Top 12 Most Breathtaking South America Walks
1. PERU – HUCHUY QOSQO TREK
WHERE? Sacred Valley
LENGTH: 17km DAYS: 1-2
DIFFICULTY: Easy; some climbs very gentle by Andean standards.
THE WALK: No time, permits or inclination to follow the infamous Inca Trail, but still fancy a leg-stretch while you’re in the area? A hike to the little-known site of Huchuy Gosqo (‘Little Cusco’) offers plenty of Inca intrigue – those trademark stone steps, impressive ruins, a breathy pass, a dramatic canyon – minus the crowds and commitment associated with the lionised hike. The two-day route from Tambomachay to Lamay follows parts of Inca pathways that once connected Cusco to Pisac. En route you’ll pass old tumbling terraces and grazing llamas and alpacas, and you’ll gain views down to lakes and up to snow peaks such as sacred Salkantay. After a night camping out in the mountains, a squeeze through the narrow Leon Punku ravine leads to the one-time administrative centre of Huchuy Gosqo, its hall, houses and recently restored granary sitting atop a 3,450m-high plateau, far from the madding crowds.
MORE INFO: Many Cusco-based tour companies offer this hike, including transfers. It can be shortened to a day-walk by starting from the village of Patabamba instead of Tambomachay.
LIKE THAT? TRY THIS… A three-day Lares Valley Trek: there are various possible routes here – all are far less frequented than the classic Inca Trail, and don’t require permits, but encompass traditional villages and magnificent mountain scenery.
2. BOLIVIA – ISLA DEL SOL TRAVERSE
WHERE? Lake Titicaca
LENGTH: 15km DAYS: 1 (5-6hrs)
DIFFICULTY: Easy, if acclimatised; short, but high altitude
THE WALK: There are no cars, or even roads, on this island adrift in the world’s highest commercially navigable lake – just 5,000 residents, a few donkeys and some wonderful rocky walking trails. There are plenty of tourists, too, but you can escape many of them by making a long loop walk, and staying overnight – most see Sol as a day-trip destination. Hiking the coast path from Yumani, in the south, to Challapampa, in the north, then returning via the upper path, will take you via terraced fields and pre-Columbian ruins, with views over the ethereal lake to the snow-capped Andes. Sol is also home to Puma Rock, reputedly the birthplace of Manco Capac, founder of the Incas. The walk, though not long, is literally breathtaking – the island sits at around 3,800m – so acclimatise first before making your traverse.
MORE INFO: Boats run from Copacabana to Yumani (1.5hrs) and Challapampa (2hrs). Permits are required to visit the different sections of the island; carry change to buy them from local toll booths (and beware scammers).
LIKE THAT? TRY THIS… The 70km Choro Trail winds downhill from near La Cumbre, following a pre-Hispanic path through the richly biodiverse cloudforest of Bolivia’s Cotapata NP.
3. ARGENTINA – FITZ ROY LOOP
WHERE? Los Glaciares National Park
LENGTH: 35km DAYS: 2
THE WALK: Mount Fitz Roy is classic Patagonia – a jagged, utterly inhospitable-looking spire, piercing a landscape of groaning glaciers and wild, wind-whipped valleys. But, if you get lucky with the weather, there are few more jaw-dropping places to hike. A rewarding two-dayer heads from near El Chalten to Laguna de los Tres – for fine views of 3,405m Fitz – and on to Laguna Torre, with a night camping lakeside in between. Pause at the Piedras Blancas Glacier lookout, dig deep for the climb to Laguna de los Tres and camp by Laguna Capri; the next day, wake early to see – hopefully – the mountains daubed sunrise-pink, then continue via the Torre Valley to the lagoon, where bergs float and peaks glower. Fortunately, while Mount Torre has a reputation as being one of the world’s toughest climbs, this hike is a far more manageable endeavour.
MORE INFO: El Chalten, the region’s hiking hub, is a 3hr drive from El Calafate, which has an airport; buses serve the route.
LIKE THAT? TRY THIS… Tackle a longer, more challenging Fitz Roy Circuit, around the massif, which involves hiking right across the region’s glaciers.
4. ECUADOR – QUILOTOA TRAVERSE
WHERE: Central Sierra
LENGTH: 35 km DAYS: 2-3
DIFFICULTY: Easy-Moderate; make it easier by shortening hiking days – villages are around 15km apart
THE WALK: The 200km Ouilotoa Loop road links Andean villages and volcanically-sculpted countryside in remote central Ecuador. It also provides access to numerous trailheads for self-guided hikes. The trek between Ouilotoa village itself and the town of Sigchos, with an overnight stop in Chugchilan and/or Isinlivi en route, offers some of the best scenery, sights and detour options, including forays down the Rio Toachi Canyon, a visit to a hill fortress and even a tasting at a cheese factory. Time your walk right to hit local markets too: Sigchos on a Sunday; Guantualo on a Monday. There’s more uphill involved if you walk Sigchos-Ouiiotoa rather than vice versa, but by doing the former you end at Ouilotoa Crater Lake, a striking bowl of blue amid the mountains – a worthy finish.
MORE INFO: Daily buses run from Latacunga (on the main Pan-American Highway) to Sigchos (2hrs) and Ouilotoa (2hrs).
LIKE THAT? TRY THIS… The 40km Inca Trail between Achupallas and Ingapirca reveals lesser-known pathways in central Ecuador.
5. ARGENTINA – PASO DE LAS NUBES
WHERE? Parque Nacional NahueI Huapi
LENGTH: 23km DAYS: 2-3
THE WALK: A trek over the Pass of the Clouds packs a lot of punch into just 23km. From Pampa Linda, the route climbs through rich rainforest to the east of mighty 3,470m Monte Tronador – the highest summit in Nahuel Huapi NP, which guards the border between Argentina and Chile. After a night spent camping en route, a descent through Valdivian forest leads to the blue glitter of Laguna Frias, where you can board a boat back to civilisation.
MORE INFO: Buses run Bariloche-Pampa Linda (1hr). Boats across Laguna Frias run to Puerto Blest, catch a bus back to Bariloche from there.
LIKE THAT? TRY THIS… The full Nahuel Huapi Traverse (40km) is a tougher alternative, but showcases the full glory of the park.
6. COLOMBIA – LOST CITY TREK
WHERE? Sierra Nevada
LENGTH: 45km DAYS: 5
DIFFICULTY: Moderate; no altitude problems but humidity high
THE WALK: Over 600 years older and far, far less visited than the Lost City of Machu Picchu, Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida is like something out of Tomb Raider. Squirreled away in the jungly Sierra Nevada, the settlement was built by the Tayrona people in AD 800; it was abandoned when the conquistadores arrived and all but forgotten until the 1970s, when it was rediscovered by treasure hunters. Tourists followed, though a kidnapping in 2003 rendered the trek off-limits for a few years. Today, though, it’s back on the map, so you can make the hot hike to the site via the Buritaca River, Kogi villages and coffee plantations, where 1,200 mossy steps lead to the cluster of houses, plazas, staircases, storehouses and canals perched 1,200m up in the mountains.
MORE INFO: Santa Marta, the main hub for trips into the Sierra Nevada, is served by buses from Bogota (16hrs) and Cartagena (4hrs).
LIKE THAT? TRY THIS… The half-day hike to the Pueblito ruins in Tayrona National Park offers a Lost City-like option for those with less time.