Last three months in South America – highlights and lowlights

After our first three months travelling, when we’d seen Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, we put together a list of our highlights and lowlights. And now that I’m settled back in London (with Anna still living it up in Colombia), I decided to do the same for our second and final three months, when we visited Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. As ever, we had the best of times, and the worst of times!

You can see our full route and all the places we went to on this map (we’re using the TrackMyTour app). 

Favourite city: Medellin, Colombia
Colombia was the country we were most excited about, as every traveller we met raved about its culture, landscapes, and people, with Medellin receiving a particular focus due to the popularity of Narcos! We only spent two days there, but we fell in love with the place – the hipsterdom of El Poblado, the friendliness of the people (they simply love tourists), the crazy football crowds, and the great food. A huge part of this was doing the Free Walking Tour, where we learned about what the city has been through (particularly in the last 20-30 years), and were hugely inspired by how Colombians still manage to have such a positive attitude, despite their violent history.
Plaza de Botero, Medellin
Favourite scenery: Machu Pichu
For all its hype, and for all the millions of photos we’d seen of the famous Inca ruins, nothing could match seeing them for the first time after 4 days of trekking and a 3.30am start to get to the entrance gates by 6am. The beauty is not just the ruins themselves, but also the scores of mountains that rise around it. It is a truly majestic site, and any words I use will never do it justice, so I simply recommend you to visit this magical place if you can!
We also loved the north coast of Colombia (Tayrona National Park), as it looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park, the Quilotoa crater in Ecuador, and of course, the Galápagos Islands were on an entirely different level.
Machu Pichu
Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Quilotoa crater, Ecuador
Tortuga Bay on the Galagagos Islands – the most beautiful beach I’ve ever visited
Toughest physical challenge: altitude
For me, it was the Quilotoa Loop, as it was a 3-day trek. We’d gotten used to being up high in Bolivia back in January and February, but then we went from the Galápagos Islands (where we spent most of our time below sea level) to hiking at 3800 meters, which was crazily tough. My lungs sure felt it, but it was worth it!
Another killer was attempting to climb Chimborazo in Ecuador, the so-called ‘highest point on earth’. We didn’t even make it to the first refuge, as the entrance to the national park was already at about 4,800m, and we had to turn back after about an hour. I physically couldn’t take more than 10 steps without needing to rest!
For Anna, however, the toughest challenge was a much shorter undertaking, namely a 10-15 minute walk up the south steps on Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, as the altitude was 4,200 meters, and we were carrying our insanely heavy backpacks (hers, admittedly, was much heavier than mine).
Quilotoa crater, Ecuador
Chimborazo, Ecuador, and some vicunas
Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca
Craziest night: El Tibiri, Medellin, Colombia
For most people, a crazy night in Medellin would probably involve sugar. Yes, I mean exactly what you think I mean. But being the naive, oblivious ladies that we are, our craziest night revolved (quite literally) around dancing. We had asked our tour guide that morning if she knew a club that wouldn’t be ‘lleno de gringos’ (full of foreigners), and she suggested El Tibiri. We turned up around 10pm after seeing a football match, and made our way downstairs into a small room. ‘This is it?’ we thought. We grabbed a beer and watched skeptically as one couple took to the floor. And immediately, we were hooked. They were doing a type of LA salsa neither of us had seen before, and our jaws just hit the floor. And from midnight onwards, the place transformed. We barely finished dancing to one song when we were grabbed by another partner, and we both spun and twisted in ways we never thought imaginable. The ages ranged from 18 to 75, there was a puppet show halfway through, and we were so soaked in sweat by the end of it that we could barely see. We finally left around 3am due to sheer and utter exhaustion, and I wish we could have done it all again!
Best meal (eating out): Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru
There’s absolutely no competition with this one. It was not just the best meal of the trip, but the best meal of my life! Read about that one here.
Cuy (guinea pig), served in the fanciest way possible – on a mermaid
Best meal (home-made): Pasta with tuna and olives in Tayrona National Park, Colombia
The reason for this accolade is mainly due to the sheer feat of being able to cook it! Our kitchen was limited, to say the least: an open fire, a few grills over it, a pot with no handle, no real utensils, and no electricity or light to see by beyond the light of the fire. And did I mention it was pouring with rain? Surprisingly, it didn’t taste half bad either – it was actually wayyy better than our worst home-made meal (see below)!
Worst meal (eating out): Lunch in the central market in Quito, Ecuador
For the sole reason that it gave Anna really bad food poisoning! A combination of raw fish ceviche and juice that likely was not made with bottled water led to her downfall… we thereafter swore to never again drink juice that wasn’t made right in front of us.
Worst meal (home-made): Awful pasta with horrible basil in La Paz, Bolivia
Both of us had been suffering a little from Delhi belly, so we decided to just have plain pasta for dinner. The only supermarket nearby was a small cornershop, so we bought a bag of pasta, and to give ourselves a little flavour, we also found some fresh basil. How wrong we were. The pasta was a local brand, which oddly crumbled after it was cooked, and had a horrible floury texture, and the so-called basil tasted like anis, or liquorice. We forced some down, but then had to throw the rest away, as it was making our already sensitive stomachs convulse even more!
Favourite new food: Ceviche
Ceviche… always ceviche. The freshest white fish, a stellar leche de tigre, sweet potato, red onion, corn, and… that’s it, really. It’s a Peruvian specialty, and we must have eaten it at least ten times! Our first time was in Paracas, on the coast of Peru, but the best one was likely the last time we had it, which was at Isolina in Lima.
A classic ceviche, made by me (!) in a Peruvian cooking class
Favourite new drink: pisco sour
This hasn’t changed from the last time, as we’ve simply had it more…!
Favourite foodie experience: Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru
Not just the best meal, but also quite simply a gastronomic experience of a lifetime (more specifically the magic chocolate box at the end of the meal)!
The magic box of chocolates
New appreciation for: Toilet paper and hot showers
Colombia in particular was bereft of hot running water, and the various treks we did meant toilet paper was nowhere to be found (except in our bags).
Favourite new word: Chévere
This word is used to an almost comic extent in Colombia (and Peru) for just about everything. It means ‘cool’, ‘great’, ‘fantastic’, and if you speak to a Colombian, he or she will exclaim ‘Que chévere!’ in response to every single one of your sentences, be it where you’ve travelled, what you’ve seen, or how much you really need the bathroom!
Best local festivities: Carnival in the Galapagos Islands
We decided not to do the standard South American backpacker trail, and head to Rio for carnival, opting instead to celebrate on a group of small islands, surrounded by wildlife and screaming children. We bought spray foam and fought with them to the death (the children, not the wildlife), and our clothes never got rid of the coloured powder that was flying around. We saw a group of young girls performing a somewhat scandalous dance on Santa Cruz one night, and then again the next night on Isabela, as they were touring the islands! There was also a beauty pageant, with contestants from every village, and a misogynistic presenter. Just another day in the life, eh?
Sunset and beaches (and an iguana) during carnival
Worst local festivities: The start of Semana Santa in Cusco, Peru
We were told there would be big celebrations happening in the square from 6pm, so we turned up eagerly. The amount of security was astonishing, so we assumed there would be a lot of fun, song, and dance happening. Oh, how wrong we were. Everybody waited in silence, in the cold, until a large statue of Jesus came slowly down the pathway. Once we saw him in the distance, and had admired the statue, we decided to leave. But nobody let us pass. ‘You can’t leave’, we were told. ‘What if I need to go to the bathroom?’ ‘You should have prepared’, the angry response came. So we tried another route, and were denied on all fronts, with everybody simply refusing to move. When we asked a soldier, he said he couldn’t help us, as people would get angry at him! Confronted by unsmiling, angry faces from all sides, we finally waited nearly two hours before we could shuffle off with the crowd, and were nearly trampled in the process. All in all, it was a very unpleasant experience, and went against the abundant friendliness we’d experienced on this continent!
Backpack essentials I’m so glad I brought
As before, it’s the pegless washing line, which was very handy on the Salkantay trek. And something which wasn’t in my backpack, but was incredibly helpful, was my Spotify premium account, which let me download motivational music that took me up the Salkantay pass on day 2 of our trek!
Backpack ‘essential’ I didn’t need to bring
That handbag still didn’t get any use out of it!
Best bus ride: Baltra airport to Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands
Mainly due to the ‘WE’RE IN THE GALAPAGOS!’ feeling, but also because it had to stop to let an iguana cross the road.
Worst bus ride: Pasto to Cali, Colombia
It was meant to take 8 hours, but took nearly 12. The seats were cramped, and barely reclined. The roads were mountainous. The bus kept stopping to let people on and off, including peddlers who tried to sell us their wares. A dog threw up on the seat next to us. It was absolute torture!
Best hostel: El Rio, near Buritaca, Colombian North Coast
We met a friendly Canadian in Cali who told us about this hostel, and when we looked up the ratings, we were stunned. Could it really be that good? We decided to give it a go and ended up extending our stay from 1 to 3 nights. Located by a riverside, and a 30-minute walk away from a quiet beach, this hostel was the epitome of relaxation. Despite being quite isolated, the facilities were really good (no hot water, of course, but clean toilets, and toilet paper everywhere), and the vibe and setup was incredibly chilled out, without crossing over into hippie territory. There was no wifi, which meant that people spent a lot more time socialising, the food was excellent and cheap, and we spent one morning just tubing down the river. I wish we could have stayed longer, but our flight to Bogota beckoned, so all I can do is recommend this place wholeheartedly to anybody who goes near Santa Marta/Taganga/Palomino!
The communal areas of the hostel
Worst hostel: Colombia Home Hostel, Cali, Colombia
Unlike on our last list, this one wasn’t due to hygiene, but more due to a very oppressive vibe within the hostel. Besides the fact that the beds were very hard and the showers were cold (and had huge buckets crammed inside them), there were passive-aggressive notes everywhere (including the front gate), warning us about what we were forbidden from doing, with clear information on how much we’d be fined if caught. When the two of us decided to go out to a salsa club that was different from the other guests, we were looked at in dismay for ‘going rogue’, and a mansplaining employee was incredibly annoying every time we passed the front desk.
But the saving grace was that we met the Canadian who recommended El Rio to us, which was then our best hostel of the trip! So it was worth it, in the end…
Best feelings
Seeing a sea lion swim around us whilst scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands, and also zip lining across the Urubamba river on the Salkantay trek in Peru!
Worst feeling
Leaving this amazing continent after six months, saying goodbye to my loyal and incredible travel partner, and boarding the first of three flights that would take me back home.

 Have you been to South America? Have you experienced any of the above? We’d love to hear your stories!

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