Latin America is a trekking dreamland with lost cities, bubbling volcanic lava, massive glaciers, pseudo-Martian soil and a Devil-spewing giant waterfall. Access to these places is never a cakewalk, but the experiences transcend the imagination and ignite the senses. Torres del Paine and Roraima lead our list of the best multi-day adventures in Latin America.
Southern Patagonia, Chile
The Paine Towers, which an 1880 book compared to the Egyptian obelisk Cleopatra’s Needle, stretch more than 8,000 feet into the sky as the eponymous landmark in Chile’s top national park. The three granite spires truly inspire awe, but the subpolar oasis also enchants with sky-colored lakes, emerald green forests, the panoramic French Valley and the Southern Patagonia Ice Field glaciers. The standard W Trek takes four or five days, while the Circuit (which includes the W path) takes at least a week. Hikers can reserve tents, bunks and rooms at trail lodges with options for showers and warm food, though prices for such conveniences are often steeper than the Towers themselves.
Canaima National Park, Venezuela
Like a prehistoric island floating in the clouds, Mount Roraima is a storybook sight buried deep in the jungle where Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana converge. The tabletop mountain (or tepui), which is estimated to be two billion years old, has sheer 1,300-foot cliffs on all sides and a flat plateau summit that appears more lunar than terrestrial. Its otherworldly sights include carnivorous plants, radiant rock pools, a quartz crystal valley and savagely eroded terrain seemingly forged in Tim Burton’s nightmares. The Pixar movie Up modeled Paradise Falls after Roraima, and its mysterious nature inspired the Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) novel The Lost World about dinosaurs roaming atop a South American tepui. Departing from Santa Elena, guided six-day treks spend several days hiking to and from Roraima and two nights on the summit.
Chile and Bolivia
The high-altitude terrain between San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and Uyuni (Bolivia) imagines a window into a Salvador Dali acid trip. The massive Andean plateau warps reality with surreal rock formations and pushes the color palate with hue-bending lakes and landscape. Even the journey’s bookending towns have hallucination-worthy flourishes. The Atacama Desert, which claims world-famous stargazing and human-sized penguin fossils, is celestial enough to attract Mars-related NASA testing, while Uyuni claims the world’s largest continuous salt flat (Salar). The three- to four-day trek between the remote towns mostly occurs in 4×4 vehicles, but the cold and cramped conditions certainly test a traveler’s fortitude.
Canaima National Park, Venezuela
The 3,212-foot Angel Falls (Salto Ángel) has a 2,648-foot plunge that makes it the world’s highest, but more than 30 miles of road-free jungle separate the waterfall from the nearest town. Three-day tours take visitors to the falls on motorized canoes that pass several tepuis (a la Roraima), and the waterfall itself descends from the tabletop Auyán-tepui, which means “Devil’s Mountain.” Venezuelan Chavistas might wish to allegorize the idea of angels falling from a devil’s mount, but the waterfall namesake is actually Jimmie Angel, an American pilot who landed on the summit in 1937.
The gods presumably warned the Quechua about smelly backpack-totting tourists and Inca-brand cola because the tribes kept the lost city secret until a Yale historian stumbled upon it in 1911. Today, Machu Picchu (pictured at top) is the most-visited archaeological site in South America. Day passes are available, but seasoned travelers opt for the four-day Inca Trail that winds past ruins, mountain views and cloud forests on a spiritual path toward the grand complex. Would-be Fox Mulders often argue that Ancient Astronauts (i.e., aliens) built the Inca city, but these are the same type of chaps who pulled a Harold Camping with the Mayan Calendar. Even without the Tie Fighter parking, the Inca Trail can only handle so many weekend warriors per day so reserve spots months in advance. Likewise, people fight over a single power outlet that, in the past, has been accessible a few days in, so consider packing a small two-prong power strip to juice up electronics and potentially become an instant camp hero.
In the north Peruvian Andes, the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountain Range) claims a concentrated collection of glaciated peaks that extend higher than any other range in the tropics. Longer treks are available, but the four-day Santa Cruz circuit hits the main highlights and tops 15,500 feet at the Punta Union pass. Among the headliners, Huascarán is the tallest Peruvian peak at 22,200 feet, Alpamayo was voted the world’s most beautiful mountain in 1966 and Artesonraju might be (though unlikely) the inspiration for the live-action Paramount Pictures logo. Donkeys carry most of the gear, but between the donkey droppings and the “behind a bush” bathrooms, the entire path is a hot-stick minefield that complicates late-night nature calls.
The non-profit Quetzaltrekkers is a top tour operator in Nicaragua with multi-day volcano hikes, and Volcán Telica is arguably their best. A stiff first-day ascent pays off with panoramic views of volcanoes like San Cristóbal, Cerro Negro and Momotombo, but the lava-filled crater of Telica is the star attraction. Setting up camp near the crater, the group typically scopes out lava views upon arrival and again later at night. Telica, one of the nation’s most active volcanoes, had its last ash eruption in 2007. Dante’s Peak scenarios aside, the trek returns to León the following afternoon.
Sierra Nevada, Colombia
Colombian archaeologists in the 1970s knew something was amiss when antique gold figurines suddenly popped up on the black market. Treasures hunters discovered an abandoned pre-Columbian city deep in the coastal jungle mountains, and when the archaeologists finally found it, a multi-year restoration project began. Today, groups visit the ruins on five- and six-day treks that cut through jungle, across rivers and up hills to reach Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). The adventure is more about the trek itself than the actual destination, but the ruins include about 150 mountainside terraces and 1,200 stone steps. Campsites along the way typically include outdoor bunk beds, but keep your hiking boots dry by packing waterproof shoes or sandals for river crossings.
El Hoyo, another top two-day trek, starts with a hike up the dual-crater Cerro Negro, after which would-be daredevils can board down its black rocky slope. Once everyone empties the tiny volcanic rocks from their shoes, the group ascends Las Pilas and El Hoyo, the latter volcano featuring a giant freaky sinkhole simply named The Hole. On the second day, the trek usually includes a swim stop at Laguna de Asososca (also called El Tigre), a large volcanic crater lake with warm water and jungle surroundings.
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years as a writer and editor.