In the past year the traveller to South America has suffered two bouts of bad news. The first was when the Venezuelan airline Viasa collapsed, removing one of the best budget bets to most South American destinations. The next was the imposition of higher taxes on travellers by the US government, making America a much more expensive proposition for connecting flights.
The good news is that the arrival of two "new" airlines, Avianca of Colombia, and Transbrasil, means more choice and lower fares. British Airways, Iberia of Spain and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines have responded by offering some good prices on specific flights. The best deals are likely to be to Buenos Aires, Rio and Sao Paulo.
To reach the destinations featured on these pages, try the following: Heathrow to La Paz, Bolivia, on Avianca via Bogot; one of numerous UK airports to Quito, Ecuador, on KLM via Amsterdam; Heathrow to Asuncin, Paraguay on Viasa, via Rio.
South American specialist agencies know their way through the Amazonian jungle of air fares; Independent writers have received good service from Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108), South American Experience (0171- 976 5511) and Steamond (0171-730 8646).
Visas are no longer required for short visits by British passport holders to any South American nation. Immigration officials may, however, request evidence of an air ticket out of the country, and sufficient funds.
To see plenty of South America (or, at any rate, its airports), the Golden air pass enables you to visit five South American cities for a total of $1,045 (pounds 618 at yesterday's rate). To qualify, you must fly to the Colombian capital, Bogota, on the national airline Avianca (0990 767747). You can then choose from a range of places, including Quito, Lima, La Paz Buenos Aires, Santiago and Rio.
The main form of surface transport in South America is the bus. The term covers a multitude of vehicles, from smooth, air-conditioned coaches to converted trucks (or even unconverted trucks). The ejecutivo services on the highways of Brazil, Argentina and Chile are fast and comfortable. At the other extreme, you may find yourself clinging to the back of a lorry that is lurching precariously between mudholes in rural Bolivia. The Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable gives an indication of frequencies on main routes, but the precise schedules change often. The timetable also details the depleted network of railways in South America (see Red Channel, page 3).
Driving is only for the fearless, bearing in mind the imaginative motoring techniques employed by the locals. Venezuela has one of the highest rates of road deaths in the world.
Except in parts of the south of the continent, take precautions against malaria, hepatitis and yellow fever. Beyond this, it would be foolish to generalise about the risks in a continent that includes, inter alia, some of the driest and wettest locations in the world, and has huge variations in wealth. Consult your GP or a travel medicine specialist such as Masta (0891 224100) for advice about specific destinations.
Pounds - either travellers' cheques or cash - are hard to exchange in South America. US dollars are the preferred currency, and a reserve of $1, $5 and $10 bills can help temporary shortages of local currency. Since rapid devaluation is the norm for many South American currencies, obtain only a little at a time.
You can live very cheaply in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. A good dinner may cost pounds 5, a night in a comfortable hotel pounds 10. Life is cheaper if you stay in places busy with insect life. Argentina, Brazil and Chile are as expensive as most European destinations.