Like many students, I’m often all talk – so when me and my friends discussed going to South America, I didn’t really imagine that in June 2016 I’d actually be flying to Santiago, Chile.
Anyone who’s seen Narcos will know that South America is emerging from a very troubled and violent history; there are still many problems with crime, drugs and poverty but the governments are moving away from these issues and opening up their countries. It’s a great time to visit because there is a perfect balance between safety and non-commercialism – something which will undoubtedly sway in the coming decades as tourists flock to the currently underrated sites. If this isn’t convincing enough, consider that wise old saying: “alpacas are hella cute”.
So, we started saving and planning and off we went; these are the things we learnt on the way…
Plans can and will change
Although our ‘Notebook of Knowledge’ (which held our flight details, vaccinations, exchange rates… everything) was vital in monitoring our progress, the key to successful travel is to keep your plans loose. We only pre-booked our first hostel (expecting to be jetlagged) before arriving, and did not regret this. It’s difficult to gauge how long you’ll need in each area; depending on activities on offer, how much everything costs, and bus schedules. Throughout the trip, we met different travellers with their own recommendations; within a week we had completely altered our journey to enter Bolivia further south, through the famous salt flats. Importantly, allow ‘contingency days’ in your final destination – we were very grateful for these as we crept behind schedule!
Time in Santiago was spent getting lost around the area, taking advantage of the cheap drinks and doing a hike outside of the city. We then went to Valparaíso, which coincided with Chile winning the Copa America (excellent timing on our part – the celebratory fiestas were not to be missed!) and on to La Serena and the Atacama Desert. We spent the most money in Chile because it is generally more expensive, we had healthier bank accounts, and there wasn’t a lot else to do in the desert other than tours, although we did manage to negotiate a group package deal.
Money spent in Chile: £560
Best deal: 3 double tequilas for £1
Venture out of the cities
After reaching Bolivia, our first stop was Sucre – a paradise for basking in the sun and gorging on avocados – and then on to La Paz. The nights here in our party hostel were great – cheap booze, friendly people and trashy latino pop music: what more could you want? As well as exploring the landmarks, cable car system and markets, we spent a lot of the days catching our breath from the notoriously brutal high altitude effects, something we weren’t prepared for.
During a cycle tour down ‘Death Road’, I fell off my bike, landing myself a fractured collarbone and skull- immediate surgery and 5 nights in hospital. My mum did not appreciate the subsequent phone call. This delayed us massively – we had to quickly alter plans to accommodate my injuries. When I was finally discharged, we travelled to Copacabana, a picturesque town on the Bolivian side of Lake Puño, which only took a day to explore before crossing over to Peru.
Money spent in Bolivia: £395
Best deal: 7 alpaca keyrings for £1.50 (you can never have enough)
Be realistic with time
We killed a few days in Arequipa, enjoying it for two reasons: the chocolate museum and ‘Piqueo Snax’, a greatly-needed substitute for ‘Chilli Heatwave Doritos’. It was then on to Cuzco and a 2-day trip to Machu Picchu. A classic ‘Gap-Yah’ traveller that we met in Chile had actually uttered the words ‘Machu Picchu is literally shit’… terrible advice! Despite the ridiculously steep and difficult trek (those Incas must have been incredibly fit) it was a fabulous achievement to see the site amongst the mountains at sunrise. The long descent back to civilisation was not so great; an app on my phone says that I took 44,534 steps that day, and I swear to god I suffered through each one!
Our final stop was Lima, which lived up to all expectations set by other travellers – it was a shit-hole; if Lima could be a colour, it would definitely be grey. We spent one day visiting the beach, but this was perched beside a busy motorway, from which the shabby bus didn’t even properly stop to let us off; we had to take a leap of faith – difficult, when your arm is in a sling. The best part, after the cuisine, of Peru’s capital was Kennedy Park which is swarming with cats. On our last night of the trip, we sat there and 12 of them plonked themselves on us: many were fluffy, some were missing limbs, and one we named ‘Snotty’.
Money spent in Peru: £515
Best deal: £20 for a giant poncho
Although the trip could have been tailored to a tighter or looser budget, I spent just shy of £2300 (including flights and vaccinations). This seems pretty decent seeing as we only scrimped on a few things such as hostels and buses, but spent more than average on booze and did a ton of excursions.
I’d do the same trip again in a heartbeat… although I’d give myself an extra week and avoid all bikes. However you want to spend your summer, get a ‘Notebook of Knowledge’ and start planning! Loot can help you budget, put money aside and the contactless card is free to use abroad! Check it out here.