Ruta de Siete Lagos

Disappointed about Bariloche, we decided to drive north, along the route of the Seven Lakes – an area we had not visited before. First we skirted around Lago Nahuel Huapi, crossed some more dry Patagonian pampas, and reached Villa la Angostura – a bustling tourist town that looked more like what we remembered Bariloche to be way back when… Yet, we did not stop to look around: we would be coming back within a week to get our truck serviced by a well recommended mechanic in Bariloche, who just happened to start his vacation when we arrived at his place. “Come back next week Wednesday, and I can help you then” he told us, and so we will.

Bariloche lost its charm, but its surroundings are still pretty.
Lago Nahuel Huapi, with Bariloche in the distance.

Ruta de Siete Lagos, (which also happens to overlap the well known #40 – that Argentinian north to south artery we traveled on before) meandered through thick forested mountains – part of the enormous Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Along the roadside, one could see an abundance of lupine plants, now bursting with seed pods. Behind the lupines, the taller greens of scotch broom (gorse) closed the gap between the road and the forest: what a colorful sight that must have been in the springtime, all that purple and yellow along the road!

Lago Lacar

Not far outside of Villa la Angostura, the road splits off to one that leads west to the Chilean border, and Ruta #40 going north. On all sides, clear blue lakes drew our eyes down the steep wooded mountain sides. Despite the heavy vacation traffic, we enjoyed the drive north in perfect weather. When, by mid afternoon, we found a sign advertising a free National Park campground, we drove down to check it out – and decided to stay.  We were not the only ones there.  Many campers were tucked away in the bushes, while we picked a spot with a full view over the shallow river. From here, we could see fish jumping after a hovering insect, and a kingfisher on a tree branch, eyeing that fish small enough to spear. We took a hike following a narrow path along the river, until a few fallen trees blocked our way. Heavy winds and forest fires take a heavy toll on the trees here. There will be enough firewood for all the campers, and then some!

Even though the campsite was pretty full, it felt like we were by ourselves along the river.
Fuchsia wants to grow everywhere, even on a tree trunk in the water
The end of the trail.

The nice thing about Argentinian campers is that they are peacefully quiet: they make a campfire, maybe try to catch a fish, prepare their barbeque, cook, eat, and drink. We heard no loud voices or music, except for a few campfire songs …not bothersome at all. However: a few environmental lessons would not be out of place, like, if nature calls you to go in nature, do it at least a good distance away from a natural water source, and please bury your stuff, and/or wrap up your dirty toilet paper and dispose of it properly, because it looks gross to come across those dumping grounds during an otherwise enjoyable walk. Someone else’s toilet paper is the one thing I refuse to pick up. And please don’t rinse your porta-potty holding tank in the river, close to where your neighbor is filling his water kettle or doing the dishes a minute later. We would not even take soap to these essentially pristine waters.

Anyway, we continued the next morning and soon entered San Martin de los Andes, another popular mountain town with characteristic wooden buildings and multilayered roofs, and an abundance of flowers. Especially roses! Roses do so well in this part of Argentina; they seem to grow effortlessly without any signs of diseases, and bloom abundantly. It is the most popular plant here – both in the gardens and along the sidewalks. Maybe roses are so healthy because they also grow wild here. This time of the year the wild rosebushes were starting to color their leaves yellow, their fruit red. I wish the rosehips would be easier for us to consume – not having to go through the process of removing all the seed, to be left with just a thin skin that cooks into a delicious syrup or jelly. So, most of that fruit will be left for the sheep and other animals to devour.

Restaurant Tio Paco in San Martin de los Andes typifies an example of the regional building style.

Even with all the people crowding the streets, and even though the town discouraged camping vehicles to hang around, we stayed for a couple of days. The terraces were inviting, as were the shady parks, so we had lunch at one place, drinks at another. We found a spot to sleep at the edge of town between an Argentinian family in an old patched-up bus, and a Brazilian couple in a sleek Sprinter campervan. Both being Sprinter owners, we connected with the Brazilians. It was the weekend of Carnaval: they, hailing from Rio de Janeiro, missed the annual celebration, just like Thijs does, who is from the south of the Netherlands, where Carnaval is also celebrated. They heard that there would be a carnaval kick-off in San Martin, starting at 5PM at Plaza San Martin, so we all went there. 5PM, no action yet, but a gathering of beer trucks encircled a stage…after about an hour, a young woman started singing ballads…nice voice, but it did not feel like carnaval. People, drinks in hand, stood around and talked, sat and observed…kids climbed the statue of San Martin…after another hour we went back to our camper.

VW Combi (food or) beer trucks are very popular!
Saturday night Carnaval kick off was very muted and a bit disappointing.

Before turning around at what we considered the end of our route along the seven lakes, we had to satisfy our curiosity about Junin de los Andes, a small town north of San Martin which, in comparison to the latter, would be more laid back and simple; not as expensive as San Martin, and automatically a town that attracts a more alternative crowd…but we made the mistake of going there on a Sunday. It definitely was laid back: everything was closed and hardly a soul was out on the streets. We hung around for a couple of hours, trying to decide what to do, and in the end we just gave up and drove away. We backtracked on the road to San Martin, and continued on until we reached the big open lakeside campground that we’d spotted before on the way up.

Along the road to Junin de los Andes
Lago Machónico

Again, this was a free National Park campsite without any amenities. Everyone just drives in and find themselves a satisfactory spot, for one night or a whole vacation. I was amazed at how easy the system worked, how clean the place looked without a garbage disposal system, and how peacefully everyone co-inhabited the space. So, even though we were camping here with a hundred-something other campers, I found it a very positive experience that we had not encountered in many other places so far. Before we left the next day we walked the trail along the lake’s edge across from the campsite, to discover wild cows that fled for us like deer spotting humans, and horses crossing the water to get to greener pastures. We passed calafate bushes rich with berries, and multitudes of long dead fallen trees. We walked along pebbled beaches and reed filled lakeshores, through grassy fields in the middle of the woods, and admired the wide vistas across the clear waters. And then it was time to continue our drive back towards Bariloche.

The amazingly busy but peaceful campground along Lago Villorino
Look at that tiniest of campers! For short persons, I’m sure.
Camping libre: free campsite at Lago Villorino
Lakeview during our walk

We made one last stop in Villa la Angostura, the town that looked interesting and popular, enough to make us halt. We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Tinto, the bistro that is said to be owned by the brother of our (Argentinian born) Dutch Queen Maxima. I had a grave lax dish, and Thijs had a well cooked trout with an orange sauce. It was pricey but delicious. With the robbery reputation of Bariloche (“don’t leave your camper unattended at the parking lot, you will get it broken into…”) we decided to do our necessary grocery shopping in Villa la Angostura before our last leg back, heading for the mechanic, for a service job.

Downtown Villa la Angostura along Ruta #40.
Lunchtime at Tinto Bistro in Villa la Angostura

However, when we arrived at the mechanic, he was not available yet; too tired from his vacation. We should come back tomorrow… The next day, at the moment we were at his door, we received a message that he was held up by other commitments, we should come back next day. Tired of the busy, expensive, and this time noisy nearby campgrounds, this time we drove out of town to a beachfront to spend another night. It was a beautiful location that coincided with clear skies and quiet winds: perfect weather, perfect place! Here we made up our minds, if we should go back to the mechanic one more time, or cross the border to Chile and find someone there: the trip back to the mechanic would take an hour one way, and even if we would be helped that day, the service would need longer than one day…would he continue his work on the weekend? When Thijs asked through WhatsApp message, he didn’t receive an answer. So we decided to go to Chile instead. But that is another story.

At around 5pm, when the winds pick up, the kite surfers come out.
A peaceful end of the day at the beach of Lago Nahuel Huapi, several kilometers outside of Bariloche
Clear waters and mountains with snow peaks
The end of a glorious day along the lake.
Goodbye Argentina, we really enjoyed our visit.

Finally it starts to feel like summer! Or not…

We left the Carretera Austral at Villa Santa Lucia, (remember from the previous post, the town that had been covered by mud) and headed up the dirt road towards the Argentinian border, following the Futaleufu river after passing Lago Yelcho. At the start it looked like we were going to climb high up through the mountains, but in reality the pass over the Andes ridge was an easy one. The blue Futaleufu river was a popular destination for those who like whitewater rafting and canoeing: everywhere along the way we passed launching spots. At the few peek-a-boo spots through the trees, we could see rafts speeding downstream. In the town of Futaleufu – filled with adventure seeking backpackers – it was easy to find a restaurant to have lunch before we’d cross the border. Despite being surrounded by snow peaks, it was getting hot: a short siesta time in our camper parked along the central plaza felt more like sauna time: we soon continued towards the border.

Lago Yelcho
Rio Futaleufu
The restaurant along the Plaza in Futaleufu where we had Italian pasta

Once back in Argentina, we looked for an overnight spot and ended up at “The southernmost vineyard” which also offered camping. It was truly a beautiful, well built and maintained place that promised designated RV spots with electric and water hookups and Wifi throughout the premises. The camping fees were the highest we’d encountered so far in Argentina so we were a bit disappointed when, after we were informed of the price and some shady RV spaces were unoccupied, we were directed to a  tent camping spot where all the amenities were out of reach and shade trees too low to keep us somewhat cool during the 30⁰ C heat. Using the Wifi from outside the bathroom block was not what I expected either – for that price and promise. We decided to look for a better, cooler spot further down the road.

Elderberry (Sauco) bushes are very common in the Andes mountains. This was the tree we had to find shade under. (Didn’t work) But we love the jams an jellies made of this superfruit! 
It was really a lovely campground, and since we left we’ve seen prices much higher.
View from our window

We found our place in the shade after Kristopher  and Verena, a German couple we’d met before, on the pretty beach in Chile and again on the road, adviced us to go up to Laguna la Zeta, the lake nearby the town of Esquel – they had enjoyed quite some time there when the COVID-19 quarantine started and they were not allowed to enter the town. They knew the area well and showed us a few beautiful spots along the shores… we elected to stay in the shade of a pine forest overlooking the lake and its beach guests enjoying the cool clear waters below us.

Laguna la Zeta is both the public pool and beach of Esquel: under the watchful eyes of lifeguards, kids play and the swim club practices alongside rentable kayaks.

Here we stayed for the hottest days, waiting for the weather to cool. During the cool early mornings we walked around the lake: about half of its perimeter was accessible for camping with many lovely spots on soft green grass or between low hanging trees; the other half was pasture for horses and cattle, the lake’s edges were bordered by reeds. The far and shallow end of the lake was a bird sanctuary: the soft, marshy ground along this side kept us, intruders, at a safe distance for them not to feel threatened. By late afternoon our shady pine forest filled up with day guests, who parked their cars around us and emptied their trunks of beach chairs and blankets, and walked down to the waterside loaded with food, their thermos bottles and mate cups. By evening all would be quiet again when everyone, except for a few campers, left. We made friends with our Brazilian neighbors Mattias and Clarissa,who arrived one day in a tiny overloaded Suzuki Jimmy, heavy with a roof tent with side extension, complete camping gear, bicycles and their dog. Befitting the norm of many Brazilians, they automatically included us in their dinner plans, so sweet! We contributed wine, appetisers and salad, and enjoyed some rich meals together at -for us- odd dinner times.

Early morning view from the other side of the lake
Full moon rising. This was going to be the night to see the green comet…no chance with that moon!
Thijs had the BBQ, Mattias had the meat. Food collaboration!
Buen provecho!

When the weather cooled down some, we hit the road again. Unfortunately the Parque Nacional de los Alerces, which came highly recommended, was on fire. We heard from our German friends, who went ahead, that they were forced to leave the park when the fire encroached around them. We took the main road instead and approached El Bolsón when the next heatwave hit. Just in time we reached a pebble beach along the Rio Azul, where immediately we found a friend in Mario and Maria, who practically lived there already for a few weeks in their camper and trailer. He went out of his way to show us the best spots. Here, again (it is mid-summer here) the beach filled with day guests by late afternoon, leaving us by ourselves for the rest of the time to enjoy the sun in the shade, the clear, cool water of the river, and nature beyond…Until all of a sudden the location seemed to have been discovered: on our last evening we got inundated with campers who settled all around us! Good thing we already were planning to leave the next morning, with the next cool spell.

We found another great spot. Along the Rio Azul.
Along the Rio Azul
Chicory flowers!

El Bolsón is a small town on Ruta #40. (With a surprising amount of traffic!) The main square and several buildings around the center are charming, while along the main through fare, an abundance of bakeries, deli and cheese stores tempt one to buy too much. We should not stay too long here! Already a while ago, our South American insurance agent had invited us to visit their farm/campground not far north of El Bolson, so we made that our next stop. We reached it over an extremely bumpy road, when – fate has it- I forgot to lock one upper cabinet door and a heavy glass bowl fell out, shattered on, and broke our sink cover: during our seven- some years of travel this was only the second time this happened. !Always check the locks of your cabinets before driving!

The farm, embraced by mountains on both sides, stretched along a stream lined with green trees and bushes. Most of the land was naturalized, somewhat controlled by the grazing of a small flock of sheep and a family of rabbits. From an elevated viewpoint you could see a multitude of green circles in their dry grassland, created by a sprinkling system. Three years ago a forest fire nearly destroyed all the work done to the land, the life stock, and the buildings. Since that time they try to keep the worst of the drought out by diverting a water source into the sprinklers. We enjoyed a couple of quiet days by ourselves, and evenings in good company of our hosts Klaus and Claudia.

It was time to revisit Bariloche; the town that used to be the pearl of Argentina back in 1978. Back then, every Argentinian we met asked us what we thought of their country, and asked if we’d been to Bariloche yet – we should defenitly visit – which we did, just before crossing into Chile. From that time, I remember the beautiful mountain scenery with poplars in their golden autumn glory, with bushes full of rosehip and clearwater creeks. Of Bariloche I remembered the German/Swiss Alpine building style, with lots of natural wood and balconies, and their chocolate – you could not leave without buying some. How it had changed: the chocolate was still popular, but Bariloche had become a rather ugly city with hectic traffic and a terrible reputation of petty crime. We heard so many warnings, never to leave your vehicle unattended. We heard from fellow travellers that had their window shattered and camera equipment stolen when shopping for groceries, or of some, even when in the car, that had their door locks broken… We decided this time for an expensive campground, and not to stay longer than necessary. By then the temperature had dipped to  13⁰C (30⁰ Fahrenheit dip from the week before) with freezing winds throwing up white caps on the otherwise beautiful blue lake bordering Bariloche. We were ready for the last leg of our Argentinian trip, along the 7 lakes (actually 13) in the Andean mountain range north of Bariloche. And hopefully some more summer weather.

Every now and then, little fish, or even a trout would jump up out of the water, chasing a flies. But so far we have not been bothered by many insects along this route going north.

Even when the days were warm, the night were chilli. You had to have your breakfast in the sun.

Where the Carretera Austral ends in the water.

Giant chilean Gunneras, with leaves averaging over one meter across, rule the open spaces between the road and the woods. At times it tends to compete for airspace with equally giant bright green tree ferns, or hugged by the neighborly fine leaved bushes of fuchsias, sparkling with tiny red flowers. Here and there, tall stalks of pink foxgloves triumphantly poke through the oversized foliage. Then a bouquet of flaming orange crocusmias steals the show, while bright yellow parasols of flowers – I don’t know the name of – try hard by sheer volume. The gunneras however, not to be outdone, are raising their own rust- brown blooming stalks, growing solidly from the bottom crown upwards.

After our visit to the marble caves, we rattled northwards to the largest town along the Carretera Austral: Coyhaique. Here we could stock up on groceries and check in at a campground to clean up ourselves, the camper, and our clothes. It was a busy campground where we even met some fellow travelers that we last saw in Uruguay. They came from the north, where we were planning to go, so they pointed out some interesting must- see locations. Soon we were off to see for ourselves.

Creek with a view adjacent to the Coyhaique campground
Along the Carretera Austral
Lupines, still in magnificent bloom
That long and dusty road…has so much beauty to offer.

The road brought us through the damp mountain side forests of Queulat National park, where lichen, mosses, and flowering vines decorated the tree trunks. We stopped at a short trail to a waterfall – where for a moment I lost my balance on an uneven slippery rock above a cliff, after Thijs urged me to come up just that much further than the official end of the trail – to where the water splashed into a deep pool. It gave me a scare, but I survived the challenge without a scratch!

Just one of the trees along the road.
The trail head to the waterfall.
This is where the trail ends….

Before we knew it, we arrived in the quaint fjord side village of Puyuhuapi. Many Germans had settled here, which was especially visible by the street names and one or two houses with distinct building style. Most other houses drew their charm from wooden clapboard and tin roofing, pretty typical for this region. We found a grassy camping spot overlooking the mirror flat water of the fjord (no wind!!) where a few seals and dolphins played within sight. Occasionally a weathered looking man with his dogs walked by, handling a crooked wheelbarrow, which he proceeded to fill with grass sods selected from the waterside. He greeted us and didn’t seem to mind us as temporary neighbors.

The road was getting from bad to worse. Unbelievable, but we preferred the washboard road to this.
Looking over the fjord of Puyuhuapi. On the mountainside on the left is one of the first (German style) houses built here.
Clapboard houses are the most common here.
Big trees are cut lenghtwise with a chainsaw. But the chainsaw was too short, so the last bit was split apart with wedges, which were made on the spot.
In this town they either loved – or received an good deal on yellow paint
View from our campsite
A quiet day on the fjord

After a few relaxing days we continued on our way north through landscape that increasingly looked more developed, with green meadows, more homesteads and a perfectly paved road – you don’t know how much to appreciate smooth pavement until you’ve gone a while without. So here we could focus our attention on the beauty around us: the turquoise rivers and lakes, the ancient forests and roadside blooms, the views of the snow topped mountains… It all looked so idyllic, until we reached Villa Santa Lucia, where in the morning of December 16, 2017, after torrential rains followed an extended period of drought, a large chunk of a nearby glacier collapsed, causing ice, rocks, mud, trees and debris to race down the mountain and bury half of the village. At 72 km/hour, it took the mudslide only five minutes to run eight kilometers from the top of the mountain down to the village, surprising people in their houses. Four years later the evidence of this disaster still makes an impact. We stopped to visit the small museum established by the inhabitants of the only house that withstood the inundation (though they had to remove meter-high mud in- and around their house, and restore a collapsed side) The one room museum showed photos of the disaster and the rescue that followed, samples of items found in the mud, and pictures naming the 22 victims that did not survive. Seeing this record in the actual disaster area made a deep impact on us and proved how fragile the beauty of this part of the earth is…

Finally a smooth road!
Villa Santa Lucia, still covered in mud (now dry)
In the distant mountain one can see the collapsed glacier that caused the mudflow
One Saturday morning, we were all surprised
by a strange and extended rumble,
an overwhelmingly cruel silence.
Twenty two lives ended on that sad day”.

The carretera remained smoothly paved, so it did not take long to reach Chaiten, the last town before the end of the road – although one can actually continue some more when you take a couple of ferries across the water that separates the developed northern mainland from the laid- back patagonian land frays. We did not want to leave Patagonia yet, so we turned around at the ferry landing. But before returning to Villa Santa Lucia, for the turnoff back to the Argentinian side of the Andes mountains, we found a pretty beach outside of Chaiten. The weather was quiet, sunny and pleasant, the people we met here were friendly and approachable, and the sunsets just gorgeous. Again, we could not resist staying for a few days. Life is good when living on the beach.

Playa Santa Barbara, just north of Chaiten, allowed us a few days of camping.

At the land’s end of the Carretera Austral, there was one more great National Park to visit: Parque Nacional Pumalin happened to be the first land purchased by Douglas Tompkins (and the start of land purchases under his name that would turn the Carretera Austral into the Ruta de Parques); this time to protect the primordial forests with trees of up to 3000 years old. We went to take a few hikes here and felt like we were walking through a fairy land, lush with ferns, babbling brooks and waterfalls, and tall trees covered with soft, dripping mosses. It reminded me of a cross between the Sequoia forests and Olympic National park in the Western United States. The park also contains a few volcanos. In 2008 the volcano Chaiten suddenly and violently erupted after 9000 years of dormancy. The sediment flow, activated by rain, covered half of the nearby town of Chaiten with one and a half meters of mud. Fortunately people had been able to evacuate in time. Pumalin park however, was seriously damaged, and needed to rebuild it’s infrastructure as a National Park. That setback took several years. But the volcano – still letting off steam- added one more element to the feeling of walking through ancient history.

Trail to the upper waterfall
The upper waterfall
To get us through the the mud, over creeks, and rocks, these kind of steps and walkways were constructed
Often the bare roots kept us from slipping
A short review of the birth of this park
At the end of the road, one can still continue the Carretera Austral by taking a few ferries, to bring you into the developed world. For us, this is where we leave it for now.

Marble Caves, and why I dislike tours

When on Saturday it was clear that Sunday remained the best day to visit the marble caves, we walked over to one of the waterfront kiosks and reserved a spot for a ride. We knew what we wanted and made that clear: 1. for the best light, when the low sun would shine deep into the caves, we wanted the earliest as possible ride, 2. A boat with at the most 10 people, so you wouldn’t have other people (faces) in your photos when looking over the other side, and 3. We wanted to see just the caves… We were assured that would be no problem and we signed up for the earliest at 8AM ride (still, in our opinion, on the late side). Sunday morning at 7:30AM we walked over to report our presence. No-one was there yet, but other kiosks were opening up. At 7:45AM the organizers were there, but no other customers. At 8:00AM, while at some other kiosks customers were all ready in life vests walking to the boat landing, a volume of customers showed up – way too many for a 10 people boat. Only then were we told we’d have to wait until there would be enough people to fill a smaller boat for the “caves only” ride – maybe by 10:00AM… Annoyed, we cancelled our ride with this company and I ran over to another one that seemed to be ready to depart, and yes, they could add us on their ten person boat, but it would be the full tour (whatever that meant, we’d find out) We signed up and left right away. So, the full tour meant that first we went to the other side of the lake to admire a boat wreck, followed by a stop in a village that used to have a marble mine (not interested in either one- been there, done that similar stuff before) So I sat and waited along the beach, which I must admit, was peaceful and pretty.

At around 9:30AM, when the sun was already high in the sky, we reached the caves. The first ones turned out to be around the corner from the village, and had multiple entries to reach by boat. The marble was grey with white stripes and yellowish growth coming out of cracks. The boat and its people both shaded the caves as well as bounced off its colors on the marble surfaces. There were many caves we floated into, enough for many other boats to join in the fun without being in each other’s way. Only at the very end we reached the marble cathedral and marble chapel (which resembled a big rock on marble stilts) Here, one had to accept a large gathering of boats and canoes crowding the site and I wondered if maybe only these last two places would make up to be the “caves only” destination we initially had in mind.

Once we reached the caves, it was selfie time! There and then it dawned on me why the magic light of the morning didn’t seem important to the majority of the visitors: most were not even admiring the caves, but only themselves through their phone cameras. Selfie sticks poked out from every side for faces grimaced in posed smiles, and fingers held up with peace signs. The tour leader volunteered to shoot pictures of groups that crowded out the views we came to see. I was glad to be in the front row seat, with Thijs a way back on the other side. The other front row seat was occupied by a young guy who must have made at least a hundred pictures of his same overly happy face, only looking over his shoulder to make sure he would not get hit by a protruding marble point.

Despite the crazy tour experience we didn’t regret waiting for that one sunny day or taking the tour…unless you have your own boat, there is no other way to see this natural phenomena. We enjoyed the beauty of the lake and got to see and touch the natural marble sculptures from up close. It is a unique sight to see. After the tour, I spoke to the woman who registered us. She informed us that we could have taken a sunrise canoe tour, or hire a whole boat for a private tour, which would cost a small fortune…a little late, and yes, we can only blame ourselves for not shopping around.

From Route 40 to the Carretera Austral: The Patagonia National Parks

From our departure point of el Chaltén, we drove to, and then over the legendary route #40 (stretching north to south across Argentina, from its southern tip all the way to the Bolivian border) Just like in eastern Patagonia along route #3, settlements along route #40 are spread thin: with a 400km stretch between the turn-off near Tres Lagos and the one to route #41 past Bajo Caracoles, it takes a good detour to reach the gas station about halfway along, at the town of Gobernador Gregores. In the hamlet of Bajo Caracoles, we found a large gathering of motorcyclists and a couple of cars waiting to be serviced at the sticker-plastered fuel pump. The guy first in line turned around, throwing up his hands in despair: they’d run out of fuel, and it would be a day or two before a new supply was expected. The next fuel station would be at least 200km either way… Caracoles had just a few buildings and one hotel with, from the looks of it, maybe five rooms … The (only) store/restaurant- half of the building had an overload of sodas and alcoholic beverages, as well as sweet and savory snacks, but little choice in nutritious food. We still had a comfortable amount diesel to get us to the next town, but I wonder about all these people waiting to fill up…

Stickers along the southern highways are the traveler’s grafiti. Tags everywhere, like on fuel pumps. (Note: This was not the Caracoles station)

The road stop at Baja Caracoles: not much in descent food to get here
Ruta #40: the famous Argentinian North-South highway is not always a smooth road.

Ruta 40 had gradually deteriorated from perfectly smooth for the first half, to a few potholes and sinking pavement, and finally unpredictable stretches of dusty corrugated gravel. And we decided we wanted to have more of this! Route 41, which connects the #40 in Argentina with the just as (in)famous # 7- Carretera Austral in Chile is a generally rough gravel road. But what a beautiful road it was! With that I mean the scenery. The land around us turned from desert grey-green, to a sparse spring-green in the wide riverbed of the Rio Blanco and, once we crossed the Paso Roballos and the border to Chile, a jubilant range of yellows, whites and greens welcomed us. Argentina’s version of Patagonia National Park is divided in several parts: we drove the part along old sheep farms (where we spotted more guanacos and rheas than sheep) between foothills of the Andes mountains, and up along the river valley of the Rio Blanco. Here, we thought it peculiar that green and wet land sits right beside desert ground. Maybe because the road cuts through it, the park had no entry fee and, since no wild camping is allowed within the boundaries of the park, we had to spend the night at the park’s (also free) camping area -with basic but clean facilities. It was nice to have trees for wind protection, to see a puma warning sign but no puma, fruiting bushes along the trail to the river, and grass to sit among the free roaming horses.

Route#41, the road that connects Argentina’s #40 to Chili’s #7, the Carretera Austral. It’s a rough road but it leads through the increasingly beautiful Patagonia National Parks via Paso Roballos

The first signs of (bright) green in the Rio Blanco river bed in the Argentinian Patagonia National park.

Near Paso Roballo the land gets wetter

The next morning we continued our rattling drive towards the Paso Roballos, where a tiny border post let us out of Argentina. Soon, even before the Chilean border post, we passed a signpost announcing the Patagonia National Park of Chile. Only there and then we learned that this is one of the parks that Kristina Tompkins (former CEO of Patagonia brand outdoor wear) and her husband Doug Tompkins ( founder of The North Face) purchased as a Tompkins Conservation project, restored and developed it as a nature park, and donated it to the Chilean National Parks system to be enjoyed by the world. The initiative started years ago, when this couple hiked and camped there and saw the potential of this beautiful land, though at the time most of the Chacabuco valley still consisted of overgrazed sheep farms. Now most of it is rewilded, with undulating grass lands, wildflowers, fruit bearing shrubs, and stands of indigenous trees; an environment that encouraged the proliferation and comeback of guanacos, rheas, chinchillas, hares, foxes, armadillos and pumas. Although the connecting Argentina-Chile road runs straight through there, driving by car when visiting is discouraged – hiking encouraged. Only one of the pristine campgrounds is accessible to camper cars, the others are walk-in, tent camping only. Most trails are for foot-traffic, but from our camper-site there was a rare track that one can drive or walk: it leads up to the Doug Tompkins lookout. Of that 6km track, one can drive up, and walk the last 500m (a ridiculously short hike) or hike the whole way, and as a third option, drive halfway, park your car and walk up 3km. Nearing the top, there are other, longer walking trails veering off in a several directions. The bottom half cuts through flowering shrub lands, with vistas over the valley, while along the top half of the trail, trees shade the path. Once we reached the lookout, we found a well-built shelter with sturdy benches and tables inviting us to take a lunch break, while gazing at the distant snow peaks and the blue Lake Cochrane below us.

Just across the border to Chile, the desert turned colorful.

Historic Lucas Bridges’ house on what formerly was an overgrazed sheep farm in the Chacabuco valley. Now lush grass moves with the winds.

As opposed to the well-known parks we recently visited, there was no-one else on the trail. We had the whole place to ourselves. The low park attendance may be due to its difficult accessibility, which is by rough corrugated gravel and dirt roads with steep inclines and descents: beside the Paso Roballos road from where we entered, there’s also the north-south artery, the Carretera Austral, which is a mostly unpaved dirt road. Plus, this park, especially in comparison to the Argentinian parks, costs a small fortune to visit and camp. But nature is so beautiful and peaceful, and the area so well managed, that it is worth the money.

The stages of this strange bloom on the patagonian beech tree. First we thought we were looking at a miniature type of mistletoe, but the yellow bunches are the budding stage of the whitish bloom fluff.

View over lake Cochrane

At the headquarters we stopped to pay our dues, and visited the excellent museum.  There are three permanent exhibits: the world’s environmental history and state, the history of the park and its inhabitants past and present; and the Tompkins Conservation initiative.

A few things however were disappointing in this park: when crossing the Chilean border, no fresh and raw food can be kept, so with the little food we had left, we wanted to splurge on lunch at the park’s restaurant – reported to be expensive but excellent. We couldn’t. Twenty-four hour advance reservations were required, and nothing could budge them, even when the grounds looked sparsely populated (mostly staff there). We were directed to the coffee shop – which we found in the administration building (the buildings were re-assigned after the handover, but the name plaques weren’t) where we could choose a prepackaged sandwich or salad. We opted for the salad and, while the weather outside was gorgeous and inside was dark and gloomy, we looked for a table or at least a seat outside…nothing there, so we ended up eating from our laps on the steps. Sometimes stupid little things like that can sour an otherwise great experience.

Sunset view from our campsite.
Our campsite in the park.
Is this a sign of clean air?

Before turning north on the Carretera Austral, we detoured south to get fresh groceries and Wifi updates – except for a few slow 3G moments, we had not been linked to the world for a while. We needed to update our phones and download photos to the cloud. The town of Cochrane – adjacent to the park – was laidback and just big enough to get your necessities. The camping we chose was the size of someone’s backyard, but with clean bathrooms, excellent Wifi, and near the shops, so we stayed for an extra day to wash the dust off our bodies, and catch up with the world. On the map we spotted our next destination, north along the bone-rattling Carretera Austral: some years ago I saw pictures of grey/white marble caves, elegantly shaped by blue water. They’d be about 114 km up the road. It took us half a day to get there, driving over the dusty road along the bright blue Baker river canyon and past pine forests, so neatly planted, they looked like an army of parading soldiers.

Carretera Austral

Baker river valley, driving towards Cochrane
The main building of the campground in Cochrane. Maybe you wouldn’t think so, but it was clean and had excellent internet. That’s what counts.
Along the Cochrane Plaza de Armas, cherries were sold off the truck. Most people bought four whole kilos!
Flowers along the road made us stop several times. This time we discovered we had a flat tire, which we wouldn’t have noticed if we had not stopped. (One of the rear dual wheel tires) Fortunately it was just the valve that must have unscrewed by the rattling road.
Big tall bushes of wild hardy fuchsias grew everywhere along the road, like I’ve never seen them before!
Carretera Austral, on our way to Lago Carrera and the marble caves.
Lago Bertrand along the Carretera Central seemed to be a popular place to spend a vacation.

The huge lake of General Carrera looked invitingly blue, even under overcast skies. Puerto Rio Tranquillo was bustling with visitors: it was a Friday afternoon during summer vacation, so of course… The weather forecast gave us just one windless sunny day on Sunday. We had time, and decided to wait, no problem. At the town’s beach, overlooking the lake, we were good.

Waiting for sunny weather at the beach of Lago General Carrero, so we can visit the marble caves under the best light. (We thought we were big, but look at our neighbors!)
Cloudy skies give beautiful sunsets

I will tell you everything about the marble caves in the next blog, coming soon.

Cute little houses in the area
Cute little houses in the area

Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica

From Rio Gallegos – the town where we dropped off the sailors Daria and Jean-Michel, it was only a hop to get to the border. A World Cup soccer match playing, so the Argentinian officials paid no attention to us. With their eyes glued to the TV, they stamped our passports and car papers, and we were through. On the other side, the Chilean borders have the reputation of being the most restrictive of Latin America: no fresh food, no untreated wood and iteven no honey or raisins are allowed through. Everyone gets searched and given a hefty fine when they find something of the list of forbidden items, sooo… we’d taken one more day before crossing the border to eat and cook everything we had: veggies, fruit, potatoes, onions and garlic, eggs and yoghurt… a big bag of raisins I preserved with pisco- the grape spirit we still had from Peru. Still, we overlooked half a lime in the bottom of the fridge! Fortunately, we had not been able to find and fill out the declaration form online, so the inspector searched our camper beforehand. She warned us to declare this little bit of fruit she confiscated, otherwise we could still be fined. Thankfully, our big chunk of cheese was allowed. In Chile the towns were so small, we didn’t bother to look for fresh supplies, plus we still had two days’ worth of cooked food in the fridge. By then we were at another border – from Chile back to Argentina, who didn’t give us any trouble.

Ferry to bring us to the island of Tierra del Fuego

We made it to Tierra del Fuego! Although it was just a question of persistent driving on the #3 – a pretty good and smooth road, it felt like an accomplishment. The island looked different from what we’d seen so far of Patagonia: it was greener and grassier, with occasional wetlands and streams. Everything looked friendlier; less rugged. Cows made a comeback. And then, trees appeared! Short, crooked, halfdead, and covered with mosses, they looked mysterious and pitiful. When the landscape became more mountainous, they started to look so much better, that when we saw a sign of a nature park, we wanted to stop there, but the park was closed because of a forest fire. We saw the ominous clouds, and later also the glow of a large fire from a distance away. So finally we saw trees, and now they’re on fire… Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire is burning; what tragic irony.

Tierra del Fuego landscape

Pitiful trees, but as the mountains appeared, the trees started looking taller and healthier

The forest fire was visible from the town of Tolhuin, where we stayed for the night

The approach to Ushuaia was marked by increasingly higher mountains and dense, black forest. Ushuaia faces the Beagle Channel and is surrounded by mountains on the other three sides, which may be why the Patagonian winds are gentle here. We may have hit a sunny and warm spell but did not stay to enjoy it. We wanted to find room on one of the cruise ships to Antarctica before the start of the busy season.

Tierra del Fuego’s mountains at the southern end of the island.

View over Lago Fagnano, on the way to Ushuaia from the town of Tolhuin, at the far end of the lake.

Welcome to Ushuaia

The camper’s hangout along the waterfront in Ushuaia. This town is lacking a descent campground

Downtown Ushuaia

Downtown Ushuaia

View from our window: There is the ship we will be sailing to Antarctica with

Two days later we sailed south on the 168 passenger expedition cruiser Ocean Victory, across an unusually quiet Drake passage.

Even on level four the waves sprayed against our windows during an “unusually quiet Drake passage”

After two days to develop our sea-legs and two nights of seasickness medication (even a calm Drake passage has six-foot swells) the dark outcrops of the volcanic South Shetland Islands appeared through the morning fog. Not everything was covered by snow here– a fact the penguins seem to like, since their eggs would freeze when laid on snow. We slowly sailed to Halfmoon Island to go ashore and check out how the chinstrap penguins live and love (and poop). They are cute, as expected. In the water, when they chase krill for food, they are fast and limber, and seem to fly in groups under and on water. Once on land they clumsily climb the rocks (or snow) to their nest, where they make a big scene of greeting their mate, sometimes with the gift of a pebble to add to the elevation of their rocky nest. The ones that found their place still covered with snow were out to search their mate and make love. At this first landing we also familiarized ourselves with Antarctic penguin’s krill-red poop. Penguins poop every ten to twenty minutes and it was everywhere on and between the rocks. In the snow, a penguin’s rookery as well as the paths they create to and from the water is colored red – it may make a good anti-slip track on the snow, but for us, the rocks were slippery. Upon our return to the boat, we had to seriously scrub our boots and pants – not only to get rid of the filth and smell, but especially to prevent contagion of avian flu. As half of the participants explored the terrain, the other half looked around the waters in zodiacs. The water was clean and clear. Close to us, two humpback whales decided to come up for air. It was a good introduction to the southern continent.

Volcanic rock on Half Moon island

Old volcanic cores show dark against the snow

The “chinstrap” stripe makes the penguins appear to have a broad smile

A whaler’s boat-wreck on Half Moon island

Mother and child humpback whale

When we woke up, we saw icebergs floating by our window. Our ship quietly moved through a dreamscape of dark water, white mountains and blue skies. Icebergs of pristine white, based on a turquoise underwater float silently greeted us when we passed them. A spread of glistening ice jewels in between them vied for attention. A school (or is it a flight?) of penguins rapidly dove and surfaced alongside the boat. A seal looked up from a slice of sea ice. All looked peaceful…clean… serene…otherworldly.

The first morning felt like being in a dream…so quiet, so serene

This breakfast setup was created by some on-board influencers. They were not planning to actually eat outside (!)
How beautiful can ice be…

In the afternoon we set foot of continental Antarctica  – where a walking trail was beaten through the snow, with orange perimeter flags to ensure a distance from the penguins (though the penguins didn’t respect that distance keeping much) and to protect the fragile nature we came to enjoy. Again, to keep our presence on land low, we were divided between landing- and boating groups – and switched halfway through. From the zodiac we saw leopard-,  crabeater-, and weddell-seals…it takes a few days of observation to know the difference between them. The floating ice was amazingly varied; from glasslike with crazy shapes, to glossy faceted white, or soft snow-topped blocks with bright blue sides, or flat ice-sheets.  The water was so clear, one could see an entire sunken whaler ship, or penguins flit through the rocky-bottomed water.

Ready on the Zodiac

Penguins always have the right of way here. You have to wait, and keep a distance

When the highway is too narrow, you simply turn around and go with the flow, right?

Hiking on Antarctica

Two sailboats were anchored beside the whaler’s shipwreck

Leopard seals can be recognized by their lizard-like face. They are the only seals that eat – besides fish, squid and krill – warm blooded animals, like penguins.

Weddell seals are large, fat and easy going. They like to live in groups. They eat fish, squid and krill.

Crab-eating seals actually don’t eat crabs, but crustaceans, like krill. You can see this one ate krill by the red poop. They can be distinguished from leopard seals by their snout, which bends up

On Gouldier Island, we landed at Port Lockroy, the British research station/ turned museum and Antarctic post office, where we could get an impression of how researchers lived – a couple of decades ago. Newer quarters for the crew now manning the station were off limits, but two of our ship’s expedition crew worked there for four months, fell in love and got married later on. They gave us more details about the work they still do there, like counting the island’s penguin nests and their eggs, and see how many return next year; clean the penguin poop off the rocks, man the museum and post office, and clear the snow around the buildings, and probably much more that I forgot… Every day there were lectures about everything concerning Antarctica, like about it’s wildlife, explorer’s expeditions, photography tips, and recaps of the places visited.

Port Lockroy

The museum and (British) post office had to be dug out of the snow this winter. Now the penguins can move under the building to make a real mess!

These are Gentoo penguins, by the way.

This big Weddell seal almost blocked one of the penguin highways.

Port Lockroy kitchen

Port Lockroy sleeping quarters

I believe this is a skua cleaning up a dead penguin.
The zodiacs are coming to pick us up for the exploration of the bay
Can you believe this little tern flies from the arctic to the antarctic, every year?

We saw around four sailboats, two super yachts, and two other cruisers while we were in Antarctica. With the upcoming Holiday season and southern summer, it will be a lot busier.

The canoe team is going out for a separate tour.

For four days we meandered through the chain of islands that hug the coast of Antarctica, with stops around two times a day. One of the last days we landed in snow so deep, that despite the snowshoe team having beaten a path, we’d sink in thigh-deep at times, mostly, but not always, when passing or overtaking someone and just stepping one foot to the side. At one point I had both legs to above my knees in the soft snow and had to crawl out- I guess it was the hardest for us since we were the first group after the snowshoers and the snow had not settled completely yet. (The way back already was easier) Anyway, that night my knees hurt, I had trouble taking the stairs up or down, so the next morning I skipped the last outing and stayed on the ship. But even from aboard there is enough to see: one night while sailing through the Gerlach Straight, we were called out of bed by the bridge, when they’d spotted a pod of orcas. We ran outside in our pajamas, as not to miss these majestic animals in their natural environment.

Slushing through the snow
Single trail through the snow
Swimming penguins

This shows a good view of a penguin rookery and the highways to and from the water
Ceremonial greeting

In the left front there are a few penguins that built their elevated rocky nests right on the beach.

Ready to go for a swim?

Imperial cormorants taking off. Sometimes they get mistaken for flying penguins. But penguins only fly in the water.
Beautiful imperial cormorant (also called imperial shag)
Imperial Cormorants build their nests on top of the snow, using seaweed. As the snow melts around them, the nests sit on a snow tower – until it collapses…
It was such a warm and sunny day, that a BBQ was organized on the top deck.
Orcas spotted in the late evening sun.
Almost midnight…

Antarctica has the world’s most glaciers

Along towering mountains and glaciers, through the Lemaire’s channel

The sheathbill is Antarctica’s only non-seabird. It likes to take rides to the South American continent.

Before turning back to Ushuaia, we were surrounded by glaciers and floated through packed icefields, then Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage (could not believe at first that the ship could fit through, and it felt like moving into a giant sluice/lock) where on both sides tall mountains loomed over the ship. As soon as we hit open water, the Drake Passage made itself known with wild, high swells, and wind that broke the balcony partition between us and our neighbors. The floor of our cabin flooded, and we asked for sea sickness pills, which gave us a good night sleep despite the shaking and bouncing. The following days at sea were better: the swaying lessened somewhat; Mark, our cabin’s steward offered free laundry service and a bottle of wine to compensate for our remaining wet floor; last day’s lobster dinner was the best food we had on the voyage, and the recaps and entertainment made everyone feel like we had the best Antarctica trip ever. Too soon we disembarked and returned to our camper, waiting for us at the Ushuaia Airport parking lot.

Home again!

Uruguay – Part One

“Tourism Week” started on the day we crossed the border from Argentina to Uruguay, where kilometers long lines of cars waited to cross from Uruguay to Argentina. We considered ourselves lucky to head in the other direction. In Uruguay, politics and religion are completely separated, to the point that the week of Easter – a holy week in most of Latin America – has been renamed “Tourism Week”. At that same moment we were confronted with the economic difference between these two neighboring countries: Argentina’s currency is weak with an incredible inflation rate, their money is not very desirable in its neighboring country, unless they pay a steep exchange rate. Uruguayans, on the other hand, can live like kings across their border, which explained the one way traffic. So when we arrived in Uruguay, we expected a richer, more developed country than Argentina – where we’d enjoyed excellent roads and modern looking towns… We were surprised how much less prosperous Uruguay looked: generally the houses were smaller and simpler, their landscaping less cultivated and, beside the toll roads, we found ourselves rattling over dusty dirt roads. This, while Uruguay is named as one of the two wealthiest and most expensive South American nations….we were puzzled. Just like Argentina, most of the countryside consists of cattle pastures and fields that grow animal feed like corn and soy, albeit at times a bit less homogeneous and more natural looking. However in Uruguay, the gentle hills also held patches of eucalyptus forest, its wood becoming another source of income beside the beef industry. Could that make all the difference? In addition we saw herds of horses, grazing on pampas plants and tufts of grass, or galloping along in the distance, throwing up dust, living their lives as they should. Uruguayans love their horses; I’d think everyone here owns a horse like people in the Netherlands own a bike. We passed so many riders along the road, that we concluded that this must be the reason why they have so many unpaved roads: horses and hard pavement don’t go well together.

As we got closer to the coast, quaint thatch- roofed farm houses caught our attention. Most of them were small and unassuming, but so charming. The roads were on and off good to bad, the towns were simple.

Already in Peru we’d heard about a lovely campsite near the coast, owned and run by a Dutch couple. In need of some wifi connection, a load of laundry done, and hopefully some information about what to do and where to go, we decided to go there first.

At the gate of la Chacra Holandesa we were greeted by Jan, Marieke, and their two dogs. We joined several overland campers on the grass near a sparkling pool, beside a field occupied by a handful of horses and a giant pig that thinks she’s a horse. The chacra’s population was completed by a harem of roaming chickens, guarded by a few too many roosters and some cats.

Chacra Holandesa

Every day around five o’clock, after the chores of the day are done, Jan settles himself with a cigar and a glass of wine in a chair under the poolhouse roof: a silent invitation for a get-together. Tales of destinations and experiences went around… We found out that we missed an interesting part along a northern route, and what else we should visit. The coast should definitely be on the list. So after a few days of rest we decided to drive north along the coast, which in many places was still the way we remembered it from our first trip in 1978: with sand dunes, pine forests and strips of summer houses (some of them the cute, cottagey, thatched roofed kind) along white sandy beaches. Except for Punta del Este, which is reminiscent of a downsized Miami Beach, most coastal towns were laid-back and simple with low-rise apartment buildings and old fashioned villas.

Punta del Este

Our northbound endpoint would be the Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, at thirty-some kilometers south of the Brazilian border. There, the beaches are grand and wild, the coastal forests untouched, while a historic fort and leftovers of the town of Santa Elena add to the attraction. The park can also accommodate an incredible amount of campers. Maybe this would be the place where in 1978 we experienced Easter weekend (?) when we were joined by campers in old fashioned trucks, loaded up with the family’s brass bed and other home furnishings, and old T-Ford type cars (in that time in Uruguay, every car was antique) got decked out with tarps as makeshift tents, and where we saw the first motorcycle-tent construction, and a legion of gauchos servicing the grounds… So far, we had not found or recognized the exact spot. On the other hand, we passed so many pine forests along the coast, that it could have been anywhere …. My appreciation for the geo-location option, nowadays embedded in my photos, was asserted once more: we didn’t have that in 1978. I need to dig up my photos from back then, before we return in September.

Google maps is great in directing us to impossible roads: in the past, google brought us to a stepped street; on a non existent shortcut through dense jungle; and up a street so steep that our truck just stopped, so we had to back up with our front wheels barely touching the road which made steering impossible… This time google directed us through the backstreets of Punta del Diablo to reach Playa Grande in the National Park. We had to turn around when the road became a deep river gully which, even while walking was a climb along narrow ridges. After we returned to the main road, we found the official main entry, where, as expected, we paid an entry- and camping fee and received a map of the park, as well as a desinfecting dip to drive through. On this map, the road connection between Punta del Diablo and the park was non- existent.

Past the grand entryway we drove a rickety potholed road to the long stretch of Playa Grande beach, where we found ourselves alone on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Except for the terrible road condition I wonder why no-one else picked this beautiful spot. The beach below was almost deserted. We passed a few dog walkers, a decaying whale carcass, and further down near the cape that separates the park from Punta del Diablo, some more people. We climbed the dunes and walked the path that brought us to the touristy fisher town, where at that moment a crowd was fixated on a surf competition, sipping maté tea through a bombilla (metal sifoning straw) out of their cuias (maté cups) while holding a thermos of spare hot water tucked under one arm.

Punta del Diablo

How to describe the town of Punta del Diablo? Along the Playa de Pescadores- the most popular part- the streets run helter skelter with the dunes. The dusty roads are scattered with quaint, loosely built open front restaurants, interspersed with small stores, and the occasional cottage. Maybe the buildings were constructed with whatever was found on the beach. Old Volkswagen buses, and young people selling jewelry on the streets or making music made me think of the hippie times. Away from the bustling center, cottages of various sizes and styles varied in curb appeal: some could have been built in the middle ages, some were airy and contemporary. Over time I grew to appreciate the place.

Punta del Diablo

Beside a large restored Spanish fort and some Santa Teresa settlement houses the National park also boasts botanical gardens with an impressive conservatory. Impressive because it looks grand, old and overgrown. Upon entry into the octagonal center, one cannot help but look up and notice the windmill shaped structure that supports four glass roofs. Natural stone pillars and arches leak mosses, ferns and vines. Through an archway we entered a lower side wing, where raised beds displayed a wild array of potted plants rooted in green undergrowth. Another wing displayed taller plants in straight borders, centered by a water canal edged by potted plants. One room looked like an indoor pool, where tropical plants shaded the water for the fish below.

Fortaleza Santa Teresa

Behind the conservatory we took a narrow path into a patch of old growth forest, which led us over a narrow bridge to a small hill, where a statue of an indigenous warrior was displayed: an ode to the Arachanes people that  inhabited these lands until the colonial immigrant people basically extinguished them and all other Uruguayan indigenous inhabitants. Contemporary Uruguay is a very white country.

On a drive around the park we discovered we were not the only ones camping here. Although our spot on the southern side was deserted, we found the most popular spot -with an access road ten times better- on the northern side, where at least a hundred campers hung out under the trees, in close proximity to bath houses and a camping store. We however, happily remained at our lonely spot overlooking the ocean…    

Upon return towards Montevideo (from where we plan to fly back to the Netherlands for a summer with family) we chose an inland road that would pass by some vineyards. The dusty road brought us over rolling hills to a lovely vineyard where no-one was home. With our recent experience in Mendoza, where one could visit most vineyard bodegas without making appointments, we never thought to need one here in Uruguay, so this is what you could get. But no big deal, there was another one not too far from there. We arrived at the grand entry of the Garçon wineries, where a guard asked us for our reservations. Which we didn’t have. Thijs later told me he’d tried to make reservations for wine tasting/lunch the night before, but when a prepayment of $80 pp was demanded, he decided to go our usual way. It didn’t work this time. Is that why Mendoza wineries are more popular? For us they are. We don’t need to taste the wines. So we moved on through cattle country, over rolling hills and dusty roads. We spent a night at a rare of-the-road flat spot near a riverbed and soon found ourselves back in Atlantida, where Chacra Holandesa was crowded and welcoming.

Road to the wineries

The old city center of Montevideo is not overwhelmingly large: one can see most of it in one day. We took the bus, together with our host Marieke, who needed to go into town for her own reasons. We criss-crossed the town and walked down the Avenida 25 de Mayo. At one point you can see the water from three sides, the fishing pier straight ahead of us, and on both sides waterfront  peeping through at the end of the streets. Traffic was relaxed for a nation’s capital, and the shady parks felt comfortable. Pompeous Renaissance and  Neoclassical buildings, plus a scattering of Art Deco facades bring back memories of good old times when money must have been plentiful for the chosen ones. The economy is pretty good now, and slick modern architecture stands proudly beside the historic monuments of yesteryear,  but neglect seeps through the walls of some smaller buildings. At the Plaza Independencia we descended under the statue of José Artigas, and found his impressive black granite underground mausoleum: the remains of this national hero solemnly accompanied by two honor guards.

Statue of José Artigas
Mausoleum of José Artigas
View towards the Plaza de Independencia

Museum of money and gaucho….no idea how that combines!
A peek through an open door
School children in uniform

Thijs went on a quest to find himself a typical gaucho beret, so he could keep his head protected against sun and wind, although we already have this as a gift for our youngest son in mind, who we think might appreciate this fine woolen cap. There are gaucho stores in Montevideo that sell a generous range of these berets: ridiculously wide cotton and woolen berets, as well as more moderate sizes, in a variety of colors and materials. Thijs proudly stepped out of the store with a black woolen one and was immediately photographed by a passing tourist. He generously posed for the picture!

Besides berets, maté cups and bombillas were also sold at the gaucho stores

All too soon our departure date arrived. We drove to the storage facility, where our camper joined over a hundred other overland vehicles, waiting for their owner’s return to continue their journey. We plan to be back by the end of September, when the drive south to Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego, followed by a trip north along the Chilean border should finalize our South American exploration. But for now, we look forward to some family time in the northern hemisphere.

Sunrise at Chacra Holandesa

Along the way, there were some down to earth fishing spots

Across the Argentinian plains: Mendoza to Uruguay.

Leaving Mendoza, we decided to take the longer, no-toll road to Cordoba. The first part of this route we’d already seen, since we had previously come to Mendoza this way: a country road that led us through small villages, vineyards and later olive groves. Slowly even the olive trees became more scarce and dry shrubs replaced the struggling trees. As the land naturalized, the settlements became fewer and lonelier. One more time, we stopped at Reserva Bosques Telteca, where a few weeks ago, on our way to Mendoza, we stopped for the night and walked a good trail through the desert terrain on the following day. These trails among the dunes were sparsely marked and obscured by wandering sand over hectares of land. Occasionally we climbed up the sandy dunes – one step up, half a step sliding back down, to find the landmark radio tower, where our camper was parked nearby. When, even on the trail, we sank ankle deep into the sand, we decided to turn around and find our way back.

This time around, we stopped to scale the ridge of the tall sand dunes across the street. (If only we had snowshoes…!) After lunch, we continued on the perfectly paved, straight road across an endless scrubby desert plain. This road is so smooth, with so little traffic or opportunities to stop, that it is hard not to fall asleep, and indeed, along the way we passed two serious accidents of what looked like single cars that just ran off the road and overturned. By late afternoon we reached a mountain range, where lush green grasses and rows of yellowing poplars indicated human settlements. We looked around for an overnight spot, but found only a gas station, so we crawled up the mountain, along hotels and summer homes, green lawns and colorful flowers that lined the street. A little further up, at the Embalse Allende reservoir, we found a quiet campground with a view over the water. The night silence was intense, the sky  dark with clear bright stars: we decided to soak it in for at least a day or two.

As in many places with this crazy weather nowadays, the water in this reservoir was ten meters below normal level. The last time the lake was full was in 2014. The already extended concrete boat ramp barely touched the water’s surface. Some small boats below us, along the water’s retaining wall were hard to reach, but on the other side, around the bend, a beach had surfaced, accessible for cars of fishermen to enjoy. During the day their voices echoed across the water.

We found the kitchen of the family’s restaurant, where we ordered a meal with local fish. The seafood they recommended however turned out to be calamari  – I don’t think that can be found in this mountain reservoir…  As the only guests, we chose a spot under the shade roof, overlooking the lake. Soon a flock of chickens joined the friendly cats and dogs under our table and flaunted their best hungry attitude, to the embarrassment of the restaurant manager, who shooed them away, without avail: within minutes they were back. I rewarded their insistence with the crumbs of my food.

On Saturday, when a small crowd of fun seeking visitors arrived, the serenity of the place disappeared. Diners attended the restaurant, and smoke from the grills filled the air. We had witnessed a day of peace and a day of action, and decided to continue on our way on Sunday morning.

To reach the city of Cordoba, we first climbed over what seemed to be rounded masses of granite mixed with glistening chips of mica, dressed up with bushy trees and dry shrubs, like the pyracantha loaded with yellow, orange and red berries. Just before turning around the top  for the descent, an idyllic picture caught my eye: shouldered along a creek with tall green grasses was a small cottage farm accentuated by yellow poplar trees, and protected by an embrace of surrounding elevations. Only after we passed it, I realized we should have stopped for a photo. I reminded myself we already have a similar picture from our first South American travels through Argentina, and how many pictures does one need?…. I still regret not having stopped, though.

On a Sunday morning, it was easy to find a place to park in the historic center of Cordoba, where opulent buildings echoed times of privileged wealth. Not much was open – we passed through empty, tree shaded promenades and peaceful squares, where outdoor cafes were protected from the elements with bright parasols, and from the wind with flowering bushes. At the foot of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Asunción, we stumbled upon an alley with an installation that took our breath away: a memorial of the desaparecidos: the thousands of mostly young Argentinians who disappeared during the brutal dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Above our heads, hundreds of photos of the lost, printed on cloth flags, fluttered in the wind – like laundry on lines criss-cross over the length of the alley. Two creamy yellow walls contained four displays of continuous lines, each like an enlarged fingerprint. At a closer look, the lines consisted of  names of all those that disappeared, clustered in the year they vanished. We remembered hearing about it when we traveled through Argentina during that time – a time when so many people of the South American countries were silenced by their dictatorial governments, to the point that we as outsiders only picked up snippets of the atrocious tales.

The land east of Córdoba is cattle country. Endless fields with corn and soy, interrupted by cattle pastures reminded me of the North American midwest. The expansive, efficient looking farmland could explain the neat looking towns, where butcher shops and icecream stores stood out as the most popular retail venues. The buildings looked modern and well maintained, and the roads remained good. We stopped for the night at an american style gas station, with a small, popular restaurant and convenience store, as well as clean bathrooms with showers. Fortunately here, trucks stop somewhere else for the night, so we enjoyed a quiet night without running engines as neighbors. Instead, our neighbor was rusty brown or black cattle in a spacious holding pen. They looked young – I hope they’d only be there for transfer to some farm’s pastures. That morning we watched them throwing up dust – running to the feed bins as they got filled, followed by a flock of green parakeets that landed underfoot for the spilled corn.

The name Santa Fé evokes visions of a legendary country town, so we parked our camper on the Plaza de San Martín, which in most Argentinian cities is the central square. A parking guard helped us navigate into a narrow slot, and offered a much needed carwash service while we  explored this city. To our surprise it looked like the buildings that used to be grand needed major restoration. We had not seen this in a while. Apparently the province of Santa Fé is not as prosperous as that of Córdoba or Mendoza, and it shows, though the countryside had not changed much from what we could see. The port of Santa Fé has a direct access to the Paraná river. Looking for the waterfront, we found the port terminal, where the inlet had high walls which could indicate large differences in water levels. Across the inlet, a large modern casino and mall obstructed a further view towards the river estuaries. In the water, floating plants replaced absent ships. An old crane/vacant tourist information booth – beside the old port administration building overlooking the terminal added to the omnipresent sense of lost grandeur.

After we crossed the bridge over the rio Santa Fé, we found ourselves looking down from the elevated highway over a network of wetlands, rivers and creeks, to finally descent into an ultra modern tunnel under the main river, which brought us to Paraná city on the other side of the estuary. Here we veered north, through a fancy looking neighborhood towards the shores of the Paraná river to enjoy the sense of steamy tropics in autumn. 

The expansive campground we entered was empty – let’s presume because of covid. With many building under construction, we could find no one in charge for admission. In the end, a person who looked like he was in charge allowed us to spend the night, for free. He pointed out the newly renovated bathroom building, but we could pick any spot on the premises. An old pump station and dense forest prevented us from finding a spot along the river, so we parked near the new bathroom and went for a hike, in search of the riverfront. A comfortable concrete path and steps led us down along the steep cliff. Halfway down, the steps had collapsed sideways and disappeared into dense undergrowth. We climbed across the crevice to find the continued path, but it became clear that most steps and paths had collapsed as if affected by an earthquake or, as was the case here, earth slides after recent heavy rains. Finding our way down this way, like Indiana Jones exploring ancient ruins in the jungle, we discovered an extensive ruined network of paths leading to crooked platforms and skeletons of shacks near the water. It must have been a lively destination at the time! Finally, washed up tree trunks and branches left little of a beach to be enjoyed, but the expedition down and back up was worthwhile and memorable. The last leg of our drive to the border of Uruguay was another smooth ride through agricultural country, interrupted by pretty villages with an orderly tree lined main street. Hot springs were the tourist attractions around here. We got so used to this impression of comfort, that the turnoff into the border town of Colon surprised us with a dirt road, while they named this road after one of the most prestigious car brands: Ferrari! We found our way to the riverfront – with an accessible beach – where we planned to stay a few days to spend our last Argentinian pesos before crossing into Uruguay.

Colón turned out to be a pleasant small town with a malecón (waterside promenade) and nice restaurants along plaza San Martín. It was clear this town accommodates tourists. The riverside recreation area was extensive, with groups of Argentinian campers spreading out along the beach. Paddleboards and canoes made their way across the river, while fishing was the favorite pastime at the water’s edge. When we splurged on a nice lunch at a restaurant overlooking the plaza, our neighboring table guests broke out in a dance when a troubadour stopped by for a song or two. The following day, at another restaurant, we sampled the finest wine we found so far in Argentina – though the excellent food may have helped with the experience.

When we crossed the border to Uruguay, we left Argentina with fond memories, sure to return for the trek to Tierra del Fuego, as soon as the South American spring warms the weather in September.

Quarantined in Cusco

The morning of Peru’s lockdown, I looked out the window and saw a number of new arrivals; travelers that just made it inside the compound in time to take advantage of the conveniences and safety the camping had to offer. We were now a diverse, international group with toddlers just learning to walk and talk, school aged kids, adult children, parents, young couples, single adults and people in their retirement age. Among us we counted members of Canadian, Colombian, Chilean, Danish, French, German, Mexican, Swiss, US and, like us, Dutch nationalities. Plus – last but not least – the Peruvian family of Milli and Edgar, who run the campground. That day everyone learned about each other, and looked for a more or less permanent spot. Through time, several language-based quarters took shape, roughly divided into French, Spanish, and German speaking groups. Jorien, our single Dutch compatriot joined us with her bus to share a sun/rain cover.

During the first meeting we learned about how we could cope with the corona virus in Peru.

We had no idea what to expect of Covid transmission danger or symptoms. We assembled to talk strategy. Since every household had their own unit, we could assume to be safe inside. However, the shared bathroom and kitchen would be a contamination risk. Milli promised extra cleaning and sanitising there. We were all expected to do our part with regular handwashing and social distancing. Since taxis wouldn’t run anymore, the young and fit volunteered to do the grocery shopping and carry the load of heavy produce up from Cusco’s 3399m to Quinta Lala’s 3700m altitude. Milli could get the printed permit for them to go shopping or go to the bank. Those that went out did so with caution – with the obligatory mask and sticking to strict Covid rules.

On Tuesday March 17th, the second day of the lockdown, we celebrated a first birthday. With a long table in the middle of the common area, everyone gathered in a large circle around it and performed a happy birthday song in the language of the different nationalities present. We showered the retirement aged birthday girl with field bouquets and improvised presents. After a thank-you speech from her, we enjoyed a choice of cakes, drinks, and chat.

Everyone still had to get used to social distancing. This bothered two families among us to the point that one chose to move to a higher level right during the birthday celebration. It didn’t go well: the track was steep and slick, the camper was large and not built for these conditions. After three failed attempts, an SUV truck drove up and pulled the camper with a tow strap. The distraction dampened the celebration a bit, but after cake and some shots of good pisco, all was forgiven and forgotten.

Second try for the camper to go up the hill…
Already after the first try, the efforts to drive up the hill left a damaged road.
Milli, Edgar and some more family members immediatly gathered rocks to repair the road.

Over time a tight community took shape. Children shared their toys, babies shared a blanket, and restless adults installed a slackline. Through a whatsapp group, calls for help brought us together: “who has silicone caulk for my leaky roof?…I spilled tea on my bed; anybody with a hairdryer?…anyone have a saw?… some plywood?…I need a haircut…does anyone know how to weld?…
After we found out that Jorien, our Dutch neighbor, just started her two year plastics awareness mission in South America and already had to cancel her first few presentations, it didn’t take long to organize one at the camp, with her beamer, a projection bedsheet, and audience. Jorien informed us about plastic pollution and how it affects especially the ocean and its sealife; the presence and danger of microplastics in every organism; and what we can do to reduce plastics in our life. She offered a mini-workshop about making one’s own toothpaste and deodorant.  

Jorien at her presentation. She filled the time with yukelele music while some among us worked on fixing the sound installation
Everyone enjoyed an informative evening, where we learned a lot about plastic pollution.
Soon a mini workshop followed.
Mixing baking soda with coconut oil and essential oil to make deodorant, or how to make toothpaste.

Impressed, others came out of the woodworks with their specialties, and it turned out we had two MDs, a female mountain climber who reached the top five peaks, a zumba teacher, a kickboxer, a diesel mechanic, a movie director, several musicians and tango dancers…and I probably forgot someone. One of the doctors informed us about viruses and building resistance against a virus, the other helped in minor emergencies; we enjoyed a tango performance and could participate in (socially distanced) Zumba and kickboxing. Cooking and baking recipes were exchanged, and the technically interested were happy to help each other with any mechanical problems or tools. Under protest of those taking Covid 19 seriously, we had regular tea and campfire meetings – we all figured that since we’ve been locked up together for weeks now, we were not contagious. Sure, the ones who did the shopping runs could introduce it, but as they were checked by police to take only the direct route to the market or the ATM, wear a mask, disinfect hands, and keep moving, that chance was small.

Camping playground: slackline
Camping playground: tree swing
Homework, however, must go on
The toddlers have their own playgroup
The bigger kids could amuse themselves without adult help
The older among us had coffee meetings
Together you can solve mechanical problems
Jorien learned about the mechanics of her newly aquired camper van. Just three weeks before she took posession.
There were kickboxing classes…
A doctor’s checkup…
Dance classes….
Haircut…there was time for everything, and someone capable enough to help out

We had another birthday party. This time there were three to celebrate for – the youngest turned one, the other eleven and the last one…(?)… maybe twenty…something? This time we came prepared to keep our distance with a hand on a stick to give presents or high five each other. The children loved this joke and ran away with all the  gloved sticks.

Happy Birthday. Here is a present in my extended hand!
The social distance hands-on-a-stick were a success
One by one the three birthday-ers received their special moment
Happy birthday!

Tourists, stuck in hostals downtown, were caught loudly partying into the night. Neighbors called the police, who stopped the parties and had everyone tested. Two of the tourists tested positive, so the hostals were shut down. Tighter restrictions followed for the whole region. We were not allowed to take any more nature walks on the estate grounds of Hacienda Llaullipata, or to be loud with music or voice, and everyone should be back in their units after dark. Shopping trips were reduced to one person only, which was later reduced to just the camping management. Milli could take orders and, with a special permit to drive, Edgar could go by car to do the shopping…. Until he was caught trying to get some of our empty gas bottles filled. His car as well as his driver’s license was taken because he only had a permit for grocery shopping.  After paying a hefty fine, Edgar eventually got his license and car back. In the meantime a family member took over the errands, so no worries.

The trail we were not allowed to walk anymore
An attempt to fill those foreign gas bottles got Edgar into trouble
Extra work for Milli and Edgar: taking care of the grocery orders.

The first campers started leaving: the German neighbors on our other side moved to a rental appartement in Cusco to have more space for their two adult kids and three dogs. Then the Swiss couple wanted to catch an evacuation flight leaving from Lima. Together with a hundred or so other Swiss they boarded three busses to drive the 20 some hours to Lima. We received notice from them that one of the busses had a collision in the mountains, but they were OK. We vowed to only evacuate when we could fly directly out of Cusco. Yes, leaving Cusco started crossing our mind, partly because our son in the Netherlands expressed his reasons of worry, and partly because our embassy offered a one-last-chance to get help evacuating. The French made plans to ship their campers back to Europe, after driving in convoy to Lima. In Cusco at that moment, about 250 hotels and about 250 restaurants were closed for business, as well as a few hundred craft and souvenir stores. The severe shutdown slowed the infection rate, but could not stop it. Peru suffered, and without enough hospital beds, medical specialists or supplies, it would be better not to get sick. When at last a plane was arranged for us to fly to Lima, where a connecting flight was waiting, we took it, albeit with a heavy heart. After almost a month of quarantine, we cleaned our car, gave away our food supplies and said goodbye to our friends. Milli arranged a taxi to bring us to the airport, where we joined a long line of evacuees, waiting for the airport to open its gates and let us in.

When Jorien went out for grocery shopping, she shared these pictures of a deserted Cusco
When Jorien went grocery shopping, she made these pictures of a deserted Cusco.
A last hoorah before I leave!
A goodbye tea before we leave.
Thank you, Milli and Edgar, for everything you have done for us, and for keeping our camper safe until we can return!

It was a most special flight. Thijs had managed to reserve front row seats, so we would be the last in, and the first out. There was no service whatsoever on board, and the plane landed in Lima on the military airfield beside the connecting plane to Amsterdam. Out of caution, we had paid extra to get in first class, where again we had front row seats. Like on all seats on the plane, we found a huge bag with snacks and drinks to carry us through the flight, since again there was no service on board. The best thing about this seat was that you could lay flat, and I slept all the way to Amsterdam.

We were told to be at the airport a six in the morning, only to wait until nine before the gates to the airport opened. Waiting in a long line.
In Lima we could walk from one plane to the other. This went smoothly.
One last check before boarding the direct flight to Amsterdam.
We were on the only plane arriving at Schiphol airport.

At 10:38 in the morning we arrived at a deserted Schiphol airport. Looking for our baggage belt, we saw we were the only plane on the screen. We rented a car and met up with our son and family outside their appartment– no hugs or touches yet. We borrowed blankets, pillows, sheets from him, and picked up extra clothing and towels from our storage. That should carry us through the first night on our boat in Friesland.

During the flight, I developped a bladder infection. I needed to find a bathroom every fifteen minutes. It was hard to find a bathroom along the empty highway. One roadside restaurant had a takeout window open, and while Thijs ordered us some food, I searched and found a coin operated bathroom open. What a relief! (In the Netherlands, public bathrooms always cost money) An hour later we picked up the key to our boat, and were ready to start our Dutch part of life in the time of Corona. To be continued….

How neat and flat it is here in the Netherlands. I almost forgot…
Good night!

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.

The 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 a walk through 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 spot along a beautiful tropical river. We enjoyed lunch there at a perfect restaurant and stayed along the riverside for a 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 to 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 spent a night at a firestation in 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 for the wedding 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 of wedding celebrations, 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.