NATURALIST Charles Darwin wrote after his voyage to South America that “it is not the strongest of the species that survives ... it is the one that is the most adaptable to change”.
As my travel companion and I backpacked through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, this phrase frequently rang true. Over the centuries, communities here have adjusted to live in extreme locations and deal with many hardships. This is especially obvious when visiting the “lost” Inca city of Machu Picchu, Peru.
One of South America's most amazing ruins, the citadel sits at 2430 metres altitude and is surrounded by beautiful tropical forest and mountains that form part of the Amazon Basin. Built during the 15th century using local stone, the World Heritage site covers 325sq km and includes what is believed to be a palace, royal tomb, religious temples, prison, residential area, and agricultural terraces.
While it is not known exactly why the city was built or abandoned after the Spanish invaded, it is obvious from the way the buildings have been almost sculpted into the granite ridge that it was designed to work in harmony with nature. As we gazed down on the ruins from nearby Wayna Picchu peak, sunlight shafted between mountains, piercing rainbows and ribbons of clouds. It was easy to see why the Incas picked such a serene and pristine location.
Crossing into Bolivia by bus, we stopped at other well-positioned ruins on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), which is surrounded by the world's largest high-altitude lake, Lake Titicaca (3808m). From here it was a sharp descent off the altiplano plateau past snowy Cordillera Real mountains to the Amazon Basin frontier town of Rurrenabaque. The area is surrounded by savannah, rivers and lush forest that make up Parque Nacional Madidi – a reserve boasting the most protected species and greatest biodiversity of any park worldwide.
While spending three days at a jungle camp upriver, we were shown by our local guide many unusual flowers, huge trees, and wildlife, including tarantulas, macaws, deer, monkeys, wild pigs, and carpets of butterflies. The abundance and complexity of the forest was startling. It was amazing to be enveloped by Mother Nature on such a grand scale and realise that tribes still live like this uncontacted by civilisation.
Returning to high altitudes, it was a contrast to explore the world's largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia's south west. The blindingly white remains of a prehistoric lake appear unworldly with hexagonal salt tiles covering 12,106sq km.
But water was definitely flowing when we visited the thunderous Puerto Iguazu waterfalls in Argentina. Located on the border with Brazil, the 275 falls and their fast-moving channels stretch 2.7km along a basalt plateau and draw thousands of tourists every day.
A railway, lookouts and many trails throughout the 550sq km reserve of sub-tropical rainforest enable visitors to get up close and personal with the powerful walls of water. As you wander from one magical fall to the next, the UNESCO-listed park begins to take on a fairytale feel, with the highlight being to gaze into the churning waves at the base of Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat).
All this hiking meant we had a mammoth appetite by the time we hit Buenos Aires. Argentineans take their barbecues seriously and did not disappoint with huge, tasty, tender cuts of meat that had crowds queuing at steakhouses for hours. Walking off such a feast is not hard as there are many things to see in the city, such as the European architecture, Recoleta's ostentatious cemetery, a fast-paced football match, or a sexy tango show.
IF YOU GO
When to go: Visit Peru and Bolivia during the dry season, May to September. Travel in the Amazon is best from July to November. South America's high season is July to August.
Visas: Australians do not need a tourist visa to visit Peru, Bolivia or Argentina.
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