Cruising is the ideal way to explore the spectacular sights of this giant continent, which is now firmly on many Australian travellers’ wish lists. Words: David McGonigal.

Like Australia, many of the great sights of South America are close to the coast. And, like Australians, South Americans have a myriad natural wonders within their borders, though theirs include the soaring Andes and majestic glaciers. Perhaps these similarities are why an ever-growing number of Australians are heading across the Pacific and there are now more flights each year to get us there. South America is a surprisingly diverse continent that extends from the equatorial jungles of Ecuador to sub-Antarctic Patagonia. The cultures, too, range from the urbane city dwellers of Buenos Aires to the gauchos of the pampas.

The language is different, though. Except in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, Spanish is the spoken language, though dialects vary greatly. The atmosphere is shamelessly Latin, from passionate tango dancers on the streets of Buenos Aires to the party people of Rio, and soccer is everywhere. The cuisine is diverse, but typically includes tortillas, salsas and spices. Visitors to Argentina in particular leave with fond memories of the best beef in the world, served in very large portions.

There’s now quite a set path for cruises in the lower part of South America, which begins in Valparaiso, the port for Santiago de Chile, and ends in either Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. The voyage also operates in the opposite direction. The ports are justifiable highlights of their country and that’s particularly true of Rio de Janeiro, one of the world’s most spectacular cities, where mountain peaks dot the suburbs. Santiago goes one better with the Andes towering above the city and reaching their greatest height at nearby Cerro Aconcagua (6,960 metres) in Argentina. Buenos Aires, on Rio de la Plata, is a vibrant city with a great architectural heritage, excellent shopping and astonishing nightlife.

As each country is so vast, cruising is a great way to cover the main sights. The seasons match our own, with summer being the southern cruising season. Because South America extends so far to the south, the season doesn’t stretch much into spring or autumn. Towards Cape Horn, the most notable nautical landmark in the world, is a glacial landscape home to albatross and penguins and fascinating outposts such as Chile’s Punta Arenas and Argentina’s Ushuaia. South America is a pleasant surprise. From tango to coffee culture, condors to vineyards, it’s a welcoming world of rich experiences.