Sunset over Iguazu / SF Brit / Flickr
Never been south of the U.S. border? As the legend of El Dorado has it, there’s a lost empire with vast hordes of gold and precious stones located somewhere in South America. Spanish conquistadors and famous explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh risked their lives in search of this kingdom. No one ever found it.
Whoever finds El Dorado will be rich beyond imagining. But before you pack up your survival gear and set out in search of El Hombre Dorado (the golden man), consider these far more accessible reasons to head south sometime soon. You won’t find gold, but the experiences you’ll have will be priceless.
Colombia Has the River of Five Colors
Cano Cristales / Wikimedia Commons
This is like something out of a fable: set back in Columbia’s idyllic, isolated Serranía de la Macarena mountain range, the Caño Cristales river becomes the River of Five Colors for a window of time each year. From June through December, this liquid rainbow is red, blue, yellow, orange, and green. A phenomenal transformation of this nature is like nothing else we know of on Earth. An endemic plant called macarenia clavigera reacts to the sunlight when the 100 km river is at a certain level each year, causing the water to appear multicolored.
Guerilla warfare in the area made this river inaccessible before the mid-2000s, but now adventuring travelers can find their way. You must first fly from Bogotá or Villavicencio to the miniscule La Macarena airport where, according to the BBC’s Karen Catchpole, “The luggage truck is pulled by a mule.” From there, access a guided tour (Karen recommends locally-owned Eco Turismo Macarena). They’ll take you by motorboat up the Guayabero River, then you’ll hike the rest of the way. Be sure to listen carefully to all the stipulations from your tour guide. Colombia places the jewel of Caño Cristales, with its glorious five colors, under strict environmental protection.
The Galapagos Islands Are Incredible
Galapagos / pantxorama / Flickr
Did you know that the Galapagos Islands are always on the move? Born of a volcano some five million years ago, the archipelago is directly on top of a tectonic plate that shuttles them ever east by southeast. This is the home of unique wildlife that evolved apart from the rest of the world, which is why Charles Darwin used the Galapagos as the basis for his revolutionary book, “On the Origin of Species”.
Galapagos is Spanish for “giant tortoises”. A great many huge Galapago live on the islands. Here, you’ll see fauna with characteristics you won’t find anywhere else, such as huge land iguanas and flightless cormorants. Tourists on the Galapagos must adhere to Ecuador’s strict rules that encourage environmental sustainability, as the majority of the islands are a national park.
Baja Has Great Surfing and Great Times
Just south of the Mexican border, Baja California is a Mexican state where the waves and the parties get so wild, a Baja survival guide is recommended. Infamously, people travel south from San Diego to Baja and never come back. That’s because you’re in a land where the rules are lax, the drinks flow freely, potable water is scarce, and the surfing is epic.
All this speaks to the need for a quality resort where you can enjoy the good life and catch fantastic waves—or learn to surf if you’re a beginner. Look no further than Baja Malibu. Your dollar will go a long way at any of the multiple resorts, and the BM Surf Bar is a perfect place to catch some food, drinks, and live music after a day at the beach. Looking for something more remote and primitive? Scorpion Bay to the south is magnifico.
Machu Picchu Is an Extraordinary Piece of Incan History
What trip south of the border would be complete without Machu Picchu in Peru? One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the ancient citadel once served a mysterious purpose for the Inca people. It may have been a religious site, a royal palace, a trading station, or a women’s retreat. Archaeologist Hiram Bingham officially discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. Before that, Spanish conquistadors never reached the abandoned citadel in the 16th century, and it remained mostly untouched after the Incas abandoned it for unknown reasons.
Machu Picchu consists of breathtaking stonework jutting out from the side of a tropical Andes mountain. You can approach by the 26-mile Inca Trail, or by train. You’ll arrive at Agua Calientes and take a shuttle to the base of Huayna Picchu. From there, ascend to the summit of the mountain, where you’re afforded a view of the ruins, which are still in great shape due to advanced Incan engineering. Some highlights here are the Temple of the Sun and the Intihuatana stone, a solar clock with four sides that point North, South, East, and West.
The Argentinian Empanadas
If you travel to Argentina for the empanadas and yerba mate alone, no one can blame you. Empanadas are quite possibly the best thing to ever happen to the pastry. They’re customizable, consisting of baked or fried pastry stuffed with fresh veggies, meat, spices, sometimes cheese, and sometimes sauce. Or, you can order dessert empanadas. In Argentina, the empanadas you devour will vary from region to region, kitchen to kitchen.
Argentinian empanadas are some of the best in the world. There are two main types of Argentinian empanada. The Tucaman empanada is fried in fat and heated in a clay oven, while the Salta style is baked—simple, therefore superb! You can tell the filling by the repulgue, which is the pattern on the pastry. While you’re hunting for empanadas in Argentina, check out Iguazu National Park, which includes the fantastically huge Iguazu Falls.
Take your time exploring sites such as Machu Picchu, the River of Five Colors, and the Galapagos Islands. Even if you don’t discover El Dorado, your trip south of the border will definitely be worthwhile.