The great expanse of land from Mexico down through Central America and the continent of South America offers incredibly diverse landscapes scattered with colonial architecture, indigenous villages and 115 Unesco World Heritage sites.
Then there’s the history — not just of colonisation but Aztec, Maya and Inca, slavery, pirates, gold, silver… a trip to any Latin American country will be richly rewarding. But with so many destinations to choose from, how do you narrow it down to a practical itinerary?
Here are some of my must-sees – pick your own path and visit as many as you can manage.
Mexico City has traces of Mesoamerican cultures in its architecture, art, museums and food. In the weekend, be a local on a traditional boat on the chaotically colourful Xochimilco Canals. For ruins, visit close-by Teotihuacan Pyramids.
Further afield, Yaxchilan and Palenque ruins have Maya pyramids and temples still shrouded in jungle giving a mystical atmosphere. Tulum, with Maya ruins overlooking the sea, has picturesque cenotes (giant sinkholes) amongst rainforest. Dive, snorkel or swim the crystal clear water in hues of topaz, turquoise and sapphire.
Oaxaca, a Unesco World Heritage site, and San Cristobal de las Casas both have brightly-coloured historical centres, Spanish colonial architecture, cathedrals, cobbled streets and markets.
San Juan Chamula, an autonomous, indigenous town not far from San Cristobal de las Casas revolves around a mixture of Catholic and traditional Maya religion. On a religious festival day it’s fascinating with fireworks, alcohol and pine needles involved. Take a guided tour.
Belize (English speaking)
Actun Tunichil Muknal is an Indiana Jones adventure. Wade and swim 3km underground before climbing to an eerie cathedral cavern featuring stalagmites and stalactites where Maya sacrificial items and skeletons remain.
Caye Caulker, a coral cay an hour’s ferry trip from Belize City, is 8km long with sandy streets and no cars. Down-to-earth, it has snorkelling, diving and flights available over the Great Blue Hole which has stunning blue hues.
Roatan Island has great snorkelling and diving just offshore on the world’s second-largest barrier reef. If you have the money, Stanley’s Submarine, a deep diving submersible can take you down to 900m.
Scarlet macaws greet you at the Maya ruins of Copan, comprising pyramids, statues, carvings and hieroglyphics. It is located in rainforest and the buttress roots of the giant Ceiba trees grow through and around the ruins.
The Mayan city of Tikal has some of the tallest Mayan pyramids. Otherworldly at sunrise, shrouded in mist, the jungle awakens with parrots screeching, woodpeckers pecking, toucans flying and monkeys crashing.
Antigua, a Unesco World Heritage site, has a charming, historical centre of cobbled streets, Spanish Baroque architecture, churches, quiet squares and is a base for volcano treks to nearby active Pacaya and Fuego.
Spot sloths, coatis and hummingbirds in Monteverde’s Cloud Forest Reserve then zip-line above the forest, like Superman. On a night walk in an animal refuge you may spot sloths, 2-3cm frogs, snakes, tarantulas, brilliant bird life, beetles and luminescent fungus.
Cartagena, on the coast, has one of the most vibrantly colourful historical centres I’ve seen. Its enthralling history involves gold, pirates, slaves and Spanish conquistadors.
Head to the Amazon jungle to learn about the medicinal values of plants used for centuries, spot caiman (a reptile similar to an alligator) at night and birdwatch at dawn. Chorusing birds and insects at daybreak are incredibly loud. As is the call of the howler monkeys.
There’s Machu Picchu, of course, but Peru offers so much more.
Arequipa has a beautiful historical centre built mainly of white stone. Visit Juanita, the Ice Maiden, a sacrificed Inca woman found in ice on a volcano in 1995. Arequipa is a good stop-off to acclimatise to the altitude before heading to Cusco.
Cusco, where, at nearly 3400 metres you may suffer the effects of altitude, is the ancient Incan ancient capital. The old cobbled city is quaint with 16th century cathedrals, plazas and indigenous ruins.
Fly over the Nazca Lines and wonder how were they drawn when their creators had no way of viewing them from above.
Lake Titicaca is a little touristy but the boats and floating islands of reeds on which the Uros people live are amazing.
San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis town on the edge of the Atacama Desert hosts diverse landscapes. Valle de Luna, supposedly resembling the Moon’s surface, gives spectacular views of volcanoes and desert dominated by red rock and white salt.
Torres Del Paine National Park, is home to the 80km W Walk taking in glaciers, granite towers, turquoise lakes and breathtaking views. The harsh Patagonian wind, at its worst in January, can blow you off your feet.
Hike active volcano Villarrica – but be aware it requires crampons and ice axes and, at the summit, a gas mask. Enjoy views over Pucón before blatting downhill on a circular piece of plastic using your ice axe as a brake.
The glaring white Bolivian Salt Flats cover nearly 11,000sq km at an altitude of around 3700m. Race across the hexagonal encrusted surface, visit cactus covered “islands” that were once mountain tops, and watch the salt turn pink at sunset.
Crossing the Bolivian Altiplano is a tough, jolting journey but worth it. Plains, red mountains, boulders, geysers, hot springs, pink, green and white lakes. Incredible.
Buenos Aires is reminiscent of Paris. Visit steakhouses, Plaza Dorrego on Sunday evening for tango, Eva Peron museum (information in Spanish with some English) and French-styled Cafe Tortoni, opened in 1858.
Iguazu Falls can be viewed from Brazil and Argentina; both are worth doing for the different views. Helicopter over the falls to fully comprehend their size.
The colossal, blue-tinged Perito Moreno Glacier is just spectacular. Boardwalks offer differing views, boat rides get close, or you can trek on it.
Hike 10km from El Chalten to Laguna de los Tres in Los Glaciares National Park for striking views of the jagged Mt Fitz Roy, turquoise lakes and glaciers.
Brazil (Portuguese speaking)
Rio de Janeiro at carnival time is a must-visit. The Sambadrome parade is an extravaganza on steroids.
Lencois Maranhenses National Park is 1550sq km of pristine white sand dunes dotted for six months of the year with freshwater lagoons. Cresting dunes bring striking views. Flying over them, the lagoons appear as sky, dunes as clouds.
Visit the slightly run-down Unesco World Heritage cities Olinda, Sao Luis and Salvador da Bahia for their colourful and quaint colonial centres. The latter’s music and religion has a strong African influence.
Suriname (Dutch speaking)
Bigi Pan is a 160,000sq km shallow, warm lagoon. Wildife includes scarlet ibis, flying fish, caiman and accommodation is on stilts in the water.
French Guiana (French speaking)
French Guiana has a space station! Used by the European Space Agency and French Government, satellites are launched almost every month.
Guyana (English speaking)
Kaieteur Falls is one of the world’s highest, single-drop waterfalls and also the site of endangered giant bromeliads. An hour’s flight from Georgetown, you’ll fly over jungle resembling thousands of pompoms, scarred orange earth and dark brown, snake-like rivers.
NEED TO KNOW
The only country requiring a visa for New Zealand passport holders is Suriname.
Especially in Peru and Bolivia, altitude can leave you breathless and cause headaches, nausea and sleepless nights. Medication can be taken before reaching altitude. Chew on coca leaves or drink coca tea which can help.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required by a number of these countries if you are coming from a country with a risk of yellow fever. Check with your doctor.
Malaria is also a risk in some areas.