Wherever I Lay My Phone

FROM time to time, this blog likes to provide a few tips, probably learned the hard way, which may come in handy for anyone planning their own overland adventure.

So to that end, one piece of advice became as crystal clear as the water which helped create the problem – do not jump off the back of a boat with a phone in your short pockets.

In my defence, there were extenuating circumstances involving turtles, boobies (yes, seriously), the fact nothing is normally kept in my board short pockets and the sun. Yes, let’s blame the sun.

It has, after all, been ridiculously hot for large chunks of our 11-day ‘beach week’ along the coast of the giant Bahia province in Brazil.

Jumping in the water – not always as cold as you would like – has been a very popular pastime throughout. Just most people bothered to check they had nothing of value in their pockets.

Except me when the first real chance arrived to plunge into the sea on a boat trip during our stay in the sleepy – even outside the hours of siesta – stop of Caravelas.

Our boat, shared with Brazilians and, thankfully, one returning native based in Boston and able to translate what was actually going on to those whose Portuguese still stretches little further than ordering a beer, spent the day heading out, around and back from the islands which make up the Parque Nacional Marinho de Abrolhos.

Turtles bobbing around the boat as we pulled up to our first stop upped the excitement levels before we were ushered in small groups into a smaller boat and off for a short walk along the nearby shore.

Boobies indignant at taking any blame over my phone going for a swim

More than accustomed to the influx of visitors, the local bird life barely ruffled a feather as we wandered past just a foot or so away, grabbing the opportunity for rare close-up booby pics (stop sniggering at the back).

All good, all smiles until having used my phone to take the pictures, Lisa opted to swim back to the boat and deposited it in my pocket as we clambered back into our lift back.

Where it remained when the end of her swim was met with my less than graceful splash off the back of the boat to make the most of the glorious conditions – right up to the point, several minutes later, my phone being put in my pocket came back to me.

It remained working, right up to the point the advice to turn it off immediately became pretty unanimous and there was nothing to do other than put it somewhere safe and spend the rest of the afternoon snorkelling, splashing around (the two may appear the same in some cases) and trying to get near the food ahead of Brazilians who appear to have no concept of sharing, queueing, not sitting on your stuff or little things like someone actually sitting in the seat they wanted.

But hey, that’s for another post.

As for the phone, it was banished to the bottom of my locker in a bag of rice nicked borrowed from the truck supplies for the next few days.

Which at least kept it free of the sand which has got everywhere, but stopped my participation in the endless Instagram posing (always with one heel raised and head tilted backwards) which seems to be the Brazilian way.

Again, that’s for another post.

Remarkably, having been through all that, my phone appears to be working (touching all available wood as that is written), rather unlike one poor travelling companion who admitted his faulty phone was working fine “apart from the phone and the forward facing camera”.

Most importantly, all the pictures – boobies and otherwise, if you really want to milk that line of humour – appear to be in place and backed up.

Until my next lapse of concentration and it gets dunked in a vat of caipirinhas (highly likely, given the current consumption rate) or buried on a beach somewhere.

Phone drama apart, our stop in Caravelas was a relaxing one.

Relax was pretty much all you could do given the wait to receive your food at most restaurants – if you received anything at all, two of us at one point just being given two glasses and a plate because they seemed to think we were sharing other people’s food and drink.

The wait one night was so long, we started tucking in to the chillis in the salsa.

Not the smartest of moves.

Caravelas’ hold on us lasted a bit longer than planned as with our scheduled stop not available, we made the shortest of drives and spent the day and night on the nearest beach, complete with a spectacular rising red moon.

Less spectacular when you consider the colour probably had something to do with pollution.

Most of the truck celebrates a couple of birthdays on the beach at Trancoso, complete with the barbecued cheese bloke. Spot the secret Santa presents.

We headed further up the coast the next morning to Trancoso where the main items on the agenda were hanging around on the beach, sampling the locals bars and restaurants (mainly an Aussie-run coffee shop in our case), exploring the central Quadrado (grassy area surrounded by stalls and cafes), trying to keep the popper on my new board shorts done up, eating street food (surprisingly lovely tapioca wraps) and inadvertently adding to our truck collection of sandwich toasters.

With a joint birthday party on the beach which featured a fair bit of drama, eskie punch (some of it loaded into a water pistol) and the sad demise of several chairs and loss of our Rio gazebo.

The short drive to Porto Seguro brought us to our next stop, where the Portuguese first arrived and the African influence on the area begins to become evident.

We did explore their landing spot in the old town, collecting hammocks for what lies ahead on boats, but the highlight of our two-night stay was rather more modern – a trip to a water park to celebrate tour leader Danny’s birthday.

Which left just one more beach stop at Itacare, so brief a lot of us did not bother to make the short journey – basically walking round the fence – to the beach.

Can’t be too careful when you have a phone in your pocket.

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Filthy and Fried

THINGS we have learned in Brazil.

  • Restaurants have invented a variety of ways for you to serve yourself or to pretty much stuff your face with as much as you can manage (especially if you are Croatian).
  • Service stations, on the other hand, like you to be served by as many people as possible before you are allowed out.
  • When you do order something off a menu, food is likely to appear at different times, in an erratic order and after lengthy waits.
  • It is hot.
  • Ordering a caipirinha is something of a lottery concerning what size and strength you are going to get. It is worth trying your luck.
  • Sit around on a beach and somebody will bring you a drink. 
  • Chunks of cheese held over a pot of charcoal and dunked in oregano are remarkably tasty.
  • It is really hot.
  • Taking a picture of someone holding a gun in a favela does not go down too well.
  • Brazilians like to party loud. All night.
  • Sitting among a group of men under rainbow flags is not enough to tip some people off they are in a gay bar.
  • Walking on cobbles in flip-flops is uncomfortable.
  • It is really, really hot.

The quest for shade from that heat – not easy on a truck day, even with the windows all open to get some air flow – and investigation of self-service meal and caipirinha varieties have taken up much of our time since finally escaping Copacabana beach in the early hours of the new year.

Not that we have left the sand totally behind – a lot of it is in our beds and tents for starters – as having headed into the hills for a few days, we have returned to the coast for what has become known as beach week.

Which lasts about 10 days.

After the chaos of New Year’s Eve, our remaining time in Rio was relatively quiet, a couple of trips to Ipanema beach and a rather quieter post-party Copacabana mixed in with regular trips to our favourite kilo restaurant and a lengthy wait for a table which delayed a farewell meal to those leaving the truck.

We did summon up the energy to head out of a tour of the giant Rochino favela, led down the slopes and through the narrow streets by our knowledgable guide.

The locals certainly seemed to know and trust him, which came in handy when he was called back to sort out a delicate situation when one of our group took a picture in an area policed by young gang members touting guns nearly as big as them.

Having all got out in one piece, it was time to bid farewell to Rio – a point of the trip which seemed so far off in the early days – as we welcomed new passengers on board and headed to the hills.

What greeted us in Teresopolis was heat, a pool, wine and cheese, a couple of prolonged downpours and the neighbours having what sounded like a massive party until most of us were already up for breakfast.

Well, most of us. Lack of sleep from a combination of noise, a deflating mattress and a dodgy stomach kept me in bed for most of the morning and out of the trek through the nearby national park.

Those who did trek at least got back before the heavens opened again.

Thankfully, the rain stayed away from our second mountain retreat at the old mining town of Ouro Preto.

Draped pretty much across the top of a hill, walking its sloping, cobbled streets is not the easiest task but one certainly worth taking on around its pretty streets, churches and markets.

Not to mention plenty of places willing to serve you cheesy chips (with bacon), ice cream, liquid chocolate in a mug and – to top it off – an all you can eat pizza buffet with unlimited caipirinhas, all  for about £7.

More than one person struggled back up the hill to the hostel.

Thankfully, we had a long – if very hot – day on the truck to recover which ended at a basic campsite which came complete with a very welcome watering hole to cool off in.

And, one cook group shopping session apart, it was time to head for the beach.

The dunes of Itaunas were our first stop, a lazy day on the sand mixed in with the continued exploration of different styles of caipirinhas – passion fruit before the more traditional lemon.

May need to do some more studying on that subject.

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Bite Christmas

WATER, water everywhere and seemingly not a drop to wash away the mosquitoes.

Our final couple of days in Argentina and our opening week in Brazil have been dominated by water and insects which appear to have the ability to seek out any inch of your body not drenched in repellent, regardless of whether it is covered by clothing.

At least for those of us who appear as prime cuts on any buzzy a la carte menu.

Our Christmas retreat in the Pantanal has taken mosquitoes to a whole new level with even those who bragged about not being bitten falling victim, finally enduring what us mere mortals have to suffer on a regular basis.

All of whom are trumped spectacularly by those of us at the top of the mosquito food chain.

Hopefully, the mossies are sheltering from the Christmas afternoon downpour like those of us in the increasingly small area near the bar, surrounded by increasingly bedraggled statues of the local wildlife sporting our spare Santa hats.

Even the macaws appear to be dodging the sudden downpour which has broken up a few days of extreme heat that has seen us making the most of our rooms to enjoy the air conditioning and hide from the mossies. 

Apart from when we were out on safaris providing a festive feast for the insects. Or at the bar.

It is the latest moment when water has taken centre stage in the last 10 days or so, be it more spectacular downpours, pools, waterfalls or rivers to be snorkelled or tubed down.

Probably while pursued by insects.

We could have done with some water as we rolled out of Buenos Aires with the temperature continuing to rise, a long drive day in the hands of our temporary second driver Nick ending on the banks of the Rio Uruguay with our first sight of Brazil across the water.

More of the same followed the next day ,which meant the discovery of a pool at our home for the night was met with a race to get in and the start of a torrential downpour which barely let up before we were finally out of Argentina.

A brief break in the rain enabled us to get out for one final spectacular steak and a couple of beers before crossing the border, but there was little option other than to get wet on our final day in the country.

In fairness, we would have got drenched regardless at Iguazu Falls and even donning all our wet weather gear failed to dampen spirits at one of those special places which pop up from tine to time.

The falls which form a natural border between Argentina and Brazil are, put simply, stunning.

They have been named as one of the seven modern natural wonders and you will not get too many arguments from here – the top end of my best waterfalls chart has been rewritten. Sorry Victoria Falls.

Starting up close to the violence of the Devil’s Throat cascade, the Argentinian side of the falls is formed by trails which meander through the jungle and pop out at a series of viewpoints over selections of more than 270 waterfalls which form the natural wonder.

And it comes with the added advantage of wildlife from toucan and an array of bird life, cayman and the coatis which wander across the paths and carry warnings not to eat food near them.

Those warnings also cover the local monkeys and maybe a couple of us should have paid a bit more attention, although still refuse to accept one climbing Lisa’s poncho to get at her empanada was somehow my fault.

Was too busy hurriedly finishing mine to do anything about it.

With the rain relenting, we regrouped full of smiles for the brief border crossing and a sad farewell to the delights of Argentina but excitement at what lies ahead during our lengthy stay in Brazil – starting with getting to grips with caipirinhas at the hotel bar to settle in.

Which all aided the decision to stay behind and take it easy the next day rather than head to Paraguay in search of another passport stamp, cheap electronics and several hours in a traffic jam.

If we did nothing that day – bar an evening check on the quality of Brazilian steak – we made up for it the next morning as we headed for the other side of the falls.

While most of the group queued for ages to get in, a smaller selection took the direct route with a helicopter ride over the falls which was spectacular – although one look at some of the faces confirmed it was not just me screaming inside at some of the banking.

Back on solid ground, we wandered around the neighbouring bird park and, the queues having subsided, headed to the falls and got some more astonishing views of what we had seen two days earlier from a different angle.

Our day to remember ended with an evening at the local shopping mall and a midnight screening of the new Star Wars film which ensured there was plenty of sleeping on the next day’s lengthy drive day after an early start.

We had been expecting a bush camp at the end of the drive, but not like the one we got – a family’s well-kept garden which they allow overlanders to use, complete with toilets in an annexe and covered area which was better furnished and equipped than many official places we have stayed.

Which acted as a handy launchpad to get us to Bonito, our home for three days during which we explored the town’s bars (including one where we served ourselves) and restaurants. Once we had dragged ourselves away from the pool.

But we also took the opportunity to get wet in more original ways.

First up was a trip to Rio do Prata and snorkelling down a clear river.

Managing to be rather more graceful without flippers, we basically floated down the river with the current, getting up close to huge numbers of fish and the springs which bubble up along the route.

Another one of those things which might have been avoided in the past, it would have been a shame to miss out on such an experience.

The same could be said the next day when we headed down another river close to town on tubes with the added obstacle of a few waterfalls to negotiate on the way down – although the biggest danger came from Danny – before relaxing in and around a lake.

There has been plenty more relaxing throughout our festive stay in the wildlife haven in the Pantanal, albeit interrupted by those pesky mosquitoes which even has the locals pointing out the marks on my legs.

They have not seen my back.

Amid the bites, we have tried our hand at piranha fishing (most bites were on us), horse riding (well, others did) and walking and jeep safaris through the insects.

And we have celebrated Christmas with a massive spread on Christmas Eve and a relaxed big day itself, punctuated by various leftover cuts of meat and a Secret Santa delayed due to people needing their beds earlier than planned the night before.

Which has us all trying to work out who bought and wrapped up a dildo.

And why somebody else is so keen to swap it with the present she ended up with.

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Ever South

CHANGES in direction are taking many years, endless arguments and, quite possibly, another unclear election result back home.

But for the inhabitants of our big yellow truck, our whole journey takes an abrupt about face when we climb aboard in the morning.

After 11 weeks heading south from Quito we can go no further and day 80 will see us roll back out of Ushuaia and set out north on the long road back through Patagonia.

We will do it with the truck festooned in Christmas decorations (met with a variety of responses from delight to, well, mine) but shorn of a large chunk of its passengers.

Three have not had enough of heading south just yet and are somewhere on a boat en route to Antarctica, one has been forced back to Santiago by a passport issue while a growing number have opted to fly to Buenos Aires early to miss out a series of long drive days and bush camps along the Atlantic coast with what could be some of the most inhospitable, least exciting conditions Patagonia has thrown at us.

Not that anything it can serve up can wash away the lasting impression the whole region has made on us over the past couple of weeks – it is simply stunning.

It is difficult to keep coming up with superlatives for the constant stream of extraordinary scenery, so just take it as read that anywhere mentioned throughout this post is breathtaking, beautiful, dramatic, picturesque, unique, memorable and any other adjective you want to add to the list.

Often a combination of several or all of those things all at once.

The view from our campsite in Torres del Paine National Park. The bird hopped into view just before the camera clicked

And, considering what we had been warned could lie ahead, we have got away with the weather so far.

We have had the odd rainy day and a fair few clouds, while a couple of camping evenings have got a little bit chilly if you were not properly wrapped up in a sleeping bag or under a couple of blankets.

But the weather has played its part in helping us savour this remarkable part of the world, albeit wrapped up in a variety of layers – bar those strange people who seem able to wear shorts or a T-shirt in all weather.

When you left us in El Chalten, the weather was very much playing ball and it held firm as we headed around the neighbouring lake to El Calafate, enabling a group of us to dine al fresco in the pretty main street.

So deprived were we of winter conditions, we headed for an ice bar to cool down – dressed up in thick gloves and hooded winter capes for half an hour of unlimited drinks (always a dangerous thing to offer an overlander) in what was basically a large freezer.

It paved the way for a birthday celebration at a nearby restaurant – almost inevitably in Argentina featuring great piles of meat – and another one of those nights in a nearby bar which drifted on a fair better later than originally expected.

While we had been enjoying sun and ice, several of our number had done the same thing at the Perito Moreno Glacier in perfect conditions.

Which was not what we got the next morning for our trip, via a couple of interesting stops at a bush – yes, seriously, got off the coach in the rain to look at a bush in the middle of nowhere – and a ranch which was supposedly notable but all we saw were the puppies which curled up, shivering, between my feet.

By the time we arrived at the glacier, the heavens had well and truly opened but it remains a mightily impressive sight, especially when it calves off large chunks of ice – even more so when we got up close under clearing skies during an hour-long boat trip.

Our relentless journey south bounced us back across the border to Chile – a common occurrence which we will do for a couple of hours tomorrow before leaving for the final time – and the town of Puerto Natales.

It is, to be polite, functional rather than pretty but serves as the jumping off point for Torres del Paine National Park for which pretty would be a remarkable understatement.

Shorn of four of our number – rather quicker than anticipated – who were heading off for the four-day W Trek, we tucked into takeaway pizza and steeled ourselves for three nights under canvas this far south.

Our first port of call was the same as our intrepid trekkers, to the point that we bumped into them on the trail of the Towers trek which ranged from sheer hell to people with a bad knee (the muddy, uphill early bits) to a fun stroll through Middle Earth.

Was regularly expecting a hobbit to pop out as we meandered our way through the forest and while most headed up the final steep section, some of us put discretion above valour – it was snowing after all – and headed back down the trail for what was still a long, rewarding trek.

Even more rewarding were the views which greeted us en route and around our campsite deep in the park on the edge of Lake Pehoe which deserved the toasting they got deep into the night. Maybe too deep in some cases.

Which may have explained a slow start to the next day which largely consisted of too many cooks doing their best not to spoil a variety of dishes being cooked on an open fire to mark Thanksgiving for our American contingent.

Our final day in the park brought more walking, although for some of us it was little more than a stroll up to a waterfall and around the edge of the campsite, but even that was enough to test the superlatives.

Especially with the local wildlife more than happy to put on a show for the cameras, right up until the gloriously clear final morning as we rolled back out of the park and back to Puerto Natales.

Reunited with our trekkers – with around 100km banked in their legs – we kept on rolling south, not without mishap as a coach opted to cut a bit too close to Spongebob (remember, big, yellow, square and hard to miss) as we were parked up waiting to board a ferry.

Black and white dolphins bouncing around in the wake were enough to keep us entertained, as were the king penguins at a colony which provided an interesting backdrop (and soundtrack if you listened carefully) in the distance to our bush camp for the night.

Our final few hundred kilometres heading south took us back into Argentina and on to Ushuaia – the end of the world.

And we feel fine. 

It is a landmark stop, providing not only a welcome bed (and we have managed to shed five roommates to Antarctica and Buenos Aires inside 24 hours), ample opportunities to shop, eat and drink (which may have seen a couple of us locked out of the hostel and forced to sleep on the truck) but also to get lost on a relatively simple trek up to a lake.

Not to mention its significance in the trip.

In the morning we head north through possibly the longest (and Welsh) few drive days of the trip which will begin to take on a new shape as the terrain changes, big cities return and layers of clothing are consigned back to our lockers.

But until then, we will continue to savour southern hospitality.

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One Step Beyond

THIS blog normally looks backwards, but feel the need to break from that pattern.

Not that nothing has happened over the last few days, but what is coming up has been looming large since well before the start of this whole South American adventure.

Right back to when, against all my assertions to the contrary, the decision was made to join the trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

No, was not going to do it. Was definitely taking the train. No amount of asking or prodding would change my mind. 

Right up until, with only the last few daily permits for the Classic route remaining, some asking and prodding changed my mind.

So tomorrow morning, far too early, we head off on what promises to be one of the most challenging, memorable, exhausting, exhilarating and, no doubt, painful experiences of the whole trip.

The first three days will take us up and down a route hewn into the Andes – it is the up which is occupying most of our minds, although the down sections come with a fearsome reputation as Gringo Killers – before the short final morning burst to reach Machu Picchu at sunrise on the fourth day.

Not all of us, some are heading off on the alternative Lares route while some put discretion (and a fair amount of common sense) above valour and opted for the train. My current roommates Becky and Robby have done it before and are heading off on their own jungle adventure.

What lies ahead certainly seems to have concentrated the minds and sent us scurrying around Cusco to stock up on supplies (via a rather lovely bagel cafe for brunch), warm gear for the cold nights (in my case, hiring a better sleeping bag) and knock-off North Face clothing.

Thankfully, we will not have to carry all of our new purchases – hiring a porter to carry a duffel bag up to 7kg full of sleeping bags, warm clothing for the evenings and assorted other gear may prove to be the best $40 spent on the whole trip.

That leaves us to carry our own, smaller day bags – camera, rain gear, essentials such as toilet paper etc – while the porters break down camp, catch up and run ahead, cook lunch, run past us again and have camp ready and the evening meal on the go.

The tip we are sorting out at this evening’s briefing may not be enough.

Just hope they do not have to carry me over some of the bigger climbs, the longest, highest and most notorious of which comes on (and occupies most of) the second morning – Dead Woman’s Pass at around 4,200m.

Writing that again has me wondering about the wisdom of doing this, a common occurrence over the past few months.

Twenty four hours ago was all for pulling out – however frowned upon relinquishing one of the precious permits is – as a complete lack of sleep at an even higher bush camp and a slightly dodgy stomach had me confined to bed (and the bathroom) while the others explored the delights of Cusco.

Thankfully, was in a much better state by this morning. Certainly a much better state than some who kept exploring until late into the night.

But clothes sorted, camera charging, backpack packed and stuff awaiting the arrival of the duffel bag at the briefing, there is no going back now.

Have never been one for trekking. Did a couple back in the distant past but preparations were confined to walks to and up Robinswood Hill – not exactly an Andean peak – and along the notoriously flat Gloucester and Sharpness Canal to at least break in my boots and get used to the mileage and a good chunk of time on the move.

Shorter bursts on the treadmill with a rising incline added some extra preparation while an early trek around a lake in Otavalo at the start of the trip suggests some of that effort may have paid off.

But there is little preparation for the altitude and the sheer length of the inclines which we are just going to have to take one step and one laboured breath at a time.

We have not been without a fair amount of acclimatisation over the past few days.

When you left us, we were still heading largely down the coast and nursing the pet bug which laid a few of the group low for several days and earned us a bonus upgrade to rooms at our stop near Nazca.

The upgrade came at a price for the healthy, a night cleaning pretty much everything on the truck – especially the kitchen – to see off any lurking germs and we seem to have shrugged off any lingering affects.

Opted out of the big ticket item at this stop – a flight over the Nazca Lines – opting for a brief view from a tower, but did get tours of the Cahuaci Pyramids and Chauchilla cemeteries (complete with complete mummies) brought to life by the enthusiastic Janssen.

An overnight stop on the beach at Puerto Inka ended our time at sea level and we began our climb inland at Arequipa.

Don’t think we can blame the altitude (2,800m) for a sudden Jesus complex at our restaurant overlooking the main square, but when they give a bearded bloke the sole white poncho among coloured fellow diners, it can go to his head. 

Poncho returned, it was out to sample the nightlife of Arequipa which ended far too late for at least one of us while others were heading out far too early for an overnight trek in Colca Canyon.

Our Reality Tour provided a very different taste of the city, taking in a cemetery, day care centre for  children of single mothers, a stone quarry and market. Very interesting it was, but can’t help a feeling of unease when other people’s misfortune is used to lure in tourists.

The burger joint which kept luring members of the group back was far more acceptable.

A group of us were back in the minibus the next day as altitude really came to the fore.

Whisked out of Arequipa, we were taken up to 4,900m – it was all a bit quiet on the bus at that point – and through some spectacular scenery, any number of llamas, alpacas and vicunas, our first taste of coca tea and a dip in the hot springs.

Our stop for the night saw us ignore advice to eat small meals in the evening and avoid alcohol at altitude but very pleasant it was true, good food served up by a very forthright French woman.

We were up early the next morning to be on the lip of the Colca Canyon – a mile down and the second deepest on the earth – to watch condors taking flight on the thermals before winding our way back through some spectacular scenery to our meeting point with the truck and the rest of the reunited group.

At least that was the plan, while we were waiting and watching a llama spit at a group of tourists when they were not so keen to share their lunch with him, the truck was undergoing a few mechanical problems.

Patched up and back on the road, the delay put the night’s planned bush camp out of reach and forced us to find a new location – turning up a path and climbing to find a bit of flattish land well in excess of 4,000m.

It made for a difficult night – not least for cook group – in the wind as several of us struggled at the height and sparked my less than pristine arrival in Cusco.

But hey, there’s nothing major coming up at altitude is there?

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