The road back to London, through Chile and Argentina

San Pedro de Atacama provided a sunny, warm change from the bitterly cold, though beautiful, Bolivian salt flats and a welcome lightness from living in La Paz – the edge was honed and I felt… lighter, safer, better. After a long overdue shower, I emerged clean and I wore a strappy dress for the first time since Panama. It felt glorious to have the sun on my back again and with my departure from South America before me, it felt like I was on holidays. And free.

After lunch with my French friends from Uyuni, I said goodbye to them – they were going on a roadtrip that night to Santiago – and spent the afternoon with Lisa, Lara and Gisele drinking cervesas and ice cold Chilean pinot grigio in the sunshine. We were all staying in the same hostel – in the same room even – so we went back there and listened to music in the courtyard and drank more and talked about everything. Like in so many places before, firm friendships were made at lightening speed: joy shared, secrets revealed and discussed, problems solved. It was so great to meet them. We went for some food and then to a bar to hear some live music and then got home just after midnight – from standing by an active volcano and bathing in thermal springs at dawn in Bolivia to drinks and music in Chile that evening, it had been a wonderful day.

Still with the air of being on holiday, we had a lazy day the next day, saying goodbye to Gisele who was taking a bus south to see more of Chile. Lara and Lisa told me about their plans to go to Iguazu falls - I was toying with the idea of meeting some other lovely friends in the Argentinian wine country or even going down to Valparaíso in Chile, where I’d been dreaming of going to since I first found out about it. By that stage, though, I had very little time and I wanted to see the falls before leaving so I chose to stay with the girls and we jumped on an 18 hour overnight bus to Salta that evening, on route to the falls in a couple of days time.

We arrived in Salta at sundown the next day and, exhausted, we just went out for dinner and went back to the hostel, the girls to sleep and me to work, which ended up a very late night of half working, half drinking beers with the hostel manager and talking about travel and Bolivia, where he was from. The next morning we went for a wander around Salta – such a beautiful little city – and had some lunch in the square. We’d organized some horseriding for the afternoon and were picked up by a tall burly Argentinian gaucho and driven an hour or so out of town to a ranch. We trailed up through the mountains on horseback and the views, the landscape, the smells, the colours, the heat from the ground, the trees, the flowers, the bushes all reminded me of the Blue Mountains, Australia, my birthplace. It was a slow ride: meditative and quietly joyful. At the end we were allowed to gallop around n abandoned cornfield – and I laughed and squealed like an excited child and took off.

At dusk, our burly Argentinian drove us back to the hostel for a BBQ, and what a BBQ it was. Some of the very best steak I’ve ever had, tasting smoky and salty and delicious, with roast sweet potato and salad on the side, and dark red wine to accompany it. It was bliss and I wanted everyone I loved to be there experiencing it. All our hostel was there around the table and we ate and drank and joked and finally went to a Simpsons-themed bar - yes – in downtown Salta, where I tried my first Fernet, one of Argentina’s favourite cocktails and a horrible concoction of a minty spirit and coca cola. Really, the horror: never inflict your mouth with it. But the night was fun and we got home in the wee hours. 

The next day, after more wandering around Salta, we packed, loaded our backpacks on and took another overnight bus, this time to Puerto Iguazu. It was steaming hot and sunny the following afternoon when we arrived. I’d been chatting to some filmmakers on the bus who were from there and had enthused about how glorious the falls were and I was very excited about seeing it in real life. We went out for more steak and came back to the hostel early in preparation for the next day. Our fourth dorm mate was a lovely English girl, Rachel, who was travelling by herself so we all hung out together, chatting about our respective travels and planning on going to the falls the next day. Rachel mentioned that while she was in northern Peru, she’d experienced an express kidnapping after getting off a night bus early in the morning. The taxi driver had taken her to a remote place, others jumped in, robbed her of all but her passport – they even took her shoes – and left her by the roadside. The poor woman – although she continued travelling and spoke about it with some separation as it had been two months before – so, also, a courageous woman. While I'd been in La Paz, everyone had told me about how common express kidnappings were there and it completely terrified me, so much so, I never wanted to take a taxi at night, or really at all, without a friend with me. These things happen though, and then the journey continues.

The next morning, we set off for Iguazu and upon entering the park to it, noticed that it was like being in a theme park – a very well organized and signposted theme park. But it was beautiful beautiful and when we got to the falls themselves, I could only stare in awe at how immense and spectacular nature is. Again. We saw it from every direction – below, above – and took a ride on the open-topped boat that goes slightly under the falls. I got completely, whole body, whole dress wet and we were all sobbing with laughter and delight by the end. We toured the falls again and managed to see the many spectrums of rainbows that were formed by the moisture – such a wonder. Such an amazing wonder.

We slowly made our way home and, as it was our last night all together – Lisa and Lara were off to Brazil, Rachel to Salta and I to Buenos Aires the next day – we had dinner and then went dancing. It was such a fun night – and so great to dance and sing along to the Spanish pop songs I’d been hearing so much of along the way.

We said goodbye the next day after a very big, very lazy brunch and I jumped on my final overnight bus of the journey to Buenos Aires. I had loved the city so much the last time I was there – on my first solo adventure – as I’d met some dear friends, including Allison, my fellow co-founder of Yes, Let’s.

When I got there the next day, it was cold and rainy and all I wanted was some food and some contemplation time. I had only two more days left before returning to London and the reality of that prospect was daunting. I had come away on this adventure searching for some new truths and new paths and in many ways, I had found them. Returning to London meant there were things I would need to face, actions I’d need to take and ties to strengthen and to sever and I didn’t feel ready. But I was in Buenos Aires and thankful for that small pocket of time to be truly alone to wonder about those things. To be alone in a city where no one knows who you are is a wonderful feeling. You can be invisible, anonymous and maintain a disconnection from anyone and anything until you’re ready to become visible again. And by the time that happened the next morning, I was ready. Over breakfast, I bumped into Jay, the sweet American bartender from the English Pub in La Paz who was in town on his way to Patagonia for an environmental course. It was great to see him and talk about living in La Paz - we planned to have a wander around the city a little later that day. I then spent some time writing and while doing so met James, a special needs teacher from London, who had heard about this deal in La Cabrera, one of the best steakhouses in Argentina and interestingly, the mother restaurant of the place my parents and I went to in Lima for my mum’s birthday. We planned to go together with Jay and meet at 3pm in the bar. While waiting, we struck up a conversation with Amy, a conference organizer from Texas, who decided to come with us. A new little crew, my last one.

We took a long walk to Palermo, weaving through the streets, chatting and admiring the gorgeous city and arrived at La Cabrera just before 7pm – from 7pm till 8pm, as the deal goes, tables get 40% off their bill: perfect for travellers who had been on the road too long. It was such a delicious meal – rib eye for me, and an assortment of beautifully presented, tasty condiments to accompany it. We went for more wine afterwards and stayed up very late meeting more and more fellow travellers until it was time for bed.

I woke up late the next day, missed my transfer and made a mad dash to the airport, only narrowly not missing my flight. I got a seat – I always travel standby – and was away, flying back to London, to everything I had left behind. I had experienced so many things and had been changed because of them - so while I was returning to a familiar landscape, it was daunting to consider how I would fit back into it. And if I really wanted to. But that was something to consider after I landed.

What was to have been a three-month trip had become almost six and it was the greatest adventure of my life thus far. But there are more to be had. It will continue. 

Salt flats, geysers and lagoons far above the sea

After almost two months living in La Paz, I decided I needed to keep travelling. My time for this trip was running out and things in Bolivia were moving very slowly. So very very slowly. I had a rough plan of what I wanted to do before I made my way back to London – go to Uyuni, see some of Chile and see some more of Argentina, a country I’d loved so much when I visited it back in 2012 on my first solo adventure.

I booked myself on a three day tour of the southern Bolivian salt flats and said my goodbyes to the lovely people I’d befriended in La Paz and by Thursday I was on a night bus heading down to Uyuni.

I got to the town around 9am and had an hour to kill before leaving on the tour – I wandered around the centre, admiring the streetart and the wondering about the handmade signs up everywhere, and the smoking stacks of leaves and rubbish in the middle of the main roads. There had been a demonstration the night before, although I couldn’t get to the bottom of why, so I made my way back to the tour company, met my fellow passengers – two Brazilian boys and three French friends – and we set off in the 4WD with Beto our Bolivian guide.

Our first stop was the train cemetery and my interest in industrial art was piqued. The remains of the working trains for the salt were there, in their rusty, damaged glory for the crowds of other tourists to play on and take photos. Set against the deep, unending blue of the sky and the piercing whites of the flats, it was gorgeous to behold, even with the crowds of tourists – of which, of course, I was one.

We then went onto the salt flats itself, our group getting to know each other on the two hour trip. Everyone was so lovely – the three French friends had grown up together in Normandy, although they were now spread out across the country studying medicine and chiropratic. The brasillian guys were also friends from youth and bursting with life and joviality. All together, we made a great team, chatting, dancing in the backseat to songs from our iphones and snoozing. We had lunch that Beto prepared out the back of the 4WD and took our photos of saltflats, with the white ground meeting the blue sky makes for all sorts of photo opportunities.

Our next stop was the cactus garden in the middle of the flats – we decided to find a nice spot to chill out, take more photos and play card games, which all of us knew all the rules of, regardless of where we from. A little later, we ventured forth again, taking pictures at various beautiful spots along the way. We were heading towards our home made of salt for the night when our car got stuck in the mud. We started digging it out, but to no avail: we weren’t going anywhere and the sun was going down. We started putting layer upon layer of clothes on - it was heading down into the minuses - and gathering cactus wood to try and make a base for the 4WD to roll on. When that didn’t work, we tried to make a bonfire, using paper from my Spanish classes as tinder. Nothing worked but as the light began to fade, another tour group came to our rescue and took us to our hostel for the night. It was indeed, all made of salt and while it did have electricity, it only had freezing cold running water. I’ve never been so cold but we had a lovely warm meal of soup and roast llama meat washed down with Bolivian red wine and piled multiple sleeping bags on our beds, layered up in all our clothes and fell asleep quite toasty. 

We woke up early the next morning and looking outside, I imagined what it would have been like at the beginning of the world – for miles and miles around, there was nothing but the earth and the sky and the sun slowly rising before me. And our little hostel made from salt. By 8am we set off again, this time to visit all the many lagoons high above sea level. I was in the front seat this day and had an unencumbered view of our road – simply a path in the middle of valleys and peaks we went over. We saw no one for miles, except other 4WDs carrying tourists, occasionally passing us. And the views, the views: so completely beautiful. Driving along, viewing such beauty was meditative – with every mile we covered, the weight of La Paz melted away. I was able to see things more clearly and let them go – the immensity of the nature around me: the mountains, the sky, the absence of human life, seemed to help put things into perspective. 

We stopped at the various lagoons, each unique and each unendingly gorgeous. Flamingoes fed at most, seemingly undisturbed by their almost unreal surroundings. We sat, in silence, in reverence, viewing them, taking it all in.

Our tour continued, from lagoon, to mountain, to national park and we finally stopped again for the evening. We’d been in the car so long that we put music on really loudly and danced around the vehicle, sharing some of the rum that the Brazilian guys had bought and them teaching us all some new dance moves.

Other groups had joined us by that stage and we all went for dinner in our hostel. This one only had electricity for three hours. And that was fine. We ate and Beto taught us a new card game – a variation on snap – and at one point, we were calling out the cards in each of our respective languages: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese and German. Ah cards, the great uniting force.

We started at 5am the next morning and reached the Solar de Manaña geysers just before dawn. The earth was bubbling up before us, with heat and life and sulfur fumes and, with a  slight warning from Beto to not go too close to the edge, we jumped out and examined them, getting as close as we dared. We stopped at some thermal baths and even though it was even colder than any of the previous few days, I changed into my bikinis and jumped in – it was amazing and warm and the steam from the baths was rising up and the dawn was breaking and it felt a little like heaven. And not just because none of us had been able to have a bath in two days. The joy.

It was one of our last stops before we went our separate ways – at the Bolivian border, we took a few more pictures, hugged, and said our goodbyes. The Brazilians were going back to Uyuni and the French friends were on a different bus to me headed towards Chile. Such a wonderful team – and again, I felt so lucky to have met great people.

I jumped on my bus and bumped into the two English girls I’d met in Uyuni – Lisa and Lara – and started chatting to another girl, Gisele, who was also from London. As we travelled from the mountains of Bolivia, down to the border and into San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, the weather began to change dramatically – it started becoming warm again and there was a tangible shift to the way things were to Bolivia. The air was lighter, it felt safer, the sun was warming. It was good to have left it, even despite everything I’d gained there.  

I had less than two weeks to go and two countries to cover and the journey continued...