1 Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil
These 600sq miles of dazzling white sand dunes are unlike anywhere else on the planet, a sea of sand that stretches endlessly to the horizon all around. But this is no desert. When the rainy season comes — from January to June — sudden downpours, blown in from the Amazon, drench the dunes, filling the crevasses in between with bright lagoons of sparkling azure water. It’s like watching a mirage appear before your eyes.
By July and August, when the lagoons are at their fullest, they’re up to 300ft long and 10ft deep, interconnected by freshwater rivers that bring fish and other small animals to one of the most barren places on the planet. Seeing it is spectacular: the contrast of colours and textures, the way the sand is sculpted by the wind and dabbed in the hues of the sea. But it’s even better to jump in. In peak season (December to March), water temperatures can reach 30C — as warm as at a tropical beach. There’s adventure too: 4×4 off-roading, sand-boarding, horse rides, treks by moonlight, and camping under the stars. There are even two tiny mud hut villages that have sprung up in oases around the dunes.
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park’s true magic, however, is its impossibility, like finding a Caribbean beach in the middle of the Sahara. Its rarity makes it all the more spectacular.
2 Canaima National Park, Venezuela
This park in the lush highlands of southeast Venezuela is home to one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles: Angel Falls, the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall at 3,211ft. The facts are staggering: Angel Falls is nine times taller than southern Africa’s Victoria Falls; 11 times loftier than Iguazu in Brazil and Argentina; and it’s more than twice the height of the Empire State Building.
This giant cascade pours out of an enormous flat top mesa, known as a tepui. There are more than 100 of these unique geologic formations in the park, each springing thousands of feet from the valley floor, with sheer cliffs on all sides, like a gigantic obelisk. Their summits are self-contained worlds, ecosystems that have evolved in complete isolation from the mainland below. These islands in the sky, cut off from the forest below for tens of millions of years, house their own unique plants, animals and ecosystems. Standing on the top of a tepui is like looking back in time, a glimpse of the prehistoric world that existed before humans walked the planet.
They’re notoriously difficult to scale (the first one took more than 50 years to climb), and many remain unexplored. It’s possible to climb a few, the most common being the 9,000ft Mount Roraima, which takes six days, strong legs and a head for heights. But it’s worth the effort. There are creatures, right now, roaming their summits that are yet to be seen by human eyes.
3 Pampas, Uruguay
Punta del Este, in southern Uruguay, is the Cote d’Azur of South America — big money and Latin American celebrities as far as the eye can see.
Much better is Punta del Diablo, two hours north, an old fishing village filled with colourful houses lining unspoilt sand — the antithesis to all that glitz. Camp on the beach at nearby Cabo Polonio, a delightful off-grid town that’s home to one of the largest sea lion colonies in South America.
Most people stop there. But inland, among the vast flat plains of the Pampas, is another side to Uruguay. Working estancias (estates) invite guests to ride among the herds of cattle and sheep like real gauchos, barbecuing steak on the campfire each night, stars blazing in the total darkness above.
4 Kaieteur Falls, Guyana
Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Guyana, Kaieteur Falls is, without a doubt, the most spectacular waterfall you’ve never heard of. It’s more than four times the height of Niagara, and is the world’s largest single drop waterfall by volume of water flowing over it.
But what’s even more impressive is the setting. There are no souvenir stalls, hotels or safety barriers here: this is the real wilderness — you must be flown in, or trek and riverboat five days through thick jungle to reach it. It doesn’t get much more rugged than this.
And Kaieteur’s just the start. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are some of the least visited and unspoilt regions on the continent, and all three countries can be easily combined into a single epic trip.
5 Rainbow Mountain, Peru
Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain, is one of the most startling geologic formations on the planet. Here, in the foothills of the Andes, four hours southeast of Cusco, layers of distinct mineral deposits have become exposed over millions of years, creating a landscape striped in bright lines of red, gold, green, turquoise and blue, streaming down the hillside like dripping paint.
The trek to reach it is beautiful, and can be done in a day, passing local Quechan villages and herds of llama and alpaca. However, it’s long and arduous too: reaching a height of more than 17,000ft (acclimatisation first is essential), with hours of steep trails and cold winds that blow all year long.
Arduous, yes. But it’s worth it. For the Peruvian people, the mountain is holy, a deity of Cusco, and from the top it’s easy to see why: there are few places where nature has painted the world more vividly, as if a vast Inca shawl has been woven into the mountains, a bright tapestry rising from the earth.
6 Pantanal, Paraguay
For the best wildlife, head north to the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, which covers 65,000sq miles, extending into Brazil and Bolivia. Then, jump aboard a houseboat for a cruise along the Paraguay River, home of jaguars, giant river otters, cloud forests, more than 450 species of birds and sunsets you’ll never forget.
7 Madidi National Park, Bolivia
This little corner of the southern Amazon is the most affordable way to experience this incredible forest. The tourism here is done largely in conjunction with the local indigenous tribes and benefits them in the process. When you come, you view the forest through their eyes — how they live and hunt, their culture and beliefs.
A recent study of Madidi’s biodiversity revealed that this single park contains almost half of all the species of mammal found in North and South America, as well as an extraordinary one in five species of all birds worldwide. This hidden corner of the Amazon may just be the most biologically rich place on Earth.
8 Navarino Island, Chile
Home of the southernmost trekking route in the world, the Dientes Circuit, as well as the most southerly inhabited place on the planet, Puerto Williams, Navarino Island certainly isn’t for the faint hearted.
To the north is the windswept barrenness of Tierra del Fuego, to the south there’s nothing but ocean until Antarctica. But the island itself is beautiful: remote alpine lakes, granite spires peering above the mist, mountains like daggers all around. From the high country, on a clear day, you can literally see the end of the Earth: the wild ocean of Cape Horn, graveyard of more than 800 ships and 10,000 men.
Only 2,000 or so people live here. The rest is yours, a raw adventure; a true wilderness at the very edge of the world.
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)