With 13 countries stretching across 6. 9 million square miles, South America offers just about any scene a visitor could want. But for all its variety, U.S. travelers often overlook the...

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With 13 countries stretching across 6.9 million square miles, South America offers just about any scene a visitor could want. But for all its variety, U.S. travelers often overlook the continent as a destination. They’re missing a lot:

• In the dry Atacama Desert of Chile, you can look up from a sweep of multicolored rock into a sky studded with so many stars that astronomers camp out with their telescopes all night.

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• In southern Peru, you can tour the grand temples and terraced stonework constructed by the Incas almost six centuries ago across the mountaintop of Machu Picchu.

• In Buenos Aires in Argentina, you can start the night with martinis at an ultra-chic cocktail lounge and spend the rest of it perfecting your tango.

• In Chile’s Patagonia, you can watch as half a million penguins blanket the beaches in a display of nature you’ll remember forever. Or take a literary look at Santiago, the Chilean capital.

• Want bragging rights? Lake Titicaca, between Peru and Bolivia, and Colombia’s walled city of Cartagena are under-traveled and edgy, according to George Deeb, founder of the online adventure travel company iExplore.com.

“Political situations have kept people away from Bolivia and Colombia but that has added to their allure for some people,” he said.

Cheaper than Europe

In 2002, by the Brazil tourist board’s account, fewer than 700,000 travelers from the United States visited their country — the world’s fifth largest. That’s fewer than the number of U.S. visitors who toured England in June and July alone.

The perception of crime and political unrest deter some visitors to Brazil and other South American countries. Language barriers are another issue.

Those North Americans who have ventured into the Southern Hemisphere find South America far more of a bargain than Europe, the Caribbean or even parts of the United States.

Although discount flights to and within the region are rare, everything else is cheap.

In Rio de Janeiro, four-star hotels go for $80 a night.

In Lima, Peru, one of the unsung gastronomic capitals of the world, you can have a three-course dinner for $10. A four-day whirlwind tour of Buenos Aires can go for around $1,200, including air fare and hotel. And the standards of service often meet or exceed those in more developed corners of the world.

A South America trip can focus on sand and sun, history, culture, exotic fauna and flora, colonial architecture or even shopping. Just take your pick — and go.