10/08/2015 09:55 BST | Updated 10/08/2016 06:59 BST

Travel Mayhem in South America

"I hate backtracking!"

The merest thought of returning the way I have come makes me sweat and twitch. It offers no new adventure and promises no surprises. My South American travel companions Mick and Darren learnt the hard way that I would do just about anything to avoid it.


We were crammed on a bus crawling high into the Ecuador Andes en route to Colombia. My amigos were ignoring my ongoing backtrack rant as I trawled through guide books, scrawling notes and joining dots on maps. 'There must be another way back to Lima!' I insisted. Hours later I presented my unconventional circular plan.

'You're kidding,' they spat. 'It's madness!'

'It'll be fun,' I argued but they were immoveable. Then as though on cue, the old bus slid on the narrow road and suspended us momentarily out over the mountain edge. From the rear window we stared thousands of feet down at an elephant's graveyard of bus skeletons and accompanying white crosses.

Terrified they screamed 'OK, OK, We'll do anything. No backtracking!'


My brilliant plan was activated. On the first leg, as we travelled through the Colombian jungle, a bullet-hole ridden body blocked the road. Our bus lurched to a halt and bandana-clad bandits charged on, sticking guns in our faces, taking our cigarettes and underwear, but leaving us gasping.

After that, we were doubly determined not to backtrack. Days later, we crept at dawn into Bogota airport to meet a man with a hood called Carlos. He took our few US dollars and pushed us up into the hold of an old war plane via a rope ladder, hissing 'Ssshh! are stowaways'. The pilot then fired the props, glugged scotch from a bottle and the plane took off as we three amigos clung to onion sacks to avoid falling into the tail. We later agreed never to fly cargo again.

After days recovering by guzzling hard liquor in the jungle village of Leticia, we embarked on a four day Amazon river journey to Iquitos. The boat was uninspiring; a leaky box that threatened to sink, overloaded as it was by hundreds of people encamped in oversized hammocks. It had one toilet; the greater concern was that the bucket to flush it was also used to wash the dishes. But the captain reassured us. 'Free food,' he promised. We later discovered the complimentary cuisine was piranha and monkey.


Our Amazon 'cruise' was slow, delayed nightly as El Capitano traded contraband in whispers over the boat's side. 'You gringos......very good cover' he would smile while brandishing a machete-sized knife and tossing monkey skins over the side to smaller boats, 'but you tell nobody!' We never did.

We eventually flew back to Lima. We'd been robbed at gunpoint, lost our underwear, traversed terrifying roads, seen executed bodies, eaten monkey, stowed away on a plane with a drunk pilot and fronted an Amazon smuggling operation.

But we didn't backtrack.

I would do anything to avoid that!


This story was originally published on by John Ahern who has also recently published a book entitled, "On The Road... With Kids". This is a critically aclaimed book that chronicles adventures travelling 30 countries with his young family. Download an extract here.

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