You’re doing your overland South America route planning. Hitting the PanAmerican north/south corridor route between Colombia and Tierra del Fuego is the way to do it, right? A PanAm road-trip down the western side of South America is a terrific, jaw-droppingly gorgeous drive. With adventures galore… stunning scenery, awesome mountains, simmering volcanos, breath-taking hikes, challenging routes, relaxing hot-springs, interesting towns, tasty food and fascinating historic sites. All these are served with a generous sprinkling of llamas and the occasional chunky chap in a brightly coloured poncho. Sounds just the ticket for ‘doing’ South America doesn’t it?
But we’d really like to encourage you to think ‘beyond the PanAm’. There is so much more to South America than doing the Andes with a few side-trips to beaches or jungle camps. Here are just 10 of the highlights you’re missing if you limit your South America trip to the PanAm corridor:
1. Jaguars and Pantanal Wildlife
The Andes wildlife is nice, but you’ll quickly get a bit blasé seeing yet another llama/alpaca/vicuña/ guanaco wandering the PanAm. Brazil’s Panatanal is one of the best areas on the planet for wildlife and certainly the best place in South America. In season, there’s a good chance of spotting jaguars. And there are anteaters, giant otters, caimans, capybaras, plus more wetland birds than you can shake a stick at. The density and diversity of wildlife here is astonishing. Tootle down the road from Poconé to Porto Jofre and it’s all there, just sitting at the side of the track (well, except for the Jags which do take a bit of hunting out)! The Pantanal is unmissable for any wildlife lover and a visit here ties in nicely with its neighbour and the next thing you’re missing…
2. Jesuit Missions
The Andes are full of interesting Inca stuff, but the east has a different history. Argentina and Paraguay have their Jesuit Missions but being brutally honest, they’re little more than piles of rubble compared to Bolivia. The best Missions by far, are in the east Bolivian lowlands between Santa Cruz and the Brazil border. The extraordinary art, craftsmanship and restoration work on this network of beautiful Jesuit communities must be seen to be believed. An unforgettable part of South American overlanding.
3. Rocket launches
Did you know that from the space station in Kourou, French Guiana you can watch a real, live rocket launch? And that they launch normally twice, sometimes three times per month?
It’s one of the most spectacular sights on the planet and one of the highlights of our whole South America trip. And it’s FREE!
4. The best beaches
Yes, there’s the odd little gem of a beach on the Caribbean coast of Colombia or in northern Ecuador, but it’s an indisputable fact that by far the best beaches of South America are on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. Some of the best surfing and kite-surfing in the world too. Missing the fine Brazilian beaches is your loss 😊
5. Giant Leather-back turtles
“Oh but we already saw turtles in Belize/Galapagos/Timbuktu/ Wherever… “. But wait. The giant leatherbacks of French Guiana and Suriname are no ordinary turtles. These are monster, giant leatherback turtles. They are huge. Up to 2.2m (7ft) long and weighing up to a whopping 700kg (1,500lbs). Forget all your previous turtle experiences, watching these prehistoric monsters nest on the beach is an utterly unique and extraordinary experience.
6. Río de Janeiro
If you think you can ‘do’ South America without sipping a Caipirinha on Copacabana beach, or taking in the Sugar Loaf view, or the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue…. Think again! 😊
Rio is just the super-coolest place. Stick to the tourist areas and soak-up what Brazil is all about!
7. European Caribbean Culture in The Guyanas
Think you can speak English? Well try again in the former British colony of Guyana. Let’s just say they have their own way with ‘our’ words and the place has a rather Jamaican feel maan 😊 In Suriname the primary language is Dutch; you get the best creole cuisine on the continent there. And French Guiana… did you know that it’s in the European Union? They speak only French, spend the Euro and have the best croissants outside Paris. All this with a Caribbean twist. The Guyanas are an amazing mix of cultures that few vehicle-based overlanders get to see. A bit of effort to get up that way, but you’re worth it!
8. Lencois Maranhenses
Wow! Just Wow! The extraordinary dunes and fresh-water lagoons of Lencois Maranhenses are remote, but certainly up there as one of our ultra-mega-highlights of the whole continent. Equal in natural ‘wow-factor’ to the awesome Salar de Uyuni or Torres del Paine, but much, much less visited… simply because it just happens not to be on the Pan-Am super-highway.
9. Paraguayan Chaco
South America’s vast and starkly beautiful flatland. It runs across eastern Bolivia, northern Argentina, into Brazil and most of Paraguay. Roads can be tough going and the fierce heat in summer is relentless (yeah… we found that out by accident! ☹) but it’s a fascinating side of South America. The views are ‘other-wordly’ and it’s off the beaten track – a unique insight into one of South America’s little visited sides.
10. Real Amazon Adventure
Well yes… you can of course get a taste of the Amazon jungle in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru within just a few hours’ drive or a short flight from the PanAm, and that is indeed a great experience. But only by crossing Brazil do you get a true feel for the vastness of this dense wilderness, the people who live there and the issues the region faces. If you like dirt-roading, you can drive over 800km through the jungle between Manaus and Porto Velho. If you don’t like dirt-roading… put your vehicle on an Amazon barge and take it all in from the water. Either way, it’s a real Amazon adventure.
The toughest thing writing this was limiting the list to just ten things so I’m going to cheat and add in a few more. We left out viewing the spectacular Iguassu Falls, puzzling over the ancient petroglyphs of Aishalton, wandering the Portugese colonial Ouro Preto, touring the impressive Itaipu Dam, mulling-over the fascinating beef-history of Uruguay at Fray Bentos, swimming with Amazon pink river dolphins, investigating the ‘Ruta del Che’, ‘losing a leg’ in the fervedouros of Parque Jalapão, visiting the Royal Palace of Petropolis, staying in the jungle with African Maroon tribes, wondering at the striking architecture of Brasilia, catching the capoeira ‘street fights’ in Salvador, checking out the bold pink opera house of Manaus, snorkelling in aquamarine rivers with fresh-water tropical fish in Bonito. We really only skimmed the surface; I’m sure you’d find more.
Now here’s a final route-planning thought to end on… if you limit your trip to the PanAm corridor you miss over half of the continent. Look at a map. The PanAm corridor misses 7 of the continent’s 13 countries. It’s hard to say that you are ‘doing’ South America whilst setting foot in less than half of the countries. More importantly, the PanAm doesn’t even touch the largest, most diverse and most fabulously colourful country on the continent. OK… admittedly it’s quite a commitment and a slog to make it all the way up to the Guyanas. But we beg you to pleeeeease at least consider the epic Brazil… it deserves at least a teeny smidgeon of your adventure time. It’s a South America utterly at odds with the PanAm corridor. Don’t take our word for it… check it out for yourself 😊