IN THE gradual gestation from virgin territory to death-by-tourism, South America is hardly past conception, writes Simon Calder. Yet it is flavour of the year among the cognoscenti, predominately young and independent people anxious to see the splendour of Graham Greene's 'continent of exiles' in relative isolation.

The superlatives are exhausting. In South America you find the world's wettest place - Choco, in Colombia - and the driest, the Chilean desert where rain has never fallen. The continent has the highest volcano, railway and inflation. It also scores well on any visitor's checklist. Beaches: those fringing Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia are outstanding. Scenery: you can find landscapes like those of Norfolk, Nepal or Norway, and others like nowhere else on earth. Food: everything for the carnivore, including steak and guinea pig, though vegetarians may go hungry. History: the quincentenery of Columbus's voyage puts into focus the accomplishments of the civilisations the Europeans destroyed. Culture: the nightlife in Rio, Buenos Aires and even Lima is dazzling, the literature beguiling, the music entrancing.

But the real spirit of South America is off the beaten track. The typical small town in Paraguay has gone more than halfway to seed, a montage of peeling paintwork, dusty streets and weatherworn faces with gently creased smiles. It feels like the Wild West but with no imminent danger of anything much happening. The people humble the visitor with generosity. You step from a plane, bearing several times their annual earnings - and they do everything they can to welcome you.

Events of the past few months have reinforced stereotypes about South America. In Rio, the dispossessed and the dissolute were shunted off the streets for the duration of the Earth Summit; in Colombia, heroin has joined the list of drugs enhancing the performance of the economy but destroying the fabric of society; in Peru, the battle between a repressive regime and a ruthless guerrilla group is being fought in the suburbs of the capital. The continent appears to be ruled by power-mad despots and peopled by crack-crazed criminals.

The true traveller does not recognise this image of South America. Nor is it reflected by our correspondents. In this three-page South America special we go into the Venezuelan jungle in search of the 'wildest midsummer party in the world'; we end up in an Ecuadorean jail - as visitors; and give a country by country guide to the continent. Virtually everyone returns with tales of great panoramas and small kindnesses, of people living decent lives despite the various lunacies that surround them. If you ask for Coke in Medellin, you'll (usually) get a fizzy drink. Visiting South America is like being an extra in a slightly surreal film. Go before it becomes a boring old tourist travelogue.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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