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5 Amazing Winter Destinations in Central America

With winter already in full swing in Canada, I’m dreaming of escaping to a tropical paradise. Central America is one of my favorite parts of the world to travel this time of year, since it’s relatively close to North America, affordable to fly and travel within, and has a lovely warm and dry climate. If you’re looking for a place to escape this winter, get inspired with these five amazing destinations in Central America.

Caye Caulker, Belize

If you want a place to chill out and relax then head to the charming island of Caye Caulker, just an hour and a half boat ride from Belize city. The motto of this island is ‘go slow’, and the locals actually enforce it. 

Caye Caulker is a very small island, so once you get off the boat you can walk anywhere you need to go. The atmosphere of the island is relaxed and friendly, making it easy to meet locals and other travelers. The Lazy Lizard is one of the most popular spots in town to hang out. It offers unique seating arrangements where you can drink and eat while still being in the water.

Caye Caulker is an excellent destination for diving and snorkeling, with access to the second-largest barrier reef in the world. The most famous dive site is the Blue Hole, but there are plenty of other beautiful coral reefs around to explore such as Half Moon Caye Wall. With such a welcoming atmosphere and access to incredible marine life, Caye Caulker is one of the best tropical islands in the world.

Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country full of beautiful beaches with access to the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. Each beach town has its own unique atmosphere, but one that should be on your Costa Rica itinerary is Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula. 

Santa Teresa is the perfect place for surfers and yogis. The waves on Santa Teresa beach are consistent and perfect for beginners learning to surf, with lessons readily available in the area. Even if you don’t surf, Santa Teresa still has a lot to offer including yoga classes, horseback riding, and some of the prettiest sunsets in Central America. The sun sets directly over the ocean, and every night the beach has a wonderful atmosphere of locals and travelers gathered to watch it go down. 

Utila, Honduras

 

 

For a dive focused vacation, head to the wonderful island of Utila. This small 12-square-mile island off the coast of mainland Honduras is a diver’s paradise. Utila borders on the Mesoamerican barrier reef system, the 2nd largest reef in the world after the Australian Great Barrier Reef. It has over 100 different world-class dive sites to choose from where you can see colorful reefs, caves and wrecks, and hundreds of species of fish including whale sharks.  It also happens to be one of the cheapest places in the world to get your diving certification. 

Honduras is a country that’s often overlooked because of its dangerous reputation, but the bay island area, including Utila, is perfectly safe to visit.  Locals will say there are two things to do in Utila: dive and party. In my experience, that’s pretty accurate, but I loved every second of my time there. The island is made up of dive shops and bars, but everyone who lives in Utila is friendly and down to earth. From beach clean-ups to all-night parties, the town has a great vibe about it. 

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

If you’re looking for beach, surf, and parties, it doesn’t get better than San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua. San Juan is most famous for being home to Central America’s biggest pool party, Sunday Funday. It happens every Sunday of the week, and a ticket gets you entrance into five different pool parties plus transportation between them. 

Even when it’s not Sunday, San Juan Del Sur has a lot to offer visitors with so much beautiful nature around.  For the best views, take a short 20-minute hike up to the Jesus Statue where you can see San Juan del Sur Bay below. Afterward, reward yourself at one of the San Juans many delicious taco shops.

There is a beach you can visit right on San Juan Del Sur Bay, but there are nicer ones not far away. Grab a shuttle to nearby Playa Hermosa, which has beautiful white sand and a shaded hammock area to relax in. San Juan del Sur is just half an hour away from the Costa Rica border, so it’s the perfect place to stop if you traveling between the two countries.

San Blas Islands, Panama

When I think about a perfect tropical paradise, the San Blas Islands are what come to mind. This stunning archipelago is located in Central America between Panama and Colombia, surrounded by the beautiful Caribbean Sea.  It’s made up of approximately 365 islands and cays, of which only 49 are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. 

When you reach the islands, it will be just your crew and the belongings you have brought. With no cell phone reception or wifi, days are spent relaxing on the beach, drinking fresh coconuts, or snorkeling in the nearby water. If you want a complete escape from reality, the San Blas Islands are the perfect place to go.

Winter is an ideal time to visit the San Blas Islands, as this is during the dry season when the seas are calm. The best way to visit the islands is to take a tour from Panama City. This can be done as a two-day overnight trip where you sleep on the islands, or as a 4-day island-hopping adventure that ends in Colombia.

Latin America

A DIY Guide To Trekking Patagonia

Patagonia is one of the wonders of the world that you don’t want to miss; a region in South America at the most southern tip of the world before reaching Antarctica. Southern Patagonia, stretching across Chile and Argentina, has long lured travelers to what is very nearly the end of the world.

There are many options and routes that you can choose from when planning your trip depending on where you’re starting and how much time you have.

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park are the region’s top highlights. For a complete journey through Patagonia, combine visits to both halves of the region; crossing the border from Argentina over to Chile.

There is a fair amount of research you must do in order to make your experience run smoothly, but I’ve provided some very useful tips and tricks that will be sure to make your planning a heck of a lot easier!

When To Go

The first thing you need to plan around is what time of year you’re looking to go. The weather in Patagonia can be extremely temperamental at any time of the year, but will be especially unpleasant during the winter months of the southern hemisphere; June – August being the coldest months.

The best time to visit Patagonia is during the spring and summer months when the weather is warmer, drier, and more predictable than the cooler months.

A lot of people enjoy hiking in the snow, but I found the summer to be a very enjoyable time to hike and camp. This also means less “warm” gear that you’ll have to lug with you if you go during the summer months, i.e. December – March.

Planning Your Route Through Patagonia

The first thing you need to figure out is how much time you have, and what hikes/places you want to see in order to create your itinerary.

If you don’t know where to begin, there are a few major destinations in Patagonia – starting in Bariloche; the furthest north part of Argentinian Patagonia and the closest city to Mendoza and Buenos Aires; both of which have international airports.

LATAM and Sky Airlines are the two major low-cost airlines flying to Southern Patagonia, with flights ranging from $50-$130 depending on the distance and the season; December – March being more expensive.

I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires before beginning my journey through Patagonia, wandering around the city, exploring the Argentinian capital and preparing for the upcoming weeks of adventures.

Bariloche

Bariloche, on the banks of the immense Nahuel Huapi lake, is a major town, and a base for trekking and mountain biking. Bariloche offers everything from short walks to waterfalls to one-day hikes to excruciating multi-day treks.

While Bariloche is famous for the lake in the summer, it is also famous for winter sports. Every July – September tourists travel here from both hemispheres looking for their “endless winter”. At any time of year, this laid-back mountain town is the perfect start to your Patagonian journey.

Getting There

Most people start off from Bariloche which is where the majority of buses arrive from Buenos Aires. You can also fly into Bariloche, which is slightly more expensive ($220 vs $110), but will get you there much quicker.

The flight from Buenos Aires to Bariloche takes about an hour and a half, whereas the bus takes 20 – 22 hours. The bus is a unique way to see the countryside through Argentina, but it depends on your preferences, budget, and time constraints. I personally chose to fly, but every traveler is different!

What To Do

Apurabici rents bikes for $15 a day and organizes half-day guided rides along mountain trails for $50pp. I recommend staying in Bariloche for at least a couple of nights so you can do a few different activities.

Bariloche is known for the Route of the Seven Lakes, which is one of the most popular hikes/drives to do while visiting Patagonia.

The trail goes from Bariloche to San Martin de Los Andes and is roughly 100 km. This route can be done by car, bus, bike or in parts by hiking. It can take a couple of days or a week depending on how much time you have. There are a number of hiking routes to choose from as well as boat tours.

One of the best things about going to Patagonia in the summer months is that if it’s warm enough (or you work up enough of a sweat) you can jump in the glacial water. This water is the clearest, sparkling turquoise water that I’ve ever seen, but don’t be fooled by the warm temperature in the air – the water is freezing! However also a nice, refreshing pick-me-up after a long hike or bike ride around the lake.

Camping or Accommodation

Where to stay while doing the trail will depend on your budget and sense of adventure. Hostels are abundant as well as camping spots, either free or of charge.

If you’re simply exploring the town, Bonita Lake House and Perikos are very affordable ($45/night) options if you’re looking for a relaxed hostel on the lake. Gran Hotel Panamericano is a charming hotel in the countryside, a short distance from the center of Bariloche with rates starting at $59/night.

During the summer months, aka peak season from December – March, I would recommend booking all accommodation in advance.

Los Glaciares National Park

Continuing south, you arrive – eventually – in the extraordinarily beautiful Los Glaciares, the largest protected area in Argentina composed of glaciers, mountains, lakes, and forests, including a vast portion of the Andes mountain range.

The main attractions are the towering Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre peaks at its northern end, and the huge, turquoise-coloured Lago Argentino to the south.

El Calafate

El Calafate is a funky, small town right on Lago Argentino, the largest freshwater lake in the country. With a range of traveler services such as biking, kayaking, and organized tours to Perito Moreno Glacier, it’s a fun place to be with all the ideal tourist facilities.

Its strategic location between El Chaltén and Torres del Paine (Chile) makes it an inevitable stop for those in transit. I immediately sensed that El Calafate had the feel of a ski-resort village with its colorful, timber buildings; boasting a ton of restaurants and bars.

For dinner be sure to check out Pura Vida – offering Argentine “home cooking”, or for a more decadent and intimate experience at a slightly higher price, Mi Rancho. Fuel up on fresh donuts, croque monsieurs, and Colombian espresso for breakfast at Olivia, an adorable cafe in a loungy setting.

What To Do

Many travelers come to El Calafate to see the lake’s world famous glacier, Perito Moreno; it’s world-famous because the ice expands until the warmer waters beneath undermine it, causing an explosion and sending tsunami-like waves out into the surrounding water.

Perito Moreno Glacier is an hour drive from El Calafate. You can easily book transportation through a tour agency or through your hostel/hotel.  These tours cost around $24 roundtrip with an entrance fee cost of $20 (CASH ONLY.)

**Make sure that you have an ample amount of cash before traveling through Patagonia. ATMs can be finicky and sometimes won’t dispense cash. There are plenty of money exchanges around so you can pay in the local currency.

If you have a extra day, or just don’t feel like doing a full day excursion, you can rent a bike in town and ride around the lake. (I say around, but realistically you won’t get too far as the lake is massive.)  I rented a bike for two hours ($8), but I recommend renting for at least three so you won’t be in a rush to get back.

From the center of town, you can bike along the road to a point that separates the inlet where the many different species of birds hang out (a cool place to bird watch, yet a place you don’t want to swim) from the main part of the lake where you can swim… if you dare jump in the glacial water! Disclaimer: not for the faint of heart.

El Chalten

Another popular destination in this region is the trekking mecca El Chaltén, a three-hour drive from El Calafate Airport. El Chalten is a small hiking village located directly in Los Glaciares National Park at the base of the mountains.

Although there is no airport here, the closest airport is in El Calafate. Frequent minibuses connect El Chaltén to El Calafate, a three-hour journey through the sprawling national park. There are a few different companies, but you might want to plan your flight time around the shuttle times if you’re planning to head to El Chalten from the airport.

The shuttle company I booked at the airport was called Las Lengas and left El Calafate at 1 pm, arriving to El Chalten at 4 pm; (I booked an early flight out of Bariloche to arrive in El Calafate by 12:30 pm.)

The shuttle dropped me off at the bed & breakfast, and picked me back up 4 days later to bring me back to the hotel in El Calafate.

Roundtrip this semi-private shuttle cost $50 pp, and stopped at a cool river-side hotel/café/shop halfway through the trip for 20 mins so you could get out, stretch your legs, and grab a souvenir or coffee.

**You don’t have to book the roundtrip option, but it is easiest considering you’ll have to come back to El Calafate to fly out to your next destination.

What To Do

El Chalten is the home of the esteemed Fitz Roy – a towering peak with a number of hiking, climbing, and rafting adventures to choose from. There is another main attraction in Los Glaciares National Park called Cerro Torre, the second largest peak to hike (following Fitz Roy) with a number of trails, and a sparkling glacial lake with turquoise icebergs.

At the north end of the National Park these are the two highest peaks of the mountain range, which together with forests, glaciers and lakes, create one of the most extraordinary sights to see in our country. The two major hikes to see these peaks are called Laguna Torre and Laguna de Los Tres.

Most people do a hike of some sort, but it’s not for everyone. Alternatively, you can relax in this picturesque backpacker town, admiring the views, the condors and the craft beers.

Despite the size, there are a surprising number of cafes, restaurants, and bars of all types of cuisine. I spent 4 nights here and tried a handful of amazing places ranging from burgers and beers, to traditional Patagonian cuisine loaded with hearty portions of meat and potatoes, to a vegan café with fresh salads and juices.

La Vineria has a great selection of ales and Patagonian wines. Across the street, enjoy traditional Argentinian cuisine in a cozy log cabin at La Senyara. For a vegetarian/vegan meal, Curcuma.

Crossing The Border: Argentina – Chile

Logistics

Traveling between Chile and Argentina can be done easily by land or sea. Unfortunately, there are no flights between Puerto Natales (the base of Torres del Paine) to El Calafate. For an overland trip, you’ll need to organize a private transfer or catch a bus.

The drive takes approximately six hours cross the border between Argentina and Chile. Buy your bus ticket to Puerto Natales through your hostel in El Calafate, or head straight to the bus station and buy it through one of the tour companies.

There are several reputable bus companies that connect Puerto Natales and El Calafate, including Buses Fernandez, Buses Sur, Buses Pacheco, Turismo Zaahj, and Cootra. They run daily services that depart between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.

The transfer takes five-seven hours – depending on the time spent at customs – and the cost of the ticket is $20 one way. These buses are pretty spacious and equipped with a bathroom, so as long as you have some water and snacks, you should be good to go for your journey across the border!

Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales is the home of Torres del Paine, a huge mountain range famous for its “three peaks”, rising high at 3,500 meters, and another stop on the journey south through Patagonia.

This park is very different from the parks I hiked in Argentina. Unlike in Los Glaciares, you must drive to the park or take a bus (public or tour shuttle.) The drive from Puerto Natales to the entrance of the park takes 1.5 hours.

There is an entrance fee to get into the park of 21,000 Chilean pesos, about $32. You must bring this amount IN CASH to the park the day of your hike, or you will not be permitted entry.

This park is a huge, protected national forest – such is Los Glaciares National Park – but has experienced many more natural disasters due to human caused forest fires over the years destroying the land, and is therefore more strictly protected.

The most popular day hike that people do is called Base Torres, which takes you to the lake at the base of the three peaks. The hike is about 18 km roundtrip to the lake and back. You can take a bus from Puerto Natales in the morning, which will then give you a time to meet back at the starting point later in the afternoon.

**MAKE sure you plan your time accordingly so that you don’t miss your return bus back to town.

There are larger hikes such as the “W Circuit” or the “O Circuit” that usually take people three to four days, with a few options for camping sites along the way. Make sure you take a map with you and know where you’re going ahead of time.

Tours

You can also book a full tour of the park through a few different agencies in Puerto Natales near the main plaza. This tour costs about $45 and is a full 12-hour guided tour on a shuttle through the entire park.

This option is great because you get to see so much more than you would from the one day hike. There are 10 viewpoints along the tour, with a two hour stop for lunch and exploring at Lago Grey; an amazing lake with glaciers right up along the beach.

I booked this full day tour through Go Calafate. I was picked up at my hostel at 7:45 am, and dropped back off at the main plaza in Puerto Natales at 7:30 pm, so plan accordingly with your meals of the day!

Ushuaia

Ushuaia is a resort town in Argentina located on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the southernmost tip of South America, nicknamed the “End of the World” and is the last stop of the Patagonian journey.

Apart from being the gateway to Tierra del Fuego National Park, Ushuaia is also the port to sail across Drake’s Passage into Antarctica, an unforgettable adventure that I hope to experience someday! These tours range from $5,000 – $10,000 for a cruise ship to the white continent.

The walk to the glacier is quite long; many people prefer to get an inexpensive taxi from the town to the base, and then hike or get the chairlift (often only running in summer) from there.

Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego National Park, 11 miles (18km) from Ushuaia, is the final must-see of Patagonia for nature and outdoor lovers.

Buses leave from Ushuaia roughly every hour, although it is recommended to depart early in the morning if you are planning on hiking in the park. Visitors must pay an entrance fee of $14 USD.

There are many well-marked trails and short hikes for those wishing to spend the day exploring the park independently.

For those who want to see a bit more, longer trails and hikes are available; Sheep’s Pass takes two days, whereas a longer trek of four days can be done on the Sierra Valdivieso Circuit. The park also has two beautiful lakes and some waterfalls.


Planning your own trip to Patagonia? Be sure to check out these posts to help sort out your itinerary as well!

Latin America

Top 5 Experiences You Must Try in Colombia

Colombia–a place many of us have heard of, yet few have explored. It’s a country at a pivotal moment in time; politically, socially, and historically speaking. And you’ll feel it from the very moments you enter. As you step into the colorful world of Cartagena to the deeply rooted streets of Bogotá, Colombia has it all, and more. So we’re breaking down the top 5 experiences you must explore next time you’re in Colombia.

Must: Spend 48 Hours in Cartagena

As an easy introduction to the country, Cartagena soothes you into its culture. And there’s no better way to experience a place than tasting your way through it. Cartagena Connections unique gastronomic tours take people deep into the roots of Cartagena–through its street food. By diving straight into tasting some of the food of what true Colombians eat, you get a rare insight into the culture. And with the team at Cartagena Connections truly valuing producing nothing but authentic experiences for those traveling to Colombia, you’ll have an unparalleled look into the stories that hide behind the charm of these mesmerizing colonial homes. 

Staying in Cartagena is an experience in itself and there nowhere better to situate yourself than a night or two at Townhouse Cartagena. This intimate, eight bedroom boutique hotel sits perfectly in the heart of Cartagena’s historic walled city. Inside, the hotel is home to a decor of intriguing art designed by some impressive young Colombian artists. Their lively rooftop is one many have heard of as it’s constantly beaming with a mix of trendy hotel guests and young Colombian professionals.  The vibrant colors, luxurious rooms, and exquisite tapas menu are more than enough to convince one to stay. And as you walk out on your balcony at Townhouse Cartagena, you’ll hear the trotting of the horse-drawn carriages and Caribbean music buzzing all around you; all typical sights on the streets, evoking colonial nostalgia. With a solid 48 hours in Cartagena, you’ll quickly understand why this city has been enchanting visitors for years.  

Must: Visit Tierra Bomba

Colombia is a country lucky enough to be surrounded by both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. This gives way to a large number of coastlines and islands in and around the country. Many of these remote islands are uninhabited, privately owned, owned by hotels, or many are simply protected due to their fragile ecosystems.

Blue Apple Beach sits on the southern shores of Tierra Bomba, an island located within Cartagena’s harbor. This place came to be when owner and UK-native, Portia, stumbled across Tierra Bomba in 2015. What she noticed was a serious lack of good beach dining and some good rosé. Seeing an opportunity to change this, she opened her first waterfront restaurant on the island of Barú. As more and more visitors asked if they could stay the night, she realized there was a demand for this type of establishment. Her team decided to move to Bocachica to start Blue Apple Beach, where they now celebrate the magic of the Colombian Caribbean with their own international touch.

The island of Tierra Bomba is filled with beautiful beaches, mangroves, forest, and clear turquoise waters. Blue Apple Beach offers guests to come for a day trip or to stay for a night or two (okay, maybe a week!). This French-inspired boutique hotel boasts six rooms elegantly designed in local architecture.The small number of rooms are designed to give guests a highly personalized experience. Yoga classes, outdoor massages, scuba diving, paddle boarding, and kayaking are all available for guests. Their outdoor dining area is home to an opulent menu, including freshly caught ceviche and homemade coconut rice. And as the boat ride is a mere 30 minutes (with some great views of Cartagena), such an oasis is well-worth visiting. 

Must: Learn About The Peace Agreement 

After the enormous effort was made for the 2016 Peace Agreement, an agreement that gave an end to a more than 50-year old conflict, Colombia is in a crucial moment in time. To build a solid peace fabric for the future while also healing the wounds from the past, companies such as Impulse Travel believe it is necessary to look at things from different angles and try to comprehend the tremendous complexity of the Colombian history.

To do that, Impulse Travel offers a unique experience that allows travelers to gain an understanding of the key moments of Colombia’s history. By focusing on this new rebirth in the country and its future, Impulse Travel takes you straight to the voices of the true peace-weavers. These are the people who are working on new paths of hope and positive memories of the country. Many indigenous communities in Colombia were (and still are) vulnerable to growing illegal crops for the drug trade. What we are seeing now are communities taking back their power by turning to new and legal crops.

Places such as Café Wasikamas, an Inga indigenous community that serves and sells their price-winner specialty coffee are prime examples. Each week, they drive 22 hours to deliver it to their shop in Bogotá from the mountains of southern Colombia. Here, you’ll get to sit down over a cup of coffee and hear their story and learn about their suffering during the war. You’ll start to understand how they decided to replace illegal crops, such as poppy and coca, to fairtrade agro-products which have allowed them to make a living by, legally. Owners of Distrito Chocolate, a coffee and chocolate shop, are another great example of this movement. Here, the owners prepare specialties from dozens of farmer cooperatives from the country. You’ll come to find out how cocoa became the main resource for thousands of families, leaving coca illegal farming behind. An amazing day of learning and understanding some context, Impulse Travel brings you to the people who are a true symbol of what the peace agreement is looking like for Colombia.

Must: Check out the Archipelago Islands of San Bernardo 

If there is one thing you must see, it is the impressive archipelago that makes up the islands off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. While exploring this area, you’ll come to find many tiny islands. Some inhabited, and some with some trendy, laid-back ecolodges sitting on top. Places such as Isla Roots literally sits on its very own island. With a native-style type of architecture, Isla Roots is close to many ecosystems, mangrove swamps, places to swim and snorkel,  as well as an easy access to island hop around neighboring islands.

The team here offer a plethora of activities to do. One of them is a rare opportunity to see and mingle on one of the worlds most densely populated islands per square meter. Santa Cruz del Isolte is a 2-acre island with over 500 people living on it. They have a school, church, store, bakery, and more recently, solar panels that now power the island. It’s been 150 years since people have started living there and despite the challenging conditions, they have no intention of leaving the island. Even as knowledge of the outside world has become more accessible through modern technology and tourism, the locals here describe their life on the island so peaceful and calm, they wouldn’t trade it for anything else. 

Another island you must check out is Isla Root’s sister property, Mistica Island. This island has one of the most Instagram-worthy photo spots in all of the islands. We’re talking an entire private island with more than 22 acres of Caribbean beaches, jungles, lakes, wild animals. You’ll wake up to monkeys howling, flamingos chilling, and wild deer running next to you–an experience like no other. 

Must: Play Tejo in the Local Bars in Bogotá

Ah, the subtle art of throwing rocks at gunpowder. An interesting concept to us, is the country’s national sport. And all you need is some beer, gunpowder, and a strong arm. Tejo can be found throughout bars in Colombia, but companies such as Bogotá Pass can bring you to where the real locals go. The company offers travel experiences that are individually crafted to your liking. Luckily, I knew this was on my list and my guide took me to one of the best spots in the city (thankfully–as Bogotá is huge and has over 8 million people living there). He explained that the goal of the game is to throw your “tejo” (a steel rock-like-disc) inside the “bocin” (a metal ring). The bocin contains “mechas”, which are paper triangles filled with gunpowder. Basically, when you hit a mecha- BOOM.

I’ll admit, I was a bit hesitant at first. But, after my first thrilling hit and the explosion from the gunpowder went off, it was both amusing and gratifying. So, if you’re looking to discover Bogotá with local experts, Bogotá Pass has incredible ways to live out some of the best experiences in the city.

 

North America

Smart Tips For Female Travelers Adventuring to Latin America

So you’re traveling to Latin America for the first time? Maybe you’re a little nervous, maybe you have a bunch of questions. Don’t let your nerves get the best of you. There’s no better learning experience on earth than traveling (on your own). Ladies, we’re taking over the world day by day.

One of the best things about traveling to Latin America (Central and South America) versus other regions, is you practically have an entire continent (minus Brazil) that speaks the same language, shares similar culture and values. I find this makes for smoother traveling experiences versus maybe going around Asia, Europe or Africa where when you cross a border you’re almost guaranteed to encounter a new language and/or culture. If this is your first big venture, there’s no better place for these upcoming travels than by easing yourself into them anywhere else than Latin America.

Here’s my top 5 tips for smart traveling around Latin America. I hope they’re of use to you!

 

Don’t Bring Too Much Cash!

Unless you’re on remote island or high up in mountain villages, ATMs are accessible almost anywhere. It’s more than likely that you’ll be starting your holiday in a capital, or major city and once you’re there you can feel out the vibes of the city/country you’re in, and put together a long-term budget.

I usually start my travels with $250 cash (in the local currency) and $100USD as a safety net. I know that I can pull more out of a machine when need be.

Make sure before you set off on your travels that you contact your bank and make sure you’re debit and credit cards have international capabilities. If they don’t, you might be calling mom and dad to send you an emergency Western Union wire transfer.

While you’re on the road make sure to separate your money into different parts of your person. Have a decoy wallet even- and only keep close by the max amount of cash you’ll be using each day. There’s nothing worse than opening up your wallet in a local marketplace and flashing your big bills, or pulling out your whole worth for a fresh fruit smoothie.

 

Stay In A Hotel Or Hostel Your First Night

I personally like total independence when I travel and have become almost an exclusive Airbnb traveler- expect when I first arrive to the country.

Having pre-arranged accommodations at a hotel or hostel means an easy escape route from the airport. You can jump into a taxi and give them an exact address, or if you’re feeling adventurous and it’s a reasonable time of day (with plenty of sunlight) you can hop onto local transit and punch in the address on your (pre-downloaded) offline maps.

Once you’re all settled into your hostel or hotel it should be quite easy for you to connect with other travelers in a bar or common area. You can grab advice from other travelers who’ve been in the region awhile, or talk to your concierge for some great tips about where to go, what to see and especially where to get great local food. Particularly important would be to find out which areas to avoid too. At this time, you might even pick up a new travel partner in the midst of it all! Since you’ve taken the time to get your bearings, you’ll be more well equipped to tackle the intertwining streets and the daily grind the way locals do.

 

Pack Lightly

Knowing that across South America has vastly different climates and even different seasons you might need everything from a baiting suit to winter boots for your travels. You’ve got to think quality over quantity.

A backpack always gives you more flexibility and ease than a wheel suitcase. You’ll often find yourself in areas with minimal infrastructure, bad roads to wheel your suitcase through, tops of collectivos you’ll have to toss your luggage on; so stick to a backpack. Forty-five to fifty litres usually work quite well to diversify your load.

To keep in mind as well, there is always going to be a little old lady or a hardworking family who own a lavanderia and be bending backward for your dirty travel clothes to wash. You can get a 24-48 hour service usually for about $5/ 2 kilo, which is a steal of a deal. It won’t break your bank, but it’ll support theirs.

You might think you need those 10 t-shirts initially while you’re packing, but maybe only bring 4 instead. I always tend to go heavier on full bathing suits as I spend more time in beach destinations. They’re easier to pack, and can often double as shirts.

Layering is key too. So long as you have some kind of Under Armor, t-shirt, long-sleeve, sweater and windbreaker, you should be able to fend off the elements. And, I always vouch for hiking sandals over hiking boots as they’re great for almost all climates, they clean off easier and are lighter to carry. And, unless you’re some kind of professional photographer or blogger, leave all the technology at home! You’ll be happier for the experiences outside of the screen anyway! Not only is all the extra stuff heavier to carry around, but it always draws attention to you and the perception of your privilege and wealth. Stick to minimalism.

 

Stay Alert & Dress To Blend In

Friends and family will often be the first to jump down your throat and tell you all the horror stories about the county you’ve decided to travel to. Safety should always be a concern for you, but knowing that your actions often determine how safe a situation is, is important too.

Maybe you’re staying in a small fishing village, or somewhere remote in the Amazon? Maybe the locals aren’t accustomed to seeing too much skin? Keep your outfits modest and skip on the shorts and bikinis. Long linen pants go a long way and tend to keep you cooler in that sweltering Latin American heat more than most other fabrics! Maybe you’ve noticed a lot of men cat-calling you because of the color of your skin or hair. This is an unfortunate reality you’ll often face, best to learn to tune it out, but also, have you thought about tossing on a hat?

Oh, you’re running low on money? But it’s late at night? And you decided to solo venture at an Airbnb? Wait until the morning’s daylight to grab that cash from the machine. If you’re out on the town at night and you’ve run out of cash, ask a friend to borrow some, never go to an ATM after dark.

Lastly, never, ever, ever drink with people you don’t feel totally comfortable around. There’s nothing worse than losing your inhibitions or your bearings. A cocktail or two won’t kill you, but don’t let the beverages flow past that if you don’t have a solid crew to make sure you’re all making it home together and safely.

Learn the Language!

As previously mentioned, most of the large landmass of Latin America speaks the same language. All the way from Mexico and the Caribbean down south to Argentina and Easter Islands. If you’re traveling for anywhere from a week to a year, you should be willing to put some effort into learning Spanish. The locals will be thrilled with your attempts, you’ll be less likely to be ripped off or scammed, and you’ll feel a tremendous amount of self-pride. No one is saying you need to become Penelope Cruz, but even the basics like “hello”, “thank you”, numbers and directional questions come in handy.

It’s such a great sense of independence when you’re sitting in a restaurant and you don’t need to ask for the English version of the menu. Or maybe you’re on a beach and want to buy some little bracelets. You’ll have an easier time negotiating a good price if you know your numbers and a complimentary phrase to speak to the seller.

Just by immersing yourself in Latin America, you will naturally pick up bits and pieces of the language. If you’re up for a bit more of a challenge and to sustain your language skills, you could always take a course at a language school. These courses can run anywhere from a week to a month (or more) and they’re usually very, very cheap! Often the language-learning will be something experiential versus the grammar-hitting-books-style you were accustomed to in your elementary and secondary school days, which makes the whole thing less intimidating and more fun!

 

Hopefully these tips have given you the confidence to go forth in South America. Travel safely. Be fearless, but don’t be silly. Have fun and be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Latin America: it’s beautiful coffee regions, bustling beaches, perfect Pacific Ocean sunsets and much more await you!

Latin America

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You'd Least Expect

For as long as I could remember, visiting Cuba was on my bucket list. The vintage convertibles and colorful communism have made it a go-to destination for myself and many other young travelers looking to experience a time warp of communism, rum and tobacco.

This past April I got the opportunity to travel to Cuba with El Camino Travel. As a responsible travel advocate myself, I am always careful to ensure that the experiences I embark on make a difference, and at the very least do not misrepresent the cultures I choose to immerse myself in.

My Cuban experience was nothing like I expected. Instead of a time warped, isolated Cuba I saw a side of the Island that rarely makes it to our Instagram feeds. It became obvious to me that my expectations were based on a loose assumption of what it must be like living under communism. But I am glad to say that the experience challenged all my perceptions of a colorful Havana under a totalitarian government — something I look forward to whenever I travel.

In an effort to stay true to the ethos of responsible travel and challenge stereotypes of Cuba, here are 8 reasons to visit Cuba that you least expect:

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

All photos by Amanda Villa Rosa (@villa_de_rosahttp://amandavillarosa.com/

1. Dance ‘Til You Drop

In Cuba, music and dance is as central to life as food and water. Not many know that Cuba is a historically central contributor to the Latin American music scene with some of the most renowned artists. I recommend joining any of the dancing locals outside the famous La Bodeguita Del Medio (the birthplace of the mojito!). I also recommend listening to live music on the rooftop of a Cuban Primo Ballerina’s home, Notre Dame des Bijoux.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

2. Collect Cuban Contemporary Art

Did I mention that Cuba also happens to have a thriving art scene? Typical stereotypes of totalitarian states paint Cuba as a country that lacks in the art but that’s far from the truth. I recommend visiting the Estudio Projecto Comunitario Jose Marti on Pasado Jose Marti next to Hotel Inglaterra. Walk in and say hello to the artists lounging around listening to reggae and buy something. Its super affordable and independent. I highly recommend visiting the Fabrica de Arte Cubano —  an independent space hosting pop-up exhibitions for Cuban artists. I managed to get my hands on handmade brass earrings for $10 USD.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

3. Visit the World’s Finest Tobacco Plantations

Although tobacco is a stereotypical Cuban buy, experiencing a tobacco plantation is a totally different game. Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio region is hailed as the finest tobacco farming land in the world. Just two hours outside of Havana is the capital of Pinar Del Rio, Vinãles, where you can visit tobacco plantations passed down generations. Take a rickety journey on an ox-cart to the tobacco barns where you can watch as the tobacco farmer rolls the leaves into a cigar. Take the Puro Cubano outside and fire it up — exhale as the hills roll into the distance. You can buy a pack of 20 or more cigars for $15 USD! 100% handmade and organic.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

4. Learn To Live In The “Here and Now”

Despite communism’s efforts to crush religion, the fall of the Soviet Union revived the practice of religion on the Island. In Cuba, “Santeria” is one of the most widely practiced religions that can be traced back to Yoruba beliefs in Nigeria. Despite its “voodoo” reputation, Santeria is built on the belief that living life in the here and now can overcome any hardships of life. Music, dance, and love are all aspects of Cuban life that have been a direct result of Santeria. Ask a local guide to take you to visit the home of a Santeria practicing Cuban.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

5. Make A Cuban Friend

I think a common misconception about Cubans is that they are disconnected from the world. I can confidently say that Cubans are the most social people I’ve met with an openness to people from all walks of life. A favorite moment on my trip was during one of my frequent visits to the Wi-Fi park (Wi-Fi can only be found at the public parks in Cuba), when an old lady called Celia asked me if I wanted a cigarette. I spent the next hour or so engaged in a conversation with this woman about everything from love and happiness to the arts and politics.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

6. Buy Perfume Made Since 1791

I think my favorite souvenir from Cuba was the perfume. I brought five beautifully packaged bottles with me and I don’t regret it. La Habana 1791 is a specialist store housed in a 18th century mansion that makes divine artisan scents from tropical Cuban flora. The place is stunning to say the least, and uses methods of scent making that have existed in Cuba since the colonial era. Their most famous scent is a male cologne that was first developed in 1791. You can also choose from a range of colorful handmade bottles to put your chosen scent in. It was the last thing I thought I would purchase— and totally unique.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

7. Experience a Cuban Casa

One of the most peculiar aspects of Cuban life is housing. Every citizen has the right to a home given to them by the government making open-plan housing common with generations of Cuban families living under one roof. Its not hard to imagine that finding accommodation in Cuba is challenging especially with international hotels being almost nonexistent. However, the recent loosening of housing laws has encouraged the rise of “Casa Particulares” — an offline Cuban version of Airbnb. I highly recommend staying at a Casa Particular as its the only authentic time warp you will experience in the country. Totally authentic living.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

8. It’s “Complicated”

If I had a dollar for every time a Cuban told me, “it’s complicated…” At first, it was difficult to understand why Cubans used that phrase to explain everything. The longer I stayed on the Island, the more it made sense. Cuba isn’t like any other place you will ever visit – it’s full of contradictions. It’s poor yet prosperous; it’s average yet extraordinary. To prove my point, check out Lonely Planet’s introduction to Cuba here.

That said, did you think this article was over? I decided to add two bonus reasons because even stereotypes can be beautiful too!

 

Bonus Reasons:

9. Take in the Eclectic Architecture

Havana is a collage of eclectic architecture. The City Center (Vedado, Veija and Paseo del Prado) brings together every style of contemporary Western architecture with some parts directly mimicking 1950s New York (Havana has its own Chinatown!) Despite the depreciated buildings and the shutdown of their various functions, Cubans continue to inhabit them— and you can walk in at any moment. I recommend visiting Hotel Inglaterra in Paseo di Marti . It used to be an American casino but was shut down post-revolution. Take to the rooftop for breathtaking views of Havana.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

10. Ride a Convertible Around Havana

Despite convertibles being the most stereotypical of Cuban experiences, I recommend doing a convertible tour. Not only because it gives an overview of Havana but because it benefits many Cuban families. Cubans live on less than $20 USD a month which is contextually low. If Wi-Fi alone costs $1 USD per hour you can imagine what other services must be like. Tourism is a valuable resource with many families relying on it for extra income. So, go on, book that cliché tour but keep in mind that it’s not the only attraction in this beautiful country.

8 Reasons To Visit Cuba That You Least Expect

Remember, when traveling in Cuba it’s important to keep an open mind. Its recommended to avoid speaking about politics, porn and bragging about where you come from. Cubans know that they live a different life from you so try to keep any judgement at bay.

Mi encanta Cuba!

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