For those looking for adventure, South America is full of options. Whether you’re looking to dive with sharks, bike precarious paths overlooking steep cliffs, venture deep into the world’s largest jungle, or trek for days on end through unworldly terrain, this continent has you covered. While there are hundreds of daring options, here are 10 that will get your adrenaline pumping.
1. Bike the world’s most dangerous road, Bolivia
When staying in La Paz, one popular but daring excursion is to bike the world’s most dangerous road, also known as The Death Road. The route is extremely narrow and rocky with little guardrails, residing over a steep drop-off that looks like a rock and branch-adorned wall. Basically, if you go over the side you’re not coming back. Before 2006, Death Road was the only connection between La Paz and the jungle, so it was frequented by many buses that weren’t able to safely pass each other. This led to many deaths, about two bikers and the passengers of 25 cars each year.
Today the road is safer, although accidents do occur. In fact, last summer a Japanese tourist was killed after losing control of their bike, while in January a landslide caused a bus to go over the edge. One word of caution, make sure you go with a reliable tour operator, as this could mean the difference between an adrenaline-pumping day of fun and a harrowing nightmare.
2. Glacier hike Perito Moreno, Argentina
When traveling through Patagonia, there’s no doubt you’ll be spending a lot of time hiking challenging treks through beautiful landscapes. One way to make the hiking more interesting is to add some icy terrain with a glacier hike. When home-basing in El Calafate, you can take a day trip to Perito Moreno, an enormous and mysterious glacier in Argentina. The glacier is three miles wide, with an average height of 240 feet above water. It covers about 97 square miles, and at its longest point has a depth of 2,297 feet. What’s strange about Perito Moreno is it’s one of only three glaciers in Patagonia that is growing and not retreating, with scientists unable to explain why.
When hiking the glacier, you’ll be given grampons to help you keep your grip on the slippery ice. You’ll trek up and down steep, icy hills, while passing giant holes that could swallow you up. At the end of the adventurous trek, you’ll be given a shot of whiskey and a sweet alfajor treat for your hard work.
3. Take a trip into the Amazon Jungle, Various Countries
A trip to South America isn’t complete without an excursion to the Amazon Jungle. The largest tropical rainforest in the world and the one with the most biodiversity, there are many chances for adventure with an Amazon survival tour from Manaus. If you book the trip through a tour operator, the basic package includes jungle trekking with opportunities to see anacondas, jaguars, electric eels, piranhas, poison dart frogs, vampire bats and many other animals and insects. You’ll see native monkey species, interact with indigenous tribes and go hiking at night to see nocturnal fauna. Unique plants are also abundant. Excursions like white water rafting, zip-lining, and shooting dart guns can also be added on. When eating, be aware the food is not always what it appears. In the jungle, monkey, coconut grubs, lemon ants, scorpions, millipedes, and beer made of chewed corn are common delicacies.
If you’re in Bolivia, you may also want to think about exploring The Pampas. This lush jungle is full of wildlife, and you’ll canoe down a river teeming with ferocious crocodiles and piranhas. Moreover, guides tend to be fearless, handling wild anacondas with their hands, harassing caimans and touching eggs in their nests, balancing precariously over piranha infested waters and swimming in crocodile rich rivers. Just as a warning, you’ll be involved in many of these activities too, so be careful. Rumor has it in 2009 two backpackers had their hands bitten off feeding the caimans, so this is definitely a daring excursion.
4. Paraglide in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
To see an unusual perspective while also making your heart race, sign up for paragliding in Rio. You’ll hurl yourself off a 1,700-foot mountain before soaring like a bird over the trees, mountains, beaches, and favelas. Nothing but the wind is holding you up, as the gliders are non-motorized. Glides can be done from sunrise to sunset and last about 15–30 minutes depending on the weather. While they say takeoff is the trickiest part, the landing can sometimes also be difficult, as hang gliders sometimes end up dipping into the ocean or landing face-first on the shore. Not only is flying an adventure, the ride up the mountain will have your heart pounding out of your chest, as you feel like the vehicle will fall over the edge at any second.
5. Spend a week in Banos, Ecuador
Like the popular adventure backpacker towns of Interlaken in Switzerland and Queenstown in New Zealand, Banos in Ecuador is full of adventure. Unlike these more popular adrenaline-junkie regions, however, having an adventure in Banos is extremely cheap. Along with excursions to the Amazon, the town offers hiking, canyoning, bungee jumping, zip-lining, downhill volcano biking, hot springs, white water rafting and more. For an idea of how cheap adventure can be, you can bungee jump for about $15.
One way to mix up some excursions is to rent a bike and cycle the “Waterfalls Route,” which also includes a bit of hiking. Along the way you’ll be able to take part in zip-lining and bungee jumping, no reservation required.
6. Climb the highest volcano in the world
Nevado Ojos del Salado, at 22,615 feet, is the world’s highest volcano. Located in the Andes Mountains on the Argentina/Chile border, the summit of the volcano can be reached mostly via hiking, although a bit of scrambling with ropes is sometimes necessary towards the end. On the eastern side of the volcano at 20,960 feet you’ll find a crater lake that is thought to be the highest lake in the world. Evidence leads scientists and researchers to believe the last eruption of the volcano was in 1993, meaning it could still possibly be active. For a more difficult hike with less red tape and fees, go from the Argentina side; however, if you want to ride to the top in a jeep, sleep in huts and don’t mind paying more money for convenience, go from the Chile side.
Nevado Ojos del Salado isn’t the only high volcano in South America. In fact, the continent is home to the world’s largest volcanos in general, like Birth of Jaguel (22,500 feet), Black Mountain (22,310 feet), Llullaillaco (22,287 feet), Nevado de Tres Cruces (22.270 feet) and Veladero (22,028 feet). To see the most popular volcano, hike Cotopaxi outside of Quito, Ecuador, an active volcano that is 19,347 feet in elevation.
7. Trek the “W” Circuit in Torres del Paine, Chile
This 5+ day trek in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is very popular, but extremely challenging. The region tends to be very windy and cold, with horrendous weather patterns.
Because staying at refugios is expensive, many must carry tents and cooking supplies. The scenery is beautiful and bizarre, as you’ll see animal skulls amidst twisted roots, jagged and spiny mountains, pink mountain spires slicing into a deep blue sky and immense glaciers crashing pieces of history onto the Earth. While the trek is tough, and at times you’ll feel like you’re in a Tim Burton film, you won’t regret doing it.
8. Go sandboarding in Death Valley, Chile
While there aren’t actually an exorbitant amount of deaths here, the desert landscape is certainly bizarre. Abnormal rock formations, daunting sand dunes, and natural granule patterns so perfect they look man-made give the setting an unworldly feeling. The best part about the area, though, is its prime for sandboarding. Like snowboarding, you’ll need to balance yourself on a board and propel yourself at rapid speed down a mountain. Instead of gliding down snow, however, you’ll be racing down hot sand. The most important thing to remember is to forget what your brain is telling you about getting hurt and just let go. Also, if you see a boulder coming quickly into view, get out of the way or fall down.
9. Get healed by a shaman, various countries
While this may sound relaxing, taking part in any kind of Shamanistic ceremony usually means peyote-like teas. The type of cactus used will depend on where you are, although all are extremely potent. This is not to say that we condone any type of drug use. It is, however, a popular activity for travelers to South America, with some going solely to sip cactus concoctions during a healing ritual with a Shaman.
If you do decide to take part in this often terrifying experience, make sure you go with a real Shaman, and that you do exactly as instructed. Sometimes they will tell you not to eat meat or to fast for a certain amount of days beforehand. Also, make sure you’re mentally prepared, as it is typical to hallucinate horrifying scenarios that can haunt you for a very long time.
10. Dive with sharks in Atol das Rocas, Brazil
Full of Lemon sharks, those who are a bit insane will love jumping into these shark-infested waters. This atoll, located off the coast of Brazil, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its rich coral and marine life. The warm waters attract swarms of sharks, and you can swim with 30+ of the sharp-jawed beasts at once. Because they pose little threat to humans, a cage is not necessary. Still, having the menacing eyes of a stocky, powerful, 10-foot long shark with the power to tear you to shreds is always pretty scary.
11. Summit the highest mountain in the western hemisphere, Argentina/Chile
Located in the Andes on the border of Argentina and Chile is Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere at 22,841 feet. This trek is not for the faint of heart, as about three people die each year trying to reach the summit. Additionally, it takes about 10 days each way to do the hike. If you’re up for it though, the views offered are one of a kind, with vibrant, multi-colored mountains, snow-capped peaks and crystal lakes.
If you’re not experienced but still want to take part in some challenging mountain treks in South America, the Andes Mountains offers numerous day hikes from Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile.
- Jessica Festa