There's a whole range of adventures awaiting in South America. You can go hiking amid the soaring peaks of the Andes, go rafting along rushing jungle-lined rivers and overnight in a rainforest lodge with the sounds of the Amazon all around you. And you'll find many more astounding options in every country on the continent.
The opportunities for hiking are practically limitless. Stunning scenery is a guarantee wherever you go, with snow-covered peaks, cloud forests and verdant lowland jungle setting the stage for hiking and wildlife-watching.
The Andean countries are famous for their old Inca roads, which are ready-made for scenic excursions. The overtrodden, four-day tramp along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is, of course, the classic, but alternative routes are more highly recommended because they are cheaper, less traveled, more scenic and less destructive. Other possibilities around Cuzco include the spectacular six-day trek around the venerated Ausangate (6372m), which will take you over 5000m passes, through huge herds of alpacas and past tiny hamlets unchanged in centuries.
There are other treks along Inca trails as well, including Ecuador’s lesser-known Inca trail to Ingapirca, and numerous trails along ancient Inca routes through Bolivia’s Cordilleras to the Yungas. Ecuador also offers memorable hikes amid its volcanic peaks.
There are lots of great places to hike in Brazil, both in the national and state parks and along the coastline. In Bahia, the Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina has spectacular day hikes and multiday treks; Lençóis is a good base. Other highlights are the parks around Cambara do Sul, and the Chapada Guimarães and Chapada Veaderos.
Colombia has some outstanding trekking opportunities. The casual hiker looking for good one-day walks also has many options to choose from – most of which, such as Laguna Verde and Valle de Cocora, can be done independently without a guide. You can also undertake some great day hikes in Parque Nacional El Cocuy.
The national parks of southern South America, including Chile’s Torres del Paine, those within the Argentine Lake District, and even Argentina’s storm-pounded but spectacular Fitz Roy range, are superb and blessed with excellent trail infrastructure and accessibility. And for getting well off the beaten path, northern Patagonia in Chile has some excellent treks.
Lesser-known mountain ranges, such as Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (for the Ciudad Perdida) have great potential.
Many trails in South America are poorly marked or not marked at all. Trekkers should always inquire ahead, as navigation may be a major component of hiking and many travelers come unprepared. When it comes to packing, quality mountain gear is a must. Even in summer the Andes can have extreme temperatures – summer sleeping bags and nonwaterproof gear will not work!
Top Hiking Destinations
Peru The main trekking centers are Cuzco and Arequipa in the southern Andes, and Huaraz in the north. Hikers will find many easily accessible trails around Peru’s archaeological ruins, which are also the final destinations for more challenging trekking routes. From Arequipa, you can get down in some of the world’s deepest canyons – the world-famous Cañón del Colca and the Cañón del Cotahuasi. Outside Huaraz, the Cordillera Blanca can’t be beat for vistas of rocky, snowcapped mountaintops, while the remote and rugged Cordillera Huayhuash is similarly stunning. The classic and favorite trekking route is the four-day journey from Llanganuco to Santa Cruz, where hardy mountaineers climb the 4760m Punta Union pass, surrounded by ice-clad peaks.
Argentina The Lakes District offers outstanding day and multiday hikes in several national parks, including Nahuel Huapi and Lanín. For Patagonia, El Bolsón is an excellent base for hiking both in the forests outside of town and in nearby Parque Nacional Lago Puelo. Parque Nacional Los Glaciares offers wonderful hiking in and around the Fitz Roy Range; base yourself in El Chaltén and wait out the storms.
Chile Head to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Patagonia for epic hiking. For awe-inspiring isolation, Tierra del Fuego's Dientes de Navarino hiking circuit is stunning but harder to access. Other parts of Chile also have spectacular hikes. You can set off from Santiago on a trek through some of the highest mountains in the world outside Asia. Middle Chile is full of amazing, off-the-beaten path trekking circuits, as is the Lakes and Volcanoes district, where you can hike up volcanoes and through dense Valdivian forests.
Colombia On the Caribbean coast, the long trek to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) involves a sweaty, multiday hike through the jungle and across waist-high rivers. In Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) El Cocuy, you'll find a dozen 5000m-high peaks and phenomenal high-altitude landscapes. PNN Tayrona offers accessible short hikes through tropical dry forest with the opportunity to eat, drink and swim along the way.
Ecuador Near the dramatic topaz crater lake of Quilotoa there are some excellent hikes, including village-to-village trips and a few shortcuts through high-altitude canyons. One excellent DIY route goes from Quilotoa to Isinliví, overnighting in Chugchilán along the way.
The number of creatures great and small reaches epic proportions in the land of cloud forests, Andean mountains and Amazon rainforest. Whether you're an avid birdwatcher or just want to see monkeys in the wild, South America is hard to top. Its biodiversity is staggering.
Brazil has superb places for seeing wildlife. You can look for toucans, sloths, river dolphins and various monkey species at a jungle lodge in the Amazon. Odds are higher that you'll see even more species in the Pantanal, an extensive wetlands area that can also be accessed from Bolivia or Paraguay.
Speaking of Bolivia, Parque Nacional Madidi harbors over 1000 bird species as well as wildlife endemic to the majority of Bolivia's ecosystems, from tropical rainforest and savanna to cloud forest and alpine tundra. Agencies, often run by scientists or environmentalists, run nature trips out of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Samaipata and, to a lesser extent, La Paz.
Peru boasts a spectacular variety of plant and animal life. In the expansive Parque Nacional Manu, jaguars, tapirs and monkeys inhabit one of the continent’s wildest rainforest reserves. On the Islas Ballestas, colonies of honking sea lions and penguins claim rocky Pacific outcrops off Peru’s south coast.
Clocking in at over 1900 bird species, Colombia is the world's number-one country in bird diversity and easily holds its own against Peru and Brazil in endemic species. The Andean mountains are full of hummingbirds (more than 160 species); the Amazonian jungle is full of toucans, parrots and macaws; and Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Puracé, near Popayán, is home to condors. The single best bird-watching spot in the country is Montezuma Peak, located inside PNN Tatamá in the Cordillera Occidental.
Despite its small size, Ecuador has amazingly diverse wildlife. Bird-watchers should head to the cloud forests around Mindo. The lower Río Napo region of the Amazon has even more biological diversity. And of course, the Galápagos are simply extraordinary in every way.
From a leisurely ride around enchanting lowland scenery to bombing down smouldering volcanoes, South America has some exciting destinations for mountain bikers. The Andes are blessed with some of the most dramatic mountain-biking terrain in the world, and offers relatively easy access to mountain ranges, magnificent lakes, precolonial ruins and trails, and myriad eco-zones connected by an extensive network of footpaths and jeep roads. Mountain bikes are widely available for hire, though quality varies considerably. Make a thorough inspection of key components (brakes, tires, gears) before committing. For longer multiday trips, it's better to bring your own bike.
Peru There is no shortage of incredible terrain. Single-track trails ranging from easy to expert await mountain bikers outside Huaraz, Arequipa and even Lima. If you’re experienced, there are incredible mountain-biking possibilities around the Sacred Valley and downhill trips to the Amazon jungle, all accessible from Cuzco. Easier cycling routes include the wine country around Lunahuaná and in the Cañón del Colca, starting from Chivay.
Colombia Mountain biking is most popular in San Gil and Villa de Leyva, where several adventure companies and bike-rental shops can facilitate your adrenaline fix.
Bolivia One of the world’s longest downhill rides will take you from Parque Nacional Sajama down to the Chilean coast at Arica. More famous is the thrilling 3600m trip down the World’s Most Dangerous Road from La Cumbre to Coroico. Another popular route near La Paz is the lush Zongo Valley ride, which can be started from Chacaltaya (5395m).
Chile A favorite mountain-biking destination in the north is San Pedro de Atacama. Fabulous trips in the Lakes District access pristine areas with limited public transportation. The bike lane around Lago Llanquihue is very popular, as is the Ojos de Caburgua loop near Pucón. In the south, the Carretera Austral remains one of the most popular biking destinations in South America. From December to March the road is packed with cyclists.
Argentina At outdoor hot spots you can rent a mountain bike for a day of independent pedaling or for guided mountain-bike rides. Good bases include San Martín de los Andes, Villa la Angostura, Bariloche and El Bolsón in the Lake District; Esquel in Patagonia; Mendoza and Uspallata in Mendoza province; Barreal in San Juan province; Tilcara in the Andean Northwest and Tandil in La Pampa province.
Ecuador It's hard to beat the adrenaline-charged downhills on the flanks of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. From Baños, you can travel ‘La Ruta de las Cascadas’ (Highway of the Waterfalls), a 61km (mostly) downhill ride to Puyo, with some refreshing dips in waterfalls along the way.
On a continent with one of the world's greatest mountain ranges, climbing opportunities are almost unlimited. Ecuador's volcanoes, the high peaks of Peru's Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash, Bolivia's Cordillera Real and Argentina's Aconcagua (6960m; the Western Hemisphere's highest peak) all offer outstanding mountaineering opportunities. Despite its relatively low elevation, Argentina's Fitz Roy range – home to Cerro Torre, one of the world's most challenging peaks – chalks in as a major climbing destination, while the mountains of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi offer fun for all levels. The Venezuelan Andes are no less appealing: Pico Bolívar is the most popular destination, but there are many other peaks you can summit around Mérida.
The Andes are a mountaineer’s dream, especially in the San Juan and Mendoza provinces, where some of the highest peaks in the Western Hemisphere are found. While the most famous climb is Aconcagua, there are plenty of others that are more interesting and far more technical. Near Barreal, the Cordón de la Ramada boasts five peaks over 6000m, including the mammoth Cerro Mercedario, which tops out at 6770m. The region is less congested than Aconcagua, offers more technical climbs and is preferred by many climbers. Also near here is the majestic Cordillera de Ansilta, with seven peaks scraping the sky at between 5130m and 5885m.
You'll find churning white water all over the continent. The settings are spectacular: splashing through deep canyons or pounding down the forest-lined banks of a Class IV rapid.
Ecuador boasts world-class river rafting and kayaking. Some of the rivers offer up to 100km of continuous Class III to Class IV white water before flattening out to flow toward the Pacific on one side of the Andes and into the Amazon Basin on the other. Tena is Ecuador’s de-facto white-water capital, with the nearby upper Río Napo (Class III+) and the Río Misahuallí (Class IV+) among the country’s best-known rivers.
The wealth of scenic rivers, lakes, fjords and inlets in southern Chile make it a dream destination. Chile's rivers, raging through narrow canyons from the Andes, are world class. Northern Patagonia's Futaleufú River offers memorable Class IV and V runs. Less technical runs include those outside Pucón and the beautiful Petrohué, near Puerto Varas, as well as Aisén's Río Simpson and Río Baker. Near Santiago, the Cajón del Maipo offers a gentle but enjoyable run.
In Peru, Cuzco is the launch point for the greatest variety of river-running options. Choices range from a few hours of mild rafting on the Urubamba to adrenaline-pumping rides on the Santa Teresa to several days on the Apurímac, technically the source of the Amazon. A river-running trip on the Tambopata, available from June through October, tumbles down the eastern slopes of the Andes, culminating in a couple of days of floating in unspoiled rainforest. River running is also possible on the Río Cañete south of Lima, and in the canyon country around Arequipa, in Peru.
In Argentina, several rivers around Bariloche and Mendoza are worth getting wet in. In Colombia, the Río Suárez near San Gil has decent runs.
Skiing & Snowboarding
South America's most important downhill ski areas are in Chile and Argentina. The season is roughly June to September.
Powder junkies rejoice. World-class resorts in the Chilean and Argentine Andes offer myriad possibilities for skiing, snowboarding and even heliskiing. Don't expect too many bargains; resorts are priced to match their quality. 'First descents' of Chilean Patagonia's numerous mountains is a growing (but limited) trend.
Most resorts in Chile are within an hour's drive of Santiago, including a wide variety of runs at family-oriented La Parva, all-levels El Colorado, and Valle Nevado, with a lot of terrain and renowned heliskiing. Legendary Portillo, the site of several downhill speed records and the summer training base for many of the Northern Hemisphere's top skiers, is northeast of Santiago near the Argentine border crossing to Mendoza.
Termas de Chillán, just east of Chillán, is a more laid-back spot with several beginners' slopes, while Parque Nacional Villarrica, near the resort town of Pucón, has the added thrill of skiing on a smoking volcano. On Volcán Lonquimay, Corralco has great novice and expert terrain, as well as excellent backcountry access. Volcanoes Osorno and Antillanca, east of Osorno, have open terrain with incredible views and a family atmosphere.
In Argentina, there are three main snow-sport areas: Mendoza, the Lake District and Ushuaia. Mendoza is near Argentina’s premier resort, Las Leñas, which has the best snow and longest runs; the resort Los Penitentes is also nearby. The Lake District is home to several low-key resorts, including Cerro Catedral, near Bariloche, and Cerro Chapelco, near San Martín de los Andes.
Brazil is South America's best-known surfing destination, with great breaks near Rio and in the southeast, and sprinkled all along the coast from Santa Catarina to São Luís. If you've got the cash, the surfing in Fernando de Noronha is spectacular.
In Peru, national championships are held at Punta Rocas as well as Pico Alto, an experts-only ‘kamikaze’ reef break with some of the largest waves in Peru. Peru’s north coast has a string of excellent breaks. The most famous is Puerto Chicama, where rides of more than 2km are possible on what’s considered the longest left-hand break in the world.
With breaks lining the long Pacific Coast, Chile nurtures some serious surf culture, most active in middle and northern Chile. Matanzas is major surf destination (and a favorite among wind surfers). Keep in mind, you'll need a wetsuit. With big breaks and long left-handers, surf capital Pichilemu hosts the national surfing championship. Pilgrims crowd the perfect left break at Pichilemu's Punta de Lobos, but beginners can also have a go nearby at La Puntilla. The coastal Ruta 1 is lined with waves.
Ecuador's best breaks are off Isla San Cristóbal in the Galápagos. On the mainland, Montañita, has a fast, powerful reef break that can cough up some of the mainland’s best barrels.
You'll also find good waves in Mar del Plata (Argentina) and Uruguay. In Venezuela, there's great kitesurfing in Adicora and Margarita.
Paragliding and hang-gliding have their followers. Top destinations include Iquique (Chile), La Paz (Bolivia) and Medellín, San Gil and Bucaramanga (Colombia). You can even fly from urban locations like Miraflores in Lima and Pedra Bonita in Rio de Janeiro.