Latin America Turns-On Nature
When it comes to experiences, Central and South America serve up some of the best. Traveling through 11 of Latin America’s countries provided us with more than enough ammo to have a crack at the top 5 experiences. It seems as though physical exertion adds greater satisfaction to the experience as all of the top 5 forced a bead or two of sweat out of us. To be fair, every country offered up a top experience and most of them were different. It was the differences that helped to define each of the top 5.
1. Salkantay Trek, Peru
You’d think that missing out on trekking ‘The Inca Trail’ would really put a dampener on any trip to Peru. Think again. Let me introduce you to what guides claim as the more natural, diverse and authentic trek, out of Cusco: The Salkantay (not to mention it’s 20km longer and 300m higher). It was the most rewarding experience of our 4 months in Latin America; thumping headaches, diarrhoea, mild hallucination, heaving lungs, filthy feat, temperatures from -10 up to 25 degrees celsius and 5am starts. There is no question that we’d go through it all again, just to get the feeling we got at 4,600m above sea level as we summited the Salkantay Pass. Standing at the foot of one of the most sacred Incan mountains (Mt Salkntay), we couldn’t help but feel incredibly lucky to have walked where the Inca people had worshipped many years before. The trek the trek itself took 5 days and finished with a visit to Machu Picchu. We passed through arid scrubland, under giant mountains, around glacial lakes, over volcanic passes, through native jungle, across raging rivers and into small local villages. Every day started with spotless blue skies that made photography a matter of turning on the camera and just clicking away. The walking was tough at times, ascending 700m in an hour on the morning of day 2 certainly made sure we were alive, but on the whole wasn’t as gut wrenching as we’d expected. Is is better than the Inca Trail? Well it’s hard to say unless you’ve one both, but our guide certainly felt the Salkantay offered more freedom to walk where you wanted compared to the heavily regulated and policed Inca Trail. You still get to walk on trails that the Inca’s took, but you don’t have to share it with 400 other people on any given day. A life-long memory of an incredible part of the world, the pictures speak for themselves in Salkantay Trek – Living the High Life
2. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Ever wondered what it would be like to walk on a completely different planet? Well if you want to save a bit of effort and a few years travelling around the galaxy to experience it, then head straight for Salar de Uyuni and it’s surrounding national parks. This experience was like no other, 3 days of touring across some of the most bizarre landscapes we’ve ever seen. While the accommodation and tour company itself left quite a bit to be desired, there was no arguing that the views outside the vehicle were from another world. The Salt Flats themselves are crazy, an enormous white expanse of nothing else but salt. We drove over the flats and took the obligatory distorted perspective pictures before heading south into the national parks. We spent two days tripping over scree, sand and salt stopping to get up close to lagoons, flamingo’s llamas, mud pools, geysers, mountains and weird rock formations. It’s n0-mans land, with tourists hoofing across the soils and the odd local plying their trade with accommodation in the most remote places. If you’re after an easy place to take photos then this is probably one of the better spots in the world, with the contrast in not only landscapes but also colours – bright red lakes growing against a powerful ever-blue sky. Definitely take an i-pod to plug into the car as the distance between stops can be a while. A bottle of red wine is a must to keep warm when the temps get below 0 and you’ve only got a sleeping bag! Avoid Cordillera Tours (awful company) but other than that you have to get into a salt flats tour for Bolivia’s fresh serving of amazing scenery.
3. Semuc Champey, Guatemala
Paradise. An often overused word, but I guess people have their own versions of paradise so it’s fair enough. Semuc Champey is one of those spots that has to be classed as paradise in anyones book! It’s a hard concept to explain, let alone try and picture in your head, but Semuc Champey is a set of emerald colour pools that sit on a natural limestone bridge – under which a raging river runs. Complex nature! A river literally disappears into a hole under the ground and over the top a set of cascading swimming pools flow where people swim, jump dive and sun themselves. The pools follow each other down for around 200m before the river shoots back out and the brown torrent continues. Part of the fun is getting there, we spent a couple of hours caving, before jumping off a bridge and free-falling 10m into a swollen river before ending up at the tranquil paradise of Semuc Champey. What makes this all quite unbelievable is that it’s situated in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle. There we were in big, bad dangerous Guatelamala, sitting in picture perfect pools, sunning ourselves looking out over kilometers of untamed jungle. Our introduction to travelling in Latin America couldn’t have been any better: Semuc Champey – Paradise in Guatemala
4. Pampas – Amazon Jungle, Bolivia
An experience that starts in La Paz with a small local flight over the Andes and dropping down into the tropical temperatures of the Amazon. We knew we were in for something a bit different when we were greeted by motorbike taxi’s at the airport and shot into town on the back of them to find a place to stay the night. The Pampas, as they’re called, are the equivalent of an African safari in South America – 3 days spent in a motorised canoe, gliding up and down a small river checking out all the wildlife that nature could throw at us! There we were riding shotgun in a thin boat as hundreds of alligators and Caimen drifted by, some snapping at the boat as it sped along while others stealthily lowered themselves into the water out of site. Each day we got up close and personal with new wildlife, even going so far as to hunt for an anaconda. Swimming in the river (with alligators on the banks) and fishing for Piranha were our favorite on the water activities, although we always enjoyed getting back to the chairs on the boat to sit down and soak up the views of the Pampas. The experience was made all the more better by the group we were with, a fun bunch of people who were great to chat and share a beer with. We’ll say it again, this is a ‘must-do’ adventure if you’re anywhere near Bolivia, it gets you up close with all the creatures that you’ve seen on National Geographic but never managed to be in arms reach of. So don’t even think about the cost of the flight to get to Rurrenbaque just book it and enjoy a Pampas expedition in the Amazon Jungle.
5. Colca Canyon, Peru
Trekking into the deepest canyon in the world. There is clearly not too much left to explain with an intro like that! We couldn’t help but put that cliche onto our tour list and we found out that it was definitely more than just a claim to fame. It was an early start on the first day to get to a lookout point to watch condors ride the thermoclimb – it was nature at it’s best as the massive birds hung, dove and swung through the air with mountains as the backdrop. Heading into the canyon itself was an effort, a scorching hot day, loose gravel and no shade to be seen, it was hard going but rewarding when we got to the bottom. An eery peacefulness existed at the foot of the towering cliffs we’d climbed down, with only the odd dog breaking the silence. Walking through the canyon was pretty easy stuff, meaning we could enjoy the views, villages and guided commentary on how the indigenous people of the area use the land and it’s fruits in everyday life. The trip was capped off with a soak in a fresh water fed pool, at our final camp-spot before we heaved ourselves up the cliffs again to get out of the canyon. Something we’ve done once and will probably never get the chance to experience again, Colca Canyon – Deeper than you’ve ever been before.
World class experiences! The top 5 experiences from travelling through Latin America were more than we could have ever expected. Each of them involved some sort of physical activity or challenging situation which probably helped make the experience. There are a few others that came close to the top 5 which are worthy of mention: trekking over Isla Del Sol (Bolivia), surfing the waves of San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua), hiking the red sands around Tupiza (Bolivia) and getting into the outdoor sports in San Gil.
More on Latin America
Feel like there could be a few key destinations missing? They’re probably not far away, in an equally as important place:
> Top 5 Photos: Latin America (coming soon)
> Top 5 Feasts: Latin America (coming soon)