Amazon-ing Overlanding

The Amazon: awesome, exciting, wildlife, adventure, river eco-zone? Or hot, humid, over-bearing, mud-ridden, insect-infested swamp? The Amazon jungle has been all of these things to us (and more) over the last few months. With highs and lows. Most recently we cut diagonally across the Amazon overland driving the BR-319 mud road. As we now leave Brazil and the Amazon for the last time on this trip, heading west again into the Peruvian Andes, we’ve taken a quick scan back over this sometimes challenging but rewarding overlanding route.Amazon overland

 

The Amazon Overland Route

The Amazon Basin is pretty big. Over seven million square kilometres apparently… and there aren’t too many roads, so we couldn’t really see all of it… but we had a stab, seeing it in six countries (click here – link to route map). Our first little sample was in the Madidi of north-east Bolivia but months later we came in from the other side along the north coast of Brazil. The coastal strip towards the Amazon Delta has been cleared for agriculture and is only a bit jungly.  You don’t get the real ‘jungly feeling’ until you reach the river and sail out of the city of Belem into the Delta. Here starts the proper rain-forest and the beautiful but incessant jungle noises.

Amazon overlandOn the route north of the Delta, the dense jungle goes on… and on… and on. Along most of the coast of French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana, a narrow strip of the jungle has been cleared for rural habitation. But you don’t have to venture far inland to be back in the rainforest. Here, the roads end quickly and all transport transfers to the many rivers.

At the far north end of Guyana, some tit-for-tat border nonsense prevents continuing along the coast into Venezuela. Instead, there’s been an attempt (of sorts) to cut a road south through the jungle in-land to Brazil. It’s not a route that might be described as ‘easy-going’.

Once you’re back in Brazil, there is a main road (BR-174) south to the mega-city of Manaus, sitting slap-bang in the middle of the Amazon. Other than said BR-174 linking  Manaus to Venezuela and Guyana, it’s a difficult city to access by land. Your only road to the rest of Brazil is the very long, very tedious and often muddy BR-319 to Porto Velho. Once you’ve hacked that, you can (should you be so minded) complete a circuit of the Amazon Basin, around the south (on good roads) and back to the coast. Alternatively at this point, like us, you can say “Thanks Mr Amazon, you’ve been great ‘n all that, but we’ve done our bit of humid-heat for a while, we’re off for a bit of Andean cool mountain air”.

Crazy place… what’s the point?

So what’s the point of this Amazon route? Just so you can say you’ve driven around the Amazon? Well I suppose you could look at it like that, but if you take that view you’re probably not an overlander 🙂 We do it because it’s there. Because we can. Because we love travel. And because there are lots of interesting things to see on the way.

Let’s start with the Lencois Maranhenses. Not technically in the Amazon, but very much on the approach route to the Delta on the north coast of Brazil. This really was one of our highlights of the whole South America trip so far. Then there is the Amazon Delta crossing itself. Loved it for a couple of days, but it’s not hugely varied or eventful. I’m not sure I’d be quite so keen to do it for the many days that it would take to go longer distances in-land by river.

After the Delta comes the Brazil exit into ‘the guyanas’. French Guiana for its rocket launches, for its giant Leatherback turtles, and for the curious novelty of being in the EU in South America. Suriname for the fascinating heritage of the Maroon communities deep up-river into the jungle. Guyana for the laid-back city vibe of Georgetown and the surprising granite petroglyphs of the Rupununi.

Once you’re back in Brazil, there is the mega-city of Manaus. Here we had a fascinating insight into the controversial meeting of modern development, the ancient indigenous Amerindian cultures and the sensitive jungle ecology.

Delicate Balance

I’m no expert on the matter, but I suspect there are few places on earth where the delicate balance of nature versus the developing world is as critical as it is in the Amazon jungle. Don’t worry… this isn’t an eco-lecture, it’s just a brief ponder on what we saw and learned.

First, the roads. The existence of the few routes through the Amazon is highly controversial. During the construction of the BR-174 (north of Manaus) the indigenous Amerindians protested against the intrusion of their lands. Of course, it went ahead anyway but at the Equator crossing point stands a roadside memorial listing the names of all the construction workers who were killed in attacks by the Amerindians. A deal was struck that the road would only be used during daylight hours and still today, the 150ish km section of the road through the Waimiri-Atroari reserve is closed to traffic from dusk ‘til dawn. The Amerindians allow us (yeah… like they ever really had a choice) to transit their lands, but they understandably want no contact. Even during the daytime transits, it is forbidden to stop the vehicle, to take photos or to detour off the main road.

Many Amerindians continue their lives deep in the jungle, undisturbed by the developing world. But interestingly, in a village near Manaus we learned of certain tribes whose elders have decided there are benefits to be gained by collaborating with the developing world. They have actively (and we are assured, wholly independently… hmmm) chosen to re-locate their whole community closer to Manaus. They’re still not accessible by land, but they have a new riverside spot an hour’s boat ride up-stream from Manaus. Here they can maintain their traditional way of life, whilst benefitting from the services that the city has to offer. They mentioned education and healthcare, but the unmentioned ‘elephant in the room’ had to be their capitalising on eco/ethno-tourism. Had they not moved, we would never have gained access to meet them. Nevertheless, they seemed to speak openly and honestly about the choices they had made.

Rubber, Logging and Chico Time

Rubber-tapping

Two industries that are impossible to miss in the Amazon are rubber-tapping and logging. Inevitably on our route we passed huge trucks loaded up with a freshly cut cargo of precious Amazonian hard-wood trees. My heart sank deeper with every truck-load that we saw, but surprisingly, the evidence was nowhere near as great as we had seen on the roads of Borneo back in 2010.  Some areas of the Amazon are suffering more than others with this.

Our final State in Brazil before exiting into Peru is the far-western State of Acre. Its heritage sits in the rubber industry of the 1800s. However, by the 1970s the rubber-stuff wasn’t quite as lucrative as it used to be and landowners started mass deforestation. But they hadn’t counted on one Chico Mendes.

Chillin’ with Chico!

Chico’s name is everywhere in Acre, from street signs, to schools, to petrol stations. He was a rubber-tapper who feared for his job and his community’s livelihood when the rubber farms were being decimated. So, he started a protest action and organised human blockades to prevent the deforestation. Global notoriety came when he combined his efforts with the then newly burgeoning international environmentalist groups – although their motives for preventing rainforest destruction weren’t quite aligned! Winning United Nations awards, he became the hero of Acre State.

Cutting a long story short… big landowners of 1980s Brazil weren’t famous for their tolerance of people who openly campaigned against them. Somewhat predictably, they shot poor old Chico in his home in Xapuri, Acre in 1988 and in the process, created a martyr.

Casa Chico

The local tourism industry obviously hasn’t missed the opportunity to open up Chico’s house, Chico’s trail, Chico’s Museum, yahdy, yahdy, yah. However… here’s his impressive legacy… the State of Acre today still has over one third of its land with protected forest status. And it still has over 58% of its original rainforest, a higher proportion than any of its neighbouring Amazonian regions. All this is said to be directly as a result of Chico’s efforts.

Onwards… upwards

So, Chico Time is our final story from the Amazon and from the whole of Brazil. It’s been marvellous, fascinating, hot, humid, adventurous, exciting, hot, humid, and, shall we say… ‘trying’ at times. And did I mention that was also a bit hot and humid? Nevertheless, we’re so glad we made the effort to do it. Now we want to say BIG thanks to an amazing Brazil for being by far the most welcoming and friendly country in South America! We’re heading onwards and very much upwards back into the cool, dry mountain air. Ahhhh!

Favourite Amazon Pics

 

Driving the BR-319 (with free pants and a soup tin)

The BR-319 is one of Brazil’s most notorious routes, a mud-road cutting diagonally across the centre of the Amazon rainforest. After our dolphin swim and tourist-time in the city of Manaus, it’s time for a bit of ‘proper’ overlanding. On one of the most remote tracks in South America, we get some free pants and find a novel use for a Campbell’s soup tin!

BR-319

Is the BR-319 that bad?

From our detailed analysis and scientific research into the BR-319 experience (well, chatting to other travellers mostly) the conclusion seems to be that ‘it depends’. On what? Well, mostly on the season: rainy or dry. In the ‘rainy’ season of April to June, it’s a long, rough road with some deep, muddy swampy sections in which many vehicles get stuck. In the ‘dry’ season of September to February, it’s a long, rough road with large holes and deep ruts in the hard-baked mud to jar your bones.

We’re attempting it in June – the end of the rainy season. We’re told it’s been a ‘wetter-than-your- average-wet’ rainy season this year. The 319 is still heavily saturated with deep mud in parts.

In addition to speaking to other overlanding travellers who have done the route over recent years (some of whom made it through and some of whom have got very stuck) we also have a chat with Mr Google. A comment on Facebook from a few days ago describes “… holes almost breast deep, the water in them up to the thigh and the mud part up to your knees”.

Some local lads in Manaus who did the route recently on motor-bikes, looked at Cuthbert and sucked their teeth. The route is apparently still very wet, but they reckoned Cuthbert would probably making it through. Okay. We’ll give it a go. It’s expected to take around four days to do the full 880km from Manaus to Porto Velho, but of course… it all depends!

The first rescue

Our Day 1 starts with the short ferry crossing out of Manaus to the south side of the Amazon river. This takes just an hour, far quicker than the 38 hours it took crossing the Amazon delta when we headed north-bound a few months ago!

BR-319

Scene of Rescue No.1

Next there is surfaced road for a couple of hours, then the going becomes slower and rougher. The constant weaving into, out of, and between the potholes makes it a tiring drive. Oh yes… there is also the heat. I should mention that Cuthbert choses the least possible convenient time to shut-down his air-con. Not the most ‘mission critical’ of systems, but the outside temperature is over 40C midday, the equatorial sun is beating down, and we can’t drive fast enough to get much air-flow through the windows . Moan, moan, moan. I know, I know… many people travel the whole of South America with no fancy-pants air-con in their truck, but I’m a super-softy and have grown accustomed to this little luxury!

BR-319So… end of Day 1, it’s almost dusk and we’re looking for a spot at the side of the track to park-up for the night. Visions of a nice shower, a cold beer and relaxing to sounds of the rainforest, float in front of my eyes. Suddenly, we round a corner to see people and smoke in the middle of the track. We fear that it’s a bad accident and rush forward to help, but instead we find a Chevvy pick-up truck stuck in the deep mud and three people gathered around a fire they’ve lit (not sure exactly why they lit a fire… boredom maybe?). Oh well… I guess at least the end to our tiring day isn’t quite as bad as the end to these poor souls’ tiring day.

The Chevvy is not only stuck in the mud, but it’s blocking the track so we can’t get ahead to tow them through. We first use the winch to pull them back. Then we drive Cuthbert through the mud to the dry ground on the other side. Cuthbert makes it through on his own, but probably wouldn’t make it all the way through towing the Chevvy. Our rope isn’t long enough to reach all the way across, so the Chevvy tries once again.

Will following Cuthbert’s new tyre tracks in the mud make it easier? Nope. But at least it is now within range of Cuthbert’s winch cable on the other side. The driver rolls around on his back in the mud to attach the strop and Cuthbert winches him out. The trio are duly thankful for our assistance and continue on their way, while we finally park-up for our well-earned cold beer from the fridge.

The Second Rescue

BR-319Next morning, we’re off early in the cool. 10 km down the road we pass a road-side shack and soon after that, another vehicle stuck in the mud. No, wait… it’s not another vehicle, it’s the same vehicle. They had spent the night in the shack and got stuck again at their first mud-patch of the day. Following last night’s rehearsal: first winch them out to clear the route, then drag them through. As we’re doing this, two more vehicles turn up. One is a Toyota Hi-lux that gets itself through with a lot of revving and sliding. But with it is a Mercedes truck. It tries hard, but gets deep-stuck in the mud.

Hmmm… he’s big. The Merc driver says he normally has no problem with mud and off-road conditions, but this mud is taking him by surprise. Luckily, he’s not loaded to the full 20T capacity and they reckon it’s current weight is about 10T. Another lucky factor is that these two vehicles carry between them a team of five motor-cross riders…. Muscle power! The guys get themselves a bit mucky digging some mud away from their wheels and soon Cuthbert can tow him through.

The Third Rescue

BR-319Off we go again, now in a mini-convoy of four vehicles, cruising along for 15 minutes to the next mud-bath. This one is much longer than the previous sections and looks far worse. Cuthbert goes first as the Guinea Pig – with low-range gear and all three diff-locks engaged, he powers into the mud. He skids from side to side, his back-end bounces heavily over the deep ruts under the slidy surface mud, he revs and grunts a lot, but reaches the other side. Yeehy! Cuthbert, you little star! The Hi-lux follows through in our tracks and again, we tow the Chevvy through. Now we just have the small matter of the big Mercedes. How to get him through?

BR-319They have a go, revving-up and ramming into the mud-bath but, no great shock, they don’t get far.

Plan A: Winch. Cuthbert’s winch cable won’t reach him from the dry ground on the other side, so Marcus takes Cuthbert back into the mud to get close enough to attach the strop. Problem is… from that position Cuthbert can’t get any traction. When the winch power goes on, he just pulls himself towards the Mercedes. Not really the desired result.

Okay… Plan B: the kinetic tow-rope. The truck guys attach the strop and Cuthbert gives it a go. He pulls hard again, but the momentum isn’t enough to pull the truck out of the mud.

BR-319Plan C: more digging. A lot more digging. Mucho digging. Five fit young motor-cross riders spend over five hours under their truck, digging the mud away from their wheels and axles. I run around delivering water and juice to keep them hydrated. In the process, I have my own mini-mud-disaster moment. I don my wellies and try to choose my stepping points carefully, but I get caught out stepping onto a big soft bit and end up almost up to my thighs in a deep mud-pool! Unfortunately for you (and thankfully for me) no-one has a camera handy at that precise moment . I manage to extract myself from my wellies. They’re buried deep in the mud and gallantly recovered by one of the motor-cross riders, whilst I stand nearby in the merely ankle-deep mud in my socks. It’s so glamourous this overlanding malarkey you know!

Anyway… skipping forward a few hours… the guys have shifted a lot of mud. Every now and then Cuthbert tries again to pull them out, but is only able to move him a few feet then they’re stuck again. Cuthbert even snaps one of his own recovery points in the process.

BR-319Then Marcus has a brain-wave… he deploys our ground-anchor to secure Cuthbert so that when the winch pulls, he doesn’t slide towards the Merc. Slowly, bit by bit, pulling/digging/ pulling/digging, we get them clear. Hurrah!! Much cheering and back-slapping, then on the road again. How far to the next mud-bath? This is going to be painfully slow route if we have to keep stopping to do this.

Actually, after this, there are no more patches bad enough to stop the truck. There are some muddy bits, but the truck is reasonably capable in ordinary mud-conditions and manages them all with a bit of grunt-power! Two more days and 600 km later, we roll into the small village of Vila Realidade.

The Pants and the Soup Tin

BR-319

Cuthbert’s muddy boots

So where do the advertised ‘free pants’ come into the story? Well, in Vila Realidade we meet-up with some of the grateful people that we saved. The lady from the Chevvy presents us proudly with her token of thanks for our towing services: two pairs of boxer shorts! Packaged-up, shiny new white-nylon boxer shorts. I look around briefly for the candid camera, but I think the scenario was even too surreal for such a trick. Well as they say… it’s the thought that counts Sadly my model wasn’t prepared to pose for a picture in said ‘free pants’!

BR-319

My muddy boots!

And the soup tin? Ah!  On the last few kilometres of the BR-319, we get a hissing noise from Cuthbert’s engine. Marcus discovers that the turbo-pipe has blown. He tries a quick-fix, but it blows again quite quickly. He needs something strong to link-up the pipe which just happens to be almost the same diameter as the tin of Campbells soup that we had for supper last night! Ingenious. With the soup can installed under the bonnet, we do the final kilometres of the BR-319 into Porto Velho and the luxury of a Brazilian road-side truck-stop .

So looking back…. hind-sight, 20-20 vision and all that… after the bad mud sections at the northern end, the route is just painfully dull. It took us four days. It’s rough, only moderately muddy and very slow-going. In the heat (and with no air-con remember!) the BR-319 served-up one of the most tedious routes of all our travels so far. The alternative schlepp from Manaus to Porto Velho is seven days on a very slow cargo barge, so you takes your pick! The Amazon is a fascinating place to visit, but it’s BIG. There’s no quick or easy way to cross it.

Next blog… far western Brazil and over to the Peruvian border.

BR-319 Mud Gallery

Manaus and the Venezuela Option

We’re back in Brazil. Friendliest country in South America, maybe even on the planet! French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana have been a fascinating, enjoyable de-tour and one that relatively few travellers make when overlanding South America. But Brazil puts them all in the shade when it comes to enthusiastic welcomes. Even when we can’t understand a word they say, Brazilians say it with a big smile and a thumbs-up! Now we’re in far north Brazil wondering what to do next…

Manaus Opera Houses

Manaus Opera House – challenging those fancy Europeans!

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Guyana: Rupununi

Every now and then, overlanding travel throws up not just a gem, but a surprising gem. A kind of “Well! Who knew???” moment. In south Guyana we have such a moment. After the minor disaster that was our short-lived attempt to reach Kaieteur, in the Guyana Rupununi we’re surprised to find compensation in spades: the beauty of the savannahs and the little visited Amerindian petroglyphs.

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Guyana: Tolls and TV Stardom

Driving into a new country you inevitably find yourself comparing it to the one you have just left. What’s different? What’s the same? Is the food (or more importantly, the beer) any better or worse? We really enjoyed our time in Suriname with the drone and the jungle kids, now in our north Guyana blog we find: (i) TV stardom, and (ii) a very expensive car ferry.
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So… Suriname!

Suriname, Suriname… where exactly is that? Near Vietnam? Nope. Next door to Ghana? Errr, no. It’s on the north coast of South America, above Brazil, snuggled comfortably between French Guiana and Guyana. It’s in the northern Amazon basin, so it’s hot, humid and – at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious – jungly!  We’ve been here a month now and one of our highlights has been entertaining jungle kids with their first ever drone sighting (click here). But Suriname has some history, great wildlife and other stuff to see too, including some interesting ‘bird-cage culture’. Here’s the Suriname travel blog…

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Suriname: 21st Century Jungle

Suriname has rather a lot of jungle. In fact, it’s pretty much all they’ve got here. Best we take a peek then. Last blog we had the thrill of a live rocket launch in French Guiana, now we see the jungle kids’ thrill of seeing their first drone! We’re heading far in-land, well beyond where Cuthbert our camp-truck can take us. Here’s the story in our Suriname jungle blog …
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Suriname time-out

Suriname RiverTeeeny update… After the excitement of French Guiana with turtles and rockets, 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.

Arduino Due projectMarcus 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 🙂

Link to next blog: Suriname: 21st Century Jungle    Link to full South America Blog

 

Monster Turtles and Rockets

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.

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Protests and Papillon

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!

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French Guiana… bonjour!

Just over the bridge from Brazil Amazon 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

Amazon Delta

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!! crossing the amazon delta Continue reading

Lençóis Maranhenses – Dunes and Lagoons

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!

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Brazil: Tudo Bom!

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. We’ve done middle Brazil. Now 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.
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Mission: Middle Brazil

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!
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It’s Brazil, Baby!

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!)

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Little Falls, Big Falls

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.

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Paraguay

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…
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Bolivia: Celebrities and Wine

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.

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