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3 months in SA

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Hi all! My husband and I are planning on traveling in South America for about 3 months, from mid February 2014 – mid May 2014. Our start and end dates are not flexible, as we have commitments at home. For that reason, we would like to have our itinerary planned before we depart (knowing that we may make minor adjustments along the way).

I apologize in advance for this very long post, but there are a ton of questions running through our heads for which we haven’t been able to find definitive answers. We truly appreciate any thoughts/tips/advice – even if it only addresses one of our questions!

As of now, we are planning on doing Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. We are open to possibly cutting out Colombia and adding northern Argentina instead. Thoughts?

A little more about us: We are young and love adventure – hiking, exploring new cultures, trying new foods. We are fine roughing it some of the time, but also like to go out at night occasionally and splurge on once in a lifetime experiences. Our Spanish is mostly limited to conversational – so we are thinking of taking a course in Colombia or Ecuador. Advice?

Our (very rough) itinerary thus far:

Colombia – 2 weeks (give or take)
We were thinking mostly the northern region, with stays in Bogota and Cartagena - any other recommendations? We have heard this is a good place to go scuba diving (something that we have both always wanted to do). Has anyone gone scuba diving in Colombia? We don’t know much about Colombia, so any must-see tips would be appreciated.

Ecuador – 3 – 4 weeks
We would like to spend a few days in Quito, some time in Banos, Cuenca, and maybe a beach town like Montanita. Also, during our time in Ecuador, we plan on WWOOF-ing for at least one week (maybe two). We are looking into several different farms, but if anyone has WWOOFed in Ecuador, we would love to hear your thoughts!

Peru – 4 weeks
Iquitos (Amazon) - Lima – Huacachina (sandboarding) – Cusco – Sacred Valley (We want to do the Inca Trek) – Arequipa - Lake Titcaca – possibly volunteering somewhere (any suggestions?)

Bolivia – 2 weeks (give or take)
La Paz and Salt Flats are the two things we must see. Anything else we shouldn’t miss within our time frame?

Our major questions:

1. Are there any recommended Spanish courses in Colombia or Ecuador? Is it a worthwhile experience?

2. We would like to volunteer if possible during our time in South America. We have heard about some organizations in Ecuador and Peru. Any others we should know about?

3. What is the safest way to cross the border between Colombia and Ecuador? We have done some reading and found that travel on the border can be dangerous. Are there any places to avoid?

4. Any tips on WWOOF-ing (particularly in Ecuador)?

5. Any tour companies you would recommend for doing the Inca trek?

6. What is the best place to go into the Amazon? (within the countries we are visiting). We have heard good things about Iquitos in Peru, but are open to other entry points.

7. Would you recommend spending time in Colombia or northern Argentina? (We will only have time for one)

8. Is there anything we should know about travel during this time of year (mid-February through mid-May)?

Thank you again for any tips or advice you may have!

Katie and Ben

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    Hi Katie and Ben

    A few initial thoughts in response

    1. We spent a month learning Spanish in Quito and found it to be invaluable on our travels around the continent. We visited 4 schools before making our decision. You definitely need some Spanish to make the most of a trip this length particularly if you want to explore some less visited places.

    2. Volunteering is not always what it seems some organisations are just thinly disguised travel agencies and do little for the communities they purport to help. Sorry to appear negative, but unless you have specialist skills such as medicine, teaching etc. it could do more harm than good and actually take employment away from a local. You will probably do more good supporting smaller local businesses, eating and shopping in markets rather than upscale places etc.

    3. We have crossed lots of borders in South America and only encountered a problem once ( Ecuador to Peru) that was a little used crossing and even then it was really only a taxi driver trying his luck. A little worrying at the time as it was late at night. Just keep your wits about you and cross in daylight hours and don't believe all you read in the guidebooks. There were a couple of kidnappings in the jungle area by Colombian guerrillas a couple of years ago but when we were in Ecuador it was considered ok to travel there. Check you embassy web page for current status or https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/ecuador

    4. Brendensadventures is about to do some WWOOFING, I think in Ecuador so check our one of his posts and ask the question as he has already done the research http://www.fodors.com/community/profile/brendensadventures/

    5. Can't help I am afraid but do book soon as permits go quickly

    6. We took our Amazon fix in Madidi NP in Bolivia partly because it was suggested here by glover but also because it was a lot cheaper than other countries in SA and was less visited. We had a terrific time with http://www.madidijungle.com

    7. We vacillated about going into Columbia and really regret not doing so. That said northern Argentina has spectacular scenery and is great for a self driving tour and to visit some nice vineyards.

    8. Might be a bit wet in the highlands of Peru around this time.

    Anything you shouldn't miss. We loved Chachapoyas and Trujillo in Peru, Vilicabamba in southern Ecuador but you can't cover everything I suppose.

    Have a look at our blog which covers most of the places you are considering with the exception of Columbia and has some more detail and a lot of photos

    http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog/candcthai/6/tpod.html

    It is nice not to plan too much and to leave some flexibility but we did waste time by not nailing down our outline itinerary more before we left so the more research you do before your departure the better. Just take what the guide books say with a large pinch of salt particularly LP.

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    crellston, thank you so much for your reply! We appreciate all the helpful information you provided. Your blog was fun to read! If you don't mind me asking, what school did you pick to take your Spanish lessons? Would you recommend booking ahead of time, or checking out several schools there as you did?

    Thank you again for the thorough response, advice, and links. We are getting excited!

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    You are very welcome ktz

    We used La Lengua in Quito and found them to be pretty good. I would strongly recommend meeting your teacher before committing as a lot depends on the individual. Also, set out EXACTLY what you want to achieve otherwise you are likely to get something rather unstructured. I insisted on a teacher that could speak English which was a bit of a rarity..

    Yes we did did do some exhaustive research in Quito. Most of the schools are in the centre and it was useful to spend a morning checking a few out.
    see my post on TA http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowTopic-g294308-i2254-k6545429-Spanish_Lessons_in_Quito_our_experience-Quito_Pichincha_Province.html

    We also used a place in cusco a few years ago called FairPlay where the teachers are all un married mothers who tend to be ostracised in Peru. That was more of an immersion experience and great fun as they took us all around Cusco to explore places we would not have otherwise found

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    Katie and Ben:
    We had wanted to do the Inca Trail, but could not commit early enough. (Permits go fast.) Commit early, as you don't want to be the last bookers, as usually your choice of campsites will be compromised, meaning your last day of hiking... the all important entry into Machu Picchu... will be long enough that you may arrive well after sunrise, and well after busloads of tourists have arrived.
    Instead, we did another trek, the Lares Trek, which takes a different route but still ends up at MP. On this trek, we saw NO other gringos the entire time (until the day before we got to MP.) It was amazing! The only people we saw were Quechua families, and we have a tour of their home and visited the kids at school. In retrospect, I am very glad we had to "settle" for the Lares Trek, as it suited us so much more.

    I would do Colombia, and save Argentina for a future visit (combined with Chile.)

    Not sure if it would appeal to you, but there is a great outfit now renting motorbikes in Ecuador. You can do their self-guided tour, which includes motos and accoms, and gives one a chance to travel around exploring the areas of interest in Ecuador. That said, bus travel in Ecuador is easy and inexpensive, and distances are slight.

    Sounds like you have a great trip ahead of you.

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    Sounds like agreat trip. I haven't had a look into the wwoofing Ecuador site until now. Not too much information on some of the farms unfortunately. Chiles wwoofing site is great and you can view the farms by location and see on the map.

    I have even going over and over the list in Argentina as I plan on wwoofing there soon. I have found a few farms I really like the look of. I paid my yearly subscription and have been filling out my application forms to send to the farms I like.

    I plan on spending time with a family that is non English speaking. I have been taking lessons during the year when my teacher and myself have had the same day off. It's been difficult but I have a basic understanding del standing and I do plan to do some study at schools when in SA. I will be reporting on my experiences as I go. Not sure if I will wwoofing in Ecuador but surely they will be similar

    I have been looking into volunteering also and have found it very difficult to find non profit organizations that you don't pay a lot of money to.

    I have been following the wachimak community in Ecuador for years before they had a website in english- with a friend I contacted Jacobo the representative of wachimak and he was very happy to have me come and visit. Well time slipped past and life just went been on and before I knew it 4 years have past. Finally I made the choice and bought my ticket, sold my things and off I go in 3 weeks. It's long been a long time and I look faward to contacting him again to say I will finally be coming to stay.

    check them out http://www.wachimak.com/

    good luck with your trip :)

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