My American Adventure: backpacking in South America

Machu Picchu, Peru – One can only dream of what it was like at the height of the Inca civilisation

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up” – Stephen Hawking

More of the backpacker life

I have just recently moved back to Mexico after travelling through South America. The latest chapter of my adventure has been much more that of the backpacker life, hostels, overnight buses, and moving from place to place relatively quickly. As I flick through my notes and photos from my trip I am reminded of just how much ground I covered, the amazing things I have seen, the people I met and also those moments of reflection. Below I have shared a snapshot of my experience:

View from my terrace in Valparaiso

After my month in Buenos Aires, I flew to Chile, where my time was spent between the capital Santiago and Valparaiso on the coast. The Andes provides an impressive backdrop for the city of Santiago but it was the vibe in Valparaiso that stood out for me; a coloruful city effectively built upon itself into the hills, where street art is truly recognised as the genuine mode of expression that it is. There is a rebellious spirit about the city that was interesting to learn about from locals; it is clear that Valparaiso is the cultural capital of Chile.

Mendoza – a city I could live in

Flying over the snow covered Andes provided breath taking views but the bus journey through them on the way to Mendoza was a personal highlight. The views became more spectacular as the bus navigated the steep curvy road higher into the mountain range, looking down at the huge freight trucks likely driven by people who make this same journey for much of their lives.

Travelling through the Andes, Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina

I spent five nights in Mendoza but I could have easily spent longer. The city has lots of trees and parks which make it a picturesque place to walk around and then you also have the quiet countryside where walking around the vineyards with the Andes in the distance is such a peaceful and enjoyable experience. Aside from the scenery, the people are sound, the Asados are tasty (Argentinian BBQ), the red wine is quality (at a fraction of prices in Ireland!) and the nightlife is great. Mendoza definitely seemed like a city I could live in.

Exploring North Argentina

From Mendoza I got an overnight bus to San Miguel de Tucumán, the starting point for my exploration of North Argentina, spending time in various cities and towns in the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, including Cafayate, Salta, Tilcara, Humahuaca and Iruya.

Cafayate, Salta Province – the Mars like scenery in North Argentina

The scenery in North Argentina is amazing, the closest thing to what I imagine Mars being like. Beyond the dry mountainous terrain it’s the canyons carved from oceans that flowed there millions of years ago and the layered colours from the segmentation that offers a different side of our planet, a glimpse into its history and a reminder of how little of that history humans have been a part of. Yet in such little time we have inflicted such damage on this gift we have miraculously being provided with.

Iruya and the Milky Way

Nervy bus ride to Iruya

Travelling north, it is the remoteness of some of the pueblos that adds to the sense of adventure, one such place being the isolated village of Iruya. The village is only 84km from Humahuaca but it takes over four hours to get there because half the journey is on a curvy gravel road that flirts with the edge of the mountain. The road ascends 4000 metres above sea level before descending down into Iruya, a tiny village perched on the edge of the mountain at around 3000 metres above sea level. The route is not for the faint hearted but it is worth it. (Dangerous roads: Caraytera de Iruya)

During my time there I went hiking outside the village into the mountains with one of the local guides where we waited till nightfall in order to see the night’s sky. While the day’s blue sky had earlier helped illuminate the mountain colours, the darkness of the night, free from artificial light of any kind, provided a jaw dropping star show. Perched atop of the mountain in complete silence, in the centre of what was like a black bowl of surrounding mountains, all I could do was just sit there in awe.

Maintaining our connection with nature

Trekking in Tilcara, Jujuy Province

We have developed a world full of artificial stimulants but nature provides all the stimulation we need if we could just slow down to appreciate it. In our consumer driven culture the focus is on wanting more and more but when you really take the time to appreciate a star filled sky, a beautiful sunrise or sunset, the ocean’s power or some element of nature you can’t help falling under its spell, where for that moment you can see with clarity what is really important in life and worries just fade away.

Sitting in the Amphitheatre, Route 68 Cafayate to Salta

Like anything though it is easier said than done and the perspective that you can gain in these moments of clarity does not sustain itself indefinitely; the connection has to be maintained. In our so called “attention economy” where everyone and everything is vying for our attention, I believe the best sanctuary from this sensory overload is our connection with nature. That way you can play the game on your terms, rather than being just a pawn in someone else’s game. Well, that’s just my opinion man……

Crossing into Bolivia

I felt a real connection to Argentina and when I made the final journey north to cross the border into Bolivia I was a little sad to be leaving. Still, that’s the nature of travelling; you are always moving on to the next adventure.

Uyuni Salt Flats – Playing with perspective!

I crossed the Horacio Guzmán International Bridge over the Río La Quiaca into the Bolivian border town of Villazón before sunrise and the first thing that was most striking was the cold. It had been really cold in Chile and Argentina at times but the Southern border of Bolivia was freezing! I got a bus to Uyuni, a town in the Southwest of the country, the gateway to visiting the world’s largest salt flats.

The salt flats were spectacular, made even better by the enthusiastic tour guide and the four others (from Argentina, Bolivia & Chile) that made up our group; it was good craic. A few days later we actually traveled on to the capital city of La Paz together and I spent nearly two weeks travelling Bolivia and Peru with the two Argentinian girls from Salta, adding more Argentinians to our band of wanderers as we moved along. There was no shortage of funny moments.

View from Isla Del Sol, Bolivia

From the concrete jungle of La Paz we made our way down to Copacabana, a Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca which was also the point for taking a boat to Isla Del Sol, a small island with Inca archaeological sites. The island is relatively undeveloped still so it is a great place to just chill out, recharge and enjoy the amazing views.

The wonder of Machu Picchu

After Bolivia we moved on to Cusco in Peru, once the capital city of the Inca Empire and later the centre for Spanish colonisation for the Spanish conquistadors. It is a major tourist hub but the city has somehow managed to keep a relatively authentic feel; I loved the place. There is no shortage of things to do in and around Cusco and it is also the gateway for one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu.

Plaza De Armas, Cusco, Peru

There are various ways of getting to Machu Picchu but I took the Inca Rail to Aguas Calientes – the town at the base of Machu Picchu, about 4 hours from Cusco – and I hiked up it early the next morning. Despite being one of the first into the Inca city that morning when they opened at 6am, hopes of catching a sunrise were dashed by a thick grey cloudy mist. Still, thankfully, and greeted by much cheering from other visitors, the clouds began to clear a few hours later, teasing us to start with, with Machu Picchu peeking through the clouds before finally the full scale of its magnificence was unveiled.  Epic!

A few more days in Cusco and some farewell cervezas later I was on my way to Lima, where I was happy to just chill out for a few days and soak up a bit of the city rather than trying to do much. The flight I had booked a few weeks earlier to Mexico City had now arrived and with that my South American adventure came to an end. I was a bit pensive about leaving and whether I should have stayed longer but at the same time I was feeling ready to lay down the backpack again, at least for a while.


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