I know, I know. You’re asking, “Hasn’t he written more than enough already? Is he just sitting around trying to relive the glory of the last five months? Is BJR just spending his afternoons dressed up in traditional Mapuche (Southern Chilean Indigenous) women’s attire, roaming the streets of Australia and mumbling in Spanish, searching for one last empanada?”
But, you know, closure. It’s good to look back and really take stock of a trip that I’d been dreaming about since I was in high school.
Problem: How to summarise 5 months on the road?
Solution: Write a blog that takes 5 months to read.
Challenge accepted. Achievement unlocked. Yahtzee.
So why did I do this, and what did I get out of it.
I never had a singular purpose for my trip. Going to South America was something I had wanted to do since I had studied Spanish in high school. I wanted to reconnect with nature. I wanted some time away from my normal life and its routines. I wanted to spent several weeks on a bike. I wanted to be in a situation where I was like a child, barely able to speak the language, and ignorant of the customs and how the world worked.
I certainly experienced all of those things, but so much more. Queue the dramatic music and have the helicopter fly slowly around me and capture the moment as I stand at the top of a mountain.
I didn’t fit the typical stereotypes of the hordes of travellers flowing through the continent. I was not a backpacker fresh out of high school or uni. I was traveling alone. I was not a retired couple spending two days in each major city. I was not the broke bike-packer feasting on ramen and sleeping under the stars every night. I was not an Israeli 20-something who had just finished my three years of military service.
I was a solo-traveling, late 40s, vegan-ish American-Australian, who didn’t necessarily want to be social, who didn’t mind sleeping in a tent but would grab a room in a nice hotel if it was available.
The best times of my trip came far away from the cities, in the ocean of the Pacific, in the jungle of the rainforest, looking down from the peaks of dormant volcanoes or standing mouth-agape, breath-taken by the expanse of a glacier. I didn’t come to South America to meet the people, which can sound hostile or even derogatory, but it simply wasn’t my purpose, and culture has never interested me as much as rivers, oceans, mountains, and trails. A river might babble endlessly, but it often makes more sense to me than most of the people who inhabit our planet.
At times, I was paralysed by how beautiful our planet can be. At other times, I was paralysed by the visible impact of climate change. While many people see changes in weather and say something has to be done, and they think about wealthy Americans driving 9-seat SUVs, they have no idea that the massive industry of agriculture (especially meat) in South America contributes heavily to the destruction of the atmosphere. While the majority of the burden does rest on more developed countries like the US and China, I disliked hearing from several people that South America could not do much.
Where has this journey taken me personally? It has certainly helped slow me down, to accept a more gradual pace of life, to be more flexible. I knew I would return to a planned, faster pace as soon as my flight touches down in Sydney, but I’ve rediscovered how to live at a different speed when required. My calendar and Trello boards are still colour-coded, so I’m still very much the same BJR who left five months ago.
The last two weeks in Australia have been a challenge — a lot of people suggested that I might struggle upon re-entry to “life”, and I’ve certainly been more emotional, and small talk has been challenging (rare that talking is ever an issue for me…). I suppose it will simply take time.
I am coming back excited. There are a lot of problems in our world, and I’m ready to take at least one of them on. And, I still have a few months of travel in the US before anything gets real.
If you wanted to follow my journey chronologically, well, you could just follow the blogs I’ve already written:
- Nov 1–6 Santiago
- Nov 7–14 Easter Island (La Isla de Pascua)
- Nov 20–28 Galapagos (Los Galapagos), Ecuador
- Nov 29-Dec 6 Atacama Desert (El Desierto de Atacama)
- Dec 8-Jan 19 Cycling around Lakes and Volcanos in Central Chile, the Carretera Austral, and into Argentina
- Jan 20–27 Hiking in Torres del Paine, Patagonia
- Jan 28-Feb 28 From the bottom to the top of Chile
- Mar 1–15 Ecuador and the Cuyabeno River (Rainforest)
- Marc 16–31 Peru and Machu Picchu
The final BJR rankings:
These experiences should be ranked. And analysed, and talked about in coffee shops, nail salons, and discount tyre stores throughout the world. So without further ado:
The best 10 adventures, starting from the best:
1. The Cuyabeno River (Amazon Rainforest), Ecuador
The day of canoeing all the way to the end of the little Cuyabeno was just one magical day in an astonishing week of wildlife.
2. The Galapagos, Ecuador
The wildlife is what puts this at the top, and the importance of preserving this place for future generations. Ecuador should lower the quotas on visitation and make sure this doesn’t get overrun in future years. It’s a bit of a paradox, but I would go back in time and sacrifice my trip to make sure it’s better preserved in years to come.
3. El Chalten, Argentina
The most beautiful town I visited on my trip, and with heaps of great treks that you can start right from town. The food isn’t bad, either.
4. Torres del Paine, Chile
The star of Patagonia. My week hiking the “O” was great from start to finish.
5. Villa Cerro Castillo, Chile
The best day hike of my trip, the views all along the rectangular path were exceptional, and you had to earn every step of the way.
6. Cycling in Chile
I thought this would be at the top of the list, but there were too many other amazing things, that it made this just a part of the trip rather than a highlight.
7. The Inca Trail (and Machu Picchu)
The time with my friend Anu actually made this the best week of my trip, but here I am ranking it in terms of the experience of the tour. The trail is great, Machu Picchu is overcrowded and overrated.
8. Easter Island
If you’re in Chile, in Santiago, you should go. Unless you’re an anthropology nut or have a thing for Moai, it’s not worth the international trip, but it’s still pretty great.
9. The Atacama Desert
While I initially hated this place, my last two days were spent away from the desert towns and instead in the mountains, which is where this place shines so brightly. Also, death is everywhere.
10. Ushuaia, El Calafate
It’s not worth the squeeze to go down here unless you’re on your way to Antartica. There are plenty of other places just as beautiful. While it is the farthest point South, and there are some great hikes, I don’t think it’s any more special than the rest of the Andes.
547,322. The Beaches of Northern Chile
If you live in Australia, you’ve seen lots of better beaches. Most of the towns are dirty, and crowded in February, so I don’t have much good to say, except about Zapallar, which because the city has been smart about growth, is wonderful.
The 5 worst things about my trip in South America
I am sure there is a lot of amazing food in the countries that I visited, but being vegetarian, this trip was no picnic. I did delight in the vegan / vego strip of restaurants in Barrio Italia in Santiago. I loved Indian Stone Vegan in Coyhaique (about the only thing to love about that town). Curcuma in El Chalten was exceptional. El Living in Puerto Natales was an oasis in a world of poorly constructed sandwiches. The biggest surprise was Kawsaytika in the town of Calca. And top honors go to Veronica at El Michay in Villa Amengual, who made me two homemade vegan meals while I stayed there.
But generally, the food available, even when I was willing to eat outside my diet, was poor in most of Southern Chile: white bread, very few fresh vegetables or fruits, and generally the perfect diet to bring on early onset diabetes. Local markets had aisles of packaged cookies and candy but very little natural food. We’ve exported the worst of our lives into the world and they are eating it up.
2. Loose dogs
I ran into an Englishman who was fed up with Chile, and he went off on a three minute rant about the dogs. “They should change the national anthem of every country in South America to three minutes of dogs just barking in full chaos, but start the song with a long off-key howl, and end the song with the same howl.”
It seems like an exaggeration, but after a week of being woken up every hour by barking and fighting dogs, you will begin to see his point, if you can still focus in your sleep deprived state. Then, have a giant St. Bernard run out and attack you while you’re at 30–40 kph on your bike, and you’ll like the lack of responsibility even less. At one bus stop I watched people yell and jump out of the way as a dog began to attack another dog over some trash food.
It’s not the dog’s fault, of course, it’s the owner and the community.
That’s why, in the states (and I translated this practice into Spanish), I never yell, “Bad Dog!” I always yell, hopefully within ear shot of the dog’s home, “You have a STUPID OWNER who doesn’t know how to take care of a dog. Bad Owner! Bad Owner! Your owner is an idiot!” In South America, I had to amend this to say something about the country, “Bad country! You don’t care for your dogs!”
3. Very few people speak Spanish
My first day in Chile, I heard “porfa” and realised it was a shortened version of “por favor,” or please. Then I realised that so many words are mutilated by Chileans! ‘Toy’ I think is short for Hoy (‘today’) and something else. When someone heard me speak and my accent, and they would shift gears into standard Spanish, no problems. But with a different accent, different vocabulary, different verb conjugation (como estaís?), it can be like another language, one that I just refused to speak.
Imagine if someone took the English language, added a ridiculous accent, created short and cute nicknames to use instead of the normal words, and generally spoke entirely in slang consisting of references to cricket, prison, and violence, and then lived in a continent filled with kangaroos and koala bears. That would be ridiculous.
Argentina is often even worse. They pronounce the double-l in Spanish (normally the consonant y-sound) as “sh”. So the first time someone said the sounds, “Como say shama?” (instead of pronouncing it “Como say yama”), I wanted to have them tied up and dragged behind an angry, wooly, spitting ‘shama’. One woman’s accent was beautiful, and her Spanish crystal clear, and I asked what small piece of Argentinian heaven she came from. Her answer: Venezuela. Argentinians are apparently calling to have their own language created. Chileans refer to what they speak as Catalan. Mrs. Heitkamp/Fallon (my high school Spanish teacher), I would like to borrow a ruler and start rapping some knuckles!
4. Lack of headphone usage
I think this is common in a lot of countries, including the US and Australia, but I just wanted to point it out. I don’t care how funny the fails video you are watching is. I don’t care how deaf your grandmother is. I don’t care how long it’s been since you’re talked to your boyfriend or girlfriend.
Take your phone off speaker, put some headphones in, and talk at a normal tone of voice.
Bad mobile phone user! Bad user!
5. Roads and Drivers
I’m going for a two-fer here, since they are interrelated. Many of the roads in Chile were really bad. Apparently in poorer countries they are even worse. The gravel (“el ripio”) is often a lunar landscape as you drive in and out of potholes. Peru was very much the same if not worse.
Now add to this drivers who fly around blind corners on the other side of the road, general disdain for seat belts, passing on double yellows with oncoming traffic. I rescued a man and his family after a single car accident, where he’d clearly just been driving too fast and hit a giant pothole and flew off the road. My gold medal award for worst driving is barely a contest, with the Peruvians winning hands down, since their hands don’t seem to be on the steering wheel, just the horn, and they don’t seem to care about cyclists, pedestrians, cars, or anything in front of them.
Other than the professional bus drivers of TurBus, a Chilean tourism bus line, I only met one talented driver (Orlando) the entire time I was in South America.
It seems like a macho thing, to not worry about it and drive recklessly. But I’ve also never seen so many roadside graves in my life. A lot of people die or kill others for their stupidity. I never saw a car pulled over by the police in five months in South America, so why not drive like an idiot?
Bad driver! Bad roads! Bad drivers on bad roads!
Dishonourable mentions go to rampant chauvinism, generally poorly constructed houses, the horrendous Musak of bad pop covers you hear in every restaurant and hotel, incompetence in airports, the lack of basic plumbing infrastructure, pay toilets, and people named Ricardo.
The Five Best Things about my South America trip
Bacán! El vaso es medio lleno! (Awesome! The glass is half full)
1. The Andes
They are everywhere you look, and they are always breathtaking. Imagine if the took the entire Rocky Mountains, and there was a country that encapsulated almost the entire length of the range. That’s Chile. Or I suppose that’s also called “California.” But the Andes are higher, bolder, sharper, and so much more severe than the Rockies, in my recently glazed-over eyes, that I’m quite awestruck by every glimpse I’ve had.
2. The Unspoiled Wilderness
There is plenty of spoiled wilderness that I saw on my trip, with mines dug into the side of mountains. But I saw far more unspoiled tracks of land, thanks to the founders of Patagonia, North Face, Chilean conservation, and the efforts of a lot of people who fought daily to preserve this incredible place. One of my guides, Brujo, had re-planted something crazy like 40,000 trees with 3 other guys over a handful of months.
3. The People I Met (and The People I Already Knew)
While my trip was explicitly to spend time by myself, in five months you can’t help but meet a few people (and be forced into joining tour groups with them).
Carola, Pili, Gonzalo, Marina, Matt, Nick, Pato, Bruna & Gordon, Vivian, Orlando, David, Dave, Robert, Leland & Beverly, Robby & Becky, Crete & Margaret, Theo, Jon, Angie, Diane, Chris, David, Brujo, Chuma, Samuel, Jairo, Erin, Sarah, and Daniel – un abrazo! Es muy bien conocerles.
A surprise to me is how important a small handful of friends where who regularly checked on me throughout my journey. While at times wifi access seemed like an anchor that I was dragging from destination to destination, a small set of friends were there for me without fail as I gripped the metal bar of the five month roller coaster into which I had chosen to buckle myself. You all know who you are — I can’t thank you enough for being my safety belt.
4. Learning to be Flexible
I cycled a lot less than in had originally thought: A year ago, I was thinking of riding from the top of South America to the bottom. Then with a family wedding, and reading about the conditions in Bolivia, Columbia, and other countries, I shortened my trip to 5 months, and just 3 months of cycling in Chile. Once in Chile, I decided thatI didn’t want to spend my time on crowded highways and wanted to be in nature, so the trip shortened to 60 days. After 30 days I learned that the rest of the cycling would be exceptionally windy, on bad gravel roads. A big part of this trip was learning to be flexible and change my plans. I changed plans constantly, and often didn’t book that far ahead (except when the tourism agencies were pressuring me). Mission accomplished?
5. The Time By Myself
A big part of this trip was getting away from my daily routine and environment, and this certainly did that. Though wifi in almost every location makes it truly difficult to completely disconnect for more than about a week, I still had some long stretches of time where I could enjoy the tranquility of reading a book or staring into space. I wanted to write, and I wrote a reasonable amount (those of who still reading might differ in your conclusion).
As I said before, I’m coming back to Oz very energised for the years ahead.
What are my favourite moments?
- Swimming for 30 minutes with sea lionesses in a bay in the Galapagos. Hello, ladies!
- Canoeing down the Little Cuyabeno river in Ecuador’s rainforest
- Hiking over the top of the stunning John Gardner pass on the “O” circuit in Torres del Paine, as snow fell
- Cycling to the end of the road in Volcán Osorno through fog and wind, up a 10–20% grade
- Reaching the summit of Volcán Toco in the Atacama desert, at 5600 meters (18,600 feet)
- El Refugio in Valle de la Engorda in Cajón del Maipo (outside of Santiago)
- Getting the giggles at 4000 meters on the Inca Trail
What’s next for BJR?
The year (okay, 13 months) of travel is not over! I’ll be in Oz for a few more weeks before I spend time in the states for my nephew’s wedding and my 30th high school reunion. Then back to Oz to become a productive member of society. =)
And of course, there will be an even bigger blog post about “What’s Next,” with even less information and fewer conclusions.
I know you can’t wait.