South America has always been a popular place for hikers looking for adventure, and rightly so.
There are 12 independent countries in South America, and it is home to some of the most iconic landscapes, natural habitats and rich cultural histories that you are likely to find on the planet.
Peru, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil… just to name a few of the countries that make up South America, each one has its own distinctive culture, heritage and landscapes.
From the Patagonian icefields to humid rainforests, sandy beaches and dramatic coastlines, as well as high altitude hikes, the opportunity to discover an adventure in South America is around every corner.
National Parks, UNESCO world heritage sites and other protected areas are abundant in many South American countries.
The ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, The Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, and the Parque Nationale Los Glacieres in Argentina are just a few of the iconic places to go trekking.
With the diverse range of habitats across South America, the options for hiking are endless.
You can choose trails to suit any age or level of ability, or to explore a particularly area of interest, such as studying wildlife, climate change, or simply have an adventure of a lifetime.
There are thousands of routes you can explore in South America, but here are top 10 hiking trails that you just can’t miss!
The Inca Trail in Peru is a high altitude hiking trail that leads through the Sacred Valley to the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
This is a popular route that sees many trekkers, but you do need to be pretty fit to cope with the terrain and altitude.
Although, as long as you take it steady on the tougher days on the trek, most hikers will be able to manage.
You can’t fail to be in awe of the surroundings when you hike the Inca Trail.
It takes you through wet rainforest at the lower levels and onto dry alpine eco-systems as you climb.
All the while, you get amazing views of mountains and valleys.
The ancient city of Machu Picchu is a wonder to behold, as you comprehend not only the age of the city but the feat of constructing such a place in its location.
To make the most of being on the Inca Trail, you may also like to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu, the mountain that rises behind Macha Picchu.
Along the Inca Trail you will find other hiking groups sharing this amazing experience.
It is a good opportunity to make friend, swap stories and enjoy the camaraderie of the trail.
This vast national park in the Chilean Patagonian region is a haven for hikers who want to experience the beauty of a glacial landscape, complete with mountain ranges, glacial lakes, grasslands and a range of native wildlife.
Named after the imposing granite towers of the Paine Mountains, the Torres del Paine offers a wealth of hiking trails for serious hikers and climbers, to more gentle trails for the less experienced or hardy.
The W trail is one of the classic routes in the park, following a W shape through three valleys.
For hikers who want to test their abilities, the O trail is a challenging circuit trek.
One thing that attracts many hikers is that this park is that it is part of the End of the World Route, as Chile’s southernmost tip is the last land mass of the South American continent.
To continue south would mean reaching Antarctica.
There is little that can beat hiking through such an amazing environment as the Torres del Pain National Park, and it is especially relevant to those who want to view glaciers and icebergs in these times of climate change.
The Torres del Paine National Park also borders two other parks, the Bernard O’Higgin’s National Park is to the west, while the Los Glaciers National Park is to the north in Argentina, providing more options for hiking adventures.
This epic trail connects 17 of Chile’s National Parks to create an adventure route like no other.
Created by the Tompkins Conservation in 2017, after one of the largest land donations ever seen, the Route of Parks incorporates a diverse range of wild habitats and protected areas of environmental importance.
Amongst the different ecological zones, you will find temperate forests, glaciers and lagoons, alpine desert, grasslands and meadows, and more.
This long-distance route has paths for all abilities. In some regions you will find infrastructure in place for hikers, such as access points to trails, camping and washing facilities as well as places to stock up on food supplies.
In other areas, the only option is to take all your supplies with you and camp in the wild.
One of the most hiked areas is the Patagonia National Park, rich in native grasslands and forests.
Here there are paths of lesser difficulty that any hiker will be able to enjoy.
If you really like to feel alone in the wilderness, the Bernard O’Higgin’s National Park is the place to be.
With limited access points, you can test your hiking and survival skills in this rugged backcountry.
As well as the amount of endangered species that is supported by the Route of Parks, it offers hikers the chance to experience unspoilt, pristine environments that are difficult to find anywhere in the world.
Nestled high in the Peruvian Andes, the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit is a challenging hike that circumnavigates some of the tallest peaks in Peru.
The dramatic, jagged mountain skyline is the perfect backdrop to this amazing hike, and as you cross seven high altitude mountain passes, you also get a glimpse of the Nevado Siula Grande, the mountain from Joe Simpson’s survival story, Touching the Void.
You do need to be an experienced hiker to be able to complete this trek safely.
The steep ascents and descents, challenging mountain weather conditions combined with the altitude will test any serious hiker’s abilities.
With passes reaching to 5000 metres and more, acclimatisation is important before embarking on this trek.
While this is a testing mountain hike, the experience is worth it! With the entire circuit above the treeline, you get uninterrupted views of the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash range.
Wildlife is another highlight. Watch out condors and eagles circling overhead.
The hot springs halfway through the route provide a welcoming place to take a dip, and a well-earned respite from the mountain conditions.
For a challenging alpine hike in jaw-dropping beauty, and a remote trail where you can feel the power of nature, the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit is an experience you’ll never forget.
This trail began when gold was discovered in the mountains of the Brazilian state Minas Gerais in the 1690s.
To ensure a fast export and a reliable supply route, a 1200 kilometre road was constructed, mainly using labour from the African slave trade.
This road, now known as The Gold Trail, is paved with large, flat stones and follows some of the most picturesque scenery in Brazil.
It traverses mountain and valleys as it runs between the historic gold mines, Colonial towns and ports of Paraty and Rio de Janeiro.
Learn about the fascinating history of the mining towns to as the trail takes you to Ouro Preto and Tiradentes and Diamantina, some of the best preserved towns that have seen little development since the end of the gold rush in the 18th century.
The centre of Diamantina is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the architecture and cobbled streets are much the same as they were during the gold rush.
As well as the history of the Gold Trail, you also get to experience the wonder of Brazil’s interior ecosystems.
The Serra da Bocaina National Park is an Atlantic Forest biome, with some of the most diversity in plant and wildlife species in Brazil.
Here you can enjoy hiking in rainforests, take a swim in pools that collect from waterfalls and rivers, and take in the splendour of the lush surroundings.
Lost City Trek
The Lost City Trek is a 46 kilometre round trip through unspoilt wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in northern Columbia.
Deep within the interior is the ancient ruins of Teyuna, the Lost City. Thought to have been constructed in 800 AD, Teyuna is 600 years older that the Incan city of Machu Picchu in Peru.
Forgotten for hundreds of years and claimed back by the rainforest, a small area of the Lost City has been recovered and is open to tourist at the discretion of the indigenous tribes.
The tribal community’s deep connection to the land is apparent, and their wisdom seeks to protect it.
Much land that has been given back to them is being returned to jungle.
This quiet trail meanders thought humid rainforest of the UNESCO protected biosphere of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park.
Rich in biodiversity, including many species of bird, the sights and sounds of this magical place are to be savoured.
Tumbling rivers and waterfalls with plenty of places to stop for a refreshing swim, forest covered hillsides and steam rising from the canopy, hiking the Lost City Trail feels like you have stepped into another world.
You do need a good level of fitness to appreciate this trek.
There are long, sometimes steep, inclines and descents. To reach the Lost City itself, there are 1200 stone steps to climb before you reach the lower terraces.
The temperatures can be hot, adding to the challenge.
However, spending time at the Lost City, immersing yourself in the rainforest, camping out with other travellers, and learning from the indigenous guides makes the effort worth it!
Camino del Inca
The Ecuadorian Inca Trail, or Camino del Inca, is an ancient route the linked the Incan capital of Cusco to Tomebamba and Quito.
Today, the most-hiked part runs from the village of Achupallas to Ingapirca, or Inca Walls.
On this trek you will explore arid alpine ecosystems above the forest tree line as you steadily ascend, past beautiful lakes, to highest point of the trail, a summit of 4400 metres.
Descending once more, another day’s hike sees the ruins of ancient Ingapirca, home to the only circular example of architecture known as The Temple of the Sun.
Much of it still stands, and you get an incredible glimpse of what life may have been like hundreds of years ago.
While the altitude is similar to well-known treks in Peru, the Camino del Inca is suitable for most hikers of good fitness.
You may be climbing and descending, but the daily elevation gains are somewhat gentler than that of other Incan trails.
You won’t find many other hikers or tourists on the Camino del Inca.
What you will find are remote communities and rolling farmland, as well as a beautiful wilderness of alpine flowers and grasses, rocky outcrops and wildlife including llamas and eagles.
Stunning views of the Andean landscape and the hallmarks of the alpine desert ecosystem create a hiking terrain like no other.
Once you set out on the trail, you can’t help but fall in love with the beauty of your surroundings.
The Choquequirao trek is a lesser known trail than the Machu Picchu Trail, but equally as impressive, if not better.
The quietness of the trail means you get a deeper sense of place and feel more connected to the surroundings as you trek to the ruins of Choquequirao.
The steep sides of the Apurimac Valley make this a hike for the fit and able.
The altitude will also add another level of difficulty as you negotiate the terrain.
As you hike, you will see different ecological zones depending on the elevation.
From lush vegetation of the lower levels to the arid alpine desert as you climb, there is a wealth of plant and animal species to see, and a variety of terrain underfoot.
The ruins of Choquequirao are larger than the city of Machu Picchu, and much of it is still covered by vegetation.
You can’t help but feel awed by the buildings and walls constructed in such a location and altitude.
This trail can be part of a longer trek to Machu Picchu if you wish, as it is possible to continue there from Choquequirao.
There are three possible starting points for trekking to Choquequirao, and this means that each is quieter than the Machu Picchu Trail.
This gives you the chance to experience the unspoilt Peruvian wilderness and see the ancient ruins without the crowds.
The Takesi Trail runs from a small village just outside of La Paz and crosses the valleys Cordillera Real mountain range to the village of Yanacachi.
Also known as the Camino del Inca, the Incan Trail, it is yet another example of an historic pathway that was significant during the Incan Empire, and also pre-dates it.
Once you reach the Apacheta High Pass at 4700 metres elevation, you will enjoy beautiful views of Mount Mururata with its snow-capped top at 5869 meters.
There are also lagoons, abandoned mines, and the bubbling Takesi River.
As you descend further into the Yunga Valley, the trail is through humid rainforest dotted with small villages.
Eventually, you will arrive at one of the oldest towns in Bolivia, Yanacachi.
This trek is one that anyone of good general fitness will be able to do.
Much of the cobbled stonework still exists since the pre-Incan era, making this path accessible to most.
Mainly a gentle ascent and descent though mountainous scenery and a diverse range of natural habitats, it is a must for anyone keen on wildlife and bird life, as well as those who like to connect with Incan history.
North Coast Trail
Easter Island, Chile
The Northern Coast Trail on Chile’s Easter Island is a mysterious mix of ancient ruins, complete with large carved stone heads, called Moai, that are placed around the coast.
This isolated island, also called Rapa Nui, is 3686 kilometres away from Chile’s coast.
It is filled with archaeological sites, caves, dormant volcanoes and craters.
Add to that the breath-taking views of the Pacific Ocean and vast skies, and you have a very special place to go hiking.
The Northern Coast trail takes you through places on Easter Island that have not changed for centuries.
There is no infrastructure such as roads, so this part of the island is barely touched by modern life.
With no shops or places to buy food, you will need to carry all your daily supplies for the trek.
Along the way there are numerous archaeological ruins to explore, with the trek finishing at the beautiful, sandy beach of Anakena.
You will meet many of the Moai stone heads on the North Coast Trail. Carved from volcanic rick, there is still much debate as to when and why they were created.
Thought to have been carved by Polynesian settlers around 1200 AD, some stand 20 metres in height.
There are also many caves and rock dwellings, also with carvings and wall art.
The trail itself follows gently rolling terrain with no long steep climbs or descents, so you don’t need to be an expert hiker to experience the wonders of this island.
The way might not always be well-marked, but as long as you follow the coast, the trail is easy to follow.
The coast is rich in marine life, and you will also see a number of species of bird and wildlife that make this small island home.
Hiking the North Coast Trail on Easter Island is made all the more special because of its remote location, and spending time there is something that will stay with you forever.