Journey to America – From Rio to Mexico City
Following on from his first youthful Travel Tales Mark Bibby Jackson recounts his epic journey to America from Brazil to Mexico.
Although my love of travel was cemented in Nepal in the early 90s, it was the other side of the world and the opposite end of the decade that I undertook my most adventurous travel.
At the time I was employed – working would be an inappropriate term – on some railway project in the UK capital. The tedium of my days was intermittently broken by a part-time Masters I was taking. Upon its conclusion, I was at a loss as to what to do. Why not travel through South and Central America?
At first it started off as a fanciful suggestion, as I recall. My partner at the time, Pascale, was equally bored with her job. And really there was little better for us to do.
Journey to America : Lost and Found in Rio
With little preparation – we bought a guide book each, and a tent that I faithfully carried with me for seven months only using it once – we set off one cold winter’s day for Heathrow. Our delayed plane took off for Paris from where we travelled on to Rio, whilst our luggage headed to Geneva.
Pascale knew immediately that our luggage was mislaid – the 30-minute scramble at Charles de Gaulle as we rushed to make our connection was something no baggage handler, even one trained by Alberto Salazar, could have matched – but I insisted on staying until the last piece of luggage had made its circuitous route around the conveyor belt. Eventually, even I had to admit defeat.
In those days losing your luggage was not such a big issue. The airline – Air France – simply took the details of our hotel, and said they would forward our bags onto us once they had returned from their impromptu Alpine detour. Air Frane also provided us with an emergency kit – t-shirt, toothbrush and socks as I recall – plus $100 compensation each.
An hour later we were wandering carefree through the streets of Rio, thankful for the weight that the airline had quite literally lifted from our shoulders – as it was hot and sweltering.
Our backpacks arrived as scheduled, even though we changed hotels in the meantime, and we dined out courtesy of Air France for days to come.
The rest of our time in Rio passed off without incident, although we did narrowly avoid walking to the ‘wrong’ beach only escaping potential mishap by a local vendor refusing to sell us a bottle of water. It was only afterwards that we – or at any rate I – realised the vendor’s attitude did not stem from any extreme anti-capitalist principles, but because she deemed the beach not safe for travellers. At least not ones as pale-skinned as us, and who had clearly just arrived in Brazil and would be fair game for local gangs.
Smelling like a Hot Dog in Buenos Aires
I was soon to realise that Pascale was far better at picking up the local vibe than me.
After Rio, we headed south to the Argentinean border stopping off at the magnificent Iguazu Falls – I still have yet to see another waterfall that compares – before heading to Buenos Aires.
The Argentinean capital had a much more European vibe than Rio, and soon I felt as if I was strolling through the boulevards of Paris or Madrid. This is my excuse for falling for the trick that was to be played on me.
Both of our guide books had explained in detail the risk of being attacked by Buenos Aires mustard gangs. Still I was duped. A man speaking Spanish came up to me – the least looking Argentinean person in sight – and asked for directions while pointing to a map of Argentina rather than one of Buenos Aires. Even when he gesticulated first at my shorts which now had a yellow-ish deposit on them and then at the sky, I remained innocently flummoxed.
It was only when I looked to Pascale for linguistic assistance – I think she was giggling throughout – that I realised I had been mustard-attacked. Belatedly alerted to the danger I declined the offer to go around the corner to wash my shorts – and presumably be relieved of my money belt. The punishment for my innocence was to smell like a hot dog for the rest of the day – or at least until we returned to the hotel for me to change.
Thwarted by Pinochet
Initially, our plan – using the word loosely – was to head far south to Patagonia and then cut across to Chile. However, while we were in Argentina, police back in London arrested former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet.
It was one of my biggest travelling regrets that I allowed press tales of British travellers being unwelcome in Chile, to make us change our route. It was only many years later that I was to travel to Patagonia and on to Chile and eventually the spectacular Easter Island statues.
So instead we headed west towards the High Andes – we even walked right up to the Chilean border – and then proceeded up north to Bolivia.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
Bolivia rates up there with Nepal as one of my favourite travelling destinations. There are so many similarities between the two mountainous landlocked nations that at times I felt as though I was back in Nepal.
One of the highlights of the trip was spending Christmas in a small group tour driving around the salt flats of Uyuni (Salar de Uyuni), marvelling at the 5,000-metre Salvador Dali landscape. If Christmas 2021 is locked down I suggest you could do far worse than head to Uyuni yourself.
It was some time around here that Pascale developed chronic toothache. Initially we passed this off as altitude sickness, or perhaps an excess of the coca leaves she had been chewing, but eventually we had to concede that she needed to see a dentist.
Finding a dentist was no problem, but finding one that could fix a root canal without the stench of alcohol on his breath proved more taxing. Eventually we holed up in Arequipa, Peru, for a couple of weeks while Pascale’s tooth was fixed and I faltered with my Spanish lessons. I think this was the longest period I ever spent in one place while travelling.
Derailed in Peru
It was also in Peru that we woke up to a bump in the night – literally, as our train slid off the rails. The locals seemed to take it very much in their stride. As the sun rose, they picked up their bundles of clothes and headed off across the desert in the glimmering light towards the horizon.
Eventually we followed. A few hundred metres away was a road we stood beside until a truck stopped to pick us up. We continued our journey standing tall in the back marvelling at the adaptability of the locals as much as the stunning landscape.
This was one of two train trips I can recall on our travels. Neither of them ended up at the scheduled destination.
The second was from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. At least on this trip we knew in advance that the train would stop prematurely, as a landslide had fallen on the track ahead many a week earlier.
The previous week we had met up with my mother and stepfather in Lima as they joined us for the Peruvian leg of our adventures.
I recall Pascale and I lounging around on the lawn of their luxury hotel, like a couple of waylaid backpackers. A few months of travelling had leant us a healthy tan, though presumably a somewhat less healthy odour. Fortunately, we did not have to make our way through reception to meet them.
Eventually they arrived, looking like pasty imitations of their previous selves from the depths of a long English winter and an arduous journey made even more problematic by the bankruptcy of whichever Peruvian airline was supposed to be transporting them on their journey. Some of the other tourists in their group looked as though they had passed away somewhere over the Atlantic – never to reappear.
Almost Missing Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is like no other place on earth. You can argue that Angkor is more spectacular, the Pyramids more dramatic, Tikal more atmospheric, but none of them have a view comparable with that from Machu Picchu.
Unfortunately, the other travellers on my mother’s tour will have to take my word for this. For as we arrived late in the afternoon at the amazing Incan temple, the clouds had rolled in for the day. All they could see was the blue plastic poncho of the person standing in front of them.
For once I had read the guide book in advance. It explained that you have to visit Machu Picchu in the morning. Consequently I had persuaded my mother and stepfather to break free from the shackles of their tour group for one evening so we could venture back to Machu Picchu early the following day. Our decision was proved right. The view was as amazing as any travel documentary, and we had the temples largely to ourselves – without a plastic poncho in site.
Hitchhiking in the Galapagos
Although visiting Machu Picchu was an amazing experience, shortly afterwards Pascale and I were going to embark on my favourite travel experience of all time.
Travelling to the Galapagos had always been a dream, but one initially we felt we could not afford.
The only way to get there is to fly from Quito or Guayaquil – a city that reserves a special mention in Dante’s Inferno.
Somewhere along our travels we had learned through the travellers’ grapevine that the cheapest way of seeing the Galapagos was to arrange your boat trip around the islands in situ. So, one Saturday afternoon we landed at the islands’ airport with no accommodation reserved.
Our plan – once more loosely defined – was to check into a cheap hotel and then try to arrange a boat trip for later in the week. Baldrick would have been proud.
As we walked along the dirt path a local came up to us offering a trip on a boat. Proving that I had done my ‘research’ I replied that all the boats had already departed. “We can catch them up,” was his response.
Less than an hour later, our small motorboat pulled up beside the touring boat that was to prove our home for the rest of the week. No doubt it was the worst cabin on board, but we also paid a fraction of anyone else. All of whom seemed to be on a ‘holiday of a lifetime’. And you do not exactly go to the Galapagos for the comfort of your cabins.
The following seven days felt like we were drifting through Paradise.
It is impossible to determine which was the highlight – swimming with seals, stepping over sea iguanas baking in the sun, or watching the blue footed boobies dive bomb from the cliffs. I even got to meet Lonesome George, the last of his species of tortoise, now sadly extinct. But really it was just being there and soaking up the atmosphere of what remains to this day the most remarkable place I have visited on earth.
Swimming with Piranhas
Buoyed by our Galapagos hitching experience, we now felt like proper travellers. Nothing was beyond us. We even managed to negotiate our way through a riot in Ecuador during which we almost became stranded in the jungle during a national strike. Only to be rescued by our guide driving us back to Cuenca through burning roadblocks – or at least that is how I recall them.
In Cuenca, a group of young protestors faced off against a group of equally young men dressed in army uniforms as the smell of tear gas filtered through the streets, and fellow travellers hid in the sanctuary of our hotel.
For some reason I was not scared, sensing that the stand-off had nothing to do with us. Mind you, perhaps now a couple of decades older I might have remained hidden with our fellow travellers.
Retracing our steps to Lima, we flew to Iquitos a city hidden in the middle of the jungle, accessible only by air and water. Our plan was to drift along the Amazon into Colombia on the same boat the locals used. After all, by now we were hardened travellers.
One look at the hammocks hanging cheek by jowl on the deck was enough to inform that this mode of transport was not for us. A quick inspection of the toilet removed any lingering doubt.
Apart from flying back to Lima, our only alternative was to sail on the one luxury cruiser that plied this stretch of the Amazon, but it was well outside our budget. So, without much hope we headed to the dock one day and asked if they had a spare berth. We stated our budget and they asked us to return later that day. For some reason our price was accepted without any haggling, the only condition was that we should not tell our fellow passengers how little we paid.
As people flew in from all parts of North America, we stowed our dusty backpacks below deck and then spent the next few days lying in a Jacuzzi watching the banks of the river flow past our boat. Once we spotted a river dolphin swimming in the Amazon. On another occasion I plunged in myself, ignoring the potential danger of any piranhas, having inspected myself microscopically for any minor scratch that might attract the man-eating fish. Generally though, we just lazed away and prepared for our next adventure – travelling through Colombia.
Hiding from the Rebels in Colombia
We disembarked in Leticia as our fellow passengers prepared for their return journey to Iquitos. The first news to greet us was that a passenger plane had been hijacked by rebels. As we were stranded in one of the most remote parts of the country where the only way out was flying to the capital Bogota – or taking the boat back to Iquitos – the news of the hijacking was hardly the most auspicious welcome to Colombia.
With little choice we flew to Bogota, and spent a few days playing dodge the riot. The rules of the game were pretty simple. You leave all your non-essential valuables in the guest house where you are staying while you go wandering down the street until you see a smouldering barricade in the distance, upon which you turn around and head back in the direction whence you just came.
Despite this I enjoyed the thrill of Bogota, and felt comparatively safe, until I discovered that a solo traveller had been stabbed to death just around the corner from our hostel.
Undeterred we were determined to explore some of the country, even venturing into a part close to that controlled by the rebels. I remember drawing the curtains on our coach hopeful this would deter any passing rebel who chanced to see our gringo faces. I am not sure this was the most effective precaution.
We arrived in the town of San Augustin to see a man riding a horse through the town square as if he were an extra in a Western. All I can really remember of the experience was our inability to change US dollars. Nobody wanted them, as the only people who had dollars were those who either worked for an oil company or for the US, neither of whom were popular in this rebel border town.
At night I shota few games of pool in the local hall, surrounded by locals who looked on admiringly. For once my game was hot, and I sensed a begrudging respect from the locals which I still maintain secured our safe passage for the following day, whatever Pascale may say.
Cinnamon Bob and Livingstone
Colombia was the last country on the South American leg of our travels. As the Darién Gap was no man’s land, we decided to fly to Panama City. We did toy with the idea of hitching a lift on a sailing boat to the Colombian islands and then along to the Costa Rican coast, but ended up for once taking the easy option.
The Panama Canal was a huge disappointment – I expected to see an enormous feet of engineering but instead saw something scarcely larger than Camden Lock. Perhaps I had started to tire of our epic journey.
Certainly we seemed to spend longer in each place we visited. A week languishing on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua with a Dutch couple was a memorable experience, as was another lazing on the beach in Belize eating Cinnamon Bob’s tasty pastries each morning and dining on lobster at night.
Apart from a brief spell in Livingstone Guatemala, this was our only taste of the Caribbean on our travels. The laid-back tranquillity was a total contrast to the rugged beauty of the Pacific, and it lured us to stay longer.
I think that Pascale would willingly have never left our Caribbean paradise, but I was always a restless traveller, eager to discover the next adventure.
Journey to America Concluded : Tikal to Mexico City
Crossing the border back into Guatemala, we took the bus to Tikal.
Towering above all the other amazing temples I am fortunate enough to have visited rises Tikal. Perhaps it is its perfect setting lost in the jungle, or the sound of the baboons that kept me awake at night as we tried to sleep in our lodge. But for me Tikal is something otherworldly.
Sitting upon the top of the pyramid watching toucans flying between the trees, just Pascale and myself, no other travellers to disturb our calm was really the most tranquil I have ever felt in my travels.
Probably this is where our journey’s end should have come, but it is hard to get return flights to the UK from the middle of the Guatemalan jungle.
Instead we travelled on to Antigua Guatemala, surely one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Where my peace was only disturbed by watching Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
And then on through the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas to the capital Mexico City.
The sprawling city came as a bit of a culture shock after spending so much time in remote towns, jungle and beach. All I can really recall of it now, is the most enormous Mexican flag in the central city square, endless traffic jams, and the Trotsky museum where the hero of the Russian Revolution came to a sticky end with an ice pick wielded by Stalin’s henchmen. Whatever happened to our heroes?
A Night in Paris
However, the shock of Mexico City was nothing when compared with our final night – in Paris.
When we booked our trip, it had seemed like a great plan. Conclude our epic journey to America in the most romantic city on earth. As our Air France flight returned via the French capital it was a free stop.
However, as we sat on a terrace by the Bastille, watching Parisians strolling in their sumptuous finery, it felt as if we had been transplanted to another world. A few drinks in various bars helped to distil the sense of being an outsider in a culture so close to home. I think I had a strong urge to return to our travels, even though I had spent the past few weeks complaining of being tired and longing to return home.
I was not to return to the Americas for the best part of two decades, and by this time I was once more travelling solo.