A forest is hardly ever silent. The soothing sounds of humming insects and scurrying lizards or other small animals, or the rustling of leaves brings a peace of mind that slows me down and makes me aware of my surroundings: unfamiliar nuts and flowers, delicate mushrooms, fabulously twisted lianas, colorful leaves, and, who knows, a profusion of butterflies, crickets or leaf cutter ants. The quieter I become inside and the more I focus on what’s around me, the more details I notice. Forests to me are easy places to connect with nature, and ultimately with myself.
Here are some of my favorite hiking trails in South America, which vary from tropical Amazon to forest trails in the cool mountains of Argentina: the Andes.
1. Forest Trails in French Guiana
An inviting breeze whispers through the foliage of towering Amazon trees, yet where I’m standing I don’t feel any wind at all; I wipe drops of sweat from my forehead. A couple of bright-blue morpho butterflies flutter around me. They like to play the game “catch me on camera if you can,” which they always win. I listen to chirping and scraping cicadas, croaking frogs and twittering birds. I inhale the pure air and feel the fatigue draining from my body.
I squat and cup my hands to drink the water from the river. Yes, there still are unpolluted waterways in the Amazon, from which it’s perfectly safe to drink. The river gently meanders through the dense vegetation, or suddenly doubles on itself. The water is transparent, I can see how the current moves the stems and leaves of green vegetation on the bottom of the river. Depending on how the light filters through the foliage, the bottom is white, yellow or rust-brown sand.
The forest is home to giant Mora trees, which tower over all other trees. One is standing right in front of me, its buttress stretching along the river bank for meters on end so the tree won’t topple over. I am encompassed by nothing but nature and I feel incredibly rich to be here.
As I stroll deeper into the forest, vegetation thickens and light disappears. The air becomes pleasantly cool. I walk slowly because there is so much to see and admire: a rotten branch covered with hundreds of mushrooms, sleek plants that wind their way around trunks to the top where there is more light, lianas that with their artistic twists have turned into pieces of art. In fact, the forest is one major work of art, each living as well as dead element has evolved into something beautiful, something to take in with full attention. To love, to care for, to enjoy.
I have come to love French Guiana for its forest trails, many of which you can have the place to yourself. It’s easy to connect with nature here, not just because of the variety of flora, the pure air and the clean water, but because you’ll very likely come across wildlife on the trails, like monkeys, sloths and tarantulas.
If you can read French, you’re in luck. There is an excellent guide that focuses on nature, wildlife, and hiking trails in particular: Guide de Guyane by Philippe Boré (2010/2011, ISBN 978-2-9511548-6-5, €19,70). It’s available in most bookstores in-country. Or check with the Tourist Office in Cayenne for information on hiking trails.
2. Da Ferradura National Park in Brazil
Canela and Gramado, in South Brazil, are popular weekend and holiday destinations for Brazilians. By the way, if you love chocolate, it’s worth stopping here. These German towns not only have excellent chocolate but also raclette, and apfelstrudel. It’s a perfect combination: hike your miles in the forest and recharge your batteries with all this mouthwatering food. Did I mention the per-kilo ice cream buffets?
Back to hiking: The towns lie some 130 kilometers north of Porto Alegre and are surrounded by rural landscapes and forests. Some of the hiking trails offer stunning views, as this is a hilly area. To make sure you’ve got the place to yourself, go for a hike on weekdays.
To get to the trails, rent a vehicle and get a map at the tourist office of Canela or Gramado. Bring your bathing suit for a swim in the waterfalls.
3. Los Alerces National Park in Argentina
The park protects the highly valuable Alerce tree, whose limited area of distribution and slow growth-rate make it a non-renewable resource. The wood was used, among other things, for the building of ships and underneath the bark of the tree is a reddish substance which is perfect for caulking wooden boats. The trees were disappearing in alarming numbers, hence the foundation of the park (1937). Tourism has helped a lot to conserve the Alerce tree. We enjoyed several campsites, free of charge, and hiked through forests, swam in cold streams, lakes, and waterfalls, and admired ancient rock carvings.
Whereas the eastern section receives quite a few visitors, the western part of the park remains largely untouched (water is still drinkable). Esquel, in the Chubut Province, makes for a practical gateway (approx.. 30 miles). It’s worth bringing your camping gear so you can stay for a couple of days.
4. Cristalino Jungle Lodge in Brazil
On a trail I notice a large calabash lying on the trail, open. My guide enlightens me. This is the nut of thé tree that gave the country its name: the Brazil tree. This nut can only be opened by one particular animal: the rodent agouti, or cotia in Portuguese. This awkward-looking, large cavia-type of animal has a small head in proportion to its body and no tail. After it has opened the calabash, it takes out the 15 to 25 small nuts and hides them in the ground. In this way new trees will grow, that is if the agouti doesn’t retrace the nuts later to eat them – or if the monkeys don’t find them. The monkeys are smart; from the treetops they watch the agouti hiding the nuts and later dig them up.
The Brazil tree is fertilized by a specific, large bee. This bee needs one specific orchid to keep it alive and this orchid can’t be too far from a Brazil tree – because of its large body the bee can’t fly too far. So a solitary Brazil tree will never bear fruit, which is just one example of how intricately interdependent life is. Take an orchid away or one bee species and in time the Brazil tree will disappear. Isn’t that incredible?
Reservations for the Cristalino Jungle Lodge are mandatory. You will have to travel to Alta Floresta (Mato Grosso/Amazon) where you’ll be picked up at the airport by a staff member or you’ll meet in the Floresta Amazônica Hotel. From there you’ll continue to the lodge by boat. The lodge has all-inclusive rates for accommodation, food and hiking/boating/bird watching with a guide, plus translator when needed. Cristalino Jungle Lodge is internationally known for its excellent bird watching opportunities.
5. The Rainforest along the Suriname River
There are numerous Maroon villages along either side of the Suriname River. We stayed in Pikin Slee (Pasensie Guesthouse). You can hike with a guide or by yourself, like hiking to the nearby village of Botopasi.
A walk into the forest with Joney, a local woman, teaches me much about the incredible number of herbs the local people use from the forest. As we leave she takes a piece of fabric, folds it in a circle and puts it on her head. This functions as a cushion to carry a large bowl in which lie her machete and a couple of bananas to eat along the way. The herbs aren’t cultivated but grow along the side of the trails. Joney breaks off stems by hand or uses her machete, for example when cutting pieces of bark that have a medicinal value.
Of the dozens of herbs cut, I manage to jot down some names with Joney’s explanation:
- Liso pau, “Against coughing. Crumble them, mix them with clay and water, and drink it.”
- Lemon grass, “Boil and drink when coughing.”
- Bepaka piña pau, “Boil and use it to bathe with.”
- Papau wiri, “Is used by the shaman, against spirits.”
- Awawi anza,” “For women.” This is the subtle description for a herb to wash your private parts with.
When I start wondering how we’re going to carry all this, she unwraps a skirt; she was wearing two. She puts her pangi, as the wrap-around skirt is called in Surinamese, on the ground, bundles the herbs together and puts the load on her head. Learning so much about the practical value of vegetation makes me appreciate the richness of this tropical rainforest all the more.
To get to the remote Maroon villages in Suriname’s rainforest, you need to take a boat from Atjoni (3 hours by bus south of Suriname’s capital of Paramaribo). Many villages have guesthouses with rooms or a place to hang your hammock.
Have you hiked in South America? Please share your favorite trails in the comments below. If you’d like to know more about these trails, or other trails in South America, let me know in the comment section below.