1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
These vast and otherworldly salt flats, beyond the Bolivian town of Uyuni, should be on any South American itinerary. Extending for more than 3,500sq miles, this expanse of eye candy is as surreal as the continent gets, with the nearby mud pits and pink flamingoes of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve another odd, but incredible sight.
2. The Sacred Valley, Peru
White-water rafting? Check. Trekking? Check. Rock climbing? Check. Adrenalin-fuelled activities reign supreme across the beautiful Río Urubamba Valley, aka El Valle Sagrado. Outfitters in Cusco will arrange any number of tours to this region, around nine miles from the city. Don’t miss the Incan archaeological sites of Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero.
3. Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
There may be more than 200 glaciers in Argentina’s Glaciers Park but the hulk that is Perito Moreno Glacier is one of Patagonia’s highlights, at 18 miles long, three miles wide and an average height of 240ft above the surface of Lake Argentina. Watch as large chunks break off into the milky waters or trek across its spine, avoiding spectacular crevasses and pools that have melted in the piercing sun.
4. Angel Falls, Venezuala
Notoriously difficult to reach, the world’s tallest falls are set deep in pristine rainforest in Venezuela’s Guayana highlands. There’s nothing like travelling by foot over Mount Roraima, before picking up a short flight to the village of Canaima to marvel at the falls from a motorised canoe. Alternatively, take a bird’s eye view in a light aircraft and watch the falls send clouds of low-hung mist and steam into the jungle canopy as it makes its powerful 2,648ft drop — over 15 times the height of Niagara’s plunge.
5. Quito, Ecuador
The Ecuadorian capital’s location will wow even the most jaded of travellers, surrounded by Andean peaks and criss-crossed with a patchwork of churches, narrow streets and charming plazas. Lose yourself within its historical core — the old town and UNESCO World Heritage Site — before winding up in the ‘new town’ or gringolandia (gringo land) with its upbeat cafes, buzzy bars and tiny tiendas (shops)selling fruit and veg.
6. Experience: Bogota, Colombia
It would be hard to describe Bogota as beautiful. It sprawls in that way of big cities, traffic clogging its streets, ungainly apartment buildings massing on its outskirts. But standing in the Plaza de Bolivar, I’m also struggling to see the city as a hotspot of danger. In the past decade, Colombia has made significant strides away from its troubled image as a hellhole of drug cartels and kidnappings. Teen skateboarders zoom around the inevitable statue of 19th-century Latin American independence leader Simon Bolivar. Gaggles of university students chatter on the steps of the cathedral. And the words slashed across the front of the Congress building — protests against the current government — are notable only for their lack of originality.
Bogota is at ease with itself, more focused on a hopeful present than a tense past. Indeed, the past most visible here is not the civil conflict which has dogged Colombia for almost 50 years, but the rather more romantic notion of the colonial era. The Museo del Oro is an El Dorado, showcasing the sort of pre-conquest gold statuettes and burial trinkets that made imperial Spain dig greedy fingernails into New World soil.
Nearby, the creative side of Spanish wanderlust is on display in the rich architecture of La Candelaria, the city’s historic core. Calle 10 might be pragmatic of name as it cuts south-east off the Plaza de Bolivar but, tackling its steep gradient, I feel I’m retreating through time: past the 19th-century facade of the Teatro Colon, and through the doors of El Son de los Grillos, where the low ceilings, red decor and candles — if not the tastiness of the chicken with peppers and salsa — might have welcomed the conquistadors of yore.
Above, Monserrate — the 10,341ft peak dominating Bogota’s skyline — rises. A funicular takes me to a park at the top, where the size of the metropolis is yet more apparent. Even from up here, Bogota is not beautiful. But it is decidedly intriguing. Words: Chris Leadbeater
7. Santiago, Chile
Trapped behind the frosted wall of the Andes, Santiago is arguably one of South America’s most remote capitals. But it rewards those who make the journey with the bars of Bellavista, the cafe cool of Lastarria and the rare artefacts of the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.
8. Paramaribo, Suriname
It may be off the radar, but Suriname’s capital is a contented backwater, once colonised by the British before being relinquished in exchange for a fledgling port called New Amsterdam (now New York). A period of Dutch occupation followed, and this legacy can be seen today in the city’s historic core, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and outlying plantations.
9. Montevideo, Uruguay
Uruguay’s splendidly compact capital is sometimes dismissed as a plain, smaller sibling of Buenos Aires. But the cafes and galleries in its gentrifying Ciudad Vieja, the shops on the key Avenida 18 de Julio and the urban beach of Playa Ramirez tell a different story.
10. Lima, Peru
Those who use Peru’s colossal capital as a mere airport stop en route to Machu Picchu miss out on glorious colonial remainders — not least the 17th-century Convento de San Francisco — as well as the bohemian bars in Barranco and the restaurants of sophisticated Miraflores.
11. Editor’s Pick: Ushuaia, Argentina
Travel through the Strait of Magellan and Beagle Channel, enjoying the grandiose Glacier Alley, sub-polar forests and fauna, fjords, penguins and elephant seals, and then arriving in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world surrounded by the last high peaks of the Andes. If you’re lucky you’ll travel as far as Cape Horn and organise a trip to the Antarctic. I’d like to return and do it all, again, and more, embracing two continents in one trip. Perfect. Words: Maria Pieri
Read the 101 South America Guide in full, free with National Geographic Traveller (UK) Nov/Dec 2013 issue.