Think Africa is the only continent with a Big 5? You couldn’t be further away from the truth. In a continent that is bubbling with life, one that is home to the tropical depths of the Amazon, countless ancient cultures, some of the rarest wildlife species on earth…

…and the bucket list party #1, Rio’s Carnival – a Big 50 would be more appropriate to do justice to South America’s incredible diversity.

But let us start by giving you a guide through our five absolute all-time favourites:

 

Machu Picchu

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You guessed it! That’s because a bucket list wouldn’t be a bucket list if it didn’t have Machu Picchu on it. ‘Why’, you ask? Well, because it’s simply the most remarkable archaeological wonder in the world.

With its picturesque setting and the Andes as a backdrop, this iconic site is probably the biggest of the Big 5, in every sense of the word. Even the llamas will vouch for that.

When to go? May – October – that’s the dry season up in the Andes and perfect for hiking.

How long to allow? If you opt for the most classic way to see Machu Picchu, hiking the Inca trail, 6 days is the minimum amount we would recommend you to allow. If you choose a less exertive way see the Empire of the Incas, skip the trek and take the train to Machu Picchu from Cusco. In this case, allow for at least 5 days including one free day to explore the wonderful streets of Cusco.

 

Galapagos

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Probably the most unique place not just in South America but in the whole world, the Galapagos Islands are a place like no other. Where else can you spend your days hanging out with giant tortoises, sunbathing with marine iguanas or chasing blue-footed boobies? A cruise around the Galapagos is a MUST for any visit to South America.

When to go? Any time of the year

How long to allow? For us, a cruise is by far the most amazing way to take in the Galapagos Islands and we just know you will agree with us. While there are different cruise options, the most popular ones usually range from 8-10 days which we think is just about the ideal amount of time to experience this unrivalled nature paradise.

 

The Amazon

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While this place really doesn’t need much introduction let us gift you with some pretty impressive facts: the Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and is home to 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species and 3,000 types of fish.

Although the Amazon covers entire regions from no less than 9 South American countries, the best and easiest to access are in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

When to go? The best time to visit depends on your personal interests. January – June (wet season) is best for wildlife viewing in the remote areas, July – December (dry season) is perfect for jungle walks. Mid-May to mid-June is the perfect time for those who want a bit of both.

How long to allow? Each destination has its own highlights and logistical consideration. Due to its large size you need to account for extensive travel time if you truly want to immerse yourself in this rainforest paradise. Once there, we usually recommend you spend at the very least 3-4 days cruising, hiking or canoeing the Amazon.

 

Rio de Janeiro

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While the name Rio de Janeiro may conjure up images of Brazilian street parties and Samba dancers, Rio de Janeiro’s appeal goes way beyond the carnival one. An exciting metropolis, stunning beach hub and cultural treasure all in one, Rio offers indulgence in so many ways.

The panoramic view from Sugarloaf Mountain remains some of the most iconic and spectacular views you can get in the whole continent and strolling the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema is equally high on our list. And the fact that out of all the Big 5 this is probably the easiest to tick off due to direct flights from most major cities in the world just makes it that extra tad more appealing.

When to go? To avoid the summer heat, head there either from September – December or then in March/April. Of course, if you want to visit the Rio Carnival, February is the month to visit and it’s a total valid reason to put up with the February heat.

How long to allow? Five days are just about the perfect amount of time to take in the main attractions as well as check out the local treasures such as its many art exhibitions, churrascarias and its amazing nightlife.

 

Iguazu Falls

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Probably THE most incredible nature spectacle Mother Nature has gifted us with, the Iguazu Falls amaze even the most experienced explorer and the fact that you can visit them from two countries (Argentina and Brazil), just makes this place even more intriguing.

For the ultimate WOW factor, take a helicopter ride over the falls – you won’t be disappointed.

When to go? The Iguazu Falls are spectacular to visit at any time of the year. For the best water flow, visit between December and February. For the bluest skies, visit between April and June or August and November.

How long to allow? We think one day at each side of Iguassu is just perfect, and we suggest you factor in a full day to cross the border – from whichever side you arrive – and spend the afternoon discovering the town.

 

Of course, how many of the Big 5 you can tick off in one trip will depend on how much time you have at your disposal. To get an idea of what you can do in 3, 4, 5,…weeks in South America, check out our amazing guides here.

Chimu Adventures is Australia’s leading Latin America and Polar specialist and can put together an itinerary to suit you.

 

Which of South America’s Big 5 is #1 on your bucket list? Tells us in the comments below.

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