South America is without doubt one of the most diverse continents on the planet. From the deserts of Bolivia to the lush rainforest of the Amazon, South America has it all.
Covering thousands and thousands of miles, this huge continent is becoming more and more popular for cruise goers. The Amazon, Galapagos Islands and Patagonia offer expedition cruises and adventure itineraries that are absolutely mind blowing, especially for nature lovers.
In this guide we'll give you all the information you need to choose your perfect South American cruise. We cover everything from costs, ships, wildlife and top destinations. Please use the quicklinks below to jump to any section or simply read on.
South America is made up of 14 countries and territories, each offering something unique. Because the continent is so large, the peoples, the histories, the geology, and the wildlife change dramatically from region to region.
Although South America is large, there are actually only a select number of locations for cruises. The three main areas are the Amazon, the Galapagos and Patagonia. Each area offers a completely different cruise experience and you'll need to decide which one suits you most.
No matter which area you choose, nature lovers will be in their element. The Galapagos in particular is famed for it's wildlife. Nearly 20% of the marine life in the Galapagos is endemic to the archipelago, this includes the famous marine iguanas that feed exclusively on seaweed.
The Amazon Basin is also a hotspot for wildlife with 30% of the World's fauna and flora found there! Bare in mind though that the Amazon encompasses an enormous area and constitutes 20% of the world's freshwater reserve. The river is so big in fact that, at it's exit point into the Atlantic, the freshwater dilutes the sea water so much that the colour variation persist for over 2.5 million square miles out to sea!
Patagonia, one of the gems of South America, is also enormous. It stretches over 260,00 square miles, bounded by the Atlantic to the East and the Patagonia Andes to the West. One of the highlights of Patagonia is the massive Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. The glacier holds the third largest collection of fresh water in the world and is constantly moving, creeping forward around 2 meters a day! .
Although large main line operators like P&O, Princess, and Celebrity Cruises pass through Patagonia fairly frequently, most cruises in South America are aboard smaller expedition vessels. This gives a much stronger flavour of adventure and allows travellers to get closer to nature.
Many Antarctic cruises also depart from the southern tip of south America. For our guide page on Antarctica, please click here.
Because South America is south of the equator, the season are reversed to that of North America.
This means that the Summer season here runs from November through to early May. The further south you decide to cruise, the colder it will be. Patagonia during Summer can still get fairly cool while the Galapagos in the north will be very warm.
Below we have given some more information on both Winter and Summer.
Summer period runs from late November through to early May and is the peak season for most types of travel.
Summer is also the wet season and showers are common. Temperatures in the Galapagos stay around 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the seas are fairly calm.
The Amazon is at its highest point during Summer which means you'll be able to sail further down without hinderance. Wildlife regularly comes to the banks and you can expect to see monkeys and numerous birds.
Patagonia and Cape Horn cruises can only done during Summer as the weather and sea conditions in Winter are far to rough.
The Winter is a less crowded season and potentially nicer in some respects.
Obviously Patagonia is not possible, but the Galapagos and the Amazon offer a less humid cruising experience. The Amazon is running low in Winter which means you'll have the chance to go ashore far more. This will suit some people more than others.
The current becomes cooler in the Galapagos and trade winds mean that the ocean becomes slightly choppier at this time. Temperatures are still high though with most days averaging between 60-75 degrees Fahrenheit. There will often be a little more mist in the morning, but there will be less rain in Winter here.
As mentioned briefly above, very few large ships are on offer due to restrictions within the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands.
Whilst the Amazon sees a few large ships a year, the Galapagos has a restriction of 100 passengers.
The very large cruise ships are reserved for Patagonia and Cape Horn cruises where open sea travel is more frequent.
Below is a little more information on the ships you can expect.
Motor yachts are very popular options on both Amazon River cruises and Galapagos itineraries.
Because of their small size, the boats are able to penetrate deeper into the Amazon and visit shallower bays in the Galapagos.
It's also worth noting that Galapagos restrictions mean that only 16 people can be ashore at one time. Therefore, the smaller the boat you have, the less time you'll have to wait and the more time you'll get ashore.
However, a smaller boat also means that you'll feel the motion of the sea more and have less private space onboard.
Expedition-style ships are now one of the most popular options out there.
This is largely thanks to their versatility. Able to navigate the roughest of oceans whilst also able to penetrate small bays and inlets.
Expedition ships often have a focus on activities, wildlife and photography with expert guides onboard.
In the Galapagos you may have to wait a little longer to get ashore, but you'll have more space, knowledgable guides, and more activity options and equipment.
Expedition ships are also popular for trips into the Patagonian fjords.
A number of the main line operators such as Princess and Celebrity cruises offer itineraries around Cape Horn.
These large ships offer all the comforts of home and more. There will be hardly any motion and you'll have a good-sized cabin. These ships are generally cheaper also.
The negative side is that you won't get as much time ashore, you won't get dedicated guides, and there won't be the same number of activities on offer such as kayaking.
Ideal for people wanting a relaxing holiday, but not great for people looking for a cruise adventure.
Because of the scale and breadth of itineraries on offer, cruise costs in South America can vary quite significantly.
Factors that affect cruise prices include itinerary length, ship type, time of year, onboard service, cabin size and added activities.
Always bear in mind that spending a little more to get the itinerary you really want is generally recommended as these are once in lifetime trips!
Galapagos cruises generally range from 4 to 16 days in length. Like most cruise regions, there are levels of comfort ranging from basic through to luxury.
Galapagos cruises generally start around the $2,000 mark and go up from there. For a basic 8 day cruise you would be lucky to get anything under $2,000. For a mid-level cruise you should expect to pay between $3-5,000 and for a luxury 8 day cruise you should expect to pay over $5,500 minimum.
We always recommend doing as long as you can to get the full experience. This allows you to visit more islands and encounter more wildlife.
Amazon cruise prices differ substantially on when you decide to cruise. The shoulder months around April and September are generally the cheapest, whilst the high summer season is the most expensive. During Winter the prices remain fairly steady.
Short 4 day cruises start at around $1,000 and go up to around $7,000 for a 2 week experience. The more you pay the more in-depth your cruise will be. It's also worth bearing in mind here that generally all cruise boats on the Amazon come under the 'luxury' or 'superior' branch. Basic ships are very rare.
There are actually very few cruise operators that offer Patagonia itineraries. Out of the three or four operators that do, Australis offer the most.
At the cheaper end you can get a 5 day cruise on an expedition ship for around $1,400, whilst a 9 day itinerary will cost you upwards of $3,500 on the same ship. Ponant and Nat Geo both offer luxury expedition itineraries that last 2 weeks. These cost considerably kore and start at $6,500.
Main line cruise operators such as Princess offer Cape Horn itineraries from $2,300.
Beside the main cruise cost, there are also a number of other cost factors to consider.
Solo travellers often have to pay a single supplement which can drive up costs.
Many expedition ships will give you the option of sharing with another solo traveler of the same sex. If you want to keep costs as low as possible, this is the way to go.
Many people forget to factor in flights when budgeting for their cruise. Flight costs to South America are not always cheap, particularly for European residents.
We suggest budgeting at least $800-1,000 for this.
The Galapagos charges everybody an entry fee of $100. You will also need to factor in visa costs depending on your country of residence.
Amazon cruises often contain 'community fees' which are generally in the region of $70.
Although not an added cost, your level of guides can differ quite alarmingly when it comes to both Amazon and Galapagos cruises. Certain guides have a far greater knowledge depth and level of English than others.
Although not always true, in general the more expensive cruises employ the more expensive guides, i.e the ones with excellent knowledge and the ability to communicate thoughts and facts easily.
When it comes to South America, there are there major cruise regions - the Amazon, Galapagos and Patagonia. Each region has numerous itinerary options. Below is an overview of each region.
There are literally hundreds of itineraries on offer throughout the Galapagos.
The longer you go, the more islands you will see. Regulations by the Galapagos National Park mean that you now have to take a cruise between 10-14 days if you wish to see all the islands and wildlife the Galapagos has to offer.
Shorter itineraries will not be able to visit as many ports. This is not to say you won't have a great time still! Shorter Galapagos itineraries are generally segmented into Northern, Souther, Western, and Eastern cruises. The more expensive Galapagos cruises will generally visit several or all points. Western and central itineraries are the most popular (and often cheaper) itineraries because they are easiest to reach.
Deciding which islands you want to visit is absolutely key. This means researching what you're most likely to see and do on each. Of the four less-visited islands, Isabela and Fernandina in the west, Genovesa in the north, and Española in the south, we would suggest Española and Genovesa as the best.
This is completely personal choice though and everyone always comes away with a favourite island or two. Please see our detailed article the best time to visit the Galapagos.
There are three region options when it comes to Amazonian cruises - Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil.
Whilst Ecuador offers very few itineraries, Peru and Brazil have numerous options.
Of the three, Brazil is the most popular and penetrates far deeper into the Amazon jungle than the other two regions.
Ecuador only really has one boat on offer - the Annaconda. Winner of the 2016 World Travel Award as South American’s Leading Boutique Cruise, the Annaconda is a 40 person vessel that takes people on 4-8 day itineraries within the Yasuní National Park. Geared towards wildlife, you'll have the opportunity to spot monkeys, birds of paradise and beautiful species of flora.
Brazilian itineraries are generally centred around Manaus located on the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro. Longer itineraries sail all the way from the Atlantic, whilst shorter itineraries will begin and finish within Manaus. Flights to Miami are possible from here.
Peruvian cruises are generally the most expensive, but you'll feel very isolated in this part of the Amazon. Almost all itineraries begin in or near Iquitos and cruise through the very diverse region of Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. Expect to see a multitude of wildlife from pink dolphins to tamarinds.
There are a number of itineraries that visit Patagonia. As mentioned above, the main operator is Australis.
Australis offer 5-8 day itineraries, all of which sail from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Ushuaia, Argentina, or the reverse.
The 5 day option is sgenrally the most popular and takes in the same main highlights as the longer itineraries.
Most notable among these include Cape Horn, Glacier bay, and Tierra del Fuego National park.
There are also a number of longer itineraries on offer such as Ushuaia to Valparaiso which takes in Cape Horn, Patagonia, and the Chilean fjords over two weeks. The ultimate Patagonia cruise begins in Buenos Aires and travels down the Argentinian coast, before circling around Cape Horn and travelling up the Chilean coastline to Santiago. If you have the time and money, this is one awesome cruise!
For people taking expedition cruises in South America, the wildlife is without doubt the main focus. Both the Galapagos and the Amazon are famed for their fauna throughout the world and cruises to these destinations will not disappoint.
Whilst the Amazon provides some of the most diverse species on out planet, the Galapagos offers the chance to get super close to the wildlife as many of the species are not afraid go humans. Seals, penguins, sharks, seat turtles and much more will be within touching distance should you wish it.
Although Patagonia is more well known for its dramatic scenery, its also home to a wide variety of wildlife including foxes, llamas, and puma! Below is an overview on the star species to be found within South America.
With over 24 different species of whale being identified in the galapagos, whale watching doesn't get any better and can be done all year-round!
Galapagos fur seals are common throughout the islands. Head to the main pier on Santa Cruz and sit on the same seat as one! Fur seals are also very friendly underwater.
Numerous shark species inhabit the food-rich waters around the Galapagos. These include hammerheads, reefs, tigers, and the Galapagos shark.
The common, bottlenose, and striped dolphin can be seen in the galapagos. of the three species, the bottlenose is the most commonly sighted.
The Galapagos green turtle will be seen on most diving and snorkelling trips, sometimes in relatively large numbers. Graceful and slow, you'll be able to get right up close.
Because of the coral, the Galapagos islands are teeming with tropical fish including white-banded angelfish, yellow-tailed surgeonfish, and clown fish.
of the two species found here, yellow-stained land iguanas are less common, whilst the sea iguanas are practically everywhere. Great creatures to watch, especially underwater.
Giant tortoise are incredibly large up close. There are special parks to see them, including one on Santa Cruz. Sit right next to one for a picture, these gentle giants are not aggressive.
The only penguin to live north of the equator is the Galapagos penguin. Small and cute, these creatures are found predominantly on Fernandina Island.
Fabulously charismatic creatures, flamingos area a joy to watch as they twist their necks into strange shapes. Found on most of the larger islands.
A favourite of many, particularly when doing their special foot to foot dance! Of the three species of bobbies, the blue-footed is the most commonly seen. North Seymour is your best bet.
The magnificent frigatebird can be almost anywhere. Their forked tail and large wing span make them stand out clearly. Seeing a male inflating his red gular sac to attract a mate is great!
Both Amazon river dolphins and pink dolphins can be seen on many river cruise itineraries. Pink dolphins are rarer and you'll need to choose your spot carefully.
One of the most beautiful creatures on earth, the jaguar is a native of the forests and river banks. Very rarely spotted, although a few are seen each year.
Even rarer than the jaguar, the ocelot is a small cat with stunning markings. Almost never seen without special land-based tours. Keep your eyes out though!
The famous villain of the Amazon, piranha are fairly common in certain parts of the river. If you fancy it, you can take special piranha fishing trips on certain itineraries.
Macaws are the highlight of many Amazon river cruises. If you visit a clay bank you might be lucky enough to see over 50 of these beautiful birds together!
The toucan is so enigmatic of the rainforest, that many people scream when they first see one! Always keep a look out for the bright beak as they might pop up anywhere.
Caiman can be seen slithering along the muddy banks of much of the river. Last year a jaguar was spotted taking a caiman from the water in front of a cruise boat!
Monkeys are spotted frequently on Amazon cruise. The most commonly seen species include the Howler, Tamarin Spider, Squirrel, Capuchin, and the Marmoset.
Thee are four species of whale found within the protected marine parks of Patagonia - orca, humpback, southern right and the blue whale. The former is seen very rarely.
Llama are a common sight for those who taking shore hikes into the hills. You'l probably see them in packs grazing on the hills. They show little fear towards humans.
There are two species of fox in Patagonia, the grey fox and the calpeo fox. Both are seen rarely, but can pop up at any moment during your shore hikes.
The puma is the mightiest of all Patagonian mammals. Seldom seen during cruises, these elusive creatures hunt most frequently at night when prey is more active.
Like most expedition cruises, there is a wealth of added activities on offer during your itinerary.
The Galapagos in particular boasts a wide range of things to do, whilst the Amazon and Patagonia are slightly more limited. Below is an overview of each and where to do them!
Kayaking is the most popular added activity. Offered on most itineraries, you'll be able to get close to the wildlife from the safety of your kayak and paddle down narrow rivers and inlets.
Select itineraries in the Amazon, Patagonia, and the Galapagos.
from blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos, to toucans in the Amazon, bird watching is one of the main focuses of your cruise. Your guides will show you the best spots and give you excellent advise.
Bird watching is offered for free on all itineraries.
If you want to explore the ocean is depth, then diving is by far the best way to do this. You will need to be certified with at least 25 previous drives under your belt. This does change depending on operator.
Diving is offered on most Galapagos itineraries.
If you don't know how to dive, snorkelling is the next best thing. Most creatures within the Galapagos are not afraid of humans and you'll get some incredibly close encounters with seals, sharks, sea turtles and much more.
Offered on ALL Galapagos itineraries.
Expedition cruises attract photographers for good reason. The emphasis on wildlife makes for some stunning photos. Some cruises offer photography experts, whilst others have specific photography tours most days.
Photography-based tours are rare, but you can obviously take pictures any time you want.
Almost all cruises have daily shore excursions where you can go hiking. Depending where you are, you may or may not have a guide with you. The Amazon is fantastic for this, especially with a knowledgable guide.
Hiking is offered on ALL itineraries within South America.
Because the South America continent is so big, your packing list will vary considerably from place to place.
Weather in the Galapagos is far warmer than that of Patagonia, whereas the Amazon is incredibly humid.
Below we have given a quick overview of things you'll need to think about.
Clothing: The weather is fairly warm, depending when you sail. Bring lightweight shirt and shorts. Breathable fabric is best, especially in the humid Amazon.
Swimwear: Snorkelling hear will be provided, but if you own your own gear and are used to it, you might want to bring it instead.
Sunglasses: The sea can be super bright which does not help when spotting whales and dolphins. Bring a good pair of UV sunglasses with you to reduce glare.
Footwear: Water boots are incredibly useful, especially in the Galapagos. If cruising Patagonia, you may want to bring some high-calf waterproof boots for your wet landings.
Bags and Daypacks: You'll be doing lots of hikes and shore excursions. Makes sure to bring a good-quality day pack to store your key items in.
Important Accessories: Remember to bring a water bottle, earplugs, flippers, suncream, kindle, extra electrical sockets etc.
Infamous among sailors for its rough waters, Cape Horn has lanced fear into many a ship over the years. The Cape marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Currents and trade winds means that you can only visit in Summer.
The Encontro das Aquas, or 'Meeting of Water' is arguably one of the most fascinating spots in the Amazon. Here the black waters of the Rio Negro meet up with the tan waters of the Amazon and run side by side for miles, creating an unforgettable sight.
Santa Cruz is the central (and biggest) island within the Galapagos. Here you can sit with seals on the harbour, visit giant tortoise in the highlands and call in at the Darwin Research Station where Several sub-species of giant tortoise have been brought back from extinction.
Located within the Napo moist forests ecoregion of Ecuador, this national park is a haven for wildlife. Arguably the most biologically diverse place on earth, the park has broken numerous records for animals found within a radius of 100 km2.
Urbina Bay, Elisabeth Bay, Punta Mareno, and Punta Vicente Rosa are all located on Isabela Island. Swim with sea lions and turtles, or kayak through Elisabeth Bay where ships are not allowed to enter. A perfect Galapagos haven for wildlife and people with a sense of adventure.
Lying southwest of Iquitos in Peru, the Picaya Samaria is one of the most bio-diverse regions on our planet. Witness locals passing by in their dug-out canoes, macaws flocking over clay licks and toucans flying overhead as you travel down the beautiful river.
One of the most famous national parks in the world, Tierra Del Fuego is a beautiful archipelago of islands lying off the southernmost tip of the South America. These windswept islands are ideal for hiking and nature watching.
Most Brazilian Amazon cruises finish or begin near the jungle city of Manaus. From here you can penetrate deep into the Amazon forest and explore the bio-diversity and local cultures in a way that few people ever do.
Offering one of the best views in all of the Galapagos, Bartolome Island is a moon-like landscape home to penguins, and nesting green turtles. Pinnacle Rock is probably the most recognisable landmark.
Insurance is highly recommended on all expedition cruises within South America. Please use the quick calculator below to get a quote with our recommended specialist. For a detailed article on cruise insurance, please click here.
Below is a short video by Courtney Scott, demonstrating some of the delights to be seen in the Galapagos.