Inca Trail, Peru
It might seem obvious, but this ain’t a Top Five for nothing. Plus, while the Inca Trail is perched in pride of place atop every self-respecting traveller’s bucket list, it’s amazing how many people think they know all about it and sign on without giving a thought to the fact that this hike is tough.
We’d still thoroughly recommend the four-day trail through breathtaking Andes mountainscapes and ancient Inca ruins. But be prepared for pain. This isn’t so much an Inca Trail as an Inca Staircase, and we’re not talking about a neat, even staircase, either.
Most of the 26 miles are spent heaving yourself up an endless collection of jumbled steps comprising all shapes and sizes – and we’re sorry to tell you that descending them provides little relief. Just imagine navigating thousands of these 13th-century stairs downwards – a picnic for the knees it is not.
The upside? Your sweatiness and annihilated body are well rewarded with an unforgettable, truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Pitching your tent in front of a vista of the green peaks of the Andes, with the snow-capped Mount Veronica making a teasing appearance beyond, takes some beating. And when you finally reach Machu Picchu on day four, at silly o’clock in the morning to beat the tourists who arrive on the train, you’ll get that perfect uninterrupted shot.
A top tip to see you through: Gatorade is key. The ubiquitous US energy drink is best glugged after lunch on day two, following a punishing morning of uphill slogging to reach the beginning of Dead Woman’s Pass. Named more for the shape of the mountain ahead as you climb (it resembles the profile of a woman lying on her back) than its effects, it is nevertheless the trek’s toughest section. But down the Gatorade and you’ll be bounding up it with all the spring of a young fawn. (Well, that’s what knocking back a nuclear-green bottle of it did for us, anyway.)
Make sure you’re fit and prepared, and this’ll be the most memorable four days of your life. No pain, no gain.
Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
China’s Yunnan province in the south-west is one of the country’s most rewarding regions for adventurers, and hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge should be the don’t-miss event of your visit.
Teetering at the edge of the gorge as you trek the trail’s narrow, dishevelled paths is all part of the fun – especially the moment where you have to walk through a waterfall with a sheer drop to your right.
Don’t look down …
Any trek along the Annapurna trail in the Himalayas of north-central Nepal is going to take your breath away – and not just because you’re knackered. If snowy peaks are what you go in for, this is the place for you.
There are treks of varying lengths along this route, but you should expect to be panting and sweating for two weeks at least. Tours usually start and end in Kathmandu.
The Colorado Trail, US
This 486-mile long trail was built by the Colorado Trail Foundation especially for hikers, horse riders and mountain bikers to enjoy the eight mountain ranges (including the Rockies) and six national forests it passes through.
Mountain-biking is not available on all areas of the trail, but the foundation does offer supported hikes of four-to-five days. Staff carry your heavy backpacks and cook up gourmet food to enjoy at camp, too.
Probably the one to tick off in Africa on every traveller’s to-do list, this trek takes at least seven days, as climbers need time to adjust to the altitude.
Tours tend to start gently in the steamy forest and ascend slowly past glaciers and into snow. The trek usually ends with an elaborate tipping ritual in honour of the hard-working porters.
Climbing Kilimanjaro (‘the roof of Africa’), the highest mountain in Africa, guarantees boasting rights for an unlimited period.