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

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

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

Scuba diving at Wolf and Darwin Islands in the Galapagos

8 days / 7 nights on one of the liveaboard dive boats sailing around the Galapagos Islands was an experience I’ll never forget. Whilst visiting the nesting sites of the Frigate Birds, Marine Iguanas and Blue Footed Boobies was super cool, it was the trip up to Darwin and Wolf Islands (to the north of the main Galapagos Islands) that was the highlight. The sheer number of Hammerhead Sharks we saw was mind-boggling, along with Manta Rays, Devil Rays, Sea Lions and Turtles. To add to the experience, spending time next to the sheer cliffs of these dramatic and isolated islands makes for a true feeling of adventure

Yes its expensive, but so are most trips of a lifetime

Diving off Balicasag Island

For so many divers its all about seeing a specific thing, like certain sharks, a giant coral wall, or a cave, but sometimes you just want a shallow dive along a beautiful reef with good visibility and in a chilled out tropical beach place.  Balicasag Island, just off Panglao, is the later.  Very nice spot

 

Top tips:

 

  1. Dive Sites – we dived the Royal Garden, with a max depth of around 25m and great for seeing turtles, and Rudy’s Rock, with a similar max depth and a rock wall to explore
  2. Stay on Pangalao Island – Tagbilaran didn’t look too appealing.  Aim instead to stay on Pangalao Island.  We splurged a bit and stayed at the South Palms Resort, which was great and would recommend
  3. Bohol – if in the surrounding area, be sure to explore the Chocolate Hills in the centre of Bohol by quad bike and see the Tarsiers, the world’s smallest primate – see Quad-biking through the Bohol Chocolate hills for further tips on this experience
  4. Getting to Bohol from Cebu City is relatively straightforward, but its not a bad idea to ask your hotel / hostel to help you with getting the ferry tickets you want
  5. See if you can visit Malapascua Island – you’ll most likely be flying into Cebu.  If so, and you are a diver, be sure to head up to one of the other idyllic paradises of Malapascua Island ,which is the only place in the world you can dive with Thresher Sharks – see  Diving with Thresher Sharks at Malapascua Island for further tips on this experience

Diving and staying in guest houses in Raja Ampat

Raja Ampat is about as close to tropical paradise as you can get – white sand beaches, turquoise waters and jungle islands, with some of the best scuba diving in the world.  Plus, it is still remote enough that you will have beaches and whole dive sites to yourself – in short, an adventurous scuba diver’s dream

 

The key question comes down to how much you’re prepared to spend.  On one hand, you can stay in an eco lodge or a live-aboard yacht with the various “luxuries” that go with them, and the luxury price tag . . . for two people for 7 days and an average of 2 dives a day, around USD4,000 for the eco lodge, USD8,000 for the liveboard .  On the other, you can stay in the local homestays that are dotted all around the islands, are super cheap (USD900 including diving), right on the beach, but will be some of the most basic accommodation you will have stayed in.  We went for the later as we were short on cash and, whilst it was at times difficult to sleep, it gave us that real Robinson Crusoe feeling in . . . well . . . paradise

 

If an adventurous diver, Raja Ampat, however you do it, is a must