Southern tip: An epic tale of South America


Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 9, 2009

In the months preceding this journey we spent most of our days in front of a huge map of South America, which was pasted to our bedroom wall, littered with post-it notes.  Our dream was to reach Tierra del Fuego, some 7,000 miles away.  We sketched out our route, began to look for funding, and investigated each country in search of unusual stories, those we couldn’t find in tourist guides.  We left on February 6th, 2009, and headed south inside Sancho, our small ’92 jeep.

As we left Quito, the sun crept out from behind the clouds and the drops of rain fell like fireflies from the ominous sky.  We felt nostalgia, fear, and excitement.   There was no turning back.  We were throwing ourselves into the unknown.

Each story had its own level of difficulty.  One afternoon we found ourselves parked outside a Mennonite house, deep in the Bolivian jungle.  Neither one had the guts to get out of the car and knock on the door.  They seemed so different.  We weren’t even sure if they spoke Spanish.  It helped us to be workings as a team.  We gave each other support and conquered that which intimidates all of us: getting close to the other.

We spoke to a few families and finally one of them let us stay in their home and document their lives.

The months went by, as we traveled the roads of South America.  Some roads were smooth and we flew down them with ease, others were rough and they shook us as we swallowed their dust.

In Ecuador, we heard the laughter of the marimba echoing through the humid forests of Esmeraldas.  We ascended the high peaks of the Peruvian Andes in search of the sacred Apu Condor.  In the Streets of Oruro, Bolivia, we danced with the Devil and we harvested seaweed with the Chilotes in the remote islands of southern Chile.

Sancho, our car, turned into our home and shield.  An image that is still burned in our minds is that of a victorious Sancho riding in a ferry, crossing the Strait of Magellan, right before we hit our destination.  We were seduced by the National Park of Tierra del Fuego.  We immersed ourselves in the most pure form of beauty: nature.  Instead of doing a story on people, we decided to focus on our Mother, and get lost in her patterns and colors.  While we were there, the seasons turned from fall to winter and the glorious reds and yellows faded to black and white.

But the people of South America touched us in a way that no snowcapped mountain or serene turquoise lake could.  They opened the doors of their lives, and let us climb inside.  With the gift of their trust, we had the privilege of experiencing different realities, in their most authentic form. When we first arrived at the hacienda of the Montubios, Ecuadorian cowboys, we felt as though we had entered a world strange and separate from our own.  As we packed our bags and headed out we realized that these strangers had become our friends.

Although South America’s culture and tradition radiate an extraordinary beauty, its history is stained with blood and years of injustice.  Yawar Fiesta, or Blood Celebration, represents the violent clash between the Spanish and the Incans.  The people of Coyllurqui, Peru, catch a wild condor, a symbol of the indigenous, and tie it to the back of a bull, a symbol of the Conquistadores.  We witnessed the two dancing through the ring as the condor dug its beak into the bull’s back. Modern South America was born from this bloody union, and along with it, a syncretism that combines ancient Andean beliefs with Catholicism.

With every step we took into the heart of this amazing continent our minds widened as they were filled with surprises.   We could hardly imagine the vastness of this mysterious land.  Wrapped in the black night, we traveled under the Southern Cross.  Lost in the bowels of South America, we were not sure if we were in heaven or hell.   Endless deserts turned into wet jungles.  When we arrived at our next destination we slowly worked our way into another story, uncovering a new reality.   We recorded what we witnessed with our cameras.

If no one ever sees our images, our work would be meaningless.  The fact that you are viewing these pages is priceless to us.  This book was made to share with you what we learned and experienced in our journey.

Each place changed us.  Perhaps we also left our print.  The last story we did was in the Ecuadorian jungle, in the Napo Rio.  As we pulled into the tiny pueblo of San Pedro, all the stares of the people fell upon the strange object tied to our roof, a surfboard.  One day Cirilo, a teenage member of the family we were staying with, asked us for the board.  Soon he was surfing up the Napo River pulled by his dad’s motorized canoe.  As he passed other boats, his smile reached up to the bottom of his ears.

We came back to Quito seven months later.  When someone asked us what was the best part of our trip, there was no single answer.  There are places and people that touched us, and are now part of our life, of who we are.

Creating this book has helped us to remember and give thanks for what we experienced.  When we started this trip we didn’t understand what it meant.  More than just documenting the south, we had to live it.  We discovered that we are all inter-connected, as human beings, regardless of what part of this great America we were born.



Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 9, 2009

The doctor sterilized the tweezers to investigate the wounds of my foot. “Take a deep breath, and if you have to, shout, this is going to hurt.”

“Ahh!” The worse part was not the metallic tweezers piercing through the infected holes in my skin.  The worse part was the news that came after, “A fly has laid eggs in your foot.” The words eggs and fly began to boil in my brain and I wanted to shout, “Doctor, please cut off the foot!”

The egg-laying incident might have taken place in the island of Limones or in the river village of San Miguel.  I’m not sure.  It could have been in Borbon. When we began the Esmeraldas journey we went without a specific plan. The idea was to document the Afro-Ecuadorian province in one week. This project marked the beginning of our long journey through South America.  The warnings began to inundate us before we left for the coast: “Take care of your equipment, Esmeraldas is very dangerous… Do not drive at night… Beware of the Colombian guerrillas… Did you read about those tourist who were raped and killed?”

In the 1500’s, African slaves began to arrive to the area now known as Esmeraldas. One of the legends is that a boat full of slaves that was headed to Peru shipwrecked close to shore.  A group of African slaves were sent to find fresh water and they never returned.  If this had happened nowadays people would have said that they did not return because, of course, they were robbed.

Luckily for us, the worries of a dangerous and unfriendly province vanished in the first days of our trip. We found in Esmeraldas what you find in any other province of Ecuador: stories, sorrows, Correistas and non-Correistas, fried chicken, fries with watered down ketchup, posters of the governor of California in some action movie, etc.  The only difference is that in Esmeraldas this all happens under an intense heat. It is a mixture of calm and quiet blue places with others that are ignited with colorful lights and blasting music. There is a lot of poverty and violence and yet it has a rich cultural heritage, which the people proudly try to maintain.

In our trip across the green province we discovered hidden places and met characters who became our friends even though we might never see them again. The fishermen say that everything is a matter of luck, sometimes there are plenty of fish and sometimes nothing bites. Sometimes you are so lucky that you run into a pregnant fly who picks you as a surrogate mother.

Montubios: The Ecuadorean Cowboys

Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 9, 2009

We avoided taking showers for a few days.   Eventually there was no way to escape it.   Naked in the small cement bathroom, about the size of a closet, with a toilet at one end and a drain smack in the center, I lifted the pail over my head and dumped the freezing cold water.   I wanted to scream.   I have never felt so alive.  As my nipples hardened I reached for another pail full.   Now I was living like a Montubio.

The Hacienda Mariana was a dusty group of houses located miles down the back roads of Mocache, a cowboy town outside of Quevedo.  The people of Mariana were proud.  They were poor, but unlike many of the people in neighboring areas they worked for themselves.   There were no wealthy Guayaquileños telling them what to do.   Their land was theirs and nobody could take that away from them.

The Aguayos were a group of brothers.  They were the owners of the Hacienda.  Their parents, Eusebio and Genoveva, handed it down to them.  Joel the oldest of the Brothers was 82.  When I stared into his weathered face his eyes told me he was friendly, but tired and worn down from a full life on the hacienda.

Pedro Pico ran the show at the Mariana.   He was short, but to make up for it, he was tougher and prouder than any man in the whole province of Los Rios.   He was the son of Segundo, one of the Aguayo brothers, and his wife was a tall dark beauty named Silvia.

Pedro seemed to enjoy the Rodeo more than anyone else.    He’d tip the whisky bottle up towards the sky and let it run down his throat like water down a drain.  Then he’d get on a wild horse and ride it for what seemed like an impossible amount of time.  I remember him hanging on for dear life off the side of a horse’s neck.  The crowd loved him and he loved the crowd even more.  It was his moment in the spotlight.

The rodeos do not always have happy endings.  Pedro’s brother, Manuel, fell hard off a wild horse and ended up dying from the injury.  He was only a teenager.  This didn’t stop Pedro from risking his life.  He rode twice as hard for his little brother.   As Pedro’s uncle put it, “We wait all year for the 12th of October, to enjoy ourselves, and watch people fall hard to the ground off wild horses.”  The traditions survive the tragedies, and the Rodeo Montubio lives on, even though there are sacrifices.

The beautiful part of this experience was that the people of the Hacienda Mariana took us in like family.  Every morning we were served a fried egg with fresh patacones (fried plantains), ground pepper that was grown on the farm, and steamy cocoa.  At night we would play soccer with the kids in the warm air.   Before bedtime, Don Ramon Aguayo would tell us stories deep into the night.   When I took my last Montubio shower it was routine.  The cold bucket of water seemed familiar, a comforting ritual.   As we pulled away in our dusty Vitara, some of our newfound friends had tears in their eyes.   In the end, our differences, which seemed so large at first, were actually minute.  We all have a bit of Montubio inside.

Life on the Napo River

Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 9, 2009

The black, rapid waters of the Napo, rushed past our stationed canoe, under a clear starred night.  My five companions threw the nets and prepared themselves for the wait.  In complete darkness, we sat looking towards the shadow of the person who would tell the next story.  Powerful shamans stealing powers and tree-trunk-wide-boas living under the Napo crept into my imagination. The five Quichua youngsters, who led this fishing expedition, giggled between drags of their cigs.  The river and the jungle were their home, their playground and the language they understood and used to explain their magical world to me.

When we got back, right before dawn, Blanca had already started boiling the yucas (cassava) for breakfast.  We had only brought back five carachamas and one piranha.  Back in the day, they told me, the Napo used to be filled with fish. All you had to do is go to the shore and you catch hundreds of them.  Boiled in water, the carachamas floated among the yucas and made up the simplest, tastiest soup. After breakfast, everyone drank “chicha,” a beverage made out of yuca and offered at all times of the day.  To not accept it when offered is an insult to Quichuas.  When you first enter their house, chicha is like a strong handshake.  It  is a covenant, allowing  strangers to build a trusting friendship.

This is how we came to know the Quichuas of the Napo.  Very shy and reserved, these indigenous groups live fairly isolated from big cities.  A lot of their houses can only be reached by canoe making it hard for most to reach the roads.  They survive in tight communities where helping the other is not an option but a philosophy of life.    Gregorio, or “Tocota”, the name of a type of tree in their Quichua language, was a master with the chain saw.  One day, he took us to his brother in law’s house to help him build a canoe.  They found the appropriate balsa tree, and after a few hours, a long carved out canoe was ready to ride the Napo.  They don’t like anyone in their community to be left behind.  The Quichuas prosper together.

Yet, life can be harsh in the jungle and many suffer from child or spouse abuse.  Blanca remembered how she was expected from the age of five to cook, wash, help with the crops and start laboring before dawn.  The punishment for not completing her chores was brutal.  She would get on her knees and one of her parents, or both, would whip her with a belt or a cable. Then, she would have to go find ortiga (nettles), a poisonous plant that leaves a rash when in contact with the skin. They would rub it all over her body and, to top it all, they would rub aji, a type of chili pepper, in her eyes.

Blanca barely survived the punishments.  One time, she recalls, her dad punched her so hard she flew across the room, crashed against the wall and went unconscious. Her fever ran so high her parents feared the worse.  They had to call her grandfather, a respected shaman, to drink ayaguasca, a medicinal plant, and blow it on her.  Blanca said she would never hit her own kids because she feels the pain in her own skin.  This dark muscled woman, weathered by the sun and her own life, worked hard everyday to make sure her four kids finish school.

Things were different now along the Napo, but the basic principles of living in a community remained the same.  Kids wore jeans and listened to reggeton but they still helped the family with all the daily chores.  Like their parents, they were shy, kind and full of wisdom.  They understood medicinal plants, could stand in a one-person canoe as they rowed up river and deeply respected their elders.  They played everyday in the Napo as it flowed down to the Amazon carrying fish and gold in its veins. After a week of bathing in the river every evening and listening to a symphony of insects every night, our Quichua friends sent us on our way with plantains and yuca tied to the top of our jeep.  They said they will come visit one day; and we will wait for them, in our concrete jungle.

Mancora Surfers

Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 9, 2009

I slipped down the face of the head-high left on a sky-blue long board.   My dream had come true.  I was finally surfing Mancora, a famous surf spot in the north of Peru.  I rose up to the top of the wave and then slid back down and straightened my path in attempt to beat the close out.  Too late.  Suddenly, I was thrown from my board and sucked down to the depths of the ocean. Everything was dark.  After a few summersaults I began to kick, cutting my big toe on the rocky bottom. I was under for a bit too long.  When I popped to the surface, the sweet air filled my lungs with life.  It was great to be surfing again.

Many people, especially Peruvians, believe that the first surfers were from Peru.  It is said that 5000 years ago the fisherman of the pre-Incan empire of Chan Chan, were the first to ride waves in their “Caballos de Totora”, a long surfboard shaped boat made from a local plant.  Some people believe that these ancient South American cultures had contact with the Polynesians, who later brought the idea to Hawaii.

Wherever surfing did originate, its modern form has come back to completely transform the life of your average boy from a fishing village that just happens to be located in front of a world-class surf break.  A group of young men in their early 20’s have dubbed themselves the Mancora Surf Club.  Just like most young men from these small pueblos gone international surf destinations, they have taken up two jobs: Surf Instructor/Super Stud.  They really have it figured out.  All they do is surf all day while women from Boston to Amsterdam drool over their perfectly sculpted bodies.  No, I’m not jealous.  The other occupational choice in Mancora is taximoto driver/weed salesman. Most people in Latin America have two jobs.

I invited Carlos, a member of the surf club, out for a beer in attempt to better understand the local surf culture.  He explained to me that the local police had granted the surfers a certain amount of authority.  Puzzled, I asked him for an example.  He told me that if a drunk was urinating in public or a thief grabed the belongings of a tourist, they were expected to go kick his ass.

Although Carlos may sound like a badass, his sensitive side came out when he told stories.  “ One time we taught a blind man to surf”, he told me.  “It was the most amazing thing.  He could hear where he was on the wave”.  Carlos seemed sincerely touched by this story.

As we sat in a surfer bar owned by a tall English surfer babe, a fiancé of one of Carlos’ best friends, we looked out at the myriad of bars that lined the streets of Mancora.  He told me that fifteen years ago none of this was here.  A long time ago Mancora was just a hacienda.  Then it became a popular port when a group of people started selling tuna to boats that came from all over the world.  When Carlos was a child, his dad used to tell him that these men got so rich off of tuna that they would wipe their asses with bills.

Now Mancora has a new economy.  For better or for worse it has been changed into a surfer/ wanna-be-surfer Mecca.  Men who left for Lima to find employment are coming back to their small fishing village to work in the tourist industry.  People like me come to rent long boards, eat ceviches, and get ridiculous sunburns.  Mancora is just one of the pueblos that has undergone this metamorphosis.  Further south, in the town of Huanchaco, tourists come to surf and watch fishermen head to sea in Caballos de Totora, supposedly the world’s first surfboard.  Regardless of whether the people of Chan Chan invented surfing, the sport have certainly changed my life, and even more so, the life of Carlos.

Inca, Inc.

Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 9, 2009

The Yawar Fiesta (Blood Fiesta)

Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 9, 2009

The Salt Flats of Uyuni

Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 9, 2009

A long time ago the mountains used to walk and they acted like humans do. One of these mountains, Tunupa, was a woman who lived with her husband and three children. One of her kids died, and her husband took the other one, who was still a baby, away. He had cheated on her with another mountain. Tunupa cried a lot and her tears mixed with her breast milk. The valley flooded with salty milk and this is how the salt flat of Uyuni came to be. Tunupa is single to this day and her husband was dumped by his second wife.

Madaí Laime is fifteen and has been bagging salt from the age of six. Her job consists of filling plastic bags with a kilo of salt each, sealing them, and packing them in bigger bags of 50 kilos each. She needs to bag 2500 kilos per day and for this she earns $5. The first time her mother brought her to work she had no idea of how much salt existed. Madaí leaves her home in the morning before school and starts her job, comes back during recess time to continue and finishes after school. Her father abandoned them 9 years ago; he has another family in La Paz and is sick. Her favorite song is Kudai’s “There is nothing left” and her younger brother’s name is Bin Laden.

The musical band “Clouds of Love” was created by the Chambi brothers: Leo, Nico, Erik and Nirmo in 1991. When they started out they played on tin cans. Eventually, they saved money and were able to buy all their musical instruments. They rehearse on their free time, depending on their mood. Nirmo wants to save up money to buy his own trailer and sell his salt outside of Colchani. Instead of making $143 a month he can make up to $1500. Erik hates working in the salt flats and wants to become a tourist guide. Nico can’t seem to fine-tune his bass, which is missing its last cord. Leo has a wife in the north of Argentina. They live in separate countries because she can’t stand the cold weather in Colchani. He can’t stand the heat where she lives either.

The hotel “Salty Moon” majestically sits on top of a hill. From its restaurant, surrounded by tinted glass windows, you get a 180-degree view of the salt flat. This peculiar construction was built with salt, and its targeted to international travelers who enjoy comfort, silence, gourmet food and walking on salty floors. To guarantee its optimal quality, the salt and most of the products used for cooking, are imported from Argentina. The prices of the rooms vary from $80 to $120 a night. The other hotel in Colchani, not quite as fancy, charges $3. Not too long ago, president Evo Morales stayed in the hotel. After praising its owners for such comfortable accommodations, he demanded they create a special price for Bolivians. They lowered it to $50 a night.

Angela, Marcelo, John and his dog Skycer are all neighbors and meet every evening to play in the salt mounts outside a salt-processing factory across the street. They don’t care about legends of walking mountains. They have never been into the salt flat itself, and could care less about the thousands of visitors who come to witness one of nature’s unique wonders. They’re not even interested in knowing if the factories processing salt in their town use enough iodine to make it safe for human use. Their only worry is their 7 p.m. curfew as they jump and free-fall over the white mountains of their salty world.

The Devils of Oruro

Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 8, 2009

“Jallalla maestritos!” “Jallalla,” they all respond.

In complete darkness, illuminated only with the lights on our helmets, I was chewing coca leaves with five miners and a devil-head figure, better known as Uncle Lucas.  In front of him, coca leaves, alcohol, cigarettes and llama fetuses had been left as offerings. One by one, the miners told horror stories of the apparitions of the Uncle of the mine while they passed around a small plastic bottle of alcohol, which was probably not meant for human consumption.

At 1,115 ft underneath the Earth, not even rats survive.  A slight hammering could be heard from the dynamite detonating on the levels above.  Suddenly there was a landslide behind us and the miner stopped telling us his tale and looked into the darkness. He then accused the rest of us, “You are not drinking with faith, and the Uncle punishes us when you don’t drink before him with faith.” Ok. Jallala (this means cheers).

The miners say that many of them have run into the Uncle.  Sometimes it takes on the body of a regular miner, other times it looks and grunts  like a gorilla. This was better than any episode of the Twilight Zone, any Stephen King or Allan Poe book, or any psychological-terror movie. I thanked hell with all its incubi and succubi for granting me this unique opportunity. I silently prayed for an intra-terrestrial encounter with the Uncle, Huari, Hades, Satan, Big Foot, anyone, even a small glimpse of a shadow or a faint roar.  The coca leaves grinded inside my right cheek as each story or landslide behind me made the hairs on the back of my neck stand erect. The morbid desire for pure terror filled my soul with incomparable joy.

February is the month dedicated to the Uncle in the mining town of Oruro. During these dates, the Uncle leaves the mine and dances, preferably on rooftops. Dancers, from all around the state, invade the streets of Oruro. Many have seen the Uncle in disguise, dressed like the other dancers but instead of boots you could see its claws. The “Diablada of Oruro” is much more than a popular celebration during carnival. It is a dance dedicated to the most misunderstood character in human history: our brother Satan, the Uncle, who lives in the guts of Pachamama or mother Earth.

The Tuesday of carnival all of Oruro and its surrounding areas get together within their families. In the Hacienda Cotochullpa, the Condarcos celebrate every year.  A llama is given alcohol and coca leaves. Then they ask the animal for permission before they slice its throat with a knife. The blood is then collected in small bowls and poured over cars, tractors, and houses for good luck. It is a type of bloody blessing, Friday the Thirteenth style. The heart is removed and placed along with the head and feet on a fire pit. All the meat must be consumed the same day. The bones are then burned and buried. Any similarity with witchcraft is pure coincidence.

The Andean Oruro dances are an amazing parade of costumes full of color and imagination. When arriving to the Church of the Cavern, after a 3 km. dance, the devoted dancers collapse in front of the Virgin with fatigue and faith. They do the dance for the  “Virgencita” who grants them miracles every year. Some don’t even drink water as a sign of penance for the Virgin, who waits for her faithful children up on her decorated gold and silver altar, dressed in pristine robes.

In the mines, one week later, everything goes back to normal, and the men return to the entrails of Earth with their coca and alcohol. One of the men explains, “The Uncle is a familiar friend.  You cannot call a saint a fucker, but you can tell the Uncle, ‘You fucker, I bring you coca, I bring you cigarettes and you are not helping me find the metals, what is your problem you asshole?’ You can talk to him like that because he is someone much closer to us that lives in this place and protects us. It’s something you feel in your blood.” In the end, I think we have a lot more in common with a cigarette-smoking coca-chewing devil than with a virgin.

Mennonites in the Bolivian jungle

Posted in Uncategorized by tothetip on December 8, 2009

It was night. I had cut my hair, shaved my beard, and was dressed in blue overalls, a long sleeve blue shirt, and a blue baseball hat. I was one of them. “Come, here”, Cornelius said. He was sitting with his wife in the corner of their dinning room staring at me seriously with spooky eyes. “It has been really great to have you here. It is a shame you have too leave so soon. What do you think about coming to live here, in our community, forever?”


I thought for a second. What would it be like to become a Mennonite? No cars. No television. NO MUSIC! No way. “It has been great staying with you”, I politely replied, “but I can’t, I just can’t.”

I was dressed like a Bolivian Mennonite because I was preparing to do the unthinkable. I was getting ready to enter the Sunday church service in the Mennonite community of Santa Rita, Bolivia. The next morning, at 6:30 Abram cruised by the house in his carriage. “Just don’t take any pictures”, he warned, as the horse trotted down the beautifully lit countryside on the way to the chapel.

We were late. We sat on little wooden benches, the men on one side and the women on the other. No one dared to say a word. All of the sudden the entire room was filled with the thick sound of voices. They sang like it was judgment day and their souls depended on it. The golden light poured through the cracks of the walls threatening to break them down. The voices penetrated my body, from my forehead to the depths of my bowels. Wow! Maybe there is a God.

For the next two and a half hours I listened to a priest read from the Bible in German. My back ached. Sleep threatened. The fear of being found out had worn off. All of the sudden everyone jumped up, rushed out to their carriages, and rode off without saying a single word to each other. Strange.

About a week ago, Cornelius had courageously agreed to let my wife Karla and I stay in his house. We observed as the girls went out to milk the cows in the morning and the men endlessly worked in the cheese factory. As the kids played in the evening light, it took me back to a story I did as an intern about a farm family in Iowa.

At night, the family of ten gathered around the dining room table as we showed them slide shows on our laptop. Their eyes widened in disbelief as we opened magazines with double page spreads of underwater worlds. Although these youngsters could cook a dinner for ten and make their own clothes from scratch, they hadn’t a clue about the outside world. Their school curriculum consisted of the Bible, nothing else. Basic knowledge of geography and history were totally absent.

Why are these people so painfully separated from the outside world?

“The chip”, Cornelius explained. “It is already happening in more advanced countries like Germany and the United States.” Cornelius went on to tell me how the bible clearly states that computer chips will slowly but surely be planted into the right hand or forehead of every human being on the planet. Those who resist will be murdered. “The chip is the 666”, he insisted.

The Mennonites, who have moved from Europe, to Russia, to Canada, to Mexico, and now to Bolivia, have always been outcasts. They have always searched for a simpler way of life in which they can practice their religion in peace. They are scared of technology and it’s ability to distract them from the path of Christ. Now, the ultimate enemy has arrived. The apocalypse is near and the devil has come riding in on the back the digital revolution. The Internet is the 666.