Written by Milly Whitehead on 22 / 11 / 2023
Gap Year Advice
Next up on our ‘Where in the World’ series of destination choices for your gap year: Central and South America. The countries, if handpicked and combined, will give you a guaranteed ‘wow’ experience. Let’s start in Central America: Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and down to Panama. South America: there is Colombia, Ecuador, the Galapagos, down to Peru and Argentina, you can go up, down and handpick countries for the experience that is right for you.
It's important to consider: how experienced of a traveller are you? In this continent it is really important to start with a soft landing. This means arriving in a country which offers a gentle introduction into backpacking and doing a volunteering programme. The easier countries are those such as Guatemala, Peru and Argentina. The harder ones, which are not recommended to start with, are those such as Colombia and Panama. They are gritty and are going to push you further out of your comfort zone if you start there alone. A lot of gappies decide to join one of our Colombia gap year volunteering 4-week programmes which gets you off-grid. It's a fantastic way to explore the country as it’s not the easiest place to travel as an independent traveller. Our programme enables you to access parts you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, gives you the chance to gain confidence with travelling and navigating the logistics of this wonderful continent. It is so beautifully placed at the top of South America. Afterwards, gappies can look to go north to go into Central America or south to go to Ecuador or Peru. We recommend about a month to 5 weeks in each country. It is the perfect place to start.
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…
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.
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 is officially the centre for all adventure, high up in the Andes. 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) – bungee 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
Fun 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 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.
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 iceberg.
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.
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, and from here venture out into the cloud forest at 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 harbors 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…
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.
Peru is on every gapper's list this year. Known for the land of llamas, Machu Picchu, and Rainbow Mountain, this is a must-see destination to add on to your gap year travels.
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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?
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. It's not cheap though, so make sure you save plenty of room in
the budget for this.
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!
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 volcanoes, 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.You can read our blog here for an itinerary of Guatemala's highlights.
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.
looking at Central and South America, our top advice is to choose a
good place with a soft landing to start. Then, pick which bucket list
moments you want. Is it Machu Picchu? Iguazu Falls in Argentina? The
Cloud Forest? Seeing a Sloth? Surfing? Pick what you really want to get
out of it then jump from country to country to create your bespoke
itinerary. You don’t have to do the typical backpacking trail. The buses
on these typical routes take forever, so we recommend budgeting for
flights between countries to avoid journeys 3-days long. The distances
are vast. It’s top of people’s gap year destinations for a reason!
If you've read all this and you're still unsure what suits you best than just get in touch with us here in the office to discuss your plans. Central and South America is a gap year heaven, and we can help you navigate it all through our backpacker advice hub.
Is South America cheap? Compared to UK prices you'll find South America very cheap. You can find a beer for a couple of dollars, and a night in a hostel for under $10. The further off the beaten track you go the lower the prices will be.
Is travel around South America safe? Wherever you are in the world there are risks associated with travelling. There will be areas of South America that are safer than others, and wherever you go you should make sure you're not flashing cash or valuables, not walking alone at night, and keeping your wits about you.
Is it easy to get around Central America? Both Central and South America have good infrastructure for backpackers to get around, but don't be fooled by the size of some of these countries. It may be cheaper to take a bus than to fly, but you might find yourself wasting days of precious travel time getting from A to B.
When is the rainy season in Central America? Whilst temperatures remain pretty similar all year round, the rainy season generally runs from June - October.
on 22 / 11 / 2023