A traveler’s story: 2 years backpacking South America

Reading time: 10 min.
Looking for inspiration?

Starting with this year we want to do something new, interview other travelers and share their stories with you.

Whether you want to take a sabbatical, move to another country, or just travel off the beaten path, we hope they will convince you to finally take the leap.

Here is the story of Valentin Panait. He started his sabbatical in the same time with us, and continued his South American adventure way beyond the typical touristic boundaries and way longer than a regular gap year.

Let’s see how he did it! ๐Ÿ˜€

1.Hello Vali, tell us a bit about yourself!

V: I was born at the seaside in Constanta (Romania) 33 years ago in a regular family. I was pretty chill and serious when I was little. For university, I went to Bucharest and I continued to live there (and I still do). Somewhere along the way I discovered the mountains and running, two things that I will never get tired of.


2.How/why did you decide to take a sabbatical?

V: It wasn’t a logical decision, to be honest. I was talking to a friend of mine who doesn’t like to travel alone to do a vacation together (normal one, like 3-4 weeks). When she said “let’s go to Cuba”, I decided on the spot that after spending 1 month with her there, I will go on my own in South America afterwards. Initially, I should have stayed 1 month in Cuba and half a year in South America. But on the way, I changed my mind and stayed for almost 2 years.


3. What was your itinerary?

V: Besides “I go to Cuba and from there I’ll take a plane to Ushuaia (south of Argentina) and from there I’ll make my way up to Colombia”, I had nothing more.

When I arrived in Ushuaia, I had no clue what would be the next place I’ll go. I just asked around what people do from there. ๐Ÿ™‚


4. Favorite country and why?

V: Hard to pick. Latin America is pretty similar, a big nice country. I really liked Patagonia, so I have to say the south of Chile is superb! I had a really nice time there. And all the people are friendly, but I felt the Argentinians are the most! I like their accent and their openness.


5. What advice can you share for those who want to travel long term but are scared to take the leap?

V: It is a trap to compare yourself from today with someone who did it. If you had told me in the day I left that in a year I’d still be in South America, in a tent, in the middle of nowhere, I would have not believed you.

Also, I think there is not a universal recipe. We are different, we learn in different ways. Maybe not everyone should go traveling for a long time. It is better to listen to your inner being. ๐Ÿ™‚
But if you have the feeling you should do it, just go! You will improvise along the way, the people are friendly (no matter the country).
The news makes us a bit paranoic, but from experience, we tend to focus on the extraordinary. Nobody says that maybe 10 million people hitchhiked today. But for sure you will see the news if an unfortunate event will happen to one of them.


6. What has been your most memorable โ€˜out of my comfort zoneโ€™ experience?

V: Hitchhiking was a really good lesson for me.

I think it’s a common trade for people to be afraid of rejection. So staying with your hand up and being “rejected” by the passing cars makes you wonder. From “do I look shady” to “maybe they are like me when I wasn’t picking people up” to “maybe they live close by” and so on. And you realize that rejection is just an answer at your “question”.
When you pass the threshold of not being afraid to ask is kind of liberating. You want something? Ask for it. Getting a “no” is way better than staying anxious and wondering what would be the actual answer.


7.How did you finance your journey?

V: I would say the classical joke: selling drugs :))
But the truth is that I did it with what I saved. When I decided not to take the flight back I was without a return date, so I was thinking that it would be great to do some jobs outside programming. In the end, I said I just want to travel and, if I still have money, I won’t stop to work.

Also, I did a bit of freelancing when I stayed a bit longer at a friend in Santiago.
But from what I saw, if you have two hands and some will, you won’t be hungry. Just asking around you will easily find jobs. For example, knowing English in Latin America is a big plus, so you can be a waiter, working in hostels, maybe be a guide.


8. A saving tip you can give to anyone trying to save up for a sabbatical?

V: Saving is a good habit no matter if you want to travel or not. I really enjoy the mental comfort of knowing that you are covered in case something happens.
Also, traveling can be really, REALLY cheap.
From my experience you need money for 4 categories:
– transportation
– accommodation
– food
– entrances at different parks
And you can cut the cost to almost zero.
For transportation, you can hitchhike. I did it mostly in Chile and Argentina and it was a brilliant experience. Plus, nothing beats going in the back of the pickup truck. ๐Ÿ™‚
For accommodation, you can do Couchsurfing and camp. I had wonderful experiences with CS, I still am in contact with some of them.
For food, you can do recycling. Basically go to the vegetable stores and ask them if they have products that they can’t sell. For example, a damaged apple won’t be bought. Although 95% of it is good.
And for entrances, you can ask if they can let you in for free, or volunteer to do some work in exchange for the entry.
The last two I didn’t do, but I know people that successfully did. For the first two, I guarantee they work. ๐Ÿ™‚


9. What’s the best part of long term traveling in your opinion?

V: The best plan is having no plan. I wanted to go in 6 months from the south to the north of South America. And after 10 months I was actually in the same spot I was on day 6 of the trip.
Also, I was reading in a book that we are afraid of the unknown, and doing plans is feeding our illusion that we are in charge.
Going with the flow for me is the best approach. Of course, when I went hiking I planned the food for the days and did a bit of research before. But I actually changed the route, following on the spot recommendations.
Having all set up from the beginning going on this path you chose, feels like taking away from the beauty of the experience. Sometimes I was thinking that the things I saw and experienced would have been impossible to plan, for the simple reason there were some that I never imagined.
Bottom line, the universe knows better how to do a plan. :)) Just sit back and enjoy the ride!


10.Highlights on the road – name a few places/experiences.

V: El Chalten in Argentina is a superb place. A lot of mountains! There is a 4-day trekking that gets you to the Continental Ice Fields. I don’t have the words to describe the beauty of the landscape.
Iguazu is a magical place. The waterfall is actually made up of more than 200… breathtaking.
In Peru, I liked the Huayhuash trekking. 8 days with awesome mountains, thermal waters, a big part of it at more than 4000 meters above the sea level.
Carretera Austral was never on my radar but I did it. I wanted to see the Chilian Patagonia and it is the only road there. ๐Ÿ™‚ The remoteness of the villages, the mountains, the hitchhiking, the people! Just awesome.
The jungle in Bolivia is crazy! I never thought I will be counting 100 crocodiles in 5 minutes. Or look for anacondas.
Salar de Uyuni is another thing that blows your mind. Again, no words to describe it! It must be seen.
In Paraguay, I felt great. Few people go there. It is not that touristic, but I enjoyed the people and the landscape. There is also a boat that goes up and down the Paraguay River, it surely has a top spot in my heart.
In Uruguay, I liked Cabo Polonio, a hippie village, really chill and disconnected.
And from Colombia, I would pick Minca, a small village in the forest, close to the sea. I will never forget the hike I did to a mountain closeby (more or less close). How I slept in the shelter of the army, the chat I had with the guards there. And the bolts of lightning hitting the antennas. ๐Ÿ™‚


11.What did you miss from home?

V: Hard to say. I feel that it all passed fast, it is like I left for two months. So I can’t say I missed a lot of things. Also, i am pretty adaptable, so I was good. ๐Ÿ™‚

12.What’s next?

V: Who knows, I go with the flow!

For now, I got a job and I am curious if I can keep my inner balance in the concrete jungle. So far so good!
Spring is coming so I want to go to the mountains to do trail running and hiking as often as I can.
Do I want to do this kind of journey again? The answer is yes. ๐Ÿ™‚ I really liked the feeling of being independent and interdependent.

Independent, because you know you can live with little. And that you are able to survive with what you have in the backpack easily.
Interdependent, because you are connected with the others and share. They help you without wanting nothing in return, you give back without expecting anything.


13.What did you learn about yourself?

V: I still ask myself the same question. ๐Ÿ™‚
I feel more relaxed after this time. I know that each problem has a solution.
I accept that I don’t control the things that come into my life, but I control how I react at those things.
I know that a problem is actually a lesson in disguise. And each lesson brings inner richness.
I know that no one was born running. All of us first crawled, then walked really funny. And after some time we started to run slowly. And in the end, we do marathons. Somewhere along the way comes the fear of being laughed at when we learn and we “don’t know” stuff. Which is a big obstacle in our evolution and kills the inner curiosity. So I hope I got rid of this mindset, and I allowed myself to be “beginner” and not feel bad about it.

14.Any other question you wanted to be asked?

V: I will leave here just a piece of advice. For me, an important part of the journey was the people. More than 8 days of hiking in Peru were along with the Ukrainian couple I spent time with. When I think of Iguazu and how great it was, I also remember the Colombian I met there.

What helped me connect better was speaking the language. Which I learned there, in Latin America. By the way, I don’t consider myself an easy-to-learn-languages person, so I’ll say the classical clichรฉ: if I did it, anyone can. But i felt that speaking the language of the place, made sharing a lot richer.

15. If your travel story had a title, what would that be?

V: Maybe “the search of the unplannable” since I talked that much of going with the flow. ๐Ÿ™‚

Photos source: personal archive
Thank you for sharing your adventure, Vali. Cheers for many more to come!

11 thoughts on “A traveler’s story: 2 years backpacking South America

    1. Awww i know what you mean! We stayed there for only 3 months, but our friend Vali, whom we interviewed in this article, had a hell of an adventure for almost 2 years. ๐Ÿ˜ That mountain is Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain in Peru. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks for dropping by, and hopefully you will reach South America again. I hope that too!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! All the credit goes to our friend Vali who had the courage to stay on the road for 2 years ๐Ÿ˜‰ i also stayed for nearly 3 months and it wasn’t enough!!! I get you hahahaha๐Ÿ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.