The Race Across the World contestants’ guide to visiting Latin America

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Week after week we’ve watched the Race Across the World competitors endure the less glamorous side of travelling: endless coach journeys, sleeping in bus stations and working hard for very little money (cleaning toilets on a moving coach was a low point). But it’s not just been an exhausting slog to get to the finish line and the GBP20,000 prize money. Each Sunday, we’ve been transported to exciting mega cities like Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires, have vicariously hiked multicoloured mountains  in Peru and surfed beautiful breaks in Brazil.

We’ve seen the – at times, quite hapless – travellers experience the highs and lows of backpacking through Latin America, from Mexico’s capital to ‘The end of the World’ and the Argentine town of Ushuaia at the most southerly point of South America. So, after two months and 13 countries, which places left their mark on the contestants and where are they in a rush to get back to?

Jo and Sam (BBC/Studio Lambert)

Jo and Sam

Which was your favourite country?  For people looking for a more back-to-basics adventure then central America is far more raw but very real.

Costa Rica is amazing with its biodiversity and beauty. Peru and Bolivia were still very authentic with locals dressing in their traditional clothes. Argentina and Brazil were more westernised but equally beautiful with stunning scenery.

We would like to go back to any of them, but Mexico and Belize will probably be our first visit. Coolest city?  Sao Paolo was amazing; on Sundays they close all the main shopping streets and have an enormous street party.

Most beautiful place? The Salt Flats were so stunning and otherworldly. It really took your breath away.

Your Latin America must-do? Surfing in Brazil has got to be tops, the beach was stunning, the people so friendly and the sea just brings such peace. Which country are you in a rush to visit again?

I think in order Mexico, Belize (we didn’t get there) Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina and Brazil – so pretty much everywhere! Top tips for people planning on travelling to Latin America: Learn some Spanish, take a guidebook, ask people questions, stay in hostels to meet other travellers and be prepared for long bus journeys!

Emon and Jamiul (BBC/Studio Lambert)

Emon and Jamiul

Which was your favourite country?

Emon: Peru was an amazing country, we had an amazing experience climbing the rainbow mountain which cost us time in the race but was an experience I’ll cherish! The people were incredibly friendly. Jamiul: If I had to pick one it would be Peru because of the hospitality we were shown, the people were amazing.

Coolest city?  Emon: Sao Paulo was by far the coolest city, it was really laid back and retro, almost like going back a decade in time. I would love to visit again and spend more time there.

It’s impossible to get bored in Sao Paulo. Jamiul: Sao Paulo is a very cool city with lots going on. Street art and lots of culture, it genuinely caters for all.

Most beautiful place? Jamiul: Placencia in Belize was beautiful because of the scenery, it looked like a paradise island. The atmosphere was calm and relaxing.

Tatacoa Desert was out of this world and not something I expected to see in Colombia! Your Latin America must-do? Emon: Try the local buses.

We met some real characters and made some good friends. These bus rides are mainly used by local people and businesses, it gives you an understanding into their own cultures and way of life. The bus seats are really small and the buses and always overcrowded, I just loved the hustle and bustle of it all.

Jamiul: Take local buses, sometimes they can be strenuous and crazy but they allow you to experience so much and see so much culture as you pass through. Which country are you in a rush to visit again? Emon: I would like to return to Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro was always on my bucket list but unfortunately we didn’t go through it. Also the Amazon rainforest is another area I would love to visit. Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, and I’d like to explore it all.

Best meal?  Emon: The best meal was the ceviche dish we made in Peru. It was prepared in the traditional Peruvian way with spices and techniques passed on through generations.

The flavours were incredible. Jamiul: This is a hard one because we ate such good food in all the countries. But I’m going to have to say in Peru when we caught fish, prepared it and ate it together.

It was a wonderful thing to be a part of and something I’ll never forget. Top tip for people planning on travelling Latin America: Emon: Learn Spanish.

I felt completely out of my comfort zone not knowing the language and expecting people to understand English.

Dom and Lizzie (BBC/Studio Lambert)

Dom and Lizzie

Which was your favourite country?  Guatemala has to be one of our favourites. We certainly didn’t expect it to be, as sometimes it carries a bad reputation for being ‘dangerous’, but as soon as we crossed into Guatemala, we loved it.

We hardly saw any other backpackers while we were there, it felt off the beaten track and like real travelling. Guatemala is incredibly beautiful. We’ll never forget Lago de Atitlan, a lake surrounded by three volcanoes – it was breathtaking.

Above all else, the Guatemalan people are what made the country. They’re so friendly, so willing to help and really proud of their heritage. We would return in a heartbeat.

Coolest city?  It isn’t a city, but the town of Guatape in Colombia was so cool. The buildings were multi-coloured, the streets were bustling, and you could constantly hear music.

The vibe within the town was buzzing, with plenty of bars and food stalls. On the outskirts was a collection of bright blue reservoirs for water sports and a giant rock jutting out the landscape called Piedra del Penol. Cusco in Peru is also incredible and you can reach some of Peru’s most well-known sites from here, such as Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain.

It was the capital of the Incan Empire, so has beautiful architecture and has Incan temple ruins only a 30-minute walk out of the centre. It is also a tourist hub, so has plenty of hostels and buzzing nightlife. Most beautiful place?

Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca, Mexico, has to be the most beautiful place we visited. We drove an hour into the mountains in the back of a truck to get there and as soon as we saw it, we were astounded by how beautiful it was. Hierve el Agua is several natural pools that sit on a rock face, looking over an untouched valley that seems to go on for miles.

You feel like you are in an infinity pool on top of the world. It was incredible. Your Latin America must-do?

Visit the Atacama Desert in Chile. San Pedro de Atacama is a town which hosts so many activities such as star gazing, sand boarding and day trips. We visited Laguna de Cejas, stunning bright turquoise salt pools in the middle of the driest desert on earth.

It’s so salty you can literally lie on the surface, it is also freezing, which is a perfect way to cool down in the hot desert! Which country are you in a rush to visit again? We would do it all of it again if we could, but if we had to pick, we would return to Central America.

We travelled through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama in two weeks. We saw how beautiful these countries were from the bus windows, but never really got the chance to explore. They have beautiful beaches, volcanoes, rainforests and wildlife that we didn’t even scratch the surface of.

They are also less well travelled, making it even more exciting. Best meal? We stayed with indigenous Bribri people in their homestead in Costa Rica and they cooked us a huge dinner with the most incredible Caribbean chicken, fresh vegetables and Yuca root.

It was delicious, and all the food came from their own land. Top tip for people planning on travelling Latin America: Don’t plan too much beforehand.

It’s good to have an idea of specific places and tourist attractions you really want to visit but when you arrive you never know who you might meet, where you might end up and how long for. Don’t book things (such as bus tours) in advance, usually when you actually arrive in the country you will find cheaper and more authentic options.

Jen and Rob (BBC/Studio Lambert)

Jen and Rob

Which was your favourite country?  Jen: Impossible to answer, oh my goodness.

Belize 100%! I loved Belize because of the beaches, the jungle, the rum, and the fact they speak English helped! It is like a paradise island.

I loved Costa Rica and the cloud forest, which is breathtakingly beautiful and the fact they are so environmentally friendly and so proud of their country. Rob: It would be Belize for the beautiful beaches and the pace of life; Argentina for the friendliness of the people and the jaw dropping landscapes; Costa Rica for the wildlife; and Colombia for the street art and quirkiness of its people. Coolest city? 

Jen: We didn’t really spend a lot of time in these places, but I took a liking to both Panama City and Buenos Aires. Panama City because I love an old town and an epic viewpoint and Buenos Aires because it just felt cool. Buenos Aires had a cafe culture, it was all outdoor coffee and vast parks with events taking place, music, dancing.

I just got a warm feeling and really felt like I could holiday there, it was just me. Rob: Known locally as the town where the sun always shines, Cafeyate is the perfect place to mix leisure and pleasure. Set in a valley surrounded by red rock formations and canyons; you can be exploring the alien landscape on horse back one moment and then be drinking some of the world’s finest wines in the middle of a vineyard with the most impressive views of the snow capped Andes in the next.

Most beautiful place? Jen: The Iguazu Falls, no question. What an experience.

The power of the falls, the splashing in your face, it was such an immersive experience. Make sure you go to the Devil’s Throat at the very centre where the falls all meet. Just at the point we looked over one of the falls, the light made a rainbow, I could have cried!

Just one of the best things I have ever seen. Rob: I also loved the idyllic beauty of Panama’s tiny tropical San Blas islands which we got to sail through and stay on. A memory I’ll never forget.

Your Latin America must-do? Jen: Stay at a home stay. Immerse yourself in the local culture, it is the best way to see a place.

Get off the beaten track, cook with local produce, try the local dishes, learn the history of a place with the people who made it. Staying with families was such a special thing for us to do. Their kindness, their stories, all made the trip so much better, more meaningful, heart-warming.

Rob: Try a Mate drink. You can’t say you’ve been to South America until you’ve had a sip of Mate. Which country are you in a rush to visit again?

Jen: I would love to spend some more time in Buenos Aires. It felt cool, the weather is good, you can hire a bike and cycle vast parks, stopping to listen to a band or take part in a tango class. You can sit and watch the world go by at a little cafe.

It has a great mix of being traditional and modern. It intrigued me; I instantly liked the feel of the city. Rob: I’d have to say Brazil but not on a budget!

It would be epic to party in Rio and head into the Amazon and see the rainforest way of life. Best meal? Jen: We worked for and stayed with a family in Patagonia.

They rewarded us with the world’s most epic BBQ. All the meat had been reared and slaughtered by the family. We sat in the bright sunshine looking at the pine forest and snow-capped mountains, ate meat and drank local beer.

Is that not just the best day of anyone’s life? Rob: It would have to be barbecue meat in Uruguay. Steak is a classic dish in South America but at the meat markets of Montevideo they take it to another level.

Top tip for people planning on travelling Latin America:  Jen: Take your time and be flexible, don’t make too many plans. Allow time to really see the places, get off the beaten track, stay with families and do things that take you out of your comfort zone –  go horse trekking in the desert with a guide who speaks no English, taste wine from the local vineyard whilst helping yourself to guinea pig!

Live the country, don’t be a tourist.

Rob: Learn how to take landscape pictures, the views are just incredible, and you’ll want good photos to remember those views by.

The special reunion episode, Race Across the World: Revealed airs Sunday 3rd May, 8pm on BBC Two and catch up on the series on iPlayer now.

More about: | Race Across The World | Central & South America

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