The world's longest continental mountain range provides a spectacular backdrop to national parks, historic cities, pristine lakes and towering glaciers.
The Andes mountain chain forms the backbone of South America, running from Colombia (where it splits into 3 separate ranges) through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and forming the natural border between Chile and Argentina all the way south to Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Its highest peak, Aconcagua in the Mendoza region of Argentina, at 6,961m above sea level is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia.
The Andes were home to the Inca civilisation, the most powerful empire in the Americas before the Spanish conquest. Their empire covered territory up to northern Ecuador and southern Colombia, as far east as Bolivia, and as far south as northern Argentina and central Chile. Their capital was Cusco in the southern Peruvian Andes, which is still brimming with ruined Inca architecture and artifacts which demonstrated their wealth and power. Coricancha, the Temple of the Sun in central Cusco, and the fortresses of Sacsayhuaman and Puca Pucara just outside, are excellent examples of Inca stonework and longevity in the face of Spanish efforts to destroy them. Further examples of Inca ingenuity, scientific knowledge and engineering prowess can be found throughout the Sacred Valley at sites such as Ollantaytambo, with its fortress and well-preserved town, the crop-laboratory of Moray, and the ruins at Pisac. What is more, the modern descendants of the Incas can be found throughout the region, many wearing their traditional dress, and continuing their ancient practices of terrace farming, llama-rearing, and spinning and weaving with llama wool. The citadel of Machu Picchu, deep in the mountains, remains one of the most thrilling sites for visitors. Preserved for centuries by the encroaching forest, it is remarkably intact because the Spanish invaders never found it. Having been abandoned by the Incas on the arrival of the Spanish, it was only rediscovered in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham. There are also numerous Inca sites throughout the extent of their empire, such as in Ecuador and Bolivia, but of lesser importance than those in Peru.
Further South, the Andes are the backdrop to a variety of National Parks, lakes, forests and glaciers. The Chilean Lake District and the Argentinean Lake District find themselves on opposite sides of the mountains, but share the characteristics of dense forests, picturesque lakes, glacial rivers and waterfalls: all-round excellent terrain for lovers of the outdoors. Activities such as hiking, mountain-biking, horse riding, and kayaking on the lake are among the more strenuous excursions on offer, while many visitors are happy to take scenic drives and tranquil boat rides for a more relaxing day out.
Southern Patagonia, towards the very southern tip of the Andes, has its own National Parks and some of the finest natural attractions in South America. Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, with its distinctive mountains in the shape of 'Cuernos' (horns) and 'Torres' (towers), is a must-see for lovers of grand landscapes, snow-capped mountains and a feeling of isolation. There are excellent walking routes throughout the park, which can be enjoyed as day walks or attempted as a longer trek known as the 'W Trek', staying overnight in simple hostels. Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park, easily accessed on day trips from the town of El Calafate on the shore of Lake Argentino, is home to the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the world's only advancing glaciers, and one of the many fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
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