From its culture and cuisine to its gorgeous scenery and biodiversity, South America is a gem of a travel destination — and it’s even better when explored by sea. But cruising holidays don’t have to be shared with thousands of others aboard a huge ship. Chartering a catamaran or sailboat — and a skipper, if sailing isn’t your forte — is a unique way to explore multiple locales and make the most of your vacation time along the coast.
While many of the countries on the southern continent have much to offer, there are a few that are especially good for visitors exploring by boat: Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador — specifically the Galapagos Islands. Venezuela also has gorgeous turquoise waters and secluded islands, but it’s best avoided until the security situation in the country improves.
The Brazilian coastline is massive, stretching nearly 7,500 km, and the country is well on its way to becoming a luxury cruising hotspot. Rio de Janeiro is perhaps the most obvious spot to visit, but there are plenty of other Brazilian destinations that are worthy of a stop, too.
Angra dos Reis, or Bay of the Kings, was founded in the 16th century and was an important hub for coffee coming from São Paulo. The town here isn’t the main attraction, though — people come for the islands. The area has hundreds of stunning islands, some of which are private (so check before you head out). Relax on a secluded beach or take to the water and explore one of the more than 50 shipwrecks in the area.
The coastal town of Paraty lies between Rio and São Paulo, west of Angra dos Reis. Once part of the route for gold exports, Paraty is a beautiful mix of cobblestone streets and colonial buildings, old churches, forests, waterfalls, and islands and beaches. Cars aren’t allowed in the historic town center, making it a great place to spend some exploring on foot. You’ll also find guides who can take you on a walking tour or trek through the rainforest. The area has many small islands, and some (like Ilha dos Meros) have good diving conditions — so if you prefer to stay on your boat, exploring these islands make for an excellent way to spend a day or two.
East of Rio you’ll find Buzios, pirate base turned vacation destination made popular by Brigitte Bardot in the ‘60s. Some refer to it as the Saint Tropez of Brazil. Here you’ll find plenty of sunbathing and water activities, but Buzios also has a wide range of good boutiques, restaurants, bars, and galleries. Of course, you might find that your time here is best spent soaking up the atmosphere while sipping a caipirinha.
Colombia is blessed with two coasts — one Caribbean and one Pacific. The Caribbean is the most popular area to sail, so we’ll focus on that.
Santa Marta should be on every ‘must stop’ list for visitors sailing the Colombian coast. The area isn’t in the hurricane belt, with a fairly dry climate and beaches that are free from hordes of tourists. On land, the city offers colonial architecture, a beautiful whitewashed church, and rainforest that edges right up to the white sand beaches. Santa Marta is the gateway to Tayrona National Park, though the walk in is long and you’ll likely need to spend the night there. The city also has a growing food scene, so it’s a good place to get out and enjoy for an evening.
The sailing from Santa Marta to Cartagena can be rough, but the view as you approach the walled city is well worth the journey. Old colonial buildings contrast with modern skyscrapers, inviting visitors to explore. Cartagena has a lot to offer, from tiny but picturesque streets and historic churches to art galleries, boutique hotels, and restaurants. There are also plenty of street vendors selling fresh pineapple, papaya, melon, coconuts, and paletas (fruit popsicles) — refreshing on a hot day.
The San Bernardo Islands are about two hours from Cartagena and consist of 10 small bits of paradise in crystal clear turquoise waters, though only three are frequently visited. Isla Múcura has lots of small beaches and mangroves, as well as a small village offering street food and basic necessities. Isla Tintipan is the largest and arguably most beautiful of the islands. It’s a great place to swim in the coves or spend an afternoon enjoying a plate of fresh seafood. The snorkeling here is also good. The third island, Santa Cruz del Islote, is the most densely populated island on Earth, with about 1,200 people inhabiting just over 2 acres of land. The entire island is concrete, and it’s worth a visit to meet the people and see the place they call home.
Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands lend themselves perfectly to a sailing adventure. The islands are all very different, and forgoing a group trip for something more private allows you to customize your itinerary to suit your interests. Bartolomé offers white sand beaches, green turtles, and Galapagos penguins, as well as a volcano trek that delivers an incredible view of the islands. On Santa Cruz, you can visit the Charles Darwin Research Center, as well as the main town of Puerto Ayora. The island of Española is more remote and has many endemic species, including the Española lava lizard, Galapagos tortoise, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, Darwin’s finches, and the waved albatross, which nests exclusively here.
Darwin and Wolf are the most remote islands, typically only accessible to tourists on liveaboards. The diving in this area is exceptional and considered some of the best in the world, though it’s not for beginners. Sightings often include rays, dolphins, hammerhead and Galapagos sharks, large schools of fish, and turtles. From June to November, whale sharks also frequent the area.