Landing safely on the tarmac at Toronto Airport in Canada, we breathed a big sigh of relief. We had made it to the western world, no injuries, nothing lost, our bodies and bags intact. Finally we could drop our guard, turn off our radars that were keeping us alert to danger and thieves constantly during the 248 days we spent travelling through South America. Not only were we excited to be catching up with Treeny’s excitable MammaLou , her wonderful grandad Brian (Pops), and his adorable partner Annie, we were thrilled at the prospect of eating some normal food, no more rice and beans, hurrah! Canada is a ginormous and diverse country requiring months of travel to grasp it, instead with our two weeks we concentrated our time in the state where it all happens, Ontario, home to Pops and Annie in Prince Edward County, the countries capital Ottawa, the state capital of Toronto and the mightiest waterfall in North America, Niagara Falls.
There is nothing worse than feeling unwell while backpacking. Creature comforts of home do not exist on the road. Don’t even think about curling up into a ball on the couch to watch marathons of your favourite TV show, or sleeping in quiet solitude as you try and snooze off your ailments. Dorm rooms provide little privacy, and the general comings and goings of hostels will ensure your sleep time is limited. After climbing Cotopaxi Volcano we were sick. We were physically, mentally and emotionally drained. Dehydrated, stomach pains, headaches, muscle aches. We were hurting badly. After travelling for six months in South America it was bound to happen at some point, unfortunately it just had to happen while we were in a beautiful, fascinating place, the chaotic capital city of Ecuador, Quito.
The Andes is a magical place. With striking landscapes and traditional communities that live and thrive here, it is the heart of indigenous South America. Nowhere quite compares to the mountain villages nestled between the looming volcanoes in Ecuador and the picturesque town of Otavalo, home to one of the largest handicraft markets and the most beautifully dressed locals on the continent. Our last visit to the Andes was at the tip of South America in Argentina, and the last time we had experienced such colourful cultural customs was in Bolivia and Peru back in October 2012. It was a refreshing change of scenery to arrive back in the Andes. We were so excited to be a part of this world all over again.
The biggest, most colourful party on the planet, would have to be the world renowned Rio Carnaval in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. What many people don’t realise is that this month long festival is in fact celebrated throughout South America in varying forms of colour, music, parades, and racy costumes. Rio may know how to do it best, but the tiny city of Encarnacion in Paraguay certainly gives it a good shot. We knew we weren’t going to make it to Rio in time and discovered there was a smaller version of the event in Paraguay, which is identical in every way only with 5% of the immense crowds that swamp Rio, and at 5% of the price – this smaller event seemed far more appealing. The Carnaval, for Treeny in particular, was one event in South America we couldn’t miss, we were excited to be heading to Encarnacion without the masses to experience the event somewhere a little different.
In the geographical heart of South America lies the forgotten country of Paraguay, the country no one visits and no one really talks about. Only 20 odd years ago the country was under the fierce and terrifying rule of one of South America’s most gruelling dictators, General Alfredo Stroessner, who was in power for a staggering 35 years, and left the country plagued with corruption and economic woes. Aside from all the trouble Paraguay is a really interesting place, from the dodgy border towns for smuggling and exporting counterfeit goods, the world’s second largest dam, the most exciting Carnival party outside of Brazil, remarkable Jesuit religious buildings, to the isolated Pantanal region along the Paraguay River, there is plenty to do here if you have time to spare.
The northern-most province in Argentina, Misiones, extends up the map like an arm reaching out and terminates at a natural border, and triple frontier, with both Brazil and Paraguay formed by two mighty rivers, the Rio Parana and Rio Iguazu. A short trip up the Iguazu River is the world famous Iguazu Falls, a thunderous waterfall of unimaginable power. The small border town of Puerto Iguazu was to be our last stop in Argentina. After over a month in the country we were sad to have reached our last stop but excited at the prospect of seeing yet another natural wonder in this incredibly diverse country.
There is nothing better than finding a quiet place to kick your feet up and relax. Uruguay has this wonderful laid back feel which you really get a sense of the moment you leave the hustle and bustle of Montevideo. The country, in particular, is all about the slow life, living off the land at your own pace and snoozing the afternoon away during siesta time. There is no reason to hurry here, there really isn’t much to do. We came in search of serene beach villages to relax in, and to travel cross-country from the Atlantic coast to the border town of Salto, observing the peaceful country life amongst the rolling green plains and farms of central Uruguay along the way.
A long time ago, back in the 16th Century, when the great powers of Europe had set their sights on South America, there were never-ending disputes and battles over the diverse lands of this great continent. The Spanish eventually conquered the south, what is now Argentina and the Portuguese the North, what is now Brazil. In the middle of these two great nations lies a lesser known country named Uruguay. Almost entirely surrounded by water, Uruguay is strategically positioned on the Atlantic Coast to the east, and along two great rivers to the West and South separating it from Argentina. The Portuguese first claimed Uruguay, and to fend off the insatiable Spaniards, constructed impressive fortresses in tactical locations along the extensive coastline. The on-going battle between the Spaniards and Portuguese for this nation went on for almost two hundred years, with each, at various times during the conflict, defeating the other to lay their claim. What remains in Uruguay today are wonderful historical quarters with strong influences from both European societies and remnants of the great defensive structures used to guard this land. The most historically significant places being Colonia del Sacramento, the country’s oldest city, and the capital Montevideo – our first destinations as we discover Uruguay.
South American cities are renowned for their magnetic atmospheres, diversities and exotic cultures. One such city is Buenos Aires, the culture capital of the continent, the city that has it all; a rich history and architectural fabric, old world glamour, an abundance of food to try, music and tango in the streets, passion, romance, drama and so much more. Born and raised in this great city, Ale and Mariana so kindly accepted our request to Couchsurf with them in their apartment in one of the most eclectic neighbourhoods of them all, San Telmo. This visit was going to be different, we were excited to be experiencing, and learning what this city has to offer through those that know it best, the local residents.
Set at the base of Campo Del Hielo Sur, The Great Southern Ice field, Torres Del Paine National Park is considered by many as the mecca of hiking in Patagonia and has been high on our travel hit list since the very beginning. The Park offers well over 100km of hiking trails to be conquered, and has a reputation for having Patagonia’s most extreme weather, with hikers often experiencing all four seasons in one day; baking hot sun, flurries of snow, horizontal rain, and hurricane force winds. A daunting four to five day hike, battling the elements, lay ahead. This was going to be tough mentally and physically and we new it, we just didn’t know just how tough. We were ready for the Challenge.