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Where To Gap Year In Central & South America

Written by Milly Whitehead on 05 / 10 / 2018

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. Australia was last year, but this year, the graduating class of 2018 are ditching our Antipodean friends and are heading to certain countries in Central and South America and in particular these 3 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.

Must see:

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 Gill
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 it’s rivers run dry, it’s 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:

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 bino’s 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


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.

Take me there in January

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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