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

A boat trip of the Zapatillas Islands

When staying in the super chilled and glorious set of islands of Bocas del Toro, you’ll definitely want to head off on a boat trip.  When you do, you’ll likely see some dolphins as you head from Bocas Town; stop in a series of places on Bastimentos Island to see some sloths and mangroves, grab lunch with sharks coming up to the stilts of the restaurants to pick on scraps and generally enjoy the beauty of the island chain.  But the highlight is the Zapatilla Islands themselves – stunning bright white sand beaches that seem to fully surround the tiny islands.  As close to island paradise as it gets

World class beaches in Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a gorgeous piece of island paradise – some of the most beautiful beaches in the world with the Zapatillas Islands; laid back hotels all the way along the long coastline of the main island; a great Caribbean small party backpacker vibe in Bocas del Torro Town; and a range of wildlife including humming birds, sloths, dolphins and sharks.  Beautiful place to relax for a few days (so much so that we extended to a week!)

Highlight of Panama

2 weeks in Tonga, Fiji and Samoa

Moving from one spot of paradise to the next; super friendly people; picture perfect spots that scream “I want to go!”; and having some truly unforgettable adrenaline-throbbing moments by swimming with Humpback Whales and diving with the Tiger Sharks.  For sure Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are in the middle of nowhere, but this is a world class 2 weeks

Below I’ve given the itinerary we took and the links to the individual entries on each of the travel experiences

Diving with bull and tiger sharks off Beqa Island

Maybe don’t watch Jaws before you try this!  Unforgettable, thrilling and scary.  People regularly go diving with sharks – reef sharks, nurse sharks, lemon sharks, maybe some hammerheads – but to do so with Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks . . . not in a cage . . . is unique and, at times, proper poo in your wet suit stuff.  A truly fantastic, if slightly risky, experience

 

To do it or not to – firstly, if you are at all a nervous diver, don’t do this.  The sharks can get very close and the potential for you either getting so scared you don’t have a pleasant experience, or having a freak out, don’t make it worth it.  But secondly, in deciding whether or not to do something like this, there is also the moral consideration.  We hadn’t really thought about this before the dive as we didn’t realise quite how much of a close encounter it was going to be (someone really is one day going to be seriously hurt doing this) and also, rather naively, that there was going to be chumming (they added something like 10 tuna heads from a container underwater, which changes the behaviour of the sharks).  For sure there are other benefits to be considered, such as the employment provided (the community on Beqa Island is a environmentally friendly one and is heavily  supported by the diving) and the generation of funds that helps protect the area, but its worth weighing these up in your decision

3 week overland trip camping from Victoria Falls to Nairobi

One of the classic overland routes across Africa is from the thunderous Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to the big hitting wildlife meccas of the Masai Mara and Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania, with the paradise island of Zanzibar and the tranquil Lake Malawi en route.  Each of those destinations are world-class experiences that are must sees in their own right.  Combined, you have one of the world’s great travel experiences with the added benefit of seeing the wonderful African landscape in-between

 

That being said, the experience isn’t for everyone.  These overland tours are often done in an overland truck which is fantastic for the elevated views with its large windows and their ability to go off-road, but they are not a luxury, comfortable coach or a private 4×4.  There is a lot of driving – roughly 80 hours in the truck in total, which also means that you’re hoping that you get a good group of people to enjoy the trip with (typically 20 or so will be on the tour).  And of course, there is the camping which, whilst there will naturally be a few nights when you stay in rooms with beds, will form the majority of your evenings.  Looking back, it is a truly amazing experience, and I’d highly recommend it for those with heaps of energy for an adventure and maybe a little tight on money . . . dare I say a younger traveler?  But I think it all really depends on the individual – we saw a couple in their 70s who embraced it and loved the experience, in comparison there were a group in their 20s who struggled.   Looking back, the long hours sat in the truck, a few breakdowns and the camping might just push me over the edge!  At the time though, in my late 20s, it was fantastic

 

To shorten, I’d consider flying from Tanzania to Victoria Falls.  The major highlights are really in Kenya (the Masai Mara), Tanzania (The Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Zanzibar) and Victoria Falls.  You’ll be doing a lot of driving, so the big stretch between Tanzania / Lake Malawi to Victoria Falls you could maybe skip

Zanzibar’s 5 highlights

Zanzibar – just the name itself conjures up images of exotic lands, distant empires and tropical islands.  And the reality actually does a good job of living up the expectation.  The highlight is obviously Stone Town with its rich mix of influences from India, Arabia, Africa and Europe shinning through in winding alleyways with carved doors, lattice balconies, spices and museums showcasing this fascinating place’s history.  But there are also some other things to do that surprised us and are a must if planning a visit

Shark Bay’s Monkey Mia – keeping an eye out for dolphins and bilbies

Shark Bay is huge – the UNESCO World Heritage listed site is 1500km / 930miles long and is a pristine Australian paradise of turquoise lagoons, white sand beaches, towering cliffs and very little development.  This gives it that wonderful Australian wilderness vibe and also the opportunity to see some of the wildlife including the Kangaroos, Eagles, Bilbies (Rabbit-Bandicoots) and, the highlight for most people’s trip, the dolphins that come for morning feeding in the beach of Monkey Mia.  A must-stop if driving the West Coast

 

Top tip – remember not to put any sunscreen on your legs as it irritates the dolphins eyes.  You won’t need the sunscreen anyway as its early in the morning

10 days campervanning around the South Island of New Zealand

New Zealand’s South Island has some of the most rugged natural beauty of anywhere in the world with world famous sites such as the fjords of Milford Sound, the Frans Joseph and Fox glaciers, and the adrenaline sports of Queenstown, yet is also super accessible by road and very compact to get around.  The combination of these factors makes it one of the most appealing places for a roadtrip and I’ve listed below a great 10 day itinerary to get the best of the island