15 highlights from 15 weeks in South America – Oasis Overland Kingdoms & Carnivals

It’s almost impossible to believe, but fifteen weeks travelling with Oasis Overland are now over! We have arrived in Quito, Ecuador and are settling in to life off the big yellow truck. It’s a bittersweet moment – we know we have some great times ahead, but leaving the group behind is going to be really tough. If there was any room in our backpacks, we would tuck them in and take them with us for the next stage of the adventure!

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(If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll have guessed that I’m several weeks behind on the itinerary but I wanted to write this post while it was still fresh in my mind!)

For new blog readers, I’ve been travelling with Oasis Overland on their Kingdoms and Carnivals route from Rio-Quito. Visiting six countries and driving over 21,496km, it was one heck of a trip! There were definitely ups and downs (mostly because of the number of times we needed to cross the Andes!), plenty of extreme highs and some gut-wrenching lows but that’s what this kind of travel is all about – and I wouldn’t change it for moment. We’ve faced thefts, a (minor) stabbing, a disappearance, several near-death experiences (choking, seizures, falling down glaciers, face-planting on bicycles), a few incidents of dengue fever, a fractured elbow, a bridge collapse and been stuck in the sand… but we’ve also had too many perfect moments to count: camped night after night under a crystal clear Milky Way, watched stunning sunsets by the dozen, visited cultural and historical sites way off the beaten path, eaten fresh fish straight from the sea, skinny-dipped in fjords, hiked to thundering waterfalls, seen lava bubbling and glaciers collapsing and condors flying and poison dart frogs jumping… it’s been amazing.

I’ve struggled to choose but here are just fifteen highlights of the fifteen week tour:

1) Paragliding over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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As a city, Rio at Carnival was everything I expected: hot, crazy, colourful, loud, chaotic. But even though we had loads of fun in Rio – at Sambadrome and touring Cristo Redentor – my favourite moment was paragliding high above its stunning beaches. From the air, it was so peaceful and I could really appreciate Rio’s deep connection with the mountains and the sea.

2) Snorkelling down Rio da Prata in Bonito, Brazil

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Some experiences you have no idea about, and so when they happen, they absolutely blow you away. For me, this was snorkelling in Rio da Prata in Bonito. The river has absolutely crystal clear water and myriad fish with absolutely no fear. It was mesmerizing.

3) Fuerza Bruta and Tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina

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I don’t want to post too many pictures of the Fuerza Bruta show in Buenos Aires because the surprise was part of the fun. It’s a touring show so we were lucky to see it – and for $12 a ticket it was an absolute bargain. This might be the best live theatre experience I’ve ever had. I won’t say more but if it visits your city, GO. The tango show was also brilliant, but in a different way – it was eye-opening seeing the acrobatic skill of the dancers, legs flying everywhere, and learning about the history of the dance. Add an amazing steak dinner and free wine on top, and you have a winner!

4) ANTARCTICA

TPD at Neko Harbour

I wrote a series of four posts explaining just HOW amazing this whole experience was – if you want to find out more about my last minute trip to the seventh continent with G Adventures Expedition, I suggest having a read!

5) Completing the W-trek, Torres del Paine, Chile

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The whole W-trek was amazing, but there was nothing like celebrating in the posh Hotel Las Torres at the very end with a HUGE pizza and amazing cocktails. We were pretty merry by the end, but it felt like a huge accomplishment.

6) Turning 30 in Futaleufu, Chile – the white water capital of South America

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I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday, and Futaleufu was the perfect destination! A campsite with beautiful cabin upgrades (of course we had to upgrade from the tent for my birthday), a fire pit, sauna and some amazing white water rafting… it was pretty perfect.

7) Seeing lava in Pucon, Chile

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Hiking the Villarica Volcano was always on the top of my ‘to-do’ list, especially after watching it explode on the news last year. It was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done, but thankfully we were rewarded at the top with boiling, bubbling, bursting lava. EPIC.

8) Wine Tasting and Wine Ice-cream in Cafayate, Argentina

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I’m not the biggest wine drinker in the world, but even I can get on board with a bit of wine ice cream! Cafayate in Argentina was a beautiful stop on the itinerary, home to dozens of bodegas (wine cellars) and heladarias. Their speciality is ice cream made from Torrentes (a delicious form of white wine) and Merlot (red wine) grapes. Very refreshing on a hot day! The Torrentes wine itself isn’t bad either… in fact, we may have picked up a bottle or two (or eight) to drink during the rest of the trip! The Nanni Torrentes (pictured above) was my fave.

9) Uyuni, Bolivia Salt flats day trip

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What can I say? This was another expected highlight that more than lived up to those expectations. This was so much fun!

10) Cycling Death Road in La Paz, Bolivia

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This activity? I was actually quite scared about. I’m not exactly the world’s best cyclist and I was nervous about how I would handle the challenges of the infamous Death Road. But it turned out to be so much more fun than I thought! Yes, there were scary bits (and some people did hurt themselves…) but if you allowed yourself to trust the bikes then it was not too bad at all. Huge thanks to Mo at Gravity for making it a great day out! I also enjoyed that at the very end, we were taken to an animal sanctuary where we saw an ocelot – so cute!

11) Finishing the hike to Machu Picchu, Peru

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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was bloody hard work – but once again, finishing was the best reward! This was another one of those ‘classic’ destinations that fulfilled its promise. You can’t help but feel the mystical powers of this wondrous place – and combined with later trips to the Nazca line and the Chan Chan ruins, it really gave me an appreciation of South America civilizations that I never knew about before.

12) Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru

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Adrenaline, bbq, unlimited pisco and a night sleeping out under the stars? Amazing. This was one of those perfect days which made the whole trip feel worthwhile.

13) Perfect beaches in Punta Sal, Peru

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After leaving Lima, we spent almost a week camping along the Peruvian coastline. With condors soaring overhead, wild surf and beautiful sand, it was an idyllic place to relax after the adrenaline packed activities of the weeks before.

14) Zip-lining, swinging over the end of the world and bridge jumping in Banos, Ecuador

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Okay, let’s face it – I love the adrenaline! My proper ‘daredevil’ moment was a bridge jump in Banos (it didn’t hurt, but I looked like a broken rag doll!). Ziplining on the other hand was just pure fun – and I even got to do it upside down and as a couple!

15) Spotting a poison dart frog in the Amazon, Ecuador

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Finally, the Amazon jungle! My sole request to the universe was to see a poison dart frog and, to my surprise, the universe pulled through! The whole trip to the Amazon basin was wonderful – we went tubing down the river and did several night walks through the jungle to see snakes, spiders and other weird and wonderful creatures. Word to the wise: watch where you put your hands! You do not want a bite from a bullet ant.

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Bushcamping, or, Just in case you were getting a little too jealous of our adventure…

(*More pictures to come when I have better internet!*)

We are now a week into our overlanding adventure and it’s been a baptism of fire! While we were lulled into a false sense of security by two nights in the beautiful coastal town Paraty (more on that later), the three nights and three long drive days that followed was our proper induction into overlanding life.

Our first bush camp stop, somewhere outside Sao Paolo

What is typical overlanding life?

  • Drive days that last between 8-10 hours
  • Pulling over on the side of the road for pee-breaks (and learning to overcome squatting fear for girls – watch out for spiders!)
  • Becoming way too well acquainted with the affectionately known ‘shit shovel’
  • Sharing close quarters with 25 people who have not showered for 3 days
  • 25 people who are also covered in DEET thanks to all manner of biting, flying insects (this one probably unique to this part of the world!)
  • Eating whatever the cook group manages to scrounge together for you (normally pretty delicious despite catering for multiple food preferences, gluggy spaghetti and lack of ingredients!)
  • Deciding whether to pitch your tent on a sand pit, ant hills, cow dung or stones
  • Doing all this in the sweltering heat and high humidity

Good times. And I’m not even being sarcastic! It is good times. It’s not for everybody (at some points, I wondered it if it was for me). Yet nothing bonds a group together quite like bushcamps, and we were well stocked with beers and plenty of good, hearty food to keep us going. Long drive days are broken up with intense games of mafia, naps, lots of reading and even more writing (that last one reserved for me and the diarists!). I’ve blitzed through The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (so fantastic), How They Met, and other stories by David Levithan (which I read on Valentine’s Day – perfect) and Code Name: Verity (very different to what I expected and much older, but had me tearing up at the end). The nights tend to be short – early to bed and early to rise. The bushcamps vary: the first night, we attempted to pull into a campsite but had to camp outside instead (the campsite was actually a nudist retreat – only three days into the trip, we weren’t quite ready for that much openness!); the second night, we camped near what smelled much like a sewage treatment plant (by far the least pleasant stop); and the third night, we suffered a disaster by being kicked out of our first site by locals – only to find paradise in the form of a campsite in a stunning, Jurassic Park-like landscape with ACTUAL showers and ACTUAL toiletseats. True-to-goodness bliss.

And that’s probably the best part about bushcamping on those long journeys: it makes the destinations so much sweeter.

Take Paraty, our first stop after Rio – and our slice of paradise before the bushcamping began. It’s an absolutely stunning old colonial town and world heritage site with cobblestone streets, cute churches and wall-to-wall cachaça stores (that’s the alcohol that fuels the decidedly lethal caipirinhas).

After exploring the town, we climbed aboard a boat for a little exploration of the little islands and beaches dotted along the coastline. Now this was truly amazing. The water was beautiful and teeming with fish. The sun shone brightly (so much so, many people got burned… including Lofty, who won the first ever truck ‘numpty’ award for his ‘interesting’ suntan marks). We had a yummy lunch and spent the day swimming and sunbathing and sipping cocktails. Not too shabby for a bunch of soon-to-be-shabby overlanders.

But the reason for all the drive days that followed? The Pantanal – the world’s largest swamp. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? Despite the reputation, it was magic. But more on that in the next blog post…

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Surviving (and thriving) at the Sambadrome

I can’t believe how quickly our time in Rio has disappeared already! Tomorrow we leave on the Oasis Overland truck ‘Dingo’ for pastures new, and I have little idea what to expect. I’m getting ready to take each day as it comes and to be open to whatever adventures are ahead.

But in the meantime – what a time we’ve had! Sambadrome loomed before us with the prospect of eight hours of partying through the night. Would I be able to handle it? Would it live up to the hype?

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Half party, half city – the two sides of Rio

For me, the answer was ABSOLUTELY. Sambadrome doesn’t just live up to the hype… it is the hype. I’ve never experienced anything like the electric energy that rocketed around the concrete stadium when the floats were in view. Everyone got into the spirit, dressing up in headbands and glitter – and some in full body paint and very little else! While I wasn’t one of those people who could dance all night, I did stay right up until the last float passed through the stands and the sun rose in the sky. It was an epic night/morning to say the least.

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We were in Sector 13, which is right at the end of the parade. There were many benefits to Sector 13 – it was a lot of fun to watch the dancers finish at the end and the chaos as they rushed to take their costumes off and join the party. You could easily find discarded costumes (they made for great pictures and cool – if unwieldy – souvenirs! I think there’s a purple alien head still in the hallway of our hotel) and you felt like part of the local scene. The downside is that we were quite far away from the main action itself and we didn’t feel like we could completely grasp the magnitude of the floats. The binoculars I had just offered a tantalising glimpse of the immense effort that went into every single detail of the parades. It would have been better to experience them in their full glory.

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Throwing away the costumes at the end… so sad!

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6am snoozes… when’s the next Samba school on?

It was definitely an immense way to kick off the trip – and something I will never forget.

Rio has been unforgettable in lots of ways. We went paragliding from Pedra Bonita – an incredible flight over the stunning beaches and coastline of the city. We wiled away an afternoon on Ipanema beach. We watched sunset from the base of Sugarloaf and drank beers on a seawall with the locals. We bought ridiculously cheap Havaianas in Copacabana (and promptly left them in a beachside bar… sigh). Lofty partied in Lapa and I wrote in the corner of an Irish pub.

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Finally, we toured the largest favela in South America – Rocinha – which over 70,000 people call home. We umm-ed and ahh-ed about doing this tour, but in the end we decided that it was the only way to get close to understanding the flipside of this capricious city. Of course, with bus-loads of tourists walking through it every day, Rocinha is one of the ‘safer’ favelas – but it was still eye-opening to see the conditions that still exist for over 3 million residents of Rio de Janeiro. The company that we used takes all the money for the tour and uses it to fund a day care and school inside the favela. While of course it felt uncomfortable to be essentially gawking at people’s lives (and all in the knowledge that we were leaving at the end), we were greeted with warm and open arms by the people we met there – and not just the ones who were taking money from us. I am glad that I went, if only to feel like I’m coming away with a more balanced view of this city and the country I’m about to explore even further.

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The view from the top of Rocinha favela

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All in all, Rio has lived up to its reputation. It’s incredibly beautiful, but it also has a dark side. On the same day that Lofty and I commented on how safe we’d felt the entire time we were here (and we did – we took money out of ATMs without issue, we took the metro at all hours, we partied at the blocos), some other members of our group were not so lucky. It just goes to show that both the raves and the warnings about Rio are true. If you are ever able to find yourself here, practice vigilance and be safe – but feel comfortable that even the bad is not enough to dim the good.

Rio just shines too brightly.

And if you need any further convincing, here’s our time in video form:

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A Packing List for a Grown-Up Gap Year

It’s kind of amazing how travelling changes you. Opens you up to adventure, new experiences, new people. Only a few hours after we said goodbye to our families, switching from ‘vacation’ mode to ‘backpacker’, we met a Brazilian couple who gave us tips on everything from how to ward off the Zika virus to the best places to eat in Rio. We exchanged email addresses and they told us to get in touch if we needed anything once we arrived.

Travel magic at its best.

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First official selfie of the trip – at Fort Lauderdale airport en route to Rio via Bogota

It’s officially been eight years since my last gap year – and in many ways, not much has changed. I’m older and (hopefully) wiser, but I’m still using the same backpack, sleeping bag and packing cubes as last time. The backpack in particular has seen many corners of the globe; she also accompanied my sister Sophie on her gap year adventure! I can definitely vouch for the longevity and durability of a Lowepro bag. I’m taking more or less the same amount of clothes, and I still remember that the most useful thing I brought with me was my sarong. But what has changed is the sheer amount of technology that is accompanying me this time around. Whereas in 2007 I travelled with a flip phone, iPod and a point-and-shoot camera, this time I feel like I’m carrying around my own Best Buy superstore. I guess that’s the burden that comes with being a ‘digital nomad’. I do have The Potion Diaries book 3 to write on the road, after all!

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Two backpackers ready for the road

Looking at this list all laid out, I’ve probably overpacked – and from everything I’ve heard, there will be plenty to buy in South America! The tricky thing has been to prepare for all the different temperatures that we’ll be encountering on our trip – from the sweltering heat of Brazil to the potentially very cold nights of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Also, now that I’m closer to 30 than 21 (I turn 30 on this trip, ahh!) and this is supposed to be a grown-up gap year, I don’t want to feel like a ‘backpacker’ all the time. My solution is to bring jeans with me so I can go sit in a café and not feel too grungy. And if I’m ever wondering why my bag is so heavy, someone please remind me that I’ve packed five actual tree-books, in additional to my Kindle. Don’t judge me, I need them all! *clings to books*

Here’s my packing list, comprising my life for the next four months:

Clothing

1x aforementioned skinny jeans
1x grey hiking trousers
2x shorts
1x cut off trousers
1x jogging pants
3x sundresses
4x t-shirts
4x vest top
1x long sleeve shirt
8x underwear
3x bras
3x socks
1x long winter socks
1x thermal top
1x thermal pants/leggings
1x rain jacket
1x sweater/fleece
1x cardigan
1x beanie
1x gloves
3x bathing suit/bikini
1x sarong

Shoes

1x waterproof trainers
1x Merrell sandals
1x Flipflops
1x Butterfly twist flats

Medicine

Paracetemol + Ibuprofen
Anti-malarials
Bite cream
Solarcaine
Savlon (antiseptic cream)
Bio Oil
Immodium
Antihistamines
Birth control
Hand sanitizer
Band-aids

Toiletries

Sunscreen
Bug spray (75% Deet)
Solid shampoo from Lush
Deodorant
Razor
Make-up (mascara, concealer, bb cream, blush, lip salve, black eyeliner)
Dry shampoo
Mooncup
Toothbrush + toothpaste
Hand mirror
Nail scissors
Cotton swabs
Eye drops

Technology

Laptop + charger
Kindle Paperwhite + charger
iPhone 6 + charger + extra batttery
Waterproof Lumix camera + extra battery + charger
SD cards
External hard drive
Letouch 4-in-1 USB charger
Gopro (and a few accessories – a floating device, selfie stick)
Headphones + headphone splitter
Plug adaptors (for all variations – South America seems to have a ton of different variants when it comes to plugs!)
Withings watch (to track steps and sleep along the way – also works as an alarm clock)

Other

Writing notebook and pens
Books (to be exchanged on the road)
Passport + travel documents (including photocopies of passports and travel insurance documentation)
Flashlight + head torch
Binoculars
Toilet roll
Day bag + small side bag for the cities
Wallet
Sleeping Bag
Thermarest
Water bottle
Sewing kit
Trek towel
Travel lock
Sunglasses
Canada pins (to hand out along the way!)

But probably the most important items we’ve packed are our travel mascots… Kylo Ren and his minion! I initially bought a Disney Star Wars vinylmation hoping to get BB8 (it’s a lucky dip out of 8 different characters) but decided I wouldn’t mind getting Ren, Poe, Finn… but I ended up with Kylo. While initially I was a tad disappointed, it all works out now that Lofty’s mascot is a minion 😉 Look out for KR and minion showing up all over South America.

KR and minion – our intrepid travel companions

 

 

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