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.