Top 10 Best Treks in South America

Torres Del Paine Chile

Updated August 21st, 2018.

The second biggest mountain range in the world, the Andes, 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 Southeast 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 on the following 10 hikes.

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. So, without further ado…

Here are the Top 10 Hikes in South America!

1. Santa Cruz Trek – PERU

Santa Cruz Trek, Huaraz, Peru
TREK 1. Best Trek in South America: Santa Cruz Trek, Huaraz, Peru.

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.

The amazing mountain desert, Huaraz, Peru.
The amazing mountain desert, Huaraz, Peru.

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.

HOW TO BOOK: 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.

MUST HAVE GEAR: Take a head torch, you’ll need it finding your way to the toilet at night. And, depending on what time of year you attempt the trek, it can be extremely cold at night so make sure you take plenty of warm clothes. That alpaca sweater you bought in Cusco will be your saving grace!

2. Salcantay – Machu Picchu Trek, PERU

Machu Picchu, Peru, South America
TREK 2. Best Trek in South America: Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.

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.

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.

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 Salcantay mountain pass, amazing white peaks all around.

A trekker at the Salcantay Pass, Cusco, Peru.
It was as cold as it looks! The Salcantay Pass, Cusco, Peru.

On day three you’ll be walking through a lush tropical rainforest with avocadoes growing on the trees and parrots squawking above.

On the fourth day, (on most 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 brand 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 4 am 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 Mountain or Waynu Picchu Mountain (tickets must be bought in advance), for amazing birds-eye views of the ruins.

Machu Picchu Mountain, Peru.
Machu Picchu Mountain, Peru.

HOW TO BOOK: We booked our trek through Ecopackers 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!)

MUST HAVE GEAR: Good trekking boots or walking shoes are essential. As you walk through all manner of terrains and climates in such a short period, you’ll need to be prepared for snow, sand, dirt, rocks and railway tracks! I decided to wear trainers on the fifth day as we were only walking along the railway line. Big mistake. I had terrible blisters the next day as I pulled my trekking shoes back on!

RELATED ARTICLE: 7 Ways to Reach Machu Picchu.

3. La Ciudad Perdida, Lost City Trek – COLOMBIA

POSITION 3. Best Trek in South America: The Lost City Trek, Colombia.
TREK 3. Best Trek in South America: The Lost City Trek, Colombia.

Undiscovered by the Western world until the 1970s (some say that locals knew of its presence for hundreds of years), this ancient Lost City of Colombia 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 tourists!

The trek can be completed in either four or five days (cost is the same regardless of duration) and will take you through a 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.

HOW TO BOOK? 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.

MUST HAVE GEAR: Make sure you take a good mosquito repellant with you as the insects can be extremely persistent in the jungle!

RELATED ARTICLE: Read a full account of one backpacker’s experience of the Lost City Trek here.

4. Summiting Huayna Potosí – BOLIVIA

Trekking Huayna Potosí, Bolivia
TREK 4. Best Trek in South America: Climbing Huayna Potosí, Bolivia.

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!

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 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.)

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 3 am 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.

HOW TO BOOK? 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.

MUST HAVE GEAR: A warm waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers. If you don’t own them, you can hire from the trekking company when you book.

5. The Colca Canyon – PERU

Colca Canyon, Peru.
TREK 5. Best Trek in South America: The Colca Canyon, Peru.

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, the Colca Canyon, which is near to Arequipa 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 a healthy and fit person, 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 is, as always, a welcomed luxury!

HOW TO BOOK? The 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.

MUST HAVE GEAR: Strong sun-screen!

RELATED ARTICLE: DIY Trip to Chivay and Colca Canyon.

6. Valley of the Volcanoes and Cotopaxi Volcano – ECUADOR

Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador
TREK 6. Best Trek in South America: Valley of the Volcanoes and Cotopaxi Volcano.

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 an extremely early 1 am 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.

HOW TO BOOK? 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.

MUST HAVE GEAR: Temperatures can go from hot to cold very quickly and so layers are the key for this trek. Take a good fleece, waterproof jacket and layers of sports tops you can add as it gets colder.

7. Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu – PERU

Views on the Inca Jungle trek
TREK 7. Best Trek in South America: The Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu.

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 in the tourist town of Aguas Calientes, which is the base for Machu Picchu.

You’ll rise at 4 am 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!

HOW TO BOOK? 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).

MUST HAVE GEAR: You’ll need a waterproof jacket, good mosquito repellant and sturdy trekking shoes. (Hiking shoes are better than boots for this trek as you’ll do a variety of adventure activities so shoes will prove more versatile than boots.

RELATED ARTICLE: 7 Ways to Reach Machu Picchu.

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

Torres-del-Paine
TREK 7. Best Trek in South America: The ‘W’ Trek, Torres Del Paine, Chile.

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 an 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!

HOE TO BOOK? 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.

MUST HAVE GEAR: Walking boots, warm clothes, etc. you know the score by now. Bring lots of snacks from Puerto Natales as food is expensive in the National Park, due to it being so remote!

RELATED ARTICLE: Torres Del Paine Trek Seeing the Highlights in 3 Days.

9. Fitz Roy Trek, Patagonia – ARGENTINA

Fitz Roy Trek Argentina
TREK 9. Best Trek in South America: Fitz Roy Trek, Patagonia, Chile.

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 Chalten in southern Argentina.

One of the highlights of this amazing trek has to be watching the 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!

Sidestepping day hikes to Lago de Los Tres and Laguna Sucia are well worth the diversion. For those who are into rock climbing, there are also some world-class climbs in this region of Argentina.

HOW TO BOOK? As the trail in this part of the ‘Parque Nacional de 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.

10. Chapada Diamantina – BRAZIL

Chapada Diamantina Trek Brazil
TREK 10. Best Trek in South America: Chapada Diamantina Trek, Brazil.

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 overdramatic 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!

Have we missed one of your favourite treks? Let us know by leaving a comment!

By Nikki Scott.

14 thoughts on “Top 10 Best Treks in South America

  1. Elien De Belder says:

    Nice list but I´m very surprised to see Santa Cruz as number 1 and even more surprised that huayhaush, considered as one of the most beautiful treks in south america -if not in the world, isn´t mentioned… Besides that I think Cachora-Choquequirao – MP trek can´t be missing in this top 10. It´s the only trek you go through 5 different ecosystems and the scenery is stunning! So your list need a little revision i think 😉

  2. Manuel Godoy says:

    Mount Roraima, located south of Venezuela, it is a 6 to 9 day trip depending you, theres is one trip that you can visit the triple point, is the border of three countries Venezuela, Brasil and Guyana. The only access is through Venezuela. The Disney movie Up, is based on The Angel Falls and Mount Roraima. There is another trekk in Angel Falls really nice.

  3. matthew costa says:

    Great list, just in case someones checking this for future travel, As Jared mentioned the dates are wrong. They just got it in reverse, its open Sept-April not April to September. Cheers!

  4. onur says:

    Is it mandatory to pay for these paths. We have tons a trails in Canada but we only have to pay a back country camping licence. Just wondering

  5. Brooke Behunin says:

    What outfitter(s) lead the tour of the Valley of the Volcanoes and Cotopaxi Volcano? You mention its 2 days and $160. Thanks

  6. Jared says:

    Just wanted to point out that you have incorrect dates for Torres Del Paine/W-Trek. Other than that, thanks for the list! This really helped shape my trekking in SA.

    • Jeff says:

      Right; I just did the “O” hike in Torres Del Paine in February, so the wrong dates are listed. Also, 9 days seems a little long for the O; I did it in 5 1/2 days.

  7. Ash says:

    Great list! I even did four of them over a year travelling in South America…makes me wish that i was back there!
    My favorite though is missing from the group. Mt Roraima in Venezuela is the most spectacular trek i’ve ever done!

  8. amandine says:

    Awesome top list! I am planning to complete many of these during my 6 months travel in South Awmerica.
    I think the Quilotoa trek that you mention under number 6 should be considered as a trek on its own, as you can spend up to 2 weeks trekking there. The good news is, this one you can do it on your own (no need of a guide). I just loved that trek so decided to write a short guide on how to hike Quilotoa Loop : http://littlebigexplorations.com/2014/09/08/hiking-quilotoa-loop-ecuador-best-self-guided-trek/

    • onur says:

      Hey. did you do the 6 month South America. I want to the same thing. If so can you give me some tips or/and suggestions.

      Thank you

  9. Sarah Ball says:

    Awesome! The most itchy feet-inspiring South America Backpacker post to date 🙂

    In less than a month I’ll be on the Salkantay trek and I can’t. wait. I’m still planning my treks for Bolivia and Torres del Paine. Your suggestions sound phenomenal. Thanks!

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