When it comes to natural wonders, excursions & unique wildlife, few places in the world can compare.
When it comes to natural wonders, outdoor excursions and unique wildlife, few places in the world can compare to South America. Whether you’re looking to explore the mysterious rivers and rainforest basins of the Amazon, stare in wonder and awe at the beautiful and colorful array of birds found high above in the cloud forests of Mindo, or dive deep down into the lovely emerald waters of Galáapgos Islands in search of endemic sea life, South America is a true paradiso for the wanderlust wildlife enthusiast!
Here are my top five wildlife experiences you must try in South America!
1. The Amazon
It goes without saying that the Amazon is one of South America’s most highly touted and visited destination hotspots – and for good reason. Covering 40% of the continent’s land mass, 5.5 million sq. km (2.1 million sq. miles), and bordering several countries – including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela – the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, featuring more species of flora and fauna than any other place in the world.
The unique blend of biodiversity found in this region means you’ll encounter many species of endemic wildlife, including pink and gray river dolphins, tarantulas, monkeys, caimans, sloths, and many bird species – while animals such as anacondas, tapirs, jaguars, manatees are rare and less likely to be seen.
A typical Amazon tour is between two to four days, and its best to book with a reputable tour company. Manaus remains the top hub of choice for entry into the Amazon, and there are a plethora of tour companies to choose from, including Amazon Gero Tours, Amazon Green Tours, and Amazon Tours Brazil. If you enter via Peru, I highly recommend Manú National Park as your entry point.
2. The Pantanal
If you love wildlife, then do not pass on the opportunity to visit the Pantanal! In fact, you’re more likely to view more species of wildlife here than in the Amazon! A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, this area is teeming with wildlife, and depending on what time of year you visit, the rainy season (December to April) and dry season (July to November) each provide unique opportunities to view wildlife for a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
Covering an estimated area of 210,000 sq. km (81,081 sq. miles), the Pantanal is the world’s largest freshwater wetlands. Shared between three countries – Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, with the vast majority of the region located in the latter country – features more than 650 species of bird and 80 species of mammals, including pumas, maned wolves, deer, jaguars, ocelots, armadillos, capuchin and howler monkeys. Don’t miss the chance to view the jacaré caiman, as well as the most commonly spotted animal in the Pantanal, which also happens to be the world’s largest rodent, the capybara.
There are two main cities that serve as the entry point for the Pantanal, both in Brazil: Campo Grande and Corumbá. The region is referred to as either North Pantanal or South Pantanal, and depending on what type of wildlife you’re interested in viewing, each section will offer a different experience. For North Pantanal, check out Pantanal Nature and Ecoverde Tours; for South Pantanal, check out Pantanal Discovery and Pantanal Expeditions for more information.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience that is Galápagos Islands! Located just a few hours flight off the coast of Ecuador, this beautiful archipelago is comprised of nineteen islands and home to a multitude of flora and fauna species, with more than 20% endemic to the area. Wildlife on this region evolved with no natural predators in its surroundings and developed a system of mutual cooperation and interdependence that is wholly unique in the natural world. This means animals hold no particular fear and are incredibly nonchalant towards humans. Common wildlife sightings include blue-footed boobies, iguanas, sea lions, and, of course, penguins – the only species of penguin that lives north of the equator!
Isla Santa Cruz is the main island, which is also where you’re more than likely to arrive at, while Puerto Ayora, also located on Isla Santa Cruz, is the largest town in the Galápagos. Prices on the islands can be expensive, especially if you visit during the high season (December to January and June to August), though it’s not too bad if you plan at least a few months in advance. You can also find great deals on tours and hotels if you don’t want to book ahead, as there are many hostels and luxury hotels available, not to mention a plethora of tour companies all vying for your attention and hard-earned dollar. Be sure to check out our guide on how to book a tour at Galápagos Islands to ensure a pleasant experience.
The cloud forests of Mindo are a truly breathtaking and awe-inspiring sight to behold. Located just northwest of Ecuador’s capital city Quito, Mindo is a small, tranquil village situated high up in the Andes mountains. The steep mountainside slopes of this tiny village, produces the beautiful airy veil of heavenly white clouds that softly blankets the green lush landscape. Mindo is a world-renowned eco-friendly tourism hotspot, perfect for bird watching, mountain biking and hiking, zip-lining high above treetops, and river tubing down the Río Mindo. Not to mention the lovely butterfly farms and orchid collections that make it a truly unique experience.
Be sure to visit a butterfly farm while at Mindo with a stay at Mariposas de Mindo hotel and cottages. And make sure to take an open-air tarabita (cable car) ride for a mere $5 for a truly breathtaking view of the river basin and cloud forest below. Hikers should check out Bosque Protector Mindo-Nambillo, for an unforgettable hike amidst lush greenery and several waterfalls that are well worth the visit. Chocolate lovers, we have you covered! El Quetzal de Mindo is an artisanal chocolate maker located right in the heart of the village that offers tours in English and Spanish on the delicious art of chocolate making, from cacao pods to richly baked treats. Not to mention, there are free samples!
Daily buses run from Quito to Mindo, which is two-and-a-half hours and costs only a few dollars. It’s a great daytrip idea, plus there are onward bus connections to the nearby coast if you’re in the mood for a quick dip in the ocean!
Located in southern Paraguay, Parque Nacional San Rafael is a bird watcher’s paradise! Over 420 species of bird reside within the park’s massive area, plus seven km of forest trails and a beautiful lake that’s well worth a visit.
Buses, known as pastoreos, are available from Encarnación to Ynambú, located about 12km outside of the park’s reserve. These three-hour bus rides run every morning between 8a.m. to 11:30a.m. For an all in-inclusive experience of the park, FAUNA Paraguay offers three-to-four day birth-watching tours to the park from Encarnación.
If you want to venture deeper into the park, you’ll need to rent a 4WD vehicle or book a tour with a guide. The beautiful lodge accommodations of Guyra Reta is one of the few accommodation options available within the park limits, so be sure to book far in advance. You may also book your tour from the lodge.
Photos: Jerry Leon
What’s your favorite wildlife experience in South America? Share with us in the comments.