In 2009 I got a job in Chile. Rather than flying directly to Santiago I took the chance to travel through Brazil and Argentina on my way to southern Chile. Brazil was a country I had always dreamed of visiting, the Amazon basin alone is an obvious draw for anyone with an interest in natural history. Previous trips to the rainforest had shown me how hard it is to see wildlife hidden amongst a dense jungle canopy so instead I opted to begin my South American adventure in the worlds largest wetland, the Pantanal. Notorious for its bird life the Pantanal is also a great place to see jaguars, caimen, capybara and maned wolf amongst an estimated 1000 bird species, 400 different fish species, 300 mammals, 480 reptiles and over 9000 invertebrates. Afterwards I would head South to the mighty Iguazu waterfalls that lie on the border between Brazil and Argentina and then on to the Andean mountain town of El Bolson. The Pantanal leg of the trip started with a night in Rio de Janeiro airport and, on the whole, get less comfortable from there onwards. The border regions of the Pantanal are home to a myriad of luxurious lodges who can take you wildlife watching from the front of boat, the back of a horse, a 4x4 or a light aircraft and probably by piggyback if you tip generously enough. Predictably such quality establishments were well outside my budget and with only 2000 pounds to last me 8 months in South America I set off with 100 in my back pocket and a desire to start my trip with a wildlife bonanza.
Yellow and Green
On the map the Pantanal appears as a 150,000 square kilometre blank spot, an area without roads which only a few state boundaries dare to cross. Only one road makes any attempt to infiltrate the area, the Trans-Pantaneira Highway. "Trans" is perhaps a bit generous in this case as the dirt road doesn't so much cross the Pantanal as make a hundred kilometres of headway before abruptly giving up. I'd been told by a friend that the wildlife viewing from the road was fabulous. My plan was therefore to hitch hike down the Trans-Pantaneira in the back of pick up trucks for a couple of days, reach the hotel at the end of the road and then hitch hike back up again. This plan fell apart almost the moment I left Poconé. For a start I picked up lifts much to easily and by 3pm I'd already reached the end of the road, been dropped off and found the hotel closed for repairs. It was the dry season and it was hot, 43 degrees when I'd landed in Cuiabá and it felt hotter here. Happy to have made such great progress and already seen more wildlife than I could have hoped for (including a maned wolf) I flagged down a passing boat and hitched further into the wetland finally stopping at the end of the day by a tree in which a pair of hyacinth macaws were nesting. Handing my boat driver some Reals and returning a cheery wave good by I sat back blissful ignorant of the fact that he would be the last person I would see for 6 days.
One among millions
By catching lots of piranhas to complement the two days of rations I'd brought I was able to wait out the days of being marooned in the Pantanal though heat stroke (from hitch hiking in the pickup), armies of mosquito, overly friendly caimen and the constant feeling that I was being watch by a jaguar made it a less than restful experience. It was only when I returned to Poconé that I learned that every Saturday many locals go fishing in the rivers which had been why my entry into a comparative no mans land on the other days of the week had been so easy. I was able to barter a lift back to Poconé in the back of the lorry on the condition that I first assisted with the offloading of the 4000 or more bricks it was carrying to the closed hotel. Exhausted, sweating profusely and covered from head to foot in the shredded newspaper that had been used to pad the bricks I was euphoric as I was bounced out of a place I had dreamed of visiting for so long. Feeling like I had escaped a long drawn out death through the over consumption of Piranha and having my blood drained by a billion insects I began my journey south to Iguazu in very high spirits.
Land of mist and thunder
Butterflies at Iguazu
Iguazu is so vast that it needs to be visited twice, once from the Argentinian side and once from the Brazilian side. Only by doing both do you get a full overview of this remarkable complex of waterfalls and Atlantic rainforest. I was unlucky and got cloudy skies both days and a massive violent storm as the final crescendo to my watery two days at the falls. Whilst I was there I noticed two things. The first is that whilst the digital camera is an amazing invention it also has a lot to answer for. I couldn't believe how it seemed to be stopping people actually looking at the wonders in front of their eyes. I saw family after family and backpacker after backpacker approaching a jaw dropping view only to point a lens rather than their eyes at the scenery, hit the shutter and move on often without missing a step. Being able to share photos and show friends and family the amazing places you've been to is a wonderful development in photography but can you truly claim to have been somewhere if you to have only seen it through an LCD screen? During my whole travel in South America I was repeatedly flabbergasted by my fellow travellers inability to stop and really look at a scene in front of them before marching onward to the next sight that needed ticking off. The second thing I learned is that we are all influenced in the same way by waterfalls. It makes most of us need to use the rest rooms or a convenient bush more often than usual but standing in front of a crashing waterfall on a slippery walkway makes EVERYONE break into a broad smile. There is apparently something ridiculous about being in the presence of such an awesome cascade. I cant pin down what it is but not one person I saw in Iguazu wasn't afflicted by a ridiculous grin every time they came close to one of the hundreds of falls.
Island in the clouds
My time in Iquazu ended with a bang, quite literally. The storm that had been threatening for hours finally broke around me whilst I was gazing in wonder at the devils throat, grinning madly and looking for a convenient bush. Stuffing my camera into a dry bag I began to jog back along the metal walkways that formed a safe path over the myriad of rivers. Running faster as the lightning crashed overhead resulted in my legs disappearing from beneath me as I turned a slippery corner. In trying to catch the fall I swung my arms, and the drybag I was holding, in wild circles. This had no effect in terms of helping me regain my balance but did result in me wind-milling my camera into the ground with about as much force as I could ever hope to muster. The smash of my lens meeting the metal grate walkway was immediately followed by my right knee doing the same. "Are you ok?" asked a German tourist. "Yes fine" I automatically lied. The concerned German didn't look convinced but left me to steady myself against a hand rail. I took stock of the blood streaming down my leg from three deep gouges that looked like they went seriously deep and wondered just how broken my new camera was. I didn't dare open the dry bag until I was on a dry and comfy bus to Buenos Aires. I expected that the force might have shattered a lens element or two or worse still ripped the lens from the mount or worst of all ripped the mount out of the camera body. I was amazed to find nothing more than a slight dent in the CLP filter ring. I was less happy when I woke up on the same bus 20 odd hours later and found my wounded knee had set during the journey and rightly surmised that getting off the bus would be a savage ordeal. Over the next month I took great pleasure in telling gullible backpackers that my ravaged knee was the result of a narrowly survived jaguar attack in the Pantanal.
The devils throat
Mirror in the mountains
El Bolson was my first taste of the Andes, a mountain range that I would stay glued to for six more months. On my way there I had felt a southern right whales breath on my face, been wished a Buenos Dias in a thick welsh accent in Gaiman, slept in a fire station, drunk beers with an odd German on the trail of Bruce Chatwin and almost run at full tilt into an irate 350 kg male southern sea lion. All these are memories that have lodged with crystal clarity in my mind but none of them can compare to the majestic beauty of my first glimpse of the Andes. Crisp, clear, mighty, infinitely varied and covered in a detailed beauty that I could spend a lifetime exploring the Andes are the one area on earth I would go back to before anywhere else that I've visited. El Bolson is a wonderful mountain town, the soft fruit capitol of Argentina and also where 90% of Argentinas hops are grown. A sort of Argentinian version of Betws-y-Coed with Skiing in winter, a week long Jazz festival and glorious hiking in summer. The only question is why I only stayed a week. Each mountain Refugio brews its own beer and the whole place felt very Lord of the Rings. In fact one Refugio caretaker was even called Legolas. Realising that I might become stuck in this fantasy land indefinitely I pushed on for two more days on foot into the mountains and was greeted with a spectacular view into Chile. The country where I would spend the next four months.
The view into Chile
Alone in the hills on an outcrop that overlooked a perfect valley I heard a noise behind me. Hoping it was a goat rather than a puma I turned around and was greeted by two very friendly and very stoned Israelis. We chatted for a while and then fell silent and looked at the view. After about 15 minutes one of them quietly said "Its like looking at a plasma, you know, the clarity, its better than any TV I ever saw". As they both wondered off into the valley I couldn't help but agree with the statement.