Reflections on the first leg of our trip, weeks 1 to 10...
15.03.2009 - 23.05.2009 20 °C
Hola from El Salvador!
We left South America a few days ago, and are now enjoying some serious downtime with friends (Cam + Jack) in El Salvador. They're teachers in an English school here, and have a lovely house with – crucially – a large garden. Sat in an over-sized hammock, eating fresh mangoes and listening to the birds singing, I'm drawn to reminiscing about what South America was like.
Highlights of South America
As soon as we arrived in Argentina, it was evident that it would be impossible to do and see all we wanted in the time we had in South America. While planning from a sofa in Borough, armed with Lonely Planets and an Internet connection is all very well, nothing can simulate the infectious air of enthusiasm you share with the people you meet here. An unpronounceable word on page 968 of South America on a Shoestring is transformed into a tantalising week-long adventure when described by a returning traveller. The quantity and variety of possibilities feels endless, and the scale of the continent is extreme, especially when travelling primarily by bus. The best we could hope to do was use the time we had well, stick roughly to the highlights we'd picked out, and try not to get too lost....
Our focus in South America was on walking (known by our fellow travellers as Hiking, Trekking or Tromping). We had planned the start of our trip to coincide with the end of the Patagonian walking season and the end of the wet season further north (Peru). The planning paid off and we managed to complete seven multi-day trips without any sustained bad weather. From the well-trodden Inca Trail to the deserted Aconcagua, the beauty of the hills, valleys, lakes and glaciers has exceeded what I could ever have imagined, and justified its 'defines superlatives' strap line.
Money, Food & Transport
The cost of travelling through South America has been in line with what we budgeted (those reading from Shell Centre won't be surprised to hear we're tracking a few percent under budget). Avoiding most organised tours and excursions – which often count on you being afraid to take a local bus or carry your own bag on a walk – has meant we've averaged around $30 a day. Accommodation has been the biggest variable, with a private room in a hostel costing from $8 (La Paz, Bolivia) to $35 (Puerto Natales, Chile). The food has been consistently good value. Whether eating from street stalls, in 'local' cafes or buying and cooking our own meals, the food has generally been fresh, cheap and very tasty. The surprising exception was fruit and vegetables in Chile; whilst they grow some of the finest fresh produce in the world, everything but the dregs is exported (check your fridge!), leaving locals with ingredients that we would feed to pigs. The flavour of prepared, local dishes has been disappointing overall. Whilst Argentina's steak, Peru's chicken and and Bolivia's fried spam, rice, chips and banana, were authentic and enjoyable, the use of spices and sauces is basic, and many of our tastiest dishes have been prepared in front of our tent on our camping stove.
As regular readers know, many South American hours have been spent on long-distance buses. Obviously not the most fun way to spend a day (or two) but given the condition of much of the continent's infrastructure, the network of buses is something that really works. Buses are clean, comfortable, reliable, safe (generally), occasionally WiFi-enabled and very cheap. As a rule of thumb, you can turn up at a bus station and get almost anywhere in comfort for about $1 an hour (perhaps they take the long way?). Depending on the quality of the road, it is possible to get a reasonable night's rest whilst travelling between cities, which can be a valuable time (and money) saver when things are getting tight. Just need to watch out for those pickpockets!
An often used of phrase on the Gringo Trail – and I imagine throughout the English Speaking world – describes the doing of a country or area: “We've done Brazil, so we're heading off to do Argentina before returning home”. It seems that to do a country can take as little as a couple of weeks (Brazil's bigger than Europe!), and implies that it is ticked off; the passport stamp has been obtained and the key photo opportunities visited. It suggests a sense of completion, of finality – something I've not yet felt about any country I've experienced (even England!). This is more true in South America than anywhere I've been before. The scope for new experiences here far exceeds the length of one person's lifetime, and I'm delighted to know that I could revisit any of the places we've been, stay for a year, and still not have done them.
Further adventures – from El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico – will follow, if I can get out of this hammock.