There’s something wonderfully breathtaking about standing atop Machu Picchu looking over the ancient ruins of the `Lost city of the Incas’. Standing at 2,430 meters above sea level it may well be the altitude that takes your breath away, or the few thousand other travellers with whom you are sharing the experience, but really it’s because you are standing at the justifiable number one spot to visit in South America- a UNESCO listed heritage site and also one of the `new’ seven wonders of the world’.

As a destination South America certainly has it all, and you could spend years roaming the continent and not see all it has to offer. But if you had to go just once and see the very best bits then Viva Expeditions have put together their `Big Five’ must see spots, and having visited these places myself, I’d wholeheartedly agree.

Despite the crowds at Machu Picchu it’s easy to find a quiet spot in an old temple or bathhouse and marvel at the ancient city which was once the centre of the Inca Empire. However, if it’s solitude you seek then the Amazon Rainforest is pure perfection. Beautifully lush and filled with a cacophony of bird calls (solitude yes, silence no) the Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world. Cartoon-like toucan fly through the treetops, brilliant macaws scream down from the sky, sloths meander along looking for a place to sleep and pink dolphins swim alongside as you cruise the Amazon River. With such vast numbers of unique wildlife and a rich ecosystem of fascinating fauna the Amazon truly is a place which allows complete immersion in the beauty of nature.

If we are talking about nature and wildlife then the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador is also a must see on your journey through South America and marks number 3 on our Big Five list. These isolated volcanic islands are home to incomprehensible numbers of endemic bird, plant, animal, fish and reptile species. Famous for helping Charles Darwin form his theory of evolution, the Galapagos Islands are hard to get to but well worth the effort. Cruising is by far the best way to see the most amount of islands, thereby allowing you to see more wildlife, but do make sure you settle for nothing less than a five night cruise as you’ll be bitterly disappointed with anything shorter.

No trip to South America is complete without ticking off number 4- the vibrant city of Rio de Janeiro. Rio is most famous for its gorgeous sandy beaches- the most iconic being Ipanema and Copacabana- the statue of Christ the Redeemer, striking Sugarloaf Mountain and the world’s most well-known party- Carnival, held every February over a number of days. If joining in with the throng of street revellers isn’t your thing Rio is still great to visit any other time of year, though be prepared for samba rhythms and spontaneous parties- you may still get swept up in the action of this dynamic city.

Finally the 275 individual waterfalls which create the thundering Iguazu Falls– the natural land border for Argentina and Brazil- make number 5. A visit to the Argentinean side of the falls gets you up close and personal with the largest of them all- the Devils Throat, and whether you are taking a thrilling boat ride into the falls or merely admiring from the viewing areas, be prepared to get wet- this is an enormous amount of water! The Brazilian side allows you to experience the sheer size and grandeur of the most majestic of water features from the walkways above, and if time and budget allows, then a helicopter flight over the top is an absolute pre-requisite.

Of course there are so many other wonders and sights to see in South America (Patagonia, the Salt Flats of Uyuni and the cloud forests of Ecuador to name a few) and if time and budget allow then I would encourage you to see them all, but if you could only make the journey once you’d be a very happy traveller to tick off the Big Five.