South America's seven incredible natural sites

26 April 2017

South America's seven incredible natural sites

South America is over-endowed with incredible. Places that are the biggest, the deepest, the highest, the most – and, just simply, the best. Here's our seven top incredible natural sites of South America.

Salar de Uyuni

Incredible fact

Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat. It is estimated to contain over 10 billion tonnes of salt.

What is it?

This place is kind of mind blowing. It is extraordinarily flat – so flat it is used to calibrate satellite altimeters – and extraordinarily white from the metres of depth of salt. The salt pans were formed in prehistoric times and these days salt and lithium extraction are a large part of local industry.

If you're looking for a out-there photo opportunity, this place is your answer. The scenery itself is astounding – but with no plants or buildings to provide scale, you can play with perspective and create some seriously surreal imagery.

Where is it?

South-west Bolivia

Combine this site with...

Take a Bolivia-Peru combo trip, visiting Salar de Uyuni, Lake Titicaca and the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

Iguazu Falls

Incredible fact

Iguazu Falls is the largest waterfall system in the world.

What is it?

Iguazu Falls is a waterfall on the Iguazu River between Brazil and Argentina. It's not the highest or widest single fall in the world. But considered all together, it's the largest waterfall system.

Across this massive river, huge curves in the edge of the escarpment break the falls into sections and different levels create a stepped effect. As well as that, islands in the river break the falls up. This curving, jumbley river escarpment creates a vast series of waterfalls that are insanely spectacular.

Where is it?

The Iguazu River forms the border between Brazil and Argentina.

Combine this site with...

Iguazu makes a perfect mid-point stop-over on a city exploration taking in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires and always-happening Rio de Janeiro.

The Pantanal

Incredible fact

The Pantanal is the world's largest tropical wetland area.

What is it?

The Pantanal is a massive wetland ecosystem. Formed by a vast river delta in a basin, around 80 percent of the Pantanal is submerged during the rainy season. It is home to a staggering amount of wildlife – one thousand bird species and over 300 mammal species call this area home. There are huge populations of jaguar and caiman – but the poster species of the region is the apple snail, a unique creature which has both lungs and gills, enabling it to thrive in the wetland all year round.

Where is it?

Brazil, extending into Bolivia and Paraguay.

Combine this site with...

Take a tour of Brazil's highlights – the Pantanal, the vast Amazon Rainforest, Iguazu Falls and lively Rio de Janeiro – what a brilliant line up.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Incredible fact

Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing (rather than retreating).

What is it?

The face of this incredible glacier rises over 70 metres above Argentino Lake and stretches for over five kilometres in length. When you visit the glacier, you can get quite close to the face – but you are not just looking at a stagnant mass of ice. You are watching glacial movement in real time.

You can watch as cracks start to form in the ice. The cracks widen and gradually the chunk of ice will start to lean away from the face until finally it comes thundering down into the waters of the lake. We're talking massive hunks of ice calving off in front of your eyes. It is an absolutely gob-smacking natural phenomenon to watch.

Where is it?

Argentinean Patagonia – in southern Argentina.

Combine this site with...

Create a Patagonian wilderness adventure by combining a visit to the glacier with hiking in the nearby Mt Fitzroy region.

Amazon Rainforest

Incredible fact

The Amazon rainforest is the largest and most biodiverse tract of rainforest in the world. It contains over half of all the remaining rainforest in the world.

What is it?

We all know the Amazon is pretty amazing. The massive Amazon River winds its way through a huge basin which is home to 2.5 million species of insects, 40,000 plant species, and similarly massive amounts of birds, mammals and fish. Whatever way you look at it, this is an incredible, vast and spectacular  ecosystem.

Here's a bonus interesting fact: Nasa's CALIPSO satellite has measured that each year 182 million tonnes of dust is blown from the Sahara. The dust is swept across the Atlantic Ocean and about 28 million tonnes of it comes to rest in the Amazon Basin, providing essential nutrients for the rainforest. What an amazing planet.

Where is it?

Sixty percent of the rainforest is in Brazil, with the rest sprawling into surrounding countries including Peru, Columbia and Ecuador.

Combine this site with...

Readily accessible from both Brazil and Peru, a journey into the Amazon can be combined with a Brazil trip taking in Rio and Iguazu, or a Peru trip visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

Colca Canyon

Incredible fact

At 3270 metres deep, Colca Canyon is twice as deep as USA's Grand Canyon.

What is it?

Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world. It was carved by the Colca River and is in an area of the Andes with long history – stepped terraces dating back to pre-Incan times wind around the hillsides.

Spotting an Andean Condor is one of the highlights of visiting the canyon. With a massive wingspan of around three metres, Andean condors are one of the largest birds in the world. Soaring high above the canyon floor, the condors often pass the canyon rim at close range – providing excellent viewing opportunities.

Where is it?

Southern Peru

Combine this site with...

Colca Canyon is not far from the beautiful white city of Arequipa – combine these sites with Peru's other highlights such as the Incan city of Machu Picchu and the mysterious Nazca lines.

Torres del Paine

Incredible fact

These three dramatic granite spires rise above the Southern Patagonian Ice Field – which is the world's second largest (non-polar) ice field. 

What is it?

The Torres del Paine are granite peaks that are part of the Cordillera Paine in Patagonia. Despite the name sounding like it means 'towers of pain' (which would be an accurate way to describe them if you're a climber) the name actually means 'blue towers'.

Perched in the Patagonian Ice Fields, the peaks are icons of the region – dramatic spikes that rise up to a height of 2500 metres. The hiking on offer here is spectacular – the famous 'W' route is one of the world's great multi-day hikes.

Where is it?

Chilean Patagonia, southern Chile

Combine this site with...

Explore the Torres del Paine region then head across the border into Argentina to visit the nearby Mt Fitzroy region and Perito Merino Glacier.