The diverse nature of this continents geography, history and culture gives you a variety of different cruise options, along-side plently of opportunities for sightseeing and adventure. With general visitor numbers on the up, particularly to Brazil helped by the World Cup and Olympics, more cruise lines are now offeing South American coastal cruises as part of thier schedule. The good weather during the European winter months and increased direct flights from the UK has also helped increase the regions popularity.
A 'Brazillian Riviera' coastal cruise is a good place to start and Rio de Janerio is one of the most exciting ports in the world. Visiting golden beaches and colonial towns these itineraries can range from three to eight nights and can be combined with a hotel stay for those wanting to linger in Rio or head to the beach. One thing to point out is that many of the shorter cruises are operated by local companies from Brazillians so English is not the primary language spoken on board.
Round-the-horn 'expedition style' cruises that sail between Buenos Aires in Argentina and Santiago in Chile are also popular and usually last 12 nights or more. The "horn" is the infamous Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the southernmost continent - just 1,000 miles north of Antarctica. Puerto Madryn, the Falkland Islands' Port Stanley, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia and Puerto Montt are all interesting ports of call and the rugged glaciere-marked fjords of Chile never disappoint.
Heading further north you reach Peru and Ecuador and of course the Equator. Many enjoy the bragging rights of having crossed the point of 0 degrees on a cruise but this area also has one of the most biodiverse cruise destinations - The Galapagos Islands. Laying around 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador this is a unique experience for all who visit its 58 islands, home to the highest number of endemic species in the world. Quite rightly visitor numbers are tightly controlled and this unique cruise experience comes with a hefty price tag, but one that is well worht it.
The Amazon also offers one of the most adventurous river cruise experiences in the world. Cutting its way through Peru, Columbia and into Brazil it's an animal lovers paradise with monkeys, sloths, macaws, dolphins, manatees and jaguars are just some of the locals on show. Ships tend to be small and intimate (around 30 passengers) and itineraries include opportunities to visit remote villages deep in the rainforest where few outsiders venture.
Itineraries typically begin or end in Manaus and focus on the Brazillian section of the river. A highlight of and Amazon cruise is the 'Encontro das Aquas' or 'the meeting of the waters'. This is where the black waters of the Rio Negro river meets with the tan waters of the Brazillian section of the Amazon run along-side each other without mixing. However there are a number of adenture tour operators that also run expedition style cruises in Peru's Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve for those wanting a true 'off the beaten track' experience.
The coastal cruise season runs from November to early May but even on one itinerary climates can change daily getting cooler as you head south away from the Equator. Rough seas are common around Cape Horn even in the summer and port of call can be cancelled at last minute. Amazon cruises operate year round with a constant tropical climate. There is never a bad time to go to the Galapagos but December to May is rainier, although warmer, and you get calmer seas. Springtime see the islands awash with colours as the flowers bloom and nesting and mating for some species including turtles and sea lions takes place. June to November is colder but with this brings an abundance of aquamarine wildlife particularly Penguins and Albatross as the fish stocks increase.
Whichever you choose the true essence of a South American cruise is experience and education often heading into the wild blue yonder.