South America is the continent to guarantee wonder-filled family holidays.
It’s the land of the Incas and mysterious Easter Island. The world’s deepest canyon and highest lake are here, not to mention the Amazon, Andes and Galapagos Islands.
Kids can learn to be Gauchos in Argentina, ski in Chile, climb in Peru and visit more World Heritage sites in Brazil than in all of North America put together.
Some South and Central American countries are better suited to teenagers than toddlers and others should be approached with caution, but for the most part this intriguing continent is just awe-inspiring.
Argentina is South America’s most visited country and a family holiday great for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This is the land of Gauchos where traditional Pampas horse-ranches (estancias) make a perfect base for kids to release their inner cowboy. Buenos Aires is often compared to Paris. In reality, it’s an absolute original: buzzy and brilliant with incredible street style and as much music and dance as you’d expect from the birthplace of the Tango. Miramar and Puhuen Co have beautiful beaches, gorgeous resort hotels and an overload of theme parks and child-size fun. And Argentina is also the country for Tierra del Fuego Island. Not a plan for shorter holidays or very young kids, but spectacularly exciting adventure for older children and teenagers – don’t miss the End of the World Train, one of ‘the’ great rail journeys.Take me to Argentina
Everyone associates Brazil with fabulously glamorous Rio, the seductive city of carnivals and Christ the Redeemer. But the world’s fifth largest country is also a megadiverse environment and home to swathes of the Amazon Rainforest, Iguazu Falls, Chapada Diamantina National Park, Fernando de Noronha archipelago and the vast tropical wetlands of Pantanal. Immortalised Ipanema is a tiny fragment of the 7500km coastline and far from the loveliest beach – that’s Sancho Bay in Pernambuco. There are dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Serra da Capivara and the ruins of 17th century Jesuit missions once again swamped by forests they attempted to claim over 300 years ago. In short, Brazil’s a lifetime of holidays and, almost everyone who visits, finds it impossible not to come back, again and again.Take me to Brazil
Chile is an outdoor family adventure and, with a few extreme exceptions, very little is off-limits to kids. The long South Pacific coastline is wonderful for water sports and beaches, whale spotting and sailing. Rapa Nui’s off the coast of Chile and one of several very accessible national parks which make everything from desert to mountains, lakes and ancient culture safe and fun for families. Go skiing in the Andes and South America’s best runs start at 2000m – there’s also snowboarding down volcanoes for the truly daring. Chilean wine might not interest kids, but Chile’s wine country is a spectacular road trip. You’ll find World Heritage sites that take up entire cities, cover whole islands and protect a multitude of traditions from dancing to mining. And wherever you go and whatever you decide to do, Chile’s wild and untamed natural wonders are always present – even immense Santiago is humbled by its Andean backdrop.
The Republic of Colombia is one of the most northerly of the South American countries, with territories in Central America. Bordering Panamá; Venezuela; Brasil; Ecuador and Peru, Colombia was first colonised by the Spanish in 1499 with a Republic finally being declared in 1886. It boasts a fascinating landscape of mountains (the Andes range), rainforests and coffee plantations, with coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. In 2013 and 2014 Colombia was voted the ‘happiest country in the world’ according to the Barometer of Happiness and Hope; surely a good sign for any tourists visiting with their families. A trip here can be as relaxing, adventurous or educational as you like with plenty of museums, cathedrals and art galleries as well as stunning archipelagos of islands. Simple and good value food and accommodation is widely available, making this an easy place to visit with larger families. If you manage to get a non-stop flight from London the journey can be as short as 12 hours; with a stop it is likely to be 16.Take me to Colombia
Increasingly popular with Western expats seeking the good life, Costa Rica is a tropical haven of wholesome outdoor life waiting to be explored. Sporty travellers will find all the adventure they are looking for in the rainforest hikes, whitewater rapid kayaking and horse riding trails along deserted beaches. The very essence of the nation is captured in its motto ‘pura vida’, meaning ‘pure life’. Costa Ricans enjoy the highest quality of life in Central America and visitors to this beautiful country can easily see why. A quarter of the country is environmentally protected which is relieving when you set eyes on the thick rainforests and green carpeted mountains. Families looking for a memorable holiday can spend all day running in and out of the surf at the beach; take a canopy walk through the trees; visit sloth sanctuaries or simply sit back and watch the sun set. Prices are higher here than in other Central American countries but it is worth it; crime is relatively low and the infrastructure is good, making for a relaxing holiday. Non-stop flights from London to Costa Rica take around 12 hours.Take me to Costa Rica
Literally the middle of the world, Ecuador is one of the smallest South American countries and probably best known for the Galapagos Islands. Which, unless you’re very determined, are quite tricky to reach. Better to stick to the mainland and explore Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon instead. To the untrained eye, the wildlife here is astonishing and a guided river tour is mesmerising for kids. Ecuador also has the Andes, more than its fair share of volcanoes and Bellavista Cloudforest, famous for a vast population of hummingbirds. It’s a fairly tiny country and exploring by car is interesting for older kids and the roads in most areas are excellent. Don’t miss the capital Quito, it’s one of the finest colonial cities on the continent and the historic centre is a World Heritage site. Worth remembering: several Ecuadorian volcanoes are live, so you should check status reports before you book any travel.
Legendary Peru is far from the largest South American country but it’s the one with Machu Picchu, huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest, the Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca and the spectacular Uros Islands. Which is why many families opt for all-inclusive holidays here. There are several excellent, well-established operators specialising in Peru for kids and their tours include time for acclimatisation, age appropriate activities, fun adventures like white water rafting, mountain biking and horse riding as well as all the must-dos from hiking the Inca Trail to jungle wildlife expeditions. If you are going it alone, work to the stamina of the youngest child and remember there are trains all over the country – even to Machu Picchu – so you only have to expend as much energy as you want.Take me to Peru
Slipped between Brazil and Argentina, you could blink and easily miss Uruguay. It’s a tiny country, not nearly as famous as the gargantuan neighbours and yet, The Economist named it ‘Country of the Year’ 2013 and it’s currently ranked first in South America for democracy, peace, lack of corruption and press freedom. So what Uruguay lacks in size it clearly makes up for in quality of life. But even if it wasn’t exceptionally liberal, inclusive and tolerant, it would still have some of the loveliest beaches on the continent, fantastic water sports and the gorgeous seaside capital, Montevideo, to recommend it. And even Uruguay’s diminutive proportions work well. Kids can be as Gaucho here as they can in Argentina without travelling so far for Pampas. There are natural hot springs to visit in Rio Uruguay, camping under huge skies in the unspoiled interior, wonderful wildlife all along the Atlantic coast and you can just about fit everything into one family holiday.