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SOUTH AMERICAN HIGHLIGHTS
I wrote this document to provide information for other travelers about the highlights of our trip and our recommendations. Mike and I did visit Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru 18 years ago, so there were parts of those countries that we did not go back to on this trip. Our previous experiences did influence how we saw each of those countries this time around, as each country has changed dramatically. Remember that you can’t possible see everything, and sometimes doing less you actually have an experience with more depth. Your experience of a place will not only be influenced by your interests, but also by your mood at the time and your recent encounters. I hope this information will be in some way helpful. We actually have a word for each country, which I have listed below. That word we would often use to describe things we were experiencing or seeing.
TIPS: we always try to cross borders early in the morning, (Sundays are always good days to cross) when the border first opens or at around 6-7 am. Always check border opening hours.
DOCUMENTS REQUIRED: AT border crossings make sure you have: 1/ a valid passport (needs to have at least 6 months validity) 2/ papers for vehicle: vehcile title, vehicle registration, drivers license 3/ for countries that require it: proof of yellow fever vaccination 4/ TRAVELING WITH A DOG: papers for dog, check into a "dog passport"; proof of vaccinations
All border crossings in South America are straightforward; have all your papers with you; -Only going into Ecuador or Colombia do you need copies; don’t make them ahead of time, as they want copies of exit and entry stamps also; make them at the borders as directed. Crossing back and forth between Chile and Argentina is easy and stream lined. Usual time for Sth American crossings is 1-1 1/2 hours
NOTE: going into Chile- you can not take fresh fruit/vegetables, dairy products, meat, honey or seeds; they will take them off you at the border; they also will check your vehicle and often bags need to be removed from vehicles and put through x-ray machines.
Central American crossings can be more time consuming and more confusing. (overlanders have reported anywhere from 2-5 hours, it only ever took us 2 hours) We paid helpers $10-20 USD to help us with the porcess at the Nicaragua and Costa Rica borders, (depending how much work was involved). The money was well spent as the help halfed the time we would have spent and significantly decreased the stress factor.
Check all paperwork to make sure the information they have recorded is correct, even down to the exact car color.
USA Crossing the border back into the USA at Brownsville was straight forward. They do not allow any fresh fruits, vegetables, foods, plant or seed products into the USA. They will most likely search and xray your vehicle. All very straight forward.
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Nicaragua is GREAT. Parts of it still remain off the main tourist trail. It is probably what Costa Rica was 20 years ago.
We crossed the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua at Penas Blancas. The border crossing is a little crazy. I would recommend crossing early in the morning (6am), so you have the whole day ahead. This will allow you to avoid some of the traffic, but also have plenty of time in Nicaragua to access an ATM, supermarkets and get to your next destination. Rivas or San Juan del Sur are the first big cities you will come to. There are ATM's, supermarkets and all services you will require there.
POPOYO- nice beach area with many options for surfing. We camped in the grounds of "Cafe con Leche" restaurant/hostel. Nice hostel with kitchen, common areas and pool. see ioverlander.
GRANADA- great city with beautiful buildings, good restaurants, cafe's and shopping. Parking at Firestation, see ioverlander. We stayed in a hotel. worth taking a carriage ride to see the city- dusk is a good time as we saw shippets of the life of the locals as we toured around.
VOLCANOES- there are many volcanoes to visit,. We went to Masaya volcano, which is easily accessible form Granada. You can drive right up to the crater which is actually smoking!
LEON- similiar to Granada but more rustic; french bakery was a disappointment. Cathedral_ it is really worth visiting the cathedral and walking on the roof, wear socks, suncreen and sunglasses are a must as the glare from the white roof is blinding.
JIQUILLO- a very quite beach area in northen Nicaragua; the town is a fishing village; GREAT for learning to surf, as the surf is small with no rocks. We stayed at Rancho Esperanza, they have camping, dorms and cabanas with private bathrooms and rent surfboards. There is no kitchen but they have good meals at reasonable prices. The place is rustic but the sense of community there is wonderful. It is a great place for families. They have a kids club for local children in the afternoons, that Keira participated in. She loved it and it was a great chance to practise spanish in a play setting.
MATAGALPA- coffe region. We camped in the parking lot of Finca Esperanza. The Finca is in a beautiful location with hikes around the property and coffe tours. They have rooms and some dorms, which I believe are more high end, but the place is an oasis!
SOMOTO CANYON- beautiful canyon; lots of different options for exploring the canyon; you need a guide to go deep into the canyon. itself. Be prepared to be bombarded by guides at the entrance,. Before you get there, research and have an idea of what you want to do. If you have limited time, book a guide when you arrive for the following day. We camped at a gorgeous location right near the river in the canyon. Great grassy area. (see ioverlander)
Costa Rica is the most visited and most western country in Central America. Even with so much tourism Costa Rica still manages to have an abundance of WILDLIFE. The words we use the most when describing Costa Rica is TOURISTY AND EXPENSIVE, AND IT IS EXPENSIVE. The prices of food, accommodation, gasoline and tourist activities are the highest in all of the countries we have visited to date. The prices are equivalent or more than Europe or the USA.
OSA peninsula- by far our favorite place in Costa Rica. The Osa Peninsula is very remote (for Costa Rica). It has one of the last remaining rainforests in Central America. We wild camped on the beach at Carate Beach camp 2 (ioverlander). It was an awesome location right on the beach with macaws, monkeys, hermit crabs and lizards. We had the beach to ourselves with little traffic in the area. We did not visit Drakes Bay but we have heard that area is great too.
MANUEL ANTONIO- didnt visit the park, but our riends did. They saw a lot of wildlife and recommend getting a guide so you can see more. Busy area, nice beach, restaurants etc.
DOMINICAL- we only went here for a day trip, but loved it; small surf town with a good vibe, lots of places to camp near the beach; hostels in the town.
UVITA- stayed at Cascada Verde tree house, great hostel with awesome common area and kitchen; they allowed us to park our vehicle in a pullout off the driveway and camp there.
MAL PAIS/MONTEZUMA- can be quite busy, but beaches are nice/surf: good restaurants
SAMARA- touristy town, several camping options; awesome international school called Mareas which accepts visiting students. Keira went to the school for 1 week and absolutely loved it.
MONTE VERDE- cloud forest; touristy area known for adventure sports; has a really good butterfly garden and bat cave which Keira loved; area could be missed; we camped at La Colina Lodge. (ioverlander app)
FINCA CANAS CASTIILA: close to border of Nicaragua (ioverlander) awesome finca; great overland place with all the amenities; wildlife in abundance including baby sloth; great chill out place; has accomodation also; www.canas-castilla.com Do not miss this and allow a few nights here.
For us Panama was all about getting Priscilla back after shipping her in a container from Colombia. So we may not be the best at reporting on Panama. Our impressions whilst there were not great. We found the people to be somewhat unfriendly.
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Panama Canal- a must see; catch a taxi to Miraflores Loch, ask around to see what time is the best to see the big ships go through; we went at 2pm and saw several big ships go through the loch; really spectacular.
Colombia is an AWESOME country. The people are very friendly and there are a variety of climates and places to see. We are thoroughly enjoying it. Make sure you leave enough time on your trip to enjoy what it has to offer. It is very cheap! There is a large military and police presence along the roadsides especially in the south, however we found all the officials to be friendly, intrigued and helpful.
Border crossing- - Crossed border at Ipiales: straightforward crossing - Can buy SOAT insurance about 50 meters from Columbian border entrance
Laguna de La Cocha – pretty lake near Pasto, best camping at Restaurant Jardin Del Lago, great views of lake with great garden (on ioverlander)
Do check out El Puerto area, as it is a cool area with colorful houses, restaurants and an interesting community.
San Agustin- if you like archeological sites, it is a must – main site is Parque Arqueologico
Second largest waterfall in Sth America near here, beautiful countryside
Tierra Dentro- again a must if you like Archeological sites, very different from San Agustin, this is burial tombs underground. - We camped in very basic camp in San Andres (ioverlander, also on Mapsme), friendly people in town
Popayan- great camping location north of city- Eco Parque (on ioverlander) can take bus or cab into city from there.
Nice tranquil city
Bogota- we did visit Bogota, however we heard great things about it.
Medillion- we spent a couple of days here on route to Panama. We are not city people, but found the city to be ok. We enjoyed the Botero museum and statues. People who like to party really like this city.
Rivera area- (south of Desierto Tatacoa) very hot weather, tourist area for Columbians, has a lot of natural pools. We camped at La Cascada Hostel/natural pools (sign is on right hand side on the way up to Los Angelos termals) They have a natural cold-water pool and an awesome waterfall to swim in. Camping on grassy area, great views, geese, peacocks, parrots, dogs, cats- great atmosphere- may be busy on weekends. Was windy when there.
Desierto Tatacoa- very hot during the day and windy at night, try the natural pools at El Penon de Constantino- small pool but awesome in the heat of the day, may be busy on weekends. We camped there; 20,000 for 2 people included camping and pools, Hugo the owner speaks a little English and is a real character.
Salento- coffee region, beautiful area, not to be missed; Salento is touristy but still has charm, great coffee shops.
Stayed at La Serrana- good camping and good hostel, great place to chill out (ioverlander)
Coffee plantation tour with Don Elias- small organic farm/authentic/ English tour (follow signs to Oasis plantation and go a further 400 meters down the road
BRUNCH restaurant: awesome meals, great burgers, veg food, A MUST: peanut butter brownie, recommend sharing a main meal so you have room for the brownie
Great fruit and veggie shop in town, run by Alcymaria; ask at hostel for directions
Good coffee shop with cappuccinos con baileys or amaretto on way up to the mirador, left hand side 2-3 blocks from plaza
Salt Cathedral (near Bogota): underground cathedral in old salt mine; interesting but not worth going out of your way to visit; great for our 5 year old
Villa Leyva- colonial town; love it, very tranquil; stay at Hostel Colombian Highlands/Renacer; it is about a 15 min walk from downtown; nice setting, all the amenities; on ioverlander -Highlights of the area for us: visiting Raquira town- cool colorful houses/artesan town, the clay house (interesting), El Fossil Museum (one of only 2 fossils of Kronosaurus ever found) - Panaderia Francesa – A MUST; it is an amazing French bakery with great pastries
San Gil- camped at La Pacha, outside of town (ioverlander); it is a rustic campground but a very relaxed place to hang out; has volunteer opportunities (ioverlander)
Los Angeles campsite- Caribbean coast near Tayrona National Park; we love this place. They have a variety of accomodations including tent hire, hammocks, private rooms, and car camping on a grassy area. There is also a restaurant and a basic kitchen area. If you want to relax, and enjoy a beautiful beach this is the place. NB: this is not on the party hostel circuit.
Cartagena- nice city; we stayed at La Casona hostel in Getsemani area (has kitchen and air conditioning); good central area; there is a parking garage with secure parking just around the corner.
We visited Ecuador 18 years ago and loved it. Because we had been to the coast before we skipped this part of the country. We had a NICE and EASY time in Ecuador. Ecuador uses US dollars, and it is expensive for food and accommodation. Public transportation is cheap, as is fuel however the fuel is poor quality.
Ibarra- Finca Sommerwind- good camping, great place to chill out (ioverlander); can take bus to Otavalo market from there.
Otavalo- we camped at a soccer field below the Cascada de Peguche waterfall car park (cascada is marked on ioverlander.) - Saturday market is popular to attend, go early 6am if you want to witness the animal market.
Quito- the downtown area is interesting and is nice to walk around, it is fun to visit the main cathedral and complete the climb to its spires.
Amazonia in Ecuador- interesting area, sites are marked on ioverlander; area near Misahualli is nice; a visit to the animal sanctuary, taken from the canoe launch is worth doing.
Banos- camped at Pequeno Paraiso- just outside of Banos (ioverlander), can be crowded at times- may want to email ahead to let them know when you are coming so Susan will leave the gate open.
Vilcabamba- small town with great French bakery; ex-pat community from US which brings with it a good service industry
Peru is an INTERESTING country, with many amazing RUINS and is the place to explore the Andes Mountains. There is a definite GRINGO TRAIL, which you do need to follow to see the main sites but if you take the effort to get to some more remote places, you will be rewarded. Peru is relatively cheap, but if you want to explore the more touristy places then your overall costs will increase.
BEWARE: be extra careful with food and water in Peru and Bolivia; particularly in Cusco area, avoid raw foods in restaurants and goats cheeses, go to restaurants recommended by locals.
Kuelap- near Chachapoyas, MUST SEE, we loved this ruin, it is off the beaten path but is well worth the trip, it still has an authentic feel with jungle encroaching on the ruins.
Near Leymebamba - museum that contains ~ 300 mummies- cool to see.
Polac – (between Cajamarca and Celendin) if you are driving this way stop off at the mosaic church here for a look, amazing work of art- (ioverlander)
Coast of Peru- in our opinion, if you are not surfing or in desperate need of some coast time, skip most of the coast of Peru; during the winter months, it grey, and misty; it is desert and there is a lot of garbage, again this is our opinion, we have heard of others who have enjoyed the coast.
Chiclayo- Sipan Ruins/museums worth a visit if you are going this way
Trujillo- ruins in this area are worth seeing, original paintwork; can stay at Huanchaco coastal area outside of Trujillo and visit ruins during the day.
Huaraz/Cordillera Blanca- we did not visit this trip- but would recommend this area for hiking and scenery.
SOUTH OF LIMA-
Lima- did not visit this time, heard mixed reports from fellow travelers.
Paracas- desert landscape with rugged coastline, very windy, worth a visit if you are passing this way.
Huacachina- near Ica, oasis in the desert, good place to sand board, dune bugging; is very touristy, camping is in parking lot only; very busy on weekends, hotels and hostels available; can stay in Ica.
Nazca lines- really need to do a flight over the lines to see them properly; you can just go to the airport and organize yourself; go early as the lines are clearer first thing in the morning; recommend taking motion sickness tablet, due to plane tipping to side for better views.
Cusco Area- see ioverlander for Quinta Lala campsite and for info re backdoor to Machu Picchu.
Sacsaywaman ruins are worth visiting
Good Spanish school Excel, private and group lessons
Pisac market is worth visiting (bus or car ride from Cusco); when bargaining offer half of their original price and barter from there
Moray ruins- worth a visit
Salinas- natural salt pools- interesting, see ioverlander for camp sites
Ollantaytambo- (town from which trains go to Machu Picchu) interesting ruins, cool relaxed town with cobbled streets- worth an overnight visit; great hostel Kamma Guest house- firstname.lastname@example.org, opened by 2 young Peruvian women, please support them if you can.
Near Urubamba, cool hostel run by 2 Americans “Casa de Tres Osos”, chilled place; check out website for prices and details.
Bolivia is INTERESTING but TAINTED by tourism. We did not find people to be very friendly in Bolivia, but other travelers have had a different experience.
FUEL SITUATION: it is difficult to get gasoline in Bolivia, a lot of service stations don’t want to sell it to foreigners; we found gas stations in the countryside were more willing to sell it- you may need to offer them “a tip”, and say “sin
Copacabana – on Lake Titicaca, can take tours to the islands from here. -Can camp near lake or if you want to splurge try La Capula Hostel- has parking, great views, good restaurant
Coroico/the death road- this is known as one of the worst roads in Sth America, however we have been on much worse roads; if you decide to do the trip by your own vehicle, leave after 2.30pm to avoid the cyclists. Also better to drive from Coroico towards La Paz as you are on the inside of the road, which is less dangerous. You can bike the route with one of the many tour groups, which can be organized in La Paz.
Uyuni- town from which to take jeep tours or to start overland through Salar de Uyuni and Laguna route
If taking jeep tour: talk to other travelers for a recommendation as there are stories of drivers being drunk
If driving- there is a lot of info on ioverlander and the web- note most GPS does not work
Note it is very cold overnight, you will need lots of layers of clothing
Altitude sickness is very real (take some coco tea leaves and coca candy- can help some, if severe only solution is to go down in altitude)
Potosi- tours into the mines from here
The word for Chile is EPIC. This is mostly in reference to Patagonia and Lakes districts. The people are friendly, the landscapes are majestic and there are a lot of opportunities for camping. In Chile and Argentina, entrance for foreigners into the National Parks can be expensive if you are on a tight budget, but there is a reason, these sites are spectacular and worth visiting.
San Pedro de Atacama- the town is very touristy and expensive
great hostel for camping and rooms- Puritama (ioverlander)
Geysers/lakes/thermals can be seen from here (if you have already completed the Laguna route or plan to, you may be able to skip some of these sites)
Valparaiso- on coast near Santiago
Known for its colored houses and street art
No camping options that we know of
- We stayed at Hostal Luna Sonrisa- decent hostel in good area- we parked on the street in front of the hostel- safe with no problems Santiago- we enjoyed the city, -Must see- pre-Colombian museum, great collection - Good sushi/Thai in the city.
We rented an apartment through Andes Hostel, good hostel in Belles Artes area. There is secure parking 2 blocks away.
Pucon- cool area on lake, good hiking, volcanoes
Good thermal springs in the area
If driving seek out Rio Blanco springs, great natural pools with good camping, a narrow road in.
Chiloe- Cool Island with great beaches, known for its churches and colorful houses. Carretera Austral: Highway 7 ,THE HIGHLIGHT OF OUR TRIP; must do if you have your own vehicle, safe to hitchhike/bus through area
Austral extends from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O’Higgins in the south. It is a road that connects little villages, through a road and ferry system.
DO NOT MISS THE SECTION FROM COCHRANE TO VILLA O’HIGGINS – awesome scenery
Visit Caleta Tortel- small village with no cars, parts of town connected by walkways
Ioverlander covers camp sites
Chile Chico crossing back into Argentina is beautiful
Puerto Natales- the town from which to head into Torres del Paine; overlanders camp in parking lot near lake; great chocolate shop/café in town; Torres del Paine- beautiful area with a lot of options for camping and hiking; main hikes are the “W” or “O” hikes, you can rent equipment in Puerto Natales. Tierra del Fuego- part of Chile; colony of King Penguins – only place outside of Antarctica that you can see King Penguins.
EPIC and GREAT people.
NEED TO KNOW: take US dollars or Euros with you into Argentina; there is a blue dollar rate that you get through exchanging USD/Euros that is almost twice as much as the official rate. ( see blog "the Money Game" under February's blogs) Get USD in Ecuador or Uruguay. We cannot not stress this enough, it will make a huge difference to your budget.
NORTH WEST ARGENTINA;
South of Salta, visit Cachi- small cute town, not a lot to do but quaint
Further south is Cafayate, a great destination: BEST PLACE FOR WINERIES; Great relaxed town, can walk to goats farm and wineries or hire bikes to visit wineries; rolling hills and beautiful wine estates, waterfall in the area.
Take a day trip up highway 68 to Quebrada de Cafayate, beautiful landscapes and rock formations
Mendoza: we did not visit wineries: in our opinion Cafayate is better
Bariloche- very touristy, lots of chocolate shops with good chocolate
El Bolson- more chilled out than Bariloche; in the mountains
Best hostel in Argentina: La Casona de Odile; outside of town, great place to chill, we were there at low season, may be a bit hectic at high season
Great artisan market; awesome homemade chocolates and beer
WEST PATAGONIA (very windy and cold)- best time to go Oct-Feb
El Chalten- town from which to visit the Fitz Roy range
We camped outside of town at Bonanza, good place, great for kids, (ioverlander)
El Calafate- touristy town but still a good vibe; MUST SEE, Glacier Perito.
Perito Moreno National Park- did not visit but heard it was beautiful
Tierra del Fuego- Ushuaia, the southern most mainland town; interesting town; camp in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego- 12 kms west of Ushuaia, Rio Pippo campground is a good place to camp (make sure you have water and food supplies as there is nothing in the park)
great hikes in Parque ;Cerro Guanacho Peak- tough hike in spots but amazing views, and the coastal walk affords views of the islands
Haberton area southeast of Ushuaia is worth a visit- good seafood restaurants, beautiful landscapes
EAST COAST PATAGONIA – Argentina (south to north)
Cabo Raso- south of Punta Tombo, family run estancia on coast; off the grid setting; have rooms and area to camp; have old army bunker that is used as a kitchen/indoor living area for campers; old shipwreck in area.
Punto Tombo- south of PV, worth visiting, get to see penguins up close and in large numbers
Peninsula Valdes (PV)- area to see sea lions/penguins/whales; can do a day trip to see it; backpackers may want to rent a car to have more flexibility
North to Buenos Aires- nothing to see, coast is either built up with resorts or the water and beaches have garbage
BUENOS AIRES- Recoleta- good area to stay, we stayed at Recoleta hostel, great location; there is a secure parking lot nearby Recoleta cemetery; burial place of Evita and other famous Argentineans Tigre- town near Buenos Aires, can be visited by train for day trip/ overnight stay; can take boats on river to see local communities; nice restaurants, relaxed feel.
Uruguay- can take a ferry (car or person) to Uruguay from Buenos Aires; great option to get USD from ATMs or Western Union