SOUTH & CENTRAL AMERICA

It was the ultimate wildlife cruise: a five-year voyage charting the coast of South America, with Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and the Cape of Good Hope lined up as homeward-bound stopovers. When Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle, put the word out that ‘some well-educated and scientific person should be sought who would profit by the opportunity of visiting distant countries yet little known’, a young medical graduate called Charles Darwin jumped at the chance. He was subsequently enrolled as the ship’s unpaid naturalist.

When the Beagle, a cramped 27m-long brig-sloop with 74 crew, set sail from Plymouth in December 1831, Darwin was almost immediately seasick. He left the ship at every opportunity to explore inland, collecting specimens and making observations of geology, natural history and culture. Some of his journeys ventured far into the interior of South America, including the Brazilian rainforest, Chilean Andes and Patagonia. It was his landfall on the Galápagos Islands in September 1835, however, that would eventually form the bedrock of his evolutionary theories and establish Darwin as one of the greatest biologists that has ever lived.

 

Darwin’s ground-breaking book, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859, but from a traveller’s point of view, his account of the Beagle’s voyage (published 20 years earlier) is just as fascinating. The Voyage of the Beagle (originally entitled Journal and Remarks) describes Darwin’s encounters with capybaras, armadillos, guanacos, condors, hummingbirds, giant tortoises and a wealth of other species that have become firm favourites of modern-day wildlife adventurers in South America.

 

Admittedly, there were some animals that Darwin didn’t seem to care for. The Galápagos marine iguana, for example, he described as ‘a hideouslooking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements’. Darwin’s voyage was nothing if not an eye-opener – and that same sense of wonder and discovery still awaits travellers who seek out the wild places of South and Central America. Whether you’re planning a horse-riding expedition in Patagonia, a river trip in the Amazon, a trek in the Andes or a voyage to the Galápagos, you can’t help but feel a tingle of ‘Darwinian curiosity’.

 

If he was alive today, the great naturalist would no doubt have been relieved to see the continent’s network of national parks and biosphere reserves – precious repositories of natural selection – and even more gratified to learn that many of them were managed by local communities. This is a continent where ecotourism is evolving and flourishing.

South America: Wild Places

20 wildlife destinations in south America

Mexico’s desert peninsula, Baja California (1) is a magnet to whale watchers, while Sian Ka’an Ecological Reserve on the Yucatan Peninsula (2) combines well with the coral reefs, tropical forests and Mayan ruins of Belize or the Guatemalan jungle at Tikal or the Río Dulce (3). For intrepid eco-travellers, a journey by dugout canoe deep into the Río Platano rainforest of Honduras (4) comes a close second to adventure treks in Panama’s Darien Gap wilderness (5). Also worth exploring in Panama are the wildlife-rich islands of Bocas del Tora. Peaceful, calm, politically stable and lavishing over 25% of its land area to national parks and reserves, Costa Rica (6) is a natural choice for wildlife travellers, while those in search of emerging ecotourism destinations should consider Venezuela (7) for its Los Llanos wetlands, forest-draped tepuis and Caribbean coastline, or Guyana (8) for pristine rainforest, the mighty Kaieteur Falls and wildlife-rich Rupununi savannah. The Caribbean, meanwhile, has no shortage of natural riches, especially in the biodiverse duo of Trinidad & Tobago (9). Ecuador combines Amazon and Andes (10) with the mesmerising Galapágos islands (11), while Peru (12) offers all kinds of jungle jollies, Inca treks and adventure activities. The incredible fauna and flora of the Brazilian Amazon (13) can be glimpsed on river cruises or from lodges near Manaus, although the Pantanal (14) offers a more visible display of the country’s wildlife. The remaining fragments of Brazil’s Atlantic coast rainforest (15) are home to endangered primates, while the salt lakes of Bolivia’s altiplano (16) are blushed pink by flamingos. Argentina’s Valdés Peninsula (17) has no shortage of wildlife spectacles, from breeding southern right whales and colonies of elephant seals to encounters with rheas and hairy armadillos. Darwin would have kicked himself had he realized that the Beagle sailed straight past this wildlife wonderland. There are plenty of Darwinian connections in Patagonia (18) where wildlife travel hotspots include the hiker’s paradise of Torres del Paine National Park. Far more than a stepping-off point for Anatarctic cruises, Tierra del Fuego (19) has fascinating, weather-beaten forests, penguin colonies and glaciers. Also off the beaten track, Chiloé Island (20) has an intriguing mixture of hummingbirds and blue whales.

Read the latest posts on South America wildlife travel

HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER

When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your wildlife holiday in South America, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.

South America: Natural Zones

Habitats of South America

Few countries symbolise the natural wealth and variety of South America better than Ecuador. In a two- or three-week journey, travelling west from the Amazon basin, you pass through an unrivalled variety of habitats brimming with biodiversity: tropical rainforest, cloud forest, high-altitude páramo grassland, Andean volcano, Pacific shore and the evolutionary treasure chest of the Galápagos Islands. Other biodiverse hotspots include Central America where, in a country as small as Costa Rica, you can experience mist-shrouded cloud forest, lowland rainforest and dry coastal forest – each with their own extravagant cast of creatures. Add wetlands, mangroves, mountains, turtle-nesting beaches and coral reefs and it’s small wonder that Central America boasts the world’s greatest concentration of animal and plant life.

 

However, it is the Amazon – the oldest and largest tropical forest on earth – that most people associate with wildlife in South America. Covering over 6.5 million sq km of land, this magnificent green mantle is looking increasingly ragged in places as logging, mining and ranching take their toll, but it is still home to an incredible variety and abundance of species, from pink river dolphins swirling through flooded forests to spider monkeys swinging high in the canopy. Less well known, but a haven for South American species like jaguar, capybara and caiman, the Pantanal of southwest Brazil is a seasonal wetland half the size of France. It merges with the wooded grasslands and swamps of the Gran Chaco which extend south across the Río de la Plata basin and is home to the maned wolf, Chacoan peccary and some 18 armadillo species. South of this lie the pampas grasslands of Argentina (prime habitat for birds like the rhea) and the rugged frontier of Patagonia. Wild and dramatic, this southern extreme of South America has a coastline rich in penguin and seal colonies; twisted forests of sub-Antarctic beech trees cower at its fringes, while puma, grey fox and guanaco roam its plains and mountains.

 

Forming the western boundary of Patagonia, Gran Chaco and the Amazon basin, the Andes rise in an 8,000km-long wall of ice-clad volcanoes, desert plateaus and cloud forests along the length of South America. A refuge for mountain dwellers such as the Andean condor and spectacled bear, this towering wilderness also supports a varied assemblage of endemic plants. The same is true of the Guiana Highlands of Venezuela and Guyana where flat-topped mountains, or tepuis, like Mt Roraima nurture lost worlds of unique orchids and pitcher plants. For South America’s ultimate experience of ‘evolution in isolation’, however, you need to travel 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador where the Galápagos Islands are renowned for birds and reptiles that are found nowhere else on earth and show no fear of humans.

South America: Wildlife Travel

HOW TO PLAN A WILDLIFE TRIP

You need time to do justice to large countries like Brazil or Argentina, but several Latin American nations embody the wild appeal of the continent in a relatively small area. In Honduras, for example, the Río Platano rainforest is like a ‘little Amazon’ where you can explore virgin jungle by dugout canoe, stay in remote lodges and visit indigenous communities. Belize blends reef and rainforest into a comfortable two-week wildlife holiday, while Costa Rica’s extensive network of national parks and reserves is easily visited, even by independent travellers. On the whole, however, wildlife travel in Central and South America requires a good deal of planning and, for this reason, many people choose to join an organised trip. Local operators smooth out the logistics of travelling to remote areas, while guides can take you to the most wildlife-rich places and help overcome potential language barriers. There are numerous opportunites fo supporting community-run ecotourism initiatives in the region. Several Amazonian lodges, for example, are run by indigenous groups; fishermen in Baja California supplement their income through small-scale whale watching tours, while locally owned ranches, or estancias, immerse you in gaucho culture with the added bonus of exploring wild places on horseback.

South American Wildlife: 20 Greatest Ticks

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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.

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