Road days of our lives

8 Jul

Driving in Sacred Valley, Peru

La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

We often berate ourselves for forgetting to properly record one of the most significant parts of this trip – those days on the road that, periodically, take so much of our time and energy.

We’re not exactly rapid travellers – our daily average mileage over the last three years is probably less than most people’s commute to work. But we’ve so far driven 21,000 miles through Latin America, and that’s still a lot of road time.

During our latter few weeks in Peru, we decided to take a few more shots of those driving days so we could remember some of the little towns we drove through, the people we saw, the little snapshots of life we glanced at as we whizzed by.

On the last section of the journey, we were fascinated by all the political murals which have been painted on walls, houses, rocks, anything that’s available, ahead of regional elections in Peru. Voting is mandatory, but not everyone can read or write – especially in rural areas – so every party has an easily-recognisable symbol such as a coca leaf, pick-axe, football or whatever.

We had a lot more long driving days than we are used to while we were in Peru, covering quite a distance in a short time, by our standards. It can get tiring, but we relished getting back into the swing of it.

Everyone has their own way of doing things. We have certainly learned a lot about how to tackle the long journeys, and how to wrestle with the million things that are likely to get in your way and blow all of your plans out of the water.

If we want to get some miles behind us, we like to start early. This is particularly true if we have spent the night at, say, a gas station, a car park or a similarly public place. We like to get a move on and not outstay our welcome – no one wants a pyjama-clad gringo wandering about their place once the sun is shining and there are customers about.

But there is an absolute rule. No matter where we are sleeping, the day must start with this.

Morning tea and coffee

Skipping breakfast is one thing, but no one in the world should ever consider travelling with a Paula who has not had at least one cup of strong tea upon wakening. Ideally the tea will be accompanied by at least a quick banana-honey-tortilla, or maybe we’ll stop and make something later, or grab something on the road. The thing about Latin American roadside breakfasts is that they are not really breakfast. Unless you are in a touristy town or major city, where you can find bakeries or cafes serving American-style options, you’ll be eating like the locals. So on many a day we have found ourselves eating liver and rice, or grilled beef and chips at 8 in the morning. Sometimes Jeremy opts for a fish soup, but I draw the line at that.

Driving through the Andes of southern Peru was almost 100% spectacular, with most of it involving incredible mountainous scenes, and ending at Lake Titicaca.

Of course not every driving day is like that. They can be boring, ugly, traffic-filled, frustrating. Some days thing start badly and from then on seem destined to follow a course of crappy-to-shitty-to-full-blown-tantrum. But I can think of few days where nothing funny, interesting or educational happened. Road days are good for laughing, talking and thinking.

And I can think of no day when everything was predictable. Driving here can be quite a crazy experience. Apart from dealing with quite extreme geographical and climactic conditions, there are constant hazards in the road and both sets of eyes are needed at all times. It is the passenger’s job to yell “dog!” several times a day, as they run free here and are forever scampering onto the road, lying on the road, trying to eat something off the road, chasing other dogs into the road…

It’s not just dogs though. Llamas, alpacas, donkeys, sheep, people, tuk-tuks, bikes, you name it. Expect the unexpected is the general mantra.

Of course, getting lost is a necessary feature of any road trip. There are those mornings when you know exactly where you are going, you’ve got the map, you’re heading out of town on an outer road, and suddenly you’re in the middle of the Sunday market. Bugger.

Sunday market, Puno, Peru

Sunday market, Puno, Peru

Even without a major getting-lost incident, it’s not like every road day is a simple case of heading from campsite A to campsite B. There are things to find and do – water, food, stuff we need but have no idea how to find, and sometimes (dare I say) a mechanic is needed. Moreover, there is not always a plan about where we are going to sleep – we just don’t know for sure how far we’re going to get, and/or there is no obvious place to stay once we want to stop. People often ask where we sleep, and it varies enormously, from relatively luxurious to the absolute opposite. During two months in Peru, for example, we camped at a beach campsite, a mountain lodge, several hotel gardens, road toll booths, gas stations, truck stops, the street, the car park of some archaeological ruins, and a proper overlanding campsite in Cusco.

On driving days, come lunchtime we’ll start looking for somewhere suitable to pull over and make a snack. Depending on the timing, we might end up at a sublime riverside spot, or the outskirts of a village with a beautiful view of the mountains. Other days you’re only option is a layby strewn with stained toilet paper and swarming with flies, and that’s just the way it goes.

On our way from Cusco to Puno we were in the mood for a nice big, cheap lunch in a local cafe – something which is very easily found in Latin America. We drove and drove through miles of emptiness. The villages we did encounter had nothing but the ubiquitous tiny shops selling sodas and packets of biscuits and crisps. Ravenous, we were just about to give up and head for the emergency tin of sardines when we came across this woman selling fire-roasted trout and chicken. We sat by the railway line and ate our trout in the sunshine. That was a good day.

And here’s another of the rules. When you’re having a good run, it’s important to know when to quit and find somewhere to camp, well before dark. It can be tempting to keep going, get a few more miles done, just a little bit further and then we’ll stop. But there’s a tipping point, and we’ve experienced it many times. It’s a bit like looking after a toddler – if you let things go too far, and they are beyond tired, hungry and needing a pee, there’s no way back. There’s going to be a meltdown, decision-making will be badly affected and someone will end up going to bed without any dinner.

Actually, the truth is I could count on one hand the number of days we’ve had that have ended without a proper dinner. That’s another one of our rules – no matter what is happening, we cook dinner and sit down with a glass of something. In a continent where lunch is king, it’s a habit we find impossible to break because we love the ritual of it.dinner time

I remember one night when we’d had quite a trial finding somewhere to sleep in the town of Huacachina. It was one of those where it was late, dark, we were tired and grumpy and the place we’d thought we could stay wasn’t available to campers any more. They sent us to a car park that we took an irrational dislike to, and ended up camping on the street.

“We’ll just have to downgrade the plan and keep dinner simple tonight” I said, because we were knackered and find it harder to relax when we are camping in the street.

As we sat there with our seafood noodle soup with coriander and lime, and a glass of red, Jeremy gave a wry smile. “This isn’t exactly roughing it, is it?” he said.

Well, just because we’re living on the road doesn’t mean we have to let all of our standards go out the window.

Days: 1,009
Miles: 20,841
Things we now know to be true: Let’s leave this one to John Steinbeck: “People don’t take trips. Trips take people.”

Inca-redible

1 Jul
Street festival, Cusco, Peru

Cusco was starting its June festivities when we were there.

La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

We’re going to make this a mostly photo-dominated post. And not just because we are lazy and really far behind with the blog – good heavens, how could you think such a thing?!

Genuinely, it feels like every word that could ever be said about Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley has been said a million times. Can there be many people in the world who don’t recognise this Peruvian scene?

Machu Picchu, Peru

Much of the focus in articles and blogs on the subject is about how best to navigate the logistical maze involved in planning your visit, especially when you are on a bit of a tight budget.

This is where things took a bit of a curve ball for us. Due to one of those right-time-right-place things, we ended up visiting Machu Picchu by train, as part of a complimentary 5-star hotel, spa and sight-seeing package that was provided by the tour company High Lives, so we could review it for the website Queen of Retreats. That should be published soon, and we’re looking forward to blogging on all that in more detail then. For now I’ll just leave you with a couple of our favourite dishes of that trip. Yum.

Our biggest challenge was trying to scrub up for four days of luxury hotels. We did our best, under the circumstances.

Hotel selfie

Despite this fortunate happenstance, we still had spectacularly low expectations of Machu Picchu. It seems that the more hyped and busy a place is, the more we believe we are just going to find it irritating. I know, for example, that the Acropolis and the Vatican are ‘must-sees’ in Europe. But I spent most of my time in both places wanting to kill someone. It’s not that we expect to have these world-famous sights to ourselves (that cheeky bugger Mick Jagger managed to get exclusive access to Machu Picchu in 2011, but he’s probably a much better tipper than we are), but it’s just that large gaggles of tourists often morph into idiotic buffoons, spoiling it for everyone and just asking to be slapped.

But guess what, we were proved wrong. Sure, it was very busy, but people went with the flow. Added to that, we had such an engaging, fantastically-informed guide that we were totally absorbed with what he was saying.

I know some people find the place a bit ‘meh‘. But our over-riding thoughts about the visit was, ‘wow those Incas really were something else’. The intelligent way they designed and built their cities and lived their lives – with 100% respect for the environment, the seasons, and the earth that fed them – was quite a sobering thought for the modern day.

We waited til things quietened down and spent time wandering on our own, before taking the obligatory ‘classic’ Machu Picchu photos.

Machu Picchu, Peru

By the time we got to that photo hot-spot, there were only two other people up there. I thought we’d be desperate to get out after an hour. In the end we didn’t want to leave.

But this part of Peru is not all about Machu Picchu. The whole Sacred Valley is awash with incredible Inca ruins and gorgeous scenery – including the genius terracing at Pisac and Moray, and the ruins outside the lovely town of Ollantaytambo.

Inca terraces, Moray, Peru

The terraces at Moray were an agricultural testing ground for the Incas.

And the pre-Inca salt pans at Maras are an astonishing sight as you come over the brow of the hill and see them filling the valley below from a scarily steep dirt road. We rather hurtled down this road, due to a spectacular fail in working out how long it would take us to get there. In one of those random travel moments, we’d received an email from a Dutch woman called Elise, who lives in Urubamba and runs a language school and cultural association.

She’d liked the look of our blog and wondered if we fancied meeting up for lunch. We agreed, and decided to ‘pop’ to Moray and the salt pans at Maras before our rendezvous.

All was going well until we realised we were running hopelessly late and found ourselves virtually flying down the track to Maras, eyes permanently on the clock. We looked round the place in record speed, doing it very little justice as it is bloody amazing, and ran back to the car.

Salt pans, Maras, Peru

We’d parked in the only space available, a steep slope with the van kind of hanging over an awkward bump where there was a railing, closely followed by a steep drop. As I tried to get out of the space, I stalled every time. I just couldn’t get enough grip to drag us out of this slippy dip. The timing was crap – we rarely have deadlines and this was not the time to get stuck! Jeremy’s vertigo was leading him to come over a bit funny at the mere thought that I was going to roll us backwards over the cliff.

I (not entirely gently) persuaded him to get a bunch of other visitors/taxi drivers to help us out. After a few attempts at pushing and a lot of sweat we were off and, with that, replacing our ageing tyres moved further up the shopping list.

Lunch with Elise

Lunch with Elise (right) and her colleague Emma.

At least our new gears allowed us to bomb it back to Urubamba, hoping that Elise had lived here long enough to have developed Latin America timekeeping. Luckily she had, and all was well for a delicious lunch and a boisterous chat.

And we mustn’t forget to mention Cusco itself, a gorgeous colonial city that can keep you amused for days. Granted, it’s also overrun with tourists – the most we’ve seen in one city during our whole trip – but somehow it manages to retain its character, albeit with a lot of foreigner-pleasing add-ons.

We’d spent a good chunk of time in Cusco and the surrounding valleys and still felt there was more we could see and do, but eventually dragged ourselves away.
We had another deadline to meet, and Bolivia was beckoning us back.

Days: 1,002
Miles: 20,841
Things we now know to be true: Never park in a hurry.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:-

Over the top

2 Jun
Punta Union pass, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The view as you come over the top of the Punta Union Pass, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, is more than enough reward for the climb.

Cusco, Peru
[by Paula]

There was a time in our lives when we thought we were beach people. From our London desks we used to dream of building some little cabañas in Zanzibar or on the Pacific coast of the Americas, and living out the years with the sand between our toes. But one thing this trip has taught us is that, while we will always love visiting the beach, it is the mountains that truly make us salivate.

That’s where nature is at its most over-the-top melodramatic, where the extremes make life both exhilarating and harsh, and where the landscapes can actually make you well up with emotion. And when it comes to mountains that could make you weep with both pleasure and pain, the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes is up there among the best experiences we’ve had on our travels.

Bolivia reunion

Don, Rochelle and Naomi – of Bolivia days – coincided with us in Huanchaco.

Before heading for the snow, we’d spent rather a long time basking like lizards on the warm coast. We lingered in Huanchaco for longer than planned, enjoying a few home comforts and something we hadn’t experienced for a while – a social life. A bit of lucky timing led to a reunion with our Bolivia housemate Naomi, whom we lived with near La Paz for four months, plus fellow volunteers Don and Rochelle.

We were all heading from dinner to a bar one night when we popped our heads into a place that sounded like it was having a fiesta. It turned out it was a charitable mother’s day evening, being held for some of the poorer families in the town. None of us is quite sure how it happened, but before we knew it the feisty mama in charge had convinced Naomi (an accomplished singer) to get up and do a turn for the crowd, while we were all bundled into the kitchen to serve tamales to an 80-strong gathering of hungry people. Sometimes this life is just plain weird.

Meanwhile we were also resolving an issue we’d had with loss of coolant fluid in the van. Two rare things happened regarding that – first, the VW dealer in Trujillo was full of helpful, skilled people who knew what to do. Secondly, when they told us which piece of the van had broken (the water pump), Jeremy was able to produce the relevant part from the back of the van with a little triumphant flourish. Crisis averted!

There was one other reason for our slight malingering. Everyone we met who was coming north from the mountains was reporting how rainy, cold and relentlessly miserable it was. ‘We had to get out and escape to the coast!’ they all said.

Oh dear. So we headed for the hills with some trepidation, but mentally prepared to dig out the waterproofs and just go for it.

After a, predictably, noisy night sleeping at a toll booth on the motorway we turned inland and starting slowly climbing. Before long we had our first glimpse of a jagged snowy peak. Hello again Andes! We all caught our breath with a lunch stop and some coca tea as we came over a pass at more than 4,000m to find what was to be the first of a string of gorgeous lakes. It felt great to be back on the altiplano.

Fortaleza Pass, road to Huaraz, Peru

Feeling on top of the world at the Fortaleza Pass, on the road to Huaraz.

What’s more, we appeared to have turned up at the very moment that spring was springing. Could it really be true? We snapped a gazillion photos, grateful for the bright skies and taking advantage of every moment, lest the weather should turn again. After a sweaty search for somewhere to park in the trekking hub of Huaraz, we gave up and found a fabulous campspot further north, at the back of a hotel with a great view of the mountains, which turned pink at sunset.

On the morning of day three we set out for a mountain lodge we’d read would accept vehicle campers. We bumped up a long winding dirt road, giving the new gearbox a bit of a workout. We finally found the un-marked, un-signposted lodge and wobbled up the final little stretch to the camping area, which sits at about 3,500m.

What a view – yet more snow-capped craggy peaks, and what seemed like our own private lake just over the brow of the hill from our campspot. We had a doorless toilet, we had no shower, and the nights and mornings were freezing – but sometimes location beats everything. The summer clothes were buried under the seats, and out came the big jackets and woolly hats.

The whole Cordilleras area is trekking heaven, and we set about making a plan. We started with a perfect acclimatisation trek to Llanganuco lakes. In order to really see them at their glittering, unfeasibly turquoise best, you really need the sun to shine. Unbelievably, it kept shining and the lush valley and forest were in full bloom after the rains.

Laguna Chinancocha, Peru

Laguna Chinancocha, Quebrada Llanganuco, PN Huascaran, Peru

We’d previously learned some lessons about altitude and were taking plenty of precautions with acclimatising, drinking gallons of coca tea and cutting down on the booze. Nevertheless we still had a few doubts about taking on the main trek we wanted to do in the area – the Santa Cruz, a four-day, three-night hike that would involve passes of more than 4,700m and chilly camping at up to 4,200m. Could we hack it? What if it pissed with rain for four days? And we know we’re not totally ancient, but group treks like these inevitably involve the majority of people being roughly half our age and we hate the thought of being the old farts dragging behind.

But we were feeling good – amazing, in fact – so we signed up and crossed our fingers for the weather.

It was a rainy start. We drove with the guide and cook to the village of Vaqueria. It seemed like we’d never stop climbing into the clouds. The road was rocky and narrow, but incredibly scenic. We looked down on the lakes we’d visited a couple of days before, from about 1,000m above, while Jeremy clutched the side of his seat. At Vaqueria we all stood in the mud and rain while the decidedly cheesed-off looking mules were packed up and covered with blue plastic sheeting.

Unhappy mule

Eeyore is really really looking forward to the trek.

We hiked along muddy paths, through villages with rudimentary houses that endure months of this weather every year – who were we to complain? In any case, we were well equipped for the weather. Jeremy has taken to hiking in his wellies. This had quite an effect on the locals we passed by, because rubber boots are the shoe of choice for just about every campesino in Latin America. The locals are used to seeing foreigners trooping past every day in their branded hiking gear, but not in a pair of $5 wellies like they wear.

We’d see them checking out his feet and giggling. As is the way with many people here, they are too reserved to shout something in your face, but wait until you are just at the edge of hearing distance.

Botas lindas!” (lovely boots!) called a group of women as Jeremy was already stamping up the hill. He swung round to look at them and they collapsed into near hysterics. I kept a close watch on him, in case he was snatched by a group of horny campesinas.

We arrived at our campsite that afternoon as the skies were clearing, and drank yet more gallons of coca tea. Good thing about the skies clearing = a billion stars blanketing the sky and the snowy mountains above being illuminated by the moon. Less good thing = a bloody freezing night in which you must encase your whole body and hatted head inside your sleeping bag. At one point I had to shout to make myself heard over the noise of the river, to inform Jeremy that I had managed to tangle my toggle, entirely trapping myself inside and getting into a minor panic.

We set off early with an eight-hour day ahead, and began the ascent to the highest point of the trek – the Punta Union pass at 4,750m (15,584ft). It was a long and incredibly satisfying day. We were lucky that we felt strong in our heads and legs. At times I felt positively gazelle-like. Altitude sickness seems not to discriminate about who it chooses to strike on any given day. A fit 23-year-old rugby player in our group had the hardest trek of her life that day, but it could have been any of us. We stuck together, climbing past beautiful lakes that reflected the white caps of the mountains above, and getting closer and closer to the snow line.

Just before lunch we could see the v-shape that we were heading for in the rocks above. With lots of little stops required, we plodded steadily to the top. There was a lot of whooping and waving as we came over the pass. The rugby player sat down and had a little cry.

And that was all before we’d even seen the jaw-dropping view that was just over the brow of the hill. The most stunning turquoise glacier lake, backed by the razor-edged snowy Nevada Taulliraju and an increasingly blue sky. After taking it all in we settled down for lunch. It was a pretty unbeatable picnic spot.

Lunch stop - Punta Union pass

Lunch with a view.

As we started to head off down the valley, there was a loud crack, and we turned to see a chunk of ice fall from the glacier, smash into a zillion pieces and hurtle into the lake. Brilliant.

We’d had a blissfully dry day but as we arrived at camp as the skies blackened. Good thing about the clouds = it was a warmer night. Less good thing = it lashed with rain all night long, we mopped puddles in the tent and got drenched every time we went for a pee. On nights like that, it’s dinner at 6pm and bed by 8pm. The deluge stopped just in time for our 5.30am start, wet tents were stuffed into bags and off we went.

Day three was another long and glorious (downhill) hike, involving close-ups of two other glacier lakes and an amazing ‘is-this-another-planet?’ quebrada with a sandy floor and huge purple lupin bushes. Valley on Santa Cruz trek

We’d barely seen any proper toilets for many days. On the way up to the glacier lake in the morning I was excited to see a rundown ex-toilet. Not in a great condition, but at least they have doors, I thought. I peered into the first cubicle – there was a whole dead cow inside, in an advanced state of decomposition. Hmm. We’ve seen some spectacularly rancid toilets on our travels, but that was another first. Undeterred, I went into the next cubicle, but it was rather distracting to think of the rotting corpse next door.

Moving on, we descended into a lush river valley and finally, happily, arrived at a gorgeous, sunny, sheltered campspot right by the water. Although it wasn’t quite the end, we only had a couple of hours to go the next morning and we were in celebratory mood. We’d (almost) done it! With the 9-hour hike behind us and the sound of the river next to our tent, we slept like babies.

Our final descent took us through a deep rocky gorge to the village of Cashapampa, where we collapsed into the minibus and drove along yet another spectacular mountain track to Yungay. We got back to our van and enjoyed a night of proper shelter and a soft bed.

But after all that trekking we still had no prospect of a shower. In fact we’d set another trip record, by going 9 consecutive days without soap and water. Not good, for anyone involved.

By day 10 we thought, ‘perhaps we should do something about that’. We packed up and set off back down the valley towards Huaraz. Just before the town we pulled into a kind of public baños, that had private suites for hire containing a sauna, steamroom and hot shower.

It took the full hour to steam, scrape and scrub the dirt off. We’d absolutely loved the Cordillera Blanca, which had given us the best reason we’ve ever had for becoming offensively filthy. But getting clean was the best £8.50 ($14) we’ve ever spent.

Days: 973
Miles: 20,235
Things we now know to be true: Like Elvis, cows sometimes die in toilets.

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LOTS MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW….

 

Life’s a beach

9 May
Sunset, Zorritos, Peru

We did a lot of this.

Huanchaco, Peru
[by Paula]

I’d like to say that the month we’ve just spent at the beach in northern Peru was a necessary pit-stop, a chance to get fit by jogging daily, perhaps, or the perfect opportunity to brush up on some Spanish verbs.

But really we were just plumbing previously unchartered depths of laziness. Okay, so we had decided to order a few van bits and pieces and we did have to wait for them to arrive, but it wasn’t like we had broken down or anything (as if!- ed). We could have been more active than a couple of two-toed sloths, but we just couldn’t be bothered.

Peruvian hairless dog

Peruvian hairless dogs take a bit of getting used to.

So for the first time in over a year we just beached ourselves, got a tan, stared at the waves and sunsets, shopped at the market, built barbeque fires and read a lot of books. We tried, and failed, to become accustomed to the campsite owner’s Peruvian hairless dogs, which are quite the strangest, aloof creatures. Things got fixed. I sewed some curtains. I even managed to motivate myself to dust off the copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that had been languishing, ignored, in the van for more than 900 days. Now if that’s not a worthwhile achievement, I don’t know what is.

Just before we left we had the good fortune to meet Peruvian-British couple, Elizabeth and Paul, who live in Lima. Within moments of meeting, Elizabeth insisted on cooking us a Peruvian meal and who were we to refuse? She turned up armed with all the ingredients for a lomo saltado (chicken version) and set to work, cooking up a delicious meal complete with the traditional chips and rice combo. “I’ve never cooked in a car before,” she said, deftly juggling a million dishes in our miniscule kitchen.

We finally dragged ourselves away from Zorritos last week and headed south down through Peru’s coastal desert. Our inactivity had given us the urge to just drive and drive and drive.

Cooking lomo saltado

Ellie cooks up a lomo saltado in the van.

We passed through hundreds of kilometres of desert, oil plants, and weird little ‘frontier-style’ towns, pulling off the road for occasional sand-blasted snack and coffee stops.

We spent three nights stopping off at whatever we could find as the day was coming to a close – a mosquito-infested restaurant garden, a rudimentary truck stop and possibly the wierdest hippy encampment/hostel we’ve ever encountered. On an unattractive, stinky stretch of the coast near the city of Chiclayo, the Katuwira Lodge looked to us to be dilapidated and abandoned when we first arrived. It was a ramshackle collection of peeling structures – triangle casitas, wooden cabins and odd-looking domes. All the nearby food stalls on the beach looked like they hadn’t been open in years. The whole place was downright creepy, complete with jangling wind chimes and plastic fairground toys randomly lying around. Basically it was the perfect setting for a horror movie, perhaps featuring hapless travellers who wander into the lair and, after dark, are bludgeoned to death by the caretaker.

But the sun was setting and we didn’t want to hunt for anything else. The hostel was on a large piece of land with lots of space. “Let’s pull in and see if we can just quietly park here anyway,” said Jeremy. As we pulled round we saw a face appearing in a doorway – a travelling family were babysitting the place during, as they called it, “no season” – hurray!

“It’s out of season,” they said, “but you can stay”. “Great”, I said, thinking “but there’s NO WAY I’m going to the toilet on my own in the middle of the night…”.

Glad that we hadn’t been murdered in our beds, we left early the next morning and headed for the town of Huanchaco, a touristy beach place where a proper campsite, friends, and cocktails awaited.

Desert driving, Peru

Dusty day of desert driving.

We love the ebb and flow of being on the road. Getting dusty and grimy for a few days, then celebrating reaching your destination with a shower, laundry and a nice spot to spread out and get organised again. Then the feet start to itch, and you’re off again.

In Huanchaco we’ve enjoyed having a social life again, with Karin and Coen of Landcruising Adventure who are as just as appreciative of a pisco sour cocktail as we are.

Karin, Coen and Jeremy get stuck into a refreshing beverage - Huanchaco, Peru.

Karin, Coen and Jeremy get stuck into a refreshing beverage – Huanchaco, Peru.

We’ve also been spending a bit of time trying to resolve a little conundrum with the van – the mystery of the disappearing coolant. We hope we’re getting somewhere with that, and no doubt we’ll keep you posted.

We’ll soon be heading inland to the mountains, where we’ll be donning the rain gear and enjoying a bit of long-awaited trekking.

After weeks of lounging and a few too many cocktails, it’s about time we stopped being so lazy.

Days: 949
Miles: 18,828
Things we now know to be true: Sloths have a commendable approach to life.

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MORE PICS MORE PICS MORE PICS!

 

 

A transmission tragedy – abridged

14 Apr

Broken van

by Paula

You might have wondered how a broken van could possibly take 11 months to repair. We’ve frequently pondered that too. Now that we’re happily on our way again, lazing on a sun-kissed Peruvian beach, let’s have a little flashback. If you are not remotely interested, step away now because it’s not going to be pretty.

There’s a US theatre company that specialises in boiling down long, serious and convoluted stories into a few minutes of entertainment. Some of their more famous performances have been the complete works of Shakespeare or the Bible, covered in one session.

They are called the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I thought I’d steal their style and turn our 11-month Ecuadorian van repair saga into a 3,000-word projectile word vomit. And, believe me, this is the summary – it doesn’t even cover the simultaneous (related) nightmare we had with immigration and customs, which is mostly covered in our Ecuador posts from last year.

It was either this or the complete works and, frankly, no one wants to read that.

——

Mid-April 2013 we pulled into a mechanic specialising in German cars, said please fix our fuel injector, they said okay. Days later they said actually it’s buggered, you need a new one, we said okay we’ll order one from the US. It arrived, they said oh sorry it’s a five-day holiday here now, see you next week, we said damn. [Irony alert: we were really frustrated about this extra five-day delay].

They faffed around then said come back to the workshop. When we returned they were pushing the van into a corner, we said that’s not good. They said while we were out testing the fuel injector the transmission broke and we had to tow it back. We said, what, our one-year-old transmission broke?! They said yeah, it’s buggered. We said, oh we better have a lie down. They said all these parts inside are broken, you need to order replacements from the US and we’ll rebuild it, we said okay. It took ages to sort out the order, send the parts to California, then Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs.

Bugger.

Bugger.

Several weeks later – in May - they arrived, we said phew, the mechanic said well not really because they have arrived incomplete. We said shit. It took ages to sort out the new order, to send the parts to California, then to Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs. Is this sounding familiar?

We said now is it ready?.. because it’s already June. They said testing went well, come in tomorrow. We arrived at the workshop, the transmission was in pieces on the floor in a puddle of oil. We said that’s not good, is it? They said all was well but after more test-driving the transmission oil starting leaking, a rubber seal is damaged, we said oh. They found a replacement. We said now is it ready? They said no, when we tested it again the transmission oil was burning up, maybe the converter is broken, we said wtf, how much will that cost? They said loads. They ordered a new one, meanwhile they tried out a used one they had. They said when we test-drove that one the transmission oil was burning up again, we said this is getting boring.

They said maybe we need some more advice, we said that might be good because it’s now, like, July. They said some expert in the US says you might need a valve body unit and you should have been sold a new cooler when you bought the transmission last year, we said it was nice of VW to tell us that when they sold us the transmission. They said bastards, we said yeah. They said we better order those then, we said okay maybe we should just buy a house here, it looks like we might never leave, they said ha ha good one!

It took ages to sort out the order, send the parts to Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs. We said are the parts here yet? They said, er, kind of but they are stuck in customs, we said there’s a surprise. We said are they here yet? They said yes, finally. We said okay can we go now? They said, well…. we put the new parts in but during the test we starting losing pressure, it might be a problem with an ‘O-ring’. We said perhaps that should be renamed the ‘O-for-fuck-sake-ring’, they said eh? They said we’ll have to look into it, we said is someone actually trying to hold us hostage here? They said it’s starting to look that way.

We said what’s happening, they said actually we think we might have had a eureka moment, we said please share. They said we are tearing our hair out here, we repair automatic gearboxes in German vehicles all the time but we’ve never seen one as bad as this, so we went back to the drawing board, we said what did you find? They said we think there was a factory fault with the transmission you had in your van, VW managed to omit a very important screw and washer that holds important things together, which means everything’s been moving inside and completely fucked it up, we said that’s disappointing, they said yeah it is. We said wouldn’t it be funny if four months of investigation and loads of money spent ends in the mystery coming down to a screw and a washer, they said yeah, hilarious.

Quito

We got to know, and love, Quito during our various stays

We said is it ready yet? They said we’ve put it together again and now we have to drive test it. We said how did it go, they said really well, we said great, they said we’ll just drive it for a couple more hours, you can pick it up tomorrow, we said phew because our visas run out again in two days, at the end of August, and now we only have a couple of weeks to get to Chile to meet Paula’s parents.

We said we’re all packed, excited and are on our way!! They said oh. We said what? They said after 100km of testing the transmission seized up, we nearly had an accident, it’s completely fucked again, it might be an electrical fault and nothing to do with the actual gearbox. We said we want to cry, we don’t think we can do this anymore, they said neither can we, we never want to see this hideously awful transmission again. We said how about you just drop the van off the hydraulic lift, total it and then we’ll claim it on the insurance, they said really? They said actually it wouldn’t do enough damage, we said that’s a shame.

We said how about we try converting it to a manual gearbox, they said good idea let’s investigate.

We said good luck with that, it’s now early September and we’re off to Chile on the bus because we have to meet my family and we’ll never get there in the van, they said have fun. We said you really have to be finished when we get back in about 6 weeks because we really have to be in Bolivia by 1 November to start a volunteer work-exchange thingy, they said yeah okay.

They said we’ve found a matching manual gearbox in Ecuador, shall we buy it?, we said yes. We said how’s it going, they said we got the gearbox but we didn’t like the look of it so we sent it back and will look for another one. We said did you find one, they said yeah but it really didn’t fit properly, but now we’ve found a third one and we like it, we said that’s good to hear.

Several weeks later – yes it is now October – we said how’s it going, they said we’re getting there. We said how’s it going now? They said we’re 85% there, the gearbox is working, except the computer doesn’t like it and goes into ‘limp’ mode so we need to trick it but we’re not sure how. We said let’s try to find out, they said yeah.

We said we need to set off to return to Ecuador from Chile now, but we don’t want to bother if it’s not fixed yet, they said er….. we said what? They said good news is we think we have a solution to the computer problem, but we need a part from Germany to make it work, should be ready about 6 November, we said Oh For Fuck’s Sake! We said we’re going to Bolivia now then, cos we can’t be arsed to hang around in Ecuador and then be really late starting our job, they said okay.

Friends came and went...

Friends came and went…

We said is the part there yet? They said no. We said is it there yet, cos we’d quite like to pick up the van around Christmas. They said we got the part and put it in. We test drove it and the computer problem was solved, we said brilliant!! They said we drove it and drove it, up hill and down dale, and it was going like a dream, we said brilliant. They said we declared it ready, we said seriously? They said but then the boss insisted we take it for an even more extreme mountain drive, he said there’s no point in giving it to them if it can’t cross the Andes, we said that sounds sensible. They said we took it up there and some of the pinions broke during the test, it seems the engine is just a fraction too powerful for the gearbox we’ve got, we said sigh….. They said arghhhh! We said ditto.

We said maybe we need to give up now, they said maybe. We all slept on it. Jeremy said I’ve looked into it again and maybe we need to find a solution in Europe, there’s this guy in Germany who I think can help, they said send us the details. We said we’re not going to be able to come and collect it at Christmas as planned, are we? They said no.

They said the guy in Germany can provide all the exact parts to put this together, we said super! They said the problem is all the parts are used, and it’s illegal to import used parts into Ecuador, we said we know, we’ve been here before, they said it wouldn’t be easy to clean up this whole kit and make it look like new, we said what now? They said we don’t usually do this but we’ll contact ‘a bloke’ in Colombia and see if we can send them there, then we’ll (illegally) drive them over the Colombia-Ecuador border, we said that sounds like just the kind of excitement we need.

We said what the frock is happening, please will you reply to our messages. They said the problem is the guy in Colombia wants far too much money to receive this package, so we’re still looking into how we can do this, we said we’ll contact some people in Colombia too then, they said thanks. We said we’re now in danger of missing our final, last-chance, Ecuador visa expiry date at the end of February 2014, which is not something we really could have envisaged last April, they said neither did we…. They said the latest gearbox should be despatched from Germany to Colombia on 8 January, we said better late than never.

Two weeks and hundreds of emails and phone-calls later they said thing is we got this guy to send it to Colombia, we paid him and got the tracking number. Then we went to Colombia to collect it and it wasn’t there. They said we called him and said WTF?  He said we had “taken too long to decide if we wanted it”. He is a (INSERT SEVERAL SWEAR WORDS) asshole. They said we have (INSERT SWEAR WORD) had it with this van, it is impossible, we cannot (INSERT SWEAR WORD) well do this any more, it is costing us a fortune in time and money and it’s costing you loads as well. They said we’ve tried everything to get VW to help us find the right parts but they say what we’re doing is impossible, that’s it, no more, sorry.

We said maybe this really is over now. Maybe it’s time to come up with a whole new plan, abandon the van – which we cannot legally sell in, nor remove from, Ecuador – and buy a different car. We said the logistics of all of that are a total nightmare but let’s make a list of options and look for other vehicles.

A few days later… we said are you really telling us you are giving up, even though we all still believe there should be a solution out there? They said, well….maybe we spoke in anger. We said we’ll look for a better contact in Europe, they said thanks. We said Jeremy has been back to all his geeky contacts online, and beyond, in fact he has been living on the internet for days, and we think a guy in Canada that Jeremy has found, has found in a guy in Holland who can come up with the goods, they said really? We said we hope so.

We had some freelance work to do to help offset our van expenses

We had some freelance work to do to help offset our van expenses

Holland Guy said I’ve looked into it and there’s only one manual gearbox in existence that you could use for your conversion, and I can get hold of it plus the other bits you’d need, we said you’d be the first person to have actually been able to name the parts we need – including VW, who have washed their hands of this from the start and are complete, utter bastards – and it sounds too good to be true but we’ll go with it. A squillion emails and several weeks later we said that’s all the parts ordered then, it’s February now so we better get back to Ecuador and sort this out.

We got back to Quito and said where are the parts, they said still stuck in customs, we said that sounds familiar. A week later, nearly mid-March, we said where are the parts, they said still stuck in customs, we said the longer this goes on the more likely we are to snap and stab someone [we didn't really say that second bit out loud].

We said where are the parts, they said they all have to have a physical inspection by customs and if they find the two (illegal) used parts that you’ve hidden in there, the whole shipment will be confiscated, we said we know and it’s kind of keeping us awake at night, they said let’s hope they don’t spot it, we said yes let’s hope that.

They said all the parts have finally been cleared by customs, we said YAY!!!, that was close, they said you were lucky. We said all we have to work out now is whether these parts really do fit our van, as claimed, they said let’s hope so, we said yes let’s.

They said we’ve received all the parts and they look good, for the first time it looks like the parts are correct, the Holland Guy really seems to know what he’s doing, we said phew. They said Holland Guy thinks this is the first time in the world this conversion has been done on your specific engine, we said that’s both strangely comforting and very scary, they said yeah.

Gearbox diagrams

Worse than your worst Ikea flatpack nightmare – the mechanic gets to work on assembling the new manual gearbox.

They said we’ve put the gearbox in and it fits – just, with a millimetre to spare – we said gulp, YAY!! They said we’ve had to make some adaptations but things are going well, now we just have to work out how to trick the computer, we said yeah we thought that might still be a problem. They said we’ve done it all and we’ve over-ridden the computer so we think it’s going to work, we said let’s hope so, they said yes let’s. They said the clutch cylinder that came from Holland is not working properly, but we’ve done a temporary fix, you can drive but should order a replacement asap, we said sigh.

They said we’ve taken it for a first test drive and everything was perfect, we said we refuse to believe it until we are actually driving that van away from the workshop, they said fair enough. They said come down and take a drive with us, we said that would be nice. We drive to the mountains and everything felt lovely, we said YAY! They said we just need to do some final checks and clean everything up and then you can come and collect it, we said we still can’t really believe it, they said believe it, you are so out of here, we said I bet you’re looking forward to that.

They said come and get it, it’s nearly ready, we said YAY! They said only problem is you can’t drive it til 7.30pm because number plates ending in ’7′ can’t drive in the city on Thursdays, we said another three hours won’t kill us but it will still feel like the longest three hours of our lives, they said come back to ours for pizza then, we said okay. We said that was a hell of a year wasn’t it, they said yes it was really stressful, we said yeah. They said remember the day you asked us to destroy the van by dropping it off the lift, we said yeah, they said that was a really bad day, we said yeah it was. They said Jeremy was a genius for finding Holland Guy, and Holland Guy was a genius for finally getting to the bottom of it, we said yeah. They said did we mention that the automatic was the shittiest transmission we’ve ever seen and that VW refused to help us with part numbers for this job, saying that what we were doing was impossible, even though they actually manufacture the gearbox we eventually used? We said, yeah we are all agreed that they are evil, uncaring, cynical corporate whores, they said spot on.

We said thanks for the pizza, and everything, we’re off to get the van now, they said bye then, we said ciao.

—–

A FOOTNOTE TO EKEKO:

There’s another little strand to this story. Now, we’re not religious people, we’re not even that vague half-way house that some people describe themselves as – ‘spiritual’. But people change, and we’re now firm believers in the Andean god of abundance, Ekeko. We’re not trying to convert you. We’ll simply give you the facts.

Thanks mate.

Thanks mate.

If you’ve read the above transmission tragedy, you’ll know that we spent many months trying to track down a manual gearbox that would actually fit our van. No one seemed able to help, not even the people who made the van. Enthusiasts in the US tried to help – they were also looking for the same solution but couldn’t find the parts either. Towards the end of January things were looking very bleak indeed. The mechanic had given up and we were simultaneously looking for alternative vehicles and making a last-ditch attempt to ask our contacts for help with our van.

Meanwhile we were busy with volunteering in Bolivia and doing freelance journalism work. I’d been commissioned to write articles on the Alasitas festival in La Paz. The festival centres around the god Ekeko – people buy miniature versions of all the things they desire for the coming year, and ask Ekeko to make them come true. We were desperate enough to try anything. We bought a miniature VW and little driving licence, a mini passport and suitcase (representing travel) and had them blessed by a shaman.

The following morning I was in a cafe writing my Alasitas article, when Jeremy emailed me to say: “Trying not to get overexcited but…. just had an email from a parts supplier in Holland who says he can find us our gearbox.”

That Ekeko guy works fast, we said! Make of it what you will, but with that we were back in the game.

There’s no place like home

8 Apr
We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

The beach, Peru
[by Paula]

When we blogged last week, to say that our van was back in the game after 11 months off the road, we mentioned that we had another enormous challenge to face before we could really get back into the road trip part of this journey.

We’re over the moon to say that that hurdle has been cleared – we are safely in Peru and ensconced on a peaceful beach, living the van life again and re-acquainting ourselves will everything that is so liberating about having a house on wheels. After so long living in apartments, we thought it might take a while to adjust again to the limited space, but we’ve only banged our heads about 67 times each in the last week, so that’s going really well so far.

Unfortunately we can’t yet publish the full story about what we went through to get into Peru – that’s something we’ll have to save for another day and another country.

That aside, I’d love to tell you that the rest of our journey here from Quito was straightforward and incident-free. But would you really believe that?

Drinking champagne

A little champers moment after picking up the van

After picking up the van we spent a fun few days playing house with it and getting everything ready before our departure from the city. We set off at the crack of dawn, headed for the city of Riobamba, about 5 hours south of Quito.

About 4 hours and 45 minutes of that journey were joyous – driving through the Ecuadorian Andes with our new manual gearbox was like night and day compared with the hideous automatic transmission that had, at best, dragged the van kicking and screaming through Colombia’s highlands.

A few blocks from the campsite in Riobamba, we started to notice an ominous burning smell coming from the front of the van. Not good. As we pulled into the campsite and tried to park, Jeremy said: “Paula, I can’t get into any gear.” These are not words I ever want to hear again.

My brain quietly chanted ‘thisisnothappeningthisisnothappeningnothisisnothappening..’.

We popped the bonnet, releasing smoke and an acrid smell coming straight from the gearbox. Happily, after a short cooling period we managed to get into gear again and parked up.

The lovely campsite owner was offering advice about rubbing discs, just needing to regulate them, don’t worry ‘be patient’ you can find a mechanic tomorrow etc, but for the first few minutes it was all just white noise. We were in panic mode.

Non-starter

We were already aware that our clutch cylinder was a bit ropey – the one that arrived with the gearbox conversion kit was defective, and the Quito mechanics had done a fix on it. A new one had been ordered to be sent to us in Peru. We phoned our mechanic in Quito, Lothar, who urged us not to panic, it was probably something to do the cylinder but someone should be able to tweak it for us.

We found a mechanic on Monday morning who, at first, seemed gloomy about being able to access the right area to regulate the discs. “I might have to get another guy in to help me take the gearbox out,” he said. At that point I went for a long walk!

But after a phone conversation with Lothar, he found the way in and tweaked things to stop the discs rubbing.

“I really think this is going to be okay now,” he said. “Take it for a drive for a few hours, to places around the city, and if you smell burning again, come back tomorrow and we’ll look again.”

Van stopped at church

Nice church, not so nice that the van won’t start…

Hesitantly, we set off and drove to a little village about 30km away. No problems. We pulled in at a little church and had a look around. “Things feels good, let’s head on further,” said Jeremy.

We went back to the van. I turned the key. Click click, nothing. It was completely dead. This is NOT happening, I said. Probably the battery, we said. We called over a local family visiting the church and asked them to jump start us. Sure, they said. Click click, nothing.

“It’s not the battery, must be something else,” they said. They offered to come back with a mechanic in a hour.

It felt like a long hour in the hot sun. Really, were we ever going to get out of Ecuador?!

The mechanic arrived. “Oh” he said, “this car is gasoline, but I’m a diesel mechanic, sorry.” I made a growling sound. He started to have a fiddle around anyway, and declared it was “something electrical”.

“Let’s try push-starting it,” he said. Exciting, we thought – we couldn’t have done that with an automatic!

We pushed, and it sprang to life. Hurrah! They drove us to a car electrician in the city. “He’s the best,” they said, “if he can’t sort you out, no one can”. I thought ‘please don’t say that…’

Ten minutes and $5 later, a loose cable was re-connected and we were off!

So far so routine, but our still-raw paranoia about breaking down meant that every set-back felt like a disaster in the moment.

We flopped into our chairs back at the campsite – what a day.

Next morning we decided to head off with confidence, and drive south for a few hours to see how we felt. It was a beautiful, and calm, drive to the gorgeous railway town of Alausí. We were still like a couple of meerkats, popping our heads up at every perceived noise or smell, but all was well.

We explored the little town, which is sliced in half by Ecuador’s famous highland railway line. Brightly painted houses and a pristine square make it seem almost like a life-sized version of a model railway village. We ate chicken soup in the market, then decided to push on. Alausí’s steep streets were the perfect test for the gearbox, which coped admirably.

That afternoon we had one of those lucky finds – with no plan of where we might sleep, we happened across a slightly unpromising-looking sign for a ‘pueblo turistico’. We drove down a steep track, which ended at a new restaurant and little trail leading to an incredible mirador overlooking the famous engineering feat that is the ‘Devil’s Nose’ – a series of steep railway switchbacks cutting across the mountain before descending to a little station in the middle of nowhere.

Devil's Nose (Nariz del Diablo)

We camped above the mirador overlooking the famous Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo).

They had the perfect sheltered car park for us to camp in, and to top things off a train appeared just as we were climbing down the trail to look at the railway. We got some incredible views before the clouds started swirling through the valley and settled eerily for the night.

With no charge for the camping we decided to support this fabulous community project by buying a meal in the restaurant, which had a chef who’d worked in London for 10 years – it was $3 for a three-course dinner!

We drank our morning tea at the mirador the next morning, and really felt like we were on the road again. As we left the pueblo, we picked up a series of locals who were hitching between villages on our route – it’s an accepted way to get around and we never want to seem like grumpy gringos who just travel in a bubble of our own.

We started to hear a worrying clunking noise – it sounded like an innocuous banging of metal, but I refer you to my earlier comments about paranoia. We pulled in to get it checked out – just a broken screw on the metal guard under the van, which has been in and out like a jack-in-the-box over the last year. Keep calm and carry on!

Things continued to go smoothly. It felt like a major milestone to get to the southern city of Cuenca – our last major stop before the border, a place where we’d already spent a lot of time, and where we’d meet our friend Jess again before (hopefully) leaving Ecuador for good.

We camped in a great city farm and had a good night out in town and then brunch at the van with Jess the next day. She seems to have suffered every stage of the van saga along with us, so it was really special to be able to have her round for a cuppa, to see for herself that the van was back and really did exist.

We did some final planning and set off for the border at first light on Friday. It was by far the most nerve-wracking day of our trip so far, for reasons we’ll write about later.

That evening we pulled into a sublime beach campsite in northern Peru, as a red-hot sun was dropping from the sky in the way that is so synonymous with the Pacific coast – we were happy, relieved, adrenaline-fuelled and ready for a drink.

For the next few weeks we’ll hang out in hammocks, sort out the remaining loose ends with the van, go off wandering and sit out the chaos that is Semana Santa (Easter) in Latin America.

But mostly we’ll just enjoy being back home.

Days: 918
Miles: 18,121
Things we now know to be true: Panicking is unhelpful.

—–

A FEW MORE PICS FROM OUR EVENTFUL WEEK:-

 

The post you thought we’d never write

28 Mar
Van ready to go

Safe to say that mechanic Juan Carlos and owners Lothar and Lothar Ranft don’t ever want to see us again, nor us them.

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

We’re back on the road again. No, we can’t believe it either! After 11 months off the road, the van is finally purring away happily and getting ready to turn south again.

Having our home back is an incredible feeling. We’ve had some great digs while waiting, but we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t missed it.

Some aspects of the last year have been supremely stressful – the worst thing was not knowing how or when the saga would end. But our stoppage also led to some changes of plan that we find it impossible to regret, not least our unforgettable time in Bolivia.

You might wonder how the feck it could take 11 months to repair a van. That’s something we’ll be writing more about very soon. Suffice to say that – as far as we have been told – this is the first time in the world an automatic-manual gearbox conversion has been done on our specific model, year and engine-type. If anyone knows otherwise, we’d be happy to hear it.

It was bloody difficult for all concerned, but we’ve done it. Our mechanic’s wife waved us off last night with particular gusto.

For now we have another enormous challenge to face before we can truly relax and enjoy the ride, and we sincerely hope that very soon we can report good news on that front too.

Thanks to family, friends and fellow travellers for your concern and encouragement, now let’s hit that road!

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