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Travel Guide to South America

Visit vibrant cities, jungle ruins, pretty resorts, and isolated islands along the Pacific coasts of Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Along the way, you’ll unravel the mysteries of ancient Machu Picchu and discover exotic wildlife species found nowhere but the Galápagos Islands.

5 mins read

Why travel to South America

Western South America is a land rich in history, culture, and wildlife. Before the Spanish Conquistadors of the 16th century, the region was ruled by Moche and Incan kingdoms for millennia. Today, ancient traditions blend with colonial Latin influences, creating a colourful culture and an exciting cuisine you won’t be able to resist.

Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile hide UNESCO sites and temples waiting for you to explore, such as the lost city of Machu Picchu or the mysterious Nazca Lines near Pisco, Peru. A marvel of modern engineering, the Panama Canal is quite a sight, transferring ships great and small between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

You won’t want to miss the national parks, which boast mangroves, lagoons, and rainforest. Keep your eyes peeled for protected species like sloths, Capuchin monkeys, guanacos, Humboldt penguins, sea lions, and Andean condors. One definite highlight is the renown Galápagos Islands, home to the rare giant tortoise and unique marine iguanas.

Best time to go

Our voyages to the Pacific coast of South America embark in October, with one or two in April. These are pleasant months to travel as you’ll avoid the hot and humid summer weather. Temperatures vary between Panama above the Equator and Chile below it, as well as between low and high altitudes. It’s therefore best to come prepared for a range somewhere between 12°C (54°F) and 30°C (86°F).

For Machu Picchu, October is also just after the peak tourist season, so you should encounter less crowds during your visit there. Similarly, if you’re planning to go to the Galápagos Islands, this month features plenty of sea lion pups playing in the sea as well as recently hatched or very young chicks of the blue-footed booby.

Highlights of the western coasts of South America

In no particular order, here are some highlights of the western coasts of South America:

Valparaíso, Chile – ‘Jewel of the Pacific’

Built on steep hillsides overlooking the ocean, the UNESCO-protected city is a maze of monuments, churches, historical funicular lifts, cobblestone alleys and charming plazas.

Lima, Peru – ‘The City of Kings’

From Plaza Mayor, stroll around the Historic Center, admiring the architecture of colonial cathedrals and Baroque buildings, and sample cuisine that has inspired chefs worldwide.

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador – Birthplace of Evolutionary Theory

The isolated islands have led to an unusual and unique biodiversity, such as the jet-black marine iguana, the giant tortoise, and, of course, Darwin’s famous finches.

Trujillo, Peru – Ancient Kingdoms

Visit the site of Chan Chan to see the mud-brick ruins of the Chimú kingdom. Or tour the Mochican temples of the Sun and Moon, the former being the largest pyramid in Peru.

Machu Picchu, Peru – City above the Sacred Valley

Ascend the mountains by the deluxe Belmond Hiram Bingham train to the ancient, majestic city hidden high up in the Peruvian mountains. A definite bucket-list moment.

Panama Canal, Panama – Connecting the Two Great Oceans

Ingenious engineering movies vessels of all shapes and sizes through a series of complex locks, raising them 26 metres above sea level as they transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


The Andean Condor is said to be the largest flying bird found in South America. It lives in the Andes mountains and along the coast of western South America. With a wingspan of up to 10 feet, it can glide through the air for long periods of time without flapping the wings.

Llamas are found in the wild in the Andes Mountain range, as well as in the form of domesticated livestock. They are fascination and intelligent animals, and are curious, and socialized.

In the oceans, whales, dolphins, sharks, sea turtles and a large variety of fish species can be spotted.

What to expect when traveling by ship

South America’s coastline has numerous destinations with both magnificent natural attractions and cultural experiences. When travelling by ship, you find there’s a lot of opportunities. The long shoreline offers possibilities for wildlife spotting both on land and in the ocean. You will visit ports rich in culture and history along with nature landings where possible. You can experience ancient Inca culture, UNESCO sites and national parks. From fjords to rainforests, deserts to glaciers, and unspoiled nature to bustling cities.

Since we travel on ships that are smaller than the typical cruise ship, we are able to visit places few others go, and we arrange small boat landings for encounters others don’t get. We may also visit local communities and discover pristine nature with colorful and diverse wildlife. There is so much more to see and do when you sail a different path.

On an expedition cruise, learning and exploration are in focus. Voyages along the pacific coast of South America are full of opportunity to experience and learn more about the region’s rich cultural heritage with several UNESCO World Heritage sites along the way.

The South American coast is simply a veritable mix of bucket list items to be ticked off. 

Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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