Five soul-stirring hikes in the Andes


Five soul-stirring hikes in the Andes

Set your sights on South America for trails that meander past turquoise lakes, colossal craters and cinematic peaks

Martin Dickie

BY Martin Dickie31 May 2017

Cue the pan-piped opening notes to El Condor Pasa and likely to appear in your mind’s eye is a proud figure in a patterned tunic, leading a llama through the Andes. Or so the cliché goes. But although it’s fitting that the longest mountain range on the planet – roamed by pumas, circled by condors and button-holed by the world’s highest volcanoes – has its own theme tune, not even Simon & Garfunkel could do justice to the 7,000km-long spine of granite peaks that skewers the continent.

This is a hiker’s dreamland that’s ripe for discovery, seeing as several of the Andes’ most wow-inducing hikes start from a nearby town: step forward Argentina’s El Chaltén or San Martín de Los Andes. Others, such as the shorter sections of multi-day treks in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca or Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, are accessible by car or with a guide. We’ve made sure that each of these hikes explores a facet of the Andean hinterland, such as the volcano-strewn foothills of Ecuador, the South Patagonian ice field or the Lake District of Argentina.

Note: All of these hikes are, of course, dependent on the weather, meaning some views may be obscured by clouds. The Andes has a very changeable climate, a place where strong winds and drops in temperature occur without warning. Hike with a registered guide or, on self-guided treks, take plenty of water and lightweight waterproof clothing, and always let somebody know where and when you are going.

Chugchilán to Quilotoa, Ecuador
Duration: 6–8 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 12km
Expect: A volcano-cone climax

In Ecuador’s central highlands, the landscape has been chopped up and cast aside by millions of years of seismic activity, the driving force of which is a corridor of epic volcanoes studding the Andean range. A day hike to the Quilotoa crater requires negotiating a landslide-prone gorge, zigzagging up a near-vertical valley and meandering your way to the rim of the crater – all the while taking in astonishing views of the fractured horizon and, inside the three-kilometre-wide caldera, a turquoise, disc-like lake.

How: Regular local buses take three hours to Chugchilán from Latacunga, a major city on the Pan-American Highway two hours south of Quito. If you’d rather travel direct to the crater, GreenGo offer one-day guided tours from Quito.

Sendero al Mirador Bandurrias, San Martín de Los Andes, Argentina
Duration: 5–7 hours
Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 10km (round trip)
Expect: Life-affirming lake views

German, Italian and Welsh influences pervade Argentina’s Lake District, and the wooden bridges and chimney-pot lodges of San Martin de Los Andes wouldn’t be out of place in the Swiss Alps. Yet the eponymous lakes of this region are like nowhere else on the planet. You can walk from the centre of San Martín and within minutes you’ll be skirting the town along a forest path before ascending into hills that reward hikers with dazzling views over Lago Lácar. The most extraordinary moment of the Sendero al Mirador Bandurrias is when you emerge through the trees for your first glimpse of the lake’s improbable length (hint: you can’t see the opposite end).

How: Base yourself in central San Martín for easy access to this self-guided hike. Or, if you’re looking for next-level luxury, choose remote river-side lodge Río Hermoso, 30 minutes out of town.

Laguna 69, Huascarán National Park, Peru

Laguna 69, Cordillera Blancas, Peru
Duration: 7–9 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 13km (round trip)
Expect: To worship nature’s enormity

Peru’s famous Machu Picchu treks are on the bucket list for most hikers, but it’s in the country’s north-west Cordillera Blancas where you’ll find some of the most humbling day hikes in the world. Early explorers ran out of names for the prolific number of lakes dotting Huascarán National Park, and the hike to Laguna 69 – through valleys streaked with waterfalls cascading into ravines and buttressed by mammoth cliffs – will leave you feeling like a similarly speechless speck. The lagoon itself is fed by a curve of waterfalls all flushing from a crown of glaciers – and isn’t a half-bad spot for lunch.

How: It’s an adventure itself getting to the Cordillera Blancas. The city of Huaraz is a once-daily, 50-minute flight (or an eight-hour drive) from Lima. This trekking metropolis is your gateway into the mountains and is packed with dozens of reputable (and a few not-so reputable) tour operators. We recommend the excellent Caleb Expeditions.

Laguna Torre, El Chaltén, Argentina
Duration: 6–8 hours
Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 12.5km (round trip)
Expect: Non-stop ‘wow’ moments

Hikers returning to El Chaltén report being irrevocably changed for the better after the relatively simple Laguna Torre trip – so simple, in fact, you might feel embarrassed that a) it’s free, and b) you can get to it from the centre of El Chaltén and back again in a day. The path meanders up and over the hill that shields the town from the Patagonian winds, through myrtle and beech forests and across rickety bridges to Laguna Torre’s southern shore. Here, icebergs creep across the lagoon, having tumbled from the glacier lying at the foot of Cerro Torre, the granite spire that bears a passing resemblance to Queen Victoria in profile. Traverse the rim of the lake and onto the ridge for a closer look.

How: This is another one-day trek that you can do without a guide – buy a good map, familiarise yourself with the route and head out from El Chaltén with a packed lunch, plenty of water, and warm/waterproof clothing. Guides can be hired, too; we recommend Walk Patagonia.

Mirador las Torres, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Mirador las Torres, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Duration: 8–10 hours
Difficulty: Hard
Distance: 18km (round trip)
Expect: An uphill hop with a Hollywood ending

Emerging over the lip and into the natural amphitheatre that is the Mirador las Torres is like wandering into a Superman movie scene – one where the man of steel faces a nemesis. A hushed glacier pool is fringed by an apron of pin-striped rock, upon which the three peaks of the Torres del Paine oversee the still waters like cloaked deities. Glaciers draped at their feet drip waterfalls into the pool – their distant, slow-motion spray is the only sign of motion in this timeless, barren landscape. It’s the last thing you expect after your incline through forest and then along a remote, treeless path. Do the hike before dawn and your prize will be to witness the sunrise painting the three prongs a magical, fiery red.

How: Flights from Santiago and beyond arrive into Punta Arenas, which is five hours from the park. Fine-tune your hike plans at the luxurious Singular hotel, a former meat-processing plant at the park’s edge, or stay closer to the action at Awasi Patagonia or Explora Patagonia, both of which have eye-popping views of Torres del Paine’s impressive peaks. Staff at each hotel will tailor-make guided or self-guided tours for you.