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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The Inca Trail

My view of Machu Picchu

LEGS full of three days walking and drenched after trudging the final few hours from camp, we climbed the final steps to the classic view of Machu Picchu.

What we got was not the famous vista over the ruins and terraces and beyond to the looming mountains.

It was there. It was just hidden behind a blanket of cloud, rain and the first influx of day trippers who had taken the easier option – the one convinced was right for me until a moment of madness – and arrived by train and bus.

But did it really matter?

To the day trippers, certainly. This was their Machu Picchu experience, something they may have looked forward to for years only to be greeted by a downpour and limited visibility.

And yes, it would have been lovely to see the Incan site in all its glory. It is impressive even in these conditions.

But at some point in the previous three days trekking through, up, down and over Andrean mountain passes, the destination became secondary to the experience of getting there.

Don’t want to go as far as claiming some sort of epiphany on the road to Machu Picchu, but those three days – rarely easy, often extremely testing – proved a few things to myself and provided a shared experience which the nine of us who were lucky to get the limited permits on offer each day for the Classic trek will remember forever.

It was challenging, at times painful, frustrating and exhausting, but it was fun, rewarding and utterly exhilarating. 

And it gave us immense respect for a special breed of men who did everything we needed and more beyond actually dragging us the 40-odd kilometres.

Ended it not on my hands and knees as expected, but in one piece, going strong and with a new perspective on what is physically possible – even if the first post-trek challenge was to head up to the hostel bar and try to stay up for 24 hours.

Have spent much of the time since being convinced to opt for the Classic trek over the train saying the feeling was equal parts excitement and dread.

By the eve of the trek briefing at our hostel in Cusco, that balance was nearer to three per cent excitement amid the balance of panic.

But with warmer sleeping bag and walking poles hired, gear squeezed into my back pack and the 7kg allowable in the duffel bag for one of the porters to carry and our guide Gerson’s briefing sorted, there was no turning back.

The official start point

We certainly did not have much time for second thoughts in the morning as we rolled out of bed early and were whisked out of Cusco to the official start point at Km 82 (based on the distance of the full, traditional trek from the old Incan capital) via a breakfast stop at Ollantaytambo.

And there was no turning back as we made our way through the control station and began the first day’s walking along the banks of the Urrabamba River – along with the Ngorongoro Crater, a name on my travel bucket list since Michael Palin first introduced it to me.

Day one, which carried us around 11km to our overnight stop at Wayllabamba, was a mix of rolling paths with a few uphill stretches to get us warmed up for what was to come.

As well as discovering we had bought an almost perfect rainbow of poncho colours at the first early rainfall, the opening day introduced the routine of the porters speeding ahead with our gear and all the equipment needed to cook up and serve mountains of delicious food (for breakfast, lunch and dinner – with added teatime bringing an obsession with hot chocolate and piles of popcorn).

They even threw in intricately folded napkins, animal centrepieces for one lunch and a final night cake. Cooked in a pressure cooker halfway up a mountain.

They were not the only blokes carrying a lot of weight the length of the trek, but while they bounded along the trail like mountain goats, my progress also fell into something of a routine.

My role became akin to that of a cycling domestique – setting the pace, clearing the path of people in the way when necessary (there was liberal use of a walking pole and more than liberal amounts of swearing), before making way for the proper climbers on the steepest stretches and battling to the top at my own pace to hopefully regroup or battle my way back on the descent.

That first day was a fairly gentle introduction, tough enough walking to know we had done it but with reasonable facilities (flushing toilet and flat grass) and the surprise at how well we were being looked after to ease us in.

But as we headed to bed straight after dinner, the mountains looming all around us in the dark provided a telling reminder of what was to come.

Going up in the world

The second morning over Wamiwanusca at 4,200m – or Dead Woman’s Pass – has long been in everyone’s mind, 9km of pretty much constant climbing with a vertical rise of 1,200m.

What lay ahead was very much in our minds when we were woken at our tent doors by guides Gerson and Henry with a cup of coca tea at 5am.

It did not bode well that the short rise up to the control hut had legs heavy with yesterday’s miles in our legs feeling the strain.

But having eased back into a rhythm and found our pace, we began to hit our stride to the first rest stop of the morning as we regrouped – right up to the point when the steps began.

Walking on the paths is one thing, even on a slope, the addition of uneven stones adds another element to deal with, but the steps throw all but the very few off guard.

Imagine walking up a flight of steps for hours. Add in that those steps are uneven. And slippery. And different heights, both across the step and between each one with some up to some people’s knees.

For several hours.

That is what saw me drop back from the leading bunch, thrown out of my even pace trained for on the treadmill and stopping to catch my breath and admire the stunning views.

It was hard, the altitude adding an extra test as we wound our way up at our own pace.

But having accepted what lay ahead, settled into my personal struggle as the top of the pass came into view with each bend tantalisingly taking it a little further away until, finally, the summit was within reach of one final effort – and a few more stops to catch my breath before stepping on briefly level ground.

Reaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass Picture: Isobel McLeod

Any thoughts the hard part was over were dispelled as we headed down on the two-hour descent to our campsite – those steps are as difficult to go down as they are to go up.

But with gravity giving a helping hand, only the mountain goats among us beat me in to camp where we spent the rest of the day comparing tales from the trail, napping, enjoying a late lunch, napping, tea, napping, dinner and sleeping.

After the travails of day two, the third full day we were assured was easier, despite clocking in at 14km with up to 10 hours ahead of us.

Easy was not the word that came to mind as we fought our way up to the second highest pass of the trek – Runkurakay at 3,950m, which brought more personal battles up those dreaded steps.

Having regrouped at the summit, we dropped the short distance down the other side to the first of the day’s Inca sites and up and down the sides of a valley to our early lunch spot.

And from there it was glorious.

Released from endless steps and on to more undulating paths, the domestique even managed to lead the pace to the top of the final pass and much of the way down the descent – perfecting a method of overtaking on the narrow, slippery steps as people moved aside for passing porters – before one of the mountain goats grew a bit nervous behind a couple of slips and moved to the front.

And as we dropped, breathing became easier, the weather brighter and the views across the Sacred Valley simply stunning and there was a genuine bounce in my step on arrival at the nearly-deserted Inti Pata terraces.

Arriving first with Ally, we just soaked in the view and our surroundings – a truly happy moment – before heading down through the terraces and on to our final camp, via a run-in with some llamas on the path which saw me used as a human shield.

Spirits were high as the group gradually all rolled in to camp and enjoyed one marvellous final meal, but not quite so high the next morning as our 3.30am alarm call was accompanied by the sound of heavy rain.

Which never relented.

Not the sort of thing you want when standing waiting for the control gate to open at 5.30am for the final 6km to our target.

It was largely routine, if narrow, slippy and increasingly wet, bar one set of steps so steep they had us climbing up.

And having led the group almost to the Sun Gate, the domestique moved aside for the final steep pitch and arrived on the heels of most of the group to a spectacular view of… absolutely nothing.

The final team shot. With stunning backdrop. Apparently

Our waterproof (ish) ponchos provided pretty much the only colour as the cloud and rain blocked out any view of Machu Picchu before we were finally led down the final stretch into the citadel itself.

Thankfully, while the rain never let off, the views did clear enough for us to get some views and we were taken around the massive site, jostling for space with the thousands of visitors streaming in on the buses – quite a shock to the system after seeing just the same faces who had been walking at the same pace and schedule as us for the previous three days.

You do feel sorry for those day trippers, their big day dominated by appalling weather.

But for us, it was about so much more than just seeing Machu Picchu, grand as that was.

This was about the challenge of getting there, doing it together, sharing the experience and conquering personal challenges.

Some found it easier than others, mentally or physical. Some were reduced to tears, others had dark moments along the way. Others seemed to skip up even the steepest slopes.

And me? Loved every minute would be an overstatement, there were times on those steps which drove me to distraction.

But never went to any black places, never got too frustrated and always managed to keep calm and press on at my own pace, somehow managing to be stronger towards the finish – visions of crawling into Machu Picchu, to camp or at the top of passes far from the reality.

If you had told me that even the night before we left, it would have seemed far fetched. If you had told me that a year or 18 months ago, it would have seemed ridiculous.

And that’s my near epiphany.

Too often in the past, have not done something because felt it was physically beyond me or going to be too difficult. This could easily have been one of those things.

But with the right preparation and attitude, it is amazing what heights you can reach.

Even if you cannot see much when you get there.

  • That is my tale, everyone has their own. Will file an advice piece for anyone thinking of walking the Inca Trail at some point in the future.
The best view we got of Machu Picchu
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One Step Beyond

Ideas above my station in Arequipa – paired with a white hoodie, poncho took on a more sinister vibe

THIS blog normally looks backwards, but feel the need to break from that pattern.

Not that nothing has happened over the last few days, but what is coming up has been looming large since well before the start of this South American adventure.

Right back to when, against all my assertions to the contrary, the decision was made to tackle the trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

No, was not going to do it. Was definitely taking the train. No amount of asking or prodding would change my mind. 

Right up until, with only the last few daily permits for the Classic route remaining, some asking and prodding changed my mind.

Nazca Lines

So tomorrow morning, far too early, we head off on what promises to be one of the most challenging, memorable, exhausting, exhilarating and possibly painful experiences of the whole trip.

The first three days will take us up and down a route hewn into the Andes – the up is occupying most of our minds, although the down sections come with a fearsome reputation as gringo killers – before the final morning to reach Machu Picchu early on the fourth day.

Not all of us. Some are heading off on the alternative Lares route while some put discretion (and a fair amount of common sense) above valour and opted for the train. My current roommates Becky and Robby have done it before and are heading off on their own jungle adventure.

What lies ahead seems to have concentrated the minds and sent us scurrying around Cusco to stock up on supplies (via a rather lovely bagel cafe), warm gear for the cold nights (in my case, hiring a better sleeping bag) and knock-off North Face clothing.

Thankfully, we will not have to carry all of our new purchases – hiring a porter to carry a duffel bag up to 7kg full of sleeping bags, warm clothing for the evenings and assorted other gear may prove to be the best $40 spent on the whole trip.

That leaves us to carry our own day bags – camera, rain gear and essentials such as toilet paper, water and snacks – while the porters break down camp, catch up and run ahead, cook lunch, run past us again and have camp ready and the evening meal on the go.

Puerto Inka. Bush camp on a beach where we stole a fire. Twice

The tip we are sorting out at this evening’s briefing may not be enough.

Just hope they do not have to carry me over some of the bigger climbs, the longest, highest and most notorious of which comes on (and occupies most of) the second morning – Dead Woman’s Pass at around 4,200m.

Writing that again has me wondering about the wisdom of doing this, a common occurrence over the past few months.

Twenty four hours ago was all for pulling out – however frowned upon relinquishing one of the precious permits is – as a complete lack of sleep at an even higher bush camp and a slightly dodgy stomach had me confined to bed (and the bathroom) while the others explored the delights of Cusco.

Thankfully, was in a much better state this morning. Certainly a much better state than some who kept exploring until late into the night.

But clothes sorted, camera charging, backpack packed and stuff awaiting the arrival of the duffel bag at the briefing, there is no going back .

Have never been one for trekking. Did a couple in the distant past but preparations were confined to walks to and up Robinswood Hill – not exactly an Andean peak – and along the notoriously flat Gloucester and Sharpness Canal to at least break in my boots and get used to the mileage and a chunk of time on the move.

Arequipa – restaurant with a view. And a poncho

Shorter bursts on the treadmill with a rising incline added some extra preparation while a trek around a volcanic lake in Otavalo at the start of the trip suggested some of that effort may have paid off.

But there is little preparation for the altitude and sheer length of the inclines we are just going to have to take one step and one laboured breath at a time.

We have not been without a fair amount of acclimatisation over the past few days.

When you left us, we were still heading largely down the coast and nursing the pet bug which laid a few of the group low for several days and earned us a bonus upgrade to rooms at our stop near Nazca.

The upgrade came at a price for the healthy, a night cleaning pretty much everything on the truck – especially the kitchen – to see off any lurking germs and we seem to have shrugged off any lingering affects.

Condor at Colca Canyon – easier to photograph on the ground

Opted out of the big ticket item at this stop – a flight over the Nazca Lines – opting for a brief view from a tower, but did get tours of the Cahuaci Pyramids and Chauchilla cemeteries (complete with complete mummies) brought to life by the enthusiastic Janssen.

An overnight stop on the beach at Puerto Inka ended our time at sea level and we began our climb inland at Arequipa.

Don’t think we can blame the altitude (2,800m) for a sudden Jesus complex at our restaurant overlooking the main square, but when they give a bearded bloke the sole white poncho among coloured fellow diners, it can go to his head. 

Poncho returned, it was out to sample the nightlife of Arequipa which ended far too late for one of us while others were heading out far too early for an overnight trek in Colca Canyon.

Our Reality Tour provided a very different taste of the city, taking in a cemetery, day care centre for  children of single mothers, a stone quarry and market. Very interesting it was, but cannot help a feeling of unease when other people’s misfortune is used to lure in tourists.

Colca Canyon

The burger joint which kept luring members of the group back was far more acceptable.

A group of us were back in the minibus the next day as altitude came to the fore on a less strenuous trip to the canon.

Whisked out of Arequipa, we were taken up to 4,900m – it was all a bit quiet on the bus at that point – and through some spectacular scenery, any number of llamas, alpacas and vicunas, our first taste of coca tea and a dip in hot springs.

Our stop for the night saw us ignore advice to eat small meals in the evening and avoid alcohol at altitude but very pleasant it was too, good food served up by a very forthright French woman.

We were up early to be on the lip of Colca Canyon – a mile down and the second deepest on the earth – to watch condors taking flight on the thermals before winding our way through spectacular scenery to our meeting point with the truck and the rest of the reunited group.

What became known as Tomato Soup Bush Camp. At around 4,500m

At least that was the plan, while we were waiting and watching a llama spit at a group of tourists when they were not so keen to share their lunch with him, the truck was undergoing a few mechanical problems.

Patched up and back on the road, the delay put the night’s planned bush camp out of reach and forced us to find a new location – turning up a path and climbing to find a bit of flattish land well in excess of 4,000m.

It made for a difficult night – not least for cook group – in the wind as several of us struggled at the height and sparked my less than pristine arrival in Cusco.

But hey, there’s nothing major coming up at altitude is there?

Cusco
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Hopefulness to How Come You Never Go There?

Day 15 of the blog post a day in May and it is back to some sort of normality – with a touch of righteous indignation.

FOR much of the last few months, a large chunk of the journey from A-Z on my iPod has taken place in the gym which looms large on the opposite corner of the square from my flat.

And probably the biggest chunk of that took place building up my running from scratch on a treadmill, right until my right calf decided that was not such a good idea.

The osteopath agreed with my calf and eventually put a ban on me going near a treadmill, even to walk. Never mind the rather scary looking step machine next to it which was part of the plan to get my legs used to going up endless stairs before tackling the Inca Trail.

Not wanting to lose the groundwork put in to my fitness levels, we agreed on a compromise of hitting the exercise bike which provides just as good a workout (if not more, given the now customary stagger out of the saddle) while taxing a few different leg muscles to protect the calf.

The back is not quite so protected, judging by how difficult it is to get comfortable, while other parts of the body have also had their complaints about proximity with a saddle.

All this work in the gym is part of building that fitness, an added push to the weight loss and that added target of building up to the assault on the Inca Trail.

And having made the decision to forego the easy ride via train and bus to Machu Picchu in favour of the four-day Classic trek, it was slightly disconcerting to read an article about which could have huge repercussions for anyone looking to follow in the same footsteps.

Machu Picchu: Fury over plans for new multi-billion pound airport next to ancient Inca citadel

The Independent article jumped out of my Twitter feed, outlining plans to build an airport in the nearest major settlement to Machu Picchu and the fears of the damage it could cause to the great attraction, the Inca Trail and the whole civilisation around the surrounding Sacred Valley.

In 2017, Unesco warned it could add Machu Picchu to its list of endangered world heritage sites such was the strain 1.5 million visitors a year – double Unesco’s recommended figure – was having on the citadel and associated sites.

Peru has responded with limited daily permits on the trail, time slots and controls on visitors at the ruins, but an airport has the potential to go well beyond Unesco’s initial concerns.

Justin Francis, chief executive of Responsible Travel, told The Telegraph: “When we look back at what went wrong with tourism, this will be the story that sums it all up.”

Strong words but it is difficult to disagree with him and the thought that an airport appears some way on the wrong side of the very narrow line between the benefits and drawbacks of tourism.

It is easy to get angry at such an idea, pointing the finger at the Peruvian government and anyone who will benefit financially from the airport.

But they have a valuable resource and how many governments and economies are far-sighted and secure enough to avoid exploiting such a lucrative opportunity? No matter the long-term impact.

And what about those of us who are helping to swell those tourism numbers? Are we not equally to blame for helping to create the need for the airport, no matter how much we can claim to be doing it properly?

This is an issue, rather like all environmental concerns, that we all have a stake in.

It falls on us travellers to look careful about where we are leaving our footsteps and how much of a lasting print they will have, just as it falls on the Peruvian government and surrounding communities to look beyond the short term and not milk the cash cow irreversibly dry.

And the global community has its share of the responsibility.

It may be over another border, but Machu Picchu is a global treasure – like so many, physically and culturally, threatened by rampant tourism – and we need to be working with whatever country is affected to help keep them as such.

Not just with aid, but providing help, understanding and an ability to build economic strength to look after itself and its people to avoid the need to take such steps.

We need these places, these cultures, this enrichment of life beyond what we know – far better than pulling down the shutters and trying to block the flow of ideas and influences across borders.

To quote Rudyard Kipling (well, Billy Bragg who used it in The Few): “What do they know of England, who only England know?”

And hey, if I can walk to Machu Picchu, do people really need to fly right to its front door?

Which is all rather more serious than was intended on a post designed to steer us through the 60 tracks from Courtney Barnett to Feist.

One of the annoyances of listening to the A-Z on the bike is a long song making it difficult to break down a session into bite-size tracks, as happened again with seven-plus minutes of The House Song by The Beta Band.

This stretch had two outings for Horsin’ Around from Prefab Sprout’s masterful Steve Macqueen album, a couple of versions of Hounds of Love (Kate Bush and The Futureheads’ cover) and two visits from The Be Good Tanyas (Horses and a House of the Rising Sun cover which had me drumming on the bike console).

Initially stumbled across The Be Good Tanyas via an iTunes freebie and investigated further to the point hearing them takes me back to a mosquito-infected early evening chilling with a few beers under the midnight sun on the banks of the Yukon at Dawson City, Canada.

The Hold Steady also popped up twice with Hostile, Mass and Hot Soft Light, which also brings back travel memories after making it on to the African playlist (largely due to seeing them in Bristol the week before the off).

There were also appearances for a couple of Hotel tracks – Hotel Yorba by The White Stripes and, controversially for some, Hotel Yorba by The White Stripes – while Let’s Eat Grandma still sound fresh as they popped up with Hot Pink.

But best song title of this section – and many others – goes to American Music Club with The Hopes and Dreams of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores.

Doubt if those hopes and dreams include a gym bike or an airport at Machu Picchu.

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