From Scotland to South America, why dementia didn't stop my adventure!

How it began

Monday 20 February 2023 was a day that I never thought would happen. It was the day my wife Lorraine and I set off for a cruise around South America. We have always enjoyed travelling, and in particular cruising - the opportunity to sample so many different places in one holiday without having to pack and repack the case. It was in 2021 that the holiday was booked, a long-awaited bucket list trip which was always put off as another destination took priority.  I appreciate we have been really fortunate, we both have had relatively good health and good jobs, then in January 2022 at the age of 58, I was diagnosed with dementia – a younger onset Alzheimer’s subtype. Following diagnosis there is a period when you feel your world has collapsed - what’s going to happen? how long have I got? no more work? how are we going to live? – these were just a few of my thoughts.  Then I told myself to get a grip and realised that certainly my life has changed but it was not over and there are many people worse off than me. I just had to get on and live my life.



Statue on San Cristobal Hill, Santiago

One of the turning points for me was getting in touch with Alzheimer Scotland and joining the Scottish Dementia Working Group (SDWG) in November 2022, this gave me a real focus.

When I was diagnosed, we notified our travel insurer who advised they would no longer insure me.  However, we obtained alternative insurance following an internet search and had been on a few short trips to Europe. So, after some long discussions we decided we should now travel further afield.

Previously, before travelling I would research and produce an itinerary of how long we should spend at each place, the distance and route to the next landmark. However, last year prior to going on medication I was producing two pieces of paper for our short holiday trips thinking it was okay until my wife identified that it wasn’t up to my normal standard (in a nice way). I had forgotten how to research properly…


Not being one to give up though, I started researching for this trip and suddenly it all clicked into place, using a lot of the reference sites that I used to and Google maps.  Very quickly I had amassed over fifty pages. I think it’s important to highlight just because a person has dementia life is not over, it certainly has changed but we can still do a lot of things that we used to.  So, off we set on our much-anticipated South American cruise.

On approaching the airport, it was as if I had never been away, I used to work there and only officially retired in May 2022.  Checking in was very smooth, then it was off to departures and through to security. In my last weeks of working, I felt the noise going through security was excruciating and that my head was going to explode.  Now, there were no issues at all - what a difference. We boarded the plane, and were off to Heathrow then on to Santiago (Chile).  Although the flight was over 14 hours it didn’t feel anything like that. The only thing I had to remember was to take my medication.  Following a very smooth flight and a breath-taking view of the Andes, we arrived in Santiago ready to start our adventure.


In Santiago

With a few days to explore the wonderful sights of Santiago before joining the cruise we were keen to start sight-seeing and to find out if my research was up scratch. We headed off to San Cristobal Hill where a lengthy queue for the funicular led to us deciding to walk - no mean feat in the over 30-degree heat.  After 45 minutes we reached a cable car stop with no queue and finished the journey that way.

Cerro San Cristóbal, as it is known, is located within the Metropolitan Park of Santiago (the largest urban park in Chile). Ascending a path with several concrete crosses depicting paintings of Christ, a steep set of stairs leads to the Sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception. There is an outdoor amphitheatre with an altar for celebrating mass and at the summit a very large statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks the valley.  It proved to be very well worth the climb. What a first day! Next on our list was the Gran Torre Santiago skyscraper - 300 metres tall featuring 62 floors and a top floor observation deck. What a view! 

Stuart Dougall in Santiago
Stuart in Santiago


Palacio de la Mondea

Then, on to Palacio de la Mondea, the seat of the President of the Republic of Chile, via the subway, on which we are beginning to feel like seasoned travellers.  From there we visited Plaza de Armas, the central square of Santiago which has a very European vibe and onwards to the Metropolitan Cathedral.  On day three we visited the Iglesia San Francisco de Alameda church behind which is the quaint Barrio Paris-Londres, two short streets named after these two European capitals.  With its cobblestone streets and buildings built in the 1920s, it is a nice series of streets to walk amongst and enjoy the architecture. We then headed to the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) and the Cerro Santa Lucia, Santiago’s most curious historically significant sites. The Cerro Santa Lucia is the remnant of a 15-million-year-old volcano used by the conquistadors as a lookout point when they were conquering Chile.  It was atop this hill that Pedro de Valdivia declared the founding of Santiago in 1541. It is now a lovely park with bronze gates, metal stairways, fountains, and statues.

On board

And so, the day arrived for us to join the cruise in Valparaíso, Chile's main port known for its bohemian, artistic vibe and lovely vistas.

Misty weather during our first day at sea brought a sense of familiarity … just like being back home!  Following a busy few days in Chile I was feeling okay, other than the usual fuzziness in the head that I get back and forth (more often than not).  I still managed a brief visit to the gym, cut short by the sea swells presenting stability challenges on the running machine and when lifting weights. Whilst my bearings and sense of direction are not what they were, I only got lost once going to and from the room to the gym.  

Our first tour off the ship took us to Lake Llanquihue, one of the largest natural lakes in South America, and the Pertohue Rapids, formed when the lava from volcanic eruptions blocked the river's course.  We also went to the Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) and spent some time in the city of Puerto Varas (town of roses).  

Stuart Dougall's South American Adventure route
The route of Stuart's South American adventure


After being away for around a week Lorraine observed a small difference in me, with things taking slightly longer to register with me.  I used to be able to navigate my way around a cruise ship without any issues, whereas now I tend to use markers such as ornaments, but I still get there, I find this is my way of compensating. 

Over the next 13 days we visited spectacular lakes and waterfalls; we saw the longest suspension bridge in Chile; we cruised the Chilean Fjords and the Sarmiento Channel visiting the Amalia Glacier; and we sailed around Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.  We witnessed spectacular scenery - from ragged coastlines to snow-covered mountains with massive glaciers running down to the sea; and saw an array of amazing seabirds and wildlife.

We sailed the Strait of Magellan and learned that it connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and visited the town of Punta Arenas.

Leaving Punta Arenas we sailed the Cockburn and Beagle Channels.  The Beagle Channel was named for the British naval vessel on which Charles Darwin served as a naturalist on a voyage to South America.  Glacier Alley is a short stretch of the Beagle Channel that showcases 5 tidewater glaciers named after European countries. Despite the cold, wind, mist and rain it was a sight worth seeing. 

Our stop in Ushuaia took us on the excursion “Train to the end of the world”. This train journey replicates the last 7km of the old route that prisoners made on the train, from the prison of Ushuaia, located in the centre of the city, towards the slope of the Susana Mountain with the objective of obtaining materials (wood and stone) for the construction of the railway.

We zigzagged the Pipo River, stopping at the Macarena waterfall and headed to Ensenada Bay, which is on the Beagle Channel where the world's southernmost post office is located. The post office is constructed of corrugated metal and the tour guide advised is only open when the postmaster choses.



Stuart in Ushaia, Argentina - the southernmost tip of South America, nicknamed the 'End of the World'
Stuart in Ushaia

Before returning to the ship we visited the Plaza Malvinas Islands, the Cartel Ushuaia (Ushuaia sign) and End of the World Sign (Cartel del Fin del Mundo), getting the obligatory photographs and souvenirs.

The world's southernmost capital, Stanley, is located in the Falklands archipelago, which consists of two main islands, East and West Falkland, with smaller islands nearby. Here we went on an excursion called “74 days to Victory” which took in Fitzroy and three battle memorials depicting the fierce hand-to-hand battles between Argentine and British soldiers in the 74-day Malvinas/Falklands War of 1982.   We stopped for lunch at the Fitzroy Village Hall, where our guide’s wife had put on a spread of homemade baking and a lovely cup of Tetley tea.  


After 10 days on the ship I find that I’m still using markers to navigate, which works for me but is not ideal.  And I still find it strange that when we order a beer and a non-alcoholic drink the bar staff automatically hand me the alcohol.  However, since I started on my medication for dementia, I suffer immense headaches the following morning or feel the start of the headache after a few drinks, so it’s not worth it.  

I’ve also noticed it now seems that if I stop doing something regularly, it takes a bit of time to get back into it. For example, I hadn’t attempted sudoku whilst away, and when I started again I initially struggled and took a lot longer than normal on the first two games.  After that I was back in the swing, so I’m determined to keep that up.  

On the other hand, through more regular use I’m finding my camera easy to use as long as I stick to the basic functions. Last year this would have been impossible and frustrating.

Casa Rosada

Final days at sea

The final days of our cruise included a visit to Montevideo and an opportunity for some on-board relaxation and sunbathing before the busy last few days of our holiday.

Our final destination was Buenos Aires, starting with a visit to The Pampas, a sea of green grass that covers fully one-fourth of Argentina and is the home of the legendary gaucho. We visited a beautiful country residence and old ranch, enjoyed the gauchos demonstrating their skills in the saddle, took a stroll around the ranch and a horse and carriage ride.  We watched the gauchos preparing our barbecue lunch which was followed with a folkloric show representing life on the pampas.

This was an interesting day as I was wearing my Alzheimer Scotland t-shirt. Both on the ship and during the excursion Lorraine and I were aware that people were looking at me.  Only one person actually engaged, and we had a good conversation about my diagnosis.  During the trip I also wore Boston and Scotland tops and many more people commented on them.

Horse ranch


Following the cruise we spent a busy three days in Buenos Aires, visiting all the main sights from the Metropolitan Cathedral, where the current Pope Francis lived as Archbishop of Buenos Aires; to the Casa Rosada with its landmark balcony from which Eva ‘Evita’ Peron addressed the public. And from the Congressional Plaza and Palace, which resembles the Capitol building in Washington DC; to the famous Boca Juniors “Bombonera” football stadium with replica models of Maradona on the balcony and in the street overlook the stadium. 

Back home and on dry land I reflected on our time away and what the difference was travelling with a dementia diagnosis. I wanted to write about my experience to let people know that you can still live well with dementia. The theme of this year’s Dementia Awareness Week is around challenging the stigma associated with younger onset dementia. I want to let people know that I am still doing and enjoying the things that I did before my diagnosis and as I write this I am planning my next adventure!

Stuart on a ranch in Buenos Aires
Stuart on a ranch in Buenos Aires