by Steve Hendrix
Choro Trail, Bolivia
The sunlight on Bolivia’s 15,300-foot La Cumbre Pass is diffused into a hard, hazy glare and each step we take is in breathless slow motion. Behind us, the snow-bleached peaks of the Cordillera Real scrape the very edge of the atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine a more bleakly beautiful trailhead. Or one that contrasts so completely with its terminus. When we unshoulder our packs four days and six climate zones later, we’re basking in the moist warmth of the upper Amazon basin. By trail’s end, the path is squeezed by absurdly lush greenery, and the lonely screech of the condor has been replaced by the brasher calls of tropical birds.
Bolivia’s Choro Trail is a walking tour through South America’s mountain-to-jungle extremes. This easy 10,000-foot descent of the eastern slope of the Andes traverses a landscape largely unchanged for half a millennium. Most of the trail follows an ancient Inca road through a valley free of modern infrastructure: no driveable road, no electricity, no motors. Each hour of hiking these pre-Columbian paving stones presents a subtle shift in South America’s vast spectrum of geology, botany, and culture.
As we wind our way down, the river grows wider, gathering more Andean drainage. The vegetation thickens by the hour. Occasionally, as the ancient road passes small farms, we become the tallest marchers in a colorful parade of llamas, sheep, and the Quechua children tending them. One last night in tents, and we reach a dusty road and hitchhike into the nearby resort town of Coroico. It’s a delightful indulgence that surpasses the most ambitious fantasy-colorful hotels and restaurants, all perched dramatically on the cloud-shrouded forest slopes.
Duration: Four days.
Inca Trail, Peru
Inca roads lace much of South America’s Andean region, but by far the most famous is the network of “paved” routes leading to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu in southern Peru. The most common trail, starting at kilometer marker 88 on the train from Cuzco, boasts countless incredible views of the central Andes, some of them encompassing high ridges, cloud forests, and tropics within a single panoramic frame. Add to that the astonishing abundance of Incan stonework-a tunnel, a tier of hundreds of carved steps, several complete sets of ruins known only to hikers, and finally the astonishing complex at Machu Picchu itself-and you’ll appreciate the Inca Trail’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest hikes. Many visitors to Peru make it to this archeological marvel. But approaching Machu Picchu on foot over the original routes of its residents is a special privilege reserved for backpackers.
Duration: Three to four days.
Torres del Paine Circuit, Chile
Far, far down on South America’s southern cone, Patagonia beckons backpackers from around the world. And there’s probably no better place to sample the region’s varied drama than the El Circuito hike in Chile’s Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-nay) National Park, a spectacular temperate zone preserve. The popular circuit around five huge pinnacles of the Torres and Cuernos del Paine is a challenging but safe route that wends between sheets of glacier ice, high azure lakes, and cozy beech groves. The terrain is a bit less lofty than the central Andes-only one peak tops 10,000 feet-but in places it’s even more overwhelming in its stark beauty. The park’s namesake spires press from the ground with monumental power; when the sunset touches them just so, their fiery, fantastical shapes tell you in no uncertain terms that you’ve reached dragon-land.
Duration: Seven to 10 days.