You join me, dear friends, back in the jungle. I had left La Paz the day before with a friend from Argentina, Monica. We were joined by a Chilean called Edward, who we met on the bus on the way to Villa Tunari. A tiny, one-street town on the outskirts of the jungle, Villa Tunari was home to beautiful national parks and campsites, and the “second worst” hostel Monica (who had been travelling South America for two years) had ever stayed in. It was also almost 4000 kilometres away from my flight home in Santiago, where I had to be in about two weeks’ time. I had no money left for a flight; it was going to have to be buses along the coast all the way from somewhere in the middle of Bolivia to the middle of Chile. Thus the race began.
I travelled with Monica and Edward for about a week in total, speaking pretty much no English as we traipsed through Southern Bolivia in time for me to get on a tour of the salt flats and through into Chile. We walked around parks, vast and empty mansions that were being renovated and opened to the public, went out to an impromptu club night and cooked food in the middle of nowhere on Edward’s camping stove. Edward and I went on to Potosi once Monica had to return to La Paz and ended up in a hot spring in the middle of a valley, surrounded by volcanoes and boiling in the water whilst massive hailstones plummeted to the ground around us.
After that, I immediately embarked on a three day English-speaking tour of the Salar de Uyuni and the volcanoes of Bolivia’s national parks. The views were some of the most stunning I saw throughout my whole trip and the English was a welcome rest in the middle of about a month of more or less only speaking Spanish. I’m far from fluent but I somehow muddled through the mazes of bus terminals and random cities I stopped in on my way down into Chile.
San Pedro de Atacama, Calama, Arica, Antofagasta were all places I passed through without stopping (I was on various buses for about 30 hours solidly) before I ended up in the pretty seaside city of La Serena. I remembered Monica’s friend Marcela, who lived a couple of hours inland in the Valle de Elqui and decided to drop her a message to see if I could come and stay with her. Even though the Valle was the source of my not-so-happy previous story The Hitchhiker, everything apart from that one incident was a highlight of my entire trip.
Marcela spoke exactly no English, and when I met up with her all I understood was that I was going to be staying on her tierra – earth, or land. I was pretty clueless as to what she meant by this and every time she tried to explain it in more detail, I just couldn’t understand her. So when she pulled up her car at the side of the Valle, in between two of the tiny towns that run alongside it, and started walking up the side of one of the sand dunes on the side of the road, I was none the wiser. It turned out I was staying in a tent, pitched on the foundations of a house she was building herself on the side of the sand dune itself. A waiter in La Serena told me that under no circumstances should I attempt to climb the massive dunes either side of the Valle, that tourists die in the attempt every so often, and now I was living on one of them!
I spent three nights there, suspended between towns and between the earth and the sky, staring up at the constellations above and doing yoga on a precarious plank of wood jutting out from the sand dune under the Milky Way. I spent a day wandering with a man who was known to everyone as Vikingo (Viking!) who was also living this strange life of suspension halfway up the sand dune with his dog, a guitar with four strings, a blackened kettle and a dirty mattress. We shared a strange connection, one without language, or without much of it. Without WiFi or electricity, we spent a long time sitting and staring at the mountains and the birds and went for a walk to swim in the river.
The Valle was full of artists who had very little income and few possessions, yet seemed perfectly content – as if they found sustenance and happiness in the sunshine which pervaded every minute of every day and every inch of the place.
Valparaiso followed, a curious spaghetti of graffiti-covered streets and coffee shops and museums and restaurants. I maintain that the best way to get to know a city is to wander around aimlessly with a good book and a journal for if and when you settle and that’s exactly what I did.
Santiago was the final stop and brought my mammoth five-month journey to a close. (By the way, I evidently made it in time for my flight.)
It’s so hard to sum up a trip such as this to an audience of readers because travelling alone is so unique to the person who does it. It’s important and life-changing in completely different ways for each traveller. It’s impossible to describe it or sum it up because its impact is so personal to me. It seemed to siphon off my early years from the next stage of my life, as if I had been one of the caterpillars at Pilpintuwasi, emerging from the cocoon of my (somewhat unhappy) teenage years. I felt more at home on my travels than I have done for a lot of my life in England. I surprised myself constantly with how many issues and struggles I dealt with without panicking or having major anxiety.
This trip gave me everything I needed to blossom – a connection to the rainforest and to nature, the chance to trust and love myself enough to travel alone, and the confidence I needed to pull it off.
P.S. I came back to Earth (England) with a bump as my dad immediately went into hospital within two weeks of me being home. I felt ungrounded and confused, and still do to some extent. We’re all muddling through though, and I look forward to having my life – and blogging schedule – as much on track as it can be during this turbulent time. Thank you for waiting, and thank you for reading. There are some really exciting articles coming your way very soon.