We spent almost two months backpacking in South America while our boat Fata Morgana waited for us at anchor in Bahia de Caraquez. From Ecuador to Chile, Bolivia, Peru and back, we hitchhiked, couchsurfed and took countless bus rides to many of the continent’s most thrilling destinations: the Atacama Desert, the Uyuni Salt Flats, the Oruro’s Festival, the ruins of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco, Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, Chachapoyas, Cajamarca, Vilcabamba, Chimborazo, Banos and more. We joined a steady flow of tourists from around the world visiting these popular ancient historical and architectural sites of tremendous natural beauty and ruins of lost civilizations. We tasted many strange new foods and learned much about the Latin-American culture, history and traditions. But what made this voyage unique were the people we met along the way, the time we spent and the memories we shared with fellow travelers, as well as locals and ex-pats who welcomed us in their homes, cars and hearts.
We don’t remember the names of most of those who pulled over and picked us up on the side of dusty roads but we remember them and their kindness- the hotel manager who gave us a ride from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama in Chile, the couple who took us from Valle de la Luna to La Paz in Bolivia, the truck driver who stopped in Nazca and drove us almost all the way to Lima in Peru, the nice couple who picked us up in Loja on our way to Riobamba, the young guys who took us up to the first base on Chimborazo and the family who made space for the three of us in their car from Chimborzo back to Riobamba, the girl working as doctor in the military who drove us from Banos to Quito and a few other shorter rides in Ecuador by a policeman, a priest, a farmer and a retired couple.
There are nice people everywhere you go who will stop and give you a ride in their cars if you stay long enough with your thumb up on the side of the road, but in some cultures and some countries, hitchhiking is more practiced, safer and more widely accepted compared to others. From our experience in South America, we can say that in Bolivia hitchhiking is difficult, because people are poor and there are not many cars on the roads between towns so the cheap bus is your best option. In Peru it can take a while before someone pulls over, and you have to be careful- in the big cities even taxi drivers may rob you. Ecuador is by far the best place for hitchhiking. There, we didn’t have to wait long for someone to stop and give us a ride, we hardly spent any money on bus fares hitchhiking safely and comfortably 90% of the time, even though we are a family of three.
Another great way to meet locals and save money while traveling is CouchSurfing. CouchSurfing is a huge social network of hosts who offer free accommodation to travelers in their homes throughout the world. People with an extra couch, a spare bed or an empty room in their dwellings who like to help travelers, to learn about different cultures, to make friends and share stories and experiences have the chance to connect through CouchSurfing with likeminded individuals, based on similar interests. Thus, travelers of limited means have the opportunity to stay in the homes of local people and learn firsthand of their culture, traditions, way of life, as well as the best places to visit and things to do in their hometown. I don’t know who came up with the CouchSurfing idea and when, but I think this is one of the best ideas of all times!
Thanks to CouchSurfing we met John- an interesting Peruvian guy with an English name and stayed in his big colonial home in Cajamarca, where he took us on a tour of the city and revealed some of its secrets. Diego and his family shared their tiny apartment with us in Loja, and in Vilcabamba we met Mahanidhi Das- an Ecuadorian Dharma Yogi who offered to share his humble dwelling with us, enlightened us with meditation and Buddhist knowledge. He took me to the Loja jailhouse to assist in one of his weekly yoga classes for the prison’s women. In Riobamba we stayed with Hugo and Carolina at their apartment and shared some Bulgarian style meals, as well as great stories of travel, exotic cultures and scientific research. Hugo is a professor who used to study the food qualities of insects consumed in some local tribes throughout the world. He has been in more countries than us, in some remote corners of unknown jungles tasting bugs! In Banos, our host Juan Karlos opened his big house for us. We met his family and learned how to make tortillas, and in his free time he showed Maya how to play a few things on the guitar. And finally in Quito, we were Marcel’s guests for a couple of days. Thus, we never had to pay for a hostel while in Ecuador and we got to cook our own food in the kitchens of the people who hosted us, saving a lot of money on this final stretch of our trip. CouchSurfing spiced up our journey offering us the most authentic experiences while in South America.
In Lima and Chiclayo we had the pleasure and the privilege to stay with a few other awesome people –fellow Bulgarians who invited us to stay in their homes. We found them not through CouchSurfing but through the Facebook group Bulgros in Peru- Bulgarians in Peru. Kristina was our first host in Lima. She lives there with her Peruvian husband and has developed her own business installing and maintaining healthy foods vending machines in schools, offices and other public spaces. Her idea to replace the chocolate bars, chips and Coca-Cola with fresh fruits and organic juice in vending machines has grown into a successful business and a great cause for promoting healthier lifestyle.
In another neighborhood in Lima we stayed a few more days with Fani, her Peruvian husband Saul and their genius kid Amaru born in May 2014. They have inspired us with their alternative ways of raising and educating their child using such methods of infant education as attachment parenting-an approach to childrearing that encourages practices like ‘the family bed’, ‘prolonged breastfeeding’, and ‘carrying your baby close in a sling’, the Montessori prepared environment, baby-led weaning, Elimination communication (EC) from birth (a practice in which a caregiver uses timing, signals, cues, and intuition to address an infant’s need to eliminate waste), Valdorf (natural and recycled homemade toys and furniture avoiding plastic toys and modern children aids), Emmi Pikler (free movement from childbirth). At age two, Amaru is a happy and healthy vegetarian, never vaccinated, who speaks two languages- Spanish and Bulgarian and can handle all sorts of tools, knives, and instruments. He doesn’t watch TV and has traveled extensively in three continents. We have never met a more intelligent, mature and advanced for his age kid.
We were also super happy to spend time with Atanas Shopov, another successful fellow-Bulgarian living in Peru who hosted us in his Peruvian home in Chiclayo and showed us around this sunny coastal town. Atanas Shopov ‘Nasko’ is the coach of the National Team of Peru for heavy weights lifting. His team of young athletes has won many national and international heavy weight lifting competitions participating in sports events throughout the world, including the Olympic Games. Meeting Nasko- a talented and passionate individual coaching the National team of Peru- and assisting to one of his training sessions at the local sports arena was the proudest moment of our whole trip!
We met many interesting locals, ex pats and fellow travelers while visiting Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and we made a few good friends. A man with a big hat in Bolivia predicting the future using coca leaves scattered on a small table, a woman in Bolivia with a small top hat and a pink dress selling dried llama fetuses, a tour guide in Peru who believes in aliens, a New Zealander in Ecuador who organizes horseback riding tours in the evergreen mountains of Vilcabamba among many others.
But the most memorable, thrilling and fantastic unexpected meeting remains the one in the heart of the Atacama Desert where we accidently bumped into a group of twenty Bulgarian travelers members of the Adventure Club on an organized tour of South America. I mean, what are the chances!?
It has been a tremendously awesome journey, these two months in South America, and the people along the way- those who helped us, advised us, hosted us, inspired us- made it unique. We are forever grateful to each and every one of them. We will never forget you!Share