Backpackers' South America

Grab your pack, and discover South America.
By: Andre Legaspi

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Get the scoop on backpacking through South America.

After a few nights reveling in Rio de Janeiro, you might look above the city's diminutive skyline toward Corcovado mountain and mistake the iconic, looming concrete statue of a robed man -- his arms raised perpendicular to his sides -- to be the subject of an eternal sobriety test.

Come morning, of course, you'll realize that the figure (who you may have thought turned one too many clay jars of water into wine), in all its chiseled, gray glory, is the Art Deco-style Christ the Redeemer. The statue has been teetering over the Brazilians upon Corcovado (reachable by the Corcovado Rack Railway) in an awe-inspiring state of eternal blessing since 1931.

When a city can make you think even the Messiah needs a designated driver, you know it's one heck of a party town. But Rio isn't the only South American city in the midst of an eternally good time. As you travel through the continent, it's certain you'll get very little shut-eye. An endless number of bars and clubs come to life every evening in nearly every town. But forget about those afternoon naps; the many breathtaking sights and attractions here will have your inner-tourist snapping photos like a fiend.

In Rio, for instance, it's only a matter of time before you'll become hypnotized by the famed Copacabana Beach. The actual beach isn't all that unique: the sand isn't superfine, the surf is more of a murky green and it's rarely empty. The mesmerizing part comes from looking up from the dunes and catching sight of the miles and miles of bare flesh prancing along the surf and sand.

It's not exactly a tough life here: Laze all day on the beach with folks who, besides being generally accepted internationally as the most attractive people on the face of the Earth, are also some of the hardest partiers south of the equator. Just try and keep up with them after the sun drops out of sight. It's no easy task.

To get the best sense of Rio nightlife at its finest, let your ears draw you to the awesomely charged music pouring out of Rio Scenarium, the city's hyperactive and most hyped club. And, of course, there's the one event that always seems to eclipse all else: Carnaval.

Dating back to 1830, the celebration defibrillates locals and tourists into a mad parade-frenzy just before they take it easy for Lent. While you might gorge on fudge sundaes before saying goodbye to chocolate for those 40 days and nights, the sensual Brazilians indulge other vices through hours of wild, colorful dancing and marching, set to a samba rhythm.

Thankfully, leaving Rio doesn't mean that the scene gets less interesting or debaucherous. Not far west, in Sao Paulo, is Diquinta -- a loud and popular haunt that pumps out live Brazilian music nightly. Work it on the dance floor, and you might end up with a cute tour guide, to walk you through Avenida Paulista, the city's main thoroughfare, the next day.

On this avenue, in the span of 45 minutes, you'll come across brokers on their lunch break, fashionistas swishing from boutique to boutique, and fanny-pack-toting tourists spilling out of the fascinating MASP (Museum of Art of Sao Paulo). At first glance, Sao Paulo gives off the air of an uptight and wealthy miser. While some of this reputation is well-earned (it is the financial epicenter of South America), the city actually isn't conservative at all.

Sao Paulo, or Sampa as it's known to locals, can in part thank Vila Madalena for helping loosen up its reputation. The majority of the city's trendy bars and popular clubs are concentrated in this neighborhood. Come summertime, with establishments setting up shop on the sidewalks and streets, the area overflows with a cacophony of boisterous laughter and clinking glasses.

As you head south through the continent, your next must-stop destination is Buenos Aires -- and hopefully, you've worked up an appetite. Carnivores around the world are all too familiar with Brazilian churrascarias and their never-ending cascade of charred meat. However, beef purists know there's only one place to get their sirloin: Argentina. Rivaled only perhaps by the pampered cattle in Kobe, Japan, Argentine beef is renowned for its flavor and tenderness.

After you've eaten dinner, cosmopolitan Buenos Aires offers an endless list of other nighttime activities, including gawking at the knee-bucklingly attractive locals at the uber-hib bar Milion while indulging in a few pints of Cerveza Quilmes.

Drooling over steaks and gorgeous locals is a fantastic, albeit passive, evening activity, but there are plenty of things to see and do during the day. Don't pass up a chance to pay your respects to the eternal residents of Recoleta Cemetery. Though cemeteries can be more creepy than interesting, Recoleta isn't your normal cemetery. As you amble through its paths, you'll find that all the shrines, sarcophagi and structures are truly works of art. The inscriptions, which read like a who-used-to-be-who of Argentina, include such legendary names as Eva Peron, Argentina's famed former first lady -- and the subject of the incredible Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical, "Evita."

Machu Picchu, Galapagos & More
Now that you've made it all the way to South America's cellar, it's time to head north for some well-deserved R&R and a chance to witness a few of the world's most awe-inspiring sights. Among other places you'll want to explore the mystical Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, the unfathomable diversity of flora and fauna on the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, and the intimidating 7 million square miles of the Amazon rainforest.

Finally, if you have the time hit Roatan. Floating just off the coast of Honduras, this tiny island is a diver's utopia. Off its shores, in the warm Caribbean Sea, sits one of the most expansive barrier reefs in the world (second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef). When they're not underwater, the easygoing and transient divers who congregate here can be found kicking back on the beach or enjoying pints with their peers. As if it couldn't get any better, Roatan also happens to be one of the cheapest places in the world to scuba or snorkel -- an absolute steal when you consider what you'll find in the reef. Much like everything else in Latin America,the island is teeming with outrageously colorful characters and brilliant sights.

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