South American escapades

I’ve been trying to write more lately, but it can be hard to find inspiration when your life becomes rather routine. The past month or so for me can be summed up by standard forty hour work weeks and weekends spent lounging at the beach. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m milking every second of San Diego’s excellent summertime weather that I can, but there’s just not a whole lot to write about. So for my inspiration this month, I look back at 2014, which was a year full of inspiration as I lived abroad in Chile. I’m going to highlight a trip within the trip, when my childhood friends Nate and Kenny came to visit and travel through South America with me.

Let’s turn the clock back to July 2014.

To put things in perspective, I had just finished my first of two semesters abroad in Chile and had a one month winter break, which corresponded with summer vacation for my friends living on the other side of the equator. If I remember correctly, Nate and I were discussing the possibility of doing a trip for a while, and sometime towards the end of the planning phase Kenny jumped on board. We had been discussing different routes that we could take and for some reason Nate was set on Argentina/Uruguay (I think I was pulling for Peru). I was up for whatever and we planned for (or didn’t plan) a three-week vacation in South America.

So Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay it was, and somewhere between some crooked Argentinian cops, deserted resort towns, an endless search for surf, and the hauling of unnecessarily heavy surfboard bags around on public transportation, they were an adventurous couple of weeks to say the least.

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Kenny (right) and Nate (left) arrive at the bus station in Viña del Mar, Chile and straight to my favorite restaurant, ‘Que Rico.’
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Eating lunch in public in Chile will surely attract a few street dogs.
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Giving Kenny and Nate a tour of Valparaíso’s colorful hills.
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Nate and his Doppelganger.
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Skim trip up north with Carlos (right) to Zapallar, Chile’s version of Laguna Beach.
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A rare winter skim session at Cap Ducal, right in front of my apartment. Photo: Kenny
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Sandboarding in Concon. Photo: Kenny
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Pit stop in Santiago before jetting off to Buenos Aires.
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I think we paid a dollar for this photo with the llama wearing a mini sombrero. Looking back on it, worth it.

Crooked cops in Buenos Aires

After a few days showing Nate and Kenny around my stomping grounds in Chile, we went off to explore a place that none of us had been to, Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires is a massive city and we were keen to save money and get to know the city with a local, so we went onto couchsurfing.com and found Cami, a college student about our same age who was nice enough to put up three boys for three or so nights at her apartment.

Cami had to go to school in the mornings, but she was super sweet and left us public transportation instructions to the main sites of the city, showed us how to properly drink mate, and introduced us to Fernet, the national alcohol of sorts, which we all grew fond of.

On my first night in Buenos Aires we were lounging around Cami’s dining room drinking coffee to kick off the jet lag, tasting fernet to become culturally acclimated, and sharing travel stories to get to know our new host. Cami wanted to take us out to a bar that she liked to frequent, which we thought sounded like a fun night.

Fast forward to a bus ride and pitchers of fernet and cola later, and an unknowingly sketchy character takes a seat next to me at the bar. I had brought a crappy, little handheld camera with me on the trip to take photos (before my smart phone days). I had this camera for years and was probably due for an upgrade, but hey, it got the job done. I was taking photos of us at the table and this guy took notice and thought he could pull a fast one on me (and he almost did).

Kenny, who was sitting across from me, said:

Hey did that guy just reach into your pocket?

I checked my pockets and realized that the sneaky bastard to my right had successfully pickpocketed me without my noticing. Luckily Kenny caught him in the act, and the guy obviously thought as a foreigner that I would be an easy target, however he looked quite surprised when I accused him of stealing my camera in Spanish.

As I confronted the thief, Cami alerted the security guard who blocked off the only escape route and within 10 seconds they had this guy and his accomplice girlfriend rounded up. Seconds later we found the camera, which the guy had shoved between the seat cushions that we were sitting on in a last-ditch effort to claim innocence.

It seemed like the problem had been solved, but little did I know that my first night in Buenos Aires would be spent at the police station.

Apparently the security guards had been trying to catch this guy for a while for multiple robberies and they wanted to get him arrested instead of kicking him out of the bar. Before I could grab my camera, the security guard grabbed it and next thing I knew the cops came and poof my camera was gone.

I went outside to ask the cops for my camera back. There were quite a few I remember and they were taking the situation very seriously. I had to question three or four of them to finally find one that would admit that they even had the camera. They kept repeating that it was a crucial piece of ‘evidence’ that they needed.

As I spoke with the police in a calm manner, another copped dragged the handcuffed couple out of the bar and shoved them in the back of the patrol car. I forget what they yelled at me as they passed, but I think they called me something like the blonde devil. Pretty harsh words for being the victim of a robbery, huh?

The cops insisted that they had to take the thieves and my camera to the station. When I realized that they were not going to cough up the camera, I said, fine, I’m going with you. They reluctantly agreed and let me ride shotgun to the police station.

At this point it must be three or four in the morning, and Cami, Nate and Kenny have come to the police station lobby to join me in the wait for my camera. Every time I ask for it they get annoyed and respond again that it is crucial evidence. After hours and no budging from the cops, the sun started to rise and we figured that it was a lost cause. We needed to sleep. I left defeated.

We slept a couple of hours and I was determined to get my camera back. It probably had a value of $100 at best, but that was my form of documenting this trip and it was only the first day! In Argentina, electronics are expensive, so even a crappy camera like this one could probably fetch someone a good profit, which is why thieves and cops alike were dying to get their hands on it.

So, long story short, I went back to the police station to the cops’ surprise and played the waiting game again. I asked for the boss, and the boss of that boss, and the boss of that boss’s boss, and finally a man told me I could have the camera. That easy, eh?

The camera was saved and because of that I have all these photos that would not have otherwise existed. Is it possible that the cops were being honest and had no intentions of keeping my camera? Yes. I will acknowledge that, but let’s just say that all signs pointed in the other direction. (No offense to the good cops of Buenos Aires, I’m sure you guys are doing just great 🙂 ).

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Coffee and fernet at Cami’s apartment.
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The last photo on my camera before it was robbed moments later. The cops wanted me to prove that the camera was mine and this is the first photo that they pulled up, haha.
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My home for day one in Buenos Aires: this police station. Photo: Kenny
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Finally some time outside the police station to explore the city.
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Lots of walking and jet lag. Looks like it was time for an espresso.
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Cami’s reward for putting us up: home-cooked meals.
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Chicken, salad, garlic break and fernet (again).
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More exploring Buenos Aires.
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Are we supposed to pay for this train? Because no one else is.
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Caminito, Buenos Aires.

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Argentinian street art.
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Obelisco de Buenos Aires.
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La Casa Rosada, the office/mansion of the Argentinian President.
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Music night at Cami’s.
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La Recoleta Cemetery. Holds a lot of famous and wealthy Argentinians.

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Uruguay, where cows outnumber humans

Buenos Aires was great, but the fast-paced city had got us pretty tired and we surely were sick of hauling our surfboards around on public transportation and taxis. We decided that it was time to take a bus to Argentina’s neighbor, Uruguay, looking for a more relaxing leg of our trip to unwind from the craziness of the city.

I didn’t really know what to expect of Uruguay. My mind was an open slate.

To keep it short, Uruguay is a small country. My title to this section is no joke, there are three times more cows than people. There is not a whole lot going on there in the middle of winter (when I was there), but Uruguayans are noticeably more laid back than their neighbors across the bay in Buenos Aires. Uruguay’s mate intake makes Argentinians look like lightweights, as 9/10 people in the street will have a mate cup in one hand and a hot water thermos cradled in the opposite armpit. We made various jokes about how inefficient it is to be carrying these two items at once and go about daily life. Simple things suddenly become complicated when your hands are never free.

We started our trip in the country’s capital, Montevideo, and then made our way up the largely unpopulated Atlantic coast in search of waves, getting an intimate view of what Uruguay has to offer.

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Arriving on the overnight bus from Buenos Aires and walking around downtown Montevideo. I unfortunately lost (left) my IPod video (original) on the bus. The bus driver “couldn’t find it” when I alerted the company just moments after stepping off the bus.
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We ticked off the all the main tourist attractions pretty quickly and ended up looking for sea glass to pass the time.
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Looking for more ways to pass the time, exploring the cafe scene.
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More walking. Is it bedtime yet?
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A day in the city was enough for us and we headed out to Punta del Este on the east coast.
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Deserted beaches were an ongoing theme on this leg of the trip.
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“You must look at the good things in life.”
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A bus ride up the coast to Punta del Diablo near the border of Brazil, hoping for some better waves.
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Locals told us that the population during the summer months swells up to 20,000, but I would be surprised if there were more than 300 people in Punta del Diablo while we were there. No people and no waves either. I think we bailed town after a night or two.
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Our deserted hostel in Punta del Diablo. The only people staying there were the three of us and if I remember correctly a Dutch cyclist who was biking around the entire coast of South America. We shared a few meals with him.
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We had originally planned on staying at a different hostel but when we arrived no one was there. We were pointed in the direction of this hostel only to arrive to an empty place as well. Eventually the owner showed up and I am sure he was more than happy to get some business in this dead period. The location wasn’t too shabby.
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What to do when there are no waves, walk around town.
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Sitting at the hostel checking the waves. Trying to mindsurf the sets and convince ourselves that it was worth a paddle.
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When we decided that it wasn’t worth a paddle we went on a walk a mile or two up the beach to explore Santa Teresa National Park.

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The forest gets thicker and thicker the further you walk into the park.
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This dog had followed us the 5 miles or so from town. He had no choice but to jump on the opportunity to beg from visitors after not having seen any for so long.
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Arriving back to Punta del Diablo and the dog still hasn’t left. I don’t remember but we must have given him some food.
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Off to the next destination.

Well, Brazil is pretty close

Since the whole surf trip thing was more or less miserably failing, we figured we might as well travel the short 25 miles up to Brazil to check another country off the list.

Brazil is one of those countries that likes to get even with the USA’s tough immigration policies, making it relatively complicated for Americans to get a visa. It’s not necessarily hard, but you have to do it in advance and pay a large fee, so you can’t really just go to Brazil on a whim. We did our research and found out that the border stop is actually 2 miles into Brazil and you can go to the border town without a visa.

So off we went to the glorious border town of Chuy.

The town is actually half in Uruguay and half in Brazil, split in two by the main street. We discovered that being in Brazil wasn’t as cool as we had imagined. We arrived in the evening and Kenny was feeling under the weather, so Nate and I decided to go take a stroll around town. There was literally nothing going on at night, just a ton of young kids on scooters who were suspiciously watching us as we aimlessly walked around.

We gave Chuy a second chance in the morning, walking across the street into Brazil to go to a cafe and try to experience some Brazilian culture. Unsurprisingly, we realized we weren’t really in the right place to do that. It wasn’t really a dangerous place, but there just wasn’t anything going on there, at least to the naked eye.

After less than 24 hours in Chuy we decided that it was time to resume the surf adventure and we boarded a bus headed south with the destination of La Pedrera.

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I present to you, Chuy, Uruguay/Brazil.
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This street was the border between the two nations.
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This mutant pig-dog sums up Chuy pretty well.

Making a ‘quick’ pitstop

On the way to La Pedrera we decided to stop and briefly check out an old Spanish fort. We got off at the bus stop that seemed so obviously titled ‘Fortaleza’ that we didn’t have to ask the bus driver if it was in fact the correct stop. We got off the bus and soon found out that we had gone a few miles too far of the actual location of the fort. Damn.

We debated back and forth about what the best option was. Out in rural Uruguay it’s not that often that you see a bus pass so the options were pretty limited. We decided on hiding our bags in this weird, decaying, wooden building at the deserted bus stop and to head off on foot in the rain towards the fort, hoping someone would pick us up along the way.

I can’t recall the exact distance we walked, but it was no stroll in the park. It must have been at least 5 miles and the worst part was that it was straight and flat, so we could almost see where we were headed, but felt like we were making no progress.

About an hour later, I would say 100 cars or so had declined to pick up the wet hitchhikers. Even the damn pickup trucks wouldn’t stop for us. Nonetheless, we arrived at our destination. It wasn’t really a big deal, we weren’t in any rush and had nothing but time. Oh the luxuries of traveling.

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Getting a little wet on our way to the fort.
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Still walking in the rain, but appreciating the landscape that surrounded us.
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The rain had let up by the time we arrived. It was an interesting start to our day to say the least.
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The fort is extremely well-preserved from the colonial era.

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Waves!

We took a quick jaunt around the fort and made another long walk back to the bus stop after we failed at hitchhiking again. We waited for the next bus and resumed our journey to La Pedrera in search of waves.

We had found another host on couchsurfing.com to stay with in La Pedrera, a surfer named Stefano. Stefano’s parents owned a hotel/bungalow type place a block from the beach and Stefano was nice enough to offer us a room while it was deserted in the middle of winter.

Due to our little detour to the fort that turned into a long detour and a bus transfer in the town of Rocha, we didn’t arrive to La Pedrera until after dark.

The town of La Pedrera sits on a rocky outcrop sandwiched by two long beaches on either side. Like most other towns we had seen on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast, it was pretty empty.

We had some pretty interesting directions to arrive at the place we were staying that included more landmarks than street names, but after a short walk from the bus stop we arrived at the location that we believed to be the house of Stefano.

After a few knocks, no answers, and a ferociously barking dog, we realized that we may be sleeping out on the beach for the night.

Before all hope was lost we heard an encouraging noise. People! Stefano emerged from a side gate and let us in. We were surprised to see that he was with a few friends having a barbecue in the back yard. More than anything we were relieved to see a couple of people our age at this point after doing a few days of soul-searching with just cows and street dogs.

We discovered that they were actually planning on doing the barbecue with us but they were starting to question whether we were going to come since we were running behind schedule after the wrong bus stop incident at the fort.

Stefano made us feel at home and when we awoke the next morning to take a look at the ocean, our eyes lit up as we knew that we were finally going to put to good use the burdensome surfboards and wetsuits that we had been hauling around the entire trip. There were waves!

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Straight down this street and then a block to the left is where Stefano’s house is.
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Usually on couchsurfing you get exactly what is advertised, a couch, but Stefano gave us our own bungalow.
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View from the place. Rights anyone?
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We jumped out of our socks to surf this wave in the morning. It was fun, but the wave was much weaker than it appears.
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Solar charging.
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In the afternoon we went to check the beachbreak on the other side of town and little did we know, we were wasting our time at the mushy point break. The waves were powerful and overhead and the wind was offshore. Perfect conditions. As surf trips go, I broke my only leash on my first wave. I was a little unprepared you could say. I stuck it out and got some fun ones without a leash, but was not spared of a few swims to the beach. The photos don’t do justice for how strong the waves/current were.
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Our designated photographer Kenny waiting to get the money shot.
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Our designated photographer Kenny missing the money shot.

To the mythical land of Iguazu

We scored some fun waves in La Pedrera and spent some good times with Stefano and his buddies. The time allotted for the surf leg of the trip was up, and we were off to the home stretch of the trip to visit one of the seven natural wonders of the world: Iguazu Falls.

Iguazu Falls sits in the rainforest up near the border of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The falls itself are split in two by the border of Argentina and Brazil.

By no means were we close to Iguazu Falls on the Uruguayan coast. We were relatively close to it in the grand scheme of the world, but we still had to take four buses and over 15 hours on the road to arrive there. The trip went like this: from La Pedrera we went to Montevideo, then to Salto, in the north of Uruguay (where we used our bus layover to go to some hot springs), then a quick hop over the border to Concordia, Argentina, then a final bus to Iguazu.

We stepped out of the bus in Iguazu to a blast of humid, sticky air. We were now officially in the rainforest. We walked in the midday heat to our hostel and settled in with the plan to visit the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls on the first day and the Argentinian side on the second day.

The Brazilian side of the falls has the better view and is more expensive, but it only features a quick walkway that takes no more than 30 minutes. By no means is the view bad from the Argentinian side but it doesn’t have the great overview that the Brazilian side has. The Argentinian side is about half the price and features a web of trails that you can spend a whole day on.

We tidied up and once again we were off to test the limits of the Brazilian border control. The hostel that we were at had pre-printed instructions of how to sneak into Brazil for Americans like us. We closely followed the instructions, boarding a bus towards Brazil. Still following the instructions, we got off the bus at the Argentine customs and got our passports reviewed, got back on the bus and when it stopped at the Brazilian customs the bus driver said in Portuguese what I presume was along the lines of, “Does anyone need to get their passport stamped at customs?” Adhering to our instructions we looked the other way as the bus driver rolled his eyes at us. Just like that we were in Brazil and on our way to Iguazu Falls.

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We had a long layover in Salto, Uruguay, so we hopped on yet another bus to relax at this hot spring.
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Arriving to the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls, which is infested by these little creatures called ‘coatis’.
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The warning signs on the park have graphic images of people’s hands that have been mauled by these little guys, but that didn’t stop Nate from sharing a shaka with one.

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Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfall system in the world.
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Los tres amigos.

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These guys are not afraid and will not hesitate to take your lunch straight out of your hands.
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Back to the town of Iguazu in Argentina where our hostel was.
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The hostel was nice and comfy. We met a few cool people there.
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Day 2: Exploring the Argentinian side of the falls. I am extremely mosquito prone so after a day in the tropics my legs were swollen and covered in some of the worst mosquito bites that I had ever seen. The next week or so was uncomfortable to say the least.

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I can feel the humidity just looking at this photo.

Farewell

After two weeks exploring new corners of the globe our trip had come to an end. We boarded the overnight bus back to Buenos Aires and caught a plane back to Chile. Kenny and Nate continued their South American vacation up north in Chile while I stayed in Viña to regroup before school started and to attend an annual skimboarding event. I ended up skipping out on the first few days of the semester to reconnect with Kenny and Nate before they left for a few days in Santiago.

Overall it was a solid trip, and I don’t recall us ever really bickering and getting annoyed with each other as is usually inevitable during trips like this. It was great to see some good friends after being abroad for five months and having five more months ahead of me.

It is a trip that I remember quite well, worth telling again and sharing with all.

+++

P.s. After writing this I feel like I could have broken this story up into two or three posts. When people are bombarded with articles on Facebook all day long, the average person doesn’t have the attention span to read 4,000 words. But what the hell, it’s my blog, so one story it is.

3 thoughts on “South American escapades

  1. I hate it when some stray coatimundi bites off the hand of one of my travel companions. I’m glad they weren’t quite as ferocious as they signs warned about. Evan, this is a wonderful column: interesting stories, real adversity, like the cops and the pickpockets. I look forward to your next set of stories and photographs.
    –Your uncle, Lee

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