Article by James Hall
In 2013 we were lucky enough to secure sabbaticals from our work and headed off the South America for several months bicycle touring. Leaving friends and family behind for nearly a year was a wrench but by far the hardest part was saying goodbye to Puffin and Bonxie (Picture centre). Our furry friends were nearly five years old when we departed and we knew there was sadly a fair chance that they might head over the Rainbow Bridge before we returned home. Cuy, is the South American name for guinea pigs and much as we don’t like to think of it cuy are still bred for human consumption in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere in South America.
To most guinea pig owners the thought of this is horrific but we must remember if it wasn’t for the domestication of wild Cavia species by South American tribes several thousand years ago, we would not have our lovely pets of today. We were worried before setting off on our trip how we would cope with perhaps witnessing this part of guinea pigs’ existence.
About a week after leaving the UK we departed from Cusco in Southern Peru, on our bicycles to head South to the tip of the continent. Our first night we spent in a very basic room in a tiny hostel behind a shop. Through the evening we heard the familiar noise of happy piggies and when we peered though a nearby door saw a herd of around a dozen of very healthy and content cavies. The next day after many hours cycling we couldn’t find a hostel or anywhere to wild-camp so with our very limited Spanish asked a local if we could camp outside their tiny small-holding. Again, there were happy squeaks to be heard. We took some solace that even if we didn’t agree with why these guineas were being kept at least they were clearly very well looked after.
A few days later we cycled through a town with a huge statue (left) of a guinea pig, showing how revered they are by the locals. Much later in the trip when again we could not find a suitable place to wild-camp, we were kindly granted permission by an older couple to camp next to their tiny house. It was here we were able to observe guinea pigs in their “natural” cultivated environment; Josephine had a herd of various age, very healthy and happy piggies eating scraps and scurrying around on the earth floor in her house (picture overleaf). About seven months into our trip an email from our lovely lodgers carried the sad news that Bonxie, our beloved ginger guinea pig had become quickly very unwell and passed away.
Stu and Jess sent us a lovely photo of Bonxie’s flower decorated grave. We worried how little, blind Puffin would manage on her own as she’d always followed Bonxie around. Thankfully over the coming weeks the news was that she had adjusted well and continued to thrive. During our trip we saw Capybara, the huge distant relatives of guinea pigs. These can weigh as much as 45 kilograms. They too are sometimes kept as pets. We returned home just over nine months from leaving having cycled about 13,000 Km. Soon after we came back Puffin started to struggle to eat due to the common problem of rear tooth overgrowth. Our local vets were able to remedy the situation enabling us to enjoy another unexpected six months of spoiling Puffin and stroking her lovely black fur.
We now have three piggies all named after aspects of our fantastic trip. Flicker is a bit flighty and is named after the Andean Flicker, and interesting woodpecker type bird that lives and nests in cliffs (as there are no trees on the high Altiplano which is their range). Chimango is ginger in colour named after the Chimango Caracara, also ginger which is a kestrel like bird that we saw a lot of while pedalling along the roads in Chile and Argentina. Chica Grande is not named after a bird but was big from the start. When we went to the pet shop after Puffin passed away we only planned to get two new friends but there was a third, larger pig in the cage who we didn’t have the heart to leave on her own. Over the weeks Chica Grande (Big Girl, in Spanish) lived increasingly up to her name by putting more and more weight on; eventually we realised she must having been pregnant before she had left the pet-shop, and soon gave birth to three beauties. CG is still large weighing in at about 1300 grams!