5 Hiking Destinations along South America’s Pan American Highway

Written by Karin-Marike Vis
Photos by Coen Wubbels

Slouched low in your seat with your feet dangling out of the window while your partner steers your home on wheels to your next destination on the Pan American Highway, you may feel life can’t get much better than this. And, often this is exactly so.

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Comfortable as driving is, many of the beautiful landscapes and adventures lie off the Pan American Highway. Whether you like to stretch your legs during the many hours of driving, do some minor exercise, go for a trail run, or want to enjoy a challenging, multiple-day hike, South America offers zillions of opportunities. From the famous Circuit in Torres del Paine to little-known forest trails in Colombia’s, I picked some of the ones Coen and I liked best during our 9-year trip on this continent.

What are yours? Please add your own favorites in the comment section below – we’d love to hear about them.

1. Chile – Torres del Paine

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Arguably the most famous hiking destination in South America is Torres del Paine National Park, in the far south of Chile. Even when you are not a hiker by any stretch, this is a place to park your overland vehicle for a day to go for a walk along the lake, climb a mountain or check out the Grey Glacier.

The more intrepid hikers can hike the 3-5 day ‘W’, as it’s called (when you look at the map of the trail you will see why), or the 7-10 day ‘Circuit’. Both have their charms, taking into account that the W is much more popular and thus busier than the Circuit.


Pack a tent, bring food or buy it along the way (less weight but expect high prices), warm clothing for the night, and of course comfortable hiking shoes. Bush camping is not permitted but you will find designated campsites along the trail.


2. Argentina - Los Glaciares National Park

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A possible #2 hiking destination in Patagonia is the northern section of Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This beautiful park stretches along the Argentinean side of the Andes. While mountaineers may be tempted to go for Fitz Roy’s peak at 11,020 feet, most overlanders probably will settle for (multiple) day hikes on lower terrain.

El Chaltén is the gateway to the northern section of the park where you can stock up on food and also buy outdoor gear. Popular as it is, trails are well marked, leading the way through open land with low shrubs and lenga, beech forest.


Bush camping is not allowed so stick to the designated campsites. There is no need to bring a lot of water as you will find many water sources along the trails to fill your water bottle. At the entrance of the park, you will find a ranger station with maps and information. Recommended trails: Piedras Blancas Glacier and Laguna de los Tres.


3. Ecuador - Cajas National Park

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Twenty miles west of Cuenca lies an awesome opportunity to hike in wild páramo highlands. The wet, peaty soil features high-altitude grasses with cushion and other small herbaceous plants. It is a mind-blowing wilderness characterized by outcrops of bedrock.

Considered sacred ground by the Cañari people it is now a UNESCO-protected Biosphere Reserve. The park lies at around 11,000 feet altitude so expect low temperatures and if you just arrived at high altitude, go slow.


Bringing your GPS or compass is useful as trails are badly marked and it is wise to register at the ranger station before heading off. If you don’t feel comfortable setting out for the wilderness on your own you can hire a guide to accompany you.


4. Colombia - The Woods around Mocoa

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One of the lesser-visited corners of Colombia is in the far south. Mocoa is a small town and the nearby hostel Casa del Rio is a good place to get information about hiking trails in the surrounding areas. Take a local bus and ask to be dropped of at any of the trailheads.

We opted for a daylong hike to Fin del Mundo Waterfall, following a trail that meandered through stunning forest, past smaller waterfalls and ending at a cliff where the Fin do Mundo waterfall plunged down and from where we could see far into the distance.


Do check beforehand at the hostel Casa del Rio which trails are safe to hike. Due to FARC activities in the past, certain areas are unsafe because of mines. Also worth a stop is the nearby Canyon del Mandiyaco.


5. Peru - The Backdoor Trail to Machu Picchu

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Are you not prepared to take the expensive train to Machu Picchu, or join the organized multiple-day hike along the Inca Trail, but do want to visit this world-famous site, worry not. There is a perfect alternative.

You drive, or take the bus, from Cusco to Santa Teresa and hike from there. It’s just a couple of hours of easy walking to Agua Calientes along a railroad track – impossible to get lost – through scenic landscape of forested mountain hills with a river cutting through it.


There is no need to carry much, just some water and a snack or lunch. Agua Calientes is the gateway to Machu Picchu with all the infrastructure to spend the night before taking the bus or hiking up to the entrance of the site.



Landcruising Adventure, Outdoor Retailer, Overland Journal, camping, travel, Overland ExpoFreelance writer Karin-Marijke Vis, along with her partner Coen Wubbels, photographer, combine their love for adventure with work they enjoy. Sometimes described as being the ‘slowest overlanders in the world,’ they believe in making connections and staying in a place long enough to do so. In 2003 the couple purchased an antique BJ45 Land Cruiser and began a three-year trip from their home in the Netherlands to Asia. Terminally infected by the overland bug, they traveled in South America (9 years) and the Far East (2 years). Karin-Marijke and Coen are currently traveling in Russia. They’ve been published in car/4x4 and travel magazines around the world. Follow them on their website, Facebook, and Instagram.


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