Skip to main content

Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park offers breathtaking views of mountains, glaciers and exotic animals, such as the guanacos, a cousin of the llama and alpaca.Kevin Moloney/The New York Times

The question

I'd love to do a hiking trip in South America. Where should I go?

The answer

"Leave the Inca Trail to people with less imagination," says intrepid hiker Hilary Bradt – founder of Bradt Travel Guides – when asked for recommendations from her book Trekking in Peru, her new book co-authored with Kathy Jarvis. "It's wonderful but it's a small part of an extraordinary continent full of trails where you rarely meet other foreigners."

After suggesting a truncated alternative for those aiming for Machu Picchu – "the day hike from Km 104" – she offers a steely calved overview of several far more intriguing Peruvian areas.

"The Cordillera Blanca region is dramatic. It's where you go for a Nepal-style experience, with snow-capped mountains and the flexibility of hiking for two days or a week. There's something for everyone there."

Next is the isolated Cordillera Huayhuash. Offering "arguably Peru's most beautiful treks," its outstanding week-long circuit requires top-notch fitness. And while Bradt remains unimpressed by the "overpopular" Inca Trail, its wider region – Cordillera Vilcabamba – is studded with mighty peaks, bird-friendly forests and ancient ruins.

But for a memorable cultural immersion, she recommends the Cordillera Vilcanota. "It's typical Peru: high and bleak with llamas and alpacas – and the most colourfully dressed indigenous people."

Of course, Peru isn't the only option for South American treks. In Columbia, consider mountain-hugging Los Nevados National Natural Park, in Brazil try the waterfall-striped Chapada Diamantina National Park and in Venezuela head for mystical Mount Roraima. Or, try another hot spot.

"Bolivia's mountain scenery is simply stunning," says Jarvis, who also runs Andean Trails (andeantrails.co.uk), a tour operator specializing in South American treks.

"High, remote and unspoiled, you're not likely to meet many other hikers in this giant wilderness. My favourite treks here are in the Cordillera Real mountain range, a three-hour drive from La Paz," she says, highlighting its six-day Illampu circuit and three- to six-day Condoriri trek for their jaw-dropping views of glaciated peaks.

Ecuador, Jarvis adds, is equally enticing. "Most trekking here takes you up or alongside volcanoes, while the countryside is alive with farms and haciendas with poncho-clad cowboys and their horses." Her Ecuador favourites include the three-day El Altar trek and the four-day Chimborazo circuit "where condors and eagles abound."

But before booking your flights, Jarvis has some important advice. "For any trips to the high Andes – which includes Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – carefully consider the altitudes and plan for plenty of days to acclimatize before you start hiking: adequate acclimatization is the key to enjoyment."

It's an approach that also applies in Patagonia – the storied, bottom-of-the-continent backcountry swath shared by the southern tips of Chile and Argentina – according to trek-loving Patagonia Chronicle author Susan Alcorn.

"This is an outstanding place to hike," she says. "My favourites are the circuit trail in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park and Mount Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Both offer breathtaking views of mountains, glaciers and exotic animals. They're challenging, but when you view the vast areas of windswept grasses, you'll feel like you're in a different world."

Wherever you aim to stretch your legs in South America, detailed planning is vital, she adds. "Allow more time for transportation than you might think. And be prepared for extreme, rapid weather changes: The winds in Patagonia can knock you off your feet.

"It's also helpful to speak Spanish – or Portuguese in the case of Brazil – but you can usually get by without it," Alcorn says, adding that mosquitoes and tabanos (horse flies) can be problematic in some regions. "We carry heavy-duty DEET or Jungle Juice repellent just in case."

Jarvis agrees that serious homework is required for successful South American trekking. "Think carefully about the degree of comfort you require and how important scenery, remoteness and local culture is. And make sure you're fully prepared in terms of kit and fitness."

Our readers write

  • My favourite five-day trek is around Apu Ausangate, out of Cusco, Peru. Remote villages, varying alpine scenery and 5,000 metre passes. @pattobin
  • Hike or backpack the stunning trails of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy mountain range in eastern Colombia. You’ll find unusual vegetation, high alpine lakes, glaciers and rugged mountain peaks. Or rent a couple of donkeys and a donkey driver and hike the remote, incredibly beautiful trails in the Cordillera Blanca region of Peru. Leigh @hikebiketravel
  • One word. … Patagonia. Nancy in Regina
  • Galapagos Islands: An unusual choice but fun hikes and unusual wildlife to be enjoyed! @redhunttravel
  • While working in Chile, I hiked Aconcagua (in Argentina) on a one-day hike, right from Santiago. The Atacama is the most beautiful natural area I have ever seen and hiking is simple and safe from San Pedro de Atacama. Fly from Santiago (book in Chile, NOT in Canada for lower fares) to Calama and take a bus to San Pedro. Robert Morrow
  • Avoid the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – check out Salkantay trail instead. @dsmith48
  • Peru. There are lots of great hiking trails available there. It’s an affordable country, too. @fraueibl
  • Colca Canyon or Lares trek in Peru; Quilotoa Crater or Cotopaxi in Ecuador – all are solid hikes! @alliesaysrelax
  • If you just want to walk, Valparaiso [Chile] is an awesome, hilly, picturesque, inviting city to prowl on foot. I’d recommend touring with a guide – it’s relatively cheap. @yknot05
  • I’d go to Patagonia – especially El Chalten, Dientes de Navarino and Torres del Paine. It’s spectacular, rugged and sometimes you see more guanacos than people @roamingMcC
  • I have been to Peru and honestly I don’t think the Inca Trail is worth it. You can still get the experience in other ways. There are plenty of other neat spots in Peru – and South America – to explore through hiking: Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela … @LauraDFoodie
  • Just popped into El Boliche in Ecuador. It’s more of a day-use site but you can take the train from Quito. The views are of the volcanoes (still active) and the journey is on a century-old train. Camping is also very cheap and nice. @Jody_Robbins
  • Some good ones: Ciudad Perdida in Colombia; Huaraz and Inca Trail alternatives in Peru; W circuit in Chile. @hitriddle
  • I think Chile is at the top of my list. Volcanic crater lakes – those are magical. @AnyaGeo

Send your travel questions to concierge@globeandmail.com