Tell someone you’re going to do a long-distance walk in South America and the chances are that they’ll instantly picture you on the Inca Trail. The insanely popular 4-5 day trek to Machu Picchu is quite rightly regarded as the most spectacular way to arrive at the lofty Inca ruins – I did the trek almost 20 years ago and the first view of Machu Picchu from the bird’s eye look-out point at Inti Punku is one of my all-time travel highlights.
But for those who want a more challenging or less busy trek, or those who have walked the Inca Trail and are looking for another trek in South America, what are the options? Here are five trails worth considering.
The ‘W’ Trail, Chile
For many hikers this trail within Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park has always been the no.1 trail on the continent. With mile after mile of breathtaking scenery it’s hardly surprising that the trail does get very busy in the (southern) summer months. The 55km route between Laguna Amarga and the glacially-fed Lago Grey has some serious ascents, but the views of the iconic peaks of the Torres del Paine and the Cuernos are special enough to soothe the inevitable sore feet. You can walk in relative comfort by stopping at refuges that can provide sleeping bags and so lighten your load.
This 30-mile route takes hikers up to some of the highest terrain on the continent and for those making the trek in the winter months (May to August) the weather is surprisingly kind. The trek begins in Huaraz and although many choose to use the town as a base for shorter day hikes, the four-day Santa Cruz trail provides a challenging yet highly rewarding experience, with the high point (literally) the ascent of the 15,500 feet Punta Union pass.
Lares Trek, Peru
A viable alternative to the Inca Trail for those who are looking for a different route to Machu Picchu, the Lares Trek following a lesser-worn path to the famous ruins. What it lacks in archaeological sites along the way, it makes up for in traditional Andean villages and stunning views that can be enjoyed in splendid isolation.
Grand Circuit, Brazil
This 100-mile trail in the diamond-mining country around Cahapada Diamantina offers a view of Brazil that is a sharp contrast from the beaches of Rio. The route takes in sweeping plateaus and allows you to see Brazil’s highest waterfall Cachoeira da Fumaça from both the top and bottom. Many hikers choose to camp out on the plains or in the region’s caves.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina
Not far as the crow flies from Torres del Paine, the glaciers and peaks of Los Glaciares offer an unending stream of breathtaking views. From a base in the regional outdoor capital of El Chalten you can explore the sharp, imposing peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre on a series of day hikes or choose to spend your nights away from the busy town and embark on a multi-day hike, such as the 3-day Cerro Torre base camp trail.