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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Lakes and Volcanoes – Argentina & Chile’s epic scenery

Every time I come to write this blog, I feel like I’m falling further behind! Mind you, the internet has been pretty bad throughout most of South America so far – but more to the point, we’ve just been so busy there’s been no time to worry about the blog! But I know how much I’ll appreciate it at the end, and the internet in La Paz is slightly better. We’ve now crossed the halfway point of our journey… so I’m going to try and catch up as quickly as I can.

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Stunning views of Bariloche’s Lake Gutierrez

For almost three weeks (encompassing the post below), we’ve been criss-crossing between Chile and Argentina – I now have more stamps in my passport than I can count! But it’s been incredible to see the differences between the two countries and cultures, and how all the miles we’ve done on the truck have brought us to some pretty incredible places.

Take Bariloche, Argentina. In the middle of the ‘Lake District’ of Argentina, this is where Obama paid a visit not too long ago! It’s a strange town, with a real Swiss/German influence – likely from the influx of immigrants post-WW2. There are log cabins and fondue restaurants, along with chocolate shops galore! Since we arrived on Easter Sunday, we found the chocolate shops packed to the brim. Yum.

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I also took the opportunity to do a bit of horseback riding in Bariloche. While originally we had planned to go to a real estancia, they were too full and we had to switch to a more scenic (but less authentic) ride out by Lake Gutierrez. I did a full day’s riding and we saw some truly spectacular scenery. I can see why the Argentinians chose to bring the POTUS out here!

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Also, the steak… the steak in Bariloche was the best I’ve had in Argentina. We loved the parrilla El Boliche de Alberto – where the focus is solely on the meat. We maybe ordered a token salad… but didn’t eat much of it!

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A more traditional Patagonia parrilla, with roast lamb!

From Bariloche, we crossed over to Pucon, Chile. This little town had an entirely different vibe – dominated, of course, by the giant volcano Villaricca in the near-distance. This was a town devoted to adventure, and we knew we were in for a big one from the moment we heard the warning sirens blaring throughout town – signalling the volcano was active.

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Stunning volcanic sunrise before the long trek ahead

Now, if you’ve been following my blog adventures, you’ll know that we did a really hard trek in southern Chile called the W-trek. But even that didn’t quite prepare us for the volcano hike! The volcano was four hours of strictly UP hill. We did get to cut an hour off our journey by taking a chairlift, but it still wasn’t enough to make the journey easy! About half-way up the volcano, we strapped on crampons and used ice-picks to climb the permanent glacier that coats the top (and, in the winter time, it gets turned into a ski resort!) This made walking even more difficult.

When we were about twenty minutes from the top, we stopped to take off the crampons and switch to our gas masks. Now, I’m not going to lie… I almost didn’t make those last twenty minutes. It was HARD going. But I pushed through… and was rewarded with one of the most amazing views. Seeing a volcano bubbling with red-hot molten lava, magma swirling and bursting in front of us, leaping easily 100 feet into the air – it was the definition of EPIC.

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It was also tough to be up there. The air stank of sulphur – thank goodness for those gas masks – and breathing was difficult enough at that high altitude. The wind howled around us, threatening to push us over the edge. But the volcano had only started being that active two days before our arrival, so we were incredibly lucky with our timing. I can’t imagine getting to the top and only being greeted with that sulphurous wind!

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The way down… I wish I could say it was easier than going up, but it definitely wasn’t! Much harder on the joints. Most of the time, you’re able to sledge down the glaciers, but there wasn’t enough soft snow for us to do that safely. We were able to sort of slide down the gravel, but it threw up so much dust that it became difficult to see.

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Gas mask chic… but we made it

Still, it was one of the most rewarding days of the trip so far, and I wouldn’t have changed the experience for the world – even the next two days of aching legs!

 

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Thar she blows… A day trip to Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii

Before tourists came to Hawaii for the stunning beaches, there was the lure of the volcanos. There aren’t too many places on this planet where you can walk on brand new land and see steam leak from deep inside the earth, but the Volcanoes National Park is one of them. It’s fascinating, it’s terrifying, it’s a great reminder of the wild power of the earth beneath our feet. It’s geography in action. In another word, it’s unmissable…

The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera

The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera

Our Hawaii itinerary initially didn’t include a trip to the Big Island, but using Adventure in Hawaii, we booked a day trip (airfare and car hire) from Honolulu Airport to Hilo (you want to make sure you go to Hilo as it’s only a 45 min drive from the National Park). A word of warning for those driving in and around Honolulu – the traffic can be terrible! A 25-min drive to the airport from Aulani turned into almost an hour, even at 6 in the morning. It’s worth leaving plenty of time to get to the airport just because of the traffic.

Hilo is a sleepy little airport that seems to cater mostly to helicopter tourists! I wish we could have flown over the island by copter, but as there isn’t any live red lava flowing into the ocean at the moment, it didn’t seem quite worth it. We did upgrade to a bright red Jeep (when in Hawaii) and we were on the road a mere three hours from leaving our hotel in Aulani. Now that’s service!

Our jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

Our bright red jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

We stopped off at a local Walmart to pick up essentials we couldn’t bring with us on the plane: water, snacks, sunscreen and PONCHOS. This is one of the wettest places on the planet and a theme of this holiday seems to be that whenever I choose to take us on an adventure, it rains! It was tipping it down as we entered the park, and everyone was glad for their wet weather gear. There isn’t much choice for food and drink inside the park either, so well worth bringing your own snacks.

We probably only had around six hours in the park in total, so we had a jam-packed itinerary. We arrived at the Kīlauea Visitor Centre at 10.30am, which was perfect timing as we joined a park ranger guided tour called “Exploring the Summit”. This was the perfect way to kick off our visit, as we learned a lot about the origins of the park itself, the special flora and fauna that we would see (I love the Ohea trees, which can ‘hold their breath’ when a volcano spouts sulphur into the air) and about the huge cultural significance of the volcanoes. Hawaiian myths and legends are deeply intertwined with the land – especially the legend of Pele, the goddess of fire, who makes her home in the Volcanoes National Park. We also got a great view of the Kilauea summit caldera (the giant smoking cauldron you can see in the first picture). He showed us things we definitely would have missed – like strands of Pele’s hair (really, rock that has been blown into strands as thin as hair by the power of the volcano) and the ‘fuzz’ that grows on the great ferns.

Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire

Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire

Following the ranger tour (which took about an hour) we drove straight to the start of the Kilauea Iki hike. This was definitely the highlight of the day, despite the driving wind and rain! We headed counter-clockwise around the Kilauea Iki crater through lush rainforest and a few steep steps, until stepping out onto the crater floor itself. Despite the rain, it felt like we had arrived on another planet. The lava itself was surreal – it looked like the top of freshly baked brownies, or the inside of an Aero bar! (Or maybe we were just hungry…) The lava changes from crumbly spatter to a smooth lava lake. Steam vents burst out of the ground, making the lava feel hot to the touch – and this was enhanced by the cold, windy day we had (there were some benefits!).

Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor

Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor (Photo by David Alward)

It looked like the surface of another planet

It looked like the surface of another planet (photo by David Alward)

Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater

Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater

The hike finished with a stop at the Thurston lava tube, much different compared to the lava tube we walked through on the road to Hana! It was huge and very eerie. In total, with lots of stopping for pictures and a walk through the lava tube, the walk took us about 3 hours.

Thurston Lava Tube entrance

Thurston Lava Tube entrance – as you can see, I am soaking wet!

Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)

Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)

We were pretty hungry at this point, so we drove back out of the park to the aptly named Volcano Village where we stopped at the Lava Rock Cafe for lunch. I had loco moco, which I’m going to describe as Hawaiian poutine! It’s rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg and gravy. It looks disgusting and tastes… pretty damn delicious! The perfect comfort food after a long hike 🙂

Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food - aka Hawaiian poutine

Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food – aka Hawaiian poutine

Back out on the road, we drove the impressive ‘Chain of Craters’ road. As the name suggests, this road winds its way down to the ocean through different flows of old (and relatively new!) lava fields. There were lots of places to stop and turn off to get a view of the destruction caused by the lava – it’s hard to believe that a lot of this land was once thick forest – although you can see the evidence in little islands of trees that survived the lava’s onslaught.

Lava flowing down the cliff

Lava flowing down the cliff

This road has been covered by lava and redirected many times! At the moment, the end of the road is for emergency access only, and you have to turn around at the sea arch at the end of the trail.

Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road

Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road

Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)

Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)

By this time, it was starting to get a bit dark and we really wanted to get to the Jaggar Museum before we had to leave for the airport. Unfortunately, because of our flight timings, we weren’t able to wait to see if the caldera would ‘glow’ as it sometimes does after dark. I would recommend booking the latest flight back to your home island if you’re only doing a day trip out to the national park so you can leave as late as possible.

Pretty coloured lava

Pretty coloured lava

In order to maximise our time in the park, we arrived at the airport probably the latest that I’ve ever attempted – maybe 15 minutes before our scheduled boarding time! It worked out absolutely fine at an airport like Hilo because there was no queue for security and you simply stroll straight onto the plane from one of only a few gates (obviously, we had no checked luggage) but I wouldn’t recommend it if being late really stresses you out 🙂

Overall, I wish we’d had a night in Big Island but the day trip was totally worth it – not too stressful, and we packed a lot in!

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