A grown-up gap year
Sitting on horseback, we look out across plains of golden scrub at distant thorn-shaped mountains from which a glacier shuffles into a blue lake.
Wild horses graze and condors wheel in the Patagonian sky. Our guide Hernán explains that we are among twenty people on a ranch three times the size of Buenos Aires. A long-buried feeling of tearful elation rises through me.
‘I hate smoking,’ I’d moaned to my girlfriend Siobhan, as we lit up in a London pub a year previously. ‘Me too,’ she replies. ‘And I’ve done some calculations,’ she adds, ‘if we give up our jobs and flat and smoking, and travel around South America we’ll actually save money.’ I look unconvinced. ‘It’s true,’ she continues, ‘we’ll get into less debt.’
Perhaps it was a quarter-life crisis. Maybe one conversation too many about chucking out the mouldy vegetables from our organic box, or perhaps just a sudden jolt of common sense.What would we leave behind? A town where happy people live in billboards, a country where having fun is a slow form of toxic suicide. I looked in the mirror as I carried it out of our emptying flat - purple bags under my eyes, yellowing pallor. Packing up, I had had no doubts about the wisdom of going to Latin America for three months.
Why Latin America? Years previously I’d been to Mexico, and Siobhan to Ecuador, and we’d been slain by the exotic beauty of the landscapes, the savage strangeness of the pre- Columbian culture, and a continent that wears European clothes but is foreign underneath. But there was another strong reason. We needed a break from our lives in Britain and you rarely get to hear about Latin America here because, there being just a few tiny bits of pink on that quarter of the old empire map (Guyana, Belize, the Mosquito Coast), our newspapers don’t give a stuff about it. Our plan (April - June): don’t do too much. It’s autumn turning winter in the southern hemisphere so start south in Argentina and head to the tropics.
Five weeks after arriving in Argentina I realise the country is dominated by rivers. At the Perito Moreno glacier we walk in crampons on the blue-white river of ice as it flows achingly slowly from the Chilean ice field into Lago Argentina. In Buenos Aires we stand at the famous obelisco as a torrent of beeping cars floods joyously down the fourteen-lane Avenida 9 de Julio in jubilation at a Boca Juniors victory. An icy jade stream guides us between the vast multicoloured stone sentinels of Aconcagua National Park; we kayak down the frothy whitewater rapids of Rio Mendoza; sip at wine as it flows from Mendoza’s grand colonial bodegas out over the world. And, most spectacular of all, we stand for days marvelling at the gargantuan Iguazú Falls, where 275 vast cataracts drain the Rio Paraná into a U-shaped sinkhole of cataclysmic mayhem.
But as important as this beauty and adventure is the time that frees up and reshapes patterns in a brain dulled by repetition. Time spent in a café; cappuccino and media-luna (croissant) at your side, struggling to read the international news. Time preparing the furniture of a Spanish sentence to ask what this impromptu fiesta is all about, the drunken walks home to your hotel gibbering your latest theory about ‘being an Argentine’, the night-time bus rides sleepily reclining in your seat reading Don Quixote. The small victories in the language, in planning a rare seamless leg in the onward flow of your journey, in finding suddenly one day that you’ve forgotten the existence of the Middle East, your age, tax rating, home improvement TV and organic boxes. The realisation that we are no longer Londoners, we are human beings. Just another pair of travellers, we cross from urbane Argentina into Paraguay - ‘an island surrounded on all sides by land’ according to the celebrated writer Augusto Roa Bastos. After a week exploring its shabby capital Asunción, the sweltering Chacó, a region of scrub, wolves and undiscovered tribes, and the beautifully preserved Jesuit missions in the south of the country, we head to Bolivia.
Everyone I spoke to who had travelled around Latin America cited Bolivia as the country which best matched their preconceptions of a magical continent. With its western half miles high in the mountains and the east a jungle-covered plain, landlocked Bolivia boasts more strange and unique attractions than any country I’ve been to. Up at the top of the Andes are the vast salt flats of Uyuni, one of the world’s most breathtaking and eerie landscapes, the sacred Lake Titicaca where the Inca civilisation was born, and dinosaur footprints at the beautiful colonial town of Sucre. Then there are the tragic but intriguing silver mines at Potosí, and the world’s highest capital La Paz, with its skyscrapers, coca museum and vast street markets selling llama foetuses for luck. To get out of the mountains, we cycle down ‘the world’s most dangerous road’ - a dubious boast, but an amazing ride with near kilometre drops off the edge of the thin ledge, and a complete change of climate, flora and fauna within a few hours’ freewheeling.
But, for us, the jewel in the Bolivian headdress was the Chalalán eco-lodge. Nestling amongst two million hectares of pristine rainforest are eight wooden buildings on the edge of a small lake. We were guided around the thick jungle to see the exotic plant and birdlife and to search for rare mammals like the jaguar, maned wolf, white-lipped peccary and tapir. The lodge is owned and run by people from the nearby village of San José, and spending time with them is a big part of its charm. They have met the challenges of the modern world brought to them by loggers, scientists and tourists while holding on to their ancient traditions. Alejandro Alvarez, our guide, has the magical ability to call the birds and animals and tempt them towards us. "Do you have a TV?" a guest asks during a discussion about the popular new president Evo Morales. Alejandro shakes his head. ‘So how do you know about current events?’ they ask, confused. Alejandro laughs: ‘we listen to the radio’.
Our last port of call before returning home is Peru and the beautiful Inca capital of Cusco perched high in the Andes. We are trekking to Machu Picchu - Latin America’s number one visitor attraction - but rather than approach it by the busier Inca Trail, we opt for an alternative route - the Weaver’s Trail.
‘Will it be hard going?’ Siobhan asks. ‘Not very,’ I reply confidently. Our first stride following guide Ruben up the side of a mountain affords a different answer. The thin air offers your lungs little to squeeze on, and muscles are immediately screaming from oxygen starvation.
This is a hefty physical challenge for both of us, as is spending a sleepless minus 15 degrees night wrapped in all of our clothes and every beautiful tablecloth and wall hanging we have bought from the traditional weavers we’ve come across. But when at lunchtime you descend to a llama-grazed valley, to a table by a small green lake glistening in the sun, and your famished, aching body is fed delicious soup and grilled meat... when you lay your weary bones in your tent and fall asleep at 7pm for the first time since you were a child... when you wake and force yourself out into a world of blue sky and towering snow-covered crags, then you begin to value the lung-busting effort. And thank the heavens for giving up smoking and for having swapped London for Latin America.