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South America: How to Get Off the Beaten Track during your Gap Year

Written by The Leap on 27 / 07 / 2016

Gap Year Advice

When you think of South America, most backpackers automatically think of Machu Picchu, the beaches of Brazil, Rio de Janerio and the beautiful Galapagos Islands. These are the well-trodden routes of the continent that are becoming overly touristic and slightly less appealing.

Whilst no gap year adventure to the continent would be complete without the obligatory climb up Machu Picchu to see the beautiful Inca Ruins, there are plenty of places that are just as beautiful, a lot less touristy and fairly undiscovered.

If you’re looking for the hot new destinations to explore on your year out, look no further. I’ve taken a look at two off-the-beaten-track countries that offer a whole world of adventure to the backpacker away from the increasing tourist crowds.

Guyana: stunning natural beauty mixed with culturally rich towns

Expedition Guyana from Siniša Glogoški on Vimeo.

Guyana is located on the Carribean coast of South America and offers the traveller a mix of stunning natural beauty and culturally-rich towns that have a bustling nightlife. The word derives from an indigenous phrase meaning land of many waters.

This little slice of paradise would make a perfect place to spend exploring waterfalls and rainforests before heading up to Georgetown to dance the night away. Whilst, previously it has been crippled with political instability, in recent years it has become a stable republic with a very safe reputation.

Country Highlights

Mount Roraima

Mount Roraima Timelapse from Juan Miguel Pérez on Vimeo.

Possibly one of the most beautiful spots in South America, this breath-taking sheer cliff top sits at the confluence of Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana. It is one of the Earth’s oldest geological site and is guaranteed to have you awe-struck from the first moment you approach it.

If you enjoy a challenge and have experience climbing, it is possible to climb up it's sheer rock face, although it is not for the light-hearted and would require planning prior to the trip.

Iwokrama Forest

1 of the last 4 untouched rainforests left on the planet, Iwokrama is a must-see for any trip into Guyana. Covering 1 million acres, this lush green paradise offers the chance to explore all a pristine rainforest has to offer; from high species richness of Amazonian and Guianan flora and fauna to species that are threatened or extinct across most of their former geographic ranges.

From the green heart of the rainforest to another natural wonder that gives Guyana it's name.

Orinduik Falls

The Orinduik Falls are famous for it’s cascade over Jasper rocks. The effect of the water flowing down over the rocks is magical and is guaranteed to leave you speechless. Not only do these falls offer beauty beyond compare but they are a hidden gem for swimming. The water acts as a natural Jacuzzi and there are plenty of places to jump in for a refreshing dip.

The best time to visit is between October and March, the dry season makes it safe to swim, the weather is perfect and the falls are at their best.

Having discovered the natural beauty of Guyana it’s then time to head up to it's bustling capital.

Georgetown

The capital city of Guyana, this city whilst small, has everything you’d want from a city; beautiful skylines, bustling, lively atmosphere and a great mixture of history and politics throughout the city. Wander the back streets and the country’s lifestyle, traditions and history come to life.

It’s also a great place to catch a cricket game, whilst Guyana aren’t in the league of India, Australia and England they are big players in the South American area. Grab yourself a ticket and relax for an afternoon.

Getting There and Around

To fly to Guyana the best option is to fly in to Georgetown, a fairly easy route from London often going via New York. If you’re already in South America, you can access Guyana by bus from Suriname or Brazil.

Once you’re in country there are internal flights that take you further in land but these tend to be fairly expensive.

The best way to travel around Guyana once you’re there is by bus. You can pick up a mini bus to take you to other destinations along the coast and they are fairly inexpensive. Trips further in land will cost a little more but will still be considerably less than flying.

Be aware that it is not a good idea to take buses over night and most of your journey’s inland will include using river taxis, as many areas of Guyana are separated by large rivers.

Visas

For European, Canadian and American tourists it’s very straight forward. A 90-day tourist visa is issued on arrival. You will just need to produce your Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when you enter the country.

Currency and Cost of Living

Guyana uses the Guyanese Dollar but the US Dollar is also widely accepted. Transport will cost around £4-10 depending on length of the journey. A meal at a local inexpensive restaurant will cost around £3-5 whereas a mid-range restaurant will cost around £6-8.

Accommodation in Georgetown isn’t cheap with a night in a room with shared bathroom costing around £20. However, once you move outside of the capital and towards the interior a night, often in a hammock, will typically cost you £3-4.

Colombia

Colombia - Timelapse from MB Films on Vimeo.

From Guyana the undiscovered beauty, to Colombia which is growing in popularity as it manages to override its previous perceptions of being a drug haven. Instead, Colombia now offers a trip that is safe, affordable and amongst some of the friendliest people in South America.

A trip to Colombia will have you drinking the best coffee in the world, exploring mind-blowing natural sights and if that wasn’t enough it’s a great adventure hotspot. Made popular recently through the Netflix series Narcos, many people now want to spend their gap year walking in the footsteps of Pablo Escobar.

Country Highlights

Meddellin

The heart of the setting of the Narcos series (seriously if you haven't watched it, you should!) it used to be the drug capital of Colombia, famous for Pablo Escobar’s cocaine trade. However, the city has come a long way and is a bustling modern city that is located in one of the best climates in the country – it sticks around 24 degrees all year round.

This colourful city will have you captivated from the start and if you want to dig into it's past there are plenty of Escobar tours available. To see the city at it’s most colourful and beautiful head over for their flower festival lasting 12 days in August.

San Andres y Providencia

Colombia Magical Realism - San Andrés y Providencia from LAMUVI FILMS on Vimeo.

From the bustling city of Meddellin to the calm and peaceful islands. These two islands best features are their white sand beaches and palm trees. Travel on the islands are by bus only and they aren’t your regular buses instead you travel on old school buses.

It's a great place to head to snorkel and dive due to the rich marine life that can be found just off the shores of the islands.

San Gil

Colombia is an adventure hot spot and San Gil is the place to go if you want to get involved in outdoor activities. From mountain biking to rafting to paragliding, this small city is known as the mecca for extreme-sporting enthusiasts it’s guaranteed to provide the ultimate adrenaline rush.

Zona Cafetera

Coffee enthusiast or not this area is home to half of Colombia’s coffee crop. If you enjoy a good caffeine boost in the morning then it's well worth tasting this amazing coffee. But if coffee isn’t to your taste the area still offers beautiful hiking and relaxation spots in nearby thermal springs at Santa Rosa.

Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia from Time Machine Pictures on Vimeo.

Another city that should not go un-visited. This vibrant city is one of the most heavily fortified cities in South America as a result of it’s colonial past where it was fought over by many countries trying to claim a stake in the continent.

Nowadays the old town provides a bright colourful landscape with it's colonial history packed into the architecture of the city.

Getting There and Around

Bogota is the cheapest entry point to South America, flight from London will cost around £450 for a return. It is also well placed to be the start of your journey, with great connections to other countries overland.

Once you’re in Colombia the cheapest way to get around is by bus. Buses run regularly between large cities and are usually comfortable with air conditioning. They depart from passenger terminals in the city and are cheap and negotiable on price.

Top Tip: As you head up the row of buses never pick the bus with the cheapest fare, there is usually a reason for this. Stick to the second cheapest and you should be sorted.

Visas

Similarly, to Guyana visas are issued on arrival where you will receive a 90-day tourist visa. This can be extended for a further 90 days once in Colombia.

It’s important to note that when arriving by air you will be given a customs form, you should keep this with your passport. Customs require you to show it on your exit of the country. Whilst this has happened very rarely it’s better to keep it safe than be fined.

Currency and Cost of Living

Colombia uses the Colombian Peso and cost of living is very affordable as the tourist industry is still fairly small. A dorm bed is anywhere between £4 and £10 a night depending where you are and the type of room you are looking for.

Set meals from a local cheap restaurant will cost you around £2-4 and if you decide you want to use a local restaurant for a little more choice your meal will most likely be between £5 and £8.

Volunteering around South America

If you are wanting to explore the more well known countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Argentina then it may be worth thinking about volunteering. These countries are still worth exploring but with their increasing tourism industry many of the mainstream places have become over touristy.

Volunteering offers you the chance to explore a country and really understand the culture and way of life of the area that you are in as well as contributing to the local community you are living with. It will also allow you to head to parts of the country, otherwise difficult to explore.

There's plenty of options out there that will give you the chance to get off-the-beaten-track within one of the more touristy countries along the South American trail.

[content_upgrade cu_id="11466"]If you liked the sound of Colombia, Ecuador is just a bus ride South and why not aim to explore the lowland jungle, Galapagos and Andean communities for 10 weeks while you're there.[/content_upgrade]

Over to You

So there we have it, two of the top destinations we recommend you think about exploring on your South American adventure as well as trying to head off the beaten track in some of the better known and well-loved countries.

That concludes our three series of where to explore across Asia, Africa and South America. If you’ve been inspired to head out and explore, be sure to download our comprehensive Gap Year Advice Blueprint that has chapters on how to plan the perfect gap year plan.

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