risk area.