Underneath the plane window thousands of twinkling city lights rose and fell with the undulating Andes.
At the end of a long day travelling from the Caribbean via Miami, my body was exhausted but adrenaline kept me wide-awake. I was the furthest I’d ever been from the UK, and completely alone, for now at least.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt that mixture of extreme tiredness and intoxicating excitement, but landing in Quito stands alone in my memory. In hindsight, my trip through South America was the final catalyst. I wasn’t even aware of it at the time, but those next three months would define the rest of my life.
Quito, Ecuador’s capital was where my adventure started. At almost 3000 meters above sea level, it’s the highest capital city in the world and I felt the altitude immediately. With a rich culture and one of the most intact historical centres on the continent, it was made a World Heritage Site in 1978. From there, a short bus ride takes people to Mitad Del Mundo, known in English as The Equator. A city with some (literally) very high claims, its quasi-European feel and temperate climate gave me a pleasant transition into travelling mode.
Through my lethargy and altitude-induced rasping I walked with conviction around the plazas and the many churches that first day. It felt less intrepid than I’d imagined, and a little bit like the start of a fortnight on the med. I now know, that the length of a journey away from home and its subsequent exoticism aren’t directly proportionate.
Back then though, I wanted my money’s worth: I’d come to the southern hemisphere for the first time and so expected this world to be unrecognizable. I hid my initial disappointment in shaded cafes and leafy avenues lined with colonial era buildings. The city’s cathedral, which took almost three centuries to complete, was a quiet reprieve from busy streets and rewarded the observant: Peering through the tiny heart shaped window behind the altar I could just glimpse the Madonna statue atop El Panecillo hill.
In those initial days, Quito had allowed me to dip my cultural toes into a new continent, but I had new-found itchy feet. I knew I had a much larger journey ahead and many new friends to meet. Our planned route would take us south from the equator to the Pacific coast and eventually onto the shores of the Atlantic through seven countries. In three months time, I’d sit on Copacabana beach in Rio, an altered version of myself.
In the hostel room that night I began my first ever travel diary. The end of day one’s entry simply reads: “What an adventure this is going to be! I wonder who will be coming on this journey with me?”
Why South America?
I booked my South America trip with Tucan Travel in early 2007. Having recently finished a degree in Spanish, I knew this trip would let me see the countries that I’d read so much about, converse with the locals in a language I was now fluent in and compare the real Latin America to that of countless gritty movies I’d scrutinized over the previous few years.
The continent not only lived up to its colourful and varied reputation, but also utterly surpassed it. I learnt, saw and felt so much during the few months of my journey that it’s hard to piece each moment into a semblance of order. Hopefully, these stories will bring it together into a tangible whole, and inspire people to take their own journey through this incredible region, making a few friends along the way.
The route took us south from Quito weaving our way to the Peruvian border and on towards Lima. After a foray into the Andes mountain range we headed into Bolivia and south to its famous salt lakes. We dipped all too briefly into Argentina before turning east through Paraguay and into our final country; Brazil. Our journey would end in Rio de Janeiro, only a few days after my 23rd birthday. I struggled to say goodbye.
I didn’t want to leave.