Backpacking in South America isn’t easy at the best of times. Long bus rides, limited food options, lack of readily available information, logic defying systems and rapid fire Spanish. Add small children to the mix and a whole lot of other issues emerge; can we access food that they like? How do we cope with Jet lag? Will they be safe? Will they get sick? Will we get sick? How will they go on the buses? Can we carry all the stuff including camping gear? Will we get robbed?
These concerns (and more) probably contribute to very few families choosing to backpack South America. In 8 weeks of travelling we didn’t meet any other foreign families with children as young as ours (1 and 4).
So is it all worth it? Worth the difficulties, the expense, the risk, the opportunity costs? What qualifies as “worth it”? Worth it for whom? The adults or the children?
Really, this question is impossible to answer… There have certainly been some intensely stressful moments, but these have been offset by moments of pure joy. Amaya and Sebastian have been exposed to different places, cultures, languages and people. For a time they have become nomads – roaming the lakes and mountains of Patagonia. They are on their way to becoming truly global citizens, with an amplified outlook, comfortable with different viewpoints and ways of life.
And while there were tough moments, there are tough moments at home too. Parenting is challenging! For us it is about choosing to really grasp hold of those magical moments and let them form our narrative of this experience.
I have a rock rolling around the interior of one boot. In the other boot I have a sticky sock, a big patch of stick right in the arch of my foot. I have no idea why it’s sticky and to be honest I don’t even want to guess. There has been no time to attend to either problem so I’ve accepted these two uncomfortable feelings as my friends for the moment. We have been on a bus since the early hours of the morning crossing the Andes mountains with jaw droppingly beautiful views, though holding Sebastian during this trip was sort of like holding a bag full of live octopuses, so the glimpses I caught, I made sure I fully appreciated. Now we find ourselves out of the bus and lined up for the second time, having been stamped out of Argentina, and now to be stamped into Chile. Our backdrop is stunning Volcan Lanin. Sebastian is pulling at my pants wanting to “go away” while we catch all our baggage out of the Chilean Xray machine.
I’m hopeful we’ll find in Chile what we enjoyed most in Argentina – family friendly campgrounds where we get to enjoy the company of local holiday makers and delight in stunning scenery.
It was all part of the planning. “Where are the families?” “How can we avoid being on the gringo trail?” “How can we maximise our Spanish speaking?” “Everything around the Bariloche area sounds good in the guide books – how can we find the best spots for our little family?” All of this we brainstormed on a large piece of paper while planning our trip. And a theory formed – if we pack our tent and spend as much time as possible in campgrounds instead of hostels/hotels (which our kids don’t like anyway!) we will hopefully be living with the locals.
And our theory worked!
As luck would have it our second campground “Traful Lauquin” in Villa Traful turned out to be the most family friendly campground in the whole of Patagonia! We spoke so much Spanish both Michael and I started thinking in it and Amaya and Sebastian had plenty of kids to play with. The campground was divided into little pods with communal washtubs for collecting water and washing dishes. Each pod also had communal parrillas (fire places). This was awesome because it created a little community where you continually cross paths with the same campers during your day. We could ask (without being nosey) “what are you cooking for dinner?” and benefit from a true cultural exchange.
We stayed for so long that we got to know some locals too. Marienella invited us to her bread and croissant factory. She taught herself how to bake when the closest volcano erupted 8 years ago, trapping the whole of Villa Traful so they were unable to get supplies. Now she provides many hotels far and wide frozen croissants that they can quickly cook for breakfast. She is also the chef at the “Provedoria“, our campgrounds shop/bakery/restaurant.
During our stay in Villa Traful we gathered recommendations to further family friendly campgrounds and ended up in a stunning place called Quila Quina.
And so here we are. Crossing the border hoping for more of the same. Smiling about the theory that worked. This trip held many unknowns for us so we are so so happy to have spent so much time with wonderful Argentinean families. I dump my backpack back in the bus and finally allow Sebastian to “go away” by dragging me into the carpark. Here we try to dance our sillies out so the next section of the bus trip might be a little less octopus like. I also get rid of the rock in my boot. But the sticky patch remains.
Yesterday we crossed a busy border from Argentina back into Chile. We are staying in a small Malpuche town called Curarrehue (try pronouncing that!) and I am writing this after having relaxed in thermal baths all morning.
We have spent the last 5 weeks in Argentina and are just as enchanted with it now as we were the first time we visited! These are the reasons why:
1. Astounding natural beauty
Pictures do not do justice to the area of Northern Patagonia. We have spent the majority of our time camping next to pristine lakes, surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks. Amaya and Sebastian have thrived in this magical natural environment – it is beyond words!
The people are the other natural resource that places Argentina high on our most favourite places in the world! They are open, warm, sharing and energetic. They speak a colloquial, informal style of Spanish which we were able to adapt to quickly. The word “che” is inserted a a filler into most sentences and is where the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara derived his nick name.
3. Food and Wine
If you are vegetarian Argentina may not be the place for you. They eat more meat per capita then any other country in the world. 400 grams per person was what a butcher told me I needed for an evenings cook up!
The meat is slow cooked over a parilla (open grill). To be able to cook the perfect asado (meat feast) is the source of great (mostly male) pride.
Around 10pm each night (they eat dinner late) there was a lovely aroma of roasted meat wafting over the campground.
This meat heavy meal is always washed down with a hearty Malbec wine which is grown on the dry slopes of the Andes Mountains.
Not the Australian colloquialism for friend, but a herbal tea that is consumed in large enough quantities to put the English to shame. It is pronounced Mah-teh and is prepared by filling a small gourd with yerba mate (the tea leaves) and then pouring near-boiling water on top. The mate is then slurped up through a metal straw with a filter on the end that is submerged.
The part I love about slurping mate is the social cohesiveness of the ritual. People stand in small groups and pass a communal gourd around. It is how I imagine the peace pipe was for American Indians. It unites, and provides an egalitarian basis for meaningful conversation.
Bruce and Joanie are wonderful people who do so much good in the world. They are directors of an NGO called Meal a Day, active members of their church community and support many individuals around the world.
We first met them about 10 years ago and have become better people for it.
The last time we saw them was in Yosemite National Park. Sebastian was only 8 weeks old and I remember Bruce posing the question (as he always does), “where do you reckon we will meet up next?” We could never have predicted Argentina, just as we couldn’t have predicted our 4 month traverse of South America that we enjoyed together back in 2008, or meeting up in India or visiting aid projects in Central America.
We love the fact that our friendship bridges the generation gap and their presence was certainly an enriching experience for our children.
We rented an apartment in Bariloche, Argentina, and spent a marvellous week exploring the breathtaking beauty of the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. We played cards, climbed mountains, swam in ice cold water, had snow ball fights, ate large hunks of tender beef and too much flan.
All of this provided an excellent backdrop for some inspiring conversations that will hopefully keep us going until we meet up in our next yet-to-be-determined spot.
The last 4 days have been magical. We have been camping on the edge of a lake near a small town called Villa La Angostura. We are surrounded by gigantic mountains, some of which are volcanoes that occasionally spew ash into the air which creates a surreal misty effect. The lake is fresh and cold, and is fed by icy glacial streams. We are camped in a pine forest and have a cosy fireplace next to our small tent. It is perfect for us.
Amaya and Sebastian are loving it. Amaya’s imagination is limitless and she spends hours by the lake in rapidly evolving, fantastical worlds. Sebastian throws rock after rock into the water, he wades through streams, collects wood for the fire, sits importantly on his log and from time to time is permitted into his big sister’s imaginary world.
Both Shoshanna and I are continually stunned with the beauty of this place and feel immensely happy and at peace to be here.