Trans South America – The Best & Worst

Spend any time talking about lengthy bouts of travel and a question will be asked which starts with the phrase “what was your favourite….?”.

A few will add in its partner “what was the worst…?” while others will probe for the uncomfortable moments, the things that went wrong, the difficult bits – and it is amazing how often those questions, and answers, revolve around bodily functions.

Rarely, if ever, have those questions been answered properly.

There is rarely one definitive answer and if there is, not sure anyone wants to hear me ramble on for long enough to receive it.

So rather than listen to me at length, here is something close to the definitive answer in writing – it goes on a bit (by far the longest post on this site and considered splitting it into two), but you can dip in and out at your leisure and if you are fed up with my words, there are plenty of pretty pictures.

Overlanders at Halloween

These lists have taken a while to compile, partly because it is long, partly because the drive to sit at a desk and write is not necessarily there when you spend all day doing exactly that for work and partly because these lists have taken some finalising.

Did a similar article for my Trans Africa adventure five years ago which generated a good response, so hope this one goes down as well – needing to amend and add categories to the African template demonstrated just how different the two trips were.

The entries have been compiled, ordered, debated reordered, misremembered and, right up to the last minute, changed again.

These are the places, experiences, tastes, sights and bites of the trip, not those in jokes and little moments which only those people who were there can truly experience and understand – there is another long list of them for a future post – nor those personal memories which only one or two people share.

Although those colour the way some of these experiences and places are remembered.

And these are personal lists, others will have their own views and wonder why their favourites are not higher or have missed out altogether.

But this is my list, my version of our trip, everyone’s was different and that is how it should be. Will no doubt rethink the list again within days, but these are the best and worst of those six months.

For now…

Experiences

The sights and things we came to see – not the things that happened along the way (or there would be a different number one), although bumped a few things up the list.

1 Inca Trail, Peru Toughest few days of the trip and the single event which sparked the most concern before the off (right up to the first step) but was rewarded with an unforgettable trek proving something to myself in amazing scenery, all shared with a bunch of mates. Reaching Machu Picchu, glimpsed though the downpour and the crowds, became merely a side product of an unforgettable few days.

El Chalten

2 El Chalten, Argentina High on my list of favourite places (see below), another challenging walk – complete with dodgy knee which is still requiring physio sessions – in a stunning part of the world. May have other reasons to remember it.

3 Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil They are quite stunning, be it seen through Argentinian rain, Brazilian crowds or from above in a helicopter. Empanada-stealing monkeys, toucans and coatis were a bonus.

4 Salvador drumming Pictures and videos from our night following groups of drummers through the streets of the Brazilian city feature cameos of us wandering through shot, often dancing, invariably grinning. Possibly something to do with an hour of free caipirinhas but as likely to be the intoxicating atmosphere and collective joy.

Salar de Uyuni

5 Salar de Uyuni The largest, highest salt flats in the world are billed as a highlight of any South American trip and they live up to the hype. Like nowhere else you have seen and a change of itinerary caused by rioting Bolivians did us a major favour by giving us an extra night and day exploring them. And taking silly pictures.

6 Swimming with pink dolphins, Manaus, Brazil There is, quite rightly, a debate to be had about animals being used for interactions with tourists. But there is no denying the sheer delight of bobbing in an Amazon offshoot with pink dolphins, having them appear from between your legs (insert your own joke) and slapping Danny in the face.

Torres del Paine National Park

7 Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Some things in life are unfair. That one place can be so beautiful whichever way you turn is enough to make other beauty spots jealous. We got lucky with the weather and despite feeling a bit fed up (and possibly hungover) for one of our days camping there, it was easy to sit at the edge of the lake and cheer up.

8 Monkey Island, Colombia Saving one of the best until almost last. Unashamedly touristy but totally enchanting as spider monkeys use visitors for climbing, playing and… well, whatever comes naturally. Probably the highest concentration of pictures per minute of the trip. And the slowest boat ride.

9 El Calafate, Argentina The Perito Moreno Glacier is an amazing sight and one not to be missed, from whatever angle you can manage. Anything else is a (major) plus.

Kaieteur Falls

10 Kaietuer Falls, Guyana The world’s largest single drop waterfall by volume is tucked away in the heart of a remote rainforest, only accessed by an hour-long flight from Georgetown. Totally worth fighting for your place when an initial booking is cancelled (do not mess with an angry Australian lawyer).

Honourable mentions: Sunday Funday (Islas Ballestas, pisco tasting, dune buggies, sandboarding and a night camped in the dunes with a barbecue and more pisco. Lots of it), night’s dancing in Paraty, snorkelling/floating at Rio de Prato, Gaucho Day (horse riding – for some – Halloween onesies, moose dancing and almost unlimited wine and steak), swimming with sea lions at Puerto Madryn, Machu Picchu in the rain, Mashramani celebrations in Georgetown, tubing in Bonito.

Worst Moments

And then there were two – farewell from Bogota

Some lists are difficult to cut down, some are a stretch to make into a full list. Bar the impact of coronavirus on the end of the trip, most of these are as much experiences which added to the whole story as they are real negatives.

1 Bogota Nothing against the Colombian capital, sure it is lovely but went there three times although only left the airport once – and then only to a hotel down the road. Was not meant to return so quickly the final time and without having completed the final five weeks. Will do them one day.

2 Salta Rafting/Cafayate, Argentina – A night dodging masses of small bitey creatures was unpleasant, covering everything we could and hiding in tents after dinner, but was en route to being an amusing anecdote. Up to the point those bites made my hand swell and stiffen, sparking concerns of a fresh bout of the cellulitis which dogged my Trans Africa journey. Thankfully, a quick injection did the job and enabled me to grip a wine glass again. Just in time.

Ominous signs in Cartegena

3 Sunday night, Cartagena The Colombian city charmed us right up to the point when the real world intervened and the growing spectre of coronavirus cut short our trip. It happened in hours, from heading out for an evening meal to returning to updated news and an evening trying to book flights home as they vanished and prices rose.

4 Cusco, Peru Rolled into the jumping off point for the Inca Trail feeling under the weather and headed straight to bed. Was convinced whatever had laid me low was going to stop me trekking. Thankfully, whatever it was (almost certainly altitude-related) had cleared by morning. Not the last unpleasant overnight experience in that hostel.

Morning after the night before in Santiago

5 Tear Gas, Santiago Can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible. For a few minutes. With riots breaking out in the Chilean capital we were confined to barracks, more accurately the bar. Right up to the point a stray tear gas canister landed on the roof and polluted the air.

Honourable mentions: A swollen face from an unexplained allergic reaction, feeling sick in Cuenca (brief relapse of something which hit those of us who stayed in the same pre-trip hostel in Quito), the final hour or so of our open top bus tour in Lima – around the point a man dressed as a monk jumped off a cliff into the sea for us.

Countries

This was easier to rank in Africa when there was more than 20 to choose from, as opposed to nine (and an overseas territory). They all had their merits but a fairly clear winner – and some cheating.

1 Argentina Huge, varied and beautiful, from the deep south in Ushuaia, the mountains and lakes of Patagonia, the endless plains of Patagonia, the thrills of Buenos Aires and the spectacular parting shot of Iguazu Falls. Throw in endless glorious steaks and red wine and it was a place to savour. And they did not make us get our bags off every time we entered.

Laguna Esmeralda, Ushuaia

2 Patagonia Not a country, but my blog, my rules. It is stunning and comes with the bonus of largely feeling you are miles for anywhere, even in the middle of something approaching civilisation. Kept having little happy moments.

3 Brazil The biggest and the country where we spent the most time (although still struggling to adapt from Spanish to Portuguese when we left). A string of memorable place and experiences plus a lot of relaxation. And caipirinhas.

Punta Sal, our first night in Peru

4 Peru Have not always had a great record at altitude but love mountains, usually covered in snow. Walking and existing up them rather than skiing down was a change, to say nothing of the delights of the coast and a fascinating history.

5 Chile They may have insisted on us taking our bags off every time we entered (which we did several times) and greeted us with tear gas and riots, but there was an awful lot to love about the thin sliver down the side of the continent.

Cities

You could spend a long time arguing about what constitutes a city – the news that having a cathedral is enough to qualify in some places stunned people from other countries – so this is the big ones. Not some town with aspirations.

1 Buenos Aires, Argentina There’s something familiar and European about Buenos Aires, all while unmistakably South American. Fascinating (recent) history and culture, safe, a reunion with an old friend, great steak and wine (there is a theme emerging) and dangerously tempting opportunities to stay out until very late. Beware wearing trainers and leaving your room overnight.

Feel the beat in Salvador

2 Salvador, Brazil Not one that registered on the highlights list beforehand. Took about an hour to change (about the second caipirinha) as we were immersed in the vibrant culture, history and life of the most African city in Brazil.

3 Cartagena. Colombia Memories of Cartagena will always come with a cloud as the place everything came to a premature end, but until then it lived up to all the predictions as a place to remember

The view from Sugar Loaf, Rio

4 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil It fights with Cape Town on my list of prettiest major cities. New Year’s Eve on Copacabana, the views from Sugar Loaf, Christ the Redeemer, exploring the beaches and a favela and discovering the delights of a kilo restaurant. One to savour.

5 Cusco, Peru Stunning setting amid the Andes and a unique mix of culture and tourism as the base for exploring the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Would like to have seen more of it.

Honourable Mentions: Georgetown, Ushuaia, Cuenca, Paramaribo, Mendoza

Least Favourite Cities

Darkest Peru – bright spot of Lima

1 Lima, Peru Sure there is plenty to enjoy in the Peruvian capital (charming light and fountain show for starters), although hoped the never-ending open top bus tour would have found it. When not stuck in traffic. Huddling under a constant greyness and the risk of political protests round the corner did not help. Nor did being cursed by a busker.

2 Bogota, Colombia Already mentioned, went there three times and only saw the inside of the airport and a hotel just down the road (plus the detour when the taxi driver could not find it as we drove past pointing). What it came to represent is the major problem.

Places

From smaller cities, towns or anywhere we stopped en route – the places which left their mark, for one reason or another.

1 El Chalten, Argentina Crops up a few times on these lists. It is beautiful and smiled through much of our stay, even while being sat on.

Paraty

2 Paraty, Brazil The caipirinhas or pina coladas may have influenced things, but the old town is charming even if the cobbled streets – washed clean by the tide – are a nightmare to walk on in flip flops. One of the best impromptu night outs.

3 Pucon, Chile Even with a cold ruling me out of a couple of activities (volcano climbing, anyone?), fell in love with what could be a little slice of the Swiss Alps. And after the drama of Santiago, even the protests were fun.

Cafayate

4 Cafayate, Argentina Did not see much of it through the downpour and sleeping off the affects of a swollen hand and medication. But it is very pretty when the sun comes out and has the advantage of you being able to wander around sampling wines at various producers. And empanadas.

5 Bariloche, Argentina They call it the South American Lake District, which says it all.

Places Would Like To Spend More Time In

This could be a very long list – could pretty much have written out the itinerary – but for various reasons, these are the places we just did not spend enough time in, left with places still to explore or missed out on what they had to offer for one reason or another.

Cartagena

1 Colombia Both the places we went and all the places we were meant to go to. Those remaining five weeks from Cartagena to Quito are high on the bucket list.

2 El Chalten, Argentina Nothing but good memories and would love to go back.

3 Buenos Aires My favourite city and barely stopped but got the idea there is an awful lot more to see.

Cusco (inside of the dorm room not pictured)

4 Cusco, Peru Between sleeping off an illness, preparing for and recovering from the Inca Trail (and its aftermath), had little time to explore the city.

5 Santiago Those who had been there before the riots sang its praises. Might be a while before it is back in that condition.

Arequipa

6 Arequipa, Peru Enjoyed what we saw but another one would like to explore more with limited time due to excursions and heading out to Colca Canyon.

7 Cuenca, Ecuador Another which charmed with limited exposure after losing one of the first big nights out due to being in bed.

Purmamarca

8 Purmamarca, Argentina Not sure how much there is to see in and around our first stop in Argentina, but seemed like one of those places you want to stop and chill.

9 Paraty, Brazil Managed to get through quite a bit while we were there but had the impression that could have benefitted from stopping and enjoying the surroundings a bit more.

10 Salvador, Brazil One of those places which is unlikely to get dull.

Natural Wonders

The things which make you go wow, the places which got the cameras clicking at a rate of knots and deserve to appear on those 1001 Things To Do Before… lists.

1 Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil Sorry Victoria Falls, top of my favourite waterfalls list has been rewritten. And it is not that close.

Patagonia – the road to El Chalten

2 Patagonia, Argentina/Chile Wild and wonderful. The whole area is one giant natural wonder, whichever way you look.

3 Torres del Paine, Chile Remote, occasionally inhospitable and staggeringly beautiful.

4 Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina Nature is just showing off across much of Patagonia and it has plenty to boast about at the glacier. Even in the pouring rain.

Kaieteur Falls

5 Kaieteur Falls, Guyana Dry season means the falls were not in full flow but still an amazing sight in the heart of the rainforest. With very cool wildlife.

6 El Chalten, Argentina There is a reason walkers flock to this small town and head up the trails into the mountains. Another staggering Patagonian landscape.

7 Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia You do not need mountains, being totally flat to the horizon and beyond is just as breathtaking. Especially at altitude. Beware tiny dinosaurs.

8 Colca Canyon, Peru Look down two miles, look up and there is a good chance of a condor soaring above your head. If somebody is not trying to show you the picture they just took of a condor, oblivious to what you are watching.

Sunset over Amantani Island in the middle of Lake Titicaca

9 Lake Titicaca, Peru The floating islands of the Uros Indians and a night on an island in the middle of the lake may be a touch touristy (something to do with threes, apparently), but this is one of those places where you have to keep reminding yourself where you are.

10 Argentina/Chile border A personal one. The road down from the border is spectacular with a series of switchbacks down the mountain pass. A sort of South American Alpe d’Huez.

Honourable mentions: Marble Caves at Puerto Rio Tranquilo (even in the rain), top of the mountain near Lencois, waterfall swim near Taquarucu.

Activities

Having gone to these amazing places, sometimes just looking at them was not enough. These are those activities which made the most of what South America has to offer. Well, the non-alcohol related ones.

1 Helicopter Ride, Iguacu Falls, Brazil Not going to try to explain this one, just going to refer you to the picture above.

Our wheels for the dunes

2 Sunday Funday, Peru Apparently got married at some point during a day which saw us head out on a boat to the Islas Ballestas (the poor man’s Galapagos, evidently), try out plenty of pisco (more for the newly married), hit the Huacachino sand dunes in buggies and sandboard down them before camping out in the desert with a stunning barbecue. And lots more pisco.

Getting close to nature

3 Swimming With Seals, Puerto Madryn, Argentina Felt at home in the place where Welsh settlers first arrived in Patagonia. Felt less at home in flippers getting up close to some of the locals. Still pretty stunning.

4 Rio de Prata, Brazil Rather more at home snorkelling with no flippers. Or floating down the current in the clear waters with plenty of fish for company.

Was doubting the wisdom of this

5 Tubing, Bonito, Brazil We had been tubing in the Ecuadorean jungle (see below). This one came with the added excitement of some small rapids and additional jeopardy from being anywhere near Danny.

6 Paraty Boat Trip, Brazil Day relaxing on a huge mattress on a boat, occasionally jumping off it for a swim, to go snorkelling in clear water or chill on a beach. With drinks and food provided. Eventually.

New year arrives on Copacabana

7 Rio Tour/New Year’s Eve, Brazil Fair to say, much of 2020 has not lived up to the final few hours of 2019 which saw us experience the highlights of Rio before heading down to join about 2.9 million others partying on Copacabana. Complete with spectacular fireworks.

8 Boat Trip, Manaus We have touched on the pink dolphins, just the start of a day out exploring local tribes, wildlife – our first sloth – and natural wonders (meeting of the rivers) on a boat close to the Amazon’s largest city.

Drifting the day away

9 Tubing, Ecuadorean Jungle Not much to it, sit in a tube and float down the river with a beer. What’s not to like? Bar getting stuck on a submerged tree trunk and debating the perils of weeing on the move.

10 Fountain and light show, Lima The Peruvian capital’s last-minute redemption, a park turned over to interactive fountains and musical light show. Fun, unexpected night out.

Honourable mentions: Georgetown day out (sightseeing, manatees, beers on the sea wall and trip to hospital, topped off with a few rums), Caravelas boat trip (boobies, tee hee), yacht trip across the lake at Bariloche, massage in Cusco (don’t be rude, much appreciated post-Inca Trail), Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago Museum, escape room in Bariloche.

Wildlife

One of the big differences between South America and Africa is the wildlife elements of the trip – you are not heading out on safari or running into too many elephants, lions and migrating wildebeest (unless they have got very lost). But there are still plenty of amazing animal experiences to savour.

1 Monkey Island, Colombia Second mention for the perfect picture opportunity. Rare to get quite that close, like it or not.

Easy wildlife spotting

2 Manatees, Georgetown Talking of getting close, the strangely charming inhabitants of a park lake were far from shy of posing if you had some grass to feed them.

3 Pink dolphins, Manaus And more getting up close. Not that you could see them until they emerged from underneath you.

4 Seals, Puerto Madryn These guys tended to appear from nowhere underwater as well, looking rather more at home in the water than me. It was a closer run thing on land.

5 Islas Ballestas, Peru The fun was missing from the early moments of Funday Sunday. The smiles emerged as we skirted the islands snapping the birds, scenery and seals lounging on the rocks.

Our neighbours for the night

6 Penguins, Chile There’s something about penguins that always puts a smile on your face. Even when it is hearing them down the hill from bush camp in the night.

7 Pantanal, Brazil Idyllic spot to spend Christmas with toucans, parakeet and pigs wandering through camp (some enjoying the odd drink) and a fair few caiman, capybara and others further afield. A few million less welcome visitors.

Going nowhere fast

8 Sloth, Manaus We had been trying to spot one for ages and suddenly there one was, up a tree on the side of the river above us. Thankfully, they do not move that fast so our guide had plenty of time to point it out. Got closer in Cartagena.

9 Torres del Paine Not so much what we saw but the fox, birds and deer just wandering through camp made it clear this was their land, we were just visiting.

Two in the bush

10 Toucans Brief at Iguazu Falls, longer at the Pantanal, flying free on the Amazon. Growing obsession.

Honourable mentions: Boobies and turtles at Caravelas, golden frog and cock of the rock bird at Kaieteur Falls, sloth and iguanas in Cartagena, coatis  and monkeys at Iguazu Falls (one of them getting closer than somebody wanted as they ate an empanada), condors at Colca Canyon, otters, caiman and birds on the boat to and from Rewa Lodge, Bird Park in Foz, the seriously giant toads in Lencois (thankfully big enough to spot in the dark), the spitting llama in the Andes and the huge pod of dolphins at Punta Sal.

Treks

That this category even exists marks a major change for me. But, ongoing knee problem apart, developed a bit of a love for getting out into these amazing wildernesses on foot.

1 Inca Trail, Peru No denying it was tough but it was a marvellous experience and would gladly do it again. Preferably with better weather on the last morning.

The Fitzroy trek at El Chalten

2 El Chalten, Argentina Did not make it to the very top of the Fitzroy walk, courtesy of a steep finish and a knee which started hurting on the first upward step and still requires physio. Beautiful, challenging without being ridiculous and, helped by gravity and painkillers, a rapid return downhill.

3 Tower Trek, Torres del Paine The other long Patagonian walk and again did not make it to the very top, mainly due to time constraints. Was debating the wisdom as struggled through the first steep pitch, but settling into my own pace, was a delight through something approaching Middle Earth.

The lake at the Cotacachi volcano

4 Cotacachi Volcano, Otavalo The morning after the first night of the trip and the first bit of exercise at altitude. Lovely walk around the lake and, barring a bit of panting on one uphill stretch, provided confidence ahead of the Inca Trail. Came complete with a bit of off-roading on the back of a truck.

5 Laguna Esmeralda, Ushuaia Not that difficult and not that long. If you saw the sign and did not head off in the wrong direction over a bridge.

Honourable mentions: Copacabana (more than an hour each way in flip flops, the return journey after negotiating our way off the beach in the early hours), Trancoso (rather steeper and more emotional than planned).

Most Extreme Conditions

Tomato Soup Bush Camp - The morning after
Tomato Soup Bush Camp – The morning after

We had five tough conditions to deal with – cold, wind, rain, heat and altitude (if you forget sandy, but you learned to put up with that). We got lucky in the most part with the cold in Patagonia and most of the time we had just one to deal with, but every so often they combined.

Tomato Soup Bush Camp, Peru – Cold, wind and altitude combined at an impromptu bush camp we reached in the dark and cook group battled the elements to serve us toasted cheese sandwiches and home made tomato soup.

Very welcome at the time, not so much the next day as the altitude took affect and spent most of the day battling not to see them again.

Good night, even with being dragged out of tent to shut the truck door for someone in the wind.

Soaked at Machu Picchu

Rain It blocked the view in Machu Picchu, we would have got wet anyway at Puerto Iguazu, poured down in Bariloche, Rio Tranquilo and – for the first time in about six months – Cafayate with the town showing the impact aftermath the next day.

Altitude Bar the day from Tomato Soup Bush Camp to Cusco, was surprised at my ability to cope. Mind you, we were all pretty much comatose as we approached 5,000m on the road to Colca Canyon.

Wind Camping and having a party overlooking the sea in a gale at Paracas National Reserve was maybe not the brightest idea but Jeremy’s kite was the only casualty (Cam diving to stop a chopping board following it over the cliff). The damage in the morning had nothing to do with the conditions. Also kept us sitting for eight hours waiting for a ferry.

Heat Hard to say where was the hottest, a few long days on the truck in northern Argentina and Brazil would come close but suggest around the Pantanal would win. Made you very glad of an air conditioned room. Georgetown at Mashramani came close.

Scariest Moments

This was not fully swollen – the outcome of our night at Salta Rafting

Not so much scared of serious injury – although suggest being very careful if stood by a swinging truck door – but there were times when things happened which had you wondering what the immediate implications would be.

1 Swollen hand, Cafayate Count the bites on my hand when they were mere pin pricks – then watched them grow in tandem with my hand. After three bouts of cellulitis in Africa (ending in minor surgery in Zimbabwe), thought history was being repeated until an Argentinian nurse shoved an injection in my, ahem, lower back in the middle of a storm.

2 Sickness, Cusco The illness was not that scary, just unpleasant. But little more than 24 hours before the Inca Trail, was starting to panic it was not going to happen. And you don’t give up your permit lightly.

3 Swollen face, Brazil Have no idea what caused it, but having gone to bed in a bush camp after a long, hot day on the truck, woke in the early hours with my mouth all swollen. Having paramedics on board comes in handy and their advice sorted it out when it returned a few times, even if it did leave me spaced out on the truck for a few hours.

Thankfully, the only unexpected thing in the locker cages in Cusco

4 Fearing kit was getting soaked, Cusco Dorm life comes with an element of the unknown. Waking in the dark to hear a familiar sound from the middle of the room was a shock – you do not want details but our kit in the corner was in danger of getting wet.

5 Follow the rules, Arequipa Don’t leave anyone out alone in certain places (if at all). And if you haven’t seen them in the morning, go check their tent.

Honourable mention: Fearing my phone had met a premature end after forgetting it was in my pocket when jumping off a boat at Caravelas.

Bush Camps

Bush camps – those places where we basically pull up wherever we might be and set up home for the night, devoid of facilities – help Oasis Overland trips stand out from many others. There are nowhere near as many in South America as in Africa, but they remain an essential part of the adventure.

Several stood out for their surroundings, the conditions or what happened there.

1 Cliff above salt lake, Patagonia Rugged, exposed and windy but a night to remember. Wine with the neighbours outside their tent, more wine on the back of the truck (literally) and something more lasting.

Penguins out of shot

2 Penguins, Chile First night with a new tent mate in unusually gentile conditions that far south. Stunning sunset and the sound of penguins if you got up to use the facilities.

3 Cascada Cifuentes, Argentina Last night on the long trek up from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires and another glorious sunset. With an even more glorious sight of the waterfalls in the river which ran alongside camp.

Cascada Cifuentes

4 Puerto Inka, Peru A night on the beach, stolen fires, haunted hillsides, a bar nearby and racist motorcyclists. There was even a shower.

It did not go exactly as planned

5 Stuck in riverbed, Bolivia Late change to the list, but sneaking in at five our major getting stuck moment. Woke to the sight of Danny returning just after dawn on the shovel of a digger – we needed a bigger one to get us out of the soft sand. We also managed to fit in a curry that was too hot for some, Diwali celebrations, a wedding ring lost and found in the sand and one man’s suffering under a bush.

Honourable mentions: Tomato soup bush camp, water hole at Viana (cooling dip, cold beer and a dog asleep in our tent bag).

Worst Bush Camps

1 Swollen face bush camp Nothing wrong with the location, but not in the mood to look too favourably on it.

2 Chilean/Argentinian border We bounced between the two nations repeatedly but the final time was a bit different as the eight-hour wait for a ferry saw us arrive after it was closed. Camping on the side of the road was not too uncomfortable, but came with the added jeopardy that outside our tent was the only place people could use the facilities without being in full view of the parked lorries.

Campsites

As fun as (most) bush camps are, it is always nice to have at least some facilities at an organised site.

1 Torres del Paine, Chile Glorious scenery, wildlife, more glorious scenery and not even that cold. Faultless (if you forget the Thanksgiving stuffing and someone losing all their documents and money).

Night in the dunes

2 Huacachina, Peru The final stop of Funday Sunday, a night in the dunes with a great barbecue and pisco pretty much on tap (or poured down your throat for health and safety reasons). Some may have overdone it and forgotten how to use a tent door. Among other things.

3 Inca Trail, Peru Three campsites to be precise and not much in terms of facilities, although the catering was top notch. Probably the most welcome of the trip after a long day trekking.

Tent with a view

4 Punta Sal, Peru Sleeping on the sand, evenings round the fire, pool to cool off in, sleeping to the sound of the sea and a bar. Shame about the dead seal.

5 Mendoza Soccer Dog, cheese, Toy Story 4 and bloody awful matchmaking.

Honourable mentions: Puerto Madryn, back garden in Dourodos, Itacare

Worst Campsites

1 Salta Rafting Nothing wrong with the campsite. It was the neighbours and their tendency to buzz around and bite you that were the problem.

Places We Stayed

In among all that sleeping under canvas, there was a lot more sleeping in beds (and hammocks) than in Africa as we spent more time in cities or journeyed out to remote places to stay.

1 Dog House, Salvador Tempting as it was to spend all of our time exploring this unique Brazilian city, we had the advantage of a private room, a bar with dining on the cobbled street outside and the main hostel serving breakfast and, most importantly, an hour of free caipirinhas every night.

Festive queue at the bar in the Pantanal

2 Pousada Santa Clara, Pantanal The wildlife, particularly the birds, carried on their normal lives around us at our Christmas hangout and our hosts served up a mountainous festive feast. With the heat and insects to escape, a private, air-conditioned topped it off.

3 Rancho Grande Hostel, El Chalten Modern and clean with the complete overlander wish list – warm, clean bed (if a bit narrow), hot shower, WiFi, breakfast, laundry and a bar next door. Shame about the beer. The surroundings were pretty good as well.

Riverside accommodation

4 Arajuno Jungle Lodge, Ecuador Tom’s Lodge was our first proper adventure and provided a stay to remember. Great food, plenty to drink, campsite dogs, wildlife up close (one very big tarantula in a roof), more great food, hammocks, floating down the river and, after everyone else rushed into the first buildings they found, a room to myself.

5 Totini Hotel, Uyuni The hotel room was comfortable enough (even if someone liberated the toilet roll a bit earlier than was sensible), but it came complete with a large space to sit and drink wine, plus the best pizza in South America. And breakfast was pretty good.

6 Oriental Suites, Georgetown We spent longer than planned there, but at least it was in probably the biggest, most comfortable hotel rooms of the entire trip.

7 Milhouse Hostel, Cusco There are parts which are best forgotten (not that easy, unfortunately), but for one night in the bar alone it earns its place on the list.

Rooms with a view

8 Isadou Jungle Lodge, Jaw Jaw Our Suriname excursion up the river saw us holed up in comfortable rooms, swinging in hammocks and splashing around in a natural pool. Some rum may have been consumed.

9 Milhouse Avenue Hostel, Buenos Aires Some hated it (vocally and in writing), but this was typical hostel life with plenty of life (probably sampled a bit too much), walking tours, tango lessons (honestly), happy hours and en-suite dorm rooms. Which should be made use of rather than going for a late-night wander.

Filling up

10 O Rei Davi, Amazon At least for the first few nights when we had loads of room to swing in a hammock and ignored the cabin we were meant to have every other night. The last couple of crowded nights, not so much.

Honourable mentions: Belem (our room behind glass doors in what used to be the office), the remarkably comfortable overnight coach to Manaus, Ushuaia (the dorm where we managed to lose all our roomies), Copacabana hotel of many windows (and pictures to match), Futaleufu huts, the beach on the truck (for those who did not know the keycode to get in the Ushuaia dorm was on the back of our keys after the doors were locked).

Worst Places We Stayed

Finding a place on this list is maybe a bit unfair on these stops and they were all a means to an end. But they do stick in the mind for possibly not the best reasons.

1 World’s End II Hostel, Puerto Natales It was comfortable, had hot showers, a kitchen and a pizza place pretty much next door. But it was basic and my mood (and cold) made it seem far bleaker than it was.

Where we met – The Majestic

2 South Drain, Suriname Snakes in the grass, cramped camping and farewell to Spongebob. For the final time as it turned out. At least we got some free nuts.

3 Hotel Majestic, Quito It’s a bit unfair as the Unmajestic did the job, a meeting place in the middle of a city with access for the truck. The hardest bed of the trip – and that includes sleeping on a road on an airbed that kept going down.

4 Border Car Park, Argentina/Chile Speaking of which. Had worse nights but odd experience to get up in the night in the full glare of a truck’s headlights.

5 Mini van, Guyana One of the more bizarre evenings (which is saying something). An evening bouncing around on rough roads and then trying to sleep sitting up as we parked up for a few hours.

Food

We have gone through the things we did, the places we stayed and sights we saw, it is on to the things we ate and drank – another big change from Africa as eating what we could find in many places was replaced by meals as a highlight.

So much so, the long list had to be broken into smaller chunks, rather like the opening section which dominated our time in Argentina.

Steak/Meat

The only known pic of the Salta steak – we were too busy eating. Pile of cheesy chips to the left went largely untouched

1 Steak, Salta There was a lot of quality steak, mainly in Argentina, usually accompanied with a good bottle of red. And often some cheese. But one is still spoken of in reverential terms, the big slab at Viejo Jack’s which pretty much melted in your mouth.

2 Steak, Puerto Iguazu If Salta was our introduction to Argentinian steak, Puerto Iguazu saw us out in style. With more red wine.

3 Gaucho Day barbecue, Salta The glory of Viejo Jack’s was still fresh in our minds when we were served up a conveyor belt of meat the next day washed down with, you’ve guessed it, endless wine at a ranch. While dressed in onesies.

Trying to avoid sand in the food

4 Barbecue, Huacachina All a bit hazy (there was a lot of pisco downed in the dunes) but our hosts served up an amazing piece of camp cooking, proving it is not just Argentinians who know how to do this stuff.

5 Lamb, El Chalten Just beat the long wait to get in and served a platter with various huge cuts. Would have been worth a wait.

6 Meat feast, El Calafate They kept placing it in front of us so would have been rude to say no. The black pudding sausages were gorgeous. Some people were spotted at the salad bar.

7 Pork, Mendoza Just to prove there are alternatives to steak, this one was helped by being served up in great surroundings on a pavement in the sun. The meat platter the person next to me could not finish was pretty nice as well.

Welcome to Brazil

8 Steak, Foz Leaving Argentina we had to check what Brazil did with steaks. Very nice it was too.

9 Asado, Banos We did not have to wait until Argentina for our first of their traditional barbecues, our hosts in our first campsite in Ecuador serving up huge piles of meat. It even interrupted the beer pong final.

10 Alpaca steak, Arequipa They are cute and very tasty. Evening memorable for many things, starting with my Jesus complex. What happened later is best forgotten. Quite easily by one person.

Honourable mentions: Pig in the market at Cuenca, Patagonian lamb over the fire at Futaleufu

Street/Local Food

A Jason – and a Rob

There is more meat in this list, mixed in with a few other things – the best of the local food we found served up in restaurants, cafes, bars or by someone running a stall on the side of the street.

1 Meat on a Stick, Otavalo Back to the first night and the pick of the evening street stalls in the main square, various meats on a stick with added baked potato. May have had more than one and we planned for a return for more Jasons – named after a panicked answer to a simple question – on the return we never had.

A Gordo

2 Gordo Breakfast, Cusco After four days trekking, 24 hours awake and an evening celebrating, a huge cooked breakfast (with milk shake) at Jack’s Cafe is the perfect start to the next day. Contains alpaca sausage. Worth a mention for the bagel cafe earlier in our stay.

3 Cheesy chips with bacon, Ouro Preto So good we went back the next day and had exactly the same thing. Multiple forks not really needed.

So good we went back – twice

4 Burgers, Belem Speaking of which, we managed lunch three successive days at the same burger restaurant. Worth the walk to get there, came complete with plastic gloves.

5 Kilo restaurant, Rio The Brazilian kilo restaurant was one we embraced with relish, becoming experts by the end of our stay in Rio. You get a ticket marked by the waiters with your drinks and stamped with the weight of your plate as you finish at a buffet ranging from sushi to cheese, sausages to pasta. Often on the same plate with so much more.

Yeah, the large was a bit too much

6 Vietnamese pho, St Laurent du Maroni The large was a bit much, especially with a spring roll. Very nice, cheap and filling from a little stall and eaten where you can find a seat in the market.

7 Pizza, Cartagena The first visit to the restaurant, eaten outside with a man in infeasibly tight yellow trousers dancing for tips, was delicious. The second a fitting final meal before everything fell apart.

A moqueca for two

8 Moqueca, Salvador Traditional dish on the street outside the bar was more than enough to feed two of us and for me to admit some seafood not served in batter is worth eating.

9 Mercedes’ empanadas, Banos Worth the walk up the road, even if not feeling that great.

10 Tapioca wraps, Trancoso For those who associate it with school puddings, the wraps made from tapioca flour in Brazil are worth eating. If you can avoid dropping half the contents on the floor. Street food in many ways.

Honourable mentions: Casa de Las Empanadas in Cafayate (all 12 of them, washed down by enough wine to make others jealous), cheese on a stick (smoked on a hand-held barbecue on the beaches), cheesy chips in Georgetown (lining the stomach through a hole in the wall), chicken soup at Tena bus station (complete with interesting parts of the chicken), proper bacon in an Aussie coffee shop in Trancoso, the Korma Sutra in Cusco (complete with impressive drunken rant), pastels in the main square in Bonito (we did not need two).

Misc/Stuff We Cooked

Post-trek (non-liquid) sustenance

The food served up, bought on the road or cooked by us which does not really fit in any other category.

1 Waffles, El Chalten Mine was even nicer when it had been sent back because they had forgotten to include the steak.

2 Cheese In many different guises, often blue and runny, and mainly throughout Argentina.

Lunch on the Inca Trail

3 Inca Trail Considering the kitchen, the cooking tent, the gas and all the ingredients had to be carried over steep mountain passes each day, the food we were served three times a day (plus a fourth meal centred around popcorn) was extraordinary and plentiful. Best if you like soup.

4 Toddy’s Pick of the snack stop purchases, packet of cookies which came in a range of varieties, all with a tendency to vanish pretty quickly. Except the Brazilian stale flavour.

5 Dolce de Leche Met with suspicion when it appeared on the breakfast table at Gaucho Day in Argentina, right up to the point someone braved it. From then on, spread on pretty much anything we could find in huge quantities.

6 Barbecue, Pucon While most of the others found somewhere to eat out when we arrived at our campsite in the Chilean lakes, our splinter group headed into a supermarket and loaded up on steak, wine, cheese, black pudding and salami. Which we were still finishing off at breakfast.

Soccer Dog gets distracted from her football

7 Barbecue, Mendoza Post truck clean, we (well, Danny) fired up the campsite barbecue for a meat feast which arrived earlier than expected. Which is why a lot of us were working our way through a pile of cheese, cold meat and crackers for lunch. With begging dogs.

8 Welsh Cakes, Gaiman Not like the ones from my days in Cardiff, but a taste of home as part of an afternoon tea.

9 Tomato Soup Bush Camp Mixed feelings of the sterling efforts of cook group, complete with grilled cheese sarnies, in the wind and cold at 4,500m. Very warming and welcome at the time, not so much the next day.

10 Salami and cheese, Futaleufu We did leave our snug little lodge in the rain for cook group’s effort, but with wine (some of which ended on the floor, some of it hidden) and snacks there was no other reason to budge.

Food at Places We Stayed

Unstolen pizza

We cooked our own when camping but we were also served some wonderful food at places where we stayed and had an extra reason to savour our bed for the night.

1 Minuteman Pizza, Uyuni Got overly excited watching Race Around The World when one of the contestants started wearing a T-shirt from the pizza place at our Uyuni base. Although not as exciting as the pizzas themselves, if you could stop people nicking slices. And the cake. Run by a Boston Red Sox fan as an added bonus.

2 Jungle The ladies in the jungle at Tom’s Lodge did an amazing job, serving up mountains of delicious food three times a day. We even broke off from drinking or playing games for it.

3 Hot buttered toast, Ushuaia The little things make a difference.

4 Breakfast, Uyuni It was not just pizzas, the morning buffet was worth getting up for.

5 Breakfast pancakes, Otavalo Speaking of which. Fuelled us through the walk round the lake.

Worst Food

1 Spaghetti, rice, beans and … For the first couple of days, the staples of every meal on our boat down the Amazon were amusing. By the end, turning up at meals times was more a way of passing time and hoping against hope there might be something different.

Possibly looks better than it tasted

2 Cooked bug, Ecuador Jungle While the food at base was top class, the local delicacy served up on a stick was not the finest idea with a slightly dodgy stomach. First chew was fine, second not too bad, third and beyond just awful.

3 Chilli sauce, Caravelas Strange the things you do waiting for a meal to be served. And waiting. Especially after a few drinks. Could point fingers at the person who suggested tackling the chilli sauce, but too busy crying.

4 Cheesy pasta, Paracas Sorry guys, it was an an early-trip birthday treat and sure it went down well but really not my thing. Which makes agreeing to cook mac and cheese in cook group even more mystifying.

5 Ribs, Paramaribo The ribs were fine, nothing too exciting. What made the meal stand out was the behaviour of one of the people at our table. It was… eccentric. Yes, let’s leave it at that.

Drinks

It would be very easy reading this to think we spent all of our time eating and drinking our way around South America. That is not not true, there were times we were only doing one of them. There were even times when we were not doing either.

The drinking came in varying quality…

1 Red wine, Argentina Too many fine examples to list (and in Chile, to be fair), but delighted to find a couple of them on the shelves back home. Albeit far more expensive. Top marks to the Nanni winery in Cafayate – should not have saved several bottles for the last few nights which never came.

The nightly gathering in Salvador

2 Free caipirinhas, Salvador Brave decision by a hostel owner to supply them for an hour every night. We had stronger (see below) but these were nice and paved the way for a few good nights. Think my best was six, maybe seven. Counting was difficult by that point.

3 Eldorado rum & Coke, Georgetown Simple round order: one bottle of Eldorado rum (the best we found), a bottle of Coke, a bucket of ice and a glass for everyone. Repeat until fade. Best not to let Danny decide the measures. Or have two of you left with a newly bought round.

Beach essentials

4 Caipirinhas, Brazil If wine dominated the first half of the trip, the traditional cocktail took over through our lengthy Brazilian odyssey. Came with the added excitement that you were never quite sure what size and strength you were going to get. Passionfruit variation well worth checking out, as we did at length on the beach at Itaunas.

5 White wine, Buenos Aires Converted to red for much of the trip, but one of two people tackling white at tango night. They were reluctant to leave us the bottle until we assured them it would not last long enough to warm up. We were right. Start of a long night.

Unusual approach to bartending

6  Pina colada with vodka, Lencois Hate pineapple, so really should not like pina coladas. But that is sort of irrelevant if they are topped up by gallons of vodkas by a pre-teen barman at a street stall.

7 Kloss Not all wines which come in plastic containers are bad.

8 Caipirinhas, Foz Our first night in Brazil, first night tackling a drink had never really liked before. Thrown in at the deep end with the strongest of the trip.

Drinks may have been involved in Paraty

9 Caipirinhas/Pina colada, Paraty One of the best nights out of the trip was fuelled by a little stall at the side of the dance floor. We were loyal customers.

10 Pisco Be it tasting at source, downing with mixers in the dunes at Huacachina, in sours or a vivid pink strawberry version marking our arrival in Bolivia, the lesson was clear. Drink before it curdles.

Honourable mentions: Cocktails from a Porto Seguro street stall, Cuba libres in Otavalo or Cartagena, local grapefruit drink and vodka in Salta, rum and assorted mixtures – told mango juice is very nice.

Non-alcoholic drinks

1 Coconut lemonade, Cartagena The pizzas were good, but not sure what drew us back on that fateful final evening, the food or the very moreish drink.

Blood is thicker than lemonade

2 Blood lemonade, Belem It was definitely the burgers which kept calling us back, but the lemonade full of strawberries swung any indecision.

3 Hot chocolate, Inca Trail One more incentive to keep putting one foot in foot of the other, served up with piles of popcorn for our afternoon tea when we hit camp. Ideal amount in a mug needed some working out.

4 Coconuts A touch gimmicky, but served with a hole smashed in the top was a cold, refreshing drink when the heat went up.

5 Inca Cola One for others who bemoaned its absence from Peru to Manaus. Not to be drunk with beer.

Worst Drinks

1 Jenga shots, Otavalo – There was a lot to love about the Red Pub – beer, cheap Cuba libres and Jenga played to different rules. Which involved a forfeit of some local shot served from a giant bottle on the bar which seemed to contain a mini forest.

No pics of the jelly – although if you look carefully

2 Jelly shots, Paracas Made for a birthday celebration and somehow kept relatively level on bumpy roads all day. Came in two halves – a semi-liquid top and then what can best be described as a chewy, alcoholic hockey puck. Some of which ended up all over bush camp, not that everybody noticed.

3 Fernet Danny drank it partly so nobody else would want to drink it. There’s a reason for that, despite a few people with dubious taste.

4 Rehydration salts Victory in the truck beer pong tournament was partly credited to me swigging a salty concoction rather than beer following a dodgy stomach. Would much have preferred the beer. Disgusting.

5 Doctored Coke, Huanchaco It was hot, sandy and sticky as we explored the Sun and Moon Temples, cold Cokes in the eskie were calling. Right up to trying to down one and discovering they had been doctored with a lot of rum in a genuine case of spiked drinks.

Old enough to know better

6 Orange stuff, Buenos Aires No idea what it was, but poured from a height direct into my mouth (see tango night white wine).

7 Breakfast Jagermeister, Lima Birthday celebrations started early on the back of the truck, bottle vanished quickly.

8 Free shots, Cusco Won by throwing bottle tops into a bucket above the hostel bar, they appeared on a table crowded with drinks. And some were the last ones left.

9 Inca Cola and beer Three cocktails in three countries in three hours floundered when the Peru bar only had beer. So we made our own – or stuck to beer.

10 Punch, Trancoso More birthday celebrations. At least we waited for the afternoon this time. Squirt gun delivery optional.

Honourable mentions: Beer in the bar in El Chalten, Mate

Bars

And where there’s a drink, there is somewhere to serve them. They came in all varieties from quite fancy premises (by overland standards) to street stalls, hole in the wall places to people pretty much serving drinks out of a cool box. We were willing to try them all.

1 Nanni, Cafayate Not strictly a bar, but they sold bottles of wine (and boxes) and let us sit in the courtyard sampling them at length. Came complete with dog which accompanied us back to the campsite.

Rum may have been involved

2 Red Bar, Georgetown Some weird sort of magnetic attraction which stopped us leaving before it all got a bit messy.

3 Zulu Bar/Hostel Galeria We stayed in an annexe of the hostel (The Doghouse), but were fixtures at the nightly happy hours and the bar over the narrow, cobbled street with great food to mop up the free caipirinhas.

4 Dublin Pub, Ushuaia We had to go to the end of the world for probably the closest we got to a British pub, decent beer and food (when it arrived). Difficult to get a seat, so best to get in early and not move .

Classy spot between a wall and a bus

5 Three Bars In Three Countries None of the bars were that great (one of them was more a table at the front of a bus next to a street stall by the Brazil/Colombia border), but added up to more than the sum of their parts. Reason behind drinking mayonnaise remains a mystery.

6 Street stall, Paraty Fuelling a night on the impromptu dance floor next door. And the headaches heading out on a boat the next morning.

The Horny – and, apparently, thirsty – Llamas back in Cusco. This was still early

7 Milhouse Bar, Cusco The final steps of our Inca Trail trek took us to the top floor of the hostel where drinks kept multiplying. My first outing as a seat.

8 El Chalten Great bar, right next to the hostel and stopping off point en route back from trekking. Being a seat taken to new levels. Shame about the beer.

Drinking with added jeopardy

9 Ice Bar, El Calafate One of the shortest times a group of us spent in a bar. Amazing what you can get done in half an hour. While dressed for the South Pole.

10 Red Pub, Otavalo Right back to the beginning. Freeform Jenga and musical admissions people would hold against me for months.

Honourable mentions: The serve yourself bar in Bonito, riverside bar in Paramaribo, Tasting Patagonia wine tasting on the pavement in Mendoza, bar next to restaurant in El Calafate.

Purchases

Not a great one for buying keepsakes or anything to fill up my bags (take enough of that stuff with me). But six months on the road is pretty much guaranteed to bring some essential (or non-essential) purchases.

1 Toucan Christmas present (with surprise noise) and slight obsession. We remain in daily touch.

Pristine Homers

2 Homer Pair of Havaianas which lured me in at Pucon. Showing signs of wear so pristine replacements bought (although not yet worn) in Manaus.

3 Kit for Inca Trail The warmer sleeping bag and walking poles hired in Cusco proved essential purchases, as did the poncho. Money spent on porter to carry my bag was even more worthwhile.

It was probably a bit hot for it to be honest.

4 Moose onesie Maybe it is a moose, maybe a reindeer. Bit too hot for Halloween in Salta and fitted a bit snugly, but had an entire dance named after it.

5 Alpaca rug Picked up on the first day in Otavalo (after someone else had haggled for an identical one) and provided crucial comfort and warmth as we headed south.

6 Pillow Bought for me by someone who felt sorry for me sleeping on a rolled-up hoodie. And proceeded to use it as much as me. More latterly used by a family of cats apparently.

Soon felt quite at home

7 Hammock Was not looking forward to sleeping in it. Now looking for somewhere in my flat where it can be hung.

8 Rucksack My shoulder bag started ripping at Heathrow, the day bag on my main bag was small and the shoulder bag from Cayenne was… well, rubbish. Replacement (big enough, not falling apart) finally found in a street market in Manaus.

9 Tiger Balm An impulse buy when loading up pre-trip, proved the best solution to itchy bites. If you could get past the initial burn. Clears the sinuses as well.

10 Nanni wine Would be higher on the list if we had got round to drinking it.

Worst Purchases

1 Shoulder bag Was fine until two zips burst. Pretty much the first time it was used. Held together with safety pins until thrown in a hostel bin.

The creamy ones did not last

2 Creamy pisco They lured us in by trying to sell us stuff after giving us loads of free, alcoholic samples. Very nice – if you drank the creamy versions well before the best before date.

3 New water bottle Went for size above practicality. Which means even more can spill out all over your sleeping bag if the seal breaks.

Mistakes

You learn from your mistakes, they say. So at this rate, another few overland trips and the lessons will have sunk in and will get things right.

1 Not getting a new airbed Spells of lying on it in my flat had convinced me it still stayed inflated long enough. Clearly did not try it for long enough.

2 Picking the smallest locker Having learned my lessons from Africa, opted for a locker away from the door of the truck. Without realising it was not as deep as the others. When got it to myself late in the trip, somebody decided the seat above was their personal space meaning their stuff had to be moved – and the rubbish shoved down the back required clearing – every time it needed opening.

3 Not drinking our Nanni wine We got through a fair amount, but were saving several very good bottles for the final few days.

4 Losing old water bottle Somewhere in or around Lake Titicaca is an excellent water bottle with how much you should be drinking marked on the side. Was attached to my backpack when we left.

5 Leaving my baseball cap on the truck The only time it was not on my head or in my bag, it was left on a truck we would not see again. Heading into a time when head covering was pretty important. Finally reunited

Honourable mentions: Losing my Gloucester rugby bobble hat on the salt flats, not covering certain places which got bitten, Manaus ballet (“five per cent ballet, 95 per cent running around” although the Opera House was cool), not saying anything sooner…

Insect Bites

Any regular readers will know my reputation as a magnet for anything that buzzes and, inevitably, bites. Making the seat next to me in very popular for anyone wanting the insects distracted away from them. Some places are worse than others…

Shining a light on the enemy

1 Pantanal My legs became Christmas lunch for insects. My back was worse evidently, courtesy of the mossies, despite being covered up.

2 Salta Rafting Close call for top spot as this one required a trip to hospital, but sheer weight of numbers swayed the decision.

3 Tom’s Lodge First exposure to my nemesis. Morning relaxing in a hammock was not such a good idea.

4 Arequipa Some nasty little things in the grass got at my legs, sparking the first attempts to learn antiseptic cream in Spanish for the pharmacy. Showing my legs worked better.

5 Salta Evening sat chatting with a few bottles of red came at a price. At least the insects never dragged you out of your tent.

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First Among Equals

Day one

A YEAR ago today, wandered off a plane and stepped foot on South American soil for the first time.

Hanging gingerly from my shoulder was a bag which had chosen heading through security at Heathrow as the perfect moment for the seam alongside the zip to tear.

The chances of it lasting as far as our starting point in Quito (particularly given the taxi ride to get there), let alone reaching the return of the Ecuadorian capital seven months later, seemed remote.

It did make it as far as the centre of Quito, it made it as far as our rendezvous with the truck and, courtesy of taking up residence in the bottom of my locker, outlasted its initial replacement (ditched in a hostel dorm in Manaus).

Holed up in Brazil

But it never made it back to Quito. None of us did.

It has, however, completed a year in South America.

While those of us left were forced home from Cartagena as coronavirus made onward travel in Colombia impossible – five weeks short of that complete continental circuit – the truck we had waved farewell to after it failed to fit onto a replacement ferry from Suriname to Guyana had made it as far as Brazil on its long trek to rejoin us somewhere en route.

And six months on, there it – and driver Will – remains holed up.

The now well-ventilated bag, its dwindling contents and what was deemed surplus to requirements for what we thought was just a few weeks apart – walking boots, dirty laundry, sleeping bag, alpaca rug, boxes of contact lenses, assorted cables, my growing collection of discarded sleep mats, a squirt gun and the essential moose/reindeer hybrid onesie among other things – has been boxed up ready to send home.

That is not supposed to be an opening

Once they can get it to a delivery company office that is open.

A litre bottle of rum (and, probably, the pile of bags of nuts which came with it at duty free) and several bottles of very nice Argentinian red have been donated to the helping Will make it through six months in one place fund.

There is nothing there which is urgently needed – although that wine, those boots and a decent rain jacket would be nice – but it is symbolic of the feeling about the end of the trip.

A feeling of unfinished business.

Things have been a bit odd everywhere since we beat that hasty retreat six months ago – you may have noticed, there has been a lot on the news about it.

Who needs a truck?

A feeling of disconnect, of everything being a bit out of focus while my working from home world has been condensed to one room for much of the day – the move from desk to adjoining sofa differentiating day and evening with the 10-minute walk along the canal bank to Sainsbury’s providing the outer limit of my world.

The newly reopened gym is positively exotic

All a far cry from when the world encompassed whatever South America could provide to keep the cameras clicking and memories layering up.

With face masks replacing passports, my world has shrunk as borders, opportunities to travel and even the office door slammed shut.

Amid all that, been trying to come up with a coherent enough judgement on six months in South America to write this reflective piece – started more than once, but…

That feeling of unfinished business made it hard. Without a natural finale, it was hard to draw a line under it all.

Sun sets on our trip in Cartagena

Speaking with people about the trip, while socially distanced, of course, three questions have repeatedly popped up – coronavirus cutting short the trip, my favourite bits (we will get to that in another post very soon, promise) and how South America compared with Africa on my last big adventure.

The simple answer to the last one is that it doesn’t.

There are obvious similarities – clocking up the miles on a big yellow truck which became home for months on end, living with a group of disparate people from around the globe (some of whom are easier to deal with than others), bush camping, cooking in the wild and cramming in one amazing experience after another.

But there are more differences.

While large chunks of Africa involved travelling for days between destinations – when there may not be much to see or do bar explore the unfamiliar – in South America you are joining the dots between attractions, excursions and things to do.

Leaving the truck behind for the first time

Usually on better roads.

In Africa, food was dependent on what we could find – often not very much on the road – while in South America food was plentiful and often an attraction. And drink. Plenty of it (not that we were abstinent in Africa).

Camping, mainly with no facilities, was the norm in Africa but we saw far more beds in South America and creature comforts were far more common when we did camp.

And while we rarely left Nala – barring three nights in Zanzibar, even when we did move into alternative accommodation, we had access to our stuff on the truck – packing an overnight bag for a period away from Spongebob became a regular feature.

Never did get that right.

City break

Large cities were few and far between in Africa when we largely, Bamako, Cape Town and Addis Ababa apart, were away from the centre while the likes of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, riot-torn Santiago, that unexpected finishing destination in Cartagena and so many more were South American highlights in their own right.

Lima not so much.

Trans Africa: The Best and The Worst

Those highlights, amazing in both, are many and varied but while extraordinary animals dominate much of the Africa list – particularly in the south and east of the continent – natural wonders feature heavily in any list of the greatest hits of South America (coming soon, honest).

Not to be left out

With apologies to Victoria Falls, Table Mountain, empanada-chasing monkeys and toucans, to name just a few.

To cut a very long answer short (and far too simple), you experience Africa, you experience things in South America.

Lessons learned from those 10 months in Africa helped a fresh approach to dealing with the length of the trip, spending hours on the truck and days with the same people – and the inevitable irritations.

Put it simple, don’t sweat the small stuff (although the small stuff can be more than worth spending your time on) – and try not to compare everything to life in Africa.

Hard to compare

And a personal promise to do more stuff out of my comfort zone provided many entries on that greatest hits list – not exactly a spoiler to mention that walking the Inca Trail will feature highly – helped by doing more than writing get fit on the to-do list and actually doing it, however much my knee is still complaining about it.

But which was better, somebody will inevitably ask regardless of the explanation.

Impossible to answer, both were extraordinary and looking back over my daily notes from both – only taken five years to turn a shorthand diary into a lasting chronicle of Africa – has produced a string of wonderful memories, forgotten moments (the hidden highlights which only those who were there can fully appreciate) and smiles.

Have one very good reason to be slightly biased towards South America but probably need to do them both again to come up with a definitive answer (if anyone fancies funding it).

Worth the effort

And so what of future travels?

It is hard, nay impossible, to plan anything in the current situation – who knows when it will even become an option with travel all but wiped out?

Among a long, unwritten list, those remaining few weeks in Colombia and back to the starting point of Quito are pencilled in by some of us, albeit with no hint of a potential date.

Then there is the remaining 10 US states to tick off, Route 66 to drive down and the Silk Road trip which was the initial plan before South America took over.

Not to mention the idea of a repeat overland jaunt around Africa, floated somewhere in a bar and one which is seriously on the cards somewhere down the line.

And then there is Australia.

But that is a whole other tale.

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I Wanna Die to I.D.

The journey is over. It has taken an age, not helped by taking a six-month or so break along the way for another trek, but we have made it.

We have completed the lengthy trawl through songs beginning with the single letter I on my iPod.

And we have even gone a little beyond, throwing in a few extra where the I is followed by a bit of punctuation – all before another long run of tracks following the I with an apostrophe.

But pretty much a year to the day since setting out with Cheatahs – the start of the live post of the A-Z during the blog a day through May challenge we have reached the finale, via that rather length detour (almost) around South America and through lockdown.

The final I track, I Won’t Lie To You by Let’s Wrestle, takes me back even further and probably deserves the full telling of a tale touched upon a few times – especially given what is running through my headphones while writing, but we will get to that.

Once upon a time, back when my knees, shoulder, back and liver held up long enough to play rugby on a Saturday afternoon, my winter weekends were pretty much spoken for – Friday night in my soon-to-be local again Dr Foster’s, the next day mixing trying to avoid both injury and drinking too much.

With limited success.

Once the final whistle went on the season, it heralded a summer of freedom.

A fair few weekends were spent largely split between bed, the sofa, the golf course and Dr Foster’s (about 100 yards or so from the flat which becomes home in a few days, bringing with it the first actual bed since before lockdown kicked in).

But a decent number brought a Friday evening journey to London and what, in hindsight, was good practise for sleeping on a sofa in the front room of my mate’s flat. About 10 minutes walk from Seven Sisters tube station.

He became the godfather of Travel Marmot, setting up this site after a late-night discussion while waiting for me to surface from his spare room – bit of an upgrade from the one-bedroom flat.

Travel Marmot still resides on his company’s server, so best not do anything to annoy him.

Back then, he was the first of our group at school to marry, the first to fledge the nest and head to that there London, providing the perfect bolthole for a weekend away for a gig (Carter somewhere in Brixton and Billy Bragg at a benefit on Hackney Town Hall steps spring to mind), a trip up West or, almost inevitably, a Sunday morning wander around Camden Market before heading off to catch my National Express home.

My rent for imposing on the newly-weds’ spare time was a C90 compilation tape each time, building a collection which became known as The Bollock Tapes after some seemingly hilarious pun to do with the Sex Pistols.

Sadly, the trips became increasingly infrequent as work commitments – which would, combined with injury, put an end to the rugby as well, although not the post-match drinking as my expanding waistline would prove – and their growing family made it impossible to continue in the same pattern.

Although still brings a welcome wave of recognition on boarding a National Express coach.

And the reason for this trip down memory lane?

That closing entry on the run of I tracks came from Let’s Wrestle, who featured on bass Mike Lightning – eldest son of my friend and his wife (with the stepson of Loft and Weather Prophets’ front man Peter Astor on vocals and guitar).

Not sure those compilation tapes can take much (or, let’s be honest, any) credit but musical creativity clearly runs in the family – my money’s on it coming from their mother – as this afternoon’s listening would attest.

My weekend place in my London family would be taken full-time by two boys and a daughter, Poppy, who first met when she was just a few days old.

She has grown a bit since then and is now the singer, guitarist and songwriter of rising band Girl Ray, whose second album Girl was featured today on one of the joys of the coronavirus lockdown – Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties.

The idea, from Charlatans front man Tim Burgess, is simple – press play on an album at an agreed time and follow along or chip in with band members and people involved in making the record on Twitter (#timstwitterlisteningparty).

You can even join in if you missed one – check out the website for what is coming up (very excited for Every Vally with Public Service Broadcasting in a few weeks) and also to replay the tweets in real time as they came in while you listen to the album.

It has provided a welcome, illuminating, communal break from lockdown for music fans and hopefully there is a place for them when some form of normality resumes as they have provided some wonderful escapes into albums old and new, reminding us of the power of music to transport us to better places and times.

Somehow, listening to it together adds something extra.

Pick of the bunch for me have been Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs – forgotten just how good that record is – and Burgess’ own pick as the highlight, Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout.

Long argued it contains one of the most perfect first sides of any album and, aided by the contributions of singer Wendy Smith and bass player Martin McAloon, heard new things even 30-plus years after my first listen.

Pretty sure tracks from it would have featured on those Bollock Tapes.

Not sure too many, if any, other tracks from this latest section of the A-Z would have followed suit.

It was a section of pretty much getting through the final stretch from newcomers Disq to the unfathomably popular Kasabian which mainly taught us how many songs The Beatles had beginning with I (and it’s apostrophe-ridden relatives, believe me).

Certainly not a chunk of songs that will be revisited and replayed on Twitter any time soon.

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I Need Direction to I Wanna Destroy You

SO what have you got up to in the 56 days since Boris Johnson flapped his paws around above a big desk and introduced unprecedented restrictions on our life?

By law, in an unprecedented move, the word unprecedented has to be repeated an unprecedented number of times in the opening few paragraphs.

Risked breaching restrictions by not using the word coronavirus before this point – managed it for an entire article for the first time the other day which was a pleasant change, but was fretting over being picked up for not using the correct number of unprecedenteds.

Hope you have been getting further down that list of long-planned jobs than me.

Have you learned a language? Upped your sourdough production level to that of a cottage industry? Watched every programme that someone has recommended on Netflix, Amazon Prime and iPlayer? Or made a scale model of Chris Whitty fashioned out of the clippings from the family’s lockdown haircuts?

Good luck if you have. Or if you have managed to get anything extra done.

Even one word of Spanish, half an artisan crumpet or the opening credits to Tiger King would be one up on me.

As would a haircut, although lucked out by having one in Cartagena days before being forced to flee Colombia (well, find an earlier flight home, but flee adds an element of drama sadly lacking in the rest of my lockdown existence) and have the advantage of there not being that much hair there to start with.

Have bucked the trend a bit by staying largely clean shaven (well, once a week) for the first time in at least six years, but good intentions don’t survive here.

Been too busy.

When Boris Johnson – and please, it is full name, the Prime Minister, Johnson or… well, sure you can come up with something, never just Boris – announced the restrictions on March 23, had been home for five days and was heading for a third night spent on my sister’s sofa (still there) having given up my flat to head to South America.

And a day away from my first Government-sanctioned bit of exercise – what has become the daily walk round the local roads, via one of a couple of shops, which are starting to be a bit repetitive – and sending out a raft of job applications.

Jobs anywhere are pretty thin on the ground, certainly in journalism with former colleagues furloughed or taking pay cuts, and most of the applications came back pretty quickly with a message saying the vacancy and recruitment had been put on hold.

Was steeling myself by the weekend to going back to my teenage years and getting a job stacking shelves, collecting trolleys or whatever the essential supermarkets needed doing.

Anything to earn a few quid until something else turned up and allow me to find somewhere to live and bid farewell to the sofa and my new roommate. More of him later.

And then, on the Sunday evening, came a message from one of those job applications. A quick exchange and a morning phone call later and before you could explain the R number to somebody, was sat at the dining room table writing a story about the impact of the coronavirus (see, impossible not to mention it) on school fees.

What started as one story, became a couple a day, then more and before any of us really knew what had happened, was working full-time as a freelance, writing about business.

Try not to tell anyone (think have got away with it up to this point) but it is not my specialist subject and have leaned heavily on some advice gleaned early in my career – there is no such thing as a stupid question.

Not all advice stands up to scrutiny, as someone who tried to talk me through some economic figures will gladly attest.

But it is amazing what you can learn in a short time when the rest of the world is on Duolingo, nursing a sourdough starter or binge-watching The Stranger (did actually watch that, but had seen half of it with subtitles on the iPad in a hammock next to me on a Brazilian ferry, while its owner kept kicking me).

So my day has fallen into a routine far tighter than the one discarded in August in favour of living out of a bag on the road.

My commute is somehow even shorter than the couple of hundred yards it was, this one taking in the metres from sofa to dining room table (via the kitchen) for 8am and a morning tapping away at the laptop before the lunchtime newsletter goes out.

A quick break for lunch – and clearing storage on a crammed laptop which was painfully low until a couple of weekends of back-ups and reboots – and it is more of the same, if without a looming deadline, logging my hours for the invoice and off on my daily bit of exercise cum escape from the confines of the office/living space which has made up most of my world for the last nine weeks.

And with a nightly call to Australia (see recent posts if you are wondering about that one) before bed, that leaves just a few hours for food, language learning, bread making and box set addiction.

In my case, replace those with sorting through, stealing and ordering thousands of pictures from South America and turning my trip notes into a lasting chronicle of the previous six monhs.

Or, to be more accurate, getting distracted by something on my laptop and finding a myriad of ways to avoid doing whatever had been allocated for that night’s lockdown task.

All this to a soundtrack of a few fresh musical arrivals, a new fondness for podcasts, those 15 albums on Facebook which shaped my musical tastes, Tim Burgess’ Twitter listening parties – one of the great plusses of this whole crisis and something worth covering in a future post – and the latest trawl through the A-Z of my iPod.

That, usually listened to on the daily walk, took us from Teenage Fanclub to The Soft Boys (a sort of tribute to a musical Facebook group) via an occasionally diverting, if hardly headline-grabbing, collection of tracks as the lengthy trawl through I songs continues.

The Stone Roses wanna be adored so much they told us three times, perhaps why The Ramones wanna be sedated with The Smiths probably summing it up best with I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish.

REM popped up with I Remember California and I Took Your Name (twice) and there was also repeat appearances from Sufjan Stevens (I Saw Three Ships and I Walked) with notable outings from Stornoway (I Saw You Blink), I Am Kloot (I Still Do) and a decent discovery from The Orielles with I Only Bought It For The Bottle.

Could have said that a few times in recent months.

One last thing.

My lockdown bed – just need to remind my roomie of that

Mentioned my roommate earlier on, usually to be found on the sofa across the other side of the room, occasionally in his bed in front of the television and, far too often, trying to get up on my sofa or just being disruptive in the middle of the night.

Harry is a, very nearly, eight-year-old chunky black Labrador and the fact he is here to keep me awake through the night is something of a miracle.

Certainly various vets thought otherwise when he suddenly lost the use of his back legs at the start of last year.

But he is very much still with us, scooting around propelled with his immensely powerful front legs and, when the mood takes him, with his wobbly back ones playing an increasing part.

When they can keep up with his front ones.

Last night he slept through until 8am, the night before we got as far as 2am. And then 4.30am, before finally gave up any hope of a lie-in sometime around 6.30am.

Hoping the snoring coming from the other side of the room is a sign he is settling in for another long night asleep – after a final whizz/drag round the block, depending on how helpful he is feeling.

Maybe my lockdown existence is not quite so predictable after all.

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I Found Love to I Must Have Been Blind

MY diary for much of 2020 has not exactly been full. It has been – and remains – pretty much empty. My routine was sorted on the road, did not need a diary.

But the morning of April 21 has long had an entry inked in – Oasis Trans South America trip ends, Hotel Majestic, Quito.

It is still there on the Google Doc which acts as my calendar, diary, life organiser, time-wasting tool and handy record of where my travels have taken me.

What actually happened on the morning of April 21 involved being woken by a whining Labrador, rolling off the sofa, throwing some clothes on parts of me that can be seen in a Zoom chat, grabbing some toast and plugging myself into my laptop for another day working from the dining room table.

Not exactly what was planned, but that goes for pretty much all of us at the moment.

So instead of getting up in Quito, probably grabbing some breakfast at the bakery on the corner and checking out for somewhere slightly less ironically named for a couple of night’s before the final, sad farewells and a flight home, reality finds me back home and falling into some form of new routine.

Well, sort of back.

And some sort of reality.

Rather than bringing you up to date on the events of the final stretch through Colombia and retreading some familiar ground back to Quito in the South America blog – we will get there with a few mop up posts and some advice for anyone, eventually, following in our footsteps – we have the rather sooner than planned return of the A-Z iPod blog.

For any new readers who have stumbled across this site expecting tales of travel – or even marmots – the A-Z is an alphabetical journey through my iPod, listened to in order and chronicled in these posts amid a torrent of tangents and whatever is running through my mind when tapping away at the keyboard

Me from the past can explain how it works here:

A to Z – How To Get There

There are a few big differences between the return of the A-Z and when it went on its holidays in September ahead of my South American adventure.

For starters, until just before the off was single, ensconced in my flat, working on a paper and was free to wander, headphones in and working my way through the rising number of tracks on the journey – 14,739 tracks and rising.

Now am not single, know an awful lot more about Australian time zones, am locked down at my sister’s during the coronavirus pandemic and doing some freelance reporting with the avowed aim of writing an article that does not involve the words coronavirus pandemic.

And listening to the A-Z is mainly being done during my daily, government-sanctioned exercise – a walk around a variety of routes along the pavements (and middle of the road to maintain social distancing) close to home, invariably via a bit of shopping for some essentials. Wine, crisps, beer…

It has also been exclusively on the new iPod Touch bought not long before the off due to fears that my battered, well-travelled iPodClassic was not going to make it all the way round.

Those fears were grounded as, pressed into action for the first time when its new cousin had been borrowed by the person sitting next to me on the truck, it coughed, spluttered and gave up the ghost, the screen showing nothing but some bizarre pattern which was pretty easy to interpret – this is an ex-iPod.

So my daily wanderings and still fairly new, if much-used, companion have been continuing the lengthy meander through songs beginning with I.

I Am The Resurrection to I Found A Way

There are a lot of them. An awful lot.

It’s been an eclectic section from Palma Violets to Brendan Parry with a fair few familiar faces, plus a few you might not expect.

We had a fair few people declaring their hatred for things – Nerys Hughes (Half Man Half Biscuit) and This Town (John Grant) while The Jesus and Mary Chain vowed both love and hate of Rock ‘n’ Roll in different entries.

Other declarations of love came for NYC (Andrew WK, who with I Get Wet twice raised questions about why there was, briefly, so much excitement about him) and You (Billie Eilish – one for the kids there and perfectly good, bar the insistence on refusing to use capitals letters).

Half Man Half Biscuit were also back in this stretch with I Love You Because (You Look Like Jim Reeves) and Sun Kil Moon with I Love My Dad, all six minutes and 16 seconds of it in contrast to just one minute forty seven seconds of the rather more wordy I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Greatest Night of My Life.

Maybe that is what The Smiths were referring to in I Know It’s Over but I Might Be Wrong, which brought us two outings for Radiohead. The live version is better.

And there were notable outings from The Boo Radleys (I Hang Suspended from the wonderful Giant Steps album), the almost inevitable Billy Bragg (I Keep Faith), The Sundays (I Kicked A Boy) and Paul SImon (I Know What I Know).

Blink-182 popped up with I Miss You, a reminder that they had the ability to turn out a good tune, if not pronounce head properly. Which still grates.

But last word in this entry goes to John Prine.

When I Have Met My Love Today popped up fairly early in this section, it was just another in the long list of songs sending me towards further exploration of a veteran artist who had passed me by for many years.

His death from COVID-19 adds poignancy and has sent me down the rabbit hole of his substantial back catalogue to discover quite why so many artists name him as a major influence.

And provides a sobering moment of quite why we are going through this strange form of existence.

  • As well as John Prine, it would be remiss not to mention two other musicians lost to the coronavirus – Andy Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, who certainly crops up on this journey, and former Soft Boys (among others) bassist Matthew Seligman. Not sure if he plays on anything on my iPod, but we were fellow members of a Facebook community which has provided me with plenty of fun and musical tips over the last few years. A member of David Bowie’s band at Live Aid, he is spoken of in nothing but glowing terms by fellow members of the group.
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