Latin America is too large and sweepingly beautiful to fit comfortably into an introduction, or indeed into a list of just seven adventures. The fourth largest continent is definitely my favourite, home to diverse ecosystems, deserts and jungles, incredible ancient cultures, languages and religions. From the Amazon to the Atacama desert, pampas to the Patagonian glaciers, you could spend a lifetime wandering Central and South America and only scratch their surfaces. But if you’re wondering where to start, these are some incredible places to hike, bike, travel and explore across this storied continent.
Seven Bucket List adventures in Latin America
1, Explore the Atacama Desert, Chile
Welcome to the Atacama, one of the highest and driest deserts on earth. If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to step onto the surface of another planet, this could be the closest you come. Chile’s magical desert is endlessly varied, too, home to moon-like valleys, deep canyons, salt flats and tall volcanoes. The Ultimate Travel Company offers nine different itineraries spanning from 9 to 21 days through Chile – their Atacama to Ayuni adventure takes in two of South America’s most jaw-dropping landscapes by 4×4 vehicle, with stops to hike sand and salt trails.
2, Explore the Brazilian jungle
Toucans, leopards and crocodiles, oh my! Brazil’s Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland and a haven for wildlife Delve deep into the wilds of Brazil’s slice of the jungle on a 11-day Pantanal explorer tour with Undiscovered Destinations and spot rare wildlife and stunning views while trekking, canoeing, boating and zooming around in a jeep.
3, Cycle to the Day of the Dead, Mexico
Leave behind the bustle of Mexico City and head to the pastel-coloured colonial city of Oaxaca, where preparations for the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) begin every autumn. The streets are full of bright streamers and dancers and brass band processions paraded across the cobbles, and from here you can head high up into the mountains with H+I Adventures. In the fresh green Sierra Norte, ancient Zapotec trails were used by countless generations – these days the routes are perfect for exploring by mountain bike, and cyclists can stay with local communities who have set up ecotourism initiatives offering a warm welcome to visitors. After a week cycling through the untouched forests, ride back to the warmer climes of Oaxaca to celebrate with a glass of mezcal and watch the city come alive with dancing sugar skulls honouring the Dia de Muertos.
4, Search for the Pura Vida in Costa Rica
Pura vida – translatable as ‘the pure life’, ‘the simple life’ – has become inextricably linked with Costa Rica, but the phrase is more than a tourist board gimmick. It’s a philosophy, a way of life, even a commonly used expression to mean hello, goodbye, it’s all good. In this small, lush Central American country they take the simple things seriously. It seems to work, too – Costa Rica is one of the safest, best educated and greenest countries in Latin America, and is home to some of the world’s longest living people, too. Costa Rica is a country of two halves, cleaved north to south by mountains and with the Pacific on one side and the tropical Caribbean ocean on the other. Eden-like, it’s home to fertile green valleys full of farms and fruit trees, high mountains flanked with cool cloud forests, natural hot springs and miles and miles of beautiful beaches where world-class surfing waves roll endlessly into the shore. Read more on where to explore in Costa Rica.
5, Explore the Bolivian Salt Flats
Nowhere does the word ‘dreamscape’ apply as well as to Bolivia’s huge Salar de Ayuni. These pure-white salt flats stretch for miles and miles in a valley surrounded by the Andean mountains. In the rainy season the salt reflects the sky, mirror-like; in dry weather it forms a strange expanse of hexagonal craters where you’ll quickly lose your ability to judge distances. You can walk, drive or cycle across this sea of salt, and hike to little ‘islands’ of rock covered in huge cacti on its edges.
6, Take the Titicaca Train, Peru
Journey through the Andes by train to reach the glittering waters of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world (that also surely takes the prize for the most-fun-to-say place name). It takes a little over ten hours for the luxuriously decked-out PeruRail Titicaca Train to climb through river valleys and past traditional Andean villages from the ancient Incan city of Cusco to reach Puno on the shores of the lake, which straddles the borders of Bolivia and Peru. Keep an eye out for herds of wild vicuna and alpaca along the way, all with a soundtrack of traditional Peruvian tunes performed by the friendly train staff. From £40 per person.
7, Escape to an eco island, Nicaragua
Just minutes away by boat from the richly historic colonial city of Granada is the surprisingly secluded private islet of Jicaro in Lake Nicaragua, where 21 guests at a time can hole up in two-storey treehouses dotted across the island. These charming little ‘casitas’ are at the heart of the island’s sustainability initiatives that include solar panels, energy-efficient lighting, local staff and sustainable food projects for surrounding communities. This island is a great jumping-off point for adventures, too – Masaya Volcano National Park and Mombacho Volcano are all close by. From £454 per night.