Why we’re leaving South America early

Gazing at the sunset over the desert dunes in Huacachina, Peru.

When we first began planning this amazing year-long honeymoon, we planned to spend 7 months backpacking through South America: starting in Colombia, working our way down through Ecuador and Peru, popping into Bolivia, and spending a month bouncing between Chile and Argentina. We dreamed of completing the Lost City trek in the jungles of Colombia, swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador,  frolicking with llamas on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, mountain biking on Death Road in Bolivia, backpacking through Patagonia in Chile, and exploring vineyards in Argentina. Things didn’t go quite as planned.  After 4 months of backpacking through South America, we’ve decided to cut our trip short. We’re leaving tomorrow.

Why we decided to change our travel plans

What happened to make us end things early? Well, there were a few reason. For starters, a lot of the things we thought we’d be capable of doing, we weren’t. On our very first week in South America, we realized that the jungles we’d be hiking through to find the Lost City were oppressively hot and humid, and we weren’t acclimated to the heat at all. Despite hiking monthly in the Bay Area (take a look at some of our favorite hikes, here) for the year leading up to our trip and power-lifting 3x per week, we could barely move in the Caribbean heat of Cartagena, much less hike (thanks a lot,  constantly cool sea-level San Francisco). Our 2-hour attempt to reach the isolated beaches of Parque Tayrona was so miserable, we opted to save the $600 and skip the Lost City trek altogether.

Hiking, one of our favorite activities (and the “sport” for which all of my training is focused), was so much more difficult than we were used to in South America, and we were totally under-prepared. Altitude also threw us a loop – even with copious altitude sickness pills, we still struggled with basic things like stairs. Most of the rest of our hikes met with disastrous fates (like this one and this one), so that by the time we reached the Inca Trail in Machu Picchu, we weren’t in frolicking shape. We were in gasping, panicking, and turning around shape. (Yes, we actually ended up in worse shape on this trip than when we started! RIP, biceps.) It was all downhill from that first failed trek (in like a painful, injured kind of way): by the time we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which should have been a highlight of our trip, it actually ended up being the lowest point and our biggest disappointment. (Read more about our failure here.)

Contemplating our failure on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru.
After our failure on the Inca Trail, we decided to get a divorce. No, I’m totally kidding. Look how cute we are in our matching sweaters and leggings! The couple that fails together, stays together.

Some parts of the trip did go as planned – but we wish we could have changed our plans. Spending 2 months in Peru was set in stone thanks to our expensive Machu Picchu reservation. But 2 months was simply too long to spend in one country. During our time in Peru, we found ourselves thoroughly exhausted with constantly packing up our backpacks and moving, taking miserably long bus rides, eating unhealthy food (too much rice & fries and not enough protein and fresh produce), and not having any personal time or space. We found ourselves being uncharacteristically irritable and snippy with each other, skipping out on fun experiences just to sit around and do nothing, and dreading each new place we went. Not exactly our vision for our jam-packed superfun travel honeymoon.  Peru did not agree with us (mentally or physically) and we found ourselves homesick and wishing we could leave early.

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Looking out over beautiful Quilotoa Lake in the high Andes mountains in Ecuador.
Looking out over the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador. This was another one of the insanely hard hikes that we totally failed on! But it was so gorgeous…

Our destination after Peru was supposed to be Bolivia, but we hadn’t booked anything yet. The visa to enter is expensive for US citizens, and as we did more research, we learned that the buses are in even worse condition and the roads even more dangerous than Peru’s. Some of the highlights of visiting Bolivia raised “exploitative tourism” red flags with us (like touring silver mines where impoverished workers still toil under the same inhumane conditions as they did 100 years ago). The promise of cheap and readily available cocaine – a major tourist attraction – made us want to steer clear altogether (cheap cocaineirritating hostel-mates and frequent crime. Where there are drugs, there is misery for people who don’t do drugs). Despite the promise of otherworldly landscapes, the tantalizing Uyuni Salt Flats, and the cheapest way to see the Amazon Jungle (“cheap” is a relative term – it’s only really cheap if you’re willing to take 2 miserable 17-hour long bus rides, and even then it would cost us about $1,000), Bolivia was starting to sound less and less appealing. Finally, we decided to skip it altogether and spend more time in Chile and Argentina instead.

We were halfway into planning our extra time in Chile and Argentina when we realized how forced it all felt. We were planning our bus routes through Patagonia – 8 hours here, 12 hours there – and instead of being enthralled by the scenery we’d be passing through, like we were at the beginning of our trip, we just felt nauseous thinking about it. The promise of adorable penguins, monstrous glaciers, and sparkling marble caves in southern Chile didn’t have the same appeal as it once did. Nor did vibrant Buenos Aires or even jaw-dropping Iguazu Falls. Instead of being excited by the rest of our trip, we just felt tired. We realized we were just going through the motions and trying to cross “must-visit” destinations off an arbitrary list. It was time for a new plan.

Watching the sunset in Lima, Peru.
Watching the sun set over Lima, Peru.

Making a new travel itinerary

We thought spending some time relaxing with our families at home might help our travel blahs, so we accepted a generous family gift of a flight home for Thanksgiving. As we booked our trip, suddenly there it was: our excitement was back! We were SO stoked to be going home to the States to relax with family, even for just 2 weeks. Although we booked a return flight to Chile thinking that we’d finish the rest of our trip, we started feeling like we weren’t so sure we wanted to go back.

On a whim, I checked the prices of flights to Europe from the New York area. And wow, were they cheap. We’re talking under $200 for a flight to Copenhagen in December. Within Europe, it was even cheaper: like $30 to fly from European country to European country! (That’s like, a cup of coffee in San Francisco. Amazing!) The Euro and the Pound are currently down to reasonable levels compared to the dollar, and everything was so much cheaper than I’d thought. Before I knew it, I was in a Pinterest spiral: I was researching Christmas Markets, fairytale castles, wine regions, the Whisky Trail in Scotland, the wine regions in France. And within a day of sharing my excitement with Jeremy, it was decided: we were going to Europe!

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Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. My favorite place in the world.
On my first ever backpacking trip several years ago, I visited Switzerland and stayed in this idyllic hostel in Gimmelwald. We won’t be going to Switzerland this time – we aren’t prepared to handle that level of winter – but it remains my favorite place in the world, ever.

With only a few weeks remaining in South America, we had to squeeze our visit to Chile and Argentina into only 2 weeks. And they were an amazing 2 weeks! We explored vineyards in Mendoza and Valparaiso, were inspired by Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaiso, stuffed ourselves with incredible food and wine in Mendoza, and ate the best churro of our lives in Santiago. We know we want to return to Chile and Argentina – at a later time in our lives – and give them the full attention and excitement they deserve: we’re still dying to see Patagonia, the marble caves, Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, and more. We ended our 4 months in South America on a high note, and our travel excitement is back in full force.

We’re still working on our travel itinerary for Europe, but here’s what we’ve got so far:

Our Europe Itinerary

December

We’re starting with the most Christmassy month we can possibly imagine! Our December will be filled with snow, festive Christmas Markets, ice skating and mulled wine.  We’ll be exploring famous cities in Europe that we’ve always dreamed of seeing.

  • Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Hamburg & Bremen, Germany
  • Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  • Brussels, Antwerp, & Brugges, Belgium

January

After a chilly December, January should be a bit warmer. We’re doing as much of France as we possibly can – except for Paris, actually. (Lia’s not a fan.) We’re planning to rent a car and drive the (hopefully empty) French Riviera and pop up into wine country to indulge our newfound love of wine in the world capital of delicious wine. Then we’ll fly to Spain and do another 2-week long road trip through the Northern half of the country.

  • France road trip: 2 weeks driving through Bordeaux, wine country, & the Côte d’Azur
  • Spain road trip: 2 weeks driving through Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, castles, Basque country, & both the northern and Mediterranean coasts

February

We’ll be flying back to the states in mid-February, so we don’t have much time to visit Scotland or the rest of the UK. We’re making the most of it by checking out Scotland’s famous Cairngorms national park (hello, reindeer, snowboarding, and the Northern Lights!) and doing even more booze tourism on the Malt Whisky Trail (helloooo, scotch distilleries!). Then we’ll head back to London very briefly before flying back to the states … and promptly hitting up Disney World. (We thought a Disney trip would take the edge off of leaving Europe.)

  • Scotland Road Trip: Edinburgh to Aberdeenshire to see castles, the Whisky trail, and snowboard in Cairngorms national park
  • London, England
  • Disney World!
The Grand Canyon in the United States.
Visiting the Grand Canyon with my beloved Tevas on my first big self-planned road trip across the country. We’ll be visiting again soon, and of course, I’ll be wearing a pair of Tevas. (I’m obsessed.)

Once we’re stateside, we’ll be embarking on a road trip through the US, hitting as many national parks as we can, crashing on as many friend’s couches as will allow us, taking a detour through Canada and then looping back through the states again. More details on that later, as we flesh things out.

We’ve had an amazing 4 months in South America, despite our decision to end things early. We had an incredible time in Colombia and did get to realize our dream of swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos! (The Galapagos were by far the highlight of our time here – read more about our week in the Galapagos here.) And although Peru wasn’t our favorite country, we still enjoyed amazing experiences and found places that we loved, such as Huanchacho, Huacachina, and Lima. Our short time in Chile and Argentina was incredible, and we’ll definitely be planning to return at some point and finish the rest of our bucket list items here. We look back on our time in South America as wonderful and life-changing: it had its highs and lows, as do all trips, but ultimately we learned a lot about ourselves and our preferred travel style.

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We’ve also gotten a lot better at long-term travelling in general. We’re less nervous about everything and find ourselves willing to relax and let “travel magic” work things out. We’ve realized the importance of carving out alone time for ourselves, even while traveling. Our Spanish is the best it’s ever been (can’t wait for Spain to put it to use again)! We feel prepared and ready for the next leg of our journey. Well, except for the cold. We’re gonna need a lot more warm clothing….

We’re so excited for the next leg of our adventure and we hope you’ll enjoy continuing to read about our travels (and our ridiculous travel fails). What do you think of our new plans? Tell us in the comments below!

We had planned to backpack through South America for 7 months. Instead, we're leaving after only 4. Here's why we decided to cut our travel in South America short.

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Hey, I'm Lia! I'm a Kentucky native living in San Francisco. I'm extremely practical and also entirely addicted to travel, which I'm forever trying to reconcile. If I had a patronus, it would a spreadsheet. Or a llama. Possibly a llama creating a spreadsheet. I'm married to Jeremy and I'm obsessed with him and it's super gross, unless you're us, in which case it's the best.

39 Comment

  1. Aw thanks for sharing your story! I love how honest this post is. I also like how you use the word ‘frolicking’ — lol trust me, with 60L backpacks on there is no frolicking! =P Your trip still sounds like an adventure, and going home is part of it! Really glad you’re able to spend time with your family and hit the road again.
    Emily

  2. Good for you for realizing when your plans weren’t working for you, and having the strength to change plans. Backpacking is tough, and it’s definitely not for everyone, especially in developing countries. I hope you enjoy your family time at home and have a great time in Europe!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Brittany! I think we’re realizing more and more on this trip that we prefer to have a home base and travel from there rather than being nomads.

  3. Thanks for sharing honestly about this less than fun travel experience, and I hope your Europe trip is fantastic! You’ve got some great destinations listed.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Ava! We’re super stoked for Europe!

  4. Laura || Plantbasednomads.com says: Reply

    Haha I I love that, couple that fail together, stay together. So true. My husband and I had many many failures together, and we love laughing about it. We were in a similar situation last year and going home for a while and changing our plans was a great decision, why force yourself to do something you won’t enjoy?

    Have a good time in Europe! You should come to Switzerland, it’s so beautiful in Winter! (I’m Swiss, so I’m biased haha)

    Happy travels! x

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Ahh I LOVE Switzerland! We aren’t quite snow-ready so we decided to skip Switzerland this trip 🙁 I’d like to go back any other time of year, or maybe even in winter when we actually have some cold weather gear with us!

  5. It’s so refreshing to read an honest post like this! We’re trying to work out what we’ll do when I wrap up my contract here in Abu Dhabi – we’re considering backpacking in South America but you’ve got me thinking twice! Not in a bad way, you’ve just opened my eyes a little 🙂 You’ll love Europe!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I don’t want to discourage you from looking at South America, we LOVED Colombia, Chile, Argentina, and the Galapagos. But the rest of it wasn’t something we’d do again. If you go, just be choosy about the places you travel to, and don’t rush through the entire continent just to see it all (or fly instead of bus)!

  6. Lena says: Reply

    Definitely agree that it is not worth doing the trip simply for the sake of ticking it off. I also like to have a home base where I can return to and rest after an active backpacking trip. I need my time off from traveling.
    By the way, I hope you’re not expecting a lot of snow, it doesn’t snow that much in Copenhagen 😀

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Yep, we can’t WAIT to have a home base again! Full-time travel is just not for us. Now we know. Sad to hear that Copenhagen won’t be snowy – I do hope at least somewhere on our trip will have snow!

  7. Misa says: Reply

    Honestly, I love that the beginning of this article id si honest but it also sounds to me like a lot of nagging… it seems like you didn’t do your research well enough (yeah, everything looks good on Pinterest but planning 7 months in South America should take much more) and it also sounds like you were just those people who wanted to backpack because everyone is doing it now and it’s so cooooool! … well, it might sound harsh from me and I” sorry for that, it wasn’t meant to sound that way, just saying… but I’m glad you found out u can do something else and u found ur excitement again! Hope you’ll love Europe, Copenhagen is a good place to start the trip 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Well, that’s one way to look at it! I did do loads of research for the trip (and although I love Pinterest, that was only part of it.) I’m not sure about your thought that backpacking is “in” now – when I first went on a 2-week backpacking trip through Europe 5 years ago, it was just as popular. And I loved it! It’s true that backpacking in developing countries is very different than backpacking through a place like Europe, and maybe that was part of what I didn’t quite fully understand in advance. We’re also older now, and backpacking at almost-30 is a lot different than backpacking just after graduating college. Tastes do change, and although we don’t mind hostels and schlepping around our heavy backpacks, we are starting to mind constantly being on the road.

  8. So sorry the trip isn’t what you thought it would be, but kudos to you for going with the flow and adjusting! I myself am much more of a suitcase / plane / hotel type of traveller than a backpack / bus / hostel one. Neither is better – they’re just different. But knowing which one you are makes all the difference!
    P.S. Love your comment: The couple that fails together, stays together. I believe that is true – succeeding, failing, trying again *together* is what makes all the difference!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I totally agree Cynthia! We’re usually suitcase/plane/hotel travelers too, but on our year trip right now we’re trying something different to save our budget. And you know what? We much prefer a shorter trip, with more comfort, than a longer trip with less. Now we know!

  9. Sometimes we just need to cut out losses and move on. Good on you for realizing what you REALLY wanted and going for it.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Donna!

  10. Such an honest and open account. Sometimes places just don’t ‘feel’ right, and I completely respect your reasons for not going to Bolivia. I’ve never been to South America but have to admit somehow it’s not really high on my travel wish list. Congrats for following your guts and I hope you have a wonderful time in Europe! Ellie

    1. Lia says: Reply

      We did love some places in South America – especially Chile, Argentina, Colombia, and the Galapagos! Next time we go down there, it will just be for less time.

  11. Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever read such an honest recount on how you were feeling. I was traveling through South America once and cut our stay short as well. It takes its toll on you. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Europe, a much easier place to travel. Good luck.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Corinne. I’d be interested to read about your South America experience!

  12. Sam and Veren says: Reply

    I definitely applaud you guys for recognizing that you were just flying through countries just to check things off bucket lists – I did that on my first 2 backpacking trips and I’ve also realized it is not my preferred way of travel. Everything online tells us to do this, that, and the other thing, and have an amazing time while doing it, glorifying things (like 8-10 hour bus rides) that absolutely suck!! Haha! Good on you for cutting the cord on something you didn’t enjoy!

    ~Sam

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Sam! Sometimes you have to do something you end up not enjoying to realize what your preferences actually are, and we’ve definitely learned a lot from this experience. We always strive to be honest with our readers, even about experiences we don’t enjoy.

  13. So sad you missed Buenos Aires! But you did the right thing.. its so irritating to be tired and moving all the time. Hope you can visit Argentina soon! Patagonia is beautiful 🙂 And Buenos Aires is an awesome city, you’ll love it.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks! We were bummed but we’ll definitely be back. We’ve heard so many amazing things about Buenos Aires (and we LOVED Mendoza)!

  14. Aimee says: Reply

    It’s so refreshing to hear an honest and truthful post. Not everything is sunshine and daisies on the road. The only way we found we could survive during our 10 month trip through the Americas was by taking a break in Air B n B’s, cooking our own food and bingeing on Netflix. Before we discovered this we were drained, fed up of moving around and super unsociable.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Oh, we’re totally the same way. We cling to tiny normalcies like Netflix and shelves to put things on and home cooked breakfasts because they keep us going in between all of the nonstop travelling! Long term travelling has definitely made us miss some very basic and boring things. Like couches. We really miss couches!

  15. Diana says: Reply

    So refreshing to read your story! I had a similar experience while travelling in Peru. I’ve done hostel/ backpacking travel before and had a great time. I also have been to Argentina and loved it, I highly recommend! But I was totally unprepared for Peru! Even with extensive research and regular training sessions at the gym before hand I found the experience was just too much. I think the hardest part for me was there was no real place I could find to get a break from it all. Whether it was oppressive heat in the Amazon, altitude in Cusco, or always eating rice with a side of potatoes. It is so nice to hear I’m not the only one who felt that way!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Totally feel you, Diana. It’s intense! The worst for us was probably the miserable 18+ hour bus rides – 2 days straight of nausea only to arrive somewhere with insane altitude. I just kind of felt vaguely sick for 2 months straight. Next time we visit Peru we might just stick to the coast where it’s much easier on the body!

  16. This is exactly why I dislike planning far ahead. I usually have an idea of what I´ll be doing in the next month or maybe two, but really, you can never know if you will like a place or not. I love having the flexibility to stay longer if I feel like or skip it if it just isn´t exciting. I think you did the best decision! Also, after months, I really miss my family. It´s amazing you could go home for a bit. Wish I could have gone home for Christmas, but simply didn´t have the money for flights and all.

    1. Also, I feel you on the altitude and food. I was exhausted every single time we went hiking in Colombia and it was not even that high. And the food made me rather sick. Too much oil, sugar, everything fried, my skin still haven´t recovered from the eczema attack I got there! I am in love with Turkish cuisine though, it´s salads on salads with every meal 🙂 South America is great, but it´s a bit more rough than what I´m used to back home.

    2. Lia says: Reply

      I definitely feel you! We’ve learned a lot about long term travel (that we may not ever use again, lol) and this was really eye opening.

  17. Peter says: Reply

    I understand. I spent 6 months travelling through south america by myself, but thats life. Travelling through Peru or Bolivia is never going to be comfortable. Personally, I dont know what type of transport you took to pay $1000 just to get to Uyuni. I travelled from La Paz to Oruro, then to Sucre, then to Potosi and finally onto Uyuni over the course of about 1 week and altogether those bus trips were extremely cheap…and in fact i only paid a little over $100US for a 4 day tour of the Salt Flats. My advice is to not book anything in advance because you will always pay higher prices.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That’s such a great tip! We meant that it would be $1000 to go to the Amazon, not to Uyuni. Had we visited Bolivia, we would have wanted to do both the Amazon and Uyuni, and when you add in the cost of entry of American citizens, it all started to add up fast 🙁 I’d love to go back one day, though! The photos of Uyuni are just absolutely otherworldly.

  18. Bick says: Reply

    I found your blog yesterday and like your writing style, which is intelligent and witty, and the actual website is very well presented – I wish I had your skilles. I am sorry that you felt the need to leave South America early, for me it is my favourite place and, after a visit to Colombia in 2003 decided to make it my home. Travel here can be frustrating, however there are many wonderful places and things to see without the excessive hardship you seem to describe.
    A lot of your experience ‘failures’ and negativity seem to be down to a monumental lack of fitness that is so widespread in the USA And other places these days. Having great difficulty with a relatively standard walk to Park Tayrona, which my 70 plus year old parents did with ease, is indicative. You really missed out on the lost city trek – the scenery is quite stunning, and I rate it higher than the MP. Hopefully, sometime I the future you will be able to come back and complete it. Until then, developed country travel probably suits you much better at this stage in your life. I bet though, in the future, you are going to look back on your experiences here with a massive smile. Our first Latin backpacking trip in 02 always lights me up, and the same for my best friend who I travelled with.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That’s definitely part of it! Though I suspect it was more the heat that we weren’t accustomed to in Parque Tayrona – the hike wasn’t difficult, but the heat KILLED us. In California, we went hiking every weekend on 8+ mile hikes … but we live in Northern CA, where it’s always comfortably in the 60’s! The heat smacked us in the face and totally threw us. And by the time we attempted more difficult hikes in places like Ecuador and Peru, we were already miserably out of shape since we were no longer hiking every weekend and hitting the gym 3x a week.

      You’re right that the US has special challenges when it comes to fitness – we spend very little time walking from place to place and tend to drive everywhere instead. Our whole country is built around cars, not transit. But thankfully we live in an urban environment where we can bike and walk to public transit instead and don’t need to rely on our car, so we’re looking forward to getting back in shape and attempting those hikes again someday! If your 70 year old parents can do it, that gives us a good 40+ years to train 😛

  19. John says: Reply

    Sometimes the best plan is to change the plan. You made a good decision. Backpacking in SA is not easy. You should look into Trusted Housesitters.

    Cheers!

    1. We discovered Trusted Housesitters a few months ago!! We’re OBSESSED!

  20. Dylan McClintock says: Reply

    I traveled across southern Europe & Morocco – Portugal, Spain, Sicily and Romania – for 4 months which was intended to be the start of a year(s) long experience of living & traveling and had a very similar experience when I got to Romania, which I totally loved & recommend BTW. As I was doing the next step planning, I had that same going-through-the-motions, tired feelings and when an issue came up “back home” (also in the Bay Area!), it took almost no thought to decide I should handle it in person and 3 days later I left Bucharest. What a great decision! I am now energized for my travels in South America – mostly Ecuador, Peru & Chile! Your blog has been very helpful as I’ve been planning. My blog will be up eventually 🙂

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