6 months trip of a lifetime around Latin America

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
10
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
10
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
8
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
7
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
9
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
10
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
87 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
North America / South America
country
Argentina / Belize / Bolivia / Chile / Colombia / Costa Rica / Cuba / Ecuador / Guatemala / Mexico / Panama / Peru / Uruguay
Length of time
Month or more
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 35,000
Time of year visited
March
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
All Tags
4WD Adrenaline rush Altitude Ancient ruins Beaches Big city Bird spotting Boat trip Bodyboarding Border crossing Breweries Bustling restaurants Cable cars Camping Canyons Castles / Fortresses Cave diving Caves Celebrity Spotting Cenotes Christian site City Walls Cliffs Cool neighbourhoods Cycling Dam Desert Driving Fabulous hotel Ferry Fjords Forests Glacial lakes Glaciers Graveyards Helicopter Hiking Hilltop towns Inca sites Islamic site Islands Isolation Jungle Kayaking Lagoons Lakes Live music Local villages Market Mayan Mirror Lakes Mountains Museums Old town Paragliding Partying / Lash Pyramids Red deserts Restaurant recommendations Rice terraces / terraces River Experience River swimming Rooftop Bars Sailing Salt Flats Scuba diving Skyscrapers Snorkeling Snow Stadiums Stargazing Steak Street Art Sunrise Sunsets Surfing Swimming Temple complex Theatre Train journey UNESCO world heritage site Unusual hotel Vineyards Volcanic Lake Volcanoes Waterfalls Wildlife - Albatross Wildlife - Baird's Tapir Wildlife - Blackhawks Wildlife - Boobies Wildlife - Coaties Wildlife - Condors Wildlife - Crocodiles Wildlife - Dolphins Wildlife - Flamingos Wildlife - Frigate Birds Wildlife - Hummingbirds Wildlife - Llamas/Alpacas/Guanacos/Vicunas Wildlife - Manta Rays Wildlife - Marine Iguanas Wildlife - Monkeys Wildlife - Parrots Wildlife - Pelicans Wildlife - Penguins Wildlife - Sea Lions Wildlife - Sea Turtles Wildlife - Sharks Wildlife - Sloths Wildlife - Spiders Wildlife - Tortoises Wildlife - Viscachas Wine Wonder of the World Wonder of the World - Engineering / Industrial Zip-lining
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
5th/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 5% SUMMARY RATING: Unmissable

Summary

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

highlights

#1 Diving and exploring the blissful islands in the wildlife mecca of the Galapagos Islands. A truly unforgettable and unique experience

#2 Wine tasting through the various vineyards near Mendoza, at the foot of the tallest mountains in the Andes and as you cycle from one gorgeous spot to the next

#3 Taking a 4WD adventure trip from the Atacama Desert in Argentina to the world famous Bolivian Salt Flats and, despite all the hype, being blown away by just how fun it is to stomp around in the water taking silly photos

#4 Cycling the picture-perfect Chico Circuit of Bariloche and stopping off in the breweries as you go

#5 Hiking the 4 day Inca Trail through some of the world's most beautiful mountains and being rewarded at the end with a sunrise view of one of the wonders of the world, Machu Picchu

#6 Wandering the historic city streets of Havana, siping mojitos as you move from one music filled bar to the next and sampling food from restaurants that in any other city would be a highlight for their architecture alone

#7 Trekking the 4 days to find the inspiring "Lost City", nestled up in the Colombian jungle. A hot, tough, but rewarding experience

#8 Having the premier Mayan site, Tikal, to explore all to yourself - go when it's hammering down with rain for it to be empty when the rain stops

#9 Eating at the Mercado de Puerto in Montevideo - grab a seat at the bar, watch the grill sizzle, order a Malbec and enjoy some of the finest steaks in the world

#10 Lake Atitlan - quite possibly the most beautifully idyllic place in the world. Think Lake Como in Italy, but with volcanoes and indigenous villages dotting the side. Spend a few days just relaxing, or maybe a few weeks

#11 Seeing the wealth of famous Inca sites, jaw-dropping mountain scenery and picturesque Peruvian villages as you drive through the Sacred Valley in Peru

#12 Taking a helicopter trip into the heart of the Guatemalan jungle to visit the recently discovered pre-Classical ruins of El Mirador. A really wow-factor experience

#13 Relaxing in the fabulous hotels, such as Hotel Grey, as part of 3 days in the stunning Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia

#14 A boat trip through the white sand, clear turquoise waters of the Zapatillas Islands of Bocas del Torro in Panama

#15 Camping overnight in Corcovado National Park, searching for Tapirs, Monkeys and crocodiles in Costa Rica's premier wildlife experience

#16 Zip-lining through places as varied as the jungles of Costa Rica to the canyons of Peru

#17 Visiting the Tierra del Fuego, the End of the World in the far south of Argentina, and hiking to Lakes like Esmerelda, where no camera filter is needed

#18 Getting reservations for some of the world's best restaurants in the gastronomic capital of Lima

#19 Diving the otherworldly Cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsular - no wonder the Maya thought they were the entrances to the underworld

#20 Chilling out in Buenos Aires' uber cool neighbourhood of Palermo, where it seems every corner has a buzzing bar hidden behind the grafitti

#21 The cold, the dark, the altitude, the relentless uphill slog . . . the feeling of accomplishment as you summit Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador

#22 The bright greens of the Guatemalan jungle mixed in with the whites of the mountain clouds and the turquoise blues of the water make Semuc Champey of the most beautiful spots to visit

#23 Wandering through post-Classical Mayan ruins and enjoying the night show of one of the Wonders of the World at Chichen Itza

#24 Gawping at the sheer scale of the Perito Moreno Glacier as it carves chunks into Lake Argentina

#25 hiking for 3 days through luscious mountain valleys like something from a Lord of the Rings movie, stopping off in hostels to share stories with fellow travellers, passing by the local villages with their friendly smiles and bowler hats, and finishing off with the view looking over the Quilatoa Crater itself

Rough itinerary

We started this itinerary at the end of December, which meant we went through Patagonia in the summer; but also that we had to double back on ourselves from Central America back to Peru so we could enjoy the start of their hiking season in May.  Obviously adaptable depending on your timings:

 

Travel Tips

  • Things it would have been great to do (in the areas we visited):
    • Drive the 1240km / 770mile Carreterra Austral through the spine of Chile
    • Hike through the El Chalten area in Argentina’s Patagonia
    • Spend time in the area around Lake Tititcaca on the border with Peru and Bolivia
    • See the mines and history of Potosi in Bolivia
    • Spend some time in Argentina’s Pampas to see the vast cowboy country
    • See the Nazca Lines from a small plane in Peru
    • Diving with crocodiles near Laguna Bacalar in Mexico
    • Exploring the rain forrest of Monteverde and climbing nearby Volcan Arenal in Costa Rica
    • Whitewater rafting the Rio Futaleufu and hiking in Pumalin in central Chile
    • Explore the old streets of Trinidad in Cuba
    • Climb the 6,981m / 22,837ft of Aconcagua in Argentina, supposed to be a fantastic challenge whilst also not being technically restrictive
    • Check out bohemian seaside area of Valparaiso in Chile

 

  • Things we would probably have given a miss:
    • Travelling to see the Penguins in Porvenir, Chile.  A long way to go for not much to see!
    • The beaches of Punta del Este in Uruguay.  Like a cheap Mediterranean resort
    • Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.  Whilst there are some beautiful spots, the vast numbers of tourists in a small area makes it less enjoyable than seeing somewhere like Corcovado National Park to the south
    • San Jose in Costa Rica.  Nothing really worth seeing
    • The nightlife in Cancun.  Great hype but a bit of a disappointment based on the restrictive all inclusive hotel arrangements
    • Taking the Navimag ferry through the Patagonian Fjords.  We did enjoy this, but it is very weather dependant and probably driving a similar distance through the Carreterra Austral would have been better

 

  • I’ve added in some top 10s of Latin America (top experiences and top Old Towns) in the Top 10 section of this site.  Be sure to have a look

Experiences nearby

The below map shows experiences nearby with a colour that reflect the Overall Score of those experiences

Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone