Latin America: 5 best self drives

Latin America: 5 best self drives

Joanna Booth recommends road trips in South and Central America

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5 of the best self-drives

When it comes to road trips, the United States of America is the undisputed king. But when it comes to its southern namesake, Latin America, travellers are far less confident about jumping in the car and exploring on their own.

That’s understandable. It is less familiar territory, and countries tend to be Spanish or Portuguese speaking, so communication can be less straightforward.

But this vast region is also home to some of the most spectacular drives on the planet, and if you help independent clients pick their routes sensibly, then they can enjoy the freedom of the open road without any problems.

Here are five sample routes to give you a flavour of where their wheels can take them.

1 – Patagonia

There are few landscapes more awe-inspiring than those of Patagonia. This region, covering the south of Chile and Argentina, is one of soaring mountains, ice-blue glaciers and clear lakes – but, happily, also well maintained highways.

Journey Latin America packages up a self-drive in northern and southern Patagonia with car-free time in Buenos Aires, one of the world’s most vibrant cities.

Internal flights are needed to combine these areas but, once in situ, clients will appreciate the freedom to pause for photographs that having their own car allows.

Highlights in northern Patagonia include the Road of the Seven Lakes to San Martin de los Andes, while in the south, Los Glaciares national park in Argentina and Torres del Paine in Chile are recommended.

These are beautiful areas, but remote. “Always fill up when in a city as petrol stations in some areas outside of the larger cities and towns can be few and far between,” says JLA senior travel consultant Ben Line.

This 20-day trip builds in plenty of “rest” days to appreciate each area, rather than rushing clients ever onward, giving them the opportunity to relax by the lakes, walk on the glaciers, and trek or horse ride among the epic scenery.

Book it: Journey Latin America’s 20-day Self-drive Patagonia trip starts at £4,299 including accommodation, internal flights and car hire.

Glaciar Perito Moreno - Image credit: Paolo Petrigniani
Image credit: Paolo Petrigniani

2 – Costa Rica

Jungle wildlife doesn’t get much more diverse than in Costa Rica – think cute slow-moving sloths, lively monkeys, turtles, crocodiles and brightly coloured birdlife.

And though this Central American gem packs all sorts of habitat – cloud forest, volcanoes, rainforest and beaches – into its borders, it is relatively small and manageable to explore by road.

Cox & Kings offers a 12-day itinerary that includes plenty of two and three-night stays, so clients have the chance to take days off driving and see the country.

Highlights include the volcano and hot springs at Arenal, the wildlife-rich Cano Negro wetlands and the beautiful Pacific Coast beaches of Guanacaste, where leatherback turtles come ashore to nest between October and March.

The trip can be extended in areas suitable for self-driving, including the coastal Manuel Antonio national park, and in areas that aren’t. Alternative transport arrangements can be made for clients who want to visit the remote tropical wetlands of the Tortuguero national park and the rainforests of Corcovado national park.

Book it: Cox & Kings’ 12-day Costa Rica Self-Drive itinerary, visiting San Jose, the Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve, Arenal, Tenorio national park and Guanacaste, starts at £1,795 including accommodation, car hire and flights via Madrid or the US.

3 – Mexico

Chichen Itza

It is easy for more adventurous clients to dismiss Mexico’s Caribbean coast as a fly-and-flop spot suited only to those who want to kick back in an all-inclusive hotel. And while the region caters well for those kind of holidaymakers, it also rewards those who want to explore.

Travel 2 offers two self-drive itineraries in the region. The seven-day trips start and end in Cancun, so customers can add on a week of relaxation if they want to tick both boxes.

The Riviera Maya & Yucatan Discovery itinerary visits the region’s major Mayan historic sites, including cliff-top Tulum and extensive Chichen Itza, plus the walled town of Campeche, the colonial city of Merida, and Celestun, home to the Mexican pink flamingo.

The pricier Historic Haciendas of the Yucatan takes in many of the same highlights but includes stays in beautifully restored colonial properties typical of the region.

Justine Egan, Travel 2 product manager, says: “I have found that GPS systems aren’t always readily available or reliable in Mexico. But with the basic driving instructions and a map provided on these self drive tours, it is very easy to get about and hard to get lost.”

Book it: Travel 2’s seven-day Riviera Maya & Yucatan Discovery tour starts at £1,199, including B&B accommodation, car hire and flights from London. The Historic Haciendas of the Yucatan trip, with similar inclusions, starts at £1,999. The prices are valid for travel between August 17 and October 28.

4 – Ecuador

In most countries, you would expect an avenue to be flanked, at best, by a few grand buildings of architectural significance. In Ecuador, it’s a whole lot more exciting than that.

The road running through the heart of the Andes is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and the name doesn’t mis-sell it at all. The most famous is Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, its perfect cone usually covered in snow.

But that’s just the start. From Riobamba, a city of stately squares and cobbled streets, on a clear day it’s possible to spot no fewer than five volcanoes.

Sunvil offers a 10-night itinerary by four-wheel drive starting from capital Quito, driving the Avenue of the Volcanoes and passing the Devil’s Nose switchback railway, visiting Mindo for lush landscapes and rare bird spotting, and Banos for hot springs and hiking, cycling or horse-riding in subtropical hills.

It finishes in colonial Cuenca, home to the Panama hat factory. (Yes, true Panama hats come from Ecuador, not Panama.)

Book it: Sunvil’s 10-day self-drive itinerary starts at £3,955 including B&B accommodation, four-wheel-drive hire plus insurance, maps and satnav, transfers, some guided excursions and return flights with KLM.

5 – Argentina

Winery near Cafayate - Image credit: Tokyo Tanenhaus
Image credit: Tokyo Tanenhaus

This is not the trip to be stuck as designated driver for the whole way. Not that the roads in Argentina’s northwest are tricky – they’re relatively smooth and easy to navigate – but they do wind through wine country, so it’s important to take turns, or take a pause, so that everyone gets to appreciate it.

Cafayate is where the torrontes white wine is produced, and clients can stop off for tastings at wine estates. The northwestern province of Salta is famous for its rugged rock valleys as well as vineyards, particularly in Purmamarca where the Hill of Seven Colours creates a rainbow of reds, yellows, greens and purples.

The driving here is varied – after switchbacking up through gargantuan green peaks on Route 33 from Salta to Cachi, it’s all change as you sweep along the straight Tin Tin line through the cactus-lined Los Cardones national park.

This region is where Argentina feels most Andean and least colonial, a real contrast from Buenos Aires, where clients on a Rainbow Tours self-drive itinerary will spend a few nights.

Book it: Rainbow Tours offers a 10-day Northwest Argentina Highlights self-drive tour from £2,330, including flights, accommodation and car hire in the Salta region.


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