Wildlife holidays in South America: Best places to see incredible wildlife in South America

Shrug off your fear and shimmy into your camo khakis because today we journey into the boundless Amazonian rainforest, passing stark Patagonian landscapes and dramatic Andean heights, to explore South America’s natural world. The staggering diversity of the continent is spread across 12 countries and three territories, with Caribbean nations such as the Dominican Republic close by. Where you choose will determine which animals you encounter, from the penguin colonies of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego to the capybara and jaguars of the Brazilian Pantanal, all edged by shores visited by whale families and their sea turtle brethren. Discover the top wildlife reserves and parks to visit within nine South American nations below.

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Photo: Berend Leupen

1. Galápagos, Ecuador

Biodiversity across Ecuador is astounding, and the Galápagos Islands are just the cherry on top of an already lively sundae. The mainland alone, squeezed between Colombia and Peru on the South Pacific coast, comes packed with a range of different habitats, such as low-lying tropical rainforests and coastal plains, perfect for supporting a number of ecosystems, which in turn support upwards of 300 species of mammal. Of these, the rare Andean spectacled bear, the two- and three-toed sloth and the armadillo are popular residents, housed alongside 1,500 species of bird – 120 of which are hummingbirds.

The jewel in the crown of this ‘mega diversity hotspot’ is of course the Galápagos, a remote series of islands with their own ecosystem that supports a fearless and thriving wildlife population. Serving as inspiration for the Origin of the Species and Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Galápagos islands showcase some of the world’s most fascinating and rare species, including centuries-old giant tortoises, land iguanas and three types of booby (blue-footed, red-footed and Nazca). Visit with a reputed and sustainable tour agency to minimise your environmental impact, basing yourself on Santa Cruz and Isabela islands for proximity to reptiles, or Fernandina and Bartolomé to see Galapagos penguins. The waters surrounding the Galápagos are also richly diverse, offering common sightings of marine iguana, sea turtle, bottlenose dolphin and orca, best seen on eco-friendly diving expeditions or cruise trips off the coast.

Galapagos | Photo: Deb Dowd

Galapagos Islands | Photo: Simon Berger

2. Costa Rica

Second on our radar of South America best countries to visit is Costa Rica, another biodiverse paradise (hosting five per cent of the planet’s biodiversity and 18 per cent of the world’s butterfly species) with a proud history of conservation. Ecotourism has been going strong in the nation since before the concept of the carbon footprint and the nation continues to put travellers in touch with nature through sustainable resorts and earth-friendly travel agencies. A ton of names come to mind when considering the best nature reserves in Costa Rica, but first, we mention the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a unique park with walkways high in the treetops, bringing visitors close encounters with myriad bird species, including the rare resplendent quetzal.

Corcovado National Park on the Oso Peninsula is a close second event, housing all four native monkey species and 400 bird species across its lowland rainforest, cloud forest, palm forest, mangrove swamp and coastal marine habitats. The 40 frog species, 28 lizard varieties and four native sea turtle species are best seen in the wetter regions, while 100 butterfly species take over at elevation. In a rather more remote location is Tortuguero National Park, accessible only by plane or boat on the Caribbean coast. Come here to see Costa Rica’s portrayal of the Amazon rainforest as well as all four native sea turtle species which nest on these beaches each year.

Then, a protected area shared by both Costa Rica and Panama is La Amistad International Peace Park, lesser-visited due to its lack of road access. Commit to the hike and be rewarded with possible sightings of all six species of native wildcat, alongside 600 bird types, 300 amphibian and reptile species, and plenty of other mammals and insects. For an easier access park in Guanacaste, try the tropical dry forest and wetlands of Palo Verde National Park, where iguanas, monkeys and crocodiles thrive. For marine life, however, Santa Rosa National Park and Marino Ballena National Park provide, protecting dolphins, rays, sea turtles and whales in both, the latter known for its large population of humpback whales and diving opportunities. Also in Santa Rosa, in-land tours can be had, allowing guided tracking of jaguar, mountain lion and ocelot into forests shared by coatis and monkeys.

Costa Rica foods

Photo: TJ Kolesnik

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The sheer scale of Brazil should hint at the diversity on offer, but the Amazon rainforest is an iconic place to start, as one of the world’s most important ecosystems home to a complex tapestry of habitats and high-density flora where 2,000 animal species coexist

3. Brazil

Covered in its near entirety by the Amazon basin, Brazil is a rainforest nation like no other, with side helpings of coastal forest, savannah and mountain regions. The sheer scale of Brazil should hint at the diversity on offer (making up half of South America’s landmass!), but the Amazon rainforest is an iconic place to start, as one of the world’s most important ecosystems home to a complex tapestry of habitats and high-density flora where 2,000 animal species coexist. Pink dolphins swim in its rivers, while sloths and golden lion tamarins clamber up in the canopy above. On the ground, anacondas, jaguars and poison dart frogs ensure you’ll never fully relax until you leave, but that’s what makes the Amazon such a memorable place. Other sites to consider include the starker landscapes of Emas National Park, where treeless savannah serves as the perfect setting for termite houses, as well as giant anteaters, giant armadillos, maned wolves and native greater rheas.

Brazil is also home to the world’s largest wetland, an area that shelters a great many birds, mammals and reptiles. In the rainy season, the Pantanal is largely submerged allowing for aquatic plants, marine life (and plenty of caimans) to dominate, though outside of the wettest months, land mammals such as tapirs, giant anteaters and jaguars make themselves known. Another freshwater wonder lies in Bonito, its underwater stalagmites serving as a labyrinth for 250 species of fish, including stingrays, best seen in full diving gear or snorkel. Above the surface, macaws vie for space among the sandstone formations of Buraco das Araras. For South American tours at sea, Fernando de Noronha may excite with its saltwater ecosystem – home to sea turtles, rays, reef sharks and more – surrounding a chain of islands of the same name. Abrolhos Archipelago meanwhile is known as a migration hotspot for humpback whales and ocean birds from South America across.

For a drier time of it, Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park is based on an ancient plateau with canyons and rock formations serving as home to maned wolves, toucans, and armadillos. The Atlantic Forest can also provide some shelter, though its size has been hit hard by deforestation in recent years, threatening the habitat of the lion tamarin and three-toed sloth. Come rainy season in Lencois Maranhenses National Park, prepare yourself for heavy rainfall. This wetness is much appreciated by the wolf fish however, a unique creature which lies dormant in dry mud until the rains return and the lagoons fill up once more.

Brazil | Photo: Fabio Hanashiro

Brazil | Photo: Paulo Infante

5. Peru

Now on to Peru, where trekking holidays South America take on a whole new meaning. As well as being home to the Andes Mountain, Peru is home to two more distinct regions, the arid Pacific coast in the west and expansive Peruvian Amazon jungle (covering 60% of the country) towards the east. Hiking in the Andes is one option for travellers curious to see the various ecosystems of Peru, and starting in Cusco is a good way to go for both Amazon forest and mountain adventures, convening at Manu Park to spot both Andean llamas and Amazonian macaws. Salina y Aguada Blanca National Park meanwhile is known for its Andean wildlife, such as native cats, foxes and pumas foregrounding the scenic volcano Misti. Day tours start from Arequipa city and, in spring, the ancient tradition of wild vicuña shearing begins in earnest. Also close to the lofty city of Arequipa is Colca Canyon, a brilliant location to catch the flight of the condor real, a sacred bird that flies over the canyon each morning in search of food. Though you can trek the Colca Canyon trail, some say it is harder than the Inca trail in terms of altitude, so a guided tour may be best.

 

The Amazon Forest is reachable from Iquitos, though this city has no road access. What this region lacks in creature comforts, however, it does make up for in creatures, including exotic birds, various species of monkey and jaguar, the most iconic big cats in South America. Cruise, raft and canoe along winding Amazon River tributaries that run through the forest, spotting crocodiles, pink river dolphins and giant river otters from the water. To learn more of the coastal region, a trip to Ballestra Island from Paracas is a must. Known as the Peruvian Galapagos, Ballestra is home to great biodiversity, spanning marine birdlife (penguins and pelicans) and other marine wildlife (dolphins and sea lions). Paracas is a great base not too far from Lima, offering a multitude of island tours and arid desert reserves on the coast.

Machu Picchu

Photo: Ray Berry

Peru | Photo: Alex Azabache

5. Argentina

We all know Argentina has good steak and great wine, but did you know it also boasts a variety of habitats, covering the Patagonian steppe, Andean peaks, lush rainforest, marshlands and grasslands? Now you know, discover the wildlife across each area, starting with a visit to a Magellanic penguin colony in Patagonia, down the Atlantic coast from Puerto Madryn. The penguins settle and mate on this part of the Punta Tombo National Reserve in late September every year, best watched from a distance on a boat tour from Puerto Rawson. Also near the city of Puerto Madryn, the Peninsula Valdés provides another wildlife spectacle off the coast, with its Southern Right whale population that plays, mates and hunts in the area. View the action from shore or book a boat tour from Puerto Pirámides, a town known for adventure tourism and decent accommodation options, though camping on the reserve is also a fun choice.

In the mountains and on grassland, horseback riding becomes the best form of transportation, tracking diverse fauna in the Pampas grasses (including armadillos and guanacos) or getting close to wild horses and flying condors in the Andes foothills outside of Mendoza. Hiking in northern Argentina will also get you close to llamas and alpacas, particularly on the trails around the Humahuaca Valley. Towards the south, where temperatures start to drop on approach to Antarctica, Argentina offers something completely different by way of Tierra del Fuego. In this region and the islands beyond, the wildlife is largely untouched by humans, such as the cormorant colony in the Beagle Channel which you might spot on your flight to Ushuaia city. Otherwise, catamaran island tours can allow for views of the birds, sea lions and colonies of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins in winter (Nov-Mar) at Mackinlay Pass.

Patagonia | Photo: Chris Stenger

6. Chile

Already a strong contender for wine-loving South America holidays, Chile also holds its own on the wildlife front. Its position between the high Andes and the cold Pacific Ocean helps make Chile both the driest and most naturally beautiful nations in the world, spanning the Atacama desert and Patagonian steppe. Amongst all this, a series of microclimates and ecosystems allow for a diverse collection of flora and fauna. In the northern desert region, you’ll be surprised to find a trio of flamingo species thriving in an arid realm, concentrated around the lakes of the Atacama salt flats and Los Flamencos National Reserve. The South American gray fox, as well as guanacos and vicuñas, also survive in sparse grassy areas, but it’s the viscachas (part chinchilla, part rabbit) that do best in the dusty plains.

On a trip from the capital, consider visiting Río Los Cipreses National Reserve (100 kilometres south of Santiago) for condor sightings at high altitude. Other animals to see here include guanacos in the valleys and burrowing parrots on the riverside cliffs, chiefly in summer. Towards the remote southern regions, Chile begins to split and diverge into hundreds of islands, clustered into seven main archipelago groups. One of these groups is named Chiloé after its largest island and is accessible by ferry from the mainland. Just a decade ago, blue whales were discovered in the waters surrounding, while Humboldt and Magellanic penguins colonise the islands of Puñihuil from September through March. Sharing the honour with Argentina, Chile also claims one section of Tierra del Fuego – the continent’s southernmost point – for itself. Catch Magellanic penguins and sea lions here of course, not forgetting Bahía Inútil’s king penguins and Admiralty Sound’s albatross colonies (from September to April).

Photo: Guilherme de Alvarenga

San Pedro de Atacama | Photo: Alex Wolo

7. Colombia

One of the best places in South America to visit on a budget, Colombia also happens to be the world’s most biodiverse country by area. Find out what this means on safari to the eastern plains, trekking in the Amazonian regions or even cruising off of the Pacific coast. If safari holidays South America are what you’re after, head to the grassland plains of Llanos in an open jeep (or on horseback for those with buns of steel), slowing down on sight of capybaras, deer, anaconda and more. Juan Solito Ecolodge in La Aurora reserve is a hub of the action here in Llanos, primed for bird watching and jaguar tracking. For more avian diversity, Minca in the foothills of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a great introduction to Colombia’s toucans, owls and woodpeckers, led by Jungle Joe.

Birding adventures can still be had for travellers based out of Bogotá, namely at Chicaque Park (two hours’ drive south of the capital) which, alongside a colourful showing of hummingbirds, toucans and tanagers, also offers encounters with sloth. But, to see Colombia’s Amazonian regions, you’ll have to reach the port city of Leticia, on the border between Colombia, Brazil and Peru. It’s here you can take a boat or trekking tour to see monkeys, snakes, dolphins and evermore colourful birds concentrated along the rivers. For pink river dolphins, travel to Damas del Nara lake where a friendly ecolodge awaits. Come up for air along Colombia’s Pacific coast, basing yourself in any El Chocó beach town between June and October to see humpback whales in huge numbers swimming offshore. Northwards on the Caribbean Chocó coast meanwhile, leatherback turtles takes precedence. Take a midnight tour to Acandi (via Capurgana village) to see these two-metre-long beasts lay their eggs on the beach.

Colombia | Photo: Diego Guzman

Photo: Ákos Helgert

8. Guyana

Though not the most well known for holidays in South America, Guyana rises fast as the region’s best kept secret in wildlife-watching circles. Densely forested throughout, Guyana is a sanctuary for animal and plant life, including rare species such as the giant anteater and the cobalt blue tarantula. Kaieteur National Park is one of the nation’s wildlife hotspots, characterised by jungle and a 226-metre cliff face over which Kaieteur Falls cascades. Those who commit to the plane ride from Georgetown or a multi-day hike, can bliss out on the trails surrounding the falls, spotting neon orange birds and golden frogs on the way. Despite being a former British colony, Guyana still lacks infrastructure, but, in recent years – led by Amerindian communities – improvements have been made. Organised South America tours continue to come available in Guyana, such as weekend getaways from Georgetown on the Essequibo and Mahaica rivers, the former crowned by the Baganara Island Resort while the latter is famous for sightings of Guyana’s national bird, the hoatzin.

A broader visit to Guyana might take place wholly in the Rupununi region, spanning the rivers and savannahs of the remote southwest, where community-run ecolodges are the main mode of accommodation. The lodges in both Rewa and Surama are highlights for their boat and trekking safaris, led by local experts. Or, the Caiman House Field Station and the nearby Karanabu Lodge both provide insights into local conservation efforts for black caiman and other wildlife. Waikin Ranch to the west meanwhile offers the chance to live on a working cattle ranch, riding around the site on horseback for run-ins with anteaters, while Mapari Wilderness Camp in the Kanuku Mountains towards the south is the best place for jaguar and harpy eagle sightings.

Iwokrama Forest Park is also technically a part of North Rupununi and the most likely place to spot jaguar, tapir and giant armadillo. Atta Rainforest Lodge and its nearby canopy walkway are popular among howler monkey enthusiasts, with the only other choice being the Iwokrama River Lodge, both a good 14-hour bus journey from the capital! South Rupununi is still in the process of opening up to tourism, with early offerings from the Guyanese cowboys of Wichabai Ranch. Bear in mind the remoteness of this region when booking, enlisting the help of a tour operator to book flights, ferries and car transfers together. Independent visits require pre-arranging lodge stays and transfers to avoid getting stuck in the jungle without help!

Guyana | Photo: Dinesh Chandrapal

Guyana | Photo: Jolanda de Koning

9. The Dominican Republic

Finishing up our list of nature holidays South America, the Dominican Republic gets a look in chiefly for record-breaking gatherings of North Atlantic humpback whales in the Caribbean Sea. Each winter, between January and April, the Dominican Republic turns into a hotspot for these majestic 40-ton whales, when as many as 3,000 of them gather to flirt, mate and give birth in the area. To see them, you’ll want to journey to the Samaná Peninsula, watching from the shore at Punta Balandra land observatory (between Samaná and Las Galeras) or hopping on a whale-watching boat tour from anywhere in the vicinity.

Besides whales, the Dominican Republic also has more in the way of marine life, primarily dolphins surrounding the cays of Los Haitises National Park (also accessible by boat from Samaná) and Antillean manatees within the Estero Hondo Marine Mammal Sanctuary. Moreover, the reptiles of Lake Enriquillo in the southwest might entice you with their smiles, though the national park at large also homes the rhinoceros iguana and Ricord’s iguana amongst its tropical forest habitat. Lastly to mention are the coral reefs of Montecristi and Pedernales, making up just a small chunk of the Dominican Republic’s 1,600-kilometre coastline. Diving and snorkelling are best in these two spots, with the Montecristi Underwater National Park home to the largest and most biodiverse reef in the northwest, while Pedernales lies to the southwest in an area frequented by hawksbill sea turtles.

Dominican Republic | Photo: Juanca Paulino

Dominican Republic | Photo: Eliezer Pujols

Mr. Hudson highlight image

Each winter, between January and April, the Dominican Republic turns into a hotspot for these majestic 40-ton whales, when as many as 3,000 of them gather to flirt, mate and give birth in the area

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