Julia's Travels

Julia's Travels is the go-to blog for independent travel. Over the last two decades, Julia has visited over a hundred countries spanning six continents. Ask her how to get the best deals and save a bucket load of cash on expensive tours. A published travel writer, you can follow her on Facebook at Julia Hammond Travel Writing or visit her website www.juliahammond.co.uk.


Is it safe to travel to South America on your own?

It’s a question that bothers a lot of people who are considering a trip to South America. Tours are expensive but going it alone can be daunting. The issue of personal safety is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but with a bit of common sense, you can have an incident-free trip. I have travelled as a solo female countless times to all but three of the continent’s thirteen nations (Suriname, French Guiana and Guyana you’ll keep!). During those trips I’ve travelled independently and those trips have been pretty much trouble-free.


Overnight buses

Don’t discount overnight or late night buses as a method of transport; they’re comfortable and a good way of saving on accommodation as you move between destinations. But, do think about yourself and your possessions along the way.
* Check your bus operator’s safety record. At night especially, it’s worth paying a few dollars more for a better bus. Not only will the seats be more comfortable but you’re more likely to find yourself on a bus that’s better maintained and where there are two drivers to share the driving. Some companies insist on drink and drug-testing their employees.
* Most operators use a ticket system for your hold luggage; make sure your luggage is locked, loaded and you keep that ticket stub safe as you’re going to need it at the other end. A few coins for a propina (tip) are essential in some places such as Argentina – or you risk your bags being left behind.
* On board, opt if possible for a seat by the window as your bags on your lap or by your feet are less accessible to sticky fingers while you sleep. Keep valuables on your person e.g. a money belt or a securely zipped bag across your chest. Don’t use the overhead shelves. Keep items that you don’t want to lose in an inside pocket rather than an outside pocket – I lost a comb that way on a bus in Ecuador and it cost me a dollar to replace!
* Be safe getting to and from the bus station if you have a late night departure. If you’re in a very small town you’ll probably be safe walking, but in a large city, don’t risk it and book a taxi instead. Ask locally if you’re not sure! At night, doorways are often shadowy and you might not see someone emerge; if it’s safe to do so I often walk in the road where it’s better lit. (It’s also less likely to have holes to fall into.) Check with your hotel or hostel what night time safety is like in the area.

Iguacu rainbow

Pickpocketing and express kidnapping

Sadly, South America still has more than its fair share of ladrones (thieves) who’ll be more than happy to relieve you of your belongings should you let them.
* Don’t flash the cash – or expensive jewellery, mobile phones and top of the range cameras. It’s just asking for trouble. If you want to use a camera on a city street, carry it in an unmarked bag, take it out to photograph what you’ve seen and then put it away again. If you need to keep it out, carry it diagonally across your chest and keep a hand on it; this will reduce the risk of opportunist theft.  Keep full memory cards separate from your camera.
* Keep your passport safe and carry photocopies in case of loss or theft. Never leave a bag unattended, especially if it contains the documents you need to get home.
* Express kidnapping is unfortunately a problem in some parts of the continent, such as Bolivia. Travellers take a taxi, wrongly assuming it’s legit, only to find themselves at an ATM. Some have been held overnight so that the perpetrators can steal multiple withdrawals. Use a reliable radio taxi (any decent restaurant, bar or hotel will call one for you even if you’re not a patron) and only take with you what you really need. Keep your valuables in a safe if possible.
* Be especially careful in crowds. Think carefully about what you need to take with you if you’re going to a carnival or fiesta and try to avoid crowds that might turn nasty such as demonstrations.
* Learn a few choice swear words in Spanish (or Portuguese for Brazil) and be loud. It is one of the most important things I learnt at university, as this one has worked for me twice. I won’t say what I said, suffice to say that it wasn’t repeatable in polite company. However, the shock of a seemingly respectably dressed woman having a potty mouth was enough on both occasions for the wannabe robber to drop what they had their hands on and flee the would-be crime scene.


Do your research

Some areas of some cities aren’t as safe as they could be. Whether we like it or not, South America has one of the largest differentials between the haves and have nots. It figures, therefore, that there will be some areas that you ought to stay clear of.
* Use the FCO website’s travel advice by country for up to date advice regarding the country you’re planning to visit. It will list any scams that are currently being operated (never allow anyone to help you remove bird poo from your clothing!) and also any areas where safety is a current concern. Forewarned is forearmed: you don’t necessarily have to stay away, but you need to think about whether you are prepared to take a particular risk.
* Keep abreast of travel forums to find out about the reputations of companies you’re planning to use for tours and activities. Reviews aren’t 100% reliable, of course, as some businesses put pressure on clients to write glowing reviews, but they do give you a starting point. I recently met a Canadian traveller in Bolivia who’d just cycled the Death Road. He said he’d looked to see which operators’ reviews didn’t mention accidents and deaths, which seemed a logical starting point to me!
* Choose accommodation in a good area, even if it means upping the budget slightly. Look for roads that are well lit and well used. You’re going to put yourself in a vulnerable position if you choose accommodation down a narrow alley in a rough neighbourhood.

DSC_0307 (2)

Consider the society you’re in

South America is changing, but many men still expect to protect the women in their family and it can be hard for them to get their head around a lone female traveller who doesn’t need a man for protection.
* Be mindful that many South Americans, especially middle class, will dress smartly to travel. Rocking up scruffy won’t endear you to them, nor will beach wear away from the beach. Don’t draw attention to yourself for the wrong reason.
* Accept concern in the spirit it’s intended and reassure older men or women that you are OK. Explain to them why you’re travelling solo, tell them a bit about your family back home to show that you love them despite leaving them behind and ask how things are changing. I’ve had some very interesting exchanges with people who were concerned at first I was alone but were keen to learn more about my culture. On the surface, European culture might seem very similar to South America but there are subtle but important differences in etiquette.
* Enjoy a drink but don’t overdo it. It’s not usual for females to drink heavily in South America, but you don’t have to abstain completely to fit in. Know your limits and stay safe.


Go to Uruguay

If all else fails, or you lose your nerve, go to Uruguay or Chile. They’re generally considered to be the safest of the South American nations. And beautiful to boot. But don’t drop your guard completely: on my most recent trip, I met an American who’d lost his money and passport, stolen from inside a bus in Calama while he’d nipped off to use the bus station’s facilities.

View over the River Uruguay

First day on the ranch

At the beginning of this year’s South America trip I spent a few days on Panagea Ranch just outside Tacuarembó, Uruguay.  Tired from the journey, recovering from a sickie bug I’d picked up at home and generally in need of some R and R, I spent the first day stretched out on the veranda doing very little at all.

And it was great!

Here’s a few thoughts on what I saw without moving a muscle (well, almost!)


Waves of sleep ebb and flow like the tide.  Coming to on the lumpy leather couch, I try to shake off the fatigue which has enveloped me since breakfast.  The sky is almost free of clouds and it is unseasonably warm for March, but the red and sticky earth is a reminder that rains are frequent at this time of year.  The dappled sun casts a soft light on the worn out boots hanging from the racks beside me on the veranda, illuminating patches of dried mud and scuffed leather.  A languid breeze ripples the wrinkled leaves of a huge shrub in the bed in front of me.  It has just enough energy to nudge at the twisted limbs of an ageing aloe, though even that is more energy than I can summon up.
A pink sow ambles past the veranda, teats swaying gently.  She snuffles and grunts as she pauses, systematically scouting the overgrown garden for scraps.  The pig loops the farmstead, making her way back to the three chattering piglets she left foraging in the paddock.  Soon she’s followed by one of the horses, grazing loose after an early morning hack, who potters around a bit before plumping for a spot outside the shower block.  I follow too and rest my arms on a metal gate.  From there, I can see a small group of merino sheep up on the ridge, specks of creamy white wool punctuating a sweep of emerald pasture.
To my left, a small stand of ghost gums provides cover for a rhea.  It pecks contentedly in the dirt, grey feathers ruffling gently in the wind, until it’s rattled by the sound of a dog barking.  Losing its nerve, the rhea skitters off across the damp leaf litter, disturbing its mate in the process.  They hurry out to the safety of the grass beyond the gate, in case.  The dog can’t reach them there.  But later, they reappear in the same paddock where earlier, the dog had been playing with a stick.  Rich pickings reward the brave.
The pitter patter of assorted hoofs and paws is accompanied by a soundtrack of bird calls.  A rhythmic shooshing like fingers raking an old washboard is laid down as a backing track.  Chirrups and juddering caws provide the percussion.  A tiny yellow bird the size of a sparrow darts in and out of a nearby tree.  Another squeaks with the staccato sound of an old bike brake that needs oiling.  The trees hum, their leaves concealing what sounds like a swarm of bees though in reality to my untrained ear could be any kind of insect.  Something is making the whining sound of a power tool grating on metal, but it can’t be a person; everyone’s quiet, or out riding already.
I wander back to the battered sofa on the porch and let my heavy eyelids close.  The hypnotic sounds work their magic and I doze off again.

There’ll be more about the ranch in another post; find out how I got on as a novice rider herding cattle and rounding them up to go through the tick dip.

An old fashioned bookstore in La Paz

I came across Libreria Gisbert quite by accident.  Wandering along Calle Comercio from Plaza Murillo, a chalkboard advertising a coffee shop caught my eye.  It promised the best coffee in La Paz, though as the Bolivian capital didn’t appear to have embraced coffee culture like other Latin American cities, I didn’t have high expectations.  Stepping inside, up some stone steps and through a grand doorway, I saw that a small corner of a bookstore had been sectioned off.  The Writer’s Coffee, as the cafe was called, exceeded expectations.  A couple of smartly dressed Bolivian businessmen sipped espresso from a couple of armchairs in front of me; they didn’t talk much, killing time.  At a table, a cluster of bookish Japanese tourists came and went.  The rest of the tables were occupied by a mix of well off locals and visitors.  The coffee wasn’t cheap here, though it was rich and smooth.
FullSizeRender (46)
While I sat nursing a latte, I took in my surroundings.  The cafe itself was artfully decorated with vintage typewriters lining alcoves built into the walls.  The baristas, Japanese also, wore pork pie hats and aprons, and spoke impeccable English as well as Spanish.  My eyes drifted beyond the partition walls of the cafe and I realised that this was no ordinary bookstore.  Jose Gisbert learnt his trade at Libreria Arno under the supervision of a couple of Spaniards who ran the business on nearby Calle Murillo.  In 1922, fifteen years later, Gisbert decided to set up on his own and the business was a success.  Jose Gilbert died in 1985, but other family members stepped up to run the business, among them his daughter Carmen.
FullSizeRender (47)
Almost a century later, the shop is still flourishing, run the old-fashioned way.  Predominantly an educational bookstore supporting the local university, two of the walls were lined floor to ceiling – and what high ceilings – with carefully filed books.  A ladder slid up and down via a runner in the floor, the only way to access the highest shelves.  From time to time, a dapper gent, wearing a furrowed brow and a claret and grey jacket, pottered up and down, fetching books from lofty, yet not dusty, spots.  I found a book on Bolivia that interested me, but there was no ticket on it.  In a nod to the 21st century, Gisbert’s had computerised its stock in 2007.  But this was no up to date system; a pre-Windows catalogue listed only the most basic of details.  I got the impression that my gentleman assistant would have preferred a set of well-worn index cards as he looked up the price.
FullSizeRender (45)
Buying the book turned out to be an equally convoluted process.  From the desk, I was directed to a caja where a younger man was sat behind a glass screen.  As if buying a ticket from an art house cinema, I bent down and told the man what I’d selected, passing through two 100 Boliviano bills and receiving a printed receipt in return.  Crossing to the far side of the bookstore, where stationery supplies were displayed, my purchase was bagged, the receipt stamped and I was wished a good day.  Save for the printed till receipt and plastic rather than paper bag, I could have been purchasing my book on opening day.

The Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha

Each year, Tacuarembó hosts the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha. It’s been held for thirty years, the first event being held in 1987. The festival celebrates the great tradition of the gaucho in Uruguay. At first, to an insider, it can seem like a fancy dress parade, but it soon becomes apparent that this is a chance for those living in and around Tacuarembó to eat, drink and be merry – while in charge of a horse, of course. The parade ground hosts a series of races, skills demonstrations and parades, but to begin with, here are some of the characters that make it a feast for the eyes.
























Salta’s Lightning Girl




One of the most fascinating and also morally challenging of the Inca rites is surely the sacrificing of children. Scattered across the high Andean peaks are a number of sacrificial sites that have only been discovered relatively recently. One such site can be found on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m high volcano straddling the Argentina-Chile border. Drugged with coca and fermented maize beer called chicha, three children had been led up to a shrine near the volcano’s summit and entombed, a practice known as capacocha. The freezing temperatures inside their mountain dens had not only killed them, it had perfectly preserved their small bodies. There they’d remained, undisturbed, for five centuries. An archaeological team led by Johan Reinhard found what’s now known as the Children of Llullaillaco less than twenty years ago.

Today, the three mummies are rotated, one on display at a time, in MAAM, a museum on the main plaza in the northern Argentinian city of Salta. Three years ago, I’d visited Juanita, a similar mummy found in Peru and displayed in a darkened room a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. As a consequence, I figured I knew what to expect when I stepped inside MAAM. During my visit, Lightning Girl was the mummy being displayed, possibly the most haunting museum exhibit I’ve ever seen.  No photography is permitted; the image above is of a postcard I purchased in the museum shop.

The first thing that struck me was how well preserved this small child was, much more so than Juanita had been. Found entombed with a slightly older girl, her half-sister, and a boy, she looked straight ahead. Her face stared bleakly, as if tensed against intense cold. A dark stain marked her face, thought to have been caused by a lightning strike after she was sacrificed. But it was her teeth that caught my attention, tiny white milk teeth that emphasised just how young this girl would have been when she met her fate. Text beside her indicated that she had been just five years old when she died. There was no escaping that here in front of me, in this darkened room, was a real person.

During Inca times, it was the custom to choose sacrificial children from peasant families, deemed an honour for the family, though surely a heartbreaking one too. Girls such as these were selected as toddlers to be acclas or Sun Virgins, destined later to be royal wives, priestesses or to be sacrificed. It is thought that the elder girl was such a person, the two younger children her attendants. The children were then fed a rich diet of maize and llama meat to fatten them up, nutritionally far better than their previous diet of vegetables would have been. The higher their standing in society, the better the value of this offering to the gods, essential to protecting future good harvests and political stability. The children would not die, it was believed, they joined their ancestors and watched over mortals like angels.

Despite the drugged state induced by the coca and chicha, which in theory led to a painless end, the boy had been tied. Perhaps he’d struggled and had needed to be restrained. The older girl had her head buried between her knees, but Lightning Girl looked straight ahead. Had she been too young to comprehend what was happening to her?

Trip preparations: Bolivia

It’s almost time for me to fly off to South America.  My itinerary is pretty much fleshed out now and most of the bookings are made.  One thing that’s easy to overlook, though, is specific vaccination requirements.  For Bolivia, the regulations concerning yellow fever have just changed.



As you’ll see from the map above, parts of Bolivia are affected, like much of South America, by yellow fever.  Travelling to Uyuni and then La Paz, however, I’m not going to be venturing into yellow fever territory, so it’s tempting to think I wouldn’t need the vaccine. But early last month, a Danish traveller was found to have the disease.  The National Health Director was quoted as saying: “This person came from another place and was not vaccinated.” There’d been an outbreak of yellow fever across the border in Brazil, but whether the Danish traveller had been there is unclear from the news reports. You can read Reuters’ report here:


Biting Sucking Female Mosquito Parasite Disease

What this means in practice is that from yesterday, 2nd March, all travellers entering Bolivia from a country which has a current outbreak of the disease or remains a risk area for it, must hold a valid yellow fever certificate.  I’m travelling across the border from Argentina so that means me – even though I won’t have passed through yellow fever areas within Argentina.  I’ll still need a certificate. That certificate would need to be issued at least 10 days before I’d be due to enter Bolivia.  Potentially, without one, I could be refused entry at the border.

Even some transit passengers are likely to be affected.  If you hub through an airport in a neighbouring country on your way to Bolivia, you could still be refused entry into Bolivia if you have cleared immigration and gone landside.  That’s even if you never left the airport.  Basically,  the Bolivians are playing it safe and you can’t blame them for being cautious.

I’ll update this post in a couple of weeks to tell you if the certificate was requested by border officials or not.  Fortunately, my jabs are up to date and the yellow fever certificate I needed to get into Panama a few years ago is still valid. But make sure you’re not caught out by this change in immigration requirements by seeking health from a medical professional before you embark on your trip.

Update March

At the land border between La Quiaca and Villazon, I was not asked for a yellow fever certificate.

From Heybridge to Jayuya

Visiting Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, last month I came across this machine in the hacienda’s museum.  I presume it was some kind of machine used to grind the coffee, but there was no information on it.  What caught my eye was the place name on the machine: Maldon.  That’s a fifteen minute drive from my house.


Since getting back, I’ve been finding out a bit about E. H. Bentall and it makes for interesting reading.  Not least, the E. H. stands for Edward Hammond, which is my father’s name.  Edward’s father (the Heybridge Edward, not mine) was a farmer named William.  He designed a plough to use on his land near Goldhanger and got a local smithy to make it up.  Word got around and by 1795, he’d gone into business making them.  Business boomed but raw materials at the time had to be brought in by barge up the Blackwater.  William Bentall upped sticks and moved down the road to Goldhanger where he built a place by the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation.   Bentall diversified, producing amongst other things the first steam powered threshing machine.


Meanwhile, with his wife Mary Hammond, he’d produced a son.  Edward Hammond Bentall had the same aptitude for engineering as his father.  This particularly makes me smile as my Dad was an engineer throughout his working life.  He took over the business in 1836 aged 22 and three years later, registered as E.H. Bentall & Co, it was thriving.  In 1841, mindful of competition, he took out a patent on an improved Goldhanger plough protecting it from imitators.  Under Edward’s leadership, the company began to export machinery overseas and one of those machines found its way to a coffee hacienda just outside the village of Jayuya.


Back at home, Edward Hammond Bentall had been elected as Member of Parliament for Maldon, a post which he held from 1868 to 1874.  In 1873 Edward had an imposing home built, known as The Towers, which was located near Heybridge Cemetery.  It was so well built that when the time came to pull it down in the 1950s, dynamite had to be used to blow it up.  By the time Edward passed the business on to his son Edmund in 1889, he was a wealthy man.  He died in 1898.


Mechanisation of the coffee plantations further increased profits, particularly after World War Two while the company operated under the leadership of Edward’s grandson, Charles.  He died in 1955, and just six years later, the company was taken over by Acrow, which eventually went bust in 1984.  That was it for Bentall & Co, but their warehouse still proudly overlooks the canal in Heybridge.


And if you remember Bentall’s department store (now Kingston Fenwicks), the founders of that store are related to William too.