I thought the words 'enjoy' and 'bus ride' didn't belong together. Like Peter and Katie, or Simon Cowell and lovely chap. But I was wrong. The Andes Mar Express from Santiago to Mendoza is an incredible journey and certainly knocks the hell out of the 55 from Hackney to Oxford street. The scenery is epic, passing over the Andes and past some of the highest peaks on the continent.
I'm excited. A new country means new frogs. Given that Argentina boasts the highest diversity of ecosystems of any country in the world – over 30 separate environments from deserts plains to steaming jungles - there have got to be some awesome amphibians out there.
The Argentine horned toad alias the Rottweiler of the herp world. Makes a great pet apparently. Or bodyguard.
Top of my wish list is the Argentine horned toad. Fondly known in herp circles as the Pacman frog as it's basically just a giant walking mouth that will happily swallow anything in sight including animals significantly further up the food chain. Check out this video of one making a meal out of a live mouse.
I'm not sure what's more disturbing about that video. The sight of a frog wrestling a mouse to death in a tupperware colosseum or the gleeful cheers from the Pac-man's owners like throwing a mouse to the frogs is some acceptable form of gladiatorial event. Youtube is full of videos like this and I'm sad to say that the Argentine horned toad has become a popular pet freak show, with websites devoted to it. Just don't let it near the chihuahua. Anyway, I'm on a quest to find an Argentine horned toad in its native land and survive to type the tale with my fingers still intact.
I’m staying in Argentina with my friends Gethin and Megan in the sleepy city of Mendoza. This is wine country and most of the tourists that come here are middle-class wine buffs looking to get gently sloshed on a vineyard tour. But I'm here to look for frogs which certainly flummoxes the local tourist bureau. I ask around and no one can help me with my mission and then someone suggests I pay a visit to the local grocery store belonging to Joaquin Lopez.
Joaquin is an amateur taxidermist and likes to display his creations in his shop, next to the butchers counter. Nice. I’m guessing the health and safety restrictions here in Mendoza are not as strict as in the UK but anyway it certainly makes you think twice about buying his sausages. It's hard to capture the place in a photo - so I made this short video to give you a better idea of quite how unsettling the whole arrangement is.
Amongst the cornucopia of slightly misshapen animals are two types of toad - including what looks like an Argentine horned toad, complete with plastic staring eyes. Bingo. Mission accomplished.
My thrill of finding frogs is eclipsed by my incredulity at Joaquin’s fetish for mixing dead animals (not for sale by the way) with food purchasing. I’m keen to meet the man and expect some sort of super freak but Joaquin is a pretty normal chap, just with a very strange and very public hobby.
Now I’m no expert in stuffing animals but it strikes me that he isn’t the most accomplished of taxidermists. Most of the animals are a little lumpy to say the least. In fact, Dr Frankenstein could have done a better job. This is explained when Joaquin tells me that he's self taught. Ever since he was a boy he wanted to preserve animals. He started out by stuffing them with meat before discovering that sawdust and wires offered more longevity. And less smell.
Thanks to the shop he's developed something of a reputation and people send him dead animals from far and wide. He showed me inside his tardis-like fridge which contained an entire zoo of frozen species waiting to be preserved Joaquin-style.
One of his proudest creations is a stuffed poodle which was literally frightened to death. Apparently it had just been in the poodle parlour, having its hair done when it encountered a large angry dog outside, had a heart attack and died on the spot. At least its hair looked good though.
Joaquin is not a hunter and does not condone killing animals. In fact it's a lifelong love of nature and its diversity that has led him to this curious pastime. It's his desire to preserve endangered species so that they can be remembered when they have disappeared. With a collection that spans over 30 years he is sure to have already preserved extinct species making him the strangest conservationist I have ever met.