I had dreamt about this continent for almost 15 years. So much I heard, so much I read and saw in pictures. I was connected to South America. Through friends. Through my university Spanish teachers. I can’t believe I put off coming here for so long.
In 2016 I finally went. Colombia was my first stop. The love affair began here. So far I’ve only made it as far as Peru, overland. But, I’ve only just begun my journey. And it is a love affair. I’ve changed my plans to be in South America for most of the next 3 years.
Time has been scarce of late. I’ve been traveling, working on projects, Youtube videos. I haven’t been able to regularly update these photo diaries. In this post though, I’m picking up where I left off – in Monguí. I’ll share a glimpse at the rest of my 6-month-journey through Colombia, Ecuador (very briefly) and Peru.
My friends – The Rincon family in Monguí
Back to Monguí, Boyacá – my favorite place in Colombia from this trip. Through a twist of fate, one day along the road on the outskirts of Monguí I met little Benjamin. Soon came his mother – Olga. They were getting back from their finca (farmhouse). They asked if I was also going to the center of the village. I was, gave them a lift and so began my friendship with this wonderful family.
I stayed in Monguí for a month. I was shooting a documentary, which I’ll hopefully be able to edit in this lifetime. Every day that I wasn’t shooting the film, I’d be with the Rincon family. At their finca, or in their house in the village center.
Benjamin and his sister – Isabella (in the back) grew up in close bond with animals and their mother’s land. Whenever they’re free, they come to spend time at the finca. Benjamin is only 8, but he’s particularly keen on helping mum, even if it means riding a donkey all the way to the finca by himself.
Olga Rincon. A single mother of four and a resilient, determined woman. There’s such a nice energy about her. Olga was always happy to have me around and to share her life stories, over a coffee or a home-cooked meal.
To Olga the finca holds precious memories of her father, who was killed many years ago. When her first husband pressured her to sell it, Olga told him to go to hell. She dreams of one day building a guesthouse on the land.
Olga’s children from her first marriage are adults and don’t live with her, but the younger two – Isabella (pictured above) and Benjamin do. Isabella loves animals and told me that she wants to study to be a vet.
Isabella’s dog – Hutchy dressed in a Colombian football jersey. Isabella treats this dog like a human being. “Let the dog enjoy being a dog!” I heard Olga saying this quite often. The dog doesn’t seem to mind though.
There’s some serious sibling rivalry between Isabella and Benjamin. With Isabella being 14, the 8-year-old Benjamin loses the fights. But, the boy is quite brilliant and finds numerous ways to annoy his older sister at any opportunity he gets.
Towards the end of my stay we made a large bonfire at the finca. Isabella practices the violin and Olga suggested that she bring it and play. The atmosphere was pretty magical that night.
I shot many more images of the Rincon family, but like many of my recent projects, I’m setting them aside for a bit. I might make an entire post about their stories in the future though.
a Quick drive through Ecuador
My stay in Ecuador was very brief. I spent more time than I planned in Colombia and I really wanted to explore Peru. I needed to make a decision – go as fast as possible to Peru, or stay in Ecuador and miss out.
I decided to move on to Peru, but I did get a glance at this absolutely spectacular little country. So much green. So many mountains. I’m not ruling out coming back here. After all, I’ll be in South America for a while.
Wild camping was virtually impossible in Colombia because most land was fenced off. Things changed a bit in Ecuador. Above is a great little camping spot that wasn’t fenced off, but, it turned out that it was on someone’s land too. The owner came at 6 am, shocked. He had to drive somewhere, but left a young man to “watch over me” until he’d come back. It was tense. I thought - What have I done? Surely it’s not a big deal to park on a small bit of land for the night.
Turns out there’s gold in these parts. The owner thought that I came for his gold! When I made it clear that I didn’t, the tension immediately disappeared. He saw me flying my drone and asked if I can use it to help map out the area. I agreed, but, by the time we got to where he wanted to map out, everything was completely enveloped in fog.
Peru – towards Lima along the north coast
The border crossing from Ecuador to Peru was painful! A gringo with a Colombian car? With Medellin number plates?! (Medellin is Pablo Escobar’s city) That just didn’t seem right to the border police. They searched every inch of my car. Made me take everything out.
For a moment – I was worried. I got the car second-hand and I never even looked through it so thoroughly myself. Who knows who owned it before? After 2 hours of searching and not finding anything, the seemingly disappointed border police waved me through. “Welcome to Peru.”
Geographically, there’s a stark difference between Peru and Ecuador. There’s still quite a bit of greenery on the Ecuador side closer to Peru, but when you enter Peru… it’s all desert. Albeit a desert with beaches.
This meant that I could stop my car and pitch the roof-top-tent wherever I wanted. I was happy about that! I was even happier about the fact that one night a group of fishermen appeared out of nowhere.
I got these photos and some fish to cook over a fire. First night of that sort in South America.
Aerial view of where I camped and met the fishermen. As you can see – desert…. not much of anything around.
It quickly became obvious that much of the North Coast of Peru is remote. You can easily find kilometres of beach to yourself. The coastline is amazing in places and then there’s Iiescas protected area.
The place isn’t even mapped out on Google maps. You get in through an old desert road, which partly got washed away years ago. These days you drive and then the road just ends. If you don’t stop in time – you’ll fall. You have to find the sandy detour tacks that will join you with the still standing parts of the old, paved road.
There are no paved roads inside Iiescas. There are dirt tracks and a shortcut –the beach. You can drive the beach during low tide, but, miss-time your trip and… you’ll be stuck, or washed away.
What I loved most about Iiescas was this sense of remoteness and… the sea-lions. There are a few spots where you see hundreds of them. And there are no regulations. I could fly my drone and come up close. Well… ok, coming close was not possible, since as soon as you’re about 20 meters away, they all make a mad rush for the ocean.
I did accidentally startle a sleeping sea-lion. I thought it was dying, so I stopped to take a closer look. But, suddenly, it awoke! We were both shocked. Me – because the sea-lion was very much alive. The sea-lion – because it saw a human so close to it on land. I thought of running. The sea-lion didn’t know whether to fight or flee, ultimately deciding to move off as quickly as possible, into the safety of the ocean.
The sea-lion colony is below, on the beach. I camped above. You can click the image to get an idea of the scale and the magnificence of this area.
Most of the road towards Lima is a desert highway. Long stretches of emptiness, sand and the ocean.
There are some parts which are absolutely spectacular though. In some countries, sand dunes and unusual rock formations are big tourist attractions. In Peru – they’re just something you encounter along the road.
The above two images are from a spot I chose to camp in on my way to Lima. It’s awesome to have a drone in places like these, since it allows you to see things in a way that was unimaginable just years ago.
One of the more spectacular bits of the road. I saw large dunes and clouds of fog from the highway. Fog is common during this time of year (getting into Peruvean winter). I’d never seen the combination of sand dunes and fog before, I had to shoot this with the drone. From the air I noticed how close the ocean was too. My favourite things in one photo – sand-dunes, fog and the ocean!
Peru is huge and its’ desert is huge, or rather there are different deserts. This is the desert near Ica. Ica is famous for an oasis that’s near by, but that’s overrun by mass tourism. I went about 30km away from town and found a camping and “working spot” completely to myself.
I continued to Nazca, since it was on the way to a place that was recommended by a friend. Nazca of course is famous for the Nazca lines. I thought I’d get some decent images of these with the drone, but… of course there are airplanes flying over them every day.
The planes fly really low. Thankfully I was only about 15 metres above the ground when I saw it. The only responsible thing to do was to land my drone immediately.
Ayacucho, Condors and my first glance at andean culture
The place recommended to me by the friend was a spot in the Andes where condors come to warm themselves on cliffs every morning.
These huge birds would appear from 6 to 8 am, like clockwork. They’d circle around what was set up to be a condor observation area. It felt like I could almost touch them – They were that close. There was only one group of people besides me at this incredible spot. They had local roots and heard about the place from their grandmother. They hitch-hiked to get there. I gave them a lift back to their hotel and they invited me for breakfast.
This particular area doesn’t get many foreign tourists at all. No one usually bothers the locals with photo requests. As a result, everyone I asked gladly took a moment out of their lives and allowed me a photo. This woman even thanked me.
I was already in Ayacucho the region. My next destination was Ayacucho the town. The way there was spectacular and scenes like the one above were regular. A villager absorbing some morning sun rays, sometimes waiting for a lift.
I love traveling by car. I can stop anywhere I want and this road gave me many reasons to stop. One of the small towns on the way was having a local fiesta. People were gathering firewood for a ceremony they’d have later on in the year. There was fermented drink called chicha and lentil and meat soup called Mondongo.
It was a happy day in town and the people were particularly well-natured. When the locals saw a sole gringo walking the streets, I was quickly given a cup of chicha and a bowl of soup. The women working in the kitchen, where I went to give back my empty bowl were pretty talkative. So we chatted.
“Do the flowers on the hats of these elderly women represent anything?” I asked one of the more talkative ladies. “Yes. It means that these women are single. You wanna take one home to your country?” Replied the woman, laughing.
Inside the kitchen the women were working hard to make food for the entire town. The main celebration was to be held in the evening. The operation was in full swing. I was invited, but, I had to continue my journey.
Fast forwarding to the Cusco region. I haven’t been shooting much in the bigger towns or cities lately and things didn’t change even in Cusco. It’s an amazing city, but… I guess cities serve specific purposes for me and often I’m all photographed out when I arrive to a city.
Because most of this trip was spent in remote regions where I focused on shooting without any of the modern world comforts, the cities are there I catch up on those comforts – restaurants, cafes, hot water!
Around Cusco I found out about the amazing Qoyor’ritti festival. I made a video on my experience. It’ll be on my Youtube channel very soon. There are many more images, of course, but here’s a quick glance.
The Qoyor’ritti is a festival that combines Catholic and indigenous traditions. One of the ceremonies was the bringing down of the cross from the glacier. The morning of this ceremony was pretty magical. I came while the sun was still hiding and the pilgrims lit candles in expectation of the cross coming down.
During the four main days of the festival there were non-stop dances in front of one of the temples. Teams or delegations of devotees came and danced with incredible energy, despite the long and arduous journey to get to the temple.
After the cross was lowered and prayers were said, a sea of devotees descended from the mountain top to the make-shift village below. Once again, you’ll be able to see an in-depth video of my entire experience at the Qoyor’ritti on my Youtube channel.
Into the high Andes
A bit of time to recover and to hang out in Cusco and I needed to go back to Lima. To sort out a way to leave my car in Peru while I’d go back to Europe for a few months. I decided to make a small detour to a village called Cotohuasi. There was a canyon by the same name nearby. That’s what I wanted to see.
Unfortunately, I crashed my drone and couldn’t make any truly worthwhile images of the canyon itself, but, I did document the journey.
Much of the villages I’d been visiting were pretty high in the mountains. Many of the roads went over 4,000 metres. Some, over 5,000. I’d only been on a road at that altitude once, in the Indian Himalayas. A really big deal was made of the fact that it was at over 5,000 metres. In fact, a sign claimed that the Khardung La mountain pass is the highest motorable road in the world. It seems that this isn’t totally true, but that’s not the point.
The point is that in Peru I’ve already gone over a few 5,000 metre mountain passes. Seems like it’s a regular thing, once you’re in the Andes. The scenery along these road is impressive.
It started snowing on my way to Cotohuasi and I almost got stuck around one of these high mountain passes. I’ll also talk about this and show it in the Youtube video about the Qoyor’ritti, so I won’t say much here.
3,500 metres is still pretty damn high, but it’s nothing in comparison to 5,000. Much less oxygen at over 5,000. Everything becomes harder to do and at night, it’s cold. So, so cold!
Thankfully my journey ended well. The next morning I found myself in the beautiful, traditional little village of Puica.
I chatted to the locals, wandered the cobblestone streets around and made some photos.
I also bought some of that fermented Chicha that I tried at the other village. Those of you who are from Eastern Europe and are familiar with Kvas, well, it’s a little like that.
My arrival in Cotohuasi canyon was a bit of an anti-climax photographically. It would have been ideal for some drone shots and footage, but, it was not to be this time.
This is pretty much the only worthwhile photo I made. The man’s name is Leonardo. He lives with his wife on a remote farm inside the canyon. They're self-sufficient, but lately Leonardo has been feeling a bit sick. Dizzy, short of breath. I asked if he wanted to go to a doctor "Perhaps." He replied without much urgency.
I guess the folks that live a lifestyle like his aren't too much into doctor visits. I changed the topic "Do you think it's gonna rain?" Leonardo looked at the sky and said "Hmmm, maybe. Yeh. I think it will. The road becomes dangerous with rain." On that note I said goodbye and headed back to town, along that incredibly narrow road which would become impassable with even the slightest landslide.
The rest of my drive to Lima was pretty quick. I sorted out all the paperwork and left my car at a workshop. Now, I’m in Europe, but a big part of my heart is definitely in South America.
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