Travel The Magneficient Andes

Winning tip: Hike the Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

The Quilotoa Loop is a network of hiking paths connecting a series of indigenous Kichwa villages in the Ecuadorian Andes. Although challenging, the routes are not beyond novice trekkers. Winding through incredible valleys dotted with horses and llamas, the main loop culminates at beautiful Laguna de Quilotoa, set in the caldera of a long-extinct volcano. After two or three days’ hiking, it’s an astonishing and rewarding sight. Start your trip in the tiny village of Insinliví and you can enjoy a night of luxury before the hard work begins. Hostal Llullu Llama is one of the friendliest and best-equipped guesthouses in the Andes – there’s even a hot tub.

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The trek up to the Posada del Inca eco-lodge, on Lake Titicaca’s Isla del Sol, was slow and exhausting because of the altitude. As Pedro the mule and Patricia the llama hoved into view, to carry our luggage, we sighed with relief. On our hikes, we met small children with llamas requesting photographs for a few bolivianos. The scenery was stunning: the scale of the lake with the snow-capped Andes; the small port with its startlingly white boats set against the blue of the lake; and small posadas (inns) with stepped gardens. But despite being sunny during the day, we were grateful for solar-powered electric blankets when night fell.

Medellín, Colombia

Medellín, Colombia’s second city “of eternal spring”, is safe these days and packed with treasures. Take an eco-adventure by cable car at the Parque Arví, marvel at “fat” Botero sculptures and art in the Museo de Antioquia and visit the botanical gardens. Delve into the nearby jungle and explore the stunning Rio Claro wildlife reserve by zip-wire or raft. If you still have energy, climb the 649 steps up Piedra del Peñol above the colourful nearby town of Guatapé, or ride a tuk-tuk to one of South America’s first suspension bridges in Santa Fe de Antioquia, built in the 1800s.

Amazing lodge in Peru

Heading to Macchu Picchu? Avoid the crowds and stay in Ollantaytambo. It’s a beautiful Incan village and if you want to immerse yourself in Andean culture, this is the real deal. It’s not that far from Macchu Picchu and there are beautiful vistas everywhere you turn. I stayed at Apu Lodge, a wonderful B&B with friendly service, lovely rooms and amazing gardens, while being only 20 minutes’ walk from the train station. It was by far one of my favourite experiences on my trip and I can’t wait to return.

Bus across the Andes

Take the bus across the Andes from Mendoza in Argentina to Santiago, capital of Chile, for phenomenal views across the peaks. At the Paso Internacional Los Libertadores border crossing passengers can enjoy the peaceful scenery, contrasting with lines of waiting buses and crowds. Book in advance and go for seats as close to the front as possible on the top deck of the bus.

A long road in Argentina

We began in Salta, north-west Argentina, and drove south along the dirt road to Cafayate. After climbing steeply into the Andes we took a straight road (based on an Inca route) through a gorge called La Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat) to marvel at multi-coloured rock formations thrown up from the sea bed six million years ago. For half of the eight-hour journey, including short stops, we virtually had the route to ourselves. Arriving in Cafayate, in the wine-growing region, life felt very tranquil and we enjoyed the theatre of thunder and lightning across the mountains. A fitting end to a dramatic day.

Visit during the rainy season and you’ll get those wonderful mirror-image photos but very wet feet. Visit during the dry season and you’ll have vast tracts of white salt and blue, blue sky. Either way, the light is so bright that you won’t be able to see anything without proper sunglasses. A filter for your camera is also essential to avoid taking the wonkiest photographs ever.

Ghost town, Chile

The Andes has some of the world’s most breathtaking sights so I’m not quite sure how we got talked into visiting a mining company, but I’m glad we did. Sewell is a town full of brightly painted wooden houses, connected not by roads but by staircases. In its prime had 16,000 residents and was the largest copper mine in the world, but now it’s completely uninhabited. We toured workers’ houses, and the town’s hospital, and sat in the eerily vacant cinema where the “coming soon” board lists movies now decades old.

Hiking in South America: readers’ tips

Do you long for an Andes adventure with a difference but aren’t quite sure your office legs are up to climbing glaciers? Staying in a geodesic dome in the Elqui valley you will be cosy in a two-storey home fully equipped with your own bathroom, telescope and sliding roof. You will learn all about the stars from the passionate astronomer and owner Estaban, and he will escort you on a horseback stargazing tour. Fall asleep every night to views of the piercingly blue skies and wake to a spectacular mountain view. It’s just magical.