Top 10 Best Treks in South America

As if South America was crumpled together by two big hands to form a giant crease, the jagged peaks of the Andes rise up along the West coast of the continent.

The second biggest mountain range in the world is a constant presence as you travel through South America – affecting climates, cultures and the lives of those who live in their mighty shadows.

Is it any wonder then, that this part of the world offers some of the best trekking and most awesome scenery known to man?

As backpackers, we merely skirt around the edges of the impossible pinnacles, hiking in the foothills on footpaths, which cut through the mountains and allow us a taster of their terrifying beauty.

Like many adventures in South America (unlike South East Asia), even the most simple ‘day treks’ can be a test of endurance and you’ll need to be fit and well prepared to enjoy yourself.

As local guides bound through ice and snow at high altitudes in nothing but flip-flops as your oxygen depleted body struggles with every step – you’ll wonder if humans are made differently after all.

At times the treks reward you with ancient treasures – stunning turquoise lagoons, Desert Mountains, Inca ruins and lost cities. At times, the pleasure is solely in the incredible landscapes that you walk through, the dead silences and the closeness to nature.

Here are the Top 10 Hikes in South America!

Santa Cruz

1. Santa Cruz Trek – PERU

Highest point reached: 4,750 meters

Difficulty level: Moderate.

Duration: Four Days

Best time to go: April – September

The quirky mountain city of Huaraz is the starting point for this three-day trek in the Cordillera Blanca region of the Peruvian Andes, deemed the highest tropical mountain range in the world.

You’ll drive out of the city by minibus to a small village (called Cashapampa) in the foothills of the Cordillera, where you’ll begin walking through a valley with 6,000-meter mountains all around you.

Most of the walking is done in the morning (five-six hours/day) before the weather closes in and you’ll make camp each day around 2 pm.

The trek takes you past amazingly blue glacial lakes, through a strange sandy desert that feels like a mountain beach and on the last day (depending on which way round you do the trek) over the Punta Unión mountain pass of 4,750 meters with stunning views of the high peaks (Tauliraju, Rinrihirka and Paria) which feel so close you can touch them.

You’ll camp amidst incredible scenery every night, waking up at sunrise to 360-degree views of snowy peaks. Depending on what time of year you attempt the trek, it can be very cold at night so make sure you take plenty of warm clothes.

That alpaca sweater you bought in Cusco will be your saving grace! If you’re not too tired on the last day, you can tag on another day and attempt a side-trek to Laguna 69, a gorgeous turquoise glacial lake nestled in the mountains that is a photographer’s dream. On the way back in the minibus you’ll catch a glimpse of Huascaran – the highest mountain in the Andes at 6,768 meters.

Information: Guided treks can be booked in Huaraz with trekking companies and cost around $150 USD for three days. Tents, sleeping bags, warm coats and other equipment can be hired cheaply. We booked with a company called Andes Hard.

Salcantay

 2. Salcantay – Machu Picchu Trek, PERU

Starting point: Cusco

Highest point reached: 4,830 meters

Difficulty level: Moderate

Duration: Six Days

Best time to go: April – September

This trek is legendary on the backpacker circuit and most people say that it is the best (and in fact cheapest) way to tackle Machu Picchu from Cusco, instead of the very expensive, and original ‘Inca Trail Trek’, which must be booked at least six months in advance.

National Geographic Magazine named the Salcantay Trek one of the Top 25 Treks in the World and the beauty in this particular hike is the vastly diverse landscapes that you trek through during the six-day walk. Each day, you’ll walk around eight hours and camp in tents (usually pitched under shelter) at night.

Day one will have you walking through forest and hilly terrain, day two will have you knee-deep in snow (depending on the time of year) as you head over the high mountain pass, amazing peaks all around – and on day three you’ll be walking through lush tropical rainforest with avocadoes growing on the trees and parrots squawking above.

On the fourth day, (on guided treks) you are treated to a visit to the hot springs set in a beautiful location in the mountains. Watch as each of your trekking buddies become new people as the hot water full of minerals revitalizes bodies and raises spirits.

On the fifth day, the aim of the game is to walk along a river and then a railway track to make it to the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes.

On the final day (day six), you’ll awake at 4am to complete the one-hour trek in the dark to Machu Picchu. As the sun rises over the ruins of the lost city, and tourists who have come by coach start to trickle in, you’ll feel proud at the previous five-day trek to reach this wonder of man.

If you’ve still got life in your legs, you can climb Macchu Picchu or Waynu Picchu mountains (tickets must be bought in advance), for amazing birds-eye views of the ruins.

The trek is named after the Salcantay Peak, (the word means ‘savage mountain’ in Quechua), which is an amazing glacier-encrusted peak rising 6,721 meters in the Cordillera Vilcabamba.

Information: We booked our trek through ‘Euro Backpackers Hostel’ and the cost was $220 USD per person. This included shelter and food for five nights, all transport and the 3-hour train from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco. (The train alone costs $100 USD so this is a great deal!)

Lost City

3. La Ciudad Perdida, Lost City Trek – COLOMBIA

Starting point: Santa Marta

Difficulty level: Moderate

Number of days: Five

Undiscovered by the Western world until the 1970s (some say that locals knew of its presence for hundreds of years), this ancient lost city is visited by a handful of tourists compared to the hoards that descend upon Machu Picchu each year.

The city itself was built between the 8th – 14th centuries by the Tayrona Indians and although only circular stone terraces remain, the site is a wonder to behold, perhaps made all the more amazing by the lack of fellow tourists.

The trek can be completed in either four or five days (cost is the same regardless of duration) and will take you through rainforest, walking through streams and wading through rivers and then finally to the entrance of the Lost City where the trees open up to offer spectacular panoramic views of the blue-tinged jungle-clad mountains.

There is some steep hiking on the trail and swimming in the river and splashing in the beautiful waterfalls along the way will certainly help to cool you off. One of the most interesting parts of the trek are the encounters with the indigenous Kogi tribe of people that have been living a traditional life in the area for thousands of years.

One tip is to make sure you have good mosquito repellant as the insects can be extremely persistent in the jungle!

Information: The trek costs 600,000 Colombian Pesos (around $320 USD, which is the standard price -regardless of which agency you book through) and can be booked through in Santa Marta, one of the recommended tour companies being the indigenous owned, Wiwa Tour.

HUAYNA POTOSI

4. Summiting Huayna Potosí – BOLIVIA

Starting point: La Paz

Highest point reached: 6,088 meters

Difficulty level: Very difficult

Duration: Two-three days

The hardest trek on the list, and in fact the only trek where you actually summit an Andean mountain, the Huayna Potosí hike is not for the faint-hearted.

The trek requires technical rock climbing to reach the peak and a good head for heights is needed, add to that the problems caused by altitude sickness at this level and you’ll understand that this trek needs to be taken seriously!

Huayna Potosi is one of the very few mountains over 6,000 meters that ‘normal’ people can climb. The first climbers to conquer the mountain in 1919, two German hikers dubbed it the ‘easiest 6,000 peak in the world!’ (Which by no means makes it easy and many backpackers do indeed end up turning back half way.)

Located just 25km from Bolivia’s hectic capital, La Paz, the trek is easily accessible and popular for backpackers who can book the two-day trip from adventure companies in the city.

The ascent up a glacier is a moderate climb, becoming steeper as you near the peak. On the first night, you’ll stay in a refugio or camp at ‘Campo Argentino’ at an altitude of 5,200 meters before rising impossibly early, between midnight and 3am to make a summit attempt the next day.

The trek to the peak takes around five hours and the 360-degree views from the top are unbelievable as you tower much high above the rest of the mountains in the area and can see Lake Titicaca, La Paz and the stunning Cordillera Real.

Information: Treks can be booked from La Paz for an incredibly cheap $100 USD. Sometimes, however, cheaper isn’t always better. Make sure you check out equipment (oxygen tanks included) and question the guides that they know what they are doing. This is no walk in the park.

Colca Canyon

5. The Colca Canyon – PERU

Starting point: Arequipa

Difficulty level: Easy

Number of days: Two

The Colca Canyon is the second biggest canyon in the world. (No, the first biggest is not the Grand Canyon in the United States despite its arrogant title, it’s actually another the Cotahuasi Canyon just up the road in Peru!)

At 4,160 meters it is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and is Peru’s third biggest tourist attraction.

This short but very interesting two-day trek starts in the lush valley town of Chivay and takes you into the open heart of the canyon where the massive condor swoop and prickly cactus shoot up from the arid earth.

It’s a very different type of trek to the others on the list as you walk down into the canyon with amazingly steep cliffs rising all around, then climb out of the gorge the next day.

The scenery is rugged and awe-inspiring and the trekking is fairly easy for fit people, with a bit of a strenuous climb to get out of the canyon on the second day. A dip in the hot springs on the way back to Arequipa are, as always, a welcomed luxury.

Information: Two-day treks cost around $150 USD and can be booked at any guesthouse or travel agent in Arequipa. You can also extend the trek to three days, which just means you do the same walk, slower and relax longer in the base of the canyon.

Ecuador Valley of Volcanoes

6. Valley of the Volcanoes and Cotopaxi Volcano – ECUADOR

Starting point: Quito

Highest point reached: 5,897 meters

Difficulty level: Difficult

Duration: Two days

The famous ‘Valley of the Volcanoes’ is a highly popular tour from Ecuador’s capital Quito, yet not many people actually summit the iconic peak of Cotopaxi Volcano – which on a clear day can be seen from the city.

Located about an hour and a half from Quito, you can book the trek in the city, which will take you out to Cotopaxi National Park, where you’ll camp on the first night at a height of 4,500 meters.

You’ll rise at a bleary-eyed at 1am to attempt the summit the next day, taking only around half an hour to reach the snowline, and a further five hours to reach the peak which offers spectacular views all around.

Trips can also include a visit to the stunning Quilotoa crater lake, an emerald green laguna that lies in the crater of an extinct volcano with steep jagged cliffs all around and views down to the incredible Avenue of the Volcanoes.

Information: Tours cost around $160 USD per person and should be booked in Quito (in the Mariscal area there are a lot of agencies). There’s a $10 USD entrance fee to the park.

Inca Jungle

7. Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu – PERU

Starting point: Cusco

Difficulty level: Easy

Duration: Four days

Best time of year: April – November (not recommended in rainy season).

The Inca Jungle Trek is another popular alternative for backpackers to experience Machu Picchu on a budget. It’s not only a trek, but an extreme medley of adventure sports including zip wiring, downhill mountain biking and rafting.

On the first day, you’ll start off with mountain biking down a descent of almost 2,000 meters along mountain roads, waterfalls and villages (don’t worry this is nothing like Bolivia’s Death Road!), then in the afternoon, you’ll trek to your first camp for the night, a jungle lodge in Santa Teresa. Travellers also have the option of rafting on the first day.

On day two, you’ll hike along an authentic Inca Trail through the jungle, along the Urubamba River. A stop at the Santa Teresa hot springs is, of course, a must! On the third day, you can either trek or take in a zip-wire adventure, before arriving to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes, which is the base for Machu Picchu.

You’ll rise at 4am the next day to hike up to Machu Picchu before the break of dawn to witness one of the wonders of the world. A two-hour guided tour is included in the price of the trek, as well as all transport, food and accommodation. In our humble opinion – this is the easiest trek on this list!

Information: As with the Salcantay Trek, tours can be booked in any hostel or travel agency in Cusco – and the cost is around $200 USD. (Loki Hostel quotes $225 USD on their website which isn’t a bad deal).

Surise at the Base of Torres

8. The W Trek – Torres del Paines, Patagonia – CHILE

Starting point: Punta Arenas

Difficulty level: Moderate

Duration: Four days

Best time of year: The park is only open for six months April – September.

The trek is named after the ‘W’ shape of this amazing four-day, 80km route through Chile’s awesome Torres Del Paine National Park.

There is also a longer route, which takes nine days, which takes in a entire loop of the national park for those wanting to fully immerse themselves in this incredible area.

The starting point for the trek is Punta Arenas, the most Southern city in the world and to get here it’s a bit of a mission by bus, or by plane to the 46th state of Chile.

Despite the fact that it’s difficult to get to – believe us – it’s worth it. The spiky peaks provide an out-of-this-world landscape that is like nothing on earth. With turquoise alpine lagoons, pristine glaciers, granite spikes and brilliant white powdered snow – the views are simply breathtaking.

The park is only open during spring – early autumn and the weather can be unpredictable at any time of year so make sure you pack for all seasons. During the four-day hike you can either camp or stay in mountain lodges (refugios), with dorm-style accommodation along the way, which can make your experience a little more expensive, but warmer and more comfortable.

Many people camp at the base of the ‘Torres del Paine’ (the famous towers as shown in the photo below) so they can see them in all their glory at sunrise. From here – you’re so far south you may as well head to Antarctica next!

Tip – Bring lots of snacks from Puerto Natales as food is expensive in the national park, due to it being so remote.

Information: You can book a guided trek through the national park with a company such as ‘EcoCamp Patagonia’ or book your stays at the lodges independently via ‘Fantastico Sur.

Argentina trek9. Fitz Roy Trek, Patagonia – ARGENTINA

Starting point: El Chaltan

Highest point reached: 2,900 meters

Difficulty level: Moderate

Duration: Five days

The Mount Fitzroy trail in Argentina is one of Patagonia’s best hikes and offers an alternative to hiking Chile’s Torres Del Paine Route.

The trek is located in the ‘Parque Nacional Los Glaciares’ and can be accessed from the small town of El Chaltan in southern Argentina.

One of the highlights of this amazing trek has to be watching sunrise over the massive granite peak of Mount Fitzroy as it glows pink and purple and reflects in the lake below.

A five-day trek will include incredible scenery through mountains (with the peaks of Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre taking top prizes) and along rivers, refreshing swims in the alpine lakes and possibly afternoon avalanche watching on the nearby slopes – which are warmed by the heat of the sun.

The landscape is diverse and the trekking is easy for those who are in good shape, you’ll almost forget about the exertion with the amazing views all around! Side stepping day hikes to Lago de los Tres and Laguna Sucia are well worth the diversion. For those who are into rock climbing, there’s also some world-class climbs in this region of Argentina.

Information: As the trail in this part of the ‘Parque Nacional del los Glaciares’ is very well marked, there is no real need for a guided tour, so if you’re happy to carry your own tent and luggage along the way – this independent option is a great way to experience the wilderness.

TREKKING

10. Chapada Diamantina – BRAZIL

Starting Point: Capão village

Difficulty level: Moderate

Duration: Five days

There’s much more to Brazil than football and beaches and this awesome, 100km, five-day trek opens up an incredible ‘Lost World’ of ‘Bahia’ and the amazing ‘Parque da Chapada Diamantina’.

The route will take you up and over dramatic table-top mountain plateaus, down to lush plains, past gushing fresh waterfalls, subterranean rivers and amazing crystal clear lagoons hidden in caves.

You’ll glimpse Brazil’s highest waterfall, Cachoeira da Fumaça, camp in caves, pass by the tiny ghostly village of Ruinha and through the diamond-era stone ruin of Igatu. This really is a swashbuckling adventure!

The park, is of course, named after the ‘diamond rush’ that engulfed the area during the 19th Century (Chapada means steep cliffs and Diamantina means diamonds) – so watch out for something sparkling in the stones along the way!

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