As the sun rose over the Argentinian lake district, illuminating the snow-capped mountain valleys and vast lakes, my partner Stu and I watched from the doorway of our camping lodge.
We cuddled our seven-month-old daughter Poppy as we gazed in awe at the view.
The day before we’d hiked seven hours with Poppy on our shoulders to reach this spot for the sunrise over the mountain town of Bariloche – and it had been worth it for this moment.
I finally felt that my dream – to spend my maternity leave backpacking around South America – had become a reality.
I realise few couples would consider whisking their new baby off to go travelling.
But Stu, 33, and I have always loved travelling across South East Asia, so we’ve never believed having children was a reason to stop — and South America has always been on our bucket list.
From the moment Stu and I discussed starting a family several years ago, I’d always insisted we spend our parental leave travelling.
With my full-time job as a midwife and Stu’s a structural engineer, I realised the opportunity for us both to take a year off work with some statutory pay wouldn’t come round very often.
So when I fell pregnant in November 2020, we started saving for our trip.
Yet I was under no illusions that backpacking with a baby would be easy – it would be a far cry away from our routine and comfortable home in Turnpike Lane, London.
But it felt worth it for the experiences we’d share as a new family.
So while most people would be decorating a nursery, we were planning how we could safely travel from Rio, in southern Brazil, all the way through Argentina, Patagonia and on through Central and North America before flying home from Canada.
We knew we could pack only what we could carry – a lightweight travel cot and baby backpack and a few clothes. We decided that when our baby was six weeks old, we’d leave the UK.
I’d be lying if said we weren’t nervous. We planned as much as we could, but in reality, we had no idea what our trip would actually be like. I didn’t know how my body would feel after giving birth either, or if I really would want to go once our baby arrived.
So we decided not to put too much pressure ourselves and to leave booking our trip until our baby was born.
My pregnancy came with its challenges. Scans revealed our daughter was breech, so I’d need a C-section to deliver her safely.
Then, soon after Poppy was born in July last year, Stu started getting painful headaches.
At first, he put it down to sleep deprivation — but when he suffered dizzy spells and vomiting, he was referred for a brain scan that August.
I’ll never forget the moment he called me afterwards.
‘I’ve got a brain tumour, I need emergency surgery,’ he said.
My whole world fell apart, like something out of a nightmare.
There was a chance Stu’s tumour was cancerous — I was terrified we’d lose him.
Stu stayed incredibly strong and that week he had surgery to remove the tumour.
Thankfully, a biopsy revealed it was benign.
Since Stu had a long road to recovery we shelved our travel plans — and amazingly, by the time Poppy was six months, Stu had made a full recovery.
So we decided to go for it, finally boarding a plane to Rio earlier this year.
Immediately, we were immersed in the city’s thriving party atmosphere, stunning beaches and mountain scenery.
There was no looking back. For Poppy, travelling through South America has been an incredible sensory experience. She’s seen wild monkeys, sloths and hummingbirds.
We took her to see glaciers and waterfalls and to swim in turquoise lakes in Belize. We’ve hiked to Mayan ruins and relaxed on deserted beaches. Poppy’s babbled at local children we met along the way. And not once have we felt uneasy on our trip.
All the people we’ve encountered have cooed over Poppy and couldn’t have been kinder or more helpful.
But it’s not always rosy – we co-sleep with Poppy, so often end up crammed together in tiny beds.
Like most new parents, we’re constantly sleep deprived – but I think we’d probably be just as exhausted if we were at home.
We’ve learnt some valuable lessons along the way, like how planning too far ahead or cramming too much in doesn’t work – babies can be unpredictable. So now we book accommodation the day before, with the option to cancel if our plans change.
Journeys of more than three hours by bus or train at a time are also no-no; Poppy gets restless. Travelling during her naps works best.
Above all, we’ve learned to rest when we need it. We aren’t keeping to a fixed schedule, so if we like somewhere, we often stay longer to reset for a few days.
Now, we’re in Mexico and taking Poppy to see the colourful street art and glorious beaches.
I’d urge any new parents to consider using parental leave to travel – babies can fly for free and are very portable, all you need is a sling! Not to mention the rare opportunity for time off work together. It’s not always easy, but it’s so worth it.
Our trip has been the most incredible bonding experience for our family.
Above all, when Poppy is older, I can’t wait to tell her all about the adventure that was her first year.
You can follow Milly on Instagram @wildtravelchild
As told to Bethan King
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