If Bueno Aires is considered the “Europe” of South America then Santi - as we grew to call it - is surely the “United States”. Shopping malls, high-rises, condo-living, supermarkets, swanky pools and swankier parties. Arriving in this mecca of all things expensive after a week of “bathing” in a muddy river, we swiftly ditch our old, tattered clothes, buy shiny new ones and embrace the almost forgotten luxury of civilization.
Santiago sits in the middle of the Central Valley, a depression wedged between two gorgeous mountain ranges: the Chilean Costal Range and the Andes. Because of population, dryness, heat and lack of wind, a hazy pastel smog rests just above the skyscrapers during the day, obscuring the distance and stripping away any perception of the mountains beyond. However, hike up to one of the many viewpoints in the vast metropolis and you’re greeted with a magnificent sight. The colours resemble Californian sunsets dusting an impressive breadth of urban sprawl.
We choose one such ascent on our first day in town, climbing the Cerro San Cristóbal, a 300m tall hill and the second highest point in Santiago. Tourists and locals alike flock to its peak to visit the famous statue of the Virgin Mary. The most interesting way the Cerro is accessed is through the once-bohemian-now-über-tourist neighbourhood of Bellavista. You can walk all the way to the top - 45 minutes uphill if you don’t get lost along the many twists and turns - or take a cab. Worn weary from the road and ready to embrace our new lush lifestyle we pick the latter. Besides, we aren’t on a pilgrimage to The Blessed Mother but to our new idol of worship - the swimming pool. Way up high and perched around the edge of the hill are two massive blue pools. We float around for hours looking out over the city we are about to discover. We realize: up until now we've been travelling - but, for the next two weeks at least, we’re on holiday.
After strolling back down the hill during the tangerine sunset (we can manage the descent), we sit down for an expensive seafood dinner with cocktails and wine. The food in Santiago is not that good and we don't really care. It lacks the flavour and authenticity of the home-cooked meals we had found on the road but to us it’s dining and full of that sweet restaurant ambience; something we sorely miss. We dress up and eat out every single night; Italian, Indian, French - anything but South American - and consume frothy frozen frappuccinos for lunch. Having lived frugally for two months we now want to spend our money. We want to be pampered.
The peak of vacation begins once we're taken under wing by Rob, an old Aussie friend of Ella’s, and his rowdy group of expat buddies. They’re young, handsome men from Australia, the Netherlands, and the U.S. who came to Santi (as they lovingly coined it) for work and the dream of an exotic adventure. They've built a way of life here and happily initiate us into it. Dance parties, dive bar crawls, night club salsa, picking-up women, slow weekends, busy workdays, happy hours, and oh yes, more dancing.
We quickly grow envious of their happy lives. They are lucky to live in a city so beautiful and full of history, culture and the conveniences of a modern capital. At lunch-time we meet Rob at the French Health Club during a break from his corporate job. A place where non-french Chilean and expat businessmen come to practice their strokes in the pool as their young pregnant wives sun themselves on the side. At night we take part in “after-work”: parties held all over the city any time of week, in old renovated mansion-bars or in clubs on rooftop carparks. On weekends our new friends lead us on “mystery tours”: lazy, beer-fueled adventures around their beloved new home to the parts often forgotten in praises. We sit by the dried out Mapocho River, drink terrible over-Worcestershired Bloody Marys in a very committed “under the sea” themed restaurant, and swim with children in a particularly pretty fountain.
One day we trek to Barrio Yungay - a stunning neighbourhood full of crumbling classical architecture and brilliantly coloured graffiti. One of our favourite places in Santi, Yungay is quiet and empty. We're told it's not safe here at night; hard to believe as we sit against sun-dappled pink stucco and play harmonica with children calling down to us from an open window.
Our friends exposed us to so many experiences we may never have tried, and all at a leisurely pace. One day trip we venture to the infamous “La Piojera” (The Fleabag), the oldest bar in Santi. Squashed between strip bars and a ripe-smelling open-air market, La Piojera is frequented by the gamut of Santiago locals including some of its most poor. It has concrete floors and courtyards filled with very happy, very drunk people. Everyone comes here for the “Terremoto” (Earthquake): a bright pink drink made of pipeño white wine, Fernet, bitters, and grenadine, and topped with pineapple ice cream. It will knock you on your ass. After one we’re laughing and dancing with strangers. After two we’re hammered.
We spent much of our time in the capital either drunk, getting there, or hung-over. Perhaps, like in La Piojera, we needed to be. If you're sober in La Piojera you can't avoid the concrete floors covered in sticky pink goo, the leering men, or the reality of the like-minded people who regularly gather to do absolutely nothing but self-medicate while the sun is still high.
We leave Santiago having been shown so much of the city and yet seeing so little. We walked the beautiful cobblestone streets of Barrio Lastarria and climbed the Cerro Santa Lucìa for its views, grabbed gelato near the giant, geometric Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral where one can take free dance classes with the city’s ballet. We danced wildly one night in Bellavista to a Cumbia Folk music performance that was so entertaining it was almost theatre, in a sweaty night-club packed with the most joyous revellers we’d yet seen.
We saw a slice of what it would be like to be an expat in Santi and it was intoxicating. But - as we realized too late - we didn’t do much else. The country is fresh from the terrible rule of a dictator, its capital bursting with fascinating museums and remnants of its dark history. We look back wishing we had taken the time to make these visits and see these sights but we also ask ourselves: did we really have time to spare? We were busy! Enjoying leisure and laziness, swimming in pools and strolling down streets, dressing for dinner, sitting in fountains, getting to know new friends, and yes, getting day-drunk and sleeping-in late. Though perhaps we should, we regret nothing. To us Santiago expressed itself as one big warm vacation and for the first time on this Dirty Road we enjoyed a goddamn holiday.
Its a strange thing growing close to friends you make on your travels. They enhance the experience tenfold and fill you with laughter and love. The boys and Santi are intrinsically linked in our minds, they are one and the same. Like a soundtrack to a film; ripe with bittersweet nostalgia. They are ever-present in the cityscape of our memories. In sunny moments of perfect joy. In warm remembrance of what it feels like to be young and truly free. Yet memories are all one can take from a city, and so, as their lives continue across a hemisphere, so too does our journey. A journey down a road different from theirs, but a road forever changed.
“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Throughout our travels in South America music has been ever present and a defining character. On the streets of Peru or in the jungle towns of Bolivia music thrums from cars, shops, and bars inviting your body to sway to its rhythm and your mood to soar. Well into the evening the children play in its sounds and come morning the storefronts open to its beats.
The music in Argentina and Chile, however, sculpted by hand and come upon like a warm ray of sunshine on a cobblestone street, invites you to sit and listen, to witness its beauty, or - if you can't contain yourself - to dance and sing along. Musicians are everywhere and talent flows freely. What both the artist and listener know is that music is something to be shared.
Travelling the Dirty Road, we become familiar with one word in particular. Essential. What is essential to your journey? Food, water, shelter, and little else. The colour of the journey, the substance, is made up of the company you keep, the strangers you meet, the stars above your head at night. Bring your essentials, find your substance.
We find ourselves trapped. Drunken and stuffed: sedated as we lie in the sun beside a turquoise swimming pool with plastic cups of frozen vodka-lemonade cooling our hands. It has been a long and dirty road through Bolivia and the 10 hour bus ride from the Atacama Desert to Salta City has left us spent. We’ve found an oasis in Argentina, or a prison, depending on how you see it; a hostel tucked away in the gorgeous farmland of the Salta region in the North-West of the country. It has warm, duvet-covered beds with real pillows, hot showers, good wifi, pizza, and all-day booze. Everything, and in excess. At night, tables are pulled out for hybrid beer-pong-flip-cup tournaments and “blood-bomb” booze shots are administered as punishment. Sleep in ‘til 3 - you’re not doing anything with your day anyway. We are from all over the world (mainly Australia) and have come for only a couple of nights to recharge, but like a budget Hotel California we’ve not yet left. Some have been here for months and are now working behind the bar. Sure it’s nice! Everyone is relaxed and friendly and constantly buzzed - but what are we doing here? This is not the Dirty Road we travelled across the world for.
At night we laconically drag ourselves onto the city bus and explore the town of Salta. It’s beautiful cafe-lined squares are filled with fragrant trees and surrounded by neoclassical architecture and a pink cathedral. Some streets are scary and definitely unsafe, some are packed with tourists, and some - the ones we want - are where one finds the cambio men. Because of the plummeting Argentinian peso, American dollars are in high demand and a “blue dollar” trade on the street instead of at the bank can get you up to double the pesos per dollar. Pretty good news for us.
Our favourite place to empty our fat pockets becomes the peña; a restaurant typical to the Salta region where local folk music is played while you (and the musicians) eat and drink. La Casona del Molino is an old adobe mansion in a residential area with tables in every room and a massive garden. They serve traditional Argento parrilla - barbecued meats - chunky stews from the region and fresh empanadas. Here, people come for dinner and bring their instruments. They play for enjoyment, not tips - and if you know the song you sing along with pride. Under the trees, we sip our Fernet-Cocas while four friends beside us sit around their table drinking red wine, strumming passionately at their guitars and singing with their eyes shut. The music is gorgeous and the feeling is of a room full of old pals.
Four days now at the hostel: we need to get out. We meet a new friend and ask him to join us; a young french hippie named Jonathan who loves nature and playing songs on his guitar; a modern day nomad. Jonathan has mastered the art of travelling light. When he doesn't have enough money to eat, he smokes instead. When he can't buy smokes he busks. We thought we were bad ass for hitchhiking in a transport truck until we heard that Jonathan, on his way to Córdoba with friends, was picked up in a hearse. There weren't enough seats so he laid down in the back instead. We hope this makes Jonathan a good guide on this particular dirty road (and he was). We pack our rental car with only what we need - tents, blankets, two giant jugs of water and a map - ready for our journey to finally begin.
We are taking a five day trip to the Cafayate wine region and back. The craziest thing about the landscape is how quickly it changes. As we hit the open road we travel through what seems like a hundred different worlds in only one day. Jurassic park mountains of green and rock give way to forests of knobby cacti lining red cliffs. Then a desert plain so flat you can see for miles, then alien rock formations that look like quivers full of arrows and so on and so on; all under perfect skies of blue.
Winding around the hair-pin mountain turns of the Cuesta del Obispo, we hold our lives in our hands and bounce over a tiny dirt road worn down to a corrugated ripple squeezing to the side of the rock face to let huge eighteen-wheelers pass. The light is fading fast and it's too dangerous to take these roads at night but we haven't yet made it over the passage. Where the hell are we going to camp? It's just mountain, river, and road. Jonathan, our spirit animal, instinctually pulls off onto a small side road looking for a safe patch of ground to make camp. We come across two little girls who need a ride up the path to their dad's peach farm and after we drop them off their papa tells us of a small church at the very top with a flat plateau where we could pitch a tent. We somehow get the car over a stream and set up shop below the church and inside a small paddock with two skinny horses to keep us company. As the sun sets it lights the red rock on fire then gradually reveals a blanket of stars.
In the morning we continue along the bumpy death road until the landscape happily opens up into paved road and the Calchaquí Valley; a dry and rocky terrain home to the Gaucho, the Argento cowboy. This really does look like the Wild West. An untamed territory dotted with the occasional dusty, white adobe villages and the odd lone star on horseback. We bound up and down the rolling dirt hills in our Chevy, windows down and music up. Nothing but blue sky dreaming.
We arrive at the tidy hamlet of Seclantás. Verdant green palms, a pretty rose coloured church and white haciendas line gravel streets. At the top of its hill is a view of the bruising pastel sky and a small cemetery colourfully decorated with tributes and flowers. We eat dinner at Inti Raymi, the courtyard of an elderly couple's house/restaurant and ask Señior Dìaz, to bring us out whatever he wants. Four courses later and we've been delighted by Argentina's soul food. Hot stews and warm bread - some recipes preserved from the ancient Incan methods, and many ingredients grown in the little garden next to us.
Stuffed and sleepy we stumble back to where, during daylight, we had found our next camp: a five minute drive out of the town and down a trail leading to the river. It's impossibly windy and we crawl past bushes of arguably the biggest thorns ever seen outside of a Disney movie, posting up under two scraggly trees with long branches to which we could fasten our tents. If we hadn't eaten so much hot stew we may not have slept quite as soundly in the storm. We wake with the sun and have a simple breakfast by the great muddy Calchaquí river before getting back on our old "horse".
We've entered wine country and ever so often we pass vineyards and a sign for a local bodega. We're not interested in just any bodega. We drive for an hour off the main road, crossing a (thankfully) almost dry arm of the river, kicking up dust on the hilly trail, wild horses galloping across the open country beside us. We're our way to Colombé, a gorgeous vineyard and winery owned by the Swiss millionaire Harold Hess. And now, for a sweet moment our trip gets a little less "Dirty". The scenery is impossibly beautiful and the estate is fresh from the pages of Condé Nast. The grapes here are particularly high in quality. They're from one of the highest vineyards in the world and because of their altitude and the dry, hot sun, the Malbec and Tanat are richly flavoured. We have lunch and a delicious bottle of wine al aire libre overlooking rows and rows of vines with big craggy mountains behind them.
Though the bodega itself is impeccably landscaped the real treat is the 18,000 square-foot museum dedicated to James Turrell, the Californian artist of light and space. We're a little buzzed from the good grape juice and drift in to join the tour. It's. So. Cool. Rooms filled with spectacularly textured colours of light in geometric shapes that play with your vision and spacial sense. Or maybe that's the grape juice. Either way it's a surreal way to spend an afternoon in the middle of Nowhere, AR.
Finding a safe place to sleep at night while on the Road to Nowhere is pretty damn hard. But with Jonathan the Boy Scout at the helm we managed to find potentially the best site ever. Just outside of the small - very small - hamlet of Molinos, we drive down and park beside the river, before crossing it by foot. It's 15 metres wide, thigh deep, and opaque, but we see a farmer and his horse crossing it and the beach on the other side is really, really pretty. Also, we're tough as nails. So we hold our tents and packs above our heads and dodge the snakes as we wade across.
We make camp on the soft sand under the darkening sky and make a small fire from dry sticks propped up against a sheltering rock. We sneak clusters of fresh, tart grapes from the little vineyard encroaching on the beach. Soon those brilliant stars are freckling the night and we're roasting potatoes wrapped in foil and drinking wine from a box (back to the dirty road for us) while Jonathan plays songs on his guitar. A big soft black puppy, presumably from a nearby farm, sneaks out of the woods and timidly tries to join us. We feed and pet him, roll with him in the sand, throw him sticks, then rest our heads on his side while we all drift to sleep beside the crackling fire that dances on the warm night breeze. Heaven.
Cafayate is at an altitude of 1,683m, comprised of plenty of vineyards and nestled between great red mountains. It's laid-back and rustic, retaining its Old West vibe among the luxuriousness of a wine town. Here, one starts drinking early and doesn't really stop. We pass from bodega to bodega, most conveniently located within the small town and a quick walk from one to the other, paying a small fee to sample various wines and learn about the farms and families. We venture a short walk out of town and hit a goat farm and vineyard that sells its fresh cheese - and of course, wine.
The next morning we say goodbye to our friend. We wish Jonathan luck and love and safe travels as he stays on to find work in Cafayate and we head back to return our horse in Salta.
The trip back will only take us a day but is some of the most scenic country yet and the highway, mercifully, is mostly paved. The hills are made of the most vivid shades of rusts and spices and their peaks and canyons take on shapes of glass chards and mythical beasts. One is the Garganta del Diablo. A giant chasm of red rock likened to the devil's throat that you can climb up and into. The most spectacular site by far and hardest to capture on film is the Anfiteatro: a ravine in the rock wall that works as an acoustic amphitheatre. As we walk towards its entrance we can already hear the guitar of the musician singing folk songs in the corner. Once inside, it echoes all around us. Just blue sky above, sand underfoot and perfect surround sound.
We hold the memory of the beautiful music in our minds as we drive the last stretch of highway towards the Salta Valley and the weather shifts from dry to humid and rainy. Towards the hostel and a comfy bed, hot shower and real toilet. We never needed those "things" on the road and despite being deprived of them for four nights, we still don't. We bathed in the river and slept on the earth under the stars. We physically touched the country we travelled to and by doing so understood it just a little bit better. We saw, and smelled, and tasted so much more in one hour on the road than 96 beside a hostel's pool. We may have met 20 new buddies at the beer pong table but we made one genuine friend in Jonathan. We spent a journey with him struggling with tents, thorns and streams and together we sat in silence, witnessing incredible beauty. We shared an experience. An experience made more real, more tangible by the bareness of it all.
Travel, by necessity, is full of risk. We are thrown curveballs and decisions are made on the spot; often purely by gut instinct. Sometimes a painful lesson is learned: we’re left fighting back tears and a sickening knee-jerk reaction to pack up and go home. But other times…Other times those risks become the moments that define the journey, moments that bring different tears, moments we never forget. But how do we know? That’s the risk. And good or bad outcome what matters is that we take them. We remember the reason we left home in the first place. Then, and now, we take the risk of getting lost.
Arriving in the town of Uyuni after a 14 hour bus ride we emerge into a cold and quiet desert town. We stretch our tired bodies after being tightly coiled into hard seats crossing miles of rough, bumpy ground on a freezing bus. The road here is under (permanent?) “construction” and the giant transit buses have made their own paths nauseously off piste. It's 6am and we have hours to kill before the contingent of small tours head out across the flat lands to take in what southern Bolivia has to offer.
The town is asleep for the next few hours though the sun is already high in the sky; casting it's dry white light down on wide straight streets lined with low buildings. We find a simple cafe and eat eggs and ham, juice and café con leche and freshen up in the tiny bathroom. We came here on a word of mouth. All we know is we need a tour and the way to book one is in person and by cash. It's impossible to go alone: unpredictable and dangerous weather, difficult navigability and zero cars for rent. Tours, three days and two nights each, are offered by fifty or so small companies set up in the town, all pretty much identical: travel with seven other tourists and one driver/cook in a Toyota 4x4. A cramped, bumpy ride with several stops along the way so the whole troop can lumber out to snap photos. Not ideal. But - we hear its not to be missed. Our guts urge us on.
We set out late to book our tour. The streets have come alive with wandering travellers and market vendors. We have a few names of companies but no addresses and no map of the town; and no luck. Soon everything is booked. Jeeps are leaving in an hour and by now people - some young and some very old (way to go Austria!) - are gathering in clusters of eight, squatting on their giant backpacks at the side of the dusty road. The hubbub is alive and as we push past market vendors, locals, and eager tourists, we panic.
Just like that they’re gone! The Toyotas disappear into the distance and their clouds of dust settle onto deserted streets. There are virtually no tourists left: Uyuni is not a town you hang out in. You come the night before to book your tour (who knew?), wake up early and get the hell out. And after a peek around the dead town, this was one touristy tradition we wanted to keep. So do we give up? Turn around? We run around like mad until we find a company willing to take us - solo and late to leave - as long as we pay the full price of the eight person tour. Should we move on? Save what little money we have and forget about this tourist trap? Or should we take the risk? Follow our guts that pull us into this mysterious desert…
And so we follow.
There is something to be said about paying a premium - thus far a foreign concept to us thrifty backpackers. Listening to your favourite song, loudly, while speeding across flat desert may well be worth any sum. Lounging in the back seat without any goombas squishing you in, feeling the space of it all, and being able to stop on a whim absolutely take the cake. Not five minutes in and we are both kneeling in the pale dust outside of the car aiming for the perfect shot of a herd of wild llamas. They wiggle their long, furry necks to peek at us then clomp awkwardly across the “road” to graze on strange, sparse, alien shrubs.
Words, and perhaps even pictures, cannot do justice to how spectacular the landscape is. How vast. We are standing, barefoot, in crystal clear and ankle-deep water that stretches around us as if we are giants in an ocean. Our ocean is a perfect mirror of the perfect sky so that we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. We stand on ice cream puff clouds and powder blue glass. A figure moves in the distance; methodically digging and piling, digging and piling. Alone save for several small pyramids of white around him. Soon the parts of our skin that got wet turn white too and we dig our toes deeper into the salt. The blueness of the sky lulls us into childlike daydream: if we were smaller in this sea of salt, would we float?
We soon discover the pleasure of driving through the salar, or more so being driven. We are stretched across the back seat, listening to good music, lazily watching our surroundings shift and moult every hour. We are alone - save for our guide Carlos, more llamas, and the sweet, doe-eyed vicuñas that wander the plains. Tracks criss-cross ahead of us but since we’re technically behind schedule, we don’t see a single Toyota 4x4.
The desert surprises with several small, surface lakes - each one more stunning than the next. One is white, one green, one red; their colours determined by the concentration of different minerals in their soils. In fact this land is so mineral rich (in lithium, boron, magnesium…) that mass mining is ominously close. But for now, only pink flamingos mine the waters, pecking away at the strange myriad coloured earths underwater. When they fly, framed by a roiling dark storm cloud in the distance, it takes our breath away.
The weather here is swift and capricious with winds that sweep hard, cold gusts across the openness. We realize that altitude is the cause of the great barrel noised thunderstorms down here - we’re so much closer to the source. This particular storm is strangely intense, but it never fully reaches us - the flat ground playing visual tricks with the distance. For a while we almost race the storm in our 4x4 - always staying just ahead as we move onwards to lakes and mountains more beautiful than the ones before.
The storm is gone and in the heat of the sun we climb strange rock formations the colour of cinnamon. The wind has whittled them into caricatures with long necks and big heads that we scramble onto and stand staring out over this odd forest of rocks. We are completely alone up here, and once again, childlike. We could be the first explorers to land on Mars.
On our third morning we wake at 5am to climb to 5,000 meters and catch the sun rising over great sulphuric geysers. Giant, bubbling, multi-coloured holes in the earth emit clouds of hot air - some spurts reaching 30 meters. The smell is thick and pungent but the image is so breathtaking that we soon forget. In minutes the whole landscape turns from moody purple and blue to warm red and gold and the figures of the tourists we’ve caught up with look like phantoms in the swirling mist. We can't put our cameras down.
Now we are slipping into the Dali Desert. It’s colourful dunes and mountains reminiscent of surrealist paintings, its rock formations defying gravity and melting like clocks. The Licancabur Volcano towers up in the near distance: perfectly symmetrical and peaked with snow. As we drive silently towards it - a window each to hang out of - we slip away. Into this beautiful, naked, expanse; our minds empty and eyes wide. We are losing ourselves in the desert. And how fortunate we are to have chosen to not go back; to have taken the risk.
To ultimately have found the perfect way of getting lost.
The basin of the Bolivian Amazon is a magical place. Just a 45 minute flight from cold and rainy La Paz and you're stepping off your small Bombardier CRJ-200 plane into humid jungle heat amongst swaying palm trees and green forest for miles. As you take a deep, clean breathe in, there's life in the dusk air.
Ten minutes away, the town is thrumming. The long, tree-lined roads are filled with motorcycles not cars (if you need a taxi get used to hugging a stranger). It's evening now and tropical music beats from open door bars where locals are dancing. In the square groups of children laugh and play despite the deep night sky that hangs clear above us. Teenagers practice a choreographed cultural dance in the streets, preparing for the big Rurre birthday festival. The scent is thick and floral and clean. No one wears much clothing. What you do wear clings sensually to your skin. Dogs are everywhere and seem to share the same lazy love for life as the locals. Outside a buzzing joint, several lope over to us for a pat as we sit at a little wood table for pizza. An Italian woman has moved here and set up shop selling real wood-fired, thin crust Italiano pizza to the locals who zip by on their bikes for take-away slices in little plastic bags. The pizza is delicious and cheap and the cerveza is ice cold and even cheaper.
In fact the food in Rurre (as the locals call it) is delicious - an anomaly in Bolivia, a country where the bread has the same appeal as a paper towel. For years expats have visited, fallen in love, and stayed. Lucky for all, some have brought their countries' cooking here too. In the morning locals swing by a French patisserie that churns out some of the best pain chocolat, quiche, and bechamel croissants I've ever tasted. The girls who work there are hired from the town and serve up fresh pressed oj and REAL - not instant - coffee. Surprise surprise, our breakfast is dirt cheap. And dinner. For $7 each, A Swiss-German couple will cook you two courses - peanut soup and chicken Milanese for example - buy you a bottle of wine from down the street and serve you homemade bread with fresh olives and, here's the real treat, good cheese. Queso in Bolivia is horrid. If bread here is like paper, cheese here is like a school eraser. Flavourless, chewy and overly salted in order to keep in the hot climate. These expat saviours do business by importing delicious and varied cheeses into this tiny jungle town thus keeping the other expats happy. We ate here three times in the three days we spent in town.
We were so satisfied by the food and the heat that we didn't seem to notice the swarm of mosquitos following us around in clouds. Or be bothered by the real clouds that brought monsoon like rainstorms. Storms that would last on average 10 hours, non-stop, and force the town to shut off the water to avoid tank contamination. Storms that would wake you from deep happy sleeps with the ferocity of their thunder. One night we sat at the edge of our beds watching our long gauze curtains suck in and out of our open air room. We laughed at the feeling of rain on our hot skin as sheets of it blew past, flooding half the floor. When it rains in Rurre it rains. Our very last night we witnessed a rain storm that lasted from 11pm until 3pm the next day. Until 3pm no toilets or showers and no flights, including ours. We ate well that day.
But food is not the reason travelers flock to this town. The jungle is. Thanks to an Israeli traveler who, in 1981, tried to reach Rurre with two friends and no guides. The expedition inevitably got lost, split three ways and while Yuri Ginsberg made it to his destination, the other two were never found. After he released a book about his adventure, Israeli tourists flocked to the area. Remnants of the boom can be found in old Hebrew signage EVERYWHERE and Bolivian guides who still speak better Hebrew than English (though attempts at Yiddish are not understood).
Protected as Madidi National Park, a guide/tour is required to visit and the experience is divided into two options: pampas or jungle. Animal lovers choose the pampas; flat plains and narrower, shallow rivers; perfect to spot parrots, monkeys, alligators and capybaras. Bring your camera. Bring your wellies. And for God's sake bring your bug spray. One could easily differentiate between tourists who had yet to go on a tour and tourists who'd just come back; the latter were literally splattered with angry red bites - head to toe.
We chose the jungle. We wanted to sleep under the trees like the Mowglis of our childhood imaginations and maybe swing on a giant vine or two. We found an option to stay with a local guide, Nilo, and his parents. Because of the limited accommodation - just three guest beds - it was bound to be a private experience and also one without itinerary; open to us to chose our way.
Setting off on the Bolivian Titanic, a leaking long flat canoe with an outboard motor, we cruise the opaque brown Beni River under a blue sky lined by green. The most beautiful green: everywhere. We sleep in a large raised tent under ruffled pink mosquito nets. We meet Nilo's, father, Manuel, who shows us how to cut rice, wash it, and dry it on large tarps in the sun. He pulls fruit from the many different trees and we sample these sweet fleshes, strange to our palettes. Nilo guides us on long treks through the thick, overgrown jungle; slashing at vines and fallen trees in our path with his machete. We climb high to a look-out that towers over the great expanse of Madidi. Green, green, green for miles interrupted only by the serpentine, brown Beni.
The diversity of plants on our trek is spectacular. Many of them are medicinal including giant ayuruasca vines and plentiful coca leaves (the type used for cocaine and munched on for a high). One massive tree is hollow as a drum and full of water. We scurry to catch a glimpse of the tiny, red squirrel monkeys that swing from the branches high above us. We are startled by the wild jungle chickens that cluck and screech at us from the brush. We are very startled by the baby anaconda we see at dusk; as long as an arm span and oily black with a white tipped tail. If baby is on the path, mama lurks in the bush.
The insects are horrifying. Kamikaze mosquitos, red fire ants once used for torture, tarantulas tucked into conical webs, and the "vente-quatro": an inch long ant with massive pincers. One bite and you are in for 24 hours of extreme pain and fever. They were everywhere. Miguel is bitten one day in the rice field and suffers through it until medicine can be administered. Our skin is peppered with mosquito welts. There is no relief: they even get us at night through the nets over our beds. When we head to an interior stream to fish, misguidedly sporting flip-flops, our feet are attacked by the burning stings of fire ants that swarm over the sticky mud.
But the fishing trip is a success. We catch three small ones using only worms and a fishing line attached with a hook on one end and a cardboard handle on the other. We want to catch and release. But in the jungle everything has its purpose and Nilo severs their spines, wraps them in big leaves and takes them to Miguel who will use the fish as bait to catch his dinner out of the Beni. Everything gets used; out here there is an inherent respect for flora and fauna. Washed up by the stream, Nilo finds a stone axe head. An ancient relic from the original jungle civilizations and no doubt very valuable. This is the fourth piece he's found in his lifetime and a spectacular blessing for him. He silently thanks Pwchumama, the Bolivian Mother Nature and giver of gifts, and makes a note to give back to her in some way tonight.
We trek through the jungle to find a waterfall. It's opaque brown and smells like cow dung from the farms far upstream but we swim anyway and try not to get any water in our mouths. It's cool and refreshing and the black stone is worn smooth like a carving. We lay down to dry on the sun drenched rocks and stare up at the green leaves dancing in the ample breeze. We close our eyes and try to decipher the beautiful birdsong around us. If you forget about it, you can't smell the shit.
The shit is it. The bugs are it. This is it. The jungle. And it's fan-fucking-tastic.
SIDE NOTE: Jorge
We spent three nights in the jungle. A welcome break from the boozy nights of Rurrenabaque - until we share a tent with a fifty-year-old Argentinian named Jorge. Jorge has come to photograph animals; mainly birds. He shows us his pictures with the kind of perverse obsession of a pornographer, zooming in on shots of the mating monkeys he managed to capture. He wakes us, child-like, at five in the morning to join him in pushing the ancient sugar cane grinder. We decline and try to go back to sleep amongst the cement truck squeals of the grinder outside our tent and the hoots and hollers of sweaty Jorge. On his last night he insists on getting beer and rum from town and we make a pitcher of mojito: a whole bottle of rum, a cup of sugar, mint, and limes - sin soda. He sets up his camera so that he can surprise us with flash pictures, mid-convo, using his handy remote. The pure mojitos prove too much for Jorge as only a few drinks and several photos in he throws up on himself and passes out at the table. Soon he wakes up again for another round of spew, this time under the table we sit at. It's Jorge's bed time and tiny Nilo, who only reaches Ol' Jorge's knee, carries him to the tent. In the morning, Jorge, without shame or regret, wakes us early before he leaves, crawling under our mosquito nets for a goodbye kiss. Later when we rise, the chickens have erased any trace of him from the dirt ground and the last we hear of old mate is from Nilo: he puked again in Rurrenabaque and departed for La Paz (a painfully high altitude) with a splitting headache. Jorge: as much as you grossed us out, we hope you made it home.
Why do we travel if we don't want an experience? To touch, to see, to taste, to smell. If all we want is a brief peek from a tour bus and a recited spiel from Buddy the Guide then why not just stay home, save your money, and cruise YouTube? If you're going to do it; book off work, get your typhoid shot, board a plane, max your credit card, and potentially get diarrhea - then we say DO it. Get in it. Have YOUR experience. Not half of one and not someone else's. This is our challenge and pursuit.
Lake Titicaca connects Peru and Bolivia at a breathless height, is the largest lake in South America by volume and considered the highest navigable lake in the world. It is home to the Uru indigenous people who continue to operate communities on its islands and thus attract a TON of tourists. Every five minutes, tour boats of 10-20 leave the starting town of Puno and head out on hurried courses, desperate to fit in all the sites the massive lake has to offer.
We set out on one such boat, munching coca leaves to cure our splitting headaches and stubbornly manning the cold while perched on the roof deck. Blue water stretches out under bluer sky. We are going to Uros, the floating islands. 86 small islands each with a family of 10-15. Man-made entirely of reeds: the buoyant roots tethered tightly together, and the stalks layered two feet high to form a sturdy(ish) ground. The houses are also made of reeds, in fact almost everything is including the hand-crafts sold to camera snapping tourists on drive-by visits.
Our guide for hire who came with the boat invites his "friends/amigos" off the boat for "no more than ten minutes, ok?" and we line up in a row to jump from boat onto spongy ground. Women sit around in traditional dress and we get a Cole's Notes of the local culture by the "Chief". Someone buys a pan flute. Everyone takes pictures. Chief offers a ride - literally 15 metres over to the next island - on a traditional and beautiful reed boat for 10 bucks. It's paddled by young girls one way and motored back sans tourists. When we are two of only four to decline, he offers us a secret discount. We still decline. We have a better idea for how to support the local tourism.
On the neighbouring island the tour stops again, this time for eight minutes, and re-boards the boat to presumably do the same thing a few more times before returning to Puno. We have decided to stay the night. We've never been on an island made only of reeds before and 18 minutes is not enough for us to get our fill. We arrange with the head of the local family to stay in a small reed hut on a simple straw mattress piled high with heavy alpaca wool blankets. The other tourists look at us like doomed members of the Titanic who didn't make the life boat as they sail away. We smile and wave.
This is it. It's fucking freezing and our heads are pounding but the view is unreal. The brilliant sun is setting over 85 islands adorned with colourful straw huts, the lake shimmers, and when we climb a small wooden mirador we turn around to see an ocean of reeds. They stretch for miles, seemingly as far as the big mountains in the distance, and playing tricks on our eyes, they look like the most pristine plain of summer grass we've ever seen. Suddenly we're lost, not on a lake but in the middle of a far off field. It's so quiet that the singular bird in the distance can be heard singing as if he flies overhead. Perhaps it's the headache or the strength of the sun but just a moment with this view and we wipe tears from our eyes.
We understand that the traditional costumes are just for show. Underneath the long skirts the girls wear jeans and they chat happily in Spanish, not the ancient Quechua put on for the tourists. They are probably all from Puno. But we are happy. These are Peruvians and we are here to see Peru. As we sit down in plastic deck chairs to sip hot coca tea and eat delicious fried trucha and trucha ceviche caught that day, we are joined by Miguel, an exuberant eight year old who wants to have dinner with us and show us his magic tricks. He pulls up a deck chair and helps squeeze lime on our salads. After, we kick the football then sit silently (really difficult for Miguel) by the edge of the water and stare up at the endless constellations. Perhaps if we stretched our arms long enough we could just graze the Southern Cross with our fingertips. Puno glitters in the distance like a Greek island. We're floating on a tiny pile of reeds in the middle of a giant lake and we can't get enough.
That night a huge thunder storm rolls in and as we lie in bed listening to the deafening roar we swear we can feel the ground swaying beneath us. If this had been an "ancient" island experience we would surely be soaked underneath a roof made of straw. Thank goodness for plastic tarp.
Miguel joins us for an egg and rice breakfast and his little sister timidly climbs onto a chair, absentmindely spilling her warm milk. When we ask to take the row boat out Miguel jumps in too. He's a master sailor and mans a huge paddle, instructing us how to row and calling out corrections as he steers us around.
Soon the parade of tour boats begin to arrive and some excited teen Kiwis exclaim that you can get your passport stamped with UROS for one peso! Some of them don't have time as the boat is pulling away; a thousand more sites to see in just three hours. Before heading back to land with one of the boats, we bid farewell to Miguel. He kisses us on the cheek and runs off to help his dad fish for more trucha. This little boy gave us a truly unique experience. Maybe he wasn't able to tell us the history of Lake Titicaca and maybe his row boat couldn't sail us more than four islands far but to us we had found a true "friend/amigo" and the best guide for miles.
Choose your guides. Choose your itineraries. Choose your experience.
Post Island adventure and before catching our bus and crossing the strange deserted border (a no man's land between Peru and Bolivia, then a lake crossing where the bus travelled by barge!) we stopped briefly in the little town of Puno. A town in construction, from what we saw. Cold, incredibly sunny, with dust settling in empty cobblestone and dirt streets. Large boulevards open up into the bright light and are filled with market vendors selling everything you can think of: fruit, seeds, ropes, and ties. We stopped for some more ceviche and played with some children running around the side streets.
And then we were off.
Arequipa is a beautiful city, the second largest in Peru and, due to its colonial architecture and proximity to nearby Colca Canyon, a major tourist destination. For us, however, Arequipa was simply a waypoint; a stop on the road towards Bolivia that broke up 16 hours on a bus. But by choosing to skip the packed tours to the canyon and by seeking out local eateries instead of the kitschy gringo joints outside our hostel - we turned our quick waypoint into a full experience.
In the middle of the city lies the Santa Catalina Monastery; a 20,000 square-meter convent opened in 1579 that continues to function. After several earthquakes destructed its facade a reconstruction in the 1990s left a stunning architectural site and art museum open for the public to wander. We took a good four hours. The bones alone are gorgeous enough; high vaulted ceilings made of silar, a white volcanic stone that defines Arequipan architecture, and cobblestone pathways that wind and twist through the tiny cells that housed hundreds of nuns many, many years ago.
We walk along the outdoor paths running our hands over azul blue and adobe red facades and look up to see colourful religious scenes depicted across the ceilings of the covered terraces. One passage leads us to a collection of small rooms with checkered wooden screens built into the stone walls where nuns could communicate with the outside world and trade items through a sort of rotating wooden Lazy Susan. The small shaded chambers lit only by simple skylights are heavily evocative and as music plays around us - Renaissance polyphonic choral - shivers run over our skin.
Each nun's cell is simply furnished and would fit easily into a modern day decor magazine: a low wooden bed with colourful woven blankets, an antique wooden chair, a dusty altar celebrating a pretty, painted Madonna. Some cells access private outdoor gardens or stone kitchens. The nuns were famous for their baked goods and sold them to civilians to profit the convent.
In one room, intricately carved wood, bed-like coffins sit under eerie portraits of deceased nuns, eyes closed, painted just before interment. In another room, an immense kitchen and pantry with huge scales and an old flour mill. A small schoolroom demonstrates where young girls in need could come for lessons in Spanish, Maths, Music, and Religion. Giant terracotta pots broken into halves are lined up on their sides in one square: once an al fresco laundry. A small museum displays the different art created in the convent including embroidered clerical robes that took six months a piece, and life size dolls depicting biblical scenes. Everything is preserved and laid out with few restrictions so that visitors can wander alone through each area. As if wandering back through time.
Arequipa is famous for its spicy food and its unique and traditional picanterias are the places to go to find it. Picanterias are large eateries filled with communal tables covered in plates piled with delicious food and pitchers of chicha; a fermented corn drink. They got their start in rural communities when old abuelas opened their homes to hungry travellers and grew into the local staples they are today. We ventured far from the city centre to La Capitana, a hidden away piquanteria we could only find by repeatedly asking the neighbourhood locals. The atmosphere was full and friendly and a man played latin guitar in the corner. We ate the plata Americano - basically everything on offer that day crammed onto one plate: locro stew, ocopo, rocoto rellenos, and chupe de camarones. We left happy and ready to burst.
Arequipa is rich in culture and history thanks to its early Spanish roots dating back to 1540. Tucked into pretty stone courtyards are dusty antique shops full of old religious relics, juke boxes with Sam Cooke and Patsy Cline, and yellowed home photographs from the 1950s stuffed into overflowing apple boxes along with dated postcards of photoshopped llamas on mountaintops. If Peruvian hipsters exist this might be their Mecca.
The best place to spend one's money is behind San Fransisco Cathedral. The otherwise unremarkable church shadows a small stone courtyard that houses a handful of local artisans. The majority of "hand crafted" goods in South America are definitely factory made and most likely not of the "genuine" material advertised. A popular favourite among the Argentinian tourists are colourful striped pants while the Americans unfortunately have a penchant for the ear-flap beanies; articles we soon use to distinguish between nationalities. So far we've been unimpressed and kept our wallets closed. But in this square everything is good. Hand-made, well priced, and certified. An old man sits by his loom weaving giant wool blankets in oranges, pinks, and reds and sells soft cable knit sweaters of baby alpaca. We return three times to a jeweller selling precious stones, simply hewn and set into gorgeous silver from nearby mines. Turquoise, lapis lazuli, and opal for a fraction of the price back home. And after the big shop? Queso helado (the creamiest of ice creams) and fresh alfajores (shortbread with dulce de leche).
So how did we make the most of a simple waypoint? We sought out food away from the centre of town - the more people crammed in the better. We walked everywhere - you never know what charming neighbourhoods or hidden squares you might find if eyes are kept open. And if we learned anything from Latinos, we learned to take our time. Even a rushed trip through a city can carry weight if you pause to use your senses; smell the spices, feel the stone, strain to hear the drifting notes of faraway music. Stop moving. Stand still. Forget schedules. Pretend you have all the time in the world.
Faced with the option of sleeping on our bags beside three men sleeping on cardboard in the corner of the dingy Arequipa bus terminal, or getting a cheap hotel - we chose cheap hotel. On our night out of the city we missed our bus - or rather for the first time ever in Peru; the bus was sold out.
It's midnight. We tell the the cab driver we just need a quickie hotel, a bed to sleep in until the next bus at 6am. Perhaps quickie was the wrong word. He tells us he knows just the place and whisks us away while persistently inquiring if we would like to accompany him for a cerveza. No. He drops us off beside the highway outside a dark building lit only by the absinthe green sign flickering "hotel" into the night. Cerveza? Pisco? No? Ok. One more thing. Make sure tell girl you need only until 5am. Important.
The girl is adamant: 5 am on the dot. One minute after and we get charged full day rate. Shit. We're in a sex hotel. Our room has a big window with a view of the hallway. Another smaller one opens into a type of outdoor air shaft we share with 15 other rooms. Can't wait. Someone has used the bed blanket to put out a pack of cigarettes, left his toothbrush in the shower, and forgot his hair on the pillow. It's smells like wet concrete and immitation Febreeze. But we are exhausted and at least the toilet has a seat. Mercifully there is no noise. We've slept on a bench, we sure as hell can sleep on top of a sheet.
We wake at 4am to the official sex hotel soundtrack above us and struggle to fall back asleep. It's pretty gross and we mumble an agreement: never again. Heeding the receptionist's warning we make it downstairs just before 5 and hail a cab next to the woman from upstairs. Good thing she made check-out.
Bleary eyed and surprisingly hungry we scarf down a quick egg and palta on toast at the terminal then sit outside watching the sun come up and waiting for our bus to board. Though we'd absolutely never go back to the green sex hotel, or any rent-by-the-hour for that matter, we cannot regret the night; for we've stayed true to our goal. On the dirty roads you sleep where the locals sleep and always try anything once.
The term "clanning" describes individuals seeking the belonging of a group that shares common causes, feelings and ideals. When a traveller finds herself in a foreign country she seeks many things; adventure, new flavours, beautiful sights, long walks, live music and often, like-minded people. Though we travel to get away from the known and discover the new - duck-and-covering when we hear our native dialect and happily finding photo opportunities in the ways that the local corner store differs from the one at home - and though we can be most content wandering an empty shore lost in solitude - we are only human. Eventually we find our way to friends.
Jihuay is a small, self-sufficient farm hidden away from the rest of the world. It lies on the Panamericana Sur highway on the southern coast of Peru, a 30 minute walk down from the Santa Rosa De Atiquipa village. An isolated beach surrounded by desert cliffs pulled from Planet of the Apes - alien in their rocky form and burnt hue.
A Peruvian man, Álvaro, and his partner Jamie, live here year round and sleep blissfully each night in a tent under the stars. They have chickens, ducks, goats, guinea pigs, rabbits, two cats, three dogs, and occasionally a stray corgie mutt (named Cabezón or Big Head for his disproportion) who, on every day but Sunday (Chicken Dinner Night back home) sticks around to sadly attempt moves on the girl dogs. This is the wonderful company Álvaro and Jamie always keep. The volunteers, however, come and go - presumably as they find what they come looking for.
This is a work-away farm. Volunteers work half days in exchange for room and board and, as we discovered by the end of our stay, a truly meaningful experience. Everyone rises at seven with the sun and sound of the waves and meets for a delicious breakfast at the large wooden outdoor table that became the centre of our days. Cafe con leche, hot oatmeal sprinkled liberally with azucar, vanilla, chia seeds, and sliced banana or scooped granadilla, soft linseed buns with butter and strawberry jam, and fresh black olives picked from the farm. Next we feed the animals; alfalfa is cut, grain divvied up and goats brought to pasture. Work is so light its pleasurable.
The sun is hot and the sky's bright azul almost always untouched by cloud. A quick morning tea in the shade is welcome and we help chop food in preparation for lunch. In fact, most of our time and conversation at Jihuay is spent on the next meal. We couldn't get enough; home-cooked, garden fresh vegetables are impossible to find in most of South America and we ate hungrily in huge portions. Beet and onion salad with queso and lime juice, stews and curries made of peanuts or lentils or squash served over hot rice. And after lunch a fantastic Latin tradition; siesta. Hours are spent swaying in the hammock with a book, laying on the soft beach, or simply sleeping in the breeze.
One might varnish wood, water trees, change a rabbit pen, or carefully dig up sweet potato - though everything at a leisurely pace allowing for the enjoyment of the senses. On days when we could successfully pull ourselves out of the comfort of doing nothing in particular, we might hike around the cliffs in search of penguins and sea lions or rock pools filled with strange crustaceans and molluscs. Sometimes we had to gingerly pick our way over human bones, once pillaged by grave robbers and left in piles to bleach under the sun. The femurs in particular became frequent and unfortunate toys for the Neapolitan Mastiff puppy. The Humboldt Current travels up from Antartica and brings with it some very cold water and crashing waves, however, the beach is perfectly smooth and the sun is strong so quick dips are attempted by the brave. As the sun sets over the water the animals cry out for more food and after feeding is done the group comes together for tea, coffee and a cigarette. Music comes on; songs from all over the world left behind by travellers from all over the world. We watch the sun disappear and chat, maybe hang out long enough to play cards and chop some more food for dinner, followed by a third and final tea before we head off for an early night, peering up at the brilliant stars cut into the black fabric of the sky, inhaling deeply, and wondering if we can stay forever.
We have all come here for a vacation from our vacations. A chance to leave our suitcases unpacked for a while, to do nothing, to be quiet. One volunteer has come back a second year round this time with her paints and easel, intent on teaching herself a new craft. At Jihuay you are free. You do exactly as you wish and nothing more. There is no pressure to perform or get things done. We entered a sort of twilight zone where time bent. There is no wifi, no news from the outside world. Days seem slow and easy but pass in a flash. We couldn't remember what we'd done just yesterday...surely not much. In fact our energy seemed to be spent on each other. The frequent coming together of a group of eight or so strangers to work or eat was an activity we craved. We had found a clan. A clan united by the desire to touch nature, to eat fresh vegetables, to breathe in silence, to reflect, to share stories. A cleanse. Both physically (as some poor souls get the Jihuay Bug: a two pronged attack on both ends) and spiritually as the stunning landscape demanded.
It can't be known if each volunteer came here to purge shared demons or find answers to shared questions, however we all had something in common. Each one had a need for touch. It's silly, we spend so much of travel using only our eyes. We peer out tour bus windows, we wander museums and stare, we squint through camera lenses to take a visual memories. We don't touch. Or not as much as the body wants. At Jihuay we used our hands like eyes. We touched green plants, warm sand, rough bark. We felt animals coats and scratched behind their ears. Our nails were constantly full of earth from plucking tomatoes and wrenching weeds. We thumbed the soft pages of well worn books. We painted. Each of us hungered for the tactile joy of cooking; we squeezed limes for mojitos, we kneaded pillowy dough for pizzas and fresh buns, we stirred chocolate over flames to make moist beetroot cake, we barbecued chicken and fish over a hot grill. Even the washing of dishes became a simple pleasure.
Jihuay is surely a form of paradise and yet we watched as each volunteer before us eventually said goodbye. Perhaps they had found what they were looking for. Perhaps they were once again filled up. The cleanse complete. The questions answered or at least quietened. We stayed ten days. Near the end we became restless. Our minds wandered to distant lands. We had found a clan of travellers, shared food and stories and co-existed in this tranquil place. It was magical and we felt the seductive pull to stay another ten days...20? 60? To stay. To clan. But stronger still was the traveller within each of us. She pushed us, as she always will, back to the road. She said pack your bags, you're done here. There is more to be seen, to be known, to be touched.
Daytrip: Chala Pop: 3,864 Alt: 500m
Chala is a nearby town full of both drunk miners looking for more cerveza and plump vacationers looking for ceviche and sea air. The locals arrive either by colectivo (a shared van of 12), mega bus transit (also the only way to send packages and mail) and hitchhiking. Giant transport trucks cross the Panamericana Sur every two minutes moving goods down from Lima to Arequipa. If the driver has an empty front seat he will most likely pick you up in exchange for a couple soles. Ten feet above the ground, we cruise slowly down the arid coast with the Pacific crashing at the bottom of a cliff that drops sharply off on our right. We pass giant rocks spray painted into billboard advertising, campaign posters and graffiti. We pass "La Mina Caliente" one of two brothels on the outskirts of town. Our driver asks if that's our stop - are we going to work? Laughter makes us hungry and at the local street mercado we fill up on scallop potatoes with cheese, and a fried pork belly called chicharron. A Liman couple sunning on the porch of their vacation house invite us to go get ceviche by the water. They are animated and love this town. She wears aqua blue contacts larger than her irises and he threads his brows, a lot. We sit in the sea breeze listening to stories from our new friends and try the local ceviche mixto; super spicy citrus marinated fish, calamari, sea urchin, and shrimp. Though we're still full from the market we can't get enough and even drink the "leche de tigre" left at the bottom. The cool ocean looks inviting however a glance down the beach reveals a flow of town sewage entering the water. We decide to bear the heat. Pelicans perch by the docks waiting for the fisherman to come in with the daily catch. We are ready to catch another trucker; fit to burst and looking forward to the peace and quiet of Jihuay. As we climb into the cab of a man with a half-smiley knife scar on his face we can't help but wonder what's for dinner back at the farm.
We're on the road again!! Peru...Bolivia...Argentina...Chile...Check back for new posts soon!
Arriving in Nasca was like stepping directly into summer as if off a plane landing in Miami from a cold and snowy land. The heat! The blue skies! The energy! Nasca, a small city slapped down in the middle of the desert, famous for its proximity to a series of ancient geoglyphs - called “Lines” - that span 37 miles long and 1-mile wide across a wasteland of sand. Nasca’s bones are pastel and dirt and all under construction.
Away from the compact Gringo strip is where the real flavour lies. Latin music spills from the shops and vendors scoop sticky fruit juice over hand-crushed ice. Palm trees and kitschy Christmas lights fill the main square. The women dress in hot pants and tiger print bra straps and the men whistle their approval often. The sun is so hot that during its strongest hours the locals retreat indoors and the city takes on a sleepy lackadaisical feel.
As soon as the sun sets at seven everything changes; the streets come alive with people heading home or out to eat. Vendors fill the sidewalks with ingredients to bring back for dinner: whole chickens, fresh buns, churros. Everyone seems to be out at once, including the children, to be social and enjoy the buzzing warm night air.
For us, Nasca was an oasis. We lounged under palms in our “Hostal Latino” shaded garden, drank fresh jugo de piña y naranja, and roamed the dusty streets with ice creams, deliriously happy to be fed and warm again. At night we’d have our second dinner at 11:30pm from one of the fried chicken and french fry carts lining a nearby street.
It’s funny: apart from the famous “Lines”, Nasca is not necessarily a desirable travel destination, yet the two of us look back so fondly on our time there. Sometimes an otherwise unspectacular place is made special, is so fully enjoyed, because it simply happens to be just what you need at just the right moment.
It’s a scary thing to touch your human limit. It’s terrifying to push past it. When we travel “off the road” we inevitably test our limits in different ways; comfort, safety, hygiene, and on one foolhardy trek to Choquequirao ruins; stamina. Deciding to hoof it 66km with 15kg backpacks and no guide or mule was both brave and incredibly stupid, not to mention attempting a five day journey in just four: something we would quickly come to regret.
Considered a harder trek than both the Inca and Salcantay, Choquequirao, a beautiful crude stone Incan ruin, lies atop a 3,100m tall mountain in the Apurimac valley. The terrain is very rough with either loose stone or thick mud forming 45-degree-plus trails that zig-zag like intestines up and down the sheer faces of the mountains. There are bugs. There is burning sun. There are freezing nights. There is rain…and more rain. And there are landslides of falling rocks. Exhibit a; one local making the climb in a construction worker’s hard-hat.
Had we not been gifted early-on a pair of makeshift bamboo walking sticks from a young Californian woman returning with her guide, we may not have made it. In fact the kindness of strangers is the most shining memory we keep. Meeting a group of locals on their way home we were invited to share some hot maíz kernals and queso on the side of a patch of murderously steep trail. On our last day, once again climbing, and this time under a sun so bright we covered our arms in mud when our sunscreen failed, with only a half litre of water and a few crackers left, we met a delightful visiting family who, in exchange for our ridiculous story loaded us with their own water and two chocolate bars. Or The German, Klaus, a full-time traveller, who, despite the freezing rain and fog, inspired us with a custom tour of the ruins. Our fairy godmothers, all of them.
No spin class, boot camp, or marathon could compare to the shit-kicking we received going up that hill. We both entertained legitimate fantasies of simply letting our bodies teeter off the side of the mountain if only to end the climb. Trades were attempted with the powers that be; our first borns for a lighter pack. Perhaps our packs would have been lighter had we not brought nine avocados and two, yes two, bottles of red wine. Desperate to lose the goddam weight from our load, we chugged that grape juice like it was going out of style and offered it to anyone who passed by. Though our bodies failing us was not fun, this paled in comparison to the breaking of our stamina. Day 3, we crawled the last hundred metres and collapsed, one bursting into uncontrollable laughter, when nothing was funny, the other into tears, when nothing was sad; our bodies like two used tires by the side of a highway. But dinner that night – fried egg on rice with tomatoes in lime juice – with a farmer and his family in a dirt floored hut, tasted like a Michelin star meal.
As much as we hurt, as miserable as we could become at times, if we took those small moments to appreciate the present, we found meaning in the trek – mistakes and all. We walked up those hills so focused, with our noses to the steep incline of dirt and would suddenly remember to stop and look out at the incredible landscape of snow-capped mountains that expanded around us. Even if we only spent 30 minutes at the ruins we took three days to reach, those 30 minutes were gorgeous; walking alone as if discovering the place ourselves. Though this trek broke us and wrecked us for days after, we found comfort in the knowledge that we had accomplished something, had pushed ourselves past a limit, even if an embarrassing amount of chocolate was required. What counts in the end, what is important to the human spirit, is that we endured.
We think we've made a mistake. We're at the top of a mountain at 9:30pm on New Year's day and need a taxi to get to the small town below. Taxis there are none, though there are plenty of stray dogs circling us and barking like the hounds of hell. But the view is gorgeous; a bright moon illuminating huge mountain peaks and a mist covered valley, and a - what? 45 minute trek? - is nothing. So we walk. Down a snake-like dirt road in a thick fog past ever more blood-thirsty curs that guard small shanty houses sporadically dotting the otherwise deserted path. Oh, and we're carrying all of our belongings in two 15 kg back packs and a rolling suitcase. Well, it was a rolling suitcase. We shouldn't have travelled on New Year's day. We shouldn't have taken the late bus. We shouldn't have brought a rolling suitcase. This is definitely not a 45 minute trek. Our only comfort as we soldier down this Trail of Death is a pair of head-lamps, a skinny branch-cum-weapon, and the telling of the longest jokes we can muster. We are terrified. Our cell phone has died and with it the only map directing us into town. We suddenly regret declining those pricey rabies shots. Soon we are exhausted. We tell ourselves, "don't worry, we'll laugh about this tomorrow" and "think of how nice a warm bed will be in just a few hours."
At 3:30 am, a whole 6 hours and 17 km later we trudge into "town": just three dirt streets. And wouldn't you know it! A pack of growling strays awaits. Nothing is open so we drag the cow-pie-clogged suitcase through broken bottles and dog shit, find a bench by the park at the end of the "street", put on all our layers, tie our bags together and settle down to sleep 'til dawn. This has been the worst night of our lives and right now, we feel beaten and hung up to dry by the dirty road.
In the morning we fix ourselves breakfast on our bench and anxiously wait for something to open. Strange local men, still drunk from festivities the night before approach us. They're harmless and one wearing a bucket hat, we call Pumpkin (he has few teeth and a round face), helps us find a hostal. A rock hard mattress has never felt so good and after an 8 hour sleep we wake, pick up our chins and go out to explore Cachora.
What a lovely surprise. The town is beautifully full of character. Cows, pigs, chickens, and guinea pigs rome. Children play in the street, grinning and covered in dirt. Each person who passes smiles and greets us "buenas tardes". One woman, Matilda, clasps our hands and calls us the "amores de mi vida". And behind the town a gorgeous panorama of mountains beckons. We spend the rest of the day wandering the streets and getting a hot meal of arroz, huevo, and papas fritas before heading to bed for the start of our real hike the next day. We are rested, we are laughing at ourselves, we are back on top of the dirty road.
This is not a resort. No one is here to provide you with luxuries, much less necessities. The streets are not being tidied for you. There is no careful curation of what one sees; the ugly bits hidden away or avoided entirely. This is very real and very unapologetic. The tiny taxi - an entrepreneur with a car and some stickers - drives us to our hospedaje past even tinier Andean women and their small children setting up daily wares in slop-filled rail-way tracks as stray dogs munch casually on piles of trash. A man crosses dangerously in front of the fray of traffic with a whole cow carcass, larger than he, slung over his shoulders; a true back-packer. Cusco smells of meat and smoke and cobblestone dust. And just a tiny bit of shit. This is not a resort. This is the beginning of the dirty road.
It is easy to be discomforted by this alternative way of living. We both admit to the temptation. Why does our room have no windows? Why is "agua caliente" a euphemism for "cold as tits shower"? Why are so many children selling plastic figurines and toilet paper on the corners? But to judge is to be on the outside looking in. To experience fully is to really enjoy what travel has to offer. The scent of Cusco isn't a bad one - it's just different. The children are gorgeous; rosy cheeked from the high altitude sun and full of life. The women who watch them (or don't) are resplendent in long ruffled frocks, colourful printed shawls, two long braids tied together like a hoop behind their backs and topped with handsome fedoras (that no man should ever try to pull off). If you frown upon the piles of mismatched fruit on the corner you might miss the best fresh juice of your life. If you chose to visit one of the unfortunate gringo-magnet establishments - f$%k you Starbucks - you'll be missing out on something new and an opportunity to observe more sides of a different world. Who knew our favourite meal would be a simple breakfast each morning in San Pedro market? A smiling girl would prepare us a bun with huevo, palta, tomate, and a café con leche for the equivalent of $2. We'd sit on the little bench in front of her booth at a folding table snug next to a family of four and watch the market come alive for New Year's Eve. We could let the dirt floor bother us or we could accept it and keep our eyes up, ready to soak in whatever this city could throw our way.
And so we did. New Year's festivities are of massive importance to the locals of Cusco as well as the tourists from Peru and abroad who flock here to take part. If you adorn yourself in yellow you will prosper in 2015. If you wear yellow underwear you will be even more prosperous in 2015. And as two young Uruguayan men told us at 11:58 pm; if you kiss someone at midnight while wearing yellow you will be invincible in 2015. At 11pm the Plaza De Armas is a tulip field of yellow. Little children are still awake and setting off roman candles three times their height as adults shake bottles of cheap sparkling wine into the crowd. In anticipation of the great fireworks at midnight, the locals' homemade fire crackers go off at your feet adding to the excitement. Suddenly it's quite maybe possibly January 1st - the clock on your phone is the new ball drop - and different pockets of the square cheer at different moments. A split second later and the Spanish colonial stone around us is lit with a bang from above as stranger embraces stranger. Tradition insists the revellers must run counter clock-wise around the square en masse and after a lap as the crowd finally slows the "selfies" begin and with it a new game of "how many can I photo-bomb?" Someone has drawn glasses on a stray mutt. Everyone is beaming, no one speaks the same language, and no one cares. Tonight is the beginning of a very good year.
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
— John Steinbeck
We are just weeks away from our first journey. South America; a land of arid landscapes and towering mountains nestled in cloud forests, of salt flats and salty ceviche, where the feet take a satisfied beating from long roads and spirited dancing and the Spanish language thrums and rolls in the ears.
There is a sense of incomparable anxiousness before a trip. One is filled with excitement, of course, at the prospect of adventure, of mouth watering food and thrilling new sights. We count the days like advent calendars and quickly wipe away any daily upset with "well at least I'll be travelling soon". But there is also a fear - a quiet and unnamed one that hovers just below the childlike eagerness to depart. "Have I packed too much?" "Have I packed enough?" "Am I prepared?" And deeper still..."Am I about to get lost?" Yes. To a certain degree the embarking traveller is indeed about to get lost. There is no amount of planning that can truly prepare her for the unknown roads ahead. To see ones path and not know where it leads is adventure. To fully experience in the moment one must be open and vulnerable: unplanned.
The Swedish word "Resfeber" describes "The restless race of the traveller’s heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together; a ‘travel fever’ that can manifest as an illness." As human beings we biologically fear change, however, change is what keeps us going. There is a deep pleasure in standing on a threshold, our hearts palpitating between fear and the eagerness to jump off. As travellers we live for the "jumping off". This is why we plan trips that scare us, why we seek the new and unknown. At a certain point before a trip, the traveller's job simply becomes letting go of preparation and embracing the shortness of breath. Embrace the fever.
What is Dirty Roads?
We are two girls, dedicated to an elevated travel lifestyle. We trek the Earth with camera and pen in hand to document an experience. We believe in respecting the land and the indigenous cultures we encounter, tasting authentic and delicious handmade foods, challenging our world views, seeking incredible beauty, and above all going beyond our nerves. Travel is not travel without a dusty face.