Discover Latin America
Mexico, Central and South America add together the region we refer to as Latin America. This vast region of the world is made up of 21 countries with a total land area exceeding 20,000,000 km2. And it’s not just the scale that makes it one of the most impressive regions on earth. There are mighty rivers, wilderness areas and final frontiers, but also ancient civilisations and vibrant new cultures. Latin America truly offers something for every interest and its top attractions are some of the most fascinating and memorable on the planet.
The highlights of a trip to Latin America will of course depend on what you like most. Some people prefer to explore archaeological sites such as the spectacular Inca ruins of Peru or the towering Mayan pyramids of Tikal, while others want to experience the energy and excitement of traditional local markets or the colour of ‘Carnaval’ in pulsating Rio de Janeiro. Whether you aim to climb to the summit of a volcano, dive among pristine coral reefs or simply laze on unspoiled beaches, Latin America provides all the ingredients for the perfect holiday or adventure.
Whatever images one has of Latin America, they most probably fail to capture the astonishing blend of cultures and people. This richness in diversity has no equal among other territories of the globe. The fusion of all races (Amerindian, African and European etc) is manifested in the music, arts, crafts, foods, religion, architecture, and language. Music is considered a staple in the Latin American diet - feeding and replenishing the soul. Latin music is laden not just with passion, sentiment, happiness and anguish, but with history and nostalgia. Whilst we can appreciate the brilliance of Gotan Project or Juanjo Dominguez, there is nothing like stepping back in time at a Milonga hall in Buenos Aires. In addition to music, visitors will find arts and crafts all around them. Fine examples of indigenous crafts, pre-Columbian treasures, colonial baroque and powerful modern paintings exist in abundance. Architectural wonders also abound in Latin America. The most famous ruins, as mentioned earlier, are those of Peru’s Machu Picchu and Guatemala’s Tikal. Other spectacular archaeological sites include the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras, Chichen Itza and Palenque in Mexico, and the ancient adobe city of Chan Chan on the coastal plain of Peru. Alternatively, some of the best examples of colonial architecture can be seen at San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico, Antigua in Guatemala, Salvador da Bahia in Brazil, Cartagena in Columbia, Cajamarca in Peru, and Sucre or Potosi in Bolivia.
One of the real highlights of Latin America are the traditional local markets. A ‘must see’ for those genuinely interested in culture and people. These can be found in Mexico, and the highlands of Guatemala, Ecudor, Bolivia, and Peru. The Andes are home to communities that have barely changed for centuries. The world’s longest mountain chain also provides some excellent opportunities for climbing and trekking in addition to some breathtaking scenery.
The Andes are not South America’s only natural superlatives; the continent also contains the world’s largest rainforest, mightiest river system, driest hot desert, tallest waterfall, highest lake and greatest freshwater wetland. In fact, it is the incredible variety of locations, landscapes and habitats that makes Latin America so extraordinary. From the volcanoes of Costa Rica to the fjords of southern Chile and from the coral reefs of Belize to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador - Latin America is truly a paradise of natural wonders. No other region on Earth presents such an assortment of ecosystems and astonishing array of wildlife.
Of the many ecosystems that characterise the region, the greatest single draw is the rainforest, an ecosystem that represents Mother Nature at her most exuberant and spectacular. Tropical forests cover only 6% of earth’s land surface, yet they harbour at least 50% of all earth’s species. To convey an idea of the extreme biotic diversity of tropical forests lets consider La Selva Biological Reserve in Costa Rica. It covers a mere 13.7km2 but features more than 1800 vascular plant species, 394 breeding birds, 104 mammals, 76 reptiles, 46 amphibians, 42 fish and 143 butterflies. Compare this with the whole of the British Isles at 233.000km2 with around 1400 native plant species, about 240 breeding birds, 47 mammals, 6 reptiles, 6 amphibians, 43 fish, and 64 butterflies. Anyone with a passion for natural history must try and visit Latin America and experience this diverse ecosystem firsthand.
The Brazilian Amazon is easily accessible through gateways such as Belem or Manaus. Ecuador is another good place to experience the Amazon rainforest. Acre for acre, it is one of the most species-rich countries in the world. For instance, there are more than 20,000 plant species in Ecuador, compared to only 17,000 plant species on the entire North American continent. Deep jungle and its associated wildlife are still accessible in the far reaches of the country. Bolivia and Peru are probably better places to experience the excitement and magnitude of the rainforest. This is because northern Bolivia and eastern Peru are relatively undeveloped and thus, less degraded. Better still, are the rainforests found in French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname. This little known corner of South America is blanketed by thick, lush, and undisturbed rainforests. 80% of Suriname is tropical rainforest, much of which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Despite their size, countries such as Belize, Costa Rica and Guatemala also offer fantastic opportunities to observe wildlife in their natural surroundings. In fact, the single major source of foreign exchange in Costa Rica these days is not coffee, timber or beef – it is ecotourism. Costa Rica is famous for its enlightened approach to conservation and has probably the greatest range of accessible flora and fauna in Central America. One such example of this observable fact is Corcovado National Park on the Península de Osa. During our 3-day trek through this magnificent tropical forest we observed a wide variety of fauna which included agoutis, blue morphos butterflies, land crabs, coatimundis, iguanas, leaf-cutter ants, monkeys, peccaries, scarlet macaws, toucans and two tapirs.
In addition to their awesome beauty and biodiversity, rainforests are also a vital part to the earth's ability to sustain life. They prevent the greenhouse effect, regulate rainfall on a global level, hold untold amounts of untapped medicines and products, and are homes to many dying cultures.
Although the rainforests have all the fame and glory, the seasonally flooded landscape of the Pantanal has the greatest concentration of wildlife in Latin America: 20 million caimans coexist with anteaters, anacondas, armadillos, brilliant hyacinth macaws, capybaras, egrets, giant river otters, jabiru storks, jaguars, macaws, maned wolves, marsh deer, pumas, rheas, and tapirs. This vast area of wetlands, about half the size of France, lies mostly in Brazil, but also extends into the border regions of Bolivia and Paraguay. A diversity of habitats are the key to the astounding number of species found there, which include 3,500 species of plants, 102 species of mammals, 652 species of birds, 177 reptiles, 40 amphibians, and 264 fish. Even if you are remotely interested in wildlife, the Pantanal is one of the best places in the world to visit.
Similar in many ways is Argentina's biggest unsung attraction - Esteros del Iberá. Iberá's flora and fauna of make it a wonderland of biodiversity. Scattered open-water lagoons lie within an endless horizon of marshland grasses, aquatic plants, and floating islands, which some ecologists have compared to tropical peat bogs. Even relatively large trees like the seibo and laurel flourish here and in gallery forests along faster-flowing waters. Biologists have catalogued over 40 species of mammals, 35 species of amphibians, 80 species of fish, and 250-300 species of birds. The most readily seen mammals are the carpincho (capybara), marsh deer, and pampas deer. Less easily seen are the Paraná otter, the howler monkey (although you can hear them) and the largely nocturnal maned wolf. Among the reptiles, there are two species of caimans (latirostris and yacare) and the endangered water boa is also present. Birds are far too numerous to mention more than a sample, but the signature species include the horned screamer, olive cormorant, several species of storks, herons, and egrets, and many waterfowl, including the endangered comb duck.
The Belize Barrier Reef is another ecosystem of the region worth mentioning. It is the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in the world. This reef lies parallel to the coast of Belize, and stretches about 180 miles in a north to south direction. The Belize Barrier Reef is widely regarded as one of the world's best diving and snorkelling sites and is home to about 375 species of fish and about 60 types of coral. It is well worth a visit for those interested in marine ecology. The Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras are also highly recommended and the reef here is a continuation of the Belize reefs. Warm, crystal clear waters are home to incredible plant and animal life. This is one of the cheapest places in the world to dive and one of the best.
The Galapagos Islands are surely on every wildlife enthusiast's dream-list of places to visit. A magnificent array of endemic and remarkably tame animals form an out of this world spectacle of wonderment to the human eye and senses. Visitors have wonderful opportunities to experience an environment that has changed little since Darwin arrived there on the Beagle in 1835. His visit led to one of the greatest scientific revolutions of all time - the theory of evolution.
Patagonia is another nature lover's paradise and you are likely to encounter guanacos, rheas, gray foxes, Andean condors, sea lions and delightful Magellanic penguins. Patagonia is a region of extravagant beauty, whose rugged, snow-capped mountains are fringed by huge lakes and windswept grasslands. The region offers you the rare opportunity to have access to pristine natural beauty. All along the Atlantic coast are beautiful, wild beaches, home to penguins, colonies of sea lions, seals (elephant/fur), and opportuniites to watch whales from close quarters. A trip to Peninsula Valdes in late February or early March could be rewarded with one of the greatest wildlife specatacles of them all - Orca's launch themselves out of the water onto the beach in an attempt to catch sea lion pups. Other highlights of the region include the awe-inspiring Perito Moreno Glacier, Mount Fitz Roy, and across the border in Chile - the stunning beauty of Torres del Paine National Park. There is also something to be said about those magnificent cloud formations (the Patagonian sky).
One place that is truly like nowhere else on earth is Antarctica - the last great wilderness in the world. Cold, windy and desolate, yet for many it is the most beautiful place on the planet. Gigantic icebergs and vast mountain ranges reflect in the freezing water; and the continent shivers under a blanket of snow and ice. The coastline is teeming with wildlife and you have the chance to see some of the world's rarest birdlife, including the endangered wandering albatross, plus minke whales, seals and thousands of penguins. South America is the most popular gateway to Antarctica.
The ancient tepuis of Venezuela, with their gravity-defying rock formations, thundering falls, and singular flora and fauna, also deserve some praise. Hailed as the land that time forgot, this virtually unexplored corner of South America hides record-breaking and breathtaking landscapes and evolutionary marvels. Here Angel Falls tumbles in spectacular style from the plateau of a tabletop mountain. The highest falls in the world, its waters cascade through the air for almost a kilometre before meeting the rainforst floor. Still only marginally explored, this land of incredible beauty, harbours a journey you will never forget - and a story millions of years in the making.
From the evidence cited above, it is easy to understand why Central and South America have become firm favourites of travellers seeking something new. Increasing numbers of tourists, students, and researchers are now travelling to Latin America rather than other exotic locations. People want to see the exotic birds, mammals, insects, and plants for themselves. Whatever your reasons for going, Latin America will offer you more excitement, contrast and mystery than you could experience in a lifetime of travel.
Its natural wonders, its people, and its history are just waiting to be explored……
Advice for Nature and Wildlife Enthusiasts
To help preserve the regions natural wonders and guarantee yourself close encounters with the flora and fauna of Latin America, we strongly advise you to volunteer for the environment. Our experience has taught us that one of the greatest ways to experience any country is to get involved in voluntary work. You also have the advantage of choosing a species, habitat and location that particularly interests you.
If you do not plan to do any environmental voluntary work in Latin America, you should not arrive there with unrealistic expectations. It is better to go there with the attitude of enjoying and learning about tropical ecosystems - climate, topography, flora and fauna. That way, the animals you do see are pleasant surprises, not necessities for a successful tour.
Food for Thought
This website would not have been written without extensive first hand experience of Latin America. In addition to collecting information about volunteer work, we experienced many awe-inspiring sights that will stay with us forever.
I hope some of you have been sufficiently inspired to experience Latin America for yourselves.