The vast region of Latin America covers everything from Mexico to the tip of Patagonia. Many of its countries are big names in the world of travel, but a few are known to only the most intrepid travelers. The islands of the Caribbean are included, offering a gambit ranging from tropical beaches to snowcapped volcanoes.

Introduction

It’s the shared language and cultural heritage that binds much of Latin America together. This is a land of ancient civilizations such as the Aztecs, the Maya and the Inca. It is a place where the soaring Andes mountains flow into the vast canopy of the Amazon rainforest. And it’s where Argentine cowboys still ride the pampas herding some of the best beef around, and football reigns supreme.

Latin America is known for its passion. Whether it is Brazil’s Carnival, a football match or Catholic religious festival, this region has got serious flair. Mexico has become a quick getaway for Americans and Canadians, but still boasts the world’s largest and dirtiest capital city as well as magnificent Mayan ruins in the Yucatan.

Central America is a cluster of small countries that connects North and South America. It has a long tradition of guerilla civil wars, but Costa Rica is setting the global trend in eco-tourism. Panama is another up and coming hotspot, and the ancient ruins in Belize and Guatemala are worth exploring. Still, places like El Salvador and Nicaragua can be a bit risky.

Colombia opens the gates to South America. Once the cocaine and kidnapping capital of the world, tourism is slowly opening up its amazing sites. Venezuela’s capital Caracas is best avoided for its impending threat of crime, but this is true of nearly every major city in Latin America. There are indigenous Indians in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil’s Amazon regions, as well as in the highlands of the Andes.

Peru’s Inca sites like Machu Picchu only suggest there are still other sites hidden in the dense jungles. Head down the length of the Chile until it tapers out into Patagonia, one of the planet’s last truly magical frontiers. Just across the strait is Antarctica.

Highlights

Latin America has an overwhelming array of awe-inspiring natural and manmade attractions; with something to suit all tastes, visitors can choose among the ecological wonders of the Amazonian rainforests, the enigmatic ancient ruins of the Mayan and Inca, a myriad of paradise islands and beaches or the magical snow topped peaks of the Andean mountain range.

Galapagos Islands
(Ecuador)

Also known as a ‘living museum and showcase of evolution’, the Galapagos consists of nineteen islands with unique animal life, including land iguana, giant tortoise and a wide variety of finches. Study of the latter was instrumental in helping Darwin formulate his theory of evolution.

Amazon
(Brazil)

One of the world’s richest areas in terms of biodiversity, this conservation complex is the largest protected area in the Amazon Basin (over 6 million hectares). The area’s many river and lakes are home to the largest variety of fish on earth, including the rare giant arapaima.

Chichen Itza
(Mexico)

Rated as one of the finest example of the Mayan – Toltec civilization, this sacred site was formerly the most powerful Mayan center on the Yucatan peninsula. Most notable of the many remaining structures is the spherical observatory, or El Caracol.

Barrier Reef Reserve
(Belize)

Belize is home to the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere. The reserve includes a significant number of endangered species, offshore atolls, pristine mangroves and vast lagoons.

Macchu Picchu
(Peru)

Rated as one of the most amazing urban creations of the ancient Inca, the ruins of Macchu Picchu are located in a stunning Amazon setting - on the eastern slopes of the Andes - that stands 2,430m above sea level.

San Agustin Archeological Park
(Colombia)

San Agustin Park is home to the largest group of religious sculptures in South America. Created by an ancient Andean culture between the 1st and 8th century, these images of gods and mythical animals are truly awe inspiring.

Easter Island
(Chile)

Created by Polynesian settlers during the period from the 10th to the 16th century, the island’s fascinating and powerful stone figures (moai) attract thousands of visitors each year.

Popocatepetl Monastaries
(Mexico)

Situated on the serene slopes of Popocatepetl, these 16th century monasteries (14 in all) provide inspirational examples of the styles adopted by the Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian missionaries of the same period.

Nasca Lines
(Peru)

Depicting images of creatures, stylistic plants and geometric figures - some several kilometers long – the geoglyphics of Nasca date back to between 500 BC and 500 AD and are thought to have had astrological significance in ancient times.

Teotihuacan
(Mexico)

Also known as ‘the place where the gods were created’, the holy of Teotihuacan was built between the 1st and the 7th centuries AD and is home to such wonders as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.

Destinations

Top Cities:

Things to See & Do

Latin America is a tropical and sub-tropical region of extreme geographical diversity and natural wonders where rolling snow-topped mountain ranges, the world’s largest tropical rainforests and some of the driest deserts in the world are surrounded by the equally diverse waters.

The region’s varied geographical attributes have resulted in it becoming a key destination for activity orientated holiday makers and travelers. With such a vast scope for outdoor pursuits, activities include trekking, diving and snorkeling, surfing, whitewater rafting and kayaking, mountain climbing and rock climbing.

When to Go

Weather conditions and climate vary greatly throughout the vast region of Latin America. While steamy heat typifies the rainforests of the Amazon basin, the snow topped peaks of the Andes mountain range drop to below freezing during the winter. Dry desert conditions are predominant in northern Chile, while the coasts of Colombia and Northern Ecuador receive the heaviest rainfall (more than 890cm per year).

South America Argentina experiences broad climate variations from sub-tropical in the north to freezing in the south. The hottest weather conditions in the south occur between the months from December to March, leaving the best time for visiting between the months of June and October.

The best time to visit Brazil is between the months of June and August when the weather is moderate, with average temperatures ranging between 13 and 18°C. However, the south of Brazil experiences heavy rainfall during this season. The summer season is between December and February, when temperatures reach the high 30s in most areas south of Rio de Janeiro.

There are two seasons in Ecuador, wet and dry, but regional weather patterns here depending on elevation. Mountainous areas experience the dry season between June and September, while the lower valley areas have spring like conditions all year round, with temperatures not rising above 24°C. The rainy season occurs between July and August, while the driest months are between September and December, which is also the best time for travel and trekking.

The best time for traveling in Venezuela is during the dry season which runs between the months of November and May; the rest of the year is generally rainy - a good time for white water rafting and seeing waterfalls in their full glory..

Central America The dry season, between the months of November and April, is the most popular time to go to Guatemala when the usual high humidity of the country subsides slightly. Temperatures during the dry and wet season (May to October) remain constant at around 38°C.

The driest months in Belize occur during the winter months between December and May; this is also the best time for traveling, but it’s also the busiest time in most tourist areas. The summer season from June to November is when most of the rain falls, but this is the best time to get deals on accommodation and excursions. Temperatures throughout the year vary very little, hovering around 30°C.

Tropical Costa Rica experiences its dry season between December and April and its rainy season from May to October. The first few month of the rainy season - when the landscape is refreshed with the first rains - are the best months for travel and holidaying in Costa Rica.

Caribbean The Dominican Republic experiences two rainy seasons: October to May on the northern coastlines and from May to October in the south. The temperature throughout most of the country varies very little throughout the year with temperatures ranging between 28 and 31°C. The hurricane season is best avoided and normally occurs between the months of February and November.

The dry winter season in Cuba is from November to April, this is also the most popular time for visiting the country. The rainy summer season lasts from May to October; this is also the time that hurricanes often occur. Cuba’s seasonal temperatures range from 22°C in the winter season to 27°C in the summer.

Northern Latin America Mexico has two seasons, but the timing of these seasons will vary slightly throughout this vast country. Generally speaking, the rainy season occurs from May until September or October. The dry season, which sees little or no rain, lasts from roughly November to August. Temperatures vary greatly throughout Mexico. In Mexico City the temperature ranges from 10°C in the cool season (November to February) rising to 27°C during April, the hottest month of the years.

Getting There

Most international flights to Latin America originate in the US, primarily Houston, Miami and New York, therefore the cheapest option for travelers from other international locations is to book a flight to one of these US destinations and then catch a connecting flight to the desired Latin American city.

The major points of entry in South America include the international airports in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Lima, Bogota, Guayaquil and Sao Paulo. For Mexico, major air hubs can be found in Mexico City, Tijuana, La Paz, San Jose del Cabo, Acapulco, Puerto Escondido and Oaxaca City. For flights destined to Central America, major international arrivals touch down in San Jose (Cost Rica), Guatemala City (Guatemala), San Salvador (El Salvador), Tegucigalpa (Honduras), Belize City (Belize) and Panama City (Panama).

The Dominican Republic has 10 international airports that service connecting flights to other Latin American countries in the Caribbean and beyond. The main international airports that service flights to and from the US and Europe are located in Santo Domingo and Barahona. International flights to and from the US and Europe are also serviced from Cuba’s main international airport in Havana.

From the US: New York’s JF Kennedy International Airport services flights to Latin American destinations, including direct flights to Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Santo Domingo and Havana. Houston and Miami offer flights to the same destinations, but services are less frequent.

From Canada: the main air hubs in Canada service regular direct flights to all major international airports in Latin American. Most frequent services can be found from Vancouver International Airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport and Ontario’s London International Airport.

From the UK: there are hundreds of daily scheduled flights from the UK to Latin America’s major cities, departing from London airports, but also from airports at Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Most flights are via Zurich, Milan or Madrid.

From Australia and New Zealand: economy class budget flights to latin America are available in abundance from New Zealand and Australia with Aerolineas Argentinas. The best prices can be found on flights to South American cities including Buenos Aires, Santiago, Montevideo, Bariloche and Bogota.

From South Africa: flights from South Africa to Latin American destinations depart from Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Cape Town International Airport and Durban International Airport, with the most frequent services destined for Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Sao Paulo (Brazil).

Getting Around

The vast and colorful region of Latin America comprises over twenty eight countries where the predominantly spoken languages, primarily Spanish and Portuguese, have been derived from the Latin. Stretching all the way from Mexico down to Cape Horn in the southernmost reaches of Chile, routes and methods of getting around vary throughout this immense region.

Unlike other large regions of the world, Latin America does not have a well- developed international rail system. Rail links between neighboring countries generally don’t exist, limiting international travel options to road and plane. However, most counties do have InterCity services. Argentina, Mexico and Chile, for example, have fairly well developed rail networks that link all major cities countrywide. In contrast, Bolivia has few train services and only two operating companies.

Bus: Despite the advent of cheap air travel and the poor road quality in much of Latin America, travel by bus remains a popular option with many travelers. The international bus network is more developed than the train network, with all countries being linked by bus services that will generally deliver you across land borders, limiting immigration and border crossing hassles.

The most popular international bus operator in Central America is Ticabus, which runs services from Guatemala City to Panama City, stopping at San Salvador, Salvador and San Jose. In South America, Argentina and Chile boast the most comfortable and reliable network of buses, but Mexico’s recent large investment in its road network and new executive style buses place it as the leader in comfort bus travel in Latin America.

Air: Due to an increase in the number of low-cost airlines - including Click Mexicana, InterJet and Volaris - getting around Latin America by air has become the most popular, affordable and hassle free choice of most travelers.

The region is served by numerous domestic and international airlines, with most of the more reliable and safe airlines being members of the Latin American Air Transport Association (ALTA). Main airports in the region include Brasilia International, Benito Juaraz International (Mexico City), Galeao International (Rio de Janeiro), San Juan Luis Munoz Marin Airport and Sao Paulo Guarulhos International.

Car: Getting around by car in Latin America can be difficult and often hazardous, but it is possible. While roads may often be in bad condition, there is a network of highways through South America that forms vital links for both passenger and cargo transportation. The provision of roads and accessibility depends on the geography of the land. For areas where the landscape proves to be a challenge for road construction such as the Andean Mountains and the Amazon Basin, road access is limited.

Boat: By far the most developed use of the waterways in Latin America takes place in the southern sub-regions around the largest water system on the planet, the Amazon Basin. Due to the rainforest terrain around this area, river boat travel is the most convenient way to discover the treasures of the Amazon. There are also numerous ferry companies that service boat travel from the South and Central American coastline to Latin American countries in the Caribbean Sea, including routes to Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Where to Stay

Accommodation in Latin America ranges from the most luxurious of five-star hotels and resorts to budget hostels that will cost you the equivalent of an American hotdog. The most basic of accommodations can be found in the highland mountain areas, while the region’s coastal areas offer many high-class beach resorts and spa accommodations.

For a full range of accommodation choices, the region’s big cities are the places to head. But if you are looking for a unique experience, book into one of Mexico’s atmospheric haciendas.

The ease of finding accommodation without booking in advance depends on the season. Many Central and South American beach destinations become fully booked in the high season, as do many of the top ski resorts during the winter. To avoid annoyance and disappointment, visitors are advised to book accommodation in advance during these periods.

The quality of accommodation will depend on your budget and your intended destination. In developing areas, such as Bolivia and Nicaragua, visitors can expect to find basic accommodation with no frills. Hostels and guesthouses may carry a three-star rating, but this is not equivalent to the same ratings in the US or Europe.

Hostels: Latin America is a top backpacking destination with many low cost hostels throughout the region. While the provision of hostels may be less in some rural and highland areas, all popular tourist destinations and big cities offer no-frills, dorm or single room hostel accommodation.

Hotels: international chain hotels can be found in many of Latin America’s big cities and key holiday destinations, such as Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Belize City and the holiday coastal areas around the Mayan Riviera in Mexico. Most other areas offer varied domestic hotel accommodation, with better quality options found in the more populated tourist areas such as Cuzco in Peru.

Camping: many visitors heading to trekking destinations such as those around the South American Andes choose to camp, as there are few hostels or guesthouses in these remote mountain areas. While there are campsites in many of these areas, off the beaten track camping is possible, with camping equipment typically provided by tour group operators.

Bungalows: beach side bungalows can be found in most popular costal and island destinations. This type of accommodation can range from the basic to the elaborate and more expensive options. Most beach bungalow resorts provide restaurant facilities and can arrange excursions and daytrips for guests, but the level of service is normally not equivalent to that of hotels.

Haciendas: Argentina, Brazil and Mexico offer a unique form of accommodation, haciendas, or old ranches. Many of these former plantation houses have now been converted into hotels, offering guests a look into life as it was before the collapse of the colonial system.

Health and safety

Many visitors coming from North America and Europe may find it difficult to stay healthy during a visit to Latin America. From initial digestive problems resulting from changes in bacteria to the more serious effect of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, travelers should be well informed of the health risks involved and prepare well before traveling.

Concerns relating to water and food hygiene should be kept in mind while traveling through the majority of Latin America. Many diseases in the region are water or food borne, so always pay close attention to the source. If in doubt don’t eat it or drink it.

Food should always be well cooked so if you’re getting your meal from a street vendor, watch the preparation and cooking to see if your meal is cooked thoroughly. When eating raw fruits or vegetables always make sure they have been peeled and washed in clean water.

Crime: while most visitors travel safely in Latin America, travelers should be aware of the risks, particularly in large cities and most predominantly in the cities of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, where crime against foreigners is relatively high. Most incidents involve petty crimes such as pick-pocketing, but the more serious crimes of kidnappings and sexual assaults do occur. Always remain vigilant and use your common sense. Know the risky areas to go and don’t go there!

Regional conflicts and terrorism: while many countries in Latin America have experienced civil conflict in recent years, there are few countries that can be classed as no-go areas. Even Guatemala - which suffered a 36-year civil war – and Colombia are now increasingly safe countries to travel in. However, as is the case in many developing countries, civil unrest and conflict do occur. For details of political and civil situations in individual Latin American countries, keep an eye on the news and check with your embassy before departing.

Diseases: mosquito transmitted diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever are common throughout Latin America, but generally only occur in tropical jungle areas and are less common in urban areas. Travelers should use their judgment depending on the area to be traveled. Often, it may not be necessary to take prophylactic drugs to protect against malaria. Vigilant use of mosquito nets and mosquito repellent can provide ample protection against the threat of malaria and other mosquito borne diseases.

Adverse weather: hurricanes, flash flooding and avalanches affect many parts of Latin America. The hurricane season is quite well defined (see weather, climate and when to go) so the best advice for travelers is not to go during those seasons unless you’re a hurricane enthusiast! Most ski resorts in the Andes receive avalanche warnings, but generally tourists will not ski in avalanche risk areas.

Women travelers: while many single women have traveled safely through Latin America, there have been a relatively large number of reported abuses in the region. Women traveling alone in Latin America are advised to exercise caution, particularly at night in large cities and while trekking. When choosing a trekking tour, ensure that you will be trekking as a group.

Work and Study

Latin America is teeming with language schools for international students wishing to study Spanish and Portuguese at relatively low costs while immersing themselves in the culture of the region. There are a multitude of private language schools and universities to choose from. Alternatively, many students employ private tutors, which can be more cost-effective than attending a private language school or university.

Teaching English in Latin America is a major draw card for those wanting to work in the region. The demand for English teachers is high in most big cities, but the supply low, possibly due to foreigner’s fears relating to living standards and crime. The highest demand comes from the business community, with business persons in the region needing English language skills to conduct business with Latin America’s neighboring countries such as the US and Canada.

America Bi-National Centers and Cultural Centers are the main providers of English language courses in Latin America, with centers in Brazil (25), Argentina (16) and Mexico (9). Those wishing to apply for teaching positions need to have TESL or TEFL qualifications.

Many Latin American countries have bilingual international schools that require native English speaking, fully qualified teachers or university level classroom assistants. The higher paying institutes can normally be found in the bigger cities, including La Paz, Quito, Santiago and Rio.

There are many organizations supporting those wanting to volunteer in Latin America. The vast majority of volunteer work is English teaching based, but there are also many opportunities for community based work.

If you want to apply for a work visa for a Latin American country, expect to provide a large number of translated documents and to pay a large fee before being issued with a visa. Resulting from the abundance of red tape, many foreigners work in Latin American countries (illegally) on tourist visas and stay long-term in the country of their choice by extending their visas regularly through the immigration department.