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Salsa, Samba & Sombreros - Stories of South America

For years Jody Bennett had dreamt of taking time out by putting on a backpack and exploring the unknown. Tired of the daily routine of life and ready for an adventure, she decided it was now or never to tick off places she’d always wanted to visit. Top of her list: South America.

In the lead up to her overseas adventure, Jody worked hard, sacrificed going to concerts with friends and saved every spare penny she could to put towards her travel budget. Motivation came through a reminder note she posted in her bedroom: “$50 = 1 day in South America!”

She did all of her own organising and itinerary planning: trawling through guide books such as Lonely Planet and Insight Guides; spending countless hours searching online to get travel tips, ideas and top spots to visit as well as seeking advice from friends who had also travelled to South America.

And the rest Jody made up while on the road chatting to other travellers and using local websites.
Bags packed, money saved and the adventure began with her arrival in Buenos Aires, followed by Argentina and then north up the ‘Gringo Trail’ through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Cuba and finally, Chile.

Throughout months of travelling, Jody had many “pinch yourself” moments. One in particular was spotting a toucan in the wild on the boat ride to see the Iguazu Falls. “Turning the corner, the falls opened up before us. It was such a surreal moment to see them in person — the mist from the falls and the sheer enormity of them is breathtaking!”

Another highlight was San Andreas Island, Colombia — an island stuck between the past and present. Colonised by the English, the older generation of residents all speak English, yet the children only speak Spanish. Here days were spent diving in the crystal clear tropical water, devouring the readily available seafood and listening to island tales of the inspiring and friendly locals.

Jody reflected on how many incredible, out-there experiences she had along the way that she would never have had back home in Australia. Riding on a Vespa through the rickety streets of San Andreas Island; paying a mere $5 to swim in the Havana Libre Hotel’s rooftop pool while sipping cheap Cuban cocktails and watching salsa dancing Cubans; sleeping out under the stars while cruising to the Galapagos Islands and meeting the “locals” — tortoises, seals, penguins and the stunning Blue Footed Booby.

She admits though, that it’s not always smooth sailing while being on the road. A bad case of food poisoning in Bolivia set her adventure back a whole week. Lack of clean clothing, long cold bus rides, limited food choices, barriers of not speaking the local language, the constant need to monitor bags and continuous budgeting were all challenges she faced. Jody adds that third world poverty was hard to witness, particularly in elderly people, and that missing family and friends, birthdays and the dramas of daily life made some days tougher than others.

In spite of these challenges, a gap year away comes highly recommended by her: “Travel is probably the most important thing you can do in life. Learn to see the world through the eyes of another culture, another country, another language. It is a privilege and something I am so grateful I was able to do. It is amazing how small your hometown seems to have become once you return.”