The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

4 Apr

Paula watching sunset

By Paula
[April 2016]

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now – sometimes long-term travel is a bit hard. Because it’s a privilege to be able to travel for pleasure, it can be awkward to admit that. But there, I’ve said it.

But whatever down sides there are to living a nomadic life on the road, for us they were massively outweighed by the good stuff. If that wasn’t the case, we simply wouldn’t have kept going for nearly 1,600 days.

Like just about everything else in life, if it’s what you passionately want to do, you’ll take the rough with the smooth.  Via this blog we have been able to share so many incredible, unforgettable moments, and we thank you all again for coming along. We find it hard to absorb the sheer saturating volume of amazingness we’ve been lucky enough to experience, and the thought of trying to sum that up in this post is mind-boggling.

We hope you agree that we have also been truthful about the bad times, the irritations and the frustrations. We can’t stand shiny, shouty, dishonest travel blogging that makes out every single moment is a profoundly life-changing ‘awesome blast’, or that travelling is in some way superior to other lifestyles. The awesomeness is indeed present in an infinite number of big and small ways, and giving up a secure life to undertake a trip like this is inevitably life-altering, but let’s keep things in perspective please.

We get a lot of questions about why we did this, what’s great and what’s difficult – the thing is the answer can change depending on the day, the mood, the weather, the circumstances, the people. Sometimes a ‘bad’ thing leads to something fabulous. Some days you’re doing something fabulous and can still manage to be in a foul mood. Some of the best things are the hardest to convey because they are fleeting, silly moments that get lost in translation.

In this post, some of the good and bad things will literally overlap. How can we blather on about loving the freedom to be on the move, then bemoan the bad things about always being transient? Because we are all a bag of contradictions.

With our return home we’ve tried to focus our minds on the things we most treasured and the things we won’t miss so much.

They are those consistent themes that, for us, represent the truly Good, the Bad and the Ugly about our totally perfectly awesome blast of a drive to the bottom of the world.

[This is a huge blog post. If it helps, you can flick between the items you want to read from the list of clickable links below. But if you skip straight past all the ‘good’ stuff and go straight to the ‘bad & ugly’, please know that this makes you a terrible person.]

 


 

THE GOOD

1. Freedom

2. Being outside

3. Gazing at wildlife

4. Scoffing food

5. Feeling the ‘wow’ factor

6. Triumphing over adversity

7. Enjoying random surprises

8. Meeting people

 

THE BAD & THE UGLY

1. The toilet situation

2. The “f****ing wifi”

3. The vehicle maintenance

4. The lack of privacy

5. The transience

 


 

THE GOOD

1. FREEDOM

Long road, Patagonia, Argentina

Just me, him, a flask of tea and the road ahead.

This is the only word that comes close to summing up all that is good about a long road trip with a campervan. People so often ask what’s the best thing about the trip and, while we could list a gazillion cool things we’ve seen and done, it’s this.

Within reason, we could get up in the morning and go wherever we liked, and frequently changed our minds on the way. We didn’t have to get up and trudge to work. We didn’t have to plan much and almost never had to make reservations for anything.

Whenever we ‘arrived’ our house was there with us, so whatever was happening we had that little bubble that was all ours. No matter where we ended up, we could make a drink, cook some food and go to our own bed. If we didn’t like a place, we drove off. If we loved it, we stayed longer. If it rained we tried to head for the sun. If it was too sunny, we parked under a tree.

We had more time together than we could ever have hoped for in our previous life, which was one of the major things we’d craved before the trip. We found that to be strengthening, nourishing and fun.

It’s a massive privilege to have freedom and time – we never stopped appreciating that. We were almost always occupied with something or other because we still enjoy being busy, but we also had the headspace to read, talk, think and sleep more.

It took a while after we left London, but we learned to sometimes just be quiet and still, even bored. I know it’s stating the bleeding obvious, but that is seriously good for you.

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2. BEING OUTSIDE

Early cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Early morning cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

If you live the camping life for several years then, guess what, the majority of your time is spent outside in the sunshine and fresh air. We will miss this enormously because it made us feel healthier and improved our sleep quality.

When the weather was cold or wet we really loved having the option of slamming the van door and having a cosy indoor option. But for the most part the climate was great and we did most things outside whenever possible – reading, eating meals, barbequing, washing up, having a drink, fixing stuff, looking at the views and sunsets, swimming, hiking, people-watching, spotting birds and animals and wasting countless hours chasing them around with the camera, often to no avail.

In the mountains and national parks we loved heading off with some snacks for a good long stroll or a strenuous hike. If we were heading out on a particularly tough or long trek, we’d leave the bed out in the morning so we could come home and crawl straight in there afterwards with a reviving cup of tea. Bliss.

In the high altitude areas the light is particularly crisp, bright and unsullied – it truly is nectar for the soul. If only we could store it up for the grey days.

There were several phases of the trip when we did a lot of beach camping – especially Central America, Colombia’s Caribbean coast, northern Peru and southern Brazil. There’s nothing quite like sleeping to the sound of waves, waking up with the early sun, pushing back the door and stepping straight out onto the sand.

Some of our most precious memories are from camping on the beaches of Baja California in Mexico, back in 2011. Stingrays, leaping dolphins and massive azure skies that had to be seen to be believed. There are few better introductions to a life lived outdoors.

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3. GAZING AT WILDLIFE

Blue-footed booby, Ecuador

What you looking at? Blue-footed booby, Ecuador

We began our married life with an African safari and have always had a thing about any kind of wildlife. Even so, I don’t think we realised quite how geeky we were about it until this trip. We loved spotting the big mammals and exciting colourful birds but would also happily spend hours watching hermit crabs or leafcutter ants.

I started making a list of some of the main wildlife we saw on the trip, but it became ridiculously unwieldy.

So here are just a few of our favourite things:

– Swimming with sea lions in Baja California, Mexico, then snorkelling over a shoal of grouper fish that was so immense it gave us vertigo;
– Walking among blue-footed boobies in Ecuador. There is nothing not to like about a wide-eyed bird in bright blue flippers;
– Getting a good long look at a snoozing puma in the rainforest in Costa Rica.
– Watching Rockhopper penguins bounce around on the rocks in Patagonia. Boing!! (In fact, everything about penguins. Magellanics, Kings, Humboldts, whatever – our enthusiasm does not discriminate);
– Slowing down to allow a family of alpacas to cross the road in Peru;
– Spotting a lovely luminous yellow eyelash viper in Costa Rica, photographing it at close range, then later finding out it was a very dangerous, potentially deadly, snake.
– Looking on as herds of capybaras bathed in mud and water pools, in both Colombia and Argentina.
– Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys! So many monkeys. That is all.
– Managing to look up just in time to see, and photograph, a humpback whale leaping out of the ocean in Ecuador.
– Getting an up-close visit from a three-week old baby sea-lion in Chilean Patagonia. The little chap almost managed to upstage the King penguins we’d gone there to visit.
– Being happy to get a cricked neck from watching condors soar in the Argentinian lakes district.
– Standing on a cliff in the Bolivian Amazon, watching macaws flying beneath us in to their rocky nests. (actually, Jeremy hated the scary cliff, but he really enjoyed the parrots!)

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4. SCOFFING FOOD

Anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz

Buying anticuchos (cow heart skewers) in La Paz, Bolivia – served with potato and delicious spicy peanut sauce.

In most parts of the world food is an integral part of the culture that’s all bound up with family, identity, history, the environment and climate, the marking of life’s milestones and more. To travel without an open-minded love of food must surely be a joyless affair.

Luckily we take no persuasion to sample whatever’s on offer, wherever we go. The less familiar the better – roasted guinea pig (Ecuador and Peru), beef heart skewers (Bolivia), fried fat-bottomed ants (Colombia), lamb testicles (Bolivia), llama and alpaca steaks (Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina) being among the more memorable moments.

Filet mignon with fried ants, Barichara

Getting ready to pop a crunchy fried ant into my mouth, Barichara, Colombia.

On a self-catering trip, plenty of meals are typically everyday concoctions – often the same as, or a variation of, things we’d eat at home. But as much as possible we’d seek out less familiar ingredients to cook with, or try a local twist to what we were making.

But eating out really gave us the chance to delve into the local flavours. For the most part that involved street food and cheap, substantial, set lunches which are usually the main meal of the day in Latin America. Occasionally we’d eat out in the evening, and a few times we splurged on a properly posh gourmet meal.

Everywhere we went, the local cuisine was an enormous source of pride and competitiveness between regions and nations. Food was talked about incessantly and we were happy to join in.

We were asked countless times how we were enjoying the food, what was our favourite thing, which country had the most tempting dishes. Be it on your own head if you don’t compliment the place you’re in at that moment.

Often the street snacks were the best. To name them all would take an entire book. We still salivate over thoughts of papas rellenas (stuffed potato) in Peru, arepas (corn cakes) with egg or cheese in Colombia, tamales (steamed, stuffed corn dough) in Central America, Mexican tacos of every variety, tajadas (crispy fried plantain chips) in Nicaragua and dreamy deep-fried coxhinas de frango (chicken fritters, sometimes with melty cheese) in Brazil. Just about everywhere has a version of an empanada (fried or baked, filled pastry pies) but Bolivia wins for its version, the salteña – biting through the crumbly pastry to find a juicy meat gravy inside requires it to be eaten standing up, leaning forward, legs apart.

For us the overall winners are Mexico and Peru for the best cuisine in terms of flavour, imagination, freshness and variety, and Argentina for being fabulous at the more limited things it specialises in, including steak, milanesas, chorizo and dulce de leche (caramel) with everything. Just don’t tell our friends in Bolivia that they didn’t make the cut…

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5. FEELING THE ‘WOW’ FACTOR

P&J, Fitz Roy mirador

Glorious views of the Fitz Roy range on our hike to Laguna de Los Tres, near El Chalten, Argentina.

The biggest ‘wow’ moments in travel aren’t restricted to the classic ‘must-sees’ and, in any case, everyone’s got their own tastes about what wows them and what leaves them cold. We can get ridiculously excited about something quite obscure or prosaic, but we are equally happy to be carried along with the hype of the massive sites like Macchu Picchu or Iguazu Falls.

I gave those two examples, because they are perhaps the most touristed destinations in South America, and we still loved them. Some travellers consider it a badge of honour to snub the ‘touristy’ places – erroneously believing themselves to be something other than tourists and preferring to deny themselves the pleasure of seeing a cultural or natural wonder because it’s ‘too busy / expensive / predictable’. We don’t feel that way. Yes, we always try to avoid the busiest times, we pack our own lunch, we loathe it when places have been thoroughly wrecked by tourism, and we sidestep the avoidable rip-offs. But most of those places are well known for a good reason, and sometimes you just have to embrace it.

A fair number of our wow moments fall into that busy ‘touristy’ category, some less so, and some we practically had to ourselves. There are others that couldn’t really be photographed well, like the mind-popping stargazing we did in the Atacama desert (Chile) and Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia).

Our little brainstorming session for this section could have lasted for days, had we let the list go on and on and on. Look down for an agonisingly small selection of some of the best big breath-takers.

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6. TRIUMPHING OVER ADVERSITY

Arriving in Ushuaia!

14 Jan 2015: Arriving in Ushuaia. Only about a year ‘late’ – not too shabby!

I sometimes think that people who love adventurous travel are a little bit addicted to the highs and lows that inevitably come with it. If you take on a long trip, especially with a vehicle, the chances of absolutely everything going 100% A-Ok smoothly are practically nil. You have to deal with some shitty and annoying stuff or, worse, some scary and risky stuff.

It doesn’t always feel like it at the time, but – as long as we are still alive and more or less un-maimed  – I think we secretly kind of like it that way.

Because getting yourselves out of an adverse situation or solving a new tricky conundrum is like a drug. Those massive lows make the highs all the more exhilarating.

The great thing is, it doesn’t even have to be anything particularly major or frightening. It’s not necessarily ‘adversity’, in the context of some of the things people have to live through in today’s world, but it just has to feel like a challenge for you.

It wasn’t unusual to see us fist-pumping the air because a hot, sweaty, sweary, confusing, seemingly hopeless day of looking for a propane gas plant had actually ended with success – ie with a full tank of propane gas.

We’d celebrate with a drink and dinner that night as if we’d just managed to scale Everest in flip-flops.

Even taking on a trek we found difficult, pushing ourselves just a bit further than we were comfortable with, was something that would put us on a high. This was especially the case for Jeremy, who suffers from terrible vertigo and frequently had to push himself out of his comfort zone. One of the hardest walks didn’t even involve any altitude – it was a blindingly hot beach trek into the Costa Rican rainforest, during which Jeremy became a bit delirious, I briefly thought about lying down and dying, and we had to wade waist-high through a river not entirely unvisited by crocodiles. Arriving was utter bliss.

Paula at customs office, Quito

Waiting for yet another customs office to help us.

Navigating our way through some of the bureaucratic mazes we found ourselves in ended in a similar self-congratulatory mood. We have particularly vivid memories of being horribly lost in Bogota, Colombia, being (unnecessarily) sent here, there and everywhere, trying to renew our visas and vehicle permit. This is not a city you want to drive in. Ever. It’s the only day I can remember us actually both crying whilst driving, but we genuinely laughed about it later.

Three months later we had to do the same visa run again, but in an easier provincial city in the south. We were so chuffed we’d got it all done, but by that time we were running late to get to a rural ranch (see Good things no.7: Enjoying Random Surprises), before dark. It was a part of Colombia that was only just opening up after being a dangerous no-go area for years. All we had was a scribbled map, a name and no phone or GPS. As we rushed to find our way out of town we did an illegal u-turn and hit a motorcyclist. When the police arrived it turned out one of the officers was the uncle of the woman we’d knocked over. We really thought we’d had it that day. But we got away with it – we miraculously found the un-signed ranch in the pitch black, we ate grilled trout for dinner, drank a lot of cold beer and sank into our beds that night feeling like we’d just lived a whole week in one day.

Then of course there was the van. There were periods when we felt like we were triumphing over adversity every other day. (See Bad things no.3: The Vehicle Maintenance). We wouldn’t have wished for all those things to happen, and life would have been easier if they hadn’t, but solving them did lead to a great sense of satisfaction. By far the ultimate challenge was smuggling the van out of Ecuador after we’d converted the gearbox – it involved months of planning, discussion and research, a lot of sleepless nights, some dodgy behaviour and quite a lot of nerve.

After it was over and we’d made it to Peru, we drank loads of cocktails, grinned a lot and danced a little. And for the zillionth time on the trip we said: “We can’t believe we just did that”.

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7. ENJOYING RANDOM SURPRISES

No, we hadn't anticipated dancing in public, dressed like this.

No, we hadn’t anticipated dancing in public, dressed like this.

When a plan comes together it’s lovely, but when something unexpected happens it somehow makes things all the more thrilling.

Travelling long-term gives you the freedom to follow the curve balls that come along. So many little unplanned events happened to us along the way, it’s hard to remember absolutely everything. But there are a few moments that really stick in our minds.

Finding ourselves with a van full of El Salvadorean revolutionaries: As we bumped along a dirt track in the van in the El Perquin region, we looked behind from the front to see three ex-guerilla fighters sitting on our seats and floor. We gave each other that familiar look that says ‘jeez, our life is strange sometimes’. We’d booked an informal guided tour of sites that were significant to the rebels during El Salvador’s brutal civil war, but we hadn’t really expected that we’d be the transport. Each time we moved on to the next place our guide would ask us to pull over and pick up yet another random revolutionary – each with a story of the war that was at once fascinating, horrific and inspiring.

Jeremy getting drunk with a bunch of Colombian gauchos in the relatively unexplored Los Llanos region – then me driving all of them, their wives and kids home in the van, via a stop-off for sausage and chips. We’d met a guy at a mechanic’s in Bogota, who invited us to stay at his ranch for a few days and be looked after by the families who lived and worked on the farm. Horse-riding, wildlife-spotting, fire-roasted beef and a taste of the cowboy life – it was one of the most special experiences of our whole trip.

Camping in someone’s living room in Colombia: It doesn’t get much weirder than parking up next to a stranger’s sofa, popping the pop-top and pouring yourself an evening drink. While looking for somewhere to camp in Espinal, we’d asked at a local sports club if we could stay in their grounds. They refused, but a local tennis instructor overheard the conversation and told us we were welcome to camp at his place. Obviously we assumed he had a garden, but when we arrived at his house it was in the middle of the town square! ‘Erm, we actually need someone to park because we sleep inside the van’ we explained. ‘That’s okay’ he said, ‘you can park inside the house….’ He pulled back the gates and we drove into his bizarrely laid-out home, with a covered courtyard that had been made into a living room. We squeezed the van in next to the sofa and settled in for the night.
This entry only just beats the night we ended a horrendously stressful day by being ‘rescued’ by a wealthy Colombian family who allowed us to camp in their garden, amid preparations for a massive posh 50th birthday party.

Dancing in a Bolivian folk festival: Of all the things we couldn’t have foreseen, this probably takes the prize. Few people in this world could persuade Jeremy to don flappy Andean trousers, a poncho and an outrageously camp hat, then dance through the streets waving pink hankies and jangling the spurs on his sandals-with-socks. But our Workaway hosts Emma and Rolando managed just that. I wasn’t doing too badly either, with my woolly dress, pinny and wide-brimmed sombrero flowing with multi-coloured ribbons. During our fabulous four-month stint doing a work-exchange at Colibri Camping near La Paz – which was another unexpected turn of events in itself – we really loved being part of a small community. And part of that involvement included joining the team that competes in their annual dance festival. We’re only sorry our lamentable efforts failed to secure them a victory.

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8. MEETING PEOPLE

Panama

From fleeting interactions, to random acts of kindness by strangers, to making new and enduring friendships, people bind together the fragmented life one lives as a nomad.

There are the countless people whose names we’ll never know, but who made a difference to us in the moment – all the people who spotted our foreign van and waved or approached us to chat or offer help; the people in exceptionally friendly Colombia who invited us in to their homes; the folk who gave us, or helped us find, a safe place to sleep; strangers who gave us little gifts of food or souvenirs; the guys who rescued us when our (first) gearbox gave out in rural Honduras.

We meet dozens of other road-trippers and shared brief conversations, meals and wine, or several days of companionship. Some we met – by chance or design – several times over, while others we convoyed or lived with for a spell.

Our journalism jobs meant we were lucky to be able to meet some fascinating people for the stories we were writing – including ex-guerilla fighters, Bolivian cholitas, journalists under threat and social justice campaigners.

Family and friends visited, giving us a welcome glimpse of home and the chance to spend more time with them than we ever seemed to be able to afford when we lived thousands of miles closer.

Then there were the family members, friends, fellow travellers and strangers from more than 150 countries who followed the blog and often sent us encouraging and complimentary messages. We couldn’t see you but we felt like you were with us.

Stand by for the biggest gallery of all:

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THE BAD & THE UGLY

 

1. THE TOILET SITUATION

Toilet, Peru

Whose turn was it to clean the toilet?

Unsavoury toilet situations are possibly the ugliest part of travelling in such a way that you’re almost always conducting your functions and ablutions in either a public/shared facility, behind a bush or hunched over a bottle inside the car.

We’re not saying all toilets in Latin America are awful, obviously that would be ridiculous, but when you are camping you see a disproportionate number of the nasties. Only a few places have bathrooms that you’d really consider lingering in for longer than strictly necessary. We chose to drive a smaller vehicle without a toilet and that was the right decision for us, but there’s a price that comes with it – a lack of privacy and having to endure other people’s habits, noises, smells, excretions, skin flakes and hair.

The porta-loo we bought at the beginning of the trip was ditched after a year as it was so impractical, and there was a diarrhoea incident in Guatemala that left us both mentally scarred for life. So apart from our magic Uriwell emergency pee bottle, we totally relied on external solutions.

Having to wash or go to the toilet in the great outdoors was the least of our worries – it’s often way more appealing than the indoor option.

In those moments where you’re brushing your teeth over a dirt-caked sink and trying not to touch anything, stepping into a shower covered in leaves, mud, insects (dead and alive) and scum-clogged balls of other people’s hair, trying to avoid inhaling as you hover over a shit-smeared toilet at a truck stop, desperately trying to avoid the pool of rancid urine under your flip-flopped feet, or trying not to look at the bin overflowing with a week’s worth of soiled toilet paper, you do have a little droll thought to yourself: “Yep, living the dream baby, livin’ the dream.”

Those nights when we woke up needing to pee and first had to sleepily remember where the hell we were, then schlep outside to face the elements, the barking dogs, the passersby, whatever, we might have fleetingly wondered why we do this to ourselves.

We do wish we had more photos of the worst toilet examples, but it’s never really a classic Kodak moment. Most are not really extreme – there’s just a fairly regular pattern of poorly-maintained facilities that make the whole experience feel a bit shabby – non-functioning flushes, lack of running water, broken and missing toilet seats, broken or non-existent doors, shredded stained shower curtains that always want to stick to your skin, smashed mirrors, broken lights, and crumbling, mouldy walls.

Electrifying shower, Nicaragua.

Electrifying shower, Nicaragua.

In Central America and Brazil they have electric showers that usually have bare wires hanging from them – if you absent-mindedly raise your arms and touch the shower head, bbzzzzzzt! It certainly helps wake you up in the morning.

There were many periods of the trip when we just didn’t know when or where we would next find a shower. Mostly that’s fine, you get used to it and improvise as best you can. But some days you want to claw out your entire head of stinking, greasy hair.

Toilet reports are a regular topic of conversation, and plenty are great! When we found one that was clean and shiny, well lit, with running water, doors that lock, toilet seats, paper AND soap, it made our bloody day.

Sometimes it was a little bit extreme though. There was the time when I had to go to a drop toilet in the Peruvian Andes, and there was a dead cow in the next cubicle. There was the time that the only available toilet in Cabo de la Vela, Colombia, was so appalling that (sorry dear reader) we resorted to defecating in a plastic bag in the van. One day we met retired Kiwis Gary and Joan, in Patagonia. We were discussing our reasons for not having stayed at the other campsite in town. “We did actually go there and set up camp, but we left almost immediately,” said Gary.

Why was that?” we asked. “Well, Joan went in to the toilet block and someone had crapped in the shower.”

 

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2. THE F***ING WIFI

Paula using laptop

See how unhappy and frustrated I look?

I know it’s not classy or intelligent to swear, but “the fucking wifi!” was one of the most commonly uttered phrases of our trip and I really can’t dress it up as something more polite.

If you imagine that we spent absolutely all of our days skipping through the mountains, sitting by rivers enjoying picnics, or frolicking in the sea, then you might wonder why on earth the internet was so important to us.

Well we didn’t, and it was.

Not every day, thankfully – we really came to appreciate the benefits of having so many days where we had no access, or chose not to access it. It’s good for your health and your relationship.

But when we needed it and it was either hard to find, didn’t not work or was woefully inadequate for the task, this was usually a head-bangingly frustrating waste of time, effort and money. For various reasons we chose not to bring smartphones and buy SIM cards and internet plans for each country, so we completely relied on free wifi in cafes, petrol stations, campsites and public areas, or on using internet shops with desktop computers.

We rented a few apartments and they always had wifi. On our two work-exchange stints in Bolivia and Argentina there was wifi in our accommodation but it was abysmal because the areas were rural.

Sometimes the internet speed was excellent, but you could never really predict when that was going to be – one of our most surprisingly clear Skype calls home was from a public square on an island off the Chilean island of Chiloe.

Plenty of tasks could be, and often were, put off for days or weeks with little consequence – blogging, uploading photos, researching stuff for the trip, reading the news or downloading podcasts. Other things were more important – our freelance journalism work, Skyping the parents, keeping in touch with home, and money matters.

We tended to try to plan the days when we’d go online and get our tasks done – that usually meant packing up the van and driving somewhere to do it, or fitting it in between destination A and B.

The day you’ve planned it will typically be the day when you can’t find a functioning wifi signal. How many damn coffees have we ordered before realising the wifi doesn’t work? (rookie mistake). How many free municipal ‘services’ have we connected to, only to find Nothing At All will load? How many towns have we driven round, hanging the iPad out of the window to try to find an open network? How many hours have we spent watching that spinning wheel as we try to upload photos for the blog or – even worse – for our editors? And, for the love of whatthefuck, how many times have we tried to speak to our parents on Skype and had to run around a campsite, town square or café, trying to locate a signal that will facilitate, you know, an actual conversation.

Am I starting to sound bitter? Well the answer is, a lot! A lot of hours, a lot of times.

But we’re so over it.

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3. THE VEHICLE MAINTENANCE

Van on the truck, Honduras

Please don’t leave, come back..! The first transmission breakdown in Honduras.

For some people, tinkering with a car or tackling a really difficult mechanical conundrum is a deeply satisfying hobby, a pleasure, even a joy. For us it was the steepest learning curve of the journey, and it was often stressful.

We will probably never be mechanics. Let me rephrase that – we will never be mechanics. But we now know the names of more car parts in Spanish than we will ever know in English. We now kind of vaguely know what’s going on under there. We became finely tuned to the van’s little ways and noises and gradually stopped completely dreading conversations with mechanics.

If you’re wondering what the level of our knowledge was when we left home in 2011, let me just say that until 6 months before our departure date Jeremy couldn’t even drive, and neither of us had ever owned a car.

My dad tried to give me a cramming lesson in very basic vehicle maintenance just before we left. My blank facial expressions gave him understandable cause for alarm and his face went a bit white. I was quietly thinking ‘oh wow, I didn’t know there was fluid for the brakes’ while he was quietly thinking ‘oh god, they are definitely going to die in a desert somewhere’.

Broken down in Ecuador

Broken down in Ecuador

If you have followed this blog long term you will know that for the first half of the trip we had an absolute nightmare with the van’s automatic transmission, which failed twice and was eventually converted to a manual gearbox in Ecuador. Trying to get our heads around solving those potentially journey-ending problems was, at times, overwhelming.

That breakdown let to a horrendous cycle of bureaucratic problems that ended with us risking everything to smuggle the van out of the country. It was, by far, the most stressful, pant-wettingly scary thing we had to do on the whole journey.

Big catastrophes aside, the day-to-day maintenance of a vehicle that is also your home just adds an extra layer of pressure. There’s more at stake. Problems cannot be ignored, they have to be dealt with asap and always in a place that you don’t know. Once you do find a mechanic you don’t know if he’s going to be competent. Sometimes they break the very thing they are supposed to be fixing, or fix one thing and break something else just to keep you on your toes. Sometimes they are excellent – it is a lottery every time.

When we needed work done we couldn’t just leave the van and go home. Our home was there, suspended in the air on a hydraulic lift or jacked up with its wheels off. We didn’t even have a cell phone. We had to wander the streets, sit in cafes, or in the yard just waiting, waiting, waiting.

It was difficult to explain the concept to mechanics who didn’t often get people driving their houses into the workshop.

They were frequent conversations like this – mechanic says: “So how long are you in town?” We’d say: “Weeeeell, as long as this takes. We can’t leave until the van is fixed, because we live in it. So basically we’re waiting for you to do this as quickly as possible (subtext – but not so quickly that you cock it up by rushing it).”

Mechanic says: “Okay leave it with us and we’ll let you know.”

We’d say: “And go where? We live in the van. Just to reiterate – we are waiting until you give us our house back because we have nowhere else to go.”

It was tedious. Sometimes we waited all day then bailed out at closing time, having to get things reassembled in order to go off and camp, or abandoning the van to go to a hostel – the work uncompleted, the part untraceable or undelivered.

Mechanic looks at the brakes, Perquin

Another day, another mechanic

Oh yeah, car parts. That’s the other little thing. We couldn’t always find the ones we needed in Latin America and they had to be shipped from the US or Europe (such as a whole transmission – twice). More expense, more long waits. After a while we got wise to the things we might need, bringing things from the UK, or having other stuff shipped while we were ordering something else. We tried to stay one step ahead and largely it all worked out well in the latter two years.

Of course we knew looking after a vehicle would be pretty much the biggest occupational hazard of going on a 50,000-odd mile road trip, but we probably didn’t envisage just quite how consuming it could be at times. We don’t mind saying that we’re proud we not only made it, but learned a hell of a lot along the way.

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4. THE LACK OF PRIVACY

Wayuu woman and baby in our van

People quite often wanted to be photographed with the van.

This is quite a tricky one to describe, because many genuinely good things came out of the fact that we lived much of our van life effectively in the public sphere. By being out there on display, we met countless interesting, helpful, amusing, curious, friendly people.

When you are camping in a small van, unless the weather is totally freezing or you are asleep, the door is pretty much always open and everything you are doing is visible to whoever happens to be around. That varied hugely depending on where we were camping – from quiet bush camps free of anyone, to privately-owned campsites, to petrol stations, village squares, restaurant car parks, tourist sites or beaches.

The vast majority of the time it was great. We had some of the best interactions of this trip precisely because people could, and did, approach us to have a look around and a chat about the journey. We were videoed, photographed and questioned more times than we could count. Children were obsessed with the pop-top and always wanted to climb in it. Sometimes people would hang around to watch us from a distance, to see what the strange gringos would do next. We could actually hear them giving a running commentary to each other.

Occasionally we did feel self-conscious about it – more so in the countries where camping and motorhomes were much less common. If you’re frying up some chicken inside your car or trying to relax with a glass of wine in a village square in rural Bolivia, people will understandably stare at you and you might not always be in the mood for it. We had a classic comedy moment quite recently when a young boy was strolling past, gazing open-mouthed at the van’s pop-top. As he lifted his hand to wave at us he walked face-on into a lamppost. Oh how we all chuckled!

There are those days when you feel hot and sweaty, grumpy, or a bit stressed because you can’t find somewhere decent to camp, and being on public display is just not what you want. Those days are a small minority, but they really matter in that moment. If you’re hormonal, knackered, feeling a bit meh or just need to wallow with a ‘duvet day’ it’s harder to hide unless you happen to be in the middle of nowhere, or can find a peaceful private campground in which to relax and be alone.

Talking of being alone, as a couple we were pretty much always together. This is one of those overlapping good and bad things. Given our previous life, being able to spend so much time together has been one of the top-ranking good things about this trip. But we also appreciate that it’s not entirely normal to have virtually zero time away from your partner. Often our only ‘me time’ was when one of us went to the loo or had a shower. And even that wasn’t a guaranteed solo activity.

If there were any taboos left in our marriage when we left home, their demise probably began around the time of the Guatemala diarrhoea incident (see Bad things no 1. The Toilet Situation) and continued with every use of the emergency night-time pee bottle. If you’re thinking of doing a trip like this and don’t fancy the idea of loudly peeing in to a plastic bottle 6ft from your partner’s face, get a bigger van.

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5. THE TRANSIENCE

Desert driving, Peru

Off we go again…

There are a few down sides about being nomadic (but see also Good things no 1. – Freedom). Yet again, how much you care about this depends on the mood and the circumstances.

I’d love to know how many hours we spent packing up to leave, arriving somewhere new and moving all the stuff around again.

For us one of the hardest things about being transient was when we needed to get things done. We were continually starting from scratch because our environment changed so often we were always the newbies in town and didn’t know where things were. Sometimes we’d literally be driving randomly around the streets of X town or village, hoping to stumble across a mechanic, launderette, ironmonger, internet shop, food market, water or ice seller, some obscure piece of something for the van, an actual campsite or somewhere to stop for the night. It can get tiresome because everything requires a bit more time and effort.

Roadside camp

Packing up, moving on.

Sometimes we were lonely too. Over four and half years we met a lot of people, some of whom we now consider to be great friends. But it was all so temporary. We, and they, were always moving on. It was nice when we bumped into people more than once – we got a little taste of that familiar feeling that is so rare when you’re travelling.

Despite all the great folk we met, a massive majority of our time was actually spent à deux. Here’s a guilty secret – having no friends or social life to speak of is often really quite nice, in that life is just very simple. But most of us thrive on our connections with other humans, and we did feel the absence of our family and friends very strongly.

We’d crave a spontaneous night out or a long lazy brunch with people we loved and with whom we had a shared history and outlook – those people in your life that don’t require introductions or explanations.

Some days there were down times – especially during the long Argentinian siesta – when we felt incredibly ‘baseless’. Just hanging around waiting for things to happen before we could move on to the next place or return to our campspot for the night.

Perversely, despite the occasional frustrations our transient lifestyle didn’t necessarily lead to a desire to have a permanent settled home. In fact I think our boredom threshold became progressively lower. At the very end of the trip we stayed in a lovely apartment in a great, lively part of Buenos Aires for a month. After three weeks of it Jeremy looked quite alarmed when I said one morning: “Jeez, every time I go out it’s just the same streets every time…!

As we begin the process of finding somewhere to live again, this is probably an attitude I need to address.

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias

Where is home?

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The last post

8 Feb
Last morning, Rio Lujan

Sunrise on the last day: our final camping weekend was spent by the Rio Lujan, Tigre delta, Buenos Aires province.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

This might not be the first time you’ve heard a journalist say this, but the headline on this story – well, it’s a bit of a lie.

Unless I completely fail to get myself organised before we fly home next week, this won’t be the last post ever.

But it is the last report of our travels with the van, and for that reason I have been procrastinating over writing it even more than usual. Because I can’t possibly think of how I’m going to end it. Just think how devastatingly witty, profound, meaningful and tear-jerkingly amazing it’s going to have to be to do justice to the last four and a half years.

So I have decided not to try. Maybe I’ll just let it all fizzle out, or stop the post mid-sentence. Let’s see what happens.

For now we’re going way back to the end of 2015, when we bundled out of Brazil in a haze of rain and fog. We had the delusional hope that once we crossed the Argentinian border, as if by magic, the sun would appear. Guess what, on the other side of the man-made frontier, the topography and weather were exactly the same. The El Niño phenomenon was generating some crazy weather and it had absolutely no consideration for a) borders or b) our trip.

It was a bit complicated because we had committed to writing a story in that part of northern Argentina, more than two weeks hence, which required us to attend a festival in January. In the meantime we had planned to remain up there for Christmas and New Year, make final repairs to the van before selling it in Buenos Aires, start organising all our accumulated stuff, and enjoy our final few weeks of camping, barbeques and sunsets. None of that was really possible with sheeting rain, howling winds and flooded campsites.

Choripan!

On the upside, we were back in the land of the choripan with chimichurri!

While trying to decide what to do we headed south a little, occasionally pulling in to water-logged petrol stations to take a break from the unbelievable rain, and obsessively checking the weather online. It was pretty set in for the festive period and the only way to escape it and find good camping was to get south of Buenos Aires, a few hundred kilometres more than we’d planned to do, and way off our route.

A wet windy night pretty much made up our minds – this wasn’t the way to end the trip, and it was totally impractical to do all our essential van jobs without good, dry weather. That had to take priority so with guilty hearts we cancelled our work plan and headed south towards a sunny Christmas.

Almost as soon as we reached the border of Buenos Aires province, things brightened. We drove through the pampa under lovely skies, and felt relieved.

We pitched up in Tandil, a sweet little hillside town about 300km south of the capital, and found a relatively luxurious campground where we could dig in for a week, laze by the pool, and let Christmas float by. It was our fifth Christmas on the road and while we do always feel a bit sad knowing we’re absent from a lovely family dinner, we miss virtually nothing else about it.

Not that we are totally grumpy grinches, obviously. We follow certain traditions like joining the throngs at the supermarket on Christmas Eve to stock up with ridiculous amounts of food, booze and chocolate. And we always try to cook a feast of some kind.

For our second Argentinian Christmas that obviously involved a lot of steak and a barbeque. As a nod to the British festive plate, we made chorizo sage and onion ‘stuffing’ balls and chucked them on as well.

There was a dessert too but I had to have an impromptu, spumante-related, nap and missed it.

I mentioned to Jeremy that next year we might have money for Christmas presents and asked what he might like. He said: “A campervan please.”

Moonlit nights

Damn, we’re going to miss those van evenings – camping beneath the moon, Tandil, Argentina.

Given my earlier comments about the awful weather I am really, honestly not complaining, but the heat was so intense we couldn’t go out walking for long.

We took a short hike up to Tandil’s mini version of Christ the Redeemer where, as always, we befriended a stray dog. On the way back down the ground was so hot the dog was literally hopping around, trying to save its poor burning paws. As he flopped in the shade at the bottom we rehydrated him with a couple of litres of water and bathed his sizzling pads.

Tandil walk

A stroll with a stray dog in Tandil, Buenos Aires province.

Now we were stationary for a few days, we could launch Operation Chuckaway.
Even though we’ve lived with minimal possessions for the last few years, we’d still managed to accumulate an amazing amount of clutter. It was time to downsize yet again.

Van clear-out

Van clear-out stage one, Christmas 2015, Tandil, Argentina.

We decided to brave the crowds at the coast for new year, and were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely family-run campsite in San Clemente del Tuyú where loud music was banned, and the rule was actually observed. Another win for the grinches!!

We love music. We like going somewhere to hear music, and then coming home to a place where we can choose to listen to our music or not. For new year’s eve we found a lively packed bar with tables outside, and snacked on calamari and milanesa as we watched people go by. A live band came on in the street after midnight, and the Latin American tradition of spraying each other with foam and silly string began in earnest. As we ate ice cream on our way home at 1.30am, some of the beachwear shops were just opening. Who buys flip flops in the middle of the night? You have to love Argentina.

Once the holidays were out of the way we started working on the van – getting some minor repairs done, sewing things, siliconing things, glueing things, getting round to some jobs we had ignored for years.

Final van preps

Doing some final DIY jobs before selling the van.

In 2012 our awning broke in a storm. Yes, 2012. We’d been using it – with improvisation, brute force and frequent swearing – but still hadn’t fixed it because it always seemed like such an arse to try to find someone to repair a specialist awning that doesn’t exist in South America.

It couldn’t just be lashed back together – its locking, telescopic aluminium leg has to be an exact size and fit or it can’t be put up or put away. To get that kind of work done you need to be lucky to find That Guy – the guy who is handy, who loves to solve a problem, who is interested in our journey, who has the will and the time to help. How do you find That Guy when you’re always on the move, always a stranger in town?

We studied the map to find the right size of town, where we could both camp and get things done without having to spend each day navigating a massive city. We randomly ended up in Navarro, a lovely nowheresville place in the pampa south of BA. We love those kind of communities because they tend to contain useful shops and helpful people who aren’t bored of tourists.

We went to the local ironmonger to explain our awning predicament. He said: “What about asking the bloke next door who makes aluminium window frames?

We went next door, clutching the snapped, bent awning leg. The boss shook his head: “Nope nothing we could do about that, we only do windows,” he said. But lurking behind him, listening, was his colleague. It was That Guy.

Let me have a quick look”, he said. We pulled the van up to the shop and took the awning out. He puzzled over it for ages, trying this piece and that, sawing pieces off and attaching new bits but nothing was working. It was way past closing time, the sun was beating down mercilessly and he was on the verge of giving up – but we could tell we had him in our clutches! Failure is not an option for That Guy. He asked us to return after siesta – he wanted to mull it over as he ate lunch and slept.

Awning guy

That Guy (next to Jeremy) was delighted.

When we went back a few hours later he was hopping around excitedly. He’d had his eureka moment – within half an hour the awning was repaired, it slid beautifully into place and folded away like new. He was almost more pleased about it than we were. Hugs and photos all round, and off we went.

As well as doing all the dull chores, we were making the most of our last days with the van by spending all our time outside, and barbequing as many dinners as possible before returning to winter in Europe.

Sunset parrilla

Sunset parrilla at the municipal campground in Navarro, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.

Inevitably, we were starting to feel horribly sad about saying goodbye to our van life. At the same time we were kind of itching to have the sale all done and dusted, as nothing was certain about the buyer until we’d met and he’d seen the van. Our minds were torn between wistfulness for what we’d experienced in the last four-and-a-half years, and excitement about seeing everyone and making new – albeit uncertain – plans for the future.

One thing we can be sure of is that those plans will always involve travel in some form. Everyone says it and it’s true – travel does not scratch the itch, it only feeds the urge to see more.

Our final weekend was spent on the banks of the Rio Lujan in the Tigre Delta north of Buenos Aires – a perfect, peaceful spot for some contemplation and teary, self-indulgent nostalgia.

Beer o'clock, Tigre delta

Beer o’clock in the Tigre delta – our last night of proper camping in the van.

We were ridiculously nervous as we left there to make the short drive to meet our buyer. I drove like an old lady down the fast motorway, thinking it would just be typical if someone crashed into us on the way to make the sale.

The exceedingly helpful Cris Torlasco of camper hire company Andean Roads had helped us find a buyer, who was a friend of his. We parked up at Cris’s place for a couple of days, cleaned up the van, showed the buyer round, dragged all our stuff outside and got down to packing and handing over. It all went smoothly and the deal was done.

We’d agreed to get one final mechanical repair completed before we drove it to the buyer’s house. We thought it was quite fitting that our last few hours with the van were spent sitting outside a mechanic’s yard on a plastic chair, waiting, waiting. How many hours have we spent doing that since 2011? I couldn’t even guess.

For various reasons we’d decided not to leave for Europe straightaway but to spend a month in an apartment in Buenos Aires – to complete a new writing project, spend time with our friends Karen and Gustavo, and enjoy one last hurrah of steak, wine and summer.

Once everything was ready we drove the van to the buyer’s house in the suburbs of the city. He and his wife were excited about their adventures ahead. We sat in their living room and had a celebratory beer, feeling strange, relieved we’d got everything done, and not a little emotional.

Our taxi arrived and as we stood to leave I instinctively picked up my van keys from the table.

Oh sorry!” I laughed a little hysterically, putting them back down, “they’re not mine any more”.

Days: 1,590
Miles: Final total 58,276 / Kms 93,242
Things we now know to be true: We will never be cured.

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age… perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping… I fear this disease incurable.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

 

PHOTO GALLERY, INCLUDING THE RETURN TO BUENOS AIRES:

Speedy Gonzales

18 Jan Paraty, Brazil
Paraty, Brazil

Doorway in colonial Paraty, Brazil.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

In a battle between one small rodent and two reasonably intelligent human beings, you’d like to think the superior species would easily prevail.

What chance has one teeny mouse got of evading all the ingenious, dastardly plots we can conjure up to ensure its demise?

As it happens, quite a good one.

Not only did our new visitor, Señor Mouse (aka The Little Bastard), run rings around us for a full week, he also did a pretty good job of unravelling the mental stability of two otherwise quite balanced grown ups.

As previously mentioned, we’d just arrived at the idyllic coastal village of Caraiva, in Brazil’s Bahia state, and that night I’d been woken up by something biting me on the finger.

The following day we discovered a chewed up bag of couscous in the cupboard. We spent a short while trying to convince ourselves it was ‘probably just an insect’, despite the inevitable conclusion staring us in the face. Teeth marks on my hand + teeth marks on the couscous = our first rodent incursion.

That night TLB launched his psychological warfare phase – squeaking, scratching and running around in the wee hours. He was somewhere between the cupboards and the structure of the van, and seemed able to skitter all around us, including behind the panel above our heads.

Speedy Gonzales

In times of crisis there are some obvious first moves – consult Google and Facebook. Turns out it’s really common to get meeces and other undesirables nesting in your campervan. In fact the more we read online, the more amazed we were that it hadn’t happened before now.

We’d promised our hosts we’d be no trouble but by day two we were casually asking them “where we could buy a mousetrap”. Caraiva is a tiny village, and the best we could do was find a shop selling rat poison, which wasn’t really our ideal method. We started to dismantle parts of the van and sprinkled the pellets around, feeling hopeful.

But after another sleepless night we started ripping everything out, spreading it all over the garden and ceasing to be tidy or inconspicuous in any way. Our hosts took pity and gave us a key to a spare room in their B&B so we could store our food and other chewables.

When we took off a rear air vent we found that TLB had shredded up some of the rat poison pellets to construct a little pink nest. Now that’s just spiteful.

What was really concerning us was giving TLB enough time to start chewing through the electrical cables that ran all through the area it was scampering about in. We got so desperate we spent an evening crushing poison into little bowls of honey and trying to recreate a mousetrap people had recommended online – a (with hindsight) hilarious contraption involving a honey-slathered platform dangled over a bucket of water, that’s supposed to send TLB hurtling to a watery grave. We went to bed, feeling hopeful. Was he floating belly up the next morning? Was he hell.

Anyone who’s lived with a rodent will know how head-bangingly frustrating it is. We’d dismantled every possible part of the van, but couldn’t find exactly where TLB was living. Short of smashing the car to pieces (believe me, we considered it) we were out of DIY options.

When not giving the van the spring clean of its life we took as much time as possible to enjoy this special place. We’d made a big effort to get there and didn’t want to leave early just because of a stupid mouse. We swam in deliciously warm calm water, drank from fresh coconuts, and took a canoe to the main village where we tried our first moqueca – a spicy seafood and coconut milk stew that arrives bubbling away in a clay pot. So, not so bad then.

When we did head off we decided we’d have to drive to a big town to seek out some professional help. After a frustrating two-hour search through the streets of Teixeira Freitas, involving fictional addresses, wrong directions and temperatures of 40C, we found Mr Rat Catcher. Relief! We were feeling hopeful.

It’s normally a service for people’s homes and businesses, so it took a lot of explaining and pointing to let him know that we had a mouse in our car, which was also our home. After about 10 minutes we thought we’d finally got somewhere, when he said “okay, so where do you live?”

IN THERE!“, we almost yelled, pointing for the 20th time to the van parked right next to where we stood. “We live in the car, with the bloody mouse!

He peered inside, taking in our bijou home with its million nooks and crannies.

You’ll never find it in there,” he said.

We know that. That’s why we’re here, asking you to do it,” we tried to say.

The only solution he offered his clients was poison pellets…. argh! He was extremely nice, giving us several bags of poison for free and insisting we all had our photo taken together, but we were no further forward.

Rat Catchers

Mr Rat Catcher and his assistant insisted on a photo with the baffling gringos.

We headed to a campsite on the coast at Prado and decided to re-commence battle the next day. But that night was free of eeks, squeaks and scratches. Was TLB just messing with our heads?

Before long a tell-tale smell began to drift upwards from behind the cupboards. We tentatively began to hope that TLB had finally ingested one of the original pellets – either that or it had succumbed to the heat! After a few days we finally declared victory, the mouse had ceased to be, it had shuffled off its mortal coil, it was an ex-mouse. RIP TLB.

Prado was popular with the small but significant community of Brazilian RV travellers, many of whom own massive US-style motorhomes that are bigger than some apartments we’ve lived in. Three couples who were holidaying together showed us some typical Brazilian hospitality by inviting us in to their RV for an evening of coffee, homemade pão de queijo and other tasty snacks. Although one of the group spoke some Spanish and could translate for us, the conversation was still chaotic. On a couple of occasions we resorted to good old fashioned visual aids, including me drawing a picture of a kilt and sporran, and a universally-appreciated discussion about a phallic-shaped vegetable.

Campground pals

Our Brazilian campground mates, Prado, Bahia.

We found ourselves back in Teixeira Freitas to get some repairs done on the van, and weren’t too upset to hear we’d need to wait a couple of days for some new CV joints and would have to check into an air-conditioned hotel nights. Damn!

While there we really started to get into the popular Brazilian style of lunching at ‘per kilo’ restaurants – a brilliant and affordable system where you choose anything you want from a really tasty and varied buffet of fish, grilled and roasted meats, pasta dishes, rice, beans, veggies and salads and have the plate weighed to determine the cost.

Jobs done, we were now on a southwards route along the coast, with a plan to get to Rio de Janeiro in time for Jeremy’s birthday.

In lovely Itaunas we scrambled up its gigantic sand dunes to the wind-whipped beach, and ate the best fresh fish we’d encountered in the country so far.

Paula, Itaunas

Paula heading across the dunes from the beach in Itaunas, Espirito Santo, Brazil.

Summer is also rainy season in that part of Brazil and we’d had a fair bit of it. During a short stay in Setiba the weather was starting to deteriorate more and the forecast wasn’t looking great for Rio.

But it was mixed and there were still plenty of great days. We had a corker when we visited Praia do Forno at Arraial de Cabo – another classic, impossibly perfect Brazilian beach that’s all about the cold beers, cocktails and ample buttocks. In the posh resort of Buzios the posing ratcheted up yet another gear.

Praia do Forno, Arraial do Cabo, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil.

Praia do Forno, Arraial do Cabo, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil.

 

Beach cocktails, Buzios

No self-respecting Brazilian beach is complete without a cocktail stand. Buzios, Rio de Janeiro state.

By the time we got to Cabo Frio it was lashing. We drove to Niteroi, just over the water from Rio, where we hoped we could camp and then store the van while we stayed in a hostel in the city for a few nights. We found a waterlogged B&B garden with camping, but it was empty and closed. The kind owner – who lived nearby – opened it up for us, gave us a key, went home and let us have the run of the whole property as well as charging us very little to store the van while we went away. Bonus. Niteroi has a fabulous surfing beach, from which – on a clear day – you can see across to Sugarloaf mountain. We could make it out pretty well in the haze.

View to Rio

View over to Rio de Janeiro from Piratininga.

We took the ferry to the city and headed to our hostel, a lovely old colonial house in a district that was brilliantly located for our few days of exploration. With its many coves, beaches, mountains, forest backdrop and neighbourhoods clinging to steep cobbled streets, Rio is ALL about the views. While there’s plenty to amuse yourself with at street level, to see the city you really want to be looking up and looking down. Often the weather doesn’t play ball though, and clouds shroud the mountains, making visibility a problem. We were just excited to be there though. For our first few days the weather sucked but we wandered to cafes, museums and various neighbourhoods, plus did a tour of the renowned Maracana football stadium. While we were at it we bought tickets for a match on Jeremy’s birthday – happy boy!

We had a night out at an excellent live Samba club in Lapa, which resulted in one of our worst hangovers for a long time. Visiting a cachaça bar beforehand, then following up with several caipirinhas was a poorly thought-out plan.

We tried to walk it off the next day at a cloudy Ipanema beach. Even the sight of the guy serving caipirinhas on the beach was making my stomach heave.

Beach cocktail deliveries

Cocktail anyone? Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro.

The forecasts said Saturday was going to be a sunny day. We’d saved all the main look-up-look-down sightseeing and got up with the lark, ready to do battle with the other squillion tourists who had the same plan.

We had a busy, superb day seeing Rio in all its glory. Not only were the views from Christ the Redeemer unforgettable, but we had a lot of fun watching all the crazy people at the top – doing hippie sun worships, belting out religious songs, taking endless selfies and almost hurling themselves over the edge in their quest to get the best view.

But we did also remember to take some photos of the views….

Paramotoring over Sugarloaf

Paramotoring over Sugarloaf mountain, as seen from Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro.

Jeremy took his vertigo for a walk around the base of Sugarloaf mountain while I joined the throngs on the cable car for another incredible vista from the peak.

Sugarloaf cable car

Taking the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf mountain, Rio de Janeiro.

Rio from Sugarloaf

Rio view from part-way up Sugarloaf mountain, Rio de Janeiro.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio

Using special effects to photograph Christ the Redeemer through a hazy sky.

When we met up again we enjoyed a refreshing beer with a view of the Christ from the bay. We returned to the beaches, which were packed with people playing sports, flirting, drinking and getting horrific sunburn.

Copacabana beach, Rio

Copa-copacabana…

That night we had another birthday blow-out at a restaurant where the chef specialises in Amazonian dishes, serving up incredible fish in imaginative ways – including a starter of tambaqui ribs (just how big does a fish have to be before you can serve its ribs as finger food?!) and a dish of ‘fresh water tucunaré with heart of palm stuffing, served in steamed collard leaves with cream of banana scented with Amazonian ginger, accompanied with rice and fried banana’. Yeah, sounds pretentious, but everything we had walked the walk. Deeelicious.

We loved the uninhibited energy of Rio. The next day we sat in the Sunday market in Lapa, having some beer and fried sardines and doing our favourite thing, people watching. Every now and again the group at the table next to us – probably drama students or street artists – would stand up and do a little performance, then sit down and carry on with their beers as if nothing had happened.

Across the way an old man sold junk from a suitcase – everything from single shoes to framed jigsaws and old football trophies – while the couple next door got slowly, solidly drunk. People walked through the market in all manner of outfits, flesh often spilling from every possible escape route. A homeless man asked us for a spare sardine and we obliged. As he turned to walk away with it, he paused, came back to take a wedge of lime from our plate, squeezed it on the fish and ambled off. If I ever have the misfortune to become homeless, I’m damn well going to have lime on my fish too.

I will only complete this crazy original dream on the last day of my life

We spent the late afternoon watching the football match at the Maracana, between Rio team Flamengo and Sao Paulo team Palmeiras. It was a bit of a lacklustre game but a great experience to be in that massive, loud, iconic stadium. Afterwards the losing home team’s fans rounded on the manager, surging to the barriers and shouting all manner of insults, presumably aimed at his mother.

With a steak and cheese sandwich at the pub to finish off his day, I think it was pretty much an ideal birthday for the boy.

We finished off our time with a visit to the wonderful, colourfully-tiled Escadaria Selarón (the Selarón steps) – an intriguing art project that’s helped enliven a fairly ropey part of Lapa. Chilean artist Jorge Selarón has turned a standard set of Rio steps into an ongoing, collaborative, ever-evolving work – adding all kinds of tiles, including ones now sent to him by people from all over the world. The selection ranges from salvaged tiles, to ones specially designed by the artist, to tiles brandishing football colours, place names, flags, national emblems, messages from tourists, and tacky tributes to the late Princess Diana. Having started it in 1990 as a tribute to the Brazilian people, the artist says: “I will only complete this crazy original dream on the last day of my life”. It’s fun to look for the most familiar, obscure, profound or simply beautiful tiles.

But please, we needed a little rest from stairs. We left the city, spent, leg-weary, impressed and happy and returned to the van which was feeling a bit sorry for itself with all the rain and humidity.

Further south along Rio’s coast, we did some less frenetic wandering through the mercifully flat cobbled streets at another UNESCO gem, Paraty, before heading for another dose of beach. Despite arriving in foul weather, the skies cleared and we spent three glorious days at a little campground next to the white sands of Trindade.

As we set off to drive along the Sao Paulo coast it was clear we were in for another scorcher. By lunchtime we could take it no more, and pulled off on to Santiago beach, to throw ourselves into the water for a while.

Jeremy literally runs for the water on a scorching day, Praia Santiago, Sao Paulo state, Brazil.

Jeremy literally runs for the water on a scorching day, Praia Santiago, Sao Paulo state, Brazil.

After that long stop-off we ended up driving late into the evening. We were still using a lot of petrol station truck stops to sleep in – to break long journeys and to save money. Most of them are pretty good, with showers, WIFI and great breakfast joints, albeit with quite a lot of noise from the trucks and road traffic. This night we picked a stinker – a mega truck stop that combined as a bus station.

Zero sleep later we headed south again, and a couple of nights later landed at what we thought would be our stop for Christmas – the island of Santa Catarina, connected to the mainland by a bridge at Florianopolis. Everywhere was getting busy as high season got in full swing. Driving through the city was like being in downtown LA! But when we finally arrived at a lovely forested campground near a beach and lake, it was a fabulous tranquil place.

Nevertheless we were feeling restless. During our Brazil trip we’d been in the process of deciding to end the trip and return to Europe in the new year and trying to sell the van. We’d had a fairly solid offer from a buyer back in the Argentina, and our feet were suddenly itching to get back there. The Christmas weather forecast for the southern Brazil coast wasn’t great, but really we just used that as an excuse to move on. Brazil was an exhilarating, fun, beautiful and exciting add-on to our journey. We packed in a lot of miles in a short period and at times we were knackered with all the driving, but we loved it and were so glad we’d gone. So it was nothing personal, dear Brazil, but we had an urge to get going again.

We decided to spend a couple of weeks by the river beaches in Argentina before heading back to Buenos Aires. The weather forecasts looked pretty good, so all in all a good decision… right? Except that within a couple of days the weather had taken a drastic about-turn. As we traversed Brazil again, in pouring rain, we looked at the news to find reports of major flooding in the exactly the area we were heading towards. We’d driven too far to turn back, so we kept going for the border anyway.

It was getting close to the end of the trip, so why change our habits now? Yes, it looked like it was time for yet another random change of plan.

Days: 1,568
Miles: 47,817
Things we now know to be true: Brazilians really do rather love getting their bottoms out at the beach.

CAN YOU HANDLE ANY MORE PHOTOS? SCROLL ON..

Christ the Redeemer, Rio

Christ the Redeemer, as seen from the street outside our hostel in Rio de Janeiro.

Back to basics in Brazil

29 Dec
Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Getting our culture on: Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Tandil, Buenos Aires province, Argentina
[by Paula]

As we arrived in Brazil we were entering the last new country of the trip. By now we were surely hardened, weathered old pros, weren’t we?

But in many ways our first experiences there reminded us of the beginning of our journey in Mexico, starting with us completely cocking up the border crossing and managing to drive straight into the country without so much as a cursory wave to the immigration service. We drove round the back streets of Uruguaiana, dazed, confused and wondering how it’s even possible to slip through a frontier – driving a fat white gringo-mobile – without being stopped by a single passport inspector.

Unlike our embarrassing rebound into the USA on day one of our trip, we at least managed to find the office before accidentally returning to Argentina.

While there have been loads of little differences between each of the countries we’ve visited, overall we’ve become comfortably accustomed to the more commonly-held customs and practices in Latin America – greetings and interactions, food, street signs, where to shop for things, driving behaviour, or the way towns are almost uniformly laid out and streets similarly labelled with the names of places, dates, military generals or revolutionary heroes.

But Brazil had always felt to us like it would be a different world, mainly because… well, I’m not entirely sure why. The most obvious and immediate difference is that the language of Brazil is Portuguese, not Spanish, and we don’t speak it. While many of the words are similar, the pronunciation can be really tricky for the untrained ear.

When we eventually found the immigration office, the woman at the desk rattled off a very very long nasal-sounding word that was presumably an entire sentence of separate words. We just stared at her. Yep, it was all coming back – we distinctly remembered this sensation of feeling clueless, a little awkward and completely on the back foot.

We stocked up on food, water and cash and set off for what was to be a long journey, albeit with some interesting stops along the way. Driving 3,500km in 8 days is not really our style, but we had a relatively limited time in Brazil and decided to hot-foot it to our most northerly point then give ourselves more time to work our way south down the coast.

Our first night was spent camping on the street outside the Jesuit mission at São Miguel das Missões, as we couldn’t find anywhere suitable to stay and were still too newbie to ask around properly. Next morning a guy called out from his car as he drove past, giving us the thumbs up and pointing at the pop-top. We went to visit the mission and it turned out he worked there. He said loads of friendly-sounding words to us, and we sort of understood about 1 in 10 of them. That Brazilians were typically very warm and chatty was a stereotype we were fully expecting to be true.

We wandered round the lovely site under a warm, clammy sky. We hadn’t set out to do such a thorough study of the 17th and 18th century Jesuit social experiment but we’d now visited missions in all the main South American countries they’d settled in – Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil – and were feeling quite well versed by the time we took off across country.

We’d already noticed the volume of traffic – especially trucks – was huge compared with Argentina, which can feel like it’s practically empty in parts. Not since Colombia had we really had to contend with such aggressive, erratic driving. It was just another new thing to get used to.

Even the horse-drawn carriage drivers did some damned stupid manoeuvres..

On day two we had an early lesson in surviving Brazilian truckers while driving a winding, hilly route through Rio Grande do Sul province. On lengthy up-hill stretches the road would turn into three lanes so slower-moving traffic could yield to faster vehicles. We’re not super quick so as we approached an incline, I moved immediately into the right-hand slow lane.

As we started to climb an articulated lorry loomed up behind at incredible speed, leaning on his horn while over-taking us. We had no idea what his problem was. As his cab passed us he started pulling sharply to the right, cutting us up completely and forcing us off the road. I couldn’t believe what was happening – I was shouting something like “fucking hell, he’s coming in, he’s coming in!” as he came closer and closer and I stepped on the brakes. The double-length truck was so massive it never seemed to end. As it bore down on us there was no way we could avoid him so I had no option but to swerve into the ditch. Thankfully the drop-off was only the height of a normal kerb and we were still upright and unscathed, albeit with pretty shaky legs.

For most of the next hour this homicidal maniac tried to chase us down.

The first thing we said to each other was that it had obviously been deliberate, but we couldn’t imagine why. He had about a kilometre of overtaking lane ahead of him, so there was no need to pull in front of us. We wondered if he had an issue with our US licence plates? This has never happened before though, at least not to our knowledge. I just wanted to get the hell away from him – now that he had overtaken, his heavy truck was crawling up the hill at a snail’s pace. I went to overtake and he swerved out in front of us. He did it again on the second attempt. Wtf?! By the time I finally got my opportunity we were pretty pissed off – as I overtook Jeremy gave that bastard a good long look at his middle finger and I leaned on the horn.

That was, possibly, not the cleverest idea. For most of the next hour this homicidal maniac tried to chase us down, accelerating up behind us when he got the chance and managing to intimidate the hell out of us. We wrote down his number plate just in case, and I drove like the clappers until we could create a gap then pull in to a gas station to wait for a while and let him get far ahead.

It’s fair to say we were suddenly feeling a bit unwelcome! Were all truckers this unhinged? What about everyone else?!

Map of Brazil

It was a long drive, and not always a relaxing one..

We planned on sleeping at gas station truck stops most of the way across the country until we got to the beach. Hmmm. That night we arrived at the first one, and had a quick look around to make sure our ‘friend’ wasn’t there. Maniacs or not, the first couple of days in a new culture are always a bit weird, while you work out what’s what.

We were settling in, feeling a little edgy, when a truck driver came over to chat and ask us about the van. We threw in a couple of Portuguese words but otherwise stuck to Spanish in the hope we’d be understood, and had something resembling a conversation. He was really nice – a really nice truck driver! A few minutes later he came back over and offered us a piece of Brazilian cheese to try. A really nice cheese-giving truck driver – even better!

For the next few days we drove through mile upon mile of agriculture – endless fields of soy, maize and wheat – as well as a stream of towns and cities. We were genuinely amazed at just how densely populated it was. It wasn’t the most relaxing driving experience. Lorries would sit so closely on our tail we could almost smell their sweaty crotches. But at least none of them seemed to be actively trying to kill us.

Our faith was further restored by the reception we were getting from other car drivers. A remarkable number of people were hooting, waving and pointing at our gringo van, giving us the thumbs up. More alarmingly, lots of people were risking crashing by taking photos of us whilst driving along the highway. One guy overtook us then held his iPhone out of the driver’s window to take a picture of the front of our van. I’m pretty sure competence-in-backwards-photography-while-driving-at-high-speed is not in the standard driving test.

If only everyone would behave like a nice, sensible VW driver.

If only everyone would behave like nice, sensible VW drivers.

The weather got progressively hotter, more humid and occasionally stormy. Within a few days we were remembering what it was like to spend a day driving in the van, being slowly boiled alive, but we were relishing the warmth. We drove all day and sweated through the nights at petrol stations.

It’s amazing how quickly one becomes institutionalised. Wake up, drive, eat crackers, drive, stop, make pasta, sleep, repeat. After the fifth day of this we had a ‘big night out’ with some ice-cold beers and our first taste of Brazilian food. Whoop! The night out was about 6ft from the van, in a petrol station bar, but we are very easily excited.

The van veg box

The van veg box gets some welcome additions.

Everything was so lush and tropical. We bought juicy mangoes and pineapples again, okra, cheap bananas and so many limes. How we’d missed proper limes! The insects were of the tropical variety too, like the dragonfly trapped in the bonnet that was so big Jeremy had to use BBQ tongs to remove it. As I stuck my head out the window one day to look down the street, a massive cicada flew straight at me and hit me right between the eyes, actually breaking the skin. I’m not sure which of us was more shocked.

We were starting to get a feel for the place, although sometimes it’s just silly little things make you feel in or out of synch.

After about a year in Argentina we more institutionalised in their ways than we have been anywhere. For example, instead of ringing a doorbell or shouting out, it’s normal to clap your hands when calling at someone’s house or business. Do they do that in Brazil, we wondered? In some countries it would certainly be interpreted as rude. Who could we ask? Maybe we could try clapping and see if someone punches us in the face….

On the other hand, one Argentinian custom we had never quite got used to was the interminable daily siesta where – outside of the big cities – pretty much everything shuts down for up to 4 hours in the middle of the day. We were immediately struck by the constant activity in Brazil – everything open, music, people out and about, working, snacking, drinking coffee or cold beer, all day long! Brilliant.

We were also tickled to hear a new form of greeting that’s common in parts of Brazil. A way of saying ‘hi’ is ‘oi!’. When we said ‘ola’ to people, they’d respond with ‘oi!’, or we’d walk into a cafe and the waitress would shout ‘oi!’. We literally never tired of it.

We arrived in the state of Minas Gerais, famous for the beautiful baroque architecture of its colonial towns – enriched during the 17-18th century gold rush – and its special cuisine. I’ve babbled so much already there’s hardly space to write about it.

We were relieved to find a haven of a campground in Tiradentes, where we could clean up and rest for a few nights, wander its lovely streets and sample some new foods like feijão tropeiro – a hearty spread of pork cooked several ways, beans with toasted manioc flour, couve (kale), sausage, eggs and rice.

We baked in the heat at Lavras Novas, a lovely old town still inhabited by the descendants of freed black slaves.

Lavras Novas, Brazil

Cows wander the streets in Lavras Novas, Brazil

 

Lavras Novas, Brazil

Lovely Lavras Novas, where even the bins are decorated colourfully.

By the time we pulled into Mariana we were pretty desperate to find a launderette, something we knew could be a bit harder to find in Brazil. We pulled up to get our bearings, when a resident Italian called Flavio came alongside us to ask all about our trip and if we needed any help. I told him we needed to wash our clothes. “There’s nothing like that here, it’s really difficult,” he said.

Before we knew it we were following his little Fiat van (of course) through the winding cobbled streets, at great speed, to an unmarked place in the centre of town. It was a commercial laundry but he persuaded them to take our stuff, then drove us to a car park where he said we could safely spend the night. It would have been okay in different weather, but the heat was utterly phenomenal – we needed somewhere with shade, a shower and some peace and quiet.

We headed to nearby Ouro Preto to camp outside town and enjoy its incredible churches and colourful architecture, perched on steep cobbled streets. At the height of the gold boom there were more people in this small town (mostly slaves) than in New York and Rio de Janeiro combined.

Obviously most of the money was filched by the colonising Portuguese, but the town still retains a shiny feel. These days it’s all boutique B&Bs and chi-chi cafes. Here we finally sampled pão queijo, the region’s addictive and ubiquitous snack of cheesy bread, made with tapioca flour, which has a wonderfully soft chewy texture.

All very cultured, but it was time to turn towards the coast and spend some time lying down with a book. We had our eye on a quiet, relatively remote little town called Caraiva, in Bahia state, which had an amazing beach at the mouth of a river. The town itself could only be reached by canoe, but we were fairly confident we could find a base camp on the other side of the river.

The scenery along the way turned from rolling hills to striking mountains that seemed to have just popped straight up out of the earth. Even some of the petrol stations were beautiful!

Two sweaty days later we reached the turn off for the dirt road down to the village. A collapsed bridge turned it into a 2-hour journey through curvy bumpy tracks. We were knackered and parched when we arrived. We’d planned on going to a B&B that also offered camping, but when we got there it had closed its camping down and nothing else in town was open. Bugger! All previous shyness about communicating went out of the window, as I practically begged them to let us camp in their garden anyway. We were desperate for a nice little space where we could stay for a few days. The lovely family that owned it said they’d stopped the camping service because it wasn’t worth the trouble, but they eventually relented, charging us next to nothing to camp among their palm trees.

Luckily there was an Argentinian staying there who came along later to help translate. “Tell them we’ll be no trouble and we won’t make a mess!” I said.

We’d made it! It was as stunning as we’d hoped. One of the best beaches we’d ever seen. Now we could relax.

Caraiva, Bahia, Brazil

Caraiva, where river meets ocean in Bahia, Brazil

 

Caraiva, Bahia, Brazil

Chill out time…Caraiva, Bahia, Brazil.

Fishermen, Caraiva, Brazil.

Fishermen, Caraiva, Brazil.

That night I woke up with a start at about 3am. “Something just bit my finger!” I said. We were both so sleepy though that we just ignored it. I’m always dangling my hand down the back of the bed – perhaps I’d snagged it on something on the back door?

Little did we know then that someone had other ideas about us chilling out, just going to the beach, catching some early nights and not giving our hosts any trouble. Señor Mouse had hopped on board for a visit, and he was definitely planning on outstaying his welcome.

Days: 1548
Miles: 47,158
Things we now know to be true: It’s not worth getting into an argument with a Brazilian truck driver.

A FEW MORE PICS BELOW! Click on any image to open the gallery:

And now, the end is near

26 Nov
Van for sale

Van for sale, sunset not included

 

Guarapari, Espirito Santo, Brazil

[by Paula]

After 88,000kms, 18 countries and more than 1,500 days on the road, we’ve decided that now is the right time to bring this Latin American adventure to an end and return to Europe in early 2016.

In between brief bursts of panic, we’re really excited about making plans and getting ready for the next chapter.

We don’t know exactly where we’ll be living, or what we’ll be doing but hey, these are just minor details. For most of the last four years we’ve had very little idea where we’d end up each day! As long as we’re somewhere with an indoor toilet and hot water, we’ll be up on the deal.

Some people ask us how on earth we’ve managed to live in what is essentially a large car for so long without losing the plot and/or killing each other. Others wonder why we don’t just live this dream forever. We’ve frequently asked ourselves both questions.

So why come back?

In short, we want to be closer to our families and friends.

We’ve done everything we set out to do, plus so much more that we couldn’t possibly have envisaged. This ‘two-year’ trip became a four-and-a-half-year rollercoaster of unbelievable experiences that I won’t try to sum up now. We feel ready to quit on a high, on our own terms, before risking becoming broke, jaded or tired with travelling. Much as we love the life, living in a van is not something we really planned to do forever.

We’ve been extremely lucky to have been able to supplement our original travel budget with decent freelance journalism work, but we’ve reached the stage where we really need to do a lot more than we can realistically manage from the road. We’d also like to be more involved again – in terms of our profession, trade unions and wider politics.

So the van is up for sale, in Argentina. Gulp! Want it? – click here for details.

As ever, there are still several unknowns but we do know we’ll be returning there from Brazil in January to wrap up the loose ends and arrange our trip back.

Do I even have to point out how much of a wrench it will be to leave our little home, and all of this, behind? For all the so-called hardships of life on the road, we know we’ll miss it horribly.

Since we made this decision we’ve had a few wobbly moments. At the weekend we scrambled up a sand dune before descending to eat the freshest fish imaginable on a Brazilian beach, washed down with an ice-cold Brahma. We looked out at the ocean and thought ‘yeah, can’t wait for that European winter….wait…just what the hell are we doing?!’.

But we’re also really enjoying planning our next big adventure, wherever that may be. Not to mention looking forward to spontaneous phone calls, a social life, hot baths, smelly cheese and our very own toilet.

But all that can wait just a little while longer. For the moment, we’re loving Brazil and savouring every moment.

It´s crap here, so we´re leaving.

It´s crap here, so we´re leaving.

 

Monday morning, Caraiva, Bahia, Brazil

Monday morning, Caraiva, Bahia, Brazil

 

The commute home from the beach, Itaunas, Brazil.

The commute home from the beach, Itaunas, Brazil.

 

Days: 1,515

Miles: 44,332

Things we now know to be true: We did it our way

Going with the flow

12 Nov
Bathing capybaras

Down by the riverside: Capybaras bathing in a stream, Parque Nacional El Palmar, Entre Rios, Argentina.

Caraiva, Bahia, Brazil
[by Paula]

As we traversed Argentina for the fifth time in just over a year, it felt like a lot of the things we were seeing and doing were something of a preparation for the next phase – Brazil. Which is where we are now, although we still can’t quite believe we finally made it here.

As we headed back towards the Entre Ríos (‘between rivers’) province near the Argentina/Uruguay/Brazil border, things became just that little bit more tropical – lush landscapes, more exotic wildlife, plenty of rain, increased warmth and humidity, and a sudden rise in the size and volume of the insects that wanted to come and live in the van. The rivers flanking the province – the Rio Paraná and Rio Uruguay – both flowed into Brazil and we were increasingly content to be carried along with them.

But before our time down by the riverside, we had one last date with Argentina’s mountains. When we last wrote, we were on our way to Chilecito, in the hills of La Rioja. La Rioja?… ah, there they go chasing wine again, I hear you say. But no, we were there for its dramatic highland setting and its fascinating abandoned cableway system, which once trundled gold, silver and copper between the mine – up in the sierras at an altitude of more than 4,600m – and the town. An amazing early 20th century feat of engineering, the cableway spanned 40km and had nine stations.

We visited a cute little museum at ‘station 1’ before driving up to ‘station 2’ for some fabulous views and a wander among the cablecar graveyard.

Chilecito 'estacion 1'

The main cableway station in Chilecito is now a lovely little museum

 

Estacion 2, Chilecito

Estacion 2 of the old cableway, Chilecito, La Rioja, Argentina.

We headed down to the sierras around Córdoba, stopping off in Villa de Soto to meet up with fellow road-trippers Betti and John, from the UK. We’d never met before but Betti had responded to my pathetic Facebook plea for some British teabags. A month or so later they were in the vicinity and before we knew it we were meeting up for a barbeque and the ceremonial handing over of a batch of hugely appreciated PG Tips. Aaah…. a lovely cuppa.

Amongst other things we chatted about Brazil, as we were still humming and hawing about whether to make the massive trip.

In lovely Alta Gracia we paid tribute to the revolutionary that graces more t-shirts than he could ever have imagined, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who lived in the town as a child. After wandering the family’s old home, now a museum and photo exhibition, we visited the new souvenir shop across the road. I think they succeeded in ensuring no one was in any doubt that this was the Che shop….

Che shop

Souvenir shop across from Che Guevara’s childhood home in Alta Gracia, Cordoba, Argentina.

 

We took the bus to the bright lights of Córdoba, which was our first cosmopolitan city day in a long while. We made the most of it by pounding the streets, ‘doing’ the sights, and working up an appetite for a proper Argentinian parrilla lunch of grilled meat, with grilled meat and grilled meat.

Córdoba’s massive student population helps to give it that hip edge. The fact that we were so excited by all the cool cafes, antique shops, market stalls and thronging bars made us realise we’d been knocking around in the backwaters for rather too long. To mark the occasion we had a cocktail before heading for the bus back to our provincial campervan.

Bar in Cordoba

Early evening drinks in Cordoba, Argentina.

We were getting some lovely sunny days but the spring weather was still pretty mixed, which only made us dream of Brazilian beaches even more. By the time we left the sierras we’d made a final decision that we’d keep heading east and go for it.

When we reached Santo Tome, on the Rio Paraná in Santa Fe, we were in organisational mode. We had this irrational compulsion to ‘get prepared for Brazil’, as if we were heading for some back-of-beyond third world country. This kind of thing happens to me even when we’re about to cross borders between the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. I start doing low-level panic-buying in case across the frontier ‘they’ don’t have certain foodstuffs or the brand of tea I like. We also knew wine was expensive and more limited in Brazil – into the trolley it goes!

Being addicted to change doesn’t mean you don’t also fear it in some small way.

With Brazil we had all the usual trivial uncertainties, but with the added complication that we don’t speak Portuguese. We were taking on a long drive in a relatively short space of time and had some fairly important things to sort out, which we really wanted to avoid having to deal with in a new language. One of those was replacing our close-to-death auxiliary battery, which powers the campervan lights and some plug sockets and enables us to camp without external power for several days.

Having to do ordinary things like find battery shops, launderettes, mechanics, ironmongers and the like gives us an excellent reason to spend time in ordinary towns. We really enjoyed our few days in the municipal site in Santo Tome, camping alongside seasonal workers and artesans, and pottering about doing our chores. The site was right next to a long riverside promenade, where people jogged, played, fished, and passed the time with friends and the ubiquitous Argentinian mate (a bitter green tea) which most people carry on their person at all times.

The riverside communities have a whole different feel to other parts of Argentina – there’s more languid strolling as smells of fried fish waft around, not unlike a seaside resort.

River coast

The riverside towns can feel like seaside resorts. Rio Parana, Argentina.

We even got the chance to go to an ordinary football match across the river in Santa Fe – a fine battle between two of the bottom teams in the premier league, Colón de Santa Fe and Arsenal de Sarandí. We’ve been to many matches in Latin America and one of the best things about them is being among the fans in the stands, who are as fanatical as it’s possible to be. The drums and singing don’t cease for the full 90 minutes, and goals are celebrated with the ‘hinchas’ (fanatics) conducting songs and chants from below. The hinchas rule the school, draping themselves from the fencing, shouting themselves hoarse at every turn in the game, hanging banners that talk of their willingness to die for their team and draping flags so huge that half the ‘hinchada’ can barely see the pitch. It said something about the, erm, enthusiasm of the Colón fans that they’d had to build a moat between the pitch and the stands.

While we were waiting for our new battery to arrive we took off up the river to Cayastá. At the posh camping there we grilled some steaks and felt all summery as we looked out over to the river beach on a lovely evening. There were some pretty loud splashes in the water after dark. “Must be some massive fish in there,” we surmised.

Next morning, this chap emerged from the water and came lumbering up the beach.

Grumpy iguana

This iguana wasn’t as grumpy as his face suggests. Cayasta, Entre Rios, Argentina.

 

Iguana, Cayasta

Mr Iguana emerges from the river in Cayasta, Santa Fe, Argentina.

Shortly afterwards his friend came looking for some discarded fish heads, and got lucky.

Iguana's fish head snack

This iguana came up the beach to find discarded fish heads for snacking on. Cayasta, Santa Fe, Argentina.

Despite our love of Argentinian steak, like Mr Iguana, we were pretty excited about being by the river and able to find some fish to eat again.

For our wedding anniversary we headed down the ‘coast’ to a fish restaurant in the tiny village of Los Zapallos. With its sandy streets and sleepy feel, it doesn’t look like the kind of place you’ll find a decent restaurant. But tucked away in the corner of the village, La Vuelta del Pirata has been serving up a well-regarded fish menu since the 60s.

In true Argentine style it didn’t even open til 9pm. We sat down, starving. Señora Pirata (as she will henceforth be known) shuffled over in her cardie, doing one of those slightly scary auntie faces that is both stern and twinklingly kind. Before we could even speak she said: “It’s just fish, fish and fish, nothing else. I keep bringing it out, and you eat it!“. We took this to mean there was a fixed menu, but were a bit too dumbstruck to ask how many courses there were or what the price was.

Great!” we said, “do you have a wine menu?“. She leaned over to our neighbouring diners’ table and grabbed the bottle of white they were drinking. “This is the best one, you can have a bottle of this.”

I asked in a quiet voice how much the wine was, not being comfortable with having to ask the price of something in a restaurant. In a voice a few decibels short of a foghorn she bellowed “IT’S 90 PESOS!“. We were really starting to like this woman – as my dad said when I told him about her, the world needs more eccentrics.

“As a special gesture for our wedding anniversary, we slept in the van in the street outside the restaurant and used the pee bottle as a toilet. Romance is not dead.”

The food started arriving and we wolfed it. Then more came, and more. We really should have asked what the menu entailed, so we could have paced ourselves. By the 8th course I had a haunted, begging look in my eyes, pleading ‘when will this stop?’.

With each course we asked her what kind of fish was in the dish. Oh, she didn’t like the food being interrogated! After the umpteenth time, she waved her arm towards the other diners, shouting “they know, ask them how good the milanesa is, they’re my most regular customers!”. They nodded their approval.

And it was, indisputably, delicious. All gut-busting 10 courses of it. Baked fish empanaditas, pate, fish ‘meatballs’, fried empanadas, breaded clams, milanesa with roquefort, fish lasagne, marinero (filet in batter with pepper sauce), whole grilled fish, and seafood casserole. As she removed the final dishes she cried out, “oh, I forgot to bring the fried fish!”. Señora Pirata’s idea of a joke – I wonder how long she’s been telling that one.

When the bill came, the food amounted to just over £7 (US$11) a head. No joke.

As a special gesture for our wedding anniversary, we slept in the van in the street outside the restaurant and used the pee bottle as a toilet. Romance is not dead.

New battery installed, holes in exhaust repaired and laundry done, we headed across to Concepción, near the Uruguayan border, for yet more admin – such as the quarterly headache of filling the propane tank and paying the fine for having overstayed our Argentina tourist visa, to allow us to leave the country.

We arrived looking forward to some camping on the Rio Uruguay, only to find the river was now on the road, and a guy was paddling around in a boat in what had been the campsite. “All the campsites in the town are under water!” said the helpful tourist information officer. Parts of Brazil were getting so much rain they’d had to open a dam upriver, flooding loads of places alongside it. Oh dear.

Instead we set up base on the city’s shiny new costanera, a safely concreted promenade with some lovely views and sunsets. It was massive, with a free outdoor gym and parking for hundreds of cars, but we had the place to ourselves each night.

Costanera camping

Sleeping on the costanera, Concepcion del Uruguay, Argentina.

 

Water on fire

The sunsets on the costanera were unbelievable.

Jobs done we headed north towards the border, stopping off for a final dose of tourism at El Palmar national park. One of the last major protected areas for the massively tall yatay palm trees, it had sounded lovely when we read about it. But we weren’t quite prepared for the strange feeling of entering a tropical paradise just a few kilometres from the highway.

As soon as we crossed the park boundary we saw fabulous, vivid birds, and hundreds of capybaras bathing in streams and ambling along the roadside. Curious little foxes stared at us from behind bushes, and in the evening little mustacheod viscachas (members of the chinchilla family) came trotting through the campsite looking for barbeque leftovers.

And then there’s those palm trees, looking resplendent in the daytime and posing obligingly before some perfect sunsets. As we made dinner, chicadas and frogs sang all evening. Yep, we were definitely getting that tropical vibe.

El Palmar's palms

Yatay palms, El Palmar National Park, Argentina.

 

Yatay palm

Yatay palm, El Palmar National Park, Argentina.

 

El Palmar sunset

Sunset in El Palmar National Park, Argentina

On the final push to the border, the weather deteriorated again. We re-visited a place we’d loved last year, where we’d crossed the border into Uruguay. This time it was soggy, windy and grey.

We camped in a wet field further north. As fellow campers will know, those persistently rainy, chilly days are the most challenging. There’s often very little you can do, especially if you’ve gone somewhere for the outdoors, like hiking or mountain views. Spending a rainy day in the van is not like a cosy duvet day at home. You can tell yourself it might be nice to laze around in bed watching movies, but by 11am you pretty much want to scoop your own eyes out with a spoon. I’d go as far as to say that spending a rainy, muddy day in a campervan is about as appealing as – and not entirely dissimilar to – a damp fart in a spacesuit.

Rainy day

Urgh.

So our instinct is usually just to try to drive away from it. Even when it’s futile, we feel we are at least using ‘dead’ time to make progress with the journey.

This time, we had somewhere else to go. We were heading to a sunny beach and we’d picked a strip of white sand that was roughly 3,500km away from where we were sat. It was a long way and we really needed to get moving, so we packed up and made for the border.

Days: 1,501
Miles: 43,766
Things we now know to be true: You can never be too paranoid about running out of teabags.

Mooning around

11 Oct Blood moon
Blood moon

Blood moon, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Alta Gracia, Córdoba, Argentina
[by Paula]

In our previous life, if I read or heard talk of the kind of travelling that was of the fluid, go-where-the-road-takes-you variety, it always smelled faintly of bullshit to me. It seemed liked an idealised kind of travelling, the kind that people liked to think they were doing, if only they could be that relaxed.

We’ve had enough of those kinds of days and experiences now to realise it’s not bull, it is possible – with the luxury of time – to take each day as it comes and not worry about what’s ‘supposed’ to happen. We still love the planning aspect of the trip – poring over maps and deciding what we want to see, but we’re equally prepared to chuck it all out the window if necessity, weather, the van or the mood requires. I have battled my inner List-Making Control Freak (although am still never actually without a to-do list) while Jeremy has tackled his inner Restlessly Impatient, and we have let our inner Fuck Its prevail – well, at least for the most part.

As I write this we are beginning an unexpected four-and-a-half hour wait at the top of a mountain pass because the route is closed til 7pm for roadworks. We won’t make it to where we’re heading but it doesn’t really matter because we don’t have a particular plan or schedule. The British answer to absolutely every circumstance is to make a cup of tea, so that’s what we’ve done. And because this is Argentina, where one can barely move for campsites, we don’t have to stress out about finding somewhere to sleep before dark. The worst that can happen is that we’ll bed down right here with the diggers and dump trucks.

Mountain pass closed

A delay with a view; crossing the Miranda pass to Chilecito, and waiting four and a half hours for the road to re-open…

Now, more than ever, we are travelling without a plan and sometimes it can feel a bit flaky. While we’ve hardly been burdened with high-pressure deadlines over the last four years, until now we’ve always had at least some loose or distant goal to consider. Be that getting to a certain place for the right season, meeting up with the parents or friends, planning flights for a trip home, organising a Workaway placement, trying to get the van fixed, or fitting things around story ideas and work deadlines. The ultimate aim was making it to Tierra del Fuego in the summer. Turned out it wasn’t the summer we planned, but a year later.

Not for the first time since then we ask ourselves, what’s next? And recently the answer has been slowly taking shape as that vast country that we never really planned to visit, called Brazil… more of which later.

Before taking to the road again, our final month in Salto de las Rosas – where we were doing a three-month Workaway placement – also involved an unplanned turn of events. Two weeks before our leaving date, our British host Susan made a sudden decision to return to the UK to live, with Dave and her daughter, for family reasons. After 10 years in Argentina, they would be packing up, selling everything, trying to re-home their six pets, finding a temporary house-sitter and navigating a quagmire of bureaucracy to settle bills, legal stuff and the sale of Susan’s land and three properties. They had less than 6 weeks to do it in. Suffice to say, they had a lot to do and probably needed some help.

While Susan embraced her inner Spreadsheet Maker and got cracking with the plan, we volunteered to stay an extra two weeks and did a quick metamorphosis from wood-cutting grunts into assistant planners / organisers / house-movers / salespeople / cleaners / photographers. The houses, land and almost everything they owned – which was a lot – were listed and photographed. Yard sales were organised and people started flocking to buy all their belongings.

Final selfie

Final selfie with Susan, Dave and Tiv, Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael.

They’ve been through this before – as have we – and know what to do. But I don’t think they’ll mind me saying there were, understandably, moments when they froze into rabbits-in-the-headlights mode and we had to usher them off the highway. We became part-time counsellors and cajolers when needed, which often involved wine, laughing and sporadic outbursts of swearing.

With a necessary detachment we dragged things from cupboards, emptied shelves, lugged furniture and helped sort things into priorities. My inner List-Making Control Freak was released so it could be free to do things like help boss Dave into making an inventory of his mountainous collection of musical equipment and gadgets, or deciding which of his 345,000 computer/phone/amp/unidentifiable cables he was taking to the UK with him.

It was really hard for them to be getting rid of everything, with so little time to process the emotional upheaval of the move. We fully empathised with their biggest worry – leaving the two dogs and four cats behind. In the end, their lovely neighbour agreed to house-sit and take care of all the animals – phew.

As our departure approached, they were exceedingly generous in handing on plenty of useful stuff to us, plus a never-ending supply of food. We had some drunken farewell meals, a hungover asado with friends Malcolm and Sue, and stocked up with a couple of cases of their La Fraccion Malbec for the road. We emptied the house we’d been living in, gave it a final swish of the mop and drove off somewhat heavier-of-van than before.

It probably took a week or so for us to completely re-adjust to full-time van life again, and we’re very much back in the swing of things. Getting used to the relative lack of space, privacy and cleanliness takes a wee while, but we soon forget what it’s like to take these things for granted. It helps that the weather has been getting progressively warmer (albeit still peppered with some grim grey days) and we have summer stretching ahead of us.

Freelance HQ

Freelance HQ, aka The Van, Tunuyan, Mendoza.

During a stop in Tunuyán, in the Valle de Uco wine valley south of Mendoza, we were finishing off a work project at a campsite near the town. As we were cooking one evening, Jeremy said: “why is the van shaking?”.

It was rocking, fairly decisively, from side to side.

“Maybe it’s the wind,” I offered. Only it wasn’t windy.

With hindsight, it seems ridiculous that in the few seconds that followed we considered that someone was outside rocking the van for a joke, or perhaps an animal had got underneath (in our defence, the last time we had a mystery rocking incident, it was due to a huge pig scratching itself on the underside of the van).

Jeremy leapt out to have a look, and quickly realised all the trees were swaying in unison and the ground was shifting from side to side with remarkable force.

“It’s an earthquake!” he yelled.

I jumped outside and we just stood there, quite dumbstruck, for maybe one or two minutes as the ground quietly heaved, and we did little involuntary surfing motions. It was the first time we’d experienced a major earthquake, and it was rather discombobulating. It was obvious it had been a big one, and luckily we had internet access to check. It was quickly reported to be a massive 8.3-magnitude earthquake that had struck off the coast of Chile, nearly 300 miles away on the other side of the Andes. There were some big aftershocks, and most of the evening was spent on the internet, following events over the border.

When we left there we still hadn’t decided where we were going. Despite having three-and-a-half months to think about it while we were in Salto, we still didn’t seem to have a clear travel plan. We decided to head to Potrerillos, as it looked like an area that would be a nice drive with potential walking.

Potrerillos, Mendoza

Great landscapes around Potrerillos, Mendoza, Argentina.

We wondered why there were so many large groups of youngsters at the campsite. Frankly, that never bodes well for a peaceful night, but our fears weren’t realised. A couple of days later, in Luján de Cuyo, we noticed that the supermarket alcohol aisles were roped off because all sales were banned for four days during the ‘Día del Estudiante’ (students’ day). Hmmmm.

We’d booked a fancy meal at a winery for my birthday the following day, so headed to the nearest campsite we could find. We were clearly out of practice because we decided to pitch up at this place despite the glaringly obvious ominous signs:

a. large group of students. b. large amount of booze and c. excessively large speakers.

We were very keen to shower because of our impending posh restaurant plans, but had to battle for a slot in the one, dirty, wood-fired shower that was being hogged by all the students (since when did they wash anyway?).

There followed one of the worst night’s sleep we’ve had on the trip – really shit, booming music that just never ended. I try to be zen about these things, but that usually expires by about 2am. Normally 4am is the latest these parties go on to, so I waited. By 5am I was near to tears and feeling like the next day had been spoiled. We got up, packed up the van as best we could and moved to a spot that was as far from the music as we could find. I think it finally stopped about 6am, and we got a few hours sleep.

Sometimes our life is one of quite strange contrasts. We got up to a cold, drizzly, day and slopped around in the wet, grumpily trying to get ready and pack up the van. We flattened our bed-hair in the decidedly rustic campsite bathrooms and sprayed on lots of deodorant. By midday we were dressed up and shiny, looking like normal members of society. At the Ruca Malen winery and restaurant, the previous night was soon forgotten as we tucked in to a gourmet five-course tasting menu with paired wines. It was a phenomenal, innovative meal with lots of seasonal vegetables and fresh tastes, but they still had the sense to include a sublime Argentine filet steak.

After sleeping that off we finally settled on our next destination. Only to completely change it as we looked at the map again during a milanesa sandwich road-stop. We turned and headed for Sierra de la Quijadas national park, which we’d never heard of but were drawn to by descriptions of its red rock landscapes and wildlife.

At the park’s perfect little free camping area we really got back into the groove, remembering why we love to be out there with nature, living the quiet life, and going to places we didn’t know existed.

Sunset camp

Camping at Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas, San Luis, Argentina.

Jeremy, Sierra de la Quijadas

Jeremy hiking in Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas, San Luis, Argentina.

We saw maras for the first time (large rabbity looking rodents that belong to the guinea pig family), loads of little birds came to visit – some cheekily coming into the van to look for crumbs – and we got one of our best close sitings of a condor during a fabulous hike through the park.

At sunset we walked along to a viewpoint to watch the rocks turn a fiery red.

We were just talking about how we loved going to these peaceful places as we headed to another desert park further north, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto. But as we arrived there was a queue of traffic and huge crowds of people. It was closed for a running event, so we wild camped nearby for the night and waited. Arriving first thing Sunday morning, there was a another queue of traffic waiting to get in before opening time, which is really not a very Argentinian thing to do. What the..?

After a bit of discussion at the ticket office, we gathered that it was a special day because of the upcoming supermoon/lunar eclipse event that night. Having not kept up with our lunar news, we had no idea! The campsite was packed with moongazers and TV crews, but it was a fun atmosphere.

Weirdly, the only way to drive around the park is as part of a convoy – packed again, but well worth it for its lunar-style landscapes, rock formations and amazing colours. Again we wondered how we’d never heard of the place.

'El Submarino', Parque Provincial Ischigualasto

‘El Submarino’, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Valley of the Moon

Valley of the Moon, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Little Jeremy, Ischigualasto

Jeremy is dwarfed by yet another bizarre rock formation at Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Driving through Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Driving through Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

That night we took our tea flask and headed to a rocky spot to watch the moon. It was a clear starry night and we got a great view of the eclipse, which turned orange by about midnight.

For the first time in ages, we hiked in super hot weather, dodging giant cacti and really feeling like desert rats again.

From there we decided to head north to La Rioja province and the town of Chilecito. It wasn’t too far but we did have to negotiate a winding mountain pass on the way. As we took the turning towards the pass we saw an ancient-looking sign saying the road was closed for construction.

We asked the village police sergeant about it and he said that some traffic was still being allowed through, but we’d have to drive up there and ask. We stopped to talk to a few people on the way and they all said the same… just turn up and see what happens. As we approached the barriers we looked at the foreman hopefully. Nope, the road was shut for several more hours so we’d just have to wait, he said.

Yahtzee!

Yahtzee! We’ve just discovered how amusing this game is..

So here we are, overlooking a phenomenal valley, drinking tea, playing Yahtzee and hoping that the road really does re-open before dark. Okay, I’d rather be camped somewhere, cooking and cracking open a bottle of Malbec, but it’s not so bad. Both of us – yes, even Jeremy – have developed a surprisingly large tolerance for just waiting.

If nothing else, it’s given me a chance to write this blog post and get it off my to-do list.

Days: 1,469
Miles: 40,458
Things we now know to be true: If you gaze at the moon for long enough, you get a cricked neck.

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