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

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 through the Charyn Canyon and staying overnight in yurts

I’m surprised the Charyn Canyon doesn’t get more attention – it is a 300m / 1000ft deep, 155km / 100mile long gash straight through the almost perfectly flat plain floor, with snow capped mountains in the distance and spectacular rock formations all the way along the 3km / 2mile easily accessible walk along the canyon floor.  Its not even listed as a highlight of Kazakhstan, let alone Central Asia, which I think it certainly should be

 

A few high level tips:

  • I don’t think its really worth visiting as a day trip from Almaty – it takes around 4 hours to get there, 4 hours back and you’re really rushing it for time to walk along the canyon floor.  Instead, stay the night in one of the yurts at the end of the immediate canyon floor and enjoy the changes in colours all around the canyon for the sunsets and sunrises
  • Stay longer?  I even think it would be worth staying a bit longer to be able to head off on one of the jeep tours of the surrounding area.  Seemed beautiful country and a fantastic way to explore it
  • As with most spots in Kazakhstan, be aware of the weather – freezing in winter and boiling in summer
  • Where to stay? – the only place to stay in the canyon itself is the Eco-Park Charyn Canyon Tourist Complex, which has rooms and yurts, plus a restaurant.  So book ahead
  • If tired in the heat or coldthere are a series of small trucks that pass along the road in the canyon and, if you ask nicely, they seem more than happy to give you a life
  • Heading from here to Kyrgyzstan – as an extra tip, if you want to head to the beautiful hiking area around Karakol just over the border in Kyrgyzstan, you don’t have to go the super long way round via Almaty and Bishkek.  Instead, you can travel directly over the border when it is open in May – October and head through the actually quite beautiful Karkara Valley.  I did it myself and it was surprised how straightforward it was with a little basic planning and using a couple of taxis – do not try and do it with public transport.  Rather than listing out all the info I vaguely remember about it, I found the website Away with the Steiners Kegan border crossing pretty accurate

Cycling down the Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge on the east coast of Taiwan is stunning.  Steep, bright and beautifully cut marble walls, lush vegetation, mountains, and cascading waterfalls all the way down.  Cycling this is one of the highlight experiences for any trip to Taiwan

 

One big tip – stay at the Taroko Lodge who can drop you off at the top of the gorge for a nicer cycle downhill.  Whilst not super hard, the cycle up from the Visitor Centre, at the entrance to the valley, to just past the Tianxiang area, where most people finish, is around 20km / 1.5miles and with a net uphill of around 500m / 1650ft.  For sure its a nice challenge for the 1.5 hours or so, but it can be a little bit of a slog uphill.    If you stay at Taroko Lodge, which is a nice old-school homestay, they can arrange to rent you bikes and drop you off anywhere on the gorge, which takes the slog out of the whole experience.  I took a very leisurely 2.5 hours to cycle from the bridge by Tianxiang back down to the Lodge.  Bloody loved it

Rapid 2 week roadtrip around the US West Coast States

My favourite road trip – the contrasts of natural landscape along the way with snowy mountains, red / yellow deserts, and temperate rainforests; the tasters of the different culture snapshots of the US with conservative cowboys through to uber-liberal SoCal and Pacific North West; the sheer world-fame of some spots like Las Vegas, LA, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon; but more than anything – its a trip that is simply perfect for driving.  The distances involved, the way the US in particular is set up for the drivers and the scenery to take in in between the obvious highlights is just world-beating

It’s also a super high octane trip – 4200 miles / 6760km of driving – the sort of thing you rattle off in your 20s, when you have the energy, 2 weeks of vacation and are keen to see and do everything.  There’s something just so incredibly fun and fantastic about seeing one world-famous site one after the other in rapid succession – one day being in the likes of Yellowstone National Park, the next in Arches National Park, the next the Grand Canyon, the next Las Vegas, the next LA etc etc.  An exciting whirlwind that creates a feeling most will never forget . . . and in a way equally spoils / sets the bar incredibly high for any other trip

A bit rushed? – on the trip itself, we didn’t feel overly rushed.  Again, we had 2 weeks vacation and wanted to see as much of this part of the world as possible.  For example, I actually found a day / half day in each of the national parks perfect to do a basic walk, see the main attractions and get the feel for them.  But of course, it would have been nice to spend longer in each – perhaps take a 3 day hiking trip across one of them.  Or perhaps see some of the other pieces we of course missed along the way.  Ultimately, I always suggest avoiding the mass tourism standard experience on offer, and I shudder just thinking of trying to do this again, but in a part of the world that has world class sites one after the other, the gorging on them was great fun

Looking across the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon obviously comes with high expectations – natural wonder of the world, the scene for so many movies and photos, UNESCO world heritage listed etc – and it doesn’t disappoint.  As you walk up to it for your first view from above, you can’t help but have that “wow” moment at the sheer immensity of it.  It may not be the deepest or longest canyon in the world, but its the most impressive

Taking a cruise down the Yangzi through the Three Gorges

Taking a boat down the Yangzi River through the heart of China is a great, if very Chinese, experience.  Whilst the Yangzi is the longest and mightiest river in China, and the 3rd longest in the world, this part of the trip focuses only on the journey from Chongqing (a giant of a city with 31m people) to Yichang in a route that is around 20km and takes around 40 hours / 3 nights (you leave Chongqing in the evening). The highlights on the way are the impossibly steep and huge Three Gorges of Qutang, Wu and Xiling, the more picturesque Little Three Gorges which is an offshoot of the Yangzi, the vast Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam, and a series of Ghost Towns that were deserted when their residents were moved across the river

 

Overall, its a must-do experience if around this part of China.  Only downside is that it does get very busy – a true Chinese experience!

 

My key tip though is around the choice of cruise companies to go with.  You can go with the international cruise companies, which will be the high level standard you expect and around US500, or with the local companies which are 100% catered towards the Chinese market, which means public tannoy systems, early starts, the classic megaphone-flag-style tours and typically more crowded (Chinese people have ZERO understanding of personal space).  We went with the local boat option because we were living in China at the time, a bit money conscious and wanted the full blown experience.  On balance, I’d say that if you can afford it, go with the international cruise company – I’m hesitant to use the word “better”, but you’ll most likely have a more relaxing and serene experience . . . without the megaphones.  But, if you are looking to save a bit of money, the local boat will at least give you that full-on Chinese experience which will also be a great memory (once your ears recover)

 

Second tip – make sure to check what it is that you are paying for with the cruise company.  Key items are that you are not paying for every ticket for every one of the temples etc along the way – they are a bit dull and samesy after a while and you can buy the tickets when there; and that your cruise includes a trip through the Little Three Gorges – the international ones will, but the local Chinese ones will often expect you to have arranged and paid for it

Train ride from Sydney to Katoomba and checking out the Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are one of the (many) natural highlights of Australia, with their scenic lookouts over rugged sandstone cliffs, blue-tinged eucalyptus forests and sweeping canyons for some excellent bush-walks, so it is no wonder they have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The added benefit is that they are very accessible on a day trip from central Sydney, which takes 2 hours to Katoomba and includes some wonderful scenery on the way

 

Three top tips:

#1 If possible, limit your time in Katoomba – when getting the train, the stop you want is Katoomba which is also where many of the famous sites and activities are, and where the majority of the fellow tourist traffic is.  For sure give yourself the time for Echo Point to see the Blue Mountains’ most famous site – the Three Sisters Rock Formations that stick out across the canyon and the prime photo taking spot.  But see if you can head out of Katoomba to get away from the crowds.  That being said, if the crowds aren’t too busy, the Skyway Gondola and Scenic Railway are great fun, especially the 2.5km / 1.5miles forest boardwalk at the foot of the railway

#2 Head to Blackheath and the Grand Canyon Walk – Blackheath is 2 stops up from Katoomba and you find the fellow tourist numbers dropping substantially.  From Blackheath, take a taxi to Evans Lookout and from there its a spectacular 5km / 3miles of the Grand Canyon Walk.  Will take around 3 hours and very much worth it

#3 Stay overnight – whilst you can easily check out the Blue Mountains on a day trip from Sydney, the best way to experience them is the evening and early morning before the masses of tourists arrive.  Wandering around looking over the distant views of the Three Sisters in the early evening and waking up early to have some of the trails largely to yourself – magical

Camping in otherworldly Karijini National Park

If Karijini wasn’t in such a remote part of Australia it would be firmly on the top list of National Parks across the country.  As it is though, the remote nature of the park means that there are far fewer visitors than many of the other parks and, combined with the breathtaking gorges and hidden waterfalls, gives you an otherworldly feeling of descending to the centre of the earth . . . or at least to the next beautiful rock pool area.  Very much worth the 3-4 hour drive inland from the more traditional sites of Western Australia

 

Top tip – be sure to camp, or at least stay overnight.  The stars are immense because of the lack of light pollution this far inland