Adventurers scaling the Andes 4-1/2 centuries ago discovered a civilization that amazed them with its splendor and geographical reach. Today, travelers with a sense of adventure are exploring those same heights. South America, it seems, is being "discovered" for the second time.
Whether exploring Inca ruins in Peru, rubbing elbows with wildlife on the Galpagos Islands, or cruising the Amazon, more Americans are heading south.
When it comes to "exotic destinations," South America "is the flavor of last year and this year," says Phillip Gordon of Globus, a worldwide tour company whose business there has doubled in the past four years. Other tour operators agree. Chris Bensley of Overseas Adventure Travel says its business in the region grew by 45 percent between 1995 and '96, and another 38 percent in 1997.
Vacationers find the continent appealing now, many say, because it is democratic, mostly stable, close to the United States, and offers good value. Bernardo Carrillo of Saga Holidays points out that sites in Peru are just six hours from Miami, much closer than Egypt, for example, and the ruins "rival the pyramids."
South America is a natural for the booming interest in ecotourism and adventure travel. It offers tropical rain forests, the world's highest navigable lake (Titicaca) and its driest desert (Atacama ), unique wildlife refuges, sophisticated cities, and stunning fiord regions.
For those not interested in escorted tours, independent travel is a viable option. US tour agencies will arrange for local "hosts" to meet travelers on arrival and help plan trips to the degree desired. Such travel has grown rapidly in recent years along with the increase in airline flights.
US airlines are scrambling to expand into Latin America, one of the world's fastest-growing industrial markets. American has many routes, and Continental and Delta have big plans for the region. Airports across the south are competing with Miami, the "gateway" to South America, for new routes.
On a cautionary note, many countries don't yet have the knack for making it easy for tourists (none has an official tourism office in the US). Major cities have top accommodations, but other areas may not have amenities some travelers expect. Planning and booking ahead are essential, says Carla Hunt, who writes for Travel Weekly. "Get a guidebook, read magazines and identify tour groups, go to airlines for brochures - it takes research." But it's worth it.