Rodeo riding in Chile, a death road in Bolivia, hiking and trekking in Peru, on horseback through the Atacama, remote art in Argentina, and much, much more. Welcome to part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2017 series, our guide to the Top Travel Adventures of the year. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2017, part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and part 4 tells you all about our Top Travel Gear of the year.
Now, in no particular order, we present:
The Top Travel Adventures of 2017
Best easy canyon hike: Hiking to the bottom of a canyon is cool and, by definition, usually pretty hard work with long, steep descents and ascents. However, in Bolivia’s Totoro National Park you can get to a dramatic waterfall in the bottom of the dramatic Vergel Canyon on a well-made trail that’s not too long and not too steep. It took us about 30 minutes to tackle the approximately 850 steps from the rim walking at a casual pace and stopping to admire a pair of red-fronted macaws.
Best hard canyon hike: The Colca Canyon in Peru is massive so it follows that getting into and out of the canyon is going to require some serious hiking. Our three-day, two night Colca Canyon hike started with a relentless five-hour, 5,000 foot (1,540 meters) descent from the town of Cabanaconde on the rim down to Llahuar on the canyon floor. Hiking around in the canyon required more up and down, and getting out of the Colca Canyon from Sangalle back up to Cabanaconde required a climb of more than 5,000 feet pretty much straight up. Was it worth it? Check out our story about hiking in the Colca Canyon for Intrepid Travel.
Best rodeo: Rodeo in Chile is different. First of all, the ring is a media luna (half moon) not a full circle. Second of all, there’s really only one event which involves riding a Chilean stallion that’s galloping sideways while pushing a running cow into the wooden walls of the media luna with the horse’s chest. This is all done while wearing snazzy traditional gear including dinner-plate-sized spurs. While visiting some of the men who run the rodeo near San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, Karen was given a crash course in this riding technique by Don Ramon Bascur, then she was set loose in the media luna.
Best salty adventure: The Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the world and its enormous expanse is mostly flat and white as far as the eye can see. However, there are some natural interruptions in the landscape. Cruzzani Tours at Hotel Luna Salada (which is made almost entirely out of salt blocks from the salt flat) took us to Isla Icanhuasi. After visiting a local salt harvester to see his low-tech process from salt flat to shopping bag, we drove onto the salt flat itself and Ivan, our driver, helped us take some wacky Uyuni photos with props and everything. Then it was on to Isla Incahuasi where our guide, Emmy, explained that the island is a coral rise that’s covered in cactus. A short walk to the top of the island delivered 360-degree views of the salt flat before returning to the vehicle so Ivan could drive us to another area of the salt flat where we had snacks and wine as the sunset.
Best death road: A short stretch of narrow, winding dirt road in Bolivia was dubbed The Death Road after hundreds lost their lives on it. Here’s what happened when we drove Bolivia’s Death Road.
Best horseback riding: The explora group of hotels in Chile and Peru pioneered the concept of luxury all-inclusive base camps and they did that by paying close attention to every detail, right down to breeding and training their own horses. At explora Atacama the stable is home to about 20 big, fit horses bred and trained to thrive in the high altitude desert conditions. Karen rode a lot while at explora Atacama and it was all amazing. If you’re an experienced rider, don’t miss the Cornises ride which includes a dramatic section straight down a massive sand dune.
Best non-horseback riding: Karen has been around horses since she was six years old, but during our visit to Parque Puri Beter in San Pedro de Atacama, part of the Tata Mallku Foundation, we got the chance to interact with horses in a brand new way by walking with them through the surrounding desert without halters or leads of any kind. The horses were let out as a herd and we followed on foot, going wherever they went at whatever pace they went. Before long we felt like we were just part of the herd in a way that was unique and powerful.
Best floating island adventure: The owners of the Libertador hotel group in Peru also own a tour company called Venturia and a tour desk is located at most Libertador hotel lobbies. Venturia is the only tour company offering guided trips on Lake Titikaka in outrigger canoes. We took their Uros Tour in an outrigger to visit one of the famous floating islands on Lake Titikaka. Our guide, Yair, was born in Lima where he got deep into regattas with outrigger canoes (which are called Polynesian canoes in Peru). Yair brought outriggers, which are very stable and easy to paddle, to Lake Titikaka. Most tourists visit the lake’s islands, which are made by lashing together floating chunks of natural reed beds, in motor boats. However, we quietly paddled the outrigger through peaceful channels on the lake to reach Uros Island where we visited one family’s man-made island home.
Best adventure on rails: You don’t get on the tourist train which runs between Lima and Huancayo for the service, food, or amenities. The train, operated by Ferrocarril Central Andina, is dirty (even in a tourist class car), staff members are surly, and the food is airplane grade. But the scenery and the numbers are spectacular. This train travels 214 miles (346 km) through the Andes past waterfalls, grazing llamas, and, honestly, a few pretty scary looking mines. The route goes from sea level in Lima to an elevation of 15,843 feet (4,829 meters) which makes this train the highest railway in the Americas. Along the way, the train navigates a wide array of engineering marvels including 6 zigzags, 69 tunnels (one spirals like a pig’s tail and one is nearly 3,400 feet / 1,000 meters long) and 58 bridges. The one-way journey takes about 14 hours, which, honestly is a long time to be on a train.
Best art adventure: The only museum devoted to artist James Turrell outside the US is located on the grounds of Bodega Colome in Argentina, one of the most remote and most high-altitude vineyards and wineries in the world. From the nearest city, it takes at least a day of driving through scenic valleys to reach Colome and the James Turrell Museum there which was created after Colome owner, US winemaker Donald Hess, met Turrell and fell in love with his work. Turrell designed the space which contains installations which are all about natural and artificial light and how it changes perceptions. It sounds simple, but it’s complex stuff that definitely plays with your head. Free guided tours are given (in English) at 3 pm and 5 pm for a maximum of eight people (reservations are a must, closed Mondays). We toured the small museum for more than two hours and it was one of the best museum experiences we’ve ever had and an adventure to boot.
Best multi-day hike: The Santa Cruz Trek in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru is one of the most famous multi-day hikes in the country. In 32 miles (51 km) the route delivers high passes (one is more than 15,000 feet / 4,500 meters), mountain lakes, snowy peaks, and challenging trails. Get the day-by-day highlights and trail tips in our post about what you need to know about the Santa Cruz trek.
Best soft adventure: Don’t let anyone tell you that soft adventures don’t count. Case in point: a hot air balloon ride over the Atacama Desert. The same folks behind Balloons over Bagan in Myanmar recently began offering hot air balloon rides out of San Pedro de Atacama. The premium Balloons over Atacama trips include pre-flight coffee, tea, and fresh (and legit) croissants from the French baker in town plus champagne afterward. We love hot air balloons because of the alternate perspective they offer and because traveling (mostly) in silence at the whim of the wind is so peaceful. As we write this, flights have been suspended while a court ruling gets resolved. We hope they’re up and running again soon.
Best high peak day hike: When was the last time you were able to hike up to 18,386 feet (5,604 meters) in just one day? You can do it in the Atacama Desert on a peak called Cerro Toco, a stratovolcano not far from San Pedro de Atacama. We did this hike with Arturo, a guide from Hotel Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, who was born in the region. After driving about an hour from the hotel we’d reached around 16,000 feet (4,876 meters). From there we hit the trail for about an hour, ascending about a mile (2 km) to the top. It was steep and snowy in places, but not difficult overall, though the air was pretty thin. At the top, we got spectacular views of Bolivia and the perfect cone of Licancabur Volcano. We’ve been this high in the Himalayas, but only after days or even weeks of walking. Only in the Atacama can you have breakfast at your hotel, bag an 18,000+ foot peak, and be back at the hotel in time for lunch.
Best softcore epic drive: The roughly 300 mile (480 km) loop that connects Salta to Cafayate to Molinos to Cachi and back to Salta is partly paved and there are towns along the way and you really don’t need a hardcore vehicle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an epic drive. The scenery is amazing including Southwest style desert, rock and mesa landscapes, swirling rock formations, forests of cactus and much more. This route also travels through Los Cardones National Park where you can see wild guanacos (a cruder ancestor of llamas) and condors.
Best mid-core epic drive: The back road route that connects Colchane to Putre in Northern Chile travels through four parks and protected areas, past inviting hot springs, grazing vincuñas, flocks of flamingos, and much more natural beauty that makes the sometimes challenging roads (and occasional military checkpoint) worth it.
Best hardcore epic drive in Argentina: The Puna region of northern Argentina is not easy. It’s remote. It’s high altitude. It’s a huge desert. The rough track roads are so bad speed is sometimes reduced to 10 mph or even less. Sometimes you’re driving on a salt flat (where we got a flat tire). But this is also the place to see thousands of migrating flamingos, wind-whipped sandstone formations, and eerie wide open spaces that sometimes make you feel like you’re on another planet. If you don’t feel like doing the driving, organize your Puna de Argentina adventure through Socompa Adventure Travel which specializes in the area and also runs the best lodging in the area.
Best hardcore epic drive in Bolivia: The tracks and back roads that make up the so-called southwest circuit out of Uyuni, Bolivia are quite possibly the most challenging roads we’ve driven. Sandy, full of never-ending extreme washboarding, rock-hard frozen sections, and all at high altitude where temperatures plummet each night. The payoff is a series of lakes, flamingos, and a field of venting hot springs. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself. Despite the challenges, this route is popular with tour groups and they fly along the roads in beat-up Toyota 4Runners, creating more and more washboarding.
Here’s more about travel in Argentina
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia
Here’s more about travel in Chile
Here’s more about travel in Peru