Thursday, March 20, 2014

South America in Review (May 3rd - December 9th, 2013)

It was truly a great seven months and a bit. In retrospective, more than three months later, it feels like it was ages ago, and I sometimes wonder if I just dreamt it. However, now that I was processing some data in order to summarize the journey, I could grasp at some hard facts and can be fairly sure that it was not just a wonderful dream.

Planning + weather
We did not plan very much for the trip. We mainly focused on getting proper vaccination, learning Spanish, and acquiring some additional equipment.  Also, a friend of mine who had been on a similar trip before sent me a great Excel table summarizing the weather patterns in various parts of South America during different months. Based on this we created a master plan: spend dry season (June to September) in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and perhaps Columbia, and then head down and hope that Patagonia would be OK in the late spring (November and beginning of December). This worked out really well: in total we had maximally 15 rainy days during the whole trip. The only thing we regret a bit was that we did not have enough time to visit neither Ecuador or Columbia, as we stayed too long in Bolivia, but we regret it only a bit as Bolivia was our favorite country.

During our travels we relied mainly on e-book versions of Lonely Planet, which worked much better than Rough Guides on Kindle. Generally, we rarely planned more than a couple of days ahead.

In total we visited six countries in South America. The longest time - 76.5 days - we spent in Bolivia, our favorite country. We liked the huge variety of things Bolivia had to offer - great mountains, the jungle and generally spectacular nature. We would have probably liked it even more if we hadn't been sick with various stomach problems for approx. 14 days.

In Peru we stayed for fifty and a half days. As we arrived there from Bolivia we were quite shocked about how touristy this country was, but nonetheless it had some great of things to offer. Of course we visited the typical attractions such as Machu Picchu, Cusco, Nazca, Arequipa and Puno, but we also had a wonderful time in Huaraz, which became my favorite Peruvian city.

The third largest amount of time we spent in Chile (43 days), in part due to the two-week Spanish language course we took in Valparaíso. Chile was quite well-organized and we found it similar to Europe (including the prices). We later discovered that many people are first exposed to the continent in Chile, and for this reason, it is sometimes called South America for beginners.

We spent a total of 40 days in our second favorite country, Argentina. The delicious food and wine in combination with the wonderful nature made a everlasting impression on us. We liked Argentina so much that towards the end of our trip we decided to visit it again and spent two days on going to Ushuaia and back. Argentina was generally quite expensive, but because of the blue rate, we could enjoy it to the maximum. 

In Brazil we mainly visited two cities - Sao Paulo and Rio de Janiero - and the Iguazu waterfalls, which we really enjoyed. In total we actually spent only 9 days in Brazil, which was good for our budget, as Brazil was expensive. As we regrettably could not speak Portuguese, we sometimes did not feel as comfortable there as in Spanish-speaking countries.

Last we should mention the two days spent in Uruguay, where we went, among other reasons, to get more U.S. Dollars to finance our stay in Argentina.

We stayed for more than one third of our trip in Bolivia!

We thus recommend that if you feel adventurous and speak at least some Spanish, go to Bolivia. You will love it! If you're not so comfortable with Spanish and rather enjoy comfort, great food and wine, go to Argentina, and you will love it too.

Sweet dreams in South America
When departing for our trip I was hoping that we would spend about one half of the time in the mountains. Due to the lack of huts we knew we would have to camp, and for this reason we carried a tent and other camping equipment with us all the time. After returning to Europe and counting how many nights we actually used it, I am not 100% sure that it was an optimal decision. On the other hand, our equipment was reliable and we never had a major issue with it compared to people that just rented theirs.

In total we spent 223 nights in South America or on our way there and back. Out of this, we spent 173 nights in various hotels or hostels. In Bolivia, we almost never booked on-line, but rather just arrived at a town or village, took a look around and nearly always managed to find a decent place to stay. In Peru we booked in advance only sometimes, that is, when we knew we'd be arriving late in the evening or if the place was very touristy. In the other countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile we almost always booked a room. However, after our experience in Valparaíso, we usually booked for just the first night and only if the place was indeed nice, we prolonged for more days directly with the owner.

We used our tent on only twenty nights. As mentioned above, it was not nearly as much as I had expected, but frankly, these were my favorite nights. We spent another eighteen on a bus. Not our absolute favorite way to spend the night, but the full bed (cama) buses were quite comfortable and travelling this way saved us a lot of time. Therefore, if I could choose between a 10-hour overnight bus ride vs. a 6-hour ride during the day, I would choose the overnight one.

For seven nights we were not in control of where we would be sleeping as we were taking part in some tour, and the accommodation was organized for us. This category includes three great trips we did in Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni and Pampa and Selva tour in Rurrenabaque - and the not-so-spectacular tour to Amantani island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca.

We spent another three nights on the intercontinental flights to/from South America. Finally, the two coolest / most adventurous nights that we decided to categorize as "other". What are they? The first one was an empty classroom with an unlocked door in Maragua's school, where we spent our first night during the hike in Cordillera de los Frailes. The second one was the engineering / billiards room of the Chaca Pampa hydroelectric power station, where we were allowed to stay after we arrived in the village at quite a late hour from our Condoriri trip.

More than three quarters of the nights we slept in hotels/hostels

Money, Money, Money
For keeping an eye on our expenses, we originally thought that it would be sufficient to keep track of ATM withdrawals. We then realized that it would be nice to have a better overview of what we were spending our money on, and thus started using Toshl to track our expenses in more detail. Therefore we have a really good overview of our expenses starting July 25th, 2013. I tried to interpolate the missing data to provide you with as accurate information as possible, and I estimate the error to be maximally 2%.

Everywhere except Argentina we just used our debit card to get money from an ATM. In Argentina we got pesos in exchange for U.S. Dollars, which we either withdrew in Uruguay or exchanged using Brazilian reals that we retrieved in Rio de Janiero. Thanks to all this hassle and the blue rate we managed to get 12 Argentinian pesos per 1 EUR, even though the official rate was a bit over 8 pesos. All prices for Argentina are therefore calculated using this blue rate.

The numbers presented here take into account the expenses for both of us.

This graph also includes gifts and things we planned to use after the trip

Our biggest category was transportation, which totaled to 6143 EUR. Out of this we spent 2250 EUR for tickets from Europe to Santiago de Chile and back. We bought these tickets just one month before our departure as we did not know much in advance how much time Laura would need to graduate. Additionally, we took four flights within South America, which account for 1108 EUR. The rest we spent on buses, taxis, collectivos, etc.

The second biggest expense was food with 3543 EUR. This includes both eating out in various restaurants and groceries. Honestly, we ate out almost every single day when not camping. Usually we ate in quite ordinary or cheap places, but at least once per week we went out to a nice lunch or dinner to try some local specialities.

The next category is accommodation. We spent 2650 EUR on hostels and hotels. We usually went to the cheapest reasonable place. Our normal budget for accommodation was 20 EUR per night for both of us, which was easy to achieve in Bolivia, but more tricky in the other countries.

We spent 2173 EUR on entertainment. This includes some multi-day tours and various entrance fees.

The other categories are much smaller. "Shopping Longterm", on which we spent 693 EUR, includes things we were planning to keep. Some more details for this are described in the section below. Shopping Temporary, with its 460 EUR, included mainly personal hygiene products and some other minor items such as gas for camping, maps, etc. The gifts category, with its 120 EUR, may seem small compared to all the other expenses, but we were more limited by what could fit in our backpacks than with money. The category "other" (456 EUR) consists primarily of various services such as haircuts. The two-week Spanish course we took in Valparaíso cost 622 EUR and it is the only item in the Education category.

Last but not least is a category we call "Trip Preparation" (1209 EUR), which includes, among other things, various vaccinations, travel medicines and the insurance for the trip. The Spanish lessons we took before departing to South America should actually also be included here, but we do not have the exact numbers for them any more.

Thus, in total this great trip cost 18070 EUR. If we subtract Gifts and Shopping Longterm, the direct costs would be 17256 EUR, meaning an average cost of 39 EUR per person per day, which includes all flights and trip preparations.

The cheapest country by far was Bolivia, where we spent on average 21.9 EUR per person per day. In stark contrast, we spent almost double of that - 43.6 EUR - per person per day in the most expensive country, Brazil. See graph bellow for more information.

*Chile includes Spanish course in Valparaíso as we had less Entertainment and Transportation expenses during the time of the course

All these numbers are summarized for each country and category in a Google spreadsheet.

Items bought, lost and stolen
Some people consider South America to be quite a dangerous continent. Indeed it is not as safe as most places in Europe, but with some precautions (and probably some luck), we managed to stay safe, and didn't even need to depart with many of our belongings unwillingly.

However, we had to involuntarily say good-bye to the following things:
  • An old HTC Desire - stolen in the Santiago metro one hour after our arrival in South America. This was a good lesson that we indeed need to be careful.
  • 69 EUR - through a trick that the (German) company Elumbus pulled on us
  • Laura's USB stick - probably stolen from her backpack on the way to Humahuaca in Argentina
  • Radek's Petzl headlamp and camera charger - stolen from the top of Radek's bag either in a hostel in Buenos Aires or on the bus to Bariloche
  • Shampoo - left in Punta Arenas hostel bathroom in the evening and was never to be seen again
We were quite surprised that these things were stolen in the rather wealthier countries (Chile and Argentina). In contrast, nothing was ever stolen from us in Bolivia nor Peru.

More often, we were just stupid and left our things somewhere and it was not worth or possible to go back for them. Like this we lost Radek's swimming suit, Laura's inner glove and sunglasses and two towels. Additionally, Radek's scarf and sunglasses were blown away by wind during the last-but-one day of the Torres del Paine circuit. And probably most often, wear and tear meant that some things were no longer worth carrying and we just donated them or threw them away.

Later on the road we realized that we really needed some things that we hadn't brought from Europe, so we just bought them. Among these were three 32GB USB sticks, which we used for running Linux. One of them was stolen in Argentina. Also, a light down jacket that I bought for 500 BOB is still my favourite souvenir from the trip. Except that we mainly bought replacements for the things we lost or had thrown away.

As mentioned in the sweet dreams section, we took a full set of camping gear with us. To be honest, we were not completely happy with our tent (Jurek Alp 2). The nice thing about it was that it was not too heavy and it protected us well from the weather elements. The main problem was the ventilation: I do not know exactly why, but in Bolivia and Peru, where we were camping at quite high altitudes, we almost always spent an hour or two drying the tent in the mornings before packing it. We were constantly the last people to leave the camp site. To our surprise, we did not have the same problem in Patagonia. Perhaps this was because it was much windier there or because the latitude and altitude were more similar to that of Czech Republic.

For the sleeping bag, I took my Sir Joseph Loop 1200, which is small, light and very warm. The only issue with it was its price and the risk that it would be stolen together with the whole backpack. As Laura didn't have a warm sleeping bag prior to this trip, we bought her a Bivak 3D from Prima. This is a relatively cheap, synthetic, very warm but quite bulky sleeping bag that occupied almost half of her backpack. Both sleeping bags were quite something to carry, but on many occasions we were the only people who were not freezing during the night.

For cooking we used the Czech classic - Var 2. It was reliable and performed well everywhere during the trip: we just needed to protect it well from the wind. The Steripen Adventurer Opti, used for sterilizing water, saved us a lot of time that we would have otherwise spent on boiling water. The only issue we had with it were its atypical and rather expensive batteries. We spent almost three hours trying to get a couple of them in La Paz.

We did not know in advance how often would we be hiking alone, so we bought a Spot satellite messenger because we expected the cellphone reception to be close to zero in the mountains. Fortunately, we never needed to use it for emergencies. However, we did use it quite regularly to send our position to our parents when we were camping. To do this, we had to always find a place with an unobstructed view of the sky.  We typically sent three consecutive messages, but just one or two made it through, and when we were in a valley or a canyon, in about 50% of the cases, none of the three messages were delivered. We are now planning to sell this device, so feel free to contact us if you still want to buy it after reading this :-)

From electronics we did not bring a laptop, but honestly, I missed having one quite a lot. We had a Nexus 7, which was great for OpenStreetMaps, checking e-mails, etc, but using it for writing this blog or dealing with pictures was just impossible. For these activities, we mainly relied on Internet cafés. In Peru and Bolivia there were plenty of them and the majority had decent computers (LCD screen, 2GB RAM, ...), likely because many people did not have their own computer at home (the Internet cafés were often full, mainly with kids playing games). I installed Lubuntu 12.04 32bit with a non-PAE kernel and an encrypted home partition on our 32 GB USB sticks and we managed to use them in almost all Internet cafés. Only once BIOS was password-protected and a couple of other times Lubuntu did not to start, probably due to an unsupported graphic card. A few times I had to configure the IP address manually, but usually DHCP did the job. It was just important to make sure that the café operator did not come and restart the computer because it appeared off-line in their monitoring system. In Chile and Argentina, finding a good Internet café was more challenging, but a couple of times there was an old, but working desktop PC in our hostel. We used our USB sticks mainly for writing the blogs and processing the pictures. I was regularly backing up our photos to a friend's virtual server using rsync. Internet in Peru and especially in Bolivia was often so slow that I was more than a month late with the backups. Especially for this purpose having our own laptop would have been great, as then I could have kept backing up the photos overnight.

Additionally, Laura had a kindle, which was just great as she read more than 50 books that year. We also had my old Panasonic camera DMC-TZ5 with us, and it was rather sickly by the end of the trip. The screen had had two black spots already earlier, and these got larger every month, filling about 20% of the screen towards the end. In September, the camera stopped showing colors, and during the last month before returning to Europe, the display just went crazy. It is still taking good pictures, but relying on the display is tough.

We carried all these things in two backpacks. I took the old 65l bag that belonged to my brother, because it had a lot of pockets, which was great for organizing things. Also, the bag looked quite cheap, which we thought would be good for the trip. Laura used her 60l Deuter bag as it fits her back perfectly. Thinking back, it would have been good to have some anti-theft covers for the backpacks; we only had our rain covers.

Some more interesting facts
I would like to say good-bye using the words of the song that went through my head when reaching the end of Pan-Americana in Ushuaia: “This is the end, beautiful friend”. As we are now both back in Europe and working, this will probably be the last post on this blog for a while. We hope you enjoyed reading it and feel free to ask us some questions if you are planning a similar adventure.