Latin America is a region of the world that is just so flippin’ full of awesome that it is hard to capture all of it in any one anything, be it blog post, discussion or trip.
However, don’t let Latin America overwhelm you.
If you’ve never been to Latin America and you’re dying to go, first of all: good on ya. Clearly you’re an amazing person making stellar choices in life, and sure, I’ll go ahead and say it:
I’m proud of you.
Now that that’s behind us, let’s focus on getting you to Latin America. As previously mentioned, the region is gigantic. It is diverse. It’s just… a lot.
Where to go when you’re a first time traveler to Latin America?
I’ve chosen my top spots for first timers to my favorite part of the world, picked for their accessibility from the states, ease of “getting-around-edness,” vibrant culture, and overall awesomeness.
Pop down below and choose your next adventure!
Antigua is the history, coffee and cobblestone’d street lovah’s paradise. Pack your comfy cobblestone-friendly shoes, because you’re not getting off the stuff until you exit town to take a coffee plantation tour (but more on that in a second).
A compact little town with plenty of instagram-worthy shots of colonial-era buildings and looming evergreen mountains, Antigua seems almost a microcosm of Central America as a whole. (That’s why we’re starting here, see?)
You can start your trip with a walking tour of the town, taking in the emerald museum, which is also an insanely amazing hotel + wedding venue, and the crumbling cathedrals of Spaniards gone by.
Head out of town to take a coffee plantation tour by local nonprofit De La Gente, who focus on a microfinance type model for the coffee growers in the region. You’ll see flyers everywhere for the major coffee plantation tours, but skip those. De La Gente even provides the option to have lunch with a coffee grower and his family in their home. They are paid fairly for these services and it is a cool insight into life in Guatemala.
Though Antigua doesn’t have an airport, it is an easy 30-minute drive on a transfer bus from Guatemala City airport, which is a quick flight from many major hubs in the US! Win-win.
Mexico City, Mexico
Gone are the days when everyone believed that anywhere outside of Cancun is a no-go in Mexico. Even Tijuana is turning into a tourist destination these days!
Forget what you thought you knew about Mexico and book a flight to the capital posthaste.
I once wrote in a journal that flying into Mexico City was like “flying over a many-tentacled octopus.” Though my writing needed some work, the point holds that Mexico sprawls on for foreverrrrrrr. It could honestly be its own country, for Pete’s sake.
Don’t let its enormity dissuade you. You’ll be staying in one of only ten neighborhoods, and exploring maybe 5-6 more of those.
No matter where you stay, there are several things you should not miss when visiting el D.F. (pronounced el Day-Effeh in Spanish) and these are those things:
Frida Kahlo’s blue house in Coyoacán
Leon Trotsky’s house in Coyoacán, which has been left untouched since his assassination (and be sure to read up on his relationship to Frida before you go!)
Condesa: a neighborhood known for foodies and drinks and nightlife, oh my
The Anthropological Museum: This is the granddaddy of all museums. You must go, no questions asked.
Teotihuacan: These ruins are located about an hour’s drive outside the city. You can get an easy tour to take you out there, and they are worth a guided walk.
Walking around Mexico City is honestly like walking inside the pages of a storybook. Let yourself get swept away in all of it.
Quito + Otavalo + Mindo, Ecuador
The decision to include these three Ecua-cities stems from the fact that you are flying a bit longer to get to Ecuador (though still shorter than Europe from most US hubs!) and deserve to see a bit more. Plus, these three locations are just a short bus ride away from each other, so why not?
Fly into Quito, the country’s capital and Andes’-straddlin’ city. You’re surrounded by mountains on all sides, so keeping track of directions is not a difficult task. You’ll stay near the center of the city, most likely in an adorable neighborhood called La Mariscal. In it you’ll find lots of organic restaurants, lots of bars and lots of gringos. As this is not usually the point of traveling, off you’ll go to the historic district.
Most major cities in Latin America have such a district, with the aforementioned cobblestones, plazas and government buildings. You can spend a day or two here, eat some amazing ceviche and patacones, and then hop a bus to your second stop.
Otavalo is a quick two-hour bus ride north of Quito, and will take you to one of the largest outdoor markets you will have ever seen. I dare you (no, double dog dare you!) not to purchase everything in sight (or at least want to).
From colorful knit hammocks, to intricate handmade silver jewelry, to those swoon-worthy baby sweaters with alpacas all over them, Otavalo doesn’t disappoint. You can even pop up there for a day to Quito if that’s your jam, and return in the evening to more ceviche.
Mindo is also a quick jaunt from the capital, but takes you right into some glorious rainforest. Mindo is known for its bird-watching, but if you aren’t into that sort of thing don’t let it turn you away. Mindo is the calm and gorgeous green to Otavalo’s bright and vibrant market stalls, so you’re really getting the best of both worlds.
Mendoza + Bariloche, Argentina
Including both of these cities is a bit of a stretch for first timers to Latin America, only because of how long it takes to get there in the first place, and then how long it takes to get between the two.
They are included here because they are out-of-this-world amazing, and if you are already making the trek to Mendoza, you must not miss Bariloche. (Even though it means clocking some kilometers in the ol’ bus.)
Mendoza, as you may know, is the home of Malbec wine. Malbec, as you may not know, is a French grape that was brought to Argentina and kind of thrown away. Malbec, or “bad in the mouth” as the French so named it, turned out to thrive in Mendoza which proceeded as a city to completely turn itself upside down to grow the stuff.
And thank the wine gods for that!
Mendoza has wine, but it is also just a lovely place to go. Flanked by the Andes, you can roam vineyards or old plazas all the live-long day.
Bariloche is the closest your author has ever come to heaven on earth. Here’s me in Bariloche, flipping out at the sheer overwhelming beauty of it all:
It lies at the northern tip of Patagonia, which is enough to give you a taste of the good stuff and keep you coming back for more. It is also known far and wide for its chocolate, so you can spend an entire day roaming the chocolate shops of Bariloche, sampling to your heart’s content.
It is also a twenty-minute bus ride from some incredibly amazing hiking (see above picture) and biking. The ‘Circuito Chico’ is a 7-ish mile ride through the Andes taking you past the most famous hotel in Argentina, and amazing views at every turn.
Both cities give you a taste for Argentina, and for my money beat out Buenos Aires any day.
Still feeling overwhelmed? Yeah, we get that. If you're dying to go to Latin America but can't decide where to go or how to plan it, we can take care of the details for you, curating an amazing Surprise Travel Adventure just. for. you.