Not only national parks like the Torres del Paine in Chile make South America so attractive for nature lovers. Also less known nature reserves offer a whole range of activities such as the Argentine National Park Los Glaciares, the Bolivian Madidi national park or the Cotopaxi national park in Ecuador.
Hiking, climbing, abseiling, canoeing: In the plateaus of Brazil or the Andes of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia everything is possible. Against a spectacular backdrop, nature lovers and adventurous people can pursue their passions and get to know the most fascinating landscapes of South America.
Many parks are still insider tips and are rarely visited by European travel groups. But that’s what makes them so attractive, because here visitors can enjoy the sight of snow-capped volcanoes and pristine glacial lakes relatively undisturbed, such as in Chile’s Lauca National Park.
Those who are interested in the exotic fauna and flora of Amazonia should travel to Peru or Bolivia. In the large rainforest reserves of Manu and Madidi, visitors experience on jungle hikes animals in nature that they previously only knew from zoos. Plant lovers also get their money’s worth. Even today, new species are discovered almost every week in previously undeveloped areas of these nature reserves.
But also in Brazil, excellent parks await nature lovers and adventure seekers, such as the tropical plateau „Chapada Diamantina“ with its typical table mountains, rock formations, canyons and waterfalls. Or the eco-park „Chapada dos Veadeiros“, where animals threatened with extinction live, for example maned wolves and jaguars.
The Venezuelan national park „Canaima“ is also a park of superlatives: With three million hectares of one of the world’s largest nature reserves, travelers can also marvel at the highest waterfalls on earth. In neighboring Colombia, „Los Nevados“ is not stingy with its attractions either: surrounded by snow-covered 4,000 and 5,000 meter peaks, it allows hikers and mountaineers to experience one of the most beautiful areas of the Colombian Andes.
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
The Argentine National Park Los Glaciares borders the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile. But it is in no way inferior to its famous neighbor. In this spectacular park you can for example admire the star among the Argentinean glaciers – the „Glaciar Perito Moreno„.
The Glaciar Perito Moreno is part of an extensive continental glacier area and one of the most famous glaciers still growing today.
Every day, the ice mass moves forward about one meter. Again and again smaller and larger blocks of ice break off the five kilometer wide glacier tongue and fall into the „Lago Argentino“, causing meter-high tidal waves. Every four to ten years a special natural spectacle occurs when part of the glacier meets a counter slope and blocks the „Brazo Rico“, a tributary of the „Lago Argentino“ lake. This causes the water level in the southern part of the „Brazo Rico“ to rise. The collapse of this barrier attracts many tourists. The last time one could witness this spectacle was in July 2008.
In the northern part of the park are the granite mountains „Cerro Fitz Roy“ (3,406 meters) and „Cerro Torre“ (3,128 meters), which are not only very photogenic, but also interesting for mountaineers and trekking tourists. The rock needle of the „Cerro Torre“ is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful peaks in the world, but with its steep, smooth granite walls and extreme weather conditions it is very difficult to climb.
Whoever hikes up to the „Laguna de los Tres“ at 1,200 meters is rewarded with a stunning glacier panorama. Another tour leads to the „Pliegue Tumbado“, where you can look over the whole massif up to the Patagonian inland ice. Also ice glacier hikes on the Viedma glacier are very attractive. The glacier leads to Lake Viedma, a turquoise-blue glacial lake 80 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide.
A popular starting point for tours in the national park is El Calafate, about 80 kilometers away.
National park Manú, Amazon, Peru
With almost two million hectares, the Parque Nacional Manú in the Amazon lowlands is one of the largest rainforest reserves on earth. The park was founded in 1973 to protect its intact ecosystem.
In the three sensitive ecological zones (low vegetation „puna“ in the heights of the Andes, cloud forest, Amazon rainforest), fishing, hunting and deforestation are prohibited. UNESCO declared the park a World Natural Heritage Site in 1983.
From jaguars, spectacled bears, Andean jackals, ocelots, tapirs, giant otters, caimans to various species of monkeys and 1,000 bird species, countless animals, many of them threatened with extinction, are represented here. At altitudes between 365 and 4,000 meters, there are also around 15,000 known plant species and over 200 tree species. And almost every week there are more, because large parts of the park are still undeveloped.
Manú is divided into three areas and a fourth zone for the locals:
- In the freely accessible public „Zona Cultural“ (cultural zone), on about 40,000 hectares, the locals live; there are also some lodges for the tourists.
- The „Zona Experimental“ (experimental zone), which is more than six times as large and has very few lodges, may only be visited by registered scientists and researchers as well as eco-tourists with a permit, licensed guide and authorized organiser. An excursion to this area becomes a magnificent nature experience, for example during hikes to the jungle lakes „Cocha Salvador“ and „Cocha Otorongo“. With a little luck, hikers will even discover jaguars while sunbathing.
- Tourists are not allowed to enter the largest part of the park, the „Zona Natural“ (nature zone). Only anthropologists and scientists with permits from the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture are allowed to enter this area.
- In a fourth zone, on almost 100,000 hectares, the local people live – the Yaminahua and Kugapakori, whose original way of life as jungle nomads is to be preserved.
Madidi National Park, Bolivia
The Parque Nacional Madidi in Bolivia, with its snow-capped Andean peaks, the Amazon jungle, 5,000 plant species and its magnificent wildlife, is a national park of superlatives.
The park is home to over 1,000 species of birds and more than 150 species of mammals, such as pumas, jaguars, spectacled bears, salted cats and various species of monkeys, as well as a large part of Bolivia’s amphibians and reptiles.
All in all, Madidi can compete with the famous Manu National Park, although it is cheaper than its Peruvian counterpart in terms of price. Authentic tourists stay overnight at the Chalalán Ecolodge in the Amazon rainforest, which belongs to the community of San José de Uchupiamonas. The house was built with indigenous materials in a traditional style and can accommodate up to 30 guests.
The tours with a local guide, who introduces the beauty of Madidi to the lodge guests, for example during a hike on the parrot trail or on canoe trips on smaller rivers, become a special experience. On night hikes, the light of a flashlight creeps and flies: now exotic insects, spiders, river animals, night birds and monkeys are on the way. On a night canoe trip the eyes of the alligators glow in the water, which sends a shiver down the spine of many a guest.
Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Veadeiros, Brazil
The beautiful but remote Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Veadeiros (“plateau of the swamp deer”) is one of the largest national parks in the interior of Brazil.
Located in the middle of the „Cerrado“ (bush steppe) at 600 to 1,650 meters, it was founded in the early 1960s. The aim was to protect the sources of various rivers as well as the diverse fauna and exotic plants (orchids, Brazilian pepper tree, coconut-babassu palms and so on).
Spectacular waterfalls, natural pools, canyons, rocks and palm groves define the image of this park. Endangered animals live here, for example pampas deer, maned wolves and jaguars, but also huge armadillos, tapirs, toucans, nandus, king vultures and many more. In the last ten years, ecotourism has increased significantly in this area. Adventure sports are also very popular: Climbers and canoeists from all over Brazil come here to indulge their passions.
Many inhabitants who used to work in the mines have been trained as tourist guides. They accompany visitors on their hikes like in the „Cânion Rio Preto“, where the river works its way through narrow sandstone gorges, to the picturesque waterfall „Cachoeiras Almécegas“ or „Morro da Baleia“ (Whale Hill), which can also be climbed. Organized tours, each lasting six hours, lead to the main attractions of the Chapada: gorges, waterfalls and rocks. A great evening atmosphere can be experienced in „Vale da Lua“ (Moon Valley), where the setting sun bathes the rocks in a bizarre light.
Parque Nacional de Chapada Diamantina, Brazil
The tropical Parque Nacional de Chapada Diamantina is a „must“ for those who stay a little longer in the northeast of Brazil.
The plateau with an average altitude of 1,000 meters offers a lot of variety with its rock formations (the highest peak is the „Pico do Barbado“ with 2,036 meters), table mountains, valleys and canyons. Rivers and waterfalls provide for lush vegetation in the rather dry area.
On 1,520 square kilometers there are no limits to the activities. Hikers need a lot of time to explore the large network of hiking trails. Especially interesting are the caves, in which diamonds were found in former times (hence the name: „Chapada Diamantina“ – „Diamond Plateau“).
An exciting multi-day tour leads through the valley „Vale do Paty“ with its abandoned mining settlements and great views of the highlands of „Morro de Castelo“. In these latitudes it can get very warm, but the next swim is usually just around the corner: the natural pools of the waterfalls provide cooling at the right moment for tired hikers.
Tip: Those who want to walk off the tourist paths on unmarked trails should take a guide who knows the area.
The special kick is in the park when abseiling in caves and over rock edges. Or at the waterfall „Cachoeira do Buração“, where experienced swimmers are driven through a gorge by the raging waters. A more leisurely approach is at the „Poço Encantado“ – an „enchanted waterhole„, which can be reached via a steep path: when sunrays enter the cave in autumn and winter, the pool glows in the most beautiful cobalt blue.
How to get there: Visitors can easily reach the park, 400 kilometers inland, from Salvador.
Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador
The Parque Nacional Cotopaxi at an altitude of 3,400 to 5,897 meters is particularly popular with mountaineers who want to conquer the highest active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi (5,897 meters).
„Cotopaxi“ means „neck of the moon“ in the language of the Cayapas. On the other hand, however, the volcano was called „fire throat“ by the pre-Inca Panzaleos: Apart from the pleasures of climbing it has brought much suffering, most recently during its 20th century eruptions. Researchers are now again alarmed by the melts on the western slope below the crater.
But the volcano is still one of the most climbed mountains in South America. When climbing the summit, hikers experience the landscapes of the highlands intensely: Their path leads past the „Laguna Limpiopungo“, a pretty little lake with rich bird life, through the harsh vegetation of the high plateau with wild horses, llamas and Andean condors to the volcanic glacier. When you finally stand at the mouth of the crater, surrounded by absolute silence, you will experience an indescribable feeling of happiness. A view over the snow-covered mountains of the Andes is reward enough for the exertions of the ascent.
Cotopaxi is not the only volcano in this area, but it is part of the approximately 300 km long „Avenue of Volcanoes“ in the eastern Andes – just like the no longer active volcano Rumiñahui. With its „only“ 4,721 meters it is the little brother of Cotopaxi and easy to climb.
The park also has a lot to see in terms of culture, for example the ruins of the former Inca fortress Pucará and an Inca palace built in the 15th century at the foot of Cotopaxi. In the 17th century it was converted into a monastery by a Catholic Augustinian order. The religious site has now become a popular hotel: the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo.
More top national parks
Chile: Insider tip Lauca National Park »
Colombia: Gorgeous National Park Los Nevados »
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