“We’ve spent the majority of the last month dreaming of things to come when all we could do at the moment was stand still…”
3.5 months. 6 countries (Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru). I’ve never been so eager to bounce home, to a place that I wouldn’t necessarily define as home. I long for a shower that runs. My hair dryer. A cute dress. Asparagus. Drawers. You know, all the material things no one actually needs but which you seriously take for granted when available. I look forward to interviewing for a job. In person! (Skype has been my interview device for the last 8 years). I feel anxious about the mundane things— finding a car, apartment hunting, planning for the future. And excited about playing catch up with a slew of family and friends I often feel like I selfishly abandoned in pursuit of my own life.
We’ve spent the majority of the last month dreaming. Dreaming of things to come when all we could do at the moment was stand still. It felt impossibly frustrating to solidify any dream from so far away. Without resources. There was so much time separating the fantasy of traveling with the realities of living. A living that seemed increasingly more fantastic as the pull of traveling quickly led to ennui. But here we are. I packed my dirty backpack up for the last time, shoving in all of two souvenirs in (a bottle of pisco and salt— yes, salt). We are so close to the flight that will literally propel us into “finally.”
And I’m sad. For all the obvious reasons. We’ve seen and done a lot. YOLOed all over the damn continent and then some and it felt fantastic. (Though my bank account has suffered a crippling blow and cries for input…working on it). Today feels like an end of an era. My identity has been defined as “expat” for such a long time and the very concept of slipping back into one that I so eagerly shed scares me. The prospect of “normalcy” is more alien than negotiating in a second language or suffering through Colombian bureaucracy. Funny how the tides have turned.
Anyway. Enough sap. Time to reflect and consider the best and worst experiences of South America. This list is purely based on travel from March 3rd on. It also is not a definitive list of South American in general, as I— nor anyone— could humanly conceive such a list. Picking the 5 worse was easy but not so for the 5 best. The continent of South America is full of wonderful surprises and another 20 individual experiences were on the backup five.
The best and worst of South America— the bad
“Sites like this are a preview into the future of travel, where you can’t differentiate between a place and its fake counterpart…”
Maybe I didn’t get it. Or I was jaded. Maybe I should have spent $1000 to trek the Incan trail or maybe I should have spent $0 to hike along the train tracks. Whatever the case, I was thoroughly underwhelmed with Machu Picchu. Calm yourself. There were several factors as to why. First, no matter how you go about it, it costs a shit ton to simply see the damn thing. You pay for the entrance fee, the train ride there, the bus ride up. Which all sounds fine until you add calculate the total— many hundreds of dollars to see a overcrowded attraction that’s 60% fake. It also doesn’t help that to understand what you are seeing, you need a guide (mo $). There are no signs anywhere in the complex. Aesthetically fair enough. And while I was still able to marvel at the historical relevance of the site, I was more entranced with the llamas milling about. And happier that I trekked something better in the end, Rainbow Mountain.
Manic Peruvian drivers
In general, road rules are rather lax in the whole of South America. We quickly learned this in Colombia, when upon inspection, few if any taxis had seat belts. Hold on for your life and embrace the chaos. But beyond individual drivers, we have felt safe on all modes of public transportation throughout our journey— notably, on long-distance buses. Until Peru. I first noticed the crosses during a relatively tame ride. Frequent grave markers punctuating each and every corner, be it sharp or somewhat normal. I thought it might be due to the danger of these roads, but then realized it’s because drivers in Peru are bat shit crazy. Our collectivos from Cusco made it their mission to half the 2-hour average to our destination, his first mate unbelted and me vomiting in the back seat. Even our super VIP class highway bus— the most expensive and posh in the industry— swiveled around corners in the middle of the night, delightfully not abiding by its self-imposed “90 km/hr max” speedometer. I started sketching out ideas for my own trendy cross, and this was after cycling down Death Road in Bolivia.
When I climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan back in ’06, I was told to turn back because of debilitating altitude sickness. I still pushed through the nausea and up to the top— weeping at sunrise in relief— but it was a lesson learned. Or so I thought. When we crossed into Bolivia on this trip, at around 4,000 meters in altitude, I didn’t feel a thing. Woot, glad we didn’t waste our money on altitude sickness pills! Then, evening came. And so did the return of the demonic bitch that is altitude sickness. When I finally caved in an
begged someone for drugs, I was kicking myself for not packing the precious cargo. As was I one week later after hiking in Colca Canyon, in which the sickness affected a different region of my body. The bowels.
Colombia’s Salt Cathedral
The Salt Cathedral near Bogota is a prime example of tourist hell. While historically it’s interesting and displays a great feat of engineering, the complex has been shat on in order to bank profit. A climbing wall skirts the entrance. A long hallway of tacky salt-related souvenirs lines a cavern, deep down near the main attraction. There’s even scary animatronics of sorts. I sometimes see the Salt Cathedral— and cities/ sites like it— as a preview into the future of travel. Where you can’t differentiate between a place and its fake counterpart.
New human friends we met along the trip were taken back by the fact that I was cautious around stray dogs. And touché. Most of the canines are lovable, treated with respect, and loyally follow you until crumble into a pitiful puppy pile. But after witnessing a pack of delightfully happy golden retrievers rip apart a small terrier on Easter Island, I am well aware that a dog eat dog world exists among the stray populations here in South America. It must. There’s a paucity of food and most of the governments feel that there are larger issues to contend with. You know, like corruption and drug wars. Anyway, it also doesn’t help that my good friend was bitten by a stray in Colombia and had to get a fun dose of rabies shots in a backwater clinic.
The best and worst of South America— the good
“The scenery is so stupidly stunning that everyone pretty much just sits up there like duhhhhhhh…”
Fitz Roy in Patagonia
Patagonia was our first stop and we quickly blew— what seemed like— half of our savings in one week. Damn it’s an expensive region. Especially the Chilean side, and especially Torres del Paine. But unlike Machu Picchu, when we actually reached the holy spot of beauty— those three tell-tale peaks— we were blown away. Ok, worth the money. But then one week later we were on the Argentinian side. Where there were no park fees. And the hikes were easily accessible (no bus needed as was the case with Torres del Paine). When we trekked the 8-hour roundtrip to Fitz Roy— a place I had never seen a photo of before— I had no expectations. The last part involved a steep climb up a rock face to which you are suddenly face-to-face with something out of “Lord of the Rings.” The scenery is so stupidly stunning that everyone pretty much just sits up there like duhhhhhhh.
Asado in Argentina
Travelers— in passing— have openly bitched about food in South America. To this I say, “WTF?” Maybe these backpacker types eat 25-cent empanandas every day (which are fabulous) but I have eaten well in every country. Whether it’s $1 avocado sandwiches in Bolivia to legit ceviche in Peru, how can you go wrong? Argentina, in particular, was a food oasis. Specifically, for the meat. Now I am not a meat lover by trade, but I ate more beef in Argentina than I have in the last five years of life. And that’s because of asado, akin to an American bbq put to shame. A lot of high quality meat, cooked on an open fire, and usually experienced as a family/ friends event on the weekends. We participated in many a asado in Argentina, always with a group of people and always awesome. Sometimes even with horses. Accompanied with Argentinian Malbec, the social atmosphere of asado was never disappointing.
Motorcycling around Easter Island
Traveling along the gringo trail has been tiring at times. The trail is punctuated with some of the world’s most extraordinary sites, as well as all the negative hiccups of tourism. Vendors who hound you. Trash. Scams. Cat calls. It’s sometimes impossible to pry yourself away from the masses and find your own sense of freedom. But that’s what we found on Easter Island. The Moai and the diving were delightful but by far, our favorite distraction was the freedom of motorcycling around the deserted island. Few cars. Few houses. Beautiful weather and a blue sea. We stopped wherever we wanted to. Breathed. And felt human.
Posing on the Salt Flats of Bolivia
Then again, there are those tourist attractions that are worth cruising down the gringo trail for. One of them was Uyuni’s salt flats, the largest of its kind in the world and seemingly on a different planet. We joined a very typical tour on the very typical route to see the salt flats, eating the same meals at the same “hotels.” Yet, the Bolivian outback was desolate enough to escape the other tour groups. AND you genuinely stop caring about the humanly distractions when comforted with such beauty. I wasn’t quite prepared for how expansive the flats were and how fun it would be playing amateur videographer. Especially with a T-rex.
Checking off world wonders can only get you so far. And being old farts, we didn’t spend nearly as much time in crowded dorms as we once did in our 20s. So it proved difficult to form the kind of organic friendships that usually sprout out of happy hours and bonfires. Thus, couchsurfing. It’s our favorite insight into a new culture and usually results in the most memorable and social experiences. On this trip, we had the pleasure of couchsurfing in every country except Bolivia. And the memories are our most precious: cooking together in Bogota, playing board games in Punta Arenas, karaoke together on Easter Island, spending Easter dinner with a family in Cordoba, watching a soccer game in Montevideo. Thank you to all the strangers who welcomed us into their homes with open hearts.
That’s a wrap up on the best and worst of South America. 2017 edition. Check out South America Living and Round the World Couple for their lists 🙂 Onto the next journey… leaving for Japan in T-minus one week!