7/8 week itinerary for the highlights of South East Asia

South East Asia has to be the premier world traveling region.  A big call?  For sure, but consider what genuinely world class offerings it can provide:

 

  • World class beaches and coastal areas – think of THAT beach in Ko Phi Phi and HaLong Bay, one of the Natural Wonders of the World
  • World class food – think Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and the genuine fusion into the mix with the large established Indian and Chinese communities
  • World class ancient sites and history – think of the temples of the “8th Wonder of the World” of Angkor Wat, and the breathtaking site of the pagodas stretching across the plain in Bagan
  • World class cities and party locations – think of Singapore as the city of the future and the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha-Ngan

 

And all this in a place that is super safe, outrageously friendly, easy and cheap to travel in.  A must for any keen traveler and the below itinerary will give you the highlights – enjoy!

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

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

Helicopter trip to El Mirador in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle

Ok so this is was cool. For many travelling through Central America, seeing glimpses of the ancient Mayan civilisation is one of the highlights of their trip.  These glimpses tend to focus on the Classical Mayan Period, such as those at the world famous Tikal.  But . . . seeing El Mirador will allow you to see not only the largest cluster of buildings from any Mayan site, but also to see the PRE-Classical period and have the place largely to yourself

There is a 5 day trek to get there, but if short on time, want to see from the air and, like us, had never been in a helicopter, take the helicopter flight for a unique experience

Itinerary for 10 wonderful days in Guatemala

We were blown away by our 10 days in Guatemala.  Two of the most idyllic and beautiful places you can imagine with Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey; a gorgeously preserved insight into former Spanish colonial times in the Old Town of Antigua; world-class ancient ruins with the #1 Mayan site of Tikal and the adventure into the jungle to see the mystic El Mirador; gorgeous jungles and mountains across the country; and all done so with the wonderful Guatemalan people

Really rated Guatemala and I’d place it as my favourite country for travelling in Central America

2 / 3 weeks for the highlights of Peru

Peru really does have some world class attractions – world beating restaurants in Lima, a wonder of the world with Machu Picchu, the world’s deepest canyon and some of the best preserved ruins in the world courtesy of the master builder Incas.  The below 2/3 week itinerary lets you enjoy these key sites, plus great activities like hiking, paragliding, zip-lining; and gives you those critical ingredients in a great trip – a sense of fun and adventure as you head a bit off the beaten track

As with all such trips, having more time is ideal.  I’m sure you could easily take months on this itinerary, and indeed far longer for the rest of Peru.  But 2.5 weeks felt about perfect for this trip with the right combo of full-on days mixed in with chill-out days in each of the stops to soak up the place and generally recharge the batteries after the travelling and hiking.  Similarly, you could also, if super pressed for time, knock off the 5 chill-out days and blitz through this trip in 2 weeks – and indeed many have done – but just be aware that there are two quite strenuous hikes and the need to acclimatise to the altitude when you land in Cusco

One of the best 2/3 week adventures I’ve been on.  Highly recommend

Hiking and zip-lining in the Colca Canyon

Visiting the Colca Canyon is a great 3/4 day trip from Arequipa – you’ll see some stunning scenery as the canyon is the second deepest in the world (twice the depth of the Grand Canyon) with majestic condors flying overhead, see plenty of traces of the old Inca construction along the valley; and end it with some adrenaline pumping zip-lining

If you’re going to hike one trek in Peru, it will very likely be the Inca trail, which is indeed stunning (see Hiking the 4 days Inca Trail for more details).  But the Colca Canyon trip is one that will cost a fraction of that, be far less busy and allow you to go at your own pace.  I really rated it

Hiking the 4 day / 3 night Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is a 43km hike that snakes its way majestically through a combination of stunning Andes mountains, Peruvian countryside, near perfectly maintained Inca ruins, thick cloud forest mists and ending at the Sun Gate, the mountain entrance to the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.  It is one of those rare travel experiences that really lives up to the hype

As you can see in the tips below, there are a few things to consider before heading off on the trail, in particular your level of fitness, the cost and going at the right time of year.  It can also get a little busy at times, but this is all relative – 200 hikers per day spread over the 43km rarely feels crowded compared to Machu Picchu and the various Inca sites in the Sacred Valley.  If you have the time, the money and the stamina, you’ve got to do it.  The combination of the mystery of the Inca ruins, the truly breathtaking mountain scenery and its world fame makes this one of the must do travel experiences in South America and, in my opinion, the world

Lima – a weekend of world class restaurants, super cool neighbourhoods and rapid paragliding

As with so many capital cities in this part of the world, you’re most probably visiting as a spring board to some of the areas of natural beauty in the country and, in the case of Peru, this is most likely for the amazing mountain hiking and Inca sites to the east (which are indeed fantastic and for more details see Hiking the 4 day Inca Trail, Driving through the Sacred Valley, Key sites just outside Cusco, The Old Town of Arequipa, and the Hiking the Colca Canyon travel entries).  My big recommendation though would be to make sure you give yourself at least 2 days in Lima.  Three reasons for this:

1. The food is world-class – not your standard “oh yeah the food is great” – more like Lima has 3/50 best restaurants in the world level (Paris has 5, London 4, Tokyo has 3, New York 3).  The fusions of Spanish, Japanese, indigenous and African influences make Peruvian cuisine unique and exquisite

2. The neighbourhoods are awesome – walking through the neighbourhoods of Miraflores and Barranco with their chic lounge bars and cafes whilst being near the edge of the dramatic black cliffs that span so much of the coast of Lima is a great vibe to check out.

3. The paragliding from the cliffs is super fun and so incredibly easy to do – just rock up, get strapped in and off you go – I can’t think of any other cities in the world where it is that accessible and with such great views as you soar along the cliffs – just do it!

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