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Escape to South America: A cruise lover's dream location

Author: Sarah Freeman

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Packing a whole world of wonders into a single continent, South America should be top of every cruise lover’s bucket list.

South America isn’t the trip of a lifetime. It’s the trip of many lifetimes, which is how long you’d need to explore this incredible continent of nearly 7,000,000 square miles.

Love landscape? South America has it all, from fjords and glaciers to steaming jungle and Caribbean beaches. Keen on culture? From samba-fuelled carnivals and vibrant street art to lost civilisations and colonial churches, there are treasures everywhere you look.

If you’re hungry for adventure, prepare for incredible hiking, biking, climbing and diving. And if you’re just hungry, pull up a chair and tuck into fabulous local wine and food (those steaks!).

Itinerary options range from budget-friendly hops round the Caribbean hotspots of the north to luxury expedition cruises in the far south, and grand voyages from the Atlantic to the Pacific via Cape Horn. So whatever you look for in a cruise, get ready to say ¡Hola! to South America.

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Best for... Wildlife encounters

Ecuador

Travel to the land where the equator crosses the high Andes and you’ll discover lush rainforests, wild Pacific beaches and some of the richest biodiversity on earth.

But for wildlife lovers, the greatest show of all is to be found some 600 miles offshore, in the amazing Galapagos Islands.

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Nature’s secret for many millions of years, this archipelago of 18 volcanic outcrops is home to an estimated 9,000 species. And because they evolved in isolation, these creatures have no fear of humans – which means face-to-face encounters with snorting marine iguanas and giant tortoises lumbering along highland trails are not just the stuff of TV documentaries.

The Galapagos are home to some of the world’s largest colonies of seabirds, too – including octopus-eating cormorants and great frigates known as ‘vultures of the sea’. And Darwin’s living laboratory is also abundant in marine life, so look forward to diving with gentle hammerheads and snorkelling with long-whiskered sea lions.

Visit the Galapagos Islands to experience unforgettable animal encounters. Credit: Shutterstock

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Back on the mainland, Ecuador’s major port is Guayaquil, a budget-friendly destination well worth a visit in its own right, as it’s an unexpected haven for wildlife. Here, after riding high on the largest Ferris wheel in South America, or strolling along the city’s charming waterfront promenade, visitors can encounter free-roaming iguanas in Seminario Park.

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Ornithologists, meanwhile, can take a leisurely cycle ride to car-free Isla Santay. Connected to the city via a pedestrian bridge and criss-crossed by trails, this picturesque island of about eight square miles offers a diverse habitat of mangrove swamp and tropical forest, which provides a home for more than 100 bird species.

Get onboard

Silversea Cruises six-night ‘Galapagos Islands’ cruise aboard Silver Origin, round trip from San Cristóbal via 16 ports in the Galapagos, departing 7 October 2023, from £9,000 including flights.

Silversea offers a luxurious way to explore the bio-diverse Galapagos Islands. Credit: Shutterstock

Best for... History buffs

Peru

The cradle of ancient civilisations including the Chavin, Incas and Nazca, Peru is a country engrained with history. Between its rugged highlands and the Pacific coast lie countless archaeological discoveries, from adobe cities and ceremonial temples to great pyramids and tombs.

Most famous is Machu Picchu, the 15th-century citadel high in the Andes. Steeped in mist and mystery, and a testament to the advanced Inca civilisation, this sacred site remained unknown to the wider world until archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled across it in 1911.

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Most visitors springboard here from Cuzco, the former capital of the Incan Empire and a city with its own rich endowment of Pre-Columbian antiquities and colonial cathedrals.

More churches (33 to be precise, in a variety of styles) await you in Ayacucho, an ancient city located in one of Peru’s most archaeologically important valleys.

Machu Picchu is a mystical-looking Inca citadel, and its purpose remains a fascinating historical mystery. Credit: Shutterstock

But it’s the capital that holds the most attraction for cruisers, since Callao port is situated less than 10 miles from Lima’s UNESCO-listed centre, where streets date back to the 1500s.

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Here you can see Pre-Columbian ceramics at the Larco Museum, then continue your history lesson six feet under at San Francisco Monastery’s creepy catacombs. Finally, don’t miss the Gold Museum, home to a magnificent collection of Inca jewellery.

Get onboard

Celebrity Cruises 16-night ‘Galapagos Outer Loop & Machu Picchu’ cruise aboard Celebrity Flora, from Quito to Lima via Galapagos and Cuzco, departing 9 September 2022, from £10,153.

At Larco Museum you can immerse yourself in the riveting history of ancient Peru. Credit: Shutterstock

Best for... Cultural discovery

Chile

Squeezed between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, this is a country of geographical extremes – 2,700 miles from north to south but rarely more than 100 miles wide. Its extraordinary landscape has lured travellers for centuries, but the ‘country of poets’ offers plenty of art and culture too.

Once an essential stop for ships rounding Cape Horn, Valparaiso is one of the country’s busiest cruise ports. Perched on 45 seaside hills (known as cerros) that form a natural amphitheatre on the Pacific coast, its ramshackle charm has drawn countless artists and writers over the years.

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Mazes of stairwells and creaking funiculars connect its hilly streets, which muralists have turned into one gigantic open-air art gallery (take your pick from innumerable tours to see the highlights).

Other attractions include the PCdV cultural centre – a theatre and gallery complex housed in a once notorious prison. And do visit La Sebastiana, the elegant and inspiring former home of Chile’s Nobel laureate poet, Pablo Neruda. Here you can see into the poet's study (the desk chair still stained with green ink) and admire his eclectic keepsakes, including an embalmed corocoro bird from Venezuela.

Seaport city Valparaíso is a vibrant blend of buildings- an artistic haven. Credit: Shutterstock

Chile’s capital, Santiago, is usually reached from the cruise port at San Antonio, some 55 miles to the west. Here you’ll find another Neruda house-turned-museum – La Chascona– among other attractions in the bohemian Bellavista neighbourhood.

This is to Santiago what Montmartre is to Paris, though not even the City of Lights can compete with these views, thanks to an ever-present backdrop of the dazzling snow-capped Andes.

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Santiago is noted for its fine architecture, too, and the best place to appreciate it is over a cool drink in the palm-dotted Plaza de Armas square– the central point from which all distances in Chile are measured.

Tick off the the baroque-meets-neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral and artefact-packed Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, before moving on to Santiago's presidential palace, which also contains an impressive gallery.

Get onboard

Viking Ocean Cruises 17-night ‘South America & the Chilean Fjords’ cruise aboard Viking Jupiter, from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso and Santiago via Montevideo, Falkland Islands and Cape Horn, departing 4 January 2023, from £6,540.

Santiago, packed with intriguing museums, is an unforgettable city with the Andes rising high in the distance. credit: Shutterstock

Best for... Adventure seekers

Argentina

Love the great outdoors? This vast country of rolling plains, snow-capped peaks and steaming jungle spans more than a million square miles – and from glacier trekking in Patagonia to horseback expeditions in gaucho country, the possibilities for adventure are almost limitless.

As the southernmost city before Antarctica, the former prison colony of Ushuaia is a major cruise stop.

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This is where the Andes meet the Beagle Channel – the scenic strait that connects two oceans – and here you can kayak and scuba-dive with leopard seals, or just gaze at the horizon and contemplate the awe-inspiring White Continent that lies beyond.

Back on dry land, there’s a chance to trek through mysterious forests or take a day hike in the footsteps of Charles Darwin in the incredible Tierra del Fuego National Park.

Glacier trekking in Patagonia is a great adrenaline-pumping activity. Credit: Shutterstock

By way of contrast, Argentina’s capital is the last word in Latin sophistication.

Buenos Aries’ wide, tree-shaded boulevards are perfect for lazy strolling to digest those plate-sized steaks – but if you want to up the tempo, the city’s iconic milonga tango halls are just the place to let your hair down and learn a few moves to surprise everyone back home.

- READ MORE: Adventure and culture to budget and luxury: Round the world cruises -

Get onboard

Princess Cruises 13-night ‘Cape Horn & Strait of Magellan’ cruise aboard Sapphire Princess, from Santiago (San Antonio, Chile) to Buenos Aires via Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn, Falkland Islands, Puerto Madryn and Montevideo, departing 19 February 2023, from £1,515.

Buenos Aires is infused with Latin passion, so it is the perfect place to try out the Argentine tango. Credit: Shutterstock

Best for... Foodies

Uruguay

Tucked between Argentina and Brazil on South America’s east coast, the continent’s second smallest country has a big appetite. But it’s not all chivitos (Uruguay’s national dish – a sandwich crammed with steak, cheese, bacon and, well, just about everything).

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As well as exporting world-class caviar, harvested from sturgeon on the River Negro, the country also produces excellent wine. So good, in fact, that it rarely leaves the borders – just one more reason to cruise here, especially since 2020 has been hailed as one of Uruguay's best vintages.

Similar to Argentinian malbec, the country’s full-bodied tannat grape flourishes on the temperate south coast, especially near José Ignacio – once a fishing village, now a hot destination for gourmets and well-heeled beach lovers(its powder-soft sands have earned it the title ‘The Hamptons of Uruguay’).

Take the opportunity to sample Uruguay's famed vintage wine. Credit: Shutterstock

With mild winters and dry summers, the climate here is the Mediterranean, so it’s no surprise that olive oil is another staple of the culinary scene. But pride of place on any Uruguayan table goes to the truly sensational local steaks.

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With four cows for every person, this is often described as ‘the land of cattle', and no carnivore should miss the chance to visit a parrilla (steakhouse), where sirloins sizzle on blazing embers. You’ll find a selection of these in the Mercado del Puerto district of the capital, Montevideo.

Get onboard

MSC Cruises seven-night ‘South America’ cruise aboard MSC Musica, round trip from Montevideo via Buenos Aires and Rio, departing 3 December 2022, from £409.

Treat yourself to a renowned Argentine steak as it is extremely flavoursome. Credit: Shutterstock

Best for... Beach lovers

Brazil

With more than 4,600 miles of tropical coastline, it’s no wonder this is a nation where life revolves around the beach. And from pink-cliffed coves with surfing-friendly waves to jungle-fringed bays accessible only by hiking, South America’s largest country has something for everyone who loves to feel sand between their toes.

Home of the samba, Brazil’s great Atlantic port offers one of the world's most iconic cityscapes and two of its most celebrated beaches. With the famous Sugarloaf Mountain as its backdrop, Rio’s Copacabana serves up Brazilian beach culture at its best– think daybreak-to-sundown volleyball and ice-cold Brahma beer.

- READ MORE: Tropical rainforests and indigenous cultures: Explore the Amazon -

And just a few minutes away by taxi, Ipanema Beach (of 60s hit song fame) puts you in striking distance of art galleries and world-class French fare in its fashionable namesake neighbourhood.

Yet more stellar urban beaches lure the bronzed and the beautiful to downtown Salvador, Brazil’s former capital and the true birthplace of carnival.

The iconic seaside city Rio de Janeiro comes with the full package: beaches, mountains, and music. Credit: Shutterstock

The city’s All Saints’ Bay is fringed with sands, including Porto da Barra, which stands in the shadow of a 16th-century Portuguese fort.

A few days’ sailing to the south brings you to Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, where the popular cruise terminal of Santos lies a coconut’s throw from the world’s longest beach garden.

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Running the length of a three-and-a-half-mile ribbon of sand, its flowers are said to attract more than 100 different kinds of birds. From here you can also take a vintage tram ride for a local’s eye view of the attractive colonial architecture, hopping on and off whenever a streetside cafe catches your eye.

Get onboard

Celebrity Cruises nine-night ‘Argentina, Rio & Sao Paulo’ cruise aboard Celebrity Infinity, from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires via Buzios, Ilhabela and Santos, departing 12 December 2022, from £1,015.

Salvador offers golden sand and a fascinating view of Portuguese colonial architecture. Credit: Shutterstock

Best for... A bit of everything

Colombia

Encompassing the richness and variety of an entire continent in one country, Colombia blends cosmopolitan cities with UNESCO World Heritage sites and the second-greatest biodiversity of any country on earth.

From trekking to remote coffee fincas, high in the mountains, to dancing the night away in the world’s salsa capital, cruisers are spoiled for choice. And did we mention that Colombia is also the only South American nation with coastlines on both the Pacific and the Caribbean?

- READ MORE: Seabourn's top 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites by cruise -

The country’s busiest cruise port is Cartagena, which boasts some of the best preserved colonial architecture anywhere in Latin America. In fact, the entire walled city (just two-and-a-half miles from the port terminal) is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Stroll the battlements of the city’s hilltop fortress before checking out eye-popping street art in the hipster Getsemani neighbourhood, and snacking on arroz con coco (rice with coconut) from a local street stall.

Santa Marta is the perfect base from which to explore the tropical Tayrona National Park. Credit: Shutterstock

In the country’s Magdalena region, around 140 miles north, cruise ships dock at Santa Marta, the first Spanish settlement in Colombia.

Sitting at the foot of the world’s highest coastal mountain range, this is the perfect base for exploring Tayrona National Park – a hiker’s paradise where coastal lagoons meet palm-fringed coves and tropical jungle. Java-lovers can tour organic coffee farms in the mountain town of Minca, which is also a birding hotspot.

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And as if that weren’t enough variety for one country, Colombia offers a Caribbean island too. Some 470 miles north of the mainland – and the same distance south Jamaica – San Andres is a snorkelling and diving nirvana, exceptionally rich in marine life.

Here you can swim among manta rays and discover why the ‘Sea of Seven Colours,’ is aptly named (it’s all thanks to a phenomenon caused by the world's third-longest barrier reef system).

Get onboard

Norwegian Cruise Line 12-night ‘Panama Canal: Costa Rica, Aruba & Curacao’ cruise aboard Norwegian Pearl, round trip from Miami via Oranjestad, Willemstad, Santa Marta (Colombia), Cartagena (Colombia), Colon and Puerto Limon, departing21 December 2022, from £1,623.

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