Bed, Bugs and Ballyhoo

What happens when Gaucho Day coincides with Halloween – and there’s a onesie market round the corner from the campsite

BEDTIME as an overlander can rely on many things.

The prospect of an early start the next day – and breakfast later than 7.30am would be classed as something of a lie-in – is likely to curtail a few late nights. Not all, especially with the chance to catch up on sleep on a drive day.

Nights out or access to bars when staying in hotels or hostels – a rarity over the last week or so before reaching Santiago, which came with its own dramas – will have an obvious impact on what time people roll in to bed.

While camping, conditions and access to alcohol (usually red and straight from the bottle since stocking up in Argentina, to the extent the truck has a distinct clink when it goes round corners) will dictate evening behaviour.

The world’s largest empty swimming pool

At bush camps people tend to head for their tents early, bar those who opt for one more bottle before bed. And then maybe another one.

But for two successive nights under canvas, the decision on what time to head to bed was rather taken for us by the local, buzzy wildlife and the weather.

Hiding under canvas was not always enough for some of us.

Let’s roll backwards a bit first, something we needed to get Spongebob to do after a night listing in a dried river bed.

But freed from our Bolivian shackles and, eventually, through the first of several crossings of the Argentinian border (we bounce in and out of Chile in the next few weeks) we crossed into the fourth country on the trip and an almost instant increase in temperature.

And an increase in the consumption of red wine, starting with our night in the quaint hillside town of Purmamarca which we sort of explored in between trips to the off licence, empanada stall and town square to use the free WiFi.

Our cook group had rather more things to buy as we reached the town of Salta ahead of three nights camping alongside the most enormous swimming pool, easily bigger than two football pitches but sadly devoid of water.

Argentinian steak – the start of a great love affair

Somehow, had managed to only cook once up to this point and managed to forget how long it can take to make a white sauce while camping after suggesting it as the best way to make a macaroni cheese.

Arm muscles given a work out, the evening’s choice of activities was watching The Goonies on the side of the truck or downing a few more bottles of red. While getting chewed by the local insects.

The start of two recurring themes.

With the temperature rising, sitting by even an empty pool seemed a good idea the next day so while others headed off into Salta, several of us hung around camp, sorted our stuff out and fell into a long game of Monopoly Deal (the board game, just played with cards which became a truck obsession) and some suitable refreshment.

Breaking only for some shopping for Halloween onesies before heading out for an evening with the third recurring Argentinian theme, great slabs of steak cooked to perfection and washed down with a nice soft drink.

Or a nice bottle of red, you choose.

Very few pictures, we were too busy eating.

We went even more Argentinian the next day, heading out with gauchos for a spot of horse riding – well, some did, no poor animal deserves that fate with me.

Reunited, we tucked into the piles of barbecued meat and wine which flowed onto the table, all while dressed in a variety of bizarre onesies and Halloween costumes.

Still to work out whether mine is a moose or a reindeer, but it is likely to come in very handy when it gets cold further south and is already doing sterling service as a tent pillow.

After a few days of gluttony and relative inactivity, it was time for some action to work off some of that steak and we headed a few hours down the road for an afternoon rafting.

Not the toughest river – harder challenges lie ahead for those who want it – but a fun afternoon which involved more splashing the other boat than serious threat from the churning water.

But our visit to Salta Rafting will be remembered not for the challenges on the river but those buzzing around the campsite, especially as dusk and dinner approached.

This was after it had started to go down

Regardless of the temperature, we dug out hoodies, long trousers and socks to keep out the nasty, still unidentified little buggers.

Should really have gone for gloves as well before diving into the protection of the tent immediately after dinner and refusing to come out – even with the offer of a couple of bottles of wine in an adjoining tent – until nature dictated.

With just my hands exposed, the right one took the brunt with a string of pin prick bite marks – 26 at one count on the back of it – which as the race to get out of there the next morning intensified, began to bubble up into something rather bigger.

As did my hand.

By the time we had rolled into our next stop in Cafayate via some spectacular scenery, it had swollen up considerably and could not form a fist so rather than head into town, spent much of the afternoon crashed out on the truck – partly the effects of some tablets, mainly the impact of feeling rather sorry for myself and fearing another onset of the cellulitis which dogged my Trans Africa trip.

Beware swinging doors

But snoozing was cut short by the heavens opening – supposedly for the first time in nine months in this part of the world – to apocalyptic proportions, turning the campsite and much of the town into a lake.

Not the best time for two of us to spend half an hour waiting at the entrance for a taxi to hospital – one to check on the results from a scan following a coming together between head and truck door, the other convinced cellulitis had returned.

Thankfully, seems we both got lucky.

No idea if it was cellulitis, but one quick injection later and was dispatched back to the campsite to wait on the truck for a brief cessation in the downpour to make a break for the tent and a night listening to the rain and thunder which drowned out the music in my headphones.

We bought a few of these

By morning, the rain had stopped, the tents were still dry – bar the person who opened his to check on the surrounding water while facing uphill and let the torrent in, but he was concussed – and my hand was on its way down to the point where it could grip normally.

Which was handy, considering how much gripping of wine glasses it did throughout the day as we headed out on a tour of a the local wineries.

Well, we toured a couple of them, grabbed lunch which consisted of huge piles of empanadas and then headed back to one of the wineries to check our original assessments of the wine in their rather nice courtyard.

We were still assessing and discussing, rather loudly and passionately at one point evidently, until well into the evening with a takeout order which somehow came accompanied home by the winery’s dog.

She just had a better idea of when to go to bed than the rest of us.

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Everything Is Coming Up Milhouse

Lunch stop in the Andes

WHILE taking you to parts of the world you would not normally see, overlanding has a tendency to keep you away from the real world.

The appearance of WiFi has people scurrying for the sports results and, if it holds up long enough, possibly some actual news.

We have checked on the latest Brexit situation and tried to explain it to our non-British travellers, just not sure we have been able to report anything without getting more confused than them.

Far more interested in the rugby scores.

Calm amid any number of storms in Cusco

But every so often, the real world impinges on our journey. And all around us, South America is getting very real.

Behind us, riots broke out in Quito which forced the Ecuadorean government to backtrack on proposed fuel price increases.

Lima was in a state of flux with road blocks and threatened protests against the Peruvian government while Argentina – not many miles away once we have pulled the truck out of the river bed we are camping in – and neighbouring Uruguay headed to the polls today.

And Venezuela, officially still on our route, is in such a state the alternative option of heading down the Amazon to Colombia – remarkably, a bastion of sanity – is on the map on our tour T-shirts.

Far more to the forefront of our minds is the situation in Bolivia and Chile.

Both have been hit by protests, road blocks and turmoil which has forced one rethink to our schedule and has us keeping a watching brief on what lies ahead with multiple crossings between Chile and Argentina on the way south, not to mention departures and arrivals due in Santiago.

Most of the Horny Llama with reinforcements in the hostel bar

All that was a long way from our minds as we made our way back from Machu Picchu to our Cusco base at Milhouse Hostel.

Top of our agenda as we headed back via train and minibus from Aqua Calientes was getting dry, laundry, a shower, getting to the bar and avoiding sleep on the journey as part of the 24-hour challenge to stay awake for a day after our 3.30am wake-up call – some with more success than others.

Dry, clean and laundry crammed into bags for delivery, the final climb of the Inca Trail adventure carried us up the steps to the hostel bar to a wide selection of happy hour cocktails, shots won by throwing bottle tops into a bucket above the bar, chocolate cake, a variety of silly hats and a beer pong tournament which never reached its conclusion.

By the early hours the bar staff were not too keen on letting a couple of Anglo-Aussie survivors stay behind to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter-final, my 24 hours awake ending watching the game on Twitter while my roomie fell asleep five minutes from reaching the target.

Not surprisingly, the following day was not too action-packed – a hefty late breakfast (try the Gordo at Jack’s Cafe if you are ever in Cusco, you will not go hungry), a massage for aching muscles after the trek, some more sleep and a group trip out for a curry at the Korma Sutra.

Very pleasant and pretty restrained amid the first stirrings of trouble ahead. At least for most of us, those on the top bunks in our dorm were glad to be well clear from the fallout of one person’s night out.

Morning came too early for the late-night reveller as a convoy of taxis reunited us with the truck to make the way to our next stop in Puno, our base on the banks of Lake Titicaca.

Not that we stayed there too long – at least at this point – as we headed out the next morning on the world’s highest navigable lake. Very slowly.

Lecture on a floating reed island

Our boat chugged along, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the views over the next two days, soak up the sun, catch up on sleep, attempt to throw corn into mouths between decks, sample the local wine and work out how soon one of the children playing on the roof was going to fall in.

Our slow boat to nowhere in particular did have a few stops to get us on dry land as we headed slap into the heart of the tourist trail.

Well, sort of dry land, our first port of call taking us to a floating reed island to meet the Uros Indians who talked us through how they built the islands – interesting, once our rather long-winded guide had let them explain – before trying to sell us stuff. 

And transporting us to another island on an even slower boat.

Sunset over Lake Titicaca…

Back on our normal sedate transport, we chugged across to Amantani island, our base for the night where we were dished out in groups to our host families.

After fears of minimal facilities, our group – most of the Inca Trek veterans plus tour leader Danny – were pleasantly surprised as we found comfortable beds (if you did not move too much), a toilet and good food served up by our Mama for the night.

Meals were interspersed with a walk up to a temple at the top of the island – a steep incline which suggested the Inca Trail had left its mark on our legs, broken up by another lengthy lecture by our guide on the meaning of an Inca Cross.

Something to do with things in threes evidently.

…and sunrise

We were beginning to switch off before discovering a bar and alpaca on a stick on our way down, despite his claims the islanders were largely teetotal and barely ate meat.

The local falling drunk into the barbecue and the men drinking in the local shop until late rather ruined his argument as we headed back to our home for the night before heading back up the steep slope in traditional dress for a party or up the slightly less steep stairs to bed.

Our guide had another couple of chances to tell us more than we needed to know as we headed to the neighbouring island of Taquile for another steep walk and a rather less strenuous stroll around the island before heading, slowly, back to Puno.

Which is where the problems on the road ahead started to get more real – a group meeting at the hotel outlining a plan to stay another day to monitor events in Bolivia with a potential second round of voting in their election.

News of problems in La Paz – our first major stop – and road blocks drifted through as the wine flowed and more people descended, clinking, on one of the rooms.

We headed to bed with heads slightly spinning. Partly from wine, partly from altitude and partly from the prospects of what lay ahead – a run for the border or an alternative route via land or air.

All we could do was sit and wait.

The massed ranks in the middle of Lake Titicaca
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