Things to do in the Andes
The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world, running all the way from the southern tip of South America to the continent’s northernmost coast on the Caribbean. It features some of the highest peaks in the world and spans seven countries: Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. Due to its significant size, the region is home to different indigenous groups and an abundance of wildlife who’ve all adapted to the different Andean climates and the mountainous surfaces. The Andes are a hiking paradise, but there are many more experiences that are worth considering for your next trip to this region:
1. Explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru
The Sacred Valley of the Incas, once known as the breadbasket of the Incas, hosts a range of wonderful sights and places to visit. The region is just an hour’s drive out of Cusco following the Urubamba River towards the Amazon and is dotted with colonial towns and villages, as well as the ruins of imposing Inca temples and fortresses. Most tours visit the pretty village of Pisac, which hosts a colourful market three times a week. Here, you can haggle for handcrafted souvenirs and textiles alongside locals bartering for fresh produce. Pisac is also home to an impressive Inca site set high on a hillside spur overlooking the town. Following the river westbound, leads you to the town of Ollantaytambo. It sits at a strategic point where the river begins its descent to the Amazon jungles, and has squat colonial houses with Inca foundations and quaint lanes and squares.
2. Explore the islands of Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake at 3,812m, and straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia. The cobalt blue water of the lake is peppered with golden islands and peninsulas harbouring traditional indigenous communities, making it a culturally rich location.
Visiting the islands is an extraordinary experience. Start by visiting the Uros Islands on the Bolivian side. The original inhabitants, the Uros Indians, have chosen to isolate themselves from their lakeside neighbours on curious floating islands made of reed since the days of the Incas. Continue on to the Isla de la Luna (‘Moon Island’) to visit the Inca nunnery of the Iñak Uyu Sun Virgins, one of the most significant archaeological sites on the lake. From here it’s a 10-minute crossing to Isla del Sol (‘Sun Island’), revered in Inca society as the legendary birthplace of the sun god.
3. Food and wine, Argentina, Chile, Peru
The Andes are also a favourite choice for wine and food lovers. On our Food and wine: Vineyards of Argentina and Chile holiday, you can experience both. Almost two-thirds of all Argentinean wine comes from the high altitude vineyards of the Andean foothills close to Mendoza, including Malbec, Cabernet and Chardonnay. Stay at a few of our favourite wineries on the eastern and western slopes of the Andes. In Chile, food and wine is gradually increasing in sophistication and popularity. Learn more about Chilean cuisine in Santiago, where you can try traditional pastries (empanadas), meats and seafood dishes.
Another excellent food destination is Peru’s capital city of Lima. To those in the know, Peruvian food has long been one of the great joys of visiting the country. Kaleidoscope extremes of geography combined with diverse cultural influences have given rise to an extraordinarily varied cuisine, balancing fresh seafood with hearty meat dishes and simple ingredients with rich and complex flavours. So why not join a culinary tour of the city? Explore local markets, sample ceviche at one of the city’s top seafood restaurants and enjoy a light lunch of Peruvian tapas-style snacks.
4. Cross the Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
The vast Salar de Uyuni is a naturally occurring salt desert, occupying over 10,000 square kilometers in Bolivia. When rain water covers the salt, driving across the Salar gives the illusion of flying. The terrain is completely featureless, bar the occasional ‘’floating’’ island that comes into view before drifting off again in the distance. When it’s dry, the white desert of salt is a playground inviting all manner of perspective-bending trick photography. Viewed at close range, the ground is etched with striking hexagonal patterns. No matter when you visit, you can expect an utterly surreal and mesmerizing experience.
5. Soak in a Chilean hot spring, Chile
After a day’s hiking or sightseeing in the Chilean Lake District we can’t think of anything better than to dip in the naturally warm thermal waters of one of the area’s hot springs. These are located within an enchanted setting, hidden deep in native forests. Our favourite perhaps is the Geometric hot springs near Pucón, with a chain of cinnamon-brown walkways etching striking patterns across the lush surroundings as streams cascade in between the natural pools.
6. Horseback riding
Exploring the Andes mountain range on horseback is another unique, yet traditional way to see more of the different regions. Take in the untamed natural world of Torres del Paine from the back of a horse, join the gauchos in Argentina or ride out into the Atacama Desert in Chile. There’s also the option to ride the ‘alternative Inca Trail’ (Salkantay trek) on horseback in Peru, or jump in the saddle and travel through the volcano-studded landscapes of Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes. Whichever one you choose, these are some of the world’s most rewarding destinations to go horseback riding.
7. Travel on the world’s second-highest train, Peru
The magnificent rail journey between coastal capital Lima and highland Huancayo presents you with almost the full spectrum of Peru’s dramatic geography. Travel through deserts and high plains where the towering Andes cast their shadow over sweeping grasslands. The highlight for many is arriving at La Galera, which at 4,781m above sea level is the highest train station in the world. The train usually operates in the drier months between April and November.
8. Climb the Andean volcanoes
The Andes offer landscapes dotted with volcanoes. A quintessential South American experience is to climb and hike these high peaks. Whether you walk around a crater lake in the Avenue of Volcanoes in Ecuador, climb an active Chilean volcano or take on a three-day adventure hike to the extinct volcano of Chimborazo in Ecuador, they’re all unforgettable experiences in their own right.
9. Search for puma in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Torres del Paine National Park has rich and varied wildlife, but undoubtedly the most sought-after sighting is of the Andean mountain lion or puma. They are well camouflaged, making them hard to see. However, your chances are good here, as you are guided by an experienced tracker familiar with their habitat and movements. This guided experience gives priority to finding and photographing a puma or two whilst you enjoy the splendour of the national park’s landscapes. A sighting is not guaranteed, but in such a gorgeous place it’s a worthwhile activity in any event.
10. Visit Machu Picchu, Peru
For most visitors to South America, a visit to the Inca city of Machu Picchu is the long-anticipated highlight of their trip, and we dare to go as far as saying that the site can be seen as the ultimate symbol of the Andes Mountains. Everyone is familiar with the dramatic shot of the citadel, astride a series of man-hewn terraces carved into a rainforest-clad mountain saddle at 2,430m in the Andean foothills. Walk the Inca Trail, South America’s most iconic trek, to reach the Sun Gate at dawn for spectacular views of Machu Picchu, or take a train from Ollantaytambo or Poroy to the sacred site.