South America: Travellers' tales

From rare birds on the Galápagos to the world's widest single-drop waterfall in Guyana, our writers reveal what drew them to South America.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 1 Oct 2016, 16:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 16:31 BST
Machu Picchu, Peru.

Machu Picchu, Peru.

Photograph by Getty Images

Machu Picchu, Peru

I discovered her in the back of a magazine. Aged 13, I remember tracing my finger across the grainy black-and-white image. Falling completely for her conical curves.

I'm speaking, of course, of the photograph explorer Hiram Bingham took in 1912 of the foliage-obscured ruins of Machu Picchu. Printed in a copy of National Geographic I'd found by happy chance in my boarding school library, I'd secreted it into a snug corner and dreamt. She offered a glimpse of the outside world just as elicit as escaping into town for a Sherbet Fountain and I decided there and then that travel was the life for me.

Twenty years later, I was finally at the entrance gate. Unfortunately, the weather was oblivious to the fact that today marked the culmination of a young girl's ambition. The 15th-century Inca citadel was ghosted by mist. "Bad luck for you," commiserated my guide. "You take picture now?" he shrugged, pointing to the crowds of people grinning in front of their selfie sticks.

I struggled to quash the rising feeling of disappointment. I dutifully trailed behind him, listening to the history of the site, as drizzle beaded on my blue mackintosh, but my heart wasn't in it. My gloomy mood only lifted at the sight of shaggy, white chocolate-coloured llamas strutting around the grounds.

I would try again. I rose in darkness the next morning and caught the very first bus from Aguas Calientes. We wound up the mountain and reached the ruins as dawn broke, revealing bright blue skies. Other tourists hadn't yet wandered down to the main site, and so, for a few glorious minutes, Machu Picchu sat before me, pristine — just as Hiram Bingham might have experienced her over a century past. Granted, she'd lost her foliage, but she was in vivid 3D multicolour — and that was far better than a flat black-and-white photo.

Words: Emma Thomson

Kaieteur Falls, Guyana

Through a break in the forest wall, there's light, sight and sound after dense, peaty darkness. As we step out of the forest's fringes, there it is, scored like a frothy exclamation mark in the table-top cliffs above us. Here, where the powerful, 400ft-wide Potaro River takes a sudden, 741ft plunge into the jungle, we have Kaieteur, the world's widest single-drop waterfall. In terms of superlatives, it bears comparison to nearby Angel Falls and even Niagara, yet few people know about it; far fewer still have visited.

A century after Conan Doyle set his novel The Lost World in these mountains at the Venezuelan-Brazilian-Guyanese border, Kaieteur, like Guyana itself, largely remains a peripheral question mark on the South American traveller's map.

You can hike to Kaieteur — a five-day trek through some of the Amazon's densest jungle. But I've arrived by teeny plane — Kaieteur the watery climax of an epic, cross-country trip, taking in flood plains populated by supersized anteaters, water lilies and otters. In an Amerindian village homestay, canoe trips revealed coal-black caterpillars the size of snakes, and jewel-eyed jaguars.

But in Kaieteur, Guyana has one of South America's most marvellous natural sights: a bucket-list moment I share with no one but my fellow travellers and a flock of starlings swooping through its towering curtain of spray.

Words: Sarah Barrell

Galápagos, Ecuador

Aged seven, I cheekily asked my Methodist minister neighbour if he accepted Darwin's theory of evolution. Even then, I nurtured a desire to visit the Galápagos, the Ecuadorian archipelago that informed the bearded wonder's thinking.

Two decades on, I book a trip to see the finches whose bills shaped Darwin's musings. The must-do list also includes a slow-mo encounter with giant tortoises and watching salt-snorting marine iguanas sunbathing on jagged, ebony rocks. Yet the creature enticing me 6,300 miles west is the Galápagos petrel. This mini-albatross is extinction bound. Living only in the Galápagos, it feeds at sea by day then sneaks back at dusk to upland burrows. Encroaching farms plus munching rats mean just 5,000 breeding pairs remain.

I book a yacht that circumnavigates the five islands where the seabird breeds. Fate has other plans. The day we arrive, our boat sinks. For a week, we cruise between far-flung, wildlife-rich outcrops. We compare finches, stroll with tortoises and snort with iguanas. But no petrel. On our final evening, we depart James Bay. The sea is sedate, the light mineral.

Then a Galápagos petrel soars past on long, bowed wings. Then another. Suddenly we sail amid hundreds, a 10th of the world population. Some float at our bow, others veer off. All await the gloaming so that they can return safely to hungry chicks waiting in the mountains. My neighbour would surely have approved.

Words: James Lowen

Published in the South America 2016 guide, distributed with the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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