The first thing we needed to do was find a place to change money. Argentina is in a strange situation where the country looks relatively well to do, but their money has such a high inflation rate that the Euro or US dollar are worth much more than the official bank rate and with that, a “blue” exchange market has developed – which can be best described as a widely tolerated black market. Openly advertised exchange businesses -like Western Union- will give you almost twice the amount of pesos for a dollar than the banks would. But cash is king. Just a few weeks ago, there was an announcement that foreign credit cards would also enjoy a better exchange rate on purchases in Argentina, but that doesn’t seem to be working yet…. With a bundle of pesos in hand, we proceeded to find an Argentinian SIM card for our phones. This is a first for us after having enjoyed the Google FI International plan for the last few years. Apparently you need to be staying in the US for the majority of the time in order to stay in this plan. We were kicked out, so now we have to do what most overlanders need to do: buy a local SIM card and find your way through the jungle of prepaid conditions offered. Which also means a new telephone number each time you switch countries and/or cards. (This was also partly the reason why we didn’t even try to get one in Uruguay where, after leaving WIFI paradise of Chacra Holandesa, we did not plan to stay long and took advantage of WIFI locations along the road…. Charging the SIM card remains a bit of a mystery for us: before the initial GBs would be depleted, we found out you could buy more data in many small kiosks. However, they could not tell us how much data we got for our money, or how much was left. In addition, very few campgrounds offer WIFI (or if they do, it is very slow, weak, or on-off) so we are more dependent on data. Only recently we found someone at the official provider’s office who could explain how things work. He downloaded the app for us, so now we can see where we stand…
With the money and phone taken care of, we headed for Buenos Aires, by way of two towns that sounded interesting: historic San Antonio de Areco is known as the center of Gaucho culture: In November a big festival with a gathering of flashy looking Gauchos has national fame. We were too early for that and until that time, the only signs of Gaucho presence were old fashioned, beautiful samples of their utilities, like silver studded daggers, belts, spurs, mate cups and bombillas, as well as hats, ponchos, saddles, whips, and the likes. The gaucho museum and a pair of interesting stores remained closed even after siesta time, so after walking the historic part a few times over, we settled in for the night and moved on to Lujan the next morning.
I did not read up enough about Lujan, and I was totally surprised to find that instead another folkloristic magnet, this was a religious pilgrimage center. We entered the town over a wide avenue, which didn’t stop until we faced an immense, empty plaza. We parked our camper in a side street and walked through the arcade, past multiple booths selling souvenirs with depictions of the Virgin or of the grand cathedral- located across the square. The arcades on either side of the approach to the plaza, the immensity of the square, and the impressive church gave me the impression of St. Peter’s Square, albeit a bit more modest. But only when we entered the church, we realized it was a place of pilgrimage. Not only did we see many devout people praying, but also a group of wheelchaired persons, which made me think of the European place of pilgrimage, Lourdes, where I know that many handicapped people come to pray for a miracle of healing.
We entered Buenos Aires during the quiet afternoon siesta. It was almost a straight line through miles of gray apartment buildings to get to the waterfront, where we had memories of staying during a Sunday afternoon back in 1978. The waterfront promenade back then was filled with families slow roasting their meats, and our (then) dog Linda drooling from the smell the cooking gave off. At the end of day, we were approached by several people, asking if we would accept their leftover meat for our dog. We received kilos of the best, tenderest smoked meat – too much for our dog alone, we told ourselves, so we enjoyed some for us during the following days as well.
We did not find or recognized that same location anymore, but close to the waterfront we joined a few other camping trucks on a park-side road, where apparently it was ok for us to stay for several days. Passersby would stop and ask us about our travels and where we would go next, often expressing a wish for doing the same, though unfortunately, because of their weak Argentinian Peso, that adventure would be unaffordable for most of them.
Within walking distance from where we were parked, the neighborhood of San Telmo used to be the place to live in Buenos Aires – before Recoletta, on the other side of the business center and seat of government, became the hotspot. We ventured out to the area with the imposing government buildings around Plaza de Mayo, but found no attraction, and no cozy restaurants here. For us, San Telmo, with Plaza Dorrego and its funky stores and restaurants was the place to be. We gazed through the shop windows that offered high quality wares from recent times and all the way back to a century ago. We discovered modern designer furniture from the fifties and sixties that people in our country would drool over, just piled up or hanging on the walls; oriental jade carvings, and china, and art glass, and silver serviceware – we assume all valuable collections that were expected to hold their value longer than the national valuta – to be sold when money was needed to survive…
Around Plaza de Mayo
Barrio de San Telmo
Vintage design store
Designer shoe store
From the outside looking in, Pulperia Quilapan looked like another hoarding antique store. Vintage curios, like film reels, Thonet chairs, old dusty wine bottles (still full!) and much more joined an old piano hanging on the wall. When we ventured further in, every room was a discovery with its own funky style. We decided to eat here and were directed to the courtyard, where archeologists recently found layers of older habitat evidence in the old well. Nice restaurant, good service, but the food was a little bland… maybe because I picked a vegetarian dish.
Restaurant Pulperia Quilapan in San Telmo
The day we decided to walk to La Boca, it happened to be a Saturday. Maybe La Boca is always crowded – we observed tourists were brought in by busloads – and if it’s not, we still picked a day that was sunny and cool. Walking there from San Telmo is not far, but when Thijs does the navigation, we tend to go the long way. Upon arrival, we were overwhelmed by the omnipresence of blue and yellow colors of La Bombonera, home to la Boca Juniors soccer team. Not only the soccer stadium and the surrounding buildings, but also people and cars colored the streets in blue and yellow. Walk a little further, and a true attack on your eyes comes in play: multitudes of colors, so loud, you’ll have to wear sunglasses. It is a happy scene though, like walking through a fairytale wonderland. Buenos Aires’ most colorful neighborhood was started by poor working class immigrants from Italy and Spain, who eked out a living by working at the waterfront warehouses and meatpacking plants. Most of la Boca is still drab and dilapidated, but the houses around and along the Caminito near the former railway station celebrate life with color, music, dance and their favorite soccer team with Maradona as their controversial hero. Artists that later moved in have bumped up the color, and tourists followed. La Boca is now one of the must-see parts of Buenos Aires, filled with outdoor restaurants with live music and tango performances, life sized puppets with the likeness of Evita or Maradona wave from balconies or draw you into an overloaded souvenir store…its’s a madhouse, really…but one must see. Walking back, the streets in San Telmo felt dignified and mature. We stopped for a drink at the Plaza Dorrego and watched a muted version of a hot tango on the square.
Blue and Yellow colors of Club Atletico Boca Juniors soccer team
The colorful Barrio la Boca, Buenos Aires
Back to San Telmo from la Boca. Good to see this giant ficus tree surrounded by busy roads.
On Sunday morning we decided to move on: the number of campers along the street where we’d stayed had slowly increased from five to ten, which I thought could be pushing the good city’s generous tolerance, and Sunday would be a good day to leave the city while traffic is at a minimum. Just as we were ready to leave, a foods market had built up across the street from us, so we could even leave town well stocked, ready for the trip going south into the pampas.
Endless fields of beef pasture, as well as corn-, wheat-, soy-, and alfalfa fields remind me of the North American Mid West – of what used to be the prairies. There used to be the pampas here; we still have vague memories from our first South American trip in 1978, memories of rough and wild low-bush terrain, where gaucho horsemen herded cattle, aided by dogs. I remember our then dog Linda eyeing those active and capable dogs with envy: they looked so free and independent. Now, gauchos are only existing as a romantic icon to be impersonated in dress but not in lifestyle. Giant machines working the monoculture fields make the South American cowboys obsolete. The romance of the landscape is gone. A reason, or even an opportunity to stop and linger is minimalized. After driving for hours on end through the Argentinian landscape, the pampas in Uruguay compare as more preserved: cows and horses often roam fields covered with wildflowers and blooming bushes and at times the pampas grasses; the many (cursed) dusty Uruguayan roads are frequently used by horsemen – many of them keep up the gaucho image by wearing typical berets. Horses are popular in Uruguay, and throughout the region, rodeos are a regular Sunday event and gaucho dress-up is celebrated.
At the end of a great summer in the Netherlands, we arrived back in Uruguay by the second week of October. Our camper had survived our absence well, so we could immediately drive from the storage to Chacra Holandesa – our favorite campsite in Atlantida – to stock up on supplies and find a fresh set of tires that could carry us over expected rough Patagonian roads. Finding the right tires was a bit of a challenge and financial shock, but it feels good to start the last leg of our South American trip in top condition. In the meantime, with the help of Jan, we found out where, that Sunday, we had an opportunity to visit one of the local rodeo events.
Migues is a small town, not too far a drive away from Chacra Holandesa. Jan, the campsite owner extraordinaire, advised us to take the scenic road, which of course, had to be a dusty dirt road – one of the many in Uruguay. Once in town, it was easy to see where the action was. We paid a fee to enter and park on the rodeo grounds. As we made our way to the center field, we heard the announcer introduce and praise a parade of beautiful horses and showy riders. From their perch, two musicians beside the announcer filled the pauses with song and guitar. From the field perimeter, I saw three posts planted not far from center stage. Horses got tied to these posts, blindfolded, and mounted under loud and rapid (for me incomprehensible Uruguayan-Spanish dialect) commentary, probably about the horse, its owner and background, and the rider who is going to attempt to stay one minute on that unbroken bucking animal. The process looked brutal. The horses looked nervous. To reduce a panic, they got blindfolded, while getting short-tied to the post, then saddled, pushed and shoved into the right direction – often with the aid of other horses – and mounted by a guy wearing huge spurs on his boots. When everything was in place, the horse was untied, blindfold removed, and whipped, to start a one -minute challenge for the horse to get rid of the rider. These riders were good: most managed to stay on, wide-legged while waving a kerchief, rocking back and forth on the horse for the full minute. Then they were lifted off the horse by one of two horsemen safeguarding the ride, the other leading the horse back to the pen. One of the horses close to my point of view resisted from the get-go. Several times the rider was thrown off, even before the horse was untied. More assistants had to come and help get the horse under control. When the horse was finally let go, it threw the rider off within seconds. This horse was a wild one, with a beautiful muscle tone and will power. On the field there were two men with clip boards, holding scores. I don’t know what the criteria were to win something, but for me, this last horse was a winner.
During a break, we followed the crowd around us to check out the food and retail section. The public flaunted Gaucho regalia: (silver-studded) leather belts with finely decorated daggers caught most of my attention. Gaucho berets, riding pants and leather boots completed the look for most of the audience, even little kids. Decorative riding equipment and gaucho regalia could be purchased in some of the booths. Traditional mate cups and their metal straws, the bombillas, are a popular product as well – you never have too many of those… and the food: can’t be anything other than meat… or ice cream…or churros, filled with dulce de leche.
The day after we found and purchased our new tires, we left for Argentina by way of Uruguay’s lush wine country along the Rio de la Plata. Historic Colonia del Sacramento is a must see in Uruguay, and our first stop enroute to the border. As a former Portuguese outpost and strategically located opposite Buenos Aires across the river, the small colonial town has narrow cobblestone streets and intimate shady plazas which, in a land that does not have many charming towns to speak of, makes the place special enough to draw tourists and an Unesco World Heritage recognition. Parking was easy along the waterfront. We explored most of the old town during the quiet siesta time and picked a restaurant along the river for an early dinner. Then an evening sunset walk before bed. It was quiet in town.
When we visited Uruguay in 1978, these types of cars dominated the traffic scene.
With limited data access, we are now dependent on Wifi generosity. Here Thijs used Wifi from the restaurant where we ate before.
Not far from Colonia, we stopped at the public beaches of Carmelo. After an early lunch, we were casually accompanied by a sweet dog on our stroll along the beach. For a moment I thought we had another pet to join us on our adventures, but as we reached our camper, the dog was in front of a parked car ahead of us, so we climbed inside unseen. I looked out to see if he missed us and was relieved to see he already befriended someone else. Maybe he just likes to walk with someone.
Our truck was not allowed in the old town part of Carmelo, so we followed the detour, and emerged on the other side of town. Just a little further down the road was supposed to be an old historic store, Almacen de la Capilla, that tickled our interest, so we took the short drive over a dirt road to reach first the Capilla(=chapel), followed by the old corner store, surrounded by the Cordano Vineyards. Inside the store it was clear that the two businesses belonged together, and on a lovely terrace in the back there was an opportunity for winetasting. I made some surprising discoveries here: I didn’t know a Muscatel wine could be rose, dry and delicious, and I didn’t know I could enjoy a sweet Muscatel – this one was sparkling with a hint of citrus. Their Chardonnay was a nice mineral-dry, and their Tannat, the popular Uruguayan red wine, was full bodied. Finally, the licor de Tannat tasted like Port wine, like an after-dinner candy. The owners of the place invited us to stay at the winery for the night, which we accepted: it was a beautiful, quiet place, and when we went for a sunset walk around the vineyard, their dog casually accompanied us.
Our last destination in Uruguay was the border town of Fray Bentos, also known for having produced mountains of canned corned beef. We arrived too late for a tour of the old beef processing plant – turned museum. After reading more about it, I had no desire to see this old slaughterhouse, where in its hay days, until the 1960s, 5000 people worked to transform 400 cows per hour into cans of corned beef, which was then shipped to Europe and around the world. Thijs however wanted to know more about it and came back with some pictures. I’m glad it did not show a blood bath, just old machines and offices. In the meantime I cooked and processed my veggies, so we could cross the border the next morning without getting into trouble for importing raw food. We were ready for Argentina.
“Tourism Week” started on the day we crossed the border from Argentina to Uruguay, where kilometers long lines of cars waited to cross from Uruguay to Argentina. We considered ourselves lucky to head in the other direction. In Uruguay, politics and religion are completely separated, to the point that the week of Easter – a holy week in most of Latin America – has been renamed “Tourism Week”. At that same moment we were confronted with the economic difference between these two neighboring countries: Argentina’s currency is weak with an incredible inflation rate, their money is not very desirable in its neighboring country, unless they pay a steep exchange rate. Uruguayans, on the other hand, can live like kings across their border, which explained the one way traffic. So when we arrived in Uruguay, we expected a richer, more developed country than Argentina – where we’d enjoyed excellent roads and modern looking towns… We were surprised how much less prosperous Uruguay looked: generally the houses were smaller and simpler, their landscaping less cultivated and, beside the toll roads, we found ourselves rattling over dusty dirt roads. This, while Uruguay is named as one of the two wealthiest and most expensive South American nations….we were puzzled. Just like Argentina, most of the countryside consists of cattle pastures and fields that grow animal feed like corn and soy, albeit at times a bit less homogeneous and more natural looking. However in Uruguay, the gentle hills also held patches of eucalyptus forest, its wood becoming another source of income beside the beef industry. Could that make all the difference? In addition we saw herds of horses, grazing on pampas plants and tufts of grass, or galloping along in the distance, throwing up dust, living their lives as they should. Uruguayans love their horses; I’d think everyone here owns a horse like people in the Netherlands own a bike. We passed so many riders along the road, that we concluded that this must be the reason why they have so many unpaved roads: horses and hard pavement don’t go well together.
As we got closer to the coast, quaint thatch- roofed farm houses caught our attention. Most of them were small and unassuming, but so charming. The roads were on and off good to bad, the towns were simple.
Already in Peru we’d heard about a lovely campsite near the coast, owned and run by a Dutch couple. In need of some wifi connection, a load of laundry done, and hopefully some information about what to do and where to go, we decided to go there first.
At the gate of la Chacra Holandesa we were greeted by Jan, Marieke, and their two dogs. We joined several overland campers on the grass near a sparkling pool, beside a field occupied by a handful of horses and a giant pig that thinks she’s a horse. The chacra’s population was completed by a harem of roaming chickens, guarded by a few too many roosters and some cats.
Every day around five o’clock, after the chores of the day are done, Jan settles himself with a cigar and a glass of wine in a chair under the poolhouse roof: a silent invitation for a get-together. Tales of destinations and experiences went around… We found out that we missed an interesting part along a northern route, and what else we should visit. The coast should definitely be on the list. So after a few days of rest we decided to drive north along the coast, which in many places was still the way we remembered it from our first trip in 1978: with sand dunes, pine forests and strips of summer houses (some of them the cute, cottagey, thatched roofed kind) along white sandy beaches. Except for Punta del Este, which is reminiscent of a downsized Miami Beach, most coastal towns were laid-back and simple with low-rise apartment buildings and old fashioned villas.
Our northbound endpoint would be the Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, at thirty-some kilometers south of the Brazilian border. There, the beaches are grand and wild, the coastal forests untouched, while a historic fort and leftovers of the town of Santa Elena add to the attraction. The park can also accommodate an incredible amount of campers. Maybe this would be the place where in 1978 we experienced Easter weekend (?) when we were joined by campers in old fashioned trucks, loaded up with the family’s brass bed and other home furnishings, and old T-Ford type cars (in that time in Uruguay, every car was antique) got decked out with tarps as makeshift tents, and where we saw the first motorcycle-tent construction, and a legion of gauchos servicing the grounds… So far, we had not found or recognized the exact spot. On the other hand, we passed so many pine forests along the coast, that it could have been anywhere …. My appreciation for the geo-location option, nowadays embedded in my photos, was asserted once more: we didn’t have that in 1978. I need to dig up my photos from back then, before we return in September.
Google maps is great in directing us to impossible roads: in the past, google brought us to a stepped street; on a non existent shortcut through dense jungle; and up a street so steep that our truck just stopped, so we had to back up with our front wheels barely touching the road which made steering impossible… This time google directed us through the backstreets of Punta del Diablo to reach Playa Grande in the National Park. We had to turn around when the road became a deep river gully which, even while walking was a climb along narrow ridges. After we returned to the main road, we found the official main entry, where, as expected, we paid an entry- and camping fee and received a map of the park, as well as a desinfecting dip to drive through. On this map, the road connection between Punta del Diablo and the park was non- existent.
Past the grand entryway we drove a rickety potholed road to the long stretch of Playa Grande beach, where we found ourselves alone on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Except for the terrible road condition I wonder why no-one else picked this beautiful spot. The beach below was almost deserted. We passed a few dog walkers, a decaying whale carcass, and further down near the cape that separates the park from Punta del Diablo, some more people. We climbed the dunes and walked the path that brought us to the touristy fisher town, where at that moment a crowd was fixated on a surf competition, sipping maté tea through a bombilla (metal sifoning straw) out of their cuias (maté cups) while holding a thermos of spare hot water tucked under one arm.
How to describe the town of Punta del Diablo? Along the Playa de Pescadores- the most popular part- the streets run helter skelter with the dunes. The dusty roads are scattered with quaint, loosely built open front restaurants, interspersed with small stores, and the occasional cottage. Maybe the buildings were constructed with whatever was found on the beach. Old Volkswagen buses, and young people selling jewelry on the streets or making music made me think of the hippie times. Away from the bustling center, cottages of various sizes and styles varied in curb appeal: some could have been built in the middle ages, some were airy and contemporary. Over time I grew to appreciate the place.
Beside a large restored Spanish fort and some Santa Teresa settlement houses the National park also boasts botanical gardens with an impressive conservatory. Impressive because it looks grand, old and overgrown. Upon entry into the octagonal center, one cannot help but look up and notice the windmill shaped structure that supports four glass roofs. Natural stone pillars and arches leak mosses, ferns and vines. Through an archway we entered a lower side wing, where raised beds displayed a wild array of potted plants rooted in green undergrowth. Another wing displayed taller plants in straight borders, centered by a water canal edged by potted plants. One room looked like an indoor pool, where tropical plants shaded the water for the fish below.
Behind the conservatory we took a narrow path into a patch of old growth forest, which led us over a narrow bridge to a small hill, where a statue of an indigenous warrior was displayed: an ode to the Arachanes people that inhabited these lands until the colonial immigrant people basically extinguished them and all other Uruguayan indigenous inhabitants. Contemporary Uruguay is a very white country.
On a drive around the park we discovered we were not the only ones camping here. Although our spot on the southern side was deserted, we found the most popular spot -with an access road ten times better- on the northern side, where at least a hundred campers hung out under the trees, in close proximity to bath houses and a camping store. We however, happily remained at our lonely spot overlooking the ocean…
Upon return towards Montevideo (from where we plan to fly back to the Netherlands for a summer with family) we chose an inland road that would pass by some vineyards. The dusty road brought us over rolling hills to a lovely vineyard where no-one was home. With our recent experience in Mendoza, where one could visit most vineyard bodegas without making appointments, we never thought to need one here in Uruguay, so this is what you could get. But no big deal, there was another one not too far from there. We arrived at the grand entry of the Garçon wineries, where a guard asked us for our reservations. Which we didn’t have. Thijs later told me he’d tried to make reservations for wine tasting/lunch the night before, but when a prepayment of $80 pp was demanded, he decided to go our usual way. It didn’t work this time. Is that why Mendoza wineries are more popular? For us they are. We don’t need to taste the wines. So we moved on through cattle country, over rolling hills and dusty roads. We spent a night at a rare of-the-road flat spot near a riverbed and soon found ourselves back in Atlantida, where Chacra Holandesa was crowded and welcoming.
The old city center of Montevideo is not overwhelmingly large: one can see most of it in one day. We took the bus, together with our host Marieke, who needed to go into town for her own reasons. We criss-crossed the town and walked down the Avenida 25 de Mayo. At one point you can see the water from three sides, the fishing pier straight ahead of us, and on both sides waterfront peeping through at the end of the streets. Traffic was relaxed for a nation’s capital, and the shady parks felt comfortable. Pompeous Renaissance and Neoclassical buildings, plus a scattering of Art Deco facades bring back memories of good old times when money must have been plentiful for the chosen ones. The economy is pretty good now, and slick modern architecture stands proudly beside the historic monuments of yesteryear, but neglect seeps through the walls of some smaller buildings. At the Plaza Independencia we descended under the statue of José Artigas, and found his impressive black granite underground mausoleum: the remains of this national hero solemnly accompanied by two honor guards.
Thijs went on a quest to find himself a typical gaucho beret, so he could keep his head protected against sun and wind, although we already have this as a gift for our youngest son in mind, who we think might appreciate this fine woolen cap. There are gaucho stores in Montevideo that sell a generous range of these berets: ridiculously wide cotton and woolen berets, as well as more moderate sizes, in a variety of colors and materials. Thijs proudly stepped out of the store with a black woolen one and was immediately photographed by a passing tourist. He generously posed for the picture!
All too soon our departure date arrived. We drove to the storage facility, where our camper joined over a hundred other overland vehicles, waiting for their owner’s return to continue their journey. We plan to be back by the end of September, when the drive south to Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego, followed by a trip north along the Chilean border should finalize our South American exploration. But for now, we look forward to some family time in the northern hemisphere.
Leaving Mendoza, we decided to take the longer, no-toll road to Cordoba. The first part of this route we’d already seen, since we had previously come to Mendoza this way: a country road that led us through small villages, vineyards and later olive groves. Slowly even the olive trees became more scarce and dry shrubs replaced the struggling trees. As the land naturalized, the settlements became fewer and lonelier. One more time, we stopped at Reserva Bosques Telteca, where a few weeks ago, on our way to Mendoza, we stopped for the night and walked a good trail through the desert terrain on the following day. These trails among the dunes were sparsely marked and obscured by wandering sand over hectares of land. Occasionally we climbed up the sandy dunes – one step up, half a step sliding back down, to find the landmark radio tower, where our camper was parked nearby. When, even on the trail, we sank ankle deep into the sand, we decided to turn around and find our way back.
This time around, we stopped to scale the ridge of the tall sand dunes across the street. (If only we had snowshoes…!) After lunch, we continued on the perfectly paved, straight road across an endless scrubby desert plain. This road is so smooth, with so little traffic or opportunities to stop, that it is hard not to fall asleep, and indeed, along the way we passed two serious accidents of what looked like single cars that just ran off the road and overturned. By late afternoon we reached a mountain range, where lush green grasses and rows of yellowing poplars indicated human settlements. We looked around for an overnight spot, but found only a gas station, so we crawled up the mountain, along hotels and summer homes, green lawns and colorful flowers that lined the street. A little further up, at the Embalse Allende reservoir, we found a quiet campground with a view over the water. The night silence was intense, the sky dark with clear bright stars: we decided to soak it in for at least a day or two.
As in many places with this crazy weather nowadays, the water in this reservoir was ten meters below normal level. The last time the lake was full was in 2014. The already extended concrete boat ramp barely touched the water’s surface. Some small boats below us, along the water’s retaining wall were hard to reach, but on the other side, around the bend, a beach had surfaced, accessible for cars of fishermen to enjoy. During the day their voices echoed across the water.
We found the kitchen of the family’s restaurant, where we ordered a meal with local fish. The seafood they recommended however turned out to be calamari – I don’t think that can be found in this mountain reservoir… As the only guests, we chose a spot under the shade roof, overlooking the lake. Soon a flock of chickens joined the friendly cats and dogs under our table and flaunted their best hungry attitude, to the embarrassment of the restaurant manager, who shooed them away, without avail: within minutes they were back. I rewarded their insistence with the crumbs of my food.
On Saturday, when a small crowd of fun seeking visitors arrived, the serenity of the place disappeared. Diners attended the restaurant, and smoke from the grills filled the air. We had witnessed a day of peace and a day of action, and decided to continue on our way on Sunday morning.
To reach the city of Cordoba, we first climbed over what seemed to be rounded masses of granite mixed with glistening chips of mica, dressed up with bushy trees and dry shrubs, like the pyracantha loaded with yellow, orange and red berries. Just before turning around the top for the descent, an idyllic picture caught my eye: shouldered along a creek with tall green grasses was a small cottage farm accentuated by yellow poplar trees, and protected by an embrace of surrounding elevations. Only after we passed it, I realized we should have stopped for a photo. I reminded myself we already have a similar picture from our first South American travels through Argentina, and how many pictures does one need?…. I still regret not having stopped, though.
On a Sunday morning, it was easy to find a place to park in the historic center of Cordoba, where opulent buildings echoed times of privileged wealth. Not much was open – we passed through empty, tree shaded promenades and peaceful squares, where outdoor cafes were protected from the elements with bright parasols, and from the wind with flowering bushes. At the foot of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Asunción, we stumbled upon an alley with an installation that took our breath away: a memorial of the desaparecidos: the thousands of mostly young Argentinians who disappeared during the brutal dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Above our heads, hundreds of photos of the lost, printed on cloth flags, fluttered in the wind – like laundry on lines criss-cross over the length of the alley. Two creamy yellow walls contained four displays of continuous lines, each like an enlarged fingerprint. At a closer look, the lines consisted of names of all those that disappeared, clustered in the year they vanished. We remembered hearing about it when we traveled through Argentina during that time – a time when so many people of the South American countries were silenced by their dictatorial governments, to the point that we as outsiders only picked up snippets of the atrocious tales.
The land east of Córdoba is cattle country. Endless fields with corn and soy, interrupted by cattle pastures reminded me of the North American midwest. The expansive, efficient looking farmland could explain the neat looking towns, where butcher shops and icecream stores stood out as the most popular retail venues. The buildings looked modern and well maintained, and the roads remained good. We stopped for the night at an american style gas station, with a small, popular restaurant and convenience store, as well as clean bathrooms with showers. Fortunately here, trucks stop somewhere else for the night, so we enjoyed a quiet night without running engines as neighbors. Instead, our neighbor was rusty brown or black cattle in a spacious holding pen. They looked young – I hope they’d only be there for transfer to some farm’s pastures. That morning we watched them throwing up dust – running to the feed bins as they got filled, followed by a flock of green parakeets that landed underfoot for the spilled corn.
The name Santa Fé evokes visions of a legendary country town, so we parked our camper on the Plaza de San Martín, which in most Argentinian cities is the central square. A parking guard helped us navigate into a narrow slot, and offered a much needed carwash service while we explored this city. To our surprise it looked like the buildings that used to be grand needed major restoration. We had not seen this in a while. Apparently the province of Santa Fé is not as prosperous as that of Córdoba or Mendoza, and it shows, though the countryside had not changed much from what we could see. The port of Santa Fé has a direct access to the Paraná river. Looking for the waterfront, we found the port terminal, where the inlet had high walls which could indicate large differences in water levels. Across the inlet, a large modern casino and mall obstructed a further view towards the river estuaries. In the water, floating plants replaced absent ships. An old crane/vacant tourist information booth – beside the old port administration building overlooking the terminal added to the omnipresent sense of lost grandeur.
After we crossed the bridge over the rio Santa Fé, we found ourselves looking down from the elevated highway over a network of wetlands, rivers and creeks, to finally descent into an ultra modern tunnel under the main river, which brought us to Paraná city on the other side of the estuary. Here we veered north, through a fancy looking neighborhood towards the shores of the Paraná river to enjoy the sense of steamy tropics in autumn.
The expansive campground we entered was empty – let’s presume because of covid. With many building under construction, we could find no one in charge for admission. In the end, a person who looked like he was in charge allowed us to spend the night, for free. He pointed out the newly renovated bathroom building, but we could pick any spot on the premises. An old pump station and dense forest prevented us from finding a spot along the river, so we parked near the new bathroom and went for a hike, in search of the riverfront. A comfortable concrete path and steps led us down along the steep cliff. Halfway down, the steps had collapsed sideways and disappeared into dense undergrowth. We climbed across the crevice to find the continued path, but it became clear that most steps and paths had collapsed as if affected by an earthquake or, as was the case here, earth slides after recent heavy rains. Finding our way down this way, like Indiana Jones exploring ancient ruins in the jungle, we discovered an extensive ruined network of paths leading to crooked platforms and skeletons of shacks near the water. It must have been a lively destination at the time! Finally, washed up tree trunks and branches left little of a beach to be enjoyed, but the expedition down and back up was worthwhile and memorable. The last leg of our drive to the border of Uruguay was another smooth ride through agricultural country, interrupted by pretty villages with an orderly tree lined main street. Hot springs were the tourist attractions around here. We got so used to this impression of comfort, that the turnoff into the border town of Colon surprised us with a dirt road, while they named this road after one of the most prestigious car brands: Ferrari! We found our way to the riverfront – with an accessible beach – where we planned to stay a few days to spend our last Argentinian pesos before crossing into Uruguay.
Colón turned out to be a pleasant small town with a malecón (waterside promenade) and nice restaurants along plaza San Martín. It was clear this town accommodates tourists. The riverside recreation area was extensive, with groups of Argentinian campers spreading out along the beach. Paddleboards and canoes made their way across the river, while fishing was the favorite pastime at the water’s edge. When we splurged on a nice lunch at a restaurant overlooking the plaza, our neighboring table guests broke out in a dance when a troubadour stopped by for a song or two. The following day, at another restaurant, we sampled the finest wine we found so far in Argentina – though the excellent food may have helped with the experience.
When we crossed the border to Uruguay, we left Argentina with fond memories, sure to return for the trek to Tierra del Fuego, as soon as the South American spring warms the weather in September.
What’s not to love about Mendoza? We loved the shady, tree-lined avenues, lush green plazas, sidewalk restaurants and wine- tasting bodegas, and friendly, easy going people. Especially compared to many other Latin American cities, traffic is relaxed and organized, so we were surprised to hear a car horn behind us. As soon as the car passed us, the reason became clear why: all smiles, the passengers gave us their thumbs up and waved. They appreciated our presence.
For the first days, we parked our camper in Playa Peru – a parking lot not far from the city center. From there, we could walk to the nearby supermarket to replenish our food stock, explore the city, and find some wine tasting venues – after all, that was the reason why we sought out this city. During our last wine tasting in Cafayate, we came to the conclusion that wines taste much better when accompanied with food, so nice restaurants became the focus of our attention. And there are many to choose from! The tourist office had pointed us to the right street, where outdoor seating was arranged on shaded decks above cobblestone-lined ditches that separate the sidewalk from the street. There, we chose a restaurant that looked the most popular. We picked a good one: Estantia la Florencia did not only have good food, but also prided themselves on a good malbec wine from their own estate.
For our next wine adventure we went to La Vieja Cava, a humble vegetarian restaurant just outside the city center. Here, the outdoor dining was in a lovely green courtyard, and their chardonnay was from a smaller vineyard, but fittingly refreshing.
On our search to find a new windshield wiper, we passed the Bodega Los Toneles: a hundred year old winery that offers tours and tastings, but is also known for their excellent restaurant. At the gate, a guard inquired about our reservations – which we never have with our spur of the moment decisions. That was again no problem since, I assume, we arrived in the shoulder season, and were the first customers for lunch.
At the still empty lot, Thijs parked with generous space in a corner. When a Los Toneles pickup truck stopped in front of us, I thought we needed to do some better parking, but Philipe, who introduced himself as the company’s wine maker, was just curious about our travels. He told us that traveling like we do is his dream – he even privately created a wine he named Giramundo (Around the World) of which he promised he’d bring us a bottle to sample.
We enjoyed a wonderful meal in the restaurant. The somelier advised Thijs to choose between two red wines to go with his (huge) steak, while I sampled a few whites for my cheese cnudis (gnocchi) and mushroom dish. As had been usual lately, the meal was enough to last us for the rest of the day.
The weather in Mendoza had been sunny and warm, and pretty comfortable in the shade, but day by day the temps were creeping up. When the forecast mentioned 30 degrees (Celsius), it became a bit too hot for us in the parking lot, and a trip to the cool, high mountains seemed a like a good idea, so we decided to go for a ride. The road to Chile climbed gently towards the Andes peaks, and brought us to Puente del Inca, where in ancient times mineral rich thermal springs and glaciers together had formed a bridge over the Cuevas River. Beside this, the waters colored the neighboring rock with shades of yellows and browns. Just a short drive up the road, one can admire the peaks of mt Aconcagua, which is at 6,961m, (22,838ft) the highest mountain in the Americas. We did not climb to the top, or go on to Chile, but turned around and stopped for the night in the small town of Uspallata, where we stayed another day until the weather in Mendoza cooled back down.
Thijs likes tourist information offices, where normally he seeks information he already has, but sometimes he emerges with something new. In Uspallata he was informed about an alternative route back to Mendoza: route 52 would lead us through a geopark and a natural reserve with beautiful vistas. Of course we had to take this road… I was a bit annoyed that much of it was a dusty washboard road, after I thought I managed to get all the inside dust free. Our camper is not airtight: especially our entry door rattles, revealing daylight around the edges, and dust likes to come in that way. But I enjoyed the view – as long as the land was somewhat flat… Then a steep descent had me hold on for dear life, mainly because after our recent incident, when our wheel just about broke off, I don’t trust our car anymore. It may be in my head, but I hear rattles and bangs, and I feel the truck lean too much to the passenger side, especially when Thijs had to take one of those sharp turns on the narrow road. I try not to look into the abyss… But Thijs loved the ride!
Back on flat land, we drove onto a campsite where, for the first time since Cusco, we found other overlanders: now it feels like life’s back to normal again! Although the camping is a bit far outside of Mendoza, this one belongs to South America’s better ones, with neat and clean bathrooms, well groomed shady sites, wifi, a pool and a restaurant. So we stayed a couple of days – for me to post my overdue blog, and for Thijs to check out the car.
All good things must come to an end. The truck still needed to have a new windshield wiper, and Thijs found a new address to get one. And yes, he was finally successful!
Lunch time comes fast in a land where the summer sun rises around 8AM, and you have no reason to get up in the dark. (And by 8PM it is dark!) For one last time, we wanted to visit one more bodega before leaving Mendoza. We chose Trapiche, the largest winery in the area. When told the restaurant was closed that day, we still signed up for the tour and tasting. This one was in rapid, argentinian spanish, of which we understood maybe twenty percent. Good that we’ve experienced a few tours before; in essence the information is similar. The wines were interesting, with a limited edition chenin blanc, and one blend of garnache, syrah and mourvèdre, a single vineyard cabernet sauvignon, and a single vineyard malbec.
We ate our last lunch in the city, on a promenade Sarmiento, just off the Plaza Independencia. When we ordered, at 6:15PM, most people were enjoying afternoon coffee and pastry. We will remember their relaxed attitude. Life feels good here in Mendoza. Cheers!
We finally received our necessary car part. After Thijs installed it and we finally left Cusco. First, the road through the traffic jammed downtown streets of Juliaca, on to Puno with a laboratory to get the (necessary to cross the border) Covid CPR test. Upon arrival at noon, they just closed for the weekend. “Come back on Monday, then you may get the test results on Tuesday” said the man who was locking up. We were all fired up to start driving again and did not want to wait that long – so, after calling around to find another lab that would be open, a helpful woman directed us back to Juliaca, to a lab that would be open until 7pm and give results within a few hours. We called to make an appointment and then drove 45 minutes back to Juliaca. The lab was on a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood. It was no problem for us to wait for the results, parked in front of the building . We could even spend the night there, to depart early the following morning for the Bolivian border. Crossing the border took us an hour and a half, which included waiting our turn and watching a little preview of Bolivian Carnaval. Satisfied that we made some progress, we stayed in Copacabana for the rest of the day and night. It was a top tourist day this Sunday before Carnaval, so the waterfront and the town was packed. Good thing about a tourist place is: a good choice of food and (happy hour) drinks.
Since this was our fourth visit to Bolivia, we planned to drive straight through to Argentina; a large country yet to explore. We’d only stop for the night (and maybe a little longer), wherever that would happen to be.
We thought we hit the jackpot by (coincidentally) arriving in Oruro on the eve of Fat Tuesday. Oruro is well known for their Carnaval, with elaborate parades…Everywhere in Bolivia we saw signs of Carnaval preparations, with festival attributes, food and costumes offered on the busy markets, but we did not see much action yet – so we thought that maybe they only have the big event on Tuesday…NOT! The big parades happened on Saturday and Sunday – and we arrived in Oruro on Monday! Too bad for us. It was, however, strange to see that after Sunday, the markets were still brimming with Carnaval accessories. A week later we learned that the origins of Carnaval here did not originate from the gluttonous, crazy celebration before lent’s forty days of fasting, but as indigenous celebrations from before the Spanish arrived. So the Spanish changed this festival into a more christian Carnaval (like it was done with most pagan festivals in Europe) but some indigenous elements remained – like the duration of the festival, celebrated even after Ash Wednesday. Anyway, with everything closed for the holidays in Oruro, and having already visited that town some ten years ago, we continued our journey south.
One cannot pass Uyuni without a stop at the salt lake. The Salar de Uyuni was wet this time. Although it makes for pretty and surreal pictures, we did not take our camper out in the salt water. Already when I stepped out on the moist salt I almost lost my shoe as it sank in the salt. (I could dig it out) We heard of campers that got stuck here for five days and had to pay $1000 US to get pulled out. And then you should see the saltcake deposited on the bottom of the vehicles! So, not us. (The other time we could drive for hours across the dry saltflats) These pictures will have to do this time.
For Fat Tuesday we were in dusty Uyuni. All stores and most restaurants were closed (except one or two tiny tiendas, that served through a hole in the gate) People here celebrate this day in small groups, with family and friends. While looking for a place to spend the night, we came across a neighborhood celebration. As more people were getting drunk, we had to find a more quiet spot, so curbside parking in front of the cemetery felt the best. By the way, campings (especially with wifi) are rare in this neck of the woods.
As on Ash Wednesday the town of Uyuni was asleep, it was a good day to continue towards the border. Our next stop would be in Tupiza, where we should find another necessary PCR covid test (this time to enter Argentina) and a popular camping with wifi. Things did not work out well: still within sight of Uyuni, and coincidentally on a slow dirt road detour, our front wheel dropped sideways. Thank god Thijs knew that the shock breaker had detached (but how???) and he could re-attach it. After an hour we were back on the road. The countryside changed constantly, with breathtaking views over altiplano brushlands, with thunderclouds over distant mountains.
After a descent of about a thousand meters we reached the green river valley of Tupiza, where the temps were much more gentle. The town, however, did not meet our expectations. All the recommended restaurants were closed (some permanently because of covid), and we had to search hard and long to get the covid test (after five hours directed all over town, we finally had it done, but then we had to wait for 30 hours to get the results)
The campground in Tupiza was deserted and cluttered with trash; the wifi and electricity went on and off. The owner however was very friendly: he told us how the town used to be a wealthy mining town, and the mansion and the (camp)ground belonged to a rich tin baron when he was robbed by Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, who roamed this area after they fled the law in the USA. Tomorrow we’ll drive to the border and hope to get the test results in time, as promised, by email.🤞🏻
We arrived at the border town of Villazon in late afternoon, around the time the email with the Covid test results should come in. There was no email…. When the good news finally arrived, the border was closed, so we spent the night in town, almost within view of the border. During the night, a long line of cars had accumulated, so by early morning, still hours before the border would open at 8 AM, our car must have been #50 in line to cross the border. In front of the immigration – to check out of Bolivia – the line of people already waiting was scary as well, so Thijs, as usual, started asking around and was told to skip the checkout line and join the Covid Health Check line. There we waited three hours for our turn. Then you’re supposed to get in line for the Argentinian immigration; followed by the aduana…it took us seven hours to cross, and from what we later learned, we went fast: other travellers who crossed a week later needed two full days! I don’t know why…
After we stocked up on food items at the Argentinian supermarket, we started driving, with no idea where to stop for the night. The road was good, and beside the beautiful scenery, there was no reason to take a break. Without effort we reached Humahuaca, which happened to be a Unesco World Heritage site, and truly charming, with a network of narrow, cobblestoned streets, peaceful plazas, a special church, and ancient looking buildings. Here we stumbled upon the most popular and authentic Carnaval spot in Argentina. Apparently in this neck of the woods Carnaval continues for another weekend after Ash Wednesday. We parked our car and enjoyed a parade of color and costumes. Everyone proudly showed off their best to admirers and judges. What a nice surprise, even though getting a bite to eat remained difficult, as the restaurants closed for the whole afternoon and only opened again when we were ready to go to bed. Good we’d found that supermarket right after we crossed the border, so we didn’t go hungry.
On Saturday the air was filled with sounds of pitiful howling by all the Diablos. They collected food on a metal hoop by crying out loud. The ones who howled the most theatrically, collected the most…
On Sunday, a procession of wailing Diablos went to the top of the hill, where all the collected items, like fruits, vegetables, meats and cheese, but also flowers and paper serpentine, were deposited against a cornstack as an offering to Pachamama – Mother Earth. Afterwards, a hole was dug at the foot of the stack, in which the people, two by two, were assisted in pouring their bottle of alcoholic drinks. With a container of smoldering coals, as well as lit cigarettes added to the stack, we expected the mound to ignite, but maybe that was up to Pachamama to start. Anyway, it did not burn…yet. But what a magical ceremony this turned out to be.
After this impressive devotion to Pachamama, we drove up to see another “rainbow” mountain, about an hour or so away from Humahuaca . The weather did not cooperate much, but we caught a glimpse of it before it disappeared behind clouds that turned into a dramatic thunderstorm. It still is rainy season, even in the desert!
Between Salvador de Jujuy- the first major town for us in Argentina (a well organized city where our main interest was currency exchange) and the next city of Salta, the road led us through a moist, tropical rainforest mountain range – how strange to experience this, when the day before, desert was all we saw…
Although we planned to give Salta a closer look, a long and heavy overnight thunderstorm flooded the city, so we skipped it – we’re not much of city lovers anyway. Even driving south, there was no escape from the rain. Several streets had turned into rivers, and the rain kept on beating down. In the middle of such a rainstorm, without warning, the driver’s side windshield wiper just fell off. Thijs drove the car to the side of the road, and didn’t see how soft the berm was. We got hopelessly stuck in the mud! Although a few people stopped and offered to get us some help, we waited for hours, until Thijs walked to the next farm, where he asked for a tractor to pull us out. In the meantime we saw that the metal part of the windshield wiper had just broken in half….no idea how that could happen! But anyway, the passenger’s side wiper is large enough to cover both sides when placed on the driver’s side, albeit with some un-wiped corners. We continued our adventure over a scenic road through a drier valley of Quebrada de Concha, impressed by the many awesome shapes, colors and textures of the mountains…until a raging river across the road stopped all traffic … many cars were anxiously waiting for the waters to subside, as the day was coming to an end. We found this wild water blockade a good reason to stop for the night.
We’ve entered Argentinian wine country! Looking at the restaurant terraces around the central plaza of Cafayate, people enjoy a good life here, with an abundance of food, wine, friends and time. Cafayate, like Mendoza, is a high altitude (up to 1800m!) wine region of Argentina. We visited the most commercial Piattelli winery with beautiful grounds and an assado restaurant; we also made a tour and tasted the wines of El Porvenir wineries, and last we went to the historic winery of Vasija Secreta. We ended up buying some dry Torontès from El Porvenir.
From route 40 south, we veered east into the mountains to visit the Pachamama art museum, the observatory en route (which was closed that day) and a garden of menhirs near the beautiful but very touristy Tafi del Valle. From there, we originally planned to drive to San Miguel de Tucumán, and continue from there to Uruguay, but when we reached the crossroad, we decided to head south instead. We still have enough time for a visit to Mendoza, one of our favored destinations.
What we didn’t know however, was that route 38 south went through hot, tropical lowlands, with scourging midday sun and steamy nights, so we picked the 150 to get back to the cooler, higher altitude RN40 again. It turned out we made another excellent choice, with a road in perfect condition, leading us, just in time for the night, to Parque Provincial Ischigualasto. With perfect night temperatures and a surprisingly nice campsite, this park is a Unesco World Heritage site because of its unique landscape which has exposed numerous dinosaur skeletons, dated from around 230.000.000 years old. We had no idea what we stumbled upon, but the next day we decided to participate in a tour around the park and didn’t mind staying there one more comfortable night before driving down to the lower elevation of Mendoza.
And, just like that, we arrived in Mendoza- a city that seems to survive on good wines and beef (lots of it!) We planned to stay here more than a few days, to take in the relaxed atmosphere, the food and the wines. Because I think this post is already long enough, that episode will come in the next post. Cheers!
We made it to the beach in Peru. The waves in Mollendo come uninterrupted across the Pacific Ocean and crash on the beach with an impressively high surf: maybe… on average five meters…?..they crash with such force, that I don’t dare to venture into the icy water to measure them from up close. The effect that the cold Humboldt current phenomenon has on the Peruvian coast is mind boggling. This current starts in the Antarctic region and flows along the Chilean and Peruvian coast towards the equator. While this current also pulls up cold water from the ocean floor to provide a rich food supply for ocean life, it simultaneously drains the coastal area of all moisture and vegetation. We wanted to spend a few days in a warm and sunny place and picked a guaranteed location on the Peruvian coast: we arrived at the driest place on earth. Still, the temperature is pleasant. The sun is filtered by a light haze of fog and dust – we have no need to park our camper in any shade; just opening a few windows will do. Now if only the view away from the beach would be a bit prettier: only along the Panamerican highway, a strip of green show the result of careful irrigation by the coastal inhabitants. Behind and above that, we look at bare brown mountains littered with chicken sheds. The beach basically ends where habitation, the road, or the mountains begin.
Over a week ago, we prepared ourselves to leave Cusco. The air was just a bit too thin, the temperature a bit too low, and the rains a bit too much for us to feel comfortable for the long month we were there. We spent the last week in the garage and thought we were good to go. However, we had not even arrived back at the campground for a last night, and just in front of the gate, the truck stopped and needed a jumpstart to enter Quinta Lala. A loose screw apparently prevented the battery from charging, and although Thijs noticed this at the moment, he let the garage know. Early the next morning, Nilo and an assistant came up to replace the screw with a better fitting one, and off we went. First was the now familiar road direction lake Titicaca. We turned at – what we thought would be – the tollroad to Arequipa, since in the middle of the rainy season we did not want to risk getting bogged down by mudslides on secondary roads. The road started out nice, but soon we were biting dust and hobbled along a road under construction. You need to keep that sense of adventure, right? At least, when we’d get stuck in a mudslide, we’d be in the company of many trucks ahead and behind us. And while I expected for us to climb and descend across a couple of mountain ridges, we stayed pretty much at the same altitude of around 4000 meters, enjoying lovely pastoral views along the off- and- on paved road. The highest part of the route was also the roughest, but soon to be rewarded by the sight of many vicuñas – the elegant wild relatives of llamas and alpacas. I think I mentioned in a previous blog report about how they came back from the verge of extinction thanks to efficient international agreements and management among the andean nations. While driving here in 1978 we never spotted any vicuñas, now we saw so many, we even stopped photographing them.
An hour or two away from Arequipa, as we started descending to 2500 meters, the mountains became more arid. Before entering the city, we passed an enormous dusty cement factory, which uses locally quarried sillar for its cement production. Most of Arequipa’s famous white buildings have used this same white volcanic rock – a material that looks like coral stone. Since Arequipa used to be Peru’s capital before Lima, the city boasts a wealth of highly decorated official buildings and churches. This, combined with an “eternal spring” climate, makes Arequipa a place where you can easily and comfortably spend some days. Of all sites to see here, the Santa Catalina Monastery is an absolute must. Established in 1580, the monastery grew over the ages, until it became it’s own walled town, with streets connecting neighborhoods – simpler dwellings for novices, and ones with comfortable quarters for wealthy nuns: apartments consisting of a living room, a kitchen and roof terrace, often a small courtyard and bedroom, and a servant or two. Several areas had their own chapel. There was a large communal kitchen, dining room, gardens, laundry area, bath house and – of course – also a real church. A small, more modern part is still inhabited by a (to me unknown) number of nuns; except for this part, the monastery is open to the public and awesome.
Besides the monastery, the central plaza is worth a pauze. Palmtrees, flowerbeds and green grass under a brillant sky invites you out from rows of shady arcades. One entire side of the plaza is accentuated by an impressive sillar stone cathedral – although I was slightly disappointed by the simplicity of it’s interior – compared to its presence from the outside… We visited the museum that houses the Ice Mummy “Juanita”, the body of a young girl who was brought high up into the mountain glacier as an Inka sacrifice to appease the gods after a natural disaster. We had to take a guided tour and waited for over an hour until the English speaking guide was available (this while we were only one of two groups present) The tour was rushed through rooms, sparsely furnished with items found on the sacrificial site, or from similar places. The photographs and texts on the walls were ignored, and before we knew it, we gazed down at the ice-packed diminutive figure, dimly lit in an insulated glass case. The whole tour took about twenty minutes, and I had the impression I could have learned a lot more had we been able to look around ourselves – at our own pace.
When we explored enough of Arequipa, we wanted some beach time. First another stop at the garage, then we drove through the arid mountains to Mollendo. At first we drove to the protruding rock that protects a small port filled with bright blue fishing boats. We hoped to camp around there, but -at the start of the weekend- there was enough action to expect a restless night. Through our trustworthy iOverlander app we found a place inside a gated community – in – development, next to a hotel with a welcoming staff and a very simple kitchen and bar. That night, however, guests flowed in. Saturday had a bigger menu. Children and elegantly dressed women with wide rimmed hats who played a lighter version of volleyball in the small pool. We enjoyed a long walk on the wide beach, which was mostly crowded by large flocks of birds: gulls, sandpipers and larger waders. Of all the birds, only the black skimmers would fly up as one dense cloud when anyone would come near. In the background, giant swells still crashed with loud thunder, rolling its icy cold waters towards the shore. At night we still had to endure the festive music of people having a good time away from home.
After two relaxing days and a good ceviche meal – you cannot stay at the Peruvian coast without trying their local ceviche – we remembered we wanted to continue our travels outside of Peru, and when our parcel with car parts would have arrived in Cusco…and the borders would be open, we should press on… We made our way inland, this time we followed a green river valley until it veered away and we climbed into the dry, rocky desert again. Then once more a short stop in Arequipa for a shower and another garage fix – this is getting really old!
Along the way back to Cusco, it is a relatively small detour to visit the Cañon de Colca; a place that was still on our bucket list before leaving Peru. Part of the 100km stretch of Colca river canyon is said to be one of the deepest gorges in the world – at one point it is 4000 meters deep. The canyon with steep mountainsides – backed up by distant snow peaks – is also a home of the andean condor.
The trip took longer than I thought: after we took the turn towards Colca, we climbed into high Vicuña territory, and drove through a snow shower before we descended towards Chivay, the first town and entry to the Colca region. From Chivay, the road follows the river: green terraced fields, bejeweled with yellow flowered patches and accents of red geraniums felt like paradise. We left the occasional villages with narrow streets to the side: the day was ending and I’d decided we were going to stop for the night at Mirador Cruz del Condor, so we would be able to spot these giant vultures from early morning on. As the canyon narrowed, the road winds along the mountainside. I held my breath entering a long, narrow, one lane tunnel, afraid to get affronted by a big vehicle from the other side…who should back up, and for how long a stretch…? But we came through without incident. The road continued, with increasing amounts of lookout points. At our destination, we were alone. The next morning, we scanned the sky and canyon for hours, but only by eleven, when the Mirador was filled with spectators, one lonely condor showed up. Satisfied, like everyone else, we left the place and drove to Cabanaconde for lunch.
We could not get through to the Plaza de Armas; the road in front of the church was blocked. Thijs quickly parked the truck and went to have a look. A crowd, with women in dazzling embroidered dress, just entered the church for the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria. When, after a short while, they walked out, a few of the women were loaded down with harvest bouquets, breads and full bottles hanging around their neck. The festival continued with a dancing parade around the plaza, emphasized by a cacophony of brass music. Happy to have stumbled upon this burst of folklore, we continued on our way back to Cusco.
How many times have we been at the DHL office now…maybe ten times? And still no package. Without those small but necessary parts, we can not drive without the risk of damaging our camper. Every time we hear that something is needed, before they can send the package from Lima to Cusco. Now they need money – why didn’t they tell us this all these weeks ago?
Anyway, when we returned to the campground, we had company! A Belgian couple had come to retrieve their camper, and we spent a couple of days exchanging travel stories. They also brought us to a small Inka site along a creek in a far corner of the hacienda where we resided. How could we not have known about this, as we’d wandered around here through all the times we were here. When the Belgians left, and a Brazilian couple came, we could awe them with this amazing surprise.
Today we heard that our package is on the plane to Cusco. The border to Bolivia opened last week, so as soon as Thijs can install the parts, we will drive to the border, on to new adventures!
We certainly enjoyed our time in the Netherlands, living on our little houseboat which we docked as close as possible to the home of our son and his family, so we could babysit our grandson and watch him grow. But after staying put for twenty months, the travel bug bit us, and we craved more sun for the winter. We took a flight to the US to see our other son in Virginia. We flew just before the Omicron strain became rampant, and enjoyed the bright and warm sun there. On New Year’s Eve we continued our trip to Peru. Despite the everlasting Covid pandemic, we decided to return to Cusco, to see if, after almost two years standstill, our camper would be in reasonable condition; to make necessary repairs and service, and if in any way possible, to resume exploring. Again, we were lucky, as all around our travel date, flights got canceled because of weather and sick staff, but our three flight legs were pleasant and on schedule. We arrived at the campsite in Cusco, where a warm sun welcomed us and our camper looked pretty good after such a long time without us. Milli, the camp manager, had fulfilled our request for the first necessary groceries, so we could take our time to get used to the 3700m altitude again.
Thijs re-connected the batteries and with that we had power again; the batteries were still fine – what a relief! Even the engine started without hesitation, though the thick cloud of black smoke reminded us that we had to go to a garage and have it serviced as soon as the camper would be released from customs. Inside the camper there was no sign of mould or critters and all looked pretty good. That is, until we opened one of the cabinets above the bed: the far corner inside the cabinet has completely rotted away, and what we pulled out of there looked like beautiful, black compost – which of course is not exactly what we wanted there. So, patching that corner of the roof was next, while at the same time we dried out the cabinet with a fan. Next on the program was our finicky Webasto diesel stove: it needed to be disassembled, cleaned and serviced before we could cook on it again. Good we still had a Coleman camp stove as a back- up! Our same-brand diesel heater however worked like a charm right away, which was great as it gets to be pretty cold here at night.
After a few days of getting used to the altitude, we were ready to walk down to the historic center of Cusco. The first part, where we used to edge against the retaining wall to make room for the Saqsayhuaman-bound taxis and tourist filled busses, we now had most of the road to ourselves. At the sharp curve, where the lower entrance of Saqsayhuaman meets the edge of the city build-up, we continued down on the steps. Except for sleeping dogs, and some shop owners waiting for an eventual customer, the narrow street was empty. Only when we descended down into the city center, we stepped off the steep curb to pass people or squeeze up against the wall to let cars pass. At the central Plaza de Armas – normally the epicenter of foreign tourists – it was clear that we were just two of a handful that stuck out as foreigners. It turns out that during Covid, more people decided to be tourist in their own country. This is the case in the Netherlands, as well as in Peru…good to see!
Things take time here. We expected to get our camper released after about a week. It took over two weeks. Not that it mattered a lot – we still had plenty to do before driving off: we planned to see our dentist for some adjustments and cleaning – something we planned before Covid limited our movements back in 2020. Got that done.
When we stepped out of the dental office, we realized that in all the time we’ve been in Cusco, we never visited closeby Coricancha – the Temple of the Sun, simply because the institution that destroyed the bulk of this Inca complex and built a church and monastery on top of it, is the same that charges entry fee to show the little bit that is left. I had a hard time accepting that, but later realized that what is left might still be impressive. This used to be, after all, the center of the Inca universe: from this temple complex, the other important inca sites were geologically placed like the rays of the sun. From the outside, only a small remnant of the original perimeter wall stands out with it’s smooth perfection against the rough church walls that rise above and beside it. Terraced gardens stretch along and around the complex. These gardens are said to have been filled with solid gold representations of vicuñas, flowers and corn: offerings from Inca subjects. From the street one could spot a little more evidence of Inca perfection inside the monastery’s structure. It peaked our interest….So we paid the fee and entered, to admire the temple rooms that are now covered by colonial galleries surrounding a courtyard. The walls of the temple rooms were built with clean looking dark blocks that fit together like perfect puzzle pieces. The biggest, main temple room was the room that honored the Sun god, the other rooms are said to be devoted to the moon, the planets Venus, Mars and the stars. The interior walls must have been covered with gold plates in the sun room, and silver in the moon room. Inside, at regular intervals there were trapezoid niches in the walls – now empty, but they used to contain statues of solid gold and silver- artifacts that the Spanish conquistadores looted and melted into gold bars to bring back to Spain. No visual record has been made of this place back then, but writing reports of the gold plated walls inside the temple of the sun, where a solid gold disc image of the Sun god, and gold covered Inca royalty mummies had filled the room. The Sun disc was placed so, that at sunrise, the rays hit the disc, which made it look like the light came from within. One large niche in the center of the building still displays a strange array of holes and channels: apparently this was a ceremonial treasure cove of gold, encrusted with gems like emeralds and turquoise….we will not know… The conquistadores said that they were in awe, for what they saw was beyond belief. I wish they would have left it that way.
Every other day or so, we walk down to the center of Cusco. We’ d go to the market for our fruits and vegetables, dried beans, nuts, and eggs. Most other things we’d buy at the adjacent supermarket. The place where we used to buy our fresh bread is not reliable anymore, but we found an even better baker around the corner. While in town, we try to draw as many soles out of the ATM as possible. The bank where we used to go before, now has so many people waiting in line to withdraw their Covid support, that it could take all day to get our turn. The ATMs however only gives $100 worth of Soles per transaction. When you have to pay the campground for a year’s parking and weeks of camping, plus the garage expenses, we need more than that. It takes patience. We do enjoy the charm of Cusco, with it’s steep stepped alleys, it’s buildings dripping with history, the choice of restaurants, it’s friendly people. Still, we can’t wait to start driving, to where the temperatures are a little higher, and the rainy season a little drier: maybe Arequipa and the beach, for as long as the borders to the south remain closed.
After twenty days, we had our camper released from customs. We drove to the garage. Thijs wanted to get a full service done, with oil changes for the engine and the transmission. In addition, the brakes needed new brake fluid, the electric wiring under the car needed to be looked at, and we found another leak, in the roof above the driver’s seat. Although the garage we chose occupies an enormous space, most of it is taken by trucks that would not move in the near future – if ever again. We could cram into an available spot, where first we had the hole in the roof taken care of. Then the wait started for the next specialist…and then the next….we ended up living there for the week and were not halfway done yet. For the weekend we crawled back up to the campground, for laundry, showers, and a country view over grassy fields, tall trees, and flowers. On Sunday, Thijs decided to check all the hoses to find the problem of our lack of torque. And, yes! One of the hoses of the turbo had a giant crack, which he had not spotted before. With the – in stock- spare part installed, the replacement worked miracles: now we can pull up from a full stop on an incline again – what a relief! After a few more days, of waiting for some parts to arrive, and garage work for the oil changes, we returned for the last time to the campground. We hoped that after a nice hot shower and a good night sleep, we could start driving… down towards the coast where it is warm and dry… But just in front of the campground gate, the truck stopped and refused to start. Will we ever leave? That is for next month!
The morning of Peru’s lockdown, I looked out the window and saw a number of new arrivals; travelers that just made it inside the compound in time to take advantage of the conveniences and safety the camping had to offer. We were now a diverse, international group with toddlers just learning to walk and talk, school aged kids, adult children, parents, young couples, single adults and people in their retirement age. Among us we counted members of Canadian, Colombian, Chilean, Danish, French, German, Mexican, Swiss, US and, like us, Dutch nationalities. Plus – last but not least – the Peruvian family of Milli and Edgar, who run the campground. That day everyone learned about each other, and looked for a more or less permanent spot. Through time, several language-based quarters took shape, roughly divided into French, Spanish, and German speaking groups. Jorien, our single Dutch compatriot joined us with her bus to share a sun/rain cover.
We had no idea what to expect of Covid transmission danger or symptoms. We assembled to talk strategy. Since every household had their own unit, we could assume to be safe inside. However, the shared bathroom and kitchen would be a contamination risk. Milli promised extra cleaning and sanitising there. We were all expected to do our part with regular handwashing and social distancing. Since taxis wouldn’t run anymore, the young and fit volunteered to do the grocery shopping and carry the load of heavy produce up from Cusco’s 3399m to Quinta Lala’s 3700m altitude. Milli could get the printed permit for them to go shopping or go to the bank. Those that went out did so with caution – with the obligatory mask and sticking to strict Covid rules.
On Tuesday March 17th, the second day of the lockdown, we celebrated a first birthday. With a long table in the middle of the common area, everyone gathered in a large circle around it and performed a happy birthday song in the language of the different nationalities present. We showered the retirement aged birthday girl with field bouquets and improvised presents. After a thank-you speech from her, we enjoyed a choice of cakes, drinks, and chat.
Everyone still had to get used to social distancing. This bothered two families among us to the point that one chose to move to a higher level right during the birthday celebration. It didn’t go well: the track was steep and slick, the camper was large and not built for these conditions. After three failed attempts, an SUV truck drove up and pulled the camper with a tow strap. The distraction dampened the celebration a bit, but after cake and some shots of good pisco, all was forgiven and forgotten.
Over time a tight community took shape. Children shared their toys, babies shared a blanket, and restless adults installed a slackline. Through a whatsapp group, calls for help brought us together: “who has silicone caulk for my leaky roof?…I spilled tea on my bed; anybody with a hairdryer?…anyone have a saw?… some plywood?…I need a haircut…does anyone know how to weld?… After we found out that Jorien, our Dutch neighbor, just started her two year plastics awareness mission in South America and already had to cancel her first few presentations, it didn’t take long to organize one at the camp, with her beamer, a projection bedsheet, and audience. Jorien informed us about plastic pollution and how it affects especially the ocean and its sealife; the presence and danger of microplastics in every organism; and what we can do to reduce plastics in our life. She offered a mini-workshop about making one’s own toothpaste and deodorant.
Impressed, others came out of the woodworks with their specialties, and it turned out we had two MDs, a female mountain climber who reached the top five peaks, a zumba teacher, a kickboxer, a diesel mechanic, a movie director, several musicians and tango dancers…and I probably forgot someone. One of the doctors informed us about viruses and building resistance against a virus, the other helped in minor emergencies; we enjoyed a tango performance and could participate in (socially distanced) Zumba and kickboxing. Cooking and baking recipes were exchanged, and the technically interested were happy to help each other with any mechanical problems or tools. Under protest of those taking Covid 19 seriously, we had regular tea and campfire meetings – we all figured that since we’ve been locked up together for weeks now, we were not contagious. Sure, the ones who did the shopping runs could introduce it, but as they were checked by police to take only the direct route to the market or the ATM, wear a mask, disinfect hands, and keep moving, that chance was small.
We had another birthday party. This time there were three to celebrate for – the youngest turned one, the other eleven and the last one…(?)… maybe twenty…something? This time we came prepared to keep our distance with a hand on a stick to give presents or high five each other. The children loved this joke and ran away with all the gloved sticks.
Tourists, stuck in hostals downtown, were caught loudly partying into the night. Neighbors called the police, who stopped the parties and had everyone tested. Two of the tourists tested positive, so the hostals were shut down. Tighter restrictions followed for the whole region. We were not allowed to take any more nature walks on the estate grounds of Hacienda Llaullipata, or to be loud with music or voice, and everyone should be back in their units after dark. Shopping trips were reduced to one person only, which was later reduced to just the camping management. Milli could take orders and, with a special permit to drive, Edgar could go by car to do the shopping…. Until he was caught trying to get some of our empty gas bottles filled. His car as well as his driver’s license was taken because he only had a permit for grocery shopping. After paying a hefty fine, Edgar eventually got his license and car back. In the meantime a family member took over the errands, so no worries.
The first campers started leaving: the German neighbors on our other side moved to a rental appartement in Cusco to have more space for their two adult kids and three dogs. Then the Swiss couple wanted to catch an evacuation flight leaving from Lima. Together with a hundred or so other Swiss they boarded three busses to drive the 20 some hours to Lima. We received notice from them that one of the busses had a collision in the mountains, but they were OK. We vowed to only evacuate when we could fly directly out of Cusco. Yes, leaving Cusco started crossing our mind, partly because our son in the Netherlands expressed his reasons of worry, and partly because our embassy offered a one-last-chance to get help evacuating. The French made plans to ship their campers back to Europe, after driving in convoy to Lima. In Cusco at that moment, about 250 hotels and about 250 restaurants were closed for business, as well as a few hundred craft and souvenir stores. The severe shutdown slowed the infection rate, but could not stop it. Peru suffered, and without enough hospital beds, medical specialists or supplies, it would be better not to get sick. When at last a plane was arranged for us to fly to Lima, where a connecting flight was waiting, we took it, albeit with a heavy heart. After almost a month of quarantine, we cleaned our car, gave away our food supplies and said goodbye to our friends. Milli arranged a taxi to bring us to the airport, where we joined a long line of evacuees, waiting for the airport to open its gates and let us in.
It was a most special flight. Thijs had managed to reserve front row seats, so we would be the last in, and the first out. There was no service whatsoever on board, and the plane landed in Lima on the military airfield beside the connecting plane to Amsterdam. Out of caution, we had paid extra to get in first class, where again we had front row seats. Like on all seats on the plane, we found a huge bag with snacks and drinks to carry us through the flight, since again there was no service on board. The best thing about this seat was that you could lay flat, and I slept all the way to Amsterdam.
At 10:38 in the morning we arrived at a deserted Schiphol airport. Looking for our baggage belt, we saw we were the only plane on the screen. We rented a car and met up with our son and family outside their appartment– no hugs or touches yet. We borrowed blankets, pillows, sheets from him, and picked up extra clothing and towels from our storage. That should carry us through the first night on our boat in Friesland.
During the flight, I developped a bladder infection. I needed to find a bathroom every fifteen minutes. It was hard to find a bathroom along the empty highway. One roadside restaurant had a takeout window open, and while Thijs ordered us some food, I searched and found a coin operated bathroom open. What a relief! (In the Netherlands, public bathrooms always cost money) An hour later we picked up the key to our boat, and were ready to start our Dutch part of life in the time of Corona. To be continued….
One year ago the world shut down because of Covid 19. Thankfully, we’d just made it back to Quinta Lala, the campground above Cusco, where we planned to park our camper for the summer months, so we could fly home to the Netherlands to repossess our little houseboat.
One week earlier, we were about to leave Brazil for Bolivia. Before crossing the border, we spent our last reales on food supplies in an unexpectedly crowded supermarket. What was going on? We still had no idea what was hanging above our heads. At eight the following morning we expected a fast and easy border crossing…but already hundreds of people were lined up at immigration. After hours of waiting in the hot sun we were told: immigration could not process due to electricity failure: come back at noon. We retreated into our tiny home; others had nowhere to go. Upon our return in the afternoon we were directed to a priority line for people over sixty five and/or foreign passport holders, and only when we waited in front of the office building’s window we noticed that there was a special desk with a guy twirling his thumbs, waiting for us foreign passport holders. About an hour later we drove off in Bolivia.
We spent the night at a nice riverside campground in Aguas Calientes, where a dip in clear 39 degree river water offered a surprising relief from the oppressing 39 degree day temps. It would have been easy to spend a few more days there, but we were still in a rush to make the hand-back date for our boat back in the Netherlands.
The Gran Chaco of eastern Bolivia is rather flat except for a mountain range near Cochis; the view over the land is blocked by dry shrubs and low trees. The road was excellent, so without a reason to stop in this blistering land, we easily made progress.
We stopped for lunch in San José de Chicuitos, where we also intended to visit the historic Jesuit mission station. The building was closed for siesta. We found it too hot to wait hours for it to open…
Even in Santa Cruz we didn’t stay long; we were getting so tired of the heat! Like Santa Cruz, the town of Samaipata looked familiar… we’d been here before, years ago. If we wouldn’t have been in a rush, we would have stayed a little longer along the shady park in the center of this charming town.
The road from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba is stiiillll under construction, so the trip took twice as long as expected over the bumpy, windy dirt road. Just before nightfall we hit the new pavement. We found a place to camp on what looked like a roadworker’s parking space behind a hill next to the road. The end half of the space was fenced off for a yard with a lean-to camp. No one was home except four friendly dogs, two cats and a load of chickens. I guess the family (I noticed a few toys and a tiny chair) was gone for a day ….so before we left in the morning, we fed the animals as a thank you for our stay.
As we gained altitude, the views became more interesting. It looked like hillside ponds were a new introduction, since they all looked rather new. Also we noticed large heaps of chicken manure, at regular intervals along the road, and not necessarily at a farm entrance, but any small flat roadside surface. We discussed the possibility of that being part of some agricultural enrichment program, which seemed to fall in line with other economic developments we’d heard about.
As we climbed some more, we found ourselves driving through a misty fairyland of moss- and lichen-covered trees, which invoked a feeling of wandering through soft, moist fields. I guess these are cloud forests, that absorb moisture rising up from the Amazon basin to settle on the dense foliage and moss covered branches along the mountainside.
It’s good to feel the cool mountain air again!
In Cochabamba we needed to visit a good mechanic: since Paraguay the EGR (which regulates the turbo pressure) started clogging up with soot, which slowed down and even halted the engine at an increasing rate. So far Thijs managed to clean it out and got the car going, but it just didn’t drive the way it should. After a good cleaning in the garage, we spent the night at a campground. On the TV there we saw the most recent Covid score, as it had reached the South American continent: Peru already had a handful of cases, brought in by visiting tourists. The first case In Bolivia was under investigation.
Still without worry, we continued, direction La Paz and the Peruvian border. We climbed higher towards the Altiplano. At the mountain passes, dogs patiently waited for food handouts. I once heard that truckdrivers drop food there as an offering to Pachamama for good luck on the road. The dogs then transfer those offerings from the truckers to the Earth Mother.
It was harvest time on the Altiplano, and colorful fields of quinoa bejeweled the land. Farmer families bagged potatoes in front of their traditional adobe houses. Everywhere along the road we saw signs advertising Evo Morales and his party in anticipation of the upcoming elections. Only closer to the urban areas we saw some postings of Evo’s competition.
We passed La Paz and made our way through El Alto – a neighbor city that did not exist, but for a few houses around the airport, during the first time we passed through forty years ago. At that time we only realized the presence of Bolivia’s capital when we stopped at the plain’s edge, and saw La Paz gloriously hidden in its giant bowl, crowned by 6000m white peaks in the background. Now El Alto is a city in its own right, with truck stops and markets, ramshackle buildings and neighborhoods, and busy traffic. Busses were wild again, both in design as in driving style. Though the place is a fascinating mess, we were glad to find the exit towards the Peruvian border.
We chose the smaller border along Lago Titicaca, and found ourselves the only persons getting processed in a modern building shared by both the Bolivian and Peruvian authorities. All went smooth and easy, even when we did not get the requested six months (for just in case) we asked for….maybe they knew already…?
Once in Cusco, we crawled up the mountain to reach our campsite near Sacsayhuaman. Black, sooty smoke blew out of our exhaust again – a sign that something in our turbo system was wrong again. We vowed to make an appointment with the Sprinter garage first thing in the morning and have the problem looked at before flying home. Friday afternoon we sputtered through the gate and settled the camper on the lower ground rather than continuing to the upper level with the nicer view – we could do that after our engine problems were solved…no such luck. Mili, the campsite manager came to inform us that by Monday Peru would go in lockdown, and if we wanted to leave, we should prepare to leave before that day. Flights out of Peru would stop that Monday. We agreed that it would be an impossible feat, if you want to find your camper back in a descent state upon return – months later. We’d need to purge all food items, do a thorough cleaning, and clear the camper off its customs-burden for half a year or so. So we decided to stay and take our time with the necessary organization and see what comes. We already were in the company of about a dozen other overland camper vehicles. The night before lockdown, another handful joined us on the compound. A German family that planned to leave in time, returned as well. We now were a community of eighteen families. Nobody knew how long we would have to stay here, but for the time being we had a meeting to coordinate food and drink supplies and other practical ideas to make life within the compound safe and comfortable. Through time, many meetings followed as the rules adjusted to the seriousness of the virus. But that is another story – to follow soon.