Photograph by Sean Caffrey, Getty Images

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Machu Picchu, Peru’s Inca icon extraordinaire, is part of a tour offered by Andes Adventures.

Photograph by Sean Caffrey, Getty Images

Best Tours in Central and South America 2013

From Traveler Magazine's 2013 Tours of a Lifetime

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Peru: Temple Run

Marathon mania has spilled over into mainstream adventure travel, spawning running-focused trips around the world, including this twist on the classic Inca Trail trek. Runners tackle the ancient Andes route in two days, from the Urubamba Valley, through the “Pass of the Dead Woman” at 13,780 feet, and into the cloud forest to the Intipunku “Gateway of the Sun” at 8,923 feet, where they’ll get their first eyeful of Machu Picchu in its full splendor. Trip veteran Joshua Price calls the experience “challenging, but incredible.” The big event is sandwiched between acclimatization runs, stints in the cities of Cusco and Lima, and a day spent touring the ruins. Andes Adventures: “Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Running Adventure,” 9 days; $2,795;

Panama: King’s Road

First forged by Indians and later cobblestoned by the Spanish in the 1500s to move Inca gold to galleons bound for Spain, El Camino Real connects the Pacific and Atlantic 50 miles across the Isthmus of Panama. Hike what remains of the rugged trail through Chagres National Park, home to jaguars, spider monkeys, and anteaters. Thanks to multiple river hikes, expect to be soggy for a good part of the day. Ancon Expeditions of Panama: “Camino Real Trek,” 8 days; $1,600;

Chile: Patagonian Sip and Bike

Wine-tasting pairs with easygoing biking in the Casablanca and San Antonio valleys. Then the action moves to the Lake District and northern Patagonia for white-knuckle white-water rafting on the Petrohué River, a hike around the base of the snowcapped Osorno Volcano, and a traditional lamb barbecue hosted by local gauchos. Santiago Adventures: “Bikes, Wine and Patagonia,” 8 days; $3,290;

Brazil: Trifecta Trek

This unusual walking-focused itinerary spans three distinct parts of Brazil: the Royal Route, which connected the gold mines of the interior to the coast during Portuguese rule; colonial Salvador, coined “the capital of happiness,” thanks to its laid-back residents and lively carnival; and the otherworldly cliffs, monoliths, and caves of Chapada Diamantina National Park. Country Walkers: “Brazil: Royal Route, Salvador, and Chapada Diamantina,” 11 days; $6,498;

Nicaragua: For the Birds

For all the buzz touting it as the next Costa Rica, Nicaragua has yet to attract mainstream tourists in droves. But this itinerary shows off its potential as a nature nirvana, with visits to five wildlife reserves, including Selva Negra (a combination organic farm, eco-lodge, and bird-friendly coffee estate). Bonus: Birders have a shot at spotting and cataloging any new species to help create the country’s first bird book. International Expeditions: “Nicaragua: Land of Lakes and Volcanoes,” 9 days; $3,398;

Ecuador: Homestay in the Amazon

The term “cultural immersion” pops up a lot on travel company websites, but here’s the real deal. Spend four days living with a Quichua family in the Amazon jungle, where you’ll learn how to identify medicinal plants; make chicha, a fermented drink from cassava; and participate in a shaman healing ceremony. G Adventures: “Ecuador Jungle Local Living,” 7 days; $499;

Belize: Reefs to Ruins

With 180 miles of coastline, the second longest barrier reef in the world, virgin rain forests, and Maya ruins crammed into a country roughly the size of New Jersey, Belize is an undersize country with oversize natural gifts. Here’s an itinerary that lets you experience it all. National Geographic Adventures: “Belize: Reefs, Rain Forests, and Ruins,” 10 days; $4,195;

Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina: South American Odyssey

Starting in Trinidad and skirting the eastern coastline of South America to Buenos Aires, this grand expedition on the 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer—a celebration of the National Geographic Society’s 125th anniversary—focuses on the region’s cultural heritage as well as flora and fauna. An army of experts (including Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis and conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy) is on board to answer your questions. National Geographic Expeditions: “Epic South America,” 38 days; $34,730;

Contributing editor Margaret Loftus has reported and written “Tours of a Lifetime” for the past eight years.