Tag Archives: Peru

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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Road days of our lives

8 Jul

Driving in Sacred Valley, Peru

La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning tea and coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday market, Puno, Peru

Sunday market, Puno, Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inca-redible

1 Jul
Street festival, Cusco, Peru

Cusco was starting its June festivities when we were there.

La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

We’re going to make this a mostly photo-dominated post. And not just because we are lazy and really far behind with the blog – good heavens, how could you think such a thing?!

Genuinely, it feels like every word that could ever be said about Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley has been said a million times. Can there be many people in the world who don’t recognise this Peruvian scene?

Machu Picchu, Peru

Much of the focus in articles and blogs on the subject is about how best to navigate the logistical maze involved in planning your visit, especially when you are on a bit of a tight budget.

This is where things took a bit of a curve ball for us. Due to one of those right-time-right-place things, we ended up visiting Machu Picchu by train, as part of a complimentary 5-star hotel, spa and sight-seeing package that was provided by the tour company High Lives, so we could review it for the website Queen of Retreats. That should be published soon, and we’re looking forward to blogging on all that in more detail then. For now I’ll just leave you with a couple of our favourite dishes of that trip. Yum.

Our biggest challenge was trying to scrub up for four days of luxury hotels. We did our best, under the circumstances.

Hotel selfie

Despite this fortunate happenstance, we still had spectacularly low expectations of Machu Picchu. It seems that the more hyped and busy a place is, the more we believe we are just going to find it irritating. I know, for example, that the Acropolis and the Vatican are ‘must-sees’ in Europe. But I spent most of my time in both places wanting to kill someone. It’s not that we expect to have these world-famous sights to ourselves (that cheeky bugger Mick Jagger managed to get exclusive access to Machu Picchu in 2011, but he’s probably a much better tipper than we are), but it’s just that large gaggles of tourists often morph into idiotic buffoons, spoiling it for everyone and just asking to be slapped.

But guess what, we were proved wrong. Sure, it was very busy, but people went with the flow. Added to that, we had such an engaging, fantastically-informed guide that we were totally absorbed with what he was saying.

I know some people find the place a bit ‘meh‘. But our over-riding thoughts about the visit was, ‘wow those Incas really were something else’. The intelligent way they designed and built their cities and lived their lives – with 100% respect for the environment, the seasons, and the earth that fed them – was quite a sobering thought for the modern day.

We waited til things quietened down and spent time wandering on our own, before taking the obligatory ‘classic’ Machu Picchu photos.

Machu Picchu, Peru

By the time we got to that photo hot-spot, there were only two other people up there. I thought we’d be desperate to get out after an hour. In the end we didn’t want to leave.

But this part of Peru is not all about Machu Picchu. The whole Sacred Valley is awash with incredible Inca ruins and gorgeous scenery – including the genius terracing at Pisac and Moray, and the ruins outside the lovely town of Ollantaytambo.

Inca terraces, Moray, Peru

The terraces at Moray were an agricultural testing ground for the Incas.

And the pre-Inca salt pans at Maras are an astonishing sight as you come over the brow of the hill and see them filling the valley below from a scarily steep dirt road. We rather hurtled down this road, due to a spectacular fail in working out how long it would take us to get there. In one of those random travel moments, we’d received an email from a Dutch woman called Elise, who lives in Urubamba and runs a language school and cultural association.

She’d liked the look of our blog and wondered if we fancied meeting up for lunch. We agreed, and decided to ‘pop’ to Moray and the salt pans at Maras before our rendezvous.

All was going well until we realised we were running hopelessly late and found ourselves virtually flying down the track to Maras, eyes permanently on the clock. We looked round the place in record speed, doing it very little justice as it is bloody amazing, and ran back to the car.

Salt pans, Maras, Peru

We’d parked in the only space available, a steep slope with the van kind of hanging over an awkward bump where there was a railing, closely followed by a steep drop. As I tried to get out of the space, I stalled every time. I just couldn’t get enough grip to drag us out of this slippy dip. The timing was crap – we rarely have deadlines and this was not the time to get stuck! Jeremy’s vertigo was leading him to come over a bit funny at the mere thought that I was going to roll us backwards over the cliff.

I (not entirely gently) persuaded him to get a bunch of other visitors/taxi drivers to help us out. After a few attempts at pushing and a lot of sweat we were off and, with that, replacing our ageing tyres moved further up the shopping list.

Lunch with Elise

Lunch with Elise (right) and her colleague Emma.

At least our new gears allowed us to bomb it back to Urubamba, hoping that Elise had lived here long enough to have developed Latin America timekeeping. Luckily she had, and all was well for a delicious lunch and a boisterous chat.

And we mustn’t forget to mention Cusco itself, a gorgeous colonial city that can keep you amused for days. Granted, it’s also overrun with tourists – the most we’ve seen in one city during our whole trip – but somehow it manages to retain its character, albeit with a lot of foreigner-pleasing add-ons.

We’d spent a good chunk of time in Cusco and the surrounding valleys and still felt there was more we could see and do, but eventually dragged ourselves away.
We had another deadline to meet, and Bolivia was beckoning us back.

Days: 1,002
Miles: 20,841
Things we now know to be true: Never park in a hurry.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:-

Over the top

2 Jun
Punta Union pass, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The view as you come over the top of the Punta Union Pass, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, is more than enough reward for the climb.

Cusco, Peru
[by Paula]

There was a time in our lives when we thought we were beach people. From our London desks we used to dream of building some little cabañas in Zanzibar or on the Pacific coast of the Americas, and living out the years with the sand between our toes. But one thing this trip has taught us is that, while we will always love visiting the beach, it is the mountains that truly make us salivate.

That’s where nature is at its most over-the-top melodramatic, where the extremes make life both exhilarating and harsh, and where the landscapes can actually make you well up with emotion. And when it comes to mountains that could make you weep with both pleasure and pain, the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes is up there among the best experiences we’ve had on our travels.

Bolivia reunion

Don, Rochelle and Naomi – of Bolivia days – coincided with us in Huanchaco.

Before heading for the snow, we’d spent rather a long time basking like lizards on the warm coast. We lingered in Huanchaco for longer than planned, enjoying a few home comforts and something we hadn’t experienced for a while – a social life. A bit of lucky timing led to a reunion with our Bolivia housemate Naomi, whom we lived with near La Paz for four months, plus fellow volunteers Don and Rochelle.

We were all heading from dinner to a bar one night when we popped our heads into a place that sounded like it was having a fiesta. It turned out it was a charitable mother’s day evening, being held for some of the poorer families in the town. None of us is quite sure how it happened, but before we knew it the feisty mama in charge had convinced Naomi (an accomplished singer) to get up and do a turn for the crowd, while we were all bundled into the kitchen to serve tamales to an 80-strong gathering of hungry people. Sometimes this life is just plain weird.

Meanwhile we were also resolving an issue we’d had with loss of coolant fluid in the van. Two rare things happened regarding that – first, the VW dealer in Trujillo was full of helpful, skilled people who knew what to do. Secondly, when they told us which piece of the van had broken (the water pump), Jeremy was able to produce the relevant part from the back of the van with a little triumphant flourish. Crisis averted!

There was one other reason for our slight malingering. Everyone we met who was coming north from the mountains was reporting how rainy, cold and relentlessly miserable it was. ‘We had to get out and escape to the coast!’ they all said.

Oh dear. So we headed for the hills with some trepidation, but mentally prepared to dig out the waterproofs and just go for it.

After a, predictably, noisy night sleeping at a toll booth on the motorway we turned inland and starting slowly climbing. Before long we had our first glimpse of a jagged snowy peak. Hello again Andes! We all caught our breath with a lunch stop and some coca tea as we came over a pass at more than 4,000m to find what was to be the first of a string of gorgeous lakes. It felt great to be back on the altiplano.

Fortaleza Pass, road to Huaraz, Peru

Feeling on top of the world at the Fortaleza Pass, on the road to Huaraz.

What’s more, we appeared to have turned up at the very moment that spring was springing. Could it really be true? We snapped a gazillion photos, grateful for the bright skies and taking advantage of every moment, lest the weather should turn again. After a sweaty search for somewhere to park in the trekking hub of Huaraz, we gave up and found a fabulous campspot further north, at the back of a hotel with a great view of the mountains, which turned pink at sunset.

On the morning of day three we set out for a mountain lodge we’d read would accept vehicle campers. We bumped up a long winding dirt road, giving the new gearbox a bit of a workout. We finally found the un-marked, un-signposted lodge and wobbled up the final little stretch to the camping area, which sits at about 3,500m.

What a view – yet more snow-capped craggy peaks, and what seemed like our own private lake just over the brow of the hill from our campspot. We had a doorless toilet, we had no shower, and the nights and mornings were freezing – but sometimes location beats everything. The summer clothes were buried under the seats, and out came the big jackets and woolly hats.

The whole Cordilleras area is trekking heaven, and we set about making a plan. We started with a perfect acclimatisation trek to Llanganuco lakes. In order to really see them at their glittering, unfeasibly turquoise best, you really need the sun to shine. Unbelievably, it kept shining and the lush valley and forest were in full bloom after the rains.

Laguna Chinancocha, Peru

Laguna Chinancocha, Quebrada Llanganuco, PN Huascaran, Peru

We’d previously learned some lessons about altitude and were taking plenty of precautions with acclimatising, drinking gallons of coca tea and cutting down on the booze. Nevertheless we still had a few doubts about taking on the main trek we wanted to do in the area – the Santa Cruz, a four-day, three-night hike that would involve passes of more than 4,700m and chilly camping at up to 4,200m. Could we hack it? What if it pissed with rain for four days? And we know we’re not totally ancient, but group treks like these inevitably involve the majority of people being roughly half our age and we hate the thought of being the old farts dragging behind.

But we were feeling good – amazing, in fact – so we signed up and crossed our fingers for the weather.

It was a rainy start. We drove with the guide and cook to the village of Vaqueria. It seemed like we’d never stop climbing into the clouds. The road was rocky and narrow, but incredibly scenic. We looked down on the lakes we’d visited a couple of days before, from about 1,000m above, while Jeremy clutched the side of his seat. At Vaqueria we all stood in the mud and rain while the decidedly cheesed-off looking mules were packed up and covered with blue plastic sheeting.

Unhappy mule

Eeyore is really really looking forward to the trek.

We hiked along muddy paths, through villages with rudimentary houses that endure months of this weather every year – who were we to complain? In any case, we were well equipped for the weather. Jeremy has taken to hiking in his wellies. This had quite an effect on the locals we passed by, because rubber boots are the shoe of choice for just about every campesino in Latin America. The locals are used to seeing foreigners trooping past every day in their branded hiking gear, but not in a pair of $5 wellies like they wear.

We’d see them checking out his feet and giggling. As is the way with many people here, they are too reserved to shout something in your face, but wait until you are just at the edge of hearing distance.

Botas lindas!” (lovely boots!) called a group of women as Jeremy was already stamping up the hill. He swung round to look at them and they collapsed into near hysterics. I kept a close watch on him, in case he was snatched by a group of horny campesinas.

We arrived at our campsite that afternoon as the skies were clearing, and drank yet more gallons of coca tea. Good thing about the skies clearing = a billion stars blanketing the sky and the snowy mountains above being illuminated by the moon. Less good thing = a bloody freezing night in which you must encase your whole body and hatted head inside your sleeping bag. At one point I had to shout to make myself heard over the noise of the river, to inform Jeremy that I had managed to tangle my toggle, entirely trapping myself inside and getting into a minor panic.

We set off early with an eight-hour day ahead, and began the ascent to the highest point of the trek – the Punta Union pass at 4,750m (15,584ft). It was a long and incredibly satisfying day. We were lucky that we felt strong in our heads and legs. At times I felt positively gazelle-like. Altitude sickness seems not to discriminate about who it chooses to strike on any given day. A fit 23-year-old rugby player in our group had the hardest trek of her life that day, but it could have been any of us. We stuck together, climbing past beautiful lakes that reflected the white caps of the mountains above, and getting closer and closer to the snow line.

Just before lunch we could see the v-shape that we were heading for in the rocks above. With lots of little stops required, we plodded steadily to the top. There was a lot of whooping and waving as we came over the pass. The rugby player sat down and had a little cry.

And that was all before we’d even seen the jaw-dropping view that was just over the brow of the hill. The most stunning turquoise glacier lake, backed by the razor-edged snowy Nevada Taulliraju and an increasingly blue sky. After taking it all in we settled down for lunch. It was a pretty unbeatable picnic spot.

Lunch stop - Punta Union pass

Lunch with a view.

As we started to head off down the valley, there was a loud crack, and we turned to see a chunk of ice fall from the glacier, smash into a zillion pieces and hurtle into the lake. Brilliant.

We’d had a blissfully dry day but as we arrived at camp as the skies blackened. Good thing about the clouds = it was a warmer night. Less good thing = it lashed with rain all night long, we mopped puddles in the tent and got drenched every time we went for a pee. On nights like that, it’s dinner at 6pm and bed by 8pm. The deluge stopped just in time for our 5.30am start, wet tents were stuffed into bags and off we went.

Day three was another long and glorious (downhill) hike, involving close-ups of two other glacier lakes and an amazing ‘is-this-another-planet?’ quebrada with a sandy floor and huge purple lupin bushes. Valley on Santa Cruz trek

We’d barely seen any proper toilets for many days. On the way up to the glacier lake in the morning I was excited to see a rundown ex-toilet. Not in a great condition, but at least they have doors, I thought. I peered into the first cubicle – there was a whole dead cow inside, in an advanced state of decomposition. Hmm. We’ve seen some spectacularly rancid toilets on our travels, but that was another first. Undeterred, I went into the next cubicle, but it was rather distracting to think of the rotting corpse next door.

Moving on, we descended into a lush river valley and finally, happily, arrived at a gorgeous, sunny, sheltered campspot right by the water. Although it wasn’t quite the end, we only had a couple of hours to go the next morning and we were in celebratory mood. We’d (almost) done it! With the 9-hour hike behind us and the sound of the river next to our tent, we slept like babies.

Our final descent took us through a deep rocky gorge to the village of Cashapampa, where we collapsed into the minibus and drove along yet another spectacular mountain track to Yungay. We got back to our van and enjoyed a night of proper shelter and a soft bed.

But after all that trekking we still had no prospect of a shower. In fact we’d set another trip record, by going 9 consecutive days without soap and water. Not good, for anyone involved.

By day 10 we thought, ‘perhaps we should do something about that’. We packed up and set off back down the valley towards Huaraz. Just before the town we pulled into a kind of public baños, that had private suites for hire containing a sauna, steamroom and hot shower.

It took the full hour to steam, scrape and scrub the dirt off. We’d absolutely loved the Cordillera Blanca, which had given us the best reason we’ve ever had for becoming offensively filthy. But getting clean was the best £8.50 ($14) we’ve ever spent.

Days: 973
Miles: 20,235
Things we now know to be true: Like Elvis, cows sometimes die in toilets.

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LOTS MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW….

 

Life’s a beach

9 May
Sunset, Zorritos, Peru

We did a lot of this.

Huanchaco, Peru
[by Paula]

I’d like to say that the month we’ve just spent at the beach in northern Peru was a necessary pit-stop, a chance to get fit by jogging daily, perhaps, or the perfect opportunity to brush up on some Spanish verbs.

But really we were just plumbing previously unchartered depths of laziness. Okay, so we had decided to order a few van bits and pieces and we did have to wait for them to arrive, but it wasn’t like we had broken down or anything (as if!– ed). We could have been more active than a couple of two-toed sloths, but we just couldn’t be bothered.

Peruvian hairless dog

Peruvian hairless dogs take a bit of getting used to.

So for the first time in over a year we just beached ourselves, got a tan, stared at the waves and sunsets, shopped at the market, built barbeque fires and read a lot of books. We tried, and failed, to become accustomed to the campsite owner’s Peruvian hairless dogs, which are quite the strangest, aloof creatures. Things got fixed. I sewed some curtains. I even managed to motivate myself to dust off the copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that had been languishing, ignored, in the van for more than 900 days. Now if that’s not a worthwhile achievement, I don’t know what is.

Just before we left we had the good fortune to meet Peruvian-British couple, Elizabeth and Paul, who live in Lima. Within moments of meeting, Elizabeth insisted on cooking us a Peruvian meal and who were we to refuse? She turned up armed with all the ingredients for a lomo saltado (chicken version) and set to work, cooking up a delicious meal complete with the traditional chips and rice combo. “I’ve never cooked in a car before,” she said, deftly juggling a million dishes in our miniscule kitchen.

We finally dragged ourselves away from Zorritos last week and headed south down through Peru’s coastal desert. Our inactivity had given us the urge to just drive and drive and drive.

Cooking lomo saltado

Ellie cooks up a lomo saltado in the van.

We passed through hundreds of kilometres of desert, oil plants, and weird little ‘frontier-style’ towns, pulling off the road for occasional sand-blasted snack and coffee stops.

We spent three nights stopping off at whatever we could find as the day was coming to a close – a mosquito-infested restaurant garden, a rudimentary truck stop and possibly the wierdest hippy encampment/hostel we’ve ever encountered. On an unattractive, stinky stretch of the coast near the city of Chiclayo, the Katuwira Lodge looked to us to be dilapidated and abandoned when we first arrived. It was a ramshackle collection of peeling structures – triangle casitas, wooden cabins and odd-looking domes. All the nearby food stalls on the beach looked like they hadn’t been open in years. The whole place was downright creepy, complete with jangling wind chimes and plastic fairground toys randomly lying around. Basically it was the perfect setting for a horror movie, perhaps featuring hapless travellers who wander into the lair and, after dark, are bludgeoned to death by the caretaker.

But the sun was setting and we didn’t want to hunt for anything else. The hostel was on a large piece of land with lots of space. “Let’s pull in and see if we can just quietly park here anyway,” said Jeremy. As we pulled round we saw a face appearing in a doorway – a travelling family were babysitting the place during, as they called it, “no season” – hurray!

“It’s out of season,” they said, “but you can stay”. “Great”, I said, thinking “but there’s NO WAY I’m going to the toilet on my own in the middle of the night…”.

Glad that we hadn’t been murdered in our beds, we left early the next morning and headed for the town of Huanchaco, a touristy beach place where a proper campsite, friends, and cocktails awaited.

Desert driving, Peru

Dusty day of desert driving.

We love the ebb and flow of being on the road. Getting dusty and grimy for a few days, then celebrating reaching your destination with a shower, laundry and a nice spot to spread out and get organised again. Then the feet start to itch, and you’re off again.

In Huanchaco we’ve enjoyed having a social life again, with Karin and Coen of Landcruising Adventure who are as just as appreciative of a pisco sour cocktail as we are.

Karin, Coen and Jeremy get stuck into a refreshing beverage - Huanchaco, Peru.

Karin, Coen and Jeremy get stuck into a refreshing beverage – Huanchaco, Peru.

We’ve also been spending a bit of time trying to resolve a little conundrum with the van – the mystery of the disappearing coolant. We hope we’re getting somewhere with that, and no doubt we’ll keep you posted.

We’ll soon be heading inland to the mountains, where we’ll be donning the rain gear and enjoying a bit of long-awaited trekking.

After weeks of lounging and a few too many cocktails, it’s about time we stopped being so lazy.

Days: 949
Miles: 18,828
Things we now know to be true: Sloths have a commendable approach to life.

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MORE PICS MORE PICS MORE PICS!

 

 

There’s no place like home

8 Apr
We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

The beach, Peru
[by Paula]

When we blogged last week, to say that our van was back in the game after 11 months off the road, we mentioned that we had another enormous challenge to face before we could really get back into the road trip part of this journey.

We’re over the moon to say that that hurdle has been cleared – we are safely in Peru and ensconced on a peaceful beach, living the van life again and re-acquainting ourselves will everything that is so liberating about having a house on wheels. After so long living in apartments, we thought it might take a while to adjust again to the limited space, but we’ve only banged our heads about 67 times each in the last week, so that’s going really well so far.

Unfortunately we can’t yet publish the full story about what we went through to get into Peru – that’s something we’ll have to save for another day and another country.

That aside, I’d love to tell you that the rest of our journey here from Quito was straightforward and incident-free. But would you really believe that?

Drinking champagne

A little champers moment after picking up the van

After picking up the van we spent a fun few days playing house with it and getting everything ready before our departure from the city. We set off at the crack of dawn, headed for the city of Riobamba, about 5 hours south of Quito.

About 4 hours and 45 minutes of that journey were joyous – driving through the Ecuadorian Andes with our new manual gearbox was like night and day compared with the hideous automatic transmission that had, at best, dragged the van kicking and screaming through Colombia’s highlands.

A few blocks from the campsite in Riobamba, we started to notice an ominous burning smell coming from the front of the van. Not good. As we pulled into the campsite and tried to park, Jeremy said: “Paula, I can’t get into any gear.” These are not words I ever want to hear again.

My brain quietly chanted ‘thisisnothappeningthisisnothappeningnothisisnothappening..’.

We popped the bonnet, releasing smoke and an acrid smell coming straight from the gearbox. Happily, after a short cooling period we managed to get into gear again and parked up.

The lovely campsite owner was offering advice about rubbing discs, just needing to regulate them, don’t worry ‘be patient’ you can find a mechanic tomorrow etc, but for the first few minutes it was all just white noise. We were in panic mode.

Non-starter

We were already aware that our clutch cylinder was a bit ropey – the one that arrived with the gearbox conversion kit was defective, and the Quito mechanics had done a fix on it. A new one had been ordered to be sent to us in Peru. We phoned our mechanic in Quito, Lothar, who urged us not to panic, it was probably something to do the cylinder but someone should be able to tweak it for us.

We found a mechanic on Monday morning who, at first, seemed gloomy about being able to access the right area to regulate the discs. “I might have to get another guy in to help me take the gearbox out,” he said. At that point I went for a long walk!

But after a phone conversation with Lothar, he found the way in and tweaked things to stop the discs rubbing.

“I really think this is going to be okay now,” he said. “Take it for a drive for a few hours, to places around the city, and if you smell burning again, come back tomorrow and we’ll look again.”

Van stopped at church

Nice church, not so nice that the van won’t start…

Hesitantly, we set off and drove to a little village about 30km away. No problems. We pulled in at a little church and had a look around. “Things feels good, let’s head on further,” said Jeremy.

We went back to the van. I turned the key. Click click, nothing. It was completely dead. This is NOT happening, I said. Probably the battery, we said. We called over a local family visiting the church and asked them to jump start us. Sure, they said. Click click, nothing.

“It’s not the battery, must be something else,” they said. They offered to come back with a mechanic in a hour.

It felt like a long hour in the hot sun. Really, were we ever going to get out of Ecuador?!

The mechanic arrived. “Oh” he said, “this car is gasoline, but I’m a diesel mechanic, sorry.” I made a growling sound. He started to have a fiddle around anyway, and declared it was “something electrical”.

“Let’s try push-starting it,” he said. Exciting, we thought – we couldn’t have done that with an automatic!

We pushed, and it sprang to life. Hurrah! They drove us to a car electrician in the city. “He’s the best,” they said, “if he can’t sort you out, no one can”. I thought ‘please don’t say that…’

Ten minutes and $5 later, a loose cable was re-connected and we were off!

So far so routine, but our still-raw paranoia about breaking down meant that every set-back felt like a disaster in the moment.

We flopped into our chairs back at the campsite – what a day.

Next morning we decided to head off with confidence, and drive south for a few hours to see how we felt. It was a beautiful, and calm, drive to the gorgeous railway town of Alausí. We were still like a couple of meerkats, popping our heads up at every perceived noise or smell, but all was well.

We explored the little town, which is sliced in half by Ecuador’s famous highland railway line. Brightly painted houses and a pristine square make it seem almost like a life-sized version of a model railway village. We ate chicken soup in the market, then decided to push on. Alausí’s steep streets were the perfect test for the gearbox, which coped admirably.

That afternoon we had one of those lucky finds – with no plan of where we might sleep, we happened across a slightly unpromising-looking sign for a ‘pueblo turistico’. We drove down a steep track, which ended at a new restaurant and little trail leading to an incredible mirador overlooking the famous engineering feat that is the ‘Devil’s Nose’ – a series of steep railway switchbacks cutting across the mountain before descending to a little station in the middle of nowhere.

Devil's Nose (Nariz del Diablo)

We camped above the mirador overlooking the famous Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo).

They had the perfect sheltered car park for us to camp in, and to top things off a train appeared just as we were climbing down the trail to look at the railway. We got some incredible views before the clouds started swirling through the valley and settled eerily for the night.

With no charge for the camping we decided to support this fabulous community project by buying a meal in the restaurant, which had a chef who’d worked in London for 10 years – it was $3 for a three-course dinner!

We drank our morning tea at the mirador the next morning, and really felt like we were on the road again. As we left the pueblo, we picked up a series of locals who were hitching between villages on our route – it’s an accepted way to get around and we never want to seem like grumpy gringos who just travel in a bubble of our own.

We started to hear a worrying clunking noise – it sounded like an innocuous banging of metal, but I refer you to my earlier comments about paranoia. We pulled in to get it checked out – just a broken screw on the metal guard under the van, which has been in and out like a jack-in-the-box over the last year. Keep calm and carry on!

Things continued to go smoothly. It felt like a major milestone to get to the southern city of Cuenca – our last major stop before the border, a place where we’d already spent a lot of time, and where we’d meet our friend Jess again before (hopefully) leaving Ecuador for good.

We camped in a great city farm and had a good night out in town and then brunch at the van with Jess the next day. She seems to have suffered every stage of the van saga along with us, so it was really special to be able to have her round for a cuppa, to see for herself that the van was back and really did exist.

We did some final planning and set off for the border at first light on Friday. It was by far the most nerve-wracking day of our trip so far, for reasons we’ll write about later.

That evening we pulled into a sublime beach campsite in northern Peru, as a red-hot sun was dropping from the sky in the way that is so synonymous with the Pacific coast – we were happy, relieved, adrenaline-fuelled and ready for a drink.

For the next few weeks we’ll hang out in hammocks, sort out the remaining loose ends with the van, go off wandering and sit out the chaos that is Semana Santa (Easter) in Latin America.

But mostly we’ll just enjoy being back home.

Days: 918
Miles: 18,121
Things we now know to be true: Panicking is unhelpful.

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A FEW MORE PICS FROM OUR EVENTFUL WEEK:-

 

Plan Z

13 Sep
Jeremy and Paula, Lima, Peru

Backpackers again (for now)

Arequipa, Peru
[by Jeremy]

Travelling South America’s coastal highways and precipitous mountain roads, you experience a series of dizzying twists and sharp turns. Our own journey over the past few weeks has been more a series of switchbacks, diversions, u-turns and a few dead-ends.

Next week we are meeting Paula’s parents in Chile. We are in Peru. Our van is in Ecuador. Bugger.

But it’s not all been mechanical woes, switching from plan A to B to C to Z, laughing, crying and occasionally (okay, often) swearing in the face of stupefying bureaucracy. Oh no. There’s been dogs in comas, hospitalisation, some killer cocktails – and a rather tasty beef wellington. Take that Life Remotely! 🙂

Beef Wellington

We were all excited to have an oven in the apartment – cue the Beef Wellington experiment.

We left off our last posting having invited fellow overlanders Doug and Marcia – and their canine companion Maddie – to come and live with us for a while in Quito. To say it was an eventful few weeks is an understatement. First Maddie went for her routine blood tests, had an allergic reaction to the drugs, and fell in to a coma. Doug and Marcia spent 48 hours sleeping in the car park at the vet, helping to nurse Maddie back to full health. They succeeded.

Then Doug went kayaking in Tena, got an ear infection, did a passable impression of the elephant man as the side of his face swelled up, and ended up in hospital on a drip. He also survived – at least he was doing fine last we heard.

Meanwhile we were facing battles of our own. Picture the scene. It’s Wednesday night, the van has successfully completed a 100km road test, we are packed, we cook up a final meal, crank up the music and dream of parts beyond Ecuador. And so to sleep, perchance to dream.

At 7am. ‘Er, Jeremy’. What? ‘There is an email from the mechanic’. Great, what time can we pick the van up? ‘Er….’.

On its final road test the transmission had lost pressure, seized up again and come to rest on the other side of a major road while the mechanic was trying to do a u-turn.

Shall we unpack now or later?

And so, faced with yet another big delay in being able to leave with the van, and with just two days left on our visa and permit, we again had to brave the labyrinthine complexities of migration and customs officialdom. Customs, in their usual helpful and charming manner, met with us, looked out of the window while we explained our predicament and then told us there was nothing they could do to help us extend our car permit. They could, however, help us by issuing more fines.

Guac, salsa, margarita

Guacamole, check. Salsa, check. Margarita, boom.

Sod that. Thanks, but no thanks.

Migration were slow but helpful, and we are now the proud owners of a shiny new 6-month Ecuadorian visa. Next stop, residency.

Having started out with Doug, Marcia and Maddie living with us, they took over the apartment rental and we executed our own u-turn and began living with them. Same flat, same rooms just their cocktail glasses in the cabinet instead of ours.

The good thing about sharing a flat with the Burly Canadian and a southern US live-wire is that they know how to live. The Marciarita, her own unique take on a Margarita, is enough to knock you off your chair or get you up dancing.

Meanwhile Marcia’s sangria, laden with mango, raspberries and blackberries, is deceptively fruity when in fact its main ingredient is lashings of alcohol. Add to the mix their signature chips, salsa and guacamole, throw in an experimental beef wellington (rather good, even if we do say so ourselves) and some fish tacos and you have yourselves the antidote to all your problems.

Well, almost. For us, there were a few little matters to resolve – a 25,000 word report to edit on a tight deadline, and having to make some big decisions about the van (in case there is one person left who is not completely bored by our technical issues, we’ve now opted to ditch the troublesome automatic transmission and convert it to a manual).

Oh, and we had arranged to meet family in northern Chile in a few short weeks, but we were without the van and 5,000km away.

No problem. There are buses aren’t there?

“Give me a shove. There, there, you can zip it up now.”

In a retro move, armed with backpacks, a tent and a bus timetable, we finally said a (temporary) farewell to Quito. Nine hours later we hit Cuenca in southern Ecuador, called in for a few drinks with our friend Jess, awoke the next morning for the cross-border journey to the buzzing beach resort of Mancora, and the first opportunity to use our new tent.

Now, that’s it pitched, all that needs to happen now is for me to get in. There we go. No, don’t zip the door up, my head’s in the way. Hang on. If I just curl this leg over this backpack and move that arm here I can crawl down a little more. Give me a shove. There, there, you can zip it up now.

Yes, our tent is very small and provides much amusement whenever I have to get in – or out. Not for me, obviously.

After three nights of contortions it was a delight to finally get on a night bus to Lima and a uber-comfy bed-seat. I wake up in the middle of the desert. It’s spectacular. Paula enjoys the view but not half as much as the in-bus snacks of dinner and breakfast.

We must stop meeting like this. In Lima we stayed a couple of nights with our friends from the road Andy and Dunia who we’ve met four times now and who, rather handily, are looking after a B&B for a few months. They took us out for our first Pisco Sours – delicious. I can’t wait to see what Marcia does to one of those!

Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa, Peru

Visiting Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Monastery in the evening is really atmospheric.

Lima is always foggy and grey, they warned us. We enjoyed two days of lovely sunshine and blue skies, taking in the sights of the old city.

Then it was back to the night bus. This time for another 18 hours, through the desert to Arequipa. The final approach to this city at the edge of the Andes is amazing. Stark but beautiful desert scenery, surrounded by snow-capped 5000m-plus volcanoes. We’ve had a couple of great days here with its warm sunshine, pristine white colonial buildings and breathtaking backdrop – and alpaca steaks for dinner.

But there’s no time for just enjoying yourself when you have deadlines. Tomorrow morning we will finally head off to Chile to begin the last leg of our epic three-country dash to meet the family.

And the van? Like Maddie and Doug, we expect, it will make a full recovery soon.

Days: 673
Miles: 17,551
(not including the approx 10,000km round trip we are now doing by bus)
Things we now know to be true: Once you’ve tried a Marciarita, life can never be quite the same again.

Here’s some more photos from the last few weeks: