andy coates south america diary


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Andy Coates is currently travelling around South America, here are his accounts as he goes...

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7th August - Quito, Ecuador

I´m in Quito!! The weather is glorious, the woman I´m staying with is delightful, I can see a volcano from the bottom of my street, and all in all, I´d rather be here than working.

I hope all those slaving away at Chungmoon are enjoying their PRE EFL classes! Will, please be good enough to pass on a very smug "HA!!" to everyone there.

14th August - Indigenous markets, lost waterfalls, and my first circumnavigation of a volcanic crater lake.


It´s Friday evening, and it´s a public holiday so many Quiteños have gone to the coast for the weekend. This is fortunate, because if they hadn´t, the heavy traffic my taxi stops and starts through en route to the bus terminal would be ten times worse. He drops me at what appears to be the arse-end of the terminal, in that it´s nowhere near the building itself. After asking a few people (Ecuadorians will answer a question even if they don´t know the answer, just to be helpful, which leads to a lot of misinformation) I find my way in and get sorted on a bus to Otavalo, which leaves conveniently, three minutes later. This is at 6.45. It is however past 7.45 before we leave the environs of the terminal, due to traffic, and the frequent and numerous roadside stops to pick up extra passengers. Indeed, so commited is the conductor to this goal, that he repeatedly gets out of the bus to cajole people. It seems a fruitless mission. I imagine the conversations being something like this:

-Do you want to go to Otavalo?
-No thanks, we´re going to Riobamba.
-Ooh, naaa, you don´t wanna go to Riobamba, you wanna go to Otavalo. C´mon, you know it makes sense...Otavalo, Eh? Eh?...........

When finally we do get onto the highway which runs up into the highlands we are rewarded with spectacular views of Quito, twinkling happily beneath us, and completely surrounded by a towering black wall of mountains and volcanoes. As the journey continues the bus passes along mountain roads flanked by sheer drops to one side. I am unable to decide whether this spectacle would be more, or less scary if it was actually light enough to see exactly how deep the plunging gorges are. At some dark, anonymous point, we cross the equator into the northern hemisphere, before descending into Otavalo. I am deposited at the edge of a dusty and deserted road, at about 9.30 pm. This is interesting, because of a conversation I´d had with the conductor before I boarded. I´d asked him if the bus actually went into the terminal at Otavalo. He responded, "Si si señor, terminal si si." Clearly however this is not the terminal. I ask a passer-by for directions, but realise as soon as I open my mouth, that whatever information he might give me is likely to be thrown into doubt by the enormous amounts of alcohol he has recently consumed. Unable to find anyone else, I set off in what I hope may prove to be the right direction. Fifteen minutes later, and after three or four more enquiries, I find myself at the Plaza de Poncho, where I had arranged to meet my friends, who had travelled up earlier in the day. I locate the cafe, order a beer, and all is well. The rest of the evening was spent in a bar with live Andean folk music. Panpipes aplenty.


Up early for the market. Every Saturday Otavalo is host to one of the largest indiginous markets in South America. My first concern though is the animal market. Actually, there are two. A small animal market and a large animal market. This leads to numerous confusing conversations about whether the small and large refer to the size of the animals, or the size of the markets. It transpires to be the animals. The small animal market is a single street crowded with Otavaleños selling mostly chickens, but also ducklings, cats, dogs, geese, and of course, guinea pigs. Indeed there are guinea pigs in baskets, guinea pigs in crates, guinea pigs in boxes, and even guinea pigs in bags. That´s a lot of lunch.

Next we call at the large animal market. Here one can purchase cows, pigs (many, many pigs) goats, sheep and even the odd llama. There is a pervasive smell of animal waste products, and after a few photos I decide to make my exit before something urinates on me.
After breakfast I head to the main market, which takes up much of the town. From the main square it extends in every direction down every street large and small. All manner of highland goods are available, ranging from the tourist orientated panpipes, ponchos and stuffed llamas, to more locally appealling fruits, vegetables and housewares. There is a friendly atmosphere, and the haggling I engage in when purchasing a shirt is good humoured and enjoyable. Having thoroughly explored every corner, and feeling the onset of a mild case of market lassitude, I repair to a nearby cantina, and use the time to catch up with the journal and enjoy a refreshing cerveza.

In the afternoon, we embark on an expedition to locate the Cascada de Peguche, a waterfall reputed to be somewhat of a spectacle. Directions are simple...follow the traintracks until you see the sign. We embark upon this task with enthusiasm, despite the scorching equatorial sun, and the sudden onset of a violent wind which repeatedly throws dust clouds all over us. We were assured that 45 minutes would find us at the waterfall. After an hour and a half, we begin to question the directions. We have followed the traintracks, and we have passed no signs. We decide to back track, and ask a local for assistance. Unfortunately, we are in the middle of nowhere, and in the nearest tiny settlement, for which I think even the term ´pueblo´ would be an overstatement, the only person we can locate is either high as a kite, or suffering from some kind of fever, since following my question he merely gazes at me, and mumbles something incomprehensible. Finally we obtain directions. Clear, concise directions. "2kms that way" we set off, and at the top of a very steep hill, decide that it would be wise to ask again. The gentleman points back the way we´ve just come. It´s now 5pm, and will be dark within the hour. We decide that we are destined not to find the cascada in question, so catch a bus back to Otavalo, attempting to convince ourselves that it would probably have been a disappointment anyway. Unfortunately back at the hostal I catch sight of a poster which casts this assertion into serious doubt. Oh well. It´s not the destination, it´s the journey.


Undaunted by our total failure to locate yesterday´s body of water, we set out for Laguna de Cuicocha, a lake some 18km from Otavalo. The journey there is in the back of a pick-up truck, a means of transport I always enjoy. It´s made all the more pleasing by the spectacular scenery. The twin peaks of the Imbabura and Cotacachi volcanoes rise majestically above the grasslands below. The latter is snow-capped, despite it´s equatorial location. Once dropped-off, we begin to walk the trail. I soon set off ahead of the others, due partly to the fact that they walk too slowly, and partly to the fact that I prefer walking in the wilder parts of the world to be a solitary experience. A short distance up the trail I catch my first glimpse of the lake. It is stunning. About 3km across, it´s a deep, dark body of water, resting within a volcanic crater on the flanks of Cotacachi itself. In its centre rise two islands of volcanic rock, proof that this volcano is still active in some small way. The rim of the crater is low (almost reaching the surface of the lake) on the near side, but rises up to over 3000 metres on the far side. The route will take us all the way around the crater, a complete circumnavigation. The terrain is beautiful, although steep and gruelling as it climbs to the highest point, around 3200 metres. As recompense I am rewarded with a glimpse of a wildcat as I approach the far side. The sun is fierce, both because of the proximity to the equator, and the altitude. In this respect, as well as in some of the scenery and vegetation I pass through, Laguna de Cuicocha is often reminiscent of the mid-section of Mt.Kenya. After reaching the zenith of the crater wall, the second half of the hike is mostly downhill, but hampered by a constant gale force wind which threatens to dislodge me from the narrow trail. Despite this inconvenience, about three and a half hours after setting out I complete the circuit, and with it my first circumnavigation of a volcanic crater lake. My companions join me some twenty minutes later.

Back in Otavalo we catch one of many overcrowded buses bound for Quito, and are thankfully spared the high volume Jean Claude Van Damme film which served as entertainment on the outward journey on Friday evening. Instead we are forced to suffer three hours of equally high volume reggaeton (sp?) music, which seems to be becoming alarmingly popular in these parts.
I reach home in time to be served a delicious dinner, before hitting the shower, and then bed. A most satisfying weekend.

Next Monday, I leave Quito for a month in the Amazon.

16th August - Quito

I know I know I know, I spend too much time in the internet cafe. The thing is, after my class finishes in the evening, dinner is over by 7.30, and then I can either sit in my room, looking out at the lights of Quito twinkling enticingly in the valley below, or I can come here, where they have great music, internet access, and beer!

Anyway, this morning and for the second time in my life, I stood on latitude zero. It was however very unlike the previous time. In kenya, the equator at Nanyuki is housed (if that's the right word for what you do with the equator) in a small shack, and a few woodcarvers hang around while the equator guy does the demo with the draining water. In Ecuador they've made a much bigger thing out of it. For a start there is a 30 metre high monument straddling the line. If that weren't enough there are cafes, restaurants, gift shops (didn't see any inflatable equators though) and a two dollar entrance fee. It was all a bit much. I got a passing middle-aged British couple to take my photo with the 'Equator-latitude zero' sign (tacky I know but I think it's excusable) after I'd waited for them to stop arguing about the thorny issue of whether Gareth's feet were equidistant across the hemispheres. He maintained that they were, but she wasn't convinced. After that, I saw no real reason to hang about.

So, onto other things. I've a few entirely insignificant things to say about life in Quito, and whether you want me too or not, I'm going to share them. Firstly, buses. Buses in Quito never actually stop for passengers to get on or off. By this I don't mean that they cruise around empty, because that would be ridiculous. I merely refer to the fact that they slow, but don't actually stop. This forces you to lunge for them as they pass, in the hope that the subsequent acceleration won't send you barreling back out again. Disembarking is equally fraught with peril, as you have to leap onto the (relatively) moving pavement, or more frequently into the path of oncoming traffic. God help you if you are recovering from knee surgery.

Next, the apparently endless bounty of fruit juice in my house. I've been there for nine days now. Guadaloupe, my landlady, serves fruit juice three times a day. So far, she's not given us the same one twice. I've drunk the juice of fruits I never knew existed.

On a similarly tropical note, the jungle. People here talk about the jungle in the same way that we talk about the Lake District, like it's just another part of the country, which of course it is. It's just very weird to hear something that to me is so totally exotic being referred to in such a blase manner.

Local wildlife. There is a creature, as yet unidentified, which begins calling late at night. It sounds like a policeman's whistle (and no, it ISN'T a policeman's whistle) and it is always replied too by another of it's kind some distance away.There is also the dog next door, which I want to kill. Why it finds two or three AM to be the perfect time for a half hour barking marathon I fail to fathom.

21 August

It's been another grand weekend, but before I get to what I actually did, a note on what I didn't do. I was planning to go to a place called Riobamba, from where begins a train journey down the side of a mountain, along a series of switchbacks called 'El Nariz del Diablo', 'The Devil's Nose'. It's made all the more interesting by the fact that you can ride on the roof of the train. However, life has a way of blowing well laid plans to pieces (an appropriate expression in this case) and so it was that the Tungurahua volcano, about 40km from Riobamba, decided to erupt last Wednesday, covering large parts of southern Ecuador in clouds of toxic dust and ash. Up until the last minute I was considering going anyway, but then on Friday it erupted again, and the road to Riobamba was closed. Not to be defeated however, I managed to locate another roof riding opportunity, more of that later...


I had my final Spanish class this afternoon. Two hours of reflexive verbs...groan. This, combined with the fact that I'm leaving Quito on Monday has put me in the mood for a good night out. Fortunately everyone I know in Quito has gone away for the weekend. I say fortunately, because this means I have to go out and meet people, which is always a good thing. I decide to visit "La Reine Victoria', a place which does its very best to approximate a traditional English pub. Unfortunately its very best doesn't stretch to decent ale, so it's the local 'Pilsener' again, which to be fair isn't half bad. Equally, or perhaps more unfortunately, it also seems to think that all english pubs exist sometime in the early eighties, or so the music leads me to believe. The evening starts slowly, and I consider striking up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me at the bar. However he is staring into his popcorn with such morbid intensity, that I have grave doubts about his qualities as a conversationalist, and think better of it.
A little later things perk up immeasurably, and I get chatting to a very interesting American called Nick, who's just spent three months learning Quechua in the jungle. The conversation is soon joined by the bar staff (it's a quiet night in the Reine Victoria), an Ecuadorian called Esteban, a Colombian called Carlos, and of all things, a Mancunian called Becky. Carlos suggests we all go drinking after the pub shuts. I can find no flaw in his reasoning. We proceed firstly to a bar called 'Q' which is very swanky, and then to a dance bar which most definately isn't. Still, the South American penchant for dancing in a way that verges on the pornographic provides admirable entertainment.


I awake feeling slightly fragile. Incapable of facing a bus journey anywhere, I decide to take the cable car up the Pichincha volcano. It takes about 15 minutes to reach the top. The views are stunning. The whole of Quito stretches out below, and from here it's almost possible to forget the traffic, the belching exhausts and the endless horn-honking. Signs along the path read "Altitude 4100 metres, don't run, go slowly". Breathing is noticeably more difficult as I begin the hike towards the summit. About half way, the clouds roll in, the summit disappears in a thick mist, and my energies disappear in a thick desire to get something to eat. I retreat to lower altitudes.

On the way home I stop off at 'Super Maxi', a large supermarket. Every item has two prices, I assume these to relate to pre-tax and post-tax. However, at the checkout I discover that each item actually has a third price, which seems to bear no relation to either of the other two.


Out at 6.30am for a taxi to Quito Central Train Station. A small queue has already formed, awaiting tickets for the train to El Biloche, a nature reserve up in the western highlands. The draw however is not the destination, it's the journey. Ecuador is one of those sensible countries that still puts individuals' health and safety firmly in their own hands, and thus riding on the roof of a train is considered entirely acceptable. This is why everyone is here.

Anticipation builds as everyone gets their tickets and proceeds to the barrier. Vendors appear selling chocolate, gloves, and most importantly, small foam cushions designed to make three and a half hours on a train roof a little more comfortable. At about 8am we proceed to the platform and board I'm a little puzzled by this development, until on closer inspection I discover that there seems to be no raliway infrastructure of any kind at Quito Central Train Station, save for a 19th century steam locomotive which appears to have spent most of the long years since its construction exactly where it is now, wedged into the dirt and listing gently.

The buses take us clear out of Quito and up into the hills, until at a place very close to absolutely nothing we finally rendezvous with the train. Something between chaos and a riot ensues as two hundred people attempt simultaneously to climb three ladders to the roof. I am forced to elbow barge a teenager, after my turn is usurped three times by children small enough to get under my arms. At times like these, concepts like politeness and common decency have to take a back seat. I secure my place on the corrigated iron.

There is an indescribable pleasure in riding on the roof of a train. I knew there would be, and I was right. Maybe it's the wind in your face, or the openness of the view, or perhaps it's the fact that you become much more aware of the motion of the train, predominantly because every bump and jolt sends you inching towards the edge of the roof. This isn't a major concern however, since an inch high metal bar holds us all firmly in place. We pass through a landscape of farmland, backed by volcanoes. A plethora of small children wave as we go by, and numerous dogs attempt to throttle themselves by chasing the train despite being tethered at the neck.

At El Biloche we pull up next to a tiny station building, and the masses descend, fanning out into the surrounding countryside. A volleyball net is erected next to the train, and a family to my right start a fire next to the railway lines. No-one seems to care. I spent a merry few hours alternating between reading, and strolling around in the woods. It's strange, I associate Ecuador with sunshine and heat, and yet here the low, grey, overcast sky, and the tall, dark coniferous forest gives me more of a feeling of British Columbia. Still, it's very pleasant, and I'm a little sorry when the time comes to fight seventy five people for the bottom rung of a ladder. The journey back to Quito is dampened, literally, by light rain, and in addition I am further bombarded by small pieces of a cellophane bag which is being dissected and thrown to the wind by a group of kids on the preceeding carriage. When we reach the railhead, we once again board the buses, and I succeed in choosing one that is entirely populated by small children, who scream, shriek and guffaw everytime the bus accelerates, brakes, or turns...for the entire journey. Ah well, at least, volcanoes notwithstanding, I got to ride on the roof of a train. Mission accomplished.

Tomorrow I leave for the Amazon. The fun continues...

26th August - The Amazon

So I´m in the jungle. Well, obviously I´m in an intenet cafe, but the jungle isn´t far away. Since Tuesday I´ve been doing my volunteer work at the aminal rescue centre. It´s great, there are creatures EVERYWHERE. I have a new best friend, in the form of a Marmoset that follows me around and attempts with tedious regularity to get inside my t-shirt. He´s quite partial to pissing on me as well.

Among interesting tasks I´ve had assigned to me, I´ve fed live chickens to Ocelots (wrestled with my conscience about that one, but in the end it wasn´t me eating it, and it was necessary), cleaned the swimming pool of the Galapagos tortoises, and built a bridge out of bamboo. Yesterday I was cleaning enclosures. This included those of a number of animals that could potentially take chunks out of you. Lacking the funds to have complicated compartments and exclusion areas in the cages, the philosophy when entering a dangerous animal´s cage, is to go armed with a hosepipe, and to give anything that comes too close a thorough dowsing. It´s no easy task to simultaneously scrub the crap off the side of a pond and keep your eye on two ocelots. I remain happily in one piece nonetheless. There´s only been one down moment really, and that was Wednesday, when I spent nine hours carting wheelbarrows full of rocks and gravel around in blazing sunshine and about 90% humidity. It felt a little like ´Bridge on the River Kwai´. In the evening however we encountered, right on the path to our rooms, something which the owner´s son, Jonathan, identified as a ´shishi´, a kind of venomous snake which, should you get bitten, affords you approximately two hours to live. I´ve yet to establish to English name, but I think it either has to be a Bushmaster, or a Fer-de-lance. Nasty either way.

Oh, and I almost forgot, the journey to get here was more eventful that I´d anticipated. You remember the volcano? The one I ended up avoiding over the weekend? Well, bugger me if the bus from Quito didn´t go right through Baños, the town directly beneath it:

As we drive along the bottom of a deep valley, there looms Tungurahua, directly ahead, mist swathed and with a definite hint of menace about it. We climb up to the pass leading into Baños, and then on the way down to the town, pass a place where JCBs and diggers have only just cleared the road. Cleared the road of what? Of what´s left after a pyroclastic flow. What was once fields and woodland, was now a frightening amount of rock, black mud, and other volcanic sludge, stretching in a long, wide, black scar all the way up the side of the volcano, and most of the way down the valley below. It is a humbling sight, and one which does nothing to increase the passengers´enthusiasm for the idea of stopping for lunch in Baños. The town is, well, quiet. There are troops on the streets. The driver tells us we have twenty minutes, but within about five, almost everyone is loitering outside the bus, with the collective thought,´Ok, but can we leave now please?´ While I admit to a certain glee about being in a town directly beneath a misbehaving volcano, I must also concede that I´m not too unhappy to get the hell out of there when the time comes. Don´t mess with volcanoes, you will lose.

So, all is well. I am happily ensconsed in my favourite environment. The bugs and frogs sing me to sleep every night, unidentifiable things, usually with lots of legs, provide endless entertainment, and the beer is 1USD a bottle. Nice. Tonight the Ecuadorian volunteers want us to go out for Karaoke and dancing. We´ll see...

1st September - Tapirs, Tarantulas, and the Minister of Tourism

It´s been an intersesting week at El Arca. Firstly we have a new addition. A nightwatchman called Pedro. No-one seems quite sure exactly what it is he´s supposed to be securing - escaping animals? Wild animals? Animal thieves? Escaping volunteers? Whatever his mandate he cuts an unusual figure for a security guard in that he´s, well, really really short. To give you an idea, he´s shorter even that Javier, one of the Ecuadorian workers, whose colleagues habitually refer to him as ´The Dwarf´. Nonetheless, Pedro patrols with gusto and a large torch every evening, and so far all is well.

Since Monday we´ve been building a new enclosure to house a bird I am unable to identify above and beyond "it´s large and it´s blue". Rusillo, the mother of the family who own El Arca maintains that it sings beautifully, and I suppose it does, providing your idea of beautiful is a noise that could shatter glass at a thousand yards. Anyway, we´ve almost finished, and I must admit to a certain sense of achievement, considering we did it all from scratch, totally unaided. Much machete action in the jungle - very Ray Mears.

We´d have finished sooner save for the fact that on tuesday morning we were called away to sweep paths and generally give the place an air of respectability, in expectation of the arrival of the Ecuadorian Minister of Tourism. She was due at 3pm, but about 12.45 it was suddenly "She´ll be here in half an hour!!" Finally she pulled up at 2.30. She was whisked away again within an hour.

On Wednesday morning after the kind of rest only possible under the watchful eye of Pedro, I was asked to join the Ecuadorian guys in a spot of ´Tapir wrangling´. A gentleman such as myself would normally frown upon such recreations, but I was assured the whole business had a purpose so I agreed. In fact this was tapir wrangling Mk II. The same had been attempted the previous day with limited, or to be more accurate, no success. To paint the picture... all of the animals that come here stay in quarantine for a few weeks than get moved to enclosures. It was this transfer that the Tapir was to undergo. Mk I involved the Tapir (obviously), three men and a rope. It was barely out of the quarantine building when it broke free and spent 45 minutes happily swimming around in a pond before ending up back where it had started. So, now for Mk II. Having learned from the debacle ofTuesday, Wednesday´s operation had been upgraded to involve the (albeit wholly unwilling) Tapir, five men, two ropes and a large quantity of bread rolls. Things began well. The bread rolls were successfully employed to lure the Tapir from its pen. They were also successfully employed to lure it from five other empty pens it insisted on exploring on the way out. Once in the open the beast clearly had no more interest in bread rolls and despite the five men and two ropes it galloped (if that´s the right word for it) off down the path while we jogged behind it. Fortunately it was galloping in the direction of its new enclosure, so our efforts to stop it were minimal. As we neared the critical location we managed to slow it down and had it within a whisker of the gate when it bolted for the forest. We would have lost it entirely had not the dwarf (you remember him) had the presence of mind in a calm moment to put one of the ropes round a post. Not wishing to upset the creature, we gave it a few minutes to calm down, and Raul began petting it on the side of the neck. It seems his technique was not to the Tapir´s liking however, as this well meant affection had the effect of stirring the animal to charge violently towards the dwarf, who leapt aside with the merest of moments to spare. After fifteen minutes, the death of a number of saplings, and two further attempts to kill the dwarf, the Tapir strolled out of the forest, and over to its enclosure. It still wasn´t inside though, and after even the bread rolls were forced to admit defeat, it came to four men pushing and one pulling to get the job done. I think to be honest the Tapir acquiesced.

Afer work that day, Meriel, one of the other volunteers noticed a young tarantula crawling along beside the volunteer house. It was about the diameter of a golf ball, and was possessed of that slow, charming tarantula gait. I lay a gloved hand down for it to walk onto, and it did so. It´s next move was slightly more unexpected though. With a turn of speed I´d totally failed to foresee, it shot straight up my arm and disappeared into my t-shirt. Hmmm.... I must confess I was at a loss as to the best course of action, and as I felt it strolling across my armpit I could think only that agitating it was probably inadvisable, in light of the fact that I had no idea what species, how venomous, or how aggressive it was. While the arachnid made it´s way round to my back, Emma, another volunteer appeared. "What´s going on?" she enquired. "Andy´s got a tarantula in his t-shirt." was the response. "Oh." she said, with a facial expression that bagan with surprise, moved quickly to horror, and then decided to settle on ´that´s actually quite funny because it´s happening to somebody else.´ Meanwhile I maintained a posture describable only as ´flacid crucifixion´and was beginning to give serious thought to my options, when to my delight, I felt the hairy little bugger crawl down my lower back and drop out onto the ground. I resolved to restrain my attempts to befriend adolescent tarantulas in the future.

15th August - Back in Quito

So I have successfully fought my way back to civilisation from deep in the arse-end of the Amazon. Unfortunately none of my porters survived, and my machete is now in serious need of sharpening, but I made it with most of my limbs intact and only a small collection of hideous tropical diseases.

Quito is largely as I left it - noisy, crowded, polluted, and yet for all that quite pleasant. Oddly, I did see a man walking down the street carrying a stuffed bull´s head yesterday. Ours is not to reason why.

It´s beautifully sunny at the moment, so I have a relaxing afternoon in the park planned, followed by a night out with a bunch of gringos I´ve met in various complicated ways. I had a bit of a setback yesterday though. I decided to put one of my films in for developing (I´m not digital yet) and when I got it back there were only 12 photos out of 36. The guy said that something was wrong with my camera. Obviously this meant I either had to carry on and hope for the best, or get it repaired, or buy a new one. I elected for repair. I got it back this morning, but had to pay $60 dollars for the privilage. It´s an expense I could have done without, but necessary if I don´t want a two thirds of all my photos to be of nothing at all. I´m hoping the other five films I´ve already used aren´t as bad as the one I put in yesterday. Just have to wait and see.

In the meantime my other present concern is trying to get a bed sorted out for La Paz. I get there at 11.45 on Sunday night, so don´t really want to have to hunt for somewhere. Unfortunately all of the email addresses in the LP appear to be wrong, because every enquiry I send gets an instant FAILURE message. Oh well.

Anyway, that´s about it for now. I realise this was less than fascinating, but then I´m not here just to entertain you people!

17th September - Adios Ecuador

So it´s my last night in Ecuador. I leave for Bolivia tomorrow evening. I´ve been in this country for six weeks, but it feels like a lot longer. I think knowing a few people here, and also being familiar to some small degree with Quito gives me more of a feeling of permanence than would usually be possible when simply passing through somewhere.

I´ve really enjoyed Ecuador, but this is mostly due to the experiences I´ve had rather than to the place itself. Don´t get me wrong, Ecuador is a lovely place, but it isn´t one of those jaw-droppingly stunning locations. Nothing here (save the wildlife) has really made me go, "WOW!". That having been said, there are a great many things I will never forget. Riding on the roof of a train, being stalked by a marmoset, wrestling (ok that´s an exaggeration...but you get the point) a tapir, the infamous tarantula incident. It´s all been great. I´m really glad I took the first two weeks to learn Spanish, it´s made the rest of my time not only far easier but also far more interesting. Actually being able to have conversations with people about their culture, their society, their history, and how it a differs from those of the two countries I can call home has been a real bonus.

The whole El Arca experience was also terrific. To have the chance to get really close to Amazon wildlife, when normally the creatures of the jungle are almost impossible even to glimpse was unforgettable. It feels great to know that some of what we did there will be permanent. The trees we planted, the cage we built. These things will still be part of El Arca in a decade or more (well, I like to think the cage will stand that long!) It´s a nice feeling.

Being welcomed into two different Ecuadorian families has probably been the most rewarding thing though. In both cases my hosts were unhesitatingly warm, welcoming, friendly and generous. Despite my often appalling butchery of their language they were always ready to listen with patience, tolerance and wide smiles. That perhaps will be my most enduring memory of Ecuador - the warmness of the people I´ve met here.

Tomorrow a new chapter begins...Bolivia.

18th September - Bolivia

Well, I´m in La Paz. I arrived late last night. The journey was fine, although weirdly I was called something yesterday that I´ve never been called before. Even more weirdly, it was by one of the flight attendants! As he served me my beer, he said "There you go cowboy." (In Spanish obviously). Cowboy??!!!

Due to a heftier departure tax from Quito than I´d expected, and the total lack of facilities at ANY of the three airports I passed through yesterday, I arrived in La Paz at 11.45pm with NO Bolivian currency, and only a ten dollar note to my name. Fortunately the taxi driver said seven dollars woul be fine. The taxi drive from La Paz´s El Alto airport can be described in one word - DOWN. The airport is built at the top of the canyon in which the rest of the city nestles. It´s an impressive sight, very reminiscent of Cuzco. Predictably, when we reached the Hostel Torino, the taxi driver said he had no change for my ten dollars, so I let him have it (the ten dollars I mean, I´m not suggesting I beat the poor man or anything...although, in hindsight). The hostel is in a converted colonial building, which has a rather medieval feel. The room is adequate, although the decor is, well, eclectic. A Hawaiian curtain serves as the bathroom door. There is an Egyptian papyrus hanging above the bed. A tudor bedspread covers Pokemon pillowcases, a Pokemon top sheet, and a Pokemon undersheet. Despite this I slept bloody well last night. I also have a window, with a view of a pile of rubble in an alley. Unfortunately the windows are frosted, but should I feel the need to gaze at the impressive vista, I dont even need to open them. I need only peer through the clear adhesive tape which occupies the space where once a large proportion of one of the window panes resided.

Anyway, today I´m going to check out La Paz, and try to organise the mountain biking for tomorrow. Today La Paz, tomorrow the World´s Most Dangerous Road!!!!!!!!!!!!

21st September - Triumphs and Tribulations

Well, the good news is that yesterday I successfully mountain biked down The World´s Most Dnagerous Road. There are no words to adequately describe the experience, but take your pick from these:

Fantastic, epic, awe-inspiring, amazing, unforgettable, incredible, exhilarating, magnificent, precarious, precipitous, fun, FUN, FUN, FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I will send a more eloquent account of the whole thing in about a week when I will also be able to give you a link to all the photos the guides took during the day.

The bad news is that I am now stuck in a small town in the mountains called Coroico. When we finished the ride yesterday, we ended in a village called Yolosa. From there, myself and an English guy called Chris intended to get a bus this morning to Rurrenabaque, in the Bolivian Amazon. Unfortunately we found out this morning that the Bolivian miners, in protest against the government, have blockaded the road between here and La Paz (the same road we cycled down yesterday). This means that we can´t go back to La Paz, and we can´t go to Rurrenabaque, because buses from here to there originate in La Paz. Basically we can´t go ANYWHERE. So we came up 7km to Coroico today just for a cahnge of scene and an internet connection. No-one knows when the blockades will be lifted. It could be tomorrow, it could be a week. We just have to wait here until we can get out. On the bright side, there are worse places to be stuck. Coroico is lovely, and the hotel has absolutely the best view I ´ve ever seen from a hotel.

Sendin this email was a trial in itself. When we arrived in Coroico this afternoon, electricity was off over the whole town. When it came back on we hit the internet cafe, and when I was mid-message, the whole place plunged into darkness! It´s now 8.50pm, and FINALLY communication with the outside world is possible.

I´m not sure what I´m going to do from here. It depends when the blockades clear. I may still try to get to Rurrenabaque, or I may quit it and go back to La Paz. Anyway, all is well save for the exquisite problems of travel in Bolivia!

22nd September - On the move again

Just a quickie to let you know that the roadblocks are now removed, and after three days of being stuck in a tiny mountain pueblo (albeit a very nice tiny mountain pueblo) we are finally able to leave this afternoon. Destination: Rurrenabaque in the Bolivian Amazon, for a tour of the pampas, hopefully including caiman, pink river dolphins, monkeys, anacondas, capybaras, giant anteaters and more besides. Fingers crossed.

However, a fourteen hour bus journey on god awful Bolivian roads stands between us and that, so I ´m off to pop a few valium.

OH --that reminds me. A couple of days ago I saw a toy doll / action figure on sale here. The box said ´Guerra de Terrorismo´ which roughly translates as ´Terrorist soldier´ and it had a big picture of Osama Bin Laden on it. Priceless!

23rd September - Back in the Amazon

Well, after the bus journey from hell (ok, not hell, but certainly somewhere in that vicinity) I am in Rurrenabaque, and tomorrow I leave for a three day tour of the pampas, where hopefully I´ll be swimming with river dolphins, watching caiman, and generally getting up close and personal with all manner of beasties!

I´ll do a long email about the ride, and the tour, and the bus journey, probably when I get back to La Paz

28th September - Update

18th September - La Paz.

La Paz is great. It´s great for many reasons. Partly it´s because it´s beautiful. Partly it´s because it´s really convenient (more ATMs than your average British city), and partly because it has a witches´market. Yes, a witches´market. Here can be found all manner of weirdness, the finest of which in my opinion were the dried llama foetuses, used apparently for luck when starting a journey or opening a business. You know you are somewhere far out when you find yourself talking to an old woman in the street about the uses of dried llama foetuses.

19th September - La Paz to Coroico, the World´s most Dangerous road.

So, I wake early to be at the appointed meeting place for 7am. The guides (two predictably vivacious Kiwis) arrive soon after and we are bundled into a black van, which begins the journey out of La Paz and up into the mountains. En route we are treated to a musical variety including Jimi Hendrix, Guns n`Roses, The Doors, and various other similar things. This and the crisp, clear morning ensures everyone is in fine spirits by the time we reach windswept La Cumbre, at an altitude of 4700m/15400 feet. Here the guides distribute the gear and the bikes, and give a briefing on how to ride them. Our guide, Graham, offers such advice as "Don´t spend your time looking at the scenery, unless you want to become part of it." We then make an offering to Pachamama (the Earth Goddess) in the form of swigging from a bottle of sugar cane alcohol which tasted like it was about 80%.

From here, we begin riding. This stretch of road is wide, and paved, although it does have a 500m-1km drop off on the right hand side of it. Indeed, after about fifteen minutes we stop so that Graham can point out the wreckage of a minibus that went over the edge a few weeks ago. It´s a long way down. It`s possible to get quite a speed up on this road, and it takes me a while to get used to it, but once I do it´s an adrenalin rush only amplified by the amazing views.

This road continues for a couple of hours, and after a brief, undulating section, during which we actually have to pedal, we reach the jungle. Here is where the World`s Most Dangerous Road actually begins. Let´s be clear, it´s not called that to sound impressive, it´s called that because it sees more fatalities per year than any other road, anywhere. The reasons are simple. It´s very narrow, it´s unpaved, and it`s cut precariously into the side of the mountain, descending 2,000m (6,500 feet). With 1,000m+ (3,300 feet) sheer drops off to the left and hulking rock overhangs and cascading waterfalls to the right. As Graham points out however, the real danger is the drivers. They navigate the road by use of what he terms "Bolivian Radar". Essentially when hurtling towards a blind corner, they beep the horn. If nothing beeps back, they assume nothing is there. This may account for the stop we make to see the place where a bus and a truck collided head-on then plunged over the edge killing 38 people. All of this, is why doing on a bike is by far the safest way. Nonetheless, we´re given another safety briefing about what to do in the event of oncoming traffic (the road is too narrow in most places to allow passing). If a truck or a bus comes from the other direction we are to dismount on the outside edge of the road, and let it go past on the inside. When we are told this you can see everyone thinking that dismounting on the inside would be a much better idea. This conviction is only strengthened by another of Graham´s stories. This one is about a rider who was nudged over the edge by a truck that got too close. Joy.

Anyway, the next few hours see fantastic views, amazing scenery, lots of mud, dust, precipices, cliffs, gravel, and most of all, FUN. As I said before, the experience is very difficult to describe in words. ). As we near the end of the ride it gets progressively hotter and dustier. By the time we arrive at the bottom in Yolosa (1,100m/3,600 feet) we are all tired, hot, dirty and exhilarated. We make it to the end with only two major hiccups, a girl who went over her handlebars, and a a guy who went over the edge (only a few feet fortunately. At Yolosa, a tiny village we are given a free beer, possibly the nicest I`ve ever had.

Below is a link to the photos taken on the day. There are about three hundred, but the first half are the other group. The photos of my group start at about no.164. You can recognise me be cause I have a red bike helmet and the number 2 on my vest. The password for the photos is ´photos´.

As you may or may not know, I spent the next three days stuck in a small village called Coroico, due to a mining dispute and blocked roads. It was at least a nice place to be stuck. Finally on the Friday, we were able to get a bus to Rurrenabaque in the Bolivian Amazon. The bus is a story in itself...

Friday 22nd September. Coroico to Rurrenabaque.

There are eight non-Bolivians waiting for the bus . We all have tickets. We all have seat numbers. When the bus arrives just after 2 o´clock on a scorchingly hot and unpleasantly dusty afternoon, we board, and discover that each seat appears to come with a free Bolivian. All I can think at this point is, "Sixteen hours, no seat. Sixteen hours, no seat." Fortunately, after much debate and reorganisation, we are all able to sit down (no-one is in the seat they had written on their ticket). It`s not a particularly comfortable bus, and the atmosphere is made all the more ´cozy´by the presence of two dogs, who wander carefree up and down the aisle. One of them decides to take a shit.

Outside the bus, things are no less disturbing. Part of the reason I came to Rurrenabaque, despite the three day delay, was so that I wouldn´t have to take a bus back up the world`s most dangerous road. Having done it on a bike, I suspected that in any other mode of transport it would be entirely nerve-racking. I was right. How do I know? I know because what nobody tells you, is that the first three hours of the road from Coroico to Rurrenabaque, are EXACTLY THE BLOODY SAME! Narrow, winding, made of dirt, 1km drop offs on the left hand side. Bloody marvellous. I find myself adopting a rather fatalistic attitude. We come to a place where a landlside has blocked the road, and a bulldozer is clearing it. Fortunately the delay is only about 30 mins. After a few hours, and having reached the bottom of this particular valley, we come to another abrupt halt, as indeed every other vehicle has also done. For a couple of minutes, a very nasty rumour flies around that this is another miners´ blockade. Soon though, we discover it´s only another bulldozer clearing another landslide. We are stuck for about 90 minutes this time, but what a place to be stuck! It´s like the lost world. Huge cliffs, swathed in dripping jungle rise above us to form an enormous gorge, and a river flows beside the road. I had never expected Bolivia to be so beautiful. About 6.20pm the road is cleared, but it´s slow going because of the backlog of traffic in both directions, and the fact that there are very few places wide enough to facilitate passing. Darkness descends as we climb the flanks of another valley, and proceed along another narrow mountain road. At least now I can´t see how deep the sheer drops are. I manage to sleep briefly, until unceremoniously awakened in what seems to be an entirely unpleasant town called Caranavi. Here we stop for dinner. I have chips, as it´s the only apparent alternative to fried chicken, or things which are unidentifiable, and far too scary to eat. When we leave, a number of the passengers, including the ones who were occupying our seats, have gone, and this means I can get two seats to myself for the overnight part of the journey. I spend much of the next four hours gazing out of the window at the passing jungle, and the most amazing night sky I have ever seen (which is saying something). It´s a thorough pleasure. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and so they do at midnight, when we stop for the third time for a reason that even now I have no idea about. This delay is tedious in the extreme, particularly as we have no explanation, and other vehicles are still going by. It´s approaching 2am when the driver emerges from the darkness, and we are on the move again. I awake again to find dawn has broken, and then the next time I come to consciousness, I am looking at a sign that says ´Terminal de Rurrenabaque´. It´s 8.30 am.

In Rurrenabaque, a pleasant, sleepy, jungle town, I arrange a tour of the Pampas, departing the next day.

Sunday 24th September - Rurrenabaque.

A jeep arrives at the hostal ( a hammock strewn riverside paradise incidentally) to pick us up at 8am. Happily, our group of nine consists , with the exception of three French people, entirely of people I´ve already met - Chris, who I´ve been with since the bike ride, and two couples, one Irish and one German, who were also stuck in Coroico at the same time I was.

We leave Rurre in a beaten up minibus and head out across largely featureless grassland. About two hours into the journey a sloth livens things up (if indeed a sloth is capable of such things) but other than that it´s an uninteresting drive. Having entered Parque Natural Rio Yacuma, we stop for lunch (adequate) and then proceed to the river. Our boat comes complete with two inches of water in it, which has to be bailed before we can proceed. After that we and our guide, Negro (the ´e´as in ´hen´), board, and begin to head upriver. Almost immediately alligators and caiman are visible along the banks. Hundreds of them. We also see squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys (both the red and black varieties), turtles, herons, egrets, capybara, eagles, and hoatzins. The highlight though is pink river dolphins. The journey is a thorough pleasure. After a few hours the cook, who is travelling in our boat, tranfers to the other boat (containing a group of Israelis) and this allows me to lounge luxuriantly on everyone else´s baggage.
At one point we run aground on a mud bank. Rocking the boat doesn´t manage to shift it, so Negro instructs us all to get out and push. Fortunately this occurs in a stretch free of crocodilians ( or at least, visible crocodilians) and the whole thing is great fun.
Our camp is about two hours further upriver than those of the other companies, so dusk falls well before we arrive. As it does, large numbers of large bats appear, and circle the boat, skimming insects from the surface of the water. When finally we reach camp, it´s pitch dark. The camp consists of a large wooden building, divided into two sleeping rooms and an eating room, and then a toilet, shower, and cooking area. It´s rustic and very basic, but most importantly, it´s in the middle of nowhere.

Monday 25th September - The Pampas.

I sleep well until about 6am, at which point, as Negro predicted, all hell breaks loose. The cacophany consists mainly of howler monkeys...LOTS of howler monkeys. There is also birdlife, including something very loud and entirely too enthusiastic for this time of the morning.
After breakfast, we strike out across the Pampas, in search of anacondas. Initially we walk across barren, wide-open grassland, but soon come to the more interesting swampland. Here is where we have the best chance of finding snakes. For the most part, the going is relatively easy, this being the dry season. However, as we cross one particular boggy morass everyone begins to sink up to their knees, and we have to coordinate our efforts to pull eachother out. Most amusing, if a little stench-ridden. After about two and a half hours, we get lucky. In a patch of swamp that the guide and everyone else have walked straight past, I spot something long and brown. I exclaim, "AH!" and then have a momentary panic that it´s actually just a branch, and that I´m about to be totally humiliated. Fortunately, it is indeed an anaconda. A 2m, very colourful, very thick, anaconda. Negro hurtles into the swamp and grabs it, then gives us some information about its life, physiology, and environment, before beckoning me over and putting it on my shoulders. The bloody thing is covered in nine kinds of swamp scum, but I accept it nonetheless.

Back at the camp, the sun comes out and it becomes absolutely scorching. About ninety minutes after we return, the Israelis arrive back from their snake hunting. One of them comes up to us and in a most discontent manner asks, "How long did you have to walk before the anaconda?" We tell her. She huffs and says that they had to walk much longer than that. I wonder if she expected the whloe thing to be timetabled - " Ladies and gentlemen, at 12.37 if you look to your left, you will see an anaconda." Bint.

In the afternoon, we head downriver for piranha fishing. After wrestling with my conscience a little, I decide, in light of the fact that I´m very unlikely to catch anything anyway, and due to the uniqueness of the experience, to join in for a while. Negro has landed four of the things before anyone else has even baited a hook, and this trend largely continues. At the ned of the afternoon, my karma is intact, and I have landed absolutely nothing. Everyone else has piranha to look forward to for dinner.

In the evening we go alligator hunting. Only a short distance upriver from camp, Negro spots his target. He lassos a 1.5 metre alligator, somehow gets a rope round its mouth, and then hauls it aboard the boat. The beast initially thrashes around wildly, sending the human population of the boat scrambling to the other end, but it soon calms down, and we take it ashore for Negro´s usual explanatory oration. The alligator is so calm that we are all able to hold it for a photo. Negro then does a spot of crocodilian hypnotism. He truns it on its back and rubs its stomach for a few minutes, after which the thing is out like a light. It´s catatonic for about two minutes, then slowly comes round, and after being unroped, slides back into the river and disappears.

Tuesday 26th September.

I have been eaten alive by insects. More bites than I can count, despite the insect repellent. The cocktail almost certainly includes mosquitoes, sandflies, and a host of other things. I try not to think about Malaria and Leishmaniasis.

We´re up early for sunrise, which is very nice indeed, and then we begin the long journey back downriver to Santa Rosa. It´s a sweltering day, and the tropical sun is unrelenting. This adds to everyone´s enthusiasm for today´s highlight, swimming with the river dolphins. As I´ve mentioned, the entire length of the river has been swarming with caiman and alligators. Negro explains that only caiman are dangerous to man. Alligators are no problem. When we reach the place where the dolphins are ( not 30 metres downriver from the most recent caiman) he stops the boat and says, "OK, you can swim here." I glance across to the opposite bank, where a two and a half metre alligator is lurking malevolantly, and then begin to notice that in fact, there are alligators of various sizes all over the bloody place. In addition. who knows what´s UNDER the water, since it´s murky brown and completely opaque. Sensing a certain hesitation on our part, Negro strips down to his shorts and dives in first. This encourages the rest of us, and soon we are all in. The dolphins ignore us completely, but do swim very close. I notice that the large alligator on the bank isn´t there anymore, so clearly it´s now in the river with us. Hmmm..
Fortunately, after about fifteen minutes, everyone gets back aboard with all limbs intact. I prefer to think of the expereience as swimming with alligators, rather than swimming with dolphins. All rather unnerving, but an adventure to be sure.

Back at Santa Rosa we pile into the minibus for a long, uncomfortable, and very dusty drive back to Rurre. At times the dust is so severe that visibility is literally zero. This doesn´t affect the drive´s spped or his willingness to drive on the wrong side of the road however. I am quite glad to see Rurrenabaque.
That evening our group meets up again for a meal and drinks. After a very pleasant Italian dinner, and the female contigent going to bed, Chris, Kevin (Irish), Markus (German), and I repair to the charmingly named ´Jungle Bar Mosquito´, however they are closing, so we are forced to buy take outs and sit by the river. Much esoteric ground is covered before at some point approaching 5am, the electricity goes off, and Rurre is plunged into total darkness. We stroll home under an incredible starlit sky. Tomorrow, the plane back to La Paz.

October 3rd

Wednesday 27th September - Rurrenabaque to La Paz.

In leaving Rurrenabaque I get to fulfill an ambition. EVERYONE who is foolhardy enough to make the journey to Rurre by road flies back to La Paz. I´m happy I did the bus journey to get here, because only sixteen hours down hellish mountain roads, on a bus full of dog dirt (ok, not full, but you get the idea) can really give you an idea of just how far into the arse end of nowhere Rurrenabaque really is. That being said, it´s not an expereince I am in any hurry to repeat. Thus, the aircraft, and thus, the ambition. We (myself, Chris, Markus, and Eva) arrive at Rurre airport about 5pm, for a plane scheduled to take off at 4.30. TAM, the military airline with whom we are flying (you´ve got to love flying with a military airline!) and who have checked us in and now ferried us to the airport, clearly know better however. Quite how they know anything is a mystery, since when Frederick, a Danish guy, in light of us having waited for a further hour, asks them when the plane is going to arrive, they reply that they don´t know where it is. No-one draws much comfort from this.

Anyway, the ambition. Since I started watching travel documentaries about the stranger parts of the world, I´ve hankered after using an airport without a tarmac runway. The strip at Rurre is made of dirt and grass. Indeed, it spends more of its time being used as a football pitch than it does as as a runway. So here is my chance. About 6.30pm, the children are suddenly waved off the strip, and the sound of roaring engines heralds the arrival of our plane. Everyone is a little disappointed. In the strange, masochistic way that you do when flying a Bolivian military airline from a dirt runway in the middle of the Amazon basin, we were all hoping for some kind of 60 year old Russian bomber. This is much less exciting. It does have propellers however, so it´s not a total loss.

Once airborne, the flight is fairly pleasant, affording some amazing views of rivers snaking their way through the jungle, with the backdrop of sunset and distant thunderclouds. However the approach to La Paz is more a series of periodic drops than a descent, and rather unsettled, we reach the ground intact.

Thursday 28th September - La Paz to Villazon.

I board a bus at 7pm, bound for the Bolivian border town of Villazon. Happily, I have the company of an Aussie girl called Lisa, who I met at Rurre airport yesterday. Most of the journey is spent in slumber, and the only notable thing is passing through Potosi, by all accounts the world´s highest city.

Friday 29th September - Crossing to Argentina

We arrive in Villazon about 11.30 in the morning, and make straight for the border. Leaving Bolivia takes all of 30 seconds, but this is where the fun begins. Arriving at Argentine immigration, we join a long queue, which fails to move for over an hour. The heavens open, and after allowing sufficient time for eveyone to get thoroughly drenched, the border guards direct us all across the street to wait under cover. Here we stay for another 30 mins, with still no progress. After the sun comes out, we are told to go back to where we started. This utterley screws up the order of the line however, so that at 2.30, we are 10 feet further back than we were at midday, and STILL the line isn´t moving. Even allowing for the apparently ´rigorous´searches conducted due to Bolivia´s coca production and rampant contraband, this seems a but much. Finally at 3pm, the line begins to move, although it´s not until 5pm that we reach the window to get processed. It transpires that they aren´t searching at all, it´s just taking them ten minutes to deal with each passport. So, after 5 hours, the ´Bienvenido a La Republica Argentina´sign that has been taunting us all afternoon, finally loses its bitter irony, and we are allowed in. This is La Quiaca, Argentina, country no.18.

Having secured places on a midnight bus to Salta (8 hours to the South), we go in search of food. We stumble across a tiny, funky, weird little cafe, which would fit right in in Amsterdam. A toddler is busy making a considerable mess on the floor ,and a concert of indigenous Andean music is playing on TV. We eat, drink and chat the evening away, until a stroke of luck saves us from disaster. Lisa attempts to ask what time the place closes, but her dodgy Spanish results in an answer to the question "What time is it?". Bloody good job too, because we discover that Argentina is an hour ahead of Bolivia, something which, according to the guidebook, shouldn´t happen until next month. We repair to the bus terminal, and spend the remainder of the time sitting at the side of the road, observing life, and the large pack of large dogs that roam up and down the street terrorizing litter. We depart on time.

Saturday 30th September.

I am sleeping happily when we are awakened at 5am for a military checkpoint. Everyone and everything from the bus is unloaded, and we wait in line to be searched. They are very thorough. I´m relieved when it comes to me, that the guard merely looks at my passport and waves me on. Lisa is searched, although apparently very politely.
It´s 8am when I open my eyes and see the suburbs of Salta. At the terminal, I arrange onward transport to Posadas, as close as I can get to my next destination, Iguazu. It´s not until tomorrow afternoon though, and Lisa is leaving For Buenos Aires this evening, so this gives us a day to kill in Salta. We go exploring. Am I in Salta, or am I in Barcelona?? It´s all very strange. In the space of a bus journey I seem to have crossed continents. Everything smacks of Europe - the architecture, the obvious presence of money, the people (more latino, less indian), the cars, the clothes, the lack of stray dogs and roads made of dirt. As predicted, this looks more like the first world. It´s quite dislocating after Bolivia, which I can´t quite believe is only next door. The main Plaza is gorgeous, lined with colonial architecture, palm trees, and plaza-side cafes. bustling in the sunshine. We find a spot, and peruse the menu.!...WOW!! Prices that would have been entirely justified in dollars, are in Pesos (three times less), but the contents is of the highest quality. We spend the afternoon in conversation, and the company of four bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. Our bill? 15GBP. Food, bottles of mineral water, and four bottles of a cafe, on the main square. 15 quid. Not even 15 quid each, just 15 quid. Welcome to Argentina!

Sunday 1st October - Salta to Posadas.

I say goodbye to Salta with lunch on the plaza, and am served my beer in an ice-bucket. At 3pm, I board the bus for the 23 hour journey to Posadas.. Argentina continues to amaze. There´s a toilet (a first on the continent so far); the seat in front of mine is a good 20 inches away from my knees; my own seat is about two feet wide and reclines to over 135 degrees; there´s air-conditioning. The four hour journey is entirely painless. Tucuman, where I transfer is hot, humid and busy, but we escape on time, and on the next bus, I have a seat at the front on the top deck. Unfortunately, this affords me a grandstand view not only running over a cat about ten minutes out of the terminal, but also of a car accident in which a truck has left the road and overturned in a field.

Monday 2nd October - Posadas to Iguazu.

I sleep most of the night and awake to a beautiful sunrise and an arrow-straight open road. The rest of the jounrey to Posadas passes through the Iberra wetlands, complete with Rheas, lots of ranch cattle, and an interesting variety of large aquatic birds. We arrive in Posadas about 13.00, but I have another 3 hours to kill before my departure to Puerto Iguazu, which will take another 5 and a half hours.

It´s 10.30pm when finally the lights of Puerto Iguazu bus terminal come into view. The bus left 30 minutes late, and stopped umpteen times, but it got me here in the end. The entire journey from La Paz to Iguazu has been 52 hours of bus time, covering 2300km.
I have to wander the dark and not entirely salubrious streets of Puerto Iguazu, trying three hotels before I find anywhere that has a bed. The one I find is only thanks to one of two rather dodgy characters, who, among other services, both offer me marijuana within fifteen minutes of my arrival.
I have the strangest hotel room in the world. It has four beds, a fridge containing the remains of someone else´s white wine, a dining table, decor that has fallen out of the 1950s, a TV, a enormous set of Spanish encylopaedias, and two gigantic speakers, attached it would appear, to nothing whatsoever. Turning the TV on, my preconceptions about Argentine television are confirmed...3 sets of bare breasts in the space of five minutes.

Tuesday 3rd October - Iguazu Falls.

(excuse the switch to past tense, but this is coming straight out of the diary)

I was out by 7am for the first bus to the National Park. En route my anticipation built and built. I´d elected to do the three trails through the park in what I thought would be ascending order of impressiveness. Once in, and on my way, I approached my first panoramic view. I was actually close to tears of joy. Since I first saw Iguazu on a TV documentary years ago, it´s been a dream of mine to see it with my own eyes. It seemed so remote, exotic, and inaccessible to me then. "The border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay." When could I ever hope to get there?? Well, right now as it happens. I walked slowly along the trail, letting my anticipation run wild, and then...there it was...Iguazu Falls. It´s impossible, unless you´ve ever fulfilled an ambition you´ve had your entire adult life to appreciate how it felt to lay eyes on it. It´s elation, wonder, acheivement, joy, but also a strange feeling that now there´s one less mystery, one less magical moment to come in your life. When you see something you´ve always dreamed of seeing, where do you go from there? (Austin - Samarkand, you know what I´m talking about.) I suppose I´m lucky, I have a lot of dreams left.

Iguazu is an immense, incredible, beautiful spectacle. Waterfall after waterfall after waterfall, in some places two-tiered, stretching out for over 2km along a horseshoe shaped gorge. Some placed and idyllic, some violent and thunderous. The effect however is of the whole, in all its immensity. This surely is one of the wonders of the natural world. Where the waters don´t fall, dense sub-tropical vegetation clings, drenched in vapour, to the vertical cliffs, and swifts in countless numbers dart around the gorge, defying the force of the water to plunge into the cascades to the nests they build behind the falls themselves. These birds are the reason Iguazu was shown on the David Attenborough documentary on which I first saw it many years ago. Seeing them, almost as much as the falls themselves, fulfilled my dream to perfection. Even the surrounding forests are a wealth of wildlife - Toucans, parrots, coatis, iguanas, and even, lurking somewhere out there, jaguars.

Having soaked up vista after vista, and walked around with what I´m sure appeared to everyone who passed me to be a look if insane happiness (which it was), I made my way up to the star of the show - La Garganta Del Diablo - The Devil´s Throat. This is the most dramatic, most violent, and most immense of all the falls, and sits almost perfectly divided across the Argentine-Brazilian border. Words can´t convey this churning, furious cauldron, but a good description comes from the Lonely Planet - "Of all the sights on Earth, the Garganta Del Diablo must come closest to the experience of sailing off the edge of the world, imagined by European sailors." On three sides the deafening cascade plunges into mist, and the vapours rise in a smoke like plume through which hundreds of swifts wheel and dart, leading your eyes across the gorge to the other, less violent but equally beautiful cascades stretching off into the distance.
I haven´t seen the other great waterfalls of the world, Niagara and Victoria, but if they can surpass the remote, pristine beauty, and the thunderous power of Iguazu I will be surprised. This will be a day I remember with as much clarity and fondness and the day I lay eyes on Machu Picchu, or on the Ngorongoro Crater, or the day I first saw the African herds stretched out on the wide open grasslands. Dreams do come true. It might take a long time, but they come true.

I am tempted to leave the description there. To leave it perfect. However that would be dishonouring the truth. The reality is that Iguazu is, in the same way as Machu Picchu, or Giza, or any other world class tourist attraction, the kind of place you get to early, and then run like hell from at about 11am when unnumerable coach loads of loud Americans and other nationalities with equally peace-shattering talents arrive and swarm everywhere, destroying whatever idyll may have preceeded them. Run like hell I did, but I had to fight my way out through the masses. At least I had the place largely to myself when I was actually seeing it, and that, not my inglorious retreat, is what I will remember.

Tomorrow I cross the border to view the falls from the Brazilian side. In the meantime, I am enjoying Argentina´s other pleasures - fine (and obscenely cheap) red wine, great food, and friendly people.

This trip really has been amazing. I have difficulty comprehending the fact that I have actually done, and seen , the things that I have. Only having Jung-Ok here to share it all with could´ve made it better. And still ahead of me are Buenos Aires, the spectacle of whales and colonies of breeding sealions at Peninsula Valdes, the desolation of Patagonia, the Perito Moreno Glacier, the granite peaks of Torres Del Paine in Chile, and, with some good fortune, Ushuaia - the world´s most southerly city. That being said, if disaster struck and I was forced to go home tomorrow, I´d leave happy.

October 4th - Crossing Borders

I´m on the bus to Foz Do Iguacu in Brazil by 7.30 am. I love the fact that border towns have roadsigns pointing to entire countries - ´Left - Town Centre. Right - Bus Terminal. Straight on - Brazil´. At the Argentine border I am stamped out, and that appears to be it. We cross the bridge over the Rio Iguazu, and I get a tingle of happiness as we reach the other side. Brazil. Country no.19. Immigration formalities are relaxed when it comes to people making the day trip to see the falls. Indeed, on the Brazilian side I am required merely to exit the bus, and wipe my feet on a doormat, before reboarding and continuing on my way. At least they have high standards of cleanliness. Like a fool, I´d assumed that the bus ran from terminal to terminal. I am thus a little surprised when we halt and the driver kills the engine somewhere in the middle of downtown Foz. The following conversation (except in Spanish) takes place: "Where can I get the bus to the National Park?" (insert confused look followed by) - "The terminal sir." "So this isn´t the terminal?" "No sir." "Where is the terminal?" " Far away sir." "Oh." Fortunately he also informs me that he will be passing it on his way back to Puerto Iguazu, so I can stay on the bus and he´ll drop me off as we go by. All this, while losing me about 40 minutes I could potentially have spent at the falls, does allow me to see a bit more of Foz Do Iguacu, much more of a city than its leafy Argentinian counterpart. It is however, much like any other small South American city, and nothing, aside from the switch from Spanish to Portuguese really says ´Brazil´ to me, save perhaps the rather more noticeable poverty.

Despite the confusion, I reach Parque Nacional Do Iguacu, and am soon on the trail. Opinion is divided about which side of the border provides the best veiwing opportunities. I´d have to say, it´s necessary to see both. While Argentina gets you closer to more of the cascades, Brazil definitely provides a more impressive panorama, and allows you to appreciate the full scale of the falls. It also has less tourists, and affords better views across the bottom of the gorge to the Garganta Del Diablo, which can only be seen from above on the Argentine side. Indeed, from where I sit, enjoying a token Brazilian beer, the waters of the Rio Iguazu passing serenely by, with no conception that they are about to plummet 80 metres off the edge of a basalt plateau, I can see the teeming hoardes across the way in Argentina, looking down upon it.

When the time comes to head back to Argentina, I leave with some reluctance. The likelihood is that I may never see this place again, and it´s hard to draw myself away. Still, the important thing is that I have seen it, even if it´s only once in my life.

Tonight I am on the overnight bus to Buenos Aires, and if I can arrange a rapid exit, I´ll be on my way to the whales and sealions by tomorrow afternoon.

October 5th - Buenos Aires

So after another long overnight bus journey, I find myself in Buenos Aires. It`s a fleeting visit however, as I´m off on ANOTHER bus tonight, for the 19 hour ride down into coastal Patagonia.

Anyway, here`s today´s observations.

About 10am the suburbs of Buenos Aires begin to appear, and give way to the high rise city skyline. With half a day to kill until my onward transport, I get a taxi downtown. Walking round BA is oddly reminiscent of walking round central London. Wide, straight thoroughfares leading to centrepiece monuments, grand European architecture, a plethora of cafes, bars, and hotels of all sizes and classes. The people are very cosmopolitan too, ranging from beggars and buskers (including, as any self respecting city should, at least one group of poncho-clad, panpipe-toting Peruvians. Ok, they could be from anywhere, but Peru starts with a P so it worked well in the sentence.) through crusty backpackers ( a category I fall regrettably within having come straight into town off the night bus.) to well-dressed business folk. Everywhere there are large numbers of depressingly good-looking people (of both sexes). One noticeable difference between Buenos Aires and London however, is breasts. Breasts are very popular in Argentina. Not to suggest they aren´t very popular everywhere else too, but here they are used with shameless abandon to advertise anything from lingerie (no real surprise there) to mayonnaise, to bus companies, to tissues. Much of the public advertising space in Buenos Aires is a feast of cleavage. I`m not complaining obviously, I´m just making an observation.

After lunch I head to San Telmo, the bohemian quarter. In a beautiful little square, lined with narrow, cobbled streets, and purveyors of jewellery and other trinkets, I sit in the sunshine, sipping a cold beer, and watching street performers dancing the tango. I have a few hours to kill, so why not do it in Argentine style - relaxing in the sun and enjoying the world going by? I already like this city. It`s lively, pleasant, simultaneously modern and historical, and very much has an atmosphere that the people do their best to enjoy life`s pleasures. Speaking of which, I have been handed two fliers in the street for "VIP" establishments. Both have pictures of beautiful, scantily-clad women, and both offer, among other things, `masajes´, `fantasias`, `privado`, and `dormicilio`. Whether this is legal or entirely otherwise remains a matter of uncertainty, and while I try to see and experience as much as possible of the places I pass through, i fear this particular research will have to be carried out by someone with more money and less fiancee than myself.

Leaving the square, Buenos Aires has, for some reason assumed a much more Latin quality. Maybe it`s the evening sunlight, or the music that has started to drift from the streetside cafes. Maybe it`s the lingering memory of the tango in the plaza. Whatever the reason, where I felt like I was in London this afternoon, I feel utterley in Buenos Aires this evening, and a very pleasant feeling it is.

6th October - Further South

I leave Buenos Aires at 20.30. This partucular bus comes with free entertainment (or tedium, depending on how you look at it) - a tone deaf Argentine teenager who insists on singing (I`m being generous there) along to his portable CD player. When even my own music can´t drown him out I am forced to lean over and say, " Excuse me, can you sing in your head please, I don´t want to listen to your music." It works. The official entertainment comes in the slightly inappropriate form, in my opinion, of two films about transport catastrophes - Flight 93 (about 9/11) and Poseidon. The former is, frankly, not what you need to be seeing when a world away from everyone you love, and hurtling down a dark Argentine highway in the middle of nowhere. Finally, and rather coincidentally, we get a Korean film.

I awake to Patagonia. This is getting ridiculous. How many ambitions can a person fulfill in one journey?! Finally...Patagonia. There are some place names in the world that are particularly evocative - Borneo, Sumatra, Zanzibar, Kamchatka, Samarkand. For me, one of the most evocative has always been Patagonia. It suggests wilderness, adventure, remoteness. It suggests the edge of the world.

In 1878, a lady traveller, Lady Florence Dixie, wrote of Patagonia: "Without doubt there are wild places more favoured by nature in many ways, but nowhere else are you so completely alone. Nowhere else is there an area of 10,000 square miles which you may gallop over, and where you are safe from the persecutions of fever, friends, telegrams, letters, and every other nuisance you are elsewhere to be exposed to."

Since then, the outside world, or at least access to it, has reached Patagonia, but little else of her description has changed. It`s still a vast expanse of wilderness. The salient feature of Argentine Patagonia is its endless nothingness. For hour after hour we pass through grass and scrubland extending utterley flat to the horizon in every direction. Three things comprise the world outside our vehicle - the limitless, open landscape, the road - a lonely, narrow line through the emptiness, and predominantly, the sky...the biggest sky you can imagine. To say Patagonia is nothingness however is to do it an injustice. It`s the absolute, all encompassing nature of the nothing that produces the very total sense of something grand and magnificent. This is the edge of the world. South of Patagonia there lies only the ice of Antarctica. I`m here, and I feel immensely privilaged to be.

Mid-afternoon we come to the first sizeable settlement we`ve seen since Rio Colorado six hours earlier, Puerto Madryn (if anyone is following any of this on a map. about halfway down Argentina on the east coast). I disembark and find a place to stay. After two consecutive nights on buses, the prospect of a bed and a shower is a very welcome one. I also arrange my onward transport, a further 19 hours south by bus to Rio Gallegos, from where I can get a connection to El Calafate near the Chilean border, gateway to Glacier National Park and my next target, the Perito Moreno Glacier. Finally I sort out a tour for tomorrow to Reserva Faunistica Peninsula Valdes, the reason for stopping here, where hopefully I will be able to see southern right whales, elephant seals, penguins, and who knows what else.

Puerto Madryn is, it occurs to me, the first place on this trip I`ve seen the sea. The Atlantic Ocean is a calm, deep blue on this cloudless afternoon, and despite the latitude, Patagonia, in the fresh spring sunshine is warm and pleasant. Puerto Madryn has the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere of a coastal town, tempered with the frontier fortitude necessary to exist here, so far from the world.

Having arrived in Puerto Madryn, I get chatting to a couple of English girls in my hostel.  In yet another of those bizarre "it`s a small world" coincidences, it transpires that they both used to live not only in Manchester, and not only in West Didsbury, but also in Clyde Road and Northern Grove respectively.  Sitting in a hostel in Patagonia, discussing whether or not the Railway pub on Burton Road is still there or not is a thoroughly odd experience.  We end up going out to the Margharita Bar, where I spend much of the evening in conversation with an Argentine fisherman called John.  He`s very friendly, but I don`t in all honesty share his fascination with the world of fish, and after 45 minutes of a conversation revolving around the subject of optimum locations in which to catch hake, I begin to search for an escape route. 
Saturday 7th October
Due to last night`s wine, socialising, and fish talk, I almost miss the meeting time for the tour.  Dishevilled and a little blurry around the edges I board the minibus to Peninsula Valdes, a haven of marine wildlife.  En route, as we pass through the ubiquitous Patagonian nothingness, we are cheered by the sight of Rheas, Guanacos, and a couple of Maras (large rodents that look like a hare crossed with a medium sized dog).  The real fun begins at our first stop though.  We arrive at a long stretch of rocky beach, upon which a colony of elephant seals are sprawled lazily, mostly looking rather like they are all dead.  I knew these things were big, but I`m taken aback by just how big.  The males can weigh up to four tonnes.  They are monstrous.  This being spring in Patagonia, they`ve come to these beaches to breed.  As if to prove this point, two particularly large specimens decide that this moment, right in front of us, is the perfect opprtunity to do just that.  The sight of two multi-tonnage mounds of blubber attempting congress is not a graceful spectacle.  If you imagine Jabba the Hut fornicating, you`ll have a pretty accurate idea of elephant seal sex. 
After the seals we make a brief stop at a colony of magellanic penguins.  They are very photogenic, but sadly, none of them copulate in front of us.  It`s a bit of a let down. 
In the afternoon comes the climax (possibly not the best word in light of the morning`s activity) of the day - whale watching.  We board a boat at Puerto Piramides, and within minutes of leaving the shore we are drifting along next to a pair of southern right whales, a mother and calf.  They are huge, and entirely unconcerned by our presence.  The water is so clear, that even when they submerge, it`s still possible to see there immense bulks as they swim beneath the boat.  For the next hour we are treated to a veritable whale-fest.  After the first pair come another mother and calf, followed by a male, and then two more mother/calf pairs.  This last youngster puts on a particularly good show, jumping clear of the water, and performing some very postcard dives, complete with tail emerging in the sunset.  Almost as impressive as the whales is the coastline itself - a bleak, jagged moonscape of cliffs and wind-beaten rocks. Very atmospheric. 
In the eveing everyone from the tour gets together at the Margharita, and another evening of merriment ensues.  John is there again, but the place is heaving, so I am spared another discussion about the intricacies of trawling. 
Monday 9th October  
I took a bus from Puerto Madryn yesterday morning, in the company of an English guy called Ed. After the 20 something hour journey we arrive in Rio Gallegos at about 6am.  My first observation is that it`s bloody cold.  The gloves and woolly hat that seemed such  ridiculous things to be carrying around the Amazon, finally warrant their place in my luggage.  After a three hour wait, we board a bus to El Calafate, arriving at 2pm.  I`ve worked out that I have, to date, travelled over 6000km by bus.  Fortunately only one of those buses was Bolivian.
El Calafate reminds me simultaneously of the Scottish Highlands, and the Canadian Rockies.  It`s all log cabins, outdoor gear, trekking companies and the feeling of existing on the edge of a huge wilderness.  We get a dorm in the Calafate Hostel, a place accurately described in the LP as "A log cabin on steroids.", and then arrange a trip for tomorrow to the Perito Moreno Glacier, the huge chunk of ice that single-handedly sustains El Calafate`s economy.  The town`s location is fortunate in other ways too.  It`s gorgeous.  To the south, a glacial lake sits serenely in front of snow-capped mountains, and elsewhere the Patagonian steppe, here more rugged and hilly, is all around.
Tuesday 10th October. 

The journey to Perito Moreno is fairly spectacular, a plethora of lakes and mountains.  After an hour or so we get our first distant glimpse of the glacier itself.  Even from here, it`s clear that the thing is enormous.  We are informed that the face of it is the height of a sixteen storey building.  Upon arrival, we first take a boat out onto the lake, and drift back and forth across the glaciar face itself.  We maintain a healthy distance however, in light of the fact that Perito Moreno is one of the most dynamic glaciars in the world, advancing 2 metres a day.  It`s famous for the fact that it is constantly cracking, breaking, and losing large chunks of itself into the lake below.  For an hour or so though, everyone starts to wonder if it`s been oversold.  For dynamic, read silent and sedentary.  Good things come to those who wait however, and we are eventually rewarded  by a few small fragments (when I say small, I mean car sized) crashing into the water.  The sound, amplified by the valley, is like thunder.  After the boat, we walk up to the viewpoint above the glaciar.  Choose your adjective - stunning, incredible, mind-blowing, unbelievable...Perito Moreno is all of these things.  It`s gargantuan.  I thought the Athabasca glaciar in Canada was impressive, but this makes it look like an ice cube.  Aside from the immense, towering face, the ice, completely riddled with crevasses and deep cracks, stretches back as far as the eye can see to the mountains, in an enormous field over a kilometre deep.  Constantly you hear rumbles, cracks, bangs, and thunderous collapses from within its depths, as it grinds against itself.  We spend over an hour, awe-struck, just staring at it.  Perito Moreno is one of those natural spectacles which grips our gaze, and from which it is almost impossible to draw your eyes.  Shortly before we leave, we get our greatest reward.  An absolutely huge ice fall, beginning at the base of the face, then taking everything above it sends a volume of ice the size of an office building  crashing down into the water beneath.  The noise is incredible and the collapse sends huge ice bergs bobbing away as if they are made of polystyrene.  It is an unforgettable sight.

As well as the drama, Perito Moreno also provides some comedy.  During a discussion about how it is difficult to judge dimensions and perpsective, a Swedish guy, an English girl, and myself get into a ridiculous conversation about how the Park could improve this situation.  It begins with having a cardboard cut-out man next to the glaciar, then progresses to having an elephant on a raft, and ends up with installing animatronic mammoths to march majestically across the ice.  I suspect you had to be there, but it was very amusing at the time.
Wednesday 11th October - El Calafate to Puerto Natales (Chile)
The bus to Puerto Natales in Chile leaves at 8.30am.  The journey to the border is pleasant, with the Chilean mountains, the last vestiges of the Andes, drawing ever closer.  Pleasant is however, not a word that can be applied to the border crossing.  I am stamped out of Argentina no problem.  Then, about five of us are called back to have our bags rigorously inspected, to the degree of leafing through all our books.  Once I`m done, a border guard says, "One moment señor." and I have to wait, while everyone else is searched and allowed to leave.  I am then taken into another room, and minutely searched.  My pockets are emptied, and the contents picked through with a fine toothcomb. I have to remove my shirt, and my boots.  I have to roll my trouser legs up. They stop short of rubber gloves, but only just.  It is all conducted very politely, but border guards have a way of making you feel like a criminal even when you`ve done nothing wrong, and the whole experience is, let`s say, uncomfortable.  On the Chilean side, no such worries.  A man peers into my bag in a rather lacklustre fashion, and I`m free to go. 
So, Chile, country no.20.  Puerto Natales is, like other frontier towns, a place of basic simplicity.  There are no frills, no pretty lights, and no bullshit.  They have what they need to have, and they don`t waste time with anything else.  This is not to say it`s unpleasant, far from it.  The town is surrounded by stunning scenery, much of which looks like someone has painted it onto the horizon.   It also has a profusion of canines.  They are everywhere, three to a street corner practically.  Having fought my way through the dogs and the hostel touts, I find a bed at a place called Kawashkar, owned by a hippy called Omar.  The place smells of incense, and has ethnic hangings on the walls, and Bob Marley on the stereo.  Omar is a lovely guy, and having explained where everything is, which doesn´t take long as the hostel is in fact his house, says "My home is your home." 

I head out to arrange the next stage of my journey - five days trekking in Torres Del Paine National Park.  That, I will save for next time.

Thursday 12th October
Omar lays on the best hostel breakfast in South America.  Afterwards I get the bus to Torres Del Paine.  The previous evening I rented everything I need to stay alive for five days, and also purchased all the necessary food.  My pack is, well, lets just say it´s been lighter.  There follows and expedition inventory:
Tent, mattress, sleeping bag, groundsheet, stove, 3x  gas cannisters, cutlery, bowl, pan, washing up kit, waterproof clothing, gloves, hat, camera, medical supplies, SAS survival guide (well you never know!), head lamp, batteries, alarm clock, MP3 player, assorted clothing.
16x cereal bars, 3x chunky kitkat,1pkt chocolate cookies, 2pkts instant noodles, 1pkt oriental rice, 1pkt asparagus soup, 1 pkt (large) pasta, 2 pkts pasta sauce, 1 block cheese, 2 pkts crackers, 1 tin coffee, 4 rolls bread, 2 pkts trail mix, 1.5 litres Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (resealable).
It´s´s sorted...let´s go to Torres Del Paine.
Torres Del Paine - Day 1.
After a couple of hours on the bus, the jagged peaks of Torres Del Paine appear on the horizon.  Iguazu almost made me cry when I saw it.  Torres Del Paine actually does.  A more majestic sight I don´t think I´ve seen (and that´s saying something in light of the last few months).  That, combined with the fulfillment of yet another lifelong dream is well, too much.  I feel so very, very lucky to be gazing on a place I´ve gazed at in so many photos for so many years.  It´s truly a beautiful sight.  As the bus nears the park, guanacos by the hundred appear on the open steppe, where they graze to make it more difficult for pumas to approach unseen.  I am dropped off at Lake Pehoe, from where I have to catch a boat across to Paine Grande, the start of my trek.  There are two main treks in TDP, the ´circuit´, and the ´W´.  I´m doing the latter, because it´s only five days rather than 7/8, and because the circuit hasn´t opened yet, this being the very start of the trekking season.
The map accessed by the link below show my route in red, working from left to right.
After a very pleasant boat ride, I am cheered to find that I am the only one of 8 or so passengers taking my route.  This means I have the trail entirely to myself.  It leads up through a rocky valley, full of ragged, windswept trees and scrub, all framed by the towering peak of Cumbre Central.  Although, through my lack of porteridge, I am forced to bear the burden of all the baggage, the weight isn´t a serious discomfort, and brief rest periods are sufficient to ease the aches.  Having passed Lago Patos (beyond it lying the iceberg strewn expanse of Lago Grey) the trail takes me inland through a variety of forest terrains. Some are flat, some steep and winding, but all very pleasant in my solitude.  Around an hour and a half of steady walking brings me to my first view of the Grey Glaciar, a deluge of ice that completely seals one end of the lake.  I´m on the lake coast again, and at some altitude, so a fierce wind batters me, and I´m relieved to get back into the woods.  I fill my bottle from a mountain stream, and the water is cold, sweet, and delicious.  That I am free to drink from any source of running water is testament to the remoteness and purity of TDP.  This place has given me the opportunity to do something I´ve never really done before - to trek into the wilds completely independantly with no aid or guidance.  While I enjoyed my sojourn on Mount Kenya, the fact that I was cooked for, guided, and given porteridge never sat entirely comfortably with me, even though I was paying for the service.  Here however I have myself, a map, and nothing more.  It´s great.
I complete the 11kms to Refugio Grey at about 4.30pm and  locate a place to camp, which isn´t a difficult proposition in light of the fact that I am the only soul here.  I get the tent up mere moments before the clouds that have been rolling in for the last hour or so finally let loose upon the earth.  The deluge continues for some hours and prevents me from cooking my dinner.   It´s all the more appreciated when it comes.  Pasta with tomato sauce, grated cheese, bread, and Chilean red.  Perfect.
Friday 13th October - Day 2
Not a wonderful night´s sleep in all honesty.  I woke up within a dream twice in succession.  The first time I looked at the clock and it said 12.30pm.  I realised I´d missed half the day and panicked.  Then I woke up again, now believing the first awakening to be a dream.  This time the clock said 12.45pm.  I woke a third time (finally in reality) to find it only 4.15am. 
I breakfast and break camp by 9am.  Today I have about 19km to cover.  First I have to retrace my steps from yesterday, and then progress round to Camp Italiano, where I will spend the night.  Things begin well - the pack isn´t uncomfortable, as  I´ve done a little repacking for a better weight distribution.  However, by lunchtime, as the hours and kms draw on, so does the weight, and by the time I reach Paine Grande I am decidedly weary.  En route, as some small consolation, I added to my collection of "Ridiculous American names I´ve met".  I know have a "TROY".  He was, to be fair, a very nice guy.  After a sandwich I set off for Italiano, some 7.6km away.  As I descend into the valley, two condors circle above me, riding the thermals with consumate skill and grace.  The weather is less favourable however.  Wind and rain accompany me all the way to Valle Francais, and the rickety "No more than two people at a time please" bridge, that marks my arrival at Italiano.  It´s a nice, wooded campsite, that would be idyllic if the weather were more clement. After dinner, I lie out of the tent observing the bats that flit through the camp at dusk.
Saturday 14th October - Day 3.
A chilly night, with more odd dreams.  I emerge to a cold, but more cheerful morning.  Today I have a decision to make.  I can either have an easy day, and go merely to Cuernos camp, 5.5 km away, leaving 20km to do tomorrow, or I can try to push on the Hosteria Torres, leaving only 9.5km to cover tomorrow.  I decide to do the former.  This gives me time to take a walk up Valle Francais without all the gear.  It´s lovely - winding forest paths, boulderstrewn waterways, and steep valley walls.  As I get my first view of the mountains ahead, something very noteable happens.  Since my arrival I´ve been hearing a noise like thunder twice or three times daily.  At first, I assumed it was thunder, but then began to have doubts.  This morning my suspicions are confirmed.  I hear the rumble again, look up to the mountain, and witness an avalanche sweeping down the steep face! Another personal first.
About luchtime, I set off for Cuernos camp.  It´s a great section of trail, which passes Lago Nordenskjold, a body of water blessed with the same unreal blue as Peyto Lake in British Columbia.  In addition, the Cuernos Del Paine rise behind me, formidable towers of granite piercing the sky.  The last section of the trek takes me along the lakeshore in bright sunshine.  At the camp, a ferocious westerly wind kicks up, and makes erecting the tent a very troublesome procedure.  It doesn´t abate even hours later, and I am forced to weigh down the edges of the flysheet with heavy rocks as extra security.  Mid evening, I pop into the refugio to use the toilet. How the other half live!  The people staying there (for $30 a night, rather than the $2 I´m paying) have music, heat, desserts, chefs, electricity, and a very long wine list.  They´re all soft!
Sunday 15th October - Day 4
Despite the howling gale, I slept more comfortably and soundly than I have either of the two preceeding nights.  I break camp about 7.15am, and feeling very energised, begin the long trek to Campamento Torres. The wind is at my back, and the first three hours pass easily.  I reach the  bottom of the right side of the W, and proceed up towards its end. The path to Campamento Torres leads up steeply, and then over into the valley carved by the Rio Ascensio.  On this high path the wind is absolutely ferocious, and almost dislodges me from the path on more than one occasion.  Only when I descend to the valley floor am I able to escape it.  The terrain here is epic and spectacular.   Everything is bigger and grander than the rest of the park.  Although the scenery is great, by the time I near the camp, having walked 20km, I am getting somewhat tired.  Once there, and set up, I decide nonetheless to make the last hour´s trek to the grand finale - the Torres Del Paine themselves.  I was going to do it first thing tomorrow, but this afternoon the weather is perfect, and if I delay, I risk the possibility of a cloudy, misty morning with nothing to see but drizzle.
The final assault is an hour long scamble up a steep slope strewn with large boulders, rising some 400 metres in altitude.  For my FEK colleagues - imagine the Martian Falls factored up by about twenty, and given a large dose of steroids.  As I climb, the view becomes incredible.  Desolate, snow covered mountains lead away to the wonderfully named "Valle del Silencio".  In the foreground, nought but primeval rubble - boulders, rocks and scree.  This is an empty, cold, and barren world.  With my knees  ready to burst from their sockets, I finally reach the Torres viewpoint. Wow...The Towers of Paine stand immense, implaccable and eternal, at the far edge of a frozen mountain lake.  The rest of the world seems to disappear,and I find it hard to look away from the serene, yet dramatic granite towers.  To finish this day, with this reward is the perfect way to end the trek. 
 In more than one way, the Torres mark an ending.  TDP is the last on my list of unmissable spectacles on this trip.  I still have Ushuaia,  Buenos Aires, and hopefully a glimpse of Uruguay, but the big spectacular sights are all done - Otavalo, the La Paz-Coroico road, the jungle, Iguazu, Perito Moreno, and Torres Del Paine.  Every one of them exceeded my expectations ten-fold.  Torres Del paine, aside from being beautiful, has given me the rare opportunity for 5 days of complete solitude, and time inside my own head.  I am happy to report that things in my head are very much content right now. 
Monday 16th October - Day 5
The coldest night so far.  I awake bleerily at 6.15, and begin the trek back past Refugio Chileno, and down to Hosteria Torres, where I can get a transport connection back to Puerto Natales.  The weather is good, my pack is light, and I arrive about three hours later.  I elect to spurn the shuttle bus back to the park entrance, and opt for walking the last 7km instead.  It seems the right thing to do. 
At Laguna Amarga, the entrance, and departure point for the bus to Natales, I have an hour or so to chill in the sunshine, listen to some music, admire the stirring view, and gaze back at the jagged peaks I´ve spent the last five days trekking around.  I feel a great sense of achievement, and am very contented as I board the bus and doze off for the journey back to civilisation.

19 October - Ushuaia

I`ll keep this brief because I`m bloody hungry and I`ve been on a bus all day, but basically - MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.  I am in Ushuaia, the world`s most southerly city, at the very bottom of Tierra Del Fuego.  This means I have travelled from the Equator, to the bottom of the world (ok, excepting Antarctica, but my budget won`t stretch to that) and bar one flight into La Paz, I`ve done the entire thing overland.  I`m feeling rather good about all this.

I`ve only been here a couple of hours, but I like Ushuaia already.  My hostel is on Magellan Street, and I plan to eat at a restaurant on Antarctica Street this evening.  You have to love a town that has an Antarctica Street!

Once again I have transport to arrange.  This one is kind of critical.  If I don't want to waste two of my final 7 days on buses, I need to get a flight back to Buenos Aires.  Despite low hopes I try LADE, the cheaper of the two companies.  While they are unable to privide anything useful, they do provide some comedy.  In the office I say, "I want to fly to Buenos Aires.", and the woman behind the counter looks at me with desperation and says "God...Me too!" 

At the second company I am successful.  Good news.  More is to follow when I hit the internet cafe and discover that I have a wedding date!  The big day is to be March 18th, as decided by a gaggle of fortune tellers, astrologers, tealeaf readers, and whoever else one has to consult to resolve these matters in Korea.
Very cheerful I stroll down to the waterfront.  The Beagle channel is calm and quiet.  It's difficult to fathom that when I look south, there is only Antarctica beyond the horizon.  I even manage to get a photo of the "Antarctica Passenger Departures"  office.
In the evening I repair to the Dublin Irish Pub.  I remain unsure about what it is that makes this pub Irish other than the fact that they have Guiness posters on the walls and the staff wear Guiness t shirts.  They don't even serve Guiness for goodness sakes!  All the beer is Argentinian, the music as latino, and even the oversized fibreglass R2D2 by the door doesn't strike me as particularly Irish.  Still, it's a pleasant place to shelter from the driving rain and dark rolling clouds (Aah! THAT was the Irish part!!).
Friday 20th October
I spend the morning in prison.  Well, an ex-prison actually, now a museum.  It's all fairly grim and rather depressing.  There are exhibits about the Yahgan indians, who were very effectively made extinct by Europeans.  Although Darwin's description of them as 'sub human' is undoubtedly a little harsh, they do seem in all the photographs to be a rather sad, melancholic people, and judging from the anthropological information provided, they weren't in all fairness what one could describe as genetically affluent.  Their arms were too long, their legs were too short so I am informed.  There are also exhibits about the prison itself, incuding a few biographies of noteable inmates.  The most disturbing is the story of a sixteen year old boy who suffocated and tortured a string of small children, for no other reason than that it amused him.  His ex-cell now contains a spectacularly poor quality papier mache model of him, grinning malevolently and holding a tourniquet.
Saturday 21st October  - Buenos Aires
I fly at 2.30, and am treated to stunning views of the mountains as we leave Ushuaia.  Three hours and two glasses of red wine later we begin our approach to BA.  I am pleased to be informed that the temperature is 27 C.  Excellent.  My taxi driver into town is a man of many, MANY words, most of which are incomprehensible. 
Once settled in at the hostel, I decide to make the most of my only Saturday night in BA. I seek advice as regards a good place to go, and am directed to a bar called 878 in Palermo, a short taxi ride away.  It's ok, but nothing special, so I return to find the hostel's rooftop bar absolutely buzzing.  The fun contuues well past 3am, with a cocktail of nationalities including Brits, Aussies, and large numbers of Brazilian girls.  Mustn't grumble.  Welcome to Buenos Aires.

Sunday 22nd October - Buenos Aires

THE thing to do in Buenos Aires on a Sunday is to go to San Telmo for its famous antiques and crafts market. It's a beautiful afternoon, and in San Telmo there are more dreadlocks, beads, and stripey cotton pants than you can shake a stick at. There's also an absolutely great vibe, enhanced by the bright sunshine and relaxed, bohemian nature of the area. The opportunities for people watching are unparalleled, such is the plethora of tourists, locals, vendors and street performers - tango dancers, singers, jugglers, stilt walkers, name it. Buenos Aires has terrific energy and style, and nowhere are these qualities better demonstrated than in San Telmo.

At the hostel in the evening I get chatting to a couple of English guys, Ben and Kev. The latter has not only been travelling for two and a half years, but also, it transpires, knows Chris, the guy I was stuck in Coroico with. Small world.

When I retire to bed, the dorm is a disturbingly unpleasant place. Too many hot people, not enough showering.

Monday 23th October - Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires...Scorchio! It's 34 degrees celsius when I head out this morning to the Cementario De La Recoleta in, well...Recoleta, the most affluent and stylish of Buenos Aires' barrios. This enormous cemetary holds the remains of Argentina's great and good in an astonishing variety of crypts, tombs and mausoleums. Some are small and neglected, some are bigger than houses and meticulously cared for. Perhaps the most famous of its, er...residents (??) is Eva Peron. I spend about half an hour trying to find her without success, until I see a large party of german tourists. I figure if I just follow them it'll get me there. Sure enough a few minutes later I am in front of a modest black marble tomb, tucked away in a small avenue. Within are the remains not only of Evita, but also of her brother and father. She's buried under her maiden name, Duarte. Whatever dignity this quiet resting place has, it's not a little undermined by the endless stream of camera toting tourists crowding around.
Speaking of dignity, one of the many other tombs in Recoleta has a black marble statue of its occupant (I can't recall who he was) outside. He is portrayed standing in his slippers and dressing gown. I can't help thinking that if my family were to immortalise me in black marble, I'd hope for something a bit more dashing than a dressing gown and a pair of slippers!

On the hostel's rooftop bar this evening, I become embroiled in a two hour argument with an American fundamentalist Christian nutter, who believes absolutely and literally in creation, the great flood, the ark, and pretty much everything else. He attempts to back all this up with the most ill-informed and incorrect scientific arguments, and whenever I point out a glaring and undeniable flaw in his logic, he says something like, "Well that's an interesting question, but let me ask you this..." and utterley fails to address any of them, largely I suspect, because he knows he can't. Later I end up talking to a load of English girls, and go to bed about 5am. In the bathroom, I bump into the nutter, who's just getting up.

Wednesday 25th October - Uruguay

You'll notice I skipped Tuesday. I chilled out in the park most of the day. It doesn't make great material.

This morning Ben, Emma (one of the English girls from Monday night) and I head out early to the port, and board the boat bound for Colonia De Sacramento in neighbouring Uruguay. Unfortunately we've chosen a day when the weather has turned nasty. It's chilly, overcast and windy, but we remain undaunted. After all, how often in life do you get to go to Uruguay for the day??

Three hours later as we approach Colonia, the heavens open. I'm wearing a t-shirt. Oh well. We wander into town, attempting to locate the apparently beautiful historical part. Unfortunately this involves walking through the modern section which, perhaps more so in this weather, resembles any one of a hundred anonymous British towns. Think Reading, Crewe, Guildford etc etc. Ben enquires whose bloody idea it was to come to Uruguay in the first place, but we're all quite enjoying it really. When we do locate the historical town, it's a definite improvement. It would be a lot nicer if the sun was shining, but even through the drizzle, the narrow cobbled streets and colonial architecture are very picturesque. We do wonder for the first half an hour or so though if the plague hasn't swept through Colonia. The streets are totally deserted, save for a few alarmingly sized alsatians. Eventually we find a restaurant and get lunch. Inside they are playing Uruguayan trip-hop. It's very good. Outside there are two fine old vintage cars. One of them has been converted into a flower pot, and the other is now a novelty restaurant table. One side has been removed, and the interior modified to contain two seats with a table between them. Music emanates softly from somewhere under the bonnet.

The weather deteriorates to the point where we are driven indoors to, of all places, the Colonia Aquarium. It's not the most impressive I've seen, and this may in part be due to the fact that it is approximately the size of a modest living room. As if being in an undersized Uruguayan aquarium wasn't surreal enough, it suddenly fills with small children wearing 17th century french peasant smocks. The three of us exchange perplexed looks, and decide to get out of there.

The return boat is due to depart at 19.45, but at 19.30, a company representative appears and announces that the wind is too strong, and that until it calms, nobody is going anywhere. I begin to regret a joke I made earlier about being stuck in Colonia for the night. The assembled masses beseige the poor fellow with alarmed questions, demands and protestations, while we sit back adopting the fatalistic attitude that gets you through situations like this. An hour later he returns (I'm not sure how the poor sod ever got out in the first place actually) and announces that in 90 mins or so, we will either leave in the slow boat, which we are booked onto, or the fast boat will come to get us. Soon afterwards we are shepherded across the port into another departure lounge, and here we linger for what feels like about a month and a half, but is I suspect only a couple of hours. The fast boat arrives, and we board. On the upside, it only takes an hour to make the crossing, so we won't actually be that late back. On the downside, the winds have not abated and the sea has not calmed, so it's going to be an hour of pitching, tossing and almost certainly from somewhere on the boat, vomiting. Emma goes to the bar and Ben and I derive enormous amounts of amusement from watching her attempt to carry three beers back to our seats while lurching across the deck like someone on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in an asteroid field. I sypathise however when I go to the toilet sometime later, and find myself alternating between falling into the urinal, and stumbling three feet away from it. Five minutes later, the woman in front of us reaches for the paper bag.

Thursday 26th October - Buenos Aires

So this is it - my last day in South America. It's a quiet one, spent largely asleep on the sofa up on the roof terrace. I didn't go to bed until 6am, and was forced to check out at 10 o'clock, so I require somewhere to catch a few more hours of shut eye. I feel...well actually I don't really feel anything. It doesn't seem real. I can't imagine not being here anymore. It's impossible to grasp that in 24 hours all of this will be over and gone. All the people, all the adventure, all the beauty, all the thrill. All of it.

In the afternoon I end the trip in a suitably refined manner. I meet Ben and Kev. The latter's girlfriend is from Argentina, and used to work in the Hyatt Hotel, where rooms go for between $1000 and $4500 a night. She takes us in for a tour. Ben, Kev and I are wearing respectively, shorts, a fake Argentine football shirt, and ripped jeans. As we pass by the hotel's resident harp player, plucking gently in the main lobby beneath a chandelier that is bigger than most peoples' cars, we feel a little out of place. The feeling doesn't subside in the art gallery, wine cellar, spa, ornamental garden, or dark mahogany lounge bar, where I hear a man on a cellhone saying exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from a guest at the Hyatt Hotel, "Yes, I've sent the figures to Randall."

Outside, I accidentally drop the cheap watch I got especially for this trip, and it shatters and dies. It already lost a strap (so becoming a pocket watch) in Bolivia, and took five days to recover from being taken swimming with the alligators. Now, at the very end, it's had enough. It will forever preserve 5.20pm, the moment I began my journey home.

The End.

And that's that. I'm back in England. The journey home was long and tedious, particularly the ten hour wait in the paranoid Orwellian hell-hole that is Atlanta airport, where every security guard seems to assume you are a terrorist, and treats you with the disdain you deserve. I hope at least some of you have enjoyed reading all the crap I've sent you over the last three months. If you haven't, well then clearly you are a git with no appreciation of fine literature. Anyway it's all over now, so don't worry.

Click here for a link to yahoo photos where you'll find an edited, condensed version of the photos from the World's most dangerous road.

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