When your vacation time revolves around school holidays, it can be challenging to find authentic, quiet, and affordable places to travel. Summer vacation in North America usually drives hoards of tourists to places like Europe, Florida, and New York City. Besides having to battle the tourist crowds – flights, hotels and tour prices are often astronomical.
Just south of the United States, you’ll find a plethora of exotic, culturally rich, and naturally beautiful countries that are also very affordable. The trick is to visit the right country at the right time, so you can enjoy your surroundings and not be deterred by bad weather.
The North American summer months can be rainy season in many parts of Latin America. But because of the varied geography, some countries or regions are actually dry during this time. And some regions are perfectly doable during rainy season, if you plan around the afternoon showers.
So if you want an off-the-beaten path summer vacation in a beautiful, culturally rich, and affordable area – read on to find out the 3 best vacation destinations in Latin America this summer!
The summer months are rainy season in Oaxaca, but the weather is pretty predictable and easy to work around. The mornings and early afternoons are usually very sunny and warm. There is often a rain shower in the late afternoon or evening, but it usually only lasts an hour or so.
If you plan to wake up early each day and take advantage of the beautiful early weather, you can fit in all of the sight seeing you want, and use the afternoons for resting, or trying some of the food and drink that Oaxaca is famous for.
What to Do:
Oaxaca is known as the foodie mecca in Mexico. The many indigenous groups in this southern Mexican state retain their strong cultural and food traditions. It’s not unusual to make everything from scratch, or to take several days to make a complex mole sauce.
So you should definitely set aside a good amount of time for tasting all the local specialities! I recommend eating breakfast at Cabuche, Cocina Isabel or the Mercado de 20 de Noviembre. Eat a traditional lunch at El Biche Pobre, Itanoni, or La Popular. Treat yourself to a special meal at El Destilado or Casa Oaxaca. Eat dinner or a late night snack at Tlayudas Libres and Lechoncito de Oro.
If you’re interested in learning more about mezcal, the traditional liquor in this region, and its many complex flavors, I recommend a tasting at Mezcaloteca. After you learn about all the varieties, you can visit Cortijo La Mezcaleria, Archivo Maguey, Mezcalogia, and La Mezcalerita to sample more of this well-loved drink.
There are several great archeological sites of ancient ruins close to the city of Oaxaca.
The biggest and most important site is Monte Alban, on a hill overlooking the city. You can easily take a tour here, or drive here with your rental car.
Smaller, but impressive sites are Yagul and Mitla. Yagul is a little-visited site, but interesting and well-placed on a plateau overlooking the valley. Mitla is a small ruin, but has intricate carvings of beautiful geometric designs.
The most beautiful and interesting nature site near Oaxaca is Hierve el Agua (literally translated “Boil the Water”). It’s a site of two “petrified waterfalls” overlooking a vast valley of rolling mountains.
The petrified waterfalls are made up of calcified minerals that form when the natural springs at the top of the cliff slowly trickle over the side, leaving behind sediment over thousands of years.
Another beautiful area is the Sierra Norte mountains. These mountains rise over 10,000 feet, giving visitors fresh cool air. The foliage is an interesting mix of pine forest, giant magueys, and cacti. There are also some scattered indigenous villages that you can visit.
Dry Season in most of Colombia is from December-March, but many areas enjoy a second “mini-dry season” in July. This makes it the perfect destination for those looking to get away during summer vacation.
Specifically the Caribbean coast, and the Andean region (the two best areas to visit in my opinion) are mostly dry during this time.
What to do:
The Caribbean coast is vast and has many destinations. Most people will arrive in Cartagena – the biggest tourist destination on the coast. Cartagena is known for its lively Afro-Caribbean culture. The colors are vibrant, the music and dancing are spirited, and the weather is hot!
Don’t miss wandering the charming streets of the Old City and Getsamani, visiting the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and eating ceviche.
For a real off-the-beaten path experience, consider visiting the little-touristed fishing village of Rincon del Mar, and then on to the gorgeous, mostly untouched Caribbean islands of San Bernardo Islands.
Or head the opposite way on the coast to the wild beaches and jungle in the protected national park of Parque Tayrona. Most people hike in and camp at the beach of Cabo San Juan. You can also take a boat from Taganga.
The Andean Region:
Bogota is an interesting and culturally rich city, but if you are short on time, you can minimize your stay here as parts of the city can be dangerous. Be sure to visit the charming historic streets of La Candeleria, and take a cable car up to the church overlooking the city, Monserrate.
Medellin is a vibrant and colorful city that enjoys year-round spring weather. It has moved past its violent history, and has become a popular tourist destination in recent years. Be sure to visit the historic Centro including the Botero Plaza and the Museo de Antioquia, take the cable car up the steep mountain to the Parque Arvi, and head out on a day trip to beautiful Guatape – a charming town next to a series of connected lakes.
Perhaps the most beautiful area in all of Colombia is the lush green mountains in the Coffee Triangle. My favorite area to visit here is the charming town of Salento. While based here, you can easily take a coffee tour at Finca Ocaso and take a day trip to the incredibly gorgeous Valle de Cocora. This green valley is home to the tallest palm trees in the world, and has a wonderful hike you can do to enjoy the scenery.
Ecuador enjoys its dry season from June to September, so the North American summer is a great time to visit the country.
This drier time is especially great if you plan to do any of the amazing hikes in the Andes mountains.
Just be sure to pack lots of layers! The geography in Ecuador ranges from snow covered high mountain peaks to hot and humid coastal jungle. You can experience just about every climate in one day taking a cross country bus!
What to Do:
Quito is the capital city and you will surely pass through here, whether you plan to or not! It’s the central hub and all transportation between regions seems to be routed through the city.
It’s a beautiful historical city with many things to do, so it’s definitely worth a stop for a couple of days. Be sure to stroll the streets of the historic centro, take a cab to the statue of El Panecillo overlooking the city, and take a cable car up to the top of Volcan Pichincha.
There is easy access to the Amazon in Ecuador, even on a budget! The city of Tena is only a 5 hour bus ride from Quito, and is the gateway to many Amazon adventures. You can stay here and go on day/overnight trips, or venture further into the jungle by bus or boat.
Be sure to do some waterfall hikes, and visit the animal rescue center of Amazoonico.
Baños is located at the foot of an active volcano in a lush valley full of hot springs and waterfalls. It’s known for the many adventure sports available, as well as the traditional thermal baths. This was one of my favorite regions in Ecuador, and I highly recommend you spend a few days here!
Be sure to wake up early, and head to the thermal baths at La Piscinas de la Virgen at the foot of the 260 foot waterfall in town. The baths open at 5:30am, and you will be surprised how many local Ecuadorians are there to start there day in the healing waters!
Also make time for a visit to the Swing at the End of the World – a wood swing that sways out over a steep valley below. And take a tour of the 7 local waterfalls – ranging in size and shape, but all dramatic and beautiful.
Though I’ve been lucky to see many beautiful places, I still say that Quilotoa lake is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.The crystal clear turquoise crater lake sits at a very high elevation of about 13,000 feet, and is tucked in a remote area of the Andes. There are a few scattered indigenous towns in the area, and miles and miles of untouched rugged highlands.
If you’re short on time, you can just visit the beautiful lake, and perhaps make the hike down to the base and back up (or take a donkey up if you get tired on the steep walk). If you’re more ambitious and in good shape, you can do the hike around the crater rim, or a multi day hike between the villages.
The big tourist destinations in the south are Cuenca, Loja, and Vilcabamba.
Cuenca is a charming colonial city worth spending a day or two. Be sure to wander the charming streets of the Centro, take a tour of the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, and stroll along the La Calle Larga and Tomebamba River.
Vilcabamba is a small town in the south of Ecuador known for its creative atmosphere and its beautiful surrounding nature. Most people come here to enjoy hiking, horseback riding, or mountain biking in the lush surrounding mountains.
If you get tired from all the outdoor activities, you can enjoy the spa amenities or the creative art scene in town.
Loja is a one of the oldest colonial cities in Ecuador and is known as the cultural and musical heart of the country. It has a little bit for everyone – arts & music, nature & hiking, and authentic Ecuadorian culture.
Visit Teatro Bolivar or Teatro Nacional Benjamín Carrión for one of the many concerts featuring the symphony and other talented musicians. Stroll the historic streets to admire the colonial architecture. Visit the Podocarpus National Park to see hundreds of species of birds in untouched tropical cloud forest. Make a stop at the oldest botanical garden in Ecuador, Jardín Botánico Reinaldo Espinosa, to see beautiful plants and orchids.
So don’t get overwhelmed by the cost of a European summer vacation, or the crowded beaches in Florida. There are many affordable and authentic options in Latin America if you know where to go!