Photograph by Walter Bibikow, AWL Images

Photograph by Walter Bibikow, AWL Images

Best Tours in Central and South America 2014

From Traveler Magazine's 2014 Tours of a Lifetime

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Chile: Cowboy Up

This horseback ride through Torres del Paine and Bernardo O’Higgins National Parks in the stark southern region of Patagonia made veteran traveler Bryan Rees feel like a bona fide cowpuncher. “Drinking mate [traditional herb drink] with gauchos around a fire, cutting pieces of lamb off a spit, and learning to saddle a horse were moments that made the trip feel real and not planned.” Chile Nativo: “The Last Frontier,” 14 days; from $5,595;

Bolivia, Chile: Across the Altiplano

Journey from the colonial city of Potosí through the Salar de Uyuni—the largest and highest altitude salt flat in the world—to the oasis of San Pedro in Chile’s stark Atacama Desert. Digs include minimalist-chic rehabbed shipping containers. Explora: “Travesías From Uyuni,” 8 days; $5,080;

Brazil: Jaguar Safari

The outfitter has worked with local authorities and biologists to establish best practices for jaguar viewing, such as time limitations, and has been granted special access near the Taiama Ecological Reserve, home to the largest concentration of the cats in the world. Wild Planet Adventures: “Jaguar’s Trail: Pantanal to Amazon,” 15 days; $7,198;

Guatemala: Be There Now

Travel always demands presence of mind, but here’s a trip that takes it a step further by weaving mindfulness techniques into the itinerary, like seated meditation on a rooftop in Antigua and mindful movement through ancient Maya sites. Journeys International: “Mindfully Engaging Guatemala,” 7 days; $2,450;

Peru: Steep Climbs, Glorious Descents

Mountain biking on ancient Inca paths in the highlands surrounding Cusco and the Amazon jungle guarantees an experience not found on the typical tourist track. Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Holidays: “Cusco to the Amazon,” 10 days; $3,003;

Ecuador: Cultural Deep Dive

Operated by an alliance that supports the cultural and territorial rights of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, this journey travels to the ancestral lands of two distinct tribes of rain forest peoples, the Sarayaku-Kichwa and the Achuar. Stay in remote villages, joining your hosts in traditions such as making blow guns, and participating in shamanic healing ceremonies. Pachamama Journeys: “Amazonian Immersion,” 14 days; $3,495;

Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras: Ready, Set, Action

A packed agenda spanning the belly of Central America, from Managua to San Pedro Sula: Ash-board down Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro volcano, release baby turtles in El Cuco, and kayak among the mangrove forests at sunset in Punta Izopo National Park. KE Adventure Travel: “From the Pacific to the Caribbean,” 14 days; $2,465;

Ecuador: Evolutionary Trail

In the Galápagos, experience Darwin’s living laboratory aboard the National Geographic Endeavour or Islander, accompanied by field scientists such as Lynn Fowler, the first female naturalist to work for the Galápagos National Park. National Geographic Expeditions: “Galápagos,” 10 days; from $5,490 (photo and family expeditions are also available);

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