The range in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patogonia is made up of rocks eroded by glaciers.
Sophisticated travelers love South America’s alluring blend of the exotic and the familiar. Round-the-clock cities—Buenos Aires with its tango salons, Rio de Janeiro with its samba clubs and Santiago with its dazzling Andean backdrop—draw an international set. But once you’ve romped through these cosmopolitan centers, don’t stop at the city limits. Like writer Camille Cusumano, a former resident of Buenos Aires, head beyond them to far-flung places including Patagonia, Chiloé Island, with its traditional cultures, and the Euro wine Argentine vineyards.
Argentina’s southwestern Lake District, which includes the Lanín and Nahuel Huapi national parks, lures fans of natural beauty. The area surrounding the city of San Carlos de Bariloche rivals California’s Sierra Nevada for glistening snowcapped mountains, refreshing lakes, wildflowers, alpine meadows and virgin forests.
Bariloche sits on the banks of Lake Nahuel Huapi, a stunning glacial relic whose crystal-blue surface mirrors mighty Mount Tronador, a forested crest that straddles the Andes. Tempt your taste buds in the many chocolate and jam shops around Bariloche’s Tyrolian civic center. Then follow the scenic Route of the Seven Lakes over back roads all the way to San Martín de los Andes. Along the route, an alpine paradise offers ample opportunity for rafting, kayaking, fly fishing, hiking and skiing.
Patagonia is the near-mythic “land of the Patagons (or Big Feet)” that covers southern portions of Chile and Argentina. Immerse yourself in its pristine landscapes from Ushuaia, Argentina’s (and the world’s) southernmost city. Enjoy a day trip to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, kayaking the Beagle Channel, which is rich in the marine wildlife Darwin noted. Hike the Fuegian woodland, sighting woodpeckers, ducks, geese and ibises. Then return to Ushuaia for excellent seafood or juicy asado (barbecue).
A two-hour flight from Buenos Aires, Mendoza is the heart of Argentina’s wine country. Cradled in the foothills of the Andes, Mendoza’s Cuyo region, with its temperate climate and rich soil, produces world-class varietals, including the country’s signature Malbec and blends such as Torrontes, Semillon, Syrah and even a surprisingly good Chardonnay. Bicycling flat, sunny routes to the wine-tasting rooms is just one of the many adventures you can indulge in. Mendoza gives visitors access to hiking, fishing, rafting, horseback riding and skiing, all easy distances from downtown.
With hundreds of miles of Atlantic coastline edged with white-sand beaches and coconut palms, no wonder Bahia is known as the land of happiness. Brazil’s northeastern state is as much a tropical paradise as a petri dish for melting cultures. You’ll sense the surviving African influence in the local percussive music, the Yoruba religion and spicy cuisine: Moqueca de peixe, fish stew redolent of garlic, peppers and coconut milk, is a dish you can’t leave without trying.
Salvador da Bahia (or São Salvador da Bahía de Todos os Santos) was a slave market for the New World in the 16th century. You can learn about the gradual and epic blending of African, European and Amerindian cultures in the city’s Afro-Brazilian Museum, where the ethnic mix is expressed in pottery, sculpture and textiles.
Visit Bahia’s colonial towns, such as Olinda, whose historical streets are lined with lavishly painted stucco houses and numerous churches. Along with Recife, Olinda is one of Brazil’s best preserved colonial cities.
An opera house in the middle of the Amazon rain forest? In Manaus, this 1896 architectural gem with its flashy ceramic-tiled dome still welcomes classical music lovers and Indie-film buffs. Perched on the banks of the Rio Negro, Manaus offers visitors piranha fishing and jungle treks. Watch for alligators, Amazon River dolphins and abundant bird life. River journeys to jungle lodges deep within the Amazon Basin and visits to traditional riverbank dwellings are hugely popular.
Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park challenges credulity with its 275 cascades crashing down from a mile-and-a-halfwide shelf. Walk or float at the base of the thundering cascades—surrounded by the luxuriant rain forest—for a life-list experience. Straddling the border with Argentina, the falls can also be viewed from the Argentine side by crossing the famous Tancredo Neves Bridge.
A stunning mix of desolation and beauty, Chile’s premier national park, Torres del Paine, is one of southern Patagonia’s most unique features. Here the Andes give way to Tierra del Fuego. You’ll thrill to the mind-altering spectacle of shape-changing light pouring over dark, jagged peaks, massive plateaus and blond bunch-grass plains. Glaciers of aching blue calve into aquamarine lakes and rivers, while the often fierce wind whips their waters into a milky froth.
The rugged park caters to both intrepid explorers and high-end lodgers. Spend a day hiking to the Stonehenge-like towers that give the park its name. You’ll pass estancias, where horses run loose over the pampas. This is gaucho country, so feast on slow-roasted grass-fed lamb or beef and stay in a luxury lodge or “glamp” (glamorous camp). The native guanaco—a type of llama—grazes everywhere. Subsistence farmers, fishermen and craftsmen inhabit Chiloé Island, the largest in the Chiloé archipelago. Explore its many wooden churches, the legacy of zealous Jesuits. In rural towns, you’ll see charming palafitos (stilt villages) and the penguin colony at Puñihuil. So many tiny isles and inlets are an invitation to explore by sea kayak. Savor the fresh local catch and purchase the islanders’ finely crafted woolen goods.
Valparaiso embodies romance. Colorful homes faded by sun and salt air jostle down steep hills to the Pacific Ocean. Funiculars shuttle you between the sea and the city’s cobbled streets, which wind past old mansions. Linger in cafés with breathtaking vistas while you sip a robust red from a local vineyard.
Poet Pablo Neruda adored Valpo’s bohemian and maritime spirit. His former home, La Sebastiana, is a cherished site where Chileans honor the memory of their legendary and much beloved troubadour.
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Photography courtesy of refractor/Wikipedia
This article was first published in May 2012 in Traveler. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.