It is 5.45am in a dusty bus terminal somewhere near the Chile / Peru border. We are the only gringos in town.
Trying to reawaken drowsy, sleep-deprived senses after a shaky overnight journey across the Atacama I order a couple of caffeine hits from the bustling little cafe.
Plonking one of our two day packs down I take a seat in a tattered metal chair.
From nowhere a scruffy, notepad-wielding woman is in front of us spitting out a volley of high-pitched utterances in barely comprehensible Spanish
“Have you ordered already? What can I get you? A coffee? A sandwich? No? Okay.”
Before we can think “This is weird,” she is gone.
Looking down to the floor our hearts sink.
In 351 days of overland travel through nine South American countries, we have had only one unsavoury incident, the pickpocketing of my camera in Quito.
Now, just three days before our return to the UK, a lapse in concentration has cost us one of our day packs.
A disinterested, pot-bellied security guard informs me that distraction thefts are rife in Arica and that I should look in the nearby bins.
After sifting through banana skins and old newspapers for an hour I reluctantly decide to give up the search.
Fortunately our passports and cash are not in the stolen bag, but I hope the fake waitress and her accomplice appreciate my collection of 78 beer labels, enjoy reading Sophie’s diary and manage to make use of the Amazonian blow pipe in their next hustle.
More than losing personal keepsakes, I hope this last minute misfortune doesn’t tarnish our incredible memories of a continent full of decent, kind-hearted people.
We make our escape from the scene of the crime but a feeling of utter dejection still overwhelms me when, after crossing the border, we arrive in the lively Peruvian city of Tacna a couple of hours later.
A guy called Dante comes to meet Sophie and me at the coach station, greeting us with a warm smile and much needed hugs.
I’d met this friendly character while playing rugby in Arequipa and he’d kindly invited the pair of us to stay with his family.
He seems almost as distraught as we are when we tell him the news of our backpack theft and is desperate to cheer us up.
Next thing I know he presents me with a replica model of the the city’s Alto de la Alianza arch designed by Alexander Gustave Eiffel, of Paris tower fame, to go a small way to replacing the souvenirs we have just lost.
At the National Railway Museum of Peru, Dante tells us about the old locomotives which carried troops to a bloody battle with the Chilean army in the 1880s.
We all jump on a bus to Playa El Toro beach and join some of Dante’s Ferrocarriles (iron tracks) rugby club team mates for a game on the sand and for the rest of the afternoon I become heavily embroiled in a run around with the inexperienced but keen locals.
The play continues until the sun finally disappears over the Pacific Ocean.
Dante invites us to stay with his family at their humble beachside home and insists we join them for food with the rest of the gang.
We end up drinking, chatting and laughing until the early hours.
The next day it is time to get on the road and we head for another dusty terminal to board our 221st and final long bus journey of the trip, this time bound for Lima and our plane home.
Ghandi said: “Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
Thankfully as I sit in a bedroom at a friend’s house in London, it is not my solitary misfortune, but my night at the beach with strangers and the many other acts of generosity and friendship we were shown which come to mind when I reflect on our wonderful year in Latin America.