Tag Archives: Hiking

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Central Plateau, New Zealand

Mount Tongariro is one of several volcanos in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s the northernmost of the three volcanic cones just to the south of Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake.

Mount Tongariro is also the location of one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is a 19.4 kilometre hike that climbs over the Tongariro massif, past the summit of both Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.

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Map is © Copyright Tongariro Alpine Crossing Please visit that site for more information.

A group of us decided to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing towards the end of the season. We made arrangements and drove down from Auckland on Friday night with the intentions of climbing early Saturday morning. The four-hour drive turned into five and a half as we left during Auckland’s rush hour. We arrived late in the evening and bedded down for the night with alarms set.

A Bad Start
When we awoke on Saturday Morning it was raining and didn’t look pleasant. We went for breakfast and waited to find out if the we could still do the walk. The answer came back a resounding no. The rain and strong winds meant the mountain was closed. All we could do was hang out for the day and hope for better weather on Sunday.

What Tongariro should look like, apparently…
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Ominous News
We were up and had breakfast early on Sunday but the weather still didn’t look great. The mountain was still not visible from our lodgings and when our driver arrived he had bad news. He believed the mountain was again closed and wouldn’t take us, leaving us a little downhearted. We asked the owner of the lodge and he was unconvinced. He rang another driver who confirmed the mountain was in fact open and would take us up.

We were driven to the trailhead in the rain with trepidation, but with the number of other vehicles heading up, it seemed others would also be braving it.

Trailhead – Mangetapopo Carpark – 1100m
We began at the Mangetapopo carpark in a slight drizzle. There were no views of the massif or much else due to the low cloud. The trail was a mix of mud, stones, wooden platforms and people. There were hundreds of others doing the track with us. If this many were doing it on a bleak day, who could guess how busy it would be on a clear one.

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The walk was easy and for the first seven or so kilometres we barely noticed the 250m climb towards Soda Springs. I walked in a quick dry sports singlet, my hiking zip-off shorts and boots. The drizzle was constant but not heavy and I was fairly warm. Others wore long pants and full Gore-tex jackets.

Soda Springs – 1350m
At Soda Springs there is a warning sign: STOP! Are you really prepared? It suggested it was going to get difficult and to turn back if you weren’t prepared. As I waited for my group, I watched several people get to the sign, stare at it for a while and then turn back. With the drizzle picking up I put on a rain poncho over my singlet and began the climb.

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It became more rugged, with a rough dirt trail and steps weaving up the side of the mountain towards South Crater. The drizzle continued and the climb became more a little more difficult, but not by much. After a while of steady climbing we began seeing people returning along with trail with warnings of how bad it was higher up.

With the constant drizzle and the warnings I was tempted to turn back. Why do a climb when you can’t see anything the entire time? You climb for the views and the experience, but the only experience would be a wet cloudy one. I put on a jumper under my rain poncho and we continued on.

South Crater – 1650m
We climbed onto the area described as South Crater and out of the wind. With visibility around 20m we walked on the flat for a while, happy for the rest from climbing.

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Red Crater – 1886m
After the mud flats of South Crater we began up the ridge and discovered the wind that had been putting everyone off. It was blowing an absolute gale and you could see the drizzle sweeping over the ridge into the cloudy nothingness. I was not surprised people had turned back but since we’d come this far it seemed silly to head back. We pushed on, dodging between rocky outcrops so as not to be blown off.

We reached the top but couldn’t see anything so just kept walking, beginning the plunge down the other side, some members of our group going arse-over-tit on the slippery silt.

Emerald Lakes – 1730m
The small Emerald Lakes would have been amazing to view from higher up but they only appeared out of the gloom when we were 10m above them. It was still good to see something other than dirt, rock and rain. By now we were completely soaked, we continued on down.

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Not far below the Emerald Lakes we came to the Blue Lake covered in the same clouds.

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Ketetahi – 1456m
After several switchbacks we finally emerged from the clouds to see the Ketetahi Hut. The drizzle let up but the wind did not. We stopped briefly for a snack before pressing on.

For the next part of the trek we were in open ground along a winding trail. Since a great many people had turned back, we only saw two other groups on the way down. Then having spent much of the day hidden in clouds we finally got some views. Lake Rotoaira appeared and we even got the occasional glimpse of Lake Taupo beyond.

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Ketetahi Car Park 800m
With 4km to the car park the trail dove into rainforest and grew warmer. We crossed a river on a wooden walkway and eventually arrived at the trail’s end after what seemed a lot longer than 45 minutes the sign had suggested.

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Overall, due to the weather, out Tongariro Alpine Crossing was disappointing mainly of the lack of views. In the rain and cold, the hike didn’t feel overly difficult. It took us only 5.5 hours of the suggested 8 hours and of the 2.5 litres of water I took with me, I came out with more than 2.

Perhaps it would have been more difficult in direct sunlight, but I’ll have to come back another time to see. Maybe the next time I’m in New Zealand.

The Trail Wanderer

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Mapping My Journey So Far

Sixteen months on the road is a long time. During that time I covered quite a distance and did many things. While I’ve been ‘resting’ in the United Kingdom, I’ve put together a step by step rundown of my trip including maps.

South East Australia

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In a van called the Pointy Brick I…

Antarctica, Chile and Argentina

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From Brisbane, I flew to Auckland and spent 3 weeks with family before flying to South America where I…

Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador

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From Buenos Aires I…

Colombia, Central America and Mexico

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From Ecuador I…

The Full Map. May take some time to load.

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The World Wanderer

Volcán Concepción, Nicaragua

The towering cone of Volcán Concepción on Isla Ometepe looks imposing when crossing Lake Nicaragua towards it. The closer the perspective, the more intimidating the peak, which usually has a cap of cloud atop it…

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But on the rare occasion when the clouds do disappear the full cone is visible in all it’s splendour. This was how it was the day before we were due to climb it.

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When looking to climb one of the two volcanos on Isla de Ometepe, I’d decided on Volcán Maderas, Volcán Concepción’s little sister. I was told that both volcanoes take the same amount of time to climb, but Volcán Maderas was muddier and less fun. So, eight of us from the hostel booked Volcán Concepción instead. We hoped for another beautifully clear day but we were to have no such luck.

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We met our guide during breakfast in the town of Moyogalpa and caught a chicken bus for 20 minutes to the trailhead where we began walking along the trail strewn with rocks and sand.

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We followed the track for 30 minutes, stopping to peer up at a group of Howler Monkey’s in the trees. It’s amazing how much noise these small monkeys actually make.

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The trail abruptly became steeper and our climb began. The trail began fairly steeply through the trees on roots and dirt steps. While the climb wasn’t overly hard, it seemed harder because of the humidity. We stopped regularly for 5-minute breaks, although there were no views available through the trees.

The only forewarning we had of coming to the tree line was the cool wind, a godsend in the humidity. When we did break the tree line we emerged into the clouds which again obscured our view. We stopped in a windy spot to decide our next course of action and managed to get a cloudy shot of the island below us.

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Then came the difficult decision: continue climbing to the top covered in cloud the entire time with no visibility or head down to a more scenic viewpoint. We decided to climb a little further but after ten minutes and being battered by cold winds in the dense clouds we turned back, deciding to take the scenic path instead. This upset two of the climbers, both of whom wanted to get to the top no matter what.

We followed a thin trail around the side of the volcano and dropped below the cloud line to a point where we could finally get some decent photographs of the island below and the lake around it.

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We continued climbing around to a large crack running down the volcano where lava had flowed years earlier. We took a break on the hardened lava.

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The lower we climbed, the more the mainland of Nicaragua could be seen on the other side of the lake and beyond that in the distance, the Pacific Ocean.

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As we neared the bottom, we looked back up the great crack in the side of the mountain.

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And because we hadn’t come back down the same way we’d climbed, we had to walk ninety minutes back across the island to Moyogalpa.

Overall, the hike was not as difficult as expected, although it may have grown more so had we pushed on through the clouds to the top. I’m not unhappy to not have made it to the top, as without pictures it would have been an empty victory.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Volcán Barú, Panama

Barely 37km from the border of Costa Rica is Panama’s tallest mountain, Volcán Barú. At just under 3,500m, it’s still considered high altitude but is really just a molehill compared to 6,000m tall mountains of Andes. Volcán Barú is commonly climbed for the rare possibility of seeing both the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean sea to the north. It’s rare because the view to the Caribbean is often blocked by a layer of clouds.

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There’s two ways to the top of Volcán Barú, either taking a 4×4 vehicle tour or to hike. The hike is difficult and long at 13km from the trailhead to the peak (with a 1,750 climb in altitude) before 13km back again. What makes it a challenge is most people begin climbing at midnight, aiming to see the sunrise from the summit after walking 6 hours in the dark. Hiking 26km makes for a long day at the best of times, but beginning at midnight makes it just nasty. I even tried to nap in the afternoon, but only managed an hour, which was nowhere near enough.

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Getting to the trail head is fairly easy, with one of the hostels offering transport for US$5. Then after a very short briefing, we were pointed off along a wide track and told to just keep climbing no matter what forks in the trail we see. Except for 3 short descents, the 13km was a steady climb along the wide rocky trail. When you’re hiking at night all you have is your head torch and the ground directly ahead of you to look at.

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We were lucky to be walking under the full moon, so it wasn’t always necessary to use the head lamps. But even in daylight there would be little to see, as there are trees along both sides of the trail. We did come to several locations where we looked down upon the township of Boquete. The lights were beautiful but fleeting and too distant for good photos.

Getting to the summit for sunrise was not my aim, so I took is more slowly. When sunrise did hit, I was still half a kilometre from the summit but was able to watch it, seeing the same view as I would have from the top.

Unfortunately it was around this point where altitude sickness struck. It felt like someone had split my head in half and prodded at the insides with their fingers. As I climbed the last of the trail to the radio tower buildings at the top it grew worse and I started to feel ill.

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The last 500 metres was steeper than the rest and when I made it to the top I found the howling wind rough. I found a secluded spot and put on some warm clothing. When dressed, I looked around the buildings and took photos of the surrounds.

To the south was the city of David and the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui beyond.

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To the west, Costa Rica.

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On the other side, I discovered the buildings were not at the absolute summit, as there was a rocky outcrop that climbed perhaps 30m higher. To get to the top was a rocky scramble, but with the state of my head and stomach I decided against it. The cross on top is the highest point in the country.

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From the northern side of the summit I was out of luck with seeing the Caribbean sea but instead clouds fading away into the distance.

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While I sat huddled out of the wind, one of the girls from my hostel found me and sat with me while I brewed a cup of tea using my hiking stove.

The walk down was very long but straightforward. The trail descends for most of its length except for three points where it climbs. Half way up the first and longest of the three climbs, my tiredness gave out and I lay down on a large rock for a power nap, letting my friend walk on alone. I woke forty minutes later slightly refreshed and no longer feeling the altitude.

The rest of the walk was more of a stagger although I did manage to catch my friend again. We discovered there were many wild flowers growing along the trail but was too exhausted to take photos beyond this one…

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We passed some of the lookouts and caught daylight glimpse of Boquete…

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We eventually made it to the end of the trail and exhausted, booked a taxi through the ranger before being whisked away back to the hostel for a shower and a well deserved sleep.

Overall, the hike up Volcán Barú was okay. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t suffered altitude sickness at the end and if we’d started at a more reasonable time. While walking at night was fine – it’s cooler out of the sun and there isn’t much to see anyway – the main difficulty is the length. To make the hike more enjoyable, I would make it a two-day hike, camping just below the summit, climbing to see the sunrise early on morning two before the long walk back again.

The Lone Trail Wanderer.

Boquete, Panama – Impressions.

Nestled in the mountain plains 60km from the border of Costa Rica is the mountain town of Boquete (‘Boc-ket-e’). At 1,200 metres above sea level, the township is cooler than the rest of Panama and this makes it a popular holiday destination for both locals and travellers alike. It’s also one of the leading retirement locations for US citizens outside of the United States.

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Boquete is next to Parque Nacional Volcán Barú and is the primary starting point for those who wish to climb the volcano, the tallest mountain in Panama. The mountains around Boquete contain many short trails but the only real hike is the volcano climb, although it’s not the best of hikes as there’s little to see along its 26km length.

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Every year in mid-January Boquete hosts a flower and coffee festival that runs for ten days. It’s a very popular occasion with people coming from all over the country to party late into the night at the dance hall. Feriado Las Flores y del Cafe – literal translation: Holiday Flowers and Coffee.

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The fiesta is less crowded during the day, which allows better access to see the impressive flower displays.

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There are plenty of things to do in Boquete besides hiking and the festival, these include horse riding, visiting coffee plantations and farms, and the Aguas Calientes – hot springs.

For $2 you can spend all day on the property where several pools have been crudely set up. The crudeness gives it character, and if you get too hot there’s a river nearby to cool off in.

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Overall, Boquete has a vibrant energy about it and is a great place to hide away from Panama’s year round heat.

Next, I cross the border into Costa Rica to the capital of San José.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 3 – Northern South America

Peru

As I left Bolivia I made my way around Lake Titicaca and along the Andes to Cusco, capital city of the Inca Empire more than 600 hundred years ago. Cusco was built in the image of the Puma, a holy symbol of the Incas.

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Cusco’s a popular tourist destination because of it’s closeness to Machu Picchu. To get to the ruins many people walk one of the expensive hikes in the region: the infamous Inca Trail, The Salkantay Trek or The Jungle Trek. While these hikes are said to be amazing, the expense and length of time needed to prebook put me off. Instead I caught the train to Aguas Caliente, the township at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, and climbed the near 2000 steps to the ruins. At altitude, these steps are still hard going. The ruins felt like Disneyland because of the huge number of tourists but it was still beautiful to behold…

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After Cusco, I travelled to the city of Arequipa, the southernmost city of Peru. Near Arequipa is the county’s third most popular destination, Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is one of the largest canyon’s in the world, twice as deep as The Grand Canyon. The hiking there is very cheap and doesn’t require a guide. I explored the canyon for three days, including the final climb, a kilometre straight up.

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After Arequipa I headed down from the Andes for a time, stopping at Huacachina, a small town near the ocean renown for its massive sand dunes. I spent an afternoon sand boarding down the slopes.

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Next was a visit to the capital, Lima. I stayed in the tourist zone of Miraflores which felt like I was in the centre of any other city in the world. I then moved to the historical centre and this was more to my liking with great architecture and a distinct lack of tourists.

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I continued north and back into the Andes to the city of Huaraz nestled between the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra. From Huaraz a group of us hiked the four-day Santa Cruz trek, with one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever completed.

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From Huaraz, I made my way to the far northern coast and the country’s second most visited destination, Mancora. Mancora is a beach town where I stayed for four days in a cabaña 20 metres from the Pacific Ocean. After the Santa Cruz hike, it was great to just sit and enjoy the beach for a few days.

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Ecuador

I left Peru and headed across the border to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, where I made plans to visit the Galapagos Islands. Two days later I was on a plane – my first since arriving in South America – and a few hours later landed on the famous archipelago. After booking a four-day cruise around the islands, I made friends with a Uruguayan guy at the hostel and spent the days prior to the cruise exploring Santa Cruz island with him, including a great swimming hole and the Giant Tortoise sanctuary.

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The cruise was amazing, I enjoyed snorkelling through the icy waters and swimming with penguins, fur seals, sea lions and sea turtles. On land there were many bird species including Blue Footed Boobies, the smaller water iguanas and the large land Iguanas.

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Back in Quito, I met some friends at the hostel and explored the city with them, including some amazing architecture, the original site of the equator and the newer more technologically accurate equatorial site. I had also prearranged with some locals to hang out with and spent a week enjoyed their company.

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With my friends from the hostel, I headed north for a weekend to the adventure town Minca buried in the rainforest, where we hung out with Hummingbirds, zip lined ourselves crazy and generally enjoyed our stay.

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Next, two of us travelled south to the city of Riobamba where we hiked to the amazing crater lake of a collapsed volcano called El Altar. Most hiking in Ecuador must be done with a guide, but the two of us enjoyed the three-day hike without one.

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Then we headed south to the southern city of Cuenca where my friend headed into Peru and I explored Ingapirca, the ruins of an Incan Fortress.

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Colombia

Then it was back to Quito for a last few days before I headed north into Colombia, to the city of Cali where I stayed for three days. I explored the city via a walking tour, learning its history, and climbed one of the hills to the local statue of Christ.

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From Cali I headed north via a very winding mountain road where the bus driver thought he was formula one driver. After the humidity in Cali, Bogota was cold. I’d prearranged to meet some people in Colombia’s capital and they were so friendly I stayed for three weeks to spend more time with them, including attending a huge Pop Culture Festival…S.O.F.A.

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Bogota is not well set up as a tourist destination but during my stay I caught a cable car up to a temple of the hill giving awesome views across the city.

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Then with general sadness at having to leave my friends in Bogota, I headed north to Medellin, a more popular city for tourists and home town of the late Pablo Escobar. I hung out at a New Zealand owned hostel and between a couple of nights partying I took a walking tour, both with a group and a separate one with a couple of guys from the hostel.

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Next I headed to Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean Sea where I hung out for a few days in the extreme humidity. Cartagena’s Old Town has a great stone wall around it that once protected it from pirate attacks 500 years ago. The entire old town is a world heritage site.

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Further along the coast is a small beach town of Taganga where I stayed for a few of days. It was a quiet little town away from the bustle of the larger Colombian cities.

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From Taganga I booked and walked the four-day jungle trek to find the Lost City, an amazing ruins of the local tribes that had been abandoned 500 years earlier. The trek was humid and sweaty, and this made the long climbs up clay trails more difficult. Swimming in the icy rivers were highlights of the sweaty days.

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After a couple of recovery days in Taganga, I headed back to Cartagena to say farewell to South America. After 9 and a half months of amazing adventure, it was sad to say farewell to the continent, although my travels were not yet at a conclusion. In Cartagena, I booked a cruise on a yacht with 11 others to make my way through the Caribbean Sea to Panama, and the beginning of my Central American adventures.

This will be an adventure I will never forget.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 2 – Central South America

After a 20 hour bus ride from Patagonia, I arrived in Mendoza, Central Argentina. Mendoza is a wine region and boasts some of the best red wines in the world. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of red wine before, after my time in the city I was a Malbec convert. One of the fun things I did while in the City of Steak and Red Wine was to spend the day enjoying some aguas calientes, a set of hot pools near the city. While this might seem strange for a desert city, it was amazing and included a huge buffet lunch.

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Around Mendoza are several wine areas and the best way to see them is via bicycle tours. The wine was delicious and cycling around the area after many glasses of wine was both crazy and fun at the same time.

Beyond the vineyards, the tallest mountain of the Andes, Aconcagua.

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Next I caught a bus across Argentina to Cordoba, the country’s second largest city. While staying in the city I got out-of-town to Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito – Condor Gorge National Park – for a long day walk in the heat.

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Next I headed to the Buenos Aires and stayed in a different area of the capital from the beginning of my trip. As I knew I was heading back to the city, I made contact with a friend of a friend and organised to hang out with him and his friends while I was in the city. They were very friendly and I stayed in the city over two weeks to spend time with them.

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During my stay in Buenos Aires, I caught a ferry across the river to the Uruguayan city of Colonia. While I could have stayed in Uruguay longer I was happy to see the more expensive country for the day and get the stamp in my passport. I enjoyed learning about the city and the country in a guided tour.

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I then bused headed north for my final Argentinian destination, Puerto Iguazú. While the township was very touristy, it had good reason, Iguazú Falls is one of the more popularly visited places in the region. While it had been raining the day I visited the Argentinean side of the falls they were still like nothing I’d seen before. I even took a boat to get right up close to the spraying water.

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The following day, I took a bus across the border to the Brazilian side – Iguaçu Falls. While it’s the same set of falls, it’s a totally different sight and you get closer to the Devil’s Throat, a formation of rock that water pours into from three sides. Both Argentinian and Brazilian sides are a must see if travelling to this end of the world. It was then back across the border to Argentina for a final night before booking a bus to Rio de Janiero.

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After a 24 hour bus ride to Rio de Janeiro – the longest trip in a bus I would take – I found the city to be dirtier than expected. It also gave me a sense of danger I hadn’t experienced in either Argentina or Chile. I’d booked a cheap hostel near the location of Carnival and it turned out to be the smallest hostel I’ve ever stayed in, squeezing 18 people into the space most hostels would fit 6. It also only had one bathroom.

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The hostel aside, the natural wonders of Rio were amazing. I visited Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain and took a bicycle ride along both Ipanema and Copacobana beaches.

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I then took my second 24 hour bus ride to a city called Campo Grande in western Brazil for an overnight tour through Brazil’s Pantanal. The Pantanal is a vast swampy area south of the Amazon. It’s similar to the jungle in many ways, just without the trees. We spent the night on the border of Brazil and Paraguay (the closest I would get to the landlocked country). On arrival we ate Piranha, the mean looking faces leering up at us from the pot. The next morning, we took a boat trip along the river to fish for more Piranha…

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…and to see Caimans, smaller cousins of Alligators.

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Then it was over the border and into Bolivia. As soon as you enter it’s obvious that Bolivia is the poorest country on the continent. The roads are bad, the towns are dirty and the buses are owner operated family affairs and include the kids running up and down the aisles while badly dubbed Steven Segal movies are blasted very loudly. My first stop was the city of Santa Cruz, where I stayed at a brand new hostel for a couple of days before heading on to La Paz.

La Paz is a bustling city high in the Andes and when I arrived my head was exploding from the altitude. It only took a good night’s sleep to recover, thankfully. While the entirety of La Paz is terracotta in colour it grows on you as you explore the city centre and beyond. The lights at night are amazing up the walls of the bowl the city is built in.

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Using La Paz as a base, I had many adventures in Bolivia. For a start, you can’t come to the city without hearing about or doing Death Road. Death Road is a crazy stretch of dirt road 65km long and famous for the cliffs on one side with no barriers. It gets its name from the people who have plummeted to their deaths from it. Riding down it on a bike is one of the most thrilling and fun things I’ve done on this trip.

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Next I hiked along an alternative route to Death Road called El Choro, through cloud forests and past my first Incan ruins. During the hike I climbed to the highest I have ever hiked, 4900m, and at that altitude the climb was intense and difficult. It was a great hike and also my first with a guide. Not something I relish, preferring to carry all of my own gear and cook my own meals.

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Then I caught a bus to Uyuni for a 3 day tour around the Salt Flats and along the Andean High Plains to the three-way border of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The Salt Flats are like an inland sea without the water.

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There were so many different terrains on the high plains and many stunning views. We visited some very interesting places, like the lodge made entirely from blocks of salt where we stayed on the first night. Views across Lago Roja – Red Lake.

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Then it was back to La Paz where I managed to suffer from food poisoning, an illness everyone seems to get in Bolivia. Don’t trust the street food! For my final days in Bolivia, I caught the bus up to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. After a day tour to Isla del Sol, I booked a bus into Peru…

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Next, Part 3 of my Look Back Series where I complete my time in South America by working my way to Colombia.

The World Wanderer