Many outdoor activities can be arranged easily and cheaply upon arrival in South America. Local operators will have everything you need and can arrange guides and even companions. The nonprofit South American Explorers (www.samexplo.org) is a great resource if you're in Lima, Cusco, or Quito.
Bird-Watching -- Over 3,100 species of birds either live or migrate through South America. Some of the rarest birds in the world live in and near the jungles of the Amazon rainforest. The jungle areas of Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador are among the best bird-watching spots in the world. The Galápagos Islands in Ecuador are also a birder's paradise -- albatrosses; penguins; flightless cormorants; red-footed, blue-footed, and masked boobies; and the short-eared owl are just some of the rare birds that you'll see here. Peru's Manu Biosphere Reserve is also impressive: With more than 1,000 bird species recorded here, it has the highest concentration of birdlife on earth.
Climbing -- Many a mountaineer has traveled to South America to scale some of the highest peaks in the world. The snowy peaks of Patagonia offer some of the most challenging climbs on the continent. But you don't have to head all the way down south. In Ecuador, you can climb the glacier-covered Cotopaxi, which, at 5,804m (19,037 ft.), is the highest active volcano in the world.
Diving -- The Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, offer some of the most exciting diving in the world. You'll have the opportunity to see schools of hammerhead sharks as well as exotic underwater life. Serious divers should consider booking a special diving cruise around the islands. The Caribbean coast off Venezuela is also a popular dive spot.
Mountain Biking -- The 8,050km-long (5,000-mile) Andes mountain range offers some excellent mountain-biking opportunities. From Ecuador down to Patagonia, you'll find mountain-biking outfitters galore. But be careful: The roads are often poorly maintained. Some routes are narrow and open onto steep precipices. It's important to rent a high-quality bike that can deal with the conditions. The South American Explorers Club advises bikers to use Kona, Trek, or Cannondale brand bikes. Cheaper bikes may not be able to survive the rough terrain.
River Rafting -- The Amazon is the world's second-longest river, and running it or one of its many tributaries is one of the great thrills in South America. The wildest parts run through Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. And in central Chile, as the water rages down from the Andes to the Pacific, you'll find some of the wildest white-water rafting anywhere.
Skiing -- July and August are prime ski season months in South America. The ski areas in Chile and southern Argentina are considered the Alps of South America. In Argentina, the glitterati head to Bariloche, while Chileans consider the ski resorts Valle Nevado (east of Santiago) and Portillo to be sacred ground.
Surfing -- It's been said that some of the longest breaks in the world exist off the coast of Peru. But small beach towns that cater to the surfing set dot the entire Pacific coast of South America. The Galápagos Islands have also begun to attract serious surfers to their windy shores. Not surprisingly, the Pacific can get quite cold -- be sure to bring a wet suit. For warmer waters, surfers should head to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. Henry Pitter National Park in Venezuela has become a hot spot.
Swimming, Snorkeling & Other Watersports -- The Atlantic coast of South America offers wonderful watersports opportunities. Punta del Este in Uruguay is one of the premier South American beach resorts. From December through March, the Argentine elite come here to sail, swim, water-ski, or just get close to the sea. The warm Caribbean waters off Venezuela are also great for snorkeling, water-skiing, and windsurfing. The Pacific Coast isn't as enticing, but visitors to the Galápagos will find that the snorkeling there is out of this world.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.