Is 3 months in South America long enough? (& other travel questions)
February 7, 2013 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Next month, I'm off to South America for three months. I'll be flying into Colombia and flying out of Buenos Aires--already booked my flight, and all should be good, except for my fear that it won't be enough time to see everything I want to see! Details inside.

I'll be going alone, and I don't have a solid itinerary yet. I plan to visit Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, maybe with a brief stint on a gaucho ranch in Uruguay. I quit my job to do this, and I have nothing lined up for when I come back, and enough in savings for a decent safety net. But since I have some extra money and the freedom to do whatever I want, I'm really tempted to extend my trip! It'll cost at least $200 for a flight change. Might it be worthwhile?

I have a flexible $7000 or so to spend, which seems like enough for at least 4 or maybe even 5 months. I want to properly get to know a few cities and improve my Spanish, rather than just run around tourist sites. If I had the extra time, I would like to even rent an apartment in a city for one month. Learn tango, write, and have time to explore to my heart's content.

Is this a good idea or should I stick with my original plan and booked ticket? Does my itinerary sound doable for 3 months? And any recommendations for favorite places to go? I especially like wandering around pretty streets, horseback riding, and the strange and morbid.
posted by lightgray to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you think you'll have difficulty getting a job when you get back? If you're reasonably confident that your "decent safety net" will cover you until you can find your next job (IOW, if the $7000 is separate and apart from said safety net) then I would say, hell yeah, stay longer, and maybe plan to go a little cheaper if need be while you're there. 3 weeks per country is not too shabby, but more is better. If extending your stay would let you fit in a visit to Santiago, Chile, you will find it worth your while.

In Bolivia, you can get a good taste of the country from a main base in La Paz; I recommend trips to Copacabana, Coroico, and after that some time in Oruro and a visit to the Salar de Uyuni. If you have any more time than that, Sucre would be next on my list of recommendations. I spent a couple years in Cochabamba and "it's a nice place to live but I wouldn't want to visit there." Get the Lonely Planet guide and try to hit some local religious festivals. The major ones are indeed major, but even smaller-scale festivals are a blast and very non-tourist-oriented.

I personally would suggest trying to cut a longer-term discount for a room at a friendly hostel rather than going through the hassle of trying to rent an apartment for a month. Hostels are naturally social places, and especially at the lower price ranges you will cross paths with not just a bunch of Euroamerican backpackers but travelling South Americans as well. If you want to improve your Spanish you need to spend a lot of time in conversation, and a hostel setting is more amenable to picking up conversation partners.

Be forewarned that June/July is winter, and the higher up and further south you go the more of a difference that makes. It's not awful, but there are definitely places in the Southern Cone that will be experiencing daytime jacket/nighttime coat weather in July.
posted by drlith at 10:05 AM on February 7, 2013

Five years ago, I went to Buenos Aires with the intention of staying for six weeks to really get to know the city. I ended up staying for two years and didn't even get to visit every place in Argentina I'd wanted to visit.

Towards the end of my stay, I went to Colombia for five weeks (amazing; Cartagena is one of my favorite places in the world), and met a guy who arrived in South America the same month that I had. We had polar opposite experiences: he may have actually seen everything in South America, whereas I had largely stayed in BA. He had tons of photos and new acquaintances, but didn't know Spanish beyond elementary travel exchanges. (When you are traveling, it can be really hard to learn Spanish well, since your routine always changes and random strangers aren't going to correct you, stick to a script, or have the patience required when learning a language.) I had learned Spanish pretty well, made a few close friends, and knew the culture of one place really well. Even though we had polar opposite experiences, we were both really happy, and really jealous of the other person's past two years. Trips are like dogs or pizza, they are all awesome in their own way.

There is a huge, unfair paradox inherent in travel: the more time you spend abroad, the shorter your trip feels. Once you start engaging in any sort of independent long-term venture, you end up learning so much about a place by meeting people (locals and fellow travelers), trading stories, simply moving--so much you couldn't possibly have known at the outset.

Of course your trip sounds awesome (if a little packed for someone like me). My successful long-term trips have managed to strike a balance between serendipity/spontaneity and planning. Just accept the fact that the trip that seems long now will seem impossibly short when you get back, and all you can do is to be at peace with your choices. Have a great time!
posted by blazingunicorn at 10:08 AM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You'll be fine. I spent a month in Peru and frankly it was too long. I can't imagine spending more than a few weeks in Bolivia. Colombia I'm not sure about, though I know plenty of people who've visited for 10 days to two weeks and thought that was enough. Argentina is on my list of places I'd like to go, and I imagine that if I went I'd probably go for 2 or 3 weeks, unless maybe I was WWOOFing at a vineyard or something.

My big question is the gaucho ranch in Uruguay. How long do people usually stay in those? How accessible are they? My point being that, if you want to spend a month living on a ranch in Uruguay, and you're going to spend days traveling just to get to and from the ranch, that's a very different trip than if you were going to spend a week on a ranch and it was a four hour drive from your next thing you wanted to do.

The same goes for any big activity in any of your destination countries, of course. Maybe you do want to WWOOF at a vineyard or take a boat trip up the Amazon in the Peruvian jungle or learn to surf in Colombia. Those are the things to plan for now so that you can see what kind of trip you're really looking at.

Money-wise, you'll be fine.

As for recommendations:

Cusco is amazing. I ended up spending like 3 weeks there, which very few travelers do. I don't know that I'd recommend staying quite that long (I did because I'm hugely into cultural, historical, and anthropological stuff, which Cusco is basically a world capital for), but give yourself more than the day or so most people do.

It's possible to do a trek to Machu Picchu at least partially on horseback. It may take longer than the usual Inca Trail trek, and again, the Inca Trail is one of those "big activities" you need to build your whole itinerary around. So look into doing this NOW if it sounds interesting to you.

You might like Arequipa, in Peru. It's sort of a hub for adventure sports (it's the closest city to Colca Canyon, so lots of hikes and climbing and I think possibly riding as well), but also has this huge crazy abbey that was built in the 16th century as a cloistered place to wall off wealthy colonial women. Very high on the "strange and morbid" factor. Also under "strange and morbid", there's a museum in Arequipa devoted to this one particular Incan mummy which was discovered in the nearby mountains. Creepy awesome, and really nice if you are also into archaeology.
posted by Sara C. at 10:10 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I went to Peru for three months--ended up staying 4 years and did a lot of month long trips during that time (Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina). It was just a fantastic experience and I'm really jealous of you right now.

As for specific recommendations:
I always rented an apartment. Hostels do give you a nice built-in social network (although it can interfere with learning spanish) but apartments integrate you into the community and it's just nice to have a place to come home to, leave your laptop, etc.

I don't see any need to change your flight now--you may fall in love with Colombia and decide to stay there and end up needing to change all your flight details. Heck, you may not even take any return flight--I'd leave it open until you're at least on the ground. It probably won't cost you more than the 200 if you do it at least 2 months in advance and you're flexible. It's a risk, but a small one.

For places to visit--seconding Cartagena. Gorgeous city. I'm also a big fan of Lima--great food. And BA is just an amazing spot. Honestly, I'd just plan on a month in each spot but be flexible depending on how much you enjoy.

I'd avoid Venezuela.
posted by limagringo at 10:51 AM on February 7, 2013

I don't think you can ever feel like you've seen enough of a place, unless you're talking about a small, dull city. When you're talking about a whole continent, there's always more to see and do, especially if you can speak the local language(s).

Cusco is fantastic, and like Sara C. said, there's a TON to see and do around the area. My family and I stayed there for a few days, then went on a guided river tour for a few days, back to Cusco, then on to Machu Picchu, and that was just scraping the surface.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:12 AM on February 7, 2013

Best answer: I would just add that Buenos Aires, and to a lesser extent, all of Argentina, is fairly expensive for dollar-based visitors right now. Buenos Aires still holds that "miraculously affordable" position in most people's minds (I think) from after the 2001 financial crisis.

But the economy of Argentina is all messed up right now. Inflation is out of control. They just announced that the government is putting a freeze on grocery prices for the next few months. The official bank rate exchange rate for USD buys 5 ARS, but the black market is around 8.

What I'm getting at is, if you are going to extend your trip, and you are going to fly out of Buenos Aires, you probably don't want to extend the time you are in Buenos Aires, because it will not be financially feasible.

I would advise you to extend your trip. How many times in your life do you think you're going to be able to do this?

I especially like wandering around pretty streets, horseback riding, and the strange and morbid..

Jesus Christ. You are going to love Buenos Aires.
posted by jeb at 11:13 AM on February 7, 2013

I quit my job last year and spent 3 months in central america. I dropped about five grand, not counting flights. I just bought a one way ticket and saved money in a separate account for my return flight. If you don't know spanish very well, I'd recommend 3 weeks of lessons at any of the spanish schools that offer it. You might want to start in Panama and take a sailboat to Colombia to start your trip, if you haven't already booked your flight down. It only costs like 300-400 dollars.

Don't plan too much. Stay at hostels and talk to people -- that's how you'll get into your best adventures and make friends on the trip.
posted by empath at 7:25 PM on February 7, 2013

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