Leftfield Latin America

The insider's guide to ten out-of-the-way wonders

Leftfield Latin America Colombia's Yipao (jeep) parade - © Proexport Colombia courtesy of Last Frontiers
By Chris Moss and Natalya Wells

Now’s the time to book your next Latin American jaunt. Why? Well, because the weather’s crap here (and it's meant to be summer). Also, because the victims of marketing and school holidays are over there right now. Thirdly, because from October the weather is good all the way from Mexico to Patagonia, you can get some fair deals before the Christmas madness and Argentines and Chileans take their long summer hols in January and February.

Because we know Time Out readers deserve more than the usual backpacker trails – you know the kind of thing we mean, Quito-Machu Picchu-La Paz-Atacama, Buenos Aires-Patagonia-Torres del Paine, and other assorted hubs full of gringos and cybercaffs – we’ve carefully selected a shortlist of relatively undiscovered regions. Most of these you can do independently, but we’ve added a couple of tour operators who are specialists in Latin America.

The Three Guianas

Why go? Be the cock of the world traveller community

Oft-ignored, not that easy to get to, amazingly verdant and culturally distinctive – Guyana was British, Surinam was Dutch and French Guiana remains French – these small, cornered nations attract only intrepid, curious travellers. Go in via Venezuela and you can see Angel Falls en route, and then make sure you stop off in Guyana’s Iwokrama reserve (home of the orange cock-of-the-rock bird), cities Georgetown (gorgeously dilapidated) and Paramaribo (slickly conserved), the infamous Iles du Salut (as in Devil’s Island) and – if you can – time your trip with a rocket launch at Kourou. Lots to brag about when you get home from this one.

Journey Latin America does a 20-day Trail-Blaze through Venezuela and the Guyanas tour, departing Oct 15 2011 and taking in all of the above (minus the rocket). It’s led by JLA founder Chris Parrott and is priced from £3,498, including flights from London.


Why go? For great salsa, coffee and beaches

Colombia is bucking the downward trend in South American tourism – bookings to the region have almost doubled since September. Now that the FCO has relaxed its advice around the San Agustin region, you can visit the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America, left behind by a North Andean culture dating from the first to eighth centuries. Combine this with a trip to Cali – once a narcopolis and now back to being just the world capital of salsa dancing – and to the Eje Cafetero, the coffee region declared a Unesco World Heritage Site last month.

If you make it there in October, go to Armenia for the yipao (slang for Jeep) parade – these military vehicles used to carry plantains but now move all sorts of junk, icons and chickens. Wrap up your mainland odyssey with a short flight to Providencia, a laid-back English-speaking island in the Caribbean that is free of all the Sandals-style clutter and yachting types you find in bigger islands. See www.fco.gov.uk for detailed advice.

STA’S 14-day Colombia Coffee Trails tour starts and ends in Bogota, visiting, along the way, Armenia, Salento (including a tour of a coffee farm), Santa Rosa, Medellin and Cartegena. From £1,309, including all accommodation and transport, selected meals and sightseeing tours. Price does not include international flights. Flights from Heathrow to Bogota from £589 return.

Central Patagonia

Why go? It's Chile’s El Dorado

The least-developed region in southern South America is the wind-blasted, rain-drenched, glacier-strewn, sheep-infested, impassable, craggy coast of Chile’s central Patagonian region. We wonder why. But, seriously, look on a political map to locate the skinny coastal stretch known as Aisén, because this is the place to go to if you want to trek, canoe, kayak, quad-bike, mountain bike and horse-ride without seeing other people.

The best hotel in the region is Hacienda Tres Lagos, located in regional capital Coyhaique. Because of its isolation this remote corner of Chile has never been linked to the rest of the country by mainland and, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was one of the regions associated with the mythic land of Trapalanda (a version of the El Dorado legend).

To access this region you fly to Balmaceda and then take a 50-minute drive along the Carretera Austral highway to Coyhaique.

Journey Latin America is currently working on a self-drive holiday to Aisén, and Last Frontiers can arrange trips to tie in with local festivals.

Mexico City

Why go? For an art explosion

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are old sombrero: the contemporary art scene in Mexico City has exploded in the last decade and draws international customers, particularly to the annual Zona Maco art fair. Although gallery spaces are spread widely throughout this vast city, the Polanco, Roma and Condesa neighbourhoods are the best for arty browsing. Here, works are mostly housed in beautiful colonial town houses such as at Galería OMR, La Refaccionaria Galería and Yautepec Gallery. Disused factories have also provided space for installations at KBK Arte Contemporáneo and the largest collection of contemporary art in Latin America at Fundación/Colección Jumex on the city’s outskirts. Get a taste of things to come at Soma, an artist-run school with free public programmes every Tuesday.

See Visit Mexico for general information.


Why go? Ceviche comes of age

Gaston Acurio, whose restaurant Astrid Y Gaston recently made it into the San Pellegrino ‘World’s 50 Best’ list, believes that food could be a catalyst for social change in Peru.

No one doubts that the country’s exciting cuisine has placed it firmly on the map – in November, Londoners will get their own Ceviche restaurant and Pisco bar, to be opened by Martin Allen Morales.

Mistura is the International Gastronomic Fair held in Lima every September, with an incredible selection of dishes from mountains, rainforest and coast. True to the cuisine’s fusion-based nature, new openings are often a result of chefs bringing back ideas from around the world. Lima’s first sourdough bakery, El Pan de la Chola, was started by young Peruvian Jonathan Day,who honed his skills in London and San Francisco.

See www.limawalks.blogspot.com to book a culinary tour.


Why go? For its lesser-spotted wildlife

Panama is not well known for its wildlife, but boasts more than ten national parks, with cloud forests and waterfalls aplenty. The Canopy Tower is renowned as one of the best eco-lodges in the world, sited at treetop level in the Soberanía National Park. And the huge undeveloped swampland and forest of the Darién Gap is now accessible, too. Birdwatching is the main draw – rare harpy eagles nest here.

Birding Panama organises tours to the Darién Lowlands, with accommodation in traditional huts in the mangroves.

Last Frontiers can offer a 17-day wildlife and birding tour of areas of Costa Rica and Panama and including trips to the Osa Peninsular, Panama Canal and a stay in a beach hideaway on the Pacific coast. A package including all flights, transfers and excursions, breakfasts throughout and full board in Osa starts at £3,994.

El Salvador

Why go? Small state, big balls

Located in what is known as the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, Central America’s smallest country is home to 21 volcanoes, which are very much part of the cultural psyche. The annual Bolas de Fuego (Balls of Fire, every August 31) festival in Nejapa is as terrifying as it sounds – kerosene-soaked rags tied into balls are lit and thrown around to commemorate the eruption of El Playón volcano in 1685. Go scuba diving in the lake of the Ilopango volcano with tours through Aquatica, or visit Joya de Cerén, the exceptionally well-preserved Mayan village buried when the Laguna Caldera volcano erupted in the seventh century.

Visit Latin American Travel Association for a list of specialist operators.

Inside knowledge

Writer Lucy Neville knows Mexico City better than most, and finds the tales of terror outdated.

Mexico City, known for its jaw-dropping crime statistics and innovative array of extortion and kidnapping techniques (express kidnapping, taxi kidnapping, virtual kidnapping etc), is now seen by Mexicans as the safest state in the country. ‘Mexico City residents are now in the habit of tying their heads to their shoulders whenever they leave the state,’ jokes a street comedian in a mossy plaza in Coyoacán. He is referring to the escalation of decapitations around the republic propelled by the ‘War on Drugs’.

The crowd bursts into laughter, demonstrating the macabre humour for which Mexicans are famous.

From the restful, cobblestoned streets of Coyoacán, one of the many picturesque southern suburbs, it’s hard to believe newspaper reports that rivers of blood are flowing in the badlands. In the shady central plaza, surrounded by crumbling Franciscan architecture and pink bougainvillea, families with well-fed children form circles around the street performers.

In the centre of the city, local billionaire Carlos Slim’s gentrification project has taken the edge off Centro Histórico, but not the madness. The noise is deafening. Trendy young musos, philosophers and artists have begun to take up residence here, feeding on the chaos that radiates from the Zócalo (the gigantic main square). With them has come a bustling outdoor café and experimental music scene.

The same volcanic stone that forms the Spanish colonial buildings surrounding the Zócalo once made up the structures of the thriving Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, parts of which have been unearthed. These layers of history and culture go beyond the physical structures.

As in any city with a big rich/poor divide, crime is a reality. But for most Mexicans, most of the time, life goes on as normal. Mexico City’s cultural diversity embodies the national love of noise, art, food, celebration and above all, being together.

‘Oh! Mexico: Love and Adventure in Mexico City’ by Lucy Neville is published by Nicholas Brealey at £9.99.

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Mexico City and the Best of Mexico

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The Mexico City and the Best of Mexico guidebook is available from the Time Out shop for a discounted rate.


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