6 months trip of a lifetime around Latin America

My girlfriend and I went on a 6month trip around Latin America (excluding Brazil).  Started in the far South in the Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and, broadly, made our way up the west coast to the Yucatan Peninsular of Mexico.  Best large scale trip I’ve done, and wanted to share the overall itinerary and tips here to hopefully help those who are considering something similar

A few high level points:

  • Other than the flights there and the first hotel, there were only three things we booked in advance: the Inca Trail (which we knew we needed to for permits); plus for Patagonia a trip through Torres del Paine National Park and a ferry through the fjords (as we were going at peak season and only a couple of weeks after we landed).  Everything else, we booked when in Latin America and, in our opinion, that is the best way to do it – gives you the freedom to relax in the places you find that you love and be super flexible to do what you want to do
  • Total costs – my girlfriend and I went in our 30s, with no kids and on sabbaticals from work.  We’re not poor, but certainly not mega wealthy.  We didn’t stay in super expensive hotels (other than for the occasional splurge), flew economy and used a bit of common sense for timings of certain expensive items, but never held back on doing the things we wanted to do.  Some examples of big ticket items: US$5k for a week diving in the remote Wolf & Darwin Islands in the Galapagos; US$1.2k for 4 days in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia; US$800 for a helicopter trip to see the El Mirador Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle; US$700 for the Inca Trail.  Total cost of the whole trip was US$34k each.  This included all flights, transport, hotels, activities, food, drink, guides, screwing things up, credit card fees – the lot.  Expensive, but so are most Experiences of a Lifetime
  • It’s not about trying to “do everything” – in a place as large as Latin America, you couldn’t even if you tried – so don’t think of things as a big tick box exercise.  Brazil, for example, we knew we couldn’t do justice whilst also trying to enjoy all the other amazing places we’d heard of, so left it for next time
  • In the similar vain, make sure you give yourself big chunks of time to chill out.  Not only to recharge the batteries, but also because most places are enjoyed when you spend time to soak up the feel for the place.  There were some places . . . like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, Bocas del Toro in Panama . . . where I could have spent weeks there just because the general vibe of the place was so wonderful
  • Safety – we weren’t robbed, but many people do either having a bag stolen or, unpleasantly, get robbed face to face.  Other than a couple of cities, we generally felt super safe the places we went and tried to just apply common sense to reduce our risks
  • Learn a bit of Spanish before you go – the app DuoLingo was great for getting us to a basic level that made a lot of difference.  But also don’t be afraid to pull out google for simultaneous conversation translations to really be able to have a conversation with someone – some long trips became some of our highlights just from being able to properly talk with the driver / locals.  I particularly remember a long taxi ride in Colombia where we went back and forward for 2 hours with the driver on everything from his home town to politics to football to his favourite movies to his family problems- never could have done that without Spanish or google.  In a similar vein, and using the right level of common sense, don’t turn down an invite for drinks / dinner / house visit with locals.  There are some truly unforgettable natural and cultural spots to see, but similarly an evening with a local family will be something likely to be just as unforgettable
  • Whenever checking out a place or must-do-site, its easy to get templed / churched / ancient site / beached out.  Always do a very basic bit of research to see if there is a more out of the ordinary way to experience it – by bike / drinking tour / kayaking / helicopter / whatever.  Thats what we tried to do, and I hope it reflected in some of the cool stuff listed below

Wine tasting and cycling around the vineyards of Mendoza

The most famous wine region in Latin America . . . making your way cycling from one superb vineyard to the next . . . stopping off for lunch overlooking the tallest section of the Andes range . . . sounds awful right?

Whilst Mendoza has a sea of vineyards spread out across a wide area, Chacras de Coria is jam packed with vineyards in a manageable sized area that is geared for cyclists who can easily make their way between them.   If you can, give yourself an extra day to head off to some of the other regions, but make Chacras de Coria your base

Driving from Bariloche to Mendoza

So if you’re heading through this part of the world where the distances are vast and the flight timings just aren’t working for you, I’d recommend driving from the lake region of Bariloche up to the wine region of Mendoza.  Chances are for these regions you may have rented a car anyway, so its a question of if you’re prepared to pay the car relocation fee

The drive is a long one at roughly 14 hours.  It includes the famous Seven Lakes route (see Driving the 7 Lakes from Villa la Angostura to San Martin for more details), but quite quickly after that you transition from luscious grassy mountains and lakes to more barren volcanoes / mountains, deserts, scrubland, with very few people and a part of the world that has little written about it – some key ingredients for an unexpected driving adventure

Google maps kept changing its mind whether to take the R40 or the more inland 237/151/143 route.  We went for the R40 and were glad we did as the combo of the Andes range to our left and desert / plains to our right was a pleasantly beautiful surprise.  Make sure you do keep an eye on the navigation though as it is very easy to get lost, which happened to us a few times.  That feeling of having to choose between continuing to head down the dust path you hope will soon change to highway or to cut your loses and drive back the way you came for an hour isn’t that much fun . . . even less so the second and third times!

Driving Argentina’s Seven Lakes drive from Villa la Angostura to San Martin de los Andes

The Lake District area of Argentina really is beautiful.  Not quite as dramatic as down in Patagonia or as mind-blowing as that in Peru, but a more picture-perfect countryside that you could imagine a couple of hobbits living out their days in

I found in particular the Chico Circuit by Bariloche a fantastic experience (details – Cycling and drinking craft beers around the Chico Circuit in Bariloche), but for the route from Villa la Angostura to San Martin de los Andes I was unfortunately a bit underwhelmed.  It’s probably because our expectations were so high after seeing the wonders in this part of the world, but either way we found ourselves less having an amazing experience and more just having a pleasant drive

For sure this would be a great place to completely relax for a few days, enjoy the scenery by one of the lakes and go for some easy walks through the forest, and I would stress that Bariolche and its immediate surroundings are a highlight of this part of the world, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to make the drive from Villa la Angostura to San Martin de los Andes

Cycling and drinking craft beers around the Chico Circuit in Bariloche

The lakes and mountains around Bariloche are some of the most picture-perfect spots you can imagine, and the 25km hilly cycling loop of the Chico Circuit offers the perfect way to experience the area whilst sampling the beers from what also must be the most picture-perfect settings for a brewery in the world.  A must do experience if you’re staying in or around Bariloche

A week for the highlights of Patagonia

So you have a week and you want to see the highlights?  Likely flying in from somewhere 12+ hours away and have from one weekend to the next for vacation?  My suggestion would be to focus on Torres del Paine National Park and the Perito Moreno Glacier from El Calafate

You could make your way down to Punta Arenas, but I just think that the scenery around El Calafate area beats it in every respect.  You don’t really have time for the Navimag ferry through the Fjords.  Parque Nacional los Alerces is too far away.  And don’t waste your time going to see the King Penguins at Porvenir

The only place that you should consider squeezing in is the hiking around El Chalten, but we didn’t get a chance to check it out and it would be tight

By giving yourself 4 nights in Torres del Paine / Puerto Natales, a day to see the Perito Moreno Glacier and a day and a half or so of driving (including crossing the Argentina – Chile border), you’ll leave tired but not exhausted, and with a feeling of awe for Patagonia

A trip to the end of the earth, 4 days in the Tierra del Fuego

You typically read about Patagonia in its extremes  – how far south, how remote, how windswept and desolate.  The Tierra del Fuego is the extreme of Patagonia as the southernmost tip of the Americas and is as strange as it is alluring.  Mountains and volcanoes surround you as you arrive in Ushuaia, the southern most city on earth, and you find yourself in the centre of a big playground of glacial lakes, channels and echoes of past culture of the original Fuegian natives.  All giving you a chance to explore and feel what it must have been like for the first explorers, like Magellan and Captain Fitzroy, as they passed through this otherworldly place

Many only arrive in Ushuaia as their departure point for the Antarctic, yet find this little-known to be the highlight.  We opted for doing a combination of taking a tour company for their 4x4s etc as well as doing parts on our own and found that to be the right mix

Hiking Lake Esmeralda in the Tierra del Fuego

At the southernmost tip of the Americas, the Tierra del Fuego is as strange as it is alluring.  Mountains and volcanoes surround you as you arrive in Ushuaia, the southern most city on earth, and you find yourself in the centre of a big playground of glacial lakes, channels and echoes of the past culture of the original Fuegian natives. Make sure if you’re in this part of the world to take a day to hike up to see the bright blues of the glacial lake Esmeralda and see the surrounding mountains and landscape of this otherworldly part of the world

4x4s around the Tierra del Fuego

The Tierra del Fuego – the southermost tip of the Americas and as strange as it is alluring.  Mountains and volcanoes surround you as you arrive in Ushuaia, the southern most city on earth, and you find yourself in the centre of a big playground of glacial lakes, channels and echoes of past culture of the original Fuegian natives.  Take the chance to explore by taking a 4×4 to see some of the lakes, national parks and breathtaking scenery.  You can usually do this in a day, but give yourself two so you can check out the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego and some of the lakes further afield and more remote like Escondido and Fagnano