Outdoorsman's Guide To South America
A hiking and camping excursion in South America can be the trip of a lifetime. With stunning vistas of the snow-covered Andes Mountains, tropical rain forests and endless miles of scenic coastline, trip planners have an abundance of choices in places to visit. But for those who have never ventured out on an extended camping trip, there are a few things to know before arriving in the southern portion of the New World. Here are a few tips on what to bring, as well as a few suggestions on where to go in the fascinating continent of South America.
Some travelers say the only things to bring along for a trip to South America are a plane ticket and passport. This is in part due to the availability of many items to purchase upon arrival, such as toiletries and camping gear. However, most visitors will bring along a backpack with basic necessities like a camping and cooking equipment, suitable clothing, a first aid kit and emergency supplies. Either way, it's very helpful to put together a packing list in advance of the trip to ensure something essential is not forgotten. Travelers should also consider bringing or purchasing a mosquito net and insect repellent and verse themselves with the latest information from the CDC or the U.S. Passports and International Travel.
Most of the most popular hiking trails in South America are located in high elevation. Therefore, visitors must acquaint themselves with the physiological effects of high altitudes and how to adapt to the elevation. A good rule of thumb is to allow at least a day for high altitude adaptation before venturing on a trek or camping trip. For instance, visitors arriving in Lima (elevation 5,090 feet) should stay a day or two in the city before visiting Machu Picchu at 7,972 feet.
Featured Hiking & Camping Trips
The Inca Trail, Peru
The Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu is by far the best-known and most popular trail in South America and one of the most famous trails in the world. Due to its international fame and immense popularity, travelers must obtain a permit in order to the legendary trail (Camino Inka) and only 500 trekkers are allowed each day, including guides and other support staff. Of the few routes up to Machu Picchu, the most popular is the Classic Inca Trail, which takes four days to reach the destination. Although the trail is accessible year-round, the best time of the year to do the hike is from May to September, when the weather is typically dry. However, the nights can be very cold, therefore a quality, all-season sleeping bag is recommended.
What might be the second most famous hiking excursion in South America is through the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountain Range). Situated within the Central Andes Mountains, the Santa Cruz Trek is just one of several hiking routes through what's known as the highest tropical mountain range in the world. Beginning from the mountain town of Huaraz, the Santa Cruz Trek is a 31-mile bell shaped-trail with a peak elevation of nearly 14,000 feet which takes three or four days to complete. As with the Inca Trail, the trek is accessible year-round although the best time of year to visit is slightly longer, from April to September. While there are tour guides available, several no-fee campsites can be found all along the way. The easiest way to reach Huaraz from Lima is an eight mile bus ride from Lima.
Named after its distinctive granite peaks (Towers of Blue), Torres del Paine is a magnificent national park and natural reserve in the southern portion of the Chilean Patagonia. One of the most famous trekking routes is the point-to-point W circuit, a four or five-day journey with a pathway loosely shaped like a W. Trekkers can choose to camp in the outdoors or stay at one or more of the refugios (trail huts) for a fee, but which are complete with beds, food and shower facilities. Many organized tours are held throughout the year, but trekkers can do the trip on their own. Further north of Torres del Paine is Monte Fitz Roy, another popular, yet very challenging, trek in Patagonia with a silhouette that is the basis for the logo of the Patagonia clothing line.
While the well-known Ingapirca Inca Trail and Trek de Condor are popular treks in Ecuador, the more fascinating choice is a trip to the Galápagos Islands. A province of Ecuador, this group of 19 islands are 653 miles west of the Ecuadorian mainland and can be reached by flying from the capital city of Quito or Guayaquil. Perhaps best known as a primary source of inspiration for Charles Darwin's famous book "On the Origin of Species," the Galapagos Islands are well renowned for their impressive collection of flora and endemic animals species such as the marine iguana, the flightless cormorant, the fur seal and the giant tortoise, or in Spanish, the galapago. While open air camping options are said to be limited on the primary islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, there are many budget lodging options such as B&Bs and hostels. Suggested hikes and other outdoor outings include Media Luna (Half Moon) Hill, Volcan Sierra Negra, the National Park Tortoise Reserve and a day of snorkeling or diving.
Of all the notable hiking and camping spots in South America, the most intriguing destination might be Tierra del Fuego. Translated as Land of Fire, Tierra del Fuego lies on the southernmost tip of the South America that's bounded by the Strait of Magellan from the mainland. The capital of Tierra del Fuego is often cited as the world's southernmost city and is just a short distance from Tierra del Fuego National Park, featuring several trekking paths, an organized campsite and free camping areas. A convenient way to travel to the national park is to take a one hour train ride on the suitably named End of the World Train (El Tren del Fin del Mundo), but this does not include park admission. Even though the best time of the year to visit is from October through April, before the advent of the southern winter, travelers are advised review the park map and be prepared for any type of weather.
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com
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