Much of the continent remains wild and untamed, which to the intrepid traveller can be both appealing and daunting. Travel overland is often difficult and time-consuming, which is one of the many reasons to consider visiting South America on a cruise ship.
There is a huge variety of cruising options on offer: you might choose a classic cruise along a portion of the coast, focusing on a single area such as Brazil or the Chilean Fjords; for the more adventurous, there are river cruises on the Upper Amazon in Peru and expedition voyages to inaccessible islands and coastal regions; or if you have more time to spare, how about a full circumnavigation of the entire continent?
If you're still not sure then let us whet your appetite some more, with just a few of the reasons why you should consider a South America cruise…
1. Amazing wildlife
For many travellers, South America's incredibly diverse wildlife is the number one reason to visit the continent. The Amazon rainforest is home to an astonishing 10% of all the known species on earth, with some 40,000 plant species, 2,000 species of birds and mammals and 2.5 million insect species. Colourful creatures to watch out for include scarlet macaws, poison dart frogs, toucans, piranhas and the elusive jaguar. Other wildlife hotspots include Brazil's Pantanal wetlands, the rich seas around Tierra del Fuego and the unique Galapagos Islands, home to a host of weird and wonderful species such as the marine iguana and the blue-footed booby.
2. Ancient civilisations
Although the high peaks of the Andes are a long way from the sea, a visit to the mysterious Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is a popular add-on to many South America cruise itineraries, and is often offered as a mid-cruise land tour. A visit to this remarkable site, improbably perched on a mountainside, is a true bucket list experience. There are plenty more fascinating archaeological sites in Peru that receive far less attention than Machu Picchu, including the city of Chan Chan, former seat of the ancient Chimú culture, and the Inca site of Pachacamac outside Lima.
3. Scintillating cities
Many of South America's most compelling cities are situated on the coast, and a cruise is a great way to visit several in the course of a single trip. Ravishing Rio de Janeiro is a great place to begin or end or cruise, home to Christ the Redeemer and the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, while Buenos Aires is redolent of Paris or Madrid, with its elegant European architecture and fantastic museums and galleries. Other cities worth exploring include Uruguay's compact capital, Montevideo, and sprawling São Paulo, with its striking modern architecture and cosmopolitan restaurant scene. Although far from the coast, the lofty Ecuadorian capital, Quito, is the gateway to the Galapagos, and it's well worth spending some time in the beautiful old town.
4. Fjords and mountains
South America has mountain scenery on an epic scale, with the Andes running virtually the whole length of the continent's western flank. Some of the most spectacular peaks are to be found in the wilds of Patagonia, and numerous cruise lines ply the waters along the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina. You'll see immense glaciers, snow-capped peaks and the stunning Chilean fjords, and the nutrient-rich waters support wildlife including whales, elephant seals and penguins.
5. Watery wonders
Stretching some 4,000 miles from the Andes to the Atlantic, the Amazon is one of the greatest rivers on earth. The lower reaches of the river are so wide and deep that it's possible for cruise ships to sail upriver as far as the steamy jungle city of Manaus, some 900 miles inland. And if you think that's extraordinary, consider the fact that some smaller ships can even cruise as far as Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, closer to the Pacific than the Atlantic! There are many other remarkable rivers in the Amazon Basin and beyond, including the Iguazu river, which forms part of the border between Brazil and Argentina and reaches a deafening crescendo at the spectacular Iguazu Falls, an essential add-on if you're cruising out of Rio or Buenos Aires.
6. Colonial history
Centuries of Spanish and Portuguese domination left an indelible mark on South America. The colonial period was brutal for the indigenous population, with entire civilisations decimated and destroyed by disease and warfare, their treasures looted and their land seized. Millions of slaves were brought across the Atlantic from Africa, a legacy that is still keenly felt in countries such as Brazil and Colombia. You can learn about the chequered history of South America in popular cruise ports such as Cartagena, with its beautifully preserved colonial centre and Afro-Colombian heritage, or the pretty streets of Paraty on Brazil's Costa Verde, a key port during the 18th century Minas Gerais gold rush.
7. Music and dance
Music is a constant background presence in South America, whether it's the haunting panpipe melodies of the Andes, the sultry sound of salsa in Colombia or the rhythms of bossa nova and samba in Brazil. There's nothing quite like sitting on a beach sipping on a caipirinha while 'The Girl from Ipanema' floats across on the breeze, or the electrifying atmosphere of a tango show in Buenos Aires' earthy San Telmo district. There are also cruises that visit Brazil during the biggest party of all, Carnival, though you'll have to book early to avoid being fleeced on flights and hotels.
8. Indigenous culture
There are still many areas of South America where indigenous communities maintain a strong presence, most notably in the Andean regions of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, where you'll see plenty of Quechua and Aymara people in their traditional dress. There are also countless ethnic groups living within the impenetrable jungle of Amazonia, some of them still uncontacted by the outside world. South America's indigenous customs and beliefs are not widely understood by the outside world, and a cruise along the Pacific coast is an opportunity to learn about everything from the domestication of the llama to the ritual use of plants such as coca and ayahuasca.
9. Fantastic food and drink
South America may not be top of the list when it comes to foodie destinations, but there are some incredible culinary experiences on offer. Tuck into the most amazing steak you've ever tasted in Argentina, served with tangy chimichurri sauce, or try fantastically fresh ceviche in Peru, Chile and Ecuador. Markets are piled up with all manner of weird and wonderful fruits, many of which you will never have seen or heard of before, thanks to the bountiful Amazon rainforest. South America also produces some fantastic wines, most notably in Argentina and Chile, and famous cocktails from the region include the caipirinha and the pisco sour.
10. Deserts and salt flats
The topography of South America plays a key role in the continent's climate and vegetation. The Andes act as a barrier to moisture: to the east of the mountains is the lush, sprawling expanse of the Amazon jungle, while the narrow coastal strip to the west is mostly dry and barren. A cruise along the coast of Chile gives you the opportunity to visit the world's driest non-polar desert, the Atacama, where you can explore surreal lunar landscapes, high-altitude lagoons full of flamingos, and the atmospheric oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. More adventurous travellers may like to extend their stay in South America with an overland journey to Bolivia's spectacular Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat.
11. Head off the beaten track
Visiting South America on a cruise ship allows you to travel to some of the continent's lesser explored corners, with calls at ports such as Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, or the former prison colony of Devil's Island in French Guyana. The southern tip of South America is also the jumping off point for expedition cruises to the southernmost reaches of the globe, including the frozen landscapes of Antarctica and remote islands such as South Georgia, home to vast penguin colonies and the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton.