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

Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park

The location is beautiful and there is an abundance of wildlife, but be prepared for hoards of other tourists, prices far far in excess of other areas nearby, and the kind of tacky industries that naturally spring up around such venues, which, in my opinion, is not really what the rainforests of Costa Rica are about

If you have kids / are elderly / don’t mind theme-park style crowds, then Manuel Antonio is a must – as I say, it is a beautiful location with idyllic white sand beaches easily accessible by the trails and with a practically guaranteed chance of seeing Capuchin monkeys, Pelicans and a whole host of tropical birds .  But if not, then there are other spots in Costa Rica you should put firmly in front of Manuel Antonio.  My recommendation in particular would be Corcovado National Park (Costa Rica’s premier wildlife experience, and see more details in this entry – Camping in Corcovado National Park)

If you are set on visiting the park, my 2 top  tips would be:

  1. Not to stay near the park itself.  The hotels and restaurants there are extremely expensive for what you get and, again, you feel like you’re in a theme park.  Instead, consider staying about an hour further down the coast around the Uvita area that avoids these problems and still gives you the jungle / beach / wildlife vibe.  In particular, I would recommend the El Castillo Hotel, which, in a 6 month trip travelling around Latin America, was the favourite place we stayed
  2. Make sure you also visit the Rainmaker canopy walk – it’s around a 30min drive to the north of Manuel Antonio.  It’s far quieter (we arrived at 8am and had the place largely to ourselves); gives you a different view of the animals (ie from high up in the canopy); and has a series of spots to swim in the river

San Jose for a couple of days

Costa Rica is a wildlife wonderland.  My recommendation is to get to the spots in the country where you can enjoy this wildlife rather than spending time in San Jose which is a generic unattractive Central American city

If do have to spend time there, the Teatro Nacional is worth checking out, but other than that I’d suggest leave quickly / avoid

Bodyboarding at Uvita

Cracking spot for beginners to do some bodyboarding or surfing along the long and wide Uvita beach.  It also has the benefit of being in the Marino Ballena National Park, so you will likely see all sorts of wildlife while here

Whilst not on the normal list of places to visit in Costa Rica, its a good location to relax between Corcovado National Park and San Jose / Manuel Antonio National Park areas.  The Flutterby House backpackers just off the beach is a great place to grab food, drinks and the boards, but my number one tip is to splurge and stay at the Hotel el Castillo that is around a 15min drive further down the coast.  We travelled for 6months around Latin America and this was our favourite place to stay – the views are incredible, the layout gorgeous and the staff couldn’t have been nicer.  The right way to relax after after sleeping in a jungle tent!

Camping in Corcovado National Park

Even in a country that prides itself for its abundance of wildlife, Corcovado National Park stands out in Costa Rica as the premier wilderness experience.  The park’s sheer size, remoteness and restricted number of visitors means that your group will often feel like you have the park to yourself to go adventuring.  And with the the diversity, concentration of wildlife and stunning views, you’re unlikely to be disappointed

A word of warning though – this is walking and camping in a remote rainforest.  Getting there alone takes the best part of a day from the more connected parts of the country and, although the campsites are clean and the guides incredibly helpful, the facilities are basic.  So, get yourself ready for . . . well . . . camping in the jungle ie hot, wet, muddy . . . but a fantastic experience and, in my opinion, the highlight of Costa Rica

Zip-lining and night-time creepy crawly tours in Bahia Drake (near Corcovado National Park)

If you’ve made your way to this part of Costa Rica, chances are you’re here for the country’s premier wildlife experience, Corcovado National Park – which is fantastic and  I’ve written an entry for some tips on 2 great days inside the park itself in Camping in Corcovado National Park.  But do make sure you also give yourself a day for Bahia Drake, and in particular the zip-lining canopy tour which features 12 platforms, 2.5km of line and all roughly 30m / 100ft up in the canopy.  The height gives you a different view of the monkeys and other wildlife that that you obviously won’t get in the park.  Plus, chances are you will probably need to spend the night in Agujitas before heading into the park anyway

The other fun thing I’d recommend is to head off on one of the night-time walks through the jungle with one of the local guides.  Its equally amazing and scary just how much wildlife they can spot right under your noise

Agujitas is the town you’ll most likely stay in.  Nothing to write home about as it is very basic – although it does have its own charm in that it is so remote due to no roads linking it with the rest of the country.  A full day there and get rested up before heading into the park should be enough