(Pretty much) The End

When we landed in LAX the symmetry of what we had just done didn’t quite hit me. It was a few hours later, after showering in our (comparatively) luxurious bathroom and getting into our plush bed, that I realized how almost one year to the day had passed since the last time we arrived here.

Places hold memories, and this bedroom is full of nervous nights – thinking about what to take with us and what to leave behind – trying to imagine what our life would be like for the proximate future. I relive those thoughts and can’t help but sigh in relief. We accomplished something and have the satisfaction of coming out on the other side unscathed.

But for me, the symmetry of us being here again is charged with anxiety over the legacy of our trip. There’s a saying (perhaps a little cliched now) that goes around the backpacker community: upon returning home from a trip, one finds that the only thing that changed during your absence was you. This can certainly be baffling, as sometimes the sheer length of time that you’ve been away demands that something has changed. And yet, your friends and loved ones continue their lives in the same way – your trip destined to be an awkward hole in your relationship with them.

The fear that we’ve somehow traveled 13,000+ miles only to end up in the exact same place, with very little physical evidence that we did much at all – that horrible symmetry – is really what greeted me during our first day here. But as quickly as it consumed me, it fled. I sighed with relief because this time around we aren’t leaving for a year-long trip. Instead, we will continue our glorious victory lap up the west coast – visiting people that we care about and sharing our stories. It’s with a certain satisfaction that I realize I’m not worrying about my future. I’m not stressing about the next step. My mind feels more clear. The most wonderful thing is that Sheena and I made it through this crazy thing and we’re going home together.

I guess I realized that I don’t want to focus on messy legacies. What we did was very real and tangible to Sheena and I – we can reach out and touch it. So while the near future is unknown to us, and we may look around at our cities and neighborhoods and realize that nothing much has changed, I feel comfortable with that. Travel is a funny thing – something maybe best served to play tricks on your mind – but I believe it to be a worthwhile endeavor. Thanks so much for following along during the last year. I hope you’ll miss reading as much as I’ll miss posting.

The state of our language skills

It means “gringo power” right? – Humahuaca, Argentina

When a Uruguayan tells you that you don’t sound like a gringo, you tend to get a little excited. But when he turns to his friends and says that truly, he can’t believe what he’s hearing, you might blush a little bit. That’s exactly what I did, and then proceeded to speak nervously the rest of the night, not wanting to pull away the tenuous facade that I had managed.

Foreign language fluency is a fickle thing. Some days you can’t miss – especially when you have the luxury of dealing with an accent that is familiar – and other days your mouth and tongue simply will not cooperate. There are certain questions and topics that we cover almost everyday, leaving some to assume much too quickly that we’re quite good at Spanish. I can tell you where I’ve been, and what our plan is for the remaining time with relative ease, but if we get onto a more complicated subject, the words are going to come a lot more slowly. To this day I never know if a person is asking me what city I just came from, or what my nationality is when they ask, “De donde vienes?” (it means both and frequently I guess wrong)

I guess I’m attempting to answer the question, “after this trip you must speak like a native, huh?” Sheena has certainly improved her language skills in a much more obvious way; she progressed from speaking very little to convincing me that she would never flounder on her own. But I’m not sure if mine have sharpened in any measurable way. It was never a goal of mine to “speak like a native,” but on good days it’s a nice feeling to convince someone I’m un che, if only for a few minutes.

Best of the trip

Expanding on the theme of things that we’ll miss about traveling in South America, here’s our list of some of the best places we visited.

BEST HOSTEL

This one is really difficult. I think the way I’m approaching this category is by awarding for overall quality. This means that the kitchen was awesome, that the rooms and bathrooms were super clean, the beds and pillows were comfortable, that the design of the hostel allowed for maximum social interaction and simultaneously minimum disturbance during sleeping hours (practically impossible), and that the staff were super nice and went way beyond the normal call of duty. For each one of those considerations there is a place that was a cut above the rest, with Palm Tree (Medellin), La Villana (Santa Marta), Sayta (Bogotá), Elefante Rosa (Buenos Aires), Running Chaski (Cochabamba), Arequipay Backpackers (Arequipa) and El Patagonico (Puerto Natales) coming to mind. But when we talk about true, overall excellence there is no better than Dolce Vita in Sucre, Bolivia.

Runner-up: Avalon in Vilcabamba, Ecuador (and a quick shout-out to Las Olas in Copacabana, Bolivia – even though it can’t be counted as a hostel it was probably the nicest place we stayed during the year)

BEST CITY

The biggest city we visited during our trip also turned out to be our favorite – the answer to this one was always Buenos Aires. The city offers so much that I can’t imagine anyone not finding their niche there. I love that place and can’t wait to go back.

Runners-up: I’m having a hard time narrowing down from Arequipa (Perú), Medellin (Colombia), Valparaíso (Chile) and Cuenca (Ecuador)…

BEST COUNTRY

A lot of people have already been asking us what our favorite place on the trip has been. Normally, this is the type of seemingly-easy-but-almost-always-too-difficult-to-answer questions that I kind of dread after a trip. But pleasantly The Wongenbergs agree 100% that Ecuador was the best place we visited. The country has it all, for incredible value, and is small enough to really pack in a lot of places in a short amount of time.

Runner-up: Colombia (probably, specifically, the mountainous center part)

BEST CENTRAL MARKET

One of the reasons that Arequipa is in consideration for best city is because of the San Camilo Market. We will never forget the rows of juice stands, the papas rellenas outside, the heaping piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the organized way the place is laid out.

Runner-up: Mercado 10 de Agosto, Cuenca, Ecuador

BEST MULTI-DAY HIKE

The Torres del Paine Full Circuit was one of the first things we did in South America. Yes it was way too crowded. And yes I was frustrated by certain things that came with that. But after 12 months we have yet to find the same kind of beauty that was on display mile after mile in that stunning location.

Runner-up: The Quilotoa Loop outside of Latacunga, Ecuador

BEST DAY HIKE

It was a very wet and foggy slog through some strange landscape, but what else should you expect when you do a day hike to a high altitude moor? The Páramo de Ocetá outside of Sogamoso, Colombia was an adventure and a great day out.

Runners-up: Valle de Cócora outside of Salento, Colombia

BEST ACTIVITY WE PAID FOR

Los Túneles Day Tour on Isabela Island, Galapagos

Runner-up: Renting a car in Salta, Argentina allowed us to see some pretty amazing landscapes and one incredible museum (James Turrell at Colomé)

BEST LOW COST/FREE ACTIVITY

La Lobería on the San Cristobal Island (Galapagos) was amazing. For $5 we rented snorkel equipment and spent several hours on the beach and in the water with sea turtles and sea lions. I went for a walk further up the coast and saw amazing bird life and many, many more turtles in the surf. A great day.

Runner-up: Baños bike ride to Pailón del Diablo

BEST DISH

Encebollado in Otavalo Market, Ecuador

Runner-up: Curanto in Achao, Chiloé (Chile)

BEST HOT SPRINGS

Llahuar in the Colca Canyon (Perú) was great for many reasons, but the thermal pool right on the river put it over the top. We loved this place and often recommend it to fellow travelers.

Runner-up: the Termales de Polques on day-two of our Uyuni Jeep Tour

What we would do differently

We learned a lot about traveling during this trip. We learned how to cook good food, how to bargain and keep expenses down, and how to get along with each other. We also learned that our trip could have been better. Here are the ways that I would do things differently in the future.

  • Travel for a shorter amount of time – Whoa, surprising, right? We wanted to do a year, and that’s what we’ve done. But we are burned out. I think I first started to notice it around the 8 month mark. Up until then, we were talking about crazy things like extending our trip! We decided to cap it at a year, but in retrospect, we probably should have gone home sooner. I have no problems with our pace, so future trips might mean seeing less, but I don’t think I’ll want to do anything longer than 6 months in the future.
  • Build in a long break – We met people who were traveling for 3 months, then flying to Australia to look for jobs, making money that would enable them to travel longer. Someone joked to me the other day that Australia was overrun with foreign backpackers working off the books. But I think they’re getting something right. You can’t keep traveling without breaks. I thought our two week stops in various towns would be enough, but I don’t think that anymore. A month or two in a single place could have been rejuvenating for us – offering us a chance to put down some temporary roots somewhere. Next time we’ll build something in. Maybe taking language or dance courses, maybe house sitting, maybe volunteering at a non-profit, or teaching English.

Maybe a few more weeks working with a view would have been a good idea – Frutillar, Chile

  • Spend more money – This one is closely attached to my first point. If we traveled for less time, we could spend more money. More money usually means more consistent fun down here. Better accommodations, better food, more activities that cost money. At times I’ve thought that could have been a solution for us.
  • Avoid the rainy season – In the south of Peru we made a decision to continue north instead of turning back south. The reason was that it was getting colder in Bolivia, Argentina and southern Brazil, and it would be more comfortable (temperature-wise) to keep heading north and circle back around. But we didn’t fully appreciate what the rainy season would be like. In Colombia, we had rain storms everywhere we went, almost every afternoon. We got trapped many, many times. In Bolivia, instead of blindingly sunny days and freezing cold nights, we’ve had wet and cold days, with (almost) freezing nights. Perhaps if we traveled for less time, we wouldn’t have to worry about changing seasons, so this one circles back to numero uno once more.

The rainy season – Cartagena, Colombia

South America, By the Numbers

0 – Times we ate guinea pig (cuy)

1 –  Times we ate llama (that we know of);
Motorcycle rides;
Train rides

Llamas: a one-stop shop for clothes, transportation and food

2 – Kayak rentals;
Bike rentals

4 – Funiculars taken

5 – Colds we’ve had (Craig 2, Sheena 3)

6 – Islands visited;
Hot springs visited;
Cable cars taken

Medellin, Colombia

7 – Weeks spent volunteering

8 – Countries visited;
Overnight bus rides taken

12 – Times we hitchhiked

14 – Boats taken (including ferries)

16 – Flights taken;
Border crossings

19 – UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited

Valparaiso, Chile – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

82 – Hostels stayed in

89 – Cities visited

109 – Beds slept in (including 1 hammock)

357 – Days outside of the U.S.A.

460 – Hours spent on a bus

13,668 – Miles traveled by bus in S. America (average speed of 29.7 mph)

727, 584 – Llamas spotted

What I will miss

When I look at the list of the things that I’ll miss, I sort of think it’s predictable. There are great things about traveling, and just about everyone knows what they are. Still, let’s list them:

  • Not working – Obvious, right? But there have been moments during this trip where we have actually forgotten that we’re sooooo lucky to not be working right now. It’s a whole year of Saturdays. Sometimes, when I’m being especially industrious with the blog I’ll remember, oh yeah, I used to do a whole lot of sitting in front of a computer. And sometimes during our WorkAway volunteer positions, when I was asked to do something that I really didn’t want to do, I’d remember, oh yeah, I used to do a whole lot of things that I didn’t want to do. Yes, sometimes traveling in South America is hard. And yes, there is plenty to bitch and moan about, but big picture? We’re the luckiest people we know.
  • Cheap living – In one year in South America, I spent about what I pay for in rent in Seattle. Think about that one for a minute (and consider that my rent was a steal – much lower than market rate).
  • Seeing amazing thingsPatagonia, Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, and really, so much more. We’ve seen too many amazing things in a relatively short amount of time. Seriously, I’m convinced we’re burnt out on amazing things. We get to new cities and are told about the great things that we can go do, and we sort of look and each other and sigh. Is it really worth the effort? Will it be better than x or y? So, we’re probably jaded and we’ve probably been in South America for too long, but the amazing things that we have seen? It’s been incredible.

Beautiful mountain views outside of Pucon, Chile

  • Meeting great people – There are a lot of backpackers out here that are in their late-20’s, early-30’s. If you stay at the wrong hostel, you might think it’s just a bunch of 18-year old Europeans who want to party 24/7, but at the right place? You meet some great people. We have plans to visit a lot of them. You know, someday when we have enough money for a trip to Australia or France or something. We’ve also met many wonderful South Americans. There were family of friends who invited us into their homes for days. There were complete strangers who gave us their contact information after 5 minutes. There have been countless hostel staff members who turned an under appreciated destination into one we’ll never forget. I am very grateful to all of these people, and I’ll miss those easy connections and all the meals and laughs that we shared.
  • Eating and drinking – There are dishes down here that Sheena and I might never stop talking about. Curanto in Chiloé, or encebollado in Ecuador for example. The papas rellenas in Arequipa. The juices! Oh the fresh fruit juices! How I will miss passionfruit and mango and papaya juices! And I’ll remember those achachayrú, uchuvas and granadilla fondly. There are outdoor markets and corner vegetable and fruit stands everywhere down here – like a Pike Place Market seemingly every few blocks.
  • Easy South America – South America isn’t always easy, but the things it does well can’t be beaten. Public transportation is excellent in almost every country. Not necessarily the quality, but if you want a bus to some tiny town, chances are there is one leaving in the next 15 minutes. And if you’re looking for something specific, like an older model cell-phone charger, or a new zipper for your jeans, there’s a place for that. It will cost less than you expect and be ready in a few hours (maybe even a few minutes if you have the time to wait). There’s a butcher around the corner, or a cheap, filling set-lunch or dinner nearby.

Need to make an anonymous phone call in Bogota, Colombia? These guys got you covered #easysouthamerica

What were the best (most useful) things we brought

Sheena and I spent a lot of time thinking about what to bring on this trip. Maybe we should have spent a little less, since some of the last minute, least thought-out purchases ended up being the most useful. Here are a few that almost everyday we’re glad we brought along.

  • Camelbak All-Clear UV Water Filter – Thanks Mom and Dad! Best Christmas gift ever! This thing is amazing. It costs about $100, but we think we would have spent about three-times that in bottled water throughout Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador (parts of Colombia too) without it. We’ve never been sick from drinking the filtered water from the tap, and it’s super easy to use. The advantage over other systems (like Steripen) is that you screw the UV-cap directly onto the bottle and agitate. No spillage – no hassles.
  • Tokina 12-24mm, F/4 Wide Angle Lens – I bought this one week before we left, when a photographer friend stared at me, mouth open, after I told him what equipment I was going to bring. For our first month in Patagonia alone, the purchase was worth it. The Tokina works flawlessly with my Canon SLR body, and I saved about $100. Highly recommended!

Wide angle shot of the reservoir surrounding Guatape, Colombia

  • AYL Portable Speaker – It’s small and easy to use. The charge lasts a long time, then easily charges back up with USB. The sound quality is great and always surprising how loud it can get considering it’s size. We use this for music and watching movies on the laptop.
  • Charles Schwab Investment Checking Debit Card – Sheena did all the research, while I got on this one at the last possible minute (seriously, I shipped this overnight to California days before we left). This is the one card that we found which has no Currency Conversion Fees, and refunds all ATM fees. We’ve saved more than $400 by using this card. Many banks down here only let you take out $100 at a time, and will charge you up to 5%. Then your own bank might charge you the same! We are so happy we have had this card with us. It’s a bit of a hassle to set up, so do it more than a week before you leave..