One Year around South America

It was the year 1999.  My brother Mark, our friend Jono and I had all finished at our respective university courses and all shared a strong desire to delay finding a job.  Travelling through South America had long been a dream, so I suggested a vague plan of buying a ticket to Rio de Janeiro to then attempt a circumnavigation of the continent at ground level (i.e.: no flights).  I can’t pinpoint exactly why I didn’t want to take any flights.  Perhaps Michael Palin’s journeys had invoked something; or maybe I was just pretty broke and wanted to find the cheapest route possible; but I think deep down I knew that whatever future adventures lay ahead, they will be had as much in the journey as in the destination.

In parallel, Irinia – my best friend from university – was also starting her own travels through Florida and heading south through Central America so we agreed another vague plan to join up around Colombia or Ecuador and we’d stay in touch via email.

Looking back at 1999 compared to today – it is easy to forget how much has changed:

  • The Internet was little more than Hotmail and some various websites but there was no ‘Google Maps’ (where I now spend much time researching any trip I make); or Facebook (which makes it so easy to stay in touch); ‘Trip Advisor’ to find and research hotels or anything now considered almost essential for travel.
  • Mobile phones were pretty basic.  I had a Nokia 6110 which sat in my desk drawer for most of the time throughout university except for the occasional game of Snake.  We didn’t even think to take one to South America – normal calls were expensive in the UK but international calling was a luxury far beyond our reach.
  • Most cameras took a roll of 24 or 36 film as opposed to the digital ones we now have.  We would be limited how many photos we could take by the number of spare rolls we could carry or buy (but then the idea of a selfie hadn’t been invented!) and we wouldn’t get to see any of the photos until after we got home and had them developed.
  • Wi-Fi didn’t exist for mere mortals.  The only way to access the internet outside of home or office was via an Internet cafe.  We would hunt these down throughout South America since they were our main source of contact to home.
  • I didn’t speak a word of Spanish or Portuguese – the primary languages of South America.  Actually, although we all reached a reasonable level by the end of our travels – we’ve also forgotten nearly everything so technically this hasn’t changed much.
  • The countries across South America have seen huge changes socially and politically.  One aspect of particular relevance that I have noticed is the infrastructure: when finding places we visited on Google Maps today, I notice new roads speeding up journey times and improving life for everyone.
  • Also, on a relative note – we considered ourselves pretty hard up at the time.  Of course, to even be able to buy a ticket to South America, we were better off than most of the people who lived there – but getting value out of every pound we spent certainly felt far more vital at the time, than the position we are fortunate to be in now.

It is hard to describe how I felt then about travelling to South America compared to how I might feel now (and not just because I’m older and supposedly wiser).  The whole idea seemed incredibly wild – throwing ourselves into the unknown.  I’ve always liked to plan, and I did a lot of research for this trip and getting information on some of the countries involved trips to various embassies; looking through Atlases at the library; and cutting articles out of magazines.  To help sell the idea – I had presented Mark and Jono with a few pages of hand-written notes around a few pritt-stickered pictures and a suggested rough budget of £5,000 each for the year including flights.  It must have worked since a few days later, we booked our flights to Rio de Janeiro: in and out, one year apart.

More recently, Mark, Jono and I had a rare occasion where it was just the three of us going out for dinner and our chats inevitably turned to reminiscing over some of our adventures.  I was surprised how different each of our memories were of the stories we shared and by how many things I had forgotten about.  After getting home, I browsed through my diary from the trip and looked through some of the hundreds of pictures (many of which I struggled to work out even where they were taken) and was surprised to find how bad my own memory was!  With some sight of our 20 year anniversary next year, I thought it would be fun to re-discover the whole journey and try and marry up some of the events with some of the many pictures in my online blog and share it with the others.

To complete this project, although our trusty copy of the ‘Lonely Planet South America’ was swapped somewhere on route, I was fastidious with my daily diary so that provided the main structure.  I had recently scanned all our negatives onto digital and went through them trying to organise them into countries and adventures.  Most were obvious, but others required some long searching in the internet – especially Google’s street-view – to try and work out where they were taken.

It has been harder than I thought trying to find the places where we stayed (many of which have closed or been renamed), or the routes we may have used.  In some cases, I realised that at the time, other than the name of a town or village – I had little context to where we really were or some of the distances traveled.  I have tried to keep the exact wording from the diary with only a few lines changed each day to help make more sense of the narrative and add continuity.

This page serves as an index to the other stories which I will continue to work on over time.  Our entire route can be seen below (or in this google map) and I’ll put the links below that grouped by country.

South America

Our route anti-clockwise from Rio around South America



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