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Date: 29/02/2012

Top Destinations in South America

Quito, Ecuador

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is an Andean City located at the foot of the active volcano Pichincha, at an altitude of 2850 metres. The old town has been declared a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO and takes you back through the centuries as you wander along the cobblestone streets, lined with vendors selling everything from pirate DVDs to choclo (Andean corn). Go north and you end up in the new centre (La Mariscal), where tourists will find most hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and nightlife. As with any South American destination, pickpockets are active here and it is thus important that you buy travel insurance before commencing your visit.

Quito is the perfect base for exploring the mountains including Pichincha, Cayambe and Cotopaxi as well as Andean towns such as Otavalo and Papallacta which are popular day trip destinations. Otavalo holds one of the largest artisan markets in Latin America and is a great place in which to buy your souvenirs. Another memorable day trip is to Mitidad del Mundo, the centre of the earth, as designated by French astronomers. The local bus will drop you outside the official site which is marked with a stone monument but, by far the more exciting experience, lies 200m up the road (down a dirt track), where the locals claim 'the real' Equator line is as measured by GPS. Here there is a fascinating interactive museum that gives you an insight into indigenous culture and lets you try to balance an egg on the head of a nail, challenge your friends to walk in a straight line along the Equator line and watch water go both ways down a plug hole.

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza in north west Argentina is the gateway to the Chilean border and the high Andes. Argentina's wines have started to enjoy global recognition only recently, but are quickly growing in popularity. The majority of the vineyards are located in the province of Mendoza. Mendoza is also a major destination for sports enthusiast where many outdoor sports can be enjoyed in beautiful surroundings. Here, make sure you buy travel insurance in advance as medical treatment here can be expensive. One of the most popular activities in Mendoza is, understandably, to take a wine tour. You can either visit a few wineries in one day or explore Argentinian Wine in greater depth by touring over multiple days.

However Mendoza is worth a visit even outside of the wine season. Puente del Inca is a hot water spring that is at the site of an old natural stone bridge over the Rio Mendoza and happens to be one of Argentina's natural wonders. The coppery-gold colour of the rocks comes from minerals in the water and makes this a beautiful stop-over on your journey between Argentina and Chile.

Another favourite is Parque Provincial Aconcagua. Here you will find the highest peak in South America, the Cerro Aconcagua mountain, at 22974 ft (6962 m). If you intend to climb, you will need to allow 2 weeks for acclimatisation and the ascent itself and it is of course important to buy travel insurance and ensure that it includes suitable climbing and sports cover. As an alternative to the ascent, you can take superb photos of the mountain from the Laguna Horcones. Another point of interest here is Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) which was erected to commemorate the border dispute between Chile and Argentina.

Huacachina, Peru

An excellent stop on 'the gringo trail', you can relax in this secluded oasis. Here, even the budget hotels have swimming pools! Highlights include adrenaline-filled dune buggy rides, sandboarding down some of the world's biggest dunes, internationally renowned wineries that produce wine and pisco, excellent horseback riding through the desert landscape and desert excursions to explore the vast, desolate desert and its canyons, rock formations and fossils and human mummies. These adrenalin filled experiences are great fun but remember that accidents occasionally happen and so it is important to buy travel insurance before you start.

Fray Bentos, Uruguay

If you fancy a change from the waterfalls, mountains and hot springs, Fray Bentos offers an excellent, if slightly morbid, solution. Situated just outside the town is the old meat packing factory which, between about 1860 and 1979, produced thousands of meat products from rabbits, cows and sheep including the famous Fray Bentos pies. With the formation of the EU and subsequent loss of the European Market the factory went into decline and eventually closed but the buildings remain open to visitors. The atmosphere in the cavernous warehouses is eerie and feels as though the workers simply upped and left without time to clean up, the machines are covered in cobwebs and have been left untouched, still bearing blood stains from the carcasses. If you can find one, a guide will show you round but the atmosphere is relaxed and after the tour you are at liberty to further explore at your own pace. You may well be one of the few tourists here so do keep an eye out for your valuables and make sure that you buy travel insurance in advance.