Latin America’s best day hikes
Exploring the continent on foot is one of the best ways to take in the awe-inspiring landscapes of Latin America. While a hiking holiday is a great option, Central and South America also offer some wonderful half-day and day hikes for you to enjoy. We’ve selected some of our favourites to share with you:
1. The Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru
Everything exists in perfect harmony in the Sacred Valley. As the spiritual home of the Incas this area is home to the fast-flowing Urubamba river, spiky snow-capped peaks and charming colonial villages that all combine to make this such a unique and attractive place to visit.
An idyllic way to get a deeper insight into the rich and rewarding area is to explore it on foot. One of our favourite ones starts at 3,400m where you will be welcomed into small local homes in the traditional weaving community of Huilloc. Continue your hike along the Patacancha river and on towards Pumamarca, a well-preserved Inca ruin at 3,963m. From here, you can hike back to Ollantaytamblo along the terraced hillside.
If you’re short on time, but still want to experience the magnificent feeling of trekking to the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, the one-day Inca trail is an option. This is a 15km guided day hike instead of the full four-day hike. You will arrive at Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate, which offers spectacular views of the ancient site.
2. Desolation Pass, Chile
Osarno Volcano is one of the Lake District’s most striking landmarks. It looms like a beacon over the alpine environments of Puerto Varas, a tranquil landscape belying a turbulent geology. The 7-hour trek of the Osarno Volcano starts in the hamlet of Petrohue near Puerto Varas. From here you’ll climb Desolation Pass through a barren basalt landscape that gradually transforms into lush woodland and finally unveils an astonishing view of Lago Todos Los Santos. After a scenic picnic lunch, you’ll follow a lava trail left by an ancient eruption, to arrive at the lakeshore with time for a refreshing swim before returning to Petrohue and your waiting driver.
3. Las Cruces Trail, Panama
The Las Cruces Trail is a road that was built during Spanish colonial times and was used for 400 years to transport goods from Peru, Mexico and Chile, down the river and across the ocean to Spain. The trail, which runs from Panama City to the river Chagres, can be followed for about 10km. This stretch passes through jungle terrain still peppered with historic remains and landmarks. You’ll also be rewarded with the possible sightings of tree iguanas, three-toed sloths and osprey among other rainforest creatures. One you’ve completed the trek, you’ll be picked up in a motor boat for lunch on an island followed by a scenic journey through the surprisingly wild environments of the Panama Canal.
4. El Chaltén and the Fitz Roy Massif, Argentina
The vast ice fields in Los Glaciares National Park, southern Patagonia, are a primeval wilderness from which flow 13 huge glaciers into the waters of lakes Viedma and Argentino. The thick forests, gem-clear lagoons and the ice-capped towers of the Fitz Roay massif in the northern area of the park add to the beauty of this ideal landscape for hikers. Los Glaciares has an array of shorter routes to choose from, and one of our favourite treks is to Laguna de Los Tres, which offers the park’s most classic postcard panorama. The 8-hour hike follows a glistening river up through primeval beech forests before climbing to the turquoise lake, spectacularly reflecting the dramatic mountain range of Fitz Roy.
We also love the Laguna Torre trek, a relatively undemanding 6-hour walk straight from El Chaltén into a landscape filled with glaciers, and where views consist of icebergs and sharp granite peaks.
5. Volcano hikes in Nicaragua and Guatemala
Central America offers the ideal landscape for volcano hikes. In some instances you break up the trek into two days by staying at a base camp or at a campsite, as is the case with the Tajumulco Volcano in Guatemala and the Telica Volcano in Nicaragua. Other volcanoes require less effort and can be explored during a day hike. Take the 6115 steps from the summit deep into the crater of Chicabal Volcano in Guatemala, or reach the top of Cosigüina Volcano in Nicaragua in four hours and enjoy fantastic views over the Gulf of Fonseca. On a clear day, three different countries are visible: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.
For the real adventurer out there, there’s the opportunity to climb to the top of Cerro Negro Volcano in Nicaragua, and descend by ‘surfing’ back on a specially-designed piece of wood, down the slick, black, ash-covered slope. This activity, called ‘Volcano Boarding’ is exhilarating, memorable and highly recommended.
6. Chapada Diamantina, Brazil
Forested Chapada Dimantina is studded with table-top mountains and run through with crystalline rivers and waterfalls. It’s the ideal area for hikes, whether you opt for a half day, a day or a multi-day hike, they are all guaranteed to be adventurous and enlivening.
We particularly recommend two shorter treks: the walk to Sossego Waterfall (acknowledged as one of Brazil’s best) and the hike through Fumaça Canyon to Cachoeira da Fumaça, at 340m from top to bottom the second tallest cataract in the country. The first takes you walking along the rocky riverbed of a valley framed by towering cliffs embellished with ferns and orchids, while the latter has you climbing to a viewpoint above the falls where you gaze down, 300m, to the valley below.
7. Quilotoa loop, Ecuador
Hiking the Quilotoa loop is great for off-the-beaten-track lovers. The crater lake of Quilotoa lies within untouched countryside, a dramatic eruption of turquoise in a verdant and serene landscape. The area is peppered with tiny villages, huddled beneath jutting mountain peaks which lends additional colour to the scene. After visiting one of the traditional early-morning markets in one of these villages, you’ll explore the magnificent crater lake, at 3914m, with the opportunity to walk the full circuit around its dramatic volcanic edges. It’s possible to stay in the archetypal highland town of Chugchilán and take on an optional extra day’s hiking back to Quilotoa.
8. Iwokrama Rainforest, Guyana
The Iwokrama Rainforest in Guayana is one of the four last pristine tropical forests in the world. The area is rich in flora and fauna, and has an extraordinarily large variety of birds. Over 500 species of birds can be seen in the Iwokrama Rainforest, which makes it the ideal bird watching destination. It’s also home to a 30m-high canopy walkway offering an unparalleled vantage point over Guayana’s lush forested interior. You can spot wildlife while walking along suspended bridges in between platforms of varying heights.
For another impressive perspective, take on a guided nature hike to the top of Turtle Mountain, a 2-hour ascent that affords breathtaking views over the forest canopy.
9. Arenal Crater Lake, Costa Rica
The landscape surrounding Arenal is ruggedly beautiful and comprises one of Costa Rica’s many conservation areas, protecting a territory of amazing biodiversity which contains half the known species of birdlife, mammals and reptiles in the country. Bursting out from the slope of Arenal, Cerro Chato is a volcanic cone cloaked in dense vegetation and guards a mesmerising lagoon within its long-extinct crater. The hike up the volcano is steep, but rewarding with wildlife including tropical birds and monkeys everywhere around you. On the descent, you’ll have time for a dip in the amphitheatre formed by the La Fortuna waterfall.
10. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Torres del Paine National Park, in the heart of Patagonia, is a trekker’s paradise. In just one single day, you can delve deep into its wild reaches and gaze upon some of the park’s most beautiful and iconic natural landmarks. One of our favourite hikes in the national park is to the base of the Torres del Paine massif, with its crown of monumental spikes thrusting skyward. You can also trek to the French Valley with the Cuernos del Paine rising up over the horizon. Alternatively, you can hike to the enormous Grey Glacier one a day’s hike, passing glassy lagoons, sheltered glacial valleys and wild flower meadows.