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 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

Chilling, diving and drinking in Caye Caulker

Chilling – Go Slow is on the street signs, used when people say hello to each other, and just the general culture of the place.  Such a wonderfully laid back Caribbean beach town

Diving – some fab dive sites no distance from the shore, and of course access to the world famous Blue Hole

Drinking – the Spit, the narrow channel that splits Caye Caulker in two and with a series of beach bars to allow you to chill in the water whilst having your drinks, makes for one of the best drinking spots you can dream of

Caye Caulker – a must if in Belize

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

3 days relaxing and diving by the beautiful Lake Atitlan

The most beautiful place I saw in Central America and, quite possibly, the most beautifully idyllic place in the world.  Think Lake Como in Italy, but with volcanoes and indigenous villages dotting the side.  Think originally scheduling for 1 night, but extending to 3 nights after one look across the lake.  Think finding that spot nestled in the trees just above the water with a view looking across the lake and the volcanoes, and knowing your whole day will be happily spent there as you swing in the hammock only leaving for occasional swims

Ok, you get it, idyllically beautiful.  A must if in Central America

If you’re a diver, its also worth doing a couple of dives here.  Whilst the visibility is poor and not a huge amount of wildlife to see, its a good experience to be diving at altitude (1560m / 5100ft), plus checking out the now-underwater hotel and finding hot spots on the lake bed where the volcano heats the lake

Going back in time for a week in Cuba

Cuba really does feel like going back in time . . . or like you’re in a parallel universe as the country went off on a tangent to the rest of the world.  Havana for sure has glimpses of this – the vibe is of a historic Old Town that generates thoughts of what it must have been like back in the days of Spanish colonial pomp, Caribbean pirates and vast trade running through to create such fine architectural buildings and general buzz – but it is when you start to leave the capital that you feel this more slightly . . . odd . . . feeling about the place.  As you drive through the vast swathes of untouched tropical Cuban countryside you’ll see the pace of life drop significantly and small towns that feel more like small town America of the 1950s – a single main street with shops, each complete with a long porch for people to watch the world go by and an even longer queue outside of people there to buy whatever they are trying to buy.  As you go a bit further out you will see evidence of the centralised planning with large complexes of apartment blocks or hotel grounds with practically no one there.  And, in amongst all of it, the Cuban people who are as friendly as they are proud of their country

All this really is slightly odd – but it is also the key ingredient that makes Cuba such a unique experience

The itinerary I’ve listed here is more for the west of Cuba and the one we enjoyed.  Your other option of course is to head south from Havana to the colonial landscape of Trinidad and then dive in Bahia de Cochinos, both of which we’ve heard great things about.  The below itinerary though gets you more off the beaten tourist track and this was in particular something that we enjoyed so much about Cuba – a glimpse into that strange tangent the country has taken

Scuba diving at Maria la Gorda

Remote.  Quiet.  Slightly odd.  Staying at the Hotel Maria la Gorda and the surrounding area feels a bit like if the hotel from The Shinning was on its own tropical island.  The hotel is geared for large numbers of guests, with individual 1950s commune-style houses dotted all around the grounds, and is by a lovely beach . . . yet . . . as with many large projects in Cuba, it sort of misses the mark – in this case because there is no real reason to come this far to the end of Cuba other than for diving.  Now the diving is great (great visibility in particular), but I can’t imagine there ever being enough divers to fill the facilities.  Kinda spooky, but also very cool and certainly adds to the feeling of being in a bit of a parallel universe as part of an itinerary for Going back in time for a week in Cuba

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