Snow joke

18 Dec
Lago Nahuel Huapi, Argentina

Snow in the mountains – good. Snow in my face – bad.

Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
[by Paula]

I like to think that one of the few positives of being away from the family is that my parents have taken some trips to Latin America that they might not otherwise have embarked upon. Each year they can escape those harsh Scottish winters and spend a few weeks somewhere tropical, relaxing with Jeremy and me. [I mean, really, you could argue that we’ve done them a favour by buggering off half way across the world.]

So we felt we had some explaining to do when they arrived to find spring in Patagonia looked like this.

Snowy road to Bariloche

Driving to Bariloche to collect the parents from the airport..

To be honest though, by time they arrived we were all so relieved that no one really gave a stuff about the weather. They had truly had a journey from hell.

We’d driven 1,000 miles from Buenos Aires to meet them in San Martin de los Andes, one of the main towns in the Argentine Lakes District – a walk in the park compared with their five-day trans-Atlantic, trans-Argentina epic.

It’s no secret that Patagonia has untamed weather. But it seemed hard to believe it could be that bad, as we sweltered in the heat while driving west across the endless pampas. We started to hit some extreme winds at Laguna Blanca on day four. Then, literally, as we crossed the invisible line into Patagonia at Junin de los Andes, we hit a black wall of rain and cloud. The parents were due in two days, and we’d kind of promised them spring.

Patagonian border, Junin de los Andes

Ominous black skies as soon as we arrived in Patagonia at Junin de los Andes.

We woke up the next morning to sleet and jaw-achingly freezing wind. The one saving grace was that we’d booked a cosy cabin for when they arrived. We toughed it out for a couple of nights in the van, and excitedly headed out to an internet cafe to check that they’d got to Buenos Aires. They hadn’t – they were still in Miami. Extreme weather had also hit large parts of north-east Argentina and beyond, and flights into BA had been cancelled. Bugger.

Thereafter followed three days of crackly Facetime calls, emails, texts, visits to airline offices, taxis to and from airports, hotel searches and a several bouts of frustrated swearing.

After the Miami delay everything, including hotel and connecting flight to San Martin, was shunted back 24 hours. They finally arrived in BA and had to overnight there before the next flight. We checked into the cabin without them, and rattled around, tried to be patient. The next morning we were getting ready for their arrival when Jeremy looked online at their flight status: CANCELLED. Buggeration!

There’s only one flight a day to San Martin, and the bad weather was making it impossible for it to land. Despite the equally bad forecast, the airline re-booked passengers onto the next day’s flight. It was obvious that would be cancelled too (and, in the event, it was).

The parents were getting pretty stressed. “I’m not sure we’ll even make it there til next week,” said dad, before threatening to hire a car and drive the 1,000 miles instead. To add to their woes, they trudged back to central BA from the airport to find that their hotel, and the next seven they tried, was fully booked.

“This really was an almighty cock-up – there was no way today could be the first time in three years that we ran out of petrol.”

Jeremy and I went to the airline office in San Martin – they explained that the airport had none of the equipment needed to land with poor visibility. So why didn’t they automatically fly everyone to the next nearest – fully equipped – airport at Bariloche? Shrugs all round.

We took an executive decision and asked the airline to change their flight to Bariloche for the following day. We’d make the three-hour drive there and pick them up.

I stood in the snow, waving the iPad around for a better wifi signal. “Dad, we’ve changed your flights, you’re coming to Bariloche.” Crackle crackle “what? no… Baril… booked… San Martin…” crackle.

“I know dad, but we’ve gone and changed your flights. You’re getting up early, and so are we. We’ll see you tomorrow, in Bariloche.”

We set off at 5.45am. Half an hour later, we stopped for petrol in Junin, to find the station closed. We drove to the next one. Also closed. Shit. The tank was pretty low and we felt sure there were no other gas stations for a long way. So we did what sensible people do, we asked a policeman, who told us there was another gas station 5km up the road. Phew!

We drove, and drove, and then drove into a snowstorm. “This is more than 5km,” I said, “but why would the police say that when it wasn’t true?” We kept going until it was clear there was no gas station, but by this time we didn’t feel safe to turn around on a mountain road in a blizzard.

Unstraight, and wishful, thinking kept us going for a while longer until we accepted the inevitable. It was 120km to the next gas station and we didn’t have enough. This really was an almighty cock-up – there was no way today could be the first time in three years that we ran out of petrol.

We’d have to go back to Junin, or even San Martin. I could not believe that after everything my parents had been through we were going to be up to two hours late arriving at the airport – that’s if they were even going to be able to land in the snow. We have no phone, therefore no way of letting them know we’d be late.

Spoiler alert - spring sprang eventually.

Spoiler alert – spring sprang eventually.

I drove back over the mountain pass like a possessed maniac. “Would you like me to take over for a while?” said Jeremy, “Cos you’re scaring me a bit now.” I gripped the wheel and refused to cede control.

When we got to Junin, the gas station had opened. We filled up and screeched off, back over the snowy pass and south towards Bariloche in enraged silence, counting every minute as we went. We’d lost 90 minutes, but managed to claw back quite a lot before running into another snowstorm.

When we finally arrived we abandoned the van and ran inside to find mum pacing the floor in the arrivals hall. The relief on her face was a sight to behold. We hugged, swapped war stories, and drank tea, before heading off again.

On the way back to San Martin things were worse, partly because of traffic backing up and sliding around on the hills. We were held up for an hour in heavy snow. As I sat chatting to mum in the back and tried to stem our leaking roof with a tea-towel, Jeremy inched the van uphill and hoped we could keep our grip. Happy holidays everyone!

Once we got ‘home’, Jeremy lit the fire and we gave unnecessary fuel to our excitement and adrenaline in the form of gallons of red wine. It was Sunday evening, and mum and dad had left their house on Tuesday. They were knackered and strung out, but after a post-pub plate of beef stew and mash and a few more drinks, the recovery process was under way.

Cheers!

Cheers! The parents finally arrive in San Martin de los Andes.

Perhaps I’ve taken up far too much of this post with a travel saga that’s not entirely representative of what turned out to be a great trip which even had some fabulous weather. But, really, who wants to read about sunshine and flowers?

We hunkered down for a few days, caught up with the each others’ news and took some bracing walks in winds that come straight off the glaciers and whip across Lago Lacar into San Martin. We also got to work on starting to sample some of the region’s specialities like venison, lamb, boar and trout. Not to mention Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

And the sun came out to play. The spring blossoms were in action, and we set about exploring the area’s seemingly endless selection of lakes, snowy peaks and national parks. It was lovely to share a little of our life in the van again, pootling around for the day and stopping off for lakeside picnics and tea.

We kept an eye on the weather before booking an overnight trip to the gorgeous ‘7 Lakes’ route south of San Martin.

Several hundred photo-stops later, we were heading to one of the final lakes when we picked up a couple of French hitch-hikers for the second time that day. There was just one last detour to make, to the small lake of Espejo Chico, before we headed for the town of Villa la Angostura. Turned out it might not have been the best time to load the van with an extra 200kg of baggage and personnel, as the road turned out to be the steepest, most rutted of the day. Even though our new transmission has – to date – performed brilliantly, I still have a lingering paranoia about the van making it up those horrid uneven rocky dirt roads that used to give us so much trouble.

As we clattered down the track, the French hitchhikers occasionally lurching off their backpacks towards my parents’ laps, I admired by dad’s new-found ability to sit silently in the back and Not Say Anything About Fucking Up The Van.

To my relief, we made it back up the hill and headed to town for some much deserved wine and pizza.

The following day we totally lucked out with the weather during a sailboat trip on Lago Nahuel Huapi, with a lovely stop at the little Arrayanes national park. Turquoise waters, snow-capped mountains, the sun on our faces and wind in our hair, it was the perfect day – only slightly enhanced by the wine and picadas served on the boat as we returned to Villa La Angostura.

Time flew as usual, and before long we were packing up the cabaña and heading back down to Bariloche for mum and dad’s flight back to Buenos Aires. Our last night involved falling into bed far too late, bloated with steak, woozy with wine, and knackered – just another typical night in Argentina.

And with that the parents went home for a rest, while we turned the van west and headed for the Chilean border.

Days: 1,172
Miles: 29,038
Things we now know to be true: It’s being together that matters.

MORE PHOTOS BELOW!

If you’re tired of Buenos Aires, try harder

24 Nov
Casa Coupage, Buenos Aires

More wine?

Villa La Angostura, Argentina
[by Paula]

We arrived in Buenos Aires on an overnight ferry, bleary-eyed and begging for more sleep, and things pretty much continued that way until we left a month later.

BA is the kind of city that you gorge on until you feel a bit sick. So many atmospheric bars, quality restaurants and little pavement cafes give it a decadent Parisien feel. Tempting treats like platters of cheeses and cured meats are practically waved under your nose every time you order a drink. Amazing cakes and ice creams leap out as you try to innocently walk along the street. There’s steak and wine everywhere. Even the bloke at the greasy sausage sandwich stall in the market sells red wine by the glass. Bloody hell, what’s a person supposed to do?

Like a couple of kids who hadn’t seen sweets in years, we crammed everything in until our cheeks bulged.

As if all of this isn’t bad enough for you, everything in BA happens exceptionally late. Turning up to a restaurant before around 10pm more or less makes you a social leper. Steak houses are rammed by 11pm-to-midnight. Most bars only get going sometime after this.

Drinks in Bar Plaza Dorrego

This’ll perk you up. Bar Plaza Dorrego, Buenos Aires.

So not only are you getting fat and pasty, you’re knackered as well.

I realise that makes me sound like a whining old lady. We had a blast, although we were certainly woefully lacking in training for the city life. Years of living on the road and camping had got us into a routine of early starts, active days and ridiculously early nights. Most other countries in Latin America exist on a different schedule to Argentina – meals are eaten early and (except for in larger or more touristy cities) going out late for drinks is not really the norm.

We’d got used to that, but we were up for the BA challenge – it was sink or swim.

Our friends Karen and Gustavo, helped set the scene when we arrived at their apartment from the ferry port.

“We’ll have dinner later and go out to a bar tonight,” they said.

After dinner we went out. It was 12.30am. By about 3.30am we cracked. We’d been awake for about 25 hours straight, so left Karen and Gustavo in the bar and went home.

The next morning Karen got up and went to sit a Portuguese exam, having had about 90 minutes sleep. She passed with flying colours.

We realised what complete wimps we had become.

We had a bit more time to prepare for their welcome barbeque with some friends a few days later, which slowly got going at about 10pm and, in true Argentine style, involved enough meat to feed a small town.

Over the next few weeks we consolidated our initiation with some more training, helpfully aided by our overlanding friends James and Lauren, who have this uncanny knack of getting everyone around them completely roaring drunk, without anyone realising quite how it happened. It was great to coincide with them again in one of the continent’s most renowned party cities. What could possibly go wrong?

We also reunited with Marek, whom we´d first encountered with his partner Zuzka in Puerto Iguazu, and finally met Stevie, Tree and little Sol from Sprinter Life, who’d been travelling around in their van for five years and were preparing to return home to the US. Added to that were new overlanders Rike and Martin, which made quite the little crowd. The over-excitement of having a proper social life again only added to the kids-in-a-sweet-shop atmosphere.

It would surely bore you silly to read a list of all the meals and wine-soaked nights we had. Some of it´s covered in the photo gallery below, but stand-outs include a couple of stupendous steak nights at Gran Parilla de la Plata in San Telmo with James, Lauren and co, great seafood at El Obrero in La Boca, and a sublime way-off-budget meal at Casa Coupage with Stevie and Tree, that involved a 7-course gourmet Argentine tasting menu and a wine-tasting menu so extensive that Tree remembers very little about what we ate that night.

Over our time there we said farewells to Marek, James and Lauren, and Stevie and Tree, who were all at the end of their long road trips and heading home. While we were sad, our livers were quietly grateful.

Of course there were sensible, practical and cultured things to be done as well. As with most of our visits to a major city, there was maintenance work to be carried out on the van. We already had a list of jobs planned, which became a bit longer when we were driving to our apartment on day two and heard a rather loud clunk every time we turned a corner.

Thankfully, we again had the required parts – ball joints and a tie rod end, if you really want to know – stashed in the van, so no drama there. [makes a change – ed].

We ran in the park and walked all over the city – visted Evita’s family vault at the grand cemetery of La Recoleta, gazed at the Casa Rosada, wandered the streets of La Boca with Karen and their little boy Santino and later went to a roaringly loud Boca Juniors game at the stadium. Living in an apartment in San Telmo gave us easy access to its lovely Sunday market and numerous little quirky shops and cafes. We went to a tango show at a cultural centre, and watched an outdoor milonga (tango club) in the square near our place.

And on a more serious note, we were fascinated by watching the Madres de Plaza de Mayo on their weekly march in the plaza near Casa Rosada, and by our trip with Karen and Gustavo to the former Naval academy ESMA, an ex-detention and torture centre which we covered in the last blog post.

Much of the internet we have found on the road in Argentina has been surprisingly poor, so we also used the time to catch up on some jobs and admin, including arranging some things for my parents’ upcoming trip to Patagonia.

When we left BA, we would be driving 1,600km over a few days, to meet them in San Martin de los Andes, in northern Patagonia.

“Shall I pack my flip-flops?” asked my mum. “Well probably”, I said, “but it’s still spring so really you’ll need to pack for all weathers.”

I wasn’t wrong. But little did we know that late spring in San Martin could mean actual snow blizzards. Little did we know that the very day they were travelling was to coincide with the start of some remarkably extreme weather in Argentina. And little did we know that San Martin’s airport was not equipped to cope with landing planes through a puff of cloud, never mind an all-out blast of snow from the Antarctic.

No, that was all to come.

Days: 1,148
Miles: 28,279
Things we now know to be true: You can plan all you like.

—–

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW..

Argentina’s dirty past

23 Oct
Faces of the disappeared, ESMA

Just a few of the tens of thousands of people ‘disappeared’ during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’.

Buenos Aires
[by Jeremy]

And this is where they brought the trucks in and loaded the tortured, bloody bodies on board before driving them to the airport, flying them out over the Rio Plata and throwing them in to the sea. Around 5000 people passed through here, only 200 or so survived,” says trade union and political activist – and an old friend of ours – Gustavo Granero.

This place definitely isn’t on the usual tourist agenda and yet it is hard to understand today’s Argentina without understanding how it has confronted – and risen anew from – its brutal, relatively recent, past.

We are at the ESMA complex, a vast former Naval academy in the north of Buenos Aires that was the most notorious of over 400 detention and torture centres established during the period of brutal military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

Today it is a peaceful, picturesque, tree-lined space devoted to keeping alive the memory of those who were killed, tortured, beaten and disappeared during what has become known as Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’.

Now called the ‘space for memory and human rights’ it’s a centre for social movements, poignant political art works, progressive film shows and, importantly, a massive archive of documents relating to the ongoing fight for justice for the victims.

It is also a remarkably moving reminder of the human rights abuses that were carried out here – and across Argentina – on an unimaginable scale.

Trial and punishment

‘Juicio y Castigo’ – trial and punishment. Ex-ESMA, Buenos Aires.

The dictatorship came to power during a period of economic and political turmoil – in which protests, strikes and political violence left hundreds dead – following the death of president Juan Perón.

Army commander Jorge Videla seized power, promising a war against “left-wing terrorism”.

In reality he led a movement committed to a brutal, economically neo-liberal, socially conservative, militarised, Catholic agenda which needed to remove all opposition, deemed “terrorists”, in order to implement its plan.

To Videla, a terrorist was not defined as someone who threw grenades, but anyone who opposed “western, christian values” or economic liberalisation, including trade unionists, students, journalists, left-wing activists, and anyone suspected of ‘sympathising’ with them.

Initial details about the fate of ‘the disappeared’, as they became known around the world, came from the accounts of those few who lived to tell the tale. Many of their stories are imprinted on the walls of ESMA today.

People suspected by the military of being “subversive” would be abducted in raids by plain-clothes men. Homes were raided in the middle of the night. Families were left with nothing but the screams of their loved ones.

Raided homes

An art installation at ESMA represents homes that were raided by agents of the dictatorship.

Once kidnapped, they would be taken to one of more than 400 detention centres. Many were horrifically tortured. Children were tortured in front of their parents and parents in front of their children.

Thousands of political prisoners were drugged, stripped naked, loaded onto military planes and thrown out over the Atlantic Ocean.

The dictatorship did not discriminate: men and women, teenagers and adults, even the unborn were targeted.

In one notorious incident, 60 students from Manuel Belgrano High School, in Buenos Aires, were disappeared simply for having joined their student council. The abductees were taken to clandestine detention centres, where the majority of them were tortured and killed.

Human rights groups estimate around 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship.

Around one-third of those were women. Some were abducted with their small children. Others were pregnant, or became so while incarcerated, often through rape by guards and torturers.

Pregnant prisoners were kept alive until they had given birth. Sometimes the mothers were able to nurse their newborns for a few days, or even weeks, before the babies were taken from them and the mothers were murdered.

Marching for the disappeared

Families have fought for years to find out what happened to their children and grandchildren.

According to human-rights groups, as many as 500 newborns and young children were taken from disappeared parents and handed over, their identities erased, to childless military and police couples, people connected to government agents or others favoured by the regime. To this day organisations, operating from the ESMA complex, are helping families to reunite with their stolen relatives.

In a recent high-profile case, one of the country’s top activists – whose daughter was killed after having her baby snatched by the regime – was reunited with her lost grandson.

The military did its best to ensure that no-one would ever be brought to justice for such crimes.

In September 1983 the ‘National Pacification Act’ was passed, granting impunity to the state by claiming that the military’s actions were a result of an “anti-subversive war”.

Following the collapse of the junta in the face of massive protests, strikes and trade union action, an unprecedented Truth Commission was set up and its 1985 report ‘Nunca Más’ (‘Never Again’) led to the trials and jailing of nine former junta leaders.

But in 1986 President Raul Alfonsín, feeling threatened by the military unrest that followed the trials, passed a new law called Full Stop, which halted all investigations of political violence during the Dirty War.

In 1990 Alfonsín’s successor, President Carlos Menem, pardoned and released the imprisoned junta leaders.

Only in 2003 did the new government of Nestor Kirchner scrap the amnesty laws, opening the door to prosecutions and to some semblance of justice. Even then it took a further two years before the Supreme Court upheld the overturning of the amnesty laws.

The national memory archive, based at ESMA, is today helping that quest for justice – by collecting testimonies and evidence, keeping the memory alive and helping the victims and their families.

Alongside the powerful emotions that a visit to ESMA provokes, one of the most poignant sights in Buenos Aires is undoubtedly seeing the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared taking to the streets in the name of their lost loved ones.

Madres de Plaza de Mayo

Still marching – the mothers and grandmothers have never given up.

The Madres de Plaza de Mayo was created in 1977 by mothers searching for children detained by the military regime. They began gathering in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace every Thursday to march around the square, wearing white headscarves embroidered with their missing children’s names.

After 37 years the remaining members still turn out every week, walking slowly around the plaza, some reading out the names of the missing, hoping they can find out exactly what happened to them and supporting the current government’s drive to ensure that those who perpetrated this most savage of crimes face justice. They are a symbol of the struggle for the heart and soul of Argentina.

Because despite all the progress of recent years, today there is still a struggle.

On the one side you have the current progressive government (for all its imperfections), trade unions, social movements and the families of the disappeared. On the other, the right-wing media conglomerates, the vulture funds and the descendants of those who participated in, stayed silent during, or actively collaborated with the dictatorship and whom – by various means – want to achieve the same neo-liberal nightmare.

Through it all the Madres de Plaza de Mayo continue to gather defiantly behind their banner: ‘Ni un paso atrás’, not one step back!

Days: 1,116
Miles: 25,587
Things we now know to be true: Silence is not an option.

The road to Buenos Aires

18 Oct
Vintage car, Colonia, Uruguay

Uruguay has lots of lovely vintage cars.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

The urge to just get ‘there’ – wherever there may be – is not something with which the slow traveller is familiar. Whilst most of us have goals and destinations in mind, the desire to arrive has to be resisted, or else you’re not really going to appreciate the things that happen along the way.

For some reason, however, our journey from Iguazu Falls down to Buenos Aires often felt more like ‘the road to Buenos Aires’ than simply ‘the road’. Why so impatient? Perhaps it was simply the allure of what we knew would be a fabulous city, where there would be people we knew, a social life, pavement cafes, bars, gorgeous restaurants, culture, and a cute little apartment with our name on it. Hard to see what the rush was really.

It would have been easy just to drive straight there, but we were still keen to see Uruguay and to make a few other stops in northern Argentina.

Jesuit mission, San Ignacio, Argentina

The evening walking tour told the story of the Jesuit missions using holograms and lights.

From Iguazu we headed south, picking up a couple of French hitch-hikers on the way and all stopping to camp together in (another) Jesuit mission town called San Ignacio. We were feeling a bit missioned-out by this stage, but here they had an interesting way of presenting the history of the mission, through a night-time sound and light show that was not as cheesy as it sounds.

Back at the campsite we met a young Swiss couple who had just begun a road trip in a local car they’d bought in Buenos Aires. Occasionally we meet people on the road who are clearly running away from something – they’re either (we speculate) literally running from the authorities, or trying to escape some rather more amorphous demons. All the signs were there that they fitted into the former category. I don’t know what it was – maybe it was the fact that a guy in his late 20s was travelling with a girl just out of high school, who clearly had no idea what their plans were. Or perhaps it was the fact that he’d been banned from driving in his own country and was hoping to drive around South America without a licence. Now, we’ve done some bloody stupid things on this trip but, er, good luck with that.

Further south, in the tiny town of Yapeyú, we were reminded again of the sheer pointlessness of turning up anywhere in Argentina between about 1pm and 5pm. As we were just about to give up and leave the ‘closed’ campsite we were reminded by a neighbour that it was siesta time.

“The owners are there, but they’re sleeping!” they said. “That’s okay, we’ll go off and do some food shopping while we wait,” we said. Oh bugger, all the shops are shut too. Um…

Next morning the black clouds came scudding back. We drove to the town of Mercedes in horrendous rain. Despite it being one of the flattest, straightest roads in existence, we could see nothing of the horizon.

Rainy day, Argentina

Really looking forward to setting up camp tonight..

Several potential camping options were impossible due to the volume of water. We eventually pulled into a place that was effectively closed for off-season but was the least flooded option we could find. Sloshing to the disgusting and, ironically, water-less toilets was a major expedition.

‘Well, at least I’ve got my wellie (rubber) boots,’ said Jeremy, searching frantically in the van. No wellies. Last seen under the van in Iguazu, they’d either been stolen or left behind. ‘Oh well, at least I’ve got my walking boots,’ said Jeremy, pulling them on. Ten minutes later he came back from the toilet, with one sole flapping in the wind and a boot full of water. Not an ideal day to lose both of your bad-weather shoes, I helpfully pointed out.

The reason we’d headed to Mercedes was to visit one of the quirkier sights in this part of the country – an elaborate shrine to the ‘Robin Hood of Argentina’, Gauchito Antonio Gil. Ever since arriving in the country, we’d seen countless little roadside shrines to El Gauchito, easily identified by their red flags. As with so many things here, he’s been kind of co-opted by religion and now appears as a quasi-saintly figure whom many believe will grant them favours from the afterlife.

But essentially the guy was a 19th-century army deserter who went roaming around stealing cattle from the rich and sharing them with poor villagers, which is the part we were focusing on. The story goes that when the authorities caught up with him and sent him for execution, Gil told his executioner that his son was gravely ill but could be saved if Gil was (contrary to the custom for army deserters) buried after his death. His prediction came true, Gil was buried near Mercedes, the executioner’s son made a full recovery, and the legend was born.

Gauchito tributes range from a few scraggy scarves tied to a tree, to full-on shrines with picnic and barbeque areas. But the memorial to his final resting place is a vast, tacky, over-the-top, sight to behold. Perfect! Thousands of pilgrims descend there every year, particularly on the date of his death in January. They leave plaques and family photos, giving thanks and asking for miracles. They light candles and deposit endless gifts ranging from bicycles to wedding dresses.

We ran the gauntlet of souvenir stalls to look around the massive hangar-like shrine, before caving in and buying a couple of Gauchito momentos. What has happened to us? Ever since the Andean god Ekeko intervened to save our gearbox, (see the bottom of this post) we’ve become hilariously superstitious.

We drove off, our new red ribbon asking Gauchito to ‘look after our truck’ flapping in the wind.

The next stage of the journey – towards and into Uruguay – took us along the Rio Uruguay, which was one of the big surprises of our trip. A succession of gorgeous, clean, peaceful river beaches began with a night at Salto Grande, just before we exited Argentina one more time.

Salto Grande, Argentina

The early morning view from our van, Salto Grande, Argentina.

 

River relaxation, Salto Grande

There were some incredibly tranquil spots along the Rio Uruguay. Salto Grande, Argentina.

After one of the easiest border crossings ever, we stopped off at a hot springs resort in Salto, where we based ourselves for a few days to monitor the independence referendum in Scotland and to wallow in the lovely hot pool on our campsite.

After a long night of watching the vote, we got a few hours sleep and headed south towards another town called Mercedes. The weather was fine but there clearly had been a lot of rain. We were aiming for a lovely sounding campsite, that was on a river island just a few metres from the shore.

Now, we’ve had quite a number of campsite disappointments on this trip – non-existent ones, closed down ones, dirty ones, you name it. This was the first one we’d arrived at to find it was totally submerged under water. No island, no campsite. We stared at it for a few minutes, just to check we were in the right place. Yep, we were, it’s just that the place had gone.

Mercedes floods, Uruguay

Anyone fancy swimming to the campsite to see if it’s open?

Luckily, it wasn’t far to another lovely river beach – thankfully on a different, non-flooded river – at Las Cañas, near the town of Fray Bentos.

British readers of a certain age will hear the words ‘Fray Bentos’ and think ‘weird meat pies that come in a tin’. And, yes, you are thinking of the same Fray Bentos, because this is where they made them. The Anglo meat factory was a massive global industry that attracted thousands of migrant workers from more than 50 countries during its height, and produced hundreds of processed meat products under different brand names – from corned beef, to Oxo cubes, to (yes, really) ‘breakfast tongues’.

It’s hard to explain how looking at old tins of corned beef might be a fun way to spend a Saturday morning, but the old processing factory is now a fascinating and well put-together museum that tells a story of scientific discovery, industrial revolution and a pioneering spirit. Not to mention some genius marketing that included ‘feeding world war troops with Oxo cubes’ and enticing zillions to buy meat products that were so processed they could be kept unrefrigerated for years.

Onwards from the beef pies, we spent a few more nights enjoying the Rio Uruguay at Carmelo and then headed down to the beautiful old port town of Colonia, where not only did the sun shine for my birthday, but we ran into the familiar faces of Marek and Zuzka – also driving the Americas in a van – in time for a celebratory lunch.

From our campsite we could just make out the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata. Nearly there!

It was a great spot – even the soggy days were followed by the most incredible, surreal, sunsets over the river.

Sunset over the Rio de la Plata

Apocalyptic-style sunset over the Rio de la Plata, as seen from our campsite near Colonia.

Our last stop in Uruguay was a long-discussed visit to my former hairdresser’s parents, who are also both hair stylists and have now retired in Montevideo. When Milo – who is originally from Argentina – used to cut my hair in south London, I’d talk about our trip and how I was going to turn up at his parents house and ask for a haircut. It’s one of those things you say, but to be honest it all sounded a bit random and unlikely. Many years later, it was actually happening. After a much-needed trim and a lovely chat, not to mention some delicious homemade empanadas and home made wine, we set off back to Colonia to catch a horribly early 4.30am ferry to Buenos Aires.

We might have been a bit gritty-eyed but it was still a pretty cool way to arrive, by water at sunrise. Only problem was that by the time we cleared customs and all that shenanigans, we’d be leaving the city centre docks and trying to find our friends’ apartment at the height of Friday morning rush hour.

Flicking through our guidebook, I came across the following reassuring paragraph on driving in the city: “Most local drivers are reckless, aggressive and even willfully dangerous. They ignore speed limits, signs, lines and signals, tailgate, and honk even before signals turn green. Buses are a nightmare to reckon with, potholes are everywhere and congestion and parking are a pain. Pedestrians seem to beg to be run over.”

So what’s new? Welcome to Buenos Aires.

Days: 1,111
Miles: 25,587
Things we now know to be true: Big cities, pah, you don’t scare us any more.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE LOVELY GALLERY BELOW:

Water, water everywhere

8 Oct
Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Worth a detour: Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

We Brits are sticklers for punctuality. So it seemed a trifle rude to turn up to our friends’ house in Buenos Aires, more than a year late.

“Sorry about that,” we said. “Hope the dinner’s not ruined.”

We’d last seen Karen and Gustavo at a trade union conference in Costa Rica in July 2012. Ah, those blissfully naive early days when we thought our trip would take about two years.

“See you at your place in Buenos Aires next year!” we said, as they waved us off from San Jose. Oops.

But we’re here now, enjoying one of South America’s most exciting cities and doing our best to adapt from the sedate night-life of the camping world to the pace of a city that appears to object to going to bed before sunrise.

But before we get onto the delights of BA there’s the small matter of the 1,600 miles we’ve put in on the road since our last post.

We were determined not to miss seeing Iguazu Falls, despite it being a massive detour from our general direction of travel. Besides, it gave us a great excuse to take a brief look at Paraguay on the way there and Uruguay on the way down to Buenos Aires.

We crossed into Paraguay and drove straight to a fabulous campground in San Ignacio, owned by the irrepressible Peruvian Gustavo Jhave and his family. Gustavo was so ridiculously generous we felt like we’d actually profited from our stay there. He lavished us with gifts several times a day – fresh milk from his cow, honey, spinach from the garden, home made cheese and bread. Even his delightful three dogs were the most attentive welcome committee – following us everywhere and sleeping under the van.

His bouncy little dachshund Oyuco seemed pretty keen on joining us on a permanent basis. One morning we woke up with a start when he jumped on the bed, looking fantastically pleased with himself, and settled into the blankets for a cuddle.

Oyuco the cheeky dachshund

I know I’ve been naughty but can I have a cuddle, pleeeeeease?!

Not usually one for stating the bleeding obvious, Jeremy said: “There’s a dog in here….”.

“You’re right, there is. How the hell did he get in?” I replied.

Jeremy wasn’t entirely awake, so started putting forward irrational theories about how it must have jumped up and ripped its way through the fabric in the pop top roof. I’m not sure how he thought a sausage dog with two-inch legs could have scaled the van, without the help of an elaborate rope system.

The door had been locked all night and neither of us had gone out. There was only one explanation – he’d snuck in the evening before and managed to hide all night without us realising. Wtf?!

It’s slightly worrying to think we can be so sound asleep that we don’t notice someone new inside our very small van…

As we were leaving the campsite, Oyuco made about five attempts to get inside before I could slide the door shut. I don’t think Gustavo would have appreciated us stealing his cute-as-a-button dog, but it was tempting.

Jeremy in the rain

Rain rain go away.

While there we pottered around, visiting some nearby Jesuit missions and hiding from the crappy weather. For the first time in months we were being reminded what it’s like when there’s relentless rain and you live in a car. The words ‘cabin’ and ‘fever’ don’t really begin to describe it.

I’m not sure if it was just the rain, or that Paraguay was just generally a bit of a damp squib, but to be honest we were feeling a bit flat and lonely. By our standards, we’d been putting in a lot of miles and maybe we were a bit knackered. I was also distracted by things that were going on at home and found it hard to drag my brain into the here and now.

I like to think we are grateful, enthusiastic and positive about all the stuff we see and do here – the big moments and the smallest things. During three years on the road we’ve had down days, of course, but have very rarely felt jaded. This had been dragging on though – we just couldn’t work up the motivation. We knew it was bad when we just drove past one of the main Jesuit missions in the area because we ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to go in.

Had we lost our mojo?

No, it was unthinkable. We decided to accept that sometimes one just can’t conjure up the mood for sight-seeing, and pushed on north towards the Brazil/Argentina border.

Poor old Paraguay, we didn’t give it a fair shot. We didn’t find out enough about it, but we did leave with a couple of new discoveries.

Their lemons are orange, and this makes for a very confusing conversation at the market. And they have one of the best cheesy, buttery bread snacks in Latin America – chipas, who knew?

After another soggy night of camping we headed towards the border and Iguazu Falls. A late-in-the-day decision to keep driving over the border that afternoon, instead of waiting til the next morning, meant we were pretty disorganised about where we were going.

Crossing the border there means you have to traverse a tiny little corner of Brazil before you can get back into Argentina. We bluffed our way through rush hour without a map, and found our way to Puerto Iguazu before driving round in the dark visiting various closed-down campsites and wondering if it was going to be One of Those Days.

We were eventually directed to a gorgeous campground by the river and pulled in to a boisterous welcome from the owner Ramon and his wife. They were great, the place was great, it wasn’t raining, there were chattering parrots and other travellers were cooking and drinking wine in the sociable kitchen. It was just the tonic we needed.

We were there for the same reason as everyone else – to visit one of the most striking sites in the natural world; the vast, thundering 275 cascades that make up Iguazu Falls.

As as tonics go, that wasn’t too bad either.

It’s one of the most touristy sites you’ll ever see, but you’d have to be dead inside to let the crowds spoil what is a truly astonishing wonder. As it has so many times before, when it mattered most the sun shone for us and rainbows glowed in the spray.

Rainbow at Iguazu Falls (Argentina)

I can sing a rainbow.

The 3km-wide falls, which straddle the Brazil/Argentina border, can be visited from both countries. We decided to go for broke and spend a day on each side, which give quite different perspectives that are equally stunning in their own ways.

Iguazu Falls (Argentina)

Iguazu Falls, Argentina side

 

Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

While we were there we were becoming increasingly obsessed with the impending referendum for independence in Scotland. It was maddening to be so far away during what was proving to be an electrifying campaign. I pitched an article to the BBC about being a Scottish expat abroad and they commissioned it for the next day.

I sometimes wonder what people envisage life is like for us, travelling and occasionally freelancing. I crept out of the van before sunrise to get the article written, and as I sat in the campsite kitchen in my pajamas, shivering in the damp air, being bitten to hell by mosquitos and praying that the wi-fi didn’t flake out on me, I thought ‘this probably doesn’t look as glamorous as it might sound…. but, hey it’s not a bad life’.

We wanted to cover a fair distance to get to Salto, in Uruguay, in time to settle in somewhere and find some good wi-fi to watch the referendum results as they came in. As soon as the article was sent off, we jumped in the van – our mojos packed and intact – and turned south once again.

Days: 1,101
Miles: 25,587
Things we now know to be true: Watching water fall down just never seems to get boring (unless it’s from the sky).

GUESS WHAT?! MORE PICS BELOW

Argentina, we meet at last

5 Sep
Purmamarca, Jujuy, Argentina

It’s all a bit lovely in northern Argentina. Purmamarca, Jujuy.

San Ignacio Guasú, Paraguay
[by Paula]

The arid deserty landscapes of northern Argentina notwithstanding, the country is proving to be something of an oasis. With a few small exceptions, we’ve loved so much about the 15 countries we’ve visited on this trip, but the thing about Argentina is that it has so many of the little touches in life that make it feel like a world away from its northern neighbours – things that we’d forgotten we missed until we got them back again, like seats on toilets, road signs, and really good chorizo.

Even when you order a coffee at the gas station, not only is it proper coffee, it’s brought to your table with a little glass of sparkling mineral water. Such decadence!

We can’t remember a single border crossing that has brought such a dramatic change in culture as the transition between Bolivia and Argentina. Although sad to say goodbye to Bolivia, we couldn’t help punching the air as we arrived in Argentina. Anyone who has followed the blog for a while will know that there was a very real possibility we weren’t going to make it here in the van. Just to have crossed that border felt immense.

Our first month has involved a feast of gorgeous landscapes in the northern regions of Jujuy, Salta, Chaco and Corrientes. The multi-coloured rock formations of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, weaving through giant cacti at the ruins of Pukara, the spectacular drive from Salta to Cafayate and a precipitous route over the mountains to Tafí del Valle.

But let’s be honest here. The scenery was merely providing a lovely backdrop for what has basically been an eating and drinking binge that’s left us wondering if we should consider colonic irrigation to set us up for the next few months of steaks, cheese and wine.

It’s difficult to adequately emphasise just how bad the beef-eating experience is in almost every Latin American country north of Argentina. For a massive steak lover, three years of tasteless, leathery beef is hard to take. When we bought our first Argentine steak to cook, we couldn’t believe it. Inexpensive, tender, delicious and all washed down with an inexpensive and delicious red wine. Bingo.

It’s still early days, but we’re trying to learn as much as possible about the different cuts of meat, and the seemingly endless wine options. Quite an overwhelming task, I know, but one we are taking on seriously and stoically.

Wine o'clock! Cafayate

Sampling the local stuff in the wine-producing town of Cafayate, northern Argentina.

When we splurged on a meal out in Salta, we really went for it by ordering a plate of the three best cuts of beef, done on a barbeque grill. The sizzling platter that arrived was groaning with nearly 2kg of perfectly cooked, melty sirloin, fillet and short ribs. Until then, I don’t remember ever eating a meal and still fantasising about it several days later. It was one of the best we’ve had in our lives and the whole meal, including side orders and wine, cost the same as a single high-quality steak in the UK.

So many treats are such great value for money that our waistlines are in serious trouble. Apart from the steaks there’s the blue cheese, salamis, good bread, nice pastas and gnocchi and, of course, wine – all of which are being brought home by the bagful at the moment.

Travelling around some of the wine-growing regions doesn’t help with consumption levels. In Cafayate even the local ice cream comes in Malbec and Torrontes flavours. There we had a blissful day of touring two wineries, punctuated by a beery lunch with some local empanadas. After a nap we managed to choke down some more wine with some cured llama meat, blue cheese and bread. This is the life of your bog-standard camper-on-a-budget in Argentina.

And that leads me to another big change. Suddenly we cannot move for campsites and other campers. To be in a country where camping is a massive part of the culture makes life a hell of a lot easier. We’ve already started to take it for granted that no matter where we decide to stop there’s probably going to be at least a municipal campsite in the town or nearby, and probably several other camping options on offer.

When we do pull in, our little van is often now a mere twig in a forest of Argentinian white camper vans.

‘Gosh’, we said with a little sniff, ‘we just don’t feel special any more’.

Although we’ve met lots of people during this trip, we have actually spent the majority of our time alone and only sporadically meet other campers, so it’s been great and also been a bit of an adjustment. At Termas de Rio Honda we came across a campground that was unlike anything we’ve seen since Mexico – the natural hot water and warm climate attracts hundreds of ‘snowbirds’ from the chilly south and the sight of rows of campervans as we approached was quite a novelty.

As for the municipal facilities, they are – as you’d expect – there for the public. If you pitch up at the weekend, as we did recently in the city of Resistencia, you can expect to share the space with several hundred people who are spending the day there grilling meat, drinking and playing music for the day and probably the night too.

Another adjustment has been to the ebb and flow of the day. Like much of southern Europe, in Argentina there tends to be a bit more ebb than flow. Then suddenly everyone’s all sparky, going out for the evening just as the mere mortals are heading for bed. The afternoon siesta dictates that most businesses are shut from lunchtime til about 4, 5 or 6pm. There’s also an extra hour of darkness in the mornings, and it seems like no one’s in a real hurry to get going early. So all in all the day feels significantly shorter. I’m sure people are a lot happier and healthier for it, but it can make getting things done quite a challenge some days.

Frozen pipes!

Bit of a chilly morning, Humahuaca, northern Argentina.

Some mornings we’ve been more than happy to fit in with the slow starters. Although we’re lucky to have been enjoying almost wall-to-wall blue skies for months now, since arriving in Argentina we’ve had some extreme temperatures to deal with. In Tilcara the cold wind was so brutal, one evening we had to retreat into bed with our dinner for the first time ever. In Cafayate, hot dust storms sent us scurrying into the van for several hours each afternoon. In Humahuaca we had to snap the frozen water from the outside tap before doing the breakfast dishes. And in Tafí del Valle, the temperature dropped so low at night we had frost on the inside of the van – another first. Only the hardiest can face getting out from under the blankets before the sun comes over the mountains and starts to warm the ground.

Yet in Salta there was a week-long heatwave that made the TV news – we sweltered in the shade during the day, and could sit in shorts as we barbequed in the evenings. It was hot work driving round the city looking for a solution to the fact that our propane gas system is not compatible with any of the refill systems here. Eventually we found the inevitable guy with an answer, and watched – with some trepidation – as he filled our tank from a gas bottle via a pipe into the side of our on/off tap. If, for some strange reason, you’re not au fait with campervan propane tanks, let me confirm that this would definitely not pass any health and safety test.

In Resistencia we had our first rainy night since around May. We splashed through puddles as we got ready to head for a short detour into Paraguay. After a night in Posadas we headed for the bridge over the River Paraná, which forms the international border between Paraguay and Argentina. Before we left we told the campsite owner we were going over the border. He did a lot of teeth-sucking and warned us how terribly dangerous it would be, which is the default response of anyone from a neighbouring country when you tell them you are going to visit the (poorer) country next door.

It’s true we weren’t sure exactly what to expect, as few travellers go there. As soon as we got over the border we pulled into a gas station to fill up. Four or five young attendants became very excited when they saw our California license plates. They quizzed us about the trip (“did you bring this on a ship?… you what?.. you drove from California?), took photos, and one rushed off to find us a freebie from the shop.

We’ll be back in Argentina very soon. But for a few days at least, we feel special again.

Days: 1,068
Miles: 23,986
Things we now know to be true: We’ve reached the age when we’re the ones who want them to turn the music down.

MORE PHOTOS FROM ARGENTINA IN OUR GALLERY BELOW!

PERU FLASHBACK: TRIP REVIEW
Since we last blogged, the website Queen of Retreats has published the reviews we wrote of our luxury trip to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, which was provided by travel company HighLives.
You can read Paula’s reviewJeremy’s review, and our overview of High Lives’ wellness holidays here.

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On a mission

18 Aug
Bolivia missions: Concepcion

The Jesuit mission churches – like this one in Concepcion – have been beautifully restored.

Salta, Argentina
[by Paula]

Given how unbelievably sweaty, dusty and thirsty we were, it was hard to imagine how it must have been for the 17th-century Jesuit priests who had to trek here from Paraguay. I mean, I don’t think they even had ice cream shops then.

The majority of our associations with Bolivia are of the fresh air and mountain backdrops of the altiplano, so travelling through these baking hot tropical plains felt like we’d been transported to another country. Each time we had to search for a shady spot, or drive round a zillion little shops looking for ice, we said: “This just doesn’t feel like Bolivia.”

The eastern lowlands of the country may be less known by tourists, but they cover a vast area, accounting for about two-thirds of Bolivia’s land mass. We had headed south-west from Cochabamba with a plan to visit a series of former Jesuit missions, established in the late 1600s and early 1700s as settlements that were – of course – each centred around an elaborate church. The towns – in which numerous groups of indigenous people were converted to Christianity by the Jesuits before they were expelled by the Spanish king in 1767 – are still living, working communities. The central squares and churches have been lovingly restored and are a sight to behold that way exceeded our expectations.

The thing about the ‘missions circuit’ though, is that it’s not just all about wandering around looking at lovely churches and plazas. There’s a bit of an awkward 1,000km journey through the countryside to get round the major ones, and clearly that was something we couldn’t resist.

Bolivia missions: Dusty roads

Dusty and bumpy roads, but beautiful scenery.

We picked a clockwise route that bypassed the city of Santa Cruz and first headed north towards the oldest of the mission towns, San Xavier. We’d got hold of a pretty detailed guide to the different missions and how to get there. On day two of driving we were finally getting close! We just had to cross a little river and we’d be a few kilometres from our first destination. There was just one thing missing from the maps and info – the lack of a bridge over the river.

After a confusing search through a dusty town for the ‘road’ to San Xavier, we were very baffled to find a rickety wooden platform jutting out and then ending suddenly on a muddy riverbed. Where’s the bridge? we pondered, squinting into the sun in search of hope.

Nope, definitely no bridge. We were expected to descend from the platform and then drive about 300m over the damp clay-ish mud and through a few streams to get to the road on the other side. Our instincts screamed ‘this will end badly!’.
A bunch of slightly drunk guys were, hilariously, charging drivers 100 Bolivianos ($14) to make the crossing. As we pondered and watched other drivers successfully making it over, they kept saying “you’ll be fine, you’ll do it!”. The thing is they, were probably right, there was a reasonably high chance we would have made it without getting trapped in the gluey mud, or without sinking into one of the streams. I just wasn’t in the mood to take the chance with our heavy van, on which we’d just spent a lot of time and money doing maintenance work, knowing how much we would kick ourselves if it went wrong.

In these situations, when lots of people are yelling in our ears with ‘helpful advice’, we have learned to stop and think carefully and ask ourselves questions such as these: Do they know what they are talking about? What will they gain/lose if we decide to go or not go? Do they give a shit about what happens to our car? If one car a day needs to get pulled out of this riverbed, how likely is it that it will be us?!

It was agony, but in the end we went with our instincts. There was a long way round to get to a different section of the route, with a bridge, that would involve several hours of extra driving. With heavy hearts we turned around, hooted and waved to the drunks and, with that, ended their afternoon of entertainment.

Over the next few hours of rutted roads that never seemed to end, we grumbled but deep down knew we’d done the right thing. Interestingly, the detour took is through three villages named Okinawa I, II and III – a corner of Bolivia that’s home to people who arrived from Okinawa as sponsored migrants in the 1950s. Tiny elderly women of Japanese descent scurried around the streets. One was so small she walked under our wing mirror without ducking. “This really doesn’t feel like Bolivia!” we repeated.

The change of route meant the day ended with us pulling into a gas station in the dark, to spend the night. The fact that they sold ice-cold beer lightened the mood considerably.

In the morning we started again with renewed vigour. We arrived in San Xavier by lunchtime, and thought ‘well, if this is what we’re getting, we can live with a little discomfort’.

Bolivia missions: San Xavier

San Xavier’s plaza and Jesuit church.

Founded in 1691, it was the first of the mission settlements in the Chiquitania region. It set the scene for a series of gorgeous, pristine, plazas and church complexes we were to visit on our circuit.

But damn it was hot. It seemed like a long time since we had experienced the 50-metre-dash-to-the-shade-via-the-first-ice-cream-we-can-find race. We escaped to a hotel garden to camp for the night. A weird and, as it turned out, virtually abandoned, place – where the caretaker lied about it being open to justify charging us an exorbitant camping rate – but a haven nonetheless.

Next was Concepción, one of the best restored and conventionally beautiful of the mission towns. In a recurring theme of the week, we arrived just as everything was closing for a massive siesta. While waiting for the church and museum to reopen we killed the time by enjoying our first taste of the region’s food – a succulent roast beef, with a bizarre but strangely comforting cheesy ‘rice pudding’, yucca and plantains. More carbs anyone?

Roast beef and cheesy rice

Cowboy food: Roast beef, cheesy rice, yucca and plantains.

The next section to San Ignacio was quite long, but we’d read the road had recently been paved so set off to see how far we could get. That thing we read about the road being paved? That was a work of fiction. Not far out of Concepción we hit the start of a 400km stretch of hard-packed mud and gravel roads that would last all the way to our 6th and final destination. We’d expected plenty of it, but just not this much.

It slowed things down a bit, and we and the van turned a nice orange dust colour in the process, but all was well and the route was very pretty. With no prospect of arriving at any town before dark, we pulled into a tiny village and asked if we could park up for the night – of course, they said, pointing us towards the church. Two young boys were sent over later to deliver about 25 bananas to us. ‘We grow them here,’ they said, before sitting down for a chat and a glass of lemonade.

It was certainly one of the quietest and darkest nights we’d ever had. Our van shone like a beacon as none of the four houses in the village, nor the church or school, had electricity.

On the way to San Ignacio the following day we encountered a rare section of road that was being worked on. A bus coming towards us slipped and slid through the churned up mud and came to a halt at a jaunty angle. As all the passengers got off to walk through the rest of the roadworks, we thought ‘hmm, don’t really fancy driving through that’. Luckily the workmen had the same thought and sent a tractor ahead of us to pave our way.

We were glad to arrive in San Ignacio, a bigger town where we planned to base ourselves for a couple of nights. With the heat and dust we were, by this time, pretty stinky and hot and were keen on finding a shower. We had a very sweaty, fruitless search for somewhere to camp before eventually being directed to some ‘cabanas’ on the edge of town. We bumped along a farm track before arriving at a sumptuous hacienda with its own private lake, and thought ‘jackpot!’. Problem was, it was now the private home of a rich guy who seemed a little surprised at our asking to camp. Jeremy made his best disappointed face and he agreed that we could park up in the garden but could offer zero facilities. Another night of being smelly and hot then, but a partial jackpot as the location was amazing.

Next day we got a cheap hotel room to hang out and rest for a bit – we wanted to stay around for the evening because the rodeo was in town! Brilliant. It was part of a big agricultural expo event, so we ambled along and spent the evening wandering the stalls, drinking beers and cocktails, eating chunks of barbequed meat and generally wishing we were cowboys. But cowboys don’t drink cocktails, we hear you cry. Well they did at this event, which was crammed with Brazilians from over the nearby border. Every other stall was selling the Brazilian signature cocktail ‘caipirinhas’ and people seemed to be talking a hybrid S-Portuguese. “This doesn’t feel like Bolivia,” we said.

Just before the rodeo got going – three hours later than billed, you’ve got to love Latin America-time – the contestants lined up to pray and cross themselves. It was a great few hours of entertainment and people-watching, though what motivates people to get themselves violently tossed around then thrown off a bull or horse and slammed into the dust is beyond me. There must be a lot of work for osteopaths in these places.

We moved on to the two smaller missions of San Miguel and San Rafael. These places are becoming more popular with visitors but they are not exactly crawling with groups of tourists. At the first we had to search the town for the guy who had the key to the church. Several people told us ‘Carmelo’s the guy you need, he’s a few blocks that way..’ We wandered in the afternoon heat, asking for Carmelo. ‘That door up there,’ ‘No, the next house…’.

Eventually Carmelo appeared at his window, stretching, having just awoken from his siesta. He pulled on a shirt and walked back to the plaza with us, chatting away enthusiastically about how he’s been showing people round the place since he was a child, and is now in his 70s. After a fascinating little tour, we headed off to the next place on our circuit.

Again, in San Rafael there was nowhere obvious to camp. We asked at the tiny police station on the plaza where they thought might be best to park up. ‘Right here, outside the station!’ they insisted.

We wandered off to watch the Sunday night mass in the Jesuit church, and sat in the busy square cooling off before heading to bed. It’s a quaint little village, but we had one of the noisiest night’s sleep ever, with cars passing, donkeys braying, cockerels going at it, horse clopping by and a huge crowd of people flooding out of a late night meeting.

It’s not an easy trip to do by public transport. As we left early next morning we picked up two Swiss tourists who’d been left high and dry due to a fictional bus timetable. We all bumped along on the final four hours of dirt road, to the spectacular town of San Jose de Chiquitos, with its atypical baroque-style church.

Bolivia missions: San Jose de Chiquitos

San Jose de Chiquitos has a stunning, and unique for the area, Baroque-style church.

Joy of joys, the town had a luxurious camping place, in the garden of a posh hotel. Just the prize we had hoped for after getting to the end of the circuit. We got things cleaned up a bit and recharged a little before the next stage of the journey.

Question was, what was the next stage going to be? There were other things we wanted to see in Bolivia, but we only had two days left on our vehicle permit before we’d either have to apply for an extension or get out of the country. It was a painful dilemma, but having had 6 wonderful months in Bolivia we decided to end it on a high and not go through the hassle of battling with the customs people in Santa Cruz.

Besides, we had an incredible itch to turn south and cross the border into Argentina. This trip is full of little and big milestones, but after all the drama we’ve had with the van, actually making it to Argentina is up there with the biggies.

We’d still have a long way to go but crossing that line would feel, to a small extent, like mission accomplished.

Days: 1,050
Miles: 22,906
Things we now know to be true: If you don’t have the ability to see into the future, go with your gut.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:

 

 

 

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