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

3 weeks in Colombia

Luscious green mountains hiding little coffee village gems, treks deep into the jungle to see lost cities, a world-class old colonial town that lets you lose yourself in dreams of pirates and discovery, and a country that has recently / hopefully put a recent history of blood-bloodcurdling violence behind it.  Colombia, cracking country to visit

Due to the spread out nature of many of Colombia’s highlights and the slow travel between each, you really need 2-3 weeks to do the place justice and I’ve listed out below which is a great itinerary for 3 weeks

The must see highlights (with links to their individual travel entries) are Hiking the Lost City Trek, Soaking up the Cartagena Old Town and Walking the Valley de Cocora and soaking up Salento.  Also cool are hanging out in Tayrona National Park and spending a Couple of days in Medellin riding the cable cars are also cool.  Further down the list of classic highlights are Bogota (see Cycle trip around Bogota), which makes sense to visit as you’ll likely fly into there (and its the same distance to the Valley de Cocora as it is from Medellin), and if you have a spare day check out the Guatape Lakes outside of Medellin

Hiking the Lost City Trek

The Cuidad Perdida (Lost City) was first built around the 12th century and was abandoned when the local people (the Tayrona) fled deeper into the jungle to escape the Spanish Conquistadores and their insatiable drive for gold.  Only rediscovered in the 1970s, the Lost City itself is an inspiring site to visit – mysterious terraces going up the mountainous jungle and built far before the likes of Machu Picchu.  But it is the trek itself – 4 days through some of the most beautiful jungle in Colombia and through some of the still existing hill tribes – that makes this a wonderful experience

It was a lot harder than we thought – 44km (27 miles) of quite steep terrain and, of course for this part of the world, hot and humid – so be prepared, but make this a must do if in this part of the world

Tayrona National Park and staying in a bit of paradise nearby

Yeah the National Park is nice – you can walk through the jungle areas to get to the beautiful beaches, and don’t get me wrong it is indeed nice – but it gets pretty crowded.  My tip would be to stay in one of the chilled out beach hotels in the fantastic area just past the eastern end of the park, where the river meets the sea

The hotels themselves are lovely, and the nearby beach between the sea and the lake is gorgeous.  We ended up extending our stay for 4 nights because we liked it so much and headed over to the park for two of the days, avoiding the rush of a day trip from Santa Marta.  Search for Maloka Barlovento for the right spot.  We stayed there and would recommend

Nearby you also have two super things to do – firstly, and easiest, is Cartagena’s wonderful Old Town that ranks as one of the best in Latin America and see more tips at the travel entry Soaking up the Cartagena Old Town.  But the highlight is the 4days / 3 nights Hiking the Lost City Trek where you trek through the jungle to the mystical Lost City.   And have a look at how it can all come together in a itinerary for 3 weeks in Colombia

One last tip – “Cayman Aguja” is a sign you’ll see put up all along the shore.  It isn’t a type of cayman, its an American Crocodile!

Soaking up the Cartagena Old Town

Wandering through the historic old town of Cartagena, it’s easy to let your mind wander and think back to the time of discovery, adventure and pirates as you soak up the cobbled streets and stunning architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage site.  This, plus some great restaurants, make Cartagena one of the must visit sites of Colombia

Unfortunately, the downside is that it gets super busy with the sheer volume of tourists (I got the impression Cartagena is the #1 choice destination for people’s first visit to Colombia), and some of the most intense number of hawkers I’ve seen anywhere in the world.  This also makes some of the plans for trips to the nearby beaches or those islands to the South West not quite the romantic paradise you’d have hoped for

Definitely worth the visit though as Cartagena has to be in the top 5 Old Towns in Latin America

Guatape Lakes outside of Medellin

The Guatape Lakes are a nice day trip to take from Medellin – views from the top of the 220m (720 feet) tall La Piedra are cool and the walk around the colourful town of Guatape is nice.  But I’d challenge a lot I’ve read about this being a “must see”.  I found Hiking the Lost City Trek, Soaking up the Cartagena Old Town, Walking the Valley de Cocora and soaking up Salento, hanging out in Tayrona National Park and spending a Couple of days in Medellin riding the cable cars must sees in Colombia.  The Guatape Lakes are a nice day trip if you have a spare day

Couple of days in Medellin riding the cable cars

There’s a heap of stuff to check out in Medellin – the street art, the changing neighbourhoods, the museums, the great bar and restaurant scene – but the favourite thing to do was riding the extensive cable cars.  Not only over the various neighbourhoods clinging precariously to the steep sides, but also up over the city valley sides and into the lush green forests where the city is completely forgotten

Good little set of adventures to see the contrasts not just in the rich poor areas, but also the dense city and the green forests

Walking the Valley de Cocora, visiting the humming birds and soaking up Salento

The Los Nevados National Park region is gorgeous, mist-filled rolling valleys with just miles and miles of luscious greens of the jungle all around you.  And the highlights are the Valley de Cocora – a valley full of the world’s tallest palm trees (up to 60m / 200 feet) that also includes a great 5/6 hour round trip hike with views of the valleys below and a spot with hundreds of hummingbirds hovering around you – and staying in the pretty hill-top town of Solento for a relaxing few days.  They can get a little touristy in spots, but you don’t have to wander far to find yourself a quieter spot that allows you to relax and soak up the central Colombian vibe


Definitely one of the highlights of Colombia