Entering Peru: The Ultimate Bus Ride from Hell

The bus ride from Machala to Lima is 24 hours; and that’s without layovers or border crossing times. We decided to fly. There is no way I want to spend a full day of my life on a bus, especially with our limited time to get to Cusco. Flights just over the border were only $99 instead of the $60 buses. Well worth the cost I think!! It also allowed for another day in Ecuador if we wanted, to recover from Patty’s day hangovers and spend some more time in the city. So before we went out to the Zona Rosa to party, we went to book our flight….
In 24 hours the flights had doubled! It was now over $200 to fly, AND the bus prices went down. This meant A: We were going to bus, and B: We had to leave in 12 hours… Great!

 

We had it all timed perfectly (which is dangerous in South America because nothing is on time) the trip to Tumbes, the Peruvian town just over the border, takes about 2hrs20min. It’s a dead border crossing, but we allotted for an hour and forty minutes to cross it. And it’s a good thing we did!! 
After two, painfully slow, border crossings the 2 working staff members processed our bus of 40 people. The whole thing took an hour and a half, and probably could have been a third of the time if they’d told everyone to fill out a form BEFORE the front of the line, and if one guy hadn’t been playing MAJONG on his computer screen!  This left us 10 minutes to get into the terminal, buy tickets for the next bus and get moving… No time for food I guess!

 

The problem we realized upon arrival in Tumbes, was that there is no central bus terminal in the town (Something that seems to be common here in Peru). Instead, each individual bus company has it’s own terminal, located somewhere around the city. We were traveling with Cruz Del Sol and had no idea where it was. 
Luckily a tuk tuk driver (tuk tuks are EVERYWHERE here) came up to us and said he would take us there for 5 soles. We figured this was a little pricey, but couldn’t work out the conversion rate right away and knew it couldn’t be more than a couple dollars. Because we didn’t have any money exchanged, he even offered to take us to a bank first. We had 10 minutes, so there was no arguing: we jumped in. 
Now as a rule, I’m going to say, never trust a man who has a sparkling, gold, front tooth and who’s first question to you is about your marital status and includes a wink (creepy). After our stop at the bank machine he asked double the price to take us to the bus station (which was one block away, but we didn’t know it). He knew we had no time to argue, were over exhausted and were still unsure of the new money… I glared him down before we handed over the cash and he flashed a shiny grin. Great first impression you’re making on your country buddy!

 

Turns out it didn’t matter. The bus was sold out, and the next one wasn’t for another 5 hours. We tried to get VIP seats on the night bus, but to no avail. Regular seats it was… 
But when we boarded it wasn’t bad! We knew the buses in Peru were second to none and they were going to serve us breakfast, lunch and dinner during the trip. Although their wifi didn’t work, they DID show movies with English subtitles, and the food was quite tasty. I even remember turning to Adam and saying “Hey, I kinda like this bus!” oh how quickly I would regret those words…

 

When I opened my eyes after a night of not so awful bus sleep, I was looking straight out the window to the Peruvian countryside. It was absolutely unlike anything I would have expected. We were in a giant desert with massive black and white, wind-swept sand dunes all around us. There was almost no vegetation in parts at all. Just open expanses of sand, beautifully set in a monochromatic tableau from the morning sun. In the distance were larger mountains in similar tones fading off into the grey sky. I couldn’t believe it! I imagined Peru to be jungle infested, Machu Picchu style, Amazon rainforest-esque! But apparently the northern coast is quite different. After a bit we even drove right along the water. The sand turned browner, and more rigid, and there were long expanses of completely deserted beaches. It was beautiful and surreal.

A couple hours after breakfast, I started to feel sick. That achy, headache feeling that comes about just before a cold or the flu. I didn’t think much of it at the time, and drank some more water in hopes it would go away. About an hour after that, our bus hit a long lineup of other cars, buses, semis and the such. An announcement on the speakers came on, I didn’t catch what was said, and we pulled over on the side of the road. Pulling over and stopping for unknown reasons is so normal in South America I thought nothing of it. We watched a full movie, and had lunch before I realized we had been sitting there for over 2 hours. Then the bus turned off, air conditioning and all, and we sat in the scorching heat of the desert. It was a little after 2 at this point, and my ill feeling had yet to go away. The heat of the bus wasn’t helping, nor were the kids sitting behind us. 
Apparently Adam and I got placed in the “ball pit” section of the bus, where the two kids behind us staked out their territory. One was probably 4 years old, and the other not even a year yet. Note to all mothers out there: please don’t bring your new born child, who is prone to screaming, on a 24 hour BUS journey! It’s not fun for them, it’s not fun for you and it sure as hell isn’t fun for the rest of us!

 

The 4-year-old girl made it her mission to kick the back of my seat AS often as possible.  I was now in full-fledged sick mode, where anything that touched me sent painful shivers through my body. Hot, cold, movement at all, didn’t matter, it hurt! Every kick of my seat made me want to cry, every 15 seconds or so I would jump forward in pain as her tiny foot jammed into the headrest of my chair… Her baby sister was probably worse! She had this cry that was the most horrific noise I’ve EVER heard in my life (Adam can back me on this). It started out as this guttural coughing noise that sounded like she was choking on her own phlegm. Then just as you’re about to be concerned for her health, she erupts into a piercing screech only babies can achieve. A wailing sound of distress that is absolutely deafening! A baby siren of distress!! This went on NON STOP!! All day, all night, all the time…I finally got off the bus.

 

Outside wasn’t much better. It was dusty and hot; everyone huddled in the shade on the side of the bus, there was nowhere to sit down except in the dirt… I was in rough shape. I now had a fever and could hardly stand upright. No amount of water was helping. 
We finally asked what was going on. Turns out there was a strike going on. The Peruvian miners were protesting, and had set up a picket line about 15km up the road. The police were fighting with them, but they weren’t budging. Any vehicle that tried to pass was met with resistance, and rocks were thrown through the windows. It had been going on for 14 hours at this point, and they didn’t know when it would end… Fabulous.

Soon cars and buses that had been waiting there for hours longer than us started turning around. There was a small town 2 hours back that people were going to for the night. Hotels were probably full, but at least they had restaurants and decent bathroom facilities! Our bus was not turning around…
So I braved my seat again, hoping the devil children were taking an afternoon nap. Not the case. I had the chills, and was covered up in a thick blanket in the 38 degree bus. I had to lie across two seats in the foetal position just to keep from being sick. In this heat, with no moving air at all, is when the mother decided to change the baby’s diaper… A foot and a half from my face. I thought I was going to die on the bus.  We had now been stopped for several hours and I desperately wanted to be horizontal and straight at the same time! The seats were beginning to be as uncomfortable as day four in a hammock, and I was less than enthused.

 

By dinnertime, the whole bus was cranky. We hadn’t eaten in hours, but the bus had no more food or water. They weren’t expecting the delay (although turns out they had known about it since it started 12 hours earlier) and so hadn’t brought any more food for people. We were in the middle of the desert, with no amenities, and the driver couldn’t turn around unless told to do so by the head office. A few other Cruz Del Sol buses went back, but ours just sat there… For hours!.  The false alarms were the worst. We all were told to sit down, the engine started, we moved forward a foot, then found out it was a rumour that the picketing ended. This happened too often to be funny.

 

Finally, after 12 hours of being stuck there, we tried to go to sleep. Not much else we could do without any lights or food or power.
  During our sleep, the bus was finally given the go ahead to continue on.  We had been stopped for a total of 15 hours.  My back was killing me, I couldn’t sleep a wink in the night, my fever had broken sometime during the early morning, but my headache and body pains were still very much an issue.  As were the relentless, screaming children, lest you had forgotten!

 

It was 9:00am when we arrived in Lima, only 46 hours after we left two days earlier. We hadn’t eaten food in 20 hours, and we were all in rough shape. This was our third day in the country and had yet to get a hotel room. The joke was, Lima wasn’t our final destination!!! We were going to Huacachina, a small town 5 hours South of Lima just outside of the city Ica. So we immediately booked a ticket South, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and got BACK on the bus… 
I took several trips to the bathroom thinking I was going to puke. Luckily I didn’t. I couldn’t describe the scenery, and I couldn’t tell you much about the second bus trip. Except that I’m surprised I made it. We spent 53 hours getting to our final destination. That is over TWO DAYS on the bus… 
As for the miners, they are still picketing (which is why we are currently stuck in Huacachina with no buses leaving anywhere). The fights that had broken out at the picket line we were delayed at, left 3 people dead and over 60 injured. Now it turns out there’s several more lines to the south of here. What chaos!
  At least from now on, any  bus ride that seems horrible, I can safely say “I’ve had worse”.

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Cali: A Salsa Dancing Haven

We decided to go to Cali solely to dance! In the Southern part of Colombia, Cali is supposed to have South America’s best Salsa clubs, and according to Lonely Planet, “you can dance until sunrise, every night of the week, no questions asked”.  Sounds fun to me!

 

We ended up meeting up with my god brother’s friend Nick, who just happened to be traveling through Colombia at the same time as us. Although I haven’t seen him in about 13 years, for some reason, while traveling, it seems acceptable to greet people from home like they’re your long lost friend! Nick’s been on the road for a little over 6 months; he quit his job, sold his worldly possessions and decided to take his motorcycle around the world for 3 or 4 years. Even after a few short months he had amazing stories to share with us. Turns out, motorcycling around the world is more common than I had imagined. Spence, another guy at our hostel, was actually doing the exact same thing! The two of them were going opposite directions around the world, but figured they’d meet up again in a couple years somewhere around the Middle East. What an unbelievable journey for them both!

 

We took it pretty easy during the day in Cali. We walked the length of the infamous Sexta street, where all the bars come alive at night for parties. Being Friday, even during the late afternoon you could see the bars and restaurants filling up quickly. Cali itself is a fairly large city, but the areas we explored still had a familiar feel to it. The place was exciting and in parts very pretty, and I much preferred it to Bogota and Manizales. On top of that, the city was at a significantly lower altitude, which meant I could finally wear shorts again!! 
After dinner, we found a bottle of Aguardiente (the traditional Colombian liquor that tastes similar to sambooka, with a sweet anise flavouring to it). We had no idea what it would taste like, but decided to mix it with a Canadian dry ginger ale, and after one sip, it was instantly my favourite drink (Unfortunately not so much for Adam, who loathes sambooka to begin with). So we rounded up a United Nations group from our hostel, and headed out on the town.

 

Sexta street was nuts, all the bars and clubs were packed by the time we arrived at 10:30. We found one we liked the look of, sat out on the patio and ordered towers of beer while we shared stories with our new friends. A couple bars later, and before we knew it, it was 3 am. Most of us carried on to a salsa club on the other side of town to dance away the rest of the morning. The place was packed right until closing (at 6am, just as the sun was rising). It was half indoor and half outdoor terrace, which was a perfect way of keeping the temperature down. We danced for ages, with locals just grabbing us out of nowhere to drag us onto the dance floor. Some couples were good, others were just dancing to their own beat, but no one stood out as an excellent salsa dancer by any means. One of the couples in our hostel (who did not join us that night) had said they found very little “professional” salsa dancing in South America. The two of them traveled the world attending salsa conventions and were by all standards experts at the dance! They came to Cali, hoping to find the worlds best salsa dancing, and were a little disappointed. Fortunately for me, who knows only the basic steps, it was exciting just to get out on the dance floor and listen to the music! By the time the club closed, I was exhausted. Time to head to bed, because check out was in 4 and a half hours.

 

The next evening we were booked for a 20 hour bus ride to Quito. 
 Great.  After practically no sleep, I was once again a mess for our travel day. I spent most of the day napping on the couch and back and forth from our favourite breakfast bakery for omelets and banana smoothies. 
We got on the bus at 7:30 and prepared ourselves for another looooong overnight journey. The bus was cramped and had awkward leg rests that made it impossible to stretch your legs out. After watching yet another Jason Statham movie on the bus – that’s 3 for 3 with our buses in Colombia. They love him here – we tried to sleep. It was an awkward, freezing cold, half-sleep for both of us all night. We stopped at a million stations throughout the trip for people to get on and off and the roads were less than ideal for our journey. 11 hours later we arrived in Ipiales, a city right near the border of Colombia and Ecuador. We got off the bus and stepped into the freezing cold. Both of us had every layer possible on and my teeth were still chattering. We grabbed a cab and couldn’t even afford to pay in Colombian money, now that we were down to our last $1.50 in the currency. Luckily the cab driver accepted US dollars and we made it to the border. The border was quick and had no lines which was great. Then back into another cab to get to the bus station in the other town. When we dragged ourselves out of the second cab we were greeted by two, short Ecuadorean men with huge smiles. “Quito! Quito! Quito!” they yelled in rapid concession at us. We managed a nod, then they opened the trunk of the cab, grabbed all our bags and trucked off towards a bus! It took us a moment to figure out what happened in our sleepy daze before we ran to catch up with them. They put our bags on the bus, beckoned for us to sit down and we were on our way in no time. It was a simple bus, with no bathroom, and full of people getting on and off, but we made it safely to Quito several hours later and exhausted out of our minds!

 

Olivenca: A Neverending Journey to the Middle of Nowhere

Olivenca is a tiny beach town about 14km outside of Ilheus on the East coast of Brazil. We spent a night there as a quiet stopover on the way up to Carnaval in Salvador. We figured it would be a good way to split up the bus ride: pick a place on the coast half way up, spend a day, and then continue north!  The bus to get to Ilheus was only 16 hours, which was nothing compared to previous bus times. It was still quite a haul, but Adam chimed in with “nothing will beat the 22 hour one we were on before!” True…


Just to GET to the rodovaria (bus terminal) took 2 hours. We managed to perfectly time our trip to coincide with Rio rush hour and crawled through the city on the sweltering bus. Might I mention that this bus did NOT like the idea of first gear. Every time we slowed to a stop and then started up again the bus would lurch forward and literally send people bouncing out of their seats. Real fun.  By the time we got to our long distance bus, I was already over the idea of sitting down; nonetheless, we loaded up and set out.

The lonely planet guide told us the trip should be 15 hours, but the sign at the front of the bus said “Ilheus 12:30,” which gave us about 16 and a half hours: probably a more realistic end time considering South America’s strict policies on “being on time”.  It was 9am when the bus stopped for breakfast. Neither Adam nor I ate anything substantial because we were scheduled to arrive in a couple hours. We had a fruit cup and a mini sandwich in our bags and figured we’d grab a big lunch when we arrived. 
After killing 4 hours of reading and chatting, we started getting peckish. It was 1:00pm so we had to be arriving soon… Not the case.

At 3:00 we stopped again and both of us rushed off the bus to eat any food possible at the bus station. There was no sign in the place that indicated where the hell we were, and any road signs on the hwy kept pointing towards Salvador.  Guess there’s nothing else to do but wait.

At 5:00pm I had a moment where I couldn’t actually remember any part of my life where I HADN’T been on a bus. It’s one thing to be told you have a 20-hour bus ride ahead of you. You prepare, mentally or otherwise, you aren’t worried about where you are or why you haven’t stopped yet. HOWEVER, when the sign says 12:30, and it’s now 5:00 you start to go very loopy. Adam was nearly convinced we were going to Salvador instead of Ilheus. Then we got very concerned that perhaps the sign meant 12:30AM and we had to spend another 7 hours on the bus!
  I remember looking out the window and feeling my sanity slip. The scenery was becoming denser, the jungle more tropical, and the whole thing felt like a series on “Planet Earth”. All of my thoughts were strange narrations in a David Attenborough voice. “On the surface, the Amazon Rainforest is peaceful, but under the canopy of leaves there are species unimaginable to the human mind; flora and fauna are in abundance in this vastly diverse ecosystem…” For the next 45 minutes every word that came out of my mouth was in a soft, manly, British accent… I need more sleep.



2 and a half hours later I turn to Adam. “guess your theory on ‘nothing can beat our 22 hour bus ride’ was wrong”. We had been on the bus for 23 hours. It’s dark. Our hopes of lying on the beach all afternoon were shattered.

Finally our bus pulls in to the Ilheus station and I almost cry.  Screw getting on a city bus to Olivenca, we’re taking a cab. 
We DO manage to book a bus to Salvador (thank God), and a $40 cab ride later we pull up to a large bungalow on a few acres of land that will be our home for the next 36 hours. 
The couple who check us in don’t speak a WORD of English, and look a little put off that neither Adam and I “fala Portuguese”, but they are sweet, show us to our room, give us a key and indicate they are going to bed. We head into town to grab dinner and call it a night by 11:00. Not exactly how I anticipated my day going.

The next morning we woke up and realized we were the only people staying at this giant hostel. The lady who ran it woke up bright and early and had a buffet breakfast made for us in the dining hall. Because this was our lazy day, we just sat there, ate food, drank a whole thermos of coffee and chatted for hours about nothing. Then down to the beach! We found this big area right on the beach that had tables and umbrellas all the way down to the water; people were everywhere, even in such a small town, and they had a large group of young girls performing traditional Brazilian dances on stage. So we set up camp, had a caipirinha and watched the performances.

After a couple hours and some lunch we walked back through town. The whole thing was very quaint, with cobble stone streets, little restaurants on either side and only a couple blocks squared to make up the whole town. 
We stopped in at an Internet cafe to check emails, and sadly heard some bad news. Adam’s grandfather, at age 90, had passed away peacefully the day before. Although this wasn’t sudden news, it made for a sad afternoon for both of us. So my condolences to the Klauwers’ family; I wish you all the best during this hard time. 
From that point on, we didn’t feel like doing anything. We went back to our pousada, listened to some music, played a couple games of pool and reminisced about our grandparents. It turned into an unexpectedly nice afternoon. We played pool all through the afternoon, and then again at the restaurant for dinner. Finally it was off to bed early, so we could be up for the bus at 7am and head towards Carnaval!

Blumenau: A 46 Hour Mission for Great Beer!

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For those of you interested in hearing about our time in Curitiba, I’m sorry, we missed it. Our long bus ride from Campo Grande, apart from being 10 hours longer than our ticket said, was an additional hour and a half late. We rolled into the city close to half past 7 in the evening, and seeing the size of the city, had no desire to search out a place to stay, only to jump on a bus bright and early in the morning to head to Blumenau, our intended destination. So we arrived in Curitiba, went to the ticket counter and booked a bus right to Blumenau 45 minutes later. Another 4 hours on a bus to go. 
We heard about Blumenau, only a week and a half ago, and instantly decided we wanted to go. We have been enjoying Skol, Brahma, and Antarctica, Brazil’s mainstream beers, because they are light, refreshing and perfect to sip on at the beach or patio on a scorching day; however, we still craved a better tasting and more full flavored beer.  Due to the overwhelming number of immigrants from Germany, Blumenau has a very traditional European feel to it. It also has several German breweries, all of which produce the best beers in all of Brazil (arguably South America). “The Best Beer” is way too tempting of an idea for Adam and I, and so, we went on the most epic, 46 hour adventure in the wrong direction, to spent only 7 hours drinking… Ridiculous? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely!


 

 We pulled up at the Blumenau bus station at 12:30am, after 36 hours of traveling, with absolutely no plans. There is no information on Blumenau in our Lonely Planet guide, the bus station has no tourist desk, and everything else was closed. We were both exhausted. Although my iPod battery is in its last 10% of life, I manage to steal some wifi from somewhere in the terminal. Lucky!  We check out the hostel world app and there is only one hostel listed. Adam gets only the address written down before the wifi cuts out and we lose it completely. We don’t know the name of the hostel, where in the city it is, how much it costs, nothing: just an address. So we find a cab, point to the address, because, even after two weeks, I only know “thank you” and “goodbye” in Portuguese, and people are understanding less and less of my Spanish the further from Argentina we get. The cab drives all across town and ends up pulling into some small alleyway with no lights and no people. We drive up the road for a bit, our driver clearly looks confused, and then he pulls up to a random house that says 271.  He speaks no English or Spanish, and us no Portuguese. We have no other address or name, so our only option is to get out and knock. Adam rings the buzzer and a man comes down, clearly half asleep, and in his boxers – it is 1am. “Room?” we ask. He looks at us blankly and confused as his wife walks up behind him. Then all of a sudden, he wakes up and opens his eyes really wide “ROOM! Yes, yes! Un momento!” He puts some pants on, unlocks the door and rushes us into the house. He speaks a little English, and a lot better Spanish, which is a relief. With our Spanglish conversation, we book ourselves two beds for a decent price in a room to ourselves. He and his wife are so sweet and give us a broken old fan, and some fresh sheets. I think we are the only people staying in the place, and they seem happy about the business. We go straight to bed and sleep for 9 hours. I don’t even realize that the mattress feels like a rock and the pillow is lumpy. The fan feels great and the fact that I’m not sleeping on a bus makes me feel like I’m in a 5 star resort!

The next morning we head to the bus station, and drop our bags; we book a night bus to Sao Paulo and head to the brewery! Eisenbahn is a brewery just outside of town. It brews 10 types of beer that you can also buy around town in bottles, and is the most famous brewery in Blumenau – having won several awards! We get there at 2pm and the place is closed until 4. We are a little crushed after such a long excursion, but we cheer up when we find a local pub a block down the street. The clientele reminds me of the Squarerigger pub on a Thursday afternoon. A bunch of old men, all regulars, who are more than happy to drink beer all day and chat up anyone that is not a regular in the bar. No one speaks English, but one old man comes up to us to have a conversation anyways. He speaks Portuguese, I explain I only know Spanish, he thinks we are German and spits out a few words to us in German. We managed to get across that we we’re Canadian here on vacation to drink the best beers in Brazil. He laughs, and luckily speaks some Spanish, and then explains the history of Blumenau to me.  He describes about the immigrants coming from Germany, but I only pick up half of what he’s saying. I nod and smile nonetheless and ask some questions I think are relevant to the conversation. (Yes Caitlin, old men telling me life stories even happens to me in Brazil- nothing has changed since Ireland, except instead of not understanding accents, I don’t even understand the language!). As Adam points out afterwards, this is my first Portuguese conversation! We high-five about this, even though I didn’t speak one word of Portuguese. We order another Skol, the cheapest we’ve found in Brazil yet, and pre-drink for the brewery!

By 4:00 we are already tipsy, so we stumble over to the brewery. There are so many options of beer, so we start at the top of the list and work our way down! There’s Pilsen, Kolsch, Pale Ale, Weizenbier, Dunkel, Raucherbier: you name it, they’ve got it! As well, they perfectly pair each item on the food list to its proper beer. We shared a schnitzel dish with mustard and tried nearly every beer on the menu throughout the afternoon. There was even champagne they made there called Lust! I got very excited, but it was R99 for a small bottle ($60) so we took a photo instead! Much more economical 🙂

After the brewery we went downtown to walk the main streets. It was like walking through a traditional little German village! The architecture was unlike anything else we’ve come across in Brazil, but the atmosphere was still lively! You can definitely see how this city holds the second largest Oktoberfest party in the world! We stopped at another pub right in the middle of town and had dinner on the patio (with more delicious beer of course). And afterwards we headed to the bus.

I’m not exactly sure what we were thinking when we decided to take a 10 hour night bus drunk, but I can tell you I won’t be doing it again. We figured we would just pass out right away and the beer would help us forget the noise and movement. This might have happened, until we decided to search out the cheapest bus that Brazil has to offer. The seats went back about 2 and a half inches, there was no leg support, the bus lurched over the cobblestone roads and potholed highways and I slept for probably about 15 minutes total the whole night. Not to mention, everyone was already in “sleep mode” when we hopped on the bus, while we were in “party mode”. So we spent the better part of 2 hours telling stories and giggling on the bus in the dark trying not to disturb the sleepers before we decided to try to get some shuteye. All in all, we spent 46 hours getting to and from Blumenau, and spent 20 hours actually in the city (9 of which were spent sleeping). I dare anyone to come up with a larger mission to find good beer! Our bus to Sao Paulo was on time, and we arrived in the station at 7:15 am on zero sleep. We found our way through the metro system and arrived at our hostel 4hours and 15 minutes before check in. Fantastic…

The Pantanal – Tropical Wetlands of Brazil

So Adam’s upbeat attitude paid off and we made it to the Pantanal as planned. We arrived 3 hours late and a man was there to greet us as planned: he only had to stand there for a few hours!
  Our tour group had apparently already left for the jungle, but the guy who greeted us said “no problem” he would just drive us the 5 hours into the middle of nowhere himself, then drive back to Campo Grande alone (yes, he is that nice). He said it would be no problem, because if we left right away he would be back in time to have a nap, and then head out to the clubs with one of his 7 girlfriends. Excuse me?

 

So pretty much immediately after getting off 18 hours of busses, we hop into his beat-up Fiat van and drive through the wetlands towards nowhere. We make excellent time because there is no traffic on the road, stop for lunch and make it to our checkpoint a good hour before schedule. From there we were herded into the back of a pickup truck (exactly like the death cab in Kao Sok for those of you in Thailand with us) and continue for another hour, off-roading through the jungle, towards camp.

The camp is very well put together, and much more luxurious than I would have imagined. There are tons of hammock circles covered by thatched grass roofs, a little swimming pool, beach volley ball court, a small bar, a big dining area, bungalows with dorm style beds and even a soccer field (which is totally unusable because it is filled with cows and bulls). There are a tonne of noisy parrots and unique looking birds (we even saw a great horned owl a few minutes ago). Weird looking little pigs keep roaming around our hammocks and the bugs, of course, are endless.

On our first night, after a wonderful buffet dinner, we went on a “night safari”.   We all jumped into the back of a large truck, our guide Paulo held a huge spotlight, and we drove through the jungle in search of animals!  Before we even left the camp a giant bug hit one of the girls in the chest and fell onto her lap. She started screaming and jumping around, so everyone’s flashlights quickly moved to see what was happening. There on the ground was the absolute LARGEST beetle I have ever seen in my LIFE.  The thing was a little larger than the palm of my hand, with giant pincers and thick, pointed legs! It scuttled around on the ground, freaking even the boys out, until the guide picked it up and tossed it off the side. I’m pretty sure that made everyone a little itchy and squeamish for the next hour of our excursion. Adam and I faired the best, but even the Israeli boys were a little jumpy as every few seconds another beetle hit one of us in the face or leg.
  The jungle was full of life we couldn’t see at night. Frogs, bugs, birds and what sounded like a loud dying cat filled the air with a deafening noise that almost drowned out the sound of the truck we were in! We managed to see quite a bit of wildlife in the short hour we were out. Apart from the bugs, obviously, we saw a whole load of caimans in the ponds. Their glowing eyes were actually really freaky, a good dozen of them staring back at us into the light. Next we came across a family of capybaras, the largest rodents on earth.  They are just like gophers, but are larger than most big dogs. Very weird. Then we saw a Toco toucan in one of the trees, which was really exciting. We saw a bunch of them in the bird sanctuary in Foz Do Iguassu but it was really fun to see one in the wild. We also ran across a deer (yes they are even in the Amazon!) and a fox!

 

The next morning we had breakfast bright and early at 7am. We then went horseback riding all morning! The horses were younger and had a lot more energy than the ones in Uruguay, so we had plenty of chances to gallop along the open meadows, and canter into lakes deep enough to get our feet soaked. The horses seemed particularly thrilled to run into the lakes and splash around for a while. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but the ride was amazing and we were out for a couple hours, messing around through the jungle.

After a short siesta and a wonderful lunch, we set out, in the back of the pickup once again, and towards the Parana River for a boat ride through the wetlands. We didn’t see as much unique wildlife as I had expected. Families of capybaras were fun to photograph, and the occasional caiman, but we did see ENDLESS species of birds. So many I can’t remember even a quarter of their names.  However, even though we didn’t spot the elusive jaguar, or catch an anteater, the scenery was beautiful, and the sunset on the way home was spectacular!

The next morning we were up bright and early for a 3-hour jungle trek. Honesty, I should have stayed in bed. I got very little sleep because Adam and I stayed up late drinking beers with the most interesting man in the world, and so, I was already not looking forward to a three-hour excursion. I also was NOT prepared for the number of mosquitoes that would be out at that time of day!  In the end, we didn’t see any wildlife because three of the guys we were with were so noisy. So instead of a wilderness trek, we hiked it through the dense jungle (at parts literally fighting through with a machete) and I was DESTROYED by mosquito bites. For all of you present for the bug bites Caitlin and I had in Thailand… This was worse. Fortunately, we made it home, and I cheered up a bit after a nice shower and a hearty lunch!

For our afternoon activity, we went piranha fishing! This was by far my favourite part of the Pantanal. We trucked out to one of the near by rivers with some bamboo rods and set up camp with a bucket full of raw steak! 
The piranhas at this time of year (end of the dry season) are starving, so it’s very easy to get a nibble. It is more difficult to pull one out, since they are very smart, and very quick! We were told to stand right up close to the river’s edge, which was slightly unnerving for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one of the guides apparently went into the river a couple years earlier and had a cut on her leg. The piranhas instantly started attacking her leg and she was lucky to get out before losing it. We were apparently fine, because they only attack open wounds, but I didn’t particularly want to push my luck.  Secondly, there were several caimans just a few feet in front of us that smelled the meat and wanted some food. Apparently, the caimans wont attack us, but this was told to us by our guide Paulo, who was making the caimans snap away at dead piranhas he held above their heads… and Paulo was missing a finger. So I’m not sure if he is the most trustworthy source.

Nonetheless, I stepped up to the water, Marcello baited my hook, threw it in and said “when u feel a nibble, pull straight up very quickly”. Before he even finished his sentence I said, “like this?” and jerked the rod straight into the air. The hook, with the meat still attached flew about 12 feet into the air, and a piranha, NOT attached to the hook flew right along side it. I’m pretty sure I must have shrieked a little as both of them flew towards me at a considerable speed. I let the hook swing past me, and the piranha landed at my feet. Everyone looked a little stunned. My memories of fishing in the past have been a lot of waiting around, and not a lot of nibbles, but this was VERY different. Turns out the piranha I caught was a baby, so Marcello kicked it back in (with flip flops on) and we tried again. All of us caught several fish in the short time we were there. I only caught the baby ones (and a tree at one point), and Marcello joked I was the worst fisherman he’d ever seen! Adam turned out to be the hero of the day and snagged two big ones to take home and grill up!

Ultimately, fishing was my favourite part of the Pantanal. If you ever get the opportunity to fish for piranhas DEFINITELY do it. It’s a little difficult to try to fish, while watching for flying hooks, trying to avoid the wasps that want the meat, and keeping an eye out for the caimans that will sneak up within a meter before grunting and giving away their position (and scaring the hell out of the fisherman) but it’s totally worthwhile. As Antoine, one of the French guys, put it “there are too many dangerous things all around!”  
At the end of the afternoon, Marcello and Paulo cleaned the fish, and we headed back to the pousada. For dinner that night, on top of the buffet, we were presented with a huge platter of BBQ piranhas! We each took one and they were pretty delicious! It’s a tasty white meat, but very bony. Kind of reminded me of crab, because it was difficult to get into, but worth the fight! Most of the meat was in the head, which freaked out Antoine and Francois when we ate the eyes and brains.  When in Rome, right?

Our final morning we went trekking through the forest again. I was unenthused to be eaten alive by mosquitoes again, but our guides ensured us we’d see more animals because the noisy Israeli boys had left.  So we dragged ourselves into the truck and drove out to a new trekking area. I came prepared with my bottle of mosquito repellant in hand, the longest pants I own, a long sleeved shirt, AND Adam’s long sleeved shirt on top of that (because he is impermeable to mosquitoes. Jerk.). It was so unbearably hot in the sunshine I could hardly handle it, but I then remembered how itchy I was and powered through. We did see more animals this time, including monkeys, coatis and hyacinth macaws (which are endangered, and only 4000 exist in the Pantanal) among many others. Day 2’s trek was much more worth it.

That afternoon, we packed up our things and headed back to Campo Grande. We waited a few hours at the hostel and caught the 23:25 bus to Curitiba. I took a Gravol about a half hour before the scheduled bus time, because the meds take so much longer to hit me than Adam; however, when our bus left 45 min late I was a total zombie. I could hardly stand; I dragged my feet towards the bus and climbed the steps. The whole bus wreaked of urine, but I didn’t care, I snuck in beside a random man, managed to put together my elaborate sleeping arrangement (the only way I can sleep on the bus) of a sleeping mask, sweater, coat, blow up neck pillow, sarong as a blanket, footrest down, purse tied around left leg, and water by my side. Finally, I don’t have to move for hours!  
We got no more than 10 minutes into the trip before the bus stopped for gas. Everyone had to get off the bus and wait at a checkpoint. I unhappily dragged my ass off the bus and found a bench to sit on to wait. My vision was almost blurry at this point I was so exhausted. I folded in half sitting on the bench, let my head hang between my legs and was half in and out of sleep while Adam watched for the bus. The blood rushing to my brain from being upside-down didn’t help with dizziness, so thankfully the bus came back only 15 minutes later. After setting up camp again, I passed out so fast. I woke up 8 hours later at a breakfast checkpoint and was the only person on the bus. My eyes were stinging from dehydration, and I guarantee I looked like a train wreck. So I washed up in the bathrooms and felt a little more human. It was 8:40am local time (the time zones in this area of Brazil are very confusing) and according to our tickets we got off at 9:00am. This was a pleasant surprise, because we thought it would be longer. Then a man came on the bus and announced in Portuguese that we were making excellent time, and we would arrive in Curitiba at 6:00 PM tonight. Excuse me?  Looks like our ticket was wrong: only 10 hours to go.

Transportation Adventure

Well, everyone should be happy to hear that my travel luck has moved from horrendous airport fiascos to endless bus rides.  Adam and I have been trying to get to Campo Grande for 2 days now.  We told our hostel 3 days ago that we wanted to book a bus right away. They ensured us that busses go several times a day, so to check back with them the morning we wanted to leave and they could book us a ticket.

So the next morning, our receptionist Clei calls up the station and books us on the 5 pm bus. We paid for our ticket, went out to see the bird sanctuary for the afternoon, grabbed our bus snacks (because god knows I’m not eating that bus food again) and make it back to the hostel a couple hours early. 
”Bad news” says Clei. The bus is full. Not just ours, but ALL the busses. No more leave until the following night! So, we book the next day’s bus, stay at the hostel for one more night, make it through the day at the giant Paraguayan/Brazil dam and head towards the bus station (finally).

Our bus is supposed to leave at 18:00.  We are fairly on time and leave at quarter after instead.  No big deal. The scenery in Brazil is surprisingly stunning! It reminds us a lot of driving through the Okanagan with rolling hills of green and fields of crops. Other than a little bit of construction on the highway, we are making good time. Which is really nice because we have to switch busses in a city a couple hours up the road in order to continue North. We have 2 hours on the first bus, 13 on the second. Makes for a long night. Unfortunately, just when everything seems so great, our bus gets stopped for a random drug check. Police come on board with drug dogs and search the isles. Our bags are all taken off the bus, opened up and searched through. A couple people are asked to step off the bus and be checked, but in the end, nothing is found and we all continue. We are now another 25 minutes late.  
I start to wonder if we are going to have issues catching our connecting bus. Thankfully, Adam is the voice of reason and ensures me that the bus system in Brazil is probably like airplanes, and they will let the other bus know we are running behind. This satisfies me enough to stop worrying; however, when we arrive at our random town in the middle of nowhere, our bus has already left. One of the employees at the bus station checks our tickets and writes 22:00 on it. “This your new time, 22:00”. Okay, we have an hour and 15 minutes to wait. Not to worry, we will play a couple games of crib and the time will pass. At 10 minutes to, we head out to where our bags are all stored. A few others join us, but there is no bus. So we wait. At 5 minutes after, we are all asked to move BACK into the terminal to wait. No one is allowed to stand in the loading area anymore. Then they close all the exits but one, set up some ropes and a podium at the only open door, and wait. As busses start showing up around 10:30, crowds of people start huddling around the podium trying to get out. We do the same, as we see someone moving our bags (which had to be left outside) towards a bus and loading them on.  No one is allowed outside. The attendants have a GIANT list of names printed off on some old school printer paper from the 90’s (the one where all the pages are in one long row and you have to rip the holed edges off in order to get a normal sized page). The attendant then starts at the top of the list and works his was down the pages (at least 4 long it looks like) reading one name at a time for passengers on 3 different busses that are parked outside. From the absolute zero Portuguese that I understand, I realize something is not working with the system.  Everything has to be done manually, one person at a time. 
Unlike if this happened in Canada, where people would be unhappy, but quietly brood away in their heads, Brazilians are much more verbal. Everyone is yelling at the attendants: “Dios a mio” (oh my God) is heard repeatedly.  The ruckus is making all the names harder and harder to hear! We push our way to the front, and get on our bus relatively early, which is perfect, because it’s 11:00 and I want to take a Gravol to sleep with on the bus. I was worried about taking it before, incase the bus never came and we were required to function. 
So, much later, after another manual seat check on the bus, we pull out of the depot and continue our journey.  At this point, we are 5 hours and 15 min into our trip.

Total kilometers traveled: 100.

Normally this would be a non-issue. Time is time, who cares, EXCEPT, this is the only place in our trip that we actually have a tour guide waiting for us on the other side. This poor man is going to be standing with a sign that says “Adam and Hilary” and we will not be getting off the bus! We are supposed to be starting our 3-day tour, right as we get off the bus, and head deep into the Pantanal. So, since our bus didn’t wait 20 minutes, I have a hard time believing a tour guide with a full tour of people will be waiting around for 3 and a half hours instead of continuing their 5 hour journey to the Amazon. Adam is still optimistic, which stops me from panicking too much. I don’t particularly want to stay 2 more days in what people keep referring to as “a shitty city” before being able to book another tour.

So this is where we are! I’m on the bus and it’s quarter after midnight. I have supposedly 12 more hours on this bus and the guy sitting in front of me smells like he hasn’t showered in a month. I could smell his body odor LONG before he reclined his chair into my lap, held his arms up above his head and had his hands touching my bent up knees. Luckily, we are right next to the bathrooms, so the sour body odor smell is occasionally masked with the smell of bus toilet. (If you’ve never experienced this scent, it’s a must!). I have no idea where we are, or when we’ll be getting off, but Adam hopes that when he wakes up, we’ll be lucky enough to “just be there”. At least one of us is optimistic! Here’s to hoping he’s right this time 🙂

Rosario: River Life at its Best!

We ended up in Rosario for the sole reason that it was “in the right direction”.  A city 4 hours North of Buenos Aires, Rosario was a great way to split the long haul up to Iguazu.  Maybe it was because I had absolutely zero expectations, but I actually really enjoyed this place! It had the perfect amount of “big city” to keep things interesting, but lacked the overwhelming feel that larger cities like Buenos Aires and Montevideo have. To me, Rosario is the most “livable” city I’ve visited in South America yet.

My favourite thing about Rosario is the nightlife on the river. The whole city stretches along the big Rio Parana, and, while the downtown core remains practically empty on a Friday night, the river swarms with thousands of people! 
The first section of the river we waked through was upscale restaurants. At 11:30pmthese places are hitting prime time for dinner and drinks. Large outdoor areas are set up with tablecloth-covered plastic patio furniture so that groups can enjoy the still stifling temperatures with a cooler river breeze.  As we continued along we discovered the BBQ pit. Far below the walkway – which is several meters above the river level – are row upon row of picnic tables (all completely full with families, friends and good food). There are hundreds of BBQ pits set up along one wall for people to grill up their own food and have a meat cook-off! People brought boom boxes to blast tunes and everyone seemed to be enjoying the evening. Even further along we reached some stairs that brought our path down to water level. Couples lined the giant staircase, hiding in shadows, embracing one another and watching over the happenings below. At the bottom of the steps there was even more to do! Giant, graffiti-filled skate parks were packed with young kids trying out new tricks and showing off to their friends. Families gathered on blankets or lawn chairs on the grassy fields and caught up on their week. Everyone from young babies to grandparents were awake well into the morning, enjoying the lively river-life.  Many people fished off the edge of the walkway (on clearly marked no fishing zones) and EVERYONE shared mate with each other.

Even though I’ve been getting used to the late dinners, the mid-day siestas and having NOTHING open on Sundays, I’m still amazed by the late social aspects of South America. I can’t think of one place in Canada where thousands of families, young and old, friends and lovers will gather around EVERY night and socialize until well after midnight. And although this is still so foreign, I actually am really enjoying it!

We ended up spending 3 days in Rosario altogether. The first evening we went down to the water and joined in with the local nightlife. On the second day we had a “historic” day. I was a little disappointed in seeing Che Guevara’s birthplace. It was one of the top things to do on my list in Rosario, and I couldn’t believe all they had was a red sign outside the building he was born in that read “La casa natal de “Che” Guevara”. The building has now been turned into a bank. No museum, no plaque with something historic written on it… just a street sign.

The creator of the Argentinean flag, also from Rosario, was a completely different story. He had a huge 2 block squared monument for him! Giant columns with a huge, eternally burning, cauldron stood in front of a marble courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard was a massive building with larger than life statues of angels and warrior motifs along the walls. For 75cents you could take an elevator up the 20-story building and get a great view of the city and surrounding river. Worth it for photos for sure!

Our third day was a beach day, the temperature finally cooled to a MUCH more comfortable 33 degrees and was overcast (which tricked me into burning again, even with loads of sunscreen on). It was a perfect way to spend the day after a little too much beer, vino, cards and dancing the night before; also, it was a relaxing way to spend Nikki’s last day with us (so sad!). 
We took it easy that night to be up early for the bus this morning.

Adam and I had no clue this morning where we would be sleeping tonight. We figured we’d just head to the bus station and look for another city north of here. When we found out at 10:30 this morning that the next bus headed in our direction was at 4:45pm we were slightly deterred. We had hoped to spend the night somewhere near Posadas, but to no avail! So we found a bus at 2:30 to Iguazu Falls and picked that one.  We then spent a few hours in the air conditioned McDonald’s across the street, played a few games of our 4-month long crib competition (Loser buys full steak dinner in Buenos Aires at La Cabrera on our last night) and then hopped on the bus… for EIGHTTEEN HOURS!! Looks like “where I’ll be spending the night” is in this chair, with a baby behind me, and the worst movie choices in the history of the world. On the upside, we have been fed dinner, which was a total bonus! Unfortunately, It was a strange mix of what I think was a chicken breast with lemon (Nikki will get a kick out of this – “when you’re really craving a sandwich, get a piece of chicken with lemon”) and a weird slice of a wrap with cheese and ham.  Maybe it was an olive: something salty anyways. Then there was a stale bun with a slice of ham stuck to it, but the ham tasted like it was doused with sugar. Not sure why. There was also another rock hard bun, and a strange cookie that was dipped in yogurt? White chocolate? Not sure, nothing had any flavor in it. Adam swears the cookie was the best part, but I took one bite then passed it over. To compare, I would eat airplane food everyday of my life rather than look at that meal one more time. Needless to say, I’ve called dibs on the bathroom first when we get food poisoning, so Adam’s shit out of luck on that front.
  Anyways, I’ve now been on the bus for a little over 8.5 hours and I really think my years sitting in a car, working at BC Ferries, has prepared me well for South American bus rides! Unfortunately, sleeping on moving vehicles is NOT my forte, so Adam has promised to drug me up with sleeping pills so I can function tomorrow when we are dropped off in Iguazu at 9am.  These falls better be all their cracked up to be…
Wish me luck!

(As a side note, the bus took 20 hours, but we arrived safely!)