Tag Archives: mechanic

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:

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.

Wood-stock

24 Aug
River mornings

We walk to the river with the dogs every morning.

Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael, Argentina
[by Paula]

If I had to select one word to sum up our time so far in San Rafael, it would be ‘wood’.

Cutting, felling, chain-sawing, gathering, dragging, rolling, splitting, throwing, snapping, sweeping, sorting, piling and burning the stuff has become a daily preoccupation during our work-exchange placement here in Argentina’s Mendoza province. We arrived here in early June and our stint is, unbelievably, already drawing to a close.

Of course, there has been more to the last 12 weeks than just the wood thing. In fact, we’ve been rather busy and productive with all kinds of work and domesticity, plus a little bit of travel. We’ve been less diligent with the blog though, so to pick up where we left off we have to briefly skip back to May, when we took a month-long trip back to the UK to see family and friends.

Let’s just say it involved a constantly revolving merry-go-round of hellos, goodbyes, trains, planes, pubs, lunches, dinners, large gatherings, small gatherings, far too many drinks, obscene amounts of food and plenty of laughs. We met new babies, clung pathetically to our ageing cat (now 21!), gawped at our rapidly-changing nieces and nephews, and enjoyed spending time with ‘old’ faces.

There is something a little bittersweet about these visits home. While the very purpose of being there is to see everyone, we just wish it didn’t have to be quite so intense and knackering. Poor us! We can hardly complain when it’s the path we’ve chosen and we’re lucky enough to be able to travel back to see people once in a while, but we do miss the everyday-ness of those relationships. This photo gallery sums up some of what went on, with apologies to those who have been airbrushed from history by my total failure to take any photos at several of our meet-ups, especially in London.

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On our return to Argentina we came directly to the village of Salto de las Rosas, in the lovely San Rafael area, which was to be our home for three months. We’d already set up the placement – organised through Workaway – and had met our very welcoming hosts Susan and Dave before departing for the UK.

It’s a straightforward exchange – Susan and Dave, who are UK/US expats, hire ‘Workawayers’ to put in four hours of work per day, five days a week, in exchange for free accommodation. One of the many reasons we’d applied was that the digs on offer was an entire two-bedroomed house on the land Susan owns. It was exactly what we wanted, so we could live independently and get stuck in to our own journalism work in our free time.

Our house 'La Casita'

Our house – ‘La Casita’ – for the duration of our stay is just a holler from Susan and Dave’s.

We’re amazed that we’ve managed to keep travelling for four years but needless to say the funds are getting a bit thin. We needed to stop moving for a while to focus on finding some more freelance work. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to spend the coldest part of winter in a nice warm house. We also like the combination of doing some outdoor grafting for half the day, and freelancing for the other half, whilst having people around for a bit of socialising. (Regular readers might recall we did something similar in Bolivia.)

We soon settled into a routine of rapidly throwing on loads of clothes in the freezing early morning and heading out to walk Susan and Dave’s dogs – loveable clingy mutt Catorce, and bouncy young Rottweiler Cali. They’ve got used to our habits and are usually hurling themselves at the door in a fit of hysteria by the time we are putting our shoes on (the dogs, not Susan and Dave).

Sometimes Catorce sleeps on our bed, just to be sure we don’t try anything sneaky like a lie-in.

Winters here get very cold at the start and end of the day, but are mostly dry, clear and sunny. Most mornings we can see the snowy Andes in the distance as we head down the path to a river that looks beautiful in the morning light.

Until lunchtime we’re doing tasks around the garden, usually involving raking and burning mountains of fallen leaves, weeding, tidying, and doing that wood thing. Both our houses only have one source of heating – a wood fire in the living room. Additionally, Susan and Dave can only heat their water via a wood fire. That’s a hell of a demand for wood in winter. There are piles and piles of it outside their house – all different sizes and stages of seasoning.

Aside from the need for stuff to burn, there are trees on the land that are dead, falling down or in dangerous positions and need to be felled. We’ve been learning a thing or two from Dave about avoiding a massive head injury while chopping down trees, and trying not to cut our hands off with power tools.

Working together with a chain-saw has certainly brought a whole new element of trust to our marriage. All I’m saying is, just don’t make me angry.

We also ripped down a crumbling car port and helped build a new one. Dave and Jeremy have started constructing a wood shed too. All from wood, obviously. Ta-da!

Once or twice a week we gather with Susan, Dave and Susan’s daughter Tiv, to have dinner, drink wine, and display unnecessary levels of competitiveness while playing cards. Dave’s a musician and sometimes he gets the guitar out.

San Rafael is a wine-producing area and two of Susan and Dave’s close friends Sue and Malcolm – from the UK – own a small local vineyard and produce a gorgeous Malbec. Double bonus! We’re all keen on cooking, wine and talking, so it’s been great to enjoy several meals together. I’m already calculating how much of their wine I’ll be able to fit in the van when we leave. I mean, it’s not like I need all those clothes, is it?

Meanwhile our endeavours to get some paid work have been encouragingly fruitful so far. Our earlier research work in Welsh Patagonia resulted in four pieces for the BBC, including this audio slideshow and a feature on my impressions of the area, plus an article on the story of Welsh afternoon teas in Patagonia, in new online magazine Cultures & Cuisines.

Jeremy is currently writing an eight-part series for a geeky VW magazine in the UK, and continues to get some work for union magazines. He’s also becoming a shipping bore, writing articles for the journal of shipping union Nautilus, including large features on Argentine naval policy and the new Nicaragua canal. We’re also working together on a project to write web content for a campaign group in the UK.

Living in a rural area can make internet-reliant work frustrating though. We have a limited daily internet allowance, and even when it’s working it’s often refusing to co-operate. We are occasionally found to be smacking our foreheads against the laptop, and sometimes drive 28km into San Rafael city to get things done more quickly.

As with our previous stints at living in a house, it’s good to catch up with things that get neglected when we’re always on the road. Boring stuff like getting new glasses, washing things that are continually dirty but have to be ignored, and working through the never-ending list of van maintenance. If you’re wondering why there seem to be fewer van dramas these days, it’s partly because our earlier issues have helped us be a little bit more zen about these things, and partly because Argentina has been kinder to us. Of course things still break sometimes, but on every occasion so far we’ve either been carrying the part or been able to source it here, which saves a huge amount of time, money and stress.

So life has been relatively sedate , but it’s not been all work and no play. Whenever possible we’ve been spending weekends exploring the province and enjoying some brief returns to the camping life.

There are some fabulous landscapes right on our doorstep, like the colourful rock formations around Valle Grande, the shimmering El Diamante salt flats and the road to the snowy mountains of the nearby ski resort of Las Leñas.

Atuel canyon

Driving through the Atuel canyon from Valle Grande was a constantly changing colourscape.

Salinas del Diamante

Salt mine, Salinas del Diamante, near San Rafael, Mendoza province, Argentina.

Some places are amazingly low key. There’s a tiny, rusty old sign for Laguna Blanca at a gate by the side of the road to Malargüe. We drove up it to find an entirely deserted, phenomenal mountain lake.

I wouldn’t say we’re bored of the red meat culture in Argentina (is that even possible?) but we were beside ourselves with excitement to visit a trout farm near Malargüe that has a restaurant and campsite attached.  Fresh fish! So fresh that we watched it being selected from the pond and gutted on the spot less than half an hour before it arrived on the plate. Not only did we eat baked trout for lunch that day, but the set menu was a trout-fest of pate, mousse, empanadas, smoked trout and more.

Gaucho, near Malargue

Gaucho, seen while we were walking near the trout farm, Malargue.

This area is full of dams for hydro-electricity and the resulting reservoirs are invariably stunning. The nearby Los Reyunos area has been lovely for some walks and picnics.

Of course we couldn’t be here and neglect to pay attention to some vineyards. On a grey weekend in the nearby Valle de Uco we toured a couple of vineyards and indulged in some tastings, punctuated with a beautiful lunch in the town of Tupunganto. We’ve had a few chilly nights camping in recent months, but this one took the prize when we woke up to sleet. We realized we’re turning into wimps when we headed straight home for some warmth.

Well, we thought that had taken the prize until we decided to visit the Parque Provicial Payunia, a reserve near Malargüe which has the world’s highest concentration of volcanic cones – around 800 in a 4,500-sq km area! It’s a low key place with not a lot of information, inadequate mapping and a lack of infrastructure. Okay, so it’s mid-winter but we can never resist a volcano, nor a challenge, so off we went.

We were surprised but excited to see some snow at road level as we drove the back dirt-road from El Nihuil to the boundary of the reserve. As dusk fell the snow levels increased and we started to wonder what was ahead, but found it hard to care because the horizon was just full of snowy volcanic cones and the views incredible.

Snowy road

As we drove south from El Nihuil, the amount of snow gradually increased.

We’d planned to just get as far as possible that night and pull off somewhere on the road to sleep. But the snow was increasingly banked up over the roadside ditches and we couldn’t find anywhere to stop.

After a few hours, at dusk, we came across some guys in a truck who advised us to drive 10km onwards to a house that had space we could probably use. After about 20 miles we were still driving, the road was getting increasingly slippy and we’d given up on the house.

Snowy night

Driving on snow, in the dark, hadn’t really been in the plan. Road from El Nihuil Mendoza province, Argentina.

Just then we saw the lights and pulled in. The bemused owner and his son came out to investigate – what they made of the gringos turning up in the dark in such a remote area, we’ll never know. They, of course, agreed to let us stop and sleep next to their place, where there was some flat gravel to park on.

Next morning we work to a lovely crisp snowy scene, and moved on to the eastern side of Laguna Llancanelo, a phenomenal lake at the edge of the reserve. From our camping spot Jeremy counted 39 visible volcanoes. We walked out on to the dry lake bed, seeing water in the distance but never reaching it. A local gaucho cycled over from his house to see if we’d broken down, and told us that part of the lake had been dry for years.

Lake bed

We camped next to a dry section of the lake bed at Laguna Llancanelo, Mendoza province, Argentina.

Next day we drove to the lake’s ‘official’ entrance and were directed by the park guards to one of the most incredible viewpoints we’ve encountered on this trip – an easily-accessible volcano top with 360-degree views of the snowy Andes, countless volcanoes and the flamingo-rich Laguna Llancancelo. We spent an hour there on a gloriously sunny Sunday, and not another soul came.

Laguna Llancanelo

We looked over Laguna Llancanelo from the top of Volcano Trapal.

It was an amazing weekend, but for the first time we did have to resort to sleeping with the full complement of thermals, sleeping bags and all our blankets.

It’ll be back to full-time camping when we leave here in September, so it’s time to toughen up again.

What’s the plan post-San Rafael? That’s a very good question and kind of depends on what day you’re asking. We’ll most likely head to parts of central Argentina that we haven’t yet visited, and return to some places in the far north that we loved when we first arrived in the country a year ago.

Whatever happens, let’s hope the nights start to get warmer when we hit the road again, because we’ve become just a bit too accustomed to that roaring wood fire.

Days: 1,422
Miles: 38,647
Things we now know to be true: There’s no way of knowing how much wood a woodchuck could chuck.

IT’S A BUMPER CROP… MORE PHOTOS BELOW! 

Click on any photo to open as a slideshow:-

If you’re tired of Buenos Aires, try harder

24 Nov
Casa Coupage, Buenos Aires

More wine?

Villa La Angostura, Argentina
[by Paula]

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

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

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

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

Drinks in Bar Plaza Dorrego

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We realised what complete wimps we had become.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, that was all to come.

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

—–

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW..

Home from home

12 Aug
La Paz, Bolivia

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

By Jeremy

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

Could you live here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tilly Bud got a little muddy during our walk.

Tilly Bud got a little muddy during our walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MendozaDonlans and Dears, La Paz

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

Colibri Camping, La Paz

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

Road days of our lives

8 Jul

Driving in Sacred Valley, Peru

La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning tea and coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday market, Puno, Peru

Sunday market, Puno, Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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