Preparing for a six month holiday
I started this post before my travels and have edited it since returning, so sorry that it jumps between past/present. It’s a mammoth post but worth reading.
Preparing for a holiday
My holiday to South and Central America was something I had been dreaming about for ages. It was something that I had decided that I’d like to do years in advance, so when it came round I was super excited!
The organisation of the whole thing was a bit stressful though. Although I’d love to claim that I’m wild and free and spontaneous, it’s just not true. Packing a bag and heading off with a one way ticket and no clear plans would freak me out! So prior to leaving I did a LOT of research for my trip. I found blog posts invaluable, so I thought I’d share my research in case I can help out anybody else!
I would say that my pre-holiday planning could be divided up into:
- Itinerary planning
- Health and travel requirements
- Necessary life admin before I go!
- Actually booking things
1. Itinerary planning
Where to go:
I started off by writing a list of every country in South and Central America, and then checking the government travel advice for each country. This advises on the safety of each country, and I wanted to check I wasn’t putting myself at risk with my travel plans. For example, I found out that currently the advice is to avoid all but essential travel to Venezuela, so I cut Venezuela out of my itinerary. Fortunately most places in South and Central America are safe so I didn’t feel restricted by this advice.
The next thing that I did was to research the “top 10 things to do in…[country]”. This is where Pinterest comes into its own! I read a couple of blogs for each country, consolidating a list of the attractions and places that were mentioned repeatedly, and the ones I wanted to see. I also used the search term “[2/3/4] week itinerary in… [country]”, which yielded more useful results. I’ve included some of the blogs that I found the most helpful below (credit where it’s due!).
- Myfunkytravel – South America backpacking route
- Condé Nast traveller – Some photo inspiration of gorgeous places to visit
- Travelastronaut – Lists of top attractions
- Thediscoveriesof – More attraction lists
- Back-packer – Country highlights
- Journalistontherun – Central America highlights
- Littlebigexplorations – A very detailed breakdown of their 7 month itinerary
Another thing that I did which I found quite useful was to search for group tour itineraries. For example GA adventures, Intrepidtravel, Tucantravel and other companies have done all the hard work for you and created various travel itineraries. For some people, this might be the end of your search and you might choose to book with these companies. I didn’t as we are planning to travel independently, but I found these a really useful insight into what places are considered the “highlights” of a country, and how long they think you should spend in each place.
For those who are on a tighter budget, it’s worth researching which countries have a higher and lower cost of living. I decided that I’d like to go to all countries regardless (that’s the sound of my bank account crying that you can hear…), but it can be useful to focus your planning, and consider how long you’d like/can afford to spend in each place.
I’m writing a whole separate blog post about our holiday budget, but a rough guide to the countries I visited would be:
Cheaper countries – Bolivia, Ecuador (except the Galapagos), Colombia, Peru, Guatemala
Mid-range countries – Belize
More expensive countries – Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica
Most expensive – The Galapagos
When to go:
I’d say there are a couple of factors to consider when asking when to go:
- When you’re free!
- Events and festivals
The first is obviously a no-brainer! But if you have the benefit of choice:
Reminder guys, South America is in the Southern Hemisphere (obviously)! This means the seasons are switched around for us Europeans. You don’t want to be planning a nice walking holiday in Patagonia in July, when the roads might get closed due to the snow…
This website is very helpful for advice on when to visit various regions of South America.
From what I gathered:
- Patagonia region: Best weather but busy as a result in the summer (Dec-Feb), cold and some areas may be inaccessible in the winter (May-Aug). The ‘shoulder seasons’ (Oct-Nov and Mar-Apr) are a little cooler than summer but are also less busy and less expensive as a result. We visited in Feb/March.
- Machu Picchu: You don’t want to be doing the Inca trail in bad weather. Plus it’s closed for one month every year for maintenance in February. The website above advises that it can still be very rainy in April, and that May-October is the best time to visit. We went in May, and had good weather – most of the time!
Events and festivals:
For us, this meant Rio Carnival. We centred our itinerary around knowing that we were going to be in Brazil in early Feb (in 2018 the carnival was 9th-14th February). If you are planning to attend a major event, it’s worth booking accommodation early! You also have to accept that it’ll likely be the most expensive time to visit – some of the hostels we looked at hike their prices from £9 per night to £100 per night for a dorm bed!
Other festivals that you might want to factor in include:
- Semana santa (“holy week”) – this is the week of Easter, and apparently there are really interesting celebrations in these cities. Even if you aren’t planning on attending any events, it might be useful to be aware of the dates, as in some countries it is given as a national holiday, and things might get busy.
- Inti Raymi – the Incan festival of the sun, held in Cuzco, Peru on the 24th June every year. I can’t tell you that much more (we went home in May so I didn’t research it), but from what I’ve read it looks like a big festival with colourful costumes, a sun-blessing and a parade!
Really there are so many! It depends what you’re looking for. I’ve also heard of (but not researched) the World Tango Championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Wine Harvesting festival in Mendoza, Argentina.
What route to take:
Having figured out when you’re going, what you’d like to see, the weather for the times of year you’ll be there and any unmissable festival dates, you’re all set to plan your route!
We felt a bit overwhelmed when it came to starting to plan an itinerary, but the research above definitely helped. To talk you through my thought process:
- We wanted to leave in November.
- We wanted to be away for six months, so our rough end date was April/May.
- We wanted to start with a Spanish course, and found one we liked in Ecuador.
- We wanted to be in Brazil for the carnival in early February.
- We wanted to go to Patagonia before it got too cold, so either before or after our time in Brazil (or to put it another way, we didn’t want to leave it till the end of our trip in May).
- We wanted to do the Inca trail, which is closed in February, and has bad weather conditions from November-April.
- We wanted to keep travel costs down where possible.
- There were some specific places which we considered our ‘unmissables’ – for us this included Costa Rica, the Amazon, Cartagena in Colombia, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu, the Brazil carnival, the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, the Atacama desert, the Uyuni salt flats.
Let’s go back to number six for a second. To keep travel costs down where possible, we wanted to travel overland where possible to save on flights. I also assumed (this isn’t evidence based, but seems like common sense to me), that longer flights would cost more than shorter flights. So when creating an itinerary, it seemed to make more sense to visit close together places in succession!
People seem to travel South America in a north-south, south-north or circle route.
Continuing with my thought process:
Starting with a Spanish course we like in Ecuador was fixed point number 1.
Carnival time in Rio was fixed point number 2.
The Inca Trail gave us a pretty solid ending point to our trip, as it sounded like for most of our time in South America it would be bad trekking weather. It sounded like it would be best for us to leave this as late as possible – either late April or early May, just before we flew home. So we decided to end in Peru as fixed point number 3.
From this (shown on map above), it made most sense for us to do a circular route, travelling north from Ecuador into Colombia and Central America, then back down to Brazil. We then planned to travel further south into Argentina and Chile (which worked timing wise, meaning we would be in Patagonia in Feb/March), before moving back north through Chile and Bolivia to Peru.
Having made this plan, things became a bit easier. Some free and easy people might finish their planning now, content to have a rough idea and to travel at their own pace, booking as they go. Because I’m NOT a free and easy person, I wanted a bit more detail to flesh out this plan, mainly because I didn’t want to go too slowly and find I didn’t factor in enough time for everything I wanted to see! I still wanted flexibility in my itinerary, but I thought it would be useful to have a few more fixed points (or at least a rough idea of how many days we’d be thinking of staying in each place).
I have to admit, it does get a bit arbitrary here. We have found it quite difficult to estimate how many days we’d like in a certain area. Because of our fixed point in Brazil for the carnival, we found we had more time than we felt we needed in Colombia/Central America, and less time than we were hoping for in Argentina and Chile. Still, with a bit of juggling, we ended up with an itinerary that we were happy with.
Our initial plan was:
- 29 days in Quito, Ecuador (Spanish school).
- 7 days in the Galapagos.
- 3-4 days in Bogota, Colombia
- 14 days split between Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia
- 16 days in Costa Rica (split between various locations – Monteverde, Manuel Antonio national park, Arenal national park)
- 10 days in Belize (exact locations unknown)
- 11 days in Guatemala (arriving from Belize via Flores and Tikal ruins). Our plans included Antigua and Lake Atitlan.
- 11 days in Rio de Janiero, Brazil (over carnival time)
- 3 days in Paraty, Brazil
- 3 days in Sao Paulo, Brazil
- 2 days on the Brazilian side of Iguazu falls
- 2 days on the Argentinian side of Iguazu falls
- 5 days in Buenos Aires, Argentina (including a day trip to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay)
- 7 days in Bariloche, Argentina
- 4 days in El Calafate, Argentina
- 7 days in Torres del Paine/Puerto Natales, Chile
- 5 days in Santiago, Chile
- 4 days in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
- 4 days doing a tour of Uyuni salt flats and other sights in Bolivia
- 4 days at Copacabana and Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
- 5 days in Arequipa, Peru
- 14 days in Cusco, Peru (including a 4 day Inca trail hike within this)
- 7 days in the Amazon, Peru
- 2 days in Lima to fly home.
Considering that this was pretty arbitrary, in the end we didn’t deviate from it too much. Our main issue was realising that we hadn’t factored in travel time or times where we might have to stopover somewhere on the way to our next destination. It did give us a rough idea to guide us though.
Having now returned from my holiday, I have added our final itinerary below so you can see how much stayed the same/changed. Read my diary blog posts for more details.
Stops in italics were primarily nights spent in places as travel stops rather than places we wanted to visit.
- 48 days in Quito, Ecuador – we ended up staying in Ecuador longer than planned due to illness. This cut into our Colombian itinerary.
- 6 days in Cartagena, Colombia
- 1 day in San Jose, Costa Rica
- 7 days in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
- 4 days in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
- 4 days in Monteverde, Costa Rica
- 1 day in San Jose, Costa Rica
- 1 day in Belize City, Belize
- 3 days in Caye Caulker, Belize
- 1 day in Belize City, Belize
- 7 days in San Ignacio, Belize
- 3 days in Flores and Tikal, Belize
- 3 days at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
- 4 days in Antigua, Guatemala
- 1 day in Guatemala City, Guatemala
- 11 days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- 1 day in Foz de Iguacu, Brazil
- 1 day in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina
- 6 days in Buenos Aires, Argentina (including a day trip to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay)
- 8 days in Bariloche, Argentina
- 4 days in El Chalten, Argentina
- 4 days in El Calafate, Argentina
- 4 days in Puerto Natales, Chile
- 4 days in Torres del Paine, Chile
- 1 day in Puerto Natales, Chile
- 1 day in Punta Arenas, Chile
- 4 days in Santiago, Chile
- 5 days in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
- 3 days on the Salt Flats tour in Bolivia
- 1 day in La Paz, Bolivia
- 5 days in Copacabana, Bolivia
- 1 day in Puno, Peru
- 7 days in Cusco, Peru
- 4 days trekking the Inca Trail in Peru
- 1 day in Cusco, Peru
- 3 days in Puerto Maldonado and the Amazon, Peru
- 1 day in Cusco, Peru
- 4 days in Arequipa, Peru
- 1 day in Huacachina, Peru
- 2 days in Paracas, Peru
- 2 days in Lima, Peru
- 1 day in Guayaquil, Ecuador
- 4 days in San Cristobal, Galapagos, Ecuador
- 4 days in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador
- 3 days in Lima, Peru
You can see that while there were a few changes in locations and time spent in each place, the list actually ended up pretty similar! Our Colombia itinerary ended up getting cut short because, for reasons beyond our control, we ended up staying in Quito for longer than planned. However we still managed to fit in almost everything we wanted to and we found the space to squeeze the Galapagos in at the end of our trip!
2. Health and travel requirements
I was going to write a detailed list of what’s needed, but global-goose have written such a good one that I’d be duplicating work unnecessarily. Visa requirements vary depending on which country you’re from.
For UK citizens, the upshot is that you pretty much don’t need a visa anywhere if you’re staying for less than 90 days. A couple of places require you to pay for a tourist entry card but these aren’t expensive. The only place I found that looked a bit more complicated was Suriname, although if you’re just going for a one-off tourist trip you don’t need a visa. Government travel advice websites will provide you with the official details of all entry requirements. For the UK government travel advice, click here.
Other travel requirements
I would definitely recommend getting travel insurance for your holiday. You never know when something unexpected might come up. We ended up having to visit a hospital during our stay and the hefty bill made us glad that we had bought comprehensive cover! Make sure you know what is included in the insurance including repatriation if needed, and be aware that some high risk activities might not be covered.
You might also want to get separate insurance if you’re taking any higher value items; our phones and laptop weren’t covered on our insurance policy but we decided that we’d risk this one and face the consequences if we had any problems (fortunately we didn’t).
Make sure you have at least 6 months left on your passport after the end date of your holiday. Some countries insist on this before letting you in!
I would take photocopies of all important documents. We ended up needing to show our ID at a number of attractions, and it felt safer to carry a photocopy of my passport than the real thing. We also scanned them onto Google Drive just in case.
This is another situation where the work has all been done for me: Fitfortravel is an NHS website that provides information on vaccination requirements and malaria risk for every country.
Yellow fever is the big one you need to be aware of, mainly because some countries require evidence of vaccination before they let you in! If you’re travelling to French Guiana or Suriname you need a certificate no matter what. Other countries require a certificate if you’re travelling from an at-risk country (including a 12 hour stopover in an airport).
At risk countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela
Countries requiring evidence of vaccination: Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, French Guatemala, Guiana, Guyana, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Venezuela.
To be honest, I would say that it is easier for everybody to get vaccinated. It will save potential hassle at immigration and it protects you from the disease! Double win!
Please check fitfortravel, but my summary list was:
Boosters of school vaccines (tetanus, diphtheria), typhoid, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies.
Rabies vaccines are especially important if you’re travelling anywhere remote and at risk. I would definitely get it if you’re planning to do any Amazon travel. If you’re bitten or scratched by an animal that may have rabies then you need URGENT medical attention, whether or not you’ve had the vaccine. The vaccine just buys you some extra time to get to a hospital, which is good if you have a couple of hours to travel to get to the nearest human habitation!
See Fitfortravel, but essentially it’s mainly jungle areas like the Amazon where malaria is a risk. The easiest thing to do is book in to see a nurse or visit a travel clinic before your holiday – make sure you go with enough time to get your vaccinations if needed (some of them need multiple injections over a course of weeks/months).
Prescription medications and contacts
Plan ahead and make sure you take enough!
While we’re on the topic of prescription meds and pre-existing medical conditions… make sure you declare them when you’re getting travel insurance, otherwise you might find yourself in a tricky situation where you’re not covered!
My stock of just-in-case meds included:
- Paracetamol and ibuprofen for pain
- Mosquito repellent, antihistamine tablets and antihistamine cream for itchy bites
- Loperamide (Imodium) in case we got hit by traveller’s diarrhoea (spoiler alert: we did!)
- Acetazolamide (Diamox) for altitude sickness – you usually have to get this through travel clinics. Alternatively, I used an online pharmacy who sent me a health questionnaire, and then sent the information on to one of their doctors who checked I was safe to have this medication prescribed for me.
All things female:
IF YOU’RE PREGNANT OR AREN’T PLANNING ON USING CONTRACEPTION: Be aware of the Zika virus. It’s transmitted by mosquitos, and while it only causes mild symptoms in most people, if you’re pregnant it can cause birth deformities in your baby. Government advice provides specific details per country, and advises that pregnant ladies postpone all non-essential travel to high risk areas and consider postponing travel to moderate risk areas.
High risk: Belize, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru
Moderate risk: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guyana, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela
Check the government advice though, as the risk status of these countries will be constantly being updated.
If you take contraceptive pills, make sure you have enough for your travels. If you have an implant or coil, make sure it’s not going to expire while you’re halfway round the world!
I am not a fan of my period at any time, but I particularly didn’t want it while I was trekking the Inca trail or camping in Torres del Paine. I asked my doctor for a supply of norethisterone, which is a tablet that you can take to postpone your period. Not everybody can take it, and you need a prescription for it, so make an appointment with your GP if this is something you’re interested in.
3. Necessary life admin
You may not need this section (in which case feel free to scroll past), but these are all the things that I needed to address before I started my long-term travel:
- Student loan – I needed to inform the company that I was travelling, send off a form and provide them with a bank statement.
- Cancelling contracts – including:
- Phone contract (unless your provider has good roaming/travel deals
- TV license
- Internet provider
- Car insurance
- Any regular subscriptions (e.g. veg boxes, contact lenses, magazines)
- Home insurance may be invalid if your house will be empty for a prolonged period of time. This is something to discuss with them.
- Heating settings/who has spare keys while you’re away in case there’s a problem!
- Anything for your job: I had a job offer ready to start when I got back, so I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t need any further paperwork or details while I was away.
- Inform your bank where you are planning on travelling
- Considering getting a second bank account/credit card in case you lose one card while away! While you’re sorting out getting it replaced you don’t want to be without money!
- Automatic email response if you want to warn people that you’re not checking your emails as frequently
- Emergency contact details – Ben and I made sure our parents had each other’s numbers in case of emergencies.
- Christmas and Birthday presents – some might not consider this ‘necessary life admin’, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss Christmas for my niece and nephew!
If you can think of anything to add to this list then let me know!
4. Actually booking things
The actual amount that you book before you start your holiday will depend on what sort of traveller you are and how flexible your itinerary is. In my opinion, the pros and cons of booking in advance are:
- Can be cheaper – we booked 5 or 6 of our flights in advance and got a discount through a travel agent.
- Peace of mind – I found it less stressful to know that we wouldn’t turn up in a place and find that everything was booked up.
- Ease of travel – In Caye Caulker we met people going from hostel to hostel with all their luggage looking for a place with availability. My bag was pretty heavy so I was glad that we could just go straight to our hostel and check in.
- You don’t have to worry while you’re on holiday – researching and booking things like flights and accommodation takes time and effort. If you sort it beforehand you can relax and enjoy your holiday!
- Reduced flexibility – there were some parts of our itinerary where we wished we hadn’t booked ahead, because we wanted to spend longer in a place (Lake Atitlan, Bariloche) or less time (Puerto Natales, El Calafate).
- Can be more expensive – sometimes you can get discounts if you book last minute. We met a couple who found brilliant hotel deals by booking the day before.
Realistically, it wasn’t feasible for us to book the entire 6 months ahead of time, so we booked the flights for the first 3 months of our holiday to give us some structure, and then our accommodation for our first month in Quito. We then tried to book about a month ahead for the rest of the holiday.
The exceptions to our ‘month-ahead’ plan were:
- W-trek, Torres del Paine, Chile – You can only camp in designated campsites and spaces fill up fast. We managed to book for mid-March in February, but two of the campsites were fully booked, so we had to have one short day of walking and then walk two days worth of trekking in one in order to make it work. We did meet some people in Puerto Natales who turned up and managed to book last-minute due to cancellations, but I wouldn’t rely on this as you might be disappointed.
- Inca Trail, Peru – We started researching the Inca trail at the beginning of December and sent enquiries to a few different companies. We were alarmed to discover that most of April had already been booked up, and in the 2 days it took us to make a decision our preferred dates sold out. We still managed to get reservations but it felt like a near miss. Remember that the classic Inca Trail has a limited number of trail passes per day and you have to go with a tour group. If it sells out then there are alternative treks you can do such as Salkantay, however the classic Inca Trail is the only one where you reach Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate.
- Accommodation in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival time – We ended up in a very basic hostel paying almost £60pppn, because millions of tourists come to Rio for the Carnival. We booked this almost 4 months in advance.
There’s so much information on this post, but I hope it was helpful! There are many ways to travel, and for lots of people my planning will seem like overkill. I am by no means an expert, but I thought I’d share my experiences for anybody who might find them useful!
I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments below!