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Written by The Leap on 24 / 04 / 2014

Gap Year Advice

If you're planning to head to South America anytime soon, there are a whole host of incredible places you'll want to see.

Of course, you could be one of thousands drawn to the continent in the coming years by the 2014 FIFA World Cup or 2016 Olympic Games, but if you leave without exploring further afield you'll have missed something extraordinary.

Unfortunately, there's so much to discover in this part of the world, you'd struggle to uncover it all in a lifetime of backpacking. To make things a little easier for you, we've put together five highlights that you must not miss. Ready? Here we go...

Montanita, Ecuador

From its origins as a hippie haven in the sixties, to its present day reputation as a surfers' Mecca, Montanita has been charming tourists and attracting a young and colourful set of locals for decades.

Boasting one of the best breaks on the Pacific coast and a long, curving, sandy beach, it’s not hard to see why this is Ecuador’s top destination for surfers (not to mention those who prefer to kick back watch the action from their beach towel).

Inhabited by an eclectic mix of artisans, new-age hippies and party animals this little town (named after the ‘little hill’ on which it sits) offers a unique vibe for visitors that want to experience a different side to Ecuador.

Laid-back by day and jumping by night, Montanita’s streets are festooned with dream catchers and palm leaves making it resemble something more akin to the set of Pirates of the Caribbean than a Pacific fishing village. It has become famous for it’s legendary all-night full moon parties, fuelled by frozen daiquiris served from the many cocktail carts that line the pavements... I can personally attest to their quality (and potency!).

Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Standing at a staggering 5897 meters above sea level, Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. A literally breath-taking ascent to its snow-capped reaches and back to base camp takes between two and four days, depending on the route taken and for many it’s the highlight (high being the operative word) of their South America tour.

The first climbers came to Cotopaxi around 130 years ago and since then it’s become a popular destination for thrill seekers from around the world. Be warned though, climbing at altitudes like these is not for the faint-hearted. Changeable weather conditions and the effects of altitude can make an ascent of the volcano extremely challenging.

Among Cotopaxi’s high profile climbers is the British adventurer and TV presenter Ben Fogle, who chose Ecuador and the Galapagos as a destination for his very own gap year.

He describes experiencing hallucinations as a result of climbing too quickly. Ben says:

“The extreme altitude, exhaustion and poor visibility were a potent cocktail... as we reached the summit, a snowman started running towards me, and screaming at me. It was very strange.”

If you decide to tackle this mighty monolith, do so with the help of experienced local guides and select an even-paced route which gives ample time for acclimatisation.

Other volcanoes worth visiting in South America include

- Chimborazo in Ecuador: A whopper at 6310 meters above sea level, Chimborazo is challenging but beautiful climb, taking you up into the condor-filled skies. The Leap offers a 4 week volunteer program which includes this tour in addition to other adventures in the Ruta de los volcanes (Ecuador’s famous avenue of the volcanoes).

Poas in Costa Rica: Situated close to the capital San Jose (and often spotted smoking from the airplane window) Poas is an active volcano considered to be one of the country's most impressive sights. It has erupted 39 times since 1828 leading to the formation of two beautiful, turquoise crater lakes positioned at the summit.

Salt Flats, Bolivia

Known locally as Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat is undoubtedly Bolivia’s most well-renowned tourist attraction, thanks in part to the playful plague of perspective photographs doing the rounds online. The remains of prehistoric lakes, the salt-encrusted pan covers a pool of lithium-rich brine over more than 4000 square miles.

Shooting the obligatory perspective skewed photo, often with the use of props helpfully provided by enterprising local gift shops (who stock everything from plastic dionsoars to army figurines) is considered a ‘must do’ for any self respecting backpacker on holiday in South America.

Tepuis, Venezuela

Found in Venezuela’s remote Southerly reaches stands a lost world of mystical highlands, known locally as Gran Sabana. This range forms part of the pre-Cambrian Guiana Shield and is one of the oldest rock formations in the world.

Forget the tourist tick box of Ayers rock in Australia - if you want your geological boat to float then head to Venezuela where you’ll see the last visible remains of when this continent was still attached to Africa.

The distinctive ‘Tepui’ table-top mountains rise spectacularly from the surrounding jungle. The King of Tepuis at a staggering 2,800 meters is Mount Roraima, one of the inspirations for Conan Doyle’s book 'The Lost World', which the movie Jurassic Park was based on. This incredible monolith of a mountain also featured more recently in the Disney Pixar film ‘Up’.

Venezuela’s ravaged economy and turbulent socialist political scene hasn’t left much of a tourist infrastructure, so to reach this far away land and scale Rorima safely it’s advisable to seek the support of a tour operator. Our Venezuelan volunteer programme includes a 10-day ‘Lost World’ expedition which centres upon a 6-day hike of Rorima.

Turtles, Costa Rica

Those that have been lucky enough to witness nature’s spectacle as hundreds of hatchling turtles’ struggle in a marathon race over sandy beaches and off into warm the moonlit waters will attest to the fact that this is one experience nobody should miss.

Considered the birth place of ecotourism and home to dozens of the world’s most important nesting sites for endangered turtles, Costa Rica offers guaranteed wildlife sightings - providing you get your breeding seasons right!

The Pacific Coast is best visited between June and November if you want to run into female turtles laying their eggs on the beaches at night, whereas the Caribbean coast nesting season kicks off in February and runs through to October.

Turtles have swum the seas since prehistoric times, but sadly their future as a species is in doubt as climate change, pollution, and illegal poaching of turtle eggs all take their toll. The good news is there’s plenty you can do to help! Costa Rica has some fantastic conservation programmes working round the clock to identify and relocate turtle nests to safe hatcheries.

Joining this effort to boost the number of hatchlings that survive and reach the sea is a great hands-on way to ensure turtles are around for generations to come.

What Do You Think?

Have you travelled across Latin America, or are you planning to? We'd love to hear about your favourite places, and hear any tips you may have. Or ask us what we think, we'd love to take your questions!

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All experiences include a mix of projects and adventures, travelling with a team and, of course, are risk assessed.

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