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Probably all of it, but seeing as budgets, jobs and other tedious tasks tend to get in the way, here are our top picks to suit every South & Central American desire.
For big city lights
Buenos Aires, Argentina
To reiterate what Air New Zealand have been telling us since December 2015, Buenos Aires is now at the end of a direct flight from Auckland. Twelve hours, done. It’s that easy.
If you thought we were going to recommend Rio for bright lights and city sights, that’d be a big, fat Spanish “no” (same as English). Buenos Aires offers history and culture, time-worn colonial architecture and steak served with sauces as tasty as their tango dancers. There’s the coloured buildings of La Boca, the elaborate crypts of La Recolete Cemetary and more Sunday markets than you can wave your wads of Pesos at. And then there’s the food. From steaming empanadas to Alfajores (Argentinian Dulce de Leche sandwich biscuits) you’re in gourmet heaven. And if you don’t know what Dulce de Leche is, oh man, just you wait.
For the great outdoors
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
The good (and some would argue the downright incredible) includes a medley of formidable colours; a rainbow’s worth. From electric-blue glaciers to emerald forests and golden shrub land, soaring granite towers that dominate the landscape and lowland that changes hue depending on the sunlight, South America’s most beautiful national park is also the most vibrant. Even the wildlife is dazzling – keep an eye out for bright pink flamingos and the revered Andean Condor. Then there’s the bad, which would have to be the weather, because it can turn sour (and stay so) in an instant. Pack high-quality all-weather gear and if you’re hiking, make sure your tent’s a sturdy old-timer. As for the ugly, what can we say, with a snow-capped massif and water so reflective it doubles the visual splendours, we’re unsure the word even exists in Patagonia.
For the party
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
In a city where the party never stops, Rio runs to a different time frame. Mornings aren’t for breakfast, they’re for hailing cabs and going home; and when most people are putting on their PJs and slipping into bed, Rio is just about getting ready to go out. Days are spent sashaying between iconic beaches and super chilled coffee shops, a quick espresso here, another siesta there – trust us, it’s an addictive combination. By nightfall, the churrascarias open and serve you fat slices of chorizo until the meat sweats are dribbling off your forehead, and then it’s time to slap on your neon face paint, throw back a few more cocktails and hit the dance floor in your Havaianas.
For family fun in the sun
Nicaragua is in Central America, and that’s just a hop, skip and a jump away, and well worth the extra jaunt.
Granada is a colonial beauty that borders Lake Nicaragua and shines with pretty lanes, cobbled streets and stunning preserved architecture, including a lemon yellow cathedral that radiates across the township like sunshine. Bike out to the beaches at the Peninsula de Asese or kayak around Las Isletas; a smattering of picture-perfect islands just off Granada’s shoreline. For the finest swims you’ll ever treat your togs to, The Laguna de Apoyo is a 200 metre deep, 200-century old lake and said to be one of the cleanest in Central America. Undeniably beautiful and utterly peaceful, you’ll find glorious shoreline, sporadic hotels and a tiny isolated town, that even if you find once, you probably won't ever find again.
Ilha Grande, Brazil
What’s hotter, the platinum white sand of Brazil’s Ilha Grande? Or the Brazilians that grace its azure coastline? We’re not sure, we took photos of both (don’t tell anyone) but we’re pretty sure the most beautiful island in Brazil is this jewel. Defined by its glorious golden shoreline and framed by the quintessential Brazilian backdrop – lush forest, jagged mountain peaks and a perennially blue sky, Ilha Grande is a Latin beauty in the purest form. Its main promenade is freckled with laid-back dining venues, all of which sparkle by day but like much of Brazil, really come alive at night. The sun dips and the palm trees are illuminated by fairy lights; dine on the beach, order a caipirinha and soak up the ambience of a moon-lit beach.
For solo travellers
Machu Picchu, Peru
You’ll puff, you’ll pant, but fear not because the view at the end will blow you away. Hiking the classic route to the incredulous Incan ruins is no easy feat; it takes four days, covers 43km and an altitude of 4,200m. You will sweat, you will ache, you might even cry. Alternatively there’s the Hiram Bingham train which takes 3.5 hours and you get to put your feet up all the way there – and back again. But if you’re looking for a middle-ground, the relatively unknown Lares Trek combines some hiking with some four-wheeled transport. After three days of hiking, you’ll reach Machu Picchu the morning of day four. There are still plenty of thigh burning staircases to conquer, as well as local communities to visit and scenic views to stop and gawp at, but the final ascent is covered by van and then train. Hallelujah. Oh and did we mention the hot springs at Aguas Calientes? Because nothing says ‘soothe my aching limbs’ like a hot spa.
For food lovers
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Mexico, part of Central America, is bursting with Latino charm. Arguably Mexico’s culinary capital, the cobbled streets of San Miguel de Allende are lined with well-established restaurants (high end, low end and everything in between), populous rotisserie shops, rooftop bars and street side vendors selling all manner of stuffed tacos. The intersection between Ancha de San Antonio and Nueva is commonly referred to as Taco Corner, with vendors selling cheerfully cheap tucker well into the early hours. By morning the cafes erupt and sweet-smelling bakeries engulf the alleyways with the scent of fresh baguettes and Mexican sugar pastries. The municipal market is a hive of activity and the region is well-known for its high quota of organic produce; take a Spanish cooking class and learn how to prepare fresh organic fare grown in local botanic gardens. And if all that seems like too much effort, descend on Hotel Matilda, its restaurant, Moxy, is overseen by Enrique Olvera; one of the most celebrated chefs in Mexico.
Don’t worry about all the other activities available in Mendoza (of which there are many) this spectacular region is foremost about the wine. The premier wine producing districts are all located within 40km of Mendoza city centre so check out all the big players and then go in search of smaller boutique bodegas too. Opt for an organised vineyard tour or hire a car with your very own driver. Unique and intimate wineries are the ones that you’ll stumble across, rather than go searching for, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll fall upon a winery selling simple vino patero (foot-pressed wine). The taste is all in the toes.
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