This post is intended to be a list of all the mishaps and stressful situations we found ourselves in on this holiday. It’s not designed to freak anybody out, rather to help you avoid our mistakes!
I will probably add to this as I think of more, and feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments below!
Proof of onward travel
We arrived at Heathrow with everything prepared…. we thought. Just as we were checking in our bags, the lady at the desk asked for proof of our onward travel from Ecuador.
We actually had read about this on other people’s blogs when researching for this holiday. I’d checked in with a travel agent to confirm, as we were hoping to leave our Ecuador to Colombia crossing flexible. We weren’t sure whether we were going to go to the Galapagos, exactly what day we’d be leaving Ecuador, or what route we were planning on taking.
What we did have (and what the travel agent and we thought would be enough), was onward flights from Colombia to Costa Rica, from Costa Rica to Guatemala…. even a flight from Peru back to London! We thought that these would prove we were planning on leaving Ecuador (the Colombia flight even proved it was within the 90 day limit.)
Unfortunately this didn’t satisfy the lady at the gate. We ended up sitting in an airport cafe, booking flights from Ecuador to Colombia – something that restricted our travel plans and we really didn’t want to do. We thought about just booking any cheap bus transfer between the countries, but everything we found was at least £80 so we figured it was better to spend the money on a flight we’d actually use.
Once we arrived in Ecuador, the immigration officer didn’t even ask us for proof of our flights! But we would have never been allowed to fly there without the confirmation. A lesson that we carried forwards to all the other countries that we visited!
Double check which bus station!
When we were in Ecuador, we planned to travel from Quito to Otavalo. We needed to get to terminal norte. We took a tram to TRAM terminal norte, but it turns out bus terminal norte was somewhere different. Double check names!
Trust your instincts – and beware taxi scams
When we were in San Jose, Costa Rica, we got into an official looking red taxi which had a meter. The sun visor was down and covering the meter. I felt uncomfortable about that but because we’d already put our bags in the boot I felt unable to say anything. When we got to the end of our ride, the taxi driver quoted us a different price, pointing to his mileometer. When we pointed to the meter he pulled up the visor to show it was ‘broken’ (but he pushed some button on it before he pulled up the visor.) We ended up paying half of what he quoted, but a ride that should have been 3000 colones ended up costing us 10000. If you can’t see the meter, sort out a price before you start driving, or pick a different taxi!
Don’t hold yourself back – you will regret the things you don’t do
This sounds so cliché but I’m speaking from experience. In Antigua, Guatemala, we had the opportunity to hike up Acatenango volcano, to camp overnight and watch the active Mount Fuego throwing out lava against the night sky. I read some blogs and reviews, and started getting really nervous because everybody mentioned what a tough hike it was. In the end I was so worried about finding the climb too difficult that we didn’t go. I’ve regretted it ever since – it sounds like such an incredible experience. I let my fear get in the way and ended up missing out on something that could have been incredible.
Planning ahead can have advantages and disadvantages
I’ve written about this a bit more in my ‘preparing for a holiday’ blog post. The main advantages of booking in advance were peace of mind, guaranteed availability, and less stress when arriving in a new place – we saw some people trekking from hostel to hostel in search of a place to stay.
The main disadvantage was the inflexibility of travel plans. We found ourselves spending more days than we needed in El Calafate and Puerto Natales, and less days than we would have wished in Panajachel, Guatemala. Over a 6 month holiday, these are the only examples I can think of so we did pretty well overall!
Places aren’t always as great as blog photos suggest
In the process of writing this blog, I have more sympathy for the authors of the travel blogs I read to plan my holiday. You want your photos to be beautiful and you want to focus on the positives of your travels!
In general, blogs were really helpful and gave a true impression of where to go and what to expect. However there were a couple of places that I felt had been oversold. Ben and I spent around £80 on return ferry travel to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay as a day trip from Argentina, having been inspired by beautiful blog photos. The old town was very pretty, but it was only a couple of streets large, and the rest of the town wasn’t that exciting. Other than getting the Uruguay stamp in our passports, we didn’t think it had been worth the expensive ferry costs.
The other thing which you don’t appreciate from blog photos is just how busy certain places are. Again if you think about it it’s not that surprising, nobody wants a photo with loads of tourists in the background! The place which highlighted this the most for me was the Escadaria Selarón in Rio de Janeiro. If you search for it on instagram, you’ll find beautiful photos of people lounging on the steps as though they were there alone. Reality was very different – we kept getting stopped by people who didn’t want us walking in the background of their photos!
There are some things that require advanced booking
I’ve spoken about this in more detail in my ‘preparing for a holiday’ post. While for the most part we were able to book as last minute as we wanted, certain parts of our itinerary required booking months in advance. We booked our April Inca Trail in December, and were only just in time! Similarly we booked our March W-trek in February, and had to compromise on our ideal walking route in order to be able to book the last few campsite spots. If there are any ‘must-dos’ on your list, research them in advance if possible.
There are always ways around this – doing an alternative Inca Trail route such as Salktantay doesn’t require such advance booking, and you can do a few day hikes in Torres del Paine if you aren’t able to book the campsites needed for the W trek, but if you have your heart set on a specific activity, book in advance!
You can’t prepare for everything… but stay positive!
Having just told you how organised I like to be, you’ll understand how stressful I found it when our plans changed at the last minute. Illness struck on our last day in Quito, and the following hospital stay and outpatient follow-up meant that we had to cancel our Colombia plans and stay in Ecuador for another 4 weeks.
Hey, it happens! Once the immediate health worries were out of the way (we’re all fine now!), my mind turned to the impact this would have on our travel plans, what we’d have to cancel, etc. We ended up having to reschedule our Galapagos holiday until the end of our 6 month trip, and cancel a lot of our Colombia plans. Thankfully, with partial refunds from various flight operators and hostels, we ended up losing only £310 between us for altered plans, which was subsequently reimbursed by our travel insurance company. I might write another post in the future about how we dealt with this and the travel insurance claim, if anybody would find it useful.
Although this seemed like a major tragedy at the time, in the end it worked out ok. It would have been lovely to see more of Colombia, but as a result of staying for longer in Quito, we got to take part in some of their local festivals and christmas events that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. Things tend to work out in the end!
We should have bought a local SIM card
This leads on from the last point. We didn’t bother with a South American SIM, as we figured we’d just keep in contact with people from home via wifi. However ringing various travel companies from my UK SIM when we had to alter plans ended up being super expensive. I ended up with a £100 phone bill. We should have bought a local SIM!