"Here be dragons" read the ancient maps wherever a blank corner seemed big enough to hold the fabled creatures.
And for most of us, the dragons still roar. Sure, we know all about the incredible shrinking world. We know that there are only 6 degrees of separation between a Tibetan yak herder and Kevin Bacon, that the one can call the other on a cell phone. We read National Geographic monthly, Time weekly, and watch the world news nightly. Sitting there in the living room with a glass of wine in hand, we feel we know the world-until we actually consider packing the bags and hiking from Zanskar to Ladakh. Then butterflies flutter in our stomachs and dragons roar in our brains. Yes, the world is bigger than our favorite section of the Appalachian Trail. When we strike off for lands we've never seen, things take us by surprise. But that's the way it should be because those surprises breed a fascination that lasts a lifetime.
To help you on your journey, we asked seven well-traveled backpacker types their thoughts on world-class backcountry outings anyone can take on a two- to three-week vacation. What follows are their 25 recommended hikes, all remarkably affordable if you do them on your own (save Antarctica), all highlighting the diversity of each continent, all complete with dragons.
by Richard Bangs
Mgoun Valley, Morocco
Steadily we wind our way up a pass nicknamed "The Ambusher." Once a great caravan route for transporting dates, henna, gold, and salt between the Sahara and northern ports, this path is now used by only a handful of local traders. We hike past biblical-looking villages where men with wrapped heads and flowing robes mill about in an ancient way. Up we toil through groves of juniper and into the snow, following in the footsteps of our nameless mule. The winter light is slanted and diffuse.
After six hours of continuous walking, we crest another pass, the Tizi-n-Ait Pass, also known as "The Pass of the Sheep with Black Eyes," and come face to face with the stunning white comb of the 12,000-foot Mgoun Mountains, part of the Atlas chain. I snug my wool hat against the howling wind as our local guide Rachid wraps his head in a Berber scarf.
A few hours later we stumble into the Hopi-like village of Talat Righane, where low ochre-colored houses seem to have sprung from the ground itself. All the men wear dun-colored burnooses. The women are intricately tattooed with indigo designs on their foreheads, and they have henna-stained palms and fingers. Pendulum earrings of silver, turquoise, and amber swing as they walk.
This is the heart of Morocco's High Atlas, the great cincture of mountains separating the upper body of Africa from the Sahara, and ours is without doubt one of the most stunning hikes on the continent. Not only does the walk traverse a major range, but it continues down the Mgoun Valley, so isolated that no foreign power has ever penetrated it. This is traveling back in time, dropping into a culture and a way of life that has no connection with the West, no nexus with the twentieth century.
Duration: Four days of walking one-way over Mgoun Pass.
Kilimanjaro. The name alone rings with power, and the walk up the legendary mountain is undoubtedly the classic hike of Africa. Though the summit is 19,340 feet above the sea, this is not a technical climb, just a long uphill slog. Crowned by eternal snows, Kilimanjaro is an overwhelming presence on the African landscape, one of the most dramatic mountains on earth, and to walk its slopes and stand on the "roof of Africa" is to spread a continent at your feet. The most popular route is the six-day hike up the Marangu Route, passing in mountain huts along the way. The more strenuous, tent-only Machame Route is also the more spectacular, winding beneath the glaciers of the mountain's southern face. The law requires that porters carry all gear and food regardless of your choice.
Duration: Allow six days for the round trip.
Luangwa Valley, Zambia
At one time abandoned to poachers, North Luangwa National Park is the way Africa used to be-teeming with game and void of roads and development. Through the efforts of Americans Mark and Delia Owens (authors of Cry of the Kalahari and The Eye of the Elephant), animals are once again becoming accustomed to people without guns. Aside from a few access tracks, there are no roads, and all game viewing takes place on foot. On a hiking safari up the Mwaleshi River you could encounter buffalo, lions, elephants, giraffes, kudu, zebras, wildebeest, hippos, crocodiles, the rare black lechwe (a kind of antelope), and many more animals, all on their own terms, up close and personal.
Duration: At least 4 days, but infinite variations are possible.
Richard Bangs, a founding partner of Mountain Travel*Sobek, began his guiding career with first descents of African rivers. He is currently editor-in-chief of Microsoft's online adventure travel magazine, Mungo Park, named for the eighteenth-century African explorer.
by Alan Burgess
Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
As I toil step by slow step up the final switchbacks to the top of 17,000-foot Thorung Pass, I see a group of Danish trekkers dressed in hand-knitted yak wool sweaters and tie-dyed shirts emblazoned with Buddha eyes-traditional garb among the 5,000-plus travelers who circumambulate the Annapurna massif each year. Shifting my gaze westward from my fellow Europeans, I peer through fluttering Buddhist prayer flags slung between rocky cairns and let my eyes travel across the full length of the Dhaulagiri Himalaya. Along the horizon stretch 26,000-foot summits-jagged, shadowed, and icily menacing against a sky as dark as ink. A golden eagle plays the thermals while a herd of blue sheep graze wild grasses amid edelweiss and scrub juniper. If this circuit is a Grateful Dead show on the one hand, it's also high Asia at its finest.
The Himalaya stretches 1,500 miles from the Pamirs of the old Soviet Union through Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and the forested slopes of western China. Among these mountains are the best treks in Asia and possibly the world, and over them all lords the Annapurna Circuit. Walking this route, you certainly won't have the illusion that you're the first sahib to explore Asia. But the very reasons this has become the most heavily touristed of all the trails on the continent may be exactly why you should make this your first serious walk there, too. Close to Kathmandu, capital city of Nepal, this 20-day circuit is equipped with a well-developed chain of small villages and locally owned "tea-houses" and mountain lodges, all of which make first-time trekking much easier. While back home you may hike to get away from people, visitors to Nepal's Himalaya fall in love as much with its inhabitants as with the scenery. Between the villages, some perched on the edge of monstrous gorges, you'll travel through terraced rice fields, over passes high enough to give you a taste of mountaineering, and beneath two of the world's tallest giants, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, both over 26,000 feet high. The diversity of cultures (Buddhist and Hindu) and mountain vistas make this perhaps the most memorable walk you'll ever take.
Duration: Three weeks or more, depending on your pace.
"Great Traverse": Zanskar to Ladakh, India
To traverse from the low plains of Hindu India across three mountain ranges to the Tibetan Buddhist land of Ladakh has always been one of the ultimate Himalayan journeys. Political problems in Kashmir now force travelers to start the trek farther east than they used to, but the wild aspect of this classic remote journey remains essentially as it ever was. On this strenuous hike you'll cross nine high passes, ford swift rivers, wander through small villages that see relatively few Westerners, and marvel at tenth-century Buddhist monasteries that reveal the essential timelessness of this landscape. Like most trekkers, you'll probably hire Tibetan ponies and their driver to carry your provisions. Occasionally a backpacker burdened by a huge load demonstrates that the journey is possible without support.
Duration: Sixteen to 20 days.
Trek to K2 Basecamp, Pakistan
The second highest mountain in the world, 28,253-foot K2 positively soars above its neighbors in the Karakoram Himalaya of northern Pakistan and southern Tibet. The hike to the 16,500-foot-high basecamp on the Pakistan side of the mountain passes through Islamic villages before dropping onto glacial moraine and continuing up a titanic river of ice. Be careful on the glacier because you just might dislocate your jawbone, the scenery is that spectacular. Along this route rise the most awe-inspiring rock and ice walls in the world, all the way to Concordia, where three huge glaciers intersect at the monstrous foot of K2 itself. A minimum of 12 days is required for the round-trip, although I recommend taking a few extra days to allow for road washouts and bad weather and to explore the basecamp environs.
Duration: Twelve or more days.
Long-time Himalayan travelers make a habit of warming up on the beaches of Thailand before flying home to America or Europe. Those with a little energy left over often head up to northern Thailand for rugged low-altitude hiking. Even the experts prefer not to identify a single, specific trail here; instead they come for an open-ended hiking experience in some of the friendliest and most beautiful subtropical environs in Asia.
You'll walk through mountain jungle on narrow trails-sometimes hiking across and sometimes directly up the rivers-and climb steep hillsides through bamboo forests to isolated tribal settlements set among cultivated rice paddies and opium poppies. Stay in a budget guest house in Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, or Pai while you make arrangements for a local guide to lead you from village to village.
Duration: Typical treks last three to seven days.
Alan Burgess has been on more than 20 Himalayan mountaineering expeditions, including ascents or attempts on most of the giants. After two decades of Himalayan explorations and a decade as a professional trekking guide, he became Asian Operations Director for Camp 5 Expeditions.
by Galen Rowell
Dry Valleys, Antarctica
On a brisk October morning, three of us set off on a 20-mile hike through Taylor Valley, one of the unique Dry Valleys of Antarctica's Transantarctic Mountains. We walk mostly on bare ground in a place that looks like a freeze-dried Death Valley. Sand dunes sit beneath dry mountains dusted with snow. Not a blade of grass or an insect is present on this moonscape, where it may not have rained since the end of the Pleistocene and the summertime temperature is -20°F.
Farther up Taylor Valley, obvious signs of life take me aback. Lying between the rocks is a furry creature the size of my golden retriever. This is one of several mummified seals that have been found up to 50 miles inland and 2,000 feet above the sea. They look as if they died last week, yet some have been carbon-14 dated at 9,000 years old. Because Antarctica has no land predators or insects, the frozen carcass gives off no scent or hint of organic decay.
To date only a few scientists and hikers have experienced the ice-free silence of the Dry Valleys, where mountains have blocked the flow of the polar ice sheet toward the sea. Getting benighted isn't a concern. At 78 degrees south latitude, we have already entered the months of 24-hour daylight. At the end of one of the most unusual walks in my life, we spot the yellow dots of our tents from miles away in air so clear that it destroys perspective of distance.
Duration: Today you'd probably be limited by how long your cruise ship will wait (most common access is by helicopter from the ship), but soon an outfitter will be offering longer trips to this region.
Shackleton Route, South Georgia Island
In 1916, after being marooned on Antarctica for a year with his 28 shipmates, Sir Ernest Shackleton and a few of his men rowed an open boat across 800 miles of wild seas to reach a whaling station on South Georgia, a 100-mile-long island with icy mountains rising over 9,000 feet from the sea. Trouble was, Shackleton landed on the wrong side of the island. So he chose two tough companions and set out on foot with no sleeping bags, only three days' rations, 50 feet of rope, and a carpenter's adze. After 36 hours of crossing wildly rugged terrain and lowering themselves down a waterfall with ice cliffs on both sides, they reached the whaling station at Stromness Bay. Thus ended one of the greatest epics in expedition history, in which all hands eventually were saved. (If in your life you read only one expedition narrative, read Alfred Lansing's Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage). With today's modern equipment and knowledge of the terrain, Shackleton's route has become something of a classic, if outrageously exotic, alpine trekking traverse. Crampons and an ice axe will be needed for the icy sections of this roughly 30-mile hike. Anticipate fierce storms, which have defeated strong parties.
Duration: Three to four days if the weather is on your side.
Galen Rowell is the author of 13 books including Poles Apart: Parallel Visions of the Arctic and the Antarctic. He received a National Science Foundation grant to travel in Antarctica.
by Richard Bangs
Pyrenean High Level Route, france and spain
"Fromage," the sign says, pointing to a shepherd's crudely built stone hut. My companion vanishes into the shelter's dark confines and emerges soon afterward with a large hunk of smelly goat cheese. We will still be eating it a week later.
This is the first day of a walk from Lescun to Gavarnie, France, along 70 miles of the magnificent Pyrenean High Level Route, which runs in total for some 500 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Ocean. The section we are on is mountain hiking at its most glorious, a roller coaster of a walk beneath soaring pale limestone pinnacles, past great north faces, and beneath massive cliff-walled cirques. We will walk on narrow winding paths, often on the crest of the mountains. To the north wooded valleys fall away into misty France, to the south dry, dusty ravines run down into the shimmering heat of arid Spain. With a choice of routes on either side of the border, we simply nip into the Spanish sunshine whenever it rains in France. At times the cloud actually hangs precisely on the border, a great wall of gray separating one country from the other.
Along the route are a string of alpine huts providing bunkbeds, meals, and a chance to meet other hikers. I, however, prefer the lonelier camping alternatives found throughout the range. Some of the peaks along the way, such as 9,865-foot Grande Fache, can be hiked if you have a little extra energy, but others require climbing skills and equipment. Diversions also can be made to some of the deep canyons on the Spanish side, in particular the amazing Ordesa Canyon, south of Gavarnie, with its massive 3,300-foot-high castellated tiers of multihued yellow-, purple-, and red-banded lime-stone.
Duration: Spend a week...or a summer
Coast to Coast, Scotland
The finest walking in Britain is in the Scottish Highlands, and the best way to see it is by hiking coast to coast from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. Rolling mountains, moody coastlines, brooding rivers and lochs, great forests, rugged glens, and wild islands-you'll witness it all in a single day. The Scottish tradition is to plan your own adventure from the map, so there is no "official" trail. Instead there are many choices, lower and higher altitude. I've walked seven different routes myself. I prefer camping out, though hostels, bed and breakfasts, and hotels can be linked. There's a feel of the North in the Highlands, a touch of the wild arctic, a sense of space and freedom. There's history, too, from the ancient brochs (round stone forts) of the Picts, to the elaborate castles of more recent centuries.
Duration: Ten days to two weeks, depending on the chosen route.
The largest unspoiled wilderness in Western Europe lies north of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lappland. A 250-mile-long footpath runs north/south through the heart of this land of snow-clad mountains, huge lakes, powerful rivers, thundering waterfalls, and dense forests of birch and pine. Kungsleden, the King's Way, traverses four national parks and a nature reserve larger than Luxembourg. Bridges span the deeper rivers, while rowboats and ferries take you across the lakes. The trail is fairly dry, but even so, hiking boots will instantly mark you as a foreigner, since Swedes walk in knee-high green rubber boots-albeit ones designed for mountain use. Lodges along Kungsleden allow you to hike without camping equipment, but spectacular tent sites make this a backpacker's paradise. Duration: Take a month for the entire hike or bite off a week-long portion.
Tour De La Vanoise, France
France is laced with long-distance paths called Sentiers de Grand Randonnße-GR for short. This tour, made up of sections of the GR5 and GR55, runs for 50 or so miles through the beautiful Vanoise Alps, a spectacular region that contains 107 summits above 9,840 feet. As well as passing the stunning snowy peaks, the trail visits tumbling glaciers, deep gorges, elegant forests, and ancient villages. The classic itinerary stays high and wild. It's well marked, but also at times steep and rough-a real mountain hike. There are small lodges, called refuges, along the way. Much of the route is in the Vanoise National Park, where camping isn't permitted though discreet overnight bivouacs well away from the path are usually accepted.
Duration: About a week.
High Level Route, Corsica
Corsica is a large Mediterranean island belonging to France but lying 50 miles off the coast of Italy. A chain of rugged, rocky mountains rising to 8,875 feet runs down the spine of the island, and the 150-mile High Level Route (GR20) traverses these from Conca in the south to Calenzana in the north. It's a tough hike with many steep climbs and one section of exposed scrambling protected by fixed ropes. There are refuges along the route, and camping is allowed as long as environmental restrictions are heeded. The granite scenery is dramatic, with rock turrets and spires soaring above chasm-like wooded valleys. Despite the warm Mediterranean climate, the mountains are snow-covered half the year. Summer, however, can be very hot; you'll be grateful for remnant snow patches.
Duration: Two to three weeks.
Chris Townsend has written a dozen books on backpacking including Long Distance Walks in the Pyrenees, Classic Hill Walks (of Great Britain), and The Backpacker's Handbook, which earned the Outdoor Writer's Guild Award for Excellence.
by Peter Hillary
Milford Track, New Zealand
Never have I seen anything more beautiful than the scene before me: Rows of craggy peaks and jutting glaciers plunging straight down to fjords filled with crystal clear ocean water rippled by dolphins. The near-omnipresent rain has metamorphosed into brilliant blue skies, and waterfalls cascade from every steep ravine. This is the Milford Track, New Zealand's best known and most popular multiday hiking trail. Despite its heavy traffic and the strictness with which the park service regulates trekking here, the place is still so stunningly beautiful that its pull can't be denied, even by a globe-trotter like me.
After motorboating for miles down a deep, blue lake to the trailhead, I've tramped two primeval days up valleys only recently evacuated by great glaciers; I've wandered past beech trees draped in spooky lichens; and I've glimpsed the world's only alpine parrot, the kea. The weather hasn't been bad by southern New Zealand standards, which tends toward the sodden punctuated by peerless blue skies and balmy warmth, or, just as often, by ferocious storms that transform the vertical valley walls into the most amazing collection of waterfalls on the planet. These meteorological extremes often can be sampled in a single day.
Three huts provide shelter along the 33-mile hike to Milford Sound, and your park-dictated itinerary requires you to stop at each in order to ensure that you don't overlap with hikers in front of or behind you. For this reason you'll have an illusion of relative solitude belied by the thousands of trekkers who come from around the world for this ultimate hike. (Other great "tracks" in Fjordland National Park will provide you with more freedom, if that's your goal.) At the sound is a hotel and the options of flying or boating back out.
Duration: Four days, precisely.
Blue Gum Forest Trail, Australia
Trails in the Blue Mountains above the metropolis of Sydney reveal what 100 million years or so of isolation in the South Pacific does to flora and fauna. As you leave Mt. Victoria and descend tracks (trails) that take you past great red walls of sandstone and into Blue Mountain National Park, you'll walk past trees with leaves that look like blue-green leather, you'll see small bears that raise their young in convenient pouches positioned around their midriff (koalas), and you will, I can assure you, come face-to-face with rodent-like creatures that weigh 200 pounds and can jump over your head-kangaroos, of course. From the clifftops you can see forever-or at least deeply into the blue haze of eucalyptus vapor that floats above these hills and gives the scene an impressionistic appearance of dream-time.
Duration: Two days.
Overland Track, Tasmania
If you love the outdoors, which you obviously do, then your trip to Australia won't be complete without a visit to the "Apple Isle," Tasmania. The route from Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair in Cradle Mountain National Park leads you along paths that at certain times of year are celebrated for their nearly unbearable mud (which you have a reasonable chance of avoiding from November to March). You can stop to drink from sparkling lakes and tarns, angle across steep-flanked mountains, and gape at ancient gnarled huon pines. If you're lucky, you may glimpse a bad tempered Tasmanian Devil running among the trees.
Duration: About five days.
Peter Hillary has hiked and climbed on five continents. The highlight of his nonstop adventuring was following his father's historic first-footsteps to the summit of Mt. Everest.
by Jeremy Schmidt
Maroon Bells Circuit, Colorado
Aspen leaves fall to the ground like gold coins. A breeze riffles the surface of Maroon Lake, shattering the reflection of high peaks covered with fresh snow. The end of September is perhaps a bit late to be starting a four-day hike through some of the highest country in the Rockies, but the risky weather keeps the crowds away. After all, this trail begins at one of the Rockies' most clichßd vistas-Maroon Lake, echoing those postcard-classic twins, the Maroon Bells.
I have studied the Maroon Bells a thousand times in pictures and films, and twice in person, but now I want to see the country behind them. Could it be as fine as the front side? The answer, I'm finding out, is yes. The Maroon Bells circuit is consummate Rocky Mountain scenery from beginning to end. About 25 miles long, it encircles the Maroon Bells and a craggy stretch of the Elk Mountains. It crosses four passes, all of them at about 12,400 feet, and, except for the trailhead, never drops below 10,000 feet. Much of the route is rarefied big-vista terrain above timberline.
I follow a bull moose over West Maroon Pass. Fravert Basin, with its long meadow of golden grass and its meandering trout stream, cries out for a fly rod. Near Frigid Air Pass, I lie sleepily in sun-warmed wildflowers until dark clouds and a blast of cold air warn of an approaching storm. Indeed, it snows 5 inches that night. In the morning the sky begins to clear, and I cross Buckskin Pass under fast-moving clouds and sudden bursts of sunshine.
Superb views of Snowmass Mountain and its splendid cirque make me reluctant to head down from the pass, but the equally impressive wall of 14,018-foot Pyramid Peak lures me. Now I know why this trail is so good: It begins at a famous beauty spot and never lets down.
Duration: Three to four days.
Kaibab Trail, Arizona
Through a vertical mile and 1.7 billion years of geologic history, the Kaibab cuts a magnificent rim-to-rim cross section of the Grand Canyon. From the pi?on-juniper forest of the South Rim (the better side to start on), the trail passes through a variety of life zones, bottoming out at the Colorado River among hot-desert shrubs and cacti. Going down the 7-mile trail often skirts the brink of immense heart-thumping space. The ascent is more gradual, following sparkling Bright Angel Creek through its relatively narrow canyon for 14 miles of cottonwoods and cacti, ending in the cool montane forest of the North Rim. The trail is exceedingly famous, and you'll overlap with sometimes comical dayhikers, but it's a small price to pay for one of the finest walks you'll ever take.
Duration: Three to four days.
White Mountains Traverse, New Hampshire
The New England climate is just harsh enough that any mountain with the nerve to poke 5,000 feet above sea level will get pummeled by some of the world's most ferocious wind and cold. Only Mt. Washington dares to break the 6,000-foot barrier, and for its trouble it has been sideswiped by the highest recorded wind velocity in the world: 238 miles per hour. But summers are generally warm (beware the rogue storm), and extensive trails link tundra-bald ridgelines into a complex network of ruggedly gentle wilderness with lush green vistas. These mountains are old and worn, their forested slopes and rounded shoulders showing little in common with young, upthrusting peaks. But your knees won't be fooled: Trails go up and down at a rocky pace every bit as challenging as anything out West. Paths spiderweb throughout the Whites, but if you've got the time, you might as well aim for the best, a 56-mile traverse of the entire range that hikers typically begin at the Appalachia parking area on US 2, following the Valley Way Trail up Mt. Madison and finishing at Crawford Notch. A system of European-inspired huts lets you walk the entire distance without a tent, if you choose. Or camp under the stars.
Duration: Six to eight days.
Olympic Coastline, Washington
Neither sea nor land, the surf-pounded beaches of the Olympic Peninsula are an in-between world where the tide fingers its way toward shore and basalt towers called seastacks march into the ocean. Orcas breach. Sea otters dive for shellfish. Lush rain forest presses against the driftwood-littered sands, and storms bring floating treasures from the Far East. There are two stretches of beach to choose from, one is 16 miles long, the other is 22 miles long. But distance seems meaningless. Dim forest paths lead to the exploding brightness of the seashore. From there, 5 miles can easily take as many days, but not because the walking is difficult. You can get stuck, spellbound, reluctant to move fast, perched on the edge of the continent, at the rim of Earth's greatest ocean.
Duration: Two to four days.
Tombstone Towers, Yukon Territory
The cold, slab-sided spires of the Tombstone Range rise craggy and improbable above the sensuous contours of the Yukon tundra. If these are tombstones, they mark the resting place of mighty spirits given to dramatic gestures. The native name for this compact cluster of stone fangs is more cheerful: "sharp, ragged, rocky mountains." Getting into the Tombstones requires a hard day of bushwhacking up Grizzly Creek from Kilometer 72 on the Dempster Highway, but once there the rewards are lavish no matter which way you wander. The scenery might draw you across Glissade Pass to Divide Lake; high and exposed, it feels like Patagonia without the guanacos. Instead, dall sheep and caribou mingle with moose, grizzlies, and black bears. A hop and skip through knee-high buckbrush takes you over Tombstone Pass to Talus Lake, hard under the fortress wall of Mt. Monolith, and dominated by decidedly life-inspiring views of Tombstone Mountain.
Duration: Allow at least four days or spend the summer.
Jeremy Schmidt has published 10 books on everything from the natural history of the Grand Canyon to his seven-month bicycle journey around the Himalaya. Among his works is Adventuring in the Rockies: The Sierra Club Travel Guide to the Rocky Mountain Regions of Canada and the U.S.
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.