How to condense a continent: Three weeks to see South America's greatest hits

Three weeks to 'do' South America? Impossible, says Ian Burrell, but you can sample some of its many highlights on a coast-to-coast tour

Travel, like it or not, is about icons. Every continent has its "must-sees". Australia, for example, is often distilled down to "reef, rock and opera house". But, in terms of sheer allure, I cannot think of a stronger draw than South America's trio of gems: the beaches of Rio, the power of the Iguacu Falls and the miracle of Machu Picchu.

The trouble is, just like jewels, these wonders are strung out. As a first-timer, I had been warned that South America was a tough proposition. Street crime in cities, shaky infrastructure and the need to cover a lot of ground in a short time combined to make an organised tour a good option.

The adventure I signed up for was a trip across the centre, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, taking in five countries and a couple of wonders of the world, all in 19 days. But it was not quite the clinical, whistle-stop tour it sounds. This was South America, after all.

There are benefits to being in a group of 10 with a driver and guide. Take, for example, the point at which we found ourselves stranded on a baking and stony plain in the Bolivian Altiplano. One moment, we were just another bus of tourists on our way to Lake Titicaca, the next, we were confronted by an angry mob of protesters waving the rainbow-chequered flag of the Andean nation's indigenous peoples. Boulders had been strewn across the highway – and when our driver attempted to circumvent their blockade by heading off through a village, the angry demonstrators followed on foot.

Over the next half-hour, a Wacky Races game evolved as trucks, taxis and buses sought escape along ill-defined dusty tracks. Eventually, our bus became stuck fast in the soft bed of a small running stream. A helpful lorry driver pulled the vehicle clear with a steel tow rope.

We were en route to Peru, having arrived in Bolivia via Brazil, Paraguay and a fleeting visit to Argentina. This coast-to-coast trip organised by Journey Latin America condenses some of the highlights of this huge continent into a convenient three-week holiday.

You realise that things are changing in South America as the plane descends towards the green mountains of Rio de Janeiro. Brazil, of course, provides the initial letter in the Bric acronym for the world's leading emerging economies (its peers being Russia, India and China). Our first aerial sight of Rio was of an expanding metropolis where space was at a premium and urban sprawl cascaded down the granite hillsides, on every available surface.

Within the city, traffic moved at breakneck speed on the crowded highways. Cranes dominated the skyline. The beaches are, famously, Rio's playgrounds, and we were staying close to the best-known of all, the Copacabana. On the wide, wave-patterned promenade were half-hearted joggers and ladies with tiny dogs. Chubby men in their fifties played volleyball on burning sands that had been doused with water. There was plenty to look at over a cold coconut juice sipped from the nut via a straw, and the mood was relaxed.

My fellow travellers – among whom were three former schoolteachers – were erudite and had enjoyed fascinating life experiences. We bonded well. Despite the physical demands of the tour, none of us was under 40 and several were upwards of 60.

On a journey of such ambition, we could never have had sufficient time to find the pulse of a city as extraordinary as Rio. In the two nights allocated, we listened to batucada drumming on the beachfront, tasted bolinhos and pastel de forno at street cafés, drank acai and wandered the villa-lined streets of the arty Santa Teresa district where Ronnie Biggs lived when he was on the run. A highlight was Escadaria Selaron, a steep staircase in the Lapa neighbourhood, decorated by the artist Jorge Selaron with a kaleidoscopic mix of thousands of tiles from all parts of the world.

And, of course, we took the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain. At the time, it seemed impressively high; the planes flew up to meet us from the airport below. A fortnight later, though, we would be spending our days at 10 times the altitude.

The following day, we ascended to Rio's other great vantage point, the Corcovado, with its statue of Christ the Redeemer. Though it is difficult to grasp the spiritual significance of Landowski's colossal concrete figure on a plinth crowded with people stretching their arms out in mimicry of the sculpture, the view below is remarkable. Corcovado might be one of the new wonders of the world but, judging by this neck-stretching panorama of blue waters, green peaks, sandy bays and inlets, one can see why Rio harbour made CNN's 2010 list as one of this planet's seven "Natural Wonders".

For many, the Iguacu Falls, our next stop, also merits inclusion in that contest. Buses take 24 hours to drive there from Rio; we opted for an internal flight of 90 minutes to Parana state. Soon we were gazing at one of the most astonishing sights on earth.

Iguacu is situated close to the intersection of three countries – Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Approaching the falls first from the Brazilian side ensures that the sights become increasingly spectacular (and wetter) as you move closer to the cascades, until you finally stand in the spray on a narrow metal bridge as the water thunders over the precipice beneath you.

The hotel in Iguacu was basic and a motorcycle-taxi journey away from the town centre. But accommodation elsewhere on the tour, particularly the stylish hotels in Bolivia, was far superior, and the uncertainty over the quality of the lodgings added to a sense of adventure. What was not so much fun was having to live from a suitcase, with many of the stopovers being for a single night only.

Crossing to the Argentine town of Puerto Iguazu, it was possible to get even closer to the foaming cataratas. After donning a life jacket, we clambered into a rubber launch that took us beneath the falls for an exhilarating drenching. It left me in no doubt as to the power and energy of the waters.

Argentina has the best of these amazing falls: a series of walkways take you through the rainforest and along the edge of dramatic drops, culminating in a mini-rail journey to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), where the water ferments before plunging over a plateau with such ferocity that the river below is hidden by spray. At least the presence of a rainbow, hanging in the mist, gave this diabolic gargling a sense of minty freshness. We travelled back peacefully in a large dinghy along a quiet tributary, with our skipper pointing out toucans and, on the riverbank, a yacare caiman.

After that, Paraguay was a sobering experience. Our crossing into the frontier town of Ciudad del Este (one massive duty-free shop for Brazilians) was delayed by industrial action by immigration staff. It's at times such as this that you're grateful for a minibus driver and guide to take you through the red tape. Independence in tourism can be an exhilarating thing, but only the most meticulous planner could expect to fulfil our tight itinerary given the inevitable hitches that one encounters at South American borders.

Several of our party were struck down with illness during the journey (most notably altitude sickness in Bolivia which confined a number of travellers to bed with breathing difficulties). When a doctor was required, the help of our guide was invaluable. That said, we were a highly travelled bunch and the constant reminders to use the toilet were a little patronising.

This trip was physically challenging, particularly on the bumpy five-hour bus trip to Paraguay's capital, Asunció*. I loved the atmosphere of our period hotel, the Asunció* Palace, but the clammy city itself seemed gripped by a paralysis born of history and economics. The land-locked country has never recovered from the crushing 1864-70 War of the Triple Alliance, when British banking interests encouraged joint invasion by forces from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

The sense of opportunity lost is encapsulated by the evocative railway museum in the city's beautiful but disused train station. Weighing machines, standing clocks and steam engine gadgetry bearing the names of manufacturers in Birmingham and Liverpool are on display alongside crumbling ledgers and a well-preserved wooden carriage with leather seats.

Even with a carefully planned itinerary, there was plenty of scope for disruption. We were meant to fly non-stop from steamy Asunció* to Bolivia's biggest city, La Paz. But a cancelled flight meant we made it only as far as the southern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. Having arrived there in the early hours, we were able to snatch just an hour's sleep at a hotel before returning to the airport for 5am. Exhausting. It was a further reminder that, stunning as the journey was, it was not an exercise in luxury travel.

La Paz, 540km to the west, was worth the wait. Nearly 4,000m above sea level, the city was breathtaking in every sense. To counter altitude sickness, our guide took us to the Witches' Market to buy coca leaves – a natural way to alleviate the symptoms, if you chew a little or drink as tea.

Stepping outside the beautifully designed Hotel Rosario, we found ourselves in a wild world of precipitous streets, vivid colours and bizarre objects. Dried llama foetuses (a good-luck charm for new homeowners) were on sale in the street. The female street vendors in their bowler hats and wide pleated skirts were not dressed for the benefit of tourists and seemed more concerned with local business.

It was here that I bought a pin badge featuring Bolivia's controversial first indigenous president, Evo Morales ("Papa Evo" as the old lady vendor described him), and first saw the chequered flag that we would encounter at the rural roadblocks.

On the final stretch of the trip we drove across the bleak Altiplano to the remarkable pre-Incan ruins of Tiwanaku, where the extraordinary feats of engineering – represented in precisely cut stone monoliths dating back more than 1,000 years – were humbling.

Then we encountered the protesters – part of a long-running dispute over access to Bolivia's increasingly scarce water supplies, as fast growing cities put pressure on traditional ways of life. Finally, we reached the shore of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable body of water in the world.

Here, in the small town of Copacabana (it shares its name with Rio's most celebrated beach), we bought dolls of Ekeko, the moustached Andean god of prosperity. Then we climbed the Stations of the Cross on the steep Cerro Calvario, to a vantage point overlooking the lake. Such a strenuous climb is no mean feat at a height of 3,800m, and requires copious chewing of coca. Later, we sailed to the serene Isla del Sol for a hillside walk amid the terraces of Inca farmers, still cultivated today.

From Copacabana, we took a 100km bus ride to the town of Puno on the Peruvian side of the lake. Then we climbed aboard another motorboat and headed for the reed islands of the Uros people, which are extraordinary not least because the Uros have created such a thriving tourist industry from their floating lifestyle. The islanders, who own the boats that bring their visitors, have expanded their colony from a handful of reed islands in the 1980s to about 70 today.

We were 11 days into our journey and conscious that we were edging nearer to the Pacific and journey's end. First, though, we made for Cuzco, the hub city for the Inca Trail. Behind the colonial buildings of the Plaza de Armas – built from exquisitely cut stone over ancient temples and palaces plundered by the Spanish – the city has a bohemian vibrancy. Travellers patronise a fine range of restaurants (serving tasty strips of alpaca steak or roasted guinea pig for the adventurous), bakeries and cafes. There are several stunning Inca sites in the area, from the towering engineering masterpiece that is Sacsayhuamá* to the mountain terraces of Pisac and the stronghold of Ollantaytambo.

For many in the party, Machu Picchu, the greatest Inca treasure of them all, was expected to be the highlight of the trip, and there was something deeply satisfying about arriving here close to the culmination of the tour. On the 16th day, we reached South America's best-known site after a romantic train journey through the mountains that tower above the bubbling Urubamba river. Here lay the ramshackle village of Aguas Calientes, from which the ancient citadel is reached by a winding bus ride.

Images of Machu Picchu have been so widely disseminated that it is easy to anticipate a sense of familiarity, and yet the photographs do not prepare you for the natural setting of the ruins. The clouds were almost within touching distance and the drops from the precarious paths trodden by the Incas in the 15th century were sheer. Despite the crowds, it was not hard to find a quiet ledge to sit and think, gazing beyond the surrounding abyss to the endless forested mountains of the Andes.

After that, arriving in the teeming city of Lima produced a feeling of claustrophobia. This was where we finally met the grey waters of the Pacific to complete our South American odyssey. We had crossed the continent in less than three weeks. I rested on a railing overlooking the ocean at a modern shopping mall in the upscale Miraflores district, and glanced at the global retail outlets selling pizza and fashion clothing. We had been on the continent for only a few days and yet we'd learned that South America is so dripping in natural and cultural riches that it has no need to look north for inspiration.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Journey Latin America (020-3432 1514; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers the 19-day Jacana escorted group tour starting at £3,498pp including accommodation, breakfast daily, domestic flights and international flights with Air France/KLM from Heathrow. Excursions include Corcovado in Rio, Iguacu Falls (both sides), La Paz walking tour, boat trip to Sun Island, Cuzco city tour, and guided walks around Machu Picchu and Lima.

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