From watching shooting stars from a luxury eco-lodge in the Chilean Atacama desert, zip-wiring over the Amazon jungle canopy, spotting pretty flamingos on lakes as red as blood, to staying with a Bolivian family on an island made of reeds, South America will always hold a piece of our hearts.
Being avid travellers and adventurers, we wanted our honeymoon to pack the perfect combination of wilderness and civilisation, history and nature, spiritual reflection and exploration, adrenaline and relaxation. We both knew we would never quite have been content with the standard Dubai and the Maldives-esque trip, and really hoped for our honeymoon to well and truly be the holiday of a lifetime, in every way.
I had dreamt of exploring the Amazon jungle from childhood, armed with a big stick to hack apart the dense foliage and a compass to guide me, and my husband had always wanted to marvel at the ancient wonder that is Machu Picchu as well as cycle down Death Road (our parents didn’t think that the best way to begin a marriage but hey), so South America seemed a no-brainer. We reassured them to the best of our ability that we would try our hardest not to get kidnapped and held for ransom, and my husband almost bought a spade so he could search for any remnants of Pablo’s buried cash. We were both fortunate enough to have three weeks off work and in excitement, though it only appropriate to visit three countries during that time. We chose Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, and although we have travelled to many other locations over the years since, remembering that epic trip still brings butterflies, huge smiles, and nostalgia back.
I began learning Spanish in the months before, purchased all the Lonely Planet guides and lapped up every blog post I could lay eyes on. And of course, saving our pennies! We booked our flights to Lima the capital of Peru, and our passes to access Machu Picchu, and absolutely nothing else beforehand. We roughly drew up the most jam-packed and exciting itinerary we could think of, but allowed for the prospect of spontaneity as we had both experienced the beauty of just going with the flow, talking to locals and truly experiencing the real, raw culture of a place, something that can never truly be planned using internet from another continent.
While in Peru…
We booked our first night in Lima a few hours before our flight left the UK, and armed with beginners Spanish, camera, sunglasses, insect repellent, hiking boots and a year’s supply of Oreos, set off for the first time to this magnificent continent. After a brief stop in Madrid (where we forgot about the time difference whilst caught up exploring the city and nearly missed our onward flight, NB – not advised) we got to Lima, the second driest capital city in the world.
A densely populated metropolis perched atop grand cliffs overlooking the Pacific ocean, it possessed a tropical and chaotic sophistication. Colonial architecture and huge museums sit beside edgy art galleries and bustling, world-renowned restaurants. We explored the vast parks, full of cats and vibrant flowers, before watching the sunset over the ocean during a seafood dinner.
From there we flew to Cuzco, what was once the centre of the Incan civilisation. It is the gateway to the Sacred Valley and mystical Machu Picchu. It is like stepping back in time not just to the Spanish conquest, but far further, to the fascinating realm of Andean culture of old. The cobbled streets are adorned with Peruvian textiles for sale, a visual feast for colour and pattern junkies like myself. The city is located at very high altitude and visitors often experience altitude sickness, so regular cups of coca tea are a must (yes the leaves are from the same plant as cocaine is produced but is chemically unrelated and entirely non-intoxicating). A lovely little place called Jack’s café did the most delicious organic and locally sourced food, highly recommended to all who travel to Cuzco. After making friends with a local tour guide, we explored The Sacred Valley, visited a local textiles cooperative and animal sanctuary, before catching a train (which served the most deliciously creamy warm almond milk) from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Caliente, the closest point to Machu Picchu.
I cannot do Machu Picchu justice in words. We were fortunate enough to have perfect weather and not too many crowds, and the morning air was laden with a sense of mystery and grandeur I have never experienced anywhere else.
The light was golden and heavy and there were butterflies the size of my hand floating about, finally beholding this ancient wonder of the world was breath-taking. Wandering the Incan trail truly was the experience of a lifetime, dating to the mid-1400’s, this bizarre, incredibly advanced marvel of limestone construction was ticked off our bucket list.
From there we travelled to Puerto Maldonado in Madre De Dios, the door to the Amazon Jungle from Peru. I don’t actually think I’d ever been quite as excited as I was on reaching the city on the Basin of the rainforest, with it’s colourful, laid back, almost Caribbean vibes, knowing we were well and truly about to enter the biggest, and tragically, rapidly disappearing Amazon forest.
Our home for the next four nights sat on the bank of the winding Amazon river, a wooden eco-lodge, complete with squawking parrots flying about and hammocks out front. We spent the next three days piranha fishing, feeding wild monkeys, spotting caymans and other exotic species and trekking through the thick of the jungle. We had an amazing guide, who was born into an Amazonian tribe and knew the tricks to navigate the beautiful but deadly terrain like the back of his hand.
He told us of how his father remembered when the company ‘Good Year’ arrived 10 years ago in search of rubber and enslaved tribesmen to work for them, treating them like animals, literally forcing them into cages to be transported. He spoke of the time he had got lost in the jungle aged 13 and survived only through crawling into a tree trunk and covering himself with palm leaves, praying no tarantulas or snakes would be tempted by him. He told us intriguing folktales, showed us how to forage and served us delicious food cooked in banana leaves.
We zip wired high over the canopy (on a very old and precarious looking device!) and saw the most fantastic and bizarre animals that we could not have imagined in our wildest dreams. Aside from finding a tarantula in our bathroom on the first night, and a lizard in the toilet on the last, it was the most enchanting, mesmerising and incredible experience we had.
I didn’t want to leave. There is something hypnotic about the jungle, more vibrant and teeming with beauty than anywhere else, but also utterly lethal. Lush, raw and silently deadly, I’m pretty sure I will remain fascinated and craving more till I die. Twice the area of India, you can argue that the river is the life source of the planet, responsible for much of the air, weather, and water we depend on. We would jump at the opportunity to go back and even just writing this is giving me goosebumps!
While in Bolivia…
From the Amazon we travelled to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and spent two nights with a family with Incan ancestry, who spoke no Spanish at all. On the beautiful Amantani island, with no electricity or internet, we truly realised what we in the western world miss out on. The simplicity, calm and peacefulness that these people retain are more enviable than any of the convenient, instantaneous, advanced contraptions and systems our lives boast. We cooked with them, attended their celebrations and wore their traditional outfits, and gained a real insight into true Bolivian culture. The artificially constructed reed islands on Lake Titicaca were particularly interesting, as feats of engineering and also the fact that the residents live by a matriarchal system, where the women of the community make all the decisions!
After a few days in the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, which is nestled in a bowl-shaped valley, crazy carnival-like by day and rather mesmerising by night, we began our salt flats tour at Uyuni. We made ourselves at home in the 4×4 vehicle that we would be in for a fair proportion of the next four days and began the tour at the famous train graveyard, a hauntingly beautiful area full of rusted trains, and tracks, abandoned because of colonial politics. The afternoon was spent on the salt flats themselves, the flattest place in the entire world. Ten billion tons of salt packed into a crust on the surface of the earth, a most surreal, mind-bending real-life optical illusion. Due to a crystallography principle, the landscape consists of endless salt hexagons reaching the horizon and far beyond. Unnerving, meditative and absolutely stunning all at once, the sunset across the flats was one of those sights that it is impossible to forget. When it rains, the ground transforms into an enormously majestic mirror, as if the sky has fallen perfectly down from its heights into a glimmering celestial carpet.
Over the following days, we saw pink lagoons, multi-coloured lakes cluttered with flamingos, thermal springs, geysers, desert, active volcanoes, canyons, caves and cactus islands. Every few hours as an impossible new landscape revealed itself, we were left speechless, praising God and entirely in awe of the sheer immensity of what He has put on this planet. It went in slow motion yet felt like a whirlwind all at once.
While in Chile…
Eventually, we crossed the border into the North of Chile for our final few days. We stayed in a gorgeous eco-friendly ethno lodge in the Atacama desert. Made from red clay, and adorned with natural fibres and textures, it was the perfect combination of earthiness and luxury.
A private garden space with sun loungers made it possible for this hijabi to truly sunbathe (for like the first time ever), and we managed to slot in some real relaxation alongside cycling through the spectacular Death Valley and Moon Valley. San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most charming, quirky little towns I’ve ever visited. The earthy, kitsch boho atmosphere echoes through every organic eatery and little shop, while the white plastered walls and abundant cacti keep the desert-ness real.
A question lots of Muslim friends asked us was about not being able to find halal meat while abroad, and no, although we did find two tiny mosques during our time there, we abstained from meat entirely (and remained very much alive) as there were no halal options. Instead, we ended up trying delicious vegetables, grains and dishes we had never heard of, truly experiencing local culture, and honestly did not miss out. Many people asked me about and even complimented my headscarf and we had many pleasant, interesting conversations with South Americans and people from around the world about Islam and the UK.
Our minds, eyes, hearts, and horizons were broadened with every step we took and we would highly recommend other Muslim couples to be brave and try something different. Engage your inner traveller, do your research, open yourself to the wonders God has placed in the world, and insha’Allah, you will not regret it! Speak to locals, sign up for new experiences, reflect on not only the journey you are physically making but also the inner journey you undeniably embark on. Take time to meditate, to ponder, to soak up. Discuss the joys that unfold unto you with your spouse and know that those moments are unique and precious gems that only the two of you share. What more perfect a way to connect two souls at the beginning of their earthly union than to discover some small corner of the complex, layered and beautiful world God has gifted you?
“Sojourn/travel in the land and see how He originated creation, then Allah bringeth forth the later growth. Lo! Allah is Able to do all things.” – Surah Ankabut (29.20)
Hiba is an Oxford graduate Physicist/Engineer by academic background and an author by soul. Her first commissioned children's book was published in 2019 by Penguin RandomHouse, and she is working on her first novel. Also a freelance journalist, she has written for The Independent and blogged for HuffPost, alongside having worked as a Physics teacher and Refugee Advocate at The Children's Society. Founder of global ethical brand Kusafiri, you will find her either traveling the world or saving money to travel the world. She loves quantum Physics, planting things and painting in watercolours. She especially loves sweetshops and good grammar. Hiba is currently interning at the United Nations and studying an MA at Soas, She has recently released her first picture book: The Little War Cat a couple of months ago with Macmillan Children's Books. Twitter & IG: @Hibanoorkhan1