South and Central America and Mexico, have a diverse range of habitats of tropical rainforest to dry subtropical forests, grassland savannah, alpine flora and desert areas. It is home to some of the world’s most recognised and unique plants, such as bromeliads, heliconia, orchids, tillandsia, alstroemeria, zebra plant, begonias, jacaranda and tibouchina (glory bush) as well as to many of our favourite fruits and vegetables, such as tomato, potato, egg plant, corn, avocado, peanut, vanilla, chilli, pineapple and quinoa.
Gardens to see and visit in South America, Central America and Mexico include historic European-style gardens, botanic gardens of native plants, large gardens around wine estates, hotel and resort gardens, the famous floating gardens of Xochimilco, Burle Marx gardens in Brazil, plus and many large contemporary greenwalls and artist's gardens.
Country guides within this region:
"South America is a feast for garden lovers – that’s apart from a warm welcome. In Peru you’re in awe of ancient natural and man-made landscapes; Chile celebrates outstanding landscape designers; Brazil includes Roberto Burle Marx’ significant legacy; Argentinean gardens reflect European heritage; and in Colombia creative designers have transformed public areas into sanctuaries for proud residents."
Garden Travel Guide to South and Central America and Mexico
Geography of South and Central America
Nestled between the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and the South Atlantic Oceans, South America is the wilder of the Americas, and a continent of superlatives. Central America is the thin section of land that links the North American continent with the South American continent.
Geographically part of North America, Central America is Mexico and seven small, mostly tropical countries that have much more in common with South America than the rest of North America. Many of the countries of both Central and South Americas share language. Except for Belize and Guyana (English), Suriname (Dutch), French Guyana ( French) and Brazil (Portuguese) the other 15 countries all speak an American version of Spanish as their official language.
Many of the countries also share some similar colonial histories and as a result some common religions and cultural identifiers. But the pre-Colombian cultures differed and the geographical diversity is immense as it spans a distance of 10,000 km from north to south and includes some of the world’s most extreme landforms and natural phenomena.
The region is home to the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall, the highest single drop waterfall, the largest river by volume, the longest mountain range, the highest mountain outside Asia, the driest place on earth, the largest rainforest, the highest capital city, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, and excluding research stations in Antarctica, the world’s southernmost permanently inhabited community.
The region is one of the most biodiverse on earth. It is home to many interesting and unique species and the Amazon rainforests particularly, possess high biodiversity, containing a major proportion of the Earth’s species.
And the work of man has also left rare gems on the continent: ruins of ancient civilizations share the continent with world-class metropolises, outstanding modern architecture, European architecture, the oldest rock paintings in the Americas, strong African heritage , genuine indigenous and Eastern culture mingled with the traces of Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. Some of its biggest festivities, such as Rio’s Carnival and Belem’s Cirio de Nazaré, the Tango World Championship, and the Vendimia festival in Argentina, are also part of this incredibly diverse and attractive region.
Getting to and from South and Central America
Getting to Central or South America has become much easier in recent years due to massive increases in flights, particularly to South America by major global airlines. Although some places are still quite hard to reach (like Paraguay, Suriname or northern Brazil), larger centres, such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, are more accessible than ever before. International flights are generally expensive within Central and South America and, except for an increased access to most centres from USA, expensive from other parts of the world. Within each country the national domestic flights can be more reasonable. Therefore, it can be more economical to fly to the border city of one country, cross the border by ground transportation and fly onwards from the other side of the border. For example, for one to go from Lima to Santiago, the traveller might fly from Lima to Tacna, take a bus or taxi to Arica, and fly onwards from Arica to Santiago.
Although there are many reasons to see the region as one whole, there are no roads connecting Panama with Colombia, so it is not possible to drive from Central America to South America. People overcome this problem by shipping their cars from Colon (Atlantic side in Panama) to Cartagena or Barranquilla (Colombia), or from Panama City (Pacific side of the Panama canal) to Buenaventura (Colombia) or Guayaquil (Ecuador).
The Pan-American Highway is a series of routes starting in Central America and running to the tip of South America (save for the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia). It’s an interesting option for those with a good vehicle, plenty of spare parts, and a desire to explore the western edge of the continent.
Train networks through the region are not extensive and often do not connect international hubs. There are no rail connections between Panama and Colombia because of the same Darien gap which stops the roads. With the exception of Argentina and Chile, domestic networks are quite limited. There are a number of very scenic “tourist trains” though, including the 445km Quito-Guayaquil route in Ecuador.
Long distance travel is nearly all undertaken by air with internal travel by long distance coach or local buses.
Climate of South and Central America
The sheer size of the region means that it is home to every climate type on earth and within some of the larger countries, or those with large altitude variations, there can be very different climates within a country.
Most of Central America has a tropical climate and like tropical South America has a distinct wet and dry season but the presence of the Andes in South America, and the Humbolt current in the Pacific alters the tropical climate in some places to a near Mediterranean climate even near the Equator.
The Amazon river basin has the typical hot and wet climate suitable for the growth of rain forests. There, climate is hot and humid – with temperatures in the range of 25°C to 35°C.
The Andean regions of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia share – from May to November – the driest and coldest time of the year.
As you move away from the Equator and reach higher altitudes, temperature changes more dramatically, from below the freezing point in the dry season to around 28°C or more in the wet season.
At higher latitudes rain is spread more or less evenly throughout the year, making the wet season not too wet after all, particularly if you compare it with the Amazon river basin, coastal parts of French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname, the southwestern parts of Chile, or the coast of Colombia and Ecuador.
Further down south, Chile and Argentina cover such a range of latitudes and elevations that make generalizations of no particular use.
They do, however, share some common weather patterns, like in Patagonia for instance, with temperatures below freezing during their winter months and incessant winds any time of year.
Gardens to visit in South America
– see Garden Guide to Chile
– see Garden Guide to Peru
Gardens and landscapes to visit in Uruguay
Mano de Punta del Este, Punta del Este – also called ‘La Mano’ (The Hand) it is one of three sculptures by Mario Irarrazabal. Giant fingers reach up out of the sand, reminiscent of someone drowning.
Gardens to visit in Central America and Mexico
Gardens to visit in Belize
• Belize Botanic Gardens – 10 miles west of San Ignacio. Mayan garden, orchid house, savanna, bird watching, palms of Belize, gingers and heliconias.
• Belize Spice Farm and Botanical Garden (at Golden Stream, 35 minutes north of Punta Gorda). Created by Tom and Tessy Matthew, the Spice Garden grows black pepper, cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla and has mature specimens of mahogany, rosewood and sandalwood trees. Tours (8am-4pm) cost Belize$30, U6 free.
Gardens to visit in Colombia
Gardens to visit in Bogata
• Bogotá Botanical Garden – 14 hectare garden with waterfalls, fountains, collection of Amazonian and Andean flora, especially bromeliads and cactus, ponds of giant Victoria lilies, sunclock, greenhouses, colonnade, pergolas.
• Mount Monserrate – funicular ride to the top of Mount Monserrate which has a church surrounded by pretty gardens with spectacular views of Bogata on a clear day. A crowded pilgrim destination on Sundays
• Vertical gardens in
– Carrera 4 #76-41 – at 3,100 square metres, reputed to be the world’s largest vertical garden
– Hotel Cosmos 100 vertical garden in main reception hall
– Armenia Shopping Center
– Gaia B3 hotel (400 sq metres)
– Juan Valdez Cafeteria (inside the popular cafe)
– University of Los Andes
Gardens to visit in Quindio
• Jardin Botanico del Quindio – 10 hectare garden featuring sub-Andean forest and huge butterfly house.
Gardens to visit in Medelin
• Joaquin Uribe Botanical Garden of Medellin – famous Orquideorama, a spectacular architectural timber structure of ‘flower trees’ in a honeycomb design.
Gardens to visit in Costa Rica
• Iglesia de San Rafael, Zarcero – amazing topiary gardens started in 1964
• OTS (Organization for Tropical Research) Robert and Catherine Wilson Botanical Garden (Jardin Botanico Wilson), San Vito. Original design by Burle Marx. World’s second largest collection of palms, also aroids, bromeliads, gingers, heliconia and marantas.
• Lankester Botanic Gardens (Jardin Botanico Lankester) Paraiso – orchids, aplms, bamboo, heliconia, succulents
• La Paz Waterfall Gardens – 28 hectares with 5 spectacular waterfalls
• Spyrogira Butterfly Farm, San Jose – a green oasis of butterflies on their host plants. entry $7
• Parque Francisco Alvarado – unusual topiary gardens in the centre of Zarcero
• Green Mountain Ecological Gardens – private 2.5 hectare (10 acres) of cloud forest garden (altitude 1835m) with walking trails. Bookings required for guided tours of the garden. La Cangreja.
Gardens to visit in Cuba
Although many of Cuba’s 13 large botanical gardens fell into disrepair during the ‘Special Period’ of the 1990s, many have since been restored and replanted in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Cuba’s humid, subtropical climate has a rainy (May-October) with occasional hurricanes and a dry season (November-April). Cuba has both moist forest and dry forest (some semi-deciduous) ecosystems, depending on the extent of the region’s dry season. It is also a wonderful country for birdwatching.
• Jardín Botánico Soledad de Cienfuegos (Trinidad) – begun by Atkins a sugar plantation owner and plant collector
• Jardín Botánico Nacional – 25km south of Havana. Tropical plants, especially Cuban flora. Large pavilions with aquatic plants, subtropical drylands and mountain forests. Japanese garden, palmetum, ethnobotany
• El Orchideario de Sorora (Sorora Orchidarium, Viñales) – originally built by wealthy orchid-lover Tomas Felipe Camacho in the 1940s, a significant orchid collection and colourful garden cascading down hillside terraces
• Jardín de las Hermanas de Viñales – a quirky and surprising garden of thick vegetation and unusual ornament
• Jardín Botánico de Villa Clara (Santa Clara) – 10 hectares
• Organopónicos – co-operative urban organic gardens, some state and some locally owned. Around Santa Clara
• Jardíns de los Helechos de Santiago de Cuba – Fern Botanical Garden of Cuba – both native and exotic ferns plus large orchid collection
• Jardín Botánico de Santiago
• Jardín Botánico de Las Tunas (Holguin) – in Cuba’s dry region, protects endangered endemic flora, including palms and cactus.
• Serpentine Forest – plants adapted to growing on high-nickel soils in eastern Cuba
• Jardín del Oriente cafe and restaurant in Old Havana
• Mi Jardín Mexican restaurant – filled with lush potted plants
• Zapata Park – diverse ecosystems and birdwatching
• Cuba has an International Orchid festival in May
Gardens to visit in Dominican Republic
• Jardín Botánico (Botanical Garden) – 200 hectare garden with native plants, spectacular elaborate paving patterns, huge floral clock, Japanese garden, aquatic plants, orchids, palm garden.
Gardens to visit in Ecuador
• El Cementerio de Tulcán, Tulcán (near the Colombian border) – “a cemetery so beautiful it invites one to die.” 5 Hectares of the biggest topiary gardens in the world. Dates from 1932. Cypress (Cupressus arizonica) topiary with indigenous Pre-Columbian themes. Tunnels, animals. Free entry open 6am-8pm.
• El Jardín Botánico Atocha-La Liria (Amabato)
• Plaza Victor J. Cuesta, Cuenca – public open space designed by Duran Hermida and Associates with an interesting checkerboard grass and paver floor.
Gardens to visit in Mexico
Gardens in and around Mexico City
• Museo Nacional de Antropologia – museum of pre-Columbian Mexico with interesting modern waterfalls and water gardens
• Casa Luis Barragán – home of the famous modernist architect Luis Barragán. General Francisco Ramirez 12-14, Colonia Ampliación Daniel Garza, in Mexico City. Tours by appointment only ($200 pesos); opening hours are Monday to Friday 10:30 to 16:00 and Saturday 10:30 to 12:00.
• Floating Gardens of Xochimilco – indigenous gardens (chinampas) dating from Aztec times. Flowers are grown in dredged lake sediments (lacustrine soil) spread over reed beds that float in canals, held in place by tree plantings. Accessed by gondola, 23km south of city center
• Museo Frida Kahlo Gardens, Mexico City
• Gardens of the Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City
• Green Walls – Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana; ecosculptures by NFP VerdMX; Soumaya Museum; Quetzalcóatl’s head and body in vertical gardenin a back alley near Avenida Cinco de mayo and Calle Palma
• Four Seasons Hotel Mexico City
• San Angel district – a wealthy enclave of beautiful estates and gardens, with cobbled streets, Saturday market
• El Jardin Borda, Cuernavaca (1 hour south of Mexico City)
• Jardines de Mexico – new theme park of 37 international gardens including Italian, Japanese and labyrinth covering 51 hectares. In Tehuixtla (2 hours south of Mexico City)
• Cosmovitral in Toluca – a beautiful indoor botanical garden, with lovely stained glass murals (1.5 hours west of Mexico city)
Gardens to visit in Western Mexico
• Vallarta Botanical Gardens
• Gardens of Casa de las Flores Bed and Breakfast Hotel in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco
Gardens to visit in Southern Mexico
• Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Gardens
Gardens to visiti in Yucatan Peninsula
• Jardin Botanico Cancun
• La Hacienda Xcanatún in Merida
• Chichen-Itza, Hotel Hacienda Chichen Resort, Gardens
Gardens to visit in Baja California Sur
• Norman Diego’s The Mexican Inn gardens, Cabo san Lucas
• Wirikuta Gardens, San Jose del Cabo – 1500 different cactus varieties, gardens and nursery, sculpture
Gardens to visit in Northern Mexico
• Gardens of Sir Edward James ‘Las Pozas’ in Xilitla
• Gardens At The Former Hacienda De San Gabriel Barrera Guanajuato
Gardens to visit in Panama
• Soberanía National Park 25km from Panama City. Rainforest discovery centre, nature trails, abundant bird and wildlife
• Finca Drácula – 10 hectare garden with an amazing collection of 2,200 orchids species begun in 1969 by Andrew Maduro. Near Cerro Punta, the highest village in Panama. Guided tours by appointment.
Feria de las Flores y del Cafe (Festival of Flowers and Coffee) in Boquete in northern Panama. A colourful and somewhat eccentric festival held over a 10 day period in mid January. There is also an Expo Orquideas (Orchid Expo) in Boquete in early April.
The 2015 Australian Landscape Conference was memorable, with over 600 attendees following the input of landscape designers from overseas and Australia – all expert, energetic, upstanding deep thinkers.
I am about to jump on a plane and head off to France to lead a tour of gardens and châteaux of Normandy and the Loire Valley and if you haven’t booked it’s a bit late now! But the idea of travelling across the world to see gardens and gardening that I may well have […]
It’s been a very, very wet and grey winter in the UK and we felt the need for some warmth and light, so in the first half of February we stole a couple of weeks in Costa Rica, in Central America. It is a country I have always wanted to visit, not just for its […]
Whilst travelling in South America, we came across this intriguing plant by the name of Llareta – the Spanish name for the Yareta – Azorella compacta. It was highly conspicuous on the rocky and seemingly infertile mountainsides in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Only growing at high altitudes between 3200 m and 4500 m., the plants […]
We recently returned from an eight-week odyssey to South America – it was one of those ‘bucket list’ things that had been gestating for quite a while. Once the ‘retired’ flag went up, we were off. It’s a sign of satisfaction putting that ‘R’ word in occupation on immigration forms! Concentrating mainly on the west […]
Everyone responds to the gardens of Juan Grimm – leading South American designer – and I often wonder at their beauty and the reasons for their success. It is in his plantings and landscaping that we see how he harmonises with nature. In the garden at Melipilla, about an hour south of Santiago in Chile, […]
Many of the gardens designed by Burle Marx have been demolished or languish under neglect but many are lovingly maintained. A few we can visit quite easily, more though are hard to see unless on an organised tour. Of the four I mention here, only the first is freely open to the public. [See also […]
Roberto Burle Marx single-handedly changed the face of tropical garden design while introducing to the world a host of amazing indigenous Brazilian plants hitherto ignored by Brazilians. In the process became an international figure. It’s intriguing to delve into his soul as an artist and plantsman to find out why his impact was so gargantuan.
Part of my trip to Central and South America a few weeks ago involved a quick trip to Costa Rica. We (a group who were attending the Heliconia Society International conference, being held in Panama) were to visit the OTS Wilson Botanic Garden, which was established some fifty years ago on a small piece of […]
A few days ago I was on Grand Cayman Island, on my way to Panama for the Heliconia Society International Conference and my daughter took me to visit this garden. It is just beautiful, a credit to the Caymanese. It has been established for many years, and is also a refuge for the native blue […]