The pristine surroundings and unique wildlife of Ecuador’s archipelago are a natural marvel....
South America has over 6.8 million square miles of geographical and cultural diversity. But it’s more than just terra firma. The region also includes a collection of archipelagos and islands, from the paradise of the Caribbean to the most remote landmasses at the ends of the earth. Here are six options that will take your breath away.
- The Tigre Delta, an oasis of peace and natural wonders on the outskirts of Buenos Aires
- Barú and Providencia, palm trees, coconuts and warmth on the Colombian Caribbean.
- Chiloé, a land of legends in Chile’s verdant south.
- Galapagos, a paragon of diversity on the Ecuadorian Pacific.
- The Islands of Lake Titicaca, home to ancestral cultures in the Peruvian altiplano.
Text Walter Duer
A labyrinth of rivers and canals, the Tigre Delta is a world of tranquility and natural wonders just a half-hour drive from Buenos Aires.
One of the five largest deltas in the world, the Tigre Delta is less than 20 miles from the bustle of Buenos Aires. Even though it’s just half an hour from the ultra-cosmopolitan capital, visitors feel like they have entered another world, a realm of infinite waterways, peaceful inhabitants and lively nautical activity. Tigre can be reached by car, bus or taxi, but once there, boat will be your primary means of transport, and almost all of them depart from the port terminal. Bus-boats, inter-island craft, water-taxis, special services provided by hotels and restaurants – getting around is easy, and the options are practically endless.
When to go
While there are year-round activities, hotels open 365 days a year and restaurants that fill up even on cold, rainy weekends, the best time to visit is in spring, when the greenery is especially lush, your chances of catching a chill are low, and the mosquitoes have yet to begin their persistent summertime assault.
What to do
Local lodgings provide visitors with natural walking paths, small boats for exploring the twists and turns of the rivers (in some cases, fun and easy-to-use pedal boats) and water activities, if you’re lucky. There’s a wide range of options. Wakeboarding is popular these days, joining longtime favorites like kayaking and rowing.www.escueladeremo.com.ar
If you’d like to explore the delta, you can take a tour aboard a classic craft from 1922 or on a tourist boat. You can also trek around on foot, take a horseback ride through the scrublands, go bird watching (the area is home to many species) or take a fishing excursion.www.navegarporeldelta.com.ar www.macadamdeltatour.com.ar www.deltaventura.com.ar
Vivero Villa Mónica offers courses on gardening in small spaces, which you can cap off with a culinary treat.http://sites.google.com/site/viverovillamonica
Had your fill of nature? Just take a boat back to the town of Tigre and lay down some chips at the roulette wheel or the blackjack and poker tables at the local casino, Trilenium, which also hosts regular musical performances.www.trileniumcasino.com.ar
Where to stay
Rumbo 90º Delta Lodge & Spa. Maximum comfort and stylish rooms in a natural environment. From US$250 (weekends). Promotional rates from US$150.www.rumbo90.com.ar
Delta Eco Spa. Splash pools, endless pools, Jacuzzis and spa treatments to help you relax completely. From US$250.www.deltaecospa.com
A hostel and teahouse with an unmistakable German influence, complete with alpine-style cabins and bungalows. Excellent food. From US$100 (weekends).
La Becasina Delta Lodge.
Just a few rooms in a remote location (guaranteeing minimal noise) and beautiful views of the delta from all vantage points. Total serenity. From US$240.
Where to eat
Beixa Flor. Homemade pastas prepared fresh, with a gourmet touch. The crispelles (basil crepes filled with eggplant, ham and three cheeses, baked in tomato and cream sauce) and the nutmeg papardelle (tossed with cream, ham, mushrooms and chives) are truly sinful.www.beixaflor.com.ar
Atelier Chez Lissie.
The wood-burning oven turns out delicious meats and river fish, a regional delicacy, while the fireplace creates a cozy ambiance even in the middle of winter. Frequent classical music performances.
El gato blanco.
At lunchtime, this café serves grilled meats to be savored slowly with a nice wine. In the afternoon, stop for tea and a selection of homemade pastries that will make you feel great about putting on a couple of extra pounds.
Where to shop
Tigre boasts one of the largest folk-art fairs in Argentina: the Puerto de Frutos. It’s the local shopping center par excellence – options on the delta islands are few and far between. As the name suggests, there are many fruit stands, plus a seemingly endless array of products, from handmade wicker furniture to leather, locally produced clothing and flowers.www.puertodefrutos-arg.com.ar
Paradise on the Colombian Caribbean
Texto Helena Hernández
Barú and Providencia are islands off the Atlantic Coast that dazzle with their tropical climate and exotic landscapes, perfect for getting away from it all.
Extending like an arm over the Caribbean Sea, this jewel of an island is a 90-minute trip from the stunning city of Cartagena. The three small towns of Arcadia, Santa Ana and Barú offer a natural alternative to the urban glamour and colonial architecture of the city. With a climate slightly more humid than Cartagena, Barú boasts pristine beaches, clear waters bathed in light and a wonderful landscape, complete with colorful coral and exotic sea life. Visitors travel by land and then cross the Canal del Dique by ferry (eight dollars per car).
What to do
Thanks to clear waters and abundant natural wonders, diving off the beaches of Barú and the Islas del Rosario (25 minutes away by boat) is a terrific option. Professional divers guide underwater explorers on three-hour tours. Snorkeling excursions also give visitors a chance to see marine life up close.
On a one-and-a-half-mile-long route through the island’s mangrove swamps, you’ll see different species of mangroves, fish, crustaceans and birds. For something more romantic, try the sunset sailboat tour through the Ciénaga de Portonaito, accompanied by live saxophone.
The greatest attraction is the Parque Nacional de Corales del Rosario: the 43 islands, home to coral reefs and an impressive variety of flora and fauna, are just a 25-minute boat ride from Barú.
Where to stay & eat
The Royal Decameron Barú is the only large hotel in Barú. It offers an all-inclusive plan that features activities like aerobics, yoga, dance classes, mini-diving courses, kayaking, snorkeling and nighttime shows.
Those seeking adventure should head to Playa Blanca, one of the island’s most popular destinations. You can sleep in a hammock or rent a campsite from US$3 to US$50.
The island’s most elegant dining experiences can be found at the Hotel Decameron, but you can purchase great lobster – the local delicacy – right on the beach.
There are no malls on the island, but informal vendors on the beaches sell everything from conch bracelets and necklaces to hair braids known as shakiras.
A paradise of solitary beaches ideal for those looking to escape the everyday grind, this seven-square-mile island was declared a “Seaflower” by UNESCO in 2000, a designation given to the best-preserved areas on the planet. Providencia is located right next to the Isla de San Andrés, but separated by an artificial canal. The “lover’s bridge” connects Providencia to Santa Catalina, another adjacent island. The inhabitants speak Spanish, English and Creole. With an average temperature of 77ºF, this island makes a wonderful destination year round.
What to do
Don’t miss the Parque Nacional Natural Old Providence McBean Lagoon, with its wide variety of natural landscapes, including mangrove swamps, coral reefs, lagoons and keys. The mountain known as El Pico boasts a beautiful panoramic view of the Caribbean. The outing takes about an hour and a half.
Where to stay and eat
The best hotels and restaurants are concentrated in Bahía de Agua Dulce and South West Bay. The Decameron chain offers six different inns, and Posada del Mar is one of the more elegant options. There’s also the Sol Caribe Campo, with lush vegetation and a view of the sea, as well as a gym, saunas, five bars and three restaurants. Local culinary specialties are lobster, crab and a variety of fish marinated in coconut, not to mention coconut rice, milk and oil, plus juices or cocktails made from mango, watermelon, borojo and palm fruit.www.decameron.com www.solarhoteles.com
Where to shop
There isn’t a lot of shopping to be found in Providencia. Like most of the islands, there are stores and informal street vendors that sell items made with shells. Providencia’s specialty? Items made from coconut, one of the region’s principal products.
Text Sergio Paz
This Chilean archipelago is home to the second-largest island in South America, along with many local legends, lush vegetation and unique cuisine.
With its wild, pristine nature, Chiloé is an invitation to adventure, and several companies offer guided island-to-island tours. Many of the archipelago’s islands are accessible by water taxi or ferry. The dense forests are perfect for trekking and horseback rides, giving visitors the chance to see native birds and mammals, including humpback whales and pudúes (the smallest deer in the world). Be sure to bring a camera with plenty of memory to capture sea lions, toninas (Chilean dolphins) and even orcas. South of Chiloé, the Golfo de Corcovado is a natural refuge where blue whales feed their young every summer.
The cultural riches of the archipelago are at least as vibrant as its flora and fauna. A perfect synthesis between Spanish heritage and native Huilliche tradition, Chiloé boasts beautiful and complex wooden architecture that is best exemplified by its unique churches, 16 of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Chiloé is nearly 750 miles south of Santiago and 56 miles from the region’s capital, Puerto Montt, the location of the nearest airport (El Tepual). Thirty-five miles from the airport, in the town of Pargua, a ferry takes travelers across the Canal de Chacao to Isla Grande, the “Big Island” (93 miles long and 31 miles wide).
When to go
The archipelago is known for its mild, rainy climate. There are no guarantees that you won’t get soaked, but the best time visit is usually in the summer, between December and February.
What to do
Museo de Arte Moderno de Chiloé
Located in Castro, this museum is down a dirt road that leads past fences, pastures and cows. The beautiful, minimalist wooden building, a true wonder of local architecture, comes as a lovely surprise in this rural setting. Over time, the museum has been able to amass a permanent contemporary art collection that currently features works by more than 300 Chilean artists.Tel. 56-65-635-454 www.mamchiloe.cl
Iglesia Santa María de Achao
Built entirely without nails, this church is truly astonishing. Highlights include its barley-sugar columns, beautiful carvings and paintings that the Jesuits commissioned from local artists. Want more? Check out the churches in Caguach, Chonchi, Dalcahue and Tenáun.
Houses on stilts abound on the north side of the “Big Island,” along the coast of San Martín and on the Castro Fjord.
Parque Nacional Chiloé
This lovely and surreal landscape is not easy to reach but well worth the effort. Located on the island’s western coast, 36 miles from Castro, the park boasts expansive and isolated beaches, monumental cliffs that end abruptly in the sea, lost lagoons, native forests and a special selection of flora that includes carnivorous plants. Don’t miss the park’s southern sector, Chanquín, home to Lago Cucao and the easiest-to-access trails. At the center of the park, you’ll find the mouth of the Abtao River, and to the north, Chepu, which includes Isla Metalqui and its gigantic sea lion colony.www.conaf.cl
This private park near the Pacific Ocean, 46 miles southeast of Castro, is home to a practically unexplored, lush, virgin forest. The stylish yet cozy Tepuhueico Ecolodge offers all-inclusive service, with hot tubs and quality excursions.www.parquetantauco.cl
Es un parque privado, cerca del Pacífico, a 74 kilómetros al suroeste de Castro, que alberga una exuberante selva virgen prácticamente inexplorada. Sorprende el estiloso Tepuhueico Ecolodge, un amigable refugio –todo incluido– con tinas de agua caliente y buenas excursiones.www.parquetepuhueico.cl
Sendero de Chile
This 14-mile-long trail begins in Chanquín, on the shores of the gorgeous Huelde lagoon and then zigzags through the Cordillera de Piuchén, reaching heights of more than 1,600 feet to create an impressive natural lookout with incredible views of Parque Nacional Chiloé.
Where to stay
Palafito Hostel-Boutique Castro. This simple and beautiful hostel was one of the first to operate in a renovated palafito, a house on stilts over the water. There are only nine rooms, all with private baths and hot water.
Hostería de Castro Hotel & Spa. This classic spot, created by National Architecture Prize winner Emile Duhart, features 29 recently renovated rooms, an impressive spa with a view of the sea and the restaurant Las Araucarias, with a privileged view of the Castro Fjord.
Centro Turístico Espejo de Luna. Tucked away in lovely natural surroundings 22 miles south of Castro, this tourist center includes paths for mobility-impaired visitors and a comfortable elevator that allows for easy access to the beach. There are cabins for two, four and five guests, plus a central lodge with five rooms and a terrific view of the Golfo del Corcovado.
Puerto Nativo Flyfishing Lodge. Lodge de pesca, a 80 kilómetros al sur de Castro, a orillas del estero de Paildad.
Where to eat
Galeón Azul. This hotel-restaurant in Ancud is famous for its kitschy architectural style and its Cancato salmon, sea bass, abalone and oysters.www.hotelgaleonazul.cl
El mundo de la papa. Cocina local, de bajo costo, ideal para ir con la familia y los niños. / Reasonably priced local cuisine, perfect for a family meal.Lord Cochrane 412, Ancud Tel. 56-65-621-618
Sacho. One of the most famous restaurants in Chiloé, serving the best food on the archipelago. In the summer, they offer curanto (ground-cooked barbecue) every day. The house specialty is crab, prepared in a number of different ways.Thompson 213 Tel. 65-632-079, Ancud
Restaurante Ostras Caulín. Oysters are one of the best reasons to visit Chiloé. This place features “black-edged” oysters; try them raw eith lemon, fried or as cream of oyster soup. Six miles from Chacao, the small town where the ferry docks.
This natural paradise has no earthly equal.
Looking for a definitive reason to visit the Galápagos Archipelago? The diverse flora and fauna on these islands is so unique that it inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Still not convinced? Then maybe the fact the UNESCO declared the archipelago a World Heritage Site in 1979 will sway you. This is the only spot on the planet where you can see the famous Galápagos giant tortoises, marine iguanas and Galápagos egrets, just to name of few of the native species that inhabit the 19 islands and hundreds of islets that make up the archipelago, some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The flight from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, takes two and a half hours with a layover in Guayaquil. If you are traveling from Guayaquil, you can take a 90-minute direct flight.
When to go
Generally speaking, the archipelago is warm year round, with average maximum temperatures of 80ºF. Depending on the nature of your trip, you might want to visit between May and November, when the temperatures are milder, or between December and April, when the climate is hotter and it rains more often, but the water is warm and ideal for diving.
What to do
The real appeal of this destination is getting in touch with nature. Most of the available activities are related to observing different animal species: diving excursions with sea lions and hammerhead sharks; spotting flamingoes, albatrosses and blue-footed boobies; marveling at coral reefs. Each island has its own share of attractions. Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina and Baltra are home to Galápagos penguins. Isabela and Fernandina have ancient volcanic formations, Baltra (where the airport is located) offers surfing. Darwin gives you the chance to watch whales. There are also many beautiful beaches, like Bahía Tortuga in Santa Cruz and Espumilla in Marchena. But the real star of the archipelago is “Lonesone George,” a Galápagos tortoise who is over 100 years old. He’s the illustrious guest of the Charles Darwin Research Station and Parque Nacional Galápagos in Santa Cruz. Don’t miss a chance to pay your respects.
Where to stay
Most visitors arrive by air and then stay, not on land, but on the water, aboard luxurious cruise ships, yachts and even sailboats, which must meet exacting international standards. Some of the most popular are the Galápagos Explorer II, the Galápagos Legend, the Santa Cruz, the Galápagos Aggressor I and II and the Isabela II, all of which feature plenty of lodging space and onboard amenities, or smaller craft like the Pinta, the Athala, the Nina and the Evolution, which offer exclusive personalized service. The main hotels are located in the capital of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz.
The Royal Palm Hotel y Villa Escalesia. The only five-star hotel in Galápagos includes comfy, eco-friendly villas surrounded by 500 acres of exotic vegetation. If you’re looking for a true luxury experience, Villa Escalesia boasts an infinity pool, a steam bath, a sundeck and total privacy.Tel: 593-5-252-7408 / 593-5-252-7409 www.royalpalmgalapagos.com www.villaescalesia.com
Finch Bay Eco Hotel. This Santa Cruz hotel features a private yacht for excursions, a restaurant with an ocean view and a deliciously tempting menu.Tel: 5932-298-8200 www.finchbayhotel.com
Red Mangrove Inn. This chain of eco-lodges has hotels on the islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana and San Cristobal. With only a few rooms per location, they offer terrific views of the sea and the mangrove swamp, architecture inspired by marine motifs and the best in fusion cuisine.Tel: 5932-382-3932 / 5932-382-3801 /5932-382-3941 www.redmangrove.com
Where to eat
According to Frommer’s, the “best-located and most atmospheric dining spot in Puerto Ayora” is Angermeyer Point. Their specialty is seafood, and their location – right on the bay – is unmatched. This prestigious travel guide also taps La Garrapata, “a local institution”, for its wonderful atmosphere and mix of traditional seafood dishes and quality meats, sandwiches and pastas. Miconia is famous for its Italian cuisine, and El Salvavidas specializes in lobster and octopus. The hotel restaurant Finch Bay Eco prides itself on offering a menu of the most select Ecuadorian and international cuisine. Need more? The Royal Palm serves up exquisite culinary creations worthy of an international chain.Angermeyer Point, Tel. 593-5-252-7007 La Garrapata, Tel. 593-5-252-6264 Miconia, Tel. 593-5-252-0608 El Salvavidas, Tel. 593-5-252-6418
Where to shop
Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana – the only inhabited islands on the archipelago – are home to a variety of stands selling folk art made with tagua, wood, ceramics, etc. Environmentalists urge visitors to avoid buying items made with tortoise shell, black coral and other materials that endanger the native species.
Seen the Galápago? What’s next?
When to go
Other enchanting Ecuadorian islands include:
La Plata Island: Two hours from the city of Manta, in the province of Manabí, this island is part of the Parque Nacional Machalilla. Pre-Columbian cultures used it as a ceremonial center, so there are a number of important archeological sites. Visitors may also see humpback whales, sea lions and several different bird species (including frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies). Other activities include diving and hiking.
Puná Island: This small fishing town is 90 minutes from Guayaquil in the province of Guayas. Attractions include the Cauchiche Estuary and its five mangrove swamps, home to a vast array of flora and fauna. But the trip to Puná is really the best part, offering visitors a chance to spot dolphins and so many birds that the nickname “Bird Island” is clearly well deserved.
Text Rolly Valdivia
Nature, history and a vibrant culture – the highest navigable lake in the world seduces with its simple beauty.
Lake Titicaca, one of the focal points of Andean civilization, is located in the region of Puno, 12,500 feet above sea level and 830 miles southeast of Lima, Peru’s capital city. An immense, 3,300-square-mile body of water, Lake Titicaca is shared with the neighboring country of Bolivia.
According to legend, these sacred waters were the birthplace of the progenitors of the Inca Empire. On many of Lake Titicaca’s islands, the local people maintain their ancestral customs, performing rites to the Earth and Sun. The languages of Quechua and Aymara are still spoken, the fields are harvested with traditional methods, knitting is done by hand, fishermen use sailboats made of totora (reed), and life is lived in communities.
In addition to the living examples of pre-Columbian cultures, the lake’s islands are home to an interesting variety of plant and animal life, as well as a very special sense of immensity, peace and silence.
When to go
Days are sunny, but nights are chilly. Rains are frequent from December to March but scarce the rest of the year. During the coldest months of June and July, temperatures drop to freezing. The average temperature is 54ºF, with a maximum of 59ºF and a minimum of 33ºF.
The best months to visit the region are April and May, when the fields are lush and verdant after the rainy season. In February, visitors can enjoy the Fiesta de la Virgin de Candelaria, Puno’s preeminent celebration.
What to do
To discover this unusual world of totora, the simplest and quickest route starts at the Los Uros archipelago (four miles from the port in Puno, the regional capital). The inhabitants of Los Uros are descended from the first peoples to settle in the altiplano (the Andean high plateau), and their lives still revolve around the reeds (Scirpus totora), as seen in the houses, the boats and the the islands themselves
If you’re not in a hurry, spend the day sailing to Taquile (22 miles away), a community with Quechua roots. This island is perfect for long walks along winding paths and, if you’re feeling up to it, a dip in the waters of Titicaca. You can find basic lodging at one of the locals’ homes. There are also a few restaurants.
Another option is to sail out of Puno, visit Los Uros and then head to the Quechua island of Amantaní (22 miles). In addition to living among the locals (eating and sleeping in their homes), visitors shouldn’t miss the chance to trek to the ceremonial temples of Pachamama and Pachatata for magnificent views of the lake and the terraced gardens sculpted into the hills. On the way back to Puno, you can make a stop at Taquile.
The island of Suasi – in the province of Moho, an Aymara area some 47 miles from the Puno port – offers a calmer and more contemplative experience. Disconnect from the globalized world at the comfortable Casa Andina Private Collection eco-lodge, a 106-acre slice of paradise.
Where to stay
On the islands (with the exception of Suasi), visitors stay in locals’ homes, which offer basic amenities. Puno, the regional capital, has several excellent hotels.
Libertador Lago Titicaca. This five-star establishment on Isla Esteves enjoys panoramic views of Lake Titicaca.www.libertador.com.pe
Sonesta Posada del Inca. An elegant and refined inn near the city’s lovely bay, just three miles from downtown Puno.www.sonesta.com/laketiticaca
This lovely boutique hotel stands on the shores of the great lake, on the peninsula of Chucuito, 22 miles from Puno. From the hotel’s pier, guests can boat to the islands of Los Uros and Taquile.
Where to eat (Puno)
Alma. The “living kitchen” of the hotel Casa Andina Private Collection uses the ingredients from the altiplano to create a locally inspired yet cosmopolitan menu.Av. Sesquicentenario 1970
Balcones de Puno. This restaurant showcases traditional flavors, successfully fusing Andean and international sensibilities. Dinner is accompanied by a colorful show, which adds a touch of extra flavor.
Jirón Libertad 354
El Giorgio. Este lugar se enorgullece de su variedad de pastas y pizzas, de sus carnes de mar y tierra, y de sus apetitosas entradas. Sus confortables salones de decoración italiana y andina son un ingrediente más de su éxito.Jirón Lima 430 www.restaurantgiorgio.net
Where to shop
In Los Uros, check out the folk art made from totora. The people on the island of Tawuile are famous for their knitting talents; choose from warm knit garments, eye-catching chullo caps and scarves and gloves (both alpaca and sheep’s wool).
In Puno, you can buy the latest fashion in alpaca wool at Kuna by Alpaca 111 (Jirón Lima 218). On the same street, various folk-art associations sell a wide range of products.