The Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu dazzled travellers long before making a "bucket list" -- things to see and do before you die -- became a fad.
Huge tortoises and ancient Incan ruins still attract huge numbers, but many tourists are discovering that sprawling South America has a lot more going for it.
Viewing Easter Island's giant stone heads and the Amazon's wildlife are two examples. Both can be done on three- or four-day extensions of longer tours.
Many visitors rely on escorted tours to take the stress out of getting to and around South America. They may be comforted to know they can deal with familiar names they may have already used for something a little less exotic, like a bus trip in the Scottish Highlands -- names like Globus and Trafalgar.
Both companies have just released their 2013 South America programs.
Globus has seven updated tours and 35 tour combinations.
Among the new ones is the eight-day Peru Splendors. It features two days in Machu Picchu but also includes visits to a food market and a local home in Lima, and taking part in a Mother Earth ceremony. Globus says its South and Central America tours have had double-digit growth in the past year.
"(Latin America) has a great combination of the exotic and the natural -- and in our opinion continues to offer some of the best travel value in the world," says Stephanie Bishop, managing director in Canada.
Trafalgar's new South America brochure has 13 itineraries and seven extensions.
They promise locally guided sightseeing groups of no more than 20 persons, plus Trafalgar's Be My Guest and Local Specialties features. That might mean eating at a family home in Buenos Aires or a ranch in Patagonia, visiting a chocolate museum in Bariloche or a national park filled with glaciers.
"Our focus was to provide our guests with the opportunity to experience South America as civilians do, interacting with the locals, hearing their stories and sharing meals in their homes," says Doug Patterson, president of Trafalgar Canada.
The Galapagos and Machu Picchu eluded me on my few trips to South America. But mental images of Iguazu Falls, on the Argentine/Brazilian border, and Angel Falls, in Venezuela, are still fresh decades later.
At Iguazu, water from 275 cascades plunges over a crescent-shaped cliff 4-km wide, twice that of Niagara. My only regret is not taking a helicopter flight for an overview. Best seen during the rainy season, November-March.
Angel Falls' claim to fame is it's the world's highest -- nearly 1 km. But the water that spills from the edge of a flat-topped mountain tends to fall in one or two narrow ribbons, as though from a giant garden hose.
What was exciting -- make that mildly terrifying -- was trying to photograph Angel from the front seat of a small plane while the pilot swooped around Devil's Canyon, crisscrossing the cliff face.
IN OTHER TRAVEL NEWS
-- New York City's Statue of Liberty is scheduled to reopen to the public on a limited basis on Oct. 28, its 126th birthday, after a year-long renovation. See nycgo.com.
-- The Up-Close Tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida has been extended to the end of this year. The VAB, which had been off limits to the public for more than 30 years, is where the Apollo rockets and space shuttles were put together. There are also Up-Close tours of the launch pad and the launch control centre. See KennedySpaceCenter.com.
-- The Giant's Causeway has opened its new visitor centre along the north Antrim coast in Northern Ireland. Highlights include colour-coded walking trails designed for all fitness levels. Scientists say the Causeway's 40,000 basalt columns were formed by lava from the earth's core that eroded over millions of years. Local legend says it was built by a giant. See giantscausewayireland.com.