A chaotic trip to South America

I have always been very lucky in my travels. I never had an accident or serious health problems, nor even suffered a last-minute flight cancellation. The most difficult moment I ever had to face was when I lost my luggage at Bangkok’s airport at the very beginning of my first trip to Australia in 2016. But that was before travelling to South America. Here is the story of a chaotic trip that I will never forget…

I had been thinking of travelling around South America for a very long time. I dreamt of following the Andes from north to south over several months. I finally made it happen in December 2022, with slightly lowered ambitions but for a trip which would still take me in six weeks from Lima in Peru to Santiago in Chile, via Bolivia and maybe the north of Argentina. I didn’t know it yet, but I was never going to cross the border of these last two countries.

Travelling around South America is no picnic, especially when like me you hardly speak a word of Spanish. The risks linked to insecurity are real, altitude sickness can be dangerous in the mountains, and tap water is not drinkable in most of the continent. But I was prepared for it, and that doesn’t stop millions of tourists from travelling there every year either. The first couple of days went actually really well. As I was exploring Lima, I randomly came across a traditional dance festival. By chatting with a couple of participants I even managed to attend the private performances the next day, the only tourist present in the venue. Talk about being lucky!

During two weeks, I really enjoyed a lot my trip around Peru, from the sand dunes of Huacachina to the white city of Arequipa, from the desert of Paracas to the mysterious lines of Nazca. However, through a discussion with our guide during a hike in the Colca Canyon, I learned that the political situation was particularly unstable in the country. According to him, the current president Pedro Castillo was “certainly not going to finish the year”. I remember thinking at the time that this might cause some issues if his prediction turned out to be correct. I had no idea how bad it was going to be.

My guide was right. Two days later, under the threat of an impeachment procedure, Pedro Castillo attempted a coup to stay in power. It failed and the vice president Dina Boluarte took the head of the government, while he was arrested in his car trying to flee from Lima. This was going to spark things off in the country.  Coming from a poor background, Castillo was extremely popular among Peru’s underprivileged, who massively voted for him when he was elected. The impeachment procedure from which he sought to escape was perceived as a desire by the elites to get rid of this troublesome unionist teacher, an impression that the appointment of the lawyer Dina Boluarte (even though she was from the same party as Castillo) would further reinforce. Within a few days, the whole country rose up.

Our guide Pepe in the Colca Canyon

Pepe, my guide during this hike in Colca canyon

As for me, I had almost no idea about what was going on. I heard about the failed coup when I arrived in Cusco, but the situation seemed then to be under control. I kept on travelling towards the Inca ruins of the Sacred Valley up to the iconic Machu Picchu, far away from the rest of the world in the middle of the Andes. It’s only when I came back to my hostel in Cusco that I understood that something went wrong. There was a strained atmosphere. Most of the people looked anxious and were either nervously glancing at their phones or talking in small groups. A girl from my dorm eventually told me what was happening:

“Apparently protesters have invaded Cusco airport and all flights are suspended. There are blockades on the main roads, no buses are running anymore. So basically, we’re stuck here!”

Everywhere throughout the rural regions of Peru to which Cusco belongs, protests had spread and gained in intensity. Some demonstrations had been repressed with violence, and there were already reports of several deaths. Five airports were closed. Someone showed me a photo of a road on which huge blocks of stone blocked the way. I felt anxiety rising quickly inside me. I had no way to leave Cusco, and I was at the mercy of a potentially explosive situation.

The first 24 hours were the most stressful. No one knew how things would turn and if our security was really guaranteed. At some point during the day, I ventured in the city with a few other backpackers. There was absolutely no traffic (we lated learned that there were roadblocks everywhere around Cusco), the police presence was strongly reinforced on the Plaza de Armas, but apart from a few small groups of demonstrators shouting slogans whose content I could imagine, the atmosphere was rather calm. In all likelihood, and unless the situation escalated seriously, we were not in danger. I also discovered that I had been quite lucky to be able to return to Cusco. My group was among the last to leave Aguas Calientes, the village at the foot of Machu Picchu, accessible only by train. The railway had been damaged and hundreds of travelers had no choice but to make the journey of around thirty kilometers on foot…

It remained to be seen when we would be able to leave Cusco, and how to kill time until then. This very particular situation had at least the merit of strengthening the bonds between the numerous backpackers who, like me, were trapped there. A small group quickly formed among those staying in my hostel. For several days, our daily activities consisted of long walks around Cusco, dinners at restaurants (most had remained open), and partys at the hostel bar. With Pierre-Alexandre, another Frenchman, we organized the “Hostel Olympic” consisting of a table football, beer pong and table tennis tournament in which no less than 16 participants registered – who were going to cry foul when Pierre -Alexandre and I won the competition and the prize offered graciously by the hostel staff, a big bottle of rum! We also watched with sadness the final of the Football World Cup lost to Argentina, in a bar with a lively atmosphere where South American supporters were in the majority.

I only faced two truly scary moments. There was an evening when I came across several people fleeing from a group of particularly angry demonstrators, shouting at traders to barricade themselves as quickly as possible. The second was when the state of emergency was declared in the country, with a curfew and the deployment of the army, making us fear an outbreak of violence. But fortunately this allowed the authorities to regain control of Cusco airport. Six days after the blockade began, I boarded a plane to Lima, then flew the next day to Santiago, Chile. I was both relieved and sad. I left behind me without hope of return places that I dreamed of seeing, like the Rainbow Mountain or Lake Titicaca on the border with Bolivia. On a month and a half trip where each of my days was supposed to be busy, I had lost a week. Not to mention the additional cost of plane tickets purchased at the last minute. But I was also aware that my situation remained much more enviable than that of these millions of Peruvians fighting to improve their living conditions, at the risk of their existence. I was in good health, I still had been lucky enough to to discover some extraordinary places, and I would be able to carry on my journey in complete safety.


That story could have ended there. It would have remained just an unfortunate incident that would have ruined a little part of my trip. But the ten days that followed were going to make this journey unforgettable, for better and especially for worse.

After Lima, I flew to Santiago where I landed in the middle of the night, exhausted but looking forward to resume my itinerary. Only problem, my backpack didn’t arrive at the same time as me… Six years after the same misadventure in Bangkok, my luggage had been lost again. Fortunately, I got it back the next evening, but the second part of this trip did not begin in the best way.

The following days, however, passed without incident. I celebrated Christmas in Valparaiso with a group of friends I met in Cusco (Ilana and Lucie, French, and Sabrina, Belgian), then with Sabrina I headed north towards the Atacama Desert. After a stopover in the coastal town of La Serena, a nearly fourteen hours night bus journey awaited us until Calama, at the edge of the desert. If the buses I took in Peru were generally quite comfortable with seats that reclined almost to horizontal, that was not the case with this one. When I arrived in Calama, my back was sore, I was tired from the lack of sleep, and more worrying, a dull pain had appeared in my gum.

By the time we collected our rental car and drove the hundred kilometers separating us from the tiny village of San Pedro de Atacama, our base for the next few days, the pain had eased somewhat. We first visited the ruins of an ancient village on the heights of San Pedro. From the mirador at the summit, the view over the surroundings was breathtaking: the extraordinary rock formations of the Death Valley below, the desertic plains stretching as far as the eye could see, and the perfect cone of the Licancabur volcano at an altitude of almost 6000m in the distance. We then returned to our hostel to spend the evening. That’s when the pain resurfaced, deep, stabbing, and quickly unbearable.

The next morning, after a night where I barely slept, I had no choice but to go see a dentist. There were none in San Pedro, and I had to drive back all the way to Calama. The one I consulted diagnosed me with a gum infection and prescribed antibiotics and painkillers. I hoped everything would get back to normal quickly, but that wasn’t the case. My teeth were in constant pain, despite the pills that I swallowed almost continuously. I was no longer sleeping, I could barely eat, and I felt so exhausted that I didn’t have the slightest energy to explore the countless natural wonders of the region.

Sabrina and I had planned to spend a few days in Atacama then to take part to a tour in the Salar of Uyuni in Bolivia. From there, she would keep travelling towards the north of the country, while I would cross the border with Argentina before going back to Santiago where my trip was supposed to end a couple of weeks later. This infection was going to change everything. I dreamt about visiting the Salar of Uyuni but I decided to cancel, with a heavy heart, fearing that my condition could go worse and not wanting to take the risk of being even more isolated if that had to happen. Instead, I booked a bus to Salta in Argentina, where I would more easily have access to treatment if necessary.

After a couple of days, I decided to carry on despite of the pain and to follow Sabrina and Humaam, a Canadian guy we met at our hostel, for a trip to a lagoon south of San Pedro. We were driving since about half an hour when our car hit with full force a hole on the roadway. It resulted in a flat tyre, and the end of the excursion. It took us more than two hours to change the wheel then to drive back to the rental agency in Calama. It was one twist too many for me. When we finally went back to San Pedro, I burst into tears from pain, exhaustion and frustration. I only wanted one thing, going back home. That same night, I took a flight to Santiago, then the next day to Paris. It was the 31st of December and for the first time of my life I spent New Year’s Eve in a plane, my mind foggy from the pain killers. I hoppe it will remain the only time.

Coincidence or did the antibiotics finally take effect? My gum pain started to resorb when I arrived in France (I still had to pay more than 1500€ to a specialist in the following weeks to treat the infection). But I didn’t regret my decision, nor my early return, two weeks before what was originally planned. Within 15 days, I had experienced a coup, a lost luggage, a gum infection and a flat tyre in the middle of the desert. I wasn’t the only one who had a bad trip: Sabrina had been the victim of a rather violent theft in Santiago (a man tore her necklace off in the middle of the street then ran away), and Lucie had her purse stolen in Cusco, with all her documents, her passport and her credit card. She actually also ended up flying back to France prematurly. When the elements are so much contrary, sometimes the best to do is giving up… South America was probably not a continent for us!

In order not to end this story on a too negative note, I wanted to list the few positive aspects of that trip. Despite everything, I was still able to discover many exceptional places, including of course the Machu Picchu, even if I was unlucky with the weather on the day of my visit… I also fell in love with the very colourful city of Valparaiso in Chile.

But above all it was the countless people I had the chance to encounter that marked me during this stay. Impossible to forget all the backpackers I met at the hostel Pariwana in Cusco (a hostel that I highly recommend), and especially Ilana, Lucie and Sabrina who I then met in Chile, and Pierre-Alexandre who chose to stay in Peru.

There were also the many travelers I met in the first weeks of my stay (I’m not going to list them all here), but the most memorable encounter of all was with Matias in Santiago. It was a mutual friend who had met him a few years earlier who put us in touch and I can only thank him warmly for that, as Matias and his family are extraordinary people. They hosted me for two nights in their little house in the south of Santiago, they cooked for me, and even provided me with clothes before I got my backpack returned! Matias also proved to be an excellent guide of the city, and thanks to him I was able to discover an aspect of Chile that I would never have known otherwise. A huge thanks to him and his entire family for their extraordinary hospitality and generosity!

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