Oftentimes there are off the beaten path surprises right next to the places where the masses are congregating, and it’s finding those hidden gems and the highest quality local guides that will navigate them that really sets companies apart, explains Jim Lutz, founder and president of Vaya Adventures. His company creates custom itineraries throughout South and Central America and specializes in finding these lesser-known local gems.
“The key to planning a vacation unlike any found in a mainstream tour brochure is to find a travel company that, first, has deep knowledge of the local destinations, and second, provides the most knowledgeable and outstanding guides in the region you’ll be exploring,” Lutz says. “It’s often the combination of the classic with the off the beaten path that really sets the trips apart.”
Vaya secures distinctive accommodations that reflect the best of the surrounding culture, and guests indulge in bespoke dining and sightseeing experiences that reflect a deep understanding of locale. It’s really the best of all worlds: a discerningly curated experience that is personalized to the client’s interests and schedule.
Drawing from years of research and personal travel experience, Lutz shares his favorite lesser-known and off-the-beaten path day hikes near places travelers are likely to visit in South America, “hikes that let visitors experience these destinations as a traveler and not as a tourist.” Lutz points out that, “these are some little-known spots that may very well be close to you if you are traveling in these countries, potential highlights that you could easily miss. All have variations from strenuous to more easy going, but all options provide spectacular views and experiences.”
Peru - Machu Picchu Mountain: Want to take a photo of Machu Picchu that doesn’t look like everyone else’s? Try this three-hour hike. An alternative to the ever-crowded Huayna Picchu (the hike nearly all active visitors to Machu Picchu do), Machu Picchu Mountain is traversed by far fewer people and offers incredible and unique views of the surrounding mountains and ruins. This hike begins at about 8,400 feet at the southern end of Machu Picchu and rises to 10,000 feet at the summit. The hike takes about three hours roundtrip and passes through significant stretches of original Incan stonework winding up the side of the mountain, reaching a summit with 360-degree views of Machu Picchu’s iconic ruins and the Urubamba River below.
Brazil - Rio de Janeiro, Tijuca National Park: Overlooking the largest (46 square mile) urban forest in the world is Pedra da Gavea (crow’s nest), a peak 2,762 feet above sea level. The trail to the top is only about a mile long, but it’s a three-hour commitment due to a section of Class IV climbing that may involve setting up a belay. The view is stunning, encompassing all the iconic points of the South Zone: the Dois Irmãos Hill that crowns Leblon Beach, the golden sand of Ipanema and Copacabana, as well as the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Hill in the distance. A less adventurous option that still offers spectacular views of Rio is to the top of the Pico da Tijuca, also inside Tijuca National Park and the Park’s highest point.
Ecuador - Quito,Pasochoa Wildlife Refuge Summit Trail: 20 miles south of Quito, near the town of Sangolqui, is the access point for a beautiful seven-hour roundtrip trek with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet to the summit at 13,800 feet. The trail is straightforward, but it requires a good level of fitness and, for those who want to get all the way to the top, there is some rock scrambling at the end to reach the summit. It’s worth it whether you make it to the top or not. Views along the way include the Avenue of Volcanoes, the snow-clad volcanic peaks of the Andes: Cayambe, Antisana and Cotopaxi. Hikers reach the edge of an ancient, extinct volcanic caldera, with cloud forest-covered crater walls and unique flora such as a rare polylepis forest and many bromeliads. This is one of the best places in Ecuador to see condors in the wild.
Chile - Paso Desolación Trail: After a two-hour drive from Puerto Varas through Chile’s Lake District to the trailhead, guests embark on a five-hour hike that offers a spectacular alternative to the relatively touristy and overcrowded attractions of Petrohue Falls, Peulla and Frutillar. This day hike passes right along the side of glacier-clad Osorno Volcano, with incredible views out to magnificent Todos los Santos Lake and the surrounding mountains in the other direction. The hike is not challenging or technical; it just requires a decent level of fitness.
“These are some of the best vistas you can get in the Lake District, and very few people seem to even know about this hike, much less do it. Near the end you start running into the crowds that just do the normal tourist route and you really appreciate that you’ve accomplished something special and different,” says Lutz.
Guatemala - Lake Atitlán, San Pedro Volcano: This hike begins after a scenic boat ride across the lake, usually from Palopó or Panajachel. It is a 3,700-foot ascent to the summit on some 2.5 miles of steep, winding trail along the northwest side of the volcano. Plan an entire day for this one. If it’s too much to make it to the top, you’ll still get great views back out over the lake and surrounding area and experience some of the beautiful cloud forest on the flanks of the volcano, something few people take the time to do, summit or no summit.
Aldous Huxley wrote ofLakeAtitlán: ‘LakeComo, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán isComowith additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.’”
“Many people visit Guatemala for cultural tourism, and rightly so, but they often miss out on the great and unique hiking opportunities that are right in front of them,” Lutz says.