The end of the road in Buenos Aires…..

After nearly four months, the day had arrived: reaching Buenos Aires (hereafter BA) signalled the final stretch on my trip. It’s also the end of the road for many of my fellow passengers who joined us in Santiago, with an intrepid few continuing on to celebrate carnival in Rio. I can’t think of a better place to call it a day than BA, it’s a truly magical city. At times, I’ve struggled with unfamiliarity while I’ve been away, but that disappears in BA which, with its outdoor cafe culture, wide pavements and European aura, it felt like coming home. The architecture definitely has an air of Paris or Madrid about it, and if I spoke Spanish, I’d certainly feel like I could live here.

We were staying in the microcenter, a great base from which to explore. As my first full day was a Sunday, I spent the time wandering the markets in San Telmo, taking in the sights and sounds of the bustling barrio. That night we had a final group dinner and gave out awards, compered by me and another guy from our truck, Grant. Although some were a bit risqué, everyone accepted them in good grace. I was unsurprised to win the ‘Humanitarian Dogging’ award, earned on account of always giving away my truck food entitlement to the local pooches.

The following day I explored the centre of the city, saving myself for what was to come that evening: La Bomba di Tiempo or Timebomb, a drumming troupe who performed in an enclosed, open air space that resembled a junk yard, minus the junk. I knew it would be a good night when the beers arrived in glasses as big as one’s head. It was everything I thought a night out in BA would be: fun, sweaty and full of dancing. I ended up chatting to a Japanese guy who was hammered and easily impressed with my basic Japanese language skills, and a US marine who had led a very interesting life. No porteños unfortunately. The best part of the night however was after the gig had finished and the drummers played on the streets while leading everyone to the after party. There are beer vendors walking with the crowds, which probably explains the horrific hangovers a lot of people suffered from the next day. My flip flops busted four times during the course of the evening, but thankfully a guy from our truck, Luke, was a hero, fixing them for me each time. I got back at 0300 and spent the next hour trying to book a hotel room for my final night in BA. Let’s just say it didn’t go well. The poor night receptionist had to help me with the Spanish keyboard more than should’ve been necessary.

The following day I went on a day trip to Uruguay (blog post here) and returned to BA in the evening for dinner with some of the ladies from the trip who I’m very happy to say have become good friends. It wasn’t a late on account of my 0500 wake up call for my wee trip to Iguazu Falls (blog post here), but it was a lovely sign off.

On my return from Iguazu, I splurged (well, spent €120 on a room rather than €25) and treated myself to a night in a nice hotel. It didn’t disappoint; the room was as big as my apartment in Amsterdam, which made sense when the porter reminded me I was in the Junior Suite. Damn you brain for booking something when a bit tipsy.

20180127_011353212792911.jpgI was in for another surprise too; an ex-boyfriend who now lives in New Zealand was in the city for work and had seen my photos on social media, and we managed to meet up for a nightcap on our last night. Small world huh? It was so nice to catch up after so long.

So, my almost four months in South America have come to an end. I’ve learned so much. It’s hard to articulate how much I’ve gained from this trip, and I’d like to think that I have given something back to this wonderful continent. Well, its dogs at least. Four months isn’t anywhere near long enough to do this place justice, and I’d love to return at some point in the future to explore further. The Andes have been my constant companion throughout my journey and I’ve been amazed at how different they are in each country I’ve visited. They, and the jungle, feel like the beating heart of the continent and must be looked after. I’ve been consistently treated to scenery like none I’ve ever experienced before. Yes, some is reminiscent of New Zealand, but the continuity of amazing landscape after amazing landscape is something else.

Alpacas > guanacos > llamas. That is all.

I’ve loved having so much interaction with dogs during my trip. They are so docile and just want tickles.  I’ve not seen any aggression, and it seems the further south you go, the fewer strays you see.  I can count on one hand the number of cats I’ve seen.

I wish I had dedicated more time to leaning Spanish, although I’m surprised by how far I’ve gotten with my limited vocabulary. Being able to speak French has come in very handy though as three are lots of similarities.

Argentina – best coffee

Peru – best food

Bolivia – best people

Ecuador – best value for money

Chile – best scenery

Brazil – best waterfalls (contentious I know)

Uruguay – best wine

It’s honestly impossible to choose a favourite place. Baños in Ecuador definitely gave me food for thought. As I approach being forty, I wonder what next for me? I love my job, but would like to do something that feels a bit more worthy.  I’ve also toyed with the idea of being my own boss and either setting up a cafe, or an animal shelter. In Baños, there is a business that combines both and it was a joy to spend time there. When I return to Amsterdam, as a first step, I’m going to dedicate time to improving my Dutch so that I am able to volunteer at my local animal shelter, And then perhaps see what happens after that.

What else have I learned? Well, my tolerance for bad manners is now minimal, although unlike before when I would quietly tut in true British fashion, I now call out that behaviour.  Perhaps I’m becoming more Dutch in that regard. I also learned that I can poo literally anywhere anytime, although I’m not sure that’s a skill I’ll be calling on much back home in Europe. This trip showed me that travelling really is good for the soul and mental health, and I feel refreshed, revitalised and looking forward to coming home. It also makes one appreciate what one has at home.

I’m lucky enough to have an amazing partner in Ken, and although I know he’s struggled a bit in my absence, moving to Amsterdam without knowing anyone or the language, he’s never once not supported me, and actively encouraged me to pursue this experience. A month ago he tweeted that he’d like to go to Stockholm in Sweden to see the subway stations – yes, I did re-evaluate our relationship when I saw the tweet – so Ken, to say thanks, pack your bags because we’re going on Monday! Love you long time.

This is my final blog post. It’s been fun to write, although at times I lagged behind due to a combination of lack of good WiFi and actually doing things, so apologies for that! I hope it’ll serve as a reminder of all the great experiences I’ve had on this trip, and if anyone is considering doing something similar, feel free to get in touch for more detailed information. Adios.

Iguazú gotta be kidding me….

My overland trip with Dragoman officially ended the day after we arrived in Buenos Aires, and after nearly a few months on the road with varying groups of fellow passengers, I decided to add on a few days of ‘me’ time before heading back to normalcy in Amsterdam. As lovely as BA is, it felt silly not to make the journey to see Iguazu Falls, one of the modern seven wonders of the world, and a place I’d always wanted to visit since seeing a picture of it in a travel magazine over 10 years ago. I had pre-booked a tour to the falls, although in hindsight I should’ve just done it independently. For the first time on this trip I found myself in an airport. I could have taken a 19 hour overnight bus, but after so long sat on the truck, a 1h40m flight was calling to me. Despite not being able to afford to stay at the Sheraton or Belmond hotels which are located inside the park – unless I was willing to forgo a month’s worth of travelling – I was pleasantly surprised by the tour accommodation. I had an enormous double bed, a rare luxury on my travels thus far, great air conditioning, and two swimming pools (let’s not talk about how they were big enough for circa five people at any one time). They also provided the best breakfast I’ve encountered in South America outside of a cafe/ restaurant, although if I’m honest, the hostels and hotels I’ve stayed in up to this point didn’t offer up much competition in this regard.

A couple of hours after arriving at the hotel I was whisked away to the Brazilian side of the falls, Foz de Iguaçu. Our tour guide had earlier asked for our passports and when we arrived at the border he left the vehicle with us inside. Within a matter of minutes we were back on the road, stamped passports in hand. Having endured previous border crossings which had taken over three hours, this was a pleasant surprise, although I’m very surprised that we didn’t have to be seen in person by an immigration officer.

Having paid the $22 to enter the park, nothing can quite prepare you for the first sighting of the falls. Debate rages over whether the Brazilian or Argentinean side is better, with the Brazilian part offering the viewer the ‘big picture’ overview. I was pretty wowed by the cascading water opposite me and stood there mesmerised for many minutes. The Brazilian side is pretty small in terms in walking trails and ninety minutes later we were done, although I spent a similar amount of time watching a family of cute coatis foraging for food. You can obviously go at a slower pace, something done by the two selfie-lovin’, bikini-wearin’ Brazilian chicas I saw on several occasions, as did the posse of young local men who were enamoured by the view. And no, I’m not taking about the waterfalls.

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After arriving back in the town of Puerta Iguazú, where I was based for the next few days, I decided to treat myself to a nice meal. Unfortunately for this Libran – I don’t believe any of that astrology bullshit, but I do consistently struggle with choice (insert Tatianna choices gif here) – the menu offered so many delicious sounding dishes, and in the end I plumped for three starters and a salad main. There’s no need for you to judge me as the full restaurant of fellow diners did that already having spied the multiple dishes being delivered to a table with a single diner. After the first delicious mouthful of suriba fishcake, I stopped caring what people thought and spent a wonderful hour eating my way through local specialties, including Patagonian lamb carpaccio which was divine, all of which was washed down with my new favourite beer, Patagonian Amber. Sorry Moosehead from Canada.

Unfortunately, I spent most of the night awake with stomach cramps and just couldn’t face a 0630 wake up call and a full day at the Argentinean falls. Thankfully, the pain passed by late evening and after a good night’s sleep, I was feeling well enough to visit the falls on this side of the border, albeit by myself. However, finding the bus station was easy, as was buying the correct ticket, and 25 minutes later I found myself once again being blown away by Mother Nature. Most people spend a full day on this side, as you’re able to also trek along a lower trail which takes you closer to the falling water, but I was only able to stay a few hours before jumping back on a plane to BA. I walked the upper trail which allows you to get a bird’s eye view of the falls, but before arriving at the first one I was treated to the sight of more coatis and a caiman.

As I wasn’t able to see all of the Argentinean side, I feel unqualified to declare which country has the best of the falls. I was enamoured with both and would encourage anyone visiting this part of the world to include this on their itinerary. It’s an utterly stunning spectacle.

Shortly after my flight took off, the pilot made an announcement, but as it was in Spanish only I didn’t pay much attention, until that is the majority of the passengers burst into applause. The people in the vicinity didn’t speak English so I stayed ignorant until the plane suddenly banked to the right and there was a collective ‘OOOOOOHHHHH AMAZING!’. I quickly realised that the pilot’s announcement was to inform us that we’d see the falls from the sky if we looked out of the right window, and then remembered he’d said derecha at some point, the Spanish word for right. Obviously, I was sat on the left side of the plane. I spent the next few minutes cursing my luck, and the check in agent who’d put me in this stupid seat. All that changed however when the pilot came on the intercom with another Spanish-only announcement which was greeted by an even more thunderous clapping. I tried to recall if I heard the Spanish word for left during his speech, but soon realised that I don’t actually know it. Thankfully at that moment, the left wing of the plane tipped and we were treated to an unforgettable view of the falls from the sky. When I saw that the couple of pictures I took didn’t do the view justice, I put my phone down and just enjoyed this incredible privilege for a few minutes. What a wonderful way to end this trip!

U.G.L.Y not when one’s in Uruguay….

….and if you don’t know the above title reference then you may be reading the wrong blog. But stay awhile anyway.

Despite loving Buenos Aires, a visit to a new country was too much for me to resist and so it was that I found myself waking up at 0600 to board a boat to Uruguay. Unfortunately, I had only been in bed for two hours thanks to a rocking night out dancing in BA, so I was rather grateful for the uninteresting crossing, scenery-wise, as it meant I could get another ninety minutes of kip. Four of my trip buddies accompanied me to the beautiful little town of Colonia del Sacramento. As I only had one free day, I opted to give the capital, Montevideo, a miss as the seven hour return journey wouldn’t have left much time for exploring.

The boat was modern and thankfully air conditioned as the temperature was already in the high twenties, even at that early hour. After disembarking, the five of us spent twenty minutes at the ATM discussing how much local currency to withdraw. Unbeknownst to us, you can use both USD and Argentinean pesos in most businesses in the town. Having taken out €50 for the day’s expenses, I was even more annoyed when we discovered that if we paid using a debit card, the tax would be deducted, almost 25%!! I later made one of my best life decisions when I decided to save my cash for a few glasses of nice wine at lunchtime and instead, used my card to buy some much needed shorts as those I’d bought with me were all looking rather worn after four months on the road. I ended up purchasing three new pairs as I couldn’t decide between flamingos, pineapples or floral prints. Welcome to gay culture in 2018.

After a delicious breakfast at a tiny cafe run out of someone’s house – the toilet was rather bizarrely a room in the garden – we spent the rest of the morning strolling around the old town. Its cobbled, tree-lined streets reminded me somewhat of Rye in Sussex in the UK. The temperature was steadily creeping up to 36°C and I started to struggle, not surprising given that I don’t really wear a jacket (or footwear other than flip flops or Toms) until it’s below 10°C back home as I get hot very easily. Thankfully, the old town is pretty small and we’d managed to see most of it by this time. I was glad to see everyone else was feeling the same way, so my suggestion to revisit the fancy beachside hotel-cum-restaurant-cum-bar-cum-garden that we passed earlier, having oohed and aahed through the wrought iron gate, was met with great enthusiasm. The ladies treated themselves to dessert and drinks while I splurged on a free glasses of delectable Sauvignon Blanc. It was lovely to spend my last day with these four women as they’d really enhanced my enjoyment of the trip since they joined in Santiago (except for Sandrine who’s been entertaining slash annoying me since Lima). The hours were filled with lots of giggles and satisfying sighs.

By mid-afternoon I was pleasantly sloshed and although there was serious consideration in staying overnight, I had to get back to BA to pick up my laundry before closing time at the lavanderia. Rock n roll I know. There was also the small matter of getting up at 0430 the next day to catch my flight to Iguazu Falls, from where I’ll write my next blog post. Until then….

Unexpected events in Ushuaia….

Our journey into the Argentinean part of Patagonia didn’t have the most auspicious of starts. While on our way to see the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) our truck got bogged in loose rocks while driving off-road. We had sandboards to wedge under the wheels but rocks needed to be moved from around each wheel first, a back-breaking and boring task. While most of the men and one woman helped shovel, the designated cook group for that day, which included me, set about preparing a hearty soup for lunch. The only problem was the biting Patagonian wind which blew out the gas flame time and time again. After three hours, the truck was finally moving again and we served something resembling a stew. Thankfully, nobody cared, we were all just happy not to be sleeping on the truck in the middle of nowhere that night! The majority of our trip through Patagonia saw us camping at night, either in the bush or at basic campsites. For me, it was one of the highlights of the trip. I’ve been lucky enough to share a tent with two awesome Aussie guys, and since they departed, I’ve been kept entertained by Sandrine, our resident Frenchie who has lived in the UK for the past twenty years. Not that you’d know it from her thick francophone accent.

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We proceeded along legendary Ruta 40 and crossed the Magellan straits over to the island of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), a territory that is divided between Chile and Argentina. In my humble opinion it is terribly misnomered as it was rainy and grey, but despite this, I was very excited to arrive in the port town of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.

City may be stretching it a little given that there only seems to be one main street in the town, however it did include a bowling alley so I was very happy and not just because it gives me an excuse to use this gif.

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Before we could go bowling, or do anything else for that matter, I had to urgently visit the laundromat as I was perilously close to running out of clean pants (read ‘underwear’ if you’re in the US) and, I’m ashamed to say, not for the first time on this trip. Unfortunately the owner of the joint didn’t share my sense of urgency, turning up 40 minutes after the place opened according to the signage in the window, but all’s well that ends well. Except it didn’t end well. Later that night, a few of us went out for some drinks, while others went out for, let’s just say, more than some. One, a 75 year old American who has been on the tour from the beginning of my journey in Quito, couldn’t make it into bed at 0230 without some assistance from one of the other boys in the dorm room. Having fallen back asleep, we were all woken up a couple of hours later by the ear-splitting shrieks from a group of Israeli girls staying in a room on the same floor. For some reason, the American had entered their room, from where we could hear him repeatedly say “you’re all going to die tonight” which was followed a few minutes later by “I’m going to kill someone tonight”. Needless to say, the girls were extremely frightened and the situation was exacerbated by the small fact that he was naked from the waist down! A couple of people tried to get him away from the girls’ room, while we tried to locate his underwear. Understandably, the girls called the police and the American was no longer allowed in the hostel. He did, however, much to my surprise, rejoin our tour a couple of days later.

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When you’re woken at 0430, there’s not much else to do but watch the sunrise over the harbour.

After that drama, a group of us decided to spend the day serenely sailing on the Beagle Channel where the only thing we would face were cute king penguins and sea lions. It was so relaxing being out on the water, and the weather played ball for us too, the warming sunshine and stunning scenery making me once again think about how lucky I am to be on this trip.

Leaving Ushuaia we crossed back into Chile to visit Torres Del Paine (separate blog post here), before spending the next few days working our way up through Argentinean Patagonia, via El Calafate, where we saw the incredible Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the very few in the world which is still advancing. It’s a breathtaking sight and we were lucky enough to witness a massive carving while we were there, the aftermath of which you can see by clicking here. I also got to feed a baby goat for some reason.

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The consecutive 12-hour drive days through this region of Argentina were tough; camping in the wild, cooking on gas stoves with the unrelenting wind, and a temperature which increased from 3° to 34° in a matter of days as we drove north, leaving behind the mountains for a flat pampas-covered landscape.

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I was delighted to stop in Gaiman (stop sniggering at the back!), a Welsh-speaking enclave where we scoffed a delicious cream tea, and nearby Puerto Madryn, a small seaside resort which offered snorkelling with sea lions. I tried snorkelling once before in Croatia and lasted all of three minutes, panicking as I felt like I was being smothered, but I really wanted to conquer this mountain and with the help of some friends who came with me, I ended up having one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’d love to come back in March when you can see orcas beaching themselves nearby while hunting. I’ve seen it on television and it’s incredible.

As we approach Buenos Aires, I’m looking forward to having a week by myself. I have met many lovely people on this trip over the last four months, some of whom have become good friends. But the combination of long drive days in confined spaces with certain ‘personalities’ and lots of group activities mean I’m craving some alone time, something I won’t get when I get beck to Amsterdam in a few days time.

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Blown away in  Patagonia….

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We re-entered Chile for the last time, where the process would’ve gone much quicker had there not been the cutest little kitty in the arrival hall who was just begging to be tickled.

After a quick stop in Puerto Natales to pick up supplies and our guides, Maria-José and Alejandro, we drove into the Torres del Paine National Park for what would become one of the highlights of my entire trip: the 4-day ‘W-Walk’, a nomenclature which doesn’t require further explanation I assume. The first night’s campsite, on the shore of Lake Pehoe, took my breath away. It was flanked by the snow-capped Los Cuernos mountains, while the resident armadillo, Marcel, who chilled out with us, added a certain gezelligheid (apologies to non-Dutch speakers) to the whole scene.

The following morning, those of us who were doing the W Walk set out early doors in order to catch the catamaran which would take us to the start of the hike, and our next campsite, in the shadow of the Paine Grande peak. On certain sections of the hike we were able to drop some of our bag contents to lighten the load, however, having learned my lesson on my Machu Picchu trek that you really need very little, I packed a very small daypack containing sleeping bag and mat, a couple of changes of clothes and a small toiletries bag. I probably carried 5kg in total, as opposed to some of my fellow trekkers who huffed and puffed with 12kg. The first day’s hike was 22km in length; 11km along Lake Grey to the Grey Glacier and back again, taking around eight hours in total. Over the next couple of days, we continued with linear hikes, sometimes having to double back on ourselves but not really minding given the spectacular scenery afforded to us in the French and Ascensio Valleys.

The third day was particularly hot at 22°C, and it was somewhat comforting to see even our guides struggling in the unusually warm summer weather. Atter lunch we rested by a lagoon and took an illegal dip in the glacial waters.

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Seeing the relief and joy on our faces, one of the guides jumped in with us, telling us it was the first time he’d ever done something like this. The cool waters were exhilarating and it was a much appreciated break from the walking.

On the final day, the hike went to the three peaks which give the park its name, however due to adverse weather, they were obscured and I therefore decided to stay at the campsite and indulge in some of the best coffee I’d had on this trip and catch up with my blog.

I have been completely blown away by the beauty in Chilean Patagonia (hence the rather brief blog post as I believe the pictures speak for themselves) and I can’t wait to explore more of the region on the Argentinean side.

And when I say blown away, I mean it both metaphorically and literally. The wind here is like no other I’ve ever experienced, at one point actually knocking me off my feet. Lord knows how perishing it is in winter, but I’d love to return and find out one day.

Lounging in the Lake District…..

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The high from the previous night’s meal in Santiago didn’t last long on account of even more diarrhoea coupled with an eleven hour day on the truck. I also said goodbye to Riley, a young and interesting Australian who had been my tentmate/roommate while Ian stayed with his lady friend who has also now left us.  I’ll miss Riley for many reasons, the main one being that not only did he not judge me for eating five ice creams each day, he actively encouraged such behaviour by paying for them! Thankfully the drive to the Lake District distracted both Ian and I from our tummy troubles as we were yet again treated to some spectacular scenery. Our first stop was the quaint town of Pucon, which sits on Lake Villarica. Its cute streets are well maintained with roses used to separate lanes on the roads and the low-lying wooden buildings give it an alpine feel. In fact I was reminded of a place called Idyllwild in California, which has a very similar look and feel, and was the scene of a very happy holiday. The town is very small so I decided to go for a walk by myself rather than do the guided tour. While I’ve met some fantastic people on this trip, I do crave some alone time, so while Ian made friends with his bed I strolled around for a few hours, enjoying some time at the lakeside beach. You could walk around the whole town in around 30 minutes, but as I stopped to play with the numerous street dogs, I took rather longer. The town is very geared toward tourists and there are a lot of adventure sports on offer, including scaling an active volcano. Unfortunately, never knowing when one will need toilet facilities and not wishing for a repeat of rainbow mountain, I shunned such excursions and enjoyed a couple of blissfully lazy days. I stumbled upon a great cafe which I visited on multiple occasions, despite it being 30% more expensive than Amsterdam!! Oh no, I’m complaining about the cost of things; perhaps I am becoming more Dutch than I realised.

The next town on our trip was Bariloche, on the Argentinean side of the Lake District, which we reached via the incredibly scenic Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Route). As you can see from the pictures, it does what it says on the tin. Bariloche sits on the shore of the Nahuel Huapi lake and is flanked by the Andes, creating a truly picture postcard setting.  Similarly to Pucon, it is set up for lots of adventure sports however, arriving on Christmas Day, meant that most people took it easy.

Christmas Day was weird. After a disappointingly quick Skype (thanks to crappy WiFi) with Ken who was working in Dubai, we set off on a ten hour drive that included an international border crossing, but one which was made bearable by the two adorable Labradors ambling around the waiting area. Upon arrival at our hostel, we were treated to Christmas dinner, which meant a traditional Argentinean ‘asado’: barbecued meats. The meal and the heat meant it didn’t feel very Christmassy to me, but the bottle of local Malbec and the easy-on-the-eye chefs helped us enjoy the festivities.

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The next day Ian and I decided to go on a short hike up to a nearby waterfall but twenty minutes in he felt ill and so we turned back. Unfortunately, Ian’s stomach was getting worse so we took him to a local clinic for some tests. Over the next couple of days things didn’t improve and he had to leave the tour in Perito Moreno to see another doctor. I’ve been really impressed with the healthcare in South America and was so again, although the 90 second ambulance ride to our hotel seemed somewhat excessive. Ian had gone with me to  the hospital when I had my accident in La Paz so it was an easy decision to stay behind with him and one of the tour leaders, Lars, while he sorted out his repatriation with his insurance company. New Year’s Eve was rather low-key however; Ian slept while I had two cans of beer before turning the lights off a couple of hours before midnight. Lars and I took a 12-hour overnight bus to catch up with our truck and we were treated to another incredible sunset. It’s just a shame that a) the bus played a ten-year old movie at full volume until 0130 and b) that I couldn’t drown it out with music because my iPod fell down the gap between the seats becoming irretrievably wedged.  It was lovely to see the group again, but I will miss Ian terribly; he’s been on the trip  with me since the very first day in Quito and quickly became a good friend. Both he and Riley live in Melbourne so I guess I’ll have to head there at some point!

Scrumptious scran in Santiago….

Taking a six hour bus journey, which includes an international border crossing, while suffering from diarrhoea isn’t much fun, as I can now unfortunately confirm. Thankfully, there were enough decent toilets – and by decent I mean porcelain was present rather than bushes, even if the aforementioned porcelain didn’t actually have a seat – that I didn’t suffer too badly. However, upon arriving in Santiago I wasn’t feeling my best so took it easy for the few days we were there. Thankfully our hostel was lovely: four metre high ceilings in the room; a double bed (to myself!); and best of all, a pool, albeit one that can be swum in its entirety after one and a half breaststrokes.

I had to go into the office while I was in the city, but I didn’t mind too much especially as the taxi ride there and back meant that I could at least see some of the neighbourhoods. I was impressed with the modern feel of the financial district and my stomach yearned for the offerings from the various sushi restaurants I could see out of the window. Not surprising given that it was 4pm and I was yet to eat anything that day due to my turbulent tummy.  However, it was the last day on the trip for two of my favourite people – Astrid, the sexagenarian with whom I shared a tent in Ecuador, breaking the tour company’s single-travellers-mixed-gender-sharing policy in the process; and Lauren, she of trekking-Machu-Picchu-having-just-had-knee-surgery fame – and to celebrate we were treating ourselves to a slap-up meal at BORAGò (yes, that spelling is correct), a restaurant which is ranked #5 in South America and #42 globally.

Let me start by saying, IT WAS THE BEST MEAL I HAVE EVER EATEN! I realise that’s quite the statement, but I honestly don’t think I can oversell the experience. Upon arrival, we were greeted by what seemed the entire restaurant staff of circa forty people, all at the same time.  After five minutes of Lauren protesting that she honestly wasn’t a celebrity and that this must just be the norm, we were escorted to the only private dining room. At this point, Lauren decided to confess that she made the booking on the Spanish- language website and ‘may have made a mistake in the booking’ and apologised profusely for the size of the bill that could potentially be forthcoming. Given that we were already salivating looking at the vertical grill at the entrance of the restaurant, we assured her that we honestly didn’t care.

The staff at BORAGò were the most attentive I’ve ever experienced, somehow managing to appear ever- present without being noticeably intrusive; an underrated talent. Our maître d’ explained the menu choices: Raqko, consisting of eight courses or the Endémica, which had an eye-popping 16 courses, containing only ingredients found in Chile. We opted for the latter, along with a wine pairing, natch, my empty stomach grumbling at the thought of what was to come, a feeling that continued throughout the evening as you are not shown the menu until you are walking out of the door, four hours after you first arrived! Having advised us that we would be drinking Patagonian rain water throughout the meal – something I’ve since had ‘at source’ – the maître d’ suggested a Pisco sour to start off the evening. We were all still agog at our surroundings but managed to confirm that we were happy to go along with anything he suggested. I’m not much of a cocktail drinker, usually opting for a whiskey sour when required, and I’ve taken to Pisco sours like a duck to water during my time in Peru and Chile. However, the green concoction that soon arrived was like no other Pisco sour I had experienced before, and not just because of the unusual colour!

Our first four courses arrived shortly after: chilenito, a deliciously light biscuit sandwich filled with succulent crab meat; palo palo sea snail, ulte and seaweed broth which was heaven to this escargot-loving Brit; stuffed copihue (the national flower) with shrimp from Juan Fernandez island; and baked marraqueta, a perfectly simple roll which was like manna from heaven having encountered disappointment after disappointment when it came to bread on this continent thus far.

Our fifth dish was a unanimous favourite (up to this point), chupe of mushrooms from Quintay, served with a light broth, a mix that conjured up the sight and smells of the woodlands, and the taste of chestnuts got us talking about Christmas and our various local traditions, living in five different countries as we do. Up next was the dish I liked the least – although I still scoffed the lot – jibia with almond milk, alfalfa, pajarito cream and roasted kolof.  I’m not the biggest cheerleader of the texture of squid, but the almond milk and pajarito cream made the plate very palatable indeed.

The following dish, rock vegetables from Punta de Tralca, was my favourite of the whole evening. I think. It’s rather difficult to pick just one. It sounds somewhat basic: four different types of seaweed  served with multi-coloured crackers. However, aside from being the best tasting green food I’ve ever put in my mouth, the concept behind it was ingenious and executed to perfection; the dish was presented in the shape of the Chilean coastline, with the Andes represented by the crackers.

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The ‘rock secuence’ continued with a rock pure and kolof roots broth. As with everything else on the menu, the ingredients had been foraged by restaurant staff, and the puree was served on an actual rock. Having scraped it off in order to eat it, the resultant rock looked rather unappetising  with what now looked like skid marks. Moving swiftly on…..

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Our next dish was fish ‘al rescoldo’ with wild pea flowers and it is here where I realised I’ll never become a food critic (although what’s the point when all food reviews should be written by the incredible Grace Dent anyway?), as I was so entranced by the flaky white meat melting in my mouth that I forgot to ask what kind of fish I was in the process of annihilating.

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It was at this point that my stomach deemed it necessary to remind me that it wasn’t quite ready for such a gastronomic journey and I had the distinct look of an Olympic race walker as I dashed to the loo, trying to look like I wasn’t dashing to the loo. On my return from the immaculate bathrooms, I was able to take a look at the dining room, although my attention was soon captured by the frenzy of activity that could be spied through through the glass-encased open kitchen which dominates one end of the room. I was amazed to see no chef seemingly older than 25 years. I assumed the unusual taste combinations of each dish must have been conjured up by an old-hand with decades of experience.

The next dish was another favourite with me and my fellow diners: Chilean morels and red plum leaves, grilled duck on miso made of murra. I have no idea what murra is in this context. Thankfully Google doesn’t seem to either, so I don’t feel too bad. Although none of the dishes were large, this one took a particularly long time to eat, mainly because we were too engrossed discussing the artistry in its presentation. I usually get annoyed when watching Masterchef and seeing the majority of chefs spread purees across a plate with the back of a spoon, but I was more than happy to put aside those feelings on this occasion. Thankfully, the taste matched the appearance; the tartness of the jus being a flawless complement to the perfectly-cooked duck.

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One of our fellow diners, a gentleman from Estonia, had previously enquired at what point we would be tasting the lamb from outside, but the waiting staff had been coy about giving an answer. He was very happy to see, therefore, that it was the next dish on the menu, served with a mille feuille of wild Patagonian apples.  I’ve never seen such tiny apples, but good things definitely came in those small packages, each one packing a punch as the ideal accessory to the tender lamb.

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My belly decided to speak up again and during the resulting trip to the facilities I contemplated being sensible and calling it quits at course number eleven. However, sensible isn’t a word that features often in my vocabulary thus I rushed back to the table to play my hand, accepting whatever consequences befell me in the following days. It was now time for the first of our five desserts. Yes, five.  First up was some Nalca candy, shaped into a leaf and with the texture of a strawberry shoelace (apologies to any international readers who don’t know that confectionery).

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img_20171221_185952_3141473818373.jpgOur second dessert was a ‘Chirimoya alegre’ cheesecake, and without doubt the biggest surprise of the night. We were presented with a simple cheesecake and accompanying piece of cheese. Except we weren’t. As each course was delivered, the chef responsible would arrive at the table to present it, detailing the ingredients and process. It was a brilliant touch and really hit home how a meal such as this is a real team effort. In this instance, the chef was unusually reticent to impart with information on the dish, something I initially took for shyness. I didn’t miss, however, the unmistakable glint in his eye as he returned to the kitchen. Wondering what was about to occur, I took my first bite of cheesecake and it took a few seconds for my tastebuds and brain to connect.  THE CHEESECAKE WAS IN FACT CHEESE AND THE PIECE OF CHEESE WAS A CHEESECAKE. Consider my mind blown. Each item had the appearance and texture of its visual form but tasted anything but. There were squeals of delight from the table and it was lovely to see the grins from the nearby staff, who seemed to take an equal measure of satisfaction from our reactions as we did from the experience.

I thought the meal had peaked, which at course number 13 is a pretty good run. How wrong was I?! Courses 14 and 15 arrived together, greeted with a chorus of oohs and aahs as it was set down in front of us. The bright pink rose of the year ice cream sandwich was accompanied by an ice brulée from the Atacama desert and bitter plants. The  ice cream sandwich was a revelation; eaten with one’s hands, the nougaty centre was ice cold yet easy to handle and the rose flavour was exquisite, which if watching the Great British Bake Off has taught me anything about baking, it’s that rose is a notoriously difficult flavour to get right. The black ice brulée was met with confused faces, prompting the waiter to tell us that we should hit it with our spoons.  The satisfying crack revealed a watery sorbet – much better than it sounds – in which the bitter herbs swam. After the sugary sweetness of the ice cream sandwich, it was an ideal contrast. Our sixteenth and final course was a cold glacier, which looked like a regular chocolate truffle, but by now we knew that wouldn’t be the case. For starters, there was a cloud of mist emanating from the top. The waiter told us to eat it quickly and once bitten into I experienced one of the strangest sensations ever. My breath seemed to physically be taken away. It sounds bizarre but I honestly couldn’t breathe for a second. The friendly face of our waiter ensured we didn’t panic, and once again, we excitedly discussed the experience.

And that’s exactly what BORAGò is, an experience. Calling it dinner or a meal doesn’t do it justice.  This was art. This was theatre. And the cast deserve every cry of encore.