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Riding High in La Pampa

Travel writings from around the world, brought to you by Stunning Stills (www.stunningstills.co.uk), the travel photography company

My horse has stopped to take a well-earned drink from a patch of rainwater down below. As I survey the surroundings I see the chilly Atlantic coast to my right, ebbing gently onto the wetlands, and to the left an intimidating patchwork of forest that we just scuffled through. Up ahead of us three gauchos, one of whom is a real-life horse whisperer, tend to our group in perfect Spanglish and search intently for quirky creatures in the undergrowth below. Wild, untamed horses of all colours and sizes run amok amongst hefty cows in every direction. The sun is setting now and a roaring barbeque with the world’s best steaks is waiting for us back at the house. This may sound like some Robert Redford idyll, but luckily for me this rural paradise exists, and last July I was privileged enough to have a sample.

I`m staying at Estancia Juan Geronimo, near the town of Veronica two hours from Buenos Aires in the `La Pampa` region of Argentina. It`s a vast rural playground that embodies much of what Argentina stands for: endless cattle, endless space and the gaucho, the introspective “cowboy” of South America`s Wild West. “Estancia”, in tourist terms, is a sort of ranch, usually complete with animals and a spattering of crops. They vary enormously in size, quality and attitude. This particular gem is one of the largest and best protected this side of BA. It`s a UNESCO World Heritage site for a start; a working ranch with four thousand hectares and four thousand cows (one cow per hectare of land is the Argentine farming standard), over one hundred horses and six skilful gauchos who live on site with their families and look after the animals and the occasional tourist. As with most other estancias in this area, the land is not rich enough for agriculture or the prized soya bean that brings in more money than meat, so income is subsidized by letting intrepid gringos and wealthy tourists from the city through the gates for a few days.

A day before our costal exploration I had arrived at the main house in the black of night and was met by Florencia, the charming owner, and her chief gaucho, a sort of rural butler without the dinner jacket. The main room of the imposing house was in keeping with the style of centuries past; much of the original building remained untouched since the time of Florencia´s grandparents who were prominent members of Argentine high society. High ornate ceilings loomed from above and the smell of wood was everywhere: the huge darkened oak table set elaborately for meals, the smart antiques and the open fire that bathed the entire area in a warm glow as it crackled in the background. Tributes to the family’s equestrian background were easy to spot - they have a history of successful riders and Florencia`s own husband was in the Argentine Olympic team, she informs me.

I was introduced to the only other guests staying with me, a chirpy American-Argentine family complete with grandma, mother and two young kids. They were all born in Buenos Aires but the mother (Jenny) had met an American husband and they had all emigrated to Haiwaii some years back. They had returned to re-live some of their traditional roots (all had grown up on horses) and who could blame them. I was particularly happy to have some company as well as being able to rely on a translator in the mother for my somewhat mediocre Spanish.

Before bed I reached for a night-cap at the small self-service bar near the fire (all included). The family recommended a local drink: Gancia Limon, a bitter but pleasant concoction that reminded me again of Argentina’s European ties. Gancia, along with the country’s other favourite tipple, Fernet, both emanated from Italy. We exchanged backgrounds as we sipped.

Soon I was led to my room, a cozy carbon-copy of the living room with a large springy double bed, pleasant trimmings and more than ample space for a solo traveller. Florencia explained the `stressful` program for the next two days: four home-cooked meals per day interspersed with two horse rides, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Activities were flexible to the guest’s tastes of course, but this was July, and thus getting on for the Argentine winter, so fishing and sailing were sadly off limits. I drifted off slowly to images of juicy steaks and splashings of red wine.

As the sun burst through my window in the morning, the farm really began to come to life. I looked out to the front lawn and everywhere was teeming with wildlife. Five Labradors, all different shades of chocolate, were playing amidst a group of South American baby ostriches. In the distance Florencia was tending gently to a Capybara (the world’s largest rodent) with a plate of milk. Jenny’s kids frolicked amongst the madness, with smiles from ear to ear. It was a child`s dream – but this was no zoo. Everything was wild and precious to the estate; even the dogs lived outside.

We sat for a delicious lazy breakfast of “media lunas” (croissants), home-made jams, scrambled eggs, fresh orange juice and strong black coffee. In the morning light, to the back of the house, now appeared a huge, glistening lake as far as the eye could see. The water was high and it spilled over to the surrounding trees. Gangly birds stalked across its surface. We donned our gear and headed to the horses.

I had heard that Juan Geronimo had a reputation for well trained horses. This certainly proved to be an understatement. The way in which Florencia and her gauchos handled the horses was captivating. This is a part of Argentina where the term “horse whisperer” is not a gimmick; Florencia informed me that some of the horses we rode had been trained from wild by the gauchos, over many years. It was evident in their `handling` - every touch of the reins, every deft movement was translated into an instantaneous response in the animal. Some were simply lean, mean racing machines: Jenny’s horse would speed up to a gallop with the tiniest raise of the leather. Comparing this to a previous horse ride I completed in Salta, a popular mountain town in North Argentina, where tourists were herded onto horses hour by hour (my particular horse was pregnant and ignored everything I did), was like comparing a Ferrari to a Morris Minor.

Setting off it soon became clear why the estate was coined a “mini town” by guests. We passed schools and churches, over twenty buildings in all. It was clear that many people depended on this Estancia for their way of life. We rode slowly and steadily until lunch to get acquainted with our new companions, a stroke of genius as it turned out, as I hadn’t been in a saddle for six years and my back-side was proving it. Food was a tender meat stew with home-made noodles (a nice touch) followed by Tiramisu. The afternoon ride took us to the top of a steep, stony hill to allow magical views over the expansive estate. Back again for afternoon tea, we munched on home-made scones, biscuits, tea and coffee. We whiled away the time until dinner with a good book in front of the fire, generously sprinkled with logs by attending gauchos.

As if we hadn’t been suitably impressed with the fare already, dinner was the top trump of the Estancia´s culinary firepower. A buffet of roast potatoes and fresh crunchy salad was laid out, complete with good local red wine, another of Argentina’s famous exports. Out the back of house, the chief gaucho manned an industrial sized barbeque rack as we were treated to a classic staple of Argentina cuisine, an “asado”, all-you-can-eat style. I returned the favour by chomping through most cuts of the cow: “lomo” (fillet), “bife de chorizo” (rump) and the rarer pieces. Dinner chit-chat was as interesting as the food. Florencia, a font of all things horsey, talked vividly through her family history and recommended some more challenging horse “treks” for me up North. We discussed Argentine politics (never boring given South America`s penchant for scandal) and talk quickly moved to the subject of Evita, Argentina’s former “First Lady”. Jenny’s mother, with a not so privileged background, was a fan. Florencia wasn’t – a common dichotomy given Evita’s `Robin Hood` tendencies. When Florencia left the table Jenny explained to me that Evita had taken much land and wealth from estancia owners to fund her social programs for the poor. As with other parts of Argentina, I found that yet again there was more to this place than met the eye.

My two days and two nights on the Estancia had been a delight. Sure, it’s not cheap by backpacker standards, but it certainly is by any other measure. What’s more, travelling always seems to ask the question: how can you find a truly authentic experience? Whether its Amazonian tribes in Peru or Samba schools in Rio, everything is usually tainted with a slight tourist gloss of some sort, whatever way you flip it. Not so at Juan Geronimo. Here, on the shores of the Mar Del Plata, they get it just right.

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Posted by SStills 08:31 Archived in Argentina Tagged photography Comments (0)

A Holiday in France...Sort Of

Travel writings from around the world, brought to you by Stunning Stills (www.stunningstills.co.uk), the travel photography company

My boat from Holland arrived like clockwork on the shores of France with a satisfying crunch. Amazingly the journey had taken only five minutes and the boat was no more than a spruced-up canoe.

I was actually in South America, dangling in the middle of The Guianas, a trio of intriguing countries bunched at the top of the continent. I had left behind the former Dutch colony of Suriname to arrive at French Guiana, an overseas territory of France. At first glance the country seemed rather uninviting: there was no bus network, no hostels and a rumored cost of living that makes Paris look cheap. I needed to reach Brazil to the East whilst hopefully feeling out the country en route.

Border crossings in South America are unsavory at the best of times and Santa Helena was no exception. The sun was dying now and the town grew creepy. The hordes of unlicensed cabbies had surrounded me like hungry pigeons. Luckily a local French teacher who had seen my plight, Sonia, offered me some hammock space nearby. Before long I was dining on strange local fruits and foreign treats: we nibbled on crusty baguettes with pate, washed down with an oaky red from the Dordogne. It was surreal but intensely satisfying.

Morning broke and Sonia showed me the surrounding countryside, explaining that there was a huge diversity of intermingling communities here. This was evident when we stopped for an alfresco snack at a small town. Asian families served us simple rustic noodle soups as French tourists whizzed by the fragile streets in rented Citroens. Local children roamed on retro picnic bicycles. The lone British tourist, I sipped my beer and stared into the organized chaos.

Later, Sonia dropped me in Awala-Yalimapo, a wondrously exotic-named beach village that is home to the world´s largest population of leather-back turtles that emerge at night to lay eggs. Nearby I met Ivo, a friendly Scandinavian with an intimidating beard but all the right gear: we donned a head-torch and marched off together in the dusk to find them.

The animals were far larger than I had ever imagined. It was a captivating sight: a one thousand-pound beast had trundled up from the sea and was gesticulating wildly to make some sandy space like an excitable child constructing a beach-angel. Onlookers huddled around it in wind-swept ponchos as passing biologists pricked its skin for blood samples. Camera flashes revealed a bobbing head and a pair of piercing, inquisitive eyes. The hum of the monster´s snorting was still ringing in my ears as I plodded back to my hammock.

Back on the hot, bus-less road the next morning, I hitched a ride with a young French couple to Kourou, one of the largest cities. The couple, it turns out, had moved over from Europe to experience the ´exotic side to France´. Whilst other French foreign territories, such as Guadalupe, grab most of the headlines (and tourists), French Guiana, it seems, has a mystical draw that many find hard to ignore.

A key reason for visiting Kourou is the functioning European space station North of the city, which is one of the country´s major sources of employment. Tens of thousands of specialists fill the site; indeed, the local La Poste office brimmed to breaking point with space tecchies conducting their daily tasks. Tours of the huge site (think a steamy version of Dr No, then double the steaminess), is one thing, but the icing on the cake is to watch one of the three-monthly launches in the flesh. If you´re lucky enough (I had just missed one), you get the smugly satisfying opportunity to email ´Launch Control´ to confirm which rocket-pad they require you at.

Consoling my missed space endeavors, I went instead to the rugged Ihles de Salut (Salvation Islands), a former prison which the novel Papillon is based on. Stunningly isolated and unkempt, it is undoubtedly the ´tropical Alcatraz´, an eerie graveyard of rotting prison cells set amongst lush vegetation, rock-pools and palm-tree lined beaches. The lack of tourist facilities and miles of bony paths alongside shark infested waters only adds to its mysterious aura.

Overall, French Guiana certainly remains the awkward child of South America: tough to get through to at first but rewarding after a bit of persistence. Its natural beauty is unquestionable, but it’s a raw, unaltered and searingly honest kind of beauty. It makes no promises but equally is not tarnished with some see-through tourist ´gloss´ that makes everything shiny, clean and unadventurous. Whichever way you lean, one thing is for certain – the kindness of strangers in this country flows like a second currency. I made it to Brazil eventually, but not before a local girl on the border had pointed me in the direction of my next canoe.

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Posted by SStills 08:30 Archived in French Guiana Tagged photography Comments (0)

The Town That Time Forgot

Travel Writings from around the world, brought to you by Stunning Stills (www.stunningstills.co.uk), the travel photography company

20 °C

By the time the fourth landlord turned us away, we started to wonder whether we would ever find a bed for the evening. The night was drawing in, even the camp sites were full, and we were stuck in a small town in Colombia, never the best place for a midnight stroll.

We should have had more faith though, as the fifth knock brought some luck. A large bubbly woman beckoned us into her garage, we negotiate a fee and slip into a double room upstairs, overlooking a dilapidated shrub garden below. Once inside we investigate. Malfunctioning air-con, slightly tangy bed-sheets and a badly dubbed American action film on the box: check. We cosy in for the evening. After all, we`re checking out in seven hours; she could only give us the night.

Through some haphazard journey from Bogota, Colombia`s intriguing Capital, in a series of progressively smaller vehicles, we had finally made it to the tiny colonial town of Villa de Leyva, four hours north. We had come following various local rumours of possible cultural and musical hedonism, and like submissive lemmings we had gladly accepted. The yearly Festival of Light was supposedly taking place here over the weekend, an exhibition of archetypal South America flare: fireworks, music and lots of liquor. Ten thousand students and wealthy families from Bogota would be arriving soon. It seemed a strange venue but the lack of rooms assured us we had come to the right place.

Morning broke and we packed our bags to pound the streets again. As we stomped off to explore in the full glare of daylight it soon became clear that our safety fears had been misplaced – the town that came to life was friendly and pristine.

As with a lot of Colombia`s countryside outside the cities, Villa de Leyva was an untouched paradise of rustic architecture, haphazard shop-fronts, lopsided cobbled streets and a ghostly still central plaza – in this case the largest in all of Colombia. A huge spiky topped barn with an old fashioned clock-tower, splashed thickly in chalky white, encapsulated the square at the top, surrounded on all sides by a symmetry of cafes. Gorgeous lumpy hills doused the entire perimeter in green. Endless space hung in the middle. Everything was either miniature or oversized here; it was like walking through a model village.

The festival wasn’t due to start until dusk, so the plaza wasn’t too populated with bodies yet. Given this, we managed to bump into some friends of ours, who recommended their hostel, high upon the hills outside town. Two spare beds plus some tents out back. We quickly hailed a taxi – essentially a rustic farmer’s truck – and threw ourselves into the open-top back, sucking in the air as we glided through the streets.

The surrounding hills were really the cream on the cake of what lay below. Lush fields lay peaceful, horse and carts hacked up side streets, forest vines bent over onto muddy tracks. It was a time capsule to a different time in a different place. Of course the mansions that perched on the crescents were for the privileged few (well to-do families from Bogota owned holiday homes here to escape the city) but it was a safe haven. You felt that this was Colombia showing off its best side.

We turned into the hostel, a pretty and peaceful place complete with all the normal hippy tools: hammocks, bbq`s and large oak communal tables, all done al-fresco style. By the time the sun shrank behind the clouds, the first crackles and bangs had started to ebb from the streets below - a crescendo of noise that wouldn’t stop for three days. The people were coming.

The following two days were chaos, but a cheery, organised kind of chaos. As we were promised they came in their thousands and by 9pm that evening one of the largest plazas in all of South America was at breaking point. We were the only gringos in sight and buoyed by this we drifted into the morning with the rest of the mob, dancing to folkloric beats and drinking the fiercely popular national drink `Aguardiente`, a sort of liquorish sambuca that we mixed with coca cola to take the edge off, much to the dismay of our new friends.

The first evening saw the main spectacle come to life: a fusion of light, colour and noise as fireworks were let off in every direction; some professional, some home-made. Loud music bleated everywhere in the background. The second night we were escorted by some locals to a nearby farm mansion, the parents of one of our crew members we were told. We had obviously mixed in the right circles. We ended the night with a comical episode outside the farm`s entrance as we all tried to free the son`s car from the thick mud that engulfed his estate. We left caked head to toe in chocolate dirt, only to rejoin the ensuing festivities.

The festival ended as it had begun – peacefully. There were never any safety concerns; people were merry and happy, not drunk and irritable. The ornate lines of police horses that dotted every corner were never used. Hangovers were duly seen to with a strong dose of early morning sun, a fact not gone unnoticed when you visited the square for lunch the morning after the night before and saw the bodies strewn across the cobbles.

Colombia has always received the butt end of the press in the annuls of tourism: only neighboring Venezuela receives less visitors in South America. But people that don’t go are living on outdated stories. The country`s safety record is noticeably improving under its current President and more tourists and backpackers are pouring in than ever. Villa de Leyva may be an excessive showcase piece in the puzzle but it proves the potential the country has to shine. It`s fitting that during my stay the Colombian tourist board had recently released a new national marketing campaign, complete with the slogan “the only danger is wanting to stay”. Bleary eyed after a weekend in Villa de Lleyva, I couldn’t have agreed more.

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Posted by SStills 08:28 Archived in Colombia Tagged photography Comments (0)

Tea With The Whales

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sunny 8 °C

Our quest to find the whales hadn’t started well. We were stranded. Four huge backpacks and four bewildered backpackers, we formed a huddled mess by the road side, 100km from our destination. The only bus that day to the coast was long gone. Desperate attempts to lure passing trucks (using our female companions as bait) proved fruitless. We decided to wait it out under the thick midday sun.

We were on the eastern tip of Argentina - near the coastal town of Puerto Piramides - and had come in search of some prime-time whale watching; this oceanic national park in Argentina contains one of the largest populations of the mammal in the world.

Our spirits lifted when a friendly young couple from Buenos Aires screeched to our rescue and we were promptly squeezed into their small saloon like obedient sardines. Soon we reached our cabana, a wooden chalet with a kitchenette, nestled sweetly on the beach. The couple, as it turned out, were big fans of English tea, so to thank them I handed over some rations of my prized Earl Grey that I had been carrying around. They left beaming wide smiles as we fought over bedrooms.

Puerto Piramides is a charming little coastal village, but most visitors miss a trick by staying away in the bland Puerto Madryn, travelling further for the whale tours, which left 50 metres from our hut. The upshot was we had this quaint place mostly to ourselves.

Save for the sailor-blue seafood cafes dotted around the mariner, the only signs of life emanated from soft pastel coloured cottages stretched out for half a mile in each direction, abruptly stopped by imposing sand dunes. A lady manned a wiry old rocking chair. We picked herbs for our evening meal straight from the front porch. The whole placed breathed of relaxation.

Soon we had plucked a bottle of local red from the store and raced up the craggy cliffs to enjoy the sunset on the rocks, as the oily black tails of the whales flickered in the distance.

We were ready for them bright and early the next morning. Along with some other tourists from Madryn, out boat was pulled effortlessly into the sea. Soon enough their mystical tails were upon us; we circled one that was particularly exposed, a huge towering triangle of flesh that stood frozen above the water. We didn’t have to wait long for the main event either. Suddenly a huge infant, itself longer than our boat, and an even bigger mother, engulfed our waters, playing one metre from the side. It was magical, slightly terrifying and astonishingly beautiful, in three perfect minutes of glorious water adventure.

We took our drained sea legs back to dry land and compared snaps. Of course it didn’t do it justice. In a country that abounds with romantic outdoor adventure – you can fill your boots with glacial treks, gaucho horse-rides and pulsating river rapids – the whales of Piramides were a sumptuous highlight.

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Posted by SStills 08:12 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

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