South America: Don't drink the tap water
In 2007, a group of friends and I left New Zealand for the first time, and travelled to South America. We were a naive group, never having travelled before, and touring through South America was like being thrown in the deep end.
I think that the harsh lessons I learnt helped me become a better traveller; however my naivety meant that I sometimes ended up in some sticky situations, and sometimes with some negative experiences.
The first incident occurred while in Santiago, Chile. We had already successfully survived several weeks roaming through Argentina and Chile, and were beginning to pick up specks of the language (a necessity in South America).
After several exhausting, 24-hour bus rides, our goal had been to purchase a car and use this to get around the rest of South America on our own terms. My comrade, Arun, and I went in search of a car yard with the money ready to buy a car. As in many cities, the car yards were in the less affluent part of Santiago, and this proved to be our downfall.
Arun stopped to buy water at a small supermercado, but having only a 10,000 peso note (approximately $20USD) the market was unable to give change. As we crossed the road I noticed a man a big jacket following us (I also noticed that the previously busy street was now conveniently empty of people), and when we made it to the other side of the road the aggressor grabbed Arun's necklace from behind and pulled it off. We turned to confront the man and were challenged by another man, coming from the opposite direction. At this point both men were now physically harassing Arun and emptying his pockets, and then asked me for "dinero", which I handed over.
Fortunately for us the men were eventually placated by the money we had given them and left. This was lucky because we both had large amounts of money (and our passports) hidden on us, in money belts. I remember looking at each other as the adrenalin wore off, and noting that this was the first time we had ever been "jacked", and that the situation had been fairly pathetic as the two men hadn't actually pulled weapons. This was, however, the beginning of the end for our dream of driving around South America in our own car.
The next situation was one of the most disappointing things that has ever happened to me. It had been a long-time dream of mine (and a large part of the reason I went to South America) to go to Machu Picchu. We arrived in Cusco, Peru a couple of days before we were meant to take the train to Aguas Calientes, below Machu Picchu.
The first night was fine, despite the eyes-wide-shut-esque scene at the Loki Hostel. However, the following night after we moved to a more relaxed hostel I began feeling ill. I had been quite sick many times on and off during the three months we had been travelling to date, mainly due to drinking the tap water despite warnings not to (as an aside I lost approximately 20kgs during the four months I was travelling because I was sick so often, so when they tell you not to drink the water, it is with good reason).
Because of this, when I started feeling sick I wasn't too worried as I was now used to the procedure. I turned in early without eating, but someone kindly brought me a pink yogurt drink. This ended up all over the bathroom floor a short time later. After a sleepless night of intense sickness, spent largely on the bathroom floor (thankfully there were several bathrooms), we rose early to catch the train. The train was another challenge, trying not to perish, and also the following sleepless night before our early morning up Machu Picchu.
I arose before dawn to catch the first bus up the mountain, while the others trekked up the hill via the many steps. I had finally reached the ancient city of Machu Picchu, a goal I had been wishing to achieve for many years and had come half way across the world for; and I was too weak to enjoy it. I spent the majority of the day curled up inside one of the ancient houses, half asleep on the grass, soaking in the healing vibe of the sacred ruins. I did, however, make the climb up the large hill, Huayna Picchu, which overlooks the amazing city. I remember the climb being one of the hardest things I have ever done, in my weakened state it took me a couple of hours to climb the steep steps, and I was racing against a woman in her mid-eighties who was being assisted to walk, and she was beating me.
I found out much later that what I'd most likely been suffering from was altitude sickness, a draining (and sometimes debilitating) ailment I had little knowledge of. I hadn't realised at the time that Cusco was situated even higher than Machu Picchu itself, at 3,600 metres above sea level.
The third episode of note came about from a casual offer of a cigarette lighter during our first hour in Havana, Cuba. An overly friendly, well spoken, young Cuban man asked our party of three whether we had a cigarette lighter. Liam offered up a light, and after sparking up a conversation and his cigarette, the young man attached himself to us as our self-assigned guide.
We all knew this was a bad idea, but our defences were down after a long journey from Quito to Havana, via Panama City. Our self-appointed guide, Carlos, proceeded to take us around Havana, to all of the places tourists don't (and probably for good reason) normally go. After extorting all of the money we had on us at a bar, for one drink each, he then took us to meet his "friend". Carlos' friend, who looked a lot like the deceased rapper Biggie Smalls, appeared to be a pimp. After showing us the hand gun down the front of the pants, "Biggie" tried to force us to purchase elicit substances, or one of the many prostitutes hanging around the empty square we found ourselves in. Luckily we had already been rolled for all of our Cuban Convertible Pesos, and we were released after making an empty promise to return later.
We were now more than fed up with our jaunt around town with Carlos, and started planting the seed to relieve ourselves from him. Carlos was adamant he would drop us to the door of the 'casa' in which we were staying, however, after just as obstinately refusing this (we did not want him to know where we were staying), we left him near his own home and slunk off with our tails between our legs and a few glances over our shoulders. This wasn't the only trouble we got ourselves into in Cuba, but it was the most influential and helped us to be wary of anyone who spoke English, and the power of the Convertible Peso.
This may sounds like a cautionary tale, but we were a group of young, naive travellers passing through some reasonably precarious countries for a period of just over four months, and these were the worst things that happened. This trip on a whole was one of the best experiences of my entire life and travelling career, and I would recommend South America to anyone (although possibly better not to travel as a solo female). I would make several suggestions though: have at least a small understanding of the language, be aware of your surroundings, try not to get yourself into uncomfortable situations or go places you shouldn't, and when they say don't drink the tap water, don't drink the tap water.
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