If you were thinking of going to Latin America for a fall or winter vacation, and are now reconsidering because of the Zika virus, you’re not alone.
This map from the CDC shows Zika is present in almost every country of Central and South America, the whole Caribbean, Mexico, and even the USA (although Florida is the only state with locally-acquired cases so far).
If you’ve read about Zika, you probably know that it’s transmitted by a mosquito that bites during both day and night, that many contaminated people don’t show symptoms and the rest display symptoms such as fever, a rash, and joint pain for up to a week, and that there is no treatment. You just wait for it to run its course.
Unless you’re a pregnant woman, it doesn’t sound too bad. Except it’s a virus and even the CDC admits that there is still a lot they don’t know about it. So, personally, I’d feel better not putting myself at risk of getting it. The good news/bad news is that now that’s it’s present in the US, the research to develop a vaccine will probably accelerate.
The other good news is that the Zika-carrying mosquitos are not typically found in locations at an altitude higher than 2000 meters (6,500 feet). And as luck would have it, many parts of Latin America are over this elevation.
If you’re still keen to travel in the region and are willing to trade your beach vacation for a mountain holiday (which I find more interesting personally), take a look at these five itineraries in Latin America without Zika.
Mexico City (also called the Distrito Federal or DF) is located at a cool 2240 metres above sea level. It used to be the city you flew into and then immediately left for somewhere less hectic, but Mexico’s capital is now enjoying a cultural renaissance with a great food scene and revamped public spaces. You could start your trip here, then take one of Mexico’s excellent inter-city bus to Puebla (2162 m), a colonial city with Spanish flair, known for its delicious chiles en nogada dish. The nearby towns of Cholula (2170 m) and Tlaxcala (2252 m), 10 and 30 kilometres away respectively, would make good day trips.
For something completely different, you could fly from Mexico City to San Cristobal de las Casas (2100 m) in Chiapas, a beautiful colonial town in a fertile valley surrounded by pine forests. Both traditional and cosmopolitan, San Cristobal’s population is almost entirely indigenous. Day trips to villages in the surrounding countryside, especially San Juan Chamula (2200 m) which is known for some unusual religious rituals, would round up the itinerary.
A large portion of Ecuador is located in the highlands, including some of its most popular towns and cities: Quito (2850 m), Cuenca (2560 m), and Otavalo (2560 m). You could start in Quito and take the bus north to Otavalo to check out one of the largest indigenous markets in the Andes, before going back to Quito.
To the south is Cuenca, one of the prettiest colonial cities in the Americas. Flights take less than an hour, while you’re looking at about 10 hours on the bus. Of course you can always stop in Riobamba (2750 m), or Baños, which is prettier and more interesting, but unfortunately located at only 1820 metres. Another option is to take the new luxury train, tren crucero, between Quito and Riobamba (Wednesdays only – Tuesdays in the opposite direction) then continue to Cuenca by bus.
Given Ecuador’s location right on the equator, temperatures are never freezing even at 3000 metres (although nights will be cool).
Peru is another country located in the Andes. Cuzco (3326 m), Machu Picchu (2430 m) and various towns of interest in the Sacred Valley (Pisac, Ollantaytambo) are all above 2000 metres and can easily occupy a week or more. You could then visit the town of Puno (3830 m) and Lake Titacaca (one of the highest navigable lakes in the world at 3820 m) with its interesting indigenous islands, clear air, and unique light.
Another option is the pleasant colonial town of Arequipa (much warmer at 2325 metres) and Colca Canyon which you can visit on an overnight trip to see the condors.
Keep in mind that altitude sickness is a real possibility above 2500 metres. Taking an aspirin a day starting a few days before your trip begins may help. You will also need warm clothes for the evenings. Spring and Fall are ideal seasons for the highlands of Peru.
Unless you’re coming from Bolivia, your trip will likely start in Lima which is near sea level. Be mindful of the mosquitoes while there.
Not only is Bolivia straddling the Andes, but it has the highest (de facto) capital city in the world, La Paz, at 3650 metres. The other sites on the classic Bolivia trail are also at altitude: the judicial capital Sucre (2810 m), Potosi and its silver mine (4090 m), and the famous Salar de Uyuni (3656 m), the world’s largest salt flats with its lakes of various colours, and wild reflections and perspective effects. You can organize a multi-night trip to the salar from the town of Uyuni.Bolivia also owns part of Lake Titicaca, so you could continue over to Peru by crossing the lake without ever dipping below 2000 metres! Spring and Fall are also ideal seasons for Bolivia.
Probably due to the barrier provided by the Andes, Chile is still reported free of active Zika transmission. Who knows how long this is going to last, but for now the whole country is fair game, no matter the altitude.
You could land in Santiago and travel south through the stunning Lake District and on to Patagonia. You could head north to La Serena and onward to the desert of Atacama. Or you could just chill around the capital Santiago, its seaside (Valparaiso, Viña del Mar), and the nearby wine region.
Check this CDC map again before making plans though.
If you need to travel below 2000 metres at any time during your trip (except in Chile), you should protect yourself against mosquitoes as you could still be bitten and contract Zika. Wear long sleeves and long pants and use mosquito repellent on exposed skin. (It’s gross I know.)
If you’re pregnant, I just wouldn’t risk travelling anywhere in Latin America right now. In addition, some doctors recommend that pregnant women do not spend the night at elevations above 3650 metres.
Also don’t forget that Zika can be transmitted sexually from an infected person, no matter what altitude you’re at!
If you organize your own trip, rather than relying on a tour company, not only can you save a lot of money, but you also have control on the places you’re visiting, and can ensure you remain above 2000 metres as much as possible. If independent travel sounds daunting, consider buying my e-book on how to travel independently in Latin America which goes into details about how to travel safely and cheaply to the region on your own.
(Note: The information in this post was accurate at the time of writing. You should still consult your travel doctor before travelling to Latin America.)