An avid adventurer, once owner of incredible, luscious locks, and a real inspiration to me, I met Ash back in late 2014, soon after first arriving into Sucre, Bolivia. I didn’t know this at the time, but his journey had already been fairly incredible. 20 months previously, he’d arrived in South America without a plan. Instead, he’s committed to leaving his experiences open to the travel gods – and the others he would meet along the way.
Although he may have lost the flowing, golden locks that will forever have a place in my heart, he continues to be one of the most adventurous people that I have met in all of my travels. He’s currently cycling the Camino de Santiago as he raises money to support a school in Nepal where he’ll soon be volunteering.
He kindly took some time out from his trip to catch up with me and talk in more depth about all of his fascinating experiences during his 20 months travelling in South America.
What itinerary did you have when you first arrived in South America and how did it develop?
I arrived in Santiago de Chile initially – and quite deliberately – with no mobile phone, no plans and no guide book. I wanted to see what was going to happen. But I remember getting off the plane, speaking zero Spanish, getting the bus to the centre of the city and walking around, wondering what I’d let myself in for.
But after finding a hostel for the first night, I made friends with the couch surfing community. I was offered, if I could improve my Spanish quickly enough, to go and work in the mountains in a skiing resort. However I ended up meeting within the next few days two guys who would soon become my long term travel companions; Arnold and Mourad.
We hit it off straight away and within the first day of meeting Arnold, he’d offered me to go and volunteer and help him build his eco-lodge in the south of Santiago, in a little village called Curanipe. He wanted to pay for all the food and wine (I wouldn’t let him) and for the next month or so we built a lodge. During this time, we started formulating a plan to go north on motorbikes which is something that all of us really wanted to do.
We ended up heading into Santiago and buying the cheapest motorbikes would could – new but $600, 150cc things. It was the day that there were riots in Santiago and I remember fighting through the streets on my first motorbike ride and having tea gas in my eyes – so that was definitely a strange start.
We got all the paperwork sorted down in Curanipe, waved goodbye, and set off a month and a halfish after I arrived in South America. The plan was to get to Colombia, or however far we could go.
Wow, so what was it like seeing South America by motorbike?
The itinerary was really loose, but we set north towards Colombia because Arnold had a hankering to go there. We ended up travelling north through Peru and Ecuador before arriving at our furthest country, Colombia.
We even managed to visit Machu Picchu on bike, finding the cheapest way possible. We rode up to the dam and then walked by night until we arrived the next morning into the central square of the nearby town, Aguas Calientes. There were dogs everywhere. That night, we slept on a platform in the square, hardly getting any sleep, before waking the next morning to climb up to Machu Picchu.
As we travelled, we let the itinerary take care of itself. We often met people who suggested things and everything was by mutual agreement. At times we would go off by ourselves; at one point I went to Cuba because I’d always wanted to explore there. Throughout the motorbike adventure, I couch surfed as much as I could to save money, we also camped and would have bbqs under the sunset and everything.
How did your plans develop after you ended the trip in Colombia?
My itinerary really changed for the better thanks to someone I’d previously met on the road called Christophe. He had arrived one day in Curanipe before we’d started the trip. He was a French guy and introduced himself with a really thick French accent:
“I’m Christophe. I’m coming on your motorbike trip”.
I asked him where his bike was and his response was simple: “I’m coming on the back with you!”
So all the way up to Chile he had sat on the back of my bike, occasionally driving it. I found out that he was a sailor and he owned his own yacht and I’d offered that, if he ever needed crew, then I would love to, having sailed a little in England. And he offered for me to head down to Patagonia with him and sail his yacht which he chartered out to tourists.
Of course I said yes. None of this would have happened if I’d had a strict itinerary.
What adventures did you have on board?
So we sailed from Puerto Montt to Ushuaia and then around Cape Horn and all the little islets there, including along the Beagle Channel. I spent three months in total working on his yacht and I learned as I went. I had a brilliant time; sometimes it was ridiculously scary with the storms down at the bottom of the world in Tierra del Fuego.
Sailing the yacht in Patagonia definitely stands out as one of my favourite experiences. One of my main jobs was that when we arrived at a natural harbour, as some of the older clients weren’t able to go out on the dingy, I had to row out as quickly as I could, attach all the lines, and then row back in. Often this was in high winds and all the while Christophe, the captain, was trying to keep the boat steady, sometimes under a lot of stress. It was really adventurous and sometimes dangerous down there.
However, that was offset by the fact that by some mornings I’d wake up and there would be pods of dolphins with us. I remember once I heard the sound of spray and saw a huge humpback whale go past in the evening gloom. It went down again and I thought wow. That was wonderful. But then it came up and did a full breach onto its left side. I think I had a tear in my eye at the point. We were nearing the end of the first month on the sea and I knew the port was close – we hadn’t seen many humans for quite a long time – and I think that was one of my favourite and most outstanding experiences from all of South America.
Did you have any other stand out moments during your travels?
I also visited Brazil during the world cup season, heading up to reach the mouth of the Amazon. That was one of my favourite experiences actually, travelling through the Amazon with my hammock.
This including finding a place called Alto du Chau. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was actually a nudist colony! I spent a few days there; it was really in the wild. I had monkeys coming through in the morning past my hammock and it was only accessible by long tail boat through a river. I strung my hammock up in a little hut that had a tarantula at one end and that kept me company. I also remember the first morning really clearly: I was looking down at an ant colony and then looked up at this woman walking towards me completely naked. I felt really embarrassed with all my clothes on so the next few days I went naked.
It was such a wonderful experience. They didn’t have much – they didn’t have any cars or anything from the outside world. But they didn’t need much. It was just a community of mums and a few fathers bringing up their children in seclusion.
What travel advice would you give to others for South America?
Throughout South America I used couch surfing a lot. For me, it’s not about “free” accommodation. I always cook for my hosts and I take them out for drinks so I think it ends up being possibly more expensive than staying in a hostel.
However, the quality of the experiences I’ve had via couch surfing time and time again have been so much more rewarding than the typical hostel experiences you have. You know, the conversation: “So, how long have you been travelling for?” and“where are you going next?” – the types of conversations you fall into but never end up making a connection with these people. I think the Beehive (where Ash and I met in Sucre) was the exception to that as it was a close community, but that was the exception, because it wasn’t the usual drunken crowd you find in hostels.
So yeh, I think that couch surfing is a wonderful thing to use – just be generous and don’t look at it as a free thing. Instead, look at it as an experience of staying with locals.
What volunteering did you do during your time travelling?
My initial experience was WOOFing with Arnold – building the eco lodge in Chile for a month. The food was paid for and the friendship was wonderful.
The next experience was in Bolivia for Inti Wari Yassi, a wildlife rehabilitation centre based in Parque Madidi near Rurrenabauqe in the Bolivian Amazon. I paid a little money for food and upkeep. I was there with a lot of girls and I was the only guy. I taught the girls how to ride motorbikes! Our job was to look after the pumas, Simba and Sunco. We walked them, cleared the jungle for walks for them, fed them, groomed them, but always had respect for them because they were wild animals and it was a case of giving them the best life possible. I wrote something recently for you about that.
My final experience of volunteering was where you and I met – at The Beehive project in Sucre, Bolivia. There, I worked for 3 or 4 hours a day either in construction of the new hostel. It was rewarding as we had to make it ready in a very short period of time with lots of rubble to clear and painting to do. After it was finished, I would help in the hostel, making the famous breakfast (although another volunteer, Anna, was much better at it than me!) and my bed and board was paid for. It was a very rewarding volunteering experience.
What did South America teach you and how did it change you?
I learned a lot: to begin with, I began learning Spanish which I’m still learning to date here in Spain. For anyone wanting to go to South America, it’s always good advice to spend time somewhere and learn the language.
Another thing I learned was how you should take your time as much as possible. Go slowly, enjoy the countryside, and if you can, go by your own means, whether bicycle, motorbike, car rental or whatever. There are many many wonderful places to stop along the way that aren’t a “destination”; they aren’t like the Machu Picchus of the world. The deserts through Chile or the mountains in Peru – these are things that are worth stopping for.
I also learned to dance, taking lessons both in Colombia and in Bolivia. I learned to sail, something it’s possible to do if you go and hang around the harbour in Ushuaia or in Puerto Montt. I learned to motorbike properly and be self-proficient and independent and trusting in other people; South American people are hugely friendly. It was also a great lesson in not planning too much and letting South America take me places.
Yeh, she certainly did take you to some incredible places! So what have you been up to since South America and what are your travel plans for the future?
After South America I went back to England knowing that I wanted a different vocation. I took a CELTA and learned to be an English teacher then looked for work in a Spanish-speaking country, which is how I’ve ended up in Spain. I’ve been working in the north, in the Basque country for the last 7 months and have recently finished my contract. I decided not to stay on for another year as I wanted to do more volunteering work.
I’ll be heading over to Nepal in January to volunteer and this is why I’m now cycling through Northern Spain as I’m trying to raise money for the school I’ll be working at! I actually passed through in September 2012 when I was travelling before, and this time I’m going to be helping to rebuild the school as it was damaged in the earthquake, and in my spare time I’ll be teaching English.
But for now, I’m off to continue cycling!
If you want to help Ash with his fundraising for the school in Nepal, please visit his Go Fund Me page where he’s hoping to raise £1000 pounds. He’s over half way there, but any donations will be very gratefully received!
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