The festive season can be a difficult time for those travelling long-term. Christmas is so intertwined with, for us at least, a big Christmas dinner, decorations, winter chill, rubbish jumpers, songs and carols playing everywhere you go and spending time at home with family. We missed lots of that last year in Costa Rica but, as Emily's family was visiting us, it still felt a bit more like Christmas.
As we're both big fans of the season, we wanted to try and bring a little of the Christmas spirit to wherever we were in December. Even if that just meant playing Mariah Carey and Wham every afternoon.
enjoying the last of brazil
We told you last month about the decision to go to Brazil for sun and sand being slightly undermined by the distinctly British weather the south of the country was experiencing. Our trip over the past few months has been tempered by the effects of one of the worst El Niños in thirty years and it meant that we spent more time in our great little rented apartment than we otherwise had hoped.
However, that did afford us the opportunity to catch up on a lot of work, seriously study some Spanish, binge on some TV shows, perfect our homemade caiprinha recipe and just generally enjoy hanging out in our own space. It also gave us the time to make some serious decisions about our route over the last few months of the trip, including where we'd venture this month.
Originally, we were going to travel up through Paraguay over the course of a few weeks, but we were hugely put off about reports on the 24+ hour bus we would have to take over the border to Bolivia. We've become used to every type of bus journey but, at this stage, we're both just a little bit exhausted with some of the things we put ourselves through to save money or cover a lot of ground. Another option was to take a cheap flight and bus to Venezuela, but the country was undergoing elections at that time, with the potential to cause various issues which would complicate a trip there. That meant we investigated an alternative route into Bolivia, via Paraguay and Argentina. It would mean an unexpected return to the country which had proved so hard to love earlier this year, and possibly an increased monthly spend, but there were some sights in the north-west of the country which were definitely appealing to us.
Thankfully, our penultimate day in Florianapolis was about 28 degrees. We had had to move to a hostel that morning, but as soon as we were sorted out, we headed straight to the beach to enjoy the last taste of a Brazilian beach in 2015!
the mighty iguazu falls
A long overnight bus ride took us north, to the iconic Iguazu Falls where we had a decision to make. This landmark, split down the middle between Argentina and Brazil provides a conundrum for budget-backpackers like ourselves. Which side do we pick? Thankfully, after speaking to a number of travellers, Argentina was the clear winner.
They weren't wrong! Although it's packed with hundreds of tourists, Iguazu was a pretty unforgettable spot - particularly the section where you are on a little platform literally on the precipice.
After three weeks in Brazil, it was lovely to be back in a Spanish speaking country. We're both probably a little hard on ourselves about how much our Spanish has progressed, but so long spent struggling to make ourselves understood in Portuguese really cemented the fact that, 'shit, we actually can speak decent Spanish'!
onward to paraguay - our 16th country
We've met so few people who have made it it Paraguay, that we were left wondering what could possibly so bad about it? Unfortunately, due to time left on this trip now being short, priorities have to be made and we would unfortunately only visit a tiny portion of the country.
After arriving in the dodgy border town of Ciudad del Este, bargaining for far too long with a taxi driver to pay him a fair price, and not get duped on exchange rates, in two different currencies, we boarded a rickety old bus to Encarnacion - the place that finally gave us some proper South American SUN!!
It was about 37 degrees most afternoons and, although we sweated buckets, it was so nice to have some proper heat after the seemingly ever-present grey drizzle which had been following us the past few months.
We treated ourselves to a Japanese meal out (our first actual proper restaurant meal in months) with an English and Colombian couple, wandered around the town, ate some chipa, hydrated on Mexican import ice-lollies, tried some of the Paraguayan version of mate and gorged on pizza in our hostel. We would never wish to say, after only four days in a country, that our time is representative of a travel experience in that country but, the people we met in Paraguay were all lovely and welcoming.
making it back to argentina for the third time...just!
After spending our remaining guarani on toiletries, we were due to catch a bus over in Argentina at 3 p.m. Unfortunately, the receptionist in our hostel wildly underestimated how much time the border crossing could take, meaning that we missed it by a good half hour. Thankfully, there was another connection later that afternoon and - after spending all the pesos we had stockpiled from our previous trip through gritted teeth in one fell swoop - we boarded another disappointingly expensive Argentinian night bus.
After our rants earlier this year, we were returning to the country after the new president had taken office. Mauricio Macri was a surprise winner, elected on a platform of trying to normalise the economy and reduce inflation - a key part of this was to remove the currency controls of the previous government. So, for us, that meant we could use ATMs for the first time in the country. Of course, being Argentina, it gives with one hand and takes with the other. Every cash machine we used charged $7-8 USD per withdrawal, and severely limited the amount of cash we could take out each time. Of all the places we've travelled in Central and South America, Argentina continually wins the 'most frustrating country to travel in' award.
However, despite all our moaning about the budget travel experience there, the country actually redeemed itself in our last week.
hiking, biking and wine country
The north-west of Argentina is simply stunning. In Tafi del Valle, there is lush greenery and crisp, fresh air. We hiked up hills, through dry river-beds and played with the five dogs owned by our hostel.
In Cafayate, blooming vineyards, red rock formations and dusty roads created spell-binding countryside. We rented bicycles to explore the area's vineyards, got tipsy on jars of wine from grapes grown just down the road and ate very well.
It really was quite perfect.
It was an odd experience being on the road during the festive season; indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas just didn't exist in Argentina, or at least Christmas as we knew it. There were a few trees up and decorations and nativity scenes in plazas but there just wasn't any discernible spirit or excitement. Perhaps Easter - given what we've witnessed in the past two years - is the more important celebration in this part of the world?
We therefore decided that we wanted to be around gringos so we could get drunk, play Mariah Carey and be merry. Isn't that what the season is, really, all about?
However, fate was against us. At the sort of party hostel we rarely stay at, we were the only bloody guests! Still, along with the staff and the troop of in-house dogs, we had a fun night on Christmas Eve and enjoyed a barbecue next to the pool on Christmas Day, with some skype calls over a crappy connection to our respective families.
Not exactly what we were hoping for - watching Love Actually in bed was the most festive we felt - but that's the risk you take in being away from family at that time of year.
One silver lining? Given how poor the internet is in Bolivia, we were delighted to do a hard-drive swap session with one of the hostel volunteers so we've got plenty movies to keep us occupied over the next few months!
a farewell to argentina - this time for good
Argentina had one final treat in store for us in 2015, with some hiking around Tilcara, including a visit to 'The Devil's Throat' and delicious cheese-stuffed tortillas on every corner.
After a love-hate relationship with the country, we were finally bidding it farewell. Our final route change in Brazil was vindicated beyond all doubt; despite the financial groans and some very poor experiences with buses, we actually saw much more of the country than we anticipated and can testify that it has some of the most majestic landscapes in South America.
the end of the year, the start of bolivia
Crossing the border into Bolivia, we instantly felt happy. This was definitely a return to the sort of Latin American backpacking experience we had missed over the last few months.
We saw out the last few days of 2015 in sleepy little Tupiza. Quiet, safe and sunny, we stayed for longer than planned and decided it was the perfect base to ease ourselves slowly into Bolivian culture. We bought our fruit and veg in the market, got back into the groove of our street photography and did some excellent d.i.y hikes in the surrounding area.
New Year's Eve? Well, as with Christmas, that was a bit odd too. There are lots of interesting little traditions in Bolivia (wearing red or yellow underwear, eating grapes after midnight in order to make 12 wishes for the new year) but the actual night mostly involved hanging out in the local plaza with sparse crowds and not much else. There were a few fireworks and firecrackers, but the most memorable part of the evening was a large group of Bolivians dancing around the plaza to bring in 2016.
We were both actually in bed by 1 a.m. and, for the first time in a long time, saw in the January 1st with clear heads and no hangover - a good way to start the year for sure!