Ahhhh! The South America Travel Blog! Archives of our adventures on the road there. So our trusty Iveco Daily 4×4 camper truck (better known to his friends as Cuthbert) is taking us around this amazing and hugely varied place… Patagonia, the Andes, the Amazon. How many years do you think we need to see all this stuff?
Teeeny update… So we’ve been parked up for a while, doing not a lot, chilling-out by the river in Suriname with a different type of traveller! These guys are taking some time out from sailing around the world. Yup… across the high seas in those little boats. Makes overlanding look a bit tame by comparison! If you want to see some awesome video diaries of their life on the ocean waves, see www.seachangelog.com.
Marcus has been doing a bit of geekery… building and programming a computer system to replace the Iveco computer controlling Cuthbert’s diff-locks (Afam computer replacement). Any brain-boxes out there who can work out the square-root of a jar of pickles might find the write-up interesting 🙂
Click on the picture for link to page.
Heading off for a week of jungle-exploring. If we don’t get eaten by a caiman, there might be an interesting update soon 🙂
There are turtles and there are giant leather-back turtles. And then there are space rockets. An odd combination, but in French Guiana we’re lucky enough see both in the same week. The end of our last blog featured a cliff-hanger, waiting to see whether our application for tickets to the next Ariane 5 rocket launch will be successful. Well… we got them! And whilst we contain our excitement before the big launch day, we head off to see the giant leather-back turtles on the beaches of the far north corner.
Over the years we’ve had a few ‘turtle experiences’ on our travels: in Galapagos we swam with them, in Borneo we saw new hatchlings take their first trundle to the sea, and after sleeping on the sand in Oman we woke to find that one had laid her eggs right next to us during the night! These ladies at Les Hattes Beach in French Guiana however, are in a different league… giant leather-backs… the largest in the world.
For our turtle watching here in French Guiana we have a good news/bad news scenario. Good news: it’s nesting season and many giant leather-backs come up the beach every night to deposit their eggs. Bad news: it’s a new moon and we don’t have great visibility. As we wander down to the beach in the dark we worry that we may miss seeing the turtles in the poor light. But when we get there… Wow! Even on a dark, moonless night you’d have to be blind not to spot these beautiful monsters!
The tide is receding leaving a wide, unblemished expanse of sand across which the turtle tracks are easy to spot. Immediately as we step onto the beach we see the unmistakable deep, dark marks of a turtle track. The flipper marks are over two metres across and lead from the ocean, up to the edge of a dune-bank where she lays calmly digging her egg-pit, oblivious to us creeping past her.
Turtle-watch… they don’t come ’til after dark!
Further along the beach we perch on a washed-up tree trunk and wait. After just a few minutes a huge shadow of a dome emerges from the waves, crawling slowly up the beach towards us. As she comes within two or three metres of us we sit silent and still. We can hear her laborious breathing over the sound of the waves; through the sand we can feel the thud of her huge, powerful flippers propelling her 200kgs of body-mass at a snail’s pace (maybe that should be turtle’s pace ). She is well over 2 metres long, her body is over a metre wide; her sheer size and the curious pattern of her shell gives her a decidedly dinosauric (is that a word? I think I just made that up) appearance. When she finds her spot, she uses all four flippers to dig a huge pit into which she sinks as she displaces the sand from underneath herself. The little rear flippers do their thing, but the volume of sand displaced by one of the huge main flippers would cover a dog in a single swipe. The final pit must be around a metre deep and after depositing her eggs into the depths, she replaces the sand on top.
Nesting over, the tracks back to the ocean and the huge mound of disturbed sand above the nest are conclusive evidence of where the hatchlings should emerge in a few weeks’ time. I say should… this beach is by far the least protected and most threatened turtle nesting site that we have seen in the world. There is no attempt to protect the nests and the public (even un-supervised dogs) wander freely over the whole area. A walk along the beach in daylight reveals many signs of nest raiding and we reckon that the chances of these little chaps ever making it to swim freely in the oceans themselves must be pretty low.
To avoid flash photography around the turtles, we have only a couple of rubbishy grainy pictures taken from several metres away on a very long exposure and then edited to enhance the brightness. Disappointing, but instead of photos we take away special memories from here.
We are kids of the original Space Race, growing-up in the Apollo era, captivated by the fuzzy black and white TV images of moon-landings. Space stuff has come a long way since then but for us, has lost none of its fascination. The Centre Spacial Guyanaise (CSG) launches three types of rockets: Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega. Ariane 5 is by far the biggest and most powerful of the three, so we really want to see one of these if possible.
After a long wait due to the political palaver here… we’re in luck! An Ariane 5 launch is announced for May 4th (Star Wars Day!). We apply for tickets and wait. Meanwhile, we visit the museum and join one of the daily CSG tours where the public are shown around the facility. It’s all very interesting, but no substitute for seeing the real thing!!
Waiting for the launch
Finally, we have places at the Agami view-site – a great vantage point. Boarding the coach-transfer, our first briefing is how to use our gas-masks if there is any emergency during the launch! Errr… I thought we had tickets for a view-point, not to drive the rocket !! It seems that at only 7km from the launch-pad, we will be in range of some nasty fall-out if it all goes horribly wrong!
The Agami site has huge screens set-up at the side so we can see what is going on in the control room. We receive mission updates and explanations of the phases: launch, jettison, mission monitoring, satellite deployment etc, etc, etc.
Ten minutes to go and we’re nervous: cloud-base is low and likely to hamper views of the trajectory. The clouds are clearing but not fast enough for our liking . The 7 minute count-down starts, then very quickly stops. At 6 minutes, 59 seconds… ooops… a ‘Code Red’! Could be a tea-break for the control room, but probably a bit more serious. Our hearts sink at the prospect of the launch not going ahead, but 20 minutes later… the launch is back on and the clouds have cleared!
At 17:50 hrs local time, we witness the spectacular sight of Ariane 5 Mission Number VA236 taking to the sky: a countdown, a deep rumble, a detonation of engines, an extraordinarily brilliant flash of deep orange light, an expanding plume of billowing smoke, a jettison blast, and finally the distant crackle of the engines and the light-trail disappears deep into the darkening evening sky (see short video clip below). The smoke-plume takes a long time to dissipate and our attention turns to the giant screens to follow the mission.
Less than one hour after lift-off, two satellites are deployed and we see scenes of congratulatory back-slapping around the control room. Cynically… we now have two new pieces of future space-junk in orbit around our planet, but more positively… there is a newly expanded telecommunication capability for the people of Brazil and of South East Asia . For us, it was a chance of a lifetime to see the space race in action, but maybe we’ll come back if they launch to Mars!
Farewell French Guiana
So at last we’ve made it from border to border and sit in the pretty river town of St. Laurent. In the morning, we’re heading across the Maroni River to Suriname. Due to the recent political shenanigans, our stay here has lasted a bit longer than we had planned. Nevertheless, as ‘places-to-get-stuck’ go, French Guiana isn’t bad! It’s the EU, but in the tropics! We’ve had a bit of a struggle speaking Francaise, but the wildlife, the rocket launches, the coffee and the scrummy croissants all make up for that .
Monster Turtles and Rockets – French Guiana Picture Gallery
Damn tedious all this protesting and road-blockade malarkey, but hey… ‘C’est la vie’, as they say here in French Guiana. In our last blog we arrived in a charming but blockade-ridden, far-flung part of the EU. Now, after a month of disruption, the protesters toddle home and things gradually get back to normal. For us this means freedom to move around the country, the re-start of the Space Race (officially exciting!) and some first-hand proof of Hollywood’s tish, tosh and piffle!
Just over the bridge from Brazil and… politics! Overlanders are always best advised to avoid national politics as they travel, but sometimes things just jump in your face. French Guiana is an overseas department of mainland France. It’s officially part of the EU, it has the Euro currency and, we find out to our cost, the people have the same French propensity for road blockades and labour strikes when they feel hard done-by! Continue reading →
You can’t just drive across the Amazon Delta you know… you’d get a bit wet. Cuthbert earned his ‘Water-fording Proficiency’ badge reaching the Lençóis Maranhenses but this time we need to put him on a barge which zig-zags over 38 hours between the mangroves and islands, crossing the Amazon Delta. Compared to the much travelled western side of the continent, this north-eastern route of South America is, even in the dry season, relatively little trodden by the ‘overlanding community’. In the currently prevailing rainy season, even fewer travellers venture up here. Hmmm… maybe there’s a good reason for that!! Continue reading →
It’s challenging driving to Lençóis Maranhenses, but is it worth the schlepp? “A spectacularly unique place… thousands of crystal-clear lagoons between dunes”… so they say. Our faith in travel journalists has been tempered slightly by our recent experience in Jericoacoara (see last blog), but we’ve not lost hope. Actually, Lençóis Maranhenses manages to exceed our high expectations, there’s just the small matter of getting there, testing Cuthbert’s off-road capabilities and our nerves!
Tudo bom… All good! The most common phrase we’ve heard all over Brazil. It’s a statement, it’s a question, it’s a greeting, it’s said with a smile and it’s a reflection of the consistently chirpy Brazilian nature which continues as we head into the far north. On this latest stretch we hit the coast at Salvador then head north: dodging coconuts, reaching the far east, dining with Iveco, and testing our nerves with Cuthbert’s capacity on dunes and deep-sand tracks. Continue reading →
A brewery, a palace, a gold mine, a football stadium, a police selfie, a floating angel, broken glow-plug, a desert lagoon and a foot swallowing sand-bubble. Our last post saw Rio and fab beaches, now we’re on a mission to see the great mix of middle Brazil, with the added dilemma of so much to see, so little time! Continue reading →
You like beaches? Brazil’s got trillions. You like jungle? They’ve got the world’s biggest. You like mountains and caves? Yup, they’ve got those. Waterfalls? Tick. Deserts and dunes? Err… yes. Wildlife? Yah, plenty dat too. And of course, the football… many shed-loads of that! They do sport, they do fashion, they do science, they do arts, they build things, they party-hard and they’re the economic power-house of the region. Sure, they have few teeny political snags on the agenda at the moment (who hasn’t? 🙂 ) but overall, we’re looking forward to seeing Brazil (and those beaches!)
Argentina has its finger stuck between Paraguay and Brazil. Yes, really! Look on the map… there’s long, narrow, finger-like, sticky-up bit in the far north-east of Argentina: Misiones province. We crossed into Argentina from Paraguay at the bottom of the finger and set a new northerly course through Misiones, up to Brazil.
The Chaco… a chuffing big, flat plain stretching east from the Andes. Covering eastern Bolivia, north-east Argentina, a bit of south-west Brazil and much of Paraguay… it’s big. After the descent from the Bolivian altiplano, it’s a long, long, straight road reaching over 800km to Asuncion. We expect the Chaco to be hot. Turns out… our introduction to Paraguay is not just hot, but damned hot! And what’s Paraguay all about beyond the Chaco? Read on in the Paraguay blog… Continue reading →
In the Andes at over 4,000m again… a bit of re-acclimatisation is required. We interrupted the sequence of our blogs slightly for our ‘Dakar Special’ when we had a tougher than expected challenge to catch the Rally in Bolivia. So now please humour our ‘time-warp’ as we step back in time to a few days before the Dakar: we’re leaving the beaches of Arica on New Year’s Day for a last bit of exploring in the Andes of northern Chile before crossing into Bolivia.
No, we haven’t just upped-sticks and shipped to Africa, we’re in Bolivia for the world famous Dakar Rally 2017. After a load of security shenanigans in West Africa, the rally formerly known as ‘Paris-Dakar’ was shifted to South America where it’s affectionately known by locals as ‘El Dakar’. Here’s our attempt at finding over 400 bikes, quads, cars and trucks charging across the altiplano in 2017, together with our Top Tips if you’re contemplating a trip to see Dakar 2018.
It’s not every Christmas that we open our presents to the booming sound of Chile’s answer to Snoop-Doggy-Dog (or whatever the latest hip-hop chap is called these days) and to be honest, it wouldn’t be our first choice for 2016 either! Nevertheless, that’s what we get 🙂 But before we launch into the Christmas Story, there is the final instalment of the Tyre Story. Continue reading →
It’s little visited, the south coast of Peru, which is a real shame. Back in September when we travelled up through southern Peru we took, like most travellers, the mountain route via Lake Titicaca and Cusco. Now south-bound, we’re loving the coastal route south of Nazca and on to Chile. Continue reading →
“Heading to the Dakar Rally?” we asked the friendly Brit biker at the Peruvian border, “Yeah… I’m competing” came the reply. Blimey. Impressed.com. We’re not quite, or even anywhere near, as brave as Lyndon, but we are keen to go and see what antics the competitors get up to on their way around the route. Our new claim to fame: we now know one of the Dakar riders who we can go to cheer on!
Peru by the back door
We’re now in Peru for the second time. This time we’re far inland from the coastal route that we took north-bound. Now we’re taking a small rough back-road through the mountains to a relatively little used border post at La Balsa. On this whole trip we have met very few Brits Continue reading →
A ‘rainy season’ usually brings ummm… rain. Except for Ecuador in 2016, that is. The 2016 ‘rainy season’ has so far not really materialised in these parts and it’s been conspicuously dry in the north-western Andes. Locals tell us that they have seen not a single drop throughout November. Regular Cuthbert readers may recall that we have just returned to Quito from an impromptu trip back to UK due to a family illness. During those three weeks we had the traditional British ration of copious precipitation, but now we are back in sunny Ecuador ready to hit the road with a fresh supply of Twiglets and Yorkshire Tea bags!
Flexibility… the key to overlanding! Way back in May we left Chile into Bolivia, then on to Brazil, back to Bolivia, then to Peru. Now here we are in Ecuador and we’re making a big turn-around, heading some 3,000 km back southwards. It’s not the most logical of routes, and if we ever had an approximate route in mind when we set off in South America this certainly wasn’t it! But we have a date with a tyre supplier… in Chile!
“I’ve seen enough boobies for today” Things you thought you’d never hear your husband say 🙂 But fair cop… these are the red and blue footed avian varieties of boobies, indigenous to the Galapagos Islands and we had indeed seen rather a lot of them on that particular day. By far the best way to see the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands is on a cruise and our friends Mark and Lindsey have flown out from UK to join us for one of the most exciting legs of our South American trip. It’s more than just a wee bit exciting, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here . For our flights to Galapagos we need to get to Quito. Let’s first pick-up in the Galapagos blog, where regular Cuthbert followers last saw us: leaving Peru and crossing into Ecuador…
Back at sea-level! Yehhy! We do love the mountains, but life at over 12,000 ft can provide a few wobbles in your physiology. It’s a welcome change to now have the soothing sound of rolling waves and the smell of the salty sea air. The drive from Cusco down to the coast is a long and painfully winding road, but finally we’re down at the Pacific coast, back on the Pan-American super-highway, looking forward to following it north all the way to Ecuador.