Waterfalls steal the show when you’re hiking through Central and South America. When you arrive at the waterfalls on this list, you’ll have made your way through some of the most lushly diverse environments in the world. These environments are also some of the most humid, so you’re likely to find a splash in the cascades irresistible.
When you’re hiking near waterfalls, take care not to slip on the nearby rocks or stone staircases. These are always quite slick with moisture, so make sure to wear shoes with good treads on your hike.
1. The Devil’s Cauldron, Baños, Ecuador
The small town of Baños is one of the most popular destinations in Ecuador for outdoor activities. Right outside of town you’ll find the trail called La Ruta de Las Cascadas, which translates to “the route of the waterfalls” in English. Along the trail you’ll get to see some of the area’s most impressive waterfalls, including La Manto de la Novia and the Cascada de Agoyán. But the highlight of this trip is Pailón del Diablo, a mighty waterfall that gushes over the side of a steep cliff.
There’s a twisting staircase that leads from the top of the waterfall to the base. This waterfall is so powerful that visitors wear rain gear when they’re descending the rocky staircase to keep the spray from soaking their clothes. Viewing platforms on the way down provide an opportunity for hikers to take a break and admire the torrential downpour.
La Ruta de Las Cascadas is located near Tungurahua Volcano, one of South America’s most active volcanoes. You can’t hike too close to this natural wonder, but you can see it spewing smoke from a distance.
2. Gocta Falls, Chachapoyas, Peru
At 2,530 feet (771-m), Gocta Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. Gocta Falls only recently became a well-known destination for travellers. In 2005, a German visitor stumbled across it, and quickly realized that it was unknown worldwide.
Gocta Falls owes its erstwhile lack of popularity to a local legend. Natives to the area grew up believing in a mermaid who lived in the pool at the base of the waterfall. The Gocta mermaid had a bad habit of drowning the men she seduced, and made the falls an unappealing place to visit. Visitors and locals will attest to the supernatural atmosphere that surrounds the waterfall.
It takes a couple of hours to hike to Gocta Falls from the small town of Cocachimba. During the drier months the waterfall becomes a narrow stream – it consists only of a white mist by the time it reaches the base of the falls. Gocta divides into separate cascades, forming two distinct drops. The pool you’ll find at the bottom is muddy looking, but the view looking up at this imposing waterfall is well worth the hike.
3. La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Travelers typically stop in the town of La Fortuna at some point during their trip to see the Arenal Volcano. La Fortuna’s waterfall is located just 3 miles south of the town, and provides the perfect end to a day of hiking in Arenal National Park.
La Fortuna’s waterfall shoots over a mossy cliff and forms a small, blue-green gem of a swimming hole. This waterfall is 230 feet (70 m) tall. You can clamor over the rocky rim of the pool to splash in the cascade.
4. Oropendola, Costa Rica
Oropendola Waterfall is located off one of the paths just outside of the Rincón de La Vieja National Park. You’ll pay a small admission to hike to the Oropendola Falls. From the main gait, it’s a 20-minute walk. This waterfall is 82 feet (25 meters) tall. The bright-blue plunge pool narrows to a clear stream opposite the waterfall.
Before you visit the falls, take a hiking or horseback tour of the Rincón de La Vieja National Park. It is named after the Rincón de La Vieja Volcano, which erupted in 2011. Because of the fairly recent eruption, visitors cannot hike to the crater of the volcano. But Rincón de la Vieja National Park still has 34,000 acres (12,759 hectares) of wildlife to explore.
5. Río Celeste, Costa Rica
Río Celeste waterfall is the highlight of the river that runs through Tenorio National Park. This river flows with strikingly turquoise-colored waters. In English, the word “celeste” translates to sky-blue. You’ll probably hear words like “fairytale” and “magical” when people talk about the color of the water, but there’s a scientific explanation – the color comes from the calcium carbonate and sulphuric minerals in the water, courtesy of the nearby Tenorio Volcano.
Travelers come to Tenorio National Park to see both the volcano and the surrounding cloud forest. This humid, misty environment occurs only at high elevations. It allows moss, bromeliads, and orchids to grow in abundance, adding to the otherworldly appearance of the sky-blue river.
Although this isn’t the tallest waterfall on our list, it is fairly wide, and the force of the water will probably keep you from swimming directly under the cascade. It’s a memorable spot to take a dip, and you can reach it after an hour of hiking. You can also enjoy the waters of the Río Celeste in the hot springs that bubble near the waterfall.
Zach Smith is CEO of Anywhere.
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