General Information on the Andes
This page contains some general information about when to go and where to go plus descriptions of the trekking, climbing, skiing and other adventure travel opportunities in different areas of the Andes.
Where to go An overview of what the different countries are like
When to go When to travel to the different climate zones of the Andes
What to do Trekking and Backpacking, Mountaineering, Walking, Rock Climbing, Biking, Skiing & Ski-Mountaineering
These pages are a guide to the best adventure travel opportunities in South America, concentrating particularly on the Andes. They have been written to encourage those who haven't been to South America to go and see this wonderful and friendly continent, but those who have been before will also find plenty of inspiration for the next expedition.
There is an adventure holiday to suit everyone in South America, whether that involves trekking through superb mountain scenery, mountain biking on some of the world's biggest downhills, ascending an erupting volcano, watching wildlife in the jungle, skiing on the worlds highest piste, or rafting through the Amazon rainforest. In some places you could do all of the above in one weekend!
Some people are at first wary of travelling to South America because of the problems experienced in Peru and Colombia in past years. Although parts of Colombia are still not a good place to travel, Peru is now much safer than it was in the 1990's. Other parts of the continent have never been at all dangerous - comparing Patagonia to the depths of the Colombian jungle is a bit like comparing Norway to Afghanistan.
All areas of the Andes have superb mountain scenery and people that speak Spanish, but there are huge cultural differences between the different Andean nations. If you want to see llamas, traditional costumes, fascinating archaeology and bustling markets then you'll need to go to either Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador. In these countries you'll have to put up with slightly less good health and sanitation than you'd get in Europe. If you prefer to visit a relatively clean and modern country, with good infrastructure and big air conditioned buses and supermarkets then you should choose either Chile or Argentina. Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela are about half way between the two extremes. In truth of course everywhere in South America is a bit of a mixture between the old and the modern.
The variety of climates in South America ensures that the weather will be good somewhere at any time of year.
Two main factors determine the best seasons to travel in South America.
South of the Tropic of Capricorn in Patagonia and most of Chile and Argentina, the best time for any outdoor activities is during the southern hemisphere summer of November to March. The obvious exception to this is for a skiing or ski-mountaineering trip, when the spring months of August to October are generally best.
In the tropical areas covering the remainder of the continent the best time to go is always the dry season but this is in June-August for Brazil, Peru and Bolivia and in December-March for Colombia and Venezuela.
There are two transition zones between these major climatic zones with less well defined seasons - Ecuador is wet for most of the year and the Atacama Desert area is utterly dry all year.
TREKKING AND BACKPACKING
Easily the most popular adventure holiday in South America is a trekking trip in the Andes. You'll get to see some great scenery and colourful local people, while mules or donkeys do all the hard work. Trekking involves some moderate exercise, but with pack animals or porters to carry all your equipment most active walkers will cope with all but the toughest treks. Most treks in the Andes last less than a week and can be easily combined with a few days of other adventure activities, such as an easy volcano ascent or mountain biking. You'll also want to have some days set aside before and after your trek for general sightseeing on this fascinating continent. Peru and Bolivia have some world famous treks, such as the circuit of the spectacular Cordillera Huayhuash, the Llanganuco to Santa Cruz trail in the Cordillera Blanca, the Inca trail near Cuzco and the descent to Coroico in the Cordillera Real.
In Chile and Argentina there are fewer facilities set up for trekkers and most longer walking trips will involve at least some backpacking. Some previous experience of short backpacking trips is recommended before trying one of these wilderness walks and a bit more fitness is needed to carry everything you need for up to a week on your back, but the rewards are certainly worthwhile. Best examples are the spectacular and famous circuit of the Torres del Paine and the Villarrica traverse in the Lake District.
The Andes are one of the world's greatest mountain ranges, second in height to only the Himalayas and there are great opportunities for mountaineering at all levels of difficulty.
The Andes offer mountaineers an experience that is in many ways half way between the European Alps and the Himalayas. In terms of height, difficulty and access the Andes fall somewhere between the relatively civilised mountains of Europe or North America and the wild peaks of Asia. They are an ideal destination for experienced mountaineers aspiring to greater heights or remoter peaks without the bureaucratic problems of a Himalayan expedition.
Within the Andes one can choose from a complete range of mountaineering experiences. There is something for everyone. In Ecuador and many parts of Chile and Argentina there are easily ascended volcanoes. In the Cordillera Blanca, Huayhuash and Vilcanota of Peru there are many desperate ice faces. Bolivia is an ideal country for a first visit, with a very stable climate and both hard and easy peaks. The Andes of Venezuela and Colombia rise from tropical forests. In Patagonia there are some of the most difficult and famous big wall climbs in the world, on Fitzroy and the Torres del Paine for instance.
We publish a comprehensive Guidebook to the climbing in the Andes, available in English, Spanish and French.
The Andes have plenty of easy volcanic peaks which allow people with little or no mountaineering experience to climb a big and often spectacular peak. You'll need to be quite fit for this activity, particularly if you're going to a high altitude. Firstly the highest active volcano in the world is located in northern Chile, Ojos del Salado. Of the tens of other volcanoes the most notable climb must be Villarrica in the Andean Lakes District, where you'll see molten lava when you look down into the crater. In Peru there is the famous cone of El Misti above Arequipa and in Ecuador there are many famous volcanoes including Cotopaxi. For the seriously determined there is Aconcagua, at 6959m or nearly 23,000ft. Although not actually a volcano the ascent does not involve any climbing.
Several areas of the Andes offer a good variety of day walks, ideal if you want a hotel based holiday. The best area by far is the Chilean and Argentine Lake District in northern Patagonia, with the national parks of southern Patagonia not far behind. Ecuador, the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, the Cordillera Real in Bolivia and the Serra do Mar in Brazil would also be suitable for this type of holiday. It is not possible to do an extended hut to hut tour as you would in the Alps but there are plenty of great walks which you can enjoy and still have a hot bath at the end of the day!
There are several areas of South America which offer developed rock climbing, plus many areas of the Andes where expedition rock climbing can be done. Good areas for a fairly laid back rock climbing holiday are Brazil, particularly Rio de Janeiro and the Serra do Mar and the Bariloche area of Argentina, where many routes have been opened around the Refugio Frey in the Cerro Catedral range.
With such big downhills the Andes couldn't fail to be a great destination for mountain biking. You have a choice between doing a series of day trips based in one town or village, which works well in parts of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and the Lake District, or doing a longer tour with all your kit which is a great way to see the wild and inhospitable plateau of the Puna de Atacama or the more remote parts of Patagonia. If you are seriously keen you can fly out to Patagonia and cycle all the way to Alaska.
RAFTING AND RIVER TRIPS
Rafting is an increasingly popular activity out in the Andes, the main centres which have developed so far are Cuzco, Mendoza and the Lake District of Chile. Rafting can be a one day thrill, or you can make it a river trip which may take several days or even a week and be based more around seeing wildlife and scenery than the thrill of a single set of rapids. In the jungle areas of Peru motorised dugouts are often used for this sort of river trip. The most famous rivers include the Urubamba in Peru, and the Futaleufu. After several years of stalling on a dam project the famous Bio-Bio in Chile will finally close this year.
There are parts of the continent that offer great wildlife opportunities, particularly for bird watchers. Undoubtedly the best area is the Galapagos islands off the coast of Ecuador, world famous for being the home of Darwin's finches, but also home to giant tortoises, marine iguanas and loads of sea lions. The Manu national park in the Peruvian Amazon, and others in rainforest areas of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador offer great rainforest bird watching while the Valdes peninsula on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia is one of the best places in the world for seeing elephant seals and other exotic marine life.
SKIING & SNOWBOARDING
There are now good ski resorts in several parts of South America, particularly in the southern half of Argentina and Chile. Seasons are of course the opposite to those in Europe with the best snow falling in August and September. The resorts of Las Leņas and Valle Nevado are world famous, and others in Chile and Argentina are just as good. The worlds highest ski tow is at Chacaltaya in Bolivia (5100m) but this is more of a novelty trip than a serious ski-trip and the glacier is rapidly disappearing. Patagonia and Peru also have limited skiing facilities. Many areas are good for ski-touring or ski-mountaineering. For details of our scheduled trips see our Holidays and Expeditions page.
You can of course do just about any adventure sport in South America. Surfing and paragliding are popular on the beaches of Lima, Viņa del Mar and Rio. Kayaking is good in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. There is good diving in the Caribbean off Venezuela and off the Galapagos. Many mountain areas of Chile and Argentina offer horse back tours.