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:
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 mini bus 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 2pm. 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 mini bus you’ll catch a glimpse of Huascaran – the highest mountain in the Andes at 6,768 meters.