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Where To Gap Year In Central & South America

Written by Milly Whitehead on 02 / 03 / 2022

Gap Year Advice

Every year we are on standby – we have the world covered, projects all lined up and we wait…patiently, and with curiosity, to see where the next generation of gapper is going to head. Last year was all about Costa Rica and but this year South America is having it's time in the sun. Our Leapers are choosing to combine spending time in both Central and South America and in particular these 4 bad boys…

Let’s take a peek…

Colombia

The chief 'bad boy' …but we promise it really has cleaned up its act and it is not all about Pablo and his friends. In fact, word has it that the Colombians will shun you with the mere mention of his name …they’ve had enough…they want travellers to come in to experience their culture, stunning landscapes and oh my, more adventure activities than you can shake a stick at.

Must see:

Bogota
Lonely planet describes this city as ‘Colombia's beating heart a vibrant capital cradled by Andean peaks and steeped in sophisticated urban cool' and indeed it is… The city’s cultural epicentre is La Candelaria where you’ll find the cobbled historic downtown filled with colonial buildings, museums, boho hip restaurants, hotels and bars. Start here, you won’t be disappointed.

San Gil
San Gil is officially the centre for all adventure, high up in the Andes. This must be included in your itinerary – promise us you will go there.

What you will find is a buzzing, traditional, pretty Colombian town high in the mountains offering an abundance of traditional culture, as well as every outdoor adventure you have ever heard of (plus more) – bungy jumping, white-water rafting, canyoning, caving, and mountain biking …it’s all here to get your teeth stuck into.

The Sacred Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Fast fact - The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range is considered sacred by the four indigenous groups who live here; Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo.

They all believe the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the beating heart of the world: what happens here happens everywhere, and when its rivers run dry, its ice caps melt, and its endemic species disappear, so do the rest of the world’s. They maintain their deep commitment to restoring equilibrium to the Earth through daily meditations, ritual practices and mental discipline. It is an amazing place to visit and you will be swept up in their culture.

But while here you must explore the Tayrona National Park by foot or pony, winding your through lush tropical forest to emerge on stunning beaches and of course…drum roll please... the Lost City …This is guaranteed to be a highlight – you’ll need 4 days to do it properly…trekking through the ‘holy’ terrain of the indigenous people to reach the hidden city tucked away in the jungle. Awesome and inspiring.

Sounds great, show me more

Costa Rica

Now this country may be small and a tad expensive but what you're going to find is a country dedicated to conservation – honestly, they have more National Parks per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Why you might ask – well, this country holds over 5% of the world’s biodiversity – the sloths, cloud forest, and macaw being just the tip of the sweaty, jungly iceberg.

But, take note... Costa Rica’s Pacific beaches are one of the main breeding grounds for the endangered Olive Ridley, Black Turtle, Hawksbill and Leatherback species. Witnessing the “run for the sea” by the hatchlings must be a bucket list moment for us all. Amazing, let’s go.

Must See:

Monteverde
Set on top of the spine of Costa Rica’s central highlands, Monteverde is a world above the coastal towns that dot the shorelines. It is a place of cloud forests, coffee plantations, monkeys, mist, and friendly locals. You should head to the main town of Santa Elena which is small, quaint and filled with tasty restaurants and folksy artisan shops – you get the vibe, and from here venture out into the cloud forest at a mere 4,662 ft (1,440 m) above sea level.

The cloud forest is aptly named because it is permanently in foggy cloud, dripping moisture below which support a complex and far-reaching ecosystem, one that harbours over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, tens of thousands of insect species, and over 2,500 varieties of plants, 420 of which are orchids alone. So, get your binos out …and while you are there don't miss the famous zip wire…

Playa Manzanillo
You can’t come here without seeing the turtles…and as an intrepid gapper …you have time on your hands to help one of the local NGOs focused on turtle conservation.

Cirenas, does just that, it stands for 'The Centre for Investigation of Natural and Social Resources'. They work in a number of special areas around Costa Rica to protect beaches, forests and rural communities. If you joined a leap program to Costa Rica, you would have the chance to help them on their Playa Manzanillo Sea Turtle Conservation Project. Typical jobs would include hatchery maintenance, beach cleaning and night patrols.

Yes please, I want to get involved

Guatemala

Now this country is having its moment and about time too as it has been overlooked for far too long.

Where is it? I hear you say…well, it’s below Mexico, above El Salvador and nestled next to Belize. It has a foot in both the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans, so you can surf one week, mojito it the next, before summiting one of their majestic volcanos, sail across Lake Atitlan and marvel at the Mayan ruins. Honestly – this country will blow your mind – for culture, adventure, and beach life all wrapped into one.

Must See:

Antigua and lake Atitlan
This former capital of Guatemala is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so. It is an immaculately preserved colonial city with cobbled streets, shabby chic buildings and cool bars surrounded by blue skies and towering volcanoes. Yes, we like.

Just an hours drive outside you’ll find the stunning Lake Atitlan and pretty Mayan villages where everyone still wanders around in local dress. A 'must do' whilst you are here is to summit the Acatenango Volcano which towers above the landscape at nearly 4,000 meters. Awesome.

Aside from providing panoramic views of the entire region, Acatenango will give you a birds-eye-view of the nearby (and active!) Fuego volcano which has been erupting on a near constant basis since colonial times. You’ll hike through four micro climates eventually setting up camp looking directly over Fuego in all its glory.

Monterrico + Hawaii Beaches
You have to head east to the Biotopo Monterrico–Hawaii, a nature reserve that embraces a 20km-long beach-blessed slice of the Pacific coast and includes a vital turtle-nesting ground, abundant wetlands and the small villages of Monterrico and Hawaii.

Monterrico is a friendly and relaxed place fringed by the waters of the Canal de Chiquimulilla, which weave through a fantastic network of mangrove swamps. and just 20kms up from Monterrico is Hawaii beach which is a famous turtle breeding ground.

Like Costa Rica – you can roll up your sleeves to help ARCAS - a wildlife rescue and conservation association, who protect the Ridley, Green and Leatherback sea turtles. Uniquely, in Guatemala it is still legal to collect and sell turtle eggs. However, the fishermen are obliged to give 20% of their catch to ARCAS in return for a receipt that certifies that they are able to sell the remaining 80% of their catch.

This makes it especially important for volunteers on night patrols to spot turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs before the Parlameros see them.

Tell me more

Peru

Peru is on every gapper's list this year. Known for the land of lamas, Machu Picchu, and the Rainbow Mountains, this is a must see destination to add on to your gap year travels.

Must see:

Lima:

Start with 2-3 days in Peru’s capital, Lima. This sprawling metropolis is the second driest world capital (fun fact!). Lima rises above the coastline and a city that never sleeps emerges. Despite the frantic feel to the city, Lima is sophisticated, with a civilization that dates back millennia. Museums display spectacular pottery; galleries show off edgy art; packed nightclubs blast out a tropical tune. Not to be missed is the capital's culinary genius; gastronomes this is the place for you! Lima is part of a gastronomic revolution more than 400 years in the making.

Vinicunca:

Then travel on to Vinicunca, also called Montaña de Siete Colores. Montaña de Colores or Rainbow Mountain is a mountain in Peru with an altitude of 5,200 meters above sea level. Beware, you can get altitude sickness from this high up, and go early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

Iquitos:

Linked to the outside world by air and by river, Iquitos is the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by road. If you want to get to Iquitos, you need to fly in either from Lima or one of the other cities in Peru. This is fast becoming more and more of a backpacker destination every year, but it’s more popular as a base for exploring the Amazon.

This town overlooks the dense Amazon rainforest and has a crazy nightlife, interesting cuisines to try and fascinating markets. Iquitos interestingly is also called the “Capital of Ayahuasca” with a fast growing number of Ayahuasca retreats surrounding the city area. Make sure you do your research and go through a proper shaman if you wish to try it. Stay at The Mad Mick's Bunk House.

If exploring deeper into the Amazon interests you, then Iquitos is the place to hunt for a guide to help you fulfill that dream. Whilst exploring the Amazon of Peru, you will require a guide at times. The jungle is a dangerous place to be lost or sick, so be prepared to pay for the experience. Make sure you take a local guide who will know what they are talking about.

Take me to Peru

Ecuador

Ecuador is an animal-lover's paradise, straddling the equator on South America’s west coast. Its diverse landscape encompasses Amazon jungle, Andean highlands and the wildlife-rich Galápagos Islands. Truly the most magical mix of biodiversity and culture.

Quito

Ecuador's capital snakes its way north to south, at more than 35km top-to-bottom, but merely 5km wide. Head straight to Quito's old town (a UNESCO World Heritage site) in order to explore rambling narrow streets, and wide open plazas lined with monasteries, churches, and brightly coloured balconied houses. Quito houses some of the most stunning examples of Spanish Colonial architecture on the continent, and the bustling crowds give Quito a vibrant energy that is just waiting to be soaked up.

Ruta de los Volcanes

If you're an adrenaline junkie then adventuring along the famous Ruta de los Volcanes (Volcanic Route) will be right up your street. Starting at the Quilotia Crater Lake, you can stroll around the enormous lagoon nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano before hitting the waters in a kayak and white water rafting down the Pasraza river, before finishing off in Riobamba with a spot of mountain biking. Then maybe a nap!

Lowland Jungle

If it's culture that you're looking for then head down into the lush green tropics, home to the country’s last remaining indigenous Tsachila tribe. This is a unique opportunity to learn about their culture and reinforce pride into their heritage to stop the young migrating to the big city. Where else could you experience living among Shaman healers, and learn to dance, dress and live like a local?

Galapagos

It’s impossible not to go to South America without visiting the Galapagos. Animal fans you are in for a treat, this is the ultimate bucket list experience. 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, means the island’s flora and fauna have been almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years. It is THE place to experience one of a kind wildlife encounters with animals that aren’t afraid of humans.

Whether it's marine species, or those found on the islands, the Galapagos have more animals than you can shake a stick at, and visiting these incredible islands would certainly be an experience you will never forget.

Amazon Rainforest

You can't visit Ecuador without a visit to the mighty Amazon Rainforest. One of the most biodiverse places in the world, the Amazon will be everything you had imagined - hot, steamy and tall, with its towering canopies, noisy bird chatterings and camouflaged wildlife. Here you can experience a canoe river tour, hiking in the primary rainforest, fishing, and of course taking in the many species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. Add this to your travel list right away!

So, what’s it to be…

As with all things in life – If you are a ground breaker and like to step out of the mould then I promise you these countries will not disappoint.

They are safe, welcoming, easy to travel around and spectacular in every way - get there first.

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