Paraguay, from the Iguaçu Falls to the Pantanal Wetlands.

As soon as we entered the highway towards the Paraguay border, it bottlenecked into two westward  lanes, with slow moving trucks and busses on the outside, interspersed with nervous cars zooming left to right and back. Motorcycles passed us on the dividing line, barely avoiding the oncoming barrage of motor taxis going the other way. In front of us, at the other side of the bridge, loomed a cluster of highrise buildings only partly obstructed by billboards, screaming of luxury products – like a Chinese shopping paradise. We already heard about the duty-free opportunities in Ciudad del Este and were hoping to find a good deal on new tires.  As soon as we had crossed the border, we tried, but without luck. First, they didn’t have our brand and size, and then, if we could wait for them, the price was triple of what we expected. So, since we still had descent tires, we gave up and found the place where we would meet our British friends, who we first met in Medellin, Colombia. That would be the renewal of our Gin & Tonic Happy Hour days.

The bridge from Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay

Together with Sue and Ray we dared to take a bus, transiting through Brazil (hoping not to lose another visa day in the transit!) to the Argentinian side of the Iguaçu falls. As it was a transit bus, which was supposed to bring us directly to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, we did not expect it to make several stops before the Brazil border, allowing people to board with an overload of merchandize, most of which was confiscated right away at the customs control entering Brazil. Big arguments followed, since this contraband was meant to transit to Argentina, not Brazil. After an hour of arguments between the passengers and the Brazilian custom officials, the bus finally continued, though without the smugglers and their merchandize.

Later than the planned first hour, we joined the line at the Park’s ticket office, and when we arrived at the Devil’s Throat – our first stop and most spectacular view of the falls – we already had to stand on our toes and gaze over a layer of selfie making shoulders to catch a glimpse of the abyss beneath the famous thundering waters. For a while we waited patiently, but finally we pushed our way to the front, where we got generously showered by Iguacu water. Despite the crowd, it-was-magnificent! Disappearing in the mist, from a high plateau across the gorge, an endless row of waterfalls dumped their contents into the raging river far below us. The actual Devil’s Throat waterfall, right underneath us, goes beyond description… there is so much water thundering over the cliff…where does it all come from…? In addition to this main destination, there are many trails and viewpoints to more waterfalls that are part of the Iguaçu Falls. While Devil’s Throat gives one a view from above, at another site your gaze will go up. Walk some more and you will see the side of falls thundering down the rocks. Along the trail, gentle trickles and babbling creeks appear out of the woods, making their way to the edge, where we assume they play a miniature part in the grand spectacle. Along the trail and the train track, well-meaning tourists offered food to attract ring-tailed coatis for photo opportunities. These relatives of raccoons got so bold that, during the train ride back at the end of the day, they ran underfoot looking for scraps.

Thankfully there was a map of the park, which shows all the trails

Upon our return, with the adventurous bus experience in mind, we made a deal with our taxi driver to bring us across the two borders all the way back to our camp. Being with a group of four has advantages!

Ciudad del Este – a shopping paradise

After a few days of shopping for electronics and lovely dinners, we headed north to the banks of the Paranà river/Itaipu reservoir. We stayed a few days in a lovely, well maintained (free!) campground, but all the attractions: treetop walk, zipline, observation tower, swimming beach and even walking trails were closed. We could, however, walk along the beach or take a ride on a horse drawn carriage. We did a bit of bird watching, saw some monkeys checking out the trashcans, and found weird skeletons on the beach. When, after a few days, our supplies ran dry, we wanted to say goodbye to our friends and head towards Paraguay’s capitol. To our surprise, Ray and Sue decided to come along, back to Asunçión, where they’d stayed before our meet-up.

The Tati Yupi biological reserve on the Paranà river/ Itaipu reservoir, where we stayed for a few quiet days
Even this large Iguaçu watershed is low on water. Walking the beach with Ray and Sue
We found out this is part of a catfish skeleton.

Together we drove through grain country, where farms reminded me of the American mid-west: perfectly planted fields surrounded large barns and silos, with neat ranch- style houses, well-planned gardens, and freshly mowed lawns. Towards the end of the day, we turned towards “Lago del Rio Yguazu”, where we heard of a campsite along the water. German owned, Pura Vida Nautic Resort was meticulous and welcoming. We stayed a few days longer than planned, partly because we got invited to come along on a boat ride, which turned into a party when our boat met up with a neighbor’s boat. Here, we learned a little about how this comfortable layer of the Paraguayan population lives and heard their thoughts about those less fortunate.

On the road to Asunçión
This is a rich agricultural area, with many immigrants of German descent
Ranch style houses surrounded by well tended gardens made us feel like driving through the USA

In Asunçión we tried once more to get an extension for staying in Brazil, again without luck…It depends on the mutual agreement between Brazil and your country, we were told, and every country has different agreements. But, we found our kind of tires. Yay! We have spares again!

Sue and Ray convinced us to brave the heat and explore the city; especially the artistic quarter with its many murals and colorful mosaic-covered steps (we know: there are many cities with colorful steps) During her birthday lunch, Sue told us that they decided to fly to Ushuaia for a cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands; they got an irresistible deal because of Corona virus cancellations. So, while they prepared themselves for their trip south, we finally bid our goodbyes and went north, direction Brazilian Pantanal. 

Announcing the artistic quarter of Asunçión
Afterwards we celebrated Sue’s birthday with a nice lunch in downtown Asunçión

It still took a few days to reach the Brazilian border. We managed to spend the night in the shadow of the Monument Valley-type monolith of Cerro Memby, rising out of green, palm lined cow pastures. Before crossing the border to Brazil, we stopped at the Parque Nacional Cerro Cora, where the shade of tropical foliage provided a welcome relief from the day’s heat. Again, the entry to the park was free, but except for electricity, not much was offered. Lack of water rendered the bathroom building useless. The park staff was constructing shelters and fixing general lighting for an expected two hundred students arriving that weekend, but when we asked, no bathrooms seemed to be planned for. We wondered where on earth they’d have to relieve themselves; should they all go in the bushes, or to that one working toilet at the main gate, two kilometers down the road? Good we have our own bathroom on board!

We spent the night near Cerro Memby
Parque Nacional Cerro Cora: parking in the shade of tall trees kept the temperature agreeably cool.

Pedro Juan Caballero is a special border town with, just like in Ciudad del Este, a few enormous shopping malls that offer a large range of products that would normally be hard to get in this part of the world. I have never seen anything like this, it is like Costco times ten: isles with just dog food; a wine section as big as a full sized store; all the toys a kid can dream of; boats and boat accessories, to name just some. And to my surprise, nothing is cheap! But what makes this town really special is the borderline. The border runs through the middle of town, kind of along a divided highway: going southeast, you drive through Paraguay; going northwest, through Brazil. Only the two national flags on either side of the dividing green space indicated what country was where. To officially cross the border, you’ll have to drive to four different offices spread out across town: just ask, and search for them! Once found, the procedures were fast, and before nightfall we reached Bonito, our first destination for our last ten remaining days in Brazil.

Shopping paradise in Pedro Juan Caballero (if you’re into luxury shopping)
Every isle was impressively stocked…
Just one of the wine isles..

Popular Bonito is known for the many clearwater springs that can be found in its vicinity. Because of their popularity, we thought it important to be well informed about them. Our friendly Brazilian neighbor at the Bonito campground recommended his favorites, but when we asked the camp manager, we heard that those were popular for fun seekers, and we’d probably prefer the pristine.

The road would be a distance, and a little rough – not everyone’s favorite- with washboard and dust. When we arrived around eleven in the morning, we could join a group of four in a guided snorkeling tour. First we drove on the back of a truck to a narrow wooded boardwalk, where monkeys gazed down on us and butterflies shimmered in the mottled light. A slippery trail led us to the source of the river. Under clear blue water, we saw bubbles pop through the white bottom towards the surface. Small fish nibbled at undulating plants – harbingers of things to come. .. Further downstream we could descent on a deck and into the cool water, thankful for the wetsuit to reduce the cold shock. The current in the river pushed us forward; all we had to do was look down and enjoy the underwater world, where fish slowly wandered around tall grasses, looked at us from behind red leafed plants, and ignored us while grazing. Groups of fish passed us; some curious ones turned to see what was going on. The center of the river showed patches of the white limestone sand that kept the water so clear. Absorbed by the view, I would get close to the shallow, overgrown sides of the river and had to swim harder to get out of the entanglement without trampling the fragile greens.

Crystal clear water

Too soon we reached the endpoint. Actually, my fingers were getting numb, so it should not have lasted much longer, but I could easily have done this swim again after a warm-up. We returned to our camp in Bonito for the night, just in time to see green parakeets and scarlet macaws fly in for an evening feeding in the neighboring yard.

On our first stop in the Pantanal, at Paso do Lontra along the Miranda river, we walked the boardwalk trail, from where we saw caymans laying perfectly still in the water. A family of capybaras – giant rodents- slopped around in the marsh, happily chewing the plants left and right.  The wetland was filled with a large variety of wading birds. Overhead, noisy flashes of color flew by, too fast to identify any of them. At the lodge, we were pointed to a nearby tree that housed a family of hyacinth parrots. A few days later we had the pleasure of having coffee beside a tree full of these purple-blue beauties. What a sight!

Sunset over the marsh of Passo do Lontra.

I believe we entered the Pantanal in the best season: The roads were dry and passable, the rivers and ponds were full enough to be teeming with wildlife. Only the land animals had enough space to move around unseen… we saw no giant ant-eaters or tapirs, and no jaguars. We tried looking for a jaguar; a local guide knew the whereabouts of one or two, so we hired him for an early morning boat ride along the Miranda river. Along the shore we spotted monkeys in the trees. Toucans with their enormous bright yellow beaks followed us from tree to tree. Birds of prey of all sizes haughtily gazed back at us. Storks, herons, egrets, kingfishers, parakeets and parrots filled the space and our attention, but the jaguar remained unseen… The boat slowed down to crawl along the favorite spots … at one point we climbed ashore to look around bushes and treelimbs, and found proof of presence: big cat footprints! They were fresh and numerous, but without the animal.

Along the Miranda River, Passo do Lontra offered camping, hotel accommodation and excursions.
This old bridge has been replaced
Howler monkeys just look like big black blobs.
Proof of presence: Jaguar footprints

Most of the Pantanal properties are cattle ranches. Cows are still a precious commodity. Each jaguar kills on average four cows anually, so many ranchers prefer to see them dead. Ranches-turned-tourist-lodges know that jaguar sightings bring in good money. A few of these places can make more money out of preserving nature for tourism, than from ranching…hopefully that will catch on and expand.

At Pousada São João we could camp near the entry gate, where the hyacinth parrots were fed  their favorite palm fruit, and caymans migrated right alongside our camper from one pond to the other. Goats and horses grazed around us; a flock of guinea fowl settled in the shade of a tall palm crown.

Most of the Pantanal loop road was very dry, but here’s a puddle!
Cute Guinea fowl found some shade near our camper. Weather here was hot and humid.
Wildlife passing. These caymans moved alongside our camper to another ditch or pond.
En route, just in time for a coffee break, we saw this tree full of Hyacinth macaws.
These palm trees provide the fruit the macaws love to eat.
Lucky for me, this Kingfisher waited for us to be done because it didn’t want to lose its meal. We didn’t stay too long.

Most of the day was oppressively hot, with no shade to park under. Flies entered the camper as soon as the door opened a crack. When the sun went to sleep, the mosquitoes woke up. Still, there was serenity.  

It was not meant to last. That day we came to a disagreement with the person who’d leased our houseboat. He released it back to us: we had to go home to repossess it – but we were thousands of kilometers away from a place where we could long – term-park our camper and fly…

We chose Cusco over Montevideo, since the latitudes in between still had so much to offer us. We decided to finish the loop through the Pantanal – enjoying the rest of the roadside views with capybara and cayman filled ponds, parrot filled trees and feasts of other birds. When we reached the end of the loop, we soon reached the border town of Corumba. The overcrowded supermarket should have warned us for what awaited us at this border-crossing  to Bolivia…

What was going on in this supermarket?
We could see that macaws are very social birds. Capturing them for human pleasure feels all the more unjust after seeing how much they enjoy each other’s company.
One toucan
Three toucans!
Cayman tracks in the dust
Capybaras and vultures
Backing up onto the ferry.
Starting from Foz do Iguazú, Brazil A: Ciudad del Este, Paraguay B: Parque Nacional de Iguaçu, Argentina C: Tati Yupi biological reserve, Paraguay D: Pura Vida Nautic Resort E: Asunción F: Pedro Juan Caballero, Paraguay G: Bonito, Brazil H: Pantanal Loop I: Corumbà, Brazil – border to Bolivia

Rio and Beyond

When we left the coast, it started raining. Through the rain we passed the coffee fields in southern Bahia. Along the coffee fields we saw peppercorn vines and achiote bushes – of which the typical local yellow food color is extracted. It rained when we drove through a magical landscape with protruding rocks, announcing the approach of the Rio de Janeiro coast -the way it is advertised in tourist brochures. We saw so many of these odd shaped rocks, that when we arrived, Rio’s landmark had lost its magic! With the constant rain, we had no incentive to stop and arrived in Rio faster than expected. In between showers, we walked along the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, to visit friends we made during our travels. We camped along a lake with a shrouded view of the Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer. The lake’s edge was teeming with life: runners and bicyclists zoomed past our front door, sailboats and racing shells crossed the lake, nudging it’s wildlife to the shore, so we could admire a family of capybaras from up close. One night, the sound of complicated drum rhythms drew us out to find the source of the action. It didn’t take long before we could gaze over a low wall to witness a circle of drummers practicing for carnaval.

Annato, or achiote: the red fruits produce the popular yellow food color we so frequently noticed in Brazilian dishes.

We were not going to wait for Carnaval; the time that the city would be flooded with tourists and criminality was high. We also didn’t feel like exploring the city in the constant rain, so after a couple of days, the travel bug pushed us on – still along the coast, towards Paraty, a town built during the Brazilian gold rush in the 17th and 18th century, now a Unesco World Heritage site. On our last trip, we had no idea of it’s existence – internet nowadays gives us so much more information than the few travel guides of forty years ago! This time around we had heard much about this small town: how pretty it is, but also very touristy…nevertheless a must see along the road to the south…

Even though we were crossing the tropic of Capricorn, and we should be in a subtropical region, the coast between Rio and Paraty was among the most lush and tropical we have seen. The road went steep up and down, following the mountainous elevations of the land. Along the road, brilliantly colored flowers popped out of a wall of green textures; large leafed climbers crept up along moist tree trunks, while occasional waterfalls added to the feeling of paradise – were it not at the street’s edge. Every now and then we spotted the turquoise ocean with a scattering of rocky islands. When we didn’t make it all the way to Paraty that day, we descended into the coastal village of Praia Grande, to spend the night alongside the fish-boat marina, where we were warmly received by some customers of a three table street side bar. Exhausted from the drive over the long and winding road, we nonetheless stayed up longer then normal, trying to keep up a conversation in Portuguese with the curious locals and, thankfully, also some English with a somewhat tipsy woman who had established herself there after her divorce and several world adventures. Before leaving the village the next morning, we explored the narrow trail that started from our camp spot…the trail led us up and over an outcrop that separated Praia Grande from the secluded beach of Prainha, where clear water gently erased our footsteps in the golden sand, and rounded granite boulders provided a private corner or an elevated spot to catch some sun rays. Of course it helped that we were there early, and left before a small crowd moved in.

Such lush tropical vegetation south of Rio!
Our camp in Praia Grande, next to the three-table bar and the trail to Prainha. Excellent spot!
Beautiful Prainha beach

We continued to Paraty, where we arrived before the shops opened, but after the tourists had shipped out to Ilha Grande for a day in the sun. For us it was a perfect opportunity to enjoy the pretty colonial facades while managing the rough, uneven (can’t even call it) cobblestone streets without twisting an ankle. By the end of the day, we went out to the dock to see loads of pirate-themed boats release thousands of passengers from a beach day on the island. Thankfully, most passengers left town, however the ones that remained were determined to have a good time. It was good we established ourselves on the far side of the parking lot, with a canal between us and the old center, so we still had a good night’s sleep.

The end of a perfect day in Paraty

Some weeks ago, our fridge stopped working. Fortunately we didn’t have much that needed to be refrigerated, just some butter and a large chunk of cheese- which actually tasted better in its soft and sweaty state. But it is nice to have a cool glass of water on a hot day – we missed that most of all. From our friends in Rio we’d heard that near Paraty’s marinas there would be a repair shop for our brand fridge. Thijs had already figured out what part was failing, and before the technician arrived at the shop, Thijs had found the necessary replacement part – the only one in stock. Then it was a question of minutes to have the part installed, and we were on our way, direction Curitiba to say hello to some other friends.

Endless fields of soybeans…
These Araucaria trees are threatened, but typical for the Parana region.

We were now driving through the south of Brazil. There was no comparison with the north. The roads were great, but dearly tolled. The gas stations along the highway left nothing to be desired, with a restaurant and store and sometimes a hotel, a large amount of well maintained toilets and hot showers, and ample parking space to spend the night- trucks separated from cars, campers and buses. Endless fields of soy, corn and wheat grew perfectly uniform. Immense grain collection facilities reminded us of the US’ Mid-West. We could easily navigate around the city of Curitiba, where everyone seemed to obey traffic rules. The suburbs of Curitiba were defined by gated communities and comfortable shopping malls, tennis courts and golf courses. To visit friends of our friends we went a bit beyond this cultured zone, to a yet to be developed area, which looked much more natural and relaxed. We stayed here for a while and enjoyed an incredible hospitality with new friends; we rode along in an open top Jeep to other friends inside a gated community, where we experienced the decadence of an upper crust party – all friends in a four wheel drive adventure group.

In Curitiba, we had to stop and visit the Museu Oscar Niemeyer
Good to see our travel friends again!

When we left, we vowed to come back after our visit to the Iguacu falls; we still wanted to revisit the southern part of Brazil. Only a few days later, in Foz de Iguaçu, we learned that this was not meant to be…our allotted stay in Brazil could not be extended. With only ten days left for Brazil, we decided to leave for Paraguay immediately, so we could use those ten days for a later visit to the Pantanal: a Brazilian wetland nature reserve which is easily accessible from Paraguay and Bolivia. So, on to Paraguay we went, looking forward to meeting another set of friends, with whom we were going to drive together for a bit. But that is an other story.

Capybaras up close in Rio de Janeiro

Life without Kakao; south along the Brazilian coast.

Without our dog, our camper feels empty. Occasionally, while driving, I hear a little tinkle behind me, reminding me of the sound Kakao’s metal tags make when he’d move around. It would take a second to realize it’s not him, but just his collar that is hanging on a hook on the door. It makes me think his spirit is still with us. Without Kakao, we celebrated New Year’s Eve with Suna and Christiaan, their friends, Suna’s parents and  my sister in law Marina. We camped in front of the beach house they rented. When, at the start of the New Year, we were blown away by fireworks from the house next door, we were glad Kakao didn’t need to suffer through the explosive noise the display created.  And when the next day a group decision was made to visit Praia dos Carneiros in Tamandare, we did not need to worry about Kakao staying behind because that location was too hard to reach by car. There, we could venture out on the reef during low tide, and enjoy the clear, warm water pools, where fish nibbled at our skin. Brazil is not as dog friendly as countries like Peru or Colombia; but now we could enter restaurants without making a case about our dog. With a pang of pain in our heart, we started to appreciate the advantages.

Our last family outing around the city of Recife went a bit inland, to see the waterfall Cachoira da Veu da Noiva, in the somewhat cooler hill country near Bonita. After you park your car, you have to make your way down past the entrance gate restaurants, the shady streams and creeks, to see the water rush over a solid rock cliff into a deep canyon. At the top, you have the possibility to risk your life and  pay to rappel yourself down the fall. Not for us! But we climbed down the side to the first landing and admired a few brave souls that did. Close by, there were a few more waterfalls that were more useful to us: those where you could get massaged by a waterfall shower or a strong current bath. Or, you could  just hang out in the cool, clear water pools at the base.

When everyone was ready to return towards Recife, we turned south. The coast was still irresistible. We know we skipped many beautiful, palm-lined beaches; and at randomly picked a few that coincided with our evening and afternoon breaks. We visited some that came recommended. Not all were suited for us and our lifestyle. Our first overnight camp after the falls was a camping in Beira Mar at the mouth a river. The camping was tidy and tightly packed (summer vacation in Brazil) but the beach at low tide was endless. I could imagine you can get cut off from the mainland if you don’t watch the tide coming up! The next morning we drove inland along the river to find the ferry across. When we saw the ferry landing, it was clear it was not suited for our size vehicle, so we went in search of the next one. Further up the river, there was a big music event happening on a large barge, in the middle of the river close to where a slightly bigger ferry would bring us across. Traffic was hectic. Drivers not interested in the music were on edge, mainly because the waiting time to get across, took hours. When we finally drove off on the other side, it was late afternoon. We had to find a place to spend the night, but the road we chose was getting from bad to worse, and did not skirt the beachfront as much as we’d hoped.  Was that why we were the only ones on the ferry turning left instead of right? On iOverlander we found a wild camp that sounded promising: at the edge of a turtle sanctuary and no one living close. The side road we had to take to get there was even rougher and dustier than the main road. We passed several desolate houses on bare dirt land. The indicated site was a garbage dump with the ocean breeze blocked by a stand of low trees.  A sinewy man with a slingshot circled around the perimeter, occasionally ducking inside, looking for small game. In front of the trees, a sign indicated the turtle sanctuary, forbidding vehicles on the beach. On both sides of the bush, tire tracks had plowed the sand soft and deep. Sticks and palm fonts left in a deep spot showed where someone had been stuck. On the beach side, the view was not much prettier. Beer bottles and plastic junk marked the wild party spots; plant waste and oil residue drew a flood line. But…since it was getting dark, we decided to stay anyway, and early morning gave us an unbelievable sunrise, and a decision to leave the coast for the closest highway towards Aracaju – the town where, over forty years ago, we found our first dog, Linda .

Although Aracaju has a long stretch of nice wide sandy beaches, all we wanted to do there was recognize the place where we had found Linda. We knew it was a stretch with a certain width of beach, and oil platforms out in the water. Back then, we had parked on an empty beachfront lot south of the city, beside a newly built house, inhabited by artists who had helped us get our dog…. No success, but we suspected those houses from then are now bars and restaurants… A bit disappointed, we continued south along the coast.

With Aracaju in our rear view mirror, a tiny rock hit (our one month old!) windshield. Devastated, we stopped and applied  our windshield repair kit resin. While the resin cured, we lunched at the restaurant where had stopped…then I started doubting myself…did I do everything right…would the bracket not stick to the window if we waited longer…? I decided to detach the bracket. Then I saw the resin drip …did I do it too fast?  What if it was not enough, and the crack continues?  Very slowly and carefully we drove on; we held our breath every time we hit a pothole or a bump. To be sure, we stopped at a windshield place to have the process done again. There I saw I’d done everything right. Let’s hope for the best.

Without further problems we reached Salvador, Bahia. Maybe it was just along the coast, but as soon as we entered the state of Bahia, the landscape changed from endless sugarcane plantations to coastal rain forest, which did not end until we reached the outskirts of this city where in 1978 we celebrated carnival. Since we’d taken the main road  away from the coast, we were happily surprised by magical tidal pool beaches along the shore – I did not remember that from way back. But I remembered the streetfood that stuck in my brain as delicious and special for Salvador:  Acarajé – ground black-eyed peas and cashew nuts, flavored with shrimp paste, dropped in sizzling palm oil to fry to a crisp, then served with dried shrimp, shredded veggies and hot sauce. Along the beach and in the city my need to taste them once more was more than satisfied, although they never were as good as I remembered them. I’m afraid they’ve cut down on the most flavorful ingredients which might not agree with the general public’s tastebuds. The city of Salvador however did not disappoint. We found a spot to park in the old town, close to the blue colored church built by the African slaves. On the plaza, multi-rhythm drum sounds pulled us towards an exotic array of witchdoctors, body painters, and Baiana women in multilayered lace dresses, and above all, an energetic group of drummers showing their skills, dancing and juggling their drumsticks or even drums. The houses surrounding the plaza were equally colorful: balconies were dripping with bright ribbons that carried blessings and prayers, and shops spilled their wares out on the streets. Looking for a place to eat, we found a vegetarian buffet. When our mouths were stuffed with food, we just had to get up and look outside to see another drum group come by – all practicing for the upcoming Carnaval.

After a good day, we drove out of town to spend the night at the far end of the Bahia de Todos Santos, where Cachoeira /Sao Felix, two small towns separated by water, both with a clearly rich history, allowed us to sleep along the promenade.

A couple of hours’ drive south of Salvador you can visit a small but extremely popular island, Morro de Sâo Paolo. The island is off limit for cars, so we left our camper at one of the many guarded lots near the ferry landing. We crossed the water fairly early in the day, before the many restaurants and tourist shops were open for business. Before the arrival of the flood of tourists, it was hard to find a place that served breakfast –for us- along the beachfront.  Many businesses displayed mouthwatering buffets, but only for their hotel guests… after a long walk back and forth we found a little shop that served acai…good enough! Then it was time to explore the five beaches. Turquois water invited us for a dip, and a stroll over what’s left of the reefs with fish filled tidal pools. A diving school tried to sell us a swim along the barrier reef. We climbed the ”morro” (mountain) to witness people pay dearly to hurdle themselves down a zipline towards protruding rocks, but hitting the water just in time to be saved by a zipline hero down below. We walked the narrow streets and convinced ourselves that we needed some more beach clothes. For lunch, we ordered moquece – a traditional rich and creamy Bahia seafood stew. At the end of the day, before returning back by ferry, we enjoyed  a caipirinha or two with a view over the clear blue water. Yes, Brazil certainly has beautiful beaches!  

In southern Bahia, along the coast north of Ilheus, we found a piece of paradise at Camping (and great restaurant) Paraiso. With just enough -mostly Brazilian- campers to fill the designated “Motorhome” field, we were given a spot in generous shade, with ocean view and breeze, far enough removed from the coconut palms to not pose a threat to our solar panels. Here, we did not need to talk with hands and feet: the owner spoke English! In the mornings, the beach was pristine with white sand and clear, warm water. The restaurant was the best we’ve experienced in Brazil: their moquece was to die for! We did not want to leave this place – especially when a famous and interesting traveling family moved in: on the road for twenty years, this Argentinian couple drove around the world in a 1928 (unknown brand) wagon, with four children born on the road. Who doesn’t like to exchange experiences with the Zapp family?! But, the end of our allowed stay was nearing, and we arranged to meet some friends at the border near the Iguazu falls. Before that, we wanted to visit some friends in Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba – still more than a thousand kilometers away… We had to leave. Brazil is a big country!

Along the Brazilian Coast: Rest In Peace, Kakao

After a good twelve years together, we had to say goodbye to Kakao. We did not expect him to die so quickly. When we left Belém, he still acted normal. Yes, he got tired a bit earlier and liked to sleep longer, but at thirteen years – in this tropical heat, that would be expected, right?

When we arrived in pretty Alcântara, a quiet small town across the river from Sâo Luis, Kakao had no trouble hopping out of the camper and charming the local dogs with his friendliest stance. He went along with us on an evening stroll to explore the decorative cobblestone streets and admire the historic buildings.

Tje following day we braved the wild ferry ride across the river, with strong currents, and waves crashing loudly and high over the guard rail, shaking our truck like on a very bumpy road. That evening we explored the waterfront on the outskirts of Sâo Luis.

The next morning, Kakao chose not to join us for long, wandering the streets of old Sâo Luis. So we left him to relax inside, while we admired the city’s stuccoed, painted, or tiled fascades, its faded beauties, and stepped streets.

Before the morning was over, we left town, in search of a truck wash place – something that was now really necessary with all the dirt, soaked in salt water after this last ferry ride.

When we arrived in Barreirinhas, we could take a tour into the famous white dunes of the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses. We decided against it because we doubted that any of the crystal clear lakes would still be as clear and present at the end of the dry season, and a six hour excursion seemed like a long time to leave Kakao behind. Instead we found a beautiful spot along a beautiful tropical river. We enjoyed lunch there at a perfect restaurant and stayed along the riverside for quiet night. That evening Kakao, while on a long leash, lost his balance while reaching down to taste the river. He fell in the water and panicked when he could not crawl out. He did not want our help, so we had to lead him to a place that was easier for him to climb ashore. We still did not think anything was off when afterwards he could not jump into the truck without our help. He screamed and snapped when we helped lift him up. We thought he was a bit traumatized…he never liked swimming…

Continuing south, we did see some white dunes, indeed with putrid green pools in the dips. Thijs got his climb in, while Kakao and I stayed in the car. After that, we drove a good stretch and reached the popular beach town of Jericoacoara at the end of the day.

Although we did not quite stay in the real coastal town of Jericoacoara – which is off limit for vehicles – we found a campground on adjacent Lagoa de Jijoca; the first real campground in Brazil! Kakao could roam free, chasing lizards within the confines of the terrain. He enjoyed a stroll along the lake beach, but getting into our camper was becoming a struggle, and this time even jumping out went wrong…

We could have stayed at this comfortable campsite, filled with friendly and helpful Brazilians, but we had a wedding date to make in Recife, and no idea what could await us, that could slow down our progress. The north-east landscape varied between savannah land with a thorn bushes, palm groves, cattle land and the occasional patch of forest. We enjoyed the small homesteads along the way; buildings and sites that brought back memories of rural Africa. We skipped the next few cities and skimmed through Fortaleza. It was only after Fortaleza, when we stopped for the night at a serene lake (where a distant fisherman sung at the top of his lungs while rowing over the mirror still water) that we noticed something was seriously wrong with Kakao. We’d already improvised a ramp from our folding table, covered with a yoga mat, so he could safely get in and out of the camper. That evening he started walking in circles, with his head sharply tilted in the direction he was turning. I googled the symptoms and found that it could be “old dog vestibular syndrome”, a scary ailment that should spontaneously disappear in maybe two weeks. We decided to see a veterinary in Natal.

The vet did not want to give us a diagnosis before keeping Kakao under observation for at least a week. We could better do this in Recife, where we planned to stay a while anyway. So with the assurance that it was not an emergency, and a painkiller prescription (he cried each time we tried to help him) we headed to the referred vet in Recife, just one more stop away…

Just like in Natal, the vet in Recife gave us a vague answer with many possible ailments. She suggested CTscans, bloodtests, steroids and antibiotics (all with the help of Google translate, as no-one speaks any other language but Portuguese here!) We opted for bloodtests and medication. We chose to camp in a quiet water park not far from the vet’s office, awaiting the results of the bloodtests.

In the meantime we had to show up at the parents of the bride, who insisted we’d stay with them. They are the nicest people but did not really understand that we could not drag Kakao up to their apartment, and that we wanted to be near him as long as he needed us. When my sister-in-law Marina arrived, we moved to a location close to the hotel she stayed at. Here we could come and go as we wanted and still take part in the social activities. And we could take Kakao for walks on the beach.

We arrived in Recife well in time before the wedding. We even could celebrate Christmas with our new Brazilian family! But on Christmas day we decided to visit Fort Orange, an old bastion originally built by the Dutch, and later destroyed and rebuilt by the Portuguese. Over forty years ago, we spent quite some time there, adjusting our then brand new VW kombi for more storage space. I remembered the place as a quiet, clear water beach, where we camped in the bend, protected by the walls of the fort. When we came back here – this time during the holidays – it was crowded. Upon arrival, parking guards scrambled to point you towards one of the beachside bars or restaurants where they’d receive a tip. Parasols and large families crowded the strip of sand between water and shade trees. Loud music filled the air. We entered the fort; something I don’t remember we did back then, but then again, we heard the place had just re-opened after extensive renovations. Inside, the courtyard was quiet. The buildings looked sober. All rooms, except the chapel, were locked. We climbed to the top of the fortress walls and looked down… there is where we’d camped!…still recognizable.

Together with Suna and Chris, Chris’ mom Marina, and Suna’s parents, we explored a couple of beaches around Recife; places that we could reach with our camper so Kakao could also take part. He clearly still enjoyed the beach: he joined us on walks, lazed around in the sand and made some efforts to hunt for crabs.

Kakao stayed behind in the comfort of our air-conditioned camper when we went on an outing to the historic center of Olinda- named so since the location is just beautiful : O! Linda! While driving between Boa Viagem, where we stayed, and the home of Suna’s parents on the north side of Olinda, we passed the colorful houses several times and happily joined our family group on a walking tour through the quaint old town.

The prednisone made Kakao eat like a bear and gain weight (which after a while worried me because his legs are so weak) but he managed to reject one dose, then he deteriorated fast – not eating, stumbling and falling. To keep him hydrated, I used a syringe to squirt water into his mouth. The bloodtest result showed it was not an infection. So we still hoped for this vestibular syndrome to disappear. However after a second checkup, the vet concluded that the ailment was in the central brain: maybe a tumor, or a parasite… She upped the medication with antibiotics for a treatment that she said had been successful in some cases…

The day of the wedding, after two days of fasting, Kakao got up, drank a bowl full of water and ate a good portion of the rice and tuna I prepared for him. He looked more alert and stable. Was it the electrolytes I’d added that day? We took him on a short walk before we left for the ceremony. Coming back home after a few hours, he acknowledged us, but did not bother getting up. Several times that night he got himself stuck in a corner when trying to turn, and needed my help to get back on the bed. In the morning he would not eat, could not get up by himself, and stopped swallowing the fluids I squirted in his mouth. It was time to let him go… With the help of Chris and Suna we found a nearby vet who was willing to help Kakao pass, on a Sunday, on his own bed. He went peacefully.

Together with Chris, Suna and Marina, we buried Kakao under a coconut tree, with a view over the water. A circle had rounded: Kakao’s name used to be Coco. He is now surrounded by coco trees. Our first dog Linda came from the beach in Brazil and was buried in Virginia. Kakao, from Virginia, is now on the beach in Brazil. Afterwards we had a meal with coco for lunch, overlooking the view that Kakao will have from now on. All is good.

The view from Kakao’s resting place. Life’s end could not be more beautiful.

Transamazonica, part two

To continue our Amazon crossing, we took the ferry from Itaituba across the Tapajôs river where (surprise!) a beautiful tarmac road awaited us on the other side. After 15 km we landed back on dirt road. Oh, well … we were still on the Transamazônica, right…? Good we did not wash the camper yet!After a dusty stretch, we enjoyed regular stretches of 10 km or so of beautiful tarmac, followed by more increasingly dusty dirt road. The dirt road climbed and descended over steep hills, where we could imagine getting in trouble in wet conditions. Steep hills and soft dust turned into mud would make for a slippery ride, not only for yourself, but imagine an out of control truck sliding towards you, and there’s no other way to avoid getting hit but to drive and get stuck in the deep muck of the road side. We’ve seen that happen on our first trip through the Amazon…
At the same time, driving off the ferry from Itaituba, we hit real live burn territory in the state of Parà. All around us we saw signs of fire, either as smoke billowing up in the distance, as charred fields around us, or as live fire with flames consuming even the traffic signs along the road.

So much smoke filled the sky that the horizon where we’d suspect the edge of the jungle, was not visible. Only patches of forest remained within eyesight… Rolling green hills with grazing cattle replaced the dense Amazon vegetation. In the end I stopped looking for the forest we came to experience. I think we can write this part of the Amazon off as a permanent loss – at least in the vicinity of this road.

That one lone tree on top of the hill indicates how tall the forest used to be. The last one standing…

Driving the Transamazônica, just before the start of the rainy season went easier and faster than expected. But how exhausting it was, especially with a broken air conditioning, for which we needed a new part that was not available in this part of Brazil. With the windows opened to catch a breeze in the suffocating heat, we also swallowed dust whenever a truck drove close. At times the dust was so dense, we had to stop and wait for the dust to settle. Inside our camper, the road’s washboard- and pothole rattles made sure that dust got evenly distributed on every surface. We just had to bear it: it was part of the Transamazônica adventure – and it beats getting stuck in the mud!

Down the road, a denser population supported more towns, so we were pleasantly surprised when a sign informed us about an Arara indigenous reserve, but also warned us that outsiders like hunters, loggers, or people like us were not allowed to enter. Good for them! Thanks to this indigenous tribe, a few hectares of primal forest were still standing.

We entered the heart of cacao country, though you wouldn’t tell by the looks of it. In my memory, cacao grows in moist, shady jungle-like conditions. Here, however, cacao trees grew on dry soil, coated in the dust of the road it faced; and in the shade of imported eucalyptus trees. In the local cacao capital of Medicilândia we had lunch. We could choose between meat, meat and meat. The advertised chocolate venue was closed for the weekend. We stopped because we discovered that after a long time, there was a cell tower with descent internet! After catching up about what is going on in the world, we continued, again on an off-and-on-paved-road (true to the red – white striped road indication on our Michelin map)…it looked like the road was pretty much finished, but the bridges were not, which brought us to dirt road detouring over the old wood plank bridges once more…and why not a little more dirt road for the more complicated stretches?

Downtown Medicilândia
The road is finished, and the bridge is finished, but when will they connect?

We heard that the dirt road would end in Altamira. Since it was one of the larger towns en route, and it looked rather inviting with a promenade along a good looking river, we stopped for a drink and a final blog update and release, before settling down for the night on an empty parking lot of an unfinished marine museum next to a classic boat wharf.

Donkey waiting to take some for a ride
In Altamira, we could spend the night next to a boatyard, building these classic river boats.

Soon we got spoiled by the good road and covered quite a distance through still burning or burnt landscapes…(this was getting old!) For the night, we stopped near an intersection with a road to Belém. Thijs wanted to go to Belém, as we had never been there and we’d missed going to Manaus this time. This way we would still have the feeling we’d visit a historic Amazon port town. At the intersection’s truckstop, we were assured that the road from Novo Repartimento to Belem would be paved and good, so we decided to go… but it started with swiss cheese pavement – more holes than street – which quickly deteriorated to a potholed dirtroad – so bad, you could easily disappear in many of those holes. Maybe this was an unofficial shortcut! After a gruesome 40-some kilometers – like it dropped out of heaven – a perfect bridge appeared in front of us, followed by a smooth paved road leading us over a body of water, down along a large dam, and up again over a dam -where protesters forced us to stop and wait until the police came over to clear the way. We never found out what the protest was about, as we were urged to step on the gas and move on, but I suspect they were part of the indigenous groups living along the now dry part of the river that had been blocked off by the dam.

Smooth road on the long bridge ahead!


As we were now comfortably driving over smooth pavement, we again had to pay the toll of the previous potholed pavement by way of another old tire giving up his life. Good thing Thijs had taken three new spare tires from the USA, so we’re still good with one spare left!

We never got used to the endless burnt and increasingly arid land, so when the landscape turned greener with moist forest we were happy to see some lush açai plantations – which were mostly small scale. Large scale palm oil plantations followed as we got closer to the river delta and the coast. The amount of trucks, loaded with clusters of palm oil fruit on their way to the processing plants exploded. The heavy traffic decreased the quality of the road to a pitiful state. With all that traffic we could not even do the pothole dance; everyone was forced to drive in the relatively smooth berm beside the road, sometimes at a scarily tilting angle.

How much further can one burn land?What could they possible want to grow on this arid land?
Finally! Some green again!
Açai palm trees look lush in moist shade.


Since the bridge leading into Belem was hit by a ship and collapsed some years ago, we rode the last stretch to Belem on a nice long ferry ride. While we floated along, stilted stick houses appeared out of the bush along the waters edge. When we saw the high-rises of a modern city come closer, I was surprised. Belem looked so much larger and more modern then I expected of an old Amazon jungle town!

What a great way to approach a city!

Once on land, we made a beeline to the Mercedes garage, where a full crew of specialists started working on everything at once. For the first time since leaving the USA, we were not allowed to spend the night in our camper in the garage, but had to check into a hotel. The next day around noon, we drove out of the garage with a cool camper and a new windshield. We still needed to come back for a diesel tank and fuel filter cleaning, tire rotation, and wheel alignment which was done first thing next morning. Eduardo, one of the employees who spoke English, offered to show us around historic Belem. On our way back after a good lunch and a nice tour, our new windshield completely released itself from the cabin … like not too long ago in Cuzco. Maybe, again, the glue was old? (What is it with us and windshields??) Which meant one more day in the garage, and this time the installer insisted we had to leave the camper there for the windshield glue to cure for a full 24 hours, so we checked into a hotel once more. When finally all repairs were done, we took a second look around old Belem, stocked up our food supplies, and headed south.

Lunch on Belém’s beautiful waterside. Eduardo insisted we’d try Belém’s famous açai here. Now we’re hooked!
At the Parque Zoobotanico we could not believe the color of these scarlet ibis.
View over the historical part of Belém
In Belém there is a fort that was built to keep the Dutch out. Obviously it didn’t work, since we made it inside!
The Transamazônica starts after crossing the ferry in Humaita, just north of Porto Velho. In this blog page we continue our drive from Itaituba and leave the Transamazônica in Novo Repartimento to go to Belem.

The Amazon by way of the Transamazônica Highway

Sunrise over the Tapajos River at posada Maloquinha

With a heavy heart we said goodbye to Cusco. After we’d lived here for three months, we were getting used to the narrow, steep cobblestone streets, the diversity of people and their foods; the climate and the altitude. But we had a deadline to make and needed to dive into Brazil’s Amazon basin and try to make it to Recife by the end of December, on the other side of the continent. The rainy season had already started in the Andes mountains. Rain could seriously slow us down on the thousand or so miles of Transamazonica dirt road, so it could be an adventure …. we will see…

An street in San Blas, Cusco

For the first part of our journey, we would travel together with famous fellow travelers Mike and Geneva, who generously hand out stickers to anyone who wants to advertise their website slowcarfasthouse.com while telling traffic behind them that they, too own a “It’s not a slow car, it’s a fast house”. Mike and Geneva intended to travel to Manaus and beyond, so we could drive (somewhat) together at least until Pôrto Velho.

For a last time we drove through Cusco’s chaotic traffic. We made a last stop to stock up on supplies for the journey. Once in the countryside, we watched for a last time how the local farmers bent over in their greening fields: breaking the soil, pulling furrows, planting seeds of beans, corn or potatoes. For a last time we would admire the local indigenous women along the road – dressed in six layers of heavy, bejeweled skirts, intricately knitted sweaters and legwarmers, and glittering flat disk hats- its fringes blowing in the wind…

Last view over the Cusco valley

As we turned east towards Puerto Maldonado and the Amazon, the golden hills around the valley elevated into eucalyptus forests and, as we climbed higher, to pine plantings, until we reached a height that just allowed grass lands for alpaca herds. Rain started beating down on us. Pedestrians along the road covered themselves with sheets of plastic, or even woolen blankets, hoping to stay warm and dry enough until they’d find cover. In dismal weather we crested the pass at 4725 meters altitude, and descended into cloud shrouded mountains. As soon as we reached the village of Marcapata, the evening set in, accompanied by a heavy fog. The police permitted us to park overnight along the central plaza in the shadow of the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis; the most awesome church we have ever seen… unfortunately it’s only open on Sunday; it was Friday, so we could not see the inside.

Overnight in front of Iglesia de San Fransisco de Asis in Marcapata

We followed a stream down the mountains. The stream turned into a creek and grew into a river. The river swelled with every stream, before it in return added its volume to the Madre de Dios river near the town of Puerto Maldonado. We had reached the tropical lowlands that are part of the Amazon watershed, and here, just like on the Brasilian side of the Amazon, the jungle was rapidly disappearing to make room for rice paddies and cattle pastures. Ramshackle villages held on to the roadside, their wood-plank dwellings on stilts above putrid water. People tried to stay dry by using walkways between the shack and the road. Decks appeared where a business would pop up, selling anything from motorcycle parts to papayas or plastic toys.

Before crossing the border to Brasil, we spent the night at Club Deportivo, where live music blared through gigantic speakers and the cool young locals came to see and be seen, hanging around the pool. To spend our last soles, we had dinner served in our camper, because inside you could hear yourself speak, and we could enjoy a dusk – in the cool comfort of our AC unit, without biting insects.

Why did we wait until morning to cross the border? Because normally it takes a few hours to cross… But not here! Within a half hour we were through. This was the easiest border crossing ever!

On the Brasilian side, life looked to be easier. Houses looked better with fresh color, comfortable wrap-around porches, and a car on the driveway. Towns had well stocked stores and supermarkets that did not overflow into the streets.

Rio Branco and Pôrto Velho were the bigger towns on this side of the Amazon. The connecting road was paved, but so full of potholes that even swirling around them did not prevent us from blowing a tire. We hobbled into a country side-road where a motorcyclist immediately stopped to help us change the tire. As a thank you, he refused our offer of money, a beer, or even a drink of water. Wow.

Meanwhile, we discovered that on this road between the two cities, there’s no internet connection. We tried to let our traveling companions Geneva and Mike know that we were held up. We saw them drive by but they did not see me waving wildly from the side street. We caught up with them the next morning thanks to them being late risers and we are early birds.

Pôrto Velho would be the last city to visit before hitting the Transamazonica dirt road. We stopped for a few days at campground Oasis; we had our laundry done at an ultra modern, fully automated 60 minute laundromat, shopped for our daily food supplies at an impressive hypermarket and, on our search for a bank to get Brasilian reales, ended up in a shopping mall not unlike the “Simon” malls in the USA. For a larg(ish) latin city the traffic was relaxing without the busses, collectivos, tuctucs, or taxis pulling in and out of your lane in front of you. The wide streets and businesses had ample parking spaces, even for our larger vehicles. What a pleasure it was going into these towns!

While looking for a bank, we were directed to an ATM at a real American style shopping mall … who’d expect that in this outpost ?!

After a few quiet days at Oasis, we said goodbye to Geneva and Mike, who were planning to put their camper on a barge to Manaus, while we needed to continue our travel east over the dirt road – hopefully still in time before the rains would turn it into a mudfest.

Shade and fruit under the mango tree
One hungry little pup knew where to get some food
Mangoes hang on trees like Christmas decorations. Right time of year, too!

On the dirt road: getting off the Humaita ferry, the dusty but potholed track of dirt was very drivable. Beat-up wood-plank bridges across small rivers and creeks should be strong enough to bear the heavy trucks coming through. Along the road, small homesteader’s lands showed signs of old and/or fresh burns to turn the forest into cattle grazing, and corn/cassava lands. Houses looked like simple cabins. Cattle at times looked emaciated. Some jungle remained, though pockmarked by many logger’s trails. A few hours in, villages looked indigenous, presented by plaques marked by Aldea (Name) Manicoré Amazonas… and: “strangers may not enter without personal invitation” so we respected that, and just passed, and looked while we drove by.

A very busy ferry at Humaita. One of many to come.

Further along, the jungle-turned-farms became bigger to huge – with fields as far as the eye could see. Rolling hills with loads of cows gave the impression of western Virginian estates. Hectares of soy fields looked like Iowa. (Funny how, after burning down a whole forest, farmers needed to plant some trees as windbreakers …) We crossed many bridges and the occasional ferry over countless streams and rivers. Along the road, which varied now between smooth, to rough, to highly polished tracks, tranquil ponds and lakes remained untouched. Palmtrees must love standing water as much as waterlilies.

We must have a windshield curse: the morning after our first night on the Transamazonica, I wanted to wash off a day’s worth of Amazon dust. I flipped the windshield wipers away, but one of them decided to flip back while losing the wiper part. The metal part hit the windshield and Craack!…not only a star, but cracks all the way in every direction! How is that even possible – was this an inferior product? We had this windshield installed in Lima, and we now noticed it does not have the Mercedes star on it. We still have a few thousand kilometers more to go before we’d reach a town big enough for a chance of an exchange window!

Day 3 along the Transamazonica.
(Wild)life we have spotted so far:
1 tarantula … 2 small dead snakes … 3 small owls … 6 king-fishers ……. And about: …20 cats … 20 parrots in flight … 100 parakeets in flight … 100 egrets …
100 dogs … 100rds of horses and mules … 100rds of vultures … 1000nds of butterflies … 1000nds upon 1000nds of cattle.

At Club Oasis the resident tarantula made sure we’d be free of biting insects
Vultures are patiently waiting for their beef meal to die.

The red dirt road continued. Between the logging town of Prainha Nova and the town of Apui the condition was beyond perfect (maybe because of the well-to-do cattle and soy farms along the road?) After Apui the road deteriorated to an exhausting unending rattle track.

We try to blend in where we spend the night …
Morning fog is not only comfortably cool in the hot tropics, but it lends a special atmosphere
Yes, there were some wash-outs, but as long as it stays dry, no worries.
While waiting for the ferry to arrive, we’ll have lunch …

Across the state line from Amazona to Para, the great burns became more  obvious and frequent. It hurt to look around…  Here, we entered a mountainous area: not high enough for switchback roads, but enough for freakishly steep inclines a few hundred meters up and down the mountains – so glad to have dry weather, since I can not imagine climbing those hills over those polished mud tracks when soap-slippery wet!

Slash and burn
Look in the background! That’s where we’re going!
The long road ahead …
Midday stop in an Amazon town, a regional center, due to get a new entry road, paved with one inch of tarmac! (I’m sure that will last…)
The local gas station takes orders from farmers who come later to pick up the containers of diesel
On we go … We only have (a total of) two thousand kilometers to go on this road
When the old bridge dies,.they just build a new one beside it.

Finally we drove by and through amazon rain forest, thanks to National Forest Reserves and Parks. Because of the poor road conditions – driving an average of 40 km/hour, this cool, shaded experience went on for almost a total of a day. We spent a beautiful night surrounded by dense jungle and the songs of tree frogs. At both dusk and dawn, looking up after their recognizable screetches, we spotted flocks of parakeets and pairs of scarlet macaws flying from tree to tree. Lovely.

On Tuesday we were four days into traveling the dirt road. It felt like we’d been driving forever, though we’re amazed at the progress we’ve made thanks to the good weather so far.
We were looking forward to visiting the Amazonas National Park and could not wait to reach the entrance. The bumpy road tested our patience. When we finally reached the official entrance, we had to work our way around major roadwork right in front of the ranger station – which showed no sign of life or any indication of entry possibility. A faded sign did confirm that this was indeed the entry though… Disappointed, we continued on towards a closeby desirable attraction: Posada Maloquinha was going to be a riverside spot with shade, a restaurant, a natural spring pool, clean bathrooms and showers, wifi, and electrical hook-up (for airconditioning!): comfort and joy for a few days.
Well, the wifi doesn’t work too well, but it was a nice spot with incredibly nice people. We will take a well deserved rest, and wash the car…on the inside, anyway.

Aaahhh!
Not a very sharp picture, but he was ready to fly away!
In the eaves of the restaurant, these three little bats hang out, waiting for the evening insects to appear.
When they flew around us, they felt like butterflies fluttering. (So, nothing scary!)
When the last tree is cut … When the last river is polluted … When the last fish is caught … Then you will realize … That you can’t eat money…

Cusco, we’re back!

After a multi-stop flight that seemed to take forever, we finally touched down in Cusco – back after a month long visit with our sons and their families in Amsterdam and Richmond, VA. Arriving in Cusco felt like coming home… and in reality it also was, since both Kakao,our dog, and our little house on wheels were here, waiting for us. When we picked up Kakao, he was not even overexited to see us, so we concluded he had not suffered from our absence. We settled back in our camper, and first took a good day’s rest. The next day Thijs started to install the replacement car parts that had added so much weight to the luggage that we brought back from the US. He needed specialist’s some help with some of it, but, before we could drive to any garage, we needed to wait until our vehicle would be released from customs – a process that took almost a week. Since Thijs’ procedure at the dentist to continue with his implants could also only start after the weekend, we had plenty time to enjoy whatever was going on in town: more parades, more restaurants to discover, more neighborhoods to explore. Cusco was getting ready for Halloween, All Saints – and All Souls Day – the Day of the Dead. While Halloween looked like a blowover from the US – with a trick or treat event around the Plaza de Armas where kids in store bought costumes collected candy in plastic pumpkins, All Saints and All Souls day had a more authentic feeling, and it did not cater to the tourist crowd. Instead, local families moved to the cemeteries, where they spent time cleaning and polishing the brass frame of the tomb window, refreshing flowers and spending time with their deceased loved ones while eating, drinking, socializing and sometimes dancing to the tunes of hired musicians. On these days the markets were void of butchers, since traditionally one eats chancho (roasted pork) or cuy – offered in abundance at streetside stalls outside the cemetery. On All Saints day we passed by a bakery that just took some fresh bread out of the oven: elaborate sweet bread in the shape of a blanket covered baby girl. Just like the horse shaped bread with a boy face on it, these breads were originally offered to deceased children (girl bread for the girls, the horse shaped bread for the boys), but nowadays they are given to all children. The bread gets blessed and at the end of the celebration it gets eaten.

Ready for another parade in Cusco
Trick or treat at the Plaza de Armas where business owners are expected to hand out treats
All Souls Day, or Day of the Dead
Besides fresh flowers, the dead also receive miniature versions of their favorite things in life
Outside the cemetery, the florists have a good business
Fresh baby doll bread, or T’anta Wawa is only offered for sale around All Souls Day
A horse shaped bread is for the boys
On All Souls Day, you traditionally eat chancho – pork
On All Souls Day, butchers have no business, so they close (chancho is already cooked)

As soon as step two and three of Thijs’ dental work was done, we could leave Cusco to re-visit the area towards and around lake Titicaca, a place we remembered with fondness. I remember staying for days along the reed covered shores near a simple adobe homestead, whose adult inhabitants were too shy to come and check us out, so they sent their children instead. Slowly we familiarized ourselves with the family, their alpaca lifestock, and their way of surviving the cold by burning, and cooking on the smoldering fire of dung their animals produced. Nowadays we noticed how life has improved for many of these farmers: for instance, propane gas is readily available, which leaves the dung to fertilize the fields for a higher yield of quality produce. Along the road out of Cusco, people were out in their fields, plowing, planting and weeding. The corn stalks looked healthy, beansprouts popped out of the ground, while women were bent over planting potatoes in furrows created by their husbands beside or ahead of them. On some larger plots, groups of people were hacking large clumps of soil to pieces. For their lunch, we saw them seated together along the edge of the field – giving their work animals a well deserved break from pulling a simple wooden plow. There were also a few tractors, so more progress is coming, but in my mind, the romantic pastoral image of these people in physical touch with the earth is what I choose to remember.
The town of Juliaca, since we had last seen it, had turned into a crazy city, with throughfares under construction, the alternative routes clogged by people, carts, busses, taxis and tuctucs pushing and shooting ahead into every little gap and then hopelessly obstructing the already chaotic intersections. A little further down the Titicaca coast, the once sleepy town of Puno has gone the same way, though not quite as large and hectic as Juliaca – yet. Puno’s challenge is more that both the entry road as well as the coastal road run parallel to each other, but one runs higher up along the mountain side, and the other is down there closer to the shore. To get from one to the other you can choose between many connecting streets, but most of them are of the narrow and steep variety that we have learned to dislike. I wish the major connections could be more clearly indicated – it would be so much easier on my nerves!

Can you tell the difference between a llama and an alpaca?
A llama has a longer, more camel-like head, and its tail is pointing up.

We found a quiet spot outside of Puno. From our vantage point we looked over an expanse of reeds, separated into sections by narrow canals that led to the open waters of Titicaca. In the distance, along a wider canal, we could spot a long, regularly interupted row of reed buildings: the floating islands of the Uros people. Just like Machu Picchu, we had visited these before, and like Machu Picchu we heard that these islands are now so overrun by tourists, that visiting this place again would destroy the magic it holds in our memory. Instead we decided to visit Chucuito, a peninsula south of Puno. This was more how we remembered Titicaca. Empty roads and trails through ondulating fields and hills offered us spectacular views over the Titicaca shores and its shimmering expanse of water. An occasional cow’s moo or bird’s tweet broke the silence of the countryside. On the way, we only met two sets of tourists: all of us had chosen to pick the same lookout point to stop for lunch. We invited a Belgian couple on bicycles to join us for bread and cheese, and left a group of four Americans with a driver and tour leader a small distance away from us, but close enough to see their luxurious spread set out for them, with hot drinks and wine on white tablecloth tables.
Before we continued after lunch, we wondered why the guided American group in the Sprinter van turned back on the road they came from. When we drove on, we kind of understood. The road soon turned to a trail with just a pair of tire tracks, leaving grass to grow in the middle. We were not certain which track to take at some forks in the road – both sides looking equal – and of course we had to back track at least half of the time. When the track crossed fields, we guestimated the general direction… but in the end, and thanks to the help of a few local hitchhikers we took along, we found our way around and out of the peninsula. We’d thoroughly enjoyed that ride!

Titicaca shoreline
These people needed a ride to Puno, from a country road where you rarely see a vehicle. Good thing we took them, as they knew the way there

Our next destination were the Sillustani Chullpas: fifteenth century funerary towers on top of a plateau overlooking the beautiful lake Umayo. Though these towers were originally erected to bury nobel Qulla families, the Incas apparently liked the idea so much that when they conquered the area, they expanded and improved the site. It is quite impressive to walk around these towers, with some of them still standing in their perfect construction of enormous tight – fitting rectangular building blocks, with one small access opening facing the rising sun. Foundation footprints of many more towers are visible throughout the site, and piles of rubble in other places indicate either damage by earthquakes or destruction by grave robbers out for a rich loot of gold and other artifacts. As in many Peruvian archeological sites, there were many dogs and Alpacas present, which means that our dog Kakao can come along for a nice walk. After a little setback with his legs, that didn’t want to cooperate because of arthritis, he was back in business, enjoying every nook and cranny of the place. During the drive afterwards he took a well deserved rest in preparation for the serious hike up to rainbow mountain… To get there, we took a detour over country roads to go around Juliaca, where we admired the beautiful traditional farmsteads around Sillustani, and loved the high quality gravel roads through golden high pampa countryside. Before hitting the main drag between Cusco and Juliaca again, we were surprised by a brand new, perfect asphalt road without any traffic!

Kakao made a wide circle around these curious alpacas. You never know what they could do…
Are you coming? What’s keeping you?
Every Chulpa has an entry hole facing east. Kakao needed to check what’s inside.
We had not seen farmsteads like these anywhere but around Sillustani.
Along the way we had to stop for this single Puya Raimondii in bloom.

Before our return to Cusco, we took one last detour to rainbow mountain. As usual, Google maps first directed us through some narrow streets with very tight corners – totally unnecessary as we found out later – but soon we found ourselves driving through mountain meadows and small villages where the women still dressed traditionally with six layers of wide, heavy skirts; bejeweled hats and a brightly colored cloth over their shoulders that could carry anything from lama fodder to babies. The road continued to hold on to the edge of the mountain, getting narrower as the mountainside became steeper. We climbed high to pass a narrow cañon and returned lower to follow the river in the valley. When we finally arrived at the parking lot, we were surprised to see…no-one! Not a single car or bus on the lot – just one woman selling water, candy and ponchos, and one man selling tickets at the entry of another road going up further towards the mountain – a road we gratefully used, since, at an altitude climbing towards 5000 meters above sea level, any meter you don’t have to climb is a bonus. The second parking lot in direct view of the famous colorful mountain had a scattering of cars and busses, and one other overland camper. We’d arrived just after the big tourist crowds had left and were almost the last ones to climb to the top for a still surprising view from an increasingly colder and windier opposite mountain top. It was too uncomfortable to stay long, and on our way down, drifts of hail and snow closed the curtain on the mountain. Looking back from the warm comfort of our camper, we saw a white mountain. We’d been up there just in time! Now we had to make sure we’d make it down to a lower elevation before the snow would turn the already narrow switchbacking road into an out of control, slippery rollercoaster experience…

Bridges, walls and a large statue, as seen from the bridge we crossed
What a striking mountain with tiny terraced fields on between the craggy rocks
Traffic on the road to rainbow mountain
Rest stop halfway between the parking and the top of rainbow mountain view point. Kakao was all good in his mountain gear.
Entry to the last climb, between the Peru flag and Inca flag – looking back.
The official ticket booth
Finally: Rainbow mountain.
Rainbow mountain in white.

As soon as the snow changed to rain, I settled my nerves and looked around again, feeling sorry for the locals making their way through the mud, trying to stay dry under a sheet of plastic. Life is miserable when the weather is wet and cold and everything including the floor of your house turns muddy. This situation would be reality for the duration of the rainy season – I could not imagine even a week like that…

Back in Cusco, we had to search for a garage with an electrician to safely install our replacement battery-to-battery charger, and fix our air blower/air conditioner in preparation for our upcoming journey into the hot Brazilian Amazon. The only thing left was to finish Thijs’ dental implants with maybe some adjustments, and we can go to Brazil. A bit of melancholy sets in – we’ve been in Cusco so long and learned to love it’s many sides….we will miss this place!

I will miss these guys…
And I will miss our neighbors at the campsite: wild guinea pigs

Cusco

When the Spanish Conquistadores invaded Cusco in 1533, the city was already in existence for at least 2500 years, and under Inca rule for about 300 years. Before the Incas, the Killke people lived here and they deserve more credit for their building accomplishments then they are getting nowadays. It is said that around 1100AD, they were the ones who built the giant fortress above Cusco: Sacsayhuaman, where the impressive stone structures are now called Inca walls. The Incas must have liked the Killke’s building style and expanded on it throughout the city. All around Cusco you will find walls built in similar tight-fitting style and technique, with some rougher, and some much finer variants. I so wish we could have seen what Cusco looked like before the Spanish destroyed most of it to make room for their churches and mansions built on top of the historic foundations. Still, what is left of the many old walls around town is awe inspiring: the sometimes huge, perfectly fitted building stones makes one wonder how on earth people could move and stack these monoliths, and -with tools of stone and bronze-how they could  accomplish such level of perfection.

Acclawasi (‘House of the Chosen Woman”) was one of the most elite and royal buildings in Cusco, and its construction with smoothly (black) polished masonry, called Ashlar, is the finest and most difficult technique for Inca building. Mostly destroyed by the Spanish, they built a church on its foundation.
The strong construction of Pillow faced, jigsaw like blocks was mainly used for temples and royal places.
These snakes carved on the building blocks represent new life

Cuzco or Cusco…? Since the Incas had no written language, many local names, like the name of this city, is spelled in different ways. The Spanish decided to use the spelling Cuzco, although the Z-sound does not exist in the Quechua language that is spoken around here, so in 1976, the spelling changed to Cusco. At one point in 1993 the indigenous and apparently original name Qosqo (Navel of the World) was introduced, but within years it changed back to Cusco again. This is now the official way to spell the name of the city, even when many foreigners still stick to the old spelling.

When, after 41 years, we entered Cusco again, we were taken aback by the volume of tourists and of venues catering to them. The central Plaza de Armas had changed from a charming square, where the local population would meet up and relax on a Sunday afternoon, and along which we were able to park for days, to a central hub of luxury shops and restaurants that only seemed to have its foreign visitors in mind. The illogical one way directions of the old town streets can lead an unfamiliar driver to polished cobble-stone alleys that go straight up and/or turn with impossibly tight corners, or they dead-end into picturesque pedestrian steps. On-line navigating tools are not much help to save you from a nightmare, so common sense and improvisation are necessary qualities to have. Coming into town from the north side, we tried to stick to the larger roads, but still ended up in the tight old center before finding our way out and up to the campground close to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, where we would stay for over a month. Here, we could take care of business, like ordering and receiving necessary parts to repair our heater and stove. Thijs needed to find a dentist to get a tooth implant replanted. Weeks ago, in Caraz, this tooth succumbed to a sugary tough peanut brittle. In Cusco he found a dentist. He liked and trusted her so much, that he ended up with a total mouth restauration. After he was done, he encouraged me to get my teeth fixed as well. We had already considered having this done somewhere…sometime… this was good timing, though it took several weeks of daily runs to the dental office. During those days, besides discovering charming streets, corners and little restaurants of the old town, we decided to look for a possibility to fly home for a visit to see our sons and their family additions. Before we could do that, however, we had to find a comfortable and trustworthy place for our dog to stay. We asked around and looked around. One possibility was in the Sacred Valley near Cusco. One weekend we drove out there to check out the dog place, and also stopped to enjoy the historic towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo. We decided to visit their archeological sites at a later time.

The impossible street up to the campground – that even taxis hesitate to take.
Our daily walk down from our campsite to the dentist.
Just wide enough for a small car!

Almost as soon as we hit the dirt road on our way to the Sacred Valley,  Thijs noticed the rubber that surrounds the windshield flapping against the glass. At the same time we heard a banging sound every time we hit an uneven spot in the road. The glue to hold our brand new windshield was failing! When we stopped along the road to see how bad it was, we saw it was really bad: the whole windshield had dropped to lay on the protrusions of the wipers and the glass could have cracked if we’d hit a descent sized pothole. Of course, there was no car window service nearby. Fortunately Thijs had saved the brackets that he used before to hold the windshield up and in place when we drove around with the cracked one in the Cordillera Blanca.  With those re-installed, and a length of duct tape, the window felt secure enough to continue our outing before returning to Cusco.

Coming down into the Sacred Valley.

Ollantaytambo approaches what an Inca town could look like in real life. Continuously inhabited since Inca times, it was first destroyed, but rebuilt by Inca Pachacuti in the fifteenth century. A walk through the quiet streets away from the tourist area feels like stepping back in time. Icy cold water still rushes through narrow gutters along cobblestone streets – streets that are enclosed by trademark Inca stone walls and entryways. Big stone slabs over the water channel enables one to enter into the courtyards. Along the town squares, where the tourist venues clutter the street views, one can also spot solid Inca stone foundations below the two-storied adobe edifices.  One square, adjacent to the entry to Ollantaytambo’s magnificent ruins, was flooded with souvenir stalls and still, because of the fast flowing stream that ran right through it, we recognized it as the place in our photo of forty-one years ago, when we parked here together with four other overland traveling VW kombis, on our way to Machu Picchu… Memories…

Overlanders meet in 1978 on the parking lot of Ollantaytambo. (Nowadays an artisan market)
Dogs will patiently wait for a food scrap.
Waterfall steps…not much water today.
Evening dance celebration on the main square.
Entry to the Ollantaytambo market.

Pisac is another one of these Sacred Valley towns that show clear proof of its Inca history, albeit it in a somewhat more updated version, with more commercial traffic access, and a larger build-out. The network of old town narrow streets is artistically paved, and the gutters are used more for runoff than fresh water supply. Some courtyards are open for commerce and the church square-turned-craft market is dazzling with psychedelic colors of indigenous looking weavings and knitwear. Here we stumbled upon a procession with delegations from surrounding villages, each in their finest traditional dress, carrying their favorite Saint under the sound of church bells and loud music through the narrow streets and the plaza to the Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol. The next day, after a Sunday Mass that seemed to last forever, all the saints would be carried back home again. We vaguely remember having witnessed this ritual before, in a past when one did not take as many pictures as we do nowadays. I know we have some, and I’d like to see how much has changed in those forty-some years since …

It looks like you can take your alpaca inside to go shopping.
Colors and patterns!
Snake gutter in Pisac, zig- zagging through the street.
Pisac Procession
Rabies vaccination initiative.
After the vaccination, the dog is given a red collar. We saw many dogs with red collars in the area.
Many dogs in Peru have a cropped tail, even ones that traditionally don’t…why?
In the book House of Spirits by Isabel Allende I found an explanation: it makes a dog look more civilized!!!?!
Great book, by the way.

Back in Cusco – back to business: we started looking for an auto glass shop and, as usual in these countries, these shops are all gathered together in one street. This time, unlike in Lima, we first went to check them out on foot and picked the largest, most expensive looking business that also had the top brand glue in stock – glue with the right expiration date. It took us the whole next day for installation and curing before we slowly and carefully dared to drive over the always uneven streets back to the campground. I think we’re good now.

Up to the next project: to search for a good boarding place to place Kakao for the time when we go to visit our kids and grandkids. We’d already checked out a couple of places, but none of them ticked off the conditions we were looking for… but just when we were about to give up, we found a place where Kakao will be the only guest dog in a secure and clean courtyard, and where Kakao will be walked for up to four hours a day – which may even be too much for him! We were promised he will get personal attention – let’s hope he’ll be happy there. Then we booked a ticket.

With another couple of weeks to go before our departure, we finally bought a “Boleto Turistico del Cusco”, a multiple entry ticket that gets you into thirteen different touristic venues, but has to be used within ten days. We set off on a whirlwind tour around Cusco and back to the Sacred Valley.

First important site on the list was Sacsayhuaman, the site that has been neighboring our campground. Every time we pass by, we see the masses of tourists walking around, so we decided to enter as soon as the ticket office opened, at seven in the morning. For at least the first hour we had the place to ourselves, and by the time the crowd dripped in, we were already checking out the far corners of the site. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting the site for a second time after all these years. We always remembered, but again were awed by those walls, built with the colossal boulders, shaped and smoothed to fit, like a perfect jigsaw puzzle to make retaining walls that have resisted centuries of earthquakes. At the top of such three layers one can see the circular remnants of the Sun temple – said to have been a four stories, twenty meters high structure, but dismantled during the Spanish rule.  From the top of that building the view must have been magnificent. Even now, from the ground, looking down over Cusco is impressive. On the other side of the temple mount, across an expansive field, we climbed another hill that at the top revealed a series of perfectly flat squares carved out of the bedrock – some step-like, some seat-like; called the Inca throne. From the top of the hill we spotted a large, circular, arena- like structure as the next thing to see.  More interesting however, was an outcrop of strangely sculpted rocks and the entry of a narrow, dark tunnel – apparently the shorter and safer one of two. (With tales about people wandering around, got lost and died in the labyrinth of the longer tunnel – which supposedly reached four km away to the sun temple in Cusco – the entry was closed and hidden from sight). With the help of a flashlight we entered and emerged in a wonderland of more rocks with niches, seats and  steps …what a strange and magical place this must have been….and still is!

“Inca Throne”
Carvings on the underside of a rock.
A labyrinth of carved rocks…
Entry/exit of the tunnel.

The area around Cusco is so full of archeological sites, every one of them interesting in their own way, but too many to describe. Standouts among them were definitely the ruins of Ollantaytambo and Pisac. Both of them have their most beautiful ceremonial centers built with a strategic view over the Urubamba valley, at the top of an endless escalation of terraces, protected by rough-built defensive citadels. The sight of Ollantaytambo’s Sun temple was especially striking after we were out of breath from climbing along the increasingly more beautifully built retaining walls, crossing the narrow alleys of the citadel, and entering through the smooth Inca stone-stacked gate: we did not expect to see there, high above the valley ground, giant monoliths of pink granite, though only six of them standing upright to form a solid, practically seamless wall. Other, even larger blocks lay scattered around, but still, even this incomplete – or destroyed – version of a temple took my breath away; it must have been perfection.

View over Ollantaytambo. The white roofs are the craft market and what used to be where we parked in 1978.
Rougher hewn stone and finer hewn stone. Layers of quality.
Entry to the ceremonial site.
Sun temple wall. Pink granite slabs from a quarry 5km away dragged all the way up the mountain!
One of the granaries on site.
Inside the granary.
Lost leftover blocks…will they ever find where they belong?
Inca baths.
Inca baths.

At the Pisac site there is no need to climb up along all the terraces; a road leads to the entrance close to the top. At five times the size of Machu Picchu, this site is extensive and we missed some interesting parts. We wandered through two fieldstone-built mountainside residential complexes and past a canyon, where the opposing cliff wall was pockmarked by about 3500 cemetery niches. One finely built retaining wall led us around a mountainside, interrupted by a classic Inca gate. We continued through this gate for some more climbing. Above another cluster of stacked field stone buildings we found the good looking temple complex. Here, the D- shaped Sun temple surrounded another one of these strangely carved rocks, which we finally learned to be an Intihuatana, or sundial. All the steps, niches and carvings were helping to chart the movements of the sun and stars, in order to predict solstices and more – how is still unknown.

Pisac terraces.
Citadel.
Gate to the ceremonial site.
Entry to the ceremonial site.
View over the Pisac ceremonial site.
Sun temple on top of the (sundial) bedrock

On our tour to and through the Sacred Valley we saw so much more, but I am afraid the story is getting too long. Instead of describing everything, I’ll post some pictures with comments about the people, places and events that were too colorful to describe and too colorful to miss.

Highlands on our way to Chinchero.
It looks like rain in the Sacred Valley.
Guinea pig appartement.
Cuy al Palo. Stuffed and roasted guinea pig is a delicacy here. It least they got to live a descent life before becoming food.
Briney source to supply the saltpans of the Salineras de Maras
Salineras de Maras: Since ancient times the local people have harvested salt from these saltpans.
The Peru and Inca flags flying high above the ruins of Chinchero.
This church was built on top of the destroyed residence of Tupac Inca Yupanqui.
In the canyon
below the Chinchero ruins, more intricately carved rocks can be found again.
Moray: said to be an agricultural experimental site, it was built before the Incas, but the Incas took over and maybe even improved it.
Pikillacta usted to be a vast ceremonial and urban center of the Wari civilization. At one time they cohabited the area with the Inca, but when the Spanish discovered mounds of gold and other treasures there, the city was looted and destroyed.
Pikillacta walls used to be up to seven meters high.
Pikillacta aqueduct.
Royal watergardens of Tipon, built by Inca Wiracocha.
Inca Baths of Tambomachay
Fascinating rock carvings at Qenqo
Under the carved rock is a passageway
The passageway leads to a cave with carved out seats and other flat surfaces

Not far from Cusco, we stumbled upon preparation of a major festival in honor of their local Saint. Most people, in a festive mood, were happy to pose for a picture or two.

Along the Peruvian coast: via Nazca to Cuzco.

As expected, the road south along the coast was just like the one north of Lima: a good four lane “Panamericana” tollroad through a grey and foggy desert, inhabited by thousands of chickens housed in rows of long, ground hugging, white plastic covered sheds. With a road that smooth and boring, it didn’t take us very long to arrive in Pisco, a town we thought to be very popular among the tourists since the town shares its name with Peru’s most famous drink (just like Tequila in Mexico) We were therefore a little disappointed to find a small, sleepy town with nothing to do and no Pisco distillery in sight. Instead, this town leads you the Reserva Nacional de Paracas, a popular coastal park and marine wildlife protected zone – No Dogs Allowed! Not being able to see this park is one of the sacrifices we had to make for having Kakao along. So, instead of entering the park, we stayed at a kite surfer’s beach near the park’s entry, along a beautiful clear water bay, where the wind usually picks up at noon and lasts until sunset. Late next morning, as soon as the trucks loaded with surf gear arrived, the serenity was gone, and we moved on.

In Ica we discovered that this was the place where Pisco is made! Still, there was not much to see about it being a big thing for visitors, who all detour towards Huacachina, the small oasis in the great dunes west of Ica. Never having heard of the place, we were shocked by the volume of people and the difficulty of finding parking along the road surrounding the tiny lake. After settling ourselves inside a hostal’s courtyard, we looked around to see what exactly was going on here. And we concluded: 1. We arrived near the start of Peru Day, a national holiday weekend. 2. This place is one of the few coastal areas in Peru where the sun shines in the winter: balmy at a lower elevation. 3. The dunes provide great fun: you can go skiing or (sand-snow) boarding down the hills – although most people prefer dune buggy rides. 4. The edge of the lake is lined with hostals and bars; excellent for people who want to have a wild night out, and since Huacachina is only a few hour’s drive from Lima, this place can draw a crowd, both national and international.

So here we were, in a place that was not really our thing… but we loved the dunes with their smooth surfaces and clean lines. Behind our hostal was a dune that was less frequented than the highest one across the lake, where a long line of human silhouettes slowly crawled their way along the ridge to the top. We climbed the one behind us and looked what was beyond its ridge…we could see an undulating expanse of clean, golden dunes in a setting sun-  and when you ignore the dune buggies below us, and the people that joined us on that same ridge, it truly felt nice and serene. But after two days we had enough of the crowds and turned direction Nazca, where we really wanted to admire those mysterious lines from the air.

To get to Nazca, you first have to cross some bare rock mountains and emerald green river beds. Though not as well-known, we decided to stop and take a look at some figures carved in rock along the road outside of Palpa. The fee to go and see them was a pittance, so when the outlines were barely visible, we were not disappointed. We knew there was more to come. Also, along the Panamericana, before reaching the actual town of Nazca, a set of watchtowers advertised a view over some actual Nazca lines and designs. We stopped here as well and paid the few required soles to climb to the top and see a couple of clear, sharp lines. One design on the left was visible as a complete figure, but the one closer and larger disappeared in the distance and you needed a copy of the design in your hands to make sense of it… Yes, now we knew for sure that we were going to book a flight to see some more -more clearly!

View from watchtower in Palpa: Look very well, and you may see a primitive humanoid figure on the mountainside
Hands, seen from the Nazca watchtower.
View of the tree from the Nazca watchtower

We arrived in Nazca in the late afternoon and decided to immediately go to the airport and book a flight for the next day. We managed to get a plane for just the two of us (with pilot and guide), scheduled to be the very first flight of the day at seven in the morning – weather (=fog) permitting. Since the airport was ready to close for the day and we’d be the first ones out, we spent the night right there on the parking lot. When, the next morning, the flight was delayed for about forty-five minutes, we could just go back to the camper to finish our hasty breakfast. Then the usual airport process began – even at a tiny airport like this there were passport controls and security scans, but no waiting in line!

Before boarding we were invited to pose for a couple of pictures in front of the tiny plane, and then we were off. Once in the air, we appreciated our guide, who pointed out several designs that we might otherwise have missed or seen too late. So we saw….lines! Many really long and very straight lines didn’t even get mentioned in between the more interesting figures – some larger, and some smaller than expected, but, once you spot them, they were very clearly visible. Flying over the watchtower that we previously visited, we could now see what the larger designs were like, plus there was a giant lizard design cut in half by the highway that we never even spotted from down there.

View of the watchtower and the figures we were supposed to see from there. Noticed the lizard, split in half by the road!
Monkey
Heron
Hummingbird
Parrot (?)
Spider
Whale

Before returning back to the airport we made a detour over some ruins (los Paredones) and strange waterhole/accesses to underground aqueducts (Acueductos de Cantalloc), that looked so intriguing from the air, that we decided to give them a closer look from the ground. Now, after having visited a range of Peruvian ruins, Los Paradones was somewhat disappointing but again inexpensive to visit. The aqueducts on the other hand were interesting for the fact that, where the canal went underground, a large number of downward spiraling access wells were built – on such close proximity to each other, and so intricately built, that one wonders if access for maintenance was really what the purpose of these spiral shaped wells was…

From the air, the Acueductos de Cantalloc looked intriguing enough to visit them from the ground