10 Amazing Things To See/Do In Central & South America

I’m gradually getting back to my day-to-day routine but I kid you not, it is hard readjusting to my normal life after this most recent Nat Geo Expedition. It was one of the most mind-blowing trips I’ve ever taken. Basically, three weeks chock-a-block with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And, by the way, since coronavirus is pummeling the travel industry, this may be my last big trip of the year. At this point, I’m not optimistic that my upcoming expedition, the “Future of Everything; Global Innovation” will pan out. Bummed out!

Scroll down for the 10 things you must see/do should you consider a trip to Central/South America.

1. Patagonia, on the Chilean side, is absolutely spectacular

I wrote a separate post about Patagonia back in February (link here). It’s vast, dramatic, sparsely populated, hard to access, and filled with amazing wildlife. And, of course, it’s very expensive, but worth every penny. I will probably never have the opportunity to make a return visit so feel doubly lucky to have experienced it at least once. Our hotel, the Explora Patagonia, goes down as one of my favorite hotels EVER (more on that below, #9).

Woke up to this every morning (view from my room)
Amazing hiking and wildlife
Gaucho BBQ – lamb on a cross and the best empanadas. Only open Sundays.
Horse country.
This one was very cheeky – sticking his tongue out 😜

2. Estancia El Rosario de Areco (71 miles from Buenos Aires, in the Pampas countryside)

This ranch, owned by the Guevara family, breeds polo ponies. The dad is a lawyer and he and his very cool wife have 9 children, several of whom are on the polo circuit. The main house was built in 1892 and the estancia has 34 acres. It is available on various booking sites but we got an extra special invite because one of those 9 children is married to a Miami-based Nat Geo film producer. It was an amazing day with a polo exhibition, gaucho skills demonstrations, dining al fresco in their garden, and a folk show with the dad as one of the singers (he has a great voice). It’s a day I will not soon forget. Highly recommend.

gauchos, on horseback, greet us as we arrive at the estancia
Polo ponies’ tails are knotted like this so they don’t get caught in the mallets
3 of the Guevara sons (wearing grey jerseys)
With one of the polo-playing sons
Lunch and folk show with the dad serenading us with a few traditional songs. He warned us that 2 glasses of wine would prompt him to sing one song. We were lucky, he had 3 glasses of wine!

3. Lake Titicaca and Taquile Island (Peru)

LOVED our excursion to Taquile Island where the MEN KNIT ALL DAY LONG – morning, noon and night. I wrote about it in detail a few weeks ago (link here). Worth a read, one of the quirkiest things I’ve ever encountered.

Again, as with Patagonia, getting to this destination is grueling but so worth it. I could spend a week here just chilling out, writing, mentally detoxing. Our hotel, and its location, were sublime. Food was extraordinary. Staff is wonderful. More on the hotel below (#9).

Taquile Island
Our guide, Alberth, explains the tradition of the coco leaves pouch that all the men wear. Note: all the while our host is knitting
and knitting….he never stops knitting

Note: We started the day with a boat trip to Uros Island (a floating reed island). However, I think it is created totally for tourists. There are, however, over 120 authentic floating reed islands around Puno (our guide, Alberth, grew up on one and his parents still live there) but I gather tourists are less than welcome there. In general, indigenous people do not want their photos taken while they are working.

4. Iguassu Falls (Brazil side)

We only spent one night here but WOW! Some people in our group chose to explore the falls from the Argentine side but I wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll waste hours driving and waiting to cross the borders from Brazil to Argentine and back again. Unless you’re spending several days here, I would stick to the Brazil side.

Here’s what else I’d recommend:

  • Stay at the Belmond Das Caratas Hotel. It’s the only hotel in the park and from nightfall until 9am, the park is off limits to all visitors except hotel guests. So you have the whole park to yourself – AMAZING!!
  • Walk the path along the Falls from the hotel to Naipi Square. Keep an eye out for lizards. And make sure you take the boardwalk to experience the most thunderous of the Falls. Another plus: you’re bound to see numerous rainbows.
  • Check out the falls at sunset and sunrise.
  • See if the hotel is doing one of their bbqs on the lawn up by the pool. So delicious and an exquisite setting.
  • Keep an eye out for birds. Toucans perch and nest in the palm trees by the entrance of the hotel. You’ll also see plush-crested jays and hundreds of gigantic vultures soaring over the Falls.
Can anything beat this?
Sunset at Iguassu Falls, Brazil from the Belmond Das Cataratas Hotel
Keep an eye out for lizards and birds
Plush-crested jay
One of several toucans spotted just as we were leaving the hotel

5. Yaxha and Tikal (Guatemala)

Although Tikal is the Mayan ruin that is most well-known, Yaxha was way more interesting for me. Not that Tikal was touristy but there was just something more authentic and under the radar about Yaxha. Reminded me of how everyone rushes to the Taj Mahal while Fort Agra is much more intriguing (at least it was for me).

The most thrilling thing for me, however, was being in such close proximity to MONKEYS! Both howler and spider monkeys galore. Whoa that was crazy!

And my biggest recommendation for Guatemala is to get Carlos Vivar as your guide. MAJOR!

Spider Monkeys at Tikal
The sound of howler monkeys at Yaxha (VOLUME UP)
And the sight of howler monkeys at Yaxha
Yaxha, a Mesoamerican archaeological site in the northeast of the Petén Basin region, is a former ceremonial center and city
Carlos Vivar, my favorite guide on the whole trip

6. The Panama Canal

I wrote about this previously (#2 here). I consider myself lucky to have seen it up close and personal. Nat Geo arranged for us to do a partial transit of the Canal by way of the Pacific Queen ship. We were part of a 3-ship convoy including a gigantic tanker so it was very cool. Seeing the water drop by 30 ft. in 10 minutes is impressive. I’m not sure how easy it is to arrange private passage through the locks of the canal but highly recommend if at all do-able. It ranks right up there as one of those once in a lifetime experiences you’ll always remember.

7. Larco Herrera Museum in Lima, Peru

I did not have high hopes for this but man, was I wrong. It was spectacular. The Larco is a private museum inside an 18th century mansion. It’s the largest and most impressive archeological collection of gold and jewelry treasures of ancient Peru in the world. The mansion is built over a 7th century pre-Colombian pyramid. They also have an ancient erotica collection which is pretty cool (although I heard several of my fellow travelers found it distasteful😳). The grounds, the gardens, the cafe and the gift shop are all splendid. I could kick myself for not getting a t-shirt! Highly recommend you organize your visit with a guide. It is an immense collection and your experience will be vastly improved with an informed museum docent.

Examples of early attempts at brain surgery! True!
Erotica below – close your eyes if you must!
OK – it’s safe to open your eyes again ..
Museum cafe and gardens
Our fabulous local guides

8. Street Art/Murals

Brazil has long been renowned for having the best street art and muralists in the world, e.g., Os Gemeos. So I was excited when Nat Geo was able to organize a quasi-private tour for me while we were in Rio. And big thanks to my fabulous guide, Izabel. I also found great street art in Panama City and in Cartagena,Colombia.

Here are some favorites starting with Panama City
Street Artist: Evade
Street Artist/Muralist: Insano
Rio: where many of the major murals were created for the Olympics in 2016
Street artist: Rita Wainer
Street Artist: Panmela Castro
Street Artist: Kobra
Street Artist: Wark
Street Artists: Rodrigo Sini (R) and Cety Soledade
If in Rio, make sure you check out the Lapa Neighborhood
Cartagena’s Getsemani Neighborhood is a mecca for street artists
Street Artist: Jeffry Zapateiro
Street Artist: Uhmamiarts

9. Three stellar hotels

All of our hotels were topnotch but these 3 really rocked my boat!

Explora Patagonia

I ADORE this hotel. It looks like an ice floe. Very Scandinavian with lots of blond wood, clean and spare and the epitome of sustainability. It was simple in design but each room has magnificent views (mine of Lake Pehoe and the Paine Massif). The food is amazing – everything is trucked in once a week from Santiago. They even made my favorite cocktail, the Penicillin. It’s very expensive but all-inclusive. I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to stay here.

Our hotels are built for linking man to temporary space and the mysteries of nature, using the simplicity and the real joys of life as central elements throughout each building. Both our architects, German del Sol and José Cruz Ovalle, have received the Chilean National Architecture Award.

Pedro Ibáñez, Founder Explora Hotel
Titilaka Hotel, Lake Titicaca Peru

This Relais & Chateaux hotel is an absolute gem. Although the exterior is not very impressive, the interiors are fabulous. Great location, right on the lake. Wonderful staff and fabulous food. I had the opportunity to meet Maria Fe Garcia, their Executive Chef who was in from Lima while we were visiting. Big honor for me because she has done an extraordinary job in training local people who had never prepared food at this level, to cook and serve 5-star meals.

The hotel has only 18 rooms and from what I gather, each was as fantastic as the next. All have great views. The public spaces in the hotel are wonderful. They’ve created a restorative environment that allows you to think deeply, be creative and ultimately, become re-energized.

The hotel was originally built as a restaurant and was transformed into a hotel in 2008. The owner, who also happened to be on premise during our visit (but who I did not get to meet) is Ignacio Masias.

American Trade Hotel, Panama City, Panama

I’ve been jonesing to check out this hotel ever since the Ace Atelier group first restored it back in 2013. Before the Ace came in, the area around the square was extremely sketchy and the hotel itself had been taken over by four local, warring gangs. Things have clearly improved. I’m not sure when the hotel changed hands but they are no longer part of the Ace. From what I’ve gathered, the hotel is now a member of the SLH Group (Small Luxury Hotels of the World) and they also have a partnership with Hyatt.

Whatever the current status on ownership, it remains an exquisite hotel.

Kudos to Ace, LA-based design firm Commune and architect Hildegard Vasquez for their wonderful restoration.

10. New Nat Geo plane and super cool (and fun!) Icelandair crew

We got special permission to fly low over Iguassu Falls

This was only the second flight for Nat Geo’s brand-spanking-new Boeing 757 jet. Instead of seating 233, it has been customized to accommodate just 75 guests with additional seating for staff and crew. The Nat Geo branding on the plane is great. Ground crews at every airport rushed out to take photos of our plane.

And while having our own private jet is indeed a luxury, it is also the only way to cover as much territory as we do, as efficiently and as quickly as we do. I also want to add that one of the most sneakily smart things that Nat Geo does on these trips, after pampering us morning, noon and night, is to essentially abandon us once we land back in the States (in this case, Miami). After not having touched our luggage(except to pack), for three weeks, we are suddenly left to our own devices, schlepping bags off the conveyer belt. It is awful but very effective because I believe most of us are saying to ourselves, “I don’t want to ever travel again without Nat Geo taking care of me and my luggage.” And before you know it, we are signed up for another trip.

And big shout out to our wonderful Icelandair crew. They were attentive and knew exactly how to straddle that fine line between being fun and friendly and still being professional. And I am especially grateful to the crew for providing me with yet another once-in-a-lifetime experience: an invite to the cockpit for takeoff from Patagonia for our flight to Buenos Aires.

Our captain and Patricio, Assistant Expedition Leader

Bottom Line.

I always judge my travel experiences as being successful (or not) based on meeting 3 criteria:

  1. Did I learn something new? A resounding YES on multiple levels.
  2. Did I meet new and interesting people? Again, YES, many times over.
  3. Did I have fun – OMG!!! Too much fun!

Major thanks, kisses and hugs to the Nat Geo expedition staff, the Icelandair crew, the local guides and my fellow travelers – all of whom made this such an outstanding, once-in-a-lifetime experience!

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