South America: Our Fantastic Itinerary That I Wouldn’t Dare to Recommend
17 days, 7 flights, 5 night buses, 3 countries, 2 women, 1 continent. WTF were we thinking?!
I can explain.
You see, somewhere in South America is the antipode of The Philippines where I was born, raised and grew my horns. So if you dig a hole in Manila that passes through the Earth’s core, you might end up somewhere in Brazil. Which means for Filipinos that’s where the edge of the world lies. Which also means a return ticket would be around the price of one of my kidneys.
But now that I’m living in The Netherlands, I’m basically halfway. So I thought if I work my ass off for few months, a two-week travel would be doable, and I still get to keep all my internal organs intact.
And so I offered my summer soul to work, eventually found an awesome travel buddy (Rhea), sealed the deal with return flights, and then we started working on our itinerary.
Our Mission: Get to these three amazing places at any cost
- Machu Picchu (Peru)
- Uyuni Salt Flats (Bolivia)
- Iguazu Falls (Brazil/Argentina).
Our Vision: Take the best possible route and enjoy the ride!
Or what I call ‘The First Blood’.
If I’m in charge of an itinerary, I show no mercy at the beginning of the trip. Why would I? We’ve waited for years and planned for months. This is the chance to shoot the fireworks of pent up energy and anticipation!
And by no mercy, I mean these:
- (Rhea) 7h flight from Dubai to Amsterdam
- (Maine & Rhea) 12h 30m flight from Amsterdam to Lima (Day 1)
- 10h night bus to Ayacucho (Day 2)
- 10h day trip to Aguas Turquesas (6h on the road)
- 10 hour night bus back to Lima (Day 3)
- 1h flight to Cusco
- 2h van to Ollantaytambo
- AND THEN FINALLY A REAL FUCKING BED
We could’ve also taken the easy route, like chilling in Lima and a day trip to Paracas and Huacachina, but the nature freaks within our souls lead us to mutual consensual suffering in order to see this:
A long stretch of natural turquoise-colored pools hiding in a narrow space between two cliffs somewhere in Millpu. It’s a magnificent sight that’s worth every single vomit, nausea, and shortness of breath I’ve gone through during this trip.
After finally sleeping in a real bed on our 4th night, we didn’t really have time to savor the pillows. We had to wake up at 4am to take the train that we couldn’t literally afford to miss. The Perurail tickets were sold for a price of gold, like $68 for one and half hour ride and that’s the cheapest we could get. Sure the ride had nice views of mountain peaks and sunrise, but the train was relatively old and the service was barely existent during the ride. Oh well.
We’ve seen photos, we’ve read stories, we’ve felt the hype of Machu Picchu being one of the most celebrated tourist spots in the world. There was too much expectation that I was actually conditioning myself for possible disappointment, which was unnecessary. This Inca treasure held its head high and proudly delivered it magnificence to our skeptic judging eyes.
I will forever envy the explorer who first discovered this ruins. It must’ve been magical seeing this in the middle of those towering uninhabited mountains.
Lake Titicaca Floating Village
An 8-hour bus ride, waking up at 6am, arriving in a 3,800m altitude city in freezing temperature, with headache and lack of sleep, I can safely say this wasn’t my best morning.
I did bounce back immediately after a simple breakfast, chilling boat ride, old tales about Lake Titicaca’s history and people, and the view of the most interesting man-made island covered in beautiful morning sunlight.
Some people say it’s a tourist trap, because these islands aren’t the same as before, that the communities living here only exist these days because of tourism. Well, if you go there expecting to see exotic people living in isolation, prepare to be disappointed. You will immediately feel that everything is staged, that residents wear beautiful bright-colored clothes for the tourists, the houses are actually empty and it’s surreal to see a solar panel installation.
Nevertheless, it’s pretty amazing to see how what people can do with their two hands, using the available resources around them in order to survive.
Our Masterplan to get to Bolivia is the 24-hour Bolivia Hop bus ride from Cusco, Peru to La Paz with stops in Lake Titicaca and Copacabana. It would’ve been a more chill ride except we decided to ditch the Hop that stays for 4 hours in Copacabana for a public transport. The reason – we haven’t booked anything for Uyuni, because there’s a slight chance that we can get a 3-day tour instead of just one day (2-day tour will rip our budget since only private option is available).
So after nearly dying from dragging my luggage to the bus stop (you have no idea how it is to walk in a slanted road at 3,800m above sea level with backpack and a suitcase), we managed to get to a public bus that left after 30 minutes. Bonus, we get to cross a river in a boat while some local birds tail us, and we get to eat the tastiest fried fish from local vendors.
As soon as we arrived in La Paz, we rushed to Perla de Bolivia office at 6pm. They close at 6:30pm and there were still spots for 3-day tour with another night bus leaving at 10pm, hurrah!
On to the next challenge: shower. Our last one was in the morning the day before, and if we’ll take the night bus again and head straight to the first day tour, we’ll be wrapped with a layer of 3-day accumulated sweat, dust, smoke and dead cells We have 3 hours and our option is to book a cheap hostel and use their bathroom, but our lovely tour agent contacted Loki Botique Hotel and made a deal that if we dine at their restaurant, we can take a shower for free! Sweet travel Gods were surely generous that day!
Bolivia is like an unknown giant that we’ve had the biggest pleasure to discover. It delivered so much more than we’ve expected.
Known as the world’s largest mirror during the rainy season, Salar de Uyuni is a massive desert flat covered in salt. It was unbelievably huge that if you drive far enough, you can only see the horizon and a hazy silhouette of some nearby mountain. It was surreal.
Gigantic Cactus, Stunning Lakes, a Thousand Flamingos, Alpaca haven and so much more
The three-day Salar de Uyuni tour we took was the best nature roadtrip I’ve had in my entire existence so far. It was so much more than the salt desert. It took us to a world we couldn’t have imagined as low-altitude residents of the Earth. Serene lakes in variety of colours, hundreds or maybe even thousands of flamingos, desert foxes, landscapes from ancient seabeds to land formations from volcanic eruptions, it was like our first encounter of the third kind experience.
I could use more superlatives but I will save them for a separate post.
La Paz – Witches Market and Gondola
The Witches Market is legit. With some colorful soaps, spells, and mummified baby alpacas. It’s exotic, weird, and borderline creepy. The gondola trips were just as amusing. We bought tickets without any destination and just took transfers from one Gondola to another so we can go back to our stop near our hotel. We had a pleasant encounter with a local. We attempted to communicate in Tagalog hoping that the Spanish invaders influenced our Filipino language enough to infiltrate the language barriers a bit. We managed with some help of hand signals 😉
Transfer: From La Paz to Foz du Iguazu through connecting flight in Lima
That’s right. In order to get to Brazil, we actually had to go back to Peru, wait for a couple of hours before our next flight to Brazil. Enough time to buy more souvenirs, exchange cash, eat lunch and be racially profiled by airport guards as we chill in one of the lounge areas.
Yes, in a sea of caucasian travelers, we probably looked like illegal workers so the guards specifically went an extra mile to question us and ask for our passports for their random checks. All other resting travelers were left untouched.
A wise woman once said “Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”
I don’t know exactly what she means, but I have a message for her.
Dear wise woman, it’s not just a waterfall, it’s Iguazu.
Am I the only one who has a little problem with seeing the ultimates? Like that lingering discomfort from the idea that after seeing the best of the best, everything that follows will be less satisfying? It happened to me after Caramoan and Calaguas, when it turned all other beaches to just meh.
As I stare at the splendor of Iguazu falls, a part of me was sending apologies to the future waterfalls that I will encounter. For sure, I won’t be able to contain my tendency to compare them to this. But hey, there’s still that real world paradise falls from Up (2009 film), the tallest of its kind which can be found in Venezuela.
Transfer: Local Flight from Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Chill beach days, Christ the Redeemer, your usual expectations of Rio experience was nowhere to be found in our last days of South American odyssey. I guess at this point we’ve used up all our luck and so it’s time for the weather folks to remind us that we can’t have everything.
Grey. Wind. Rain. Empty shores. Christ the Redeemer swallowed by mist. The supposedly lively Copacabana felt like an abandoned metropolis left in the shadows of its past glory. The crashing waves, the black birds hovering on top, the seemingly empty buildings, the mood was too dark it was actually beautiful. You can only picture yourself in an opening scene of a tragic film with a melancholic soundrack playing in the background. It was poetic.
This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy my stay in Rio. I love the food options, the Selaron steps were stunningly vibrant, the nostalgic smell of shopping malls that I had no idea I was deprived of and the yummy pamonha we bought in one of the streetcorners near Copacabana. Also the historic Maracanã stadium where I was surrounded by a bunch of 5-year-old passionate Brazilian kids who clearly know more about soccer than I do.
It’s a Wrap!
Rhea and I were both amazed by how we’ve done everything we’ve wanted and had so much more than what we’ve expected despite our chaotic itinerary and inability to properly communicate with the locals.
But before I park my keyboard, there’s one tiny thing that’s easy to miss which I want to discuss further in a separate post… the people.
Our trip was full of small encounters with people who offered their genuine smiles, kindness, help and warmth to two strangers who were lost in translation.