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

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

3 days / 2 nights hiking the Quilatoa Loop

The Quilatoa loop was the highlight for us of mainland Ecuador.  3 days of hiking through luscious mountain valleys like something from a Lord of the Rings movie, stopping off in hostels to share stories with fellow travellers whilst also having hours where you don’t see anyone else, passing by the local villages with their friendly smiles and bowler hats, and finishing off with the view looking over the Quilatoa Crater itself

Great few days and a must if visiting Ecuador

Staying in a Ryokan by Lake Toya-ko

Staying in a Ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn with woven matt floors, sleeping on futons and eating all your (local and delicious) meals in the room – is one of those classically Japanese things to do.  Doing so in the northern island of Hokkaido by a classically round active volcanic lake in the snow is also a very nice addition.  Only issue is you should chose wisely on the location
We stayed in the Toya-ko Onsen town, which was easy to reach from Niseko / Sapporo, and the Daiwa Ryokan was great fun, but it’s not the most attractive town.  I would suggest trying to find somewhere else, maybe a bit more isolated.  Considering just how beautiful the surroundings are, it would be worth a bit more of a detailed search, even if you have to plough through the Japanese sites!
For something a bit unusual (more unusual) – head up to the Windsor Hotel, which is still on the rim of Toya-ko, and is an uber 5 star hotel that hosted the G8 summit in 2008.  It’s nice to walk around and has superb views of the lake, but also bizarrely has 2 Michelin 3* restaurants on the top floor which, based on what we saw, are largely empty.  Bear in mind there are only 135 Michelin 3* restaurants in the world, so you get the idea how random this is.  We tried the French one which was great
Unless a bit desperate for something to do (you mean you’re bored sat in one Ryokan room for 2 days?), don’t bother with the ferry ride around the lake.  My girlfriend likes to say it’s the worst date we’ve been on.  Instead, head up to the Usa-zan viewing platform

Campervanning through Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone – the name itself conjures up images of harsh, snow covered lands with roaming wolves, bears and bison; geysers (60% of the world’s geysers are found here) and truly wild nature – a real untameable wild west, and the first National Park of the US.  To get more of this feeling, and avoid the rush of summer visitors (30,000 a day at peak times), I’d suggest doing a couple of things: 1. Go as the park opens up in May (or closes in October).  You’ll have a few things limited due to the snow, but it doesn’t hold back the overall experience.  2. Try some of the back country trails, in addition to the key major attractions.  One of the main reasons less than 5% of visitors try this is a fear of the wild animals, so to counter this make sure to ask the advice of the rangers and, if needed, arrange a ranger-led hike.  We got some advice and headed to 2 spots where it felt like there was no one for miles around.  Didn’t hike far – maybe a couple of hours or so, and it felt like we had the place to ourselves with that wild feeling we were hoping for

We took a campervan around as part of a large 2-3 week trip (see here for Rapid 2 week roadtrip around the US West Coast States), which is super easy to do as Yellowstone is geared up for exactly this.  The “Grand Loop” drive of 132miles / 230km goes through most of the key sites and is well positioned if you want to jump off and find something slightly out of the way.  We stayed the night near the Fishing Bridge of Yellowstone Lake which had some great views

A note on the type of scenery – Yellowstone is less about the stunning individual features that you may find in a Yosemite National Park, Arches National Park, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley etc.  Whilst it does have some great waterfalls and the likes of Old Faithful, its more about the vast size of the place.  So think less about turning the corner to suddenly be presented with an El Capitan or towering sandstone buttes from a western movie; its more about driving and hiking across Yellowstone’s vast area

As we were on a super tight schedule we only had 2 days in Yellowstone, which was enough for a glimpse and to get a feel for the place.  But I would love to have stayed longer and done maybe some more hiking there

If you are driving through Yellowstone, be sure to take the time to at least drive through Grand Teton National Park – its is only an hour or so to the South and it is arguably even more impressive from a vista point of view than Yellowstone – see the travel entry Driving through Grand Teton National Park for more details

Climbing Changbai Shan’s Heaven Lake in late Autumn

On the border with North Korea, Changbai Shan is China’s largest nature reserve and by far the top attraction in the surrounding region.  The park itself is beautifully rugged with bitch trees and pine trees making way to a far more sparse other-worldly landscape once you get above 2000m / 6500ft, but it is the walk up the north slope to the Heaven Lake sitting 2,200m / 7200ft on the top of Paektu Mountain that is the highlight.  The mountain itself is little know outside of this part of the world, but it is an important mythological and cultural symbol for parts of China and certainly for Korea, for example it is in both North and South Korea’s national anthems and is on the national emblem of the North


We visited here at the slightly unusual time of mid October which, because the place is waiting to make its transition from summer visitors to opening up for those visiting the ski slopes later in the year, certainly made it a bit harder to reach and in particular harder to find a place open.  But the flip side was that, for China, it felt we had the walk up to the Heaven Lake almost all to ourselves, which made for a quite unique experience


Top tip – try to stay at the Lanjing Spa Holiday Inn which is only 500m from the north gate entrance.  It has a feeling of being secluded to very much adds to the otherworldly feel.  Most likely at this time of year you’ll be able to get a discount.  No worries if can’t get a spot there, you can stay in Baihe and just get a taxi for 40mins or so to the entrance gate