How to Plan a Trip to Latin America

How to Plan a Trip to Latin America

January 12, 2010

It seems like it should be easy.  You buy your ticket, get on a plane, and go.

But go where?  Where do you fly in to, where should you leave from, and how to decide what to do in between?

Planning a trip, whether it be for a week or a year, takes some thought and, yes, some planning.   Some.  But not too much.  Organizing the trip of your dreams is a matter of striking the right balance between planning ahead and leaving room for spontaneity.

The first place to start is with your traveling companion.  Different people have different levels of comfort with the planning-versus-spontaneous issue, which can lead to problems when you are abroad.   Have an honest conversation (or two or three) about how comfortable each of you will be with things like arriving in a new town with no hotel reservations.  What seems like a small matter can easily be a huge issue when both of you are tired, hungry, and disoriented.  Make sure you can agree on some balance between planning and leaving things open.

The next thing to do is to think hard about what you really want to see.  When you dream of this trip, what is it that comes to mind first and foremost?  I generally advise that each person choose one or two things that they absolutely must see or do while in South America.   Then build your whole trip around those few items.   If everyone gets to see their top thing, everyone will be happy.  Anything else is gravy.

Once you have your must-see list, consider each item.  Do any of them have to be planned in advance, such as the Inca Trail?  To hike the Inca Trail, you must have a permit issued in your name.  Permits sell out well in advance, sometimes as far as 6 months in advance for peak trekking time.  If your itinerary includes doing the Inca Trail, I highly recommend you set up this part of your trip first.  You can then plan the rest of your trip around this less-flexible item.

The same goes for anything with a time constraint on it.   For example, if your dream trip includes Carnaval in Rio, well, you know where you need to be when Carnaval rolls around.  Plug that into the plan first, then build the rest around it

Next, consider geography.  I am constantly surprised by the number of people who call up wanting to fly in to Peru, then go to Venezuela, then to Chile, then to Brazil.  All those hops around South America are going to take either time or money or both.   It will maximize both your time and money to try to travel in a logical direction.  Try to go from north to south, or south to north, instead of jumping all over.

Remember, you can fly in to one city and back out of another.   This is called doing an open jaw.  While an open-jaw ticket may be more expensive up-front, it usually pays off by saving you the cost of backtracking.  For example, a ticket to Caracas is significantly cheaper than a ticket to Buenos Aires.  But if you fly in to Caracas, and travel all the way down to Buenos Aires, but then have to get back to Caracas in order to catch your flight home…well, getting all the way back is going to take a great deal of time, money, or both.   In the long run, it would have been much cheaper to buy a ticket with a return from Buenos Aires.

When considering geography, don’t forget that the seasons are different in the southern hemisphere.  In many places (Peru and Ecuador, for example), they don’t really have summer and winter – they have wet and dry seasons.  If you are planning to hike the Inca Trail, the wet season may be a lot less fun than the dry season.  In deep South America, the seasons are reversed – their winter is our summer.   A visit to Patagonia during our summer would be cold, snowy, and rather unpleasant.  So once again, think about the weather when planning your general itinerary.  Make sure you are in each area at a time when it will be enjoyable.

So, after boiling all your ideas down to a few key places, and taking time and geography into consideration, you have a general plan for your trip.   Your next step really depends on the length of your adventure.

If you are doing a very short trip (say, two weeks), it pays to do more research and plan ahead.   Face it, if you only have 2 days in Cuzco, you probably don’t want to spend 4 hours walking around finding a hotel.  Make more reservations in advance, and plan out your itinerary in more detail.  That way, you can maximize the time you have to see and do things, instead of spending your time on housekeeping details.  Your Exito agent can help you with hotel reservations, train reservations, day tours, and internal flights.

For a longer trip, however, you probably will want to leave things looser.  You may decide you love Riobamba and want to spend a week there, instead of heading on to Cuenca as you had assumed.  Keep the big picture of your trip in mind, so that you don’t miss the important stuff, but leave the details to sort out later, when you are in South America.  You can still make reservations a day or so ahead, when you know where you will really be and what you really want.

Finally, whether you have planned down to the last detail, or have left things very open, be aware that Latin America may have surprises in store for you.  This is not Switzerland – things don’t always run on time, or even run at all.  Roads wash out, buses go on strike, airports are mysteriously closed.  Take a deep breath, remember that this is part of what makes Latin America the wonderful, crazy place it is, and accept it as part of the adventure.   And remember, your Exito agent has email!


Anonymous February 18, 2010 at 8:07 am

A very nice article with useful information especially for first time travellers.

Mel July 28, 2010 at 4:41 pm

This post couldn’t be more timely. I have bookmarked it and so excited about it. I have earmarked a travel with my partner in a Latin American trip this 2014 for the World Cup in Brazil and this is just what I need because this going to be a first for me and my partner.

Inside Peru September 11, 2010 at 9:21 am

Really good information and recommended reading for travelers to SA. “For a longer trip, however, you probably will want to leave things looser. ” As a family, we have maintained the viewpoint, “Why take a trip there? It is cheaper to go and live there.” This started with Hawaii in the 1980s, then Ecuador in the 1990s, followed by Bolivia, Nicaragua, and now Peru. Our daughter remained in Bolivia and married a few months ago. A trip is fine if that’s all you want to commit to, but you will never enjoy the culture or people if you don’t spend at least a year in a country.

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Richard in Paris November 17, 2010 at 5:36 am

I live in Paris and have planned a trip for two months. This information came just in time thanks for the advice. I will get back to you after my trip. Thanks again.

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