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

Best way to see Chichen Itza from Cancun

One of the 7 Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is a must visit site.  The iconic El Castillo pyramid; the great ball court that conjures up scenes from movies of brave competitors playing for life and death; the mysterious Cenote Sagrado believed to be the entrance to the underworld; and all  throughout the site a reminder of the complexity, sophistication and genius of the Maya.  The only downside is just how busy this world famous site can get which, when combined with the heat and humidity, could easily spoil the experience

Two key tips:

  • 1. Spend the night in one of the hotels nearby (we stayed at Mayaland, which was nicer than it sounds).  This allows you to enter the park early at 8am when it is far quieter and cooler, compared to an energy sapping trip from somewhere like Cancun for a wander round in the heat of the day.  It also allows you to enjoy the night show . . .
  • 2. Stay for the night show – I’m usually a little sceptical about night shows as they can be a bit tacky and really just another way to make money, but the Chichen Itza Night Show, I thought, was fantastic.  It tells you a bit of the history, runs a spectacular series of images across the El Castillo pyramid, and it’s also just super cool to be walking around the ruins in the early evening when the vast majority of tourists have left.  Must do

Nights out in Cancun

Heard a lot about Cancun, and was keen to hit it hard with some apoco-lash (translation – go out and party, drink a lot etc), but was really disappointed in the end.  I think the main problem with Cancun is that, if you look at it from a travel experience point of view, it is more on the package holiday end of the spectrum than the unique adventure end.  This may sound like lofty expectations for what is effectively a party town, but the experience is to spend the majority of your time in one all-inclusive hotel and go to one venue per night, which is also all-inclusive.  There is less of the wandering from one bar to the next and getting a bit of variety because the separate hotels won’t let you buy individual drinks (need to pay for the full package), which kind of rules out most of the rooftop bars too

Maybe I’m getting old, but would give it a miss.  Nice beach though and obviously a platform to go exploring the likes of Chichen Itza (see Best way to see Chichen Itza for how to best experience this wonder of the world from Cancun), diving in crystal clear Cozumel (tips – Scuba Diving in Cozumel), the Mayan ruins and Cenote diving in Tulum (Exploring the Mayan Ruins of Tulum for the ruins and Scuba Diving the Cenotes of Tulum for the must-do otherworldly diving), and the far more peaceful Isla Mujeres nearby

If do stay in Cancun, we found the Casa Tortugas Boutique Hotel really nice and well located to the Hotel Zone

Scuba diving in Cozumel

Cozumel is all about the diving and the 30m+ visibility.  From what we could see, there were some nice spots outside of the main tourist areas, but the huge influx of cruise ship tourists kind of dominates the main town of San Miguel.  If a diver, its a great spot for nice 1-2 day adventure heading over from the mainland, and where you only spend the evenings in the main town.  If not a diver, give it a miss unless you can find a quieter spot

We went with Maple Leaf Scuba for 2 dives and they were great.  1st dive –  Palancar Bricks (26m), where you work your way through the maze of coral walls which was fun.  Highlight was the 2nd dive – Paso del Codral (18m), a long drift dive along the coral floor, one of my favourite dives for its colours and sheer amount to see

Scuba diving the Cenotes of Tulum

I know there are so many dives in the world that are “must do’s”, but the Cenote dives near Tulum really are “must do’s”.   As you drive through the scorchingly hot, thick Mexican jungle, one of the last things you’ll be expecting is to go scuba diving.  Yet, after only a few minutes of getting your gear on and pushing through the undergrowth, you find yourself transported to another world of intricate underwater cave systems with mysterious depths – no wonder the Mayan thought they were entrances to the underworld

The whole experience is unique.  But the highlight is the Angelita Cenote – a circular sink hole in the middle of the jungle that, due to the different densities of the salt and fresh water and a 3m / 10ft hydrogen sulphate layer, gives the impression of flying above dark clouds of some otherworldly swamp land – a bit like a combo of the Mayan Underworld and that scene in the swamp from The Empire Strikes Back.  Unique and a must do if you’re a diver in this part of the world

Exploring the Mayan ruins of Tulum

The coastal Mayan ruins in Tulum are worth checking if you have a spare morning / afternoon – an early morning wander through the complex with their often dramatic positioning on the cliffs is really pleasant.  But, if you’re in this part of they world, they really are small fry compared to the far more impressive Chichen Itza (see an entry Best way to see Chichen Itza for more details on visiting); Tikal in Guatemala (the #1 Mayan site of them all, see Mayan Ruins of Tikal for tips on how best to enjoy); or, if more adventurous, exploring by helicopter the (relatively) newly-discovered El Mirador from an earlier period of Mayan history and buried deep into the jungle north of Tikal (more details Helicopter trip to El Mirador)

Again, the Tulum ruins are pleasant, but there are world-class Mayan ruins  to be seen not too far away

Seeing the Pyramids of Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan is a must if visiting Mexico City.  The pyramids are probably not as intricate as those in the Yucatan for the Maya or in Peru for the Inca, but what they lack in intricacy they make up for in sheer size – the site is huge (it was once Mesoamerica’s largest city) and is dominated by the two giant pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.  Be sure to climb the Sun Temple for the best views over the whole ancient city