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The frugal adventure travelers and amateur archaeologists who travel the South American leg of the Gringo Trailan amorphous route that begins in Mexico and peters out at the tip of Argentinaaren't the type for structured itineraries. But they are loyal, going back to the same places like an annual migration. And why not?
"S.A." offers everything from the classic (must-dos like Patagonia and Peru's Machu Picchu) to the trendy (hedonistic Brazil) to the rough-around-the-edges (Bolivia).
All prices in U.S. dollars
Peak and Jungle Circuit
Ecuador is relatively small but offers great geographical variety (from virgin-rain-forested lowlands to snowcapped volcanoes), so you can cover a lot in two weeks.
Acclimatize yourself in 9,348-foot [2,849-kilometer] Quito before traveling 30 miles [48 kilometers] by bus to Cotopaxi National Park. The park's eponymous peak is an easy summit (with crampons and ice-climbing gear) for competent mountaineers; hikers can overnight at José Ribas Refugio (a shelter at 15,750 feet [4,800 meters]) or camp elsewhere in the park.
Head five hours south by bus to Baños, at the base of the Tungurahua volcano, which expelled enough gas and dust in October 1999 to force the town to evacuate (check current volcanic activity at www.volcano.si.edu/gvp/). Tourism took a big hit, but that means you will avoid the crowds when mountain biking, hiking, or horseback riding (www.ecuadorexplorer.com). Finish with a soak in a hot mineral bath.
If you want to take in Ecuador's finest jungle white water, detour seven hours northeast by bus to Tena (www.riosecuador.com). If not, continue seven hours south to the colonial city of Cuenca via Ingapirca, the site of Ecuador's most impressive Inca ruin.
Trek through high-altitude dwarf trees in the Cajas National Recreation Area, then meander 200 miles [322 kilometers] south to the town of Vilcabamba for hikes and horsepacking through rain-forested Podocarpus National Park (Caballos Gavilan; +593 7 580 281).
Once you cross into Peru, head 15 hours south by bus and unwind in the surf towns near TrujilloPuerto Chicama and Huanchaco. The waves are good May through August. Nonsurfers hightail it 120 miles [193 kilometers] southeast to Huaraz and the Cordillera Huayhuashfast becoming one of the continent's top trekking areas (www.explorandes.com). Lost City Circuit
This excursion from Cuzco to La Paz via Lake Titicaca mixes rich Andean culture, archaeology, and dramatic geography.
From Cuzco you'll need five days to reach the fabled Machu Picchu via the Inca Trailone to plot logistics and four to chug up the 30-mile [48-kilometer] route and explore the ruins. Choose an outfitter that leads groups of no more than 12 (the South American Explorers clubhouse, at 188 Choquechaca No. 4, has information on guides), and time your trip to the short shoulder seasonlate September to early Octoberto avoid summer rains and winter crowds.
Not the group-travel type? Day-trip to Machu Picchu on the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes and hike five miles [eight kilometers] from there. Back at Cuzco, head 75 miles [121 kilometers] west to the lesser-known ruins of Choquequirao, atop a 10,000-foot [3,048-meter] ridge (Machete Tours; www.machetetours.com).
Your goal for week two is La Paz, Bolivia, with a stop in Arequipa (12 hours south by bus) to raft the Class V Colca River (Expediciones y Aventura Colca; www.colca.net/expediciones), trek into the Cotahuasi Canyon, or hike up 19,925-foot [6,070-meter] Chachanione of the world's easier 6,000-meter [19,700-foot] peaks (www.rh.com.pe/zarate).
In less touristy Bolivia (ten hours by bus), explore the Indian villages on the islands of Kalahuta, Pariti, and Suriqui, in Lake Titicaca, continue to La Paz (two hours), and then head 14 hours south on a newly popular extension of the Andean Routethe psychedelic green and red crystallized lakes of the altiplano and the shimmering expanses of the Uyuni salt flats (Hidalgo Tours; www.salaruyuni.com). TWO-MONTH ITINERARIES
Southern Andes Circuit
To extend your travels to the tip of the continent, go by way of Argentina, which is now very affordable, given its recent fiscal crisis.
From otherworldly Uyuni, launch into Argentina on its reliable bus system. First stop: the colonial city of Salta, the starting point for a thrilling all-day ride on the Train to the Clouds, which crosses dozens of bridges and climbs to nearly 13,840 feet [4,218 meters].
Next, embark on an 18-hour bus ride south to the wine-country town of Mendoza, near Aconcagua (22,835 feet [6,960 meters]). From here you can link up with the well-trodden Southern Cone route, which runs south along the Andes and north along the Atlantic Coast, and then, at Buenos Aires, bisects the country on the return leg west to Mendoza.
Seven hours south of Mendoza is Las Leñas ski resort (www.laslenas.com), open from mid-June to late September. Continue 13 hours south to San Carlos de Bariloche, near the 1.9-million-acre [770,000-hectare] Nahuel Huapí National Park, which offers skiing at the popular Gran Catedral resort. Samba Circuit
Brazil is larger than the contiguous United States, so focus your two months on the circuit that loops from the Pantanal in the west to the northeastern tip of the country.
Rio may be overwhelming at first, so leave it behind by taking a short flight west to Campo Grande (www.vasp.com.br) to soak in the Zen vibe of the Pantanal, a vast wetlands with the highest concentration of wildlife (toucans, jaguars, anacondas) in the Western Hemisphere and wide-open spaces that make for far better viewing than in the Amazon.
The Caiman Ecological Refuge (www.caiman.com.br) leads hiking, horseback, and boat trips. The next mandatory stop is Foz do Iguaçu, a wondrous 260-foot [80-meter] waterfall 14 hours by bus to the south.
Next, bus 14 hours east to the hub town of Curitiba, and then point yourself south (four hours by bus) to surf (both waves and sand) the east coast of Santa Catarina Island.
The mountain-fronted Brazilian coastline, which is scalloped with countless beaches, stretches for 4,600 miles [2,858 kilometers]. Bus a total of 46 hours up the coast to Rio, stopping frequently to laze on Pacific-coast beaches. Your destination is the northeastern state of Bahia, rich in African culture.
Carnaval falls in the rainy season (January to June), but don't let that keep you away. For an intimate celebration, go to Bahia's Recife; for an ultracommercialized one, Rio. ONE-YEAR ITINERARY
Triple Crown Circuit
Travelers tend to stream along three major South American tracks: the Andean route through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia; the Southern Cone route (named for its shape) in Chile and Argentina; and the Brazilian route.
If you've got a year, do all three, from north to south, with places along the way to call home: Quito, Ecuador, first, to study Spanish at one of many schools for foreigners; Cuzco, Peru, for its history (it's the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent) and lively backpacker scene; La Paz, Bolivia, for its urban rock climbing areas like Amor de Dios; Argentina's Ushuaia for killer skiing; and Rio for Brazilian beach time that'll make it especially hard to go home.
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