Walking and trekking
Brazil may not seem the first choice for mountain walkers. But it is the spiritual home of everything wild, home to the jungle uplands and downlands of the Amazon. And it is utterly colossal in scale, so don’t for a minute think it isn’t a worthwhile destination for walking.
Brazil's most mountainous regions are the central states of Minas Gerais and the southern state of Santa Catarina. The former is home to the national parks of Ibitipoca and Aiuruoca, both of which are well worth a visit. Ibitipoca particularly is home to some extraordinary caverns and waterfalls, table-top mountains and thickly vegetated jungle.
The highest mountain however is in the far north, on the border with Venezuela, in the province of Amazonas. Pico da Neblina, a whisker under 3,000m, is a stunning mountain, rising to a sharp point and is quite incongruous in its surroundings. It was first climbed in 1965 and lies within the Yonamami territory, so permits are required for access, obtainable from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), and they in turn require you to be accompanied by a guide. This is a serious expedition into tough jungle terrain, and is a magnificent all-in-one experience that will test you: from the town of São Gabriel da Cachoeira you have to go to Iazinho river by truck, then by boat along four rivers, then on a jungle trail with three camps before the ascent, which takes you over steep and difficult terrain but isn’t technical. The mountain is intermittently closed, so take advice from the IBAMA before planning your itinerary.
For something a little easier to access, Pantanal – located in the Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso du Sol regions of Southwest Brazil – is 140,000km2 of amazing wetland, bordering Bolivia and Paraguay. The terrain is varied, and the basin provides a variety of altitudes, as well as variable ground conditions. Travelling just after wet season will entail some wading for the more adventurous.
For more accessible hill-walking, Chapada Diamantina National Park holds the north-eastern province of Bahia's highpoint, Pico das Almas (Souls Peak) at 1980m. This is a truly breathtaking region, filled with caves, azure rock pools, and the famous tepuis – the cliff-rimmed plateaus rising from the rainforest made iconic by Conan Doyle’s the Lost World. The Chapada is also home to the famous Glass Falls, also known as Cachoeira da Fumaca (smoke Waterfall) whose free-falling water drops more than 415 meters in to Poco Encantado (Enchanted Well). Also in the north east, the Visconde de Mavá to Ilha Grande is an advanced-level trek through three protected areas of the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest) Biosphere Reserve. The trek descends from the mountains to sea level, crossing the Mantiqueria and Bocaina mountain range and circling the island of Ilha Grande, giving a tantalising experience of the different altitudinal zones and ecosystems of the Atlantic Rainforest.
Besides a considerable amount of partying and lying on a beach, there is much in the way of other outdoor activities in Brazil. Scuba diving and snorkelling is very popular, especially in the waters of Fernando de Noronha, a small archipelago made up of a large volcanic landmass and twenty smaller islands, where you can view spinner dolphins, nurse sharks, lemon sharks and barracuda.
Iguacu Falls are located in the region of Parana in the Iguacu National Park, and consist of some 275 falls across a distance of 2.7km. Some falls measure up to 82m and there are opportunities for water sports and rock climbing in the park.
Brazil is legendary for its beaches, and there is a new wave of sports becoming popular which mean that you don’t just have to lie supine to appreciate them. You can take a buggy trip on the North Coast from Natal, travelling over the beaches of Jenipabu, Pitangui. And Jacuma, or you can simply find a serene spot to take a swim and enjoy the spectacular views.
Then of course, there is the jungle. The best place to snare an operator to take you into the Amazon Rainforest is Manaus, a sprawling city which sits close to the Amazon River. Try and book with a reputable operator in the UK before you go, or exercise considerable caution. While Brazil is overall a safe place to travel, the Amazon Rainforest is not a place you want things to go wrong.
Brazil is one of the most populated countries in the world. TRUE. With 183 million people, it is the sixth most populated. But it isn’t one of the densest populated. Put it this way, it is 35 times bigger than the UK, yet only has two and a half times its population.
The Amazon is the world’s largest river: TRUE and FALSE. The Nile is longer, but the Amazon carries more water.
Must see and do
- Rio - Rijuca Rainforest, Sugarloaf Mountain, the breathtaking summit up to Christ the Redeemer on Corvacado Mountain, Copacobana beach – you have to experience Rio once in your life. http://www.riodejaneiro-turismo.com.br/en/
- The Amazon - Take a jungle boat trip from Manaus down the Amazon river, and you can expect to see river dolphins, exotic animals and birds, alligators, snakes and a few species of monkeys. There is also the option of staying a few nights in a jungle lodge.
- Praia do Forte located in the lusted-after Bahia area, famous for its beautiful beaches, is Praia do Forte. Combining this exquisite beach life with the experience of provincial Brazil. There are coconut groves, lagoons and mangroves as well as beautiful coral reefs and natural pools, home to some incredible wildlife
- Chapada Diamantina – meaning ‘steep cliffs of diamond,’ this magnificent national park lies in the Bahia region and is covered in outdoor winders such as tepuis, caves, waterfalls and gorges.
Walking and trekking
It’s no accident Peru pulls in hoardes of walkers from all over the world: the natural display it presents is truly one of the world’s most magnificent. The largest Andean country by area, Peru offers a unique blend of culture, nature and history. Its network of high-altitude trails amongst one of the world’s greatest mountain ranges also give many access to the sort of otherworldly climes which would be unattainable for non-mountaineers elsewhere in the world. This is nowhere more arresting than the country’s main outdoor lure to the walker: the Inca Trail, the ancient, high-level route which travels from Chilica to the ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu. Historically, the Inca Trail was a system of pathways which covered 14,000 miles down the west coast of South America, but these days the Peruvian section of the trail is by far the most popular. Indeed, in many ways the trail has become a victim of its own success, with environmental concerns prompting numbers to be now limited to 200 people a day embarking on the route from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, from numbers in excess of 500 a year or so before. Consequently the trail filled its quota for the ’08 trekking season by April. It is a hugely spectacular if you can get on it – a once in a lifetime-if-you’ve-lived-a-very-charmed-life experience, and the site of Machu Picchu is one you won’t ever forget.
If you can’t get on the trail there are plenty of alternatives, too. Cuzco sits on the edge of what is known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a verdant, jungly and breathlessly beautiful area fringed by snow-clad cordilliera and cut by the Urubamba River, which contains many Inca ruins and several other major trails which tend to escape the attention given to the main route to Machu Picchu. These include the Salkantay Trail – the fabled back way to the lost city – and the Choquequirao Trail, which leads to a similar-sized but less illustrious ruined city, which is still in the process of being unearthed. Elsewhere in Peru, a trip to the second most popular outdoor capital in Peru – Arequipa – is sure to spring up adventure opportunities, such as climbing the volcano of El Misti, which looms over the city, or heading for the walking goldmine of Colca Canyon. This canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, cut from dark rock and surrounded by some of the Andes most commanding peaks. Lost cities aside, this is Peru at its most emerald-terraced, sharply mountained, endearingly rustic best. Mountaineering pilgrims and those who don’t mind a long trip north may want to put the town of Huaraz on their list. Aside from being the flavoursome gateway to the High Andes most ice-axe wielding connoisseurs flock to climb, from here you can see the distinctive, scary profile of Suila Grande – the mountain Joe Simpson and Simon Yates immortalised in Touching the Void.
A note to backpackers: despite a huge increase in tourism, Peru has some decidedly dicey spots: Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas are still known to conduct occasional operations in the Ayacucho, Huancavelica, Huanuco, Junín and San Martín areas. Border areas with Ecuador and Colombia are crawling with drug traffikers. So – in the truest possible sense – don’t go there.
There is loads to do in Peru, and most of it is outdoors. The pyramids at Sipan are some of the more mystical of the ancient settlements in northern Peru – huge burial chambers which look like anthills, built by the Moche around 2,000 years ago.
Islas Flotantes are the man-made settlements of the Uros people, and are unique cultural stops if you find yourself in the Lake Titicaca area. The biggest of the Islands has a school, post office and a souvenir shops, though much of the culture still subsists in the traditional way. The Nazca Lines are the mysterious lines shaped like animals which are located near the coast, and offer a wonderful, desert foil to the jungly, high-level splendour of the interior. You do, however need to fly to make the most of this: you can jump on a tourist plane at Nazca’s airstrip.
Reserva EcologicaChaparri is an exemplary wildlife preserve near Chiclayo, and is home to both the ferociously rare spectacled bear and the Andean condor, the largest bird of prey in the world.
Peruvians put cocaine in their tea: TRUE the tea is made from leaves of the coca plant, from which cocaine is derived. The leaves are used in tea which is medicinal against altitude sickness, fatigue and thirst.
Must see and do
- See the Nazca lines one of the great mysteries of the ancient civilisations of Peru is how these things were drawn by people on the ground. Aside from monkeys, spiders and birds, drawings have been found of so-called ‘spacemen’ – so many believe the Peruvians had help. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazca_lines
- Walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu yes, everyone does it, but it is very special. http://www.incatrailbooking.com/
- Visit Caral this is billed as the oldest city in the Maericas, dating from 2600BC. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caral
Walking and trekking
Chile’s bewildering spectrum of latitudes, excellent and brilliantly affordable public transport system and good infrastructure makes travelling through the country a dream - and as it is so narrow (on average only 130 miles wide) you can literally tick places off as you trickle down its length. Arrive into Santiago as most do, and immediately you have the Andes forming a massive wall to the east, the highest point being Aconcagua, which despite being over the border in Argentina, is readily accessible from Santiago. This mountain is one of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each continent), and is arguably the most accessible of all of them. The mountain itself is massive, dwarfing many Himalayan peaks and earning itself the distinguished title of highest peak in the western hemisphere at 6,962m. As any mountain of its height climbing it is very serious, but it is an eminently trekkable peak, and serves as a warm-up for many who are heading for 8000ers as an altitude notch. The mountain is worth experiencing for itself alone, however as it is an excellent trek, its summit ridge offering views to the greater peaks of the Andes’ continent-spanning belt of volcanic peaks - truly a contender with the Himalayas for the world’s most staggering mountain range. North of Santiago lie border peaks and volcanoes such as Chile’s highest, the Ojos Del Salado (6,891m), a volcanic eminence recently though to be higher than Aconcagua. There are fabulous mountaineering opportunities here; permission needs to be obtained if you want to climb Ojos del Salado (see contacts, below.) The northern extremes of Chile is a high-level plain of spectacular desert canyons such as the Valley of the Moon, and beige, bleak mountains which harbour many walking opportunities, notably some interesting walks around Parque Nacional Lauca and San Pedro de Atacama. The national parks in Chile are co-ordinated by Conaf, and there are offices throughout Chile which can help you when planning a trip.
The Chilean Lake District occupies a region to the south of Santiago, and is home to many towns nestled beneath active volcanoes. The area is wet in summer and cold in winter, but offers a true range of walking experiences, from rainforest trekking to volcano climbing around the town of Vallarica. Here you can see the sort of volcano a child would draw: elegant, snow-capped cones of rock with – occasionally – fire coming out the top. It’s an exciting place to love the outdoors. The Andes wall most of Chile, as scowling black towers through the borderlands of Bariloche, and as a pristine backdrop to the rainforested wilderness of Aisen. This ferocious part of Chile is a draw for many brave adventure travellers, and is home to both the Carretera Austral - Chile’s notorious 1,000km southern ‘highway,’ driven only by the adventurous or the crazy – and the Cochamos valley, where trails penetrate what is often referred to as the ‘Yosemite of South America.’ The Andes getting wilder and more unpredictable as they scream their last towards Tierra del Fuego and the Southern Ocean, and it is here that Chile’s most legendary peaks lie, in the wind-whipped scrub of Patagonia: a vague region which inhabits the lower snip of South America across both Chile and Argentina. Argentina got the rougher deal; a few border peaks aside (including the unquestionably astounding Fitz Roy), their Patagonia is a spirit-level flat prairie land of dustbowl towns in the south and a hilly, forested area in the north. Chilean Patagonia is wild, wind-ripped and home to some of the most iconic mountains on the planet. The place to go for these is the Torres del Paine National Park, a couple of hours bump on a minibus from the rustic, rusting town of Puerto Natales. Here lie mountains that everyone should see at least once in their life: the Cuernos (horns) and the Torres (towers) del Paine. The Cuernos are most peculiar, scooped and chiselled from a massif into a visage that is more weird art than mountain. The Torres are the more famous amongst climbers, and occupy a different, more remote part of the massif. Cerro Torre (the Central Tower) has occupied the dreams of any mountaineer who has seen it and the nightmares of any who have attempted it, amongst them Chris Bonington and Don Whillans, whose lives were almost claimed by the tower twice in a single climb. The area surrounding the Paine Massif is invigoratingly vicious landscape of gnarled, wind-slanted trees, scrubland, caves, glacial-blue lakes and high mountain passes and - although its weather patterns distinctly resemble the Lake District's rougher days in a vile temper - is utterly unique as a landscape and destination. Further south across the penguin-flecked Strait of Magellan lies Tierra Del Fuego (Land of Fire) which is split between Argentina and Patagonia, though border crossings are merely a nuisance than a chore. Here lie frozen mountains and many unclimbed peaks which lure mountaineers from all over the world. On the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, the more-trodden Dientes de Navarino is a five-day circuit which is hugely challenging, but unmissable if you can get here. The Argentine port and outdoor mecca Ushuaia is a leaping off point for many who want to tackle the Vinson massif in Antarctica – another one of the Seven Summits. This is a fearsome place, but its position as the most southern city (town, really) in the world and an intoxicatingly remote, international flavour make it an experiencial must for anyone who finds themselves this far south.
Chile is home to almost every possible outdoor activity: here you can raft back-country rivers hundreds of miles from the nearest town in Aisen, surf off Valparaiso, dune-surf near Copiapo, kite-surf in the Atacama, penguin-watch on the Straight of Magellan, et cetera, ad nauseum. There are a many experiences which Chile has a particular knack for delivering: these include a bus ride onto the Altiplano, a Tibet-alike high-level plateau studded with geysers, snowy mountains, goethermal anomalies and archaeological curiosities. Though Bolivia has a similar area, Chile’s is the most impressive in scale, covering a large area of Northern Chile and rising to 4,100m in altitude. North of Santiago lies pleasant, hilly country home to Vicuna, a pretty little town home to some of the clearest skies in the world. Hence, there is a brimming stargazing culture, and you can visit one of the many observatories in the Elqui Valley by night and peer into the heavens through a telescope the size of a lorry. Isla de Chiloe is a charmingly battered island with a brimming local folklore which is well worth spending a few days amongst, and if you want to grab a truly unique experience, head for Chile’s furthest-flung outpost, Rapa Nui - better known as Easter Island. It is one of the loneliest places on earth, and round-trip flights from Santiago can be bought from about £400. It’s worth every penny.
There is an isolated group of Welsh-speaking villages in Patagonia: TRUE. The first group of 150 settlers formed the ‘Wladfa’ village in 1865, and the descendents have recently revived an interest in their culture. Visit the excellent Glanaid website for pictures and stories of these early settlers: www.glanaid.com
Portuguese is the language which is mainly spoken. FALSE. Chileans typically speak Spanish, though it differs from the pure language due to heavily accented ‘s’s.
Chile owns Antarctica: FALSE. It does own 482,628 sq miles of it, though, which interestingly includes Mount Vinson, which technically means that this one of the Seven Summits belongs to Chile.
Must see and do