Do the continental: the best of what's new

Spectacular waterfalls, forgotten cities, pre-Inca trails and designer hotels. Mark Rowe rounds up the latest on offer in South America
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The Independent Travel

1 Guyana

With lush jungle and dramatic river scenery, Guyana (www.exploreguyana.com) and Surinam offer many of the attractions of neighbouring Brazil and Venezuela, but with a fraction of their tourist numbers. While Venezuela's Angel Falls are the big draw in the north of the continent, a small number of tours are now taking in Guyana's Kaieteur Falls, a spectacular alternative 130 miles south of Georgetown. Plunging 741 feet through lush rainforest in the country's first national park, the falls are believed to be the world's largest water drop. In next-door Surinam, guided tours have started to the 17th-century capital of Paramaribo (www.paramaribo.com), full of crumbling Dutch and British architecture. Another rarely travelled area of Surinam is Brownsberg Nature Park, on a 500m-high plateau with tremendous views over the Amazon - and a good chance of seeing tapirs.

2 Venezuela

Venezuela has some of the Amazon's best untouched jungle scenery, centred around pioneering tours to the deep south of the country, with few or no cattle plantations and ranches. Crucially, thanks to the low oxygen content of the local waters, the malarial mosquito is absent, too. Most tours start in the colonial city of Ciudad Bolivar, located on the Orinoco river, 200 miles south-east of Caracas. Travellers then head up the Rio Caura, using a dugout canoe carved from a single tree trunk. Up-river, some 150 miles from Ciudad Bolivar, you can visit indigenous Indians, including tribes related to the Yanomami, whose reputation for using their bows and arrows first and asking questions later struck terror into Redmond O'Hanlon in his travel epic In Trouble Again. There are also opportunities to see howler monkeys, parrots and anacondas. Accommodation is at Caura Lodge on the bank of the river, with a choice of conventional beds or hammocks.

3 Uruguay

The Kempinski hotel chain (www.kempinski.com), which operates a number of five-star hotels in London and Europe, has opened its first hotel in Uruguay in Colonia del Sacramento, two hours' drive east of the capital, Montevideo. The majority of visitors to the town make day trips to Colonia from Buenos Aires, but the hotel, adds to the appeal of staying overnight and enjoying the town's return to tranquillity once the day-trippers have disappeared. Doubles cost from £120 per night, suites from £180. Colonia, recently designated a world heritage site, was founded by the Portuguese in 1680 and retains much of the architecture of that time. Places to visit include the lighthouse and the Casa Rosada, a beautifully restored 18th-century private house.

4 Peru

An alternative to the well-trodden Machu Picchu trail, the relatively unexplored region north-east of Lima is home to Kuelap, a fortress located high in cloud forest in the Andean plateau and home to 400 pre-Inca structures, including some formidable ramparts. Kuelap is one of a number of forgotten cities located in the Chachapoyas Highlands that escaped discovery by the Spanish. The perpetual mist of the area has given the region the name of the Land of the Cloud People, or the Chachapoyans, who live in the "ceja" or eyebrow of the Amazon, just below the peaks of the Andes. Despite being perched on a mountain higher than Machu Picchu, Kuelap, the largest stone structure in South America, remains crowd-free.

5 Argentina

The French designer Phillipe Starck has recently completed the Faena Hotel in Buenos Aires. Built in a former grain warehouse, the hotel is located in the city's Puerto Madero district and overlooks an ecological reserve. Within walking distance of San Telmo, one of the city's most charismatic barrios, the hotel comprises 83 rooms, along with a beauty centre and spa. Rooms are designed in the Imperial style, with 18-carat gold-leaf swan chairs, deep red velvet curtains and tables and ornaments made from light paloma sandstone. Doubles cost from £180 per night. Faena Hotel, Martha Salotti 445, Buenos Aires (00 54 11 4010 9000; www.faenahotelanduniverse.com).

6 Brazil

Brazil is emerging as one of the worlds' burgeoning diving and snorkelling destinations. With a coastline 4,500 miles long, there is no shortage of opportunities but the current focus of development is the Marinho de Abrolhos national park in the south of the province of Bahia (www.bahia.com.br). The Abrolhos are a small group of volcanic islands whose surrounding waters provide a sanctuary for seabirds, dolphins and corals. Access is via flights from Rio to Porto Seguro and then by bus to the city of Caravales, 600 miles north of Rio, from where boats and yachts can be hired. For new snorkelling opportunities, head inland to the freshwater rivers around the small town of Bonito, located in the south of Brazil's Mato Grosso.

7 Bolivia

Bolivia missed out on the tourism bonanza that has followed the release of Walter Salles' Motorcycle Diaries, but the country has responded by establishing its own "Che Trail", tracing the final months of Che Guevara's life. Guevara and his guerrillas spent 11 months in the south-east of the country before being captured in October 1967. The route runs between Sucre and Santa Cruz. Options for travel include walking, mule or four-wheel drive. Sites on the trail include Guevara's guerrilla camp, the school where he was captured and killed at La Higuera, Vallegrande, where his body was put on display and which was the site of his grave before his remains were returned to Cuba. The mountain scenery in the region is spectacular and there is a strong population of Guarani indians.

8 Ecuador

The tourist authorities in Ecuador and Peru have recently agreed to create a "Pre-Inca trail" to rival the better-known Inca Trail in Peru. This one's not for walking, though, running as it does some 600 miles from Quito, via Guayaquil and Cuenca, to the northern Peruvian towns of Chiclayo and Trujillo. Tours, expected to start next year, will visit several ruined sites that were once home to Ecuador's pre-Columbian peoples, some of which date back to 8,000BC. They are among the most important, yet least visited, on the continent, including Ingapirca, Ecuador's best preserved precolonial ruin north of Cuenca, which was home to both Canari and Inca civilisations. You don't have to wait for the tours, of course, and the journey takes in striking scenery, contrasting the lush coastline of Ecuador with the harsher barren landscape of Peru. In Peru, sites on the trail will include Tucume, Pampa Grande, the adobe city of Chan Chan and the royal tombs of Sipan. Organised tours will typically last 10 days.

9 Chile

Thanks to high altitude and little light pollution, Chile has some of the world's best star-gazing opportunities. Most tours take place in the Elqui valley, seven hours drive north of Santiago. But new tours have begun to open up further north around the more dramatic scenery of San Pedro de Atacama. A local astronomer drives small groups of tourists out into the salt flats south of the village and uses high-quality telescopes to show planets, shooting stars, and constellations. You are advised to wrap up warm. Afterwards, you could always retire to one of San Pedro's small but burgeoning breed of top-range hotels. One of the newest smart developments is the Hotel Altiplanico (00 56 55 851212; www.altiplanico.cl), which has 10 rooms, doubles from £85. San Pedro is best reached by flying from Santiago to Calama, and then taking a bus for the remaining 60 miles.

10 Ecuador

Quito's history dates back to the time of the Incas and, at 2,850m above sea level, is the world's second highest capital city. The centre of Quito, once a no-go area after dark, has been opened up to tourists at night after a security drive by the authorities. While the city has always been reasonably safe in daylight hours, a larger police presence has enabled tour groups to finally explore the historic heart of the city in an atmospheric night-time setting. All major sights, including the Parliament House and several colonial churches, are now floodlit. Evening tours usually take in a meal at a local restaurant before dropping you back at your hotel.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers flight deals, group tours, hotel bookings and bespoke itineraries to all countries in South America. A nine-day trip to the Kaieteur Falls costs from £1,481 per person (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk/adventure/itins/kaieteur.shtml), based on two sharing, including flights. Another tour visits the pre-Inca ruins in Peru.

South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) offers flights, tours and tailor-made packages to the continent.

Audley Travel (01869 276210; www.audleytravel.com) offers tours in much of South America, including two-week trips to Bolivia taking in the salt lake, Salar de Uyuni, from £2,200, based on two sharing, including flights.

Explore Worldwide (0870-333 4001; www.explore.co.uk) offers 15-day tours of Guyana and Suriname from £1,599 per person, based on two sharing, including flights.

Cacao Travel Group (00 58 212 9771234; www.cacaotravel.com) offers tours in Venezuela's rainforest.

Trek America (0870-444 8735; www.trekamerica.co.uk) has recently expanded its operations into South America. Itineraries include a 19-day Inca Sun trip through Peru and Bolivia, from £1,044 per person and a 13-day Spirit of Ecuador trip, taking in Quito, the Andes and the Amazon from £869 per person, both based on two sharing, excluding flights.

Enchanted Expeditions (01243 379953; www.enchantedexpeditions.com) offers tours to mainland Ecuador, as well as the Galapagos Islands.

Last Frontiers (01296 653000; www.lastfrontiers.com) offers tailor-made tours across South America.

Pura Aventura (0845-22 55 058; www.pura-aventura.com) offers star gazing in the Atacama on its 17-day small group Atacama and Patagonia walking tour, which costs from £2,500 each, based on two sharing, including flights.

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