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24 replies
Newbie to Latin America
auher
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Wow, where to start. I know that I hate when people post very generic Europe questions on FP, so I’ll try to make this as specific as I can, but my knowledge is limited Smile

I’d like to make two Latin American trips this year, and here is my plan. Basically my wife & I usually take 1-2 Euro trips in a year, and in the interest of doing something different, and because I have a recently burgeoning interest in Latin America, here’s what I thought….

Sometime in Jan-Mar, going to Central America. Prob. Costa Rica, based on what I have read, as it might be a nice and easy introduction to the culture. Also, I like the idea of the Cloud Forests, the beautiful beaches, and this would fulfill the one "relaxed beach type trip" a year that my wife seems to love Smile But I could be easily convinced into other nearby countries, that’s why I’m posting here, what do you all think? Basically for this trip, I’m looking for nice beaches, cool "jungle" type experiences, and an interesting cultural experiece. Overall though, we’d like this trip to be more layed back, less backpacky and more relaxed.

Now in fall (August-November) we’d like to go to South America. Based on what I’ve read, I’m thinking Argentina, Chile &/or Bolivia. Argentina is prob. the one definite in the equation since my wife has family there, so it would be interesting from that perspective. But we’d like to do Argentina PLUS something… That’s where Chile and Bolivia come in. What I’ve read about Sucre, and Bolivia in general really fascinates me. So I think maybe that would be an interesting place to see. I also have an interest in Santiago/Valparaiso, and maybe other places in Chile. For this trip, the tone would be more backpacker like, and we’d be less concerned with relaxing, and more with seeing amazing things we haven’t seen before Smile

Any thoughts on what the best trips would be for a Latin newbie, given this info.

-A

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I just went to Costa Rica for two weeks in March. I’ve posted a detailed trip journal and travelogue at http://www.geocities.com/segacs2/costarica/ if you’re interested.

MeredithBlueEyes
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Bolivia and Valparaiso were my two favorite places in SA. I know you mentioned to read my blog from that trip, so I’m assuming you’ll at least recognize some place names. A few random things to consider:

(1) Chile charges a $100 entry fee for all Americans entering the country by air. It’s a one-time fee, and a receipt is stapled into your passport so that you don’t have to pay it again. Still, you may wish to consider flying into La Paz or perhaps Lima (which is kinda in between) to avoid paying it.

(2) Chile and Bolivia may be a tough combination, at least from a geographical perspective. There are two land border crossings, both in the far north. I highly, highly recommend the one via the Salar de Uyuni but keep in mind it’s a loooooong bus trip from Santiago/Valparaiso to there. You can visit a couple places a long the way, like La Serena and Antofagasta, to break up the trip but it will take some time to cover all that ground. Maybe the best thing would be to get open jaw tickets into La Paz and out of Santiago? La Paz-Sucre-Potosi-Uyuni-San Pedro-Chile is a neat overland route.

(3) Quality of the trips through Salar de Uyuni varies pretty highly. When I went 2 years ago, Colque Tours was the best company in the business. Conditions were definitely rustic, but they were upfront about what it would be like and delivered on everything they promised. The tour groups were smaller and the vehicles were newer and better maintained than what I saw from other companies. Absolutely get current word-of-mouth recommendations and don’t book anything from La Paz — the price will be inflated.

(4) As far as traveling conditions go, Bolivia is definitely the poorer of the two countries. Road conditions into remoter parts of the country, like Uyuni, can get a little scary. Take the day bus. It’s way safer and the scenery is amazing I was so glad that I saw Bolivia by bus. It was an absolutely fascinating window into the rural parts of the country. Whenever you arrive in a city, I recommend scanning the parking lot of the bus station for the nicest-looking buses. Remember those company names when you want to leave rather than getting hustled onto a bus by the nearest tout. Some of the buses there are really nice and some of them are not.

(5) Safety-wise Bolivia is really not a problem. The vibe there is very mellow and peaceful and I don’t think you need to worry about physical violence at all. I wasn’t paranoid about theft, but it’s a poor country and you need to keep your eyes open. Whenever you arrive at the bus station, don’t accept rides from the taxi drivers who circle around the bus — some of them are thieves. There’s always a taxi stand in front of the bus station. Also be aware that there are no plainclothes passport inspectors in Bolivia. If someone produces a police badge and asks to see your passport, they’re trying to steal it. Tell them no and walk away. And if/when you do take the nightbus, sleep with your arms around your daypack and be certain that the strap of your money belt doesnt hang out of your pants when you curl up. I know somebody who lost their moneybelt that way.

(6) Chile is a developed country that reminded me a bit of Eastern Europe — they have all the modern infrastructure you’d expect to find in the USA, but it’s obvious they’re still recovering from difficult political and economic times. There really are no safety issues to speak of there.

(7) Learn some Spanish before you go. I literally did not encounter a single English speaker in either Chile or Bolivia. People can and do survive on the contents of their phrasebooks, but I had a better time, and got better, cheaper services because I could handle the language.

(8) Valparaiso is a really vibrant, interesting city completely different from any I’ve ever visited. I highly recommend it. Beyond that, Chile is not the most interesting country I’ve visited although it is certainly the most beautiful. Watching the scenery change from green meadows to mountains to desert is incredible, but the country is not overflowing with personality. If it comes time to make choices about your itinerary, I’d choose to focus the bulk of your time in Bolivia and get just a little taste of Chile.

(9) I can’t really comment on Argentina since I only saw a couple places there, but I wish I could have seen more. It seemed to have a little more atmosphere than Chile and equally spectacular scenery, although the size of the country made it difficult to take very much in.

(10) I wrote about traveling through SA on the bus in my current travelogue here:
http://www.livejourn…

Hope that helps! Feel free to ask any more questions.

auher
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That’s awesome Meredith, I’m going to have to take a look at your other journal that you posted a link to here (maybe during a slow day today at work? Wink and come up with even more questions Smile

I already took a look at Segacs last night for Costa Rica, and it looks AMAZING. The whole Zip Line thing seems so awesome to me, what a blast that must be. I think for the 1st 2006 trip, I’m really leaning towards CR.

I’m having the hardest time now I think coming up with ideas of distance. Like for example, with that Bolivia-Chile route you came up with, how much time do you think that would take, giving each place a reasonable, but yet short enough (i do work now unfortunatly, no longer a student) amount of time?

I think I’m going to try to go Argentina & Bolivia. Obviously, I’d love to do all three, but unless I can get some sort of "AirPass," of which I think there might be one…I think I’ve read of a "MercoSur" Airpass, I’d have to investigate as to the cost. But that said, I’m sure I’ll still have to fly from Argentina to Bolivia, as the distances are just so massive. Maybe I can figure out flying into Buenos Aires and out of La Paz or Sucre or something……. I’ll have to see.

Very true on the Spanish. I speak a small amount of Croatian/Serbian/Slovenene (bizarre mix) as well as Czech and I know that it helps me IMMESNLY when I travel in E. Europe. I really have no "real" spanish knowledge, but my wife has a little bit, and she promises to "brush up" before we go. I think that is key, because otherwise you are absolutely right, you have a totally different experience than you would otherwise have.

Lastly, and this is prob. a stupid question….what is the "Salt Flat" area in Bolivia called? I know I’ve read about it somewhere & that it is on a border, but I cant’ remember much else. Did you visit that region? Was it worth visiting, as it seemed interesting to me!

Thanks again for all your help……. If you ever want to go to the Balkans….I’m glad to help out!

-A
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Just to warn you, when flying into the Santiago airport there is an entry fee charged to all citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia and Mexico. It adds up quick and if you are not ready, there goes a lot of spending money.
This fee is only charged when travelling through Santiago airport (not at any other point). The amount charged corresponds to the amount Chileans are charged when travelling to the respective country:

Fees
US citizens USD $100.00
Canadians USD $55.00
Australians USD $34.00
Mexicans USD $15.00

So even before going through customs or immigration you are wisked into this line and shell out $100 (US citizen). There were LOTS of people on my flight that did not know about this and were scrambling to get $100 a person together. They do take credit cards now (They didn’t when I was there in 2000). Once you have paid your fee, you will not have to pay it again as long as your passport is valid. And since the fees keep going up (it was $55 in 2000) keep the little card in your passport!

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Auher, if you have more questions about Costa Rica, feel free to let me know. Also, you might want to check out the Central America forum at Thorntree (the Lonely Planet forum – http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com) because there are lots of people there who can give you good advice.

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The Salt Flats are called the Salar de Uyuni — I mentioned them a couple times in my first post and conveniently forgot to explain what they were. They’re in the far southwestern corner of Bolivia and are an amazing way to cross the Bolivia-Chile border. The trip takes 3 days and carries you past multi-colored lakes and mountains, weird desert rock formations and a "graveyard" of rusted-out trains. Conditions are pretty rough (we slept in a tin-roof shack in -20 C temperatures) but it was absolutely one of the highlights of my trip. If you don’t want to cross the border, you can add an extra day onto your trip and be returned to your point of origin. Uyuni, the tiny town where the trip starts, is about 8 hours from Potosi and theoretically 14 from Sucre, but my bus ride took 18-20.

It’s hard to say exactly how much time you’d need. Night buses are not always available or safe, so you should usually budget a day for intercity travel. Assuming you wanted 3 days in each city I mentioned, plus time to arrange your tour through the Salar, I’d say that route would prolly take 21-30 days. Arranging a 2-week tour through an area as wide as you mentioned (either Chile-Bolivia or Bolivia-Argentina) would be tough without lots of flights. Both Kahunna and Homeskillet made cool shorter trips between Bolivia and Peru. It might be worth it to dig up their posts if you’re working with limited vacation time. If you’ve gotta choose, I’d definitely try to include Bolivia in your trip. Although I didn’t spend a lot of time in Argentina, I’m not sure it’s the place to show you stuff that you’ve never seen before. It did have incredible scenery and a nice atmosphere, but it’s nothing like the cultural differences you’d experience in Bolivia.

auher
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Meredith,

Thanks again for all that info. Unfortunatly, these days I am working with "limited vacation time" although it would be wonderful to not be, like the old days Smile

Prob. for this trip I’d have 10 days to 15 days Frown I know, it’s certainly not enough to see everything that I want, so I have to be reasonable and split it into multiple trips, if I like it, so that I can come back.

You’ve pretty much sold me on Bolivia. From reading your trip report, Kolby’s and some others, it just sounds like an amazing experience. Something about Peru really puts me off, which I’m sure it shouldn’t but it just seems dangerous, or I don’t know, "too challenging" for the first time Latin traveller! That’s not a normal comment for me, I’m quite adventuriious usually, so I’m not sure why I’m getting that feel for it. Oh well… I usually go on gut instinct.

So I’m thinking definitly Bolivia and prob. tacking on Argentina or Chile (with flights) like I mentioned. It’s prob. going to be Arg., since my wife has heritage from there, it would be neat to see from that perspective. I do realize that what you said is likely VERY true, it won’t be much a culture shock or differnece though, but maybe that would be a good combination.

The Salt Flats sound amazing. I definitly want to check them out. Maybe we’ll have to do it as a trip from Bolivia, not a full border crossing based on the time involved, but I guess it all depends on how it shakes out when I start planning.

So from what I’ve seen, I want to see Sucre for sure, as well as La Paz?? in Bolivia, and the Salt Flats. Anything else that I am missing that you think I REALLY should see (given my short amount of time)?? I’d prob. try to fly into Buenos Aires, get a cheap flight to La Paz or Sucre and fly home from Bolivia, that’s the only way to make it work I think.

Thanks again for all this help……… I owe you if/when you make a trip to the Balkans and I can be of real assistance! And I’ll prob. hit up Kolby with an email too soon, I was forgetting that he made a trip to Bolivia as part of his Machu Piccu pilgrimage.

-A

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Auher, my Peru/Bolivia trip doesn’t actually become a reality until this September (I leave August 30th for two weeks). The Bolivia portion of the trip will be limited to just Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I really wanted to see La Paz (the world’s highest capital!) and the Salar de Uyuni, but, as Meredith inferred in her post, that would have added a whole ‘nother week to the trip, and Machu Picchu was more of a priority for me.

To make your options even more overwhelming, I’m gonna recommend Guatemala as an alternative to Costa Rica. I took an amazing 10-day trip there this past April, and it was possibly the best vacation I’ve ever had (although I say that about almost every trip). The countryside is beautiful…I’m sure not even close to Costa Rica’s, but Guatemala does have accessible volcanoes, beaches, and tropical jungle. When you also factor in the wonderful colonial Mayan towns (such as Antigua), shimmering Lake Atitlan, and the stunning ruins of Tikal, I’ll wager that it actually surpasses Costa Rica. And as long as you don’t go there during Semana Santa, it’s also cheap!

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Hah, you are right HomeSkillet, now you have further complicated the one trip for 2006 that I thought I was already sure about Smile

But that’s a good thing, I wouldn’t have posted on here if that weren’t the case.

I have read alot about Guatemala being dangerous, did you feel that to be the case. In specific, on LP’s TT I’ve read some stuff about people being robbed by machete wielding lunatics. Unfortunatly that was a direct quote. One allegidly had a machete tossed at him, severing his arm. I only wish I were joking. So, I’m a little apprenhensive from that, maybe I shouldn’t be though, as of course there is crime everywhere, and maybe these are just isolated occurances.

But it does sound amazing, and the diversity of the country would be a real attraction to me!

Thoughts..

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I have read many of those same stories about safety in Guatemala, and am happy to report that nothing happened to me. In fact, I felt quite safe. Antigua, Chichicastenango, and Panajachel (the main town on Lake Atitlan) all have a strong police presence. If you travel from town to town by mini-shuttle, some services even include a police escort (on the more popular routes, such as Panajachel to Antigua). I’d be careful on the volcanoes, although Volcan Pacaya (90 minutes outside of Antigua) is very popular with the tourists and you’ll never be alone up there, especially if you take one of the tours that depart at either 6 am or 1 pm.

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I am planning on taking a GAP Adventures tour in Central America this July. The tour (Mayan Sun) goes through Guatemala to Southern Mexico (Yucatan). Has anyone taken this trip? How was it? How is GAP Adventures in general?

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quote:

I have read alot about Guatemala being dangerous, did you feel that to be the case.

The worst thing that happened to me was getting the trots. We all did.

I traveled there with the kid’s soccer team for about 12 days a few years ago and nothing happened to us. At Lake Atitlan, I really did feel miles away from civilization as I know it, which I enjoyed very much.
I did mildly freak out when our bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, but some nice people helped us and we were back on our way in a couple hours. I did witness 2 or 3 petty street crimes in Guatemala City.
Left the team to take a sidetrip to Tikal with another woman and everything was fine.

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I went on a GAP tour to Costa Rica and I highly recommend them. A friend of mine did a tour with them through Mexico and Guatamala and enjoyed it. Everyone seems to say the Costa Rica tours are the best, but again that’s all personal opinion.

Anyway, I found they were very organized, great at getting you ‘off the beaten path’, and the small group travel is definately the way to go – especially since they use local transport and not an insulated bus like some tours. I’m a fan of tour travel, though; it’s not for everyone. If you’re too independent-minded for a tour, you may prefer to go alone.

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Thanks segacs. What was the average age of the people you travelled with with GAP Adventures? Was it mostly a party or laid-back atmosphere?

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Age range on GAP is very wide. Our group had 20-somethings all the way to retired couples. Not very party at all. Certainly nothing like Contiki, who I went to Europe with. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in the culture, the nature and wildlife, and the adventures. Diverse group from all over the world. Also, the groups are small – usually 12 max. Highly recommended.

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Another question for you segacs, where did you buy airfare to Central America? I also live in Canada and the cheapest flight I can find on the web is around CDN$1000. Is it cheaper if I buy my plane ticket in a travel agency or on the web?

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Depends what time of year and where you’re flying from, I guess. I paid about $600 tax included to San Jose from Montreal in March on American Airlines, purchased through Travel Cuts. There’s no magic formula, just check as many sources as you can.

Why don’t you try the cheap flights forum for some help. Let them know your dates, cities, and where you’ve already checked and found prices, and someone might be able to help you out.

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I hate to put a damper of any sort on your Bolivia plans, but I would avoid it right now.

June 07, 2005

This Travel Warning is being issued to warn American citizens of continued political unrest in Bolivia. The Department of State has authorized the departure of non-emergency U.S. Embassy personnel and all eligible family members of U.S. Embassy personnel and urges all U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Bolivia. This Travel Warning supersedes the Public Announcement issued June 1, 2005.

Since May 16, various groups within Bolivia have conducted protests, demonstrations and blockades to protest the Bolivian government’s hydrocarbons (gas) policy and demand a variety of political reforms as well as the resignation of the President and the dismissal of Congress. The focus of the protests is the capital city of La Paz and the surrounding Altiplano. The La Paz airport remains open, but some flights have been cancelled and others diverted. Travel from the airport to La Paz is subject to sporadic blockades. Roads running north and south from La Paz, to Lake Titicaca and Oruro, are blockaded and closed to travel.

The Department of State has authorized the departure from Boliva of non-emergency employees and eligible American family members of embassy personnel. American citizens should defer non-essential travel to Bolivia. U.S. citizens currently in Bolivia should remain vigilant, monitor local media, review their security posture on a regular basis, and consider departing. Travelers in vehicles should not attempt to pass through or around roadblocks, even if they appear unattended. U.S. citizens who encounter a demonstration should try to depart the area as quickly as possible.

U.S. citizens in Bolivia are urged to register and update their contact information at U.S. Embassy La Paz or through the Department of State’s travel registration website at https://travelregist…. In case of an emergency, please contact the Embassy at
011 (591-2) 216-8297 during business hours or 216-8000 after-hours; email consularlapaz@state.gov.

The Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy is located at 2780 Avenida Arce in La Paz. The Consular Agency in Santa Cruz is located at 146 Avenida Roque Aguilera (Tercer Anillo); telephone (591-3) 351-3477, 3479, or 3480. The Consular Agency in Cochabamba is located at Avenida Oquendo 654, Torres Sofer, Room 601; telephone (591-4) 411-6313. Current information on travel and security in Bolivia may be obtained from the Department of State by calling 1-888-407-4747 within the United States, or, from overseas, 1-202-501-4444. U.S. citizens should consult the Consular Information Sheet for Bolivia and the Worldwide Caution Public Announcement, available on the Department’s Internet site at http://travel.state…..

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Go to Salvador, Brazil. I stayed there for two weeks and fell in love. The culture is amazing and the people are so friendly….

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Two countries in Latin America with which to go

Brazil and Colombia

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Hi Auher,

I travelled 4 times to South America in the 90ies, about 3 months each time. Argentina was my absolute favourite country. It is also a good country to start with, because it´s easy to travel and at least some people speak a foreign language.

I´m interested how long you are planning to go, and where your relatives live. Distances are enormous in Argentina so time is a concern. I have spent 17 nights in buses there on my first trip!

If your wife has family there this is a big plus – when travelling in Europe you´ll always be a tourist. If you have the chance to stay in someone´s house in South America they´ll make you feel like one of theirs and it won´t be your only and last visit there, guaranteed!

If you want to avoid Bolivia due to security reasons (I have no idea what the situation is REALLY like) I reckon it´s an option to go to northern Chile and to Peru from there. There is absolutely no reason not to go to Peru, it´s a fantastic country and the Cusco region is a must-go.

Unlike in Europe, where most people visit the cities, I would stick to small towns (apart from the capitals) and the area around them. Antofagasta (Chile) was mentioned here – admittedly it´s one of the nicer places but in fact it looks pretty much the same like any other medium-sized city in latin America. There is a nice main square and the buildings around it are worth a look, but they get boring after an hour wandering around. The only exceptions I know are Valparaíso and Cusco. I had my most memorable times sitting in buses or trains, watching some stunning scenery, or hiking in national parks.

I found Patagonia the most fascinating region in South America, but when you go it´ll be winter there, it´s the only corner on the continent where winter actually occurs. (For Brazilians, anything else than "insanely hot" is "winter" Smile

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Hi! I just got back from 5 months traveling South America, and since I’m still there mentally, thought I could throw a bit of advice into the mix for ya!

First of all, if you’re looking to explore Argentina, and thinking about the Bolivia route, I would recommend also looking into the regions of northern Argetina as well. Salta and Jujuy, for example. The Northern region of Argentina has a very large indigenous population, and if you’re looking to get a taste of that Andean/ indigenous culture, you can definitely get a great share of that in those Northern regions. If you are wanting to do the Salar de Uyuni, and plan to go from Argentina, a possibilty is to therefore spend some time in Northern Arg, around the cities mentioned above, and then you can head into Tupiza, Bolivia (great stop if you’re into horseback riding – you can even ride the famous trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, haha!) And then from Tupiza you can actually organzie a trip through the salar as well, and then end up in Uyuni after the 4 days. From there you could either head off to Sucre, Potosi, etc., or, there’s also the very popular (and cold) overnight bus to La Paz. So, there’s a possible route option for you!

As for your worry about Peru…as I said, I just got back from 5 months in South America. I started out with this great North to South route in mind, with time to see and explore about 5 counties. BUT, I ended up spending almost my entire trip in Peru.
That country is amazing. So varying, in terms of landscape (mountains, jungle, desert, beach), people, customs, food, music – everything. I fell in love with Peru, and never ran into a single problem. I met some of the most amazing, wonderful, kind-hearted people ever, and spent the majority of my time living, staying, and traveling with Peruvians.
Mind you I am a female in her mid twenties and spent my five months in South America traveling solo.
(I do know Spanish pretty well, though.)

Lastly, you mentioned you had some bus routes and time questions. The end of my trip I ended up bussing 6 days and night straight from the jungle in Northern Peru to Buenos Aires. I went along the coast and down to Santiago, then over through Mendoza and to Buenos Aires. So if you have any questions about bus travel times or costs or anything pertaining to this route, I can be of help as well.

Hope this helps, and if you have any other questions, let me know! (talking about it keeps it alive in my head, so I’d be happy to share! Smile

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well, when you factor in these things:

1)my girlfriend and I speak intermediate spanish
2)we will have 45-60 days
3)we will have enough for 2-3 "tours", i.e Salt Flats and Macchu Picchu
4)price is a factor
5)what places have lots of English teaching and art museums?
6)On a route between Buenos Aires and Lima, where would you potentially stay for a month if you got a chance to work (not for money but for spanish classes) and my girlfriend could probably find a nonpaid internship at a museum?
7)If we cannot find an open jaw ticket, how much will a plane ticket from Lima to Buenos Aires be?
8)I enjoy photographing old buildings, interesting back streets and non-dangerous dilapidation, recommendations?
9)Caracas to Lima or BsAs to Lima?
10)I am thinking of buying the tickets at the end of this month. If looking at flights from Frankfurt (jul to sep 2006), what is a price for flights that I should just jump on and buy? Less than 800euro, but only if that includes open jaw or???
11)what websites are the best for Europe to SA flights?

MeredithBlueEyes
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(1) yay! that makes travel cheaper and more interesting.

(3) www.andeantravelweb…. is a great resource for Inca Trail companies. It is worth it to pay a little more — your food is better, your campsites closer to the trail, and you get the pleasure of not seeing your porters struggling under loads too large for a donkey.

(4) Ecuador and Chile are the most expensive places. Ecuador is not so bad except that there’s been lots of inflation since they switched to the dollar and most of the things I wanted to do (white water rafting, jungle tours, other things not safely attempted independently) were a little pricey. Chile is just better developed. $20/day was still enough to stay comfortable though.

(5) South America is not a huge destination for art museums. I did enjoy the random folk art museums I visited though. There is English teaching in Peru (I heard) and I met some travellers who’d gotten work at a university in Chile. Are you planning on settling down? www.eslcafe.com is a good source of info for these things.

(6) Not sure about the museum thing. Personally, I would have loved to stay in La Paz for a month. I think I rhaposidized about it in the "Unenthused about South America" post. My experience was that my Spanish (also intermediate pre-departure) got really good just by being there and reading Spanish novels. You won’t run into many English speakers.

7)When I was there, it was $300ish.

8)Non-dangerous dilapidation can be a bit difficult to find. I believe I posted about that in the "unenthused" post. If not, you can search for my "safety notes on Peru" post a couple years back. Bolivia definitely felt the safest to me. Chile might also be nice for that. A lot of the towns really look like they came from the Old West and I didn’t even hear second-hand stories about safety incidents there.