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South America

My top 5 travel destinations in South America

May 11, 2018



After 90 days of travel across Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia with my wife (Fran) I’ve come up with a list of some of our favourite locations.


1. Straight in at number one, is Salar de Uyuni,         the largest salt flat in the world.


I must be honest, and admit that we’d never heard of the location until we were deep inside Bolivia. At the time we were on a 4 wheel drive adventure, from the remote town of Tupiza. After searching (and finding) the town of San Vicente, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid battled with the Bolivian Army, we made our way towards the salt flats. Spread across an area of 10,000 square kilometres, the salt encrusted flats merge into the horizon and are acknowledged as one of the most remarkable landscapes in South America.


We arrived just before dawn, bleary eyed after a night out at a remote mining village.


I’ve added a short excerpt from my 1st book …


The first soft rays of light crept over the horizon, and with sunlight, came the truth. The land was dead flat and brilliant white. No matter where you looked in any direction there was nothing but white against an awakening sky.

‘Fran, listen.’

‘I can’t hear anything.’


‘What can you see?’

‘White – just white. And clouds and the sunrise and puddles.’

She zipped her fleece up tight and moved nearer. ‘Did you know that such a place ever existed?’

I answered honestly, ‘No, never.’

No plant, animal or insect could be seen or heard, only the sounds of our sandals crunching on white crystals. We hunted for shallow puddles of clear water from recent rains and captured photo opportunities before the magic of dawn was lost. While taking photos of our long shadows and silhouettes, a faint noise gave away the location of a group of miners. We ventured nearer to watch.

They swung hand picks into the thin crust and used wooden shovels to scoop the precious mineral from the dried lake. Had they worked all night? They were surrounded by small mounds of salt. It looked like an enormous mole had been burrowing under the dried lake. As the sun rose we traversed the vast area and stopped briefly at a deserted hotel made entirely from salt. The sun was rising fast now and the romance faded as rising temperatures and harsh light reflected off the glaring minerals. It was time to head back to Tupiza.

No matter where you looked in any direct

2. Volunteering for the Jatun Sacha Foundation in Ecuador

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The meaning of Jatun Sacha in Quichua (Indigenous South American language) is ‘Big Forest.’ In relative terms, the reserve is small. But packed inside its 2,500 hectares, is one of the most species rich environments on the planet! The goal of the foundation is to conserve the remaining forests, educate those who inhibit the local villages and to continually increase its size by purchasing disused farms that sit on its fringes.


Volunteers bring in much needed currency and assist with reforestation projects. I was lucky enough to become the English teacher. Although totally unqualified for such a task, I took my chance without both hands.


Within weeks, I was taking lessons by the edge of the Rio Napo, a major tributary of the Amazon.

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Be warned! If you do decide to become a volunteer on a conservation project, it will probably be one of the most rewarding periods of your life. Those that work at Jatun Sacha full time are known as Guardians of the Forest. With an intimate knowledge of the environment and a passion to share their home, they are held in high regard. Each week, we would go out with one of the guardians, to explore the forest that we were helping to protect.


Sometimes, we'd hire river taxi's to take across the water, in search of remote villages.

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To give you a taster, I’ve added a short excerpt from my book …


Our day walks with the guardians were always different, depending on who you went with. Milton was regarded as an avid bird enthusiast, taking volunteers on a magical journey in search of parakeets, white-eared jacamars and (if you were lucky) the greater yellow-headed vulture. William’s trips were fun, noisy and full of laughter. These were our Tarzan moments – climbing trees, swinging from vines, or searching for jaguar prints in the dried mud.


Lunchtimes in the forest were special moments. The guardians would wind their way through the trees towards gurgling streams of cool, clear water. The canopy was alive with birdsong and large butterflies fluttered overhead. Volunteers would dip their toes in the sweet water and feast on lunches prepared by the kitchen staff. Our meals were lovingly wrapped in banana leaves and held together by freshly cut vine. As the days sped by, some volunteers played hooky, shirking all forms of responsibility. Others enjoyed the arduous but worthwhile activities.


Occasionally, volunteers would head for after-work drinks at a remote wooden cabin called The Lab. This was the locals’ name for the jungle bar. Our first visit was by invitation from a group of young Germans. Using lanterns, they showed us a secret path that wound through the dense forest towards a clearing where the wooden building had been erected.


Scientists, volunteers, locals and gold prospectors came to drink and party. Black rubber boots mixed with funky flip-flops on the dance floor of the wooden bar, as volunteers from across the globe gyrated to the generator-fed DJ. Salsa, rock and Kylie Minogue blasted into the jungle as cold beers were washed down with the local rocket juice known as Cristal Limón.

3. Trekking the Santa Cruz circuit in Northern Peru using donkeys as support crew


Think of Peru and for many, the first adventurous activity that comes to mind is trekking along the Inca Trail. We decided to warm up for the Inca Trail by heading into the Cordillera Blanco, a mountainous region, approx. 600km north of Lima.. Our aim was to soak up the sights and take part in a series of easy to moderate day walks. After an overnight bus ride from the coast, we woke, surrounded by snow peaked caps.


We were in the high altitude town of Huaraz and after finding a room, followed by a morning nap, we went in search of a late lunch. On the way, we passed a shop called Andean Kingdom. What followed next, set us up for a 4 day adventure that we’ll never forget.


Within days, we'd be alone, in this valley!

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Here is a short excerpt…


The owner was standing on the top of a step ladder, adding an ice axe to a new display and turned briefly to welcome us. He was in his thirties, with masses of dark curls, sun burnt cheeks and wide shoulders. We approached the counter and declared confidently, ‘We’d like to trek to Laguna 69 and wondered if we needed a guide?’

The owner grinned, stepped down from the ladder and replied, ‘How long are you in town?’

Fran looked at me, then at the owner and replied, ‘Five days.’

He smiled brightly and held his hands out wide. ‘Then you are crazy! Forget Laguna 69. Come and look at this map. These mountains are the highest range in the world, outside of Asia. Have you travelled all the way to Peru for an adventure, or to drink our coffee?’ he asked cheerfully.

One wall was decorated with an ordinance survey map of the area and his finger traced a thin line that cut through a section of mountains. ‘This is the route for you. It is the Santa Cruz circuit. I will supply tents, food and the name of a guide. He will supply donkeys and might even catch fish for you along the way.’

He pointed at our weary faces and said, ‘Don’t worry, my friends. The trek will be amazing and will help you to smile again.’


He was right. This is why we’d left the UK and I could feel my heart pulsating as he explained the route. The trek passed through three valleys from one remote village to another, giving us the opportunity to find solace and adventure. He took us next door to a labyrinth of indoor markets to purchase dried foods and provisions. These were packaged by the thankful stallholders and stashed overnight in a corner of the camping shop.


The following morning he was at the bus stop, wrapped deeply in a fur lined jacket. Our provisions were neatly bundled on the pavement and he helped put them in the hold. His final contribution was a mud map, scribbled on a piece of paper. On it were the directions to the starting point of the trek, plus the name of the man that we had to find.


His name was Carlos and according to the map, he lived in the remote village of Cashapampa. With handshakes and smiles we bid the store owner farewell, stepped on board and set off towards the distant foothills.

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Here we are with Carlos.​

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And this is Angus the Donkey! (Carlos wasn't keen to see me feeding our rations to Angus, as we were 3 days walk from the nearest shop)

4. I couldn’t leave out the Inca Trail


Those that trek the Inca Trail never forget Dead Woman’s Pass. Thousands hike the fabled path each year and there are few that emerge unscathed from Dead Woman’s Pass. It is the highest point along the Inca Trail and is tackled partway through day two of the trek. It’s not only the altitude (4,215 metres/13,828 feet) that takes its toll, but also the drop in temperature, rockier terrain and lack of trees to buffer the chill winds.


Despite the pain, the rewards are worth every step. Once on top of the mini summit, the next valley is spread before you. Snow-capped peaks glisten on the horizon and those that have trekked before you, now resemble tiny dots, far below on the valley floor. Trekkers stop for breath, wide eyed at the sight, eager to capture the moment in a photo.

We lunged forward, lifting knees high to

I hope you enjoy the following excerpt...


Creative types enjoy the story about Dead Woman’s Pass being named after a mummified lady found buried beneath the path, by explorers searching for the Inca trail. Others have heard that it is named after a local woman, who got caught on the pass during a violent snowstorm without shelter. She was found the next day, frozen on the summit. The traditional thought is that the outline of the pass, when viewed from a certain angle, resembles the subtle shape of a woman’s breast.


There seemed nothing voluptuous about the abrupt path, which was now scattered with trekkers from across the globe as they struggled for breath. Although the adjacent fields held scatterings of lonely sheep and small herds of wild llamas, I felt oblivious to their beauty or close proximity. I was lost in deep thoughts, trying to ignore the stabbing pains in my stomach. Fran remained close, cajoling me gently. ‘Come on, you’re nearly there. Look, I can see Miranda and Tom waving from the top.’


I refused to answer, stumbling forward, my eyes focused on the very next step. I felt like I was in a trance, refusing to look left or right, as my body did the minimum amount of work in order to get to the summit. Then, slowly at first, the steps reduced in height and when I next looked up, Miranda was nearby, smiling as she came closer to hug me. From this vantage point, the remainder of the trail was easy to see, looking far easier, as it wound down the opposite side of the mountain pass.


While I caught my breath, a steady stream of stragglers passed me by, each one groping for water bottles, then sucking hard on cool water as they studied the scene. The white tipped mountains were now within reach, spread either side of the valley where our tents would be pitched later in the afternoon. The porters had spent all morning cooking, cleaning and packing away our tents and while we stood at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, they appeared from the valley.

Their loads were contained in various concoctions, including tattered rucksacks, hessian bags and plastic containers, balanced awkwardly on stooped shoulders. They had little time to stop as they silently marched past with strained smiles. 

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Without doubt, the porters are the unsung heroes on the Inca Trail. Please treat then with the respect they deserve!

5. The final location to make it onto my top 5 is an underground mine.


The expected lifespan of an underground miner in Potosi, Bolivia is estimated to be forty-two years of age. I learned this information from a German backpacker called Jackie, while building a pig pen in the Ecuadorian jungle!


Months later, we met up with Jackie once more, this time in Potosi. After signing up for a tour of the mine, we drove to the entrance. Before entering, our guide insisted that we purchase gifts for the miners.


This is what happened next…



I appreciated the friendly thought and strode towards the vendors, to check what they had for sale. Both of the sellers were young, I guessed thirteen, but somehow they seemed older, with thin lines etched across their brows. They stood slightly apart, smiling as I wandered nearer. There was no sign of newspapers, chocolate or mints on the tray of the first vendor. He had only one product for sale – sticks of dynamite. I looked towards the guide, who was busy trying to sort out Jackie’s headlamp and called for his assistance. He replied, ‘Si, Senor. Buy dynamite and coca leaves. It will make the miners very happy.’

I pulled out some money and was offered five sticks of dynamite, which I tentatively placed into my boiler suit pockets. I then turned my attention to the next vendor. He produced a bright smile and pointed towards a hessian sack, filled with fresh leaves. For a small wad of Bolivianos, I purchased enough coca leaves to send an airport sniffer dog into a frenzy.

At the entrance we were met by our guide, a young teenage boy, called Marco. He wore scuffed boots, jeans and a long-sleeved jumper, all of which had seen better days. He had a mass of short blonde curls, which were soon covered as he positioned a hard hat on his head, in preparation for entering the mine.

Marco seemed to have the mannerisms and self-assurance of someone far older, and in near perfect English, spoke briskly about his life in Potosi. There was little emotion in his voice as he explained that this was now his full-time job, taken out of necessity to help feed his family.

‘What about school?’ I asked.

Marco raised his chin and stood tall, his voice loud and clear. ‘My family need me to bring in money from the mine. So, for now, I am a guide.’

He then turned his attention to our safety gear, checking that our hats were tight enough and that the battery-powered torches functioned correctly. Seemingly happy, he then picked up his lantern and asked us to follow him into the mine. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I studied the mine entrance. It initially resembled the type of overhang that I’d seen on caving trips.

But there were no stalactites or stalagmites within view. Instead, we were faced with a clay figurine, which guarded the entrance to the main tunnel. Scatterings of coca leaves ordained the feet of the sculpture and a smouldering cigarette hung awkwardly from its twisted lips. In the subdued light its head resembled a goat, complete with a scraggy beard, and two horns that gave it a demonic look.

Marco placed a few coca leaves by the feet of the effigy and then turned to face us. ‘This is El Tio, the Lord of the underworld. He is highly valued by all who enter the mountain. If we pay our respects and leave an offering, he will protect us while we are underground. If we do not feed him, then he may feed on us instead!’

Without a word, we sprinkled coca leaves around the feet of El Tio. As they fell to the floor I felt a shiver run through me. I felt unsure if it was in response to a chilly breeze from a hidden shaft, or the thought that we were just about to enter a very dangerous place!

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Without a word, we sprinkled coca leaves around the feet of El Tio. As they fell to the floor I felt a shiver run through me. I felt unsure if it was in response to a chilly breeze from a hidden shaft, or the thought that we were just about to enter a very dangerous place!

Our tour would only last a few hours, but the miners are expected to spend twelve hours underground. During this period no food is consumed, as it is seen as bad luck to eat. To help suppress fatigue and hunger, the miners stuff coca leaves between their cheeks and gums, then slowly chew on them to extract the juices. The miners also believe that the leaves have a medicinal effect, which helps to alleviate altitude sickness.

Just before we set off, Marco explained that there were no lights in the mine, except from our lanterns and head-torches. He also let slip that there were no medical facilities underground or safety procedures to follow. As soon as we entered, we were on our own! We set off in single file, with Marco leading the way.

After a few steps I turned around to study the main entrance. All I could see was a narrow shaft of light, stretching towards the eerie figurine of El Tio. I picked up the pace and caught up with Jackie, who’d just entered the first tunnel. I stopped in my tracks and looked behind again. This time, there was nothing but darkness.

Marco moved quickly through the network of tunnels, leading us down steep sections and calling for us to stay alert. At times, our headlamps struggled to penetrate the dusty atmosphere, leading to dead ends or minor collisions with unseen rocks, jutting from the tunnel walls.

Each time we stopped I wiped sweat from the back of my neck and tried to get my bearings, in case we needed to turn back in an emergency. But we’d already navigated through numerous passageways and were now in the hands of our young guide. Luckily, he seemed confident enough, urging us to follow as he led us through the dark maze of tunnels.

‘Un momento,’ he whispered from up ahead. We gathered close, panting hard while waiting further instructions. As our breathing eased, the faint sound of digging could be heard, resonating through the cramped passage...


    Minutes later, we were running for our lives!

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Jackie and Fran, smiling before they enter the mine. (They weren't smiling four hours later)


I hope you enjoyed my top 5 places in South America.


The excerpts were taken from my first travel book: Postcards from South America.

Happy travels,



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