The 10 South American countries that we cover in this book comprise an enormous landmass with an incredibly varied terrain. Details on each country's specific ecosystems can be found below.

Ecosystems

Argentina -- At the heart of Argentina lies the flat, humid pampas, consisting of the central eastern provinces. To the south lies Patagonia, with its alpine Lake District, desolate arid steppes, and spectacular glaciers. The Andes flank the western border and touch every type of geographical zone. The red desert plateaus of Salta province contrast with the temperate lakes of Tafi del Valle and the humid cane fields of Tucuman. Farther south, the provinces of San Juan and Mendoza consist of vast desert scrub with little rain. Mesopotamia consists of the northern border province of Misiones and resembles a jungle frontier. Farther north and east, the land becomes a dry, inhospitable shrub, known as El Chaco, that extends all the way to Bolivia.

advertisement

Bolivia -- Landlocked in the middle of the South American continent, Bolivia's 1,098,580 sq. km (424,160 sq miles) is nothing less than extreme. Much of the country, including most of the major cities, sits high in the Andes Mountains on the high altitude, cold, windswept Altiplano that begins with Lake Titicaca at the border with Peru and tops out at 6,542m (21,460 ft.) Nevado Sajama. In the southwest the world's largest salt desert, the Salar de Uyuni, and the nearby lagoons and geysers are the country's peak of strange and exotic geography. In complete contrast with the rest of the country, the east and north are hot and humid. Here you'll find the lush green Amazon lowlands and Chaco regions.

Brazil -- Brazil's 190 million citizens inhabit the fifth-largest country in the world, a nation about 10% larger than the continental U.S. The Amazon dominates the northern third of the country -- a vast tropical rainforest with the river at its heart. The country's central interior is dominated by the planalto, a high dry plateau covered in cerrado, a type of dry savanna reminiscent of that of Southern Africa.

West of the planalto but south of the Amazon rainforest you find the Pantanal, a wetland the size of France that is one of the best places to see wildlife in the whole of South America. Brazil's Northeast is a land apart. Running roughly from São Luis to Salvador, the coast is dominated by midsize cities and sugar cane and the culture strongly Afro-Brazilian, while on the dry interior plateau those Nordestinos who haven't yet fled to the cities eke out a bare living on the land. Brazil's two chief cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, stand within a few hundred miles of each other close to the country's south coast. The area has the astonishing natural wonder of Iguaçu Falls, for many visitors a must-see.

advertisement

Chile -- Sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean with a width that averages just 180km (112 miles) and some 4,830km (3,000 miles) of land, stretching from the arid northern desert to the wild desolation of Patagonia, Chile encompasses a dazzling array of landscapes and temperate zones. It is hard to believe such variation can exist in just one country; in fact, the only zone not found here is tropical.

The central region of Chile, including Santiago and its environs, features a mild Mediterranean climate, reminiscent of California, while the Atacama region claims the world's driest desert, a beautiful wasteland set below a chain of purple and pink volcanoes and high-altitude salt flats. The Atacama Desert sits at altitudes of 2,000m (6,560 ft.) and up. The extreme climate and the geological forces at work in this region have produced far-out land formations and superlatives such as the highest geyser field in the world.

Colombia -- The hot and humid eastern third of Colombia starts in Villavicencio and is comprised of dense Amazon forest and unnavigable rivers. The central portion of the country, home to most of the country's largest and most important cities, such as Bogotá and Medellín, and set against the high Andes, incorporates just about every climate and microclimate -- from sweltering, low-lying valleys, to snow-peaked mountaintops. Colombia's Atlantic coast is home to the Sierra mountains, the highest seaside mountain chain in the world, as well as the country's most popular beaches. The sweltering Pacific coast is a dense jungle area. Head south toward Ecuador and the mountains become more dramatic, the climate more arid.

advertisement

Ecuador -- Bordered on the north and east by Colombia, on the south and east by Peru, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean, Ecuador covers an area of just under 256,000 sq. km (99,840 sq. miles). The country also includes the Galápagos Islands, 970km (600 miles) due west from mainland coast. There are three primary geographic regions on mainland. The first is La Costa (the Coast), the low-lying area that runs the length of the Pacific coastline, where fertile plains and rolling rivers lead into pleasant Pacific beaches.

The center of the country is called La Sierra (the Mountains), with the Andes Mountains running all the way from north to south. German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited Ecuador in the early 19th century and named this central region "Avenue of the Volcanoes," and its star is the 5,897m (19,348 ft.) Volcán Cotopaxi, the world's fourth-highest active volcano. El Oriente (the East) runs from the edge of the Andes to the borders with Colombia and Peru, and contains a chunk of the Amazon rainforest. This area covers over 25% of the country's landmass, but is home to less than 5% of its human population.

The Galápagos archipelago consists of 13 large islands, 17 islets, and several dozen ancient rock formations scattered over 7,500 sq. km (2,925 sq. miles) of ocean. Though famous for its beaches, active volcanoes also rise from several of the islands, reaching altitudes of up to 1,600m (5,250 ft.).

advertisement

Paraguay -- The Rio Paraguay splits the country into two ecosystems, with the eastern region made up of grassy plains and wooded hills. Here the climate is more temperate, with lots of rainfall. The west can be humid too, especially along the riverbanks and marshes. However, the climate becomes drier as it stretches west into El Chaco, which features vast plains, high temperatures, and low rainfall.

Peru -- Peruvians are fond of pointing out that their country consists of three distinct geological components: coast, sierra (highlands), and selva (jungle). Although the largest cities are situated along the coast, the Amazon rainforest, which makes up nearly two-thirds of Peru, and the bold Andes Mountain range dominate the country. The Pacific coastal region is a narrow strip that runs from one end of the country to the other (a distance of some 2,200km/1,360 miles) and is almost entirely desert. The Andes, South America's longest mountain range, is the most significant feature of the Peruvian landscape. The mountain ranges in the center of Peru, north of Lima, are among the highest in the country. Within Huascarán National Park, the Cordillera Blanca stretches 200km (124 miles) and contains a dozen peaks more than 5,000m (16,400 ft.) tall; the highest is Huascarán, at 6,768m (22,200 ft.). In extreme southern Peru, near Puno and Lake Titicaca, the Andes yield to the Altiplano, the arid high plains, with altitudes of 3,300m (.11,000 ft.)The selva ranges from cloud forest in the south to low-lying flatlands in the north. Although 60% of Peru is Amazon rainforest, only about 5% of the country's human inhabitants reside there. Massive Lake Titicaca, shared with Bolivia, is the largest lake in South America and the world's highest navigable body of water (at 3,830m/12,562 ft.).

Uruguay -- Uruguay is basically an extension of the Argentine pampas and the rolling hills of southern Brazil. Most of the country is made up of flat, fertile grasslands with little forest but lots of rain. The plains break up into low rolling hills and valleys to the west and north and there are some large lakes near Brazil. The coastal area is notable for extensive dunes and beaches.

advertisement

Venezuela -- Venezuela sits at the top of the South American continent, and has a total area of 916,445 sq. km (353,841 sq. miles), including a host of offshore islands. The most significant of these islands are Isla Margarita and the Los Roques archipelago. Venezuela's coastal areas are hot and tropical. Its offshore islands are paradisiacal, with soft white sand beaches, rich coral reefs, and clear Caribbean waters.

The Andean mountains run south through the country, beginning along the northwest Caribbean coast. At 5,007m (16,423 ft.), Pico Bolívar is the country's highest mountain, and is just outside the mountain city of Mérida. To the east of the Andes, much of the central part of the country is taken up by Los Llanos (the Plains), a broad expanse of territory amazingly rich in wildlife. Waters from Los Llanos empty into the grand Orinoco River, which reaches the Atlantic Ocean via the vast tropical lowlands of the Orinoco River Delta. Farther south and west, near the world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls, the rain and snowmelt form some of the earliest headwaters of the Amazon River. Much of Venezuela's southern region is taken up by the Gran Sabana, or Great Savannah. This broad and wild area features unique tabletop mountains, or tepuis. Roraima, the largest of these tepuis, was allegedly the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost 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.