South America special: Top trips

Jungle treks, exotic wildlife, unexplored beaches, luxury lodges, gourmet food, fine wines... Mark Rowe offers his pick of the best new holidays to South America

1 A view of the vineyards

A boutique-style estançia, combined with the vineyards of Argentina, seems such a sure-fire success that it's surprising to learn the first such establishment has only recently opened in the country. Located in Mendoza province, in the foothills of the Andes, Cavas Wine Lodge is surrounded by vineyards in a private, 60-acre valley. There are 14 adobe-style luxury villas, each with its own plunge-pool and private terrace. The restaurant serves South American cuisine with a wide range of wines from across the continent. Other activities include hiking, rafting, riding and bodega hopping.

Why go? Enjoy the country's outstanding wines in ideal surroundings.

Contact: Cavas Wine Lodge (00 54 261 410 6928; cavaswinelodge.com) offers two-night packages from £345 per person, including accommodation, all meals and excursions. International flights cost extra.

2 Walk on the wild side

In recent years, the Explora group in Chile has laid to rest the misconception that the wilds of South America are the preserve of impecunious backpackers. The company, which made its name by combining five-star comfort and vigorous outdoor pursuits, has introduced its travesias explora packages ­ trips that travel over longer distances rather than being based on a fixed area. These include a 10-day trip from the Atacama into the Chilean altiplano and across to Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni; exploration of Torres del Paine national park; and a range of walks over seven days on Easter Island.

Why go? Explora offers a full-on outdoors experience, topped off with comfort and a glass of fine wine at sunset.

Contact: Explora (00 56 2 206 6060; explora.com) offers a 10-day travesia explora package in northern Chile from £3,000 per person, including four nights at its Atacama lodge and four nights' camping. International flights cost extra.

3 In the footsteps of the Incas

Peru's Inca Trail, which delivers hikers to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu, has been overwhelmed in recent years. But all is not lost: there is now an alternative trail ­ the Sun Temple Trek ­ which is emerging as another recommended way to explore ruins of pre-Columbian times. The four-day trek covers 30 miles and ranges from 224m to 2,840m above sea level. While it is distinctly steep in parts, it is generally very well maintained. The trek starts at the Huaracondo river, which is reached from Cusco, and takes in the pre-Inca fortress of Huata. Then it traces the route of an Inca aqueduct and drops all the way down to the town of Ollantaytambo. From there, you will take the train to Aguas Calientes, which lies in splendid isolation at the foot of Machu Picchu.

Why go? While the Inca Trail sometimes seems to be reduced to something like standing-room only, this trek offers space and solitude.

Contact: Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) offers a 10-day itinerary from £1,450 per person, including return international and domestic flights, full board on the trek, one night in Lima and four nights in Cusco.

4 Lend a hand in the rainforests

Few people travel to the rainforests of South America nowadays without some awareness of the huge deforestation taking place. The conservation travel company i-to-i offers placements in the cloud forest of Ecuador, where the work is designed to save Ecuador's few remaining tracts of tropical forest from extinction. Activities include tree planting and habitat restoration, but there is time for guided jungle hikes and wildlife watching. No specialist skills are necessary but volunteers need to be reasonably fit.

Why go? This project is ideal if you want to get your hands dirty, help address the problems of logging and experience wildlife close-up.

Contact: i-to-i (0870-333 2332; i-to-i.com) offers two-week placements in Ecuador for £745 per person, including accommodation and food. Inter- national flights cost extra.

5 Elegance in an ancient capital

Done Rio? Then try the city of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil's relatively unexplored north-east, with its lovely setting overlooking the bay of Todos os Santos. The city was the capital of Brazil for more than 200 years and its 16th-century historic centre, with more than 350 churches, enjoys Unesco status. Its colonial elegance has been compared to that of Cartagena in Colombia. The city's first boutique hotel, the Convento do Carmo, opened last year. Luxury accommodation in a converted 17th-century convent includes 79 rooms, with nine junior and nine loft suites, a swimming pool and spa.

Why go? Luxury hotel perfectly located close to interesting sights and wonderful beaches.

Contact: South American Experience (020-7976 5511; southamericanexperience.co.uk; pousadasofportugal.com/portugal/salvador.html) offers three nights at the Convento do Carmo from £358 per person. Flights cost extra.

6 By boat among the turtles

One of the most venerable boats offering cruises of the Galapagos Islands, the Beluga has undergone major refurbishment, introducing new fittings and updating its cabins and lounge. The 110ft Beluga carries only 16 passengers on an eight-day tour of the islands; its small size allows it to call at smaller bays that larger vessels are prevented from visiting, such as Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz island, where you can expect to see rays, marine turtles and white-tipped sharks.

Why go? Small is beautiful: expedition guides have more flexibility to stay longer at places if the wildlife-spotting conditions are good.

Contact: Enchanted Expeditions (01243 379953; enchantedexpeditions.com) offers eight-day cruises around the Galapagos Islands from £1,471 per person, including all food and excursions. Flights cost extra.

7 Where pirates prowled the sea

Venezuela is not only a land of jungles and waterfalls, it also has some of the best, unexplored beaches and reefs in the Caribbean. Sea treks along the Paria peninsula take in lush tropical vegetation that drops from mountain tops to the shoreline. The isle of El Rajado, covered by tall cacti, is a refuge for seabirds and there's the chance to see sea turtles along with snorkelling opportunities ­ parrot fish are the star turn. The Rio Caribe, once the preserve of French and English pirates, can be explored, while back by the shore, the National Park of Mochima boasts idyllic beaches.

Why go? Venezuela rarely features in Caribbean brochures ­ this trip offers a fresh look at the country and the region.

Contact: Explore (0870-333 4001; explore.co.uk) offers a 16-day package to Venezuela's coastal sights from £1,469 per person, including return international flights, transfers and accommodation.

8 Architecture and otters

Guyana, the only country in South America where English is the first language, is rapidly opening up to tours that explore the colonial and natural elements of the country. Georgetown boasts some of the continent's finest colonial architecture, with Demerara shutters and designed fretwork with trim eaves and windows looking out on the tree-lined avenues and canals that criss-cross the city. From Georgetown, you can head for the savannah and the Amerindian from the village of Surama. Tours stay at Rock View Lodge, a ranch with swimming pool and hammocks run by an Englishman and his Amerindian wife.

Why go? Guyana combines British and Amerindian influences, offering a perspective not possible elsewhere on the continent.

Contact: Steppes Travel (01285 880980; steppestravel.co.uk offers a 10-day package visiting Georgetown and Surama, as well as the Kaieteur Falls and a giant river otter sanctuary. Prices start at £1,850 per person, including flights and accommodation with some meals.

All prices are based on two sharing unless stated

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