South America almost seems designed with the hiker/traveler in mind. The landscape attracts countless tourists to its natural wonders, from pristine mountain lakes to breathtaking vistas and even active volcanoes.
If South America is on your must-visit bucket list, make sure to have the following three essential hikes on the list as well.
Torres del Paine “W” Trek
The Torres del Paine Trek, commonly referred to as the “W” trek, winds hikers through Torres del Paine National Parkin Chile over four or five days of stunning views, mountain glaciers, and jungle valleys. It’s a hike many visitors begin with, and for good reason. The scenery alone is worth the trip.
The “W” trek stretches across more than 50 miles of terrain, but the organized hike is spread across enough time to not make each day’s hike unbearable. Expect to hike around eight hours a day. While the park is open only from spring to early fall, hikers should be prepared to travel through varying climates.
Hikes usually start at Grey Shelter near the Southern Ice Fields in Puerto Natales and continue through the “W” route of Paine Grande, the French Valley, the Chileno Campsite and Las Torres base.
Cotopaxi (Andes Mountains)
One of the most intimidating-yet-rewarding hikes travelers can tackle in South America brings them to the rim of an active volcano.
Hikers begin their excursion into Cotopaxi National Park from the Ecuadorian capital Quito — from which they can see the peak of the Cotopaxi Volcano on a clear day — and can summit the next day after an early rise and an arduous hike through snow.
Hiking to the 19,340-foot Cotopaxi Volcano peak is not leisurely, but that’s what makes the views worth the workout. From the peak of Cotopaxi Volcano, hikers can gaze out above the clouds at an exceptional sunrise and look down along part of the famous “Valley of the Volcanoes.” This expansive stretch is formed by a number of lava domes, active volcanoes, and inactive volcanoes, all of which are worth the trek if Cotopaxi doesn’t leave you wary of the climb.
The trek up to Cotopaxi peak is relatively short at almost 4.5 miles one way from a trailhead near Mejia, but the thin air and tough terrain make it less a comfortable walk and more a badge of honor. If you’re looking for a South American hike to check off your bucket list, try the Cotopaxi Volcano trek.
Salcantay Trek (Machu Picchu, Peru)
It’s hard to attempt a hiking excursion in South America without considering Incan landmarks and ancient trails. Machu Picchu is one of South America’s most iconic locations—an Incan citadel perched atop a mountain ridge in southern Peru—so it only makes sense that one of the continent’s best hikes culminates at Machu Picchu.
The Salcantay/Salkantay Trek is considered by some to be the easiest and cheapest alternate routes to Machu Picchu from Cusco, which is the starting point for many popular hiking routes that eventually reach the Incan landmark. The most popular trek, and the original, is the Inca Trail Trek, but travelers have to book their hike well in advance (at least six months) and costs are considerable. This is why many opt to enjoy the Salcantay Trek instead.
National Geographic called the Salcantay route more impressive than the Inca Trail, citing the trek’s high-altitude scenery, an Inca highway intersection, and a rare full-view look at Machu Picchu as hikers approach the landmark.
The mule-assisted Salcantay Trek will take you about 6 days to complete and covers a distance of approximately 48 miles. Be sure to pack for forests and hills as well as possible snow, depending on the time of year.
The Torres del Paine “W” Trek, Cotopaxi Volcano, and Salcantay Trek hikes are only scratching the surface as far as amazing trails and guided excursions in South America. Traveling around the Valley of the Volcanoes could keep you busy for years alone. Be sure to compile a longer must-hike list if you’re making the trip sometime soon.