So you’ve finally decided to take the plunge, quit your job, and see the world. Congratulations! That is the first step. I’m sure you have plenty of friends who have been away and have their favourite parts of the world that you simply must see. South America, South East Asia, New Zealand perhaps (clearly there’s more options than this, i’m just going to focus on the places I know about!) The problem is, how do you choose where to go? Do you decide to go everywhere on your wish list as its your only chance, your “once in a lifetime opportunity”? Or do you pick one continent to get lost in for months on end, learning the language, going native? Well, that’s your choice to make, I can only tell you my opinion based on the two travelling adventures that I’ve worked and saved hard to go on. You need to think about what you want to get out of the experience, and that will tell you how many places to go.
If you’re escaping the routine and regulation of working 9-5, craving something that will set you free, maybe you want to consider picking one place to get to know really well, where you don’t have to worry about timeframes, deadlines and the next place on the itinerary.
If you’ve never been abroad before or not been on a big trip, perhaps you want to see as much as possible, the wonders of the world and all the places you’ve read and dreamed about your whole life. If that’s you, doing a round the world trip might be a better option.
Having done both, I can safely say this is a crucial decision to make and one not many people think about when they start organising their trip. So have a think, take a read through my important things to consider so you can choose the right type of trip for you.
The culture of these three continents is obviously very different, and it’s good to consider what you’re interested in learning about, that’s assuming you’re coming away to learn about other cultures and not just get drunk all the time.
South America has the most diverse history to learn about, going right back to prehistoric times as this is a great place to see dinosaur skeletons, fossils and footprints. There are plenty of fascinating archaeological sites to visit where you can find pre-inca, Inca and Aztec ruins, and It has a huge indigenous population who still live in small villages in the mountains, popping with colour in their brightly coloured scarves and English bowler hats. Really. Fast forward in time and you have the Spanish to thank for the beautiful colonial buildings, churches and plazas to enjoy in almost every city. I think plazas are the thing I miss the most about South America, it’s the best place to go when you first get to a new town, to sit and watch the world go by. It really brings the community together and you really notice it when you go to Asia where there’s no equivalent.
Historically speaking, Asia is a great place to visit if you like temples. The have an abundance of them from the better known Angkor Wat in Cambodia, to lesser known but equally amazing sites like Sukothai in Thailand or Bagan in Myanmar. Aside from the big sites like these, every town has a temple, usually reached by climbing a massive hill best done in time to catch the sunset. Rural Asia allows you glimpses into village life that is very different from South America, but still fascinating. Riding through villages on motorbike in Thailand, or on the slow trains of Myanmar make you realise how differently people live here, life carries on as it has done for centuries.
New Zealand and Australia aren’t really places people visit for culture, but the do have it. New Zealand has a great relationship with the Maori culture, mutual respect and intrigue are the orders of the day and you can find plenty of Maori art or tours where you visit villages and Maori people. Australia doesn’t have such a great relationship with their indigenous population, there’s still some bitterness about all the child snatching apparently…
People don’t exactly rave about the food in most of South America, but it’s not bad in my book. In Colombia there’s plenty of room for improvement, their national dishes being a rather heart attack inducing hot dog or ‘patacon con todo’ which is basically a huge deep fried plantain covered in 6 types of fried meat and 3 sauces drizzled on top. Ecuador relies mainly on meat and beans, but further south in Peru, Chile and Argentina you’ve got some delicious dishes to be sampled. Everywhere on this continent you can get your hands on fresh fruit and yummy juices, but be warned a lot of people get sick here, myself included, and there’s not really any way to avoid it.
South east Asia is a foodies heaven, if you like spicy food that is. Curries, soups, noddles and rice are always on the menu in different variations depending on which country you’re in, and for me, it never gets boring. Malaysia and Thailand take the award for best food in my opinion, with Vietnam in second place. Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia are all good enough but nothing to write home about. You don’t find many of their restaurants overseas, let’s put it that way.
You can find some good western restaurants in both continents, but not enough to eat there every day of the week. Trust me when I say you’ll never have Asian food in your home country as good as here, so take advantage and get your fill!
New Zealand and Australia have great food from all over the world so you’ll want for nothing while you’re here. Asian food, steak, burgers, Italian, brunch, it’s all here and it’s all amazing!
South America is definitely for the more active individual, there’s so much to do you’ll be spoilt for choice. The Andes proved the best adventure playground in the world, starting in Colombia and Ecuador where the extreme sports are cheap and plentiful, moving through to Peru, Chile and Argentina where you’ll get fantastic trekking. Patagonia has to be the ultimate destination for trekkers, and while its deserving of this accolade, we actually did mind blowing treks in every country on this magnificent continent. We’re not really the trekking types but it’s the best way to enjoy the scenery here so get fit and get involved. Patagonia’s winning hand lies in being able to trek amongst, and sometimes on, the most phenomenal glaciers of the world, which is a truly special experience. There are some nice beaches on the Caribbean coast but the Pacific coast isn’t that great Im afraid, apart from the Galápagos Islands. Brazil is the place to go in South America if you want good beaches, I do wish I’d had time to visit here, but I was heading over to Asia shortly so I didn’t feel too bad!
Asia has plenty of opportunities for trekking too, but you’ll be sorely disappointed with it if you’ve ever been to South America or new Zealand. If you know how to seek them out, there are some wonderful treks to be done, they’re just not as plentiful as other continents. Indonesia has some great ones due to their volcanic activity, Mount Bromo in Java is a great night hike to do to watch the sun rising over volcanic craters. You also have opportunities in the mountainous regions of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and some lovely waterfalls to see too. Be prepared to sweat a lot though, the humid weather isn’t conducive to trekking for me! If you come to Asia, it’s for the beaches. They are truly the best in the world. Hundreds of islands to explore, snorkel and dive in, and beach life is truly addictive. If you want to relax, do yoga or meditate, this is the place to do it.
New Zealand has amazing trekking and adventure activities and definitely some of the best scenery in the world, it’s just a lot more expensive to do the activities. Although Queenstown is touted as the adventure capital of the world, you can do all of the activities offered here elsewhere in New Zealand for cheaper, namely Taupo and Wanaka. The north island is also host to some of the most wild and intriguing geothermal activity in the world, taking a walk through one of the parks in Rotorua leaves you feeling like you’ve just been on Mars. Thanks to this geothermal activity there’s also loads of thermal baths you can visit for a relaxing dip in the water after a long hike. You’ve also got some great coast land in New Zealand, some nice swimming beaches but also wild untamed beaches full of seals or crazy rock formations. You’ve also got the opportunity to go whale watching which I highly recommend, it is an absolutely breathtaking experience to watch the whales spout water and dive under with their mammoth tales.
This is definitely something worth considering, as the weather systems in tropical countries are much more extreme that in Europe. Asia between April and August is oppressively hot, so much so that they have a water fight festival in mid April when the temperature reaches 40 degrees. I say this whilst sitting on a bus heading south through Thailand, because it was too hot in the north for us to do anything. It’s the end of March and it’s already 40 degrees up there, compared with 30 degrees on the beach. It was an easy choice to make.
South America has intense weather to compete with too, worth considering if you visit Patagonia in the extreme south or Colombia up north. You can’t always plan your trip around the weather and it’s won’t necessarily ruin your trip if you’re not there at the right time, but if you can plan your trip around it, you’ll get more clear skies and less trekking in the rain, which can’t be a bad thing!
Loosely speaking, Asia is the cheapest continent, South America is mid-range and Europe, Australia and New Zealand are high end. Of course if you scrimp and save and are clever with your money, anywhere can be cheap. For example, taking a tent with you, hitch hiking and cooking your own meals will save you bucket loads on the three most expensive things, accommodation, transport and food. Again, think about the type of experience you want to have and what matters to you most. A comfortable bed, sampling the local cuisine, or saving money on these things so you can do loads of activities and tours. There’s no right or wrong answer.
For us, we quickly realised on the trip that we were terrible backpackers. You see, most backpackers save the pennies and the pounds by staying in dormitories, cooking most nights in the hostel or eating at the market, and if it’s a really expensive country like New Zealand, sleeping in tents and hitch hiking. We are not those kinds of travellers. I worked hard to come on this trip, I saved money for 4 years, and decided very early on that I did not work that hard to live like a poor person for a year.
In South America, my boyfriend and I stayed in private rooms with shared bathrooms, ate at restaurants and cheap markets every day, went on cheap tours or free hikes and took half bed instead of full bed buses. Living like this, we managed to stay in budget (£1000 per month or £30 per day each) everywhere apart from Chile and Argentina.
In New Zealand, we had to forget about the budget. We couldn’t hitch hike or stay in a tent, which would have saved us about $25 a day each, as we were with Mickaël’s brother and girlfriend, if you do this you will probably be able to stay in budget.
In Asia, we were very happy to be spending just half our daily budget without trying particularly hard. Lovely private rooms, cheap night markets for food and cheap transport made things very easy for us. The only exception to this is Myanmar which you can read about in my other post.
So there you have it, a summary of contrasts between the continents I have visited to help you plan your once in a life time trip. Do leave a comment with your route and questions I’d love to hear from you!