By Simone Cannon de Bastardo
Although the Galapagos Islands, Atacama and Torres del Paine National Parks are well known among travelers from North America, most people don’t know that there are more than 300 other beautiful national parks, protected sanctuaries and nature reserves in South America. Some are more accessible than others, some are quite small, and others are bigger than some countries, but all are generally well-maintained and boast some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife in the world.
Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (Tayrona National Natural Park), Colombia
The second most-visited park in Colombia, Tayrona extends from the northern shores of the Caribbean to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Because two ecosystems make up the park, it is home to 180 species of mammals and 300 species of birds and, since the park encompasses part of the Caribbean sea, hundreds of species of coral, fish, sponges, mollusks and other marine life. Wildlife viewing excursions are very popular in the park and visitors have spotted black howler monkeys, titi monkeys, iguanas, bats, deer, jaguars and oncillas, a relative of the ocelot.
Birdwatching is also popular and visitors may be lucky enough to see eagles, red woodpeckers and Andean condors, the second largest bird in the world.
It has tropical and high mountain climates, sandy white beaches bordering turquoise waters, towering snow-capped mountains, rocky atolls, archaeological ruins, and dense vegetation ranging from low mangrove and palm stands to high cloud forests. Activities available to tourists include snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, swimming, horseback riding, camping and hiking. The park offers campsites, tent and hammocks rentals as well as more upscale eco-cabins as accommodation.
Parque Nacional Canaima (Canaima National Park), Venezuela
The highlight of the sprawling 30,000 square kilometer (11,583 square mile) park located in southeastern Venezuela is undoubtedly Angel Falls (Salto Angel), the highest waterfall in the world, but the park is also famous for its numerous smaller waterfalls, peaceful lagoons, rushing rivers, rainforests, jungles, wildlife and the famous table-top mountains of the region known as tepuis. Canaima was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 to protect its unique flora, fauna and topography including the breathtaking tepuis, whose summit plateaus are so isolated that many of them developed their own ecosystems, with plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, including one-of-a-kind orchids and bromeliads. These majestic giants rise out of the landscape throughout the park and are remnants of the super continent of South America and Africa.
This landmark inspired the novel The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. Guided tours and multi-day excursions can be arranged from Caracas or Ciudad Bolivar, the closest town to Canaima. Guided activities may include hiking, bird and wildlife watching, swimming under the waterfalls, boating, visiting the communities of the indigenous Pemon Indians and trekking up the tepuis. The park is remote with few drivable roads but can be explored on foot or by small airplane or boat.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Glaciers National Park), Argentina
Although this park is quite well known since it is home to the Perito Moreno Glacier, it is worth revisiting because the government recently completed extensive renovation work throughout the park, including a new and impressive multi-level walkway in front of the glacier. Another reason to visit soon is that, due to climate change, the glaciers are melting at an accelerated rate and many are expected to disappear completely in the next few years. Although Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing, rather than receding, the smaller glaciers are melting so quickly that they are changing the level of water in the park’s lakes, which in turn is affecting the micro-climate.
It also encompasses towering snow-capped mountains, multi-hued glacial lakes and rivers and sub-Antarctic forests and steppes. The park is one of most well-maintained and organized in South America and it is possible to hike, take a boat ride up to a glacier face, ice-trek with crampons and kayak across a lake all in one day. Other activities available are hot air balloon rides, horseback riding, mountain climbing, photography safaris and trout fishing. Day tours, transportation and activities can be easily arranged from the nearby town of Calafate.