Driving the Carretera Austral in Chile

Two men with furrowed faces under wide sombreros enter the arena. Callused hands leisurely hold the reins of the horses and short ponchos striped in natural colors fall around the cowboys’ shoulders. A gate is opened, a young bull set loose. Let the game begin!

The huasos, as Chilean cowboys are called, work in twos and have to corner the bull against the fence three times. The horsemen’s strength and skills are masterful, but so are the bull’s. At times it succeeds in outrunning the horses or evading the circuit, which leads to puntos malos (penalty points) for the huasos.

Understanding a Rodeo

I ask my neighbor how much time each team is allowed in order to achieve their goal. I get a bewildered look. It takes a moment before he answers, “They have to corner the bull three times. Time is not relevant”. Continue reading

Eating Piranha, really? (Brazil)

For a moment I am caught off guard and almost fall overboard. Piranha jaws sharply tug at the chunk of fat I had fastened on the hook. Pablo, my host, guide and friend helps me pull in my line until the feisty creature plops on the bottom of the boat in fluttering spasms.

Fortunately, Pablo doesn’t expect me to remove the hook from the razor-toothed jaws. In the Pantanal wetlands, but also in Brazil’s other waters that are teeming with piranhas such as the Amazon, Paraguai, Orinoco and São Francisco River, it is not uncommon to encounter fishermen who miss the top of a finger. Even experienced anglers may still get caught by surprise, thinking the piranha has drawn its last breath, only to find it dangling from a finger.

Continue reading

Driving on Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia

Driving on Salar de Uyuni, optical illusion photo of Karin-Marijke full sized pushing the Land Cruiser mini-sizedHexagonal tiles of salt stretch to the horizon, hemmed in by bluish mountains. The crunching of salt crystals beneath my feet sounds like stepping on fresh snow. I’m encompassed by total silence in an otherworldly spectacle that is largely devoid of life.

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and is situated in the southwest corner of Bolivia. The town of Uyuni, characterized by guesthouses, overpriced tourist joints and tour operators, is the place to organize a trip to this salt plain. Continue reading

Why we Love the Lake District in Argentina

Lake District in Argentina, the blue lago Alumine surrounded by Andean MountainsI follow a winding trail along the slopes, which demands a bit of clambering over slippery rocks. I pick another handful of those juicy blackberries along the path, which constitute my breakfast. At a stream, I strip and lower myself into one of the shallow pools sheltered by rocks. Water of 100º degrees (40 degrees Celsius) flows down my shoulders, which is bliss in the crisp temperatures of dawn.

Around me are twittering birds, chirping cicadas, and crawling insects that are leaving their hiding places to search for food or to warm up in the sunlight that filters through the foliage. Leaves rustle and their coloring betrays the arrival of fall. This little paradise is mine until about ten o’clock, when other hikers start crossing my path. Even then it remains a quiet place; few have discovered this hidden hot spring near Lago Queñi. Continue reading

A Peek into North Korea – Visiting the DMZ in Korea

Eilji Observatory, South Korea (©photocoen)“No photos.”
“No photos?”

A second of disappointment as well as bewilderment. We had just driven a couple of hundred meters past fences with barbed wire and watchtowers and had been able to take photos. But now, from the highest point we couldn’t. It was, at the least, a bit inconsistent. However, feeling fortunate with the way this day had turned out we weren’t complaining. Continue reading

Going Underground in South Korea – Visiting the 4th Tunnel at the DMZ

Entrance of the 4th tunnel.

Entrance of the 4th tunnel.

In the 1960s-1980s, North Korea dug tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into South Korea in an attempt to surprise attack their neighbors from underground, Depending on the size of the tunnel it can funnel 10,000-30,000 soldiers an hour and some are big enough for vehicles as well. Unfortunately for North Korea, the tunnels were discovered. That is to say, four of them: three just north of Seoul in the 1970s and the fourth farther east near Yanggu in the early 1990s. There is speculation whether there are more, but nobody on the South side really knows.

As Coen and I were driving through South Korea in an oh-let’s-take-that road-to-see-where-it-leads kind of way, we got a regional map at a tourist information office and learned that we were near the fourth tunnel. We knew that in Seoul you needed to sign up for an organized tour to visit the tunnels near the capital, which we didn’t feel like doing, and hoped this wouldn’t be the case here. Continue reading

A World Peace Bell Made of Cartridges (South Korea)

World Bell of Peace.

World Bell of Peace.

In the north of South Korea stands a Peace Dam. It was South Korea’s response to the Imnam Dam in North Korea built in the 1980s. South Korea’s military dictator at the time, Chun Doo-hwan, predicted that North Korea would use it to create a killer flood, wiping out most of Seoul. This was two years before the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, so no time was lost or money wasted to counteract this by building a dam on the south side. Continue reading

Korean Sex Slaves in Japan – The Battle Isn’t Over Yet

Sculpture Dedicated to Korean Sex-Slaves for Japan (©photocoen)
It had been a beautiful afternoon of strolling around Seoul. We had left the subway for what it was: efficiently transporting people from A to B. We weren’t here for efficiency but for sightseeing, for getting a feel for the city. And walking is the best way to do so.

Amidst the spic and span of glitzy glass skyscrapers my eyes caught yellow Post-its stuck to a wooden fence that surrounded a high-rise under construction. Between all the silver and transparent cleanliness and somewhat sterile feel of this business part of Seoul, the colorful, randomly pinned notes stood out. I took a closer look. Continue reading

Watching a Soccer Game in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracaña Stadium, Brazil

One of the most unexpected sites I ever did in our 13-year journey was visiting a soccer stadium and actually watching a soccer game. Traveling is full of surprises, and here I stood, in 2007, in the what ‘everybody’ considered to be the most famous stadium in the world.

Football Game in Maracaña, Rio de Janeiro (©photocoen)“You can’t leave Rio de Janeiro without having seen the Maracaña Stadium!”

“The what?” I couldn’t even pronounce the word.

“The Maracaña Stadium! You don’t know what it is?”

“Sorry, never heard of it.”

“No, that’s impossible. Everybody knows Maracaña. It was the largest stadium in the world. It was were Pelé played his last game!”

Being a complete ignoramus when it comes to soccer, that last remark didn’t make any impression whatsoever. Wisely, I refrained from asking who Pelé was. Obviously, he was an important player. You shouldn’t try the patience of Brazilians too much when it comes to soccer, I knew. Continue reading

Hiking up Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, or Not?

With the Olympic Games coming up soon, I’d thought I’d share some of my ignorance about Rio de Janeiro when I first visited it in 2007.

Sugar Loaf Mountain ,Rio de Jaineiro (©photocoen)

Thus far, thick traffic and having to watch my back had made me wary of the city but after a leisurely walk up the Sugar Loaf I took in the view and suddenly understood the spell that visitors as well as Cariocas (Rio de Janeiro’s residents) fall under. Even more so, I could now clearly see why the city’s earliest colonizers chose this spot to settle down.

In front of me stretched the enchanting Guanabara Bay of tropical blue waters filled with sailing yachts and lined with beaches. Framing it was the dramatic backdrop of the forest-clad mountains of Tijuca National Park, topped by Brazil’s famous Cristo Redentor.

What’s there not to fall in love with? Continue reading

Why Running Can be Slow Travel

Rizal Mountain Run, Philippines (©photocoen) Coen and I are running amidst hills covered in lush vegetation. Our run started at six am, with darkness fading and making way for a new day. From Basekamp we covered the first two kilometers over asphalt, looking out over rolling hills on our right that were partly hidden in a haze.

Before we knew it we dove deep into the countryside. Our upper legs were immediately beaten on a steep descent, an eroded trail where not even a mountain bike could do down anymore. I needed to give all attention to where I put my feet. The first runner was soon limping uphill, back to Basekamp, having strained his ankle. Continue reading

Why the Galápagos Islands Are Worth a Visit (and how you can visit them)

Do you go on a cruise, or do you stay in a hotel and find your own way around? Do you need a bag of money, or is the Galápagos a destination for low-budget travelers as well? Let’s take a look what the islands have to offer, and to whom.

Tortoise, Galápagos Islands (©photocoen)

“Look there’s one. And there’s another!”

Words from the seat behind me made me sit up straight and look out of the window. All I saw were grazing cows. What were they talking about?

“And another one!”

I spotted something resembling a big turtle shell but I couldn’t be sure. Even though the bus was driving at a snail’s pace over the narrow, unpaved road, we had passed it too fast. And besides, giant tortoises grazing among cattle? That couldn’t be true, could it?

I considered Disney Land. Had somebody put a number of empty shells in the fields to give naïve tourists the impression of tortoises living here? In view of the big tourist business of the Galápagos Islands, the thought wasn’t all that awkward. Continue reading

Travel Memories – The Beauty of People

Workshop in Quito, Ecuador (©photocoen)In Quito, Ecuador, Coen and I camped in a car workshop for a couple of weeks. We were surrounded by broken vehicles and mechanics whose overalls were black from grease and dirt, and the noise of a blaring radio. This was not the first time we were camping in a workshop; we had done so before during our then ten-year overland journey in Asia and South America.

You get used to many things when traveling for a longer period of time, but each time I am flabbergasted by the hospitality of people and the confidence they have in us. Continue reading