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

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

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

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

Diving the Blue Hole

Diving the Blue Hole is one of those bucket list items for scuba divers and regularly appears in the top 10 dive sites in the world

Yet it also comes with mixed reviews, mainly because the dive itself is a very different experience to what people may expect from seeing the aerial photos – which are from an aeroplane!  And the shortness of the dive, which is only around 8mins before ascent due to the 40m / 130ft depth.  The 2 hour boat ride there and back over very bumpy seas also doesn’t help

All that being said though, I’d really recommend the whole day to the Blue Hole.  Not only do you have the uniqueness of the dive, with its stalactites and haunting feeling as you look up at the sheer wall above with deep blue below, but you also for the remainder of the day get to explore Half Moon Caye Island within Lighthouse Reef and dive in the crystal clear waters of 2 shallower dives

If in this part of the world and you’re a diver, its a must

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

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

Taking a 4WD tour from San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian Salt Flats

The Salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) are world famous, unique, big enough that you can avoid other tourists and so cool that you can just stand around in awe (see The Bolivian Salt Flats in Rainy Season entry for details on the Salt Flats themselves). But I’d also highly recommend taking the 4WD trip between Uyuni and San Pedro in the Atacama desert . . . in fact its kind of a must if visiting the Salt Flats because of the sheer stunning vistas in this part of the world.  The trip can be a long drive and don’t expect luxury, but seeing the AltiPlano is otherworldly and a world class adventure