There is something at once familiar and foreign about the southern reaches of South America. From the magnificent beachside Brazilian metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, southward to Patagonian Argentina and beautiful Chile, a fascinating and intoxicating blend of cultures and vistas are both recognizable and exotic. Wide-open plains and a gaucho culture echo the American west. Soaring snow-capped Andean peaks might make you think you’ve landed in the Colorado Rockies. And while the sophistication and bustle of its cities might remind you of a large U.S. capital, the samba-stepping street performers and European-style architecture with Spanish colonial accents quickly remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
This is South America through and through, where the civility of fine wines meets untamed Patagonia, where the controlled passion of the tango collides with the unbridled torrent of Iguassu Falls, where Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue peers down upon scantily-clad Ipanema beach-goers. Reverential and wild, it all must be seen to be believed.
Brazil: Sultry City, Fantastic Falls
Brazil was named for brazilwood, a tree that once grew up and down its shores. The timber from this tree produced a red dye, and so it became a valued commodity to supplement the 16th-century European cloth trade. Once the indigenous Tupi people caught on to the overseas demand, they put the trees up for sale in exchange for European goods.
Brazil went on to become the largest Portuguese-speaking nation in the world, and the only one in the Americas. Surrounded by Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountains and brimming with big-city energy, Rio de Janeiro—the unofficial cultural capital—wears its largesse on its sleeve.
From atop its monolithic hills, Rio’s beauty unfolds before you in magnificent splendor: crescent beaches (including the famous Ipanema and Copacabana), glittering skyscrapers, and densely forested mountains form an intoxicating hive of activity. Corcovado is topped by the famed Christ the Redeemer, a 124-foot statue of Christ, with his arms outstretched as if embracing the city below. A steep passenger train ride gets you to the summit. On the other side of the city, all-glass cable cars bring you to the top of Sugar Loaf.
Rio certainly leaves the impression that Brazil embraces its natural beauty, even in its largest cities. Along the Argentinean border, another spectacular site awaits. Iguazu Falls—a thundering cascade of 275 cataracts that stretch two and half miles in a horseshoe shape—straddles the two countries. These incredible falls are wider than Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and higher than Niagara. Eleanor Roosevelt herself is said to have exclaimed, upon seeing this natural wonder, “Poor Niagara!” They are a stunning sight to behold, and that’s just from the Brazilian side.
Argentina: Refined Culture, Untouched Wilderness
About 80% of Iguazu Falls lie on Argentina’s side of the river and few are more impressive than Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat. This U-shaped torrent plummets 270 feet over a half mile stretch. A rail car offers spectacular views from the top of the falls.
Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires offers another type of thrill. This is the city of Eva Peron, of “Evita” fame. The outspoken First Lady was wildly popular here, speaking out for those without a voice. She is buried in the Recoleta Cemetery, a fantastic miniature city of above-ground tombs and memorials. It is admittedly odd to see such an elaborate burial place in the middle of city that is so full of life. Indeed, Buenos Aires is called the “Paris of South America” for good reason: its wide, tree-lined boulevards pass elegant architecture, soaring cathedrals and beautifully manicured green parks. More intimate views of the city can be had in any of the working class barrios, such as La Boca or San Telmo, each with its own distinct and colorful personality.
Far from the city, in the eastern shadow of the Andes, lies Mendoza. Founded in the 16th century by Spanish settlers, this is today one of the world’s great wine regions. Vines here are planted at some of the highest altitudes in the world and yield Malbecs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Gate 1 travelers have the chance to sample award-winning vintages at the Bodega Achaval-Ferrer winery, and to create their own blends at Norton vineyards. But Mendoza is known for more than its wine. It also draws adventurers gearing up to climb Mt. Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the world outside the Himalayas, at 23,000 feet.
In this region of South America, stunning natural beauty—soaring mountains, pristine lakes, babbling streams—seems to beckon from every direction. Visiting the town of Bariloche, you just might wonder how much more beauty could possibly be in store. Nestled at the foot of the Andes, surrounded by forest, and hugging the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake, Bariloche’s setting feels more Swiss than Argentinean, right down to the chocolate shops on every corner and the sweet scent of cocoa kissing the clean mountain air.
Yet there is more beauty in store—plenty of it—in Argentine Patagonia. The old wool-trading town of El Calafate is the gateway to Los Glacieres National Park, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, the Perito Moreno Glacier stands high above the waters of Lake Argentino, a massive ice wall three miles wide and 240 feet tall. Remarkably, this is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is expanding. It is the largest ice cap outside Antarctica and Greenland and controls the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.
Chile: Colonial Charms, Splendid Vistas and a Historic Capital
Patagonia leaves any traveler feeling in awe at nature’s design. Surely, the charming lakeside village of Puerto Varas will have the same effect. Its setting is spectacular, resting on the shore of the scenic Llanquihue Lake, one of the largest in South America, and overseen by the symmetrical, snow-capped cone of the Osorno Volcano. But the town itself is also a sight to behold, rich in the German-style wood-shingled architecture of its European colonists.
Those colonists couldn’t have imagined the breathtaking rock spires and fjord wilderness that stretched to the south. Indeed, they are hard to imagine until you set your eyes on them, which you’ll do as you travel from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine National Park by way of Puerto Natales. An astonishing canvas unfolds here. Chile’s Patagonian steppe thrives with wildlife: Andean condors and eagles soar overhead, keeping watch over farmland grazed by sheep and a vast network of waterways once explored by the likes of Magellan, Drake, and Darwin. A full-day expedition cruise brings you face to face with sea lions, abundant birdlife, and spectacular glaciers. In Torres del Paine, you’ll have the chance to hike into the untouched Patagonian forest, where massive granite pillars pierce the sky—a dramatic backdrop to thundering waterfalls, massive glaciers and wild guanacos.
Back in civilization—more specifically, in Santiago—it’s a city’s design that may amaze you. Over the past few decades, Chile’s booming capital has grown tremendously, even hosting the tallest building in Latin America, the Gran Torre, or Grand Tower, and boasting a sunken freeway system. For a glimpse at its more historic side, head to the Plaza de Armas, center of the Old City’s grid pattern. The impressive neoclassical cathedral is here, with its twin bell towers, as are the grand colonial Central Post Office Building and the 1808 Royal Court Palace.
Easter Island: Mysterious Totems, Stunning Island Landscapes
One of the planet’s most remote islands, Chile’s Easter Island is located 1,200 miles from its nearest populated neighbor. The remarkable corner of the world lures archaeology buffs and nature lovers alike. Remnants of an ancient Polynesian people dot the emerald hilly landscape in the form or 800 massive and enigmatic stone figures, known as moai. Their mystery is twofold: Scholars can only guess at their purpose, and no one knows exactly how the stone was quarried from the island’s soft volcanic tufa stone and how the carved figures, weighing some ten tons each, were placed strategically around the island. Gate 1 takes you here for two nights so you can perhaps unravel the mysteries for yourself.
Add Peru to Your South America Journey
There’s so much of South America to see, so many cultures to experience. Farther north along the Andes range, Peru’s fascinating colonial cities, Incan ruins, and Quechua people provide an extraordinary glimpse of the continent’s early civilizations. You can complement your exploration of Brazil and Argentina with a visit to this remarkable country.
Explore the Peruvian capital of Lima, a unique and thrilling melting pot of European, Andean, African and Asian cultures and home to a remarkably preserved historic center. Explore Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan “Lost City” straddling a magnificent Andean plateau. Stroll the cobbled streets of Cuzco, the Incan capital turned Spanish colonial gem. And marvel at the floating Uros Islands of Lake Titicaca, each one woven out of reeds pulled from the waters.
Take Advantage of the Best Value
Incredible discoveries like these tell only part of the Gate 1 story. Our unmatched value in the industry tells the rest. Throughout your South American itinerary, you can sit back and relax knowing that you’ve attained the very best travel experience for your dollar. Excellent accommodations, delicious meals, unique cultural experiences and top-rated local guides add up to the most rewarding journey your travel dollar can buy.
Read more from our past South America travelers here. Then reserve your departure today!