End of the World Coffee – Puerto Natales, Chile

I gazed out the window at the snow-capped mountains in the distance as I savoured the warmth of the coffee cup in the warm coffee shop. I realized I was practically at the end of the world.

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We had travelled back from Torres del Paine National Park that morning after four nights of camping in some of the most beautiful landscapes you could imagine. I had given the group two hours of free time in the southerly town of Puerto Natales in Chile following a food shop.

We had to buy 4 days’ worth of food for 26 people in cold weather, so it’s fair to say we nearly cleaned the shop out. I remember other cashiers in the store gradually gathering around our till like the Nativity scene at Christmas.

When I enquired after their behaviour as the counter ticked over, they responded in hushed tones that we had set the store record for highest spend – just over $600,000 Chilean pesos, approximately US$1,000.

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I ventured outside into the elements. The biting wind nearly cut through me, but once I had got going I warmed up, as long as I didn’t stop! Even though I loved being around the group, I found it nice to get away from people now and again, to refresh and relax. I liked to roam where my mind took me, taking photos of the town’s landmarks as music pumped through my headphones.

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Battered by wind driving in off the sea, I wandered around the town, stopping into a modern-looking coffee shop called ‘The Coffee Maker’ on the seafront. The interior was warm and cosy, a welcome respite from the exposed outdoors, accentuated by the log fire burning in the corner.

I waited for my strong black coffee and chose a strategic perch by the window counter – which had one of the best views I had ever seen. The jagged grey mountains were framed widescreen across the icy sea inlet, swans paddling at the dock in front, embodying the best aspects of Patagonia. It was like watching TV through a high-resolution screen for the first time.

I realized my luck at experiencing one of the best scenes of this planet’s beauty.

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The Fall of Angels

Night started to fall on the Churun River in Canaima National Park, Venezuela. We were travelling upriver to our basic hammock camp at the base of the world-famous Angel Falls. I and the others had just leapt overboard our wooden canoe for the umpteenth time. We pushed hard to get our boat up the rapids on which it had become marooned. Each time we did not know how deep the water was – or what creatures may be in the water. I found it best not to think about that issue.

We ploughed on through the darkness for another two hours until we reached the camp. I was physically shattered and ravenously hungry. I distinctly remember eating nearly a whole roast chicken from the campfire before collapsing into my hammock. We couldn’t see it yet, but we were sleeping in the shadow of one of the world’s giants. Angel Falls is renowned as the highest waterfall in the world at 979 metres (or 3,212 feet, if you’re so inclined).

I awoke the next morning early buzzing with anticipation, a sort of Christmas-morning excitement. The falls could be glimpsed from our camp, but it would take a hike of several hours to get to the pool at the base of them. It seemed like no time at all once we were rambling across rocks and rivers to get to the prize above. As I stood on top of the pool gazing up at the highest waterfall in the world, I felt that sense of freedom which makes travel so addictive.

The Land of Ice and Fire – Villarrica, Chile

In Chile, you can hike to the summit of a snow-capped volcano in the morning, and enjoy beers sunbathing by the lake in the afternoon. Despite the Game of Thrones reference in the title, this is no fantasy. Villarrica volcano (2,860m high) is the real-world setting for this adventure, situated near Pucón, referred by guidebooks as the ‘Switzerland of South America’. Switzerland with added volcanoes, maybe.

The hike starts early, in shorts and t-shirts, but you quickly add on the gear as you adapt to the elements. That ice pick comes in handy when you hit the snow and ice at altitude, especially if you get stuck (see photo). It’s a fairly challenging slog up but the view into the active crater is worth it. The escaping gases can be overpowering so our time at the summit was limited. Now the real fun started – sliding down on a flimsy piece of flat plastic down the volcano. This sounds dodgy but it was hands-down some of the most thrilling fun I’ve ever had. Someone suggested making the 6-hour trip back up purely just to slide back down again.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that in Europe, for example, this kind of activity on an active volcano would be off-limits. Two months to the day after we climbed Villarrica, it had violently erupted and caused the evacuation of nearby towns, making the headlines around the world. But when it’s calm, it’s worth exploring one of the best adventure activities out there.

Sandboarding in Huacachina

This unforgettable activity takes place in the middle of a compact desert in Peru, near the Huacachina oasis, and involves joyriding around in a dune buggy and sliding off boards down massive sand dunes. Your ‘board’ is a glorified piece of wood with small ropes attached for your bindings – another example of the fantastic Health & Safety in South America.

It is a phenomenally good adrenaline fix. Even in the dune buggy ride, it’s like a roller-coaster where you’re hanging on by your fingertips. Our driver climbed the largest dune in sight and braked hard just as we were going over the other side. He then informed us to grab our boards and instructed us to either stand up or luge down. The sand slope was easily over 100m long and the gradient was steep. As the tour leader, I was volunteered by the group to go first. I thought I did pretty well, even flying up into the air in patches, but crashed out near the end. That was rough, the sand was like…sandpaper (more imaginative adjectives are available).

It was interesting to see that the lighter and smaller you were, the faster and more airborne you got. I guess you wouldn’t sink into the sand as much as heavier guys like me. In the distance we could see Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world, at 1176m long. That would be a decent run to try next time I’m in the Peruvian desert.

Las Lajas Cathedral – a long Day 169/171

It was Day 169 of the tour and it was one of the toughest days logistically. We left Popayán at 05:00 needing to get to the Colombian/Ecuadorian border before its closing time of 18:00. Unfortunately we had only been able to make running repairs to the broken suspension of the truck, so we were limited in speed, unless we made the cab rock so much to make myself and the driver sick. We had made the decision not to stay in the designated stop of border-town Ipiales for security reasons, as last year’s driver had been robbed at gunpoint. This is Colombia, after all.

Also on the itinerary was the requirement to get to Las Lajas Cathedral (in the photo above). Talk about a sight for sore eyes. I kept the group to a very military-style quick visit in order to get to the border in time. But it’s the kind of place that I could wander for hours. The drive down the valley towards the Cathedral was majestic. I shudder to think of the price of a wedding here.

It’s a pity our visit was a bit rushed, but we managed to get through the border in time. This was despite the usual delays and a small ‘processing fee’ to get the right ‘insurance’ to enter Ecuador. We arrived in Otavalo around 23:00, a long travel day even by our standards. But seeing Las Lajas Cathedral in the flesh was worth all the hassle.

Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral

On our way into Bogotá, we stopped in the former salt mines of Zipaquirá, the Disneyland of underground former salt mines. It seems a cathedral was built underground purely to attract tourists. Despite this sense of the whole place being artificial (though it is used for religious ceremonies) I was slightly awestruck at the scale of the underground cathedral.

Photos do not give enough credit to this impressive structure 200 metres underground. The cathedral and surrounding tunnels are memorable by themselves, but what really made the visit was the guide. He was a headcase. To this day, I cannot remember much of what he told us in his broken English, but I do remember his crazy arm-waving and manic movement. He even invited us to lick the walls of the former salt mine, and gave us a demonstration himself. This being Colombia, I’m sure salt wasn’t the only white stuff he’d had that day.

Mainly due to his hyperactivity, we thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the underground. Even if we didn’t learn a huge amount about it. Despite not being very religious myself, if I ever find myself in Colombia for Sunday Mass, I know which church to attend.

Relaunch and Rebrand: Slothing Around Latin America

Welcome to my first blog post back after 18 months out. Way back then, in what seems like a previous life, I had finished up my stint leading tours in Central America and I was about to start my mammoth 171-day tour of South America. From Slothing Around Central America, to Slothing Around Latin America, this blog is evolving quickly like a well-reared Pokémon.

I’ve returned to this blog via the inspiring photos popping up in my Facebook Memories from last year. I had a job to blindly lead a group of tourists around 79 cities I had never been before (apart from my previous home, Buenos Aires). I had no days off for just under 6 months, I was sometimes working 20-hour days, but I was always on call for any tour or group issues anyway. I have never been more tired, or more stressed out, than over that tour. But I have also never felt more alive.

When events are changing rapidly all around you, it’s easy to live purely in the moment and not reflect on what you have achieved. Every day I wanted to see, or do, or learn something new. It’s a philosophy I’ve kept with me. I haven’t quite forgotten the small details of the people we met, the stories we heard, and the places we visited. It’s important to reflect on those memories from my previous life. As always, I hope you find them as entertaining as I do.

Tales of a Tour Leader around Central and South America