No doubt many of you will have heard of the famous (or infamous) gringo trail, especially if you’ve been to Central or South America or if you’ve ever donned a backpack anywhere and gone exploring. But for the uninitiated, the gringo trail is so-called because it’s a route to and through the most common attractions and sights for tourists and travellers to see from Mexico all the way down into Argentina.
More often than not, these are the places you’ll go to when you visit the area, and you’ll often find, as in many people’s experience, that you’ll meet a new friend in one location, and then don’t be surprised to randomly run into them five months later down the road. That’s what happens on the gringo trail!
What Exactly is a Gringo?
Well, we’re very glad you asked. The term “gringo” is primarily used in Spanish speaking countries to refer to someone who isn’t a native Spanish speaker, or of Latino descent, particularly, but not exclusive to, someone from the United States.
With hundreds of backpackers traveling through Latin America each year, you can see where the nickname has come from. As we’re both super excited to be returning to South America at the end of this year, we’ve put together a bite-sized list of just SOME of our favourite attractions along the way, there’s so much more to see and do, which is why we’re going back.
1. Chichen Itza, Mexico
We’ll kick things off with a visit to Mexico’s famous Mayan city ruins – Chichen Itza. A UNESCO world heritage site, this stunning complex is a must-see if you’re visiting the Yucatan Peninsula. The highlight is an enormous stepped pyramid that dominates the landscape, known as El Castillo, and it was also included in the new Seven Wonders of the World announced in 2007.
A pre-Hispanic settlement, Chichen Itza is certainly one for all you history buffs out there, dating back to around A.D 750. It’s very, very old. Stay locally to get the best chance of seeing the ruins without too many tourists photo bombing your pictures.
2. Semuc Champey, Guatemala
Perhaps not the easiest attraction to get to, Semuc Champey still deserves the effort. It’s a beautiful, natural monument consisting of a series of limestone pool “steps”, which has become a popular swimming spot. The stunning, azure blue waters are truly breath-taking, and it feels like a little slice of paradise.
Don’t miss exploring the surrounding caves as well, and the river hike looking down on the natural wonder is incredible. Getting there isn’t easy though, so make sure you’re clued up about transport. Local hostels will be the best source of advice.
3) Leon and Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is fast becoming one of the hottest travel spots in all of Latin America and it’s easy to understand why. We had a hard time picking a favourite, as the gorgeous town of Granada, and the surfers paradise of San Juan Del Sur are hugely popular gringo trail stalwarts. But it’s the charming town of Leon that gets the nod here, with its colourful streets, colonial architecture and friendly locals.
But don’t miss out on the unique experience of volcano boarding, which is literally climbing volcanoes and “surfing” down them. Most good hostels in the area have great deals to get you up there and will provide all the safety gear. But take care though – you can reach extremely high speeds on volcanic rock – so it’s not for the faint of heart.
4.The Bay Islands, Honduras
A must for scuba diving, the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras have become a top gringo trail stop point. The islands of Roatan, Guanaja, and Utila boast some of the best scuba diving around the world and they’re some of the cheapest places to get your open water certification. Diving centres across the islands compete for the attentions of beginners, and when the sun goes down these islanders know how to party.
It’s a wonderfully diverse, social experience but just makes sure you don’t end up staying forever. These islands can be difficult to leave.
Forget everything you think you know about Colombia. In the past fifteen years or so, it’s become one of the fastest growing tourist economies in the world. Having steadily risen out of its troubled past, Colombia has now thrown its doors open to the world, and people are finding out why it’s attracting so many pleasure-seekers and sightseers. It’s a country that has everything; stunning scenery, vibrant cities, unique attractions, ancient history, amazingly friendly people…the list goes on.
There’s so much to see here you could spend your entire back pack budget in one country but we picked the delightful town of Cartagena in the north. It’s simply beautiful. Trust us, you NEED to go to Colombia!
6) Machu Picchu, Peru
Bet you were waiting for this one right? Of course you were! Of all the sights in Latin America (and indeed the world) perhaps Machu Picchu is close to being number one. This is the big boy on the block on the gringo trail! Pretty much everyone that passes through Peru is going here – and when you’ve done it – you can see why.
Do a five-day jungle trek on the ancient Inca trail and make friends for life, and then get up at the crack of dawn to climb up the mountain to glimpse the rising sun illuminate this spectacular citadel nestled in the clouds. Words won’t do this experience justice. Possibly one of the greatest experiences anyone will ever have traveling>
7.Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Moving into neighbouring Bolivia and once again you have a host of gringo trail sights to take in – but perhaps the most famous and must-see is the Salar de Uyuni. The largest salt flats in the world; it’ll feel like you’re on another planet as the brilliant white landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. You’ll have loads of fun playing with perspective too when taking photographs, and if you’re lucky enough to be here when it has rained, the salt flats become the largest mirror in the world, reflecting the sky in a truly breath-taking panorama.
You’ll probably stay in one of the salt hotels specially made for visitors, but be sure to wrap up warm – at 3,656 meters above sea level – this place gets pretty darn cold.
8) San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Just over the border into Chile and you’ll find San Pedro de Atacama, a northern Chilean town on the edge of the Atacama Desert. Nearly everyone crossing from Bolivia and continuing south will pass through here, but it’s more than just a dusty connection hub. The surrounding desert is strangely beautiful in a remote, lonely kind of way and there are some awesome hiking routes and archaeological sites to explore. Year round, the sky over the desert is one of the most cloudless in the world, which means the region is a big pull for astronomy enthusiasts. Try visiting one of the observatories for a cool night sky tour, and peek through the powerful telescopes and you can see Saturn!
Okay, so we KNOW, we’ve missed off SO many other amazing attractions on the gringo trail, but as we mentioned earlier, this is the reason why we’re going back! Watch this space for future posts on more cool stuff to see in this astounding part of the world and drop us a line in the comments if you’ve got any top picks in Latin America that we should see when we re-visit – we’ll be treading the gringo trail once more towards the end of the year – come and join us amigos!