A South America Specialist’s Favorite Travel Moments (So Far!) and 2018 Bucket List

Posted by on March 7th, 2018

Every time I check one thing off my South America travel bucket list, I add about 10 more. That’s the thing about this continent: it’s so incredibly diverse that just when you think you know it, countless new surprises and must-do experiences pop up. Here’s a list of my favorite moments I’ve had in South America so far. At the end of this year I’m sure I’ll have 5 new favorites!

The highest and driest desert in the world

Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert is my favorite region in Chile, and maybe in all of South America. In particular, my two most memorable experiences there were watching the sunset turn Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) deep, saturated shades of red and gold, the massive rock formations below expanding forever into the distance. This was rivaled only by my experience the following morning, sipping coffee while watching the sun rise over the steaming geysers of the Tatio Geyser Field, the highest geyser field in the world and the 3rd largest. This required waking up at 4:00 a.m. in the freezing cold desert climate so that we could make it there in time for the sunrise, which was definitely not fun, but the magical experience a couple hours later was completely worth it and quickly turned into one of my favorite travel moments of all.

A glacier 3 times the size of Manhattan

Perito Moreno Glacier, in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentine Patagonia, is one of the most humbling experiences nature offers. The glacier is over 3 miles wide, rises 240 feet above Lake Argentino, and extends over 500 feet below the water’s surface. The entire thing covers a massive span of 97 square miles. Various levels of walkways take you all around the glacier to view it from different heights and angles, and a boat ride takes you up close to its towering walls. You can also trek along the top of the glacier in a “mini-trekking” excursion lasting a couple hours, or a longer 5-6 hour “big ice” excursion. My favorite part, and the most awe-inspiring, was watching a chunk of ice the size of a truck break off and thunderously crash over 20 stories into the water below.

Searching for the elusive jaguar in Brazil

Jaguar in the Pantanal, Brazil

Jaguar in the Pantanal, Brazil

When I was a kid, I used to look at the photos in my dad’s National Geographic magazines and imagine that someday I would explore these far away places. I was fascinated by these people, places, and wildlife that were so foreign to me and showed just how large the world is. Last summer I was lucky enough to travel deep into the middle of Brazil to the Pantanal, the largest wetland in the word and one of the best areas in South America to see wildlife. In addition to caiman, capybara, tapirs, river otters, and an unbelievable amount of bird life, it also has one of the largest jaguar populations on earth. This was National Geographic come to life for me! (7-year-old Marci was so excited.) I spent several days on small skiffs silently coasting along the shorelines of the rivers, and I was lucky enough to spot this majestic, elusive creature napping on the river banks, peering out at us from the tall grasses, and even hunting a caiman at one point. It’s important to note that this destination is best for those who are up for some adventure and are comfortable with basic, very remote accommodations. No five star luxury hotels here!

Wine valleys surrounded by the Andes mountains

Vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina

Vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina

I traveled to Mendoza, Argentina about a dozen times when I lived in Chile, but there’s one weekend there in particular that stands out. I spent a weekend staying at Finca Adalgisa, a family-owned boutique hotel on its own vineyards, and spent a day visiting several wineries in the nearby Uco Valley. At the end of the tour, we had a three-course, gourmet wine-pairing lunch at Andeluna Winery, followed by coffee on their back patio overlooking the peaks of the Andes Mountains – one of the best meals I’ve had in South America (which Vaya can also plan for you as part of your Mendoza experience). The following evening, after a day spent driving through the surrounding mountains, we took part in a cooking class offered by Finca Adalgisa, with their chef Cristina Brino. We sat at a counter in front of the restaurant’s wood-fired brick oven, and learned to make empanadas and Argentine steak with chimichurri sauce. They were extremely generous with the Malbec too, and we sat around the table with our fellow participants late into the evening. I highly recommend fitting in this fabulous gourmet weekend to any Argentina itinerary to relax and experience the best of Argentine wine and cuisine.

Cooking class at Finca Adalgisa, Mendoza, Argentina

Cooking class at Finca Adalgisa, Mendoza, Argentina

A historic hacienda in the highlands of Ecuador

Hacienda Zuleta, Ecuador

Hacienda Zuleta, Ecuador

Owned and operated by the family of Galo Plaza Lasso, a former president of Ecuador, for over 100 years, Hacienda Zuleta is one of the most special, authentic-feeling places to stay in Ecuador. Located just a 2 hour drive from Quito, it’s also a working organic farm and cheese factory, and its 4,000 acres are covered with hiking trails leading to condor viewpoints and waterfalls. Zuleta focuses on sustainable, community-based tourism, operating a handicrafts co-op by the nearby Zuleta community and hiring the people there to work on the property. You can also horseback ride or hike past pre-Incan ruins to its on-site condor rehabilitation and research center. The historic main home was originally constructed in the late 1600s, and the cozy guest rooms are heated by individual fireplaces. Food is always one of my favorite parts of any trip, and the home-cooked authentic Andean cuisine served family-style did not disappoint. This is an amazing escape to experience another region of Ecuador, to wind down post-Galapagos cruise, or to experience a special part of Ecuadorian history.

Here’s what I can’t wait to explore in South America in 2018 (and can’t wait to plan for my clients!):

Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine, Chile

Torres del Paine, Chile

My boyfriend and I hiked the W trail a few years ago as a one year anniversary trip, and we were unfortunately rained out for most of our hike. We also did it backpacking style, renting tents in town that ended up being pretty leaky. This coming year, I’ll be doing it Vaya-style, which means quality equipment, expert guides, and for me, I’ll be checking out Patagonia Camp, which consists of individual yurts, and Explora, a 5* luxury resort option. I’ll be warm, dry, and drinking champagne at the end of my hiking days this time! Torres del Paine is one of the most varied national parks around, each section of it offering different terrain, views, and scenery, so a second trip will still leave plenty of excursion options.

Easter Island

I’ve always been intrigued by the most remote corners of the world. Easter Island is over 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile, and it takes a 5 hour flight to get there, making it one the most remote inhabited islands on the planet. While I’m certainly interested in exploring the mystery of the gigantic moai statues for which Easter Island is most famous, I also can’t wait to spend some time learning about a culture and history that is much more closely linked to Polynesian culture than to Chile, the country to which it belongs. Easter Island is the product of several volcanic eruptions, and I also look forward to hiking along the remaining craters, as well as exploring some of the small beaches dotting the coastline.

Cloud Forest of Ecuador

Ecuador is about the size of Colorado but has 4 very distinct ecosystems, including the less-explored cloud forest. This is at a higher altitude and is generally cooler than the Amazon, but just as humid, green, and lush. Its name refers to the fact that it’s often covered with a blanket of fog or mist. This is one of the best areas in South America for bird-watching, with over 400 species. Mashpi Lodge, a luxury ecolodge that seems to blend seamlessly into the private forest reserve around it, even has a Sky Bike to ride through the canopy and look for wildlife. The cloud forest is just a three hour drive from Quito, so it doesn’t even require an extra flight.

Alternative hiking options in the Machu Picchu region

The Inca Trail is the most iconic hiking experience in Peru, but there are several other options through stunning trails in the Machu Picchu area that often get overlooked or are just less well-known. In particular, I can’t wait to hike to Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain, on a 1 night/2 day trip or the new 3-night Salkantay Trek, a shorter version of the classic 6-day Salkantay Trek offered by Mountain Lodges of Peru, that allows you to stay in the same luxury mountain lodge and do day hikes from there.

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