With the highest mountains outside of the Himalayas – the Andes – South America is loaded with hiking and trekking trails that take you to where no roads can go. Some are in national parks where posh ecolodges await you after a day’s hike, while other trails lead to unspoiled villages that few outsiders have ever visited. While major international tour operators and trekking operations center around these destinations more than any others on the continent there are generally hordes of local guides and operators also around. Some are more qualified and prepared than others.
Here is a country by country breakdown of South America’s leading hiking and trekking centers:
Cusco/Sacred Valley – The 4 day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the world’s great – and most crowded hiking trails. Fantastic trails that are far less utilized include Lares Valley, Salkantay, Choquequirao, and the Ausangate circuit.
Huaraz – Serious mountaineers and budding hikers all descend upon the city of Huaraz to explore the Cordillera Blanca, Cordillera Huayhuash, and the 23 snow capped peaks that stand above 5,000 meters in altitude. Most popular route: the 4 day Santa Cruz trek.
Chimborazo – The classic glaciated peak at more than 6,000 meters has three routes: Chimborazo-Carihuairazo circuit, the Chimborazo Circuit, and the Vicuña Trail.
Cotopaxi – Even a novice climber can reach the more than 6,000 meter conical peak of Cotopaxi with relatively little skill.
Torres del Paine – For hiking in this jaw dropping national park at the end of the continent there are two main options: The first is the “W” trek. The 76.1 km walk visits the highlights of the park, while avoiding the most difficult trail. The trip lasts approximately 4-5 days and is one of the most popular treks on the continent and is crowded during January and February. The longer, 96km Circuit does a loop around the park takes anywhere from 8-10 days. Climbing several of the peaks is also possible. Torres del Paine is also home to the best facilities on the continent including fice star ecolodges.
Parque Pumalín – Began on the private property of the North Face founder and quickly on its way to becoming a national park. Just south of Puerto Montt and Chiloe.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares – Argentina’s version of Torres del Paine. The Fitzroy mastiff and Cerro Torre are Argentinean Patagonia’s top trekking routes. Near the town of Chaltin.
Aconcagua – Whether you want to trek or take a technical climb up this 22,864 peak, the highest in the Andes, you are in luck. Trekking based in nearby Mendoza are some of the most advanced in the country.
Ciudad Perdida – The Lost City of the little known Tairona culture is a six day roundtrip hike from outside Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast. Hidden in lush cloud forest and lawless terrain, some say it rivals Machu Picchu for the sheer spectacle of the setting.
Illampu Circuit – A remote alpine trekking on this fantastic route to the glimmering conical peak hovering over La Paz.
Canaima National Park– Often called the Lost World and where Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired to write the book of the same name. Huge table top mountains called tepuis have a microclimate and species all of their own. Don’t miss Angel Falls on the Brazil and Guyana border.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.