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4 South America Hikes to Inspire Your Next Adventure

by | Dec 23, 2016 | Hike, South America | 0 comments

What do you look for in a great hike?  Mind blowing mountain scenery?  A jungle adventure?  Something with a cultural twist?  Maybe you simply love the challenge, and where you find it doesn’t really matter.

We spent nine months exploring South America, falling in love with thru-hiking in Patagonia and getting our sweat on in the Colombian jungle.

If you’re after a continent offering everything from glaciers to ancient Inca ruins, this is the place for you.

We’ve chosen 4 South America hikes to inspire your next trip.  We think they’re pretty amazing – let us know if you do too!

Torres del Paine – Chile

Our love affair with hiking began in Torres del Paine.  We were hopelessly underprepared, and when I say hopelessly I mean, completely and utterly without a clue.

But we were fit and healthy and enthusiastic.  We had some hired camping gear and enough dehydrated mashed potato to last us a week.  Thus equipped, we spent eight glorious days hauling ourselves around the O Circuit with backpacks definitely not designed for thru-hiking.

Torres Del Paine was a lesson in being better prepared (dehydrated mashed potato, it turns out, is absolutely revolting).  But it was also a lesson in throwing ourselves in at the deep end and just swimming.  

Hitting the trail in Torres will take you past some of the most epic scenery in Patagonia.  The four day W Trek offers spectacular views of Glacier Grey, the French Valley and, of course, the Torres themselves.  You’ll fetch your drinking water straight from glacier fed rivers, camp out under the Milky Way and keep your eyes peeled for majestic, giant condors flying overhead.

You’ll also occasionally freeze and will almost certainly get rained on.  This is Patagonia, after all.  But it will be worth it.  And if you head into the backside of the park and complete the O Circuit like we did, you won’t regret it.

This was our favourite part of Torres.  We would hike for hours without seeing another soul, which was a treat compared to the more crowded W Trek.  There was more wildlife (hares and mountain foxes rather than pumas, unfortunately) and more peace and quiet.

There was also some totally nuts scenery, including Glacier Dickson and the stunning view from the top of the John Gardner Pass. 

If you hadn’t already noticed, there’s snow on this part of the hike!  Super difficult to trek through, it resulted in some involuntary butt-sliding on the way down.  But it was, nonetheless, beautiful.

There’s a great community feel to the backside of the park as so few people complete this part of the trek. You may hike alone, but at the end of the day people check in with each other.  Sometimes we even treated ourselves to a group meal from one of the refugios!  Cheering everyone into camp the day after the pass was one of my favourite moments of this trip.

We hiked Torres del Paine solo, hiring our gear from Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales and attending their very helpful (and free!) orientation talk.  It is possible to hire porters and guides, or even to organise day trips into the park if you want.  For more detailed information on the practicalities of hiking Torres, check out our guide.

The Lost City – Colombia

Forget Bikram Yoga.  If you want to sweat your way to fitness, hiking to Colombia’s Lost City is the way to go.

There’s no getting away from it – out of our four South America hikes, this one’s the grimiest.  The jungle which carpets the Sierra Nevada mountains is exceptionally humid and you effectively sleep outdoors under an open sided wooden shelter.  The closest you’ll get to luxury here is a foam mattress on your bunk bed and a mosquito net to go over it.

There are, however, some picture perfect waterfalls for you to sluice off in.  Plus, you’re hiking through the jungle to find a Lost City.  That basically makes you Indiana Jones, no?

A sweat box it might be, but this hike is an experience not to be missed.  The jungle is magnificent; lush and tropical and humming with extraordinary life.  Our group spotted leaf cutter ants, a gorgeous, colourful toucan and even a deadly coral snake.

If you’re into creepy crawlies, then there are butterflies the size of your face here.  Just make sure to check under the loo seat before you sit down, because spiders.

The whole point of the Lost City trek is to get to the Cuidad Perdida itself.  Made accessible to outsiders around 2005 (though well known to the local Kogi and Wiwa tribes before then) this remnant of ancient Tairona civilisation has a serene, almost mystical feel to it.  Something about the way the terraces unfold one at a time through the trees.  Something else about the magical, cathedral-esque light.

You have to do this hike with a guide, but we reckon that’s a good thing.  From the site’s position as a commercial trading centre to the spiritual role of the Shaman, there is so much to learn about the Tairona civilisation.  You’ll also want to find out more about the Kogi and Wiwa tribes, who you’ll often meet on the trail.  Pretty hard to do without a guide to answer your questions.

We did the Lost City hike from Santa Marta with Expotur and loved every minute.

Chapada Diamantina – Brazil

Of all the things that surprised us about Brazil, Chapada Diamantina has to make the top of the list.  This is an almost alien landscape, dominated by towering rock formations and a pervasive, dry heat.  It’s certainly a world away from the beaches and palm trees of the coast.

There’s hardly a breeze here – just baked earth and the pack mules which plod solemnly across it.  They take supplies to the remote villages in the valley, pockets of green lushness where weary trekkers can spend the night.

We visited Chapada Diamantina as part of a three day hike through the picturesque Pati Valley.   Crossing seventy kilometres of mountainous terrain was hard work, but there were glistening caves to explore, precipitous ledges to perch on and waterfalls to wash off the day’s grime in.  Each morning we woke up to views of tall, ochre mountains and spotted hummingbirds as we ate breakfast.  We even got used to drinking straight from the rivers, stained red from tannins in the tree roots.

The extraordinary views of the valley were definitely the highlight of this hike for me.  Amazing scenery always makes the sweaty climb worth it, and this was like nothing I’d seen before.  Edging out onto this ledge took some serious willpower though!

There’s no end of options for the adventurous in Chapada Diamantina.  You can organise everything from day trips to multi day excursions in Lencois, the jump of town for the National Park.  Having said that, the occasional scarcity of water and the lack of clearly demarcated trails make it very difficult to trek here independently.  If you want to avoid hiking as a large group then you’ll need to pay a premium when you arrange your guide.

We organised our hike in Lencois with Zen Tours, who were cheap and cheerful but had larger group sizes than perhaps we would have liked.

Inca Trail and Huayna Picchu, Peru

If you’re going to book anything for your South America trip ahead of time, chances are it will be the Inca Trail.  With reservations tightly controlled by the Peruvian government, places for this iconic hike sell out months in advance.

And for good reason! This is the only trail which takes you all the way into Machu Picchu, via the Sun Gate at dawn, no less.  While you can catch the bus straight to the complex if you want to, nothing beats hiking in on your own two feet.

Most trekkers complete the trail in four days, which can make the altitude tricky.  But once you get to the top of Dead Woman’s pass on day two, you can really begin to relax into the hike.   To be totally honest, we hadn’t anticipated how stunning this would be.  We’d focussed so much on reaching Machu Picchu that the trail itself had taken a back seat in our minds.  But the views on this route are seriously breathtaking, as are the multitude of Inca ruins which can be found along the way.

My favourite part of the trail was the third day.  The going was much easier as we hiked through beautiful cloud forest to our final campsite.  We were even lucky enough to see both a spectacled bear and a mummy deer with her baby!

The Inca Trail is fiendishly expensive, so make sure that your ticket covers everything it should, including your train ticket back from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo.  It’s also worth staying an extra night in Aguas Calientes and climbing Huayna Picchu if you have time.  The view from the top of the mountain over Machu Picchu is arguably the best there is!

For more practical tips on hiking the Inca Trail, have a look at our E-Book.  It’s free to download and has some helpful tips for all the trails in this post.

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Four of the best hikes in South America

Think we’ve missed a great hike off our top four?  Drop us a comment and let us know.

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