This is an exciting time for us here at Zen Travellers as we are now 7 months and half way in to our trip around the world! When we first left home it was definitely exciting, but also a little bit nerve wracking. Given that we were leaving our jobs and selling most of our belongings, that’s probably understandable. Well, this big trip is still as exciting as it was at the beginning but the nerves have faded as we’ve settled nicely into a life on the road. The pages of our passports are a little more cluttered and looking at the map, we’ve certainly covered a lot of ground and seen a hell of a lot, including: amazing mountainous landscapes, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, oceans, and more.
In addition to being mesmerized by incredible landscapes, we’ve been lucky to see a variety of rare and unique wildlife, and Thea’s lifelist of birds has exploded. We’ve had some humbling experiences, scary situations, learned about different cultures, and met a tonne of amazing people along the way. Most recently, we capped off the half way point with a 10 day cruise to Antarctica. This was truly an incredible experience to see a one of a kind place most don’t even dare to dream of visiting, and one that we’ll not soon forget.
If you’ve been following our blog or social media you’ve seen some of what we’ve done through our stories and photos. It’s difficult to share all of it, or to even put everything into words, but the halfway point of our trip seems like a good time to look back at where we’ve been so far on this extended trip and reflect on what we’ve learned through this time on the road.
Seven months of travelling around the world
We started our round the world trip in Puerto Rico. We spent two months volunteering with All Hands and Hearts doing hurricane relief. This was a great way to start the trip and incredibly rewarding. During our days off we explored the island, including a trip to Culebra island for some stunning beaches and our first scuba dives of the trip.
After finishing up with All Hands and Hearts we relaxed at the beach town of Luquillo (thanks to a coworker who offered us a place to stay!) and then met up with some friends from All Hands and Hearts in Old San Juan.
The people of Puerto Rico and the resilience that they showed in the wake of the hurricane will always be something that we remember.
Puerto Rico in Photos
From Puerto Rico we flew to Ecuador where it was all about the wildlife. Ecuador is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet and boasts over 1600 species. Their tourism brand is “All You Need is Ecuador” because the country offers the chance to see a bit of everything.
We did a range of activities including: a double volcano day where we hiked to the Refugio of Cotopaxi and the Quilotoa Lagoon, spent a week exploring the Amazon rainforest, watched birds in the cloud forest of Mindo, and toured the cities of Quito and Cuenca, but the part that really stands out of course, the Galapagos Islands.
When people ask the impossible question of what the best parts of the trip have been, this is invariably one of the highlights we always come back to. We were lucky enough to spend almost three weeks exploring the Galapagos Islands. We did our trip by land, rather than with a cruise boat which saved some money (well, kind of) and allowed us to spend more time on the islands. Opting for a land based trip also means more of the tourism dollars go to Ecuadorian citizens, rather than foreign companies so that’s a benefit as well.
During our time in Galapagos we were awestruck by the diversity of wildlife. We saw the blue footed booby as well as galapagos penguins and other endemic birds. We blew our budget by scuba diving multiple times, spending time with sea lions, white-tipped sharks, galapagos sharks, and hammerhead sharks. This is truly a special place and somewhere that you have to go to at least once in your life.
Ecuador in Photos
The Galapagos Islands in Photos
Heading south from Ecuador, we crossed overland into Peru. We got our trekking legs back in Huaraz and hiked to at the time our highest points ever on Alkipo Pass (5000m) and Mt Mateo (5165m).
From Huaraz we headed south to Cusco and arranged to visit Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Trek. The ruins were as impressive as we could have imagined and we enjoyed making the pilgrimage with a diverse group of travellers.
Following Machu Picchu, we spent a bit of time resting in the Sacred Valley at then headed further south to Arequipa.
Arequipa was a surprise; the city is relatively modern, clean, and has a cosmopolitan vibe. The food was great and the craft breweries were plentiful. We spent a bit of time learning Spanish, as well as checking out the surrounding area. The Colca Canyon and Volcano Misti were great treks.
Unfortunately in Peru we both fought a variety of illnesses including multiple rounds of food poisoning and colds which only proves that travelling isn’t always a glamorous affair.
We originally planned to spend only 2 weeks in Bolivia but fires on the Colorado trail had us re-thinking our itinerary. Bolivia has a reputation as a rough place to travel but also one that rewards those who make the effort. While there were certainly times that it was apparent their development was less than other countries, Bolivia has come a long way from what you read on the internet. Roads have been built, sanitation is better, safety has improved, and tourist police have been introduced. Yes, it is still a different experience than travelling to it’s more developed neighbours but Bolivia warrants taking the time to explore.
Like Ecuador, Bolivia has it all.
We entered the country via Copocabana allowing us to explore Lake Titicaca and the Islands of the Sun and the Moon. From there we moved on to the administrative capital of Bolivia, La Paz, which is a city that never seems to sleep and positively oozes character.
From La Paz we cycled the Death Road and lived to get the requisite t-shirt and then we went hiking in the Cordillera Real which was a definite highlight. We spent 8 days trekking and the only people we saw along the way were local ranchers. Our trek culminated in a summit bid at Huayna Potosi, which at 6,088m, stands higher than all peaks in North America except Denali. It is our highest summit to date.
After a couple days recovery in La Paz we moved south to explore somewhere that is on many travellers’ bucket lists, the Uyuni Salt Flats. The Salt Flats of Uyuni are the largest in the world and Bolivia’s most popular tourist attraction.
From there we took a quick jaunt into Chile to explore San Pedro de Atacama (more on that later), resetting our 30 day tourist visas in Bolivia.
We hopped and jumped across Chile and Argentina so we really only visited two parts of Chile – San Pedro de Atacama in the north, and Torres del Paine National Park (Patagonia) in the deep south.
San Pedro was an otherworldly desert. It was a dry, barren landscape that we explored by renting bikes and cycling through the Valley of the Moon. We also did an astronomy tour, as San Pedro has some of the darkest skies in the world making it an ideal place to do space research and stargaze. After exploring the desert we hopped on a bus heading north back into Bolivia.
Bolivia (Part 2)
Upon our return we volunteered with rescued wildlife at CIWY. Thea worked with the a group of hilarious parrots and Philip spent time with the Coatis. While the work was very unglamorous at times (we cleaned up a lot of poop), it was a wonderful experience to get to know the animal’s individual personalities and help care for them.
After two weeks of volunteering with CIWY we headed east to Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz. After La Paz, Santa Cruz was a bit disappointing as we found it to be dull and expensive. We left quickly for a trip to the quaint small town of Samaipata which borders Amboro National Park, where we even met a fellow Calgarian who had moved there a few years earlier!
From Samaipata we continued our journey South to Tarija. The Tarija region is where most Bolivian wine is grown and bottled. As we detailed in an earlier blog post, Bolivia has some surprisingly good wine as well as some utterly unpalatable wine. It’s quite the mixed bag but don’t be surprised if the good stuff starts making a bit more of a name for itself.
As a tourist destination Bolivia is growing in popularity. The highlights on most travellers bucket lists are the Uyuni Salt Flats and cycling the Death Road but there a lot of other things you can do off the beaten track. It is perhaps a bit more challenging country to travel in than its neighbours but it rewards those who do.
Argentina is a huge country. The 8th largest in the world in fact. We logged a bajillion hours on buses as we entered from Bolivia and eventually travelled all the way down to the end of the world, Ushuaia. For some perspective the distance between the Argentina/Bolivia border to Ushuaia is 5,150km, that’s just as far as LA is from Dublin!
Our first stop in Argentina was in Salta. They say it’s the new adventure capital of Argentina but…meh. There we found a few good coffee shops and saltenas but that’s about it. We didn’t stay long and next we carried on to Mendoza where we rented bikes and cruised around sampling delicious local wine. We also booked a tour that explored the countryside and granted us a viewpoint of Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Western hemisphere at 6,962m. From Mendoza we logged another 20 hours on a bus to Bariloche, our first true Patagonian stop.
Bariloche was fantastic, like a Swiss paradise in Argentina. The mountains aren’t as impressive as southern Patagonia but chocolates, breweries, Argentina’s fantastic wine,, and lakes all come together to make something truly great. We unfortunately missed ski season (by only a day!) but managed to get our hiking legs back under us at Cerro Campanario as well as cycling the Circuito Chico Loop.
From Bariloche we hopped on a cheap flight to El Calafate. The alternative was a 30 hour bus ride for about the same amount so it was a pretty easy decision. In El Calafate we explored the Perito Moreno glacier which is even more impressive in person, as well as the Laguna Nimez bird wetlands. Afterwards we boarded yet another bus to El Chalten which was one of the areas we had been dreaming of hiking while planning the trip…
Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy tower over the town of El Chalten. Seeing these mountains is on most travellers to Patagonia’s bucket list. The town of El Chalten has a great laid back mountain vibe and it doesn’t hurt that there’s probably more cervezarias than any other type of business in town.
The hikes to Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy don’t disappoint, and compared to the Chilean side of Patagonia it’s positively cheap. There are no park entrance fees, camp sites are free, and rentals are half of what they cost in Puerto Natales, where we headed next to hike the “O” trek in Torres del Paine. Were we to head to Patagonia again, I think we would choose El Chalten as the place to revisit.
Returning to Chile
About two months after exploring San Pedro de Atacama we re-entered Chile to hike the “O” trek in Torres del Paine. Torres del Paine is famous for towering peaks, glaciers, lakes, and of course, foul weather. We got a bit of it all on our 8 day trek in Chilean Patagonia.
With refugios, glamping, and hot showers available at most stops, it’s not as remote hiking as some places in the world but the scenery is simply incredible. An 8 day hike is a long one but it was great to cover so much ground. It was fun forming our little community of “O trekkers” since you continued to see the same people along the trail because you’re all going in the same direction.
After a bit of a rest in Puerto Natales we continued south to Ushuaia. The bus ride was a bit of an adventure with a transfer (where they just dropped a group of us on the side of the highway to wait for another bus), ferry, and a minibus, but we eventually arrived at Ushuaia, back in Argentina for the next adventure.
From Ushuaia we booked a cruise for the highlight of our journey, Antarctica. We had read online that you could book last minute tours with a steep discount and were hoping to make that happen.
What can you say about Antarctica to do it justice? It is the most remote, rugged, pristine, and incredible place we have ever been. It was one of the most amazing parts of our trip and while it is gut-wrenchingly expensive it is worth every penny to go.
The landscapes are incredible. The ice from glaciers, icebergs, and growlers is unbelievable and hard to comprehend. The wildlife is of course, amazing, with thousands of penguins, but also seals and whales, and sea birds to spot.
When the opportunity to kayak was presented we said “shut up and take our money” which is a surreal experience paddling around icebergs and amongst penguins. One of us was crazy enough to do the polar plunge in Antarctic waters not once, but twice . (Yes, in case you were wondering it is COLD!)
RTW By the Numbers (so far):
- 6 Countries visited
- 9,538 Kms travelled by Bus
- 17,182 Kms on planes
- 430 Kms hiked
- 11 kms vertical
- 234 Kms biked
- 36 dives logged
- 164 New birds
- 21,315 Photos to sort through
- $145 CAD average per day
Our Reluctant Top 5 Experiences
It’s all been amazing so we’re finding it hard to pick which places and experiences were the best, but if we absolutely have to choose here’s our top 5:
We can both agree this was the absolute best. It’s such an incredibly unique destination and seeing icebergs, penguins, humpback whales, and seals up close was a dream come true.
- Trekking in the Cordillera Real, Cordillera Blanca, Colca Canyon, Misti Volcano, and Patagonia.
One thing that we’ve realized during our travels so far is that we are happiest in the mountains. This isn’t really surprising given how much time we spent in the Canadian Rockies before leaving, but the hikes we have done during this voyage have been challenging, beautiful and memorable. We were forced by gunpoint to choose just one favourite, it would probably have to be hiking in Bolivia’s majestic Cordillera Real, or royal range to the summit of Huayna Potosi. We loved the solitude we encountered on the trails as well as the sense of accomplishment of summiting such a high mountain.
- Birds of the World
Whether cruising along the Cuyabeno River in Amazonia, or chilling in the hummingbird gardens of one of Ecuador’s most respected bird guides we have gained a new appreciation for the world’s wonderful diversity of birds.
There’s hardly a better way to give back when travelling than to volunteer responsibly. Working alongside local families in Puerto Rico, we learned so much about their culture and gained a new appreciation of how to be resilient in the face of natural disasters. Volunteering with rescued animals in Bolivia was an equally rewarding experience where we cared for abused and trafficked animals to improve their lives.
- Galapagos Islands
Last but certainly not least, visiting the Galapagos Islands were an absolute highlight. The archipelago’s rugged volcanic landscapes, one of a kind wildlife, and relaxed overall vibe make it feel like a place that’s a world apart. It’s uniqueness is rivalled only by Antarctica’s!
What’s next on our trip around the world
Next up we fly across the ocean (booked on points for a song!) for a quick stop in Portugal, before making our way to France for Christmas, and then we head to Africa. Most of our time has been in South America and while we’ll be sad to leave the continent we are looking forward to the next half of the trip! Our itinerary remains to be firmed up but I’m sure it will be full of even more excitement and adventure.
We’ll be taking a deeper look back at the first half of our round the world trip for the month of December so stay tuned for more reflections after 7 months of travel. Subscribe here so you don’t miss out!