David Mather Foundation

Salta, Argentina. The locals call it la linda – the beautiful. At first glance, it’s easy to see why. Arriving fresh from a month spent in a poor town in the Peruvian Andes, Salta’s refined streets practically glittered. Designer clothes boutiques stand beside upmarket souvenir shops, leading to the central Plaza, where well-heeled locals sit at pavement cafes, sipping espressos. The cathedral – pale pink with ornate white adornments – certainly takes the prize for one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. But this is only one side of Salta, the tourist-friendly face. I was soon to discover another side to the city, which is a different picture entirely. I had come to spend a few weeks volunteering at the David Mather Foundation. It is a charity which helps to improve the prospects of disadvantaged young people in Salta, founded and run by Ian and Ceri Mather, British semi-expats. They set up the charity in memory of their son David, who sadly died in a paragliding accident in Salta three years ago. David had seen the huge divisions in Salta’s society and the abject conditions in which the indigenous communities live, compared with the luxurious lifestyles of those of European descent. He was keen to do something to help, so his parents are fulfilling his wish. Working with teenagers is not an area I’ve had much experience in – I’m more used to dealing with children who can’t yet tie their own shoelaces – but I was interested in the project and figured that students who turn up to attend early-morning classes of their own free will are probably...

Kindness at the Bolivian Border

Sometimes, you have moments that you never want to forget. They may not be the most exciting or impressive, they might not be anything much, but they somehow touch your soul and you try and grab hold of them, desperate to never let go. For me, crossing the Argentina-Bolivia border was one of those moments.       I disembarked, bleary-eyed, from the bus and immediately began to shiver. I gathered with the crowd in the dark, waiting for my backpack to appear from the depths of the luggage hold, pulling my coat more tightly around me. It was 5am and I’d just arrived in La Quiaca, the Argentinean half of the Argentina-Bolivia border town. It was several degrees below freezing. There were a few shacks representing various bus companies, a small building and a couple of roads veering off in different directions. People were milling around, setting luggage down and stamping their feet. Somehow, I had to find out how to get to the border, but first, I really needed the loo. I can’t have been gone for more than two minutes in total, but when I returned, almost everyone had disappeared. Just a couple of stragglers remained,with fixed expressions of disinterest. I looked around, but I was clueless. I didn’t know how far the border was, or even in which direction. I had vaguely expected that there would be taxis or something, but there was nothing. Getting colder by the second, I approached a kindly-looking older lady and asked her if she knew how to get to the border. “I’m going to the border, it’s not far”...

A Journey Down Argentina’s Most Spectacular Road

When my friends in Salta, Argentina said that they were taking me to Cafayate for the weekend, they mentioned that the drive was ‘quite nice’, but I had no idea that it would be the main event. That’s not to say that Cafayate is not a charming town – it is – but it’s the journey there that I remember the most. The road linking Salta with Cafayate is a tiny part of the National Route 40 – itself a part of the Pan-American Highway, which stretches from Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America, with only a small break in Panama. For this reason alone, driving on this road is exciting – it’s full of the promise of adventure, the knowledge that you could drive along this road in either direction for a very, very long way. But that’s not all; this particular section is flanked by the Quebrada de Humahuaca and the Rio Grande. The Quebrada is a mountain range, something that’s hardly uncommon in this part of the world, but, due to some geological quirk that even the former Geography teacher I was travelling with couldn’t explain, the mountains sport a dazzling array of colours. They are even known as ‘The Mountains of Seven Colours’. I was expecting to see a few subtle shades, but they are really, truly eyepopping colours – green, red and purple, among others. I asked to stop excitedly on several occasions, just to get out and take another picture of them. I couldn’t believe my eyes. But the best was yet to come. Further along the route, the mountain landscape...

25 Things I Wish I’d Known about South America

Now that I’ve finished my four-month adventure, I’ve had a few moments to reflect on some of the things I’ve learnt about travel in South America. If you’re planning to go, you might just want to bear some of these in mind – enjoy!       1. That ‘winter’ means everything from 30 degree heat and bone-dry weather to temperatures below zero, to fog and rain. 2. That overland border crossings can be the most mystical, fun or downright chaotic moments of the trip. 3. That you need to carry toilet roll and hand sanitizer at all times. 4.That heating and hot water, even where nights are frosty, are novelty items 5. That Peru is the most amazing, vast and diverse country, with people who are far too kind and experiences which are far too wonderful, meaning that you never want to leave. 6. That there are dangers, but if you are sensible and sensitive to the culture around you, it is much safer than the guidebooks would have you belive. 7. That in Chile they speak ‘chileno’ at rapid speeds and that in Argentina they change all ‘c’s and ‘ll’s to ch and j. 8. That many cultural events are free or very cheap and take place in the most beautiful theatres – this is the place to get great seats for the opera or ballet. 9. That in Peru, they really do eat guinea-pig – one day there will be four in the family’s garden, the next, just two will remain and two small, headless carcasses will be marinating in the kitchen. 10. That transport rarely...

The Long Way to Salta

It should have been an easy trip, especially by South American standards. Salta, a northern city in Argentina, was just a 9-hour bus journey from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. However, when I first arrived in San Pedro, the woman at the first bus company I enquired at bit her lip. “Monday might not be possible,” she informed me. “We’ve had a lot of snow. But definitely on Tuesday.” One extra day. That didn’t seem so bad, given the delightfulness of the little desert town. However, when I went back to check on the Monday, fresh back from an excursion which had taken us past a long line of trucks waiting to cross the border, I was told that it would be Wednesday. I went and asked at another bus company and was told the same. At this point, the details start to sound a little like Groundhog Day, so I shan’t bore you with them, but suffice to say that rather than the two days I had planned to stay, I was there for six. On the 6th day, I was getting desperate. I had arranged to meet some family friends in Salta and volunteer for a while with their charitable organisation, the David Mather Foundation. But I only had a limited amount of time to spend with them, and that time was rapidly running out. After the bus companies admitted they didn’t know when the road would open and with the queue of trucks now stretching for over a mile, I decided to cut my losses and go to Calama, the nearest big town, where I...
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