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.

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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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!

Quaffing wines in Cafayate…

Having spent two incredible days in Chile, it was time to head to Argentina, but thankfully the final seven weeks of my trip will be spent criss-crossing the two countries and I’m already looking forward to seeing more of Chile. After a short drive, we crossed the border at Paso Jama. Well, we attempted to cross the border, but the Argentinean authorities weren’t playing ball for some unknown reason so we went back to the truck and entertained ourselves by eating lunch and playing football. After some enquiries by the tour leaders, we were eventually allowed to drive through, some three hours after arriving. It was then another six hours or so on the road to Salta where we would stay for a couple of nights. I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic during our time there, although I was entertained watching a Manchester United fan watch the Manchester derby in a local bar (they lost, hurrah!).

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We then drove through the spectacular rock formations of the Quebrada de las Conchas, with a night’s bush camping on the way, to reach the peaceful town of Cafayate. The small town is the centre of one of Argentina’s principal wine producing regions, famous for the quality of its Torrentes and Tannat wines, although I wasn’t a fan of either. However, just to make sure, we went to a local producer, Piatelli, for a delicious lunch and wine tasting.

My roommate, Riley, doesn’t drink and the waiting staff didn’t realise to begin with, but I ensured no wine went to waste. The grounds of the vineyard were beautifully kept and it felt like a real treat, especially given that we were staying at a very basic campsite that evening. However, THE BEST THING TO EVER HAPPEN IN MY 38 YEARS HAPPENED THERE!

There were a few dogs at the campsite and, as usual, they were very placid and friendly. One bitch seemed to take a particular liking to me and as we left to go to the supermarket she decided to follow. At one point, she ran off barking at another dog on the opposite side of the road, but with one yell from me she came back to us. I was pleasantly surprised. Upon arriving at the supermarket, I assumed she’d sit outside awaiting our return, BUT NO! SHE CAME INTO THE SUPERMARKET WHILE I SHOPPED.

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I never want to shop any other way. It’s really lovely to see how well dogs are treated here (well, the further south you go from Ecuador at least). You see them hanging around in and outside of stores and there are often old food containers full of water for them.

It would be hard to top that day a.k.a. the best day of my life, but thankfully the next three days would be spent on a working estancia which meant horse riding and multiple doggies. The dogs on the farm were all super friendly, especially Clyde, one of the border collies who was addicted to playing football and could run around all day. I particularly liked one of the old black labradors who would roll over for belly rubs if you dared to pass within ten feet of her. Needless to say, I was generally found laying within two feet of her at most times.

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Thankfully my tentmate, Riley, is as much of a dog lover as me.

On the first night we were treated to a tasting of wines which were grown nearby, along with a competition to see who had the best nose. Our host produced multiple mini-bottles of scents commonly found in wine – from something called Le Nez du Vin – and we all had to guess its identity. Ian won the champagne prize on a tiebreaker of rose after several of us drew. It was a very entertaining and engrossing evening with lots of fun debate over the smells: “it’s burnt toast, no it’s oak, no it’s caramel”.

The following day we explored the estancia on horseback. That is as long as you weighed under 95kg. The public weigh-in was somewhat embarrassing, especially as I came out as the heaviest rider at 90kg! I was more distressed that despite all the activities I’ve done over the past couple of months, I’ve actually gained weight! I wonder if there’s a parasite I can host for a couple of weeks to shift some pounds. The horse ride was a lot of fun, galloping across the surrounding hillsides felt so far away from my daily life in Amsterdam, which I guess is kinda the point of this trip. I used to ride in the school holidays as my aunt stabled some horses and it soon came back to me. I quickly remembered how much I loved being on horseback and I’m looking forward to more opportunities while on the trip. There’s also a riding school in Amsterdam which is very close to my apartment so I think I’ll check it out when I get home.

After the estancia, we headed to Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina, however, beyond cranking out a blog post over a Starbucks soy latte one morning, I spent most of my time making friends with the hostel toilet. Perhaps my parasite wish came true after all!!

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The one and only photo I took in Mendoza.

Gary the gringo goes forth…..

In a few weeks’ time, I shall be heading to South America for nearly four months as I take a sabbatical from my job for what I hope to be an adventurous and enlightening experience.

I considered organising the trip myself, but after a couple of days of trying to put together an itinerary and already breaking out in a sweat from the stress, I decided to look online for help. It appeared in the form of STA Travel’s January sale! There was a trip from Quito in Ecuador to Buenos Aires in Argentina, taking in several other wondrous* countries along the 94 day journey which at first glance looked expensive, but with the post-Christmas discount applied it actually was comparable to organising the trip myself, so I put down the deposit and started dreaming of Patagonia, a part of the world I’ve always wanted to see given my interest in animals and nature.

*I thought it was spelled incorrectly too and missing an ‘e’, but apparently not.

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My interest in natural history stems from spending school holidays with my wonderful grandparents who let me stay up to watch every nature documentary on TV. It’s no secret that David Attenborough is my ideal man. I also got my love of sport from Pops and Nanny Dot, who, whenever a sporting event clashed with a documentary, would wheel in the small television from the back room and plonk it on top of the main box in the lounge. We watched both programmes at the same time, with the sport commentary muted until the documentary had finished. Oh the youth of today have it so easy with their on-demand viewing.

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