Family Vacations to South and Central America

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South & Central America – Family Vacation Guide

From culturally rich Costa Rica in Central America to the wildly diverse countries of South America — Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay — not to mention the Republic of Colombia, one of the most northerly of the South American countries with territories in Central America, this is a land of many wonders. South and Central America will appeal to families seeking all kinds of enrichment and discovery.

Kids can learn to be gauchos in Argentina, ski in Chile, climb mountains in Peru and visit more World Heritage sites in Brazil than in all of North America put together. The world’s deepest canyon and highest lake are here, not to mention the lush rain forests of the Amazon, the towering peaks of the Andes, the mysterious sculptures of Easter Island and the wildlife-filled islands of the Galapagos.

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.

Where to Go


Argentina is South America’s most visited country and a family vacation that’s great for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This is the land of gauchos, where traditional estancias (Pampas horse ranches) 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 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 place for shorter vacations 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.

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Everyone associates Brazil with fabulously glamorous Rio, the seductive city of carnivals and the Christ the Redeemer statue. But the world’s fifth largest country is also a mega-diverse environment and home to swaths of the Amazon Rainforest, Iguazu Falls, Chapada Diamantina National Park, Fernando de Noronha archipelago and the vast tropical wetlands of Pantanal. Rio’s immortalized Ipanema is a tiny fragment of this massive coastline and far from the loveliest beach (we think that’s Sancho Bay in Pernambuco). There are dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites across Brazil, including Serra da Capivara and the ruins of 17th century Jesuit missions that have been swamped by forests they attempted to claim over 300 years ago. In short, Brazil offers a lifetime of adventures and almost everyone who visits finds it impossible not to come back, again and again.

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Chile is the place for outdoor family adventures and with a few extreme exceptions very little is off-limits to kids. The long Pacific coastline is wonderful for water sports and beaches, whale spotting and sailing. Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) is located off the coast of Chile. There, one of several very accessible national parks make everything from volcanic craters to a rugged coastline, not to mention the island’s ancient culture, safe and fun for families. In the Andes, you’ll find some of South America’s best ski runs. There’s also snowboarding down volcanoes for the truly daring. Even though wine will not interest kids, Chile’s wine country is a spectacular road trip. You’ll find World Heritage sites that take up entire cities, spread across whole islands and protect a multitude of traditions from dancing to mining. 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.

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The Republic of Colombia is one of the most northerly of the South American countries, with territories in Central America. Bordering Panamá; Venezuela; Brazil; Ecuador and Peru, Colombia was first colonized 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 visiting families. A trip here can be as relaxing, adventurous or educational as you like with plenty of museums, cathedrals and art galleries to explore, as well as stunning archipelagos. Simple and good-value food and accommodation is widely available, making this an appealing place to visit with larger families.

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Costa Rica

Increasingly popular with Western expats seeking the good life, Costa Rica is a tropical haven of wholesome outdoor life waiting to be explored. Sporty travelers 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,” which means “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 lay eyes on the thick rainforests and green carpeted mountains. Families looking for a memorable vacation 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 vacation.

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Literally the middle of the world, Ecuador is one of the smallest South American countries and probably best known for the Galapagos Islands — which are quite tricky to reach. To the untrained eye, the wildlife here is astonishing and a guided river tour is mesmerizing 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 of Quito: It’s one of the finest colonial cities on the continent and the historic center is a World Heritage site. Worth remembering: Several Ecuadorian volcanoes are live, so you should check status reports before you book any travel.

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Legendary Peru is far from the largest South American country, but it’s the one with Machu Picchu, huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest, the Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca and the spectacular Uros Islands. There are several excellent, well-established operators specializing in Peru for kids and their all-inclusive tours include time for acclimatization, 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 planning a trip on your own, 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.

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Slipped between Brazil and Argentina, you could blink and easily miss Uruguay. It’s a tiny country — not nearly as famous as the gargantuan neighbors — and yet it’s 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 weren’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. Kids can experience gaucho life here — just as they can in Argentina – but without traveling too far. There are natural hot springs to visit, camping under huge skies in the unspoiled interior and wonderful wildlife all along the Atlantic coast. Even Uruguay’s diminutive proportions work well: You can just about fit everything into one family vacation.

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