Winning tip: Cerro Castillo, Chile
An excellent four-day hike (a one-day hike from Cerro Castillo village to glacial lake is possible) that begins on Carretera Austral (route 7) near Coyhaique, winds through forests, several river crossings (but no bridges), and ends over a 1,400-metre mountain pass adjacent to the rock walls of the jagged 2,700-metre peak Cerro Castillo. Yes, Torres Del Paine is slightly more spectacular, but the lack of crowds here (you’ll probably not see another hiker) makes this a more rewarding and enjoyable experience. The tiny village of Cerro Castillo has a few very basic but very charming hospedajes (lodgings).
Lake 69, Huascarán national park, Peru
My tight budget led me to Hostal Alpes in Huaraz, where I asked about walking in the surrounding snowy mountains. The hike to Lake 69 was recommended, in the Huascaran national park, part of the incredible Cordillera Blanca mountains – the world’s highest tropical range. The trip, booked through my hostel, cost around £9 per person. It was a three-hour drive to the start and it took just under four hours to reach the lake (although it felt longer due to altitude: 4,650 metres). After 10 months’ backpacking South America this hike and breath-taking lake came out top.
Lago Gutierrez to Refugio Emilio Frey, Argentina
San Carlos de Bariloche is a popular gateway to the southern parts of Argentine Patagonia. For a sense of the region’s best scenic offerings and a break from the tourist vibe of the town, head to Lago Gutierrez by bus from Bariloche in the morning and hike up to Refugio Emilio Frey, about four hours from the lake’s edge. The trek will take you through parched and arid woods at the start but soon you’ll be climbing alongside the river flowing from the mountain – there may be some snow at the top for the final 500m. Spending the night at Refugio Frey with a shared meal is about £30. Alternatively, you can opt for just a bed and pay a few dollars to use their kitchen, or going further you can camp depending on the weather conditions. The journey down is of course easier, and for a change of scenery take the Cerro Catedral route back near the bottom and grab a sugary waffle in the Catedral ski resort. If you have a couple of days in Bariloche this is an excellent way to spend them.
The Lost City (Ciudad Perdida), Colombia
It’s a three-day, 44km hike to get to the Lost City, which involves fording rivers, sleeping in hammocks and, at one point, sharing the path with a mule transporting a wheel-barrow to a far flung Kogi village. Built in about 800 AD by the Tayrona people, the picturesque ruins are deep in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada in northern Colombia. Visitors travel there from Santa Marta; driving into the mountains to the end of the “road” (pot-holes held together by mud) in a clapped-out jeepney. From here, shanks pony is your only transportation. Beautiful scenery, a night spent at the city and seeing the deserted ruins in early morning light more than compensate for the heat, humidity and insect bites.
Santa Cruz trek, Huaraz, Peru
This trek in the Cordillera Blanca is stunning. Inexperienced trekkers can do it in four days but if you are a seasoned hiker and find the Santa Cruz trek too short, the Cordillera Blanca has many more trails to follow. Regardless of experience, the South America Explorers club proved invaluable.
For an alternative to the waiting lists, crowds and expense of the Inca Trail, visit the northern town of Chachapoyas. On arriving, we contacted the I-Peru office, which set us up with Aldo, a local guide with detailed knowledge of the cliffside mausoleums and ruins half hidden in cloud forests. No visit is complete without a trek to the area’s star attraction, the pre-Incan fortress city of Kuelap. We arranged a two-day hike, staying overnight in the village of Tingo. Setting off early for the final stage, a six-mile, 1,200-metre climb to the citadel, we arrived as the city’s immense stone walls emerged from the morning mist. For two hours we explored the deserted ruins; our only company a pair of bemused looking llamas.
Laguna Quilotoa, Ecuador
Hidden away high in the Andes in the Cotopaxi Province, this ancient volcano’s two-mile wide crater has been collecting rain water for centuries, creating a turquoise lagoon to which you can hike down to. Once there you can kayak on it then either hike back up or go on horseback for a small fee. The more adventurous can hike the rim of this volcanic lagoon. Trails are well-worn and easy to follow and take up to five hours to complete. The trail on the rim is, for the most part, easy and not very technical. Start your hike no later than 7.30am; clouds and rain usually come in mid-afternoon making visibility poor and temperatures quite cold. The trail is mostly sandy which makes hiking the trail very easy after a rainy night. The ultimate adventure would be to hike the three-four day Quilotoa Loop which starts in the town of Sigchos or the crater itself. The town of Quilotoa is made up primarily of hostels.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
If you can get to the desert town of Uyuni, in the Bolivian high Andes, book a four-day tour around the largest salt-flats on Earth. If you visit after the rainy season you’ll see the entire four thousand square-mile flats flooded in a few inches of water, mirroring the snow-covered peaks and cobalt-blue skies in the glassy surface. You’ll also visit shimmering volcanoes, roaring, spitting geysers and flamingo-filled lakes of dazzling hues.