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Unless you have an endless trust fund, doing every tour or trek on offer in South America will burn through your cash, and not all are worth the cost. These, however, are life-changing treks and tours that are worth shelling out for.
On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, commencing in the coastal city of Santa Marta, the Lost City Trek is one of Colombia’s most popular adventures. Rediscovered in 1972, the Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) is believed to have been established approximately 800 years before the famous lost civilization of Machu Picchu. Trekkers have the option of the four-, five-, or six-day journey at 3,937 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level into the stunning, lush, and remote hills of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta National Park. Many of the tour operators online or in Colombia offer the same prices (US$280 – $350) for whichever trek you choose to do.
It does not matter how many Instagram posts, friends’ holiday photos, or video footage you have seen of Machu Picchu – it always exceeds expectations in person. If your travels through South America lead you into Peru, Machu Picchu is an absolute must. With many options of getting to the top, splash the cash and do a multi-day trek. You can take the train up and down in one day; however, with two-, three-, four- and five-night treks that encompass hiking through gorgeous terrain, options of zip lining, thermal pools and other activities, the days leading up to Machu Picchu are as exciting as the headlining attraction itself.
For the traveler who likes to get out into the wild and explore on foot, you will most certainly have had your sights on Torres del Paine for quite some time. One thing that might deter you is the rising cost to enter and stay in the park; however, if you do your preparation, you can reduce the cost significantly, and the scenery is that of a photographer’s fantasy. The National Park in Chilean Patagonia is the most frequented natural attraction in Chile and, due to increasing visitors, it’s very difficult to simply show up at the park and plan your trip from there; camping also books up three to six months in advance. The easiest and best way to get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience is to do a multi-day tour with an experienced guide so that your trekking routes, meals and park accommodation are all organized for you.
The tours that link the world’s largest salt flat in Bolivia with the driest place on earth in Chile not only take you to some of the most interesting terrain on earth, they also offer a handy way to travel between the two nations. In Uyuni, the main hub for touring the salt flats, there are various tours from as short as one day long. But if you are heading south, it makes the most sense to buck up and do the tour that links Uyuni with San Pedro de Atacama. A helpful aspect of these tours is that they go in either direction, commencing in either Chile or Bolivia, exploring both the lagoons and geysers of the Atacama Desert and the enormous white expanse of the Uyuni Salt Flats during the three-day trip.
At double the depth of the Grand Canyon, Colca Canyon could really claim the title of “Grand” from the most famous canyon in the world. With a staggering drop of 10,728 feet (3,270 meters) at its highest point, the Colca Canyon is a sight to behold. Although you can do it yourself, the very reasonably priced tours out of neighboring Arequipa are worth opening your wallet for. The one-day tour will set you back between US$20 and $30 depending on the company, whereas enjoying a couple of nights and mornings camping in the canyon is only US$40-50 and even includes your basic breakfasts and lunches.
A trek that you would not want to attempt on your own, Huayna Potosí is a battle with the elements and altitude; however, in the safe hands of the trained and patient Bolivian guides, it’s a very rewarding experience you will never forget. Just a short drive from La Paz, the Huayna Potosí peak towers above the city that already stands at an elevation of 11,942 feet (3,640 meters), meaning when you reach the snowy summit, you are at an exhausting 19,974 feet (6,088 meters) above sea level. A two- or three-night tour is recommended, as you will need professionals who can help you prepare and also evaluate and assist with your acclimatization to the elevation, ensuring you get to the top. Still, with everything except tips and a mule included, the tours range between only US$300 and $400.
Visiting this unique natural phenomenon in the north of Brazil is not a hike, but truly a trek in terms of the distance to get there. Here, you’ll find rippling mounds of sand and natural sparkling pools located in Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in the remote corner of northern Brazil. While you could navigate there yourself, a tour is recommended for maximum enjoyment. Getting there from Sao Luis will take 4.5 hours of driving before switching to a 4×4 that takes you to Rio Preguiça. After crossing the river on a small ferry, you will enter the national park that you can explore on foot, including three beautiful lagoons and lakes within. The following morning, float down the river to the ocean, with lunch at Cabure Beach before heading back to Sao Luis – all starting at as little as US$150.
Climb one of the Seven Summits and the tallest mountain in South America on a tour that will both challenge and wow you. No matter your skill level, there are several day treks, week-long treks and challenging treks for the skilled climber, which will take you from bottom to top in the better part of three weeks. Aconcagua is also very appealing to the novice, as it’s considered the highest ‘non-technical’ mountain on earth. It has differing routes to the peak that lead to various sights, including the South Face, the largest rock wall in the world.