The above photo shows us in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It sums up the great experiences we have enjoyed during 11 weeks in South America.
It’s been about amazing natural landscapes. The Beagle Channel, Valley of the Moon, Perito Moreno Glacier, Torres del Paine, Iguacu Falls, Tierra del Fuego, Cotopaxi, Mount Fitzroy and the Amazon Basin Jungle to name a few.
These are the reasons to take the all-night buses, stay in dodgy rooms and put up with the crowded polluted cities. We’ve found it tough going at times but can now look at a map of South America and recall so many wonderful natural sights.
But the same can’t be said for man–made sights. Except for some colonial buildings that had the fortune to escape the wrecking-ball.
In our travels from Quito to Ushuaia, we were constantly reminded that this is still a continent that’s suffering from poor leadership and woeful civil community. Locals talked to us about ongoing government corruption. Towns were haphazard and ugly. And everywhere litter.
Indeed it’s difficult to think of two more different travel experiences than our two months in Italy and our three months here. Culture v nature. Style v clutter. Order v chaos.
Yet for all that, South America was exhilarating. The people are so young. It’s clearly changing so quickly. And given the right leadership it could have the potential to be a bastion of western values in a difficult world.
Talking of which we will soon be blogging from deepest TrumpLand. But first some beach time.
If you plan to do this You’ll need lots of energy to do the 5000 miles we covered in 11 weeks. So don’t delay. Do it now. Also best to learn some Spanish or get proficient in using Google Translate.
So pleased we spent our last afternoon in Quito visiting the house where Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín lived and painted for the last 20 years of his life.
Next door is La Capilla del Hombre (“The Chapel of Man”) his own self-indulgent art gallery that documents man’s cruelty to man. Ironically, the money to build it came from a few South American dictators and others.
Discovering his emotive, shocking and deeply moving paintings was a real revelation. He said of his work: For the children that death took whilst playing, for the men that dimmed whilst working, for the poor that failed whilst loving, I will paint with the scream of a shotgun.
It’s a tough viewing. But Roger totally loved Guayasamín’s visual style. If you don’t know his work please take a look online and let us know what you think. It’s about faces and hands and suffering.
Back in Quito, as we went round the Presidential Palace (very underdressed!) the incumbent Rafael Correa was working away in his office. Unbelievably – given our European security sensitivities – just down the corridor from us.
Unable to serve another term, Correa will be replaced on April 2nd when the country votes in the presidential run-off. It’s a defining moment for the country whose economy has crash-dived on the back of falling oil prices.
Leading in the polls is Lenín Moreno who offers continuity; many we spoke to fear this will lead to Ecuador becoming another Venezuela. Meanwhile Guillermo Lasso promises to put the economy first, reduce the state and align the country more with the West.
Should Lasso win – Wikileak’s Julian Assange might be booted out of the Ecuadorian London embassy sometime soon. But don’t expect that to happen. The ruling PAIS Alliance party have distributed a lot of money to the poor, built miles of roads, hired more civil servants than really needed and might even tamper with the vote.
Change happens. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly.
In rural Ecuador it’s happening in front of our eyes. Down every valley. Along every road. And the result – there are almost no houses to be seen over 30 years old.
In the town where we have been staying for the past three nights, we saw two lovely old deserted places. Probably still standing only because a redirection of the Pan American highway has made Lasso a backwater.
Their wooden facias testament to a time before concrete. And a time when there was some aesthetic aspirations. Today the streets are often ugly and haphazard. Change.
It was dark and damp. Across the mud floor scuttled dozens of guinea pigs. In the corner a basic wooden platform was pointed to. This is where the couple sleep.
Hilary and Roger spent some time last year in The Scottish Outer Hebrides and visited a Black House (see picture below) museum. Sanitised for the tourist it was almost romantic to imagine families living in such ‘rural charm’ a hundred years ago.
Now here in Ecuador two indigenous people – a weather-beaten couple in their 60s – were showing us their home. It’s the other side of the world but it still came as a shock. After all, 50km up the road the elite are relaxing in their Quito mansions.
How should we feel?
You can’t escape the fact that it’s a travelling highlight to see such a scene. You can’t ignore the fact you want to see these indigenous houses still lived in rather than replaced by soulless concrete.
But how do we expect to sleep tonight? Not surrounded by mud, damp and guinea pigs for starters.
Eating healthily can be hard when you are constantly on the road and on a budget. We haven’t eaten a lot of authentic South American cooking simply because much of it is carnivorous or looks of dubious origin. For instance, the town where we are staying tonight has no place we would feel comfortable eating at.
Also, eating out takes time, costs a lot (over a year) and whilst travelling for an extended time you just crave plain food rather than fancy.
We eat best when we’re staying in Airbnb’s or hostels with kitchens, since we can buy and cook our own food and are in control of what we eat. Dinner basics are often eggs, pasta/rice or beans.
In the day? We have brought our own plate and cutlery plus tin opener. We buy bread and fruit for our breakfasts ( if not included with our accommodation) and lunches. Avocados have been wonderful for calories and filling us up.
When all else fails, like tonight, we buy tinned sardines, lentils and a jar of olives from a supermarket and eat these. Good protein and roughage even when tinned. We have both lost weight since regular meals just aren’t possible, but we’re staying pretty healthy and keeping going.
This is one of our occasional tips for middle aged gap year travellers. To see the others, click below on the link – Travel Tips
At last we got to see a volcano in South America. Three previous mountains were covered in mist for days.
At 5,897m Cotopaxi is the world’s third highest active volcano. It has erupted 50 times since records began in 1738 and due to the amount of snow on the summit, each eruption causes Lahars (rivers of melted snow and silt) which run down the mountain at up to 40mph travelling for over 100km. These have caused many deaths in the past and levelled the nearby city of Latacunga twice.
Our guide Marcelo, drove us to the end of the road, and we set off together to climb up to the Jose Ribas Refuge. The sunny views quickly turned to mist and snow but we made it. At 4,864m this Refuge is higher than Mont Blanc and our panting lungs confirmed this. Because of recent mini-eruptions, it’s currently the highest you can go.
There was a hearty atmosphere with many nationalities crowded into the small cafe. Three steaming mugs of hot chocolate later and we were ready to climb back down. Hail hit us and at the bottom we could no longer see Cotopaxi. Just as well we started early to get that sunny view.
The Loney Planet guidebook describes Banos as “One of Ecuador’s most enticing and popular tourist destinations”.
This morning we probably saw it at its best. The sun was out, the surrounding green peaks at last visible, the Cathedral packed with worshippers and a priest with a fantastic singing voice and the streets full of colour and lived-in faces.
The above photo montage hopefully brings you here too.
We’re now in Banos (Central Ecuador) and totally exhausted. The humidity of the jungle. The heat in Lago Agrio. A really uncomfortable all-night bus journey here. All have sapped away at our energy-levels and we both crashed out for long periods.
We knew extended travelling would be very tiring, it’s no holiday despite what some of our friends might think. The 60 days in Italy and now the 70 days in South America have finally caught up with us.
Rather than beating ourselves up now, we are actually really pleased we kept going for so long; pushing ourselves to see and experience so much. Hilary did her first gap year in 1987 with good friend Sara and got exhausted after three months of travelling. So we had to expect the same again, especially since we’re thirty years older.
It’s the problem of a gap-year. It’s a long time. What’s our response to feeling so exhausted? Well we’ll be heading off to Costa Rica soon and will earmark the first week there for a beach holiday. A holiday break from the work of a gap year.