The first question I always get when I tell people about my travels in Latin America, is ‘how dangerous it is there’. But a close second place is for the more positive question: which part of Latin America would you recommend for me? Here is my personal guide to that.
I always ask questions back before giving an answer. Because the choice of travel is a very personal one, depending on the amount of time you have, in which things you are interested, your fitness levels, your previous travel experience, and more. So here are some of the possible questions and answers!
I only have two to three weeks, what would you recommend?
Well, Ecuador is a favorite of mine, as you can do a nice round trip around the country and still see all the highlights. From the Andes mountains and the stunning Quilotoa volcanic lake to the great beaches and bustling Guayaquil. But it is not a great start for unexperiences travellers: some of the travel will be done in local buses, which might be hard to navigate. A rental car is obviously a good solution to that.
An entry-level solution is Costa Rica. Excellent flight connections, very good infrastructure, and a varied wildlife. The nature (pristine beaches, great national parks including volcanoes) is the main reason to go. But the luxury has its price: Costa Rica is one of the more expensive countries in Latin America. And it is so well organized in lots of areas that the beautiful chaos of Latin America has been lost to a great extent.
I have two to three months, where should I go?
Now this opens up the opportunity to really explore a region or the bigger countries. Mexico is an obvious choice: it is too big and there is too much to do to cover it in three weeks. When you have much more time, you can work your way through the country, region by region.
Where Mexico is very tourist-friendly and with lots of good infrastructure, Central America is the opposite. This makes it a choice for more adventurous travellers. Countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua don’t really do luxury holidays. That is part of their charm, but that also makes it tiring. And the capitals are no fun at all, chaotic metropolises where you have to be alert all the time. The nature though is absolutely phenomenal.
If you just want to explore one country, there are more obvious choices in South America. Colombia is becoming more and more popular, is affordable and relatively safe. The people are loud and wild, which you have to be prepared for. And Medellin is probably my favourite city of Latin America, the city of eternal spring in the Aburra valley.
But yes, Colombia can be intimidating for the first-time traveller. Peru is in the same vein, though at he moment even more politically unstable. Chile is probably the safest option. You go there for the phenomenal nature: from the Atacama desert in the north to mighty Patagonia with its lakes and glaciers and mountains, it is simply breathtaking. Infrastructure is very good. Which, like Costa Rica, comes at a cost: Chile has European prices, and the Latin flavor gets lost a bit as well because it is so well-organized.
What is your favourite country?
Nicaragua. Sorry for the clear answer, but I just really enjoyed it there. For me it is the much cheaper, less-crowded and better version of Costa Rica. The tobacco country in the north, Granada at the border of the magnificent lake with Ometepe island and its two (!!!) volcanoes, the crazy beautiful beaches, great food, low costs. But it comes with disadvantages as well: because of the semi-dictatorship of former Sandinista Daniel Ortega the country is politically instable. And it is poor, which translates into poor infrastructure. Only the international buses are luxurious, the local transport is breathtakingly adventurous. Nothing for inexperienced travellers (although I went to Nicaragua on my first long Latin American trip).
It is though difficult to say which country is the best, as I had a great time almost everywhere. And I haven’t been everywhere of course. So here is a list of the visited countries and the pros and cons.
- very culturally diverse
- huge choice of possible destinations
- great network of buses and planes
- warm beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific side
- big cities and ancient Maya and Inca heritage sites
- huge distances
- perfect for one big long journey, or shorter ones to one region at a time
- safety can be an issue in the northern parts of the country
- mostly known for the volcanoes, the ancient Tikal site and the colonial city of Antigua
- the capital Guatemala City is not very safe and attractive to visit
- local transport consists mainly of chicken buses and is slow
- perfect for a two-to-three week visit, to cover all the highlights
- smallest of the countries in Central America
- beaches are amongst the most beautiful around
- safety is an issue in some parts of San Salvador, but not as bad as sometimes depicted
- politically unstable
- probably not your single destination if you have several weeks of travel time available, makes sense to combine it with visits to other countries
- local transport also with buses, though it is pretty easy to rent a car here and travel around relatively safe
- nature is the biggest draw: Somoto canyon in the north, tobacco and coffee country are in that area as well. Great beaches, perfect colonial towns (Leon, Granada), several volcanoes (two of them on ONE island)
- the capital Managua should be avoided. Dirty and not safe and not much to see
- it is very cheap and has perfect weather. If you dare, it is much better here than in Costa Rica
- safe, with great bus infrastructure and more
- relatively expensive
- good flight connections across the globe
- amazing nature, from volcanoes and cloud forests to beaches
- good start for inexperienced travellers
- huge country, with lots of different things to see
- the people are the main attraction here: loud, lively, sometimes annoying… but never boring. And pretty good-looking
- safety is not an issue on the main tourist paths. Venture beyond that (Pacific coast, Amazon) and it becomes a bit more difficult
- not really possible to cover the entire country in three weeks. You have to make a choice (just like Mexico or Chile for example)
- it has high peaks, amazing Caribbean beaches, and very affable colonial towns
- Medellin is one of the more pleasant huge cities in Latin America
- perfect for a three-week tour (if you exclude the Galapagos islands)
- from Andes mountains to cloud forests and Pacific beaches
- tourist infrastructure is somewhere between the chaotic chicken buses of Central America and the perfect luxcury buses of Mexico and Chile
- the height can be intimidating and physically heavy. The capital, Quito, is at 2.700 metres and the main Andes peaks like Cotopaxi venture beyond 6.000 metres
- the country is massive: it took me around six weeks to travel the 4.000 kilometres from north to south
- nature is diverse, from the hot Atacama desert in the north to the even warmer wine region in the center to Patagonia with glaciers and lakes and mountains
- cities are not worth the visit. Santiago is okay, the rest is industrial. Not much Latino colonial flavor there
- it is expensive: expect European prices, and even more when you travel to remote parts of Patagonia