Cordillera Apolobamba, Bolivia
See the Andes the way Cortez did–totally wild.
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Pyrenees Traverse, France | Cape Wrath Trail, Scotland | Zillertal Alps, Austria | Tongariro Northern Circuit and Heaphy Track, New Zealand | Cordillera Apolobamba, Bolivia | Overland Track, Australia | Sarek National Park, Sweden | Rolwaling and Khumbu Valleys, Nepal | Polar Route, Greenland | Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
South America’s highest nation is known as the “Tibet of the Andes” for its altiplano, a plateau where valley bottoms sit at 13,000 feet. Above that, mountains are so big and buried in snow and glaciers that you really could mistake them for the Himalayas. And the best place to see it all is western Bolivia’s pristine and barely known Cordillera Apolobamba. Hard against the Peruvian border, the region is home to Andean condors, herds of vicuñas (related to alpacas), endangered speckled bears, and the 65-mile Apolobamba trek, which runs from Curva north across Apolobamba National Park to Pelechuco. The weeklong high route crosses five passes between 15,400 and 16,728 feet.
Spend at least one night pre-trek in the small town of Charazani (Curva has no lodging). It’s the capital of the Kallawaya medicine men, who travel village to village dispensing herbs and magic to heal the sick (and sore; they’ll treat hikers for a small fee). If the medicine men are away, find rejuvenating hot springs a 10-minute walk from Charazani’s main square. From Curva, hike north in the shadow of 18,589-foot Akamani, sacred to the native Quechua and Aymara. Cross the mountains on ancient Inca-built trails and pass through quiet villages where burros are still the main form of transportation.
Life-list moment: Pitch your tent near mysterious Inca ruins at Incachani and take a bone-chilling shower in a nearby waterfall–where the ruins’ occupants probably bathed centuries ago. Next, in Sunchuli Valley, explore an abandoned gold mine worked by both the Spanish and the Inca. Inspired? Go exploring for the legendary city of El Dorado, which is purported to be near here.