General list of recommendations, what we liked and what we didn’t like…
For the major airlines, while both airlines (Etihad and Qatar) were good, we’d have to give it to Qatar on this one – food, entertainment, seating were all better. On a slightly smaller scale, Condor really surprised us on our trip from Cancun to London. Customer service was excellent and the food was probably the best we had (paid meals – I looked like death and the host gave both of us a freebie).
For the domestic flights with South America, Avianca was by far the best, followed closely by Azul. LAN was decent (no snacks, smaller seats) however they were usually the cheapest – no problems with them however. On the opposite spectrum, Viva Colombia, the worst airline in the world (surely?). The planes were terrible, customer service was terrible, hidden fees, just an all around shit airline.
Not that we tried any other cards but the Citibank card was amazing – no fees for changing your money back to your own currency (because it always is!), minimal conversion fee (basically on par with the exchange rate of the day from google) – far better than exchanging cash, 9/10 no ATM fees, no bank fees. Just a great card. Make sure you have mobile access though as their online banking is very strict and you’ll need to receive confirmation codes … especially if you need to message them for confidential help (until we worked out reception for my mobile I had a few problems they wouldn’t/couldn’t help with).
Basically every ATM we tried was fine – 9/10 we didn’t get charged fees. The only place from memory was in Peru where all the ATMs seemed to charge everyone (even Scotiabank customers were being charged by their own ATMs). If you’re using the Citibank card, trust most ATMs to have no fees, if not, look online under the local Citibank website, you can usually find a list of partner companies. Note in Mexico, Citibank is called Banamex. Only had one issue with an ATM (Cartagena – Bancolombia), where I had two withdrawals were I didn’t receive the cash (I had previously taken out cash twice too). I notified Citibank but by the time they got back the money was already back into my account anyway.
Note in Colombia (not sure if elsewhere), the ATMs will time out on you if you think for more than about 5s. Be quick.
We tried to limit our card use to big purchases and trips to the ATM and used cash wherever possible. Typically if we needed cash we’d go in the morning and get money out for a few days, then store the extra cash and card in the locker / locked bag just in case something happened. If possible limit the amount of cash you have crossing the border, if you can exchange it at all (sometimes you can’t or maybe 1 out of 20 places) you’ll typically get a terrible rate unless you’re right at the border. Major cities will kill you, no one wants the other countries money. Make sure you have backup USD in case you need in. Especially bring USD for Argentina, the blue rate is better than you’ll ever get from the ATM – actually makes the place semi-affordable.
This one is Mexico for sure with Brasil a close second. Everything in Mexico was delicious whether it be the fruit bowls, burritos, tacos etc. Obviously some stands were better than others but even the bad ones were decent and the good ones were amazing….and cheap!
Honourable mentions go to –
- Street Burger Truck in Sao Paulo
- Coco Bambu in Fortaleza
- El Grillo in Florianopolis
- Casa do Chico in Florianopolis
- Flor do Acai in Florianopolis
- Cafe Cultura in Florianopolis
- BBQ @ Horseback Riding in Salta, Argentina (Icecream in the city was good too – can’t remember the name)
- Cafe San Alberto in Cartagena, Colombia
- The little places near our hotel in the middle of no where (especially the one with the orange and green fence / gate) in Cartagena, Colombia
- Asado California (downtown) in Cancun, Mexico (honestly looks dodgy, actually good – mostly for takeaway)
- El Fogon in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
- Taqueria Diaz in Cozumel, Mexico
- Taqueria El Piquein Cozumel, Mexico
- Antojitas La Chiapenca in Tulum, Mexico (and the dessert place next door)
- Namaste Lounge in London, England
- Indulge in London, England
Hotels / Hostels
Honourable mentions go to:
Best value for money – Maloka Hostel, Medellin, Colombia
Biggest space/best location – Studio/Flat, Lagoa, Florianopolis
Best Party hostel – Dirty McNasty’s, Caye Caulker, Belize
Quirkiest hostel – Tetris Hostel, Foz do Iguacu, Brasil
Best Beds – Chalupa Hostel, Tulum, Mexio
Best Host – Nah Ix U B&B, Cancun, Mexio
Favourite Cities – Tulum (Mexico), Medellin (Colombia), Florianopolis (Brasil). Awesome places, could easily live in any of them.
Favourite Countries – Brazil and Mexico tied for first place, closely followed by Colombia
Usually people were super friendly everywhere. Argentina not so much. Brasil was especially friendly we found out of everywhere (closely followed by Colombia), mostly where we trained. We always got offered lifts home, places to stay, things to do etc.
Would definitely have to go with Mexico on this one, Colombia, San Andres and Belize were good, but nothing on Mexico. We’ve heard mixed reviews about diving in PdC and Cancun, however Cozumel was amazing and well worth it. Even more so, cenote diving in Tulum was incredible (especially The Pit!), would 100% do it again. Basically so good that it’s ruined ocean diving for me…
Site Seeing / Activities
Top activities (other than diving) would have to be:
- Death Road – La Paz, Bolivia
- Paragliding – Medellin, Colombia
- Inca Trail – Cusco, Peru
- Horseback Riding / BBQ – Salta, Argentina
- Kitesurfing – Jericoacoara, Brazil
Unless you count broken glass and nails cemented to a brick wall as architecture, the best place by far is Buenos Aires. Checking out the cemetery is a must while there.
For ancient architecture, I think Chichen Itza was the best, followed by Machu Picchu (would possibly even say this was the best if it wasn’t for all the annoying tourists from the train).
The level of BJJ in Brazil seemed higher than that of Mexico (understandably), however not noticeably different to the level of that here in Australia. Overall it was a great experience, and always good to roll with new people and experience different teaching styles, however I wouldn’t recommend going to Brazil just for the BJJ, but if you’re heading there I’d definitely say pack a gi. One thing I did notice however was that people tended to not like / not practice no-gi. Save from one or two places, it seemed no-gi was shunned.
- Templo CrossFit, Sao Paulo, Brasil
- LOT CrossFit, Florianopolis, Brasil
- Burn Up, Functional Training, Cancun, Mexico
- CrossFit Carioca, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
- CrossFit Jotun, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Things to Pack (Except the Obvious)
- Leatherman / decent pocket knife – came in handy so many times, even if to just cut fruit. Make sure you pack it in luggage not carry-on.
- Jeans & a Hoodie – thought South America would be warm all the time, not so much (especially Bolivia / Peru), having some long pants would have really helped.
- Thermals – Just in case, don’t take up much room and came in surprisingly handy.
- Spare Phone Charger / Wall Adapter – My phone charger and adapter (the cause I think … cheap Bunnings crap) blew up, lucky we had Ailie’s as a spare and managed to find a multi-national adapter in Sao Paulo airport. Definitely cheaper to just buy a spare adapter before leaving. Also would come in handy have a spare adapter or even a power board instead of trying to share the one adapter.
- SIM card from your country with roaming – in case you need to receive SMS security numbers etc. for online banking.
- Spare credit/debit card – ideally of a different type.
- Cash – Make sure you get some before the airport so you at least have money for a taxi in each country. Airport exchange rates are terrible.
- If Diving, regulator and computer – relatively easy to carry and some of the gear we had was absolutely shocking and you never get a computer.
- Small torch
- Spare locks – don’t take up much room and relatively easy to lose.
General / Miscellaneous
Overall people are paranoid about South / Central America being dodgy. If you stay in decent areas and don’t do anything stupid (carry large amounts of money or jewelry, walk through the poorer areas at night) you shouldn’t have any problems just like anywhere else in the world. Definitely nothing to be worried about…although I am a scary looking giant, so maybe I was a bit luckier than some.
One thing that is a must while before going over – learn some Spanish and Portuguese. The ‘everyone speaks English nowdays’ thing is a lie. When we left Duolingo said I was 30% fluent in Portuguese and that was enough to get by in most everyday scenarios (although I couldn’t really question anything). Knowing the basics / numbers / foods is a good start, and it also carried over relatively well to Spanish.
UPDATE (so I can delete the notes off my phone) – Other Places to Visit:
The following places were recommended to use by other people while we were travelling around. Haven’t checked any of them out.
- Rio Grande
- Fernando de Noronha
- Ilha Grande
- Tierra del Fuego
- Iguassu Falls (Argentinian Side)
- Baja California Peninsula
- Little Corn Island
- Cerro Negro Volcano (Sandboarding)
- El Eje Cafetero
- Panama to Cartagena (La Quiba – Sailing)
- Taganga – Lost City Trek & Calipso Diving Safari
- Mabelo (Boat from Bonaventura)