My journey through South America has thus far been both mentally and physically exhausting - not to mention incredibly rewarding. We have endless 7am wake-ups and see and do so much every day that it is sometimes overwhelming.
We've done a lot of trekking and nights in tents and hammocks, and as we rarely stay in any one place for longer than one or two nights, my big red backpack remains perennially unpacked. So for the end of my jaunt on the continent I was hoping for a bit of relaxation, some warm weather - and even a bit of partying! So Paratay was the perfect place to start.
Our guide - who definitely liked to party - had told us that Paratay was absolutely her favourite place in Brazil, beating Rio for the top spot, so we were expecting big things as we rode into the beach town on our bus.
This chilled town was the perfect antidote to our trip so far, with its quaint old town, beaches and very welcome sunny weather, so we discarded our walking boots in favour of flip-flops to explore. Paratay's cobbled streets are lined with pricey shops, bars and restaurants serving up a variety of cuisine, from Asian to Italian to - of course - Brazilian.
Paratay is the perfect place to go if you want to relax in the sun while indulging yourself with delicious food and drink before samba-ing the night away to a live band - and as such, it was a big departure from our heavy duty trip so far.
On the first day, I walked out of my hostel room to find to my delight some tiny monkeys playing on the balcony opposite. That day some of our group were sailing off on a Caprinha-heavy booze cruise but I took the sober route - surprising myself! - and went kayaking instead. This was my first kayaking experience ever, but luckily the sea was pretty still, the views were incredible and our guide was fantastic. We docked at a few different islands to take a dip in the sea, which was refreshing and fun after four hours of paddling - if slightly murky.
That night we sat down to my favourite meal of the trip so far which was, embarrassingly, an Italian. Feasting on pasta and wine was a welcome break from all the potato-heavy food we'd endured so far in South America. Afterwards we went for a dance at a local samba club where we were the only foreigners and thanks to a live band and cheap drinks the atmosphere was electric. However, the fast foot-moves of samba proved a lot harder to master than salsa (and our salsa was sketchy at best), so we settled for watching the incredible local dancers.
The next morning I had a bit of a bad head - unsurprising given that the previous night was my first experience of good white wine in several weeks and I had overindulged somewhat - and we were off to the beach on a sweltering public bus that packed on more people standing up than it did sitting down. Feeling very faint and nauseous, I decided to have a sit down on the floor until a Brazilian woman insisted I take her seat for the hour's journey. During my time in the country I would learn that this act of kindness is typical of the hospitable Brazilian people. And wow, was that journey worth it!
Our visit to the gorgeous Trinidade beach, with its bars and hippie shops was one of my favourite points of the whole trip. There are three beaches, with the closest, which is lined with cafes, being the most packed, and the furthest away - which requires a bit of a hike - predictably being the quietest. We settled on the second beach as a compromise between the other two. With its yellow sands, and green, mountainous surrounds, it was an amazing place to relax and play in the surf - and was our first real opportunity to do so of the whole trip.
Ilha Grande - actually a small island - was the next stop on our tour of Brazil. Home to numerous lagoons and beaches - most notably Lopez Mendes - this afforded us a few more days of relaxing at beach bars.
Our visit to Lopez Mendes beach was sadly a bit of a letdown after the majesty of Trinidade. We took a ramshackle boat all the way there, and the sea was choppy, to say the least. It turned out this was a sign that bad weather was on its way. Indeed, by the time we had hiked to the beach, the weather had clouded over, it was completely deserted and too cold to go for a swim. However, we were doomed to wait a number of hours on the chilly white sands before our boat returned - and what a journey back that was!
During the 30-minute boat ride, the waves were rising higher than the boat, tossing the vessel around with all eight of us soaked through from the surf and struggling to cling on to our benches. Another boat we were with held back due to the conditions, but ours ploughed right through to the jetty, despite regular screaming from its passengers and one shout of "WE'RE GOING UPHILL!" when we tackled a particularly big wave.
After that experience we were more than ready to catch a boat back to the mainland and head onto Rio - my final stop in South America!
Rio de Janeiro
I don't really know what I had been expecting from Rio, but it absolutely blew my mind. I was anticipating a big, slightly dangerous city with good sightseeing potential thanks to Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain, but looking back at my first blog the only reason I could come up with for wanting to visit was "well, who wouldn't?" However, this incredible city turned out to be my favourite place during my South America trip, and I definitely want to go back and visit it many times in my life.
Pulling into Rio on our bus, we were advised to remove jewellery, as thieves in the city apparently have a habit of riding past on a bike and ripping jewellery from around your neck. I don't know whether it was due to the safety precautions I took, or whether I was just lucky, but I didn't run into trouble during my time there, and at no point did I feel unsafe.
Upon arriving in the city, the first order of business was to go on a tour of the favelas, which are extremely dangerous so you can absolutely not go by yourself. These colourful communities are where the city's poor live, and the labyrinthal streets within the favelas are populated by local children playing, women selling goods, and armed drug gangs.
We visited Rosario Favela - the biggest one in Rio. There was a risk this could feel a bit gratuitous, like poverty tourism, but the company we chose was very ethical and had strong links to the communities, with our guide knowing almost everyone who walked past us. This was also important for our safety - without our guide's great reputation among the people who live there, we could have been in some serious trouble. Not to mention without his knowledge of the area we would have got seriously lost.
During our tour we visited a local art gallery and a school, enjoyed a buffet at a cafe and watched local men perform on the drums. Whenever we were approaching a dangerous spot, our guide would tell us "cameras down" so we knew we were walking past dangerous gangs.
The next day in Rio is what I am now referring to as My Favourite Day of My Trip and Potentially My Life.
We started off on a (literal) high, doing an 8am paraglide from Rio's mountains down to its beach. You have the opportunity to do either a hang glide or a paraglide, but since it was my first time doing anything of the sort I opted for the second - but I'd love to go back and do the more high-octane option. This will set you back around 200 USD, so it's not cheap but in my opinion it is more than worth the money.
Gliding across Rio's blue skies early in the morning and seeing its iconic landmarks from a new perspective was an adrenaline-filled and absolutely unforgettable experience.
Then it was time to head to the statue of Christ the Redeemer to get a closer look. He was bigger and more awe-inspiring than I had imagined, although you have to be prepared to jostle with other tourists and even lie on the floor to get a clear photo of him. From his vantage point you are also privy to a great view of the city. It really is a must-do on any traveller's itinerary.
The next stop was the arty Santa Theresa neighbourhood, which is the only place Amy Winehouse would ever stay while in the city. Its shops sell incredible prints and handicrafts, and it is also home to the colourful Selaron Steps, which are decorated with tiles sent from all around the world. Since we were in Lapa we then popped in at Saint Sebastian Cathedral - a church far departed from the usual Catholic look, but completely stunning in its uniqueness. From outside it looks like a giant beehive, but inside, stained glass windows stretch from floor to ceiling. Catholics visiting Rio should not pass up on the opportunity to go to mass here.
Finally, to round off our incredible day of sightseeing, we took the two cable cars up to Sugar Loaf Mountain (or "the Sugar Loaf" as locals call it). With the sun setting behind the clouds, this was the most spectacular view of Rio we got to enjoy during our time in the city - although we were told the weather was bad, and usually it would be even better! There are restaurants at the top, and passing an evening eating and drinking with this view is not an opportunity to be missed!
After saying goodbye to most of my tour group I headed for a Copacabana Beach Apartment, which I would be recuperating in for a few days before my trek across the globe to Bangkok. Now I have to say that I was expecting quite a lot from this beach thanks to its reputation and the eponymous song based around it, but it was probably the biggest let down of Rio. Admittedly, it is huge and set against a great cityscape, but it's not the sort of beach you feel inspired to spend a day relaxing on.
One piece of advice while in Rio is to be wary of the culture of prostitution. One night we went to a restaurant without checking it out on TripAdvisor first, and - after ordering - quickly realised that every single woman in the establishment was a prostitute. As I was dining with a female friend from my tour, we didn't get hassled, but they would approach every guy who entered, and it certainly wouldn't be a nice place to dine as a couple.
My last night in Rio - and indeed, in South America - was a Friday so we decided to head to party under Lapa's famed arches. This is not an experience for anyone of legal drinking age to miss. The area is packed with pop-up bars, street bands and street food stalls, meaning you can have a great time against this iconic backdrop without having to drop too much cash. If you want to take the party further, there are also plenty of samba clubs around to dance the night away at.
Ciao, ciao South America
It is safe to say my time on the continent completely surpassed my expectations, particularly when it came to the scenery at Colca Canyon in Peru's highlands, around Machu Picchu and around Bolivia's salt flats: some of it truly looked too beautiful to exist. I was also proud of successfully tackling the challenges I'd faced: from navigating farmwork and the home stay on the banks of Lake Titicaca to roughing it on the Salt Flats and dealing with the intense bug life in the Pantanal.
However, my proudest achievement is unquestionably the one thing I'd been dreading the most when jetting off from Heathrow: hiking the four-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, in particular reaching the top of Dead Woman's Pass.
So while most of my travel companions are flying back to their home nations, I'll be taking three flights from Rio to Bangkok for four months of travelling around Asia, which will present a whole new set of travel challenges. Firstly, having said goodbye to my tour, I'll be travelling solo for the first time, and having to work out how to get from A to B and where to stay all on my own.
However, I feel like my two months in South America has prepared me well for this challenge, and I have a familiar starting point in Bangkok - having visited it twice previously. Largely, I'm inspired and excited to get out there and prove my travelling mettle, taking every opportunity that Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia throw at me, and not being scared to change my itinerary if I see something new I want to discover.