Tag Archives: Pan de Azucar

Speedy Gonzales

18 Jan Paraty, Brazil
Paraty, Brazil

Doorway in colonial Paraty, Brazil.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

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

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

As it happens, quite a good one.

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

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

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

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

Speedy Gonzales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rat Catchers

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

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

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

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

Campground pals

Our Brazilian campground mates, Prado, Bahia.

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

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

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

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

Paula, Itaunas

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beach cocktails, Buzios

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

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

View to Rio

View over to Rio de Janeiro from Piratininga.

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

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

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

Beach cocktail deliveries

Cocktail anyone? Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro.

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

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

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

Paramotoring over Sugarloaf

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

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

Sugarloaf cable car

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

Rio from Sugarloaf

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

Christ the Redeemer, Rio

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

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

Copacabana beach, Rio

Copa-copacabana…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAN YOU HANDLE ANY MORE PHOTOS? SCROLL ON..

Christ the Redeemer, Rio

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

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Rock ‘n roll nights

15 Nov
Colourful Valparaiso

Multi-coloured  Valparaiso.

Jupapina, nr Mallasa, Bolivia
[by Paula]

We spent a day trying to decide where to go for the last portion of my brother’s visit. We could still make it to Peru for some trekking? Maybe pop over to Argentina?

After Derek left, Jeremy I were either going to be scooting back up north to Ecuador to collect our van (remember the van?), or heading directly to Bolivia to begin a voluntary work placement we’d set up, which meant the most illogical thing to do would be to head south again.

So that’s exactly what we did.

Let’s hire another car, we said, and drive south to Santiago – it’s only 1,670 kilometres (1,012 miles) each way!

We were getting to know this Atacama Desert road pretty well. A bit under-prepared on the provisions, we pulled into a little roadside posada for dinner before pushing on for our second visit to Pan de Azucar national park. We pitched our tents as the sun set behind the island, then settled in for a night of, well, not very much. So disorganised had we been that we only had one can of beer and a handful of sweets for entertainment. But it’s amazing what you can do with nothing. We trawled the site for wood, lit a fire and shared the can. Rock ‘n roll!

Setting up camp, Pan de Azucar national park, Chile.

Setting up at sunset, Pan de Azucar national park, Chile.

Then Derek did his best Bear Grylls impersonation and showed us you can boil water in a paper (yes, paper) cup on the fire. Most exciting cup of coffee I’ve ever had! If we can make a cuppa from nothing, we can survive anything.

We left early the next morning and pulled into Chañaral for one of Chile’s best any-time-of-the-day snacks, a hulking great steak and avocado sandwich. Happy 14th wedding anniversary to us!

Another long day of driving, and several gas station coffees later, we made it well south of La Serena and into new territory for Jeremy and me. We had high hopes for a campsite called Termas de Socos, which reportedly had natural hot thermal waters. We pulled into an empty, very locked, campsite. Bugger. We took our unwashed, rather unpleasant looking, selves into the very posh hotel next door to ask if they could help. They phoned the campsite owner who came down and opened it for us – an entire, massive campsite to ourselves! The ‘thermal pool’ was empty but the bonus was that the owner also ran a restaurant just up the road.

Campfire night

Anniversary campfire! Termas de Socos, Chile.

We pitched the tents and headed straight up there for a totally delicious – and cheap – dinner of roasted goat and ribs with the most orgasmic mashed potato in history.

Back at the tents, Derek went into full pyromaniac mode with the campfire, and we willingly colluded. The music was cranked up, and the more we drank the more outrageous the fire got. Luckily no one was around to hear the singing.

On our wedding day I’m not sure what we thought we’d be doing 14 years hence, but it probably wasn’t that.

Next morning we found the perfect antidote to a hangover and a few days without a shower. The very posh hotel next door rented out natural hot baths – bingo! We each got an individual room with a huge bath and unlimited hot water. Ahhhhhhh.

Three squeaky clean, slightly wrinkled, bodies climbed back into the car and headed for Valparaiso. We were amazed we easily found our B&B in the city’s crooked, windy, unbelievably steep streets. From our room we had a fantastic view over the bay.

We spent three nights in this kooky, artsy city which is part grimy and edgy, part pretty and funky. One of the most remarkable things about it is that seemingly the entire city has been, willingly, given over to graffiti art, murals and brightly painted buildings, which makes for some great aimless street-wandering.

Derek and I took the ascensor (while Jeremy took his vertigo for a steep walk) up to the Cerros Concepcion and Alegre district, where we shopped, then ate the thickest seafood chowder known to man.

We visited the late, uber-famous, Chilean poet/activist/politician Pablo Neruda’s fabulous home and mooched round the city’s ornate cemetery.

Having not quite adjusted to Chile’s late night culture (band starts at midnight, what?!) we heroically managed to prop our eyelids open to watch some sublime live music – the mesmerising, accordion-wielding, gypsy-jazz-salsa singer Pascuala Ilabaca and her band Fauna.

Mercado Central, Santiago

Fish galore at the Mercado Central, Santiago.

Derek’s final stop in Santiago was brief, but not too brief to visit the famous Mercado Central, a vast and chaotic emporium of fish sellers and fish restaurants. We sampled a few dishes – king fish, eel and merluza – while watching several of Santiago’s upper echelons order king crabs at well over US$100 a go. The waiters delivered them with a flourish, as everyone watched and took photos, which was presumably the reaction they were hoping for! We left enough of a gap before scoffing ceviche and one of the best tres leches cakes ever encountered, at bar The Clinic – the official bar of Chile’s political magazine of the same name.

The following day was a repeat of That Horrible Goodbye, as Derek took off back to Scotland and his wife Fiona and kids Skye and Finn – who had kindly loaned him to us for a while. Hasta luego hermano!

We’d been hoping we could dash back to Ecuador, collect the van, and make it (almost) on time to Bolivia, for the work project we’d organised. But while the mechanic had managed to source and install a manual gearbox in the van, there was still an issue with the computer understanding what the heck was going on, and a part had been ordered from Germany to try to resolve it.

We didn’t see the point in going back to Ecuador to wait around, when we had something great lined up in Bolivia, so we decided to head straight there and worry about the van once it was fully repaired.

First we had to return the hire car in Calama. We bombed it back up north in a long two days. The journey included an epic search for somewhere to camp or lodge near Antofagasta, on the coast. All campsites turned out to be closed or too rough-looking to contemplate. We searched nearby coastal ‘resorts’ which turned out to be more of those creepy half-abandoned encampments we’d seen before. When we enquired about camping or staying in cabins were told everything was ‘closed for maintenance’.

All lodgings in the town of Mejillones were booked out with miners – we almost got desperate enough to ask in a dire-looking dosshouse. But one look at the way the plastic ‘garden’ furniture was chained to the fence outside gave us pause to reconsider.

Car bed

Sometimes there’s nothing else for it but to give up and wind back the driver’s seat.

We found a posh hotel a few miles away, parked on the edge of their property and slept in the car. Oh what crusties we have become.

Things got creepier the next day when we took a different route up the coast and, in the early morning fog, came across a baby cemetery right on the beach. A huge area was filled with Victorian-style wooden cribs, most of which had cuddly toys tied to them. Some of the graves were 100+ years old, but most of the toys were quite new. There are some great things about Chile’s northern coast, but some of it is just damn weird.

We headed on to Calama, and delivered the car before setting up camp for a couple of nights to sort ourselves out and prepare for our big project in Bolivia, where we hoped to stay for up to six months.

After that we’d resume the trip south towards Argentina, but for now, the next chapter awaited.

Days: 772
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,259
Things we now know to be true: You can boil water over a fire using a paper cup. Honestly.

PHOTO GALLERY BELOW!

Overdosing on superlatives

28 Oct
Pan de Azucar national park, Chile

Er, bit dry here in the desert isn’t it? Pan de Azucar National park, Chile.

La Paz, Bolivia
by Paula

We’ve been over-doing things recently, in the best possible way. What with our marathon journey south to meet my family – the Jollys – in Chile, and the ensuing five weeks of astounding sightseeing, travelling and general Jollity, we’re all out of superlatives.

As well as that, there’s been a large overdose of sun, booze, food and spending. It’s been a blast, but the waistlines and wallets have taken a hit.

We’re about to get our wellies on and dig in for a cold, rainy winter in the Bolivian highlands – it’s the least we deserve; the austerity programme starts here.

So busy have we been that the blog has been badly neglected, so we’ll deal with all the amazing stuff we’ve been doing in a couple of posts. If you get bored at any point, you might want to play ‘superlative bingo’ – see how many times you can count us saying ‘fabulous’ ‘stunning’ ‘the best ever xx we’ve ever seen’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘breathtaking’ etc. You get the idea. The north of Chile and south of Bolivia have some of the most breathtaking (got it?) landscapes imaginable – no words (or even photos – see gallery below) truly come close to doing it justice.

Atacama desert drive

The long, straight, drive south through the Atacama Desert.

After racing through Peru last month, we picked up a rental car in northern Chile and started the two-day drive south to meet my parents in La Serena. Some people may find deserts boring, but we never tired of the seemingly endless straight roads cutting through the Atacama desert. For the first time on our trip we really had to think hard about refuelling the car and ourselves, as we could go for hours without seeing a sign of civilisation.

We’d booked a cabaña for the first week of my parents’ trip and would be mostly catering for ourselves. It was a major national holiday – celebrating independence from Spain – and we found out that every supermarket in the country would shut for 48 hours, just before my parents arrived. Panic stations! The idea of telling them, after their 30-hour journey from Scotland – ‘er, we haven’t got any food, or (even worse) wine‘ was unthinkable. We screeched into Copiapó a couple of hours before the final closing, to stock up. It was the equivalent of starting all your festive shopping at 4pm on Christmas Eve – ill-advised and ugly. Shelves were emptying, people were scrapping over the last mouldy onions and children howled as if Armageddon was coming. We threw together some meals we hoped wouldn’t go off in the hot car, and pushed on south.

The moment had arrived! We collected my parents at tiny La Serena airport and crushed their stuff into our far-too-small car, along with all the panic-bought wine, and drove to Vicuña, in the Elqui Valley. We spent a week in this stunning, rainless valley where pisco and wine grapes abound, as well as fruits and olives. It was all so lush compared with our drive south.

Birthday champers

Happy birthday to me. Elqui Valley, Chile.

I enjoyed a birthday of post-breakfast champagne, followed by a scrumptious lunch of roasted goat at one of Elqui’s solar kitchens – where everything, from the bread to the meat and the mashed potatoes, is cooked in simple metal ovens that are fuelled purely by the heat of the sun.

It was shockingly cold in the mornings, until the sun warmed the valley, and in the evenings too, when we huddled into fleeces and went out to gaze at the most amazing stars we’d seen in years.

We were starting to form some first impressions of Chile – unbelieveable skies, fabulous empanadas and sandwiches, lovely straight un-potholed roads. And, most importantly, gallons of very quaffable wine plus a very healthy respect for a Proper Cup of Tea.

On the downside… terrible accents! We started to doubt that we could actually speak any Spanish at all, until one Chilean reassured us, ‘don’t worry, our Spanish is awful, no one can understand us.’ And prices that make you want to weep with despair (how much?!) – with one exception; wine at prices that bring tears of joy.

After a lovely week of mooching around Elqui, we pushed on north, stopping for a night of pisco sours and fish at Bahía Inglesa, and then on to the magical Pan de Azúcar National Park.

Now, in our experience so far, much of the north Chilean coast is not much to write home about – a lot of creepy half-abandoned coastal slum towns, heavy smoky industry and mining, and all often blanketed in a coastal fog.

“The idea of my dad bottling some Chilean partygoer, whilst still in his underwear, gave me cause to ponder…”

But there are exceptions, and one of those is Pan de Azúcar – a sparklingly pristine piece of coastal desert, with a little island that’s home to a few thousand Humboldt penguins. We pitched up at a cabaña and camping place, with a smack-bang view of the island, and slept like babies to the sound of the waves. On our first morning we could see the penguins pottering about on the beach through the binoculars. Beyond excited! For a closer look we took a boat out to the island and got to watch them from close to shore, also seeing sea otters, sea lions and spectacularly colourful pelicans. Fabulous.

One of the many reasons we’d chosen this spot was for the peace and quiet. With it also being a national park, there were rules about not making noise, playing music, partying and so on. Safe bet, we thought.

On the afternoon of our second night, the Chilean Hillbillies arrived – a massive family in the cabaña next to mum and dad’s. We eyed them a little suspiciously. It was Saturday night, what did they have planned? That might sound a bit paranoid, but anyone who’s read our blog before – or any account of travelling in Latin America – will know that our fears were justified. How can I put this? – very generally speaking, there is a widespread lack of consideration for other people’s tranquility here. So much so that people planning a beach party will often park right next to where you’re camped, despite there being 10 miles of empty beach for them to choose from.

And so it was this time – music blaring from their open car, shouting at the tops of voices for hours on end, despite polite pleas to turn the music down. About 10 of them were outside their cabaña and about 3ft from our tent, all night.

Sunset, Pan de Azucar

Sunset view from our cabana at Pan de Azucar national park – looks peaceful, eh?

I’m pretty resigned to putting up with this sort of thing when it’s just Jeremy and I, but when the family are having their night ruined, I see red.

At 4am I cracked. I went over to ask them to go inside their cabaña, so we couldn’t hear their noise so much. They refused. They said: ‘We have babies inside the cabin, if we go inside our noise will wake them.’ I was incredulous. I said that they were doing just the same to my parents instead.

Do you think your parents are more important than our children?‘ they asked? I said they were equal. They laughed as if this was the most preposterous idea they’d ever heard. By this time there was a lot of shouting. They told Jeremy: ‘Chileans party til 5am, get over it!

Unbeknown to me, by this point my dad was poised at their cabaña door with a blunt weapon, ready to smack someone if it got out of hand. (note: he has no actual history of violence).
The idea of my dad bottling some Chilean partygoer, whilst still in his underwear, gave me cause to ponder: ‘Hhmmm, must do better next time on planning relaxing holiday for the parents…’

But it was a mere blip. We blew away the sleepy cobwebs the next day with a spectacular walk up on the plains, with giant cacti and dramatic cloud formations punctuating the bright yellow landscape and azure skies, then came home to snuggle in with a chicken soup.

It was a pretty wild place. In the evenings we retreated into the cabaña at sunset and, even when inside, piled coats and blankets on, playing cards and keeping warm with wine and pisco. Mum and dad took the ‘roughing it’ pretty well!

Pan de Azucar national park

All wrapped up for a chilly Chilean evening, Pan de Azucar national park.

After navigating the busy one-way streets of Antofagasta, with only a little shouting involved, we spent the night there before moving on to our final destination for mum and dad – a week in the heart of the desert, in San Pedro de Atacama.

Only a little more shouting was involved in our trying to find our cabaña, in a dusty little plot on the edge of town. It was a sweet adobe place with a magnificent view of the mountains, the most awesome of which was the almost 6,000-ft Volcano Licancabur. Its snow-capped peak shone by day and turned luminous pink by sunset. It’s hard to describe what it’s like being in one of the driest places on earth. We’ve never felt so desiccated, and no amount of water or moisturiser seemed to hit the spot.

We spent a fabulous day driving round some of the nearby sights, including a walk and picnic at the breathtaking oasis of Quebrada de Jerez – one of those lovely desert surprises that you wish you’d been the first to stumble upon.

At Laguna Chaxa – in the middle of the Atacama salt flats – we got our first sight of flamingos amid a spectacular mountain and lake setting, and watched them for hours.

Derek arrives.

Derek arrives! San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

Next day, it was back to Calama to collect my brother Derek from the airport! We celebrated with a barbeque and – you’ve probably guessed it – a vat of Chilean wine. Coincidentally it was our second anniversary of being on the road in Latin America.

Next day we became the only people on the planet to fail to find one of the most famous sights around San Pedro – the Valley of the Moon. ‘It must be here somewhere‘, I kept confidently declaring, as we drove further and further across the salar, before realising we’d missed the turning and also missed sunset. Oh well!

A star tour with an astrologist in San Pedro was one of the highlights of the few weeks. We gathered in the dark and looked up at the biggest sky imaginable. Venus shone under a sliver of a moon. We tried our best to absorb a dizzying and humbling barrage of space facts, before gazing through mega-telescopes at the most incredible sights we’ve ever witnessed, including a supernova, distant galaxies and disco-lights stars. (not the technical term, I don’t think).

One constellation was so impressively sparkly that everyone gasped when they saw it. ‘Yeah, we call that one the eyegasm‘ said the astrologer.

After a hot hike to the indigenous Atacameño ruins at Pukará de Quitor the following day, we set off for a second attempt to enjoy sunset at the Valley of the Moon. You won’t be surprised to hear it’s a bit like a moonscape. Sitting on a vast sand dune and watching the colours change over the jagged rocks and distant mountains at sunset was pretty other-worldly.

It was tears and gloom as my parents set off for home the next day. One of the absolute worst things about being away from home are those awful airport goodbyes.

Derek, Jeremy and I bedded down in Calama for a few hours, before starting the next phase of the Jolly holiday early the next morning.

We thought we were all out of superlatives to describe everything we’d been seeing…. and then we got to Bolivia…

Days: 754
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,239
Things we now know to be true: Outer space is really, really big.

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PICS PICS PICS!
Below is a pic gallery of some of the recent highlights – just a handful of the 2,000+ images taken over this period….