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Five alternatives to South America’s top destinations

Birds of the Pantanal © Craig Fast1. Forget the Amazon, go to the Pantanal, Brazil

The Amazon is an irresistible draw for tourists in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, but most of them don’t know about the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands. Snuggled up to the Amazon’s southernmost corner in Brazil and covering 230,000 sq km, the Pantanal shares similar wildlife with the Amazon but the density of animals and birds is much greater. The vegetation is also far less opaque meaning your chances of spotting caiman, capybara, monkeys, anteaters, armadillos, jaguars, giant otters, anacondas and macaws, to name a few, are considerably higher. Many other activities on offer are similar to those in the Amazon, from piranha fishing to boat rides, but with the added advantage of (slightly) fewer bugs to contend with.

Best time to visit: Seasonal extremes. Rainy season (October to March) forces the animals to cluster on raised patches of dry land whilst the dry season means the animals are drawn to watering holes. Either way, it’s a wildlife bonanza.

Related feature: Touring the Pantanal with the world's most hardcore guide

Parque Nacional Lauca © Craig Fast2. Forget Patagonia, go to Parque Nacional Lauca, Chile

Patagonia, a vast, largely unpopulated wilderness of icebergs, oilfields and mountains, stretches across southern Argentina and Chile. Parque Nacional Lauca, tucked into the far north of Chile next to the Peruvian and Bolivian borders, is smaller but far more manageable on a shorter trip. It’s also much less touristed. As well as containing some of the world’s highest lakes and offering views of the snow-capped twin Payachata volcanoes (Parinacota at 6,350m and Pomerape at 6,240m), the smoking peak of Guallatire and Bolivia’s highest volcano, Sajama (6,542m), Lauca is one of the best places in South America to see the critters of the high Andes: alpaca, llama, vicuňa (a rare relative of the llama and alpaca), flamingos, vizcacha (a bizarre rabbit-like animal with a squirrel’s tail), emu and Andean gulls. The easiest way to see it is to hire a car and drive the scenic Route 11.

Best time to visit: Year round, although the rains of January and February can make some off-road tracks impassable. Bring warm clothes and sun cream – essential at this altitude (3,000m-6,300m).

Related feature: Chile's Route 11: one of the world's most scenic drives

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Top ten pages on OT
1. Five alternatives to South America's top destinations

2. Hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro

3. Responsible travel on the Inca Trail

4. The Ten Commandments for night bus travellers

5. Touring the Pantanal with the world's most hardcore guide

6. The two month slump: Colca Canyon, Peru

7. Images: South America roundup

8. Images: Panama - San Blas Islands (Kuna Ayala)

9. Video: giant otter eating a caiman

10. Traveller Fishbowl: England

Overland Traveller copyright © Emma Field 2010