As I’ve mentioned in a few other posts, last February, my husband and I backpacked through South America. I was recently asked by a tour guide company, Footloose, to share a bit about our South America trip. Thanks to Footloose for the opportunity to share fun memories and the travel tips we learned from our experience!
Text from the Footloose Guest Post article:
Last February, my husband and I look a leap of faith. We quit our jobs to travel.
And now, a year later, I’m here to report that we’re okay- great, in fact! Quitting your job can be a scary thing, especially when you don’t have a real plan or a ton of money. We didn’t have a plan, and while we had saved for a few years, we also didn’t have tons of money. But we knew we wanted to do it, and we were at a turning point in our careers where we knew we wanted a change. So rather than transition like most people do from one job straight into the next, we decided to quit together, take a break by backpacking through Central and South American, and then start a new job once we felt refreshed and motivated again. It was VERY doable, and I STRONGLY recommend it to anyone who is considering it.
Below is a summary of our South America trip and where our adventures led us. As I said, we didn’t really have a plan. We made (most of) it up as we went. We knew we wanted to go to Guatemala to practice our Spanish, to Buenos Aires to see the big city culture, and to Machu Picchu to see one of the Wonders of the World. But outside of those things, we were winging it. Once we started traveling, we met lots of awesome people who guided us to incredible cities and sites, tons of delicious restaurants and street food vendors, and to getaway locales we didn’t even know existed. It was a magical trip.
During our travels, I wrote a personal blog that chronicled our trip and our experiences- mostly to keep friends informed of our whereabouts (and to ensure our parents that we were safe). When we returned, I realized that I liked and wanted to continue blogging, so I brainstormed about the type of travel website that could be useful for other people- and especially for travelers like me. And eventually, I decided on the concept that is now Trust the Locals. Trust the Locals aggregates travel advice from locals around the world to provide quick, concise tips on what to see and where to go in the cities you’re planning to visit. Because most of the time, locals know the secrets and the cool new spots that aren’t in the tours or haven’t made it to the guide book yet! I hope you’ll check it out before your next trip, and if you don’t see the place you’re about to visit, send me an email and we’ll find a local to interview!
South America Trip backpacking through Guatemala, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru
Guatemala- Antigua, Quetzaltenango and Lake Atitlan
Guatemala is an incredible country. Arriving there set me into “travel mode”; it was so strikingly different from the world I know in the US. We started our trip with a weekend in Antigua, and then drove to Quetzaltenango (nicknamed ‘Xela’) for a week of Spanish lessons. The people we stayed with in Xela were incredibly warm and welcoming, and they taught us so much about Guatemalan culture and history. Although brief, our week of living like a local in Xela was a fascinating view into the lives people live in Guatemala, and also made us grateful for the little luxuries we take for granted in the U.S. After a week in Xela, we spent a long weekend lounging at Lake Atitlan (an AMAZINGLY beautiful lake surrounded by volcanos) before heading back to Guatemala City and then flying to Montevideo.
Most Important Lesson from Guatemala: Take Spanish lessons here! There are many programs throughout Guatemala, and they are cheap! We picked Celas Maya in Xela based on a recommendation, but there are also programs in Antigua and Panajachel that offer classes and private tutoring. The Spanish in Guatemala is slow, clear and “traditional”, making it a great country to learn the language.
Second most important lesson from Guatemala: Take probiotics! Or eat lots of yogurt before you go. The bacteria in foods there is different, and sometimes the veggies aren’t cleaned as thoroughly as they are at, say, Whole Foods. You’re still likely to have an upset stomach from time to time, no matter how careful you are. Nothing pepto can’t handle:)
Favorite Accommodations: Hotel Isla Verde; Santa Cruz La Laguna- at Lake Atitlan
Slow Food Cafe at Hotel Isla Verde- Breakfast, lunch & drinks a la carte, or 3 course dinner
Santa Cruz La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
Sabe Rico– Beautiful outdoor dining
We only had a few days in Montevideo- enough to spend time at the beach, wander the streets and the parks, go to a few restaurants, and then take the ferry to Buenos Aires. It was a STARK contrast from Guatemala. Uruguay, in comparison, is a very wealthy, developed country, and Montevideo is the biggest city in Uruguay.
La Cocina De Pedro
Barrio Sur, Montevideo
Argentina- Buenos Aires, Bariloche & Mendoza
Argentina was the country I most wanted to visit, and once we arrived, it was hard for me to leave. Buenos Aires is a massive city, and wandering through it, I sometimes forgot where I was. A bit like Europe, but with brighter colors, more sun, and of course, the tango. Before leaving for our trip, my husband and I did some credit card point research, and we were able to book a few luxury hotel stays in places we knew we’d be visiting. The first stay was in Buenos Aires, using a combination of Hyatt points and cash. Arriving Buenos, we were able to head straight to the five star Park Hyatt in Recoleta, known as the Palacio Duhau. The hotel was a welcomed luxury after staying at a cramped hostel in Montevideo, and provided every amenity we could have imagined, including a marble bath tub, plush robes, an espresso machine, turn-down service, and complimentary shoe shines, plus, three restaurants, an on-site florist, whiskey bar, and a beautiful terrace with tango performances each night.
After checking out of the Palacio Duhau, we decided to book an Airbnb in the MicroCenter so that we could stay a bit longer and check out more of the city, including San Telmo, La Boca, several museums, an electronic tango called Fernandez Fierro, and of course, a steak dinner at Fervor. And, even after three more nights in the city, we decided we hadn’t had enough, so booked one last stay at another Air Bnb back in the Retiro neighborhood, close to the Recoleta Cemetery.
Although we didn’t have the hiking equipment in our packs to visit Ushuaia or to hike the W, we did want to get down to Patagonia, so decided on Bariloche. The concierge at the Park Hyatt thought we were crazy, but because of the cheaper tickets, we opted to take a 22 hour bus ride instead of a flight. I’ve seen many photos of Patagonia, and I’d heard about Bariloche, but hadn’t done much research before arriving. Thankfully, it was fairly easy to navigate the small town once we arrived; the tourist office in the town center helped us pick a couple of hikes, including Refugio Frey and Parque Municipal Llao Llao. We also took a chair lift called Cerro Otto to a restaurant that gave us an aerial view of Bariloche.
Although I’ve traveled all over the world, Bariloche continues to be one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve ever visited. The landscape has the best of everything. Turquoise blue lakes, purple mountains, lush green hills and clear blue skies. Plus, crazy views of the Andes mountain range, hikes to hidden lakes, and forests with rare, giant trees. It sounds cliche, but these views on our hikes took my breath away.
Another 20 hour bus ride northwest took us to Mendoza, where we decided to spend one day relaxing at our hotel- the Park Hyatt- and then the next two days visiting wineries. Tasting wine in Mendoza was very different from any other wine region I’d visited, and spending two days with private tour guides at Mendoza Wine Camp taught us a lot about these differences. Because wine makers in Argentina don’t follow the strict guidelines that the French do, there’s lots of creativity and unusual blends that you don’t hear about in other parts of the world. And, while the Malbec is the star of the region (and were all delicious), we left with a new favorite- Torrontes, a crisp, bright white wine.
Lessons from Argentina: Eat the steak! This advice is on every Buenos Aires travel blog for a reason. Fervor was the restaurant we chose, but if you can’t afford a restaurant and have a kitchen to cook in, the meat is also cheap at the grocery- we estimated that our 10oz cut of ribeye from the grocery was $4. Expect very different eating schedules- breakfast in Argentina is small or non-existent, lunch is at home, followed by a nap. Tea is around 4 or 5pm, followed by dinner at 9pm if you’re staying in, or at 10-11pm if you’re going out. If you’re going out, dinner can also be at midnight, followed by drinks and bar hopping starting around 1pm. If you’re in BA, “going out” can continue until sunrise.
Also: Bariloche has incredible chocolate (Rapa Nui was our favorite shop), and Mendoza produces more than just Malbec. Who knew!
Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt
Recoleta, Buenos Aires
Fervor– Steak and Seafood- HIGHLY Recommend
Recoleta, Buenos Aires
Cafe Tortoni– Oldes Cafe in Buenos Aires
Balvenera, Buenos Aires
San Carlos de Bariloche
1884 Restaurant Francis Mallman– Winery/Fine Dining/Patio
Godoy Cruz, Mendoza
Nadia O.F./ BRÖD
City Center, Mendoza
Giminez Riili– Uco Valley, Mendoza
O. Fournier– Uco Valley, Mendoza
Chile- Valpariaso & Santiago
The third 20+ hour bus ride we took was from Mendoza to Valparaiso, a port town in the northeastern part of Chile, known for street art and colorful hills created by the painted houses built along the coastline. Valparaiso was a city of contrast- the port was dirty, fishy, and dangerous, while the wealthiest, most beautiful houses and restaurants were nestled high on the hills. In my mind, it was the San Francisco of South America, but without the bridge to wine country or the expensive real estate.
Our favorite spots in Valparaiso were Cerro Alegre and Cerro BellaVista. We also visited Pablo Neruda’s home high above the city, and learned a bit about the famous Chilean philosopher and poet.
Leaving Valparaiso, our bus ride to Santiago felt incredibly short- only 5 hours! In Santiago, our plan was to site see, get some exercise and sleep in, and regroup before heading to Peru. We heard that this big, developed city would be a good place to rest up because it’s developed and very international. Some people told us not to spend time in Santiago because there’s not a lot to see, but we were happy to have a bit of a break after being so stimulated for almost every day of our trip. Highlights in Santiago were Cerro Santa Lucia, Centre Gabriela Mistral, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, and Parque Forestal. We also went on a wine tour at Concha y Toro, but it was too touristy for my taste.
Lessons from Chile: You cover a lot of Valparaíso in three days. Visit Cerro Alegre, Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Bellavista. Wander the graffiti-filled streets. Ride an ascensor. Go to Viña del Mar to soak up the sun on their beautiful beaches. Then head to one of the many other contrasting landscapes that this skinny country has to offer.
Also: Pay attention to your surroundings in Valparaiso- petty theft is common. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry- l left all of my flashy earrings, necklaces and even my wedding rings at home!
Tiramisú– Pizzeria/ Dinner/ Local Spot
Café Bijoux- Lunch/Live Music/ Dinner
Cerro Concepción, Valparaiso
Peru- Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu), Cusco & Lima
We planned to go to Peru because of Machu Picchu, but many people told us to spend time in Cusco as well, so we flew into Cusco, took the Peru Rail to Aguas Calientes, hiked Machu Picchu, and then went back to Cusco to explore that city afterwards. Our return flight to the states was from Lima, so we also spent a few days there before the end of our trip. It was a bittersweet final few days, as we realized it was a city we wished we had more time to explore. Just like with Patagonia, we didn’t have the gear or the time to do a full trek in Machu Picchu, so we instead hiked up to the ruins and then hiked up Huayna Picchu to experience a bit of how the trek would have felt. In all that day, we hiked 265 flights and walked 11 miles! And we saw one of the Wonders of the World!!!!!!
Lessons from Peru: Go to Machu Picchu. Soon. It’s only getting more touristy. The proof of the beauty is in the pictures you see all the time, but it’s much better with your own eyes. Also, Don’t skip Lima! Pisco Sours, the beach, Miraflores, and a burgeoning foodie scene make this city worth a stop for few days before or after your Incan trail trek.
Also: The elevation in Cusco can get you- the city’s elevation is over 11,000 feet! Many places offer tea with cocoa leaves to make you feel better. Drink with caution though- it made my husband sick. And last side note- bring toilet paper with you wherever you go… as it’s not always readily available in public restrooms or even in private bathrooms! This tip is true for almost all of the places we visited on our trip.
El Mercado– HIGHLY RECOMMEND!