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:

 

 

 

Home from home

12 Aug
La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz´s highland setting provides one of the most dramatic entrances to a city in the world.

By Jeremy

Put a few travellers in a room, add a beer, rum or vino to the equation and talk always turn to it.

Could you live here?

Everyone has had the feeling at some time or another, be it whilst whiling away the days in a hammock on a golden sandy beach, atop a summit in the snow-capped mountains, sitting in a cosy bar in front of a roaring fire or enjoying a perfectly cooked steak in a vine-shaded plaza with a glass of fine – but cheap – red wine.

It’s what makes people buy timeshares or run off with the waiter from the Greek taverna they have known for just a week. Colombia even has a bittersweet slogan for its tourist industry – “the only danger is not leaving” – and they are not talking about the alarmingly high incidence of kidnap or political prisoners.

We’re not immune to the fantasising – sometimes seriously, other times just for fun. We, like our fellow travellers, are always asking the question – could we really live here?

In the 1000-plus days we’ve been on the road there have been contenders – but there’s always a nagging something which makes you think again – the sudden onset of the rainy season, the bureaucracy or simply the local penchant for vallenato or cumbia music at full volume morning, noon and night, all the way through to morning again.

But amongst all the contenders the one that caught us most by surprise is La Paz in Bolivia. On and off, last year and this, we’ve spent almost 6 months living in and around the city. We’ve loved so much of what it has to offer.

And that’s the other thing about travellers – put three of them in a room and you’ll have four different opinions. One person’s paradise is another’s nightmare. So I know there will be plenty of those people who skipped La Paz entirely or briefly passed through it saying…but, what about the cold, the altitude, the occasional smell of urine on a street corner, the traffic, the slow, slow, slow internet, the, the, the….

We recognise all those things but we see so much more in La Paz. That’s why we went back – again.

Anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz

Buying yet more anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz. Served with potato and spicy peanut sauce, yum!

It is a city fiercely proud of its indigenous roots, outwardly brash but ultimately friendly, a city on the rise, that’s set in an unrivaled location. A city whose citizens are alert, active, civic-minded, never letting a politician, corporation or fraudster away with anything – a blockade is a frequent occurrence somewhere around the city. It is a city that likes to eat, dance and celebrate – there is a colourful fiesta for everything. It is a city which gets under your skin and a city in which we made some wonderful, lifelong friends – and that’s rare for those always on the move.

In our six months there we tried to sample a bit of (almost) everything on offer – from the chaos of the El Alto market – set in the militant, self-organised, sprawling section of the city perched high on the altiplano overlooking central La Paz – where we picked up boots and a shirt for next to nothing – to Paula’s death-defying mountain-bike jaunt down the world’s most dangerous road, from a night at a local peña (folk music drinking dens) with fellow comrades Tristan and Bianca, to enjoying the crazy day-long dancing spectacle which is Gran Poder – the year’s biggest celebration of Paceña culture and a growing symbol of the inexorable rise of the Aymara influence in the city.

But it was the day-to-day vibe of the city that also grabbed us – socialising, going to football, hiking, shopping, filling up on tasty street food and just chatting to friends. We even rose to the challenge of getting new glasses, medical check ups and doing some paying journalism work. All very normal in a city which is anything but ordinary.

But for us, La Paz will always be associated with our time in Jupapina with Emma, Rolando and their kids David and Bell and the animals. They have been so hospitable, such good friends who offered us advice, did us endless favours and make a mean Chuflay – a Bolivian gin and tonic!

No sooner had we arrived back in La Paz than Rolando said he had a job for us. He was thinking of selling an artesanal local beer in their campsite shop and he wanted us to visit the brewery with him to taste it. Five hours later we crawled home.

To help repay them a little we house-sat for them when they had a rare few days away, worked on the campsite reception and even took their three dogs for a walk. Emma’s parting words when they set off were not to try and walk the three of them at once – take it in turns. Bah! How hard could it be? After a titanic struggle with three of us trying to get the lead on two of the dogs while the third one head-butted the door, angry at being left out, we caved. All three it is then. We were dragged at high speed to the river in the valley below, then hauled through the water while they frolicked in the mud. Ooops. Lesson learned.

Tilly Bud got a little muddy during our walk.

Tilly Bud got a little muddy during our walk.

But it wasn’t just the two of us that had a variety of experiences in La Paz – the van, inevitably, did too. At 4100m above sea level, as we approached the longed-for comfort of Emma and Rolando’s beautiful place in the valley of the flowers – and the amazing campsite we had worked on during our last visit to La Paz – we had our first puncture in 3 years. Also during our stay the van’s electrics went haywire and the battery died.

It had always been the plan to get the van checked out thoroughly at Volksmotor, a now famous VW workshop which has become a must-visit for all overlanders. Swiss-trained mechanic Ernesto Hug went over things with a fine toothcomb, presenting us with a (thankfully) minor list of routine things that needed replacing. With me heading back to the UK for a flying visit to see my parents it was the perfect opportunity to get those hard-to-find spares. I was stopped at customs twice on my return to ask what a tie rod end was for, or why I had brake caliper seal kits in my hand luggage – oh, and did I really need that much sandwich pickle, thai curry paste and tea bags? The answer, of course, was yes.

The friendships we made in La Paz have travelled with us. During some of the many, many barbeques we had at Emma and Rolando’s, we met the parents of another friend of ours, Anahi. Luis and Ellie live in Cochabamba – smack bang in the heart of the country’s richest agricultural region – and kindly extended an invitation to show us the gastronomic delights of the city, whose inhabitants claim they ‘don’t eat to live but live to eat’. They aren’t wrong. No sooner had we, with some difficulty, parked our 17ft van in their 17ft-long garage than we were sat in a shady courtyard enjoying plates of boiled and fried guinea pig, dried strips of beef charque, stuffed locoto peppers, mote with cheese, roasted duckling and a couple of local beers.

Next day, after a couple of mid-morning snacks at the local market, we tried what we were told was the best chicharron – fried pork – in the world. It’s a lofty claim but having tasted the most succulent pork ever, we really cannot argue. A walk up to Cochabamba’s ‘Christ the Redeemer statue’ – well, actually, we drove almost all of the way – hardly made a dent in the weight we put on in just a long weekend with such generous hosts.

When we left La Paz last year we left some bags of clothes and other things behind, knowing it gave us the ideal excuse for coming back. This time we just (accidentally) left our beloved lime squeezer – I’m not sure that alone would be enough to bring us back, but everything else La Paz has to offer may well do the job one day.

Days: 1,044
Miles: 22,724
Things we now know to be true: Nowhere´s perfect.

The MendozaDonlans and Dears, La Paz

Bye bye to Emma, Rolando, David and Bell. Sniff!

Colibri Camping, La Paz

Colibri Camping, Jupapina, south of La Paz. Our workplace and home for nearly six months.

Ramble in the jungle

23 Jul
Flying Macaws, Bolivian jungle

We got an incredible view of flying macaws, from a cliff-top above their nesting site.

La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

There are so very many bitey stingy things in the jungle, but it was the ants that really messed with my head. You just can’t see those bastards coming.

And of course there’s nothing a jungle guide likes more than to tell stories of agonising pain, poisoning and death to his or her freaked-out tourists. When Jeremy casually leaned on a ‘devil tree’ and was stung – rather painfully – by some fire ants, our guide Eber said: “Ah, the devil tree, don’t touch that again! The fire ants colonise the trees and will sting whatever gets in their way to protect it. They used to tie criminals to those trees as punishment. If you get enough stings, they can kill you, but they’re not allowed to do that any more…”

Right, well that’s good then.

“Not as bad as the bullet ants, though,” he pointed out a short while later, gesturing towards an enormous ant on a tree trunk. “They give THE most painful bite. The pain travels to the nearest set of glands and constantly hurts like hell for 24 hours. Remember that woman we had who got bitten and was screaming her head off?” he said to fellow guide/cook David.

Leafcutter ants, Bolivian jungle

Leafcutter ants, we like you, you’re nice.

Why is it called a bullet ant? I’ve since Googled it, and the pain – said to be officially the most ouchy insect bite in the world – is often compared to that of being shot.

Great. So how are we all enjoying our trip to the Bolivian jungle?

Shortly after arriving back in La Paz we decided to do a little detour up to the country’s Amazon region and take a trip into Madidi National Park for a bit of wildlife-spotting and jungle hiking. We didn’t have time to take the van on what is a phenomenally bad, and often closed, road because Jeremy had to be back in a week to fly to England. So we did something that in his past life he would not have considered, at least not without taking a bucketload of tranquilizers first – we took a 16-seater plane that flew so low it barely skirted over the Andes, and then descended into the jungle at Rurrenabaque.

Even I was feeling uncomfortable about our proximity to the pilot, especially when he and his co-pilot started digging around for what looked like a ‘user’s guide to aeroplane engines’ and began studying it intensely during take-off.

It was mighty strange to leave the heights of La Paz and 30 minutes later be looking down on the meandering brown rivers and forest of the Amazon basin.

We set off the next morning on a three-night trip that involved going upriver for a few hours then spending one night in a community lodge, and two nights hiking and camping on the ground under a mosquito net.

The great thing about proper jungle is that you really have to work for your rewards. As much as we have loved places like Costa Rica – where habituated animals practically do a dance for you on the trails – it doesn’t compare with running and leaping through virtually unspoiled forest to try to catch up with a herd of peccaries that our guide can smell in the distance, or spending forever looking up into the canopy tops and finally, just before one’s neck can stand no more, catching sight of a toucan or the face of a spider monkey.

Some species stayed elusive, like the shy tapir. We studied their footprints, as well as those of jaguars, but never met them on the trail. Over this trip we have been very lucky to see hundreds of monkeys, of many different types, but in Bolivia we were excited that as well as spider, squirrel, howler and capuchin monkeys, we saw two species that we’d never even heard of. A whole troupe of tiny Lion monkeys careered across our path at one stage, giving us a very privileged close-up. And one night, in a tree right above our camp, we saw a nocturnal monkey who, unperturbed by the flashlight, stared right at us for several minutes.

When I say ‘we’ saw this or ‘we’ saw that, it’s worth mentioning that without our amazing guides we would have seen big fat zilch. These guys literally live the jungle and have the most incredible sense of hearing, sight, smell and direction. We hear a distant chirp that sounds like ‘a bird’ and they identify it as a particular type of monkey. They can mimic the calls of most birds and mammals, and often elicited responses during our walks.

On the night we saw the nocturnal monkey, we were sitting back at camp after a night hike. Two tree frogs very nearby were making such a commotion it sounded like two men were trying to fell the tree with a two-handled saw. We remarked that if that continued all night there was no way we’d be able to sleep.

Suddenly our guide stands up, ear cocked, and says he has heard the chirrup of a nocturnal monkey. He takes the flashlight and immediately shines it upwards into exactly the right spot in the canopy. Two little eyes flashed back at us from about 30ft above. How the hell….?!

Each evening involved a hike in the pitch black. The first night – when we were based at a lodge – we were looking forward to our first foray into the night forest. “We’re looking for snakes and spiders”, said Eber, who started rooting around very close to our wooden cabin.

“Hang on, surely we have to go really deep into the forest, away from where we’re sleeping, to find those things….” we said. “Nope” said Eber. And so it was that we not only found a huge furry tarantula hanging out on a tree a few feet from our cabin, but when we retired to bed, another one was literally hanging out on the thatch outside our bedroom. “I’ll never sleep now,” said Jeremy, a couple of nanoseconds before falling into a deep eight-hour slumber.

Tarantula, Bolivia jungle.

Tarantula seen during a night walk, Madidi National Park, Bolivian jungle.

Our other two nights of sleep were slightly less luxurious. Basically a plastic sheet on the ground with a net hung over it. Not very ant/spider/jaguar-proof….

We spent a lot of time looking at, and looking for, birds – seeing toucans, mot-mots, eagles, parrots, trogons, woodpeckers, and countless other things that we can’t remember the names of. One very special moment was coming across the most beautiful owl as we returned from a night hike. It was right in our path, and watched us for several minutes as if it couldn’t quite work out what the hell we were doing there.

We were intensely concentrating on a bird above us one day when I felt something tickle my hand. I looked down. Bullet ant. Heading for the gap under my sleeve. No-o-o-o-o. The velocity with which I flicked my hand was such that I was surprised to find it hadn’t dislocated and flown off into the trees. I spent the next hour shivering at the thought and brushing imaginary ants off my skin.

But the incredible things we saw massively compensated for the relative discomfort and creepy crawly fears. One of the biggest highlights was climbing to a rather steep and scary cliff-top to get a birds-eye (see what I did there?) view of scores of red and green macaws swooping around the trees next to their rocky nesting sites. You could watch these parrots all day, it’s like they’ve been created for some ridiculously over-the-top movie about a lost paradise world. The next morning we walked to the bottom of the cliff to watch them at their nests from below. Very special.

Macaws moving in unison

Macaws moving in unison, Madidi National Park, Bolivian jungle.

The jungle is no paradise for your average amateur photographer though. Zooming up into the sun-backed canopy, shooting into dark corners, and trying to capture fast-moving birds and monkeys – it’s good fun trying but basically a nightmare!

We tried our best to capture some of those moments, but really you have to see it to believe it.

Days: 1,024
Miles: 20,851
Things we now know to be true: It’s a jungle out there.

 

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….

 

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