10 surrealistic South American travel hotspots
Even after journeying to more than 110 countries, I continue to find that nothing has the potential to be as life-altering as a remarkable travel experience. Though we all learn and grow on every trip we take, occasionally there’s a truly unique moment, a special circumstance or a distinctive sight that changes a seemingly simple trip into a life event. Such moments remain etched in your mind forever. In traveling throughout South America, here are 10 of the most unique sites …hotspots that approach the realm of the surreal. These sights you may wish to experience through luxury travel on this continent:
1. The Hand of the Desert – Atacama Desert, Chile
A sense of ethereal wonder surges from the lunar landscapes of Chile’s Atacama Desert – a truly unique destination unmatched anywhere else on earth. The driest desert on the planet, Atacama is home to ancient rock formations dating back millions of years. Add to this its eternally clear night skies, boutique hotels and an unexpected cultural heritage, you’ll see that it’s one of those places that simply must be explored to be believed. Along the Pan-American Highway that passes through the desert, you can’t fail to miss La Mano del Desierto (“the Hand of the Desert”) – a dreamlike 36-foot-high giant cement hand rising out of the sand. The desert city of Antofagasta commissioned a Santiago sculptor to create this monument to the apparent barrenness of the Atacama Desert.
2. The Swing at the End of the World – Baños, Ecuador
Think back to the simple childhood joy of your backyard swing, where with the wind in your hair you would sweep higher and higher. Now imagine this today, at two miles above sea level, with you swinging out over a seemingly bottomless canyon below. This is the chimerical, almost unimaginable experience of the “Swing at the End of the World,” in Baños, Ecuador. The swing was initially set up beside a seismic monitoring station now called the Casa del Arbol (“The Tree House”), whose aim was to observe the active Mt. Tungurahua Volcano nearby. While the treehouse is itself something to behold, the real attraction is the adrenaline-pumping thrill of sailing out above the scenic Ecuadorian highlands below.
3. The Blue Caves – Lake General Carrera, Chile
A work of art created by Mother Nature herself, this stunningly beautiful set of caves carved out of solid blue marble is yet another surrealist South American site. Situated on a remote glacial lake that spans the Chile-Argentina border, the Cuevas de Mármol (“the Blue Caves”) was formed over more than 6,000 years of pounding water. The smooth and swirling blues of the cavern’s walls are a reflection of the lake’s cobalt blue waters, with the exact tones changing in intensity and hue according to the water level and time of year (note that the best time of the year for you to visit the Marble Caves is roughly between September and February, when the melting ice that feeds the lake obtains a particularly enchanting turquoise color).
4. The Tree of Stone – Dali Desert, Bolivia
A barren, wind-swept wasteland situated within southwestern Bolivia’s Abaroa National Reserve, the Siloli Desert is often referred to as the “Dali Desert,” after the surrealist Spanish painter Salvador Dali. Indeed, the dreamy, sometimes eerie, nonsensical images of the well-known artist can be easily compared to the strange rock formations found within the reserve’s stark desert horizon. In particular, the Arbol de Piedra (“the Stone Tree”) could be one of Dali’s most bewildering subjects. While the top of the 23-foot-tall rock has been weathered away by eons of wind and time, the top remains intact – creating one of the most iconic and famous locations not only in this region of Bolivia but in all of South America.
5. Uyuni Salt Flat – Uyuni, Bolivia
Famous for its otherworldly landscapes consisting of snow-white salt plains extending far into the horizon, the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. Formed from the drying up of successive prehistoric lakes, the 4,000 square miles of brilliant white and expansive depths play tricks on the eyes, causing you to wonder where the horizon begins and ends. It’s a photographer’s dream to capture various perspectives here, as the bareness and flatness of the landscape provide for a wide variety of optical illusions and head-scratching photos for your friends back home to ponder.
6. Wax Palm Forest – Salento Colombia
Step into a Dr. Seuss story as you discover the whimsical world of Colombia’s Cocora Valley. Here — in the heart of Colombia’s famed coffee region — you’ll discover the world’s tallest palm trees. Called “Quindío wax palms” (Ceroxylon quindiuense), these quirky-looking trees can grow to up to 200 feet tall. In this verdant valley, these enormous, slender trees stretch skyward like the Truffula Trees in children’s book – taking your breath away as you sigh and ponder over these wonders of the wild.
7. The Salt Cathedral – Zipaquira, Colombia
Descend into the dark depths of once mineral-rich mineshafts at the majestic Catedral de Sal (“salt cathedral”). Located outside of Bogota Colombia in the former salt-mining town of Zipaquira, this stunning underground sanctuary was created through the excavation of 250,000 tons of salt. Today, you’ll find this otherworldly masterpiece cinematically lit in a blue and purple haze. Be amazed by the cavernous chapels and naves – each adorned with halite-sculpted crucifixes and bugle blowing angels. Wandering through up to a mile of subterranean passages on a fully narrated tour, you will pass the 14 stages of Jesus’ crucifixion and the illuminated cupola. All of this culminates with a vast, eye-widening abbey at the very bottom — almost a quarter-mile underground— with the experience highlighted by the largest cross ever built in an underground church.
8. Rainbow Mountain – Cusco, Peru
Though you’ll probably never make it to Oz, you can hike “over the rainbow;” however, you’ll travel to what are dubbed the Rainbow Mountains in Vinicunca, Peru. After a three-hour drive from the Andean city of Cusco Peru, and following a six-mile trek, you’ll find yourself surrounded by color with your visit to the Montaña de Siete Colores (“the Mountain of Seven Colors”). While on an also moving journey to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the “Lost City” of Machu Picchu, consider traveling to the other side of Cusco to experience yet another castle in the air.
9. The Dunes and Lagoons of Lençóis Maranhenses – Barreirinhas, Brazil
Miles and miles of sand, yet with thousands of crystal-clear lagoons in the valleys between its dunes. This is Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, in the northeastern coastal state of Maranhão. Traveling here, it’s easy to see how the park got its name: The Portuguese word lençóis literally means “bedsheets,” which describe the vast and so blindingly white sand dunes of the national park that stretch on for mile after mile. These brilliant white dunes offsetting the midnight blue lakes can be experienced on foot, on horseback or in a 4×4. Though far less known or visited than Brazil’s other big natural wonder, Iguazu Falls, a trip to Lençóis Maranhenses may prove even more dramatic and extraordinary.
10.Giant Galapagos Tortoises – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
No trip to Ecuador’s enchanting Galapagos Islands is complete without viewing the Giant Galapagos tortoises for which the archipelago is so well known. The longest-lived of all vertebrates, with the oldest on record having lived to be 152, these reptiles are also the world’s largest tortoises, with some specimens exceeding five feet in length and reaching the weight of 550 pounds. These endemic creatures have become emblematic of the islands themselves, even to the point of inspiring the name bestowed on the islands (in fact, galapago means tortoise in Spanish). Seeing Galapagos tortoises roaming freely in their natural habitat is high on the list for just about any intrepid visitor to the Galapagos Islands. It’s one of those surreal, jaw-dropping luxuries of travel that most of us only dream of experiencing.
Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator. Surtrek Tour Operator is a well-established firm, specializing in custom-designed luxury tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and throughout the rest of South America.