And I still can’t believe I literally embraced the world, but one thing I know is that I am back with the contentment of fulfilling my dreams. It’s now time to digest all the experiences, work through the photos and videos in my 2 TB cloud storage, and tell the stories that I haven’t had time to share while traveling. To begin with, here comes the fourth round-up post of my around the world trip. If you missed the previous posts or just want to refresh your mind (like me), you can read them here.
In the fourth and last quarter, we set foot on a new continent where we only visited Colombia and Brazil, plus we’ve been to two tri-border regions: the first one linking Colombia, Peru, and Brazil; the second one linking Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. And for the most part, massive water flow was involved as we scaled the world’s largest river by volume and the largest waterfall system.
|Iguazu Falls, Argentina|
|Amazon Rainforest, Zacambu, Peru|
Honestly, Colombia has failed to convince. The guidebooks claim that Colombia has to work hard for its money as it doesn’t have the major attractions like Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Galapagos, Iguazu Falls unlike other countries on the continent. All it has its people they say. Yes, there are super nice locals (just like everywhere in the world) but the majority of them you’ll encounter in the service area will ask for a “voluntary” tip before doing anything. As usual, the guidebooks are outdated before they even get published. People-wise the country sucks even more than the Philippines that I thought it was really bad, but at least they asked for money after serving you in a proper way. Apparently, Colombia has become such a mainstream destination that people believe the tourists spread money just like that (and many tourists do so, I am afraid).
The nature is truly beautiful, but the roads are so bad, even the ones connecting major cities are still under construction that you end up feeling tired instead of euphoric at the end of the day.
Safety-wise, I didn’t feel very much at ease in Colombia. Large police presence in touristy areas ensures safety, but being confined to certain safe areas made me feel handicapped. It’s still rough around the edges, though a few Mexicans we met claimed that the situation seemed much better to them than in Mexico. Subjective as such impressions may ultimately be, I didn’t feel at ease in Colombia, whereas I hadn’t had such a feeling in Mexico, not for a moment.
All in all, Colombia couldn’t make it to the champions league and remains as a nice-to-have destination for us. After three weeks of failed attempts to get to like the country, we decided to skip the Caribbean Coast and exit Colombia from the Amazon region.
From December 4th to 28th, 2018, our route and experiences in Colombia were as follows:
Bogotá, December 4-9, 2018
La Candelaria, the historic center of Bogotá, was our base to explore the capital city. With hindsight, I must say that I found Bogotá far better than Medellin, as it provides a larger number of things to do. Medellin simply cannot compete with Bogotá’s vast number of museums and the landmarks like Bolivar Simon Square, or the Mount Monserrate. Don’t miss the Botero Museum in Bogotá!
Neiva, December 9-11, 2018
Tatacoa Desert in central Colombia was the main reason for us staying in Neiva, a city 5-6 hours south of Bogotá. While the desert, more precisely the dry tropical forest, was stunning, it’s quite small that you can cover in 3-4 hours. Thus, it may not be worth the detour if you are short on time.
Tierradentro, December 11-13, 2018
Tierradentro, an archaeological park located right in the middle of nowhere in rural Colombia, is a prehispanic necropolis with about three dozen underground tombs scattered along a 15 km trail with spectacular scenery. A well off-the-beaten destination that is so hard to access. Again, while we found the landscape fantastic, I am hesitant to recommend this place. It took us 6 hours to cover the 100 km distance to the capital of the Department Popayan that left us feeling rather frustrated than euphoric.
Cali, December 13-15, 2018
If you are not into Salsa and partying, Cali is a redundant stop. Trust me, you won’t miss a bit. Period.
Salento, December 15-18, 2018
Cocora Valley is one of the main reasons why so many tourists flock to the town of Salento. The valley is famous for the wax palm trees that can grow up to 60 meters. While the trees are nothing to write home about, the scenery is amazing. The place was quite enjoyable but very busy.
Medellin December 18-25, 2018
While we struggled to understand why everyone loves this city so much, the view from our balcony was the best thing right after the Alumbrados (Christmas Lights).
Leticia, December 25-28, 2018
Leticia is the jumping off point for adventure tours into the Amazon Jungle, as well as for onward journeys into the bordering countries Brazil and Peru. A popular activity is the “3 meals in 3 countries in a single day” challenge. But since we are no foodies, we altered the challenge slightly as “3 countries in 1/2 day”, where we got our exit stamp from Colombia, hopped on a tuk-tuk to get our entry stamp into Brazil in Tabatinga, then bought the boat ticket to Manaus.
|Floating immigration office, Leticia, Colombia|
And then back in Leticia, we took a boat to the Peruvian island of Santa Rosa for lunch. The towns are so close to each other and the borders are invisible in this region. There is no passport control within a radius of 80 km that you can freely roam.
|Santa Rosa, Peru|
Leticia is the most developed of the three in terms of tourist infrastructure. From Leticia, we joined a boat trip and spent an insightful day in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. I’ll save the details on our trips to the Amazonian rainforest for another post, but when in Leticia, make sure to visit the Santander Park at dusk to watch the parakeets return home for overnight, and listen to their sunset symphony.
|Santander Park, Leticia|
So, that’s it. Goodbye Colombia. I tried but you won’t be mine. We may or may not see each other again. I wouldn’t mind. Would you?
New year, new country: Olá Brazil!
Brazil, the largest country in South America and the 5th largest in the world, is blessed with natural beauties. The country has a great variety of flora and fauna from dense forests to wetlands, to sand dunes, and a so very long coastline to name some. From December 28, 2018, to February 25, 2019, we spent two months in this diverse country where we’ve covered quite a bit, yet still, we had to skip the coast between Fortaleza and Salvador. Other highlights like Iguazu Falls, Bonito or Amazon River were of higher priority for us. Because these places will always be in the middle of nowhere that I said if not now, probably never again.
While I’ll write up detailed posts later, here comes the summary of our route and experiences in Brazil:
Tabatinga to Manaus, December 28-31, 2018, 3 days and nights on the Amazon River
Nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest is found in Brazil, and to end an epic year with an epic journey, we boarded a slow boat in the Brazilian town of Tabatinga on December 28, 2018. We covered a distance of just over 1000 miles along the Amazon River to Manaus, the biggest city in the Amazon rainforest. Luckily the boat didn’t stop for the last 36 hours that we made it to civilization in time for the New Year celebrations.
|Day in, day out views|
Manaus December 31, 2018-January 2, 2019, 2 nights
Manaus historic center was a decaying place with not much appeal, but the Ponta Negra Beach roughly 15 km west of downtown was the place to be for New Year’s party. A super modern, shiny neighborhood where the entire length of the road along the beach was closed to the traffic to throw a huge party in the heart of Amazonas. It was the first time for me welcoming New Year with tropical temperatures and soft sand underneath my feet that might potentially become an addiction.
Manaus to Santarém, January 2-4, 2019, 1 night
This time we covered 800 km in 30 hours in the elite class of a half a century old boat on the Amazon River. This section of the river was densely populated by humans, hence with much fewer trees than the first section. Many tourists who are short on time travel only this section, as you can fly into Manaus and fly out from Santarém and the journey is relatively short. But, in my opinion, it was the least interesting of all three sections.
Alter do Chão, January 4-8, 2019
Alter do Chão is a riverside beach town, also known as the Caribbean of the Amazon. And indeed, it’s as touristy as any destination in the Caribbean. We spent four chillaxing days at this lovely beach town and took local tours to nearby places, just to find out that the Amazon River Basin is not all about the rainforest. Sandbanks, palm trees, pretty lakes, sand dunes are all part of this huge ecosystem.
Stranded in Santarém, January 8-11, 2019
We left Alter do Chão on a Tuesday morning and went directly to the port in Santarém hoping to board the boat leaving for Belém on that day. But we found out that there was no boat at all before Friday. As we couldn’t afford a flight this spontaneously, we took a cab to a hotel in Santarém’s historic center and stayed until Friday. There is not much to do in the town, save the short boat tour from Santarém’s tourist port. The tour was quite rewarding, even though we didn’t go deep into the jungle, we could observe several bird species, iguanas, pink and grey river dolphins among others. And this is also where you can observe the “Meeting of the Waters”: milky brown Amazon and greenish Tapajós rivers continue flowing for miles side by side. All these activities are just good for a couple of hours, so take note: the boats depart only from Friday to Sunday in Santarém.
Santarém to Belém, January 11-13, 2019, 2 nights
Another 48 hours and eventually our refugee life on the Amazon was over. We made it all the way from Tabatinga to Belém on slow boats, sharing a deck and a few toilets with roughly 800-1000 passengers. After the last trip, I think it would be a good idea to write a book titled something like “The Sorrows of Uncle Tom” 🙂 I personally felt like living in a documentary, my very own documentary, while watching the hitchhiker boats selling nuts and shrimps to passengers, or beggar boats waiting for leftover food to be thrown, all from a comfortable spot on the deck. Nevertheless, after this journey, I got to appreciate the modern amenities a little more.
Belém, January 13-14, 2019
Belém itself has a decaying beauty and it was the most civilized city we had seen within the first two weeks in Brazil. Yet still, I wouldn’t consider it as a travel-worthy destination on its own. We spent a night here before taking the overnight bus to São Luís.
São Luís, January 15-16 &18-20, 2019
São Luís is the only city built by French in Brazil. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but don’t expect to find a well-preserved place. Just like anywhere else in Northern Brazil, this city was also run-down. Anyway, the city itself wasn’t the main attraction for us, but the nearby national park, Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses. To visit the park, we booked a 2 days/1 night tour from São Luís, as we wouldn’t have saved much if we went on our own. And given that the overnight bus ride was horrible due to bad road conditions, we decided to fly from São Luís, instead of continuing overland along the coast. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have enough time to visit Bonito or Iguazu Falls.
Lençois Maranhenses National Park, January 17-18, 2019
Lençois Maranhenses National Park is a surreal place worth visiting. It’s a huge area bigger than São Paulo full of sand dunes and a few permanent freshwater lagoons. The scenery is the best during high season (June to August) when all lagoons are full of water. I’d like to come back to see it sometime in the future but not urgently. Because I was able to experience the fun part despite lack of seasonal lagoons: running down the steep and high sand dunes and climbing back up 🙂
Foz do Iguaçu, Jan 20-28, 2019
So, the cheapest flight from São Luís was bound for Foz do Iguaçu, a so very pleasant and tidy place, much-needed balm for the soul after the poor North. A regular tourist would spend here only one or two nights, but we had to make some travel arrangements first. And honestly, I hadn’t noticed but I needed a break too. In between the daily chores, we visited one day the Brazilian side of the Iguazu Falls, another day we paid a short visit to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, and then we visited the Argentinian side of the Iguazu Falls. The world wonder between the two countries is undoubtedly a must-visit destination. Both sides are absolutely gorgeous and offer different experiences. I’d recommend you visit first Brazil to get the big picture, and then Argentina for the icing on the cake. But if you have only time or budget for one, you can’t go wrong with either, just make sure to visit both sides once in your life.
|Devil’s Throat, Iguazu Falls, Argentina|
|Panoramic view of the falls, Brazil|
Bonito January 29-February 6, 2019
Bonito along with Pantanal was high on my list. But since we had seen enough wetlands this time, and it wasn’t the prime season for wildlife watching in Pantanal, I settled for Bonito.
Bonito is an eco-adventure center and very popular among Brazilian tourists. The number of activities on offer is countless that you could spend a month easily and still not do them all. As an ecoadventure destination, you must join guided tours and account to fork out a small fortune here. As always, I carefully selected a few of the best places to invest time & money. The first of them: Rio da Prata snorkeling tour. The water is so crystal clear with more fish than a running sushi buffet, plus the vegetation on the river bed makes you feel as if you dived into an aquarium.
Another activity was rappelling down 72m/26 stories into a 14 million-year-old cave known as the Anhumas Abyss, where you can snorkel in cold royal blue water to see otherworldly underwater limestone structures up to 19.5m high. It was like visiting a different planet. but I don’t think it was worth the price tag.
Rio de Janeiro, February 6-16, 2019
Rio de Janeiro is claimed to be the most marvelous city in the world. Rio has beyond doubt geographically a magical setting, but it’s not an urbanization marvel. It has a wealth of attractions that didn’t disappoint us, and I bet it wouldn’t disappoint any regular tourist. It means if you just spend 3-5 days, you’ll love this spellbinding city. But for me after spending 10 days straight, the spell is broken. Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to come back for the Rio Carnival, and I would still find a bunch of attractions to enjoy, and I might find myself envious of Cariocas (people from Rio) way too often. One foot in the ocean, one foot on the rainforest covered hills, there is for sure something magical about this city. The title for being the most marvelous city in the world? Nope. Still searching.
Paraty, February 16-21, 2019
Paraty is possibly the reflection of Paradise on Earth, a small beach town with colonial charm roughly halfway between Rio and São Paulo. The town has a gorgeous oceanfront setting surrounded by verdant hills, river arms, and waterfalls. Being such a watery place, some parts of town get flooded during high-tide making it great for water reflection shots. The very same street may look totally different at another time. I simply loved this place, even though it failed to serve its main purpose as a beach destination. It was raining almost the entire time, and the beaches in town are not great. Yet still, I couldn’t get enough of strolling through its cobblestone streets. When in Paraty, don’t miss out on watching a puppet theatre show at Teatro Espaço. Pure joy!
São Paulo, February 21-25, 2019
São Paulo, the largest city in South America, is not the most tourist-friendly city because it’s spread out, and although wealthier (hence more expensive) than Rio, it’s poorer in terms of tourist attractions. However, some fantastic examples of street art can be found in Beco do Batman (Batman’s Alley).
So, this was our last stop in Brazil before boarding our flight back to Europe. Obrigado Brazil for treating us nicely. Hope to see you again.
Lisbon (February 26-28, 2019) was the last stop of our around the world trip before going back to good (c)old Germany, just a short layover to acclimatize ourselves and reflect on the past year. For the second time on this trip, we crossed over the ocean from Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere on a 10-hour flight.
Back in this part of the world, the first noticeable difference was the temperature. For the past seven months, we’d had summer only. I hadn’t been wearing leggings or any closed-toe shoes for at least three months straight. Packing out our warm layers after so long was a strange feeling, but at least the weather was spring-like with around 20 °C and sunshine. ⠀
And then comes the cultural difference. Portugal and Brazil have a common past and they speak the same language, but all of a sudden language was no longer a barrier. In Lisbon, you easily can get away with English, and it was great for Tom to be independent again 🙂
And again all of a sudden, we didn’t need to worry about our safety when walking around, day or night, whether we would take a wrong turn into a less safe area. It was such a big relief not to be on alert all the time. And the basics like a hot shower and a proper toilet were no longer luxury, but the standard again.
We spent two short but wonderful days in Lisbon, mainly indulging ourselves in good food and wine.
51 weeks of traveling once around the world later, touchdown in Munich on February 28, 2019, marked the end of our round-the-world tour. A world tour may have come to end, but it’s not the end of the world, nor the end of my dreams.
As you might know I am a great fan of contrasting experiences that I’m back at work immediately after one crazy year around the world, while Tom is enjoying his unemployment with his parents 🙂 I’ll write another post concerning the aftermaths, but for now I can tell you this much: while experiencing every day something new, your senses get so sharpened over time that the place you’ve called home for the past 17 years feels like another planet. Yet still, it’s not sad to be back. Normality is just what I need right now.
Oh, by the way, as I understand from many people’s reactions, let me tell this too: I am not back at work because we ran out of money or so. While lack of money wouldn’t be an excuse for me, travel burnout is for real. It may also seem that I am back in prison, but what most people probably don’t get is that I’m back by my free will. I don’t feel trapped, as the trap didn’t snap shut this time. For once you’ve overcome your fears, you know how to open the door and walk away again. As said, I just need to settle down for a while and digest all the experiences so far (just look how long this post has grown again!). Nothing has much meaning by itself. It’s the contrasts that give everything its meaningful essence. And when traveling becomes the routine, it’s as deadly as the other way around.