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

3 days checking out Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is one of the premier cites in Latin America and one that feels the most European – certainly has the same feel of a Barcelona or Milan – but with that Argentinian vibe that makes it so captivating.  Its my favourite city in South America and in 3 days I’d recommend a combination of getting out and about, whilst giving the time to simply sit back and soak up all going on around you

Make sure you stay in the super cool Palermo, cycle about the key sites and along the North part of the city, and head into the central places like La Catedral to stare gobsmacked at all ages dancing the sensual tango

Cycling around Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is one of the premier cities to visit in Latin America and no doubt one of the hubs you’ll pass through if experiencing this part of the world.  Jumping on a bike, either through a tour or on your own, is a great, cheap way to check it out

Top Tip – BA bikes was great for providing bikes and taking you on a tours; otherwise just rent one and be sure to head up along the coastline of the north part of the city which is stunning on a sunny day

Full day highlights of Chicago

Winters are brutal, but in the summer Chicago is one hell of a place to be with its lakefront beaches, host of activities and with its general buzzy sassy attitude.  I, from a personal point of view, had one of the best days of my life in Chicago because I managed to combine a cycle up the lakefront, the boat tour of the sites, a baseball game, concert and drinks.  Chicago in summer is raring to go and I’ve listed my top tips for an amazing day in the Tips section below

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

A couple of days in Melbourne

Melbourne is consistently voted one of the most liveable cities in the world based on its arts scene, access to outstanding restaurants, outdoor lifestyle and, well, lack of many of the usual frustrations other large cities have.  But more than anything, it’s the vibe of the place that makes it stand out, especially in comparison with its natural rival Sydney.  Whilst Sydney has the big ticket world famous items like the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, Melbourne is more about the street cafes, chilled out lifestyle and sports scene.  So, to get the most out this wonderful city, its best to focus on these things for a couple of days

 

Its years since I lived in Melbourne, ,which also means there are fewer photos to share!  But my 5 biggest tips for 2 days:

  • #1 Sports – see if you can combine your visit with one of the major sporting events taking place as Melbourne really comes to life when these are in town.  Best ones are the Australian Tennis Open (January), the Melbourne Cup horse racing (March), Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix (usually March) and the Australian Rules Football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) throughout the year.  Even if not a sports fan its a must
  • #2 Cafe culture – Melbourne is often called the most European of Australia’s cities and a large part of this comes from the street cafe culture.  The best places are always changing, but I’d suggest heading into Fitzroy as it has the added benefit of bring next to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens nearby.  Another option is Richmond, which can tie in nicely with a the end of a walk along the Yarra River and visiting the MCG
  • #3 Walk along the Yarra River – the city centre of Melbourne is actually quite beautiful and nothing brings it to life more than the walk along the river.  Start at Crowne Casino on the South Bank with the skyscrapers surrounding you and then walk east past the magnificent Flinders Street Station, Federation Square and onto the lovely gardens of Queen Victoria Gardens and Kings Domain.  From there walk over the Swan Street Bridge through Melbourne Park and finish at the MCG
  • #4 Chill out in St Kilda – whilst Melbourne may not have the wow beaches of Sydney, St Kilda is far cooler.  Give yourself an afternoon to chill by the beach and enjoy the neighbourhood
  • #5 Be prepared for extreme temperatures – Melbourne is often highlighted as a city that can have 4 seasons in a day.  Famous for its 40 Celsius / 104 Fahrenheit days of blistering heat, it can also be grey and rainy shortly after and, one the first day I arrived, it snowed
  • Extra tip – give yourself a day trip to the Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s most famous driving routes, with its gorgeous coastline, rainforests with koalas housed in the trees, pretty seaside towns, and the eye catching 12 Apostles.  Only a 3 hours drive from Melbourne, part of which is taken up by the gorgeous drive along the coastline itself