Cruising to South America can mean many things. One might gravitate toward Brazil for the beaches and parties of Rio de Janeiro, while others might seek a more rugged adventure to check world wonders such as Machu Picchu or Iguazu Falls off their bucket lists. Regardless of what draws you to the continent, know that South America is a place so diverse in landscape, history and culture that no itinerary is the same.
One style of cruising South America has become increasingly popular for is expedition. These more adventure-focused cruise experiences on smaller ships make it easier than ever to explore places like the Galapagos Islands and Amazon River. South America also is an access point for one of the most sought-after destinations in the world: Antarctica.
Depending on which part of South America you visit, popular activities might include hiking, kayaking, water tours on Zodiacs (small, inflatable water crafts) and sightseeing in both cities and small villages.
In Rio, arguably South America's most well-known port city, passengers can visit the top of Corcovado Mountain (home to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue) and Sugar Loaf mountain for panoramic vistas -- both via a cable car; no hiking necessary. Other Rio attractions include Copacabana Beach and the city's plethora of historic churches.
Ushuaia, another major port city in South America, offers more adventurous excursions, many focusing on Argentina's Tierra del Fuego National Park. Tours might involve exploring the vast wilderness via an off-road truck or all-terrain vehicle or a train ride to the "end of the world," which takes passengers to Patagonia's southernmost tip.
Machu Picchu is the main attraction in Peru, and is usually tacked onto Amazon River itineraries as a pre- or post-cruise land trip. In the Galapagos, activities are centered on nature and often utilize Zodiacs, kayaks and other water sports equipment to get as close to the wildlife as possible.
The best time to visit South America also depends on where you are in the continent. If visiting Antarctica and Patagonia (the southern portion of South America and your departure point for Antarctica), for example, you'll go any time from November to March; December and January are the most popular months, because they see the longest daylight hours and most comfortable temperatures.
Destinations such as the Galapagos Islands and Amazon River, on the other hand, are accessible to cruisers year-round. Of course, each still has its own seasons with pros and cons. The most popular time to visit the Galapagos Islands is from mid-June to early September, when the temperatures are milder and the water visibility and quality is higher. Some visitors, however, might prefer to cruise between December and May, when the temperatures (both air and water) are warmer -- albeit sometimes unbearably hot -- and there is more sunshine.
High seasons in places like Rio and Cartagena, Colombia, are more synonymous with the Caribbean's. Rio, being south of the equator, means summer runs from roughly December through March. It is during those months you'll enjoy the most sunshine and warmest temperatures. Cartagena, on the flip side, sees different seasonal patterns. The months of December through March guarantee the best weather, with drier days and milder temperatures.
One of the most popular South American itineraries you can take is known as "around the Horn," which explores the continent's Patagonia region. It begins or ends on one coast, dips down to Chile's Cape Horn on South America's southern tip, and rounds up to the other coast. A common route is Buenos Aires, Argentina (east coast) to Santiago, Chile (west coast), or vice versa, with stops along the way in cities like Montevideo, Uruguay; the Falkland Islands; Ushuaia, Argentina; Cape Horn; and Punta Arenas, Chile.
In the Galapagos Islands, which begin on Ecuador's mainland, highlights are less about the towns themselves and more about the wildlife you can see there. Espanola, a popular stop on these itineraries, is home to the famous waved albatross.
Amazon River cruises typically begin in major cities, then focus on visiting smaller, off-the-beaten-path villages along the river. Other itineraries might explore only along the west coast -- such as from San Antonio, Chile, to Cartagena, Colombia -- perhaps stopping in Lima, Peru, among other cities, and crossing the Panama Canal.
Easter Island also is a popular port of call on select cruises. Ships typically depart from Chile's mainland to the island, anchor off its coast, then take a tender (small boat) to land.
Around-the-Horn cruises usually depart from either Buenos Aires or Santiago. Many Amazon River cruises originate in Rio de Janeiro, while those that sail the Peruvian Amazon, specifically, depart from Iquitos, Peru via Lima.
When cruising the Galapagos Islands, ships will depart either from the Ecuadorian cities of Quito (the capital) or Guayaquil.
The regions to which you can cruise in South America are the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon River and Patagonia, with Ushuaia, Argentina as a jumping-off point to Antarctica.
However, you'll find some itineraries that overlap multiple regions, such as Patagonia with Antarctica, and around Brazil with the Amazon River.
Here are our best tips for finding a cheap cruise or cruise deal to South America. If you book a “guaranteed cabin” (they select for you), a cabin on a lower deck or sail on an older ship from a brand you like, then you can get the best price for a specific cruise to South America. Last minute cruises deals to South America appear as you get closer to the sail date, usually 1-2 weeks in advance. Taking a cruise to South America in the shoulder season (before or after the peak season) can also be a great way to find a cruise deal.