Amongst the angels in the Recoleta Cemetery

Anyone who has ever watched the BBC series Dr. Who and is familiar with the Weeping Angels, will understand the trepidation someone might feel visiting the Cementerio de la Recoleta. The Weeping Angels, also known as the Lonely Assassins, are alien killers as old as the universe itself. They’re also one of the most terrifying and dangerous foes Dr. Who has ever faced. If observed, Weeping Angels instantly turn to stone and cannot be killed but, if you blink or turn your back on them just for a second, they will kill you in an instant.

Weeping Angels look just like many of the statues in the Recoleta Cemetery. It’s not a big leap of imagination to wonder, as you wander around, whether any of the angel statues are about to spring to life and get you. I may have an overactive imagination, but so exquisitely carved are the statues that they have an unnerving lifelike quality. The lovely bronze statue of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak in her wedding dress (she died on her honeymoon), is just one example. Her family added a pretty lifelike statue of her dog, Sabú, when it died as well.

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The Recoleta was once outside the city of Buenos Aires, and began life when a convent was built on the site in 1732. When the religious order was disbanded in 1822 the site was converted into the city’s first public cemetery, but the cemetery you see today is the result of remodelling in 1881. There are some 6,400 tombs inside the Recoleta’s walls, with architectural styles ranging from Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic and Baroque, and from small and personal to immense and grandiose. It’s a spectacular place to explore.

This is where the great and the good of Argentinian society will spend eternity, and the cemetery is packed with the famous, rich and powerful. There are no fewer than 26 Argentine presidents buried here. As are Isabelle Colonna-Walewski, grandchild of the Emperor Napoleon; Independence War hero, Irish-born Admiral William Brown; Latin America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Carlos Saavedra Lama; Luis Federico Leloir, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; the Wild Bull of The Pampas, boxer Luis Ángel Firpo; not to mention the most famous of them all, Eva ‘Evita’ Perón.

Eva Perón’s tomb is the most visited in the whole cemetery. Strangely, given her fame, it’s one of the more subdued tombs to be found here. In 1955, Evita’s embalmed corpse was removed by the military after a coup against her husband. Her corpse spent two years hidden in Buenos Aires before being buried anonymously in a cemetery in Milan, Italy. It was then returned to her husband, who was in exile in Spain. Finally, her body was returned to Argentina in 1974. Today, it’s buried five meters down under tonnes of reinforced concrete to prevent its removal a second time.

Perhaps the most tragic death of any person buried in the Recoleta is that of ‘the girl who died twice’. One night in 1902, 19-year-old socialite Rufina Cambeceres died suddenly while going to the theatre. She was brought to the cemetery and her casket was placed in her family crypt and a funeral held. The following day a cemetery worker discovered that the casket had moved in the night and feared grave robbers had tried to open it to steal jewellery she was wearing. The casket was opened.

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Inside, Rufina was dead and the casket lid had scratches gouged into it, her arms and legs were covered in bruises – she had been sealed into the casket while still alive. The theory is that she may have had a medical condition that induced a comatose-like state, making it seem to the three doctors who examined her that she was dead. The idea of her blind panic waking up inside a coffin is the stuff of nightmares. Luckily, her story may well be a ghoulish myth. What isn’t myth is her beautiful Art Nouveau tomb, with a life-size and lifelike statue of her opening the crypt door.

Her’s is just one of many gloriously extravagant tombs in the Recoleta. Walking around you come across the most extraordinary monuments to the dead but, amongst all this opulence, the nicest thing about spending an hour or two here is simply unearthing the small details that have been delicately carved into marble or cast in bronze. It’s a little like spending time in an open air museum, albeit a bit of a creepy one.

Tomb of Rufina Cambeceres, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of Rufina Cambeceres, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of José C Paz, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tomb of José C Paz, Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, social history and tourist traps

La Boca is a colourful place that comes with a fascinating social history, but visit today and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d wandered into a weird working-class theme park. The ‘La Boca’ that most people would recognise, and most tourists visit, is made up of the Boca Juniors football stadium, La Bombonera, and the colourful streets of brightly painted ramshackle houses, tango dancers and tourist trap restaurants, El Caminito. The rest of La Boca is a rough and ready working-class district, one of the poorest in the capital.

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bus loads of tourists visit daily to glimpse this historic working-class barrio that has become a cultural reference point for the nation. As a consequence, the area has been transformed into a tourist ghetto. In neighbouring streets the reality of modern-day poverty goes unseen, because it’s just too dangerous for tourists to walk around the area outside El Caminito. A tourist might, on occasion, be unfortunate enough to be liberated of their wallet, but I doubt the local community sees much tourism money.

La Boca has always been an immigrant area, it was Buenos Aires’ original port and the first place most new arrivals would see when they reached Argentina from Europe. In the 1830s a huge number of migrants arrived from Italy, the majority from the Genoa region. They washed ashore in La Boca, changing the barrio and Argentinian society for ever. Later in the 19th century, they were joined by waves of migration from Ireland, Spain, Germany and other European countries. European’s have now been supplanted by economic migrants from Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and further afield.

The majority of new arrivals were (and are) poor, and they built their homes from whatever scrap materials they could find, including the corrugated metal sheets that can still be seen in the area. They painted their houses with leftover paint, bequeathing La Boca the vibrant colours and bohemian flavour it’s famed for today. Amidst these crowded streets, and the melting pot of cultures and languages, tango is said to have been born (although there are rivals for that crown).

The port of La Boca provided employment and the area was one of the most populous in the city. Disaster arrived in the shape of Puerto Madero, a new port further to the north that opened at the turn of the 20th century. People migrated to other areas in the city and La Boca entered a period of decline. A revival of sorts began in the 1950s driven by local artist, Benito Quinquela Martín. He convinced people to start painting their houses in the bright colours of the first immigrants, and promoted dance, music and theatre.

Bus to La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bus to La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

After lobbying by Martín and others, the city declared the streets of El Caminito an open air museum in 1959. It’s been drawing tourists ever since, although I imagine its evolution to modern-day tourist trap wasn’t the original plan. That’s not to say that La Boca isn’t worth visiting. It’s still an interesting place, with a couple of outstanding museums and galleries in the vicinity. The Proa gallery overlooks the river close to El Caminito, it had an Ai Weiwei exhibit when we were there, including Forever Bicycles outside the entrance.

We wandered the area for a while, stopped for a snack and watched tango dancers entertaining the crowds, before jumping in a taxi to La Usina del Arte. The taxi driver somehow managed to massively overcharge us for the short journey. The Usina was opened a few years ago in the old Italo Argentina de Electricidad building, which was an operational electricity plant until 1997. Today, the 7,500m2 space houses theatres, exhibitions and even a 1,200 seat symphony hall. It’s worth visiting if you’re in the area, especially if afterwards you can snag a table at the legendary restaurant, El Obrero, just around the corner.

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rainbow car, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rainbow car, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Forever Bicycles, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Forever Bicycles, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, where tango royalty is buried

I’d say that the Chacarita Cemetery is hidden away in a quiet and untouristy corner of Buenos Aires, but at 95 hectares this is less a cemetery and more a city of the dead. It’s so huge – the more famous Recoleta Cemetery would fit into Chacarita eighteen times over – that there are roads to take you to its most far flung corners. Its size makes it all the more remarkable that, before a chance discovery that tango legend Carlos Gardel is buried here, I’d never heard of the Chacarita.

It’s not just the size of the cemetery that makes it special though. Its mausoleums and monuments rival those of the Recoleta for their grandeur and beauty; and, while it may not have the sheer number of luminaries that the Recoleta houses for all eternity, fame has left its mark on Chacarita. There are a number of tango glitterati, including pianist, Carlos di Sarli; bandoneon player, Aníbal Troilo; composer, Osvaldo Pugliese; vocalists Ada Falcón and Sofía Bozán; one of the pioneers of tango, Ángel Villoldo; and Carlos Gardel himself.

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Memorials to Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Memorials to Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Grave of Carlos Gardel, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Finding the final resting place of these greats of tango isn’t exactly easy. There are no maps of the cemetery and no signage once you’re there. We’d walked through the up-and-coming Villa Crespo area to get there and, instead of arriving at the very grand main entrance, we found ourselves at the back entrance. There was no information available, but a nice security guard pointed us in the right direction for Gardel’s tomb. Twenty minutes later we were lost amongst a maze of tombs no closer to finding it than when we were at the entrance.

The dead don’t need shade and a fierce sun was beating down on us as we wandered hopelessly around. Occasionally we’d see people in the distance, but there was no one to ask for help and there were no signposts. We walked to the main entrance and unearthed one of the cemetery’s staff. Our new set of directions led us back into the maze and we were again lost within minutes. We spotted a couple of camera carrying tourists chatting to a gardener. We followed them and finally found the right place.

The upside of being lost was that we’d accidentally wandered around a sizeable part of the cemetery, although lacking a map of the tombs we had no idea which tombs we were seeing. There was no mistaking Gardel’s tomb though, if for no other reason than there was a man from Chile dressed as Gardel having his photo taken next to it. This is a common occurrence apparently, and if you come here on Gardel’s birthday there are dozens of people doing the same.

The Chacarita Cemetery started life in the 1870s thanks to a Yellow Fever epidemic that put the rest of the city’s cemeteries under enormous strain. The new cemetery took the overflow and it grew over the next 140 years to become the largest in the country. Unlike the Recoleta, anyone can be buried here, poor and rich, famous and anonymous. There are even British and German sections dating from the 19th century – they aren’t marked and we couldn’t find them.

Jorge Newbery's tomb, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jorge Newbery’s tomb, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jorge Newbery's tomb, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jorge Newbery’s tomb, Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The cemetery is popular with actors, film stars, musicians, sports people and dancers. Alfonsina Storni, one of Latin America’s most important poets is buried here; as are prima ballerina, Norma Fontenla; José María Gatica, the nation’s most famous boxer; and aviation pioneer, Jorge Newbery, after whom one of the city’s airports in named. Newbery’s monument is extraordinary. There are several former Argentine Presidents and military dictators here, including Leopoldo Galtieri, who ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas in 1982.

We spent a few hours wandering the cemetery, it’s a remarkably peaceful place in the bustling city. Eventually, the heat and lack of shade got the better of us and we decided to head back to Palermo for some lunch. Our visit to Chacarita had been eye-opening though. While Recoleta may be easier to navigate, if you have time to spare it’s well worth making the effort to explore it.

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires, the quixotic city at the end of the world

Buenos Aires is a city that excites the imagination, a historic and cosmopolitan place at the end of the world. More has probably been written about it than other city in South America. The city’s European heritage, and grand old European architecture, crashes headlong into pulsating Latin American culture in a fusion that is both beguiling and a victim of cliche. This is the tempestuous home of tango, vivacious and vibrant, with stylish galleries, fine museums, and even finer dining; from the cobbled streets of gritty La Boca to the 19th century glamour of Palermo, fashionable barrios abound.

Carlos Gardel art, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Carlos Gardel art, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango art, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango art, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street art in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street art in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Yet, for all its beauty, Buenos Aires is also in possession of plenty of ugliness. It’s a city still recovering from a financial crash that dispossessed millions. On my first visit here just after the crash, the city felt like a glamorous bankrupt who was trying to maintain appearances. Political and economic instability, not to mention corruption, have all left their mark on the city. Poverty, crime and homelessness are not easily ignored, even if they don’t affect tourists much. Tedious financial controls do affect tourists, and banks still ration money and charge you heavily for the privilege.

I’d spent thirteen long hours on the flight reminiscing about this most quixotic of cities,  planning what to see and do after a ten year absence. Within 12 hours of arrival, I had more mundane matters to deal with: I broke my big toe on a badly repaired sidewalk. This led to a revelation. In Buenos Aires sections of sidewalk often look like they’ve been hit by an earthquake. I’ve always wondered why, and now I know: shop and home owners are responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalk in front of their building. Many don’t bother to carry out much needed repairs.

For someone who loves to explore on foot, and had planned some hiking in the Andes, a broken toe wasn’t good news. At least soaring summer temperatures in the city meant I could wear flip-flops. We based ourselves in an apartment close to Plaza Immigrantes de Armenia in Palermo. The twenty or thirty blocks panning out from here are home to some of the city’s best restaurants, quirky galleries, trendy bars and, the fashion of the day, microbrewery pubs. All reassuringly within hobbling distance.

Long gentrified, Palermo is a fascinating area to spend some time. There are numerous versions of Palermo – Chico, Viejo, Soho, Hollywood, Alto – estate agent Scrabble at its finest. Its mix of buzzing streets, leafy parks and lovely plazas, make it the perfect place to adjust to Buenos Aires’ pace of life while planning where else to visit. One thing not to miss is the Fola Fototeca Latinoamericana, which had an excellent exhibition of early 20th century black and white photos of Buenos Aries by Harry Grant Olds.

We visited nearby Almagro, home of tango legend Carlos Gardel and a small museum in his former house telling the story of his life and music. This includes the chance to listen to any (or all) of the 893 songs he recorded, and watch grainy feature films in which he starred. There’s an excellent documentary of the final days before his death in an air crash. The museum is in the old Abasto district, a former working class area once dominated by a wholesale fruit and vegetable market. It’s one of the birthplaces of tango.

Gardel was known as El Morocho del Abasto – the dark-haired boy from Abasto – and there are murals of him throughout the area. The district isn’t touristy, and feels a little run down, but it’s an interesting area to explore. I assumed that Gardel was buried in the Recoleta, but he’s in the less glamorous Chacarita cemetery. The newsreel footage of his funeral shows huge frenzied crowds thronging the streets. After seeing the film we decided to find Gardel’s tomb. Another revelation. The Chacarita is as magnificent as, and a lot bigger than, Cementerio de la Recoleta.

Tango dog, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango dog, Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street art in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street art in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Back in the barrio, a trip through Argentina and Uruguay

Argentina often feels more like a state of mind than a country. It is an enormous place, a land of extremes that requires some mental gymnastics to truly grasp. Drive from La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia, to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, and you’d cover a distance of 4,987 km. On your journey you would encounter just about every climatic zone, from subtropical to subantarctic; you could visit its lowest point of -105m, and its highest of 6,962m; or dip your toe in the ocean along any of its 4,989 km of coastline.

The world’s 8th largest country only has a population of 43 million. A third of whom live in and around the capital. Most of the rest live in a handful of smaller urban areas. There are vast tracts of the country with virtually no people at all. If our experience driving through Patagonia is anything to go by, you’re more likely to encounter sheep than people. You can find some of the continent’s most extraordinary natural wonders amongst these big spaces and, in Buenos Aires, one of world’s great cities and the birth place of Tango. It’s a country like no other.

Floralis Genérica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Floralis Genérica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Chacarita, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Chacarita, Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s been a few years since I was last in Argentina, this was my fourth visit, but such is the scale and variety of the country that it’s almost impossible not to find new places to explore, as well as revisiting old haunts. Everything revolves around Buenos Aires, and we spent a week in the city, as well as passing through several times en route to other destinations. The city has changed a lot since my first visit, but it’s a place that always feels welcoming, despite the air pollution and rush hour traffic.

A few days in Mendoza, and few more wine tasting in the nearby Uco Valley, were a good start. The Lake District around Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes were eye-opening with their magnificent Andean scenery. In central Patagonia we came across legendary Welsh communities and an abundance of wildlife, including extraordinary encounters with whales. Further south, the glaciers of El Calafate were breathtaking. Even further south you reach the end of the world in the Land of Fire. The waterfalls of Iguazu leave you short of adjectives.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Seals, Patagonia, Argentina

Seals, Patagonia, Argentina

Whale watching, Patagonia, Argentina

Whale watching, Patagonia, Argentina

Whale watching, Patagonia, Argentina

Whale watching, Patagonia, Argentina

Uruguay, on the other hand, squeezed between its two giant neighbours of Argentina and Brazil, appears almost like a geographic afterthought. It shares lots of similarities with both, yet being the permanent underdog seems to have helped define a national ‘character’ in defiance of its more famous neighbours. Including a reputation for being laid back to a degree that even Argentinian’s find too much at times. This was our first visit to the country, and we didn’t have much time to spare, but it was an introduction that left us wanting more.

We took the boat from Buenos Aires across the murky brown waters of the Mar del Plata to the World Heritage Site of Colonia de Sacramento. Coming after Argentina’s buzzing capital, we felt like we’d been transported back in time. A feeling helped by the shooting of an historical film while we were in town. People in 19th century period dress kept appearing on the streets and in the squares. A platoon of British ‘Redcoats’ would occasionally ride past on horseback. It was a lot of fun.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Vineyards, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Vineyards, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Street Art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street Art, Mendoza, Argentina

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay

As was my main reason for coming to Uruguay, a visit to Fray Bentos. This small town on the banks of the Rio del Plata has played an oversized role in modern world history, all thanks to the immense tinned meat processing and packaging factory that was built here in 1873. It may not sound like much of a tourist attraction, but this is a unique piece of industrial heritage and was rightly recognised as such by UNESCO two years ago.

After leaving Bolivia five years ago, it was good to be back in South America, especially during the northern hemisphere winter.  I hope you enjoy the trip…

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Latin America…14 months in 14 photographs

Its almost impossible to sum up our experiences in fourteen photographs, but these represent some of our favourite places and events from our time in Latin America.

Bolivia’s most colourful and unusual fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio is a small town, little more than a village really, in the Bolivian Amazon. Today it is a sleepy place, largely inaccessible during the rains, which acts as a hub for cattle ranches in the surrounding countryside. Its Amazonian history plays an important part in the fiesta, and combines traditional Amazonian beliefs and dress with Catholic beliefs. One of the more extraordinary elements of the fiesta are characters known as Achus who bring mayhem to the village during the fiesta. One trick they play is to attach fireworks to their hats and then run wildly through the crowds. This photo is of an Achus doing just that.

The Bolivian South West

Its almost impossible to imagine the raw beauty of this region in the south west corner of Bolivia. High mountains streaked with colour are reflected in lakes, that themselves range from turquoise to blood red, where flamingos make their home and Andean foxes roam. Set at altitudes that rarely drop below 4000 metres, it is a region that leaves you breathless. In the north lies the vast salt flats of Uyuni, and in the south, Laguna Verde, tinged blue-green by chemical reaction. In-between lie hundreds of kilometres of the most dazzling landscape. It has to be seen to be believed.

Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia

Bolivia’s oldest national park is home to herds of llama, alpaca and vicuna, which roam this barren region and have provided a livelihood for generations of people living here. The park is also home to several volcanoes, including the highest mountain in Bolivia, Vulcan Sajama, which can be climbed during the dry season. It is also home to some amazing colonial-era adobe churches and numerous chulpas, pre-hispanic funerary towers that are fascinating in their own right.

The Virgen de Guadalupe festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Three days and nights of dancing, singing, music and costumed parades…not to mention delicious street food and drinking with wild abandon. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of Bolivia’s most important. It winds its way around the streets of Sucre from early morning to late night. Performers spend several hours dancing their way towards the city centre before the dance troupe routines come to a climax in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The culmination of festivities is at the cathedral where the statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, resplendent in silver and semi-precious stones, awaits the tired performers.

Trekking in the Corillera Real, Bolivia

A multi-day trek through this vast Andean wilderness, passing glacier fed lakes and tiny llama farming villages, all the time overshadowed by giant, snow-capped mountains, is an extraordinary experience. At the end of a hard day’s walking, wrapping up warm and watching the galaxies appear in a night sky untouched by neon makes all the effort worth it. You’re more likely to see llamas than other human beings, but that’s what wilderness trekking is all about.

Watching the sun rise from the summit of Huyana Potosi, Bolivia

At 6088 metres in altitude, Huyana Potosi is considered to be one of the easiest 6000m mountains in the world to climb. ‘Easy’ is a relative word when it comes to mountains, and reaching the summit of Huyana Potosi was an endurance test like none I’ve experienced before, particularly since the last 300m of the climb is along a narrow ice ledge with sheer drops off both sides. The exhausting climb and freezing temperatures were rewarded with absolutely stunning views over the Cordillera Real as the sun rose to illuminate a world wreathed in snow and mist.

Driving through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile

Without really understanding the immensity of the Atacama Desert, we decided to hire a car and drive ourselves around this amazing region. The photograph is of the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture that suddenly appears in the midst of the sun-bleached desert like a beacon of hope to weary drivers. The Atacama is the driest place on earth, some areas haven’t received rain in thousands of years, yet humans have also eked out an existence in this region for millennia. Today that tradition continues with miners working in some of the most inhospitable conditions known to humankind.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, yet dotted throughout it are desert oases, abandoned nitrate towns, cosmopolitan ocean-side cities and pristine beaches formed along the mighty Pacific Ocean. Head away from the ocean and you suddenly find yourself climbing into a high altitude world where mountains and lakes are brightly coloured by chemicals in the soil. It is here you’ll find the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, a place of exceptional beauty, and the chances are that you’ll have it to yourselves – hardly anyone makes the journey to reach this remote area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps the best known archeological site in the world, I was worried Machu Picchu would be something of a disappointment. I needn’t have feared. Set high on a plateau and overlooked by towering mountains, this lost city of the Inca is a magical place. The photo below is taken from the Sun Gate which forms part of the Inca Trail. Even if you can’t do the trail itself, its worth walking to the Sun Gate to get the view most Incas would have had as they approached the city.

Nazca cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Nazca is known for its monumental pre-Hispanic lines in the desert, yet they form only one (albeit stunning) remnant of the former civilisation that lived in this inhospitable region for thousands of years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire. Drive south of Nazca into the desert and you will come to a huge site where the Nazca culture buried their dead. What makes the cemetery so poignant and moving, is that the remains of the dead are so well preserved and yet surrounded by nothing but desolate desert.

The San Blas Islands, Panama

Picture perfect islands floating in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There has been little development on the islands because they are controlled and governed by the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. Don’t expect luxury hotels and all-inclusive spa packages, do expect peace and quiet, good seafood, white sand beaches without anyone else and bathwater warm sea in which to swim and snorkel. A small slice of paradise.

Cartagena des Indias, Colombia

It is difficult to describe just how lovely Cartagena des Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is, but after a few hours of strolling around the city it had captured our hearts. Cartagena is an extraordinarily well preserved colonial city, with a history as long as Europeans have been involved in the Americas. It has been the scene of pirate attacks, terrible torture under the Spanish Inquisition and suffered at the hands of colonial Spain for declaring its independence long before the rest of Colombia. Walk its beautiful streets, day and night, and absorb the atmosphere and history as you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

We fell in love with Nicaragua, and if we could spend a year abroad again I suspect Nicaragua would be very high on the list of places we wanted to go. We visited the delightful colonial city of Granada, perched on Lago Nicaragua; time stopped and so did we in Pearl Lagoon; El Castillo and the Reserva Biologico Indio-Maiz were wonderful places to spend time. In the end though, Little Corn Island was paradise itself – delicious fresh seafood, incredible beaches, relaxed locals and, best of all, not a single motor vehicle anywhere.

The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

I agonised over having another photo from Nicaragua, but in the end you can’t leave out one of the natural wonders of the world. The Uyuni salt flats are simply amazing. A vast salt pan burned white under the intense Andean sun, it scorches your eyes just to look at it. It is impossible to truly imagine what the salt flats look like unless you’ve been there, an endless alien landscape that is like nothing else on earth.

Goodbye Bolivia, so long and thanks for all the Aranjuez

So this is it, my last Bolivian blog. We’ve been in Bolivia or travelling around South and Central America for the last fourteen months…apparently all good things do come to an end, even if you don’t want them to. It has been an amazing year and I’m grateful we’ve had the opportunity to spend time in such a wonderful country and travel through this incredible region.

We’re very sad to be leaving warm and welcoming Bolivia, leaving our new friendships and new associations behind, for the time being; but we have to return to London. Dreary old London. It will be lovely to see our families and friends again, but that doesn’t lesson the sadness we feel…even though we know we’ll be back one day.

Our hearts will remain in Latin America even if our minds have to return to reality in London…

A heart in the Atacama Desert, Chile

A heart in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Viva La Paz, countdown to departure

La Paz is a city like no other. Snow-capped mountains form a surreal backdrop to the city, while gravity-defying houses tumble down the side of the crater in a way that is both beautiful and terrifying. In the bottom of the crater the city sprawls north and south down roads clogged with fume-belching, horn-blaring buses and taxis, the drivers of which have absolutely no respect for pedestrians or other vehicles. Its a miracle there aren’t more fatalities.

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

The streets are filled with bowler hatted chollas, their huge skirts swishing as they walk; coca leaf-chewing campesinos rub shoulders with suited businesspeople; tattooed and pierced young people fill restaurants to eat traditional food; shoeshine boys inquire about polishing your Habanas; and the street markets sell everything from a hundred types of potato to dried llama fetuses and magical powders that make people fall in love with you.

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

All of this frenetic activity takes place at the breathless altitude of 3600m. In winter it is bitterly cold once the sun disappears, in summer it rains so hard that almost every year houses and roads are washed away – often with the loss of life. There is great poverty, especially in El Alto, and extravagant wealth on display almost everywhere you look. My first few days in the city left me feeling disoriented.

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

The more time I’ve spent here though, the more I have grown to love the city and its people. It is a place that slowly gains your affection, and although we chose to live in more genteel Sucre, it is La Paz that, to me, encompasses and defines all of Bolivia. It is also a city where you don’t have to look far for a photo opportunity. I spent a couple of days just wandering the streets in-between packing our bags in preparation for our return to London.

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon's "Let it beer", La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon’s “Let it beer”, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

The other great thing about La Paz is that you can walk around and suddenly find yourself embroiled in a local fiesta. Several times we came across bands and costumed performers playing and parading just in their own barrios. These events are frequently accompanied by heavy drinking; there was one man in the fiesta below who, despite the best efforts of his family to sober him up, was so drunk he could barely walk.

They like to party in La Paz…viva Bolivia.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

The drunkest man in the parade…moments after this he just collapsed and the parade went on without him.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Leaving the Amazon…time for drinks by the pool

The Amazon is an amazing place, but lets face it…biting insects and not a single margarita in sight. There is only so much time you can spend in a place under those circumstances. We headed back to Rurrenabaque knowing that our time in Bolivia would soon come to an abrupt end. Within the week we’d be on an American Airlines flight that would, via Miami, return us to London and a world of rain and austerity. Not a pleasant thought.

Meanwhile, back in London...

Meanwhile, back in London…

Luckily, we had a couple of days in Rurrenabaque to hunt out a swimming pool, sun loungers and a few cold beers. Even luckier, we’d met Jo and Neil in the Amazon…two kindred spirits from Australia willing to share a cold beer with us. We’d see out our last few days in good company and good style, including an amazing meal at Gustu (the restaurant in La Paz set up by the chef from the world’s best restaurant, Noma).

We still had to get out of the Amazon though. That meant another couple of hours motoring down the Tuichi and Beni rivers back to Rurrenabaque. Under deep blue skies we navigated through rapids, past more amazing Amazonian landscapes, spotting water birds and a group of the reddest howler monkeys I’ve ever seen.

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and people, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and people, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Clothes drying, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Clothes drying, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Crane, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Crane, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and washing, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and washing, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Back in Rurrenabaque, we quickly slipped into the tropical mindset and collapsed by the pool, with occasional ventures to the bar. Rurrenabaque is a pleasant place to spend some time, everything seems to take place in slow motion and time happily slides past you, imitating the brown waters of the Rio Beni flowing nearby.

Pool and loungers, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Pool and loungers, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Sunset, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia