I’ve never been the kind of girl who takes risks. Playing it safe worked for me my entire life thus far. Why fix what wasn’t broken?
As our military services were coming to a close, my childhood best friend and roommate, Mireille, approached me with a proposal I never would have expected:
“We’re both about to taste the freedom of civilian life. Let’s screw everything and go backpacking in South America! Who knows when we’ll be free to travel together next? It’s now or never, Abs!”
Taken aback by this seemingly random suggestion, I tried to think of every possible reason why we couldn’t go. However, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to go. We were young and free of real responsibility, we had cash to spend, we had time on our hands, and we were both available at the same time. She was right. It really was now or never.
Plus, I seriously needed to brush up on my Spanish. The little Spanish I remembered from learning it in high school was embarrassing. I was ready to broaden my horizons, both linguistically and culturally!
Within a month, we were boarding a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, spanking new backpack and hiking shoes in tow. We were total newbies who barely had a plan. All we knew were the countries that we wanted to hit: Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. At least we were experiencing the unknown together. We were the incredible dynamic duo the world didn’t ask for, but most definitely needed.
I can’t say that I was head over heels in love upon arrival. It was so disorienting to land in a foreign country, and backpacker culture made no sense to me at first. How do we communicate with the locals? How do we plan day by day without a schedule ahead of time? How can we possibly make friends if we’re constantly moving onto the next destination? I was so used to my daily routine in the army, and before the army, my daily routine in college. I had no idea how to tackle a trip like this.
Aside from the culture shock, the never-ending hiking had me in panic mode. Yes, I had bought new hiking shoes, but I didn’t really know how to use them. Because we had started our journey in Patagonia, so much of our travels at the beginning consisted of hiking. I thought I was in great physical shape before we left, but one hike in Patagonia proved me wrong. While my backpacking buddy was an experienced hiker, I was like the Big, Bad Wolf, huffing and puffing behind her, all the way up the mountain. I complained non-stop, took way too many breaks, and was always on the verge of tears. I was so overwhelmed by how different this was from my life back home. There was so much change, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it all.
But then I started putting in the work. Every hostel we were at, I began to introduce myself to the different backpackers in our room. I started initiating plans with everyone we met, whether it be to make dinner together, tour a city together, take on a hike together, or go bar-hopping together. Mireille and I quickly realized that there is a huge chance that the backpackers we connected with in one destination are moving on to the same destination as us. After a couple of weeks, it wasn’t just the dynamic duo anymore - we had built an entire network of backpackers in South America. No matter where we were on the continent, we knew we could find someone else that we had met previously in our travels who happened to be in the same place at the same time. Slowly but surely, it started to feel less foreign and more like home.
As for my personal hiking struggle, I made an effort to stop complaining. Every time I wanted to complain, I drank water instead. Instead of eating my feelings on the way up, I saved my sandwiches and snacks for the very end of the hike as incentive. With this attitude, I made it through the W-Trail on Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and El Chalten’s Fitz Roy in Argentina. My stamina improved, both emotionally and physically. When we joined forces with a couple of guys to rent a car for Chile’s amazing Carretera Austral road trip, my backpacking buddy jokingly warned them about how much of a burden I am on hikes. They were pleasantly surprised to discover that I had become quite the opposite. I smiled and laughed the whole way up, stopping for pictures instead of stopping to catch my breath.
By the time we made our way up the continent to Peru and Bolivia, I no longer felt out of my element. I was backpacking to get out of my comfort zone, and halfway through our journey, I felt at ease in South America. Bouncing from hostel to hostel in Peru was no longer intimidating; it was a whirlwind of fun, adventure, and lasting friendships. It felt like we were practically living at our favorite hostel chain, Wild Rover, after only one stay. Machu Picchu had seemed so daunting to me at the beginning of the trip, but by the time we reached Cusco, it was an easy, breezy piece of cake. I definitely felt the positive changes within me, and couldn’t believe they happened within such a short amount of time.
The ultimate turning point for me happened in La Paz, Bolivia. I was obsessed with biking down Death Road, an infamous attraction for adrenaline junkies. My travel buddy wasn’t particularly interested, but I had my mind set on it. I dwelled on the attraction over and over again, until I decided I was going to sign up alone at the biking agency. I had never done anything without her on the trip. Naturally, I was really nervous. Ten minutes speeding down Death Road, I let all my fears go, and just glided smoothly down, with the wind blowing pleasantly in my hair. With the biking guide by my side, I knew there was nothing to worry about. I was finally a risk-taker, taking my fears head on, and it felt so good.
I had so many doubts at the beginning, but now I feel so lucky to have experienced the South American adventure of a lifetime. My only regret? I have no idea when I will have another opportunity to go on an extended trip like this one.
What I do know is that when the time does come, I’m ready to do it solo.
About The Writer
Abigail is a bubbly young writer who is incapable of staying in one place for too long. She’s a Native New Yorker who has lived internationally, and isn’t planning on stopping anytime soon. She’s addicted to dance, literature, meditation, cheesy fries, and of course, travel. When she’s not clacking away at her laptop, you can find her tearing up the dance floor on a night out on the town. You can follow her adventures via her blog and social media platforms.
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