Argentina’s dirty past

23 Oct
Faces of the disappeared, ESMA

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

Buenos Aires
[by Jeremy]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trial and punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raided homes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marching for the disappeared

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madres de Plaza de Mayo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road to Buenos Aires

18 Oct
Vintage car, Colonia, Uruguay

Uruguay has lots of lovely vintage cars.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

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

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

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

Jesuit mission, San Ignacio, Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainy day, Argentina

Really looking forward to setting up camp tonight..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salto Grande, Argentina

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

 

River relaxation, Salto Grande

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

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

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

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

Mercedes floods, Uruguay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset over the Rio de la Plata

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

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

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

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

So what’s new? Welcome to Buenos Aires.

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

MORE PHOTOS IN THE LOVELY GALLERY BELOW:

Water, water everywhere

8 Oct
Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Worth a detour: Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oyuco the cheeky dachshund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremy in the rain

Rain rain go away.

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

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

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

Had we lost our mojo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow at Iguazu Falls (Argentina)

I can sing a rainbow.

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

Iguazu Falls (Argentina)

Iguazu Falls, Argentina side

 

Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

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

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

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

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

GUESS WHAT?! MORE PICS BELOW

Argentina, we meet at last

5 Sep
Purmamarca, Jujuy, Argentina

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

San Ignacio Guasú, Paraguay
[by Paula]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine o'clock! Cafayate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frozen pipes!

Bit of a chilly morning, Humahuaca, northern Argentina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE PHOTOS FROM ARGENTINA IN OUR GALLERY BELOW!

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

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On a mission

18 Aug
Bolivia missions: Concepcion

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

Salta, Argentina
[by Paula]

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

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

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

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

Bolivia missions: Dusty roads

Dusty and bumpy roads, but beautiful scenery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bolivia missions: San Xavier

San Xavier’s plaza and Jesuit church.

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

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

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

Roast beef and cheesy rice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bolivia missions: San Jose de Chiquitos

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:

 

 

 

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.

 

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