Chile, Argentina & Brazil

With flamboyant cities, lunar landscapes and passionate people, these incredible countries beguile and amaze with their diversity and energy. Travel writer, Samantha Wilson, describes her journey through these three contrasting countries – from tango dancers and gaucho cowboys, to glacial wilderness and serene vineyards.

Describing my journey to Chile, Argentina and Brazil is a challenge. Astounding? Certainly. Unforgettable? Without a doubt. But perhaps the word which best describes my experience is diverse. In this dramatic landscape, everything is a paradox. For every snow-capped Andean peak there is a cosmopolitan, free-spirited city. Tango dancers and gaucho cowboys, glacial wilderness and serene vineyards, at every turn I saw contrasts as clear as the blue skies over the Pampas grasslands. Like the seductive tango, I swirled through gargantuan landscapes, from tropical rainforests and the driest desert on the planet, to laid-back cities in the heart of the wine country and capitals which would be insulted to be described as such.

Sand In The Toes: From Pacific Beaches To Arid Deserts

Chile flies somewhat under the radar compared to its louder, more flamboyant neighbour Argentina. Landing in Santiago I was, for a moment, almost disappointed by its European vibe. I had come in search of Latin exuberance and never-ending vistas, and this all felt too familiar. But it wasn’t a feeling that lasted long. How can you not love a country whose capital is towered over by jagged peaks dusted in snow, or where the wilderness is among the most dramatic on the planet? From the Presidential Palace and colonial buildings of Santiago, to Viña del Mar beach resort with white sands lapped by the Pacific Ocean, it was a tantalizing taster of what lay ahead.

Chile stretches like a long finger down the western flank of South America. Its 2,653 miles traverses every imaginable landscape, from stark desert to Antarctic tundra. In its northern reaches the Atacama Desert stands as the highest in the world, a harsh and forbidding environment where the sun shines in a cloudless sky and winds whip past volcanoes. In the heart of the Atacama Desert there are places researchers believe haven’t seen rainfall for 400 years.

The landscape is bizarre, fantastical and more reminiscent of Mars than Earth. I watched wisps of smoke drift out of conical volcanoes, the steaming Tatio Geysers bubble, and lakes of red, green and blue lure Andean flamingos to seek warmth in their thermal waters.

Wine And Tango: The Beating Heart Of Argentina

The Andes create a formidable natural border between Chile and Argentina, and the journey across them was a nose-pressed-against-the-window adventure of jaw-dropping views. In the unexpected way of South America, the harsh beauty of the Andes suddenly gave way to serenity and gentle charm. Rows of immaculate vines guided us on our way to Mendoza, the capital of Argentina’s wine country.

I had long associated this region with Argentina’s famous wines, and a tour of the Maipù vineyards brought to life the production and skills involved in creating world class wines in difficult terrain. Yet it was Mendoza itself which came as the biggest surprise. Laid-back and cosmopolitan, it had leafy plazas and a sophisticated nightlife where I spent evenings sipping local Malbec in chic wine bars along Avenida Arístides. From Mendoza, I crossed the mint-green fields of the Pampas grasslands, tended by the legendary gaucho cowboys. And once again, the landscape changed.

Buenos Aires needs little introduction, this big-hearted, free-spirited city showing the rest of the world what passion truly means. The buildings are iconic, and the Casa Rosada had me humming ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ under my breath. The Recoletta Cemetery, where Argentina’s political greats are watched over by hundreds of stray cats, stirred an eerie fascination. To the roar of crowds from La Boca football stadium, I sipped mate (a caffeinated drink which is the cornerstone of social life) in bohemian cafés. And it’s true what they say: in Buenos Aires, people really do burst spontaneously into tango in the streets.

Brazil: Where It’s Carnival Every Day

If there’s one city which gives Buenos Aires a run for its money, it’s Rio de Janeiro. While the Argentine capital is seductive and sultry, Rio is cheeky and wild. I wasn’t there in time for the legendary Rio de Janeiro Carnival, where the streets burst into a firework of colour, music and revelry, but Rio and its residents seem to do everything with that same enthusiasm all year round. I lounged on Copacabana Beach, where beautiful people strutted their stuff along the sand, and then looked down on the same beach from the lofty heights of Sugar Loaf Mountain. I headed into the clouds to stand beneath the Christ the Redeemer statue looking over a jumble of neighbourhoods below. Gritty, fascinating and exuberant, Rio was everything I had imagined.

Towards the end of my trip, there was one last surprise in store. And it came in the guise of Iguaçu Falls. The long Paraná River snakes through South America’s last tract of Atlantic rainforest, abruptly ending as it reaches the border with Argentina. Here, the water tumbles dramatically over the edge of the Paraná Shelf creating 275 separate waterfalls that run for almost 1.8 miles. It’s one of the world’s most astounding spectacles, a seemingly synchronised performance of cataracts and falls, the largest of which is the ominous Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). I spent the day wandering the suspended walkways, protecting my picnic from coatis, confident in their cuteness, and getting thoroughly soaked as I stared into the abyss of smoky mist.

Next Time…

It had been a journey of contradictions, where the energy of these countries soared over mountains and deserts, and exploded in cities in fiery pizazz. Yet I had experienced just half the region’s magic, for in the far south a different world awaits. Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is a maze of craggy granite peaks looming over milky turquoise lakes, blue glaciers and golden grasslands. Meanwhile, a cruise along the wild Última Esperanza Fjord – meaning Last Hope – promises 1,000 year old glaciers and barking sea lions. But that will have to wait for my next trip.

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