South America offers more species, more diversity and more out-of-this-world wildlife experiences than any other continent. Africa may have the Big 5 and Australia’s got a bit of a monopoly on the world’s weirdest but for sheer scope and volume nowhere comes close to South America. From penguins to piranhas and albatrosses to alligators it really does have it all. This week we look at four of the continent’s absolute highlights – each of which would slot in right at the top of a list of the world’s best animal hotspots.
Ask a true nature buff what their one must-see destination is, and the answer will invariably be the Galapagos Islands. This scattering of volcanic islands 1000 miles off continental Ecuador was the tipping point in Darwin’s search to understand the origin of the species, and in 2014 it remains the clearest and most irrefutable evidence for the Theory of Evolution.
What makes the Galapagos so special is that animals from common ancestors on the mainland developed into distinct species once they settled on different islands (or even different parts of the same island). The most famous example of this process of natural selection occurs among Darwin’s finches, but there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of other examples of this process. Marine iguanas, Galapagos tortoises, and the flightless cormorant are a few of the islands’ more well-known curiosities.
The Amazon is kind of like Usain Bolt – it comes first in pretty much every race it enters. The river is the world’s largest river by volume and the rainforest is far and away the world’s biggest forest. Across the board, 10% of the world’s species live in the Amazon Rainforest but for birds and fish this percentage skyrockets to a staggering 20%.
The Amazon is vast, and what you see depends on where you go (the two most popular destinations are Peru and Brazil) but whatever you see you can rest assured it’ll be bigger, brighter and bolder that anything you’ve seen before. Big things like tapirs, howler monkeys and alligators are all incredible but often it’s the multicolored birds, butterflies and frogs which leave the greatest impression. Unless of course you’re lucky enough to see a jaguar – an experience that trumps everything else.
Peninsula Valdes is most famous for being the place where orcas beach themselves in an attempt to catch seals, but even if you’re not lucky enough to witness this spectacle there are plenty of reasons to visit.
The great naturalist and author Gerald Durrell summed it up very nicely indeed: “The Península is a mass of land rather like an axe-head, some eighty miles long by thirty broad…it is almost as if the Península and its narrow isthmus are a cul-de-sacinto which all the wild-life of Chubut has drained and from which it cannot escape.”
If you’re into marine animals, it doesn’t get much better than Valdes. Depending on when you visit you should see at least a few of this who’s who in the zoo of marine species: fur seals, sea lions, walruses, elephant seals, magellanic penguins, southern right whales and orcas. What’s really amazing is that each one of these colonies is enormous…and you don’t even have to go to some far flung island to see them.
The Pantanal, which spans parts of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, is the world’s largest inland wetland. The Amazon may have harbor more animals than anywhere else on the continent, but the Pantanal is definitely the best place to actually see animals. It’s the one place in the world where clapping eyes on a jaguar is more of a likelihood than a slim possibility (although you’ll have to go during the dry season from June to November if this is the main reason for your visit) but it’s also a fantastic place to view caimans, alligators, macaws and giant river otters.
Try your hand at piranha fishing (it’s easy), keep yourself busy ticking off bird species, and even get to grips with an anaconda. But more than the individual animals, it’s the whole experience of being paddled around the myriad weed-choked channels in a tiny boat that is so fantastic. I’m going to stick my neck out, and say that of the four incredible destinations listed here, the Pantanal is my favorite.
Have we convinced you yet? Speak to a Destination Expert about curating a tailor made South America itinerary just for you.