SOUTH America is hot in more ways than one. It's warming up for the oncoming Southern Hemisphere summer, and it's becoming popular with American tourists, who are visiting in record numbers. In fact, Argentina is expected to have its biggest tourism numbers of all time this year, with nearly 4 million visitors.
Thanks to devalued currencies -- how does a steak dinner with wine for $5 sound? -- and a sense of safety from terrorism, South America is back on top of the list of popular travel destinations. Five of the top 10 cheapest cities in the world are in South America: Asuncion, Paraguay; Bogota, Colombia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Here's what you need to know to get down there without breaking the bank:
First, a little geography. South America is huge; trying to see it all in one visit on a country-hopping tour is not a good idea. Choose from one of the traditional favorites -- Peru's Cuzco and Machu Picchu, Brazil's Rio de Janeiro and/or the Amazon, Argentina's Buenos Aires -- and take the time to explore the destination. Other popular spots are Quito, Ecuador, and Santiago, Chile.
The flights can be long, but the time difference is minimal, so you don't have the jet lag problem you have when flying to Europe. Most of the cheapest flights leave from Miami. National airlines such as LanChile, Aerolineas Argentinas and Varig (Brazil) offer frequent service to South America but often at monopolistic prices when booked directly through the airline. Better to deal with a travel agency that specializes in a given destination and that buys in bulk. Among these are the Brazilian American Cultural Center, (800) 222-2746, www.brazilianvacation.com, which has fares from multiple U.S. cities to Rio or Sao Paulo for around the same price. For flights to Ecuador, try Ecuador Si, (800) 666-8687, www.ecuador-si.com.
If you decide to take on multiple countries, South America has an air pass, the Mercosur Pass, (800) 998-5521, www.globotur.com/mercosur.htm. It's valid for flights between Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay on eight South American airlines, and it can save you 30% or more on multiple flights. If you work out your itinerary beforehand, Mercosur will tell you how much you'll save based on total mileage. Kids' passes cost one-third less than adults'.
Air-and-hotel packages tend to be cheaper than airfare alone, with packages to Rio and Buenos Aires the most common. Marnella Tours, (866) 993-0033, www.marnellatours.com, has a five-night Rio package that's $775 per person, double occupancy ($929 for singles); it includes tours and airfare from LAX. Packages are available for other South American countries too.
Other tour operators worth researching for South American packages include: Varig Travel Vacations, (877) 687-1000, www.varigtravelvacations.ws; Tara Tours, (800) 327-0080, www.taratours.com; Discover Latin America, (800) 826-4845, www.discoverlatinamerica.com; and Solar Tours, (800) 388-7652, www.solartours.com. All have special low-cost air, hotel and tour packages, good for several months and from multiple U.S. cities. Many of these companies sell cheap airfare, besides packages.
If you want to delve a little deeper, check out the offerings on www.volunteerinternational.org under the South America listings. There are several volunteer vacations, long and short, such as teaching English in Bolivia, experiencing youth outreach in Brazil or helping with cloud forest conservation in Ecuador.