The seven countries of Central America – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize – fill an ancient land bridge joining the continents of North and South America. Volcanic, verdant and vibrant, they offer the traveller some of the best tourist experiences in Latin America. The difficulty is not in deciding to go, it’s working out what to leave out from your itinerary when there’s just so much to see and do. This guide is designed to get you started.
For many years, getting to Central America from the UK generally meant an indirect flight, and often the cheapest flights are still those which hub through the USA. Try looking for flights with United via Houston, American via Miami or Delta via Atlanta. Some tour operators also offer flights without the need to buy one of their packages as well. Thomson (Tui) for example fly direct to Liberia in Costa Rica and they often have deals available last minute for around £300. Schedules are less flexible, however and the once a week flight might not suit your needs.
If you’re looking for a European-based airline, British Airways can get you to Costa Rica non-stop and recently, Air Europa commenced the first ever direct trans-Atlantic flight to Honduras, departing from Madrid. Another alternative is to combine Central America with Mexico – you’ll find plenty of deals via Cancun which is easily combined with Belize and Guatemala. Similarly, you could combine Panama with delightful Colombian city of Cartagena. Shop around. You should be able to pick up return flights from Europe for under £400.
Depoending on your budget, you’re either going to be seeing a lot of airports or taking a long-distance bus. Try Avianca El Salvador, formerly branded as Taca, and Copa Airlines, both of which have extensive networks across the region. if your time is relatively short, this is a good way of freeing up time for sightseeing. Book well in advance to secure the best deals.
As with elsewhere in Latin America, many companies offer relatively comfortable “luxury” coach services but you’ll also find plenty of chicken buses knocking around on the shorter routes which make up for what they lack in comfort with bucketfuls of character. The big name in the bus world is Tica, kind of a Central American version of Greyhound. I’ve also had good experiences with Hedman Alas in Honduras and King Quality. At peak times you’re best to reserve your ticket a few days in advance.
Check out point to point transfers too. For instance, Gray Line offer hotel to hotel transfers at reasonable prices in Costa Rica and similar tourist shuttles are also easy to find between Guatemala’s main hubs.
One thing to note is safety. In some parts of Central America, buses can be held up by armed gangs. Opt for a better company who videos passengers on entry and screens luggage and pick a day bus rather than overnight travel on the most notorious routes. Keep up to date with safety by monitoring the FCO’s travel advice by country.
What to see
There’s way to much for me to cover here, so you should consider these itineraries just a start and delve into one of the many online resources or good guide books on the region to help you make your own detailed plans.
A week in Panama
Begin in Panama City and spend at least a day absorbing the atmosphere of the Casco Viejo, the city’s old town. Some compare it to Old Havana and whether you agree or not, if you like Cuba you’ll like this too.
The canal zone is a worthwhile day trip, easily accessed from the capital. You’ll pass through the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal as well as several locks before returning to the city. I booked this through my accommodation La Estancia B&B, which has since closed, but the company they used is still very much in business and takes direct bookings.
Another excellent day trip is to Emberá Puru. Guide Anne de Barrigon will take you into the rainforest to meet the Emberá tribe and learn a little of their way of life. She knows her stuff – she married a villager! Part of the journey involves travelling upriver in a dugout canoe which is sure to prove a memorable experience as well.
Extend your trip either by spending more time in Panama City or by kicking back and relaxing on one of Panama’s beautiful islands, in the Bocas del Toro archipelago or in San Blas.
A week in Costa Rica
With so many national parks to choose from, it’s hard to whittle them down. If you only have a week, I’d recommend splitting it into two. Focus on Tortuguero for a two night stay. I based myself at Laguna Lodge which from July to November can offer turtle watching walks. The beach and surrounding canals offer a chance to see plenty of birdlife and just unwind.
Then move on to La Fortuna, a pleasant little town which is the jumping off point for Volcan Arenal. There are hot springs, nature walks, horseback rides and of course, the chance to watch for any activity coming from this active volcano. The Arenal Observatory Lodge makes a great base, especially if you choose one of the rooms directly facing the volcano. Nearby, they can also offer activities such as ziplining and whitewater rafting if the volcano isn’t making your adrenaline pump enough.
Costa Rica links:
A week in Nicaragua
My suggestion for a week in Nicaragua would be to base yourself in the charming city of Granada. It sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and has a wealth of delightful streets to lose yourself in, crammed with historic buildings including the egg yolk yellow cathedral. Tourist infrastructure is good and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from.
From the city, there are plenty of day trips to keep you absorbed. Head up Volcan Mombacho where a truck will drive you up into the cloud forest. Alternatively, stand on the crater rim of the active Volcan Masaya and sniff the sulphur. It’s currently more active than it was when I visited; take a guide for a night tour and you might be able to see the lava lake that’s filled the crater. Check conditions locally before you go.
Laguna del Apoyo is another option. This crater lake is now a nature reserve and there are plenty of activities that can be arranged here such as kayaking, swimming and boating. Extend your trip by visiting Ometepe Island with its twin volcanic peaks.
Volcan Masaya activity:
A week in Honduras
Getting around Honduras can be a little worrying as there are serious safety concerns within and between its two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Persevere and base yourself in the safe and sleepy town of Copan Ruinas. The nearby ruins are free of the crowds that plague other Mayan sites in the region and you’ll see plenty of raucous scarlet macaws to boot.
It’s easy to arrange a trip to the nearby Finca el Cisne, which focuses on Criollo chocolate and coffee growing. Day trips give you the opportunity to explore the plantation and take a scenic horseback ride in the surrounding countryside; it’s also possible to extend your stay overnight.
If you can drag yourself away, extend your stay with a trip to Roatan. Honduras boasts a lengthy Caribbean coastline, but it’s the Bay Islands which draw the tourists. The usual water-based activities are available and the sunsets are a spectacle. If you’re looking for a guide to help you explore the island, then Cleve Bodden comes highly recommended. He’s warm, funny and above all, knowledgeable about his island home.
Finca el Cisne:
A week in El Salvador
Beginning from San Salvador, the country’s capital, take a drive to Lake Coatapeque, popular on weekends as a family hangout. Continue towards the picturesque Ruta de las Flores. This 36km road winds through village after village adorned with flowers, dotted with art galleries and sprinkled with more cafes than you could ask for. From Juayua to Ataco via Apaneca, there’s much to keep you busy.
Suchitoto should be your base for the rest of your week. Team up with El Gringo, who can provide accommodation as well as tour guiding services. Together, we visited Project Moje, a gang rehabilitation project, as well as the arts and crafts centres of Ilobasco and San Sebastian.
El Salvador links:
A week in Guatemala
The obvious base to begin your week in Guatemala is the pretty town of Antigua. There’s a wide choice of hotels, restaurants and cafes and a well-developed tourist infrastructure. The town has lots of attractions in its own right, including the chance to make your own chocolate, but also makes a convenient base for side trips to the atmospheric market at Chichicastenango and beautiful Lake Atitlan.
If you’re looking for the other must-see, then it has to be Tikal. Of all the Mayan sites in the country, this is the stand out attraction. Deep in the jungle, it was abandoned over a thousand years ago, but its iconic ruins make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss the Lost World Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. There have been issues with tourist safety in and on the way to Tikal so as with Honduras, it’s especially important to keep abreast of government advice.
Tourist shuttle service:
A week in Belize
Belize was known as British Honduras until 1981 and English is its official language. I think this more Caribbean, less Latino feel is why it was my least favourite of the seven countries. That’s not to write it off though. Transferring at the airport onto a little plane to head out to Ambergris Caye was laid back and fun, but the views down to the water were spectacular. The diving’s great, with access to the famous Blue Hole a possibility.
It’s worth heading back to the mainland as Belize has some interesting Mayan sites to visit. I visited Lamanai on a day trip from Ambergris Caye, heading inland on an old American school us and then up the New River by boat. There’s a Mennonite community living in Shipyard, not far from the ruins, and you might get a glimpse of them going about their business as you pass by. There are other worthwhile Mayan ruins to see in Belize, among them Caracol and Altun-Ha.
If you want to extend your time in Belize, Placencia gets a good write up as a place to chill out and recharge the batteries.
Ambergris Caye information:
You’ll need several months to do justice to all seven countries in the same trip, but it’s easy to combine a couple of neighbouring nations and concentrate on one part of the region. For me, the countries that are least developed are the ones I’m drawn to revisit – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. But each one rewards the traveller, so whichever you choose, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip!
As Irma finally begins to blow herself out, the US and many Caribbean islands have been left reeling from her effects. Sustained 185mph winds have been recorded during this Category 5 storm, beaten only by Hurricane Allen in 1980 which registered winds of 190mph. On top of that, of course, are the floods which result from torrential rain and the even more dangerous storm surges caused when winds slam ocean water back onshore with terrifying force. Even a Category 1 hurricane is not to be taken lightly, as those who live in hurricane-prone regions will testify. For casual holidaymakers unused to such events, it’s even more frightening. So has seeing Irma’s devastation marked the end of your Caribbean holiday plans? Here’s why it shouldn’t and how you can avoid getting caught up in such a disaster.
Choose your island carefully
Statistically, some Caribbean islands are hit by hurricanes far more often than others. According to data compiled by stormcaribe.com for storms between 1944 and 2010, you’re most likely to be affected if you’re in Abaco in the Bahamas, with Grand Bahama, Bimini and New Providence islands hot on its heels. A couple of islands in the Netherlands Antilles also occur in the top ten, notably Saba and St Eustatius. Making up the numbers are Nevis, Key West, Tortola in the BVI and the Cuban capital Havana.
Conversely, the bottom of the list features some well known names. Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent are much less likely to experience a hurricane. Such severe storms rarely if ever take a southerly track, making the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire the safest bet in the region. For the full list check out this link:
A broader picture (and more up to date, factoring in storms up to 2016) is offered by Hurricane City. Their list factors in storms as well as hurricanes, giving a more rounded and perhaps more accurate appraisal of the risk posed for the Caribbean, Bermuda and the USA. Joining the Bahamas to represent the Caribbean in the top ten are the Cayman Islands. Because this list encompasses storms as well, there are a few northerly locations there too:
Avoid peak hurricane season
If you really want to go to the islands that lie in the path of potential hurricanes then you’ve got to be picky about when you go. Technically, the Atlantic hurricane season begins in June, but rarely do we see really damaging hurricanes before late August. 2005 was a bumper year for big storms – Katrina among them – and was the year when we saw the earliest Category 4 storm (Dennis on July 8th) and Category 5 storm (Emily on July 17th). The storm season officially comes to a close at the end of November though on rare occasions they can continue until December or even January. Yes, you guessed it, that happened in 2005 too. They’d already run through the named hurricanes by October when Wilma hit and eventually needed to borrow six letters of the Greek alphabet. Tropical Storm Zeta finally brought the season to a close when it dissipated on January 6th 2006.
Check the NOAA forecasts
Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a forecast for the upcoming season. They take in a number of factors such as ocean temperatures and, though it’s not an exact science, have a good track record in identifying busy years. So far, 2017 is falling in line with predictions. It kicked off with Tropical Storm Arlene in April – two months ahead of schedule – and with the likes of Harvey and Irma, is set to be another of those unforgettable seasons. If you want to avoid being caught up in a severe hurricane, then if it’s been quiet, you’re much less likely to find yourself in trouble if you want to make a late booking. And if the worst happens, this leaflet is packed with useful advice:
My thoughts are with those who found themselves in the path of recent Atlantic hurricanes. I hope that those affected get back on their feet and that the impacted economies recover as quickly as possible. Once they do, they’re going to need your tourist dollars, so don’t write off this beautiful region just yet.
Yee-ha! There’s still some kind of magic associated with the cowboy lifestyle, isn’t there? I don’t know about you, but seeing a man in chaps astride a horse is enough to get me all of a tizzy. Back home (and I’m not referring to my husband here) men can seem just a little too in touch with their feminine side. Out on the ranch, though, as they gallop off leaving a trail of dust behind them, well, it’s work for real men…
Yep, a ranch holiday is for me. But whether to spend my holiday on a dude ranch or on a working ranch was too difficult a choice – so I booked both. How did they compare?
Panagea Ranch, located an hour outside Tacuarembó in Uruguay, accepts visitors but expects them to get involved in ranch life. Juan inherited the ranch that his grandfather bought and has an emotional commitment as well as financial to the place which is obvious almost as soon as you arrive.
During my stay, getting involved meant riding out to check on the progress of a sick sheep (and finding it incredibly quickly considering there are 1800 of them!), rounding up some of the 1100 head of cattle to move them to new pasture and herding them into the dip so that they could be treated for ticks. It was hard work for a novice rider (though they don’t require any prior riding ability, it helps to have spent at least a bit of time in the saddle) but there was also a huge sense of accomplishment.
In contrast, the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the outskirts of the Cowboy Capital of the World (that’s Bandera, Texas if you didn’t know) offered more of a vacation experience. It has been welcoming visitors since 1937 and offers sedate trail rides, hiking and a huge pool with hot tub. There’s evening entertainment too. On the first night, we were treated to a ride in a hay cart to feed the couple of dozen longhorn cattle that can be found on the ranch.
The next, we were treated to a show by a trick roper who was in town for the Bandera rodeo before heading off to Morgan Freeman’s 80th birthday party. Marshmallows were also provided to toast over the campfire. I travelled as part of a group and so we enjoyed relaxing by the fire in the evening – it’s a great place to head with a group of friends, though you may wish to stop off at Walmart on the way in as no alcohol is provided. They’re fine with BYOB.
In Uruguay, Juan Manuel was a little gruff at first but has a heart of gold and a genuine desire to both learn more about his guests and teach them how his ranch works. The sole female in a group of men on the first night, things were a bit macho at the start, but I did warm to Juan and have a huge respect for what he does. Susana makes you feel like one of the family from the get-go.
A warm Southern welcome was just what you’d expect from Texas and the staff made you feel like a VIP rather than any old guest. On the rides, at both ranches I felt safe and well looked after. The horses at both ranches were well looked after and their welfare a high priority.
Accommodation provided by Panagea is, by their own admission, fairly basic. Rooms were comfortable but when the ranch is full, single travellers might need to share. The beds were firm and everything spotlessly clean. Hot water is usually available but electricity is only available for a couple of hours each evening. There’s no WiFi. To be honest, I enjoyed that. It made me focus on the outdoors and I slept more soundly as a result. I also thought it was excellent value at US$65 per person per night full board including activities.
Dixie Dude Ranch is more akin to holiday accommodation with a range of chalets for guests and WiFi near the main building (though guests are asked to limit data usage due to restrictions outside the control of the ranch). I stayed in one of the oldest cabins, which was a little more basic than the newer ones. The latter were spacious enough to contain armchairs and even a fireplace. Water is sourced from the property’s well which was temporarily down one morning during our stay; service was resumed rapidly. My only niggle was the noise from the air conditioner which interrupted my sleep! As you’d expect, accommodation in the States is more expensive than in South America. Dixie Dude Ranch charges $165pppn for single occupancy and $145pppn if you share.
Both ranches welcomed guests on a full board basis. At Panagea, Juan’s wife Susana was an incredible cook and the food was in equal parts tasty and plentiful. When Susana’s in town, Juan cooks, and he does a mean barbecue. Dinner is when everyone’s back and the fire’s going; preparing, setting the table and eating is a communal affair with the family. Juan loves to promote Uruguayan wine and will happily toast to that with his guests. In the mornings, everyone helps themselves to what’s there; the wood-fired range was somewhat different to the induction hob at home but a fun challenge to master. The food at Dixie Dude Ranch was good too (though not quite to Susana’s standards) and there was plenty for second helpings. Service there was attentive and sincere.
Which ranch stay would I recommend? I enjoyed both of them immensely, but in terms of the experience, it will be Panagea which I’ll more fondly remember. I think it’s probably because I felt a real sense of achievement there. As a novice rider who’s just about mastered a trot, I didn’t have the confidence to think I could help to herd cattle until Juan showed me I could. He is a great fan of making people step outside their comfort zone! Juan claims he can teach even a beginner in just a few days but I was glad I’d had a few lessons back home to learn the basics.
But I think if I’d never been on a horse before, Panagea might have been a bit too ambitious. Being able to mix riding with other activities (such as lazing by the pool or watching the hummingbirds come and go on the front porch) made Dixie Dude Ranch a great choice for a relaxing holiday. But get those riding lessons booked so like me, you can make it to Uruguay one day!
While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected. Honduras is one of those places. But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker. When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey. Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders. (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.) But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.
Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety. But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall. Copan Ruinas is one such place. I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region. Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.
While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come. It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island. It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.
When are we going?
Even on the briefest of visits to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, you can’t fail to notice the plethora of hats, specifically the good old-fashioned bowler. But unlike the black attire once worn by London’s city gents, these are brown – and worn by women.
It’s a cultural thing: the cholas who wear them do so to emphasise their heritage and reinforce how proud they are of it. Once, the cholas weren’t welcome downtown. They were refused entry to restaurants, banned from walking in Plaza Murillo in front of the Presidential Palace and harassed if they ventured into the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods.
Cholas, or cholitas to give them the diminutive form, dress in voluminous skirts, multiple layers of petticoats and crocheted shawls. The hat is an easy way of determining the wearer’s marital status: if she wears it straight, she’s married, but if it sits at an angle, she’s available. So that hat plays a critical role in the La Paz social scene.
The practice of wearing a bowler is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Most sources agree that, in the 1920s, a consignment of bowler hats was shipped to Bolivia, intended for railway workers. But someone had made a mistake with the colour or size – versions of the story disagree – and faced with a huge loss, an entrepreneur named Domingo Soligno marketed them to the indigenous Aymara women as being the height of fashion in Europe.
Some sources wrongly name the type of hat as a borsalino. In fact, Borsalino is the name of an Italian hat manufacturer that for many years supplied the cholas. It’s correctly known, therefore, as a sombrero de la chola paceña.
To wear a Borsalino comes at a price and these expensive hats are beyond the means of many. The target of thieves wishing to make an easy buck, the Borsalino brand is now largely a thing of the past in Bolivia. For more than forty years, bowlers have been made locally by the likes of Sombreros Illimani and also imported from Colombia. But even these cheap imitations have a charm about them.
One of South America’s iconic bucket list activities is to visit the vast Salar de Uyuni. It’s been on my wish list for a while:
This March I finally made it to Uyuni, 22 years after my first trip to Bolivia. On the way, I travelled from Salta along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, one of Argentina’s most attractive areas. A side trip from Tilcara took me to Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flat. The two tours were as different as they come, so which was best? Here is my review.
The salt flats
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It covers an area over 4000 square miles and sits at an altitude of over 3600 metres above sea level. The crust of what were once prehistoric lakes dries to a thick layer of salt, and the brine which lies underneath it is rich in lithium with something like 50-70% of the world’s known reserves. Even on a day trip, it’s not long before you’ve driven far enough out onto the salt flat to be totally surrounded by a sea of white. Losing your bearings is entirely possible though the position on the horizon of distinctive volcanoes such as Tunupa makes things a little easier.
In contrast, Argentina’s biggest offering is paltry by comparison, though still the second largest in the world. Measuring a little over half the area of its Bolivian neighbour at 2300 square miles, it’s still enormous of course. Like the Salar de Uyuni, it’s a high altitude location, coming in a few hundred metres lower. Salt mining is also a feature of the landscape here and as in Bolivia, you’ll see piles of salt, blocks of dust-striped salt for construction and other industrial activity.
Choosing the tour
Salar de Uyuni tours are big business. It’s firmly on the backpacker trail and the scruffy, dusty town of Uyuni is rammed with operators selling one-day and three-day tours to the flats. I opted for a one-day tour. Having been just across the border in Chile and seen some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, I didn’t feel the need to spend hours in a cramped 4X4 to do the same in Bolivia. Three-day tours offer basic accommodation and rudimentary facilities; the days of cold showers and BYO sleeping bags are long behind me. I opted for a mid-range tour with a respectable outfit called Red Planet Expeditions, booking online via Kanoo Tours at a cost of $83. (It is cheaper to book when you arrive but I didn’t want to have to hang around so was prepared to pay the extra few dollars to arrange my tour in advance.) Even this, one of the better companies, had mixed reviews, so I figured if I had a poor experience for a day I’d be happier than if I’d opted for the longer tour.
The nearest tourist base to the Salinas Grandes is at Tilcara, the other side of a mountain from the salt flats. I found a highly regarded tour operator called Caravana de Llamas which offer a range of llama trekking tours, opting for a tour that spent a few hours walking out to the salt flats. The tour itself was excellent value at $65 per person, minimum two people. However, this doesn’t include transport. You’ll either need a rental car to cross the mountain pass (it’s a good road) or a car with driver. Caravana de Llamas can arrange this for you for 1500 Argentinian pesos per car (rates correct as at March 2017) which is reasonable for a car load but expensive for a solo traveller.
The tour: Bolivia
Choosing to visit in wet season, the Bolivian tours cannot reach Incahuasi Island which is a fair distance across the salt flats (and home to giant cacti). I’d been sent information requesting that I check in to the Red Planet office at 9am for a departure by 10am. On arrival, I was told we’d actually be leaving at 11am. On departure we were a convoy of three vehicles with one guide between us. The car was in good condition; judging from the reviews this isn’t always the case. The driver was pleasant enough, though he spoke no English which may be a problem for some. There were five travellers per car, but this can be six or seven which would have been cramped. Two at least have to sit on the back seat and there, the windows do not open. My fellow travellers were a pleasant bunch, though much younger than me. I wasn’t as keen as the others on having the music turned right up, making it very hard to talk, but everyone else seemed happy. The guide, Carlos, split his time between the three vehicles. I didn’t take to him, finding him obnoxious and arrogant, so I was pleased we didn’t have to have him in the car very much. I had several concerns about his attitude and behaviour (some shared with other members of the group). I contacted Red Planet for their comment but have yet to receive a reply two weeks later. It’s not appropriate to go into details here but I would hesitate to book with this company again if they couldn’t guarantee the guide would be different.
The tour allocated a great deal of time to the train cemetery – which had the potential to be a fantastic place to visit if you don’t time it to coincide with the 30+ 4X4s which stop there on the way to the salt flats each morning. Having woken to clear skies, the clouds had rolled in by the time we arrived which was frustrating given how close the site was to the town. There was also a lengthy stop in the village of Colchani where we visited a salt factory (just a room where not much was going on except for attempts to flog us bags of salt) and where we were given lunch of lukewarm chicken, stone-cold rice or cold potatoes plus a delicious apple pie. Eventually we reached the salt flat itself and the scenery at that point took over. In wet season the reflections in the water are a crowd-pleaser and it wasn’t a disappointment. What was a pity was the lack of thought given to pre-departure information. As requested I’d come prepared with sun cream, but no one had thought to tell us we’d need flip-flops for the salt flats. It wasn’t just a case of getting our feet wet, more that the crust is sharp and uncomfortable to walk on. I ended up in socks which was better than going barefoot but still unpleasant.
Later, we drove to a drier part of the salt flats for the famous perspective photos. These were cheesy, clearly well rehearsed (we did the same poses as every group I’m sure) but a fun souvenir. The guide did take the photos, which was kind of him, so those on their own could participate. Afterwards we had an enforced and quite lengthy stop near a monument. I think it was included to enable us to arrive at the edge of the salt flats in time for sunset, though it felt like time-wasting. Six out of the fifteen travellers in our cars had overnight buses to catch and were very worried they’d miss them. Given we were all filthy dirty and covered in salt, they’d have needed time to clean themselves up before boarding. The rest of us had what turned out to be quite a rushed sunset photo stop. However, we were dropped off at the Colchani salt hotels on the edge of the salt flat. This was a bonus; if we’d have had to return to Uyuni and then take a taxi, this would have added an hour at least as well as the additional cost of transport.
All in all I felt that the wow-factor of the salt flats themselves redeemed the day. The guide was a big negative, but I was told it wasn’t possible to go deep into the salt flat without one. Walking from the salt hotels to the edge of the salt flats wouldn’t have given me the same experience, so although this was one of the worst tours I’ve taken in years, I’m still glad I did it. But even more relieved I didn’t opt for the three-day tour.
The tour: Argentina
I was sent a reconfirmation email the day before my tour to ensure I knew that the driver would be on time; in fact he was early when he arrived at my hotel in Tilcara. The car was almost brand new and spotlessly clean. Another traveller had cancelled so I had a private tour. Jose Luis the driver was friendly, courteous and knowledgeable, as well as being safe over the mountain pass. I was offered several stops at viewpoints to enable me to take some great scenery shots as we climbed above the clouds. Arriving at the tiny village of Pozo Colorado, llama handler and guide Santiago was ready, welcoming and cheerful. Jose Luis joined us for the first part of the trek to ensure I was comfortable leading a llama and then joined us later at the salt flats.
Walking with the llamas was fun. Oso and Paco were well behaved and to my relief didn’t spit. From time to time Santiago told me a bit about the llamas, the scenery and the way of life up there on the Argentine Puna, but he also knew when to let me enjoy the silence and serenity of the place. The trek was easy, over flat terrain, and when we arrived at the edge of the salt flats, there was time for me to wander off and take photos while lunch was prepared. A picnic table had been set up loaded with delicious food: local goats’ cheese, llama meat, ham sandwiches, salad and more. There was plenty to go around. Jose Luis joined us for lunch and the inclusion of a third person made chatting easier as he was bilingual.
After lunch, the llamas had rested and we walked onto the salt flats for some souvenir photos. Afterwards, Jose Luis drove me to some of the industrial workings a short distance away. There wasn’t a lot of activity going on, though as with Bolivia, I did see the piles of salt “bricks” and also heaps of mined salt. By the time we’d driven back over the mountain the tour was a similar length to that taken in Bolivia, arriving in Tilcara late afternoon.
If I’d have visited Bolivia before Argentina, I’d have probably been disappointed with this tour. The scenery just didn’t have that sense of scale that gave it the bucket list wow. However, as an activity, walking with llamas was a lot of fun and I felt that Santiago had gone to a lot of trouble to make me feel comfortable and, despite his basic English, to put the scenery in context. I was left wanting more and would definitely book with Caravana de Llamas again if I returned to the area.
Both tours were worth doing but very different. The Argentinian tour was very civilised and the llamas incredibly cute. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I adore these fluffy creatures. The people involved worked hard to ensure I was well-looked after. In contrast, the Bolivian tour encompassed my worst nightmares with a bossy, inflexible guide and yet – the scenery was so incredible that I’d still do it again.
Expectations are key. In Uyuni, there doesn’t seem to be a single operator winning consistently excellent reviews. In this respect, having a horrible guide but a good driver and a vehicle that didn’t break down was the best option – if there’s a weak link, at least your safety isn’t compromised. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to take a backpacker-style tour, so perhaps I’m out of the habit of being herded around – and it’s no surprise to those readers who know me to hear that I don’t like being told what to do.
Perhaps taking a budget option in Bolivia would have been the way to go: there were day trips for under $40, half the price I paid, and given how poor the guiding and the lunch were, maybe it would make the tour seem better value. However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a basic tour for the three-day option as the mileage covered is considerable and the area remote. I heard good reports about the scenery from a private Dutch group, but having seen similar (better?) in the more accessible Chile a couple of years ago, I don’t regret my choice to cut out the mountain lakes and volcanoes.
So – which tour? Tough decision: I’ll call it a draw! Have you taken either tour? What were your impressions?
Footnote: I paid for both tours myself; all opinions expressed are my own.
It’s a question that bothers a lot of people who are considering a trip to South America. Tours are expensive but going it alone can be daunting. The issue of personal safety is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but with a bit of common sense, you can have an incident-free trip. I have travelled as a solo female countless times to all but three of the continent’s thirteen nations (Suriname, French Guiana and Guyana you’ll keep!). During those trips I’ve travelled independently and those trips have been pretty much trouble-free.
Don’t discount overnight or late night buses as a method of transport; they’re comfortable and a good way of saving on accommodation as you move between destinations. But, do think about yourself and your possessions along the way.
* Check your bus operator’s safety record. At night especially, it’s worth paying a few dollars more for a better bus. Not only will the seats be more comfortable but you’re more likely to find yourself on a bus that’s better maintained and where there are two drivers to share the driving. Some companies insist on drink and drug-testing their employees.
* Most operators use a ticket system for your hold luggage; make sure your luggage is locked, loaded and you keep that ticket stub safe as you’re going to need it at the other end. A few coins for a propina (tip) are essential in some places such as Argentina – or you risk your bags being left behind.
* On board, opt if possible for a seat by the window as your bags on your lap or by your feet are less accessible to sticky fingers while you sleep. Keep valuables on your person e.g. a money belt or a securely zipped bag across your chest. Don’t use the overhead shelves. Keep items that you don’t want to lose in an inside pocket rather than an outside pocket – I lost a comb that way on a bus in Ecuador and it cost me a dollar to replace!
* Be safe getting to and from the bus station if you have a late night departure. If you’re in a very small town you’ll probably be safe walking, but in a large city, don’t risk it and book a taxi instead. Ask locally if you’re not sure! At night, doorways are often shadowy and you might not see someone emerge; if it’s safe to do so I often walk in the road where it’s better lit. (It’s also less likely to have holes to fall into.) Check with your hotel or hostel what night time safety is like in the area.
Pickpocketing and express kidnapping
Sadly, South America still has more than its fair share of ladrones (thieves) who’ll be more than happy to relieve you of your belongings should you let them.
* Don’t flash the cash – or expensive jewellery, mobile phones and top of the range cameras. It’s just asking for trouble. If you want to use a camera on a city street, carry it in an unmarked bag, take it out to photograph what you’ve seen and then put it away again. If you need to keep it out, carry it diagonally across your chest and keep a hand on it; this will reduce the risk of opportunist theft. Keep full memory cards separate from your camera.
* Keep your passport safe and carry photocopies in case of loss or theft. Never leave a bag unattended, especially if it contains the documents you need to get home.
* Express kidnapping is unfortunately a problem in some parts of the continent, such as Bolivia. Travellers take a taxi, wrongly assuming it’s legit, only to find themselves at an ATM. Some have been held overnight so that the perpetrators can steal multiple withdrawals. Use a reliable radio taxi (any decent restaurant, bar or hotel will call one for you even if you’re not a patron) and only take with you what you really need. Keep your valuables in a safe if possible.
* Be especially careful in crowds. Think carefully about what you need to take with you if you’re going to a carnival or fiesta and try to avoid crowds that might turn nasty such as demonstrations.
* Learn a few choice swear words in Spanish (or Portuguese for Brazil) and be loud. It is one of the most important things I learnt at university, as this one has worked for me twice. I won’t say what I said, suffice to say that it wasn’t repeatable in polite company. However, the shock of a seemingly respectably dressed woman having a potty mouth was enough on both occasions for the wannabe robber to drop what they had their hands on and flee the would-be crime scene.
Do your research
Some areas of some cities aren’t as safe as they could be. Whether we like it or not, South America has one of the largest differentials between the haves and have nots. It figures, therefore, that there will be some areas that you ought to stay clear of.
* Use the FCO website’s travel advice by country for up to date advice regarding the country you’re planning to visit. It will list any scams that are currently being operated (never allow anyone to help you remove bird poo from your clothing!) and also any areas where safety is a current concern. Forewarned is forearmed: you don’t necessarily have to stay away, but you need to think about whether you are prepared to take a particular risk.
* Keep abreast of travel forums to find out about the reputations of companies you’re planning to use for tours and activities. Reviews aren’t 100% reliable, of course, as some businesses put pressure on clients to write glowing reviews, but they do give you a starting point. I recently met a Canadian traveller in Bolivia who’d just cycled the Death Road. He said he’d looked to see which operators’ reviews didn’t mention accidents and deaths, which seemed a logical starting point to me!
* Choose accommodation in a good area, even if it means upping the budget slightly. Look for roads that are well lit and well used. You’re going to put yourself in a vulnerable position if you choose accommodation down a narrow alley in a rough neighbourhood.
Consider the society you’re in
South America is changing, but many men still expect to protect the women in their family and it can be hard for them to get their head around a lone female traveller who doesn’t need a man for protection.
* Be mindful that many South Americans, especially middle class, will dress smartly to travel. Rocking up scruffy won’t endear you to them, nor will beach wear away from the beach. Don’t draw attention to yourself for the wrong reason.
* Accept concern in the spirit it’s intended and reassure older men or women that you are OK. Explain to them why you’re travelling solo, tell them a bit about your family back home to show that you love them despite leaving them behind and ask how things are changing. I’ve had some very interesting exchanges with people who were concerned at first I was alone but were keen to learn more about my culture. On the surface, European culture might seem very similar to South America but there are subtle but important differences in etiquette.
* Enjoy a drink but don’t overdo it. It’s not usual for females to drink heavily in South America, but you don’t have to abstain completely to fit in. Know your limits and stay safe.
Go to Uruguay
If all else fails, or you lose your nerve, go to Uruguay or Chile. They’re generally considered to be the safest of the South American nations. And beautiful to boot. But don’t drop your guard completely: on my most recent trip, I met an American who’d lost his money and passport, stolen from inside a bus in Calama while he’d nipped off to use the bus station’s facilities.