2 years in Latin America: 14 most unforgettable experiences
Over the last 24 months, we’ve had some fairly insane experiences in Latin America so far, so in light of our 2-year travel anniversary we thought we’d sit down and reminisce on all the most unforgettable. Some are because of the wildlife we came across, the beauty of the nature around us or the kindness of the people we met, but all have added to this unbelievably amazeballs time we’ve had in the region. Don’t worry, we’re not leaving LatAm just yet, so we’ll hopefully continue to add to this from our adventures over the next few months. In no particular order, our most unforgettable experiences in Latin America over the last 2 years:
Sunrise over the Bolivian salt flats, Uyuni
The Bolivian salt flats are visited by thousands of people every week, not only from Uyuni, but from northern Argentina and Chile as well. However, this doesn’t take anything away from the awesome beauty of nature there. Taking a 3-day salt flats jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama, our third day began painfully early, as we loaded into the rickety 4×4 and set off into the pitch black at 10mph (to reduce the damage of salt to the car during rainy season). We drifted off to sleep a little, and were awoken by our driver telling us we could now get out of the jeep.
Blinking wearily, we found ourselves in another world, with the pinks and purples of the sky reflected perfectly onto an inch or so of tranquil water gathered over the Bolivian salt flats. We couldn’t see another jeep on the horizon, so our 360-degree views of nothingness were completely uninterrupted. After cracking out the china for a morning cup of tea (forget the Bolivian salt flats, this was the real highlight of the day) we got to capturing the incredible views around us. It may be the most popular tour in Bolivia, but the hype is real!
Sand dunes ‘n’ Lagoons in Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil
Northern Brazil’s most awesome viewpoint can be found in the national park of Lençóis Maranhenses. It took us 31 hours in buses to reach it from Recife, but MY GOD was that worth the cabin fever and cramped legs. The view left us speechless, looking over 155,000 hectares of high sand dunes filled with rainwater to create turquoise lagoons in every direction. The other side of the Lençóis Maranhenses sand dunes, you can find miles of empty, perfectly flat beach with high waves for surfing or kitesurfing.
Not many people make it up as far as North Brazil just because the country is so expansive and there’s enough in the south/east to keep you occupied. It is quite relatively expensive to factor in a trip to Lençóis Maranhenses in the general scheme of travel in Brazil, but like the Bolivian salt flats, it’s just something you’ve got to do once you’re there!
Jumping into Quebrada Las Gachas in Guadalupe, Colombia
My oh my, what a gem! A place that few Colombians know about, Quebrada las Gachas in Guadalupe, Santander is a complete and utter stunner. Holes of up to 7ft in the river bed fill with fresh water, creating perfect-temperatured pools to dive into after the short hike to get there from Guadalupe town. This place is becoming a lot more popular now, but when we went on a Saturday in February 2019 we were only sharing the whole of Las Gachas with 2 other people, and had it entirely to ourselves when they headed off early.
The colours of the algae are beautiful, and it’s a very cheap alternative to Caño Cristales in the south of Colombia. We absolutely rave about this place, and will never forget the refreshing feeling of diving into the pools on a hot day as the river water trickled in around us! Besides Las Gachas, Guadalupe itself is a really beautiful town with an untouched Santander charm. Well worth the 4 bus legs to get to Guadalupe from San Gil!
Finding a cheap route to Machu Picchu, Peru
This has been hiiiigh on the bucketlist since 6 or 7 years of age, so finally getting to Machu Picchu, no matter how rammed with tourists, was breath-taking. That may have also had something to do with the hour of muddy Incan stairs we had to hike up to reach the entrance to the park, though. Shocked at the expense just to get to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, let alone into Machu Picchu itself, we almost called it all off, until we found a cheapskate way to get to Machu Picchu, including accommodation, meals and a Machu Picchu tour for only $95. The only downside was that it involved A LOT of walking. About 5 days less walking than the Inca Trail, yes, but still a lot more than we wanted. Still, it was an experience that made us feel like we deserved all the awe-inspiring views we were rewarded with throughout the journey.
When we got to the Machu Picchu site itself, the main thing that surprised us was the fact that the iconic photo that we’ve all seen is only about a fifth of the site itself, with so so many other views in every direction that are equally as beautiful. There’s just so much more to be seen of Machu Picchu. Having a guide through the park brought it to life, and we wouldn’t recommend anyone go without one, otherwise it could just feel like you’re looking at random walls and rocks. The history of Machu Picchu is fascinating, so make sure you do it justice!
Climbing to the peak of Crab Cay, Isla de Providencia
I sit here here now, writing this article with views of Crab Cay itself from Crab Cay Boutique Lodge, because Isla de Providencia is so incredible that we felt we had to come back again 6 months later. Isla de Providencia is a Colombian island in the Caribbean Sea – right between Costa Rica and Jamaica. Crab Cay is a small rock protruding out of the water less than a kilometre from the main island. The waters around it are the most turquoise we’ve ever seen (EVER).
A 10 minute sea-kayak got us to Crab Cay, and from then on we were free to use the kayaks all around the area until we fancied returning to Providencia. We moored the kayaks up and decided to tackle the hike to the top of Crab Cay to see the views first. Perhaps the reason this is our favourite hike in Latin America is not only because of the views, but also because it only takes about 4 minutes of walking to get to the top. From there, it was a little barefoot rock climbing to the highest point on Crab Cay, which gave 360-degrees of turquoise craziness. I mean, just look at this ish:
Sweaty from the short walk back down, we then dove into the lukewarm sea water to see what we could find. Within about half an hour – turtles!! Two graceful wild turtles floated over into the shallows to have a nosey at us, unafraid of the two humans swimming excitedly alongside them. They stayed for about 20 minutes, just adding to one of our most unforgettable experiences in Latin America.
Swimming with sharks in the Galapagos Islands
But if we’re really talking wildlife, the Galapagos Islands really do take the biscuit. Within minutes of being in the first port of Santa Cruz, we’d seen baby sharks (doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo), a few dozing sea lions, a turtle and about 20 golden rays. We thought maybe it was all a marketing ploy and we’d just been set up as silly, excitable tourists. However, over the next 8 days on a sailboat cruise to 10 different islands (one of which made the cover photo of this blog post), we realised that the Galapagos Islands really are just one of the most abundant places in the entire world, and because there wasn’t a big predator for so many thousands of years, the wildlife there lives peacefully rather than being scared and hiding from every other being they come across.
Starting from our very first snorkel in the Galapagos, every single day we snorkelled with sharks at least once. Though we surprised ourselves with the calmness of it all (albeit the very first 10 minutes were spent pointing and screaming through snorkels at each other), the most terrifying shark-snorkelling for sure was around Kicker Rock, an area which is known for hammerheads but visibility is only a few metres of the 300 metre depth. I freaked the eff out, obviously, and jumped back in the boat, but Andy soldiered on, capturing some of our most creepy Go Pro footage yet, of shadows of large sharks in the near distance – a few of which Andy didn’t known he was swimming next to until he watched the videos back later. Shivers.
Skinny-dipping in bioluminescent plankton, Cabo Polonio, Uruguay
One of our earliest memories of this trip – within 10 days of landing on Latin American soil, we found ourselves in the teeny off-grid (well, sort of) town of Cabo Polonio, on the coast of Uruguay. With storms rolling in every afternoon over the peaceful area, there wasn’t a huge amount to do except make some hostel friends from all over the world and get scarily drunk on cheap boxed wine. One night, the storm cleared early, at around midnight, and having been playing Never Have I Ever for several hours by this point, we decided that the best thing to do was to head to the beach to get naked. Sound logic.
What was waiting for us there though, was something our drunken little brains weren’t quite ready to comprehend – bioluminescent plankton. For those who haven’t come across this before, bioluminescent plankton is only visible at night, as it shimmers and shines whenever disturbed. The amount in the water in Cabo Polonio that night meant that the waves were crashing a glimmering silver, like some sort of Disney movie. We gleefully stripped off and leapt into the water, revelling at the natural glitter swirling round our bums like fairy dust. It’ll go down as the unforgettable experience in Latin America that we very almost forgot the next morning.
Sailing through the San Blas Islands, Colombia to Panama
When we first embarked on this trip, we didn’t expect to go to Central America at all, so when our plans changed to include Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala, we just expected that we could continue our Latin American night bus saga and drive up to this new region. Nuh-uhhhh. Not poss. The Darien Gap, which sits on the border of Panama and Colombia, hosts hundreds of miles of the world’s densest jungle, totally impassable to anyone except expert river-faring indigenous groups in long-boats and risk-taking narcos with machetes. Luckily for us, this opened up the necessity to look into what was to become one of the best consecutive 5 days of our 2 years in Latin America so far.
The only options to get to Panama from Colombia are to fly or to take a sailboat/catamaran cruise through the San Blas Islands. As it turns out, these 365 indigenously-owned islands are UTTER PARADISE, and even in rainy season the colour of the water shocked us with how blue it was. We got mega lucky with the other people on our boat: 12 of the best humans Cartagena could throw together, and the crew were bloody brilliant. We spent our days snorkelling among the reefs, sharing campfires & fresh fish with the Kuna people and kayaking to uninhabited islands as we pleased.
Rubber-dinghying past crocodiles in Agua Dulce, Costa Rica
We spent a solid 2 months in Costa Rica, but when Andy’s family came out to stay for 2 weeks of that, we were after ways for them to see all of the natural wonders that the country holds in as little time as possible. Luckily, Andy’s mum found a tour that would take us all over the Guanacaste region, ending in a boat ride down the river to spot wildlife. Now, when they said ‘boat’, we weren’t quite expecting a rafting-style rubber dinghy, but that was all well and good until we started floating into the territory of 12FT CROCODILES.
The creepiest was when they slid into the water, and swam alongside our dinghy to line themselves up and see if they could take us. Although we were pretty sure that a hungry croc could easily rip into the material of the dinghy, or at least tip it over to release the goodies, our guide assured us that the crocodiles would only attack a larger being if it came between them and their young. The guide then proceeded to drive our dinghy to a riverbank with 2 teeeeny baby crocodiles of just a few days old, alone on the bank and therefore definitely at a high chance of being defended by an angry mother somewhere. Yep. For us, the dinghy couldn’t be turned around fast enough!
We were told that there would be around 40 crocodiles in the stretch of river we were travelling down, but during that time we only saw around 12 above the water, meaning the others were lurking below. A bloody great feeling to finally make it to land in safety!
Kayaking with wild dolphins in Pipa, Brazil
As a lifelong dolphin-lover, this one had me jumping for joy. With no need for an organised boat tour that takes you hours out to sea, in Pipa, North-East Brazil, all you need to do is rent a kayak for 50R$ (£10), and paddle less than 10m out from the shore before wild dolphins start to pop up all around you. Finding an ethical animal experience in Latin America is usually quite difficult, as often ‘wild’ animals are fed to stay in a certain area for tourism, leading to them perhaps living in the wild but becoming domesticated and losing the instinct and skills to hunt/forage.
In Pipa, though, the dolphins are actually hunting close to the shore, and while they’re curious about the humans bobbing about in the waves, they never come close enough to be touched. Since the dolphins were there out of choice and free to leave if they ever felt uncomfortable, this was 1000x more of an unforgettable experience than swimming with dolphins in captivity.
Visiting German towns around Las Sierras de Córdoba, Argentina
This one took us quite aback. Road-tripping around the rolling hills that surround the city of Córdoba, deep in Argentina, it was bizarre to pass through towns and villages modelled exactly on early 20th century Bavaria. It was almost a caricature of what Germany might be, and seemed like something you’d see at Disneyland, so exaggerated where the design elements. Some even had permanent wooden arches with ‘OKTOBERFEST’ carved into them, and German beer is advertised everywhere.
These towns were actually built by authentic Germans, though, who came to South America following the Great Depression and the World Wars. Though most were probably innocent citizens just in search of a better life, there are rumours that these towns were a sanctuary for Nazi officials who fled to escape persecution once WWII was over. Either way, these out-of-place towns in the heart of Argentina will be hard to forget!
Diving into Semuc Champey, Guatemala
Honestly, by the time we arrived in Guatemala, after 12 months of travelling in Latin America, we’d gotten a little tired of all the over-touristed must-sees that the region has to offer. While some (such as the afore-mentioned Machu Picchu and Bolivian salt flats) did live up to their hype, there were many that we felt we were only seeing for the sake of it, and didn’t really have much interest in once we got there. A lot of this was down to the conveyor-belt style of tourism used to get as many people in as they can, with everyone having exactly the same experience no matter how much they researched or paid. We fully expected Semuc Champey pools & caves tour to be one of these, so we begrudgingly signed up for an early morning tour in the hopes of beating the crowds just a little.
However, the day completely surprised us, and at one point our little group had the whole of Semuc Champey to ourselves. We only came across one other tour group the entire 5-or-so hour day, plus a sprinkling of locals in the pools themselves. The trip was done really smoothly, and SWEET BABY JESUS the pools of Semuc Champey are absolutely to die for! I used to hate the thought of diving straight into any water except a heavily-treated, reed-free swimming pool, but the refreshment of Semuc Champey had me begging the tour guide for just a few more minutes in the water. Semuc Champey is 100% one of the most unforgettable experiences in Latin America, so get it into your itinerary if you find yourself in that part of the world!
Star-gazing in the Atacama Desert, Chile
It was by chance that we met and became friends with two Canadians who offered to take us for adventure in their hire car, and by chance that they met a local fellow geologist who offered to take us to a star-gazing point in the Atacama Desert. An hour or so from the town of Copiapó, an under-construction observatory provided the perfect platform from which to see one of the most insanely-beautiful things in our lives: the Milky Way. We also saw a ‘moonrise’, an odd thing that we’d never considered before – but sure as the ground we were standing on, at around 1am the moon began to rise up from behind a mountain at a speed of knots.
The 5 of us stayed up there, drinking wine and experimenting with long-exposure photography, until dawn at around 5am. And apart from a little petrol money, it was totally free!
Chilling with humpback whales in El Valle, Colombia
When we set off into a rainstorm in a 5-man boat one gloomy Monday, we sighed, thinking the chance of us spotting whales in these conditions were low, and that perhaps we’d never see them during our trip to El Valle, Chocó, which is famous amongst Colombians for it’s incredible whale-spotting from June to October. However, within a mere 10 minutes on the water, our guide pointed into the distance, where he’d see a mother teaching her baby how to breach. Sure enough, the humpback continued to breach 5 or 6 more times; a truly awe-inspiring thing to watch in the wild. Before long, we were surrounded by other tour boats on their way to another activity in the Utría national park, who decided to take the opportunity to stop and watch the whales too. Our guide shouted and whistled at them, then tutted to himself, “They know it’s only meant to be 4 boats max near a whale, and they’re getting too close”. Luckily, Utría called, and the other boats began to clear off, one by one, leaving just ours bobbing around without the engine on.
The whales disappeared under water for some time, then we jumped as we heard the ‘PFFFTTT’ of water being shot from a blowhole, and turned to see the whales bobbing up alongside us, just floating at the surface. “They feel safe around us, they only display this behaviour when they’re super relaxed”, the guide said. Over the next hour, the mother and baby humpback floated and played around us, completely unbothered by the presence of our little fishing boat. Another insane experience of seeing nature as it should be; wild, free and untampered with.
And that’s it for now! We’re not quite done with Latin America yet, so I’m sure we’ll keep adding amazing experiences to this list. For now, if you’ve been to this region, we’d like to hear your unforgettable experiences in Latin America that we should check out! Let us know in the comments 🙂 If you’re planning your trip to this region but you’re not sure where to go, have a read of our brief summaries for the countries of Latin America.
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