Brazil and going home

P1090755I set my compass for Rio de Janeiro on 26 December. I had already had a splash (literally) of Brazil on my day trip from Puerto Iguazu (Argentina) to Foz Iguazu where I had taken a $10-a-minute helicopter ride over the breathtaking Falls and spent a couple of hours in the wonderful Bird Park filled with Brazil’s most exotic birds.

Rio is an entirely different kettle of fish. Nothing I’d been told, nor the preconceptions I had, came close to the Rio in the flesh – of which there is no shortage.

Within 24 hours my kaleidoscopic take on Brazilians was African-drumming, Samba-dancing, all-night-partying, caipirinha-drinking, beach-going, bottom-showing, life-loving. A world away from their more sophisticated – some would say arrogant, Argentinian neighbours, Cariocas (name given to people living in Rio), felt more akin to Colombians but with a strong African, as opposed to Caribbean, heritage and of course they speak the Portugese which, having perfected my Spanish I found impossible to master.

My first full day was textbook. I spent the morning in Rochina Favela which, with 180,000 residents is Rio’s biggest favela. It’s not somewhere tourists are advised to go on their own so I arranged to meet Pablo (aka Peanut) Amenodim who is the big cheese of Rochina, having dedicated 25 years of his life to the community. He negotiated to get electricity and clean water, initiated motorbike taxis to get people up the hills, worked with the police and cartels to stop corruption and started offering walking tours to open the neighbourhood up.

He generously gave me 4 hours of his time to explain how the favela functions. We walked through the labyrinth of twisting, narrow alleyways crammed with small homes. Whilst there is indeed fresh water there are still open streams running with household waste (washing water not sewage), piles of garbage, dog and cat poo everywhere and a smell which at time was wretch-making.

Over a typical Afro-Brazilian lunch, which Peanut shouted me, he told me that employment for older people is high because there are so many markets, shops, cafes and small businesses in the area and there is also continual construction work. However, amongst school-leavers employment is not so good. Many young have no work and, because there is no social security (government is broke), they have to rely on family or else resort to living on the street, with all the inherent dangers of drug, alcohol and sexual abuse.

Education is free and literacy and numeracy is high. Health care is also free and I saw many vaccination clinics though dengue, malaria and zika still claim lives.

Everyone I asked, told me they are happy living in the favela. I’ve visited enough slums over the years to know that happiness isn’t about pre-conceived western standards but even so, there are times when it’s hard to understand how they can really be happy.

Leaving Rochina I headed to Ipanema Beach, where I was far from alone. In fact I could barely see the sand. It seems when the sun shines, which is pretty much all year round, Cariocas (Residents of Rio) head for the beach. I had the most fantastic time people-watching. I have never seen so much female flesh on display, with often just the tiniest piece of material covering the boobs and dental-floss thin material for the bum. What I loved was that there were bodies of every age, shape and size on display and everyone seemed comfortable in their own skin, with no one looking at anyone else in a critical way. How refreshing is that. Feeling over dressed in my traditional bikini I hot-footed it to the shops to buy something more minuscule and enjoyed the freedom, taking care not to burn my cheeks!

Riding home on the subway was hilarious. The occasional person in work clothes but the vast majority in swimwear and flip flops smelling of a mixture of sun cream, salt water and sweat. Just about as far removed as can be from the grey, drab Jubilee Line commute I’m used to.

Another first was ‘women-only’ carriages from 6-9am and 5-8pm and an announcement which says: ‘being a good citizen means observing the regulations. Women deserve to be respected so do your duty.’ Hear, hear!

The heat in Rio was beginning to get to me so I did what the 19th century Imperial court of Don Pedro II did, and retired to Petropolis, where the slightly cooler air was a welcome relief. It’s a charming horse-drawn carriage type of place with stately buildings flanking tree-lined avenues, separated by a canal with ornate bridges. I spent the lions share of the day enjoying the immaculately preserved Imperial Palace and its gardens. I skated through the rooms in cloth slippers giving the floors a good polish whilst soaking up the exhibits, imagining myself living in Portuguese dominated Brazil. The most moving display cabinet housed the document signed by Queen Isabella in 1888 granting freedom to all remaining slaves.

 

 

Back in Rio it was time to start gearing up for New Year’s Eve. I had a practice run on 30th, cruising the bars in Lapa, trying different flavoured caipirinhas (passion fruit and strawberry being favourites) and having a bit of a bop in a couple of live music clubs. I went home with aching hips from all that samba wriggling but the intake of cachasa helped numb it somewhat.

31 January is a weird day in Rio. The main streets are deserted and all museums are closed. The only people I saw were fellow tourists milling around open air sites. Churches were open so I visited a few of them; the super-ornate San Bento monastery built in 1540 and the modern cathedral being the highlights. Ugly brutalist concrete on the outside the conical cathedral with its four x 60m tall stained glass windows is stunning.

I took a moment to sit and listen to the first and only Christmas carol I heard, Silent Night played on the harp. As the music enveloped me, I remembered that a year ago I was sitting in the Shwedagon Padoga in Yangon, Myanmar – again escaping the heat. A whole year and what a year. I felt fortunate to have met so many wonderful people and enjoyed so many incredible experiences and full of love for this amazing world we live in. I began to feel very emotional as I thought about my children who I would be seeing in 3 weeks time and my grandchildren who I would be kissing for the first time. I felt truly blessed.

And so to the celebrations televised the world over, New Year’s Eve on Copacabana beach. Tradition dictates dressing in white (new beginnings) and or yellow (prosperity). I decided on white as did the friends I went with. We bought flower garlands for our hair and roses to offer to Lemanjá, the goddess of the ocean.

The beach was a mass of hawkers, families camping out, a stage for live music (usually 3 stages but the city is broke post Olympics), helicopters, strobe lights and massive cruise liners in the bay. Despite the frenzied activity it lacked the party atmosphere I had anticipated. The music wasn’t very upbeat so no one was dancing and there was no other entertainment, so people just stood around waiting for midnight. The fireworks were launched off the ships high into the sky, reflected in the water and, whilst cutbacks restricted the display to 12 minutes, it was awesome. The best part of the evening was walking fully clothed into the sea to offer up the flowers and then joining hundreds of people in jumping seven good luck waves. The waves are actually quite high which means getting totally wet. Riding home on the subway at 2am damp and bedraggled ranks as one of my least attractive 1st of January looks.

16 days left and undecided what to do. Quite by chance I picked up a book in my posada which solved my dilemma. A eight hour bus ride from Rio is the city of Belo Horizonte in the gold mining state of Minas Gerias. The city itself is pleasant enough. There is a terrific central market selling everything imaginable; rabbits, birds and fish next to pots and pans and loofas; cheese and meats next to wicker ware, linens and cachaça; nuts and dried fruit stalls also selling body building drinks and lots of small bars selling shots of beer (yes really)and tapas. Belo also has several excellent museums and a striking blue and white tiled lakeside church designed by Brazil’s mos famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer.

However, I had my eye on two places, both about 90 mins drive outside of town. The first was Congonhas where sculptor Aleijadinho’s 12 life-size Old Testament figures – each carved out of a single block of soapstone, stand gracefully in front of the town’s Basilica. What’s so incredible is that, despite Aleijadinho contracting leprosy, resulting in the loss of his fingers and toes and the use of his lower legs, he not only completed these carvings but many more throughout the province.

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My second destination afforded me what is probably the most enjoyable cultural experience of my life. Inhotim – the world’s largest open air contemporary art space, set in 500,000 acres of picture postcard countryside has 23 pavillions each dedicated to an individual artist’s work, a further 23 open air sculptures/artworks, five botanical gardens and two lakes, all beautifully landscaped.

The park and the art therein is owned by former mining magnate Bernardo Paz who, in just 10 years has brought together art and nature to take your breath away. Luckily there are golf buggies to ferry those who elect to pay (that’ll be me) to the further reaches of the park. I also hired a guide – just one English speaking guide for the whole park, that’s how unknown it is! At one extremity there are Doug Aitken and Matthew Barney pavillions, another has Chris Burden’s enormous Beam Drop sculpture and a third has a vast pavillion housing Brazilian Psicoativa Tunga’s works. Every path leads to a gallery or artwork, the most magical ones hidden in the woods or by water.

Almost all the artists were unknown to me so I enjoyed discovering them, and the collection is constantly evolving, a new pavillion having recently opened and more planned. I would love to go back in a few years to revisit the old works and discover the new ones.

Risking an overdose of culture and heritage my final stop in Minas Gerias was the 18th century gold mining city of Ouro Preto. Boasting the first UNESCO listing in Brazil it’s a mass of cobbled streets and fine historic houses (now mostly museums) and, if you stand in the right place you can see 13 baroque churches dotted throughout the city.

I booked a guide to visit the historic sites but he had his own agenda because I found myself on a ‘magical mystery tour’ with two Brazilian women and a Belgium Erasmus student hiking through the national park, swimming in waterfalls, eating lunch in a local person’s home, sneaking inside the only black people’s church (despite there being 100,000 slaves working in the mines mid 1700s), singing on the stage of the oldest working theatre in South America and sampling a variety of fruit caipirinha (again!). I think there was some history in there somewhere. Either way it was a memorable day.

10 days left and both my body and brain said kick back, relax, do nothing, so that’s what I did…..more or less.

I made my way down south from Rio to the coastal town of Paraty (pronounced Parachee) where I chilled on the beaches, cruised around the fjords, wandered the cobbled, carless streets and danced in the open air in the heat of the night.

Finally I tipped up on Ilha Grande where again there are no cars and nor are there cobblestones, just sandy paths. I found a lovely quiet hostal one road back from the port. I bought fresh fish and cooked simple meals, walked barefoot through the forests to deserted white sand beaches where I read and slept and swam in crystal clear waters. I went diving on a swanky speed boat finding delicate pink sparkly seahorses and flying gurnard with iridescent wings like dragonflies. I got drenched on a two-hour walk back from a beach in a biblical deluge but also enjoyed sitting on the dock watching the sunset each evening.

Ilha Grande was the perfect place to prepare me for going home because it gave me time and space to reflect on everything I had experienced over the last 12 months rather than rushing to another ‘place of interest’ or ‘must do activity’. But it too had to come to an end.

Packing my bags for the last time felt very weird. I still had my hiking boots and 2 pairs of hiking trousers but everything else had been replaced – several times. As it was, I left almost everything behind choosing to fill my case with a dozen pairs of Havaianas flip flops to give my kids and co.

On board the boat back to the mainland someone asked how long I’d been on holiday for. “364 days” I replied “and now I’m going home.”

And so to the airport. I presented myself at the BA checkin desk and promptly burst into tears. I cried again when the pilot welcomed us on board and continued to cry as I watched Bridget Jones’s Baby right until touchdown.

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It is difficult to explain the emotions of seeing loved ones after such a long absence. My oldest and dearest friend met me at Heathrow and it was wonderful to hug her. Seeing my beautiful daughter and her gorgeous baby was a surreal moment as I hugged them and showered them with kisses and cried at the sheer joy of having a granddaughter.

By the time I’d seen my elder son and his fiancée and my younger son, his partner and their tiny baby boy my heart was fit to burst. Oh, and being reunited with my cat was lovely too – not to mention a blessed relief for my brother!

London in January is cold and grey, and whilst it’s going to take some time for me to get used to being back, there truly is no place like home.

 

 

A sliver of Argentina, a chunk of Uruguay and a morsel Paraguay

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Having decided not to spend time on the Argentine side of the Andes, I took a flight from Santiago (my forth trip to this airport) to Buenos Aires. Boarding a KLM flight destined for Amsterdam, I began to feel that my year was drawing to a close. This feeling was reinforced when I landed in Buenos Aires and computed that across the water, albeit a lot of water, was home.

However I still had 6.5 weeks remaining (poor me) and plenty of things I wanted to see. As you know, in general I don’t go a bomb on capital cities – La Paz being the recent unexpected exception, but it’s hard not to warm to BA. Despite being developed in the early1900s, its neo-classical buildings, wide boulevards and green spaces with jacaranda in full flower, fool you into thinking you’re in Europe.
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The well-healed Porteños (so called because BA is a port city) are artistic, chic, cosmopolitan and friendly. Five minutes after meeting someone it’s standard procedure to kiss (one cheek only) when saying hello or goodbye and even if you haven’t spoken to someone but you’re in a group, you kiss. This applies equally across the sexes.

It was great to be in a city where so many streets are open-air stages for people to make music and to tango. Ah yes, that electrically charged dance which a friend perfectly described as ‘the vertical expression of horizontal desire.’ It pervades the whole city, locking eyes and clasping you in its tantalising grip. Clubs abound so of course I immersed myself.

I stayed in the bohemian San Telmo quarter, full of antique shops, artists studios and good restaurants to quaff Malbec and munch succulent beef. No visit to BA is complete without a visit to Recoleta cemetery where anyone who’s anyone is buried in huge ornate graves – all barring Eva Peron whose tomb is very modest.

My most thrilling experience in BA was going to the Bombanero stadium to watch home team La Boca Juniors play arch rivers Racing. Getting hold of a ticket was a costly achievement but the centre-line, 20 rows back seat was worth every pesos. The atmosphere was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. The build-up started about an hour before kick off with chanting and drumming getting louder and louder and continuing throughout the whole game. The 49,000 capacity stadium is home supporters only, this being the same in all stadium after too many fatalities when fans mix, so the opposition are likes lambs to the slaughter. It was noisier than Twickenham and Wembley combined and when Boca scored, the fans (me included) went nuts and the whole stadium shook – some say it throbs like a heartbeat. You can only imagine how vocal and passionate the fans were. I tell you it was emotionally exhausting! Thankfully Boca won 4-2 (Racing’s 2 goals passed almost unnoticed), Carlos Tevez scoring the final goal.

An added bonus was seeing the recently victorious Davis Cup team led by captain Del Potro, who is a fanatical Boca supporter, parade the trophy round stadium.

The only ingredients missing were Maradona and Papa Francisco!

The darker side of BA is the overflowing garbage, broken bottles and dog poo littering the streets and the large number of drunken men sleeping rough. They seemed more numerous than in other cities. Other constants are the ‘manifestations in Plaza de Mayo which cause traffic chaos. The longest running of these is the ‘mothers of the disappeared’ who have come together every Thursday for the last 40 years, wearing white headscarves – symbolising nappies, to march silently for their ‘vanished’ sons and daughters………and reference to Las Malvinas.

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Directly across the other side of the Rio de la Plata is Uruguay. I hadn’t given this country much thought until I realised that I could get there in a couple of hours so it seemed worth doing some research. I liked what I read and decided to go explore, though not before my taxi driver drove round in circles until I missed my ferry. Luckily here was another one four hours later but it meant I didn’t arrive in Montevideo until midnight and I always prefer to arrive in a new place in daylight.

My plan, which I seemed to be alone in executing was to head west from Montevideo, following the Rio de la Plata with stops in Colonia de Sacramento, Carmelo, Mercedes and Fray Bentos, my last stop being Salto where I would cross back into Argentina and continue heading north until eventually reaching Iguazu Falls. I wanted to hire a car but Uruguay isn’t geared up for dropping the car off anywhere other than back in Montevideo, which didn’t fit with my plans so it had to be local buses.

I had the best time. Uruguayans are very laid back, probably helped by the fact that cannabis is legal. Ut you can’t actually buy it on the open market. So, if you buy a T-shirt, instead of getting a free sachet of Dove shampoo you get weed! Uruguay was also the first. Ountry in S America to give women the vote, to legalise abortion and to recognise same sex marriage. The population hovers around 3m, cows number 12m so people feel obliged to eat huge quantities of beef. They also drink yerba maté all the time. You need to see it to understand the importance of the maté culture. Almost everyone carries a thermos of hot water cradled in the crook of their arm. They use it to pour over a cup full of herbs which they drink through a metal straw. The herbal mixture is very individual but the sharing of the maté is universal. The cup gets passed around in the street, on the bus, on the beach. There are hundreds of shops dedicated to maté paraphernalia. It’s a charming ritual which I enjoyed both observing and taking part in.

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I had lots and lots of unexpectedly nice experiences as I trundled up the Rio Plata (widest river in the world apparently). Traditional live music and dance in Montevideo, which also has a slew of excellent museums including one dedicated to all things Gaucho and one dedicated to the harrowing story of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes carrying the National rugby team from which the film ‘Alive’ was made.

It was national museums open night when I arrived in Colonia. Wandering the historic centre by candlelight felt like being part of its 1600’s Portuguese colonisation history. Continuing up river I had a couple of days in Carmelo in the most lovely hostel lovely, from which I cycled to a couple of bijoux vineyards famous for growing Tannat and hung out on the beach. It seems odd talking about the beach when there’s no sea but all the way up the river there are big beaches and lots of people swimming in the iron red river.

Not much to say about Mercedes except that it produced Manuel Suarez! By contrast my visit to Fray Bentos was fascinating. I learned more than I ever thought possible about the production of the ‘cow in a cube’ at the Frigorifico Anglo del Uruguay factory where at the height of WWII up to 1,800 cows a day were slaughtered to feed UK and German troops. It’s the only UNESCO meat factory in the world – bet you didn’t know that!

My last stop before crossing back to Argentina was at a thermal spa. Not usually my thing but this place came highly recommended. It was another one of those ‘stand on x corner at y o’clock and a man in a van will pick you up.’ He did just that, whisking me to a beautiful farmhouse surrounded by fields, woods, small natural lakes and 2 thermal pools. It was a big outfit but apart from one person who was camping, I was the only guest. I spent two gloriously relaxed days immersed in nature – cats, dogs, horses, birds, peacocks rhea, foxes and millions of dragonfly. I cannot tell you how long I spent patiently trying to get the perfect photo of a dragonfly’s irredentist wings. I think I cracked it.

Apparently there are some remote beaches on the east coast of Uruguay. They’ll have to wait for my return.

Back in Argentina, I continued my plan to head for Iguazu. More research had revealed that along the way Esteros de Iberia was a little-known haven of wetland wildlife. Comparable to the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil, it involved a few changes of buses but even so, was more definitely more accessible. The key ingredient was a good guide. Enter Jose. Having spent several years in Newmarket working for the elite of polo pony owners he had recently returned to Argentina to develop his family’s vast track of Iberia wetland. Picking me up early from my hotel we drove first to the family estancia where I met Jose’s father and watched his gauchos separating out the cows from their calves. It was thrilling to watch as they carolled the herd at break-neck speed, whooping and yeehawing in true cowboy style. On to the family cabin in the middle of the wetlands where my wildlife spotting began. After a short walk through the forest where big lizards darted about we came across a family of 4 howler monkeys. They came very close above us in the trees (present of pee and poo) so I was able to clearly see their facial features. Dad dark brown, mum yellowish brown, kids warm brown. Long curly tails, small eyes and nose but huge protruding jaw and when they howled I could see their fangs!

In the afternoon we boated along a small canal with capybara (those funny giant guinea pig looking creatures) swimming all around and loads of caiman drifting log-like on the surface. In Cuyabena, Ecuador the caiman disappeared when they heard a boat, here they are never disturbed, fed or captured, so they have no fear which means you can get really close.

I lost count of the number of birds we saw, especially kingfishers following the boat, herons, screeches, hawks, vultures, ibis and the very rare long-tailed red squirrel cuckoo. For me they were the highlight of the day

The canal feeds into one of 4 lakes within Jose’s family’s section of the reserve. He took me to a stunning ‘garden’ of water hyacinth where we ate cake and drank yerba mate and he tried unsuccessfully to catch piranha as the sun set in paradise.

With the construction of a new road already underway so that this area is reachable even in heavy rains and an airstrip to connect with other area of the reserve as well as Iguazu, Buenos Aires etc agreed, Jose has some ambitious plans. He wants to offer fishing, horse riding, a gaucho experience, polo, wildlife watching , light aircraft flights to spot jaguars, giant anteaters and marsh deer, 2-star and 4-star accommodation, glamping and 8 canabas for private sale. I may invest!

My ultimate stop, involving a quick flit into Paraguay was to visit the ruins of the Jesuit missions.

But before I got there, I became a grandmother for the second time. Max Oliver James Whybrow was born on 17 December at 3:17am, weighing a tiny 5.6lbs. I joked in my last blog that all I needed to top off the year would be for Danielle to give birth early and low and behold Max was 4.4 weeks early. As with Becca and Simon when Tilly was born, the emotions are bittersweet as once again I feel joy and happiness for David and Fan but feeling sad that I am unable to be a support. Thankfully Max doesn’t need to be in the premature baby unit but he does need help with feedig as his sucking reflex hasn’t yet developed and he needs UV treatment for jaundice. Such moving pictures of the little thing with tubes and drips.

If you had asked me before I left England what my children might get up to I would have said James & Laura might engaged, which they duly have, but 2 babies? Never!

Back in my surreal world, learning about the missions was fascinating. Rathervthan explain it myself I took this chunk of text from the Lonely Planet:

“For a century and a half from 1609, a great social experiment was carried out in the jungles of South America by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Locating themselves in incredibly remote areas, priests set up reducciones (missions), where they established communities of Guaraní (local people) whom they evangelized and educated, while at the same time protecting them from slavery and the evil influences of colonial society. It was a utopian ideal that flourished and led Voltaire to describe it as ‘a triumph of humanity which seems to expiate the cruelties of the first conquerors.’ For the Guaraní who were invited to begin a new life in the missions, there were tangible benefits, including security, nourishment and prosperity. Mortality declined immediately and mission populations grew rapidly. At their peak the 30 Jesuit reducciones that were spread across what’s now Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay were populated by more than 100,000 Guaraní. Each mission had a minimum of Europeans: two priests was the norm, and the Guaraní governed themselves under the Jesuits’ spiritual authority. The Jesuits made no attempt to force the Guaraní to speak Spanish and only sought to change those aspects of Guaraní culture –polygamy and occasional cannibalism –that clashed with Catholic teaching. Each Guaraní family was given a house and children were schooled. The typical reducción consisted of a large central plaza, dominated by the church and colegio, which housed the priests and also contained art workshops and storerooms. The houses of the Guaraní occupied the rest of the settlement in neat rows; other buildings might include a hospital, a cotiguazú that housed widows and abandoned wives, and a cabildo where the Guaraní’s chosen leader lived. Settlements were self-sufficient; the Guaraní were taught agriculture and food was distributed equally. As time went on and the missions grew, wooden buildings were replaced by stone ones and the churches, designed by master architects with grandiose dreams, were stunning edifices with intricate baroque stonework and sculpture comparable with the finest churches being built in Europe. Indeed, the missions’ most enduring achievement was perhaps artistic. The Guaraní embraced the art and music they were introduced to and, interweaving European styles with their own, produced beautiful music, sculpture, dance and painting in ‘Guaraní baroque’ style. The Jesuits’ religious music strongly attracted the Guaraní to Catholicism. However, mission life necessarily had a martial side. Raiding parties of bandeirantes (armed bands) from Brazil regularly sought slaves for sugar plantations, and the Jesuits were resented by both Spanish and Portuguese colonial authorities. There were regular skirmishes and battles until a notable victory over an army of 3000 slavers at Mbororó in 1641 ushered in a period of comparative security. The mission period came to an abrupt end. Various factors, including envy from the colonial authority and settlers, and a feeling that the Jesuits were more loyal to their own ideas than those of the Crown, prompted Carlos III of Spain to ban them from his dominions in 1767, following the lead of Portugal and France. With the priests gone, the communities were vulnerable and the Guaraní gradually dispersed.” Lonely Planet

Almost nothing remains of Argentina’s 15 missions but I visited the best preserved – San Ignacio Miní, Loreto and Santa Ana and took a boat ride across the river Paraña to Bella Vista in Paraguay where the fabulous missions of Jesús de Tavarangüe (unfinished) and Trinidad – the largest mission in S America, are located.

Over lunch (payable by the kilo), my Aussie guide Jimmy filled me in on Paraguay:
4th exporter of soya in world
Biggest exporter of beef in S America
Largest producer of yerba mate in S America
Produce a lot of steel, built own railways without help from GB
1865-70 triple alliance war wiped out 90% of the population and most land lost to Brazil.
Corruption rife

On 20 December I boarded the bus for my final destination, Puerto Iguazu where I planned to spend Christmas. Good shout Ginny. I spent a perfect week relaxing at the above-average hostel I’d treated myself to, doing a few low key things like visiting a Guarani village and an animal hospital, rapelling down a watrefall and ziplining through a forest, before hitting the Falls.

Everyone says to visit the Brazilian side of the Falls first. This a duly did, treating myself to a helicopter ride (another Christmas present) over the area. It was breathtaking but way too short. I also visited the Bird Park which has an extensive collection of feathered friends in beautiful surroundings. What was particularly pleasing was to find that I had had the experience of seeing many of the birds in the wild.

Back on the Argentine side of the Falls I got up early on Christmas Eve to start walking the trails before it got too hot. I practically had the park to myself for the first couple of hours as the trails led to once amazing waterfall after another. The jewel in the crown is The Devil’s Throat which has a viewing platform right over it. The noise from the volume of water crashing down the rock face is deafening and the sheer volume of water incomprehensible. I stole someone’s Santa Claus hat and made a water drenched ‘happy Christmas’ video for family and friends. As I said, if I couldn’t with my loved ones, I wanted to be somewhere dramatic. I think that being at one of the seven wonders of the world I hit the jackpot!

The manager of the hostel kindly invited me and other guests (10 of us) to share in a traditional Argentine Christmas dinner with them. We helped prepare the food – salads, savoury sort of Swiss roll thing and of course lots of bbq’d meat. At midnight we had cider, sweets, cakes and fireworks sitting in the swimming pool!

 

Happily I managed to Facetime my brother, my sister and all three of my kids and their babies. What a blessed human being I am.

 

And that’s a wrap for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. What an interesting, eclectic range of experiences I had from tango to football, spas to monkeys, mission ruins to river beaches, beef cubes to waterfalls.

Last stop Brazil then home sweet home……….

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Chile – from top to bottom

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I knew very little about Chile before embarking on my 4,000km journey. I now know it’s a country of wonderful extremes which stretch from the belly button of South America to its big toe. Beginning with my entry from the salt flats of Bolivia into the hot and dusty Atacama Desert, through the mild wine region and the tranquil lakes and fjords to my exit way down south in wind-swept – get your hat, gloves and scarf back on Tierra del Fuego, I lapped it all up.

After a laborious border crossing (Chilean civil industrial action), I immediately noticed that nobody jumped on the bus or banged at the window to sell my anything. Bit by bit I began to notice other things. Well maintained roads, the compulsory wearing of seat belts, a receipt for the ticket I purchased, free to use restrooms, stocked with toilet paper, soap and dryers (imagine the luxury), nice cafes and shops, smart hostels with 24 hour electricity, hot water (bliss) and drinkable tap water. These small details were reminiscent of being back home, however, the price tag that goes hand-in-hand with western standards sorely tested my budget!

A very noticeable difference between Chile and its northern neighbours is the lack of indigenous people. The Mapuche of the central west and the Selk’nam in the far south have all but disappeared. For me this was a major sadness. I love meeting people of different cultures. I am fascinated by their history, beliefs, customs, homes, clothes, way of life, and always enjoy learning from them. Interesting isn’t it, how you drive over a metaphorical line and everything changes.

Indigenous aside, Chile is fabulous and unlike its Andes-hugging neighbour Argentina, less crowded with tourists. So, starting in the driest place on earth where in some areas it has never rained, there was only one, actually two, things to do. Firstly sand board down the dunes- exhilarating, frustrating and exhausting in equal measures and secondly take an astronomy lesson with telescopes through which I could clearly see Mars, Venus and Saturn, the moon as if it was within touching distance, and several ‘open’ and ‘closed’ clusters of which one was one of Orion’s 8 arms (often described as the Milky Way). Impressed? I love deserts. This trip I’ve been to the Australian desert area of Uluru (very spiritual), Tupiza cowboy desert (yeehaw) and now the charming adobe town of San Pedro de Atacama. I feel a trip to Namibia coming on!!

San Pedro which, being a little touristy, provided excellent Christmas shopping but frustratingly didn’t have a single beauty salon. Odd that because there are some very well healed tourists with time on their hands as well as the likes of me who have come from 5-day tours of Salar de Uyuni in uncomfortable 4WDs and need pampering.

I will always remember my last morning in San Pedro because I awoke to the news that Donald Trump had won the US election. Everyone I spoke to was in total shock and dumbfounded as to how the hell it happened and fearful of what is to come.

Moving on, I headed to the town of Calama whose only redeeming features are an airport and the largest copper mines in the world. Having found the Potosi silver mines so interesting I was keen to check out Chuquicamata mine. The photo doesn’t properly convey the magnitude of the pit which is 5km long, 3km wide and 1.2km deep and is still the largest exporter of pure (99.7%) copper. However, it now only produces one truck of copper in every four which is not financially viable therefore in 3-4 years time mining on the surface will cease and drilling below ground will start. After touring the mine I visited the miners ‘ghost’ town where 25,000 people had lived before being relocated to Calama because of unhealthy levels of dust from the mine. The town has been left exactly as it was which is kind of eerie.

The funny thing about my accommodation in Calama was that it was in the beauty salon neighbourhood of the city so I had a choice of a dozen different salons to get a hair cut and a mani & pedicure! I suggested to the young women looking after me that she should up sticks and set up shop in San Pedro pronto.

And so a flight to Santiago and to……….wait for it………the Ritz Carlton Hotel!!! To cut a long story short, my dear friends Bob and Pippa were staying there for a business conference and of course I was dying to see them but couldn’t find a hostal nearby because it’s in such a swanky part of the city. Another dear friend John very sweetly shouted my an early Christmas (or was it a late birthday) present of two nights at the hotel. Well you can only imagine how thrilled I was to find myself gliding through the revolving door to be greeted by a concierge in black tie. It felt like a “Pretty Woman” moment. The porter showed me to my room and looked slightly askance when I exclaimed ‘wow, a bath, I haven’t had one of those for 10 months’! The bathroom was stocked with Asprey lotions and potions, there were chocolates on my pillow and the most luxurious bathrobe to don for going to the rooftop leisure complex. I decided downtown Santiago could wait for Bob and Pippa’s arrival the following morning and so spent the afternoon lazing about. I had a swim, jacuzzi, sauna, steam, bath and shower and felt a million dollars.

I was feeling very excited about seeing Bob and Pippa at breakfast but I wasn’t expecting to start crying. I guess it was the emotion of the warm embrace and familiarity after so many moths alone that overcame me – a special moment.

We spent a delightful day visiting Valparaíso and Vina del Mar about 2 hours drive from Santiago. Viña del Mar could pass for South Beach or Cannes but Valparaíso is a one-off. We climbed the steep ramshackle streets and crumbling steps admiring the faded charm of the houses and some of the best street art I’ve ever seen. Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda had a home here with an eclectic mix of furniture and objets d’arte and magnificent views across the rooftops to the port. There are samples of his poetry which is eminently understandable. Sadly, because of the country-wide strikes the world famous funiculars were not working.

It’s said tourists are electing to spend more time in Valparaíso than in Santiago, and after 2-days exploring the city I can well see why. The historic centre is dirty and has more than its fair share of rough sleepers/beggars/drunks. The museums are at best average (though there was an interesting photographic exhibition on the Selk’nam tradition of intricate ritualistic body art), ditto the parks and markets.

Saying a fond farewell to my dear friends (and 5*luxury) I spent a pleasant day visiting a couple of wineries in the Maipo Valley. It was the wrong season for the grapes but it’s never the wrong season to sample wine and it was my first sampling of Camanere which is the delicious king of Chilean wines. I didn’t know that when the phyloxia plague destroyed all the vines in Europe and the US, it was Chile that sent the Cab Sav, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vines back to them to start to repopulate their vineyards. Chile has the perfect climate for growing grapes; copper-rich soil, the protection of the Andes and the winds of the Pacific with only 175km separating them, little rain and plenty of sunshine. No wonder they cunningly didn’t send back the Camanere grape.

Next up, I took a flight down to Punta Arenas to begin my southern odyssey. The drop in temperature was dramatic – from 32 degrees in the desert to 12 degrees here. The compensation was that my hostel had a fabulous view across the Magellan Straights which gave me the sensation of being at the end of the world.

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That came true later when I crossed to Tierra del Fuego to see a colony of King Penguins. Word’s out that, due to a successful programme to eradicate predators (most notable the mink), it’s a great place to settle and more KP’s are arriving each year. They were pretty active when I visited, chatting, flapping, cleaning etc, and I was even treated to a courting ritual followed by what must be one of the shortest matings in the animal kingdom. None of the 5-hour turtle torture; more of a wham, bam, thank you mam and then they are joined for life!

The main purpose of my trip down south was to undertake the 5-day ‘W’ trek in Torres del Paine national park in Patagonia. The jumping off point is Puerto Natales, a relaxed, hiker-friendly town. I managed to organise my trip from there though most people had organised theirs a good few weeks in advance because of the scarcity of campsite spots/refugios along the way. I guess I was lucky. I bought walking poles for less the the cost of hiring them and having been carrying them in their deconstructed state in my backpack ever since which is a bit of a pain. I ate a last supper of guanaco (bit like Alpaca but even more tender) washed down with the finest Chilean red and at 7am the next morning set off for Torres del Paine.

The entire 5-day experience was amazing. I averaged 12km a day, which doesn’t sound much but given that you walk no more than 2.5km an hour it’s enough. My longest day way 11 hours, my shortest 5 and I can honestly say I loved every single step. Day one I had to contend with strong headwinds that totally shredded my poncho but from there on in the weather was unseasonably kind, which was just as well as I now didn’t have protection from the rain, and the terrain wasn’t difficult. Sometimes I chatted to fellow trekkers but most of the time I chose to walk alone in order to fully immerse myself in the nature. There are fast-flowing, bulging rivers, waterfalls, precarious bridges, parkland, forest glades, rocks to scramble over, windswept passes, lakes that change from blue to turquoise, green to grey, dramatic peaks of different coloured rock, snowy mountains, avalanches, glaciers, strange cloud formations, fiery red sunsets and pallid sunrises, an abundance of flowers, dozens of species of birds, jack rabbits, armadillo and apparently puma though sadly I didn’t encounter one.

So how did the ageing body hold up after 36 hours of hiking? No leg, back, shoulder or foot pain whatsoever but I was only carrying a 7kg daypack, electing to pay extra to have my tent set up for me, complete with minus 15 degree sleeping bag (it was only 2 degrees at night so I was warm enough) and my meals in the refugio canteens. Lots of people were saving money by carrying their tent, gas, utensils and food for 5 days, weighing in at roughly 17kg. Not surprisingly they were suffering a bit.

What makes trekking in Patagonia so enjoyable is the following:
not too much climbing up or down
no problems with altitude
no mosquitos, sand flies, snakes or poisonous plants
no humidity or dust
no need to carry litres of water due to the abundance of streams
daylight for between 16-17 hours

Feeling totally exhilarated, my dilemma was where to go next. Should I cross over the Andes into Argentina and mirror my Chilean experiences in reverse – trekking in El Calefate and Chalten, bombing up to the lakes near Bariloche followed by wine tasting in Mendoza and finally the desert in Salta or should I stick with discovering more of Chile.

With only 2 months remaining (yikes) I felt that I would be rushing things if I went the Argentine route so instead I went up the west coast of Chile to a little known place called Puerto Varas. My mistake was in not taking the 4-day cargo boat through the fjords to get there. A few people had told me it was uncomfortable and dirty but of course once I arrived I met several people who said how amazing it was. Bummer!

I like Puerto Varas a lot. It’s a chilled out lakeside town just on the cusp of becoming a ‘must-go-to’ destination, mirrored over the Andes by Bariloche. The town has a heavy German influence, immigrants having settled there in late 1800s to early 1900s. Further along the lake is a small village called Frutilla where I found not only an interesting museum explaining the life of the settlers but also an incredible concert hall perched on the side of the lake. It cost a cool $25m to build and hosts an annual week-long international music festival but it defies all logic being in such a remote place.

There is a beautiful lake called Llanquihue (the largest in Chile) which produces 80% of the country’s salmon – Chile being the second biggest salmon exporter after Norway. The lake is surrounded by 5 or 6 volcanoes, the most active is Calbuco which, following a 9.5 earthquake in April 2015 sent ash 16km up into the atmosphere, most of it blowing over in Argentina! Another gem is picturesque Todos los Santos lake surrounded by lush forest. I took a short bus ride up Osorno Volcano, hiked to the glacier (tough vertical climb) and tobogganed down on a plastic bag. Not my idea but the crazy German guy I was with.

My favourite activity in PV was rafting on the Petrohue river. Taking on some rapids was on my ‘to do’ list, and whilst I hadn’t imagined they would be Class III or IV, it seemed like the perfect opportunity so I went for it. The water surging all around the boat made it difficult to oar at times and the risk of falling in as we were tossed about was ever present but our expert instructor kept us under control.

The river twisted and turned for 14km with about 10 rapids requiring different tactics. At one point we got out, climbed a rock 5 meter above the river and jumped in and at another the instructor made us get into the river to swim down a rapid. Two thrilling, adrenaline-pumping hours of crazy fun and I’m hooked.

And finally back to Santiago airport for the third time for a flight to Buenos Aires. I didn’t make it to Easter Island because it was just too expensive to fly there, good old LATAM having the monopoly. Apart from that I feel happy that long, skinny Chile is a country I fully explored.

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A word about my children. It seems that my travels have prompted them all to do extreme things. This month it was James’s turn by proposing to his girlfriend Laura. I am very happy for them and looking forward to helping with wedding plans; that is when I’m not on granny duty with my gorgeous granddaughter Tilly (undoubtedly the most adorable baby ever) and my grandson to be. He’s due 2 days after I get back so I’m looking forward to that. Let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to come along early!

There are times when it’s been hard being away from my family, especially Rebecca who as a new mother needs my support but the weeks are whizzing by now so it won’t be long before we’re all together again.

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Bolivia, friend or foe?

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Like a tempestuous relationship, at times I was madly in love with Bolivia whilst at others I could happily have throttled it.

My entry point was an easy frontier crossing from Peru along the shore of Lake Titicaca. The change was immediately evident and it vaguely felt like I was back in Indonesia with poorly surfaced (if at all) roads, shabby buses and hawkers jumping on at every opportunity to sell wooly hats, food, drinks and their life story.

I headed straight to the ferry in Copacabana (apparently Rio caged the name) to spend a couple of days walking across Isla del Sol, famed for its sunsets and the Inca ruins of Chincana on a clifftop overlooking the lake. The ruins are an unique labyrinth structure with arches and alcoves affording framed views across the lake and for once sunset didn’t disappoint, offering gorgeous hues of yellows, oranges and pinks.

The north of Isla del Sol is extremely poor. The islanders, whose lives have changed little in 300 years, live in crumbling, thatch-roofed homes with no electricity or water, typically with sheep and pigs in an adobe pen and a donkey to carry heavy loads. It was interesting to see the villagers in traditional dress, shepherding their flock across the beach, but it was evident that life is tough, especially for the women who looked overworked and downtrodden in what remains a very macho society. I popped into the village school to watch the student brass band (shared enthusiasm with Peru) and cheer leaders practising for a big competition in Copacabana. As usual there was incredulity that I am a solo female traveller but also a lot of respect, which was nice.

I ate with 4 male medics from Brazil who gave me lots of advice about where to go when I finally make it there and one of them donated me a pair of his socks for my freezing feet. The charity of fellow travellers!

The following morning the walk along the coast from north to south was beautiful and, best of all, deserted. However, the town of Yamani with its bijou hostels and cafes didn’t do it for me. Give me the beaten-up shack on the beach with a choice of trout, trout or trout any day!

Hopping on the boat back to the mainland I was greeted by “hello mum” by three girls who I had shared the chocolate-making class with a few weeks ago. Naturally, we were all wearing the requisite Alpaca jumper.

I’ve been enjoying big cities less and less, however I warmed to La Paz (Bolivia’s de facto capital) where one in five Bolivians live. The centre is reasonably compact, and whilst there is the usual problem of too many cars, the system of traffic lights seems to work well, keeping traffic moving.

What made it enjoyable was the plethora of excellent museums; the archeological museum with fascinating facts and artefacts of the powerful Tiwanaku culture that dominated the area south of Titicaca from 1500BC to 1200AD before its mysterious decline; the museum of folklore and ethnology housing a wonderful collections of masks, feather head dresses, hats and ponchos; the museum of coca – too much reading and not enough displays but a good overall explanation of the importance of coca throughout the northern countries of South America; the fascinating museum of musical instruments with examples dating from 1500BC to present day.

Place de Sucre was the icing on the cake. It’s not a famous square but I thought I’d swing by anyway and I’m so glad I did because there was a ‘schools food fare’ with stalls promoting different foods (llama, soya, quinoa, squash, kiwi, watermelon, peppers), prepared by the students and judged by the mayor and food experts. I had great fun sampling various dishes e.g. Llama byriani, pumpkin cake, kiwi ice cream and I loved talking to the super-enthusiastic students all keen to practice their English. What a great day.


Driving to the airport – the highest in the world, you pass by the suburb of El Alto, the capital of the Aymara culture which accounts for approximately 25% of the population. Quechua accounts for a further 30%, mainly located in the highlands close to the border with Peru but the majority of Bolivians are mestizos descended from the Spanish who piled in to take advantage of the huge reserves of gold in the mines around La Paz and the silver mines of Potosi. Even after independence in 1825 (Bolivia being the last country to be freed by General Simon Bolivar, he of the most aquiline nose in history), Chile and Peru fought to successfully seize sizeable chunks of Bolivia. It still grates that Chile took Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean.

 

Due to the vast distances between A and B, travelling round S America by land is hard. The downside is that there are no low cost airlines which means flying is expensive and not really in my traveller budget. However, I’m increasingly finding myself compromised into handing my money over to LATAM airlines. The upside is that many of the flights are awesome. At just 37,000 the 35 minute flight from La Paz to Sucre (13 hours by bus!) afforded stunning views of mountains, glacial lakes and canyons.

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Sucre remains Bolivia’s constitutional capital. It’s a sparkling white city with lots of lovely buildings BUT all the places if interest shut down from Saturday midday until Monday – the exact timing of my sojourn. This left me little to do but window shop and eat. And that, my friends, resulted in my subsequent “lost day”, a dodgy piece of tuna dealing the vicious 24 hour blow.

A few kilos lighter I moved on to the mining city of Potosi. Along the way my travelling companion explained to me about military service which is for one year and runs alongside the final year at school, it being from Friday evening to Monday morning. We also talked a bit about President Evo Morales. Naturally he is popular for increasing the minimum wage from $65pc to $260 but, in his determination to give the Aymara equal rights, he has tipped the balance too much in their favour, which has made him unpopular with other struggling Bolivians.

My visit to Potosi mine was a real eye-opener. From the mid 1500s -late 1800s Potosi was the most prolific silver mine in the world and the city, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, was the most populated in the world. Legend has it that there was enough silver to build a bridge to Spain and still have enough left to fund the counter reformation! Mind you this came at the expense of 8million deaths, many African slaves. Hard to believe really when most of us have never heard of the place.

My guide Antonio’s father and his ancestors had all worked in the mines and either died from falling rocks or from mercury poisoning before reaching 50 years old. Antonio had worked in the mine for 5 years before leaving to study tourism and start his own company taking tourists down the mines as a way of supporting fellow workers.

Bent double crawling through the tunnels I got a sense of how hard conditions are. You can become a miner from the age of 16. You work a statutory 8-hour shift and are paid according to what you extract – ranging from 50 Bolivianos a day to around 500 (£6-60). It is becoming increasingly hard to earn a living because the mine is all but exhausted and dynamiting to go further down is too dangerous because of the fragile honeycomb structure.

In the Museo de Mondera I learnt about Potosi being the world’s central mint, minting coins for the colonies – initially soft silver coins which could be broken (or bitten) in pieces for payment, then hard silver mixed with lead and with official stamps/crests. I wandered round town trying to buy silver jewellery for family Christmas presents but ironically it proved impossible. Someone is definitely missing a trick!

I was still in Potosi for All Soul’s Day. Interestingly, much as it is frowned upon by the Catholic church, Hallowe’en has crept into popular culture, the streets being thronged with witches and ghouls the night before this important day.

On All Souls Day any family who has had a bereavement in the past 12 months makes a shrine in their home with a photo of the deceased surrounded by candles, flowers and their cakes. A black ribbon is tied to the front door indicating that anyone passing by is welcome to enter to pay their respects and, in exchange for a small donation, the family give them sweet wine and cakes.

I was lucky to be invited by a young guide to her grandmother’s shrine and, on my way through the village, was beckoned into another home. Everyone was so welcoming and hospitable, I felt very privileged to be part of these poignant gatherings. The following day everyone trooped to the cemetery to tend their loved ones graves, bringing flowers and cakes. It was a wonderful community occasion complete with funfair and food stalls in the park.

So, about this tempestuous relationship. Well, as I mentioned, it’s a very macho society and I’d had a few altercations with rude taxi drivers and shop keepers but nothing compared to the experience I was about to have…..

I jumped in a minivan heading to Tupiza down south – a journey of about 5 hours. We were 8 adults and 8 small children all piled on top of each other. Our driver was aggressive (I think he’d been drinking), chewed coca leaves and drove like a lunatic round hairpin bends slamming the brakes on, throwing us all around and making the children vomit. We asked him to drive more cautiously, which clearly affronted his male pride. He stopped the car and asked us all to get out. We gently pointed out that we were the clients and he needed to calm down.

In the pitch dark, in the middle of nowhere, you guessed it, we broke down. Not surprisingly he said nothing, least of all apologising. Being so many people it was important that the people with children got lifts first. This didn’t seem to appeal to two of the men who went running back down the road to hitch lifts before the rest of us. Very unchivalrous behaviour! Being a deserted tract of road cars only came past every 5 minutes or so but slowly kindly drivers stopped and took us in. I was the last one to get a lift, from another minivan driver heading to Tupiza. He naturally needed paying to take me on but do you think my driver refunded me the portion to pay the other driver? No chance. He simply said he didn’t have my money because he’d spent it on petrol. At least I had the final word, telling him in my best Spanish that he wasn’t a nice man and that he got his just desserts.

From desserts to deserts, my reason for going to Tupiza was to ride in genuine cowboy country and specifically where Robert Leroy Parker aka Butch Cassidy, met his end. I spent a wonderful day with my sturdy steed Domino riding along dried up river beds with cactus, desert grasses and a surprising number of green trees somehow finding water in the hot, dry canyons. The magical multi-coloured rocks (red, orange, yellow, blue, green/grey) forming dramatic shapes through volcanic eruptions millennia ago took my breath away. I fully expected to spot Butch and Sundance on the horizon but no such luck.

My lovely companion Gregorio (one of eight children, his eldest brother working in the zinc mine of which his father is the manager) was studying to become a vet. Vet school costs £600pa and Greg can expect a starting salary of £320pcm if he moves to Santa Cruz where there are more livestock than in Tupiza.

After such a great day in the saddle I was back in love with Bolivia and excited at the prospect of a 4-day road trip to reach the country’s star attraction – Salar de Uyuni. The 4WD jeep was made up of me, a guy from the US, two girls from France, a cook and our driver/guide Roberto. It was a bit cramped for the hours and hours of desert driving but with ever changing colours, mirages, twisters, geysers, llamas, vicunas, rhea (indigenous ostrich) and birds aplenty there was lots to enjoy. The occasional village comprising a few adobe homes plus the ruins of a mining town of 1500 people, abandoned when the mine dried up were interesting and I liked the cute chinchilla hiding in the rubble.

What I really loved were the lakes, each named according to its colour (purple, blue, green, white, red) which results from the minerals within. Most of the lakes have a small percentage of salt but are largely borax crystals which are used for making ceramics and are present in strong washing powder. Several of the lakes are home to three species of flamingo – Andino, Chileno and rareset of all, James each identifiable by their plumage.

I spent hours watching these beautiful birds going about their business. They are social creatures, enjoying hanging out in groups but shy of humans. Their flight and landing is graceful and their chatter is amusing. We were lucky to have clear sunny skies all 4 days with beautiful sunrises and sunsets which meant seeing the flamingos in different lights reflected in the lakes – photo paradise.

The inky black nights overflowing with stars were cold as was the water in the shower, but there was always a good hot meal, hot tea and heavy blankets in the simple accommodation, so no complaints.

The climax to the journey was the salt lake itself.. Our final night was spent in Chuvica, a small village with a church, town square and museum all made of salt. The people living here are very poor, relying on small groups of tourists to survive. Some of the children looked quite undernourished (just 18 of them) and there were lots of feral dogs that I’ve learned to keep at bay by having a large rock in my hand with which to threaten them!

The hostel was also made of salt: walls, floor, beds, tables, chairs but not the showers which thankfully provided much-needed hot water.

So, up at 4am again (the Uyuni trip is no picnic) to witness dawn. Unfortunately Roberto, who was a very mediocre guide, misjudged sunrise and we had to rush up the mirador to catch the sun just as it rose above the volcano. This was really irritating and unnecessary because the whole experience is about watching the changing light reflected on the salt as far as the eye can see in a calm, peaceful atmosphere, not out of breath and flustered. Other groups had arrived a good 30 mins before us which compounded our frustration. Hey ho – minimal tip for Roberto.

The day got better as we walked and then drove across the lake which is made up of eleven lays of salt, water and earth each 2-10 metres thick. The lake is 10,000 km sq and harvests 25 million tonnes of salt a year. Phenomenal statistics to get your head round. We spent a while taking silly photos (see below) and checking out the Dakar Rally museum – also made of salt.

We had travelled over 1,000km in four days and I can’t honestly say I sorry to say goodbye to my companions. Sometimes groups gel and sometimes they don’t, sometimes guides are excellent and sometimes they aren’t. You pays your money and takes your chance.

However, what doesn’t rely on chance is the incredible scenery, wildlife, lakes and the salt flats which all get 5 star rating.

And so to the last stop before moving on to Chile, involving another long journey in a truck with no acceleration, dodgy lights and yet another macho man at the wheel. At least we didn’t have to suffer incessant music because the radio was broken – thank god for small mercies. We arrived at the hostel very late and from my understanding all the beds were taken so I think I was sleeping in the drivers accommodation. The owner was pretty unpleasant – that makes a fist full of macho males and dinner was less than average but the stars were epic and when I finally laid my weary head to rest I went out like a light.

Up again at 4am to drive to the border. So, goodbye to Bolivia. I had some amazing experiences, some average ones and some pretty unpleasant ones but on balance I would recommend it to anyone. Had I not already done my Andean trekking in Peru or my Amazon trip in Ecuador I would probably have done them in Bolivia, which would undoubtedly have been cheaper and would have been equally rewarding. Perhaps I’ll return to find out…..

 

 

Peru: Andes, Incas, brass bands, hats, Alpacas and so much more…..

 

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I touched down in Lima with a sense of excitement. I was looking forward to visiting its most prominent cities, its plethora of archeological sites, trekking in the spectacular and spectacularly challenging Andes, checking out its time forgotten rural communities, sailing around Lake Titikaka and eating lots of potatoes. Peru is home to this humble vegetable, boasting some 300 varieties.

Nothing during my month disappointed. I soaked everything up in my sponge-like way and could write even more than I’m about to but I appreciate you all have busy lives to lead so I’ll keep it to a few thousand words!

I’m less and less interested in big cities, usually finding that the second or third largest city is more agreeable and manageable. So, whilst Lima’s historic centre had highlights such as the Church of Santa Domingo and several well-preserved colonial buildings with cedar wood over-hanging balconies and intricate wrought iron work, I preferred the Miraflores area, walking along the cliffs past the Gaudi-esque gardens watching surfers doing their thing way below.

The highlight of Lima was the Museo Larco which has a fascinating collection of pre Inca ceramics housed in a lovely whitewashing building covered in trailing bourganvilla. It also has a garden and a restaurant and a gallery of erotic ceramics (pre Incans were very into carnal pleasures both with the living and the dead!) , the whole lot being open until 10pm.

For people like me travelling solo often there isn’t much to do in the evening therefore being able to have dinner and stroll through the museum after dark was a treat in itself, but the delight was that the objects on display and the accompanying explanations gave me a heads-up into the cultures (Moche, Chimu, Nazca, Ica) I was to discover on my Peruvian odyssey.

Heading north I stopped off in Trujillo and, traffic chaos aside, much enjoyed this small coastal city with its brightly painted buildings, especially those in the Plaza de Armas. Many cities in South America have Plaza de Armas where government buildings and the main church or cathedral are situated.

Peruvians love their brass bands and I mean really love them! Every Sunday each city puts on a ‘Flag Raising’ parade, which involves several bands and specific groups marching round the Plaza. In Trujillo it was the turn if schools and colleges (the following Sunday in Arequipa it was armed forces). Those taking part were clearly delighted to have been chosen and wore their uniform or traditional costume with pride. The little children were particularly divine and took their role very seriously.

It also happened to be the feast of El Senor de los Milagros (Lord of Miracles). This involved more brass bands and a procession of hombres in purple robes with a white rope belt and shields carrying the palanquin while white-veiled mujeres walked backwards in front of the palanquin swinging incense. The procession lasted all day as it went from church to church, brass bands playing all the way.

I ask myself, why don’t we have these parades and processions? I know religion can be overpowering and oppressive but on balance it has to be good for communities to come together; singing, dancing, clapping (catholics do this a lot nowadays) and generally supporting each other. From what I’ve witnessed in both SE Asia and in S America it seems to me to make for safe, happy living and I am just a bit envious as I think how we in the west have by and large lost all sense of community.

Around Trujillo are several impressive ancient adobe temples. The Moche (500-900A.D.) built a vast city with two temples – Sol y Luna, strategically positioned beneath the mountain close to the sea. Sol has both old and new temples. The old temple was all but destroyed by severe flooding so the Moche built a high wall around the new temple as a barrier to daily sand storms and flooding. Interestingly, approximately every century they constructed one layer on top of another, covering intricate wall paintings and burying all artefacts. They also buried the dead below so that in effect each layer had the deceased of the previous dynasty. Excavations have uncovered many graves (at its height up to 5,000 people lived in the city), artefacts and beautiful paintings and it has been discovered that each brick carries the mark of the manufacturer, which could possibly be a precursor to writing.

Until 1998 visitors ended the Sol y Luna tour by sand surfing down the dunes. Now that archaeologists have unearthed a whole civilisation beneath the dunes, surfing has stopped! The site has yet to earn UNESCO status, but given that they know there are hundreds more in-tact graves to be uncovered it is likely to receive it, and thus significant financial support, soon.

For those of you who question if I ever eat, I’m pleased to report that post Sol y Luna I had an awesome quinoa soup followed by a gigantic avocado stuffed with langoustine, cheese ice-cream and an eye-wateringly strong Pisco Sour, in a cafe overlooking the ocean.

My next destination was Huaraz (pronounced Waraz), the not very inspiring town which is the gateway to the magnificent Cordillera Blanca – the highest mountain range after the Himalayas with one peak used in the Paramount Pictures logo. Think snow-capped peaks, glaciers, turquoise lakes, fertile valleys, stunning vistas, very few people and you have trekking heaven.

The only thing to contend with, other than the challenge of the treks themselves, is the changes in temperature from about 25 degrees daytime to 2 degrees at night. For longterm travellers like me this poses a problem in the wardrobe versus available space stakes. Thermals, padded jacket, Alpaca sweater, scarf etc take up a lot more room than t-shirts and shorts. However, you need both because everywhere you go in S America (unlike SE Asia and Indonesia), there are extremes of temperatures within a 24 hour period. Thankfully the under-pressure zip on my backpack is hanging in there and eventually when I make it to the warmer climes of Brazil I can eject the Alpaca sweater – much as it’s become my dear friend, and the other gear.

There is a town near Huaraz called Yungay which I am pleased I took a day trip to visit. On 31 May 1970, 10,000 ton of rocks and silt travelling at 80kmp took just 3 minutes to completely bury the town, killing all but 309 of the 25,000 inhabitants. 300 children were at the circus in the stadium on the outskirts of the town and ran to safety. Nine people were in the cemetery up on the hill and they too were spared. The only building left standing was the north tower of the church which was protected by 4 palm trees. In the aftermath of the disaster, Yungay received no external aid because there was nothing for aid agencies to help with but all of the children were adopted, mainly in Europe. A new town has been built within sight of the old town which is preserved as it was in the aftermath of the disaster, making it a living reminder of everything and everyone buried below.

Every 6 weeks or so I need to recharge the batteries – unpacking my suitcase and staying put for several days. Since arriving in Colombia in early August I had only managed 5 consecutive days of relaxation which was whilst on the cruise in Galapagos. For the first time in nine months on the road, I felt below par, arriving in Arequipa with an eye infection, earache, cracked heals and my first dose of food poisoning.

Fortuitously the ‘white city’, so called because of the white volcanic stone or ‘silla’ of which it is largely built, was my favourite city in Peru. It boasts the country’s widest cathedral (flattened twice by earthquakes), a beautiful walled monastic city within the city, three impressive volcanos, excellent cuisine and various non-strenuous day trips.

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It was here I ate my first and last guinea pig, flattened by a heavy stone and deep fried it tastes slightly like rabbit. I also tried Alpaca steak and Alpaca a la Bourguignon – both deliciously tender. Alpaca is a vital animal to the Peruvians. Each one costs about $150 and can yield 10-20 times that for its meat and wool. Is there a single traveller who doesn’t own an Alpaca jumper?

Sticking with food, I spent a fun afternoon learning all about the humble cacao bean and making my own chocolates. The best beans come from Peru and Venezuela and are exported to Europe and the USA where the premium chocolate is produced. Did you know that the purest chocolate has only 4 ingredients: cacao, cacao butter, raw cane sugar and, if its milk chocolate, then powdered (never liquid) milk? If you love your chocolate as I do, it’s worth reading the packet to see what other crap is in there before buying.

I also visited the home and gardens of the house of the founder of Arequipa, Don Manuel Garcí de Carbajal, which he built for his mestizo mistress and their Down Syndrome son who died age 15 having never interacted with anyone than his mother and maid. Such a sad story.

Suitably rested, my next plan was to spend a few days hiking in the stunning Colca Canyon – twice the size of the Grand Canyon. The bus ride was a memorable one because sitting opposite me was a woman chopping vegetables and expertly filleting a piece of meat, presumably for the family dinner. Task completed she wiped her knife on the headrest and fell asleep!

It was additionally memorable because the ATM swallowed my bank card. Luckily the bank was still open and after producing various documents the card was returned to me. I really was lucky because, had the bank been closed, I would have had to return to Arequipa (4hour bus ride) where I had left my luggage, carrying only a small back-pack.

I spent a blissful two days on my own, hiking for around 5 hours each day down to the bottom of the canyon. One day I talked to a shepherdess and I had a couple of dogs for company for a while but mostly I enjoyed the vast expanses of mountains and gorges in solitude. At the end of day one there was a strong wind which caused rocks to tumble down the path and the last hour was a long slog but I made it to the comfort of Casa de Virginia where my namesake gave me a warm welcome, fed me delicious homemade food and provided hot water for me to wash before inviting me to plunge into the icy river then soak in the 39 degree thermal baths – bliss for aching muscles. Going to bed by candlelight and waking in the middle of the night to a moon so bright I could have started walking again by its light, I felt transported to a world far, far removed from everyday life.

At breakfast (6am), Virginia talked a bit about how she survives in the middle of nowhere with at best two or three hikers a day but sometimes no one for days on end. Aged 58 she isn’t receiving any government subsidies, has to pay for her own health care, and the way she is ensured a pension at 65 is that the state taxes her two sons 100 soles (£25) each per month for her. She also told me that as she lives in such a remote place with no TV, internet or mobile signal, her children and grandchildren only visit her once a year during the annual January- February holiday period. For me, passing through, it was a rural idyll but I could appreciate what a precarious and often lonely life she was living.

The magic of my time alone was shattered when I had to join about 40 people making the three hour climb up out of the canyon at 5am to catch a bus back to Arequipa. But never mind, those two special days are ingrained in my memory……not least because three of my toe nails suffered sever bruising and will probably fall off!

I’m in the minority in not warming to Cusco. It felt overrun with pushy tour operators using mediocre guides, choked with cars and tour buses, shabby in the downtown area where gangs of kids hang around the streets – apparently underage drinking and drug taking and teen pregnancies are a big problem, and overcrowded at the city’s main historic sites.

The Rio Urubamba Valley, known as El Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley) was a different experience altogether. My first exposure to the Inca culture made a huge impression – most notably the enormous fortresses of Ollantaytambo and Pisac which dominate the countryside.

I also loved Chinchero. Thought by the Incas to be the birthplace of the rainbow, it is a typical Andean village combining Inca ruins with a Spanish colonial church and a colourful Sunday market with folk in local dress descending from mountain villages for genuine ‘trueco’ (bartering) – the Inca system of reciprocity. Lastly, the amphitheatre-like terraces of Moray, each one said to have its own microclimate for growing different crops, was hard to comprehend but showed just how agriculturally advanced the Incas were.

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I have been travelling for 9 months now but don’t feel weary. I am still excited by each new experience and no more so than at the prospect of visiting the jewel in Peru’s crown – Machupicchu.

With no idea as to when I would be in Cusco I couldn’t book the Inca Trail which requires about 6-months’ notice. Instead, on the advice of many fellow travellers I booked the 4-day, 50km Salkantay trek.

We were a group of 13 people, 5 crazy Peruvian cousins, 5 EU exchange students, 2 American women and me. Despite freezing temperatures, no hot water, basic tents and mediocre food the trek was incredible. Being woken at 5am with steaming Mate de Coca to ward off altitude sickness, we would start trekking whilst the moon floated between the glacial mountains. We climbed to 4620m to be greeted by flurries of snow at the Salkantay pass, descended to 2850m to follow the babbling brook, chatted to the packhorse drivers, offered gifts to Pachamama (mother earth) to keep us safe, and on the final day walked through dense forest before entering Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machupicchu, along the train tracks.

The following morning, feeling refreshed after a hot shower, hot food and a comfy bed I couldn’t wait to see Machupicchu. It blew me away with its sheer size and the complexity of its structures. So many exquisite temples: Condor, Sun, Sacrifice; the Royal Burial Chamber, the Three Doors, the canals and fountains all mathematically designed to work in union with the sun, the moon and the seasons.

Hot and dusty I spent 10 hours walking round the site, climbing to the Sun Gate and then the Inca Bridge, wandering the terraces dotted with llamas and watching the changing colours of the stones as the sun made its way across the sky. I was so mesmerised by the place that I returned the following day to climb Machupicchu Mountain to see the site from 1km higher up. The photos don’t do justice to the absolutely amazing views.

So little is known about Machupicchu. Why was it built in such a remote place? Who was it built for? How many people lived there? Why did they abandon it? With no written recorded it’s impossible to know for sure, which means the guides tell different stories! However, what they all agree upon is that Machupicchu rightly deserves to be one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

My final destination in Peru was Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world.  I took a slow boat through narrow channels to reach the floating village of Urus. The village is made of 20 blocks of peat earth tethered together with layers of reeds. It was a weird sensation walking on the spongy reeds and it was even weirder being encouraged by the village chief to don his wife’s traditional costume to pose for a photo together.

Leaving Urus in an ancient reed boat I arrived on the island of Amanti to be met by my homestay host Martina and her 3 children – Fabrizio 4, Annabel 10, Juliana 12. From her humble but comfortable adobe home in the fields I could see the mountains of Bolivia across the lake. Martina fed her family from the crops she produced and relied on her husband, working on the mainland, to send money for clothes, school books etc. I showed the children photos on my ipad of the animals and fish I’d seen on my travels. They were mesmerised, and I was reminded how many children in the world have never watched TV or seen a film when they had said they didn’t know Nemo.

That night Martina invited me and the three other guests to dress in the islanders traditional skirt, embroidered blouse, cummerbund and cloak to go to local dance. What a party! The band was terrific and got us all up learning traditional Peruvian dances with local men and women to guide us through our paces. Best of all was dancing round and round and in and out of a circle, not easy at altitude and certainly not something I usually find myself doing on a Saturday night. But then how many of my experiences bare any resemblance to life back in London!

Waking to a braying donkey and clear blue sky over lake, I took a short boat ride to Tanqil island, where I spent a happy hour at the kindergarten and junior school, impressed with their knowledge of basic English. I was less impressed by the secondary students humping bags of cement up the hill to help built their new classroom. Health and safety would have something to say about that back home!

On this conservative island, married women wear belts with small coloured tassels while unmarried women where big, brightly coloured tassels. Married men wear multi coloured hats and wear pouches for carrying coca leaves while unmarried men wear red hats with white tips and don’t carry pouches. Men and women alike spin wool and knit; they are never idle.

Young couples live together for 3 years after which, if they are happy together, a council of elders fixes a date for the wedding ceremony. If they aren’t getting on so well they can go their separate ways but once married it’s for life i.e. NO divorce.

 

And so, with the sound of the island’s brass band practicing for a regional competition, I took the boat back to the mainland and a powerful hot cocktail of wine, pisco, orange juice and cinnamon before heading across the border into Bolivia.

Just before I leave Peru, I need to talk about HATS. They fascinated me and may yet prove to be the basis of a Phd.

Each village or town has its unique style – Panama, trilby, bowler hat, top hat, stetson, bonnet, flat hat with a scarf on top, hats with feathers, hats with flowers. Every style has a meaning. In Huaraz for example a red top hat is for married women while white is for single women. In the adjoining village it’s the reverse. In other villages a single or a double flower donates single or married and so on. It’s a simple way of knowing who’s available and who’s taken but if you don’t know your villages it could get embarrassing.

 

What an amazing country and how much longer I could have spent there. There is so much more hiking to do, so many more archeological sites to visit, and of course the Amazon and the unfathomed Nazca lines.

So thank you Peru and thank you Peruvian people for an amazing month. I will miss you but I’m sure I’ll be back.

 

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Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

 

 

I was sad to be leaving Colombia where I had experienced such warmth and hospitality and had discovered some of its many treasures. Having left on the high of a ceasefire, it was with sadness that I read of the people’s vote against ratification of the treaty. I hope this won’t result in more conflicts, which will inevitably make the country less safe for travellers. Certainly the young Colombians I have met since, are all frustrated by the regressive vote.

I had a ‘Smiley’ style rendezvous on the Colombia/Ecuador border. My mission was to meet Gaby, a young Ecuadorian who I had met on a long train ride in Myanmar back in January, in a famous ice cream parlour in Ipiales main square so that she could cross the border with me into Tulcan where her parents live.

I sat for an hour nursing my not-so-incredible ice cream and then a tall dark stranger approached me, said he was Gustavo, Gaby’s father, that she was held up in Quito and that he had therefore come to collect me. I duly followed and was to spend 3 restful days in Gustavo (one day my junior) and his delightful wife Sonia’s home. Sonia’s 90 year old mother lives with them and she was a happy reminder of my dear mum; frail but totally compus mentis, passing the day sitting in a chair by the window, a long silver grey plait trailing down her back, watching the world go by.

Sonia and I shopped in the market and she showed my how to prepared the famous dishes of sopa de papas (potatoes, spinach and avocado) and cerviche de camarones (prawns in onion, tomato, lime and herbs) served with frijoles, fried corn, popcorn and banana chips. I reckon she would give Martin Morales of Cerviche Soho fame a run for his money.

Tulcan is renowned for its unique cemetery, which was designed by Gustavo’s uncle. Another uncle was responsible for carving the statue in the main square, so clearly an important family in the community. The feature of the 3-acre cemetery is the topiary, which is the most elaborate in the world, with enormous designs depicting Ecuador’s aboriginals, wildlife etc. It’s a surreal place equally beautiful at night as during the day.

Gaby arrived from Quito carrying 4-weeks worth of dirty laundry. I bit my lip, but really, a 29 year old traveling in a bus for 5 hours with her washing which her mother insists on doing so that it can dry outside, rather than in a laundrette dryer in the capital!

My next destination was the market town of Otavalo. Gustavo kindly agreed to drive me there so we all piled into the car (Gustavo, Sonia, Gaby, me……and the still slightly damp washing). We drove through stunning countryside to the Andean Reserva Ecológica El Ángel which is home to the rare frailejones plant, boasting distinctive creamy flowers, fuzzy rabbit-ear leaves and a thick trunk. Stretching for miles, they look like weird sentinels.

What I love about travelling is discovering new, unique things. Many of the countries I’ve visited and plan to visit have similar things (historic town centres, markets, lakes, mountains, volcanos, forests) and so it’s a question of doing one’s homework to decide which are the most spectacular or unusual examples.

I hadn’t done enough homework on Ecuador before taking day trips from Quito to Quilotoa lake and Cotopaxi mountain. Both are beautiful and I was proud of climbing 4800m to the glacier and cycling back down (scary), but neither are as jaw-droppingly stunning as those in the Cordillera Blanca (of which more when I write my Peru blog).

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Likewise the Amazonian area of Cuyabena (an interminable spine-crunching, butt-numbing journey), where I spent an okay, but not outstanding, 5 days looking for wildlife. Because of dense, lush jungle it’s difficult to spot animals, and there are too many boats with noisy engines and noisy tourists, plus I think I had been spoiled by my incredible experiences in the jungles of Borneo. However, I did see several species of monkey including the cute squirrel monkey, a couple of sloth (sleeping of course), endangered pink river dolphins, nocturnal caiman and lots of creepy crawlies like giant scorpion, tarantulas, shoe string boas and tree frogs. Apart from a beautiful eagle, the bird life was the biggest disappointment but this was made up for by a couple of magical dawn and dusk canoe trips and by being constantly surrounded by thousands of butterflies.

Shockingly, the current President has sold all of Ecuador’s oil to China for the next 20 years. The result is that the biodiverse Yasuni National Park, is being destroyed at an alarmingly rapid and apparently unregulated pace.

After that slight detour, back to Otavalo, which is one of Ecuador’s best-loved towns. I was very lucky that the evening I arrived was the first of a 10-(yes TEN) night fiesta. The streets were thronged with families watching a wonderful procession of floats with beauty queens throwing roses and musicians, dancers and acrobats in traditional costume following behind, each representing a different Ecuadorian region or town. There must have been 100 or more floats affording hours of entertainment. I managed to squeeze close to the front railings and had a great time chatting to locals and enjoying the kaleidoscopic parade, followed by thousands of dollars worth of fireworks. Otavalo is famous for its food, which I unashamedly tucked into and it’s huge Saturday market which engulfs the whole town. There’s a traditional arts and crafts market selling gorgeous clothes, jewellery, pottery etc. And it washere that I made my first purchase for my granddaughter Tilly.

Best of all is the animal market selling, cattle, pigs, chickens, rabbits and sackfuls of guinea pigs at $5 a pop! Buyers and sellers alike laughed when I told them that in the west guinea pigs are pets. They helpfully told me that a bit of salt and pepper and 30 minutes on the spit makes for a nutritious meal. Vive la difference!

Otavalan men, like most S Americans they’re not very tall but they’re charming and elegant – especially with their long plaits. I spent a memorable night in a bar with an Otavalan band and after a couple of lethal glasses of moonshine, joined in by shaking the maracas-like bulls nails whilst the locals danced on the tables!

After Quito, followed by Guayaquil (my jumping off point for the Galapagos Islands), Cuenca comes in third. Think cobbled streets, colonial squares, grand churches, a fast-flowing river and the immaculate ruins of Tumbaba, a little-visited Inca city and you have a perfect 2-3 day retreat. Oh yes, and it is the home of the Panama hat, which, contrary to popular belief is not from Panama but received its name as the canal was the route to export to the USA. It takes about 30 minutes to tour the museum but I found myself holed up there for 2 hours waiting out the most torrential downpour, so there is very little I don’t know about how to make the perfect hat.

Finally, sprawling, polluted, over-crowded Quito. I was fortunate to be staying with Gaby and her brother in a nice neighbourhood but can’t say I warmed to the city. Sure the historic centre has some impressive squares, buildings, churches and museums, the best being the San Francisco monastery, the Alabado Museum (full of incredible ceramics dating back to 2000B.C) and S America’s foremost 20th century artist,  Oswalde Guayasamin’s stunning house and gallery, but it doesn’t seem to have a soul. It also frustrated me because I couldn’t change my dollar travellers cheques or find more contact lenses or get my camera mended or post a parcel to the UK. Grrr.

Ecuador is three times the size of Colombia but with just 15m people, is a third of the population. The difference between the haves and the have nots is marked. There are the elite who’ve got rich through oil and mining and then there are people who live in extreme poverty. I met some Andean families living in shacks with no electricity or running water with guinea pigs living inside to ward off evil spirits. They told me that the community supports each other but that they get little help from the government. There is no social security, free health care is available for minor illnesses (assuming you can get to a hospital) but not for terminal ones, nor is there dental care. Girls often leave school at 15 to get married and start a family. Boys will move to the nearest town or city for their education and typically never return. If you can afford a car, petrol is $2 a gallon but with $ currency everything else is about 4 times as expensive as in Colombia. I really don’t know how most people make ends meet.

 

The Galapagos Islands are something else altogether.

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600 miles off the coast there are 19 volcanic islands, 5 of which are inhabited by people and animals, the remaining 14 being inhabited solely by animals!

The whole of Galapagos has UNESCO status. The waters are protected from fishing and the land is protected from development. This means that the flora, fauna and marine life are the star players and, because the islands were never attached to the mainland, 40% of everything is endemic to Galapagos. The islands are not without their problems. Several plants and animals have become endangered by blackberry bushes, feral pigs, donkeys and goats introduced by the first settlers and more recently by a fly which has all but killed off the marsh finch. Encouragingly, there is significant government investment in eradication of these intruders and in breeding programmes so the future is looking pretty positive.

I spent an incredible two weeks visiting most of the islands, both on day excursions and on a fabulous 5 days cruise with a group of really lovely 30-40 year olds from across the globe, and a brilliant guide whose impersonation of courting blue-footed boobies was worthy of an Oscar. I also did a few dives but the visibility was poor and the waters were cold, and whilst I did see hammerhead sharks, most of the other marine life I equally saw snorkelling. This included swimming with penguins, sea lions, turtles, reef sharks and iguanas.

What’s so interesting is that each island has its own specific wildlife, which has evolved over time into species best suited to their environment. On all the islands I was literally tripping over animals on land, crashing into them in the sea and ducking for cover from them in the sky.

Every lunchtime on the cruise we were treated to a different marine show: whale sharks one day, humpback whales the next, a school of dolphins the next and rarest of all a couple of massive sword fish which sent the captain into a state of ecstacy such that he left the wheel to take photos!

If you’re thinking of going to Galapagos there’s no rush. In fact the more successful the breeding programmes become, the more wildlife there’ll be to enjoy but start saving your pennies now because it sure ain’t cheap. Also choose your time of year depending on what you want to see.

I didn’t know when I’d be in Galapagos until a few days before.  I booked a flight and just turned up with no clue what I was going to see.  Considering it was ‘low season’, I absolutely lucked out.  Nowhere was crowded, the weather was kind , everyone I met super-friendly and it was lobster season! One memorable night I danced in Santa Cruz main square with a sweet little girl who wouldnt let me sit down for about half an hour, another night I watched five aside football on the beach whilst eating lobster and one more I drank wine froma plastic cup in the port, watching sharks circle below me whilst listening to two young local men tell me about their recent divorces and how bereft they were.  I think the bottle of wine and my mothly advice helped easy the pain!

I decided to make a list of every creature I encountered during my Galapagos odyssey. Here it is together with lots of photos, which I hope you enjoy.

Birds:
Albatross + chicks
Blue-foot boobies and chicks
Nazca boobies
Flightless cormorants
Frigate birds
Swallow tailed gulls
Brown pelicans
Chatham mockingbirds
Darwin finches
Long beak ground finches
Yellow warblers
Flycatchers
Moorhens
Greater flamingos
Great blue heron
Lava heron
Black neck stilts
Brown noddies
Galapagos shearwater
Storm petrels
Sanderlings
Whimbrels

Marine:
Hammerhead sharks
Black tipped reef sharks
White tipped reef sharks
Galapagos sharks
Cat sharks

Humpback whales
Killer whales

Bottlenose dolphins
Common dolphins (not common!)

Manta rays
Spotted stingrays
Marbled rays
Golden rays
Eagle rays

Swordfish

Sea horse
Lobster
Octopus
Tiger Snake eels
Sea cucumbers
Star fish
Nudibranch

Shoals of Salema
Many fish inc Emperor angel, parrot, box, puffer, stone, scorpion, surgeon, frog

Marine iguanas

Green turtles
Hawksbill turtles

Land & Sea:
Galapagos Penguins
Sea lions, juveniles and pups

Land:
Land iguanas
Lava lizards

Saddlebacks turtles
Giant Galapagos turtles
Chatham turtles
Juvenile & baby turtles

 

 

To see the pics bigger click on each one.

Phew, I think that covers everything!

Next up Peru……..

Across the Pacific to Colombia

 

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Wow! What an amazing country but what a convoluted journey to get there. Sydney to Auckland (4 hours); 2 hour layover and +1 hour; ghastly 11 hour flight to Santiago, -15 hour time difference; 9 hour layover (thank goodness for my Business Lounge pass with bed, shower, food and the Olympics); 00:30 flight to Bogota arriving at 5am – but only 10 hours since I left Sydney! I still haven’t managed to work it out!

My first exposure to South America was a marked contrast to my first exposure to SE Asia. Yangon was all crazy traffic, dirty streets throbbing with street sellers and dwellers, and big open hearts. Bogota was ordered, though massively polluted traffic, clean, uncrowded pedestrianised streets and intolerant locals.

What Bogota lacked in people charm it made up for in places of interest. Up to the holy site of Monserrat overlooking the city and far beyond, down to the carefully restored former home of hero Simon Bolivar, along to the incredible Museo d’Oro and the Museo Botero (most famous Colombian artist renowned for his ‘plump’ paintings), dipping into numerous ornately gilded, frescoed, stain-glassed churches, appreciating expressive graffiti in narrow, cobbled streets and, after months of Muslim strictures, enjoying seeing overt displays of affection everywhere, I spent a couple of action packed days before heading back to the airport to meet big sis Caro.

After almost 7 months on my own it was fantastic to be with family, especially as I hadn’t seen Caro since my Mum died 17 months previously. We celebrated with several mojitos and not much food, which resulted in the first hangover of my travels!

Colombia is the third largest country in S America and is probably the most difficult to get around. As the inveterate traveller I felt responsible for ensuring we maximised our experiences, so with just 15 days to play with I spent hours mapping out distances and transport possibilities in order to mix cultural stuff with countryside, allowing time for hiking, horse riding, coffee plantations and r&r on the beach as well as finding attractive accommodation at affordable prices. Most places didn’t have twin rooms so we opted for triples and took it in turns to have the double rather than the single bed. Hot water was a bit hit and miss, except in the eco lodge on a small island in the Caribbean, where we washed using half a coconut to scoop cold fresh water from a bucket and flushed the loo with a bucket of salt water – all very Robinson Crusoe. Here we also turned on the room fan by twisting together two open wires!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Hangover taken care of by Mr. Alka Seltzer we set off by bus to our first destination of Villa de Leyva, approx 5 hours NE of Bogota. The plan had been to hire a taxi to make stops along the way to visit one of only 3 underground salt cathedrals in the world (the other two are in Finland) and villages famous for pottery and sausages. However, the driver suddenly couldn’t /didn’t want to make the trip – my first but by no means the last exposure to the vagaries of Colombian travel, so we had to take a bus, scuppering the stop-offs.

However, the road to Villa de Leyva necessitated a change of bus in the town of Tunja, which boasts two meticulously restored houses belonging to two prominent families, The highlight of both homes was the elaborately pained ceilings and walls depicting flowers, animals, birds etc that all carried meanings.

The lovely town of Villa de Leyva nestles peacefully in a valley surrounded a stunning mountain scenery. Once a year it hosts a 3-day festival de cometas (kites) in the vast white-washed plaza, which people flock to from huge distances. As luck would have it, we arrived on the eve of the festival which meant that the next day, after climbing half way up a mountain to take in the views, we could then enjoy the displays, competitions and evening revelries. It was great to see so many people of all ages partying in the plaza and being so friendly and welcoming to the handful of foreigners.

My experience throughout my time in Colombian, both with Caro and continuing on after she left was of kind, good humoured, friendly people (excluding the Bogotanos) who, after years of troubles that have kept visitors away, were keen to promote themselves, their traditions and their incredibly diverse, beautiful country.

We moved on from Villa de Leyva to another gorgeous white-washed place called Barichara. Smaller and less showy than its big brother, Barichara had a charm and tranquility that deserved more of our time. We breakfasted on local fare of potato soup, arepos (corn cakes with cheese) served with hot chocolate before taking a longish walk through the countryside filled with flowers, birds and butterflies to the tiny picture postcard village of Guane, famous for its pre-historic fossils.

A 4-hour drive through gob-smackingly stunning mountain ranges, during which it seemed churlish not to eat the roasted ants proffered, and we hit Bucaramanga from whence we flew to the Caribbean coast to the world renowned city of Cartagena.

What an impressive place. Every street has brightly painted houses with big wooden door and wrought iron balconies overflowing with flowering baskets oozing bougainvilleas, geraniums, fuchsias. There are a plethora of squares with the requisite statue of an important hombre, ornate church, fountain. Add to this impressive ramparts, a humongous fortress, dozens of museums, open air restaurants, street musicians and miles of sea there you have it, a warm (literal and metaphorical), enticing city.

Being time poor we didn’t make it further up the coast to the rugged Tayrona National Park and the popular village of Minca but we did skip over to Isla Grande for some beach time plus a lovely afternoon canoeing through the mangroves and cycling through the forest to visit the indigenous community with local guide Jesus; a snorkelling escapade over the wreck of drugs baron Pablo Escobar’s crashed plane and an incredible night swim in a lagoon filled with bio-florescent plankton, which was like swimming through a bowl of golden snow flakes. I also drank my first ever Pina Colada and am hooked!

We made a call to pass by Colombia’s second city Medellin, opting instead to spend time in the divine coffee region around Salento – another delightful town with brightly painted houses, artisan shops and excellent restaurants (beef cooked in blackberry, red wine and coffee sauce was wickedly scrumptious). As well as visiting a coffee farm to learn about coffee making from planting interspersed with banana trees,  through harvesting to cleaning, sorting, baking and packing for export (the premium beans go abroad leaving inferior, weak stuff for local consumption), we saddled up and rode through farmland and across streams accompanied by a young guide and his two lovely dogs. It was idyllic.

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Salento sits in the Valle de Cocora and the famous 3 hour trek past streams, over bridges, up through woodland to a hut serving hot agua de panela (hardened sugar cane drink) with chunks of cheese in it (not my favourite) surrounded by masses of hummingbirds is not to be missed. It’s then another hour to the summit with expansive views before hiking 2 hours down the other side through palm trees 60 metres high swaying in the breeze. These graceful palms are only found in Cocora, so they too are worth the slog.

And that whizz through approx half of Colombia brought Caro and me to the end of our holiday together. We had a great time and crammed in incredible amount. I also learned heaps more Spanish from listening to her talking to people and now feel mire confident. I know Caro was frustrated at having to leave with so much more to experience, but Colombia isn’t so far from Boston, plus it has the advantage of only having a one hour time difference so know she’ll be back for another dose of this infectious country.

Meanwhile, feeling slightly discombobulated at being alone once more, I decided to head south the check out the two most ancient places in Colombia- San Agustin with its 500B.C – 900A.D statues and Tierradentro with its 600-900AD tombs. I was advised that I could make the journey in 5 days but to be prepared for remote, rough roads. My jumping off point was the university city of Popayan – a.k.a. the ‘white city’, so called because the whole city is painted white. In the xxxxx the people became infected with “nigua” a parasite that burrowed beneath the skin of the feet and caused extreme itching. People used to scratch their feet on the corners of buildings. scientists discovered that limestone killed the parasite so the Mayor instructed thatall buildings should be painted white and the decree remains to this day. I really liked Popayan, probably because of the student vibe but also because of its mixture of old and new and also because I had the funniest manicure, pedicure and leg wax of my life. My young beautician and I were discussing the pros and cons of the soft porn music videos being shown. I was arguing against the portrayal of women as sex objects, she was arguing that female as well as male Colombians enjoy watching the stuff. Sounds straightforward but in Spanglish it was less so. We managed to get clients and staff to join in the debate and it was truly hysterical. Colombian women of all shapes and sizes are refreshingly proud of their bodies and Colombian men (on the small side but very good looking) can’t get enough of them. So what do I know!

I was heading for Tierradentro first on a 5:30am bus which turned out not to exist. Aleady at the bus station I switched plans and jumped on a 7:30 bus to San Agustin. It was another beautiful drive through Coconuco National Park, topped by Purace volcano and three other lesser volcanos.

 

It was a good road until the tarmac ran out. The road literally stopped and then we bumped along a pot-holed track for a few hours before the tarmac mysteriously reappeared. The hostel I booked into was up there with the best of my 7 months on the road. It had a lovely garden, homely kitchen with delicious fresh food, an open fire and a gorgeous golden retriever. I was in 4-bed dorm on my own for two nights. Bliss. The statues for which San Agustin is famous are amazing. My delightful guide Ernesto explained in detail the symbolism of the most important figures and the funeral rituals. What he couldn’t explain was much about the lives of the people because little is known about them. The surrounding area has more statues which I visited on horseback and further afield there are Agustinian burial sites, waterfalls and lovely stretches of the Rio Magdalena – the longest river in Colombia.

 

Leaving San Agustin for Tierradento I stopped the night in a place called La Plata which is nothing special, except it will always be very special to me because it was there that I learned I had become a grandmother! My granddaughter Matilda Rose was born at 6:45pm on 27 August, weighing in at 7.8lbs. I had such mixed emotions. I was of course relieved that mother and baby were fine, and I was over the moon for Becca and Simon but it was tough not being there to hug and kiss them all and hold Tilly in my arms. I went to the church in the main square and lit a candle, had a bit of a cry, realised how blessed I am and celebrated with some tasty street food.

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Transport to Tierradentro was in the back of a pick up truck. Luckily it was only a short distance along unmade roads. The village consisted on one dusty street with three or four homestays and nothing else. The tombs are spread out along high ridges which take hours to reach but it was well worth the effort because they are incredible. Climbing down steep steps you are confronted with geometric paintings in black, red and yellow dating back 2,000 years.

The final destination on my loop was Silvia, a thriving market town famous for its bright clad indigenous people who throng the streets every Tuesday. It took me 6 hours to make the 37km journey. 3 hours waiting for a bus which never showed up, resorting to hitching a lift from a nice looking couple and then spending 2.5 hours travelling on completely unmade up tracks where in some places there was literally nothing except stones, pools of water and mud.

Silvia is a simple town which comes to life every Tuesday when the indigenous Guambiano people come down from the hills to market. Wearing traditional dress of bowler hats, blue and red cloaks and black skirts (both men & women) trimmed in white, red and blue and carrying brightly woven bags they are a wonderful sight. Numbering just 20,000, they are tiny, dark skinned and very jolly.

Serendipitously I meet local celebrity Freddy who took me to a village about 10km from town where for the first time since being in Colombia I had a chance to interact with children. They were friendly, funny, snotty nosed, chaotic, dirty and happy. The countryside was lush and there were labourers in the fields and on the trout farms. I met a young woman weaving traditional skirts who explained to me that the black symbolised the earth, white was for purity, red for the blood of their ancestors and blue for the sky and the heavens. For weddings the skirts are red and white and whilst most Guambians marry at 18, with aprental agreement some marry at 14 or 15. Family planning was introduced about 15 years ago so now families tend to be no more than 4 children.

The community is Patriarchal. The family home and land is handed down to the children, however, if there are no children then the property and land reverts to the state. Like other indigenous people, the Guambianos have their own government. The senior elective (voted for every year) has a seat at the regional municipal government. Not anyone can stand for election. It must be a man (not a woman, though they have been in the board for about 10 years) from a wealthy family of standing. Freddie took me to a trout farm for a delicious lunch then it was time to head back to Popayan where the police force was holding a candlelit vigil in memory of all those families who had lost a loved one or been forced to flee during the 52 years of Cival war. Huge posters saying ‘Popayan votes for peace’ were draped on the town hall as young and old celebrated the newly agreed ceasefire with FARC agreeing to hand in their weapons.

It was a fitting last night in Colombian – a country which I totally fell in love with. As with my first experience in Asia where I fell under the spell of Myanmar, warts and all, so it was with Colombia. I loved the dramatic countryside, the generous people, the great music, the fascinating culture, the chaotic roads, the even not-so-marvellous food. It felt like its heartbeat was synchronised with mine.

Sad to be leaving with more places still to discover (Cana Cristales, Leticia, Cuidad Perdido, Beunaventura),  I headed to Ipiales to cross the border into Ecuador. Before leaving I visited the superb Las Lajas cathedral majestically carved into the rock face, spanning a ravine. A more dramatic adios would be hard to imagine.

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Hasta la vista Colombia.

Ayres Rock, Blue Mountains and Sydney

 

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Making up for months on the wagon, here I am getting stuck into the bubbles whilst marvelling at sunset at Uluru, the aboriginal name for the mighty Ayres Rock.

Every time I told people I was only spending two weeks in Australia they were surprised at such a short visit.  My reasons were twofold.  Firstly I didn’t feel I wanted to get back into a western culture and secondly my wardrobe wouldn’t permit more that a few days in winter temperatures.  Also, Australia is very big and to do it justice would require several weeks and if you throw NZ into the mix and maybe Tasmania, there goes most of my remaining travel time.

But  where to go?  My plan was to do Melbourne and Sydney but When I saw 12 degrees in Melbourne (25 degrees less than I was used to) I blew that idea out and decided very last minute to go to Uluru or more correctly Yulara, the town which services Uluru- Kata TJuta National Park.  It was an ace decision.   The NP is a magical place and the Rock draws you in and envelopes you in its spirituality.

The land was officially returned to the Anangu aborigines in 1985 and whilst it has been leased back to the government to develop tourism, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Land Trust protects the sacred sites and preserves the local heritage.

I spent three fabulous days in the park.  I walked round Uluru being told centuries old creation stories and staring in awe at this immense natural phenominal with its wateing holes, caves and cave paintings, in the middle of nowhere. The Rock , at 350 odd metres is not that tall but it descends an incredible 6km below ground.

About 20km away are The Olgas, Kata Tjuta’s (means ‘many heads’) huge domed rocks which are really impressive and offer some stunning walks.  I particularly liked the Valley of the Winds.

Further away still (like a 3.5 hour drive) is the King’s Canyon, another astounding area of natural beauty where I spent happy day climb up and walking round the rim (sounds like volcanoes all over again only this was a river canyon!).

Of course the best time to be around these natural wonders is sunrise or sunset. I was able to experience both from my Lodge, and there is a marked difference in the colour changes the rocks project at either end of the day. I was fortunate to have three crisp, clear blue skies and uninterrupted sunshine by day and the Milky Way and dazzling stars, including bright red Mars and yellow Jupiter at night.

I also walked through the “Field of Light” – Bruce Munroe’s installation of 50,000 solar powered lights. It was a surreal moment finding myself in the middle of the Central Western Desert surrounded thousands of coloured lights on the ground and a million stars in the sky.

Yulara has several art galleries exhibiting indigenous arts and crafts and there are storytelling, song and dance performances which are enchanting.

I met a man who was an expert on bush flora and fauna and was fascinated to learn about the controlled rotational fires which replenish the bush, the parasitic plants and the beneficial ones, the destructive and the productive animals and the effects of the markedly different seasons (two only). One of the most abundant trees is the dessert oak introduced by the, which can withstand raging fires.

I really, really loved Uluru and could have lingered longer, however…..it was time to hit the hedonism of Bondi Beach!

I’m sure there’s not much I can say about Sydney that you well-travelled people don’t already know.  Suffice it to say I made the most of my week there, soaking up exhibitions, going to the opera, whale watching, lazing in the parks with their wealth of melodical birds and by the beach with surgers aplenty, walking the cliffs (amazing cemetery) and window shopping downtown.

But OMG is Sydney expensive.  My last meal at the Michelin starred hawker stall in Singapore’s Chinatown was under £4  My first coffee in Sydney was over £4!

Lucky for me I spent 3 nights with a friend I’d met in Vietnam.  He invited me to his ocean-view home in Bondi where I had a relaxing time hanging out with his family doing.

I was doubly lucky to be invited to stay with a friend of a friend in Leura, a small picturesque town the Blue Mountains.  My host made me feel so welcome and did everything in her power (heated blanket, pashmina, Shih Tzu) to keep me from getting hypothermia, my bones being unprepared for the cold. We drank red wine and smoked some good s*** and watched the Antiques Roadshow!  I went on two mammoth walks through the mountains, which are quite spectacular even in the drizzle and mist.  They must be sensational in the summer!

What I was unaware of prior to arrival in Oz was how important it has become to recognise and support the aboriginal people. They are thought to have inhabited the land for more that 20,000 years, the Aussies just 250 years.  In Sydney it is the Eora tribe. On a tour of Sydney Opera House, the guide paid homage to their forefathers who lived on the land where SOH is now situated and there are many wonderful stories and videos in the Australia Museum.  Yulara is one of the most important aboriginal areas in the whole country but poverty, lack of education and discrimination still exist.  The government is being fiercely held to account but there is still a way to go from this moving 2008 declaration.

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I’m writing this blog in the Business Lounge at Santiago airport where I’m enduring a 9 hour layover before my 00:50 flight to Bogota.  I left Sydney at 11am on Monday took a 15 hour flight and it’s still Monday.  By the time I get to Colombia I won’t know if I’m Arthur or Martha (one of my Mum’s priceless expressions). Whilst I’m working it out  I’ll leave you with a few photos………………..hasta la vista!

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