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Backpacking South America

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Tautik Das

on 30 September 2016

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Transcript of Backpacking South America

8 months 7 countries
Couchsurfing in Buenos Aires
Couchsurfing with locals is the best way of experiencing a new place. You walk in as a stranger and walk out as a friend for life! Our hosts took us to their favourite food joint and book shop and all the places beyond the tourist map. We are blessed to have friends across continents. Give it a try - host a traveler.
Spanish lessons
Lesson número uno in Buenos Aires: Need to learn Spanish to survive in South America. Asked a group of college students (in English) if we could buy tickets on the bus - they looked back sympathetically to us aliens who just landed on earth!
W-trek @ Torres del Paine
W-trek at Torres del Paine felt like an environmentally sustainable trek with minimal footprint. Alike other trekkers, our backpacks carried fooding (soup envelopes) and lodging (tents + sleeping bags). You tent and cook only in designated areas. The national park is abundant with stream water - pure to drink. You walk 75 km in 5 days with your backpack. However, the natural beauty is bound to energise you at each step. Day one we tented next to a glacier, day two next to a gushing glacial river, day three next to an emerald green lake and day four at the base of the Torres (tower).
While taking a break during a trek, a young couple sat next to us. We started chatting, and the guy said that Andaman in India was his favourite place. We were ashamed, that being Indians we had not been to Andaman. A little later, we mentioned that Torres del Paine is our favourite place in Chile, to which they said being Chileans they had never been to the Torres. We all had a hearty laugh!
Strange facts of travel
Camping is a lesson in minimalism. You live in a small tent and cook your own food on stove and sleep on the ground, but almost always the views are magnanimous! You realise you can live happy with so little.
Camping: mnmlist
Lesser they have the more they share
While traveling, specially while camping we met interesting travelers supplementing needs by juggling at crossroads, strumming guitar in local bus or selling hand crafted jewelry at the plaza. Types of travelers included cyclist, street singer, theater artist, hitchhiker, family traveling with kids and the hammock traveler (who needs just a tree to hook up her hammock).
Backpacking South America
A miracle in San Pedro de Atacama
To get back your camera the same day you lose, is indeed a miracle. In no way did we mind the fact that the day was spent at the police station - especially when you are with a dozen other locals (who too were robbed) and laughing about your tragedy. (And yes, brushing up your Spanish.)
The sinking feeling at Iruya
The morning bus from the hamlet town of Iruya (North Argentina), we were told would leave a distance away due to heavy rains. After walking down quite a few kilometers, we reached this standstill where a mudslide had wiped out the road! Your only option - walk through the mudslide to board the bus on the other side. One step with your backpack and your feet sinks in the mud pool! The more you panic and struggle, the deeper you sink. The trick is to keep your steps as light and as quick as possible.
The real South America
Bolivia for us was the real South America. People wear traditional dress - and yes youngster in big cities too. One of the poorest on the continent, the country has a rich combo of culture, tradition and nature. The largest part of Bolivia’s authentic Indian culture is still preserved, possibly because it is land-locked. And although Spanish is the language of business, the streets buzz with Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous languages.
Coca culture
Chewing coca leaf is a tradition in Bolivia (coca tea is a staple breakfast accomplishment). About 1.2 million kilos of coca leaves are consumed monthly. However, on the darker side, Bolivia happens to be the second largest cocaine producer! Hard to pass down moral judgment.
Salar de Uyuni looks like another planet altogether! The world's largest salt flat seems not to have a horizon and hence the surreal Daliesque picture. The landscape is entirely flat, dazzling white and haunting.
Super Surreal Salar
No picture can do justice to the setting of Machu Picchu. Hidden in the middle of a tropical mountain forest on the eastern slopes of the Andes, Machu Picchu’s terraces blend seamlessly into its natural setting. Trivia: each year a race is held along the Inca Trail, which at 42 km is pretty much a marathon.
Magical Machu Picchu
Other than the famous Inca civilisation in Machu Pichhu, we got to experience other Andean civilisations. The Chachapoyas (Warriors of the Clouds) inhabited the cloud forests of North Peru while the Taironas lived in the region of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, popularly known as the Lost City.
Andean civilisations
An Indian youngster was staying in our hostel in Ceunca (who did not seem like a traveler). He had this strong Punjabi accent, chomped his food and slurped his tea.
Just as we were preparing to leave he opened up - he is paying US$ 20,000 to get an illegal entry to the US of A. He narrated in a matter-of-fact manner how it would involve visa-less road travel to Colombia, spending 15 days in a jail in Panama, traveling to Guatemala by boat, walking the jungles of Mexico to reach the US border, getting into an illegal migrant camp and getting bailed by his uncle. We were stumped!
Dollar dream
Galapagos island is an animal lover's paradise. Expensive but unique. Seaside benches are all occupied by sea lions. None of the sea, air or land animals care about humans. This characteristic, we learned, is attributed to the fact that there were no natural predators in the island.
Unmatched wildlife of Galapagos
The epic boat journey from the border town of Tabatinga (Colombia) to Manaus (Brazil) took us 3 nights through the Amazon river. You bring your own hammock and find a spot to swing. Luggage is strewn on the floor. But even with hundreds of hammocks so close to each other we felt extremely safe.
The young mother's just born daughter was taken care by caring neighbors; and we ended up making a boat load of friends. To witness the sun rising and setting on the Amazon is something to cherish for a lifetime.
Crossing over to Brazil from Colombia by boat
A boa constrictor greeted us to the Amazons of Bolivia. The rain forest kept us mesmerised with Capybara (giant rodent), anteater, anaconda, sloth, colibri, piranha, river dolphin and colourful macaws!
Amazing Amazonian Animals
Bus breakdowns are an integral part of travel in South America. The fun part - at every breakdown the passengers would adopt us and share their food and life stories with us. Yes, of course everyone is curious to know more about this mysterious land called India. Six hours of breakdown plus six hours of road-work made the (in)famous bus ride from Rurrenabaque to La Paz 24 hours instead of the stipulated 15 hours! Once the road block was lifted and the traffic started moving, our bus could not leave - most of the women had gone down to the river for a bath!

Bus breakdowns with a smile
Hostel living is a thing to experience - imagine a room with 12 bunk beds sleeping people from 9 nations. Unity in diversity. Girls and boys sharing common spaces, changing dress in the same cramped room and hanging around together with food and drinks.
You get the best travel tips from fellow travelers.
Hostel: International community living
Showers in hostel need a special mention. You can never get it right. Okay here is why. Imagine a row of showers and you are trying to get the right mix of hot and cold water. By the time you get it right, your German neighbour has turned on his shower and yours turn icy cold. So it is either burning hot or icy cold - never ever right!
The perfect shower
Asado is a social event of grilling meat in the open. Llama and guinea pig meat are peculiar to this region. Soups include ceviche (fish+lemon), encebollado (fish+onion), feijoada (beans+beef+pork) and quinoa to name a few. The region gave potato to the world. Many of the tropical fruits like chirimoya and babaco are specific to that region.
Other specialties include empanadas (stuffed pastry), humitas (steamed corn paste), fritada (fried pork), bandeja paisa (rice+pork+ground meat+egg), dulce de leche (sweetened condensed milk), and many more. Hungry or what?
Food of South America
Mercado Artesanal are a hobnob for handicrafts. Popular are llama and sheep wool converted to ponchos, mantas, rugs, bags, caps and sweaters. Typical musical instruments, basketry, silverware, cowboy equipment, ceramics, salt sculptures, cloth dolls, wood-carving, jewelery and metalwork are the other specialties of the region.
Art n crafts
South Americans know to enjoy life - football, beer, sun and laughter. Unlike their Northern counterparts they are content with little and do not seem to run after money!
Enjoy life
*Chilean economy looked stable and the region prosperous *Brazil economy is on shaky grounds, with little good coming from the Olympics and the World Cup *Argentine people seemed unhappy for the fact that their economy did not reach its potential *Bolivia is one of South America's poorest economy and it showed on the streets *Ecuador's economy is dependent on oil exports and with US dollar as its official currency attracts many a American to retire here *Colombia too is dependent on oil exports and trying best to shrug off the 'drug lord' image.
Economy
India and South America have little exchange - neither tourism, commerce or even news! We witnessed scarce presence of Mahindra, Tata (TCS) & Bajaj (autos).
Little exchange India - South America
A road trip across India changed the outlook of life for Rohini & Tautik. In Jan 2015, the two set off yet again with their backpack and tent to South America. Eight months and seven countries later, they are back with many a stories and a basic grasp of Spanish.
The couple is based out of Bangalore and can be reached at tautik@gmail.com
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