Gap year: discover the Latin spirit

From Machu Picchu to Montevideo, a host of wonders awaits in South America, says Sophie Morris



Who goes there?

Anyone looking for a little adventure who wants the opportunity to stray far from the beaten track. Ten years ago, well-organised gap years to Latin America were few and far between; now there is something to suit everyone. Spanish speakers will obviously benefit from their knowledge of the language, but beginners will pick up the basics easily.



What gap years can you do there?

Projects Abroad offers gap years ranging from volunteering as a teacher or care worker in Costa Rica, doing a medical, veterinary or journalism placement in Mexico, working in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil or saving the world on a conservation project in the Peruvian rainforest ( www.projects-abroad.org).

Real Gap has teaching programmes available from Honduras and Guatemala in Central America down to Chile and Argentina at the southernmost tip of the continent ( www.realgap.co.uk). Choose Frontier and you could be working with turtles or big cats in Costa Rica or spend 10 weeks travelling through Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua and Costa Rica on their Ethical Adventure Trail. They also offer opportunities in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and – for those after a lesstravelled path – Uruguay ( www.frontier.ac.uk). If you want to mix volunteering with a little guided adventure, Quest Overseas offer three month projects which combine learning Spanish with conservation work or volunteering with children, followed by a six week tourism and trekking package, which takes in Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and the Amazon jungle ( www.questoverseas.com).

What opportunities for further travel are there?

Many gappers choose to kick off with an organisation because they promise safety and guidance far from home. Most projects, however, only last a few months. Don’t waste the expensive flight ticket by going straight home; take a few months to visit the places you really want to. Bus travel – though many routes are long and arduous – is easy and cheap in Latin America. It is a big place and even domestic flights can be expensive, so limit yourself to a few countries and don’t plan too rigorously or you will no doubt be set back by transport delays, unexpected weather conditions or things simply not running according to the schedule you found online.

“Why do today what you could do ‘mañana’?” This is the rule of thumb across the region. Latin America has incredible scenery, mind blowing ancient ruins and an indefatigable party spirit throughout, though each country has a distinct identity.

Top tourist sites include the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, the Iguazu Falls, which straddle Brazil and Argentina, the Bolivian salt flats and the Galapagos Islands (though a visit here is expensive). Take time to consider your priorities: would you rather party in Rio, or lose yourself trekking in the Patagonia wilderness?

How much will it cost me?

Spending upwards of four months anywhere in Latin America is a very expensive commitment. You will be lucky to find a flight to anywhere for under £600, and to farther flung destinations such as Brazil and Argentina, £800 or £900 is more likely. However, planning long in advance means you can shop around. Add to that the fee if you choose to visit with a gap organisation, which will cost you upwards of £1,000 for each month you spend with them. Bear in mind that spending time in most large cities can be pricy, as can wild nights out. Adventure excursions are expensive, too, but it is worth paying for a reputable guide – ask to see any diving/climbing/ rafting or other necessary equipment before you hand over your money.

The cheapest countries are Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru and Central American destinations. In Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Venezuela travel is often much more expensive than in other countries, but it is not too tricky to sniff out budget food and accommodation. If you have very limited funds, there is nothing cheaper than whiling away your time on a remote beach – get some relaxation in, because once you arrive at university you will be too busy.

Are there any risks?

Of course: the usual rules about keeping your wits about you, especially in cities, apply. Keep your documents and money on you on long bus journeys, then if your bag goes missing from the hold you will be able to rescue the situation. More serious threats, such as violence in Colombia and hurricane risks across Central America should be checked out on the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website before departure ( www.fco.gov.uk).

What they say

Ed Long, 19, undertook a three-month adventure with Quest Overseas earlier this year. It cost him £4,680, including all food, accommodation and activities, but not flights. “After three weeks learning Spanish in Ecuador, we went to a shanty town just outside Lima for four weeks. We helped with the children to keep them active and on the straight and narrow. We went swimming with them – there would be between 50 and 100 kids in the pool at any one time – and played football with them. When they were at school, we did construction work around the sports complex. “Then we went off on a six week expedition from Lima, which included sandboarding, horse riding in Chile, trekking in national parks in Bolivia, ice climbing and mountain biking. “I would go back to Latin America straight away if I could. I only have good things to say about it and have persuaded a friend who has just finished his A-Levels to go there.

What we say

“From the lazy Rio Grande marking the northern border to the tempestuous latitudes of Tierra del Fuego, Latin America constitutes the greatest travel terrain on the planet. And the best news is: the turbulence of the past couple of centuries has subsided, making this the best of times to visit Mexico, Montevideo and all stations to Machu Picchu.” Simon Calder, senior travel editor, The Independent.

Should we be on the next flight out?

Yes

  • Culturally, Latin America shares much with Europe, so is a good entry point for the wider world
  • It is no more dangerous for women or solo travellers than anywhere in Europe
  • Spanish is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages – add it to your English and you will make yourself understood in many countries

No

  • Flying half way around the world contributes to climate change
  • Some areas are to be avoided, especially large parts of inland Colombia. Gappers are young but not invincible, and often a little naive
  • Be careful to ensure that your volunteer post is not depriving a local person of a job


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