Considering the continent’s overwhelming cultural diversity, it’s hard to believe that it contains just 12 countries. South America’s “official” languages range from Spanish and Portuguese to Dutch and Quechua, an ancestral tongue that originated high in the Peruvian Andes. There’s just one common language, spoken in every country from coast to coast: soccer (or fútbol, as the locals would have it).

On the one hand, South America can be a place of overwhelming natural beauty, where snow-capped mountains meet chirping tropical rain forests. The Amazon River thunders across the continent, and its unique wildlife and fascinating indigenous tribes are big draws of visiting nature lovers. On the other hand, some of the trendiest cities in the world are found here, from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro. Brazil is home to the world’s premiere Carnival celebration, which allows citizens to don sparkly costumes, join a parade and blow off some steam before Lent and Easter. Surfers and beach bums would be just as comfortable here as a hiker set on conquering Machu Picchu.

South America is a destination for delicacies, from tasty tapas dishes to award-winning red wines. Seaside cities join seafood with native and imported spices; in Colombia, cooks love lemon, avocado and other farm-fresh fare. Visitors to South America also fall under the spell of the tango and samba, two popular dances that can be just as intoxicating as the wine. Museum buffs will find secret treasures here, too, from the former home of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to vast collections of pre-Columbian pottery and artifacts abandoned by Spanish conquistadors. 

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