As our 3 months in South America come to a close, we look back with happy memories of our adventure. It was more than I had hoped for and we will be back sometime in the future. Some Statistics 6 countries visited 8570 miles travelled (all by bus) 220 hours in transit (all by bus)
Things we will miss about South America – Waking up to a new adventure everyday – Summertime in January – Learning about new cultures – Pisco sours – Tasting local wines and food – Meeting new interesting people – Walking around local markets
Things we won’t miss about South America – Showers, do we have hot water or not? 1 minute it burns your arse the next its freezing! – Smelling of sulphur after you have had a shower – Stomach cramps – is it the food, the water, who fricking knows! – Overnight buses – Lost in translation, you order an omelette and get a fried egg! – Touts trying to sell you everything and anything – The smell of piss on some of the streets – South America breakfast – bread that is like cardboard!
Hiking the Classic Inca trial had been on my Bucket list for over 10 years and it didn’t disappoint, it was the highlight of our 3 months in South America.
We picked Alpaca Expeditions to do the hike with, they were recommended by a friend, have great reviews on Tripadvisor and they care about their porter’s welfare. The night before our trek we had a briefing at the office to go through the logistics, meet the other hikers and meet our guides.
We felt excited but nervous at the same time, we haven’t done this type of adventure before, and we aren’t really campers or hikers! Anyway our green duffel bags were packed and the alarm was set for 3.45am, yes that’s correct they were picking us up at 4.20 in the morning. We were awake before the alarm, not sure if that was the excitement or the fact that my stomach was not so good. I won’t go into too much detail about the hike, but here’s a link to our itinerary.
The hike was tougher than we thought it would be, there were a lot of bloody steps and you are hiking at altitude. The views all the way along the hike through the Sacred Valley were spectacular, as Ferris Bueller said ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it’
Our guide Rosel Calderon has a true passion for his country and that of his ancestors, a huge smile would appear on his face every time he spoke to the group about the history and meaning of the different sites along the trail, our chef Walter and team of porter’s (nicknamed The Green Machine) were amazing. We had some of the best food during the trek, better than we had had throughout South America. The porters were running past us up the mountain carrying 25kg each and some of them were just wearing sandals. We arrived at our campsite’s each evening to our tents and sleeping bags already set up and our dinner not far behind. We were all in bed by 8pm, 2 mornings we were up at 5am and the last morning we were up before 3am. Needless to say we were exhausted at the end of our trip and needed a few days to recover and sleep!
I was emotional when we reached the Sun Gate and got our first look at Machu Picchu, this enchanting site was home to between 700-800 people and it’s one of the largest Inca sites to be discovered. It’s strange to think that there could be more Inca sites hidden under the vast forests that overgrow the terraced hillsides.
We spent the day walking around the ruins, trying to image how they lived on this site. I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want this adventure to be over, it had been a true ‘once in a lifetime experience’ and considering we weren’t hikers or campers we had conquered the 42 km hike and survived without showers for 4 days. Now what will the next adventure be? We have a few things up our sleeves. Hehe.
The lake straddles Bolivia and Peru; it is the largest high altitude body of water in the world at an elevation of 3812 meters above sea level, 284 metres deep and more than 8500 square kilometres in area.
We spent 3 nights on the Bolivian side in Copacabana, staying at the fantastic Hostal Las Olas. We had a suite overlooking the lake and I’m little ashamed to say that we didn’t even visit Isla del Sol, all we did was chill out and enjoy the best accommodation we have had during our journey through South America.
However during our 2 nights in Puno on the Peruvian side we did visit the floating island of Uros and Amantani Island on a very touristy boat trip. Uros is a group of around 44 islands made from floating reed beds, the island we visited had 7 families living there. The original purpose was defensive and they still have the watchtowers on the island made from the reeds. Amantani is a fixed island and home to Quechua speakers. Around 4000 people live on the island and still wear traditional dress and follow ancient local customs. There are no cars on the island and all the agriculture is done by hand.
Tips – In Copacabana go to El Condor and The Eagle for a great breakfast and travel tips from Barry the owner.
In Puno try the restaurant Balconies de Puno for great food and a free traditional dance show.
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world; it is situated at 3500 metres above sea level and lies in a bowl like canyon. It is a city with a colourful side, it looks like a normal busy city but when you start to explore you realise there is a lot of weird and wonderful aspects to La paz.
San Pedro prison is ran by the inmates for the inmates, there are no guards inside and only 15 guarding the perimeter on the outside. The prisoners are producing some of the best cocaine in South America and ironically drug production and trafficking are why they are in San Pedro in the first place! The prison was built to house 600 inmates but now houses over 2000 prisoners and their families, the prisoners have to buy their cells; the wealth ones have cells like a studio apartment. They also run businesses, ranging from cafes and hairdressers to shopkeepers.
There used to be tours of prison and I’m sure they still exist if you find the right contact, the book ‘Marching Powder’ written by Rusty Young describes the experiences of the British inmate Thomas McFadden who became known for offering prison tours to tourists.
Next up is the Witches Market, we were told not to take pictures unless you buy something or ask permission and of course you abide by these rules, these are witches remember and not the fun ones like in Bewitched!! Anyway locals buy everything they need for offerings to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). For a new building, a dried llama foetus should be buried in the foundations. Apparently these llamas aren’t slaughtered in the womb, but are ones that die of natural causes early after being born or are miscarried due to the cold weather in the mountains.
Ok so if the Witches Market didn’t freak you out let me tell you about the urban legend where Pacha Mama requires a human sacrifice for large new constructions. The story goes that builders will befriend a homeless person, get them very drunk until they pass out and then bury them alive in the foundations, so no alcohol for me tonight, home to bed early is the safest option. Apparently human remains have been found while excavating old building sites.
We only had 2 short days in La Paz but we would have loved to have had more time to explore, it’s a city is full of colour and everyone we met was friendly, even the witches. La Paz is the kind of place that makes you glad you are a traveller, to learn different cultures and embrace other beliefs is a truly magical experience.
Bolivian Salt Flats 3 day/2 night tour from San Pedro to Uyuni
Where to begin, we weren’t too keen on taking this tour at all, why would you want to spend 3 days looking at a load of salt? All the guidebooks, backpacking forums, friends and fellow travels rave about the Salar deUyuni.
When you start looking into tour companies it is like a minefield as they all seem to get mixed reviews with comments about drunk drivers, drivers falling asleep at the wheel, cars breaking down, more than 6 people been squashed into a jeep for 3 days, bad food etc etc. Anyway we narrowed it down to 2 companies Cordillera Traveller and World White Travel; we visited both offices and decided to go with Cordillera Traveller.
We went with very low expectations; the first morning is spent going through Chilean and Bolivian immigration meeting your driver, who is also your guide and meeting your fellow passengers, we were lucky to be sharing our jeep with 4 other girls, 2 from the UK, 1 from USA and 1 from Holland. The driver didn’t speak English which we knew beforehand but 2 of the girls translated for us.
The journey over the 3 days covered some spectacular landscape, such as lagoons, rock formations, colourful mountain ranges, volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and we even saw some wildlife. The tour was so much more than I could have imagined, it felt like we were on a different planet.
The environment is very harsh, you are at high altitude, dust is everywhere, the sun is strong, the wind is even stronger and it is cold at night, now partner that with basic accommodation and being stuck in a jeep for hours it all makes for an exhausting few days.
Highlights of the tour – Watching the sun rise and the moon go down over the Salt Flats. Seeing the different coloured lagoons and sitting watching wild flamingos feeding.
Lows of the tour – Richard getting food poisoning from an apple, we think! Unnecessary stops that included a tourist market and the old closed salt hotel, I felt this was to drag out the tour.
Tips – Arrive a couple of days before the tour to acclimatize to the altitude (there were a lot of people with Altitude sickness the first day/night)
Bring high factor sun screen, moisturizer, lip balm and eye drops. Don’t try and do this tour on the cheap, if something goes wrong you are in the middle of the freaking desert!!!
To see such natural beauty was mind-blowing it’s not an everyday experience. Don’t do this tour expecting 5 star or any star accommodation or Michelin rated food, it’s not for the princesses of the world and you will need a good couple days rest after the tour, we were exhausted.
We would recommend Cordillera Traveller, our driver was the “salt of the earth” and he was very attentive when Richard was ill. Overall we enjoyed the tour.
San Pedro De Atacama was our gateway to crossing the border into Bolivia to visit the Salt Flats, it is a little oasis straight out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western with its unpaved streets and single storey buildings it is one of the oldest settlements in Chile and is mobbed by travellers.
The area has a number of natural attractions but of course most of them can only be visited on expensive tours, we chose to do the El Tatio Geyser tour which meant being pick up at 4.30am, the only time I like to see this time of day is when I’m out in Las Vegas, he he. Anyway back to the tour, we arrived at the Geysers just before sunrise to see plumes of steam dancing in the cold morning air. They are 4,320 meters above sea level which makes them the world’s highest geothermal field.
Was the tour worth the money and the early start? Well not really, they were not as spectacular as I thought they would be, the boiling water only just bubbles to the surface and doesn’t shoot up into the air as you would expect.
Valparaiso has been described as an Architectural wonder, Chile’s most unusual city, a mini San Francisco and for these reason Valparaiso was high on my bucket list and I couldn’t wait to get there.
I had a romantic view of how the city would be; by the ocean, small little cafes on the cobbled streets, coloured funiculars linking the hills with the port area. Well all the above went straight down the pan after about 20 minutes of arriving in the city!
Yes the ‘street art’ is colourful and very well done some of it has very interesting stories behind it but the rest of the place is just covered in out and out graffiti, the area is run down, feels unsafe. Some of the buildings are in ruins or are in need of some serious repair but because it is a UNESCO World Heritage city you cannot alter the exterior so unless you are willing to invest a substantial sum of money they are just left to fall into disrepair.
I have never seen so many stray dogs in one place and the pavements are covered in dog crap and the subsequent smells are awful. Maybe we caught Valparaiso on a bad day, but I couldn’t wait to get on the bus out of there. We met other people who loved the city and of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, but this was not the place I had dreamed about.
We picked La Serena as a stop off on our way to northern Chile, it is situated on the coast and is a charming little place to spend a couple of days. We spent one of days visiting the Elqui Valley, which is famous for the distilling of Pisco. We would suggest that you hire a car to visit this area to give you the freedom to stop off and visit the sites on route. We went be public bus and going through the hills for nearly 2 hours at that speed made us feel travel sick.
We had a brief stop off in Santiago on our way heading north; we were really impressed with the city. It has a European feel and it’s surrounded by the snow covered Andes, which make a great backdrop for some colourful sunsets.
We are staying in a great little apartment, which we booked through Airbnb. It’s been great to have a place to ourselves, we don’t want to move on, I think we have relaxed a little too much here.
The city is walkable, we joined the free walking tour and our guide Franco made the tour interesting and good fun, it was a great way to learn about the history of Chile. The Barrio Bellavista neighbourhood is packed with little cafes, bars and restaurants. Don’t forget to try the Pisco Sours when in Chile, nice cocktail. We are really enjoying our time in Chile, making some great memories as we go.
I made a joke a few weeks ago to Richard about doing a volcano climb in Pucon and I clearly remember the answer was no! Anyway we arrived in Pucon on a Friday afternoon and within a couple of hours we had booked with Summit Chile Tours to do the ascent of Villarrica volcano the following day. I was nervous about the climb as we haven’t done much exercise since we have been travelling and they say it’s a challenging hike! We headed to the local supermarket to get some food and water for the hike. An early night tonight as we need to be up at 5am, to get the office for 6.30am.
The next morning we walked to the office in the dark, ready for the hike. There were 4 of us doing the hike and 2 guides, I was glad it was just a small group. We set off in a van to the base of the volcano which is 25km east of the town of Villarrica. It was very windy and we weren’t sure if the chairlift was going to be working today, I’m hoping it will be running because if not it takes an extra hour to hike up. Good news the chairlift is operating, now I just need to make sure I don’t fall off it like Bridget Jones!
All good with the chairlift and we started to hike at 8.25am, it took us just over 4 hours to reach the top and yes it was a challenging climb. We hiked over rock, lava, snow and ice but the views of the surrounding areas were stunning, I felt like I was on top of the world (Cue the carpenters song in my head all the way up). We were sweating while we were hiking but you soon went cold when we stopped for a break, I was glad of the little breaks they gave us time to rest and take in the views.
Hey we made it to the summit, we looked into the carter of the volcano, wow it was very active today and we were lucky to see lava shooting up and you could hear and feel the pressure. How fantastic to be this close to an active volcano, to see Mother Nature at its best. Now where is the helicopter to take us down? No helicopter but we had a little sledge each and we were able to slide most of the way back down through the snow, this was great fun. We made it back to the office around 4.30pm and enjoyed a well earned beer.
What a great day, something we will never forget, loved it.
Before we started our trip we hadn’t really planned on visiting the Lake District area in Chile but I’m so glad we added it to our itinerary as the area is spectacular, unspoiled and very picturesque. We stayed in a great little bed and breakfast in Puerto Varas. We were not sure whether to pick Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt but having visited Puerto Montt for the day we knew we had made the right choice. Puerto Varas is on Lake Llanquihue and has amazing views of the Osorno and Calbuco Volcanoes. It’s a very chilled out town and we felt very safe here. There are cute little restaurants on every corner and there is even a casino in the town. There are little buses that run from Puerto Varas to the nearby towns.
We spent one afternoon walking around the very small and cute town of Frutillar which was founded by German immigrants in 1856 and has retained its European feel. It is also known as the City of Music, there is a huge theatre/concert hall, an iron piano sculpture and small bandstand along the lake front. We grabbed a coffee and sat by the lake looking at the snow capped Osorno volcano in the distance. It was one of those days that you are glad you made the decision to travel and see some of the amazing places in world.
Tip – If you are visiting the area we recommend staying in Puerto Varas, it’s a gorgeous little place. We had a great meal at Caffe El Barista, nice atmosphere, good food and wine. We didn’t like Puerto Montt, it lacked charm.