Scurrying into El Hormiguero…(The anthill)

From our first week in the bustling metropolis that is Santiago, we were ready to get ourselves back to volunteering in somewhat more sedate surroundings-and the El Hormiguero in El Monte proved to be just that! Another placement that we had found through the HelpX website, with the simple yet tantalising description:

In the midway between Santiago and the surf-paradise Pichilemu, we have our creative centre “El Hormiguero” (the anthill).

We are exploring in eco-building, natural pools, aquaponics crops, arts, music and any interesting expression of new lifestyles.

With our eagerness to find alternative lifestyles, building methods and my much coveted ‘life skill acquisition’, on the face of things this place looked like it could tick all of the boxes-and so we had three weeks or so to find out-El Monte here we come!

So then….where to start? Well as always, the adventure begins with a journey, in this case a mere 1 hour bus into the unknown. We managed to get on the right bus, we just had a little hiccup with getting off in the wrong spot-probably a twenty minute or so walk from where we should have been. In theory no problem, but with your backpacks on and the midday heat beating down on your head, that twenty minutes takes on a whole new significance! Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an empanada and fresh juice stop-and so our first introduction to the charm and friendliness of El Monte washed over us. Yes that’s right, you wouldn’t expect a vendor of empanadas and fresh juice to be a significant meeting, but the man in the square of El Monte was an absolute ray of sunshine and he would continue to shine for our entire time at the anthill! At this point it’s worth pointing out that El Monte is not exactly a destination for tourists, or for want of a better word, Gringos! As such we kinda stick out like a sore thumb, but that only served to encourage kindness and warmth from pretty much everyone we met over the following three weeks or so.
I digress, back to our journey…once we had located the main square, we had basic walking directions that would take us to the anthill and so we hit the road for another twenty minutes or so until we saw the palm trees-the significant landmark that would signify our arrival at our destination. You see, the anthill, aside from the description as given above, is a palm tree farm!

Well baked, slightly sweaty and reddened in the face, we negotiated our way to the entrance to find our hosts for the build up until Christmas, and for sure what we found was both intriguing and bewildering. Soon enough we were offered a beer and set about getting to know Vicente and Martina, some German guys that were already there volunteering, and also the various animals that we would find ourselves growing to know and love. Alpacas, emus, a donkey, a peacock, two peahens, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats-to say there was some variety is an understatement! And all of this in the setting of a traditional adobe farm, albeit it with some wonderfully quirky design features. Impossible to describe effectively with words, a montage seems most fitting to give you an impression of the location:

As I’m sure you can see, this place was quite special, and it would only get more magical. It turned out that our period of volunteering coincided with Martina and Vicente’s wedding, which they were going to be having at the farm! So it was up to us all to landscape and decorate the grounds in readiness for 400 guests to celebrate their union-and what a fantastic few weeks it turned out to be. Initially we had to clear the palm tree forest of all debris as that was where the ceremony and meal was to be-and this was the worst job of all! It may surprise you to know that palm tree leaves are pretty damn sharp, and all of us suffered greatly with significant punctures and lacerations caused by these pesky leaves! Fortunately for us we were there at the tail end of this job, the German guys had been pretty much focussed on the forest for their entire stay, and it was really starting to take its toll on their enthusiasm!
Still, once the forest was cleared there was more varied work to do, and luckily for us it was the period of time where you could really see the transformation taking place.
After a few days of us being there, we were also lucky enough to welcome the arrival of a couple from Leeds, Rob and Charlie, a couple who happen to have extremely similar ideals and plans as ourselves-albeit they are a little further down the line than us. This proved to be amazing, we shared so much, and I would say that they have became close friends. They were both extremely knowledgeable about various alternative farming methods and construction ideas, and it was fantastic to just sit and talk about hopes and plans (not dreams, plans!).

Back to the work, Martina and Vicente have a booming landscaping business work on projects throughout Santiago…reason that their business is booming? Well, they’re pretty damn creative, that’s why-and so we were tasked with the job of implementing their creative ideas, on their property, for their wedding…No pressure! Working with Rob and Charlie was brilliant, and in our time there we managed to build two beached areas, a water garden, some mighty fine gates, got involved with some adobe walling, and an immaculately decorated venue for the wedding-as well as Rob and Charlie getting to grips with a number of bridges, sprucing up a gypsy caravan, relocating the aquaponics and generally being open to our constant questioning!

In addition to all of the work at the farm, we were blessed with the wonder of El Monte, for here we would find warm and friendly folk who would fall over themselves to make us welcome. The daily Christmas market in the local plaza, and free capoeira lessons at the wonderful local community centre. Despite the fact that there was no common ground in terms of language-it turned out to be possibly one of the most friendly martial arts clubs I have ever been to, they even started having lessons in the town plaza for eveyone to watch. We loved it, and soon enough Rob and Charlie were hooked as well-a welcome distraction from the work at the farm for sure!

Twice a week we would get our capoeira on, and the rest of the week was dedicated to graft, and the occasional two litre bottle of El Gato wine!! The work was full on, after all there was an immovable deadline to meet-so it wasn’t as if we could leave it to the next volunteers if we didn’t finish-so finish we did…Culminating in a spectacular wedding!

It was a fantastic ending to our time in El Monte, after three and a half weeks we had made some special friendships and enjoyed a magical time at the farm…Now Christmas was upon us, and the grafitti laden streets of Valpairiso awaited!

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Argentina and the moon-Aldea Luna

Having had a ‘holiday’ from our travels back in the UK, we excitedly boarded our next long haul flight to Buenos Aries for the South American branch of our adventure. Having been the perpetual tourist in South East Asia, this leg of our journey is something of a different proposition, not least because of the expense. The plan for South America is very much to do more volunteering, try to learn Spanish, and be more of an intermittent tourist.

During the end of our time in Asia, and throughout the summer in the UK, we scoured HelpX for different opportunities to plan out our time in Argentina. Being blessed with a UK passport, we have a 90 day VISA on arrival throughout the South American countries, and so plenty of time to get settled at various projects. Our first confirmed opportunity, a month at Aldea Luna-a private nature reserve and organic farming project in Jujuy Province, Northern Argentina.

And so we arrived-ARGENTINA!

Yeah that’s right, we were in Buenos Aries!

We landed at Buenos Aries and literally had 24 hours before having to make the 1000 mile, 24 hour bus journey to Jujuy-so what do you actually do in that time? Well we paid a visit to the cemetery of course! As per our guide, TripAdvisor, the grave of Evita is one of the must see things to do in Buenos Aries, and given the fact that it was free and relatively easy to find-we decided that would be the best use of our time. From being in predominantly Buddhist countries for the last 8 months, and spending a lot of our time visiting sites of worship, it was quite ironic to now be visiting Catholic sites of importance-given our own apathy towards religion. The cemetery in Buenos Aries certainly is ‘up there’ in terms of the grandiose and bizarre-with rows and rows of mighty funeral chambers for the families of the wealthy and influential in Argentina. You’ll see from the pictures that this was like no other cemetery that you would find in the UK:

Streets of death...!

Streets of death…!

Grand monuments and palm trees!

Grand monuments and palm trees!

Don't you open that Trap Dooooooor.....Cos there's something down there!

Don’t you open that Trap Dooooooor…..Cos there’s something down there!

Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether there was some element of humour?! Or perhaps alluding to the fact that they were poisoned!

Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether there was some element of humour?! Or perhaps alluding to the fact that they were poisoned!

Certainly we didn’t give ourselves enough time to explore this vast capital, but that was down to our own miscalculation in thinking that our upcoming journey was only going to be 8 hours, rather than the 24 hours that it actually was. Still, it gave us an immediate opportunity to gauge the standards of the much lauded long distance bus services in South America-and first impressions certainly were positive. You choose from a number of seating options, from which we chose one down from the top where you enjoy a fully reclining seat and some sort of food for the journey. The seat was comfortable enough, the food was lousy, and we ended up with a bit of cabin fever due to the fact that the driver wouldn’t let us leave the bus! Still, nowhere near as terrifying as the various land transportation that we encountered in Asia, and pretty much bang on time we arrived in San Salvador de Jujuy. Weary and hungry, we soon found ourselves a hostel for the evening-and hightailed it out to a restaurant recommended for llama steak! Yes, that’s right, we ate llama and it was delicious!

All of this was just a precursor for our destination proper-Aldea Luna. This was our first true experience of ‘off the grid’ living for a little while, solar energy, cold showers, organic gardens providing the majority of our meals-and a chance to really learn some of the life skills that I always bang on about. With some difficulty we eventually managed to get in contact with the hosts to inform them of our arrival, and got ourselves an early night prior to our 7AM bus into the unknown. All we knew was that we would be getting off the bus at Tilquesa, and someone would be there to meet us and take us on the 3km hike to our home for the next 4 weeks. This time our bus journey was a much more ‘local’ experience-dusty winding roads taking us through the mountains before eventually dropping us in the middle of nowhere-just a sign to signify the fact that we were at our desired destination. We were met by Annabella, a long term volunteer at Aldea Luna, and she lead us off on the surprisingly challenging hike-fast forward one hour and we had arrived, breathless and sweaty, ready for action! First impressions were breath-taking, as I’m sure you would understand:

Aldea Luna 'clubhouse'!

Aldea Luna ‘clubhouse’!

Aldea Luna in all its glory

Aldea Luna in all its glory

The month that followed really is difficult to describe-it was absolutely incredible. In our hosts, Martin, Elizabeth, Matias and Ana-we found inspiration, warmth and a wealth of knowledge. We learned about organic farming, construction, cow conflict, life and laughter-and thanks to Matias we also learned a little about philosophy! Martin and Elizabeth bought the land that Aldea Luna sits on about ten years ago, they spent a couple of years walking the cow trails and through the forests-really getting to know the land, before deciding on a spot to build their home and a couple of extra cabins for volunteers and guests. Since then they have shared their knowledge and enthusiasm with countless volunteers-and I feel honoured to now count myself as one of the lucky few to have benefitted from their hospitality. To give you the ‘official’ Aldea Luna description:

Aldea Luna is a family enterprise, financed only by tourism and volunteers, without any financial contribution by the government or ecological organization or NGO.

The family members include Martin and Elizabeth and our son Matias and daughter Anna.

We are open to other people that want to live in our village (Aldea) for long periods of time or permanently…. We listen to propositions…

The experience that we chose is certainly not for the lazy or workshy, we had opted to be full time volunteers-and as such we committed to seven hours of work per day….And the work was tough, extremely rewarding, but tough! We were not looking for a holiday resort-here we really learned what it is like to live in a different way-to be as self-sufficient as possible, and to have to meet problems and challenges on a daily basis. We lived in a house in the forest made of clay, no electricity and no hot water-which in itself presented a shock to the system. Not to mention the fact that we were in bunk beds….Albeit bunk beds in a wonderful clay cabin in the forest!

Our Aldea Luna home

Our Aldea Luna home

Not a bad view to wake up to each morning!

Not a bad view to wake up to each morning!

I'm sure you'll agree it's a 'strong' look for cementing!

I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a ‘strong’ look for cementing!

Then the paving just got a little crazy!

Then the paving just got a little crazy!

Sam took me on as his apprentice, and this is what we made!

Sam took me on as his apprentice, and this is what we made!

And then there was the washing up, oh the joys of the pots!

And then there was the washing up, oh the joys of the pots!

For those that read with interest but do not fancy volunteering, they do host guests, and do a part time volunteer course where you can also learn Spanish. In hindsight we would have loved to have taken advantage of Elizabeth’s excellent language classes-but for sure we came away with a lot more than what we arrived with.
Not only does Elizabeth teach Spanish-her gardening and cooking ‘seminars’ are brilliant! Often we would find ourselves tasked with a job in the garden, and with no idea how to complete said task-queue a gardening master class from Elizabeth. Usually accompanied with a pressure relieving assurance that everyone makes mistakes-it’s OK that you thought the garlic was actually a leek! From the garden to the kitchen, again under the tutorage of Elizabeth, and more often than not Annabella too. Very much a group activity, the vegetarian fare was incredible, so much so that I can honestly say that over the month I really did not miss eating meat at all! We had revelations in peanut soup, and something of a collective addiction to chilli-and bread, oh so much bread!

For the times that you weren’t in the garden or cooking, you may find yourself filling your time collecting cow poo…invaluable manure for the vegetables. Or you would be with Martin and a team of people trying to ‘cow proof’ the garden with ongoing fence repairs. It doesn’t sound like something that would be too taxing, cow proofing a garden, but seriously-there was one cow at Aldea Luna that had skills like no other! Deftness of foot, dexterity, astute fence breaking skills-the bane of our existence for four weeks. It was funny how these things bring people together, together we built up an entire persona for the animals and together many a laugh was had with the cows as the central characters!

Martin and Elizabeth taught us how to lay concrete floors, repair chairs, cement crazy paving and build tables-but it wasn’t all work, work, work….For come the weekend something quite spectacular would happen in the mountains of Aldea Luna-the generator would be powered up, the disco lights would spring into life, the glitter ball would start to rotate on its axis and you will see Martin bouncing in front of his laptop entertaining us all with banging tunes on a fantastic sound system! Never would I have believed that just twelve people could create such an atmosphere! As we would be gluttons for punishment, the party was usually on a Saturday night leaving us in a right old state to tackle one of the many hikes on the following day. The forests, rivers and mountains that make up the reserve offer some wonderful treks with plenty of food for the soul-perfect for soaking up the excesses of the prior evening.

Our final walk, the most challenging...(the biggest hangover)

Our final walk, the most challenging…(the biggest hangover)

Mountains, forest and river-we had it all!!

Mountains, forest and river-we had it all!!

The many hiking trails to explore during your free time, each one offering something different.

The many hiking trails to explore during your free time, each one offering something different.

While we were there we had the good fortune to be accompanied by some fantastic people who we worked, cooked, danced and hiked with-we shared in the joys of success at finishing various projects, as well as some frustrating defeats at the hands of extremely wily mountain cows. All of whom we can now call good friends-who knows, perhaps sometime in the future we will call upon them to help us with a project of our own!

Aldea Luna Dream Team!

Aldea Luna Dream Team!

And that’s just the people, I haven’t even begun to wax lyrical about the dogs, woodpeckers, fireflies, chickens, many wonderful birds of prey or the toucans! Everything working together in its natural environment to make this a truly wonderful and special place.

Toucan play that game....

Toucan play that game….

Spot Woody-the woodpecker!

Spot Woody-the woodpecker!

Tree, mountain, cloud-repeat

Tree, mountain, cloud-repeat

The gardens!

The gardens!

Ever seen a 'moonrise' like this? Me neither

Ever seen a ‘moonrise’ like this? Me neither

Some of the local bugs were spectacular

Some of the local bugs were spectacular

Possibly the most photographed tree in Argentina!

Possibly the most photographed tree in Argentina!

It was hard to leave at the end of our month there, but I do not think that is the end of this story-we may well return to Aldea Luna at some point….

Adios amigos!

Adios amigos!

If you want to get in contact with Martin & Elizabeth, check out their website Aldea Luna