Traveling through South America has a way of staying with you.
If you still wear your alpaca sweater everyday or have acquired a hankering for pork rinds, you probably have spent some time in South America.
I find that every time you travel, you adapt a little bit, or a lot, to your new surroundings in ways that may be hard for you and your less-traveled peers to understand. Don’t feel bad. It happens to the best of us. I’ve compiled a list of character traits to help pin down the people who have spent a good amount of time in South America. Leave a comment if you can think of anything to add!
You know you’ve been to South America when…
You crave arepas and empanadas when you’re drunk instead of pizza and lo mein.
you’ve realized that they weren’t lying when they said that you can’t flush toilet paper.
muscle memory has you throwing away toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet.
you, or someone you know, have a cool Salar de Uyuni photo as your/their profile or cover photo on Facebook.
you start calling ketchup “tomato sauce” because in Spanish it translates to salsa de tomate.
you’ve either worn, held, fed or eaten an alpaca/llama.
you know how to score prescription pills from the pharmacy, without a prescription.
you’ve never been so sunburnt.
you have, or know someone who has, crapped your/their pants…in public.
you have, or know someone who has, been robbed.
you recognize the value of the currency instead of having to do math to figure out the dollar amount.
you bring along chicharrones for a bus snack instead of Doritos.
coca tea becomes an acceptable substitution for coffee.
you’ve found all kinds of weird flavors of Lays potato chips.
you’ve literally been eaten alive by mosquitos.
you’ve had nightmares from malaria pills.
if you can’t talk about poops with someone at your hostel, you don’t want to be their friend.
you were seriously impressed by the street produce.
the thought of putting on shoes other than flip flops or hiking boots is daunting.
you’re in a public place and immediately try to struggle with Spanish when talking to strangers, before realizing that you’re home now and can speak English.
you don’t fear insects anymore.
you hide your iPhone under your pillow before leaving the room.
you see a sign that says “areas” and you think “arepas.”
someone tells you it’s 23 degrees back home and you can’t believe they’re having such nice weather in December (only applies to Americans using the Imperial system during the winter).
you think it’s acceptable to wear your alpaca sweater daily (after all, there is no warmer material).
your cabbie stops at a toll and you prepare yourself to be searched by the police.
ponchos are a warm and sensible fashion statement.
you’ve made friends with at least one stray/hostel dog or cat.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile offers endless adventurous activities.
From Sandboarding in Death Valley to the Salt Marshes at the Salar de Atacama.
So, in my last post, San Pedro de Atacama: Part 1, we explored the Moon Valley, the Lagunas Cejas, and las Termas Puritamas. Here’s the rest. Enjoy.
Day 4- Sandboarding in Death Valley:
There are many speculations as to how Death Valley got it’s name. Some say that it’s because there is no life there, but that’s not true because we passed a few bushes, foxes and falcons on the way. Some say that the area was a sacred place where shamans came to die. Our guide from San Pedro Sandboard told us that the real name came from hippie guides who came out to San Pedro to work in tourism and named it Death Valley to make it more commercial and attractive to visitors. Whatever the reason, it’s still pretty badass to say that you went sandboarding in Death Valley.
As our van rocked and swayed through the high rock walls and dodged giant pot holes, our guide explained that La Valle de la Muerte is similar to La Valle de la Luna in that it is a salt mountain range, which more or less means that it was molded by desert rain, wind and sun overtime to raise vertically, giving the region a unique natural sculpture with different colors due to a variety of minerals. (Shout out to my high school science teacher, Doc Rachell. If you’re reading, Doc, how’d that sound?) I tried to grasp the science behind the scenery while I kept an eye out for Tusken Raiders.
Our guide, a sun-and-wind wrinkled dreadlocked chainsmoker, turned up the deep-bass electro music as we pulled up to the bottom of the valley. We all stood sweating in the sand as he passed around ancient snowboarding boots that fit no one and pushed people who didn’t already know if they were goofy or regular to see which foot they instinctively landed on.
Once we all had a board, we trekked diagonally up the sand mountain, taking small steps to conserve energy. About fifteen of us lined the tip of the ridge and strapped ourselves into our boards as the guide dragged on a cigarette and explained how to ride. The thumping bass at the bottom of the hill was amping me up, and I tuned in and out of the guide’s speech. This was the same as snowboarding, I assumed, and I kind of knew how to do that. An eager German who was the first one to strap himself into his board went down the hill first. Everyone waited hesitantly when he made it to the bottom, reluctant to attempt the feat in front of everyone else. A cool Aussie with a wicked beard named Blake was the next one down.
I looked around again at the nervous tourists and decided I’d be the first girl to go. I jumped a bit to get some sand off my board and slid down.
The first turn I tried to make, lifting my toes and leaning a bit on my heels, had me on my ass. The sand is much thicker and more resistant than snow, and the only way I could make it down fast and with any adrenaline rush was to point my board straight down and lean on my back leg, something I’d be terrified to do on a snowboard.
It was over as quickly as it began, and I stared up at the hill, reluctant to carry my board up it again. I made it up and down again three more times before I was too exhausted to continue. Walking in the sand is hard enough without the added stress of wearing heavy, uncomfortable board boots and carrying the board up. The people of San Pedro truly needed to invest in sand lifts.
Day 5- Salar de Atacama:
As you might have gathered thus far, it is nearly impossible to see any of the desert sights in San Pedro de Atacama without booking a tour. Or maybe I just didn’t try. Anyway, you catch yourself conversing with other tourists in your hostel or in a restaurant or just on the street because, let’s face it, San Pedro is literally made up of tourists and the people who serve them, saying things like, “We’re doing the Moon Valley tonight and the geysers tomorrow,” or “Nah, we’re not doing the salt marshes or the geysers because we just came from Uyuni and did all that in Bolivia,” or “Yeah, I have to book my Uyuni tour and buy a few rolls of toilet paper for it.” It almost makes you not want to participate. Almost. But I didn’t take an overnight bus all the way out to this uninhabitable desert to kick it at my hostel. I had already done the Moon Valley sunset tour, the bike ride to the Lagunas Cejas, the day at the hot springs, and sandboarding at Death Valley. The two big leftovers were the geyser field called El Tatio, which would have me up and at it in below freezing temperatures at 4 am, and the Salar de Atacama, at 7 am. The geysers, bursts of hot air and water shooting out of the ground, were obviously the cooler choice, but silly me I forgot my winter coat and I definitely forgot my will to wake up before the sun rose. So, salt marshes it was.
I have this annoying habit of booking tours without doing proper research about said tour. Maybe I should put a stop to this. My tour group of about thirteen people piled sleepily into a minivan. We stopped in the peaceful village of Toconao, known for some church of San Lucas, which is made of volcanic stone and adobe, causing it to be warm when the sun is out and cold at night, like a cold-blooded snake. The wood that makes up the ceiling is made of dried cactus, an aesthetically cool, light-colored wood. On the outside of the church are carvings of a llama and a donkey to signify the unification of Chile and Spain. Our tour guide, who conducted the tour in Spanish making me strain to listen before my first cup of Nescafe, talked about the four characteristic trees of the region and their respective uses, like making flour for bread or something.
The town of Toconao boasts their hand made crafts. We stopped in one shop that sold Alpaca wool weavings, among other things. Their ancient loom sat in the back with the llamas, and as our guide fed the spunky animals hay, he explained that the people here don’t eat llamas, but they do eat llamos, the males. I thought that was OK.
Toconao, meaning, “place of stones” in Kunza, the language of the Atacameno people, is made up of about 1000 inhabitants who mostly work in agriculture, cultivating potatoes and corn or making sweet wine and pisco.
After our short, but informative tour of the village, we settled back into the car and drove next to views of limitless desert. The air around the looming sand mountains was wispy in the distance. I would have thought it was fog if I didn’t know how arid this desert is, so I deduced that it must be a combination of sand in the wind and wisps of smoke from the active Lascar volcano.
Our first breathtaking stop in the Salar de Atacama was the Los Flamencos National Reserve, which is managed by the Atacameno community of Socaire, along with the National Forest Corporation. Not that this place was a forest, in any common sense of the word. The reserve itself covers 180,000 acres of desert. We stopped in the Soncor Sector and watched pink and black flamingos create a mirror image in the Chaxa lagoon, dipping their heads in the water and wriggling their long necks like snakes as they searched for tiny shrimps to eat. The three rather graceful species of flamingo that live here (James, Andino, and Chilean) spend twelve hours a day with their heads in the water, devouring 800 grams of shrimp a day.
The salty pathways through the garden of white volcanic rock and salt crusts crunched and sparkled beneath my hiking boots. I didn’t know flamingos could fly, and was in awe to see their pink bellies soaring above my head and against the background of the valley of San Pedro and the five principal volcanoes surrounding the 100 kilometers of salt marshes, each one marking the border with Bolivia or Argentina. Dragonflies whizzed by my head and mated over the crusts of sulfur along the shores of the lake, giving them a yellow color and making the air smell like how I imagine Munchkinland smelled after the Wicked Witch threatened Glinda and then left in a huff.
While at the reserve, our guide prepared us a lovely breakfast, complete with rolls, mashed avocado, scrambled eggs, cookies, coffee, tea and more.
What would a tour in South America be without more churches? The purely tourist church of Bartolomeo de Socaire is made of adobe and stone and topped with a hay roof. It was whatever. The building was surrounded by crops of corn, alfalfa, green beans, sunflowers, potatoes, quinoa…yada yada. The town Socaire is the last town before Argentina and it is made up of a whopping 150 residents. Moving on…
We drove on smooth, paved roads that wound rhythmically around the mountains and volcanoes and through fields of rocks and sturdy, yellow tufts of sun-stained grass called paja brava. If you squinted as you sped by the plains, you could trick yourself into looking at a field of poppies or sunflowers.
When we arrived at the Miscanti and Miniques lakes, spreading out before us like a couple of large sapphires, you could feel in your bones how fresh the air was at a 4000 meter altitude. The lakes aren’t fresh water, and bits of salt crusted along the perimeter of that royal blue lagoon. According to the guide, the lakes were formed thousands of years ago when the Miniques Volcano erupted and blocked the waters that ran freely from the high system of mountain ranges, damming the rivers and streams. The area around the lakes was empty of tourists. In their place were vicuñas munching on the yellow grass, a type of camelid that are so climatized to the cold, high weather that they can run up to 40 kilometers an hour.
All in all, it was a very pretty tour. But like I said earlier, I wish someone had told me that it would just be pretty before I woke up at 6:30 in the morning.
Here is an update to my previous packing guide for South America.
There are the things I brought, and the things I wish I brought…
Almost two weeks into my trip, and I’m already wishing I could make edits to my backpack contents, something I wrote about in a previous post. Below you’ll find my fantasy packing list.
4-5 tank tops
4 t-shirts (some printed/fashion to wear socially)
3 long sleeved shirts
2 sweatshirts, 1 cardigan
1 thin rain jacket
3 pairs leggings (why did I pack so many?? Did I think I would be doing yoga the whole time?)
AT LEAST ONE PAIR OF JEANS (one backpacker blog insisted that jeans were useless cargo to have in South America, and I took him at his word. But I wished I had a pair when going out at night in cities like Quito, where the temperature drops when the sun does.)
1 pair comfy cotton pants (instead of flannel pajamas)- wishing I brought my fashionable cotton harem pants to lounge around in.
1 pair transformer cargo pants
3-4 pairs shorts (2 comfy and able to get wet, 2 jeans)
1 skirt, 1 sundress (happy with these)
3 sports bras, 1 good VS sports bra
10 pairs underwear (moisture wicking, fast dry, etc)
2 pairs flip flops; perhaps even 1 flip flop and 1 comfy gladiator sandals
1 pair hiking boots (wore these everyday in Quito- not fashionable, but other backpackers know you mean business)
I’m pretty pleased with my essentials. I haven’t gotten around to using everything in the list, such as the sink plug (because most hostels offer laundry services) and my first aid kit (because I haven’t gotten too cut up yet), but I have faith that I will get around to all of my supplies. So far, I am most thankful for my hand sanitzer, my water filtration system, and my ibuprofen.
I briefly wished that I had brought some antibiotics after catching a case of strep throat that is running rampant at the hostel I am working at now, but if you’re good at self diagnosing, it is fairly easy to acquire antibiotics at the pharmacy without a prescription.
Hope this helps any potential travelers! As my trip expands, I’ll make sure to update this list some more.
A guide to stuffing your backpack for an extended trip to South America.
From insect repellant to moisture wicking underwear, I believe I thought of everything I’ll need.
I figure the most important thing to think about before you go backpacking is if you’re really going backpacking. In Europe, I feel like you can call it backpacking but actually bring a small rolling suitcase because the roads are generally paved. I hear that this is not the case in South America, so I headed over to Eastern Mountain Sports during their end-of-the-summer sales and went HAM on some outdoorsy gear, everything from nearly toxic insect repellant to a portable water filtration system to SO MANY wool socks. But first I needed the backpack. After trying on a few adult sized ones ranging from $200-$300, the kind sales associate suggested that I try on the youth backpack, due to my short torso, whatever that means. It fit perfectly and was $100 cheaper. I stuck a pin on it, a gift that was given to me by my Australian friend who volunteered with me in Sicily, and proceeded to buy more things to stuff in it. Here’s my list:
Clothes: (the key terms we are looking for here are moisture-wicking and quick dry. Gotta keep all your junk fresh.) I hear layers are very important in South America, especially in countries like Peru where the weather does what it wants and you either have to remove to keep cool or put on to keep warm.
6-7 tank tops in slimming black and gray
2-3 t shirts
2 long sleeved shirts
1-2 sweatshirts (one stuffed in my bag, another around my waist)
1 cardigan (in case I need to cover my shoulders in a church, or something)
1 thin rain jacket (that my mom bought me from Costco)
4 pairs of quick-dry (there it is again) leggings
1 pair of SICK, SEXY cargo pants/shorts with scandalous removable legs
8 or so pairs of undies (if you can’t afford to buy 8 pairs of $20 underwear like the super-hot pair shown below, cotton is also a breathable fabric)
3 sports bras, 1 normal VS bra
8 pairs of socks (preferably wool)
1 pair of sandals (I packed my $2 pair of Old Navy flip flops. Hope I don’t lose them in a swamp)
2 pairs of shorts- 1 jean, 1 workout style (3 if you count my transformers)
1 pair of pajamas (mine consist of a pair of boxers, flannel pants, and a large Irish Yoga tshirt)
1 black skirt, 1 cute sundress
1 pair of ridiculously comfy hiking boots that I will probably wear errday
a first aid kit/personal pharmacy
lip balm with spf, sunscreen 30spf or higher, cough drops, neosporin, PEPTO BISMAL, hand sanitizer, rehydration salts, PAINKILLERS, flu meds, bandaids, Emergenc-E, etc.
tampons and pads…amrightladies??? Also birth control packs…ain’t nobody got time for cramps
insect repellant with deet
some makeup- I’m mostly going au natural, bringing along a tinted moisturizer with SPF for smooth skin, mascara for my utter lack of eyelashes, concealer for my other bags, and some lipstick
Sunglasses and a hat (imma buy the hat down there so I look like a local)
eye mask and ear plugs (so I don’t hear myself or other travelers snoring and rustling with their plastic bags)
If you’re as restless as I am, buying a one way ticket is the best way to start your journey.
Nothing inspires and ignites me like getting ready to travel.
A wise man at a sticky dueling piano bar in Boston once told me that there are two types of people in this world: those who know their culture and try to push the limits of it, and those who don’t know their culture, and explore unfamiliar worlds in the hopes of finding somewhere they belong. I suppose am the latter, absorbing the parts of different cultures that I like and rejecting those that I don’t. I consider myself to have a chronic and recurring case of wanderlust, otherwise known as “the travel bug”, which makes me hunger for new experiences. It all started when I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain junior year of college. I got my first taste of what it feels like to be an individual in a new society, and I became addicted, booking as many weekend trips around Europe as I could.
Last year, I felt it was time for another spontaneous adventure. I booked my first one way ticket to Sicily, Italy and decided to the figure the rest out once I got there. Of course, I wasn’t completely irresponsible; I frequented the site http://www.workaway.info/ to find someone to host me in exchange for free labor. I find sites like this one, helpx.net and wwoof.net (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) to be great outlets to find people who encourage travelers to stay for a while and get to know their culture through mutually beneficial relationships. In Sicily, I worked for two months at CCly Hostel in Catania, where I slept in an 8 bed dorm with other travelers and volunteers and basically ran the hostel, doing everything from making breakfast to checking in guests to cleaning toilets. While I was there, I met so many awesome and inspirational fellow travelers, and I was able to really get to know the island of Sicily, while also taking a long weekend trip to Istanbul, a few weeks teaching English in Poland, terminating in a few more weeks touring the south of Spain (more on last year’s trip in another post).
Now, my restlessness has gotten to me again, and I feel the need to visit the uncharted (by me) lands of Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. My bank account will probably only allow me to stay for three months or so, despite rarely having to pay room and board because I will be volunteering my way through the four countries. But experiences are worth more to me than almost anything else. As skeptical philosopher David Hume said, the self is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions…” I intend to experience this trip hard and fast (thank god for adderall), absorbing as much as I can as quickly as I can.
Check out my next post to see what and how I packed my one backpack. I don’t want to call it a “packing tips” post just yet, because, as I’ve never been south of the northern hemisphere before, I have no idea if I’m doing this right. Trial and error, folks!
**UPDATE- Instead of Argentina, I went to Colombia, and couldn’t be more pleased by my decision. I felt that Argentina was too large of a country to try to fit into a few weeks, and I also wasn’t pleased with the idea of paying for an expensive visa to enter the country, an oversight in my prior research.