South America: Backpacking with baby

By Bec Johnston, David King

David King and Bec Johnston discover the special joys of taking a 10-month-old girl on a six-month journey round South America.

Sitting on the lower mountain halfway up to the famous Sugar Loaf overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Photo / David King
Sitting on the lower mountain halfway up to the famous Sugar Loaf overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Photo / David King

Your average person with a new baby assumes their travelling days will be replaced by endless nappies and disturbed sleep for any foreseeable future. For us it was the perfect opportunity to take our 10-month-old girl away for six months of backpacking around South America.

The most common question before we left was definitely, "Have you completely lost your mind!?" Somewhat unsure of our state of sanity ourselves, we took the plunge anyway and within our first 24 hours had evidence both ways.

We had a charmed arrival in Chile, getting whisked into the priority customs queue and being given a larger hostel room in Santiago because of having a baby, so figured we were away laughing. When the confusion of jetlag woke Emelia in the middle of the night though, and she screamed for three hours before we could get her back to sleep, we were feeling a tad less positive. Fortunately the hostel was set in a beautiful old stone building with shutters that created a pitch black room, so we all slept in until 9am (which anyone who's experienced a 10-month-old will know is a miracle).

Santiago was a great place to find our feet in South America. We spent a couple of days taking simple pleasures in discovering what a beautiful city it was, such as coming across the zoo on Cerro San Cristobal (a steep hill right in the central city, accessed by a funicular rail line). Even the basic task of posting a present to a friend kept us entertained thanks to our somewhat sketchy Spanish. It took well over an hour to find a card, get to what seemed like a post office and buy a box 20 times larger than necessary, hoping after all that it would end up in the right place.

Yielding slightly on our normal "play it by ear" approach, we thought with a baby we should organise our first few nights, so had booked flights to Mancora in the far north of Peru. We knew very little about the place, but after a couple of flights and a bus ride we arrived to find a small surf town clinging to the side of an enormous dusty brown desert. Although a little rough around the edges, the appeals of a morning surf were magic - glassy waves, fish jumping out of the water, little brown pelicans skimming across the waves, and even a couple of whales surfacing.

Mancora was also an introduction to the reactions a fair-haired blue-eyed baby in South America would get. A typical example was the 10 giggling teenage girls who shyly asked for a group photo. Then more boldly they each insisted on their own photo, which was fine until about the fifth one when the excited squeals became overwhelming and poor Emelia needed rescuing.

Many people told us they'd never seen a baby with blue eyes, and we truly felt like celebrity minders sometimes ("photo time is over folks, the baby needs a nap"). She made for a fantastic icebreaker though, and we loved having so many people keen to chat to us, despite the language barriers.

With rainy season coming we decided to head south towards Machu Picchu. On the way we came across what became a favourite city, Arequipa, with its beautiful buildings of white volcanic rock, especially the Santa Catalina nuns' convent which takes up an entire block. The convent has an unusual attraction too, which appealed to our love of good food, in that the nuns make excellent cakes.

But it isn't just the nuns who do great food in Arequipa. We managed to find three-course "almuerzo" lunches for as little as a dollar (although guessing the meaning of some words did lead to being served pig trotters on one occasion). And a local tip to try the Nuevo Palamino restaurant provided a fantastic lunch with enormous portions of crawfish, pork ribs, rocoto relleno (stuffed spicy peppers) and queso helado (which despite an uninspiring translation of "cheese icecream" turned out to be a kind of crunchy sorbet with cardamom and cinnamon that was superb).

Our next destination was Machu Picchu. Having dragged ourselves out at 4.45am for an early bus up the mountainside, fended off persistent offers of personal guides at the entrance, and headed up some steep steps simply because they went upwards, we were hoping it would live up to its huge reputation.

All of a sudden we came round a corner and the most awe-inspiring view of the ruins opened out in front of us. Because of the sheer scale of the steep mountains surrounding it, no photo can quite prepare you for the actual experience of standing there.

Rainy season was still thinking about arriving, so everything was covered in mist that came up and down through the morning, making it completely magical.

It was even more special being able to practise walking with Emelia in such a place. Not only that, but we managed to snap a photo for use on her 21st birthday, getting a nappy change among the ancient ruins of the Incas.

From Peru we spent several weeks in Bolivia, with highlights including La Paz - the world's highest capital, set in an enormous bowl ranging from 3100m to over 4000m (higher than Mt Cook, and requiring plenty of acclimatising beforehand). We then headed back north to Ecuador with an important mission - finding an appropriate spot for Emelia's first birthday.

Vilcabamba, a beautiful valley in the south of Ecuador renowned for sublime weather and the longevity of its residents, turned out to be the perfect place. Our main requirements were easily met - a fantastic apple cake became the birthday cake, and we found no shortage of people for a party. With little kids everywhere and general mayhem, it was just like any first birthday (except we hadn't known any of the guests for more than two days, and the grandparents were at home a little miffed).

Heading up the coast to the small surf town of Montanita, we found more of all the things we loved about South America - the brightly coloured buses blaring Latin American music with chickens, kids and elderly women (all of which kept Emelia entertained); extremes in weather, from monsoon-like rain in the night to baking sun drying everything in the morning; and fantastic food, like the most enormous and tasty shrimp empanadas from one restaurant, barbecued corn with pesto butter and parmesan from a street stall and divine apple crumble cake from a third place... good enough to do all over again the next night.

Having always joked we'd be partying it up at Carnaval in Brazil with a baby, we realised it was completely possible. The madness of Rio was not really an option, but a mere 36 hours and three flights through the night took us from Quito to the small coastal town of Pipa in northern Brazil. It had some of the most stunning beaches we've seen, with white sand, big red cliffs and lush green tropical rainforest. At low tide we could walk out 150m with water not much over our ankles - paradise for a one-year-old. A lot of little waves still went over her head sitting there, but a bit of coughing and spluttering was always replaced quickly by a huge "more more" grin.

One night of Carnaval in Pipa may be far more restrained than the enormous week-long party in Rio, but Brazilians anywhere know how to have a great time and the small town literally dances into life from mid afternoon. There's no way you can avoid being swept up in it - Emelia even fell asleep in her frontpack at bedtime while we joined the drumming and dancing in the streets. We found the same kind of thing all over Brazil, whether it's Carnaval time or not. The faintest hint of a drumbeat seems to make people dance, and they love to get out and live life - it's hard not to get caught up in it. Combined with some stunning scenery, it made Brazil a hard place to leave.

The defining part of the trip that made it so special, though, has undoubtedly been taking our baby girl. It's been incredible how many people have come to talk to us, and their friendliness is a stand-out memory. But mostly, because we've had the time for both of us to share those special moments in Emelia's life in such an amazing setting. Things like watching her learn to walk on her own at the beach in Ecuador, or learning to love the water in Brazil have made for an amazing, unique experience we'll treasure forever.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN Airlines operates six days a week from Auckland to Santiago de Chile, with onward connections to most parts of South America.

Getting around: David King and Bec Johnston have a website on their experience backpacking in South America at backpackerbaby.com.

The family paid their own way in South America.

- NZ Herald

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