This blog contains a number of entries from our travels in South America starting in Argentina the day Eoin turned 30, 3rd of January 2009, then into Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. Then after a detour home for Niamh & Gilly's wedding & Paddies Day in London, we spent 2 months in Central America (see Central America blog), and back into South America on 5th of June 2009 through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and back into Chile. We finally left South America on 7th of August 2009 for New Zealand.
Update on 06/08/2009 from Santiago de Chile
Only 3 weeks since our last update - must be a record! Thought we'd get one last blog update in before we leave South America for New Zealand. After 7 months in Latin America, we'll be sorry to leave here, but are looking forward to our New Zealand adventure, it'll be nice to be in somewhere more like home for a while, rent a car, find what we like in the supermarkets and Eoin will get to watch some rugby again!
Anyway, here's what we've been up to since our brilliant trekking in Huaraz in northern Peru...
The idea was to skip the whole southern part of Peru, seeing as Eoin had visited here 6 years ago with Daire & Aine. Peru is huge. This meant a lot of bus time, but flights were really expensive. We left Huaraz one morning, sat in a bus all day to Lima. That evening we hopped on a 15 hour overnight bus journey to Arequipa. After toying with the idea of spending the day in Arequipa, we decided we were both a bit travel weary (read "cranky") for any sightseeing to do the city justice, so we hopped straight on another 8 hour bus to Puno, on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. Got into Puno about 10pm, and the next morning got a 7:30am bus to Copacabana, the nicer (and cheaper!) Bolivian side of the lake. Phew, time to relax, we were beginning to feel a bit stressed out! Lake Titicaca is beautiful, the highest lake in the world at 3800m altitude, beautiful blue water, blue skies all day since they're above the clouds, and the snow-capped Andes surrounding it. Copacabana is a cute, if a bit touristy, little town on the lake.
| || |
After chilling out in Copacabana for a day, we then went across to Isla del Sol for a day, one of the islands on the lake with lots of Incan history. We walked the length of the island, spotting some of the Inca ruins, fixed our camera which broke doing one of those fecking self-timed shots, and avoided the tax collectors who charge the gringos to walk on the island (one tax to walk on the northern part of the island, another for the south, one in the middle, although we normally just walked off the path and around them!) We spent the night there, catching an amazing sunset, and the next morning took a shorter boat ride and hiked the 17km back to Copacabana for another night chilling out there. We really liked it here, helped by the fact that it was one of the cheapest places we've been to! Our accommodation came in at a record low in Isla del Sol, $3 each for a private room, and in Copacabana $4 each for en suite with cable TV. We'd never had it so good, not to mention eating out for nothing, splurging $2 on the 3 course menu del dia!
The bus trip to La Paz was really pretty, circling the lake, and it was only a short 4 hrs, a mere transfer by South American standards! It also included a hilarious boat crossing. We were all told to leave the bus, then the passengeers hopped on a small boat to get us across to the other side of the lake, meanwhile our bus was loaded onto this tiny little wooden raft which sat at an angle of about 30 degrees after the bus was loaded onto it, the back of the bus loaded down with Grainne's huge rucksack no doubt, but amazingly it managed to cross the kilometre or so without getting too wet.
Lazy La Paz
We spent 2 days in La Paz and really liked it as a capital city, Whilst not as beautiful as Buenos Aires, or as cool as Rio, la Paz had a really good vibe to it. Although Eoin did get a bit too familiar with the toilets there on the second day, eventually the street food beat him!! Or maybe it could have been the altitude (La Paz is the highest capital city in the world I think, at about 3500m). La Paz was surprisingly touristy, every second door was a tour agency, and the rest were little shops selling alpaca everything. We were freezing, so after scouring the market for some "alpaca" cardigans we got ourselves some beauties and kitted ourselves up in the Bolivian backpackers' uniform! Other than that didn't do much here, sampled the Bolivian beer which was really good, found a legendary street lady who made the best empanadas, Chicken, meat, cheese, eggs and veg all in one, savage! And the rest of the time we planned how best to use our time while in Bolivia. one thing we hoped to do in La Paz was to visit the San Pedro prison which holds ~1,500 prisoners, most of whom are awaiting trial. It's a really interesting place where there is a full economy effectively running in the prision, inmates work to get a cell, selling fruit, doing jobs, etc they even have to get mortgages to buy their cell! It was the inspiration behind the Panamanian prison depicted in the 3rd series of "Prison Break". There are no guards inside the walls of the prison, only around the perimeter outside: it is self ruled on the inside by the inmates. Until recently you could get a tour of the prison by paying one of the inmates and bribing the guards outside, but the new governor has put an end to that, as a little bit too much of the white powder was been sold to tourists there. There is a book about this place, called "Marching Powder" meant to be a great read, in La Paz the book is like gold dust, even the fake photocopied versions go for more than your most expensive guide books!
RAINforest.. should have been a clue
We left La Paz for the rainforest, opting out of the 22 hour bus journey and taking the 40 minute flight instead. Got in the tiniest plane, with about 14 passengers, we were sitting in the front row, which consisted of our two seats separated by the aisle, and about 2m behind the pilots, we could see right over their shoulders. Was pretty cool flying over the Andes, actually it was more like flying between the Andes most of the time, as the little plane bumped and swung in between peaks in the mountains.
| || |
We were really glad when our shaky legs took us off the plane in Rurrenabaque and we were hit with warm air. It was a great feeling to be properly warm after all the cold weather and altitude of the last month or so. We had signed up to do a "Pampas tour", which left the next morning. We had a really good group for this, Mike the crazy Aussie (95% alcohol and he was still practising his Spanish!), Huw the walking encyclopedia Welshman, and Chrissy and Charlie the hilarious English couple. Oh, and a couple of Germans... if you can't say anything nice say nothing at all. The first day of the tour we went down the river a few hours in a boat to get to our cabins, it was a great journey, we saw piles of river turtles (literally: they were heaped on top of each other!), alligators, pink dolphins (random, in a murky Amazonian river!), monkeys, and loads of birds. Costa Rica eat your heart out, and for about a quarter of the price.
| || |
That night it started to rain and the temperature dropped by about 20 degrees, from about 30 to below 10, and the weather stayed like that almost until we left at the end of the 3 day tour. Bad luck. On the second day we sat frozen in the boat for an hour fishing for pirhanas then watched the river dolphins for a while (but abandoned the planned swim!)
In the evening, instead of searching for anacondas (who don't come out unless it is sunny), we searched for firewood and built a big bonfire to keep us warm all night. So much for escaping the cold weather for a few days! Late that night we went looking for alligators, as you can see below, environmental impact is fairly low in the priorities of pampas tour operators!
When we returned to Rurrenabaque at the end of the tour, we heard that flights had been cancelled for the past 3 days due to the bad weather, the runway in the jungle being just a strip of slightly shorter grass (actually the Rurrenabaque "airport" was closed cos they were mowing the runway, so they were using another strip of grass instead about an hour away... it seems strips of grass are hard to come by in the jungle, and tarmac even harder). Anyway, Eoin using his charm managed to get us on the first flight the next day, despite the backlog of passengers who had been waiting days to get their flight.
Down the mines in Potosi
After landing in La Paz on our flight from the jungle, we jumped straight on a night bus to Potosi, a mining town in the south of Bolivia (also, the highest city in the world at 4060m). It was a pretty bad bus journey, it was freezing cold, and the bus was stopped for a few hours some time during the night (actually since we got no sleep, we can be more precise, it was stopped from 1:50am til 3:45am cos there was too much snow on the pass we were trying to cross). Still, we got into Potosi on time to do a morning tour of the silver mines. We got dressed in some stupid looking protective gear, and if this wasn't traumatic enough, the tour certainly was. It was harrowing to see the conditions the men work in down the mines. I think nothing has changed in the last 100 years. They still push these carts along a railway track, spend 12-20 hours down in the mines at a time, with no food just cocoa leaves to chew and cigarettes and alcohol (95% proof!), the conditions in the tunnels are so cramped and dangerous, many miners die each year from falling down shafts, not to mention those that die from diseases of the lungs etc. We spent 3 hours in the mines, crouching through tunnels, edging our way around deep shafts up to 30 metres under ground, climbing down through holes and chatting to some of the miners. By the time we saw natural light again we were so glad to be out of there, and we weren't even working - we can only imagine what it is like to spend a full day there.
| || |
Speaking to some of the miners was eye-opening. One guy we spoke to was 20 years old, had been working in the mines for 6 years, was married with 2 kids and looked about 40. He said he was only going to work in the mines for another year or two, until he had saved up enough money to get out of it. Another guy we spoke to was about 50 and had worked in the mines for 35 years, like his father and grandfather had done before him and now his children were following him to the mines. He looked so tired and weary. The tour company pays the mine some pesos for every gringo it brings in, so they are happy to chat to us and show us their work. Also, we bought them some stuff in the market, cigarettes, alcohol and dynamite like a tip for telling us about life in the mines. On a lighter note, we kept one of the sticks of dynamite to make our own explosive when we got out of the mines. Using only half a stick of dynamite, we threw it up on a hill. Don't think it blew up much, but the sound from it was deafening. Can only imagine what it sounds like down in the mines.
Pass the Salt, Uyuni
We got a bus from Potosi to Uyuni, which took us most of a day, slowed down aerodynamically by the front window in our bus shattering (is it us?! this is the 3rd bus we've been on that this has happened!). The driver was a hero though, kept driving on as if nothing happened, got the conductor to push out the remainder of the window while he was still driving, and got some cellotape and cling film at the next village and patched it up! In Uyuni we booked our salt flats tour to leave the next day.
The first day of the tour we spent mainly in the salt flats, an amazingly white place, like a desert of salt. We took some fun pictures playing with the perspective in the pure white background, much harder than it looks (we had seen some great examples in a cool bar in Uyuni the night before, but didn't really manage to imitate any!)
Later that day we left the salt flat and entered an area more like desert, with big red rocks, and caves. We spent the first night in a little village in the middle of nowhere. We had a great group for this tour, 2 French, Maiwenn and Nicola-a-boy, and 2 Belgian girls, Magadi and Isabelle. We spent the evenings playing "the name game", "the hat game" and of course the backpackers favourite card game, asshole! The second day of the tour was the highlight, despite the 2 flat tyres that our legend of a driver, Roberto, managed to repair F1-pitstop-style. The scenery was so dramatic and different from the white salt flats the first day.
In the morning we passed though 4 or 5 different lakes, many with flamengos, all with really weird and wonderful colours with mineral powder surrounding them. In the afternoon we stopped at a place with cool red rock formations, one of them looked just like a stone tree.
The last lake we passed was red in colour, with heaps of flamengos, and white powder all around the edges from the minerals in the water. That night we slept at 4300m, all 6 of us huddled into one room expecting the worst in temperature (it is often -20 degrees at night here) but actually it wasn't so bad, I think we got off lightly. There's a lot to be said for body heat! We got up early the next morning and stopped at some geysers to watch sunrise and try draw some heat from the bubbling (albeit smelly) pits. It was freezing cold and we were at a new altitude PB above 5000m.
| || |
After this we stripped off to our togs and went for a dip in some hot springs. It must have been barely above freezing outside, with a wind several degrees colder and here we were half naked. Half mad. After this we stopped off at another lake, turquoise this time with a spectacular volcano as a backdrop, and left our French friends there when we hopped on a bus to Chile (they were returning to Uyuni, but gave us a great send off by dancing the chicken dance outside our bus!)
| || |
Moonwalking, back in Chile & Eoin's an uncle!!
We spent over 3 full days in San Pedro de Atacama, just 40 minutes from the Bolivian border in the north of Chile. It's quite touristy but we came to really like it. After so many tours in Bolivia, and so many buses over the last month, it was great to be in one place for a while, find a hostel with decent facilities, cook our own food again, head off for long cycles during the day etc. The mountain biking here is great. The first day we hired (surprisingly really decent) mountain bikes and pedalled to a canyon, Gargantua del Diablo, cycling through a real maze of little paths winding between the canyon walls. We hiked up to the top of the canyon to have our lunch and from there the views of the area were amazing, tens of snow-capped volcanoes on one side, the Moon Valley on the other and desert in between.
The second day we cycled to Valle de La Luna, the Moon Valley, so named cos it is meant to resemble the surface of the moon. I well believe it, it really was weird and wonderful, the terrain varied between dusty white powder, golden sand dunes and red volcanic rocks formed into little volcano peaks and craters. Also, some exccellent news from home in the midst of all this, Daire & Aine have had a healthy, beautiful baby boy, Kieran. A huge congrats to parents & grandparents. A pity we'll have to wait til Christmas to meet our nephew, but that's what skype is for!!
Chilly in Chile
After our relaxing time in San Pedro, it was back on the bus for our last epic bus journey in South America, 23 hours to Santiago. To commemorate this, we upgraded to the superior cama bus for an extra few pounds, seats that recline back totally horizontal, pillows, blankets, food, the works. It was great, kinda glad we never tried this superior cama class before or we'd never have been able to go back to cattle class! We have 3 days in Santiago, and since everyone was whinging about Chile's capital being really grim, we were planning on using this time just to catch up on blogging, photo editing etc before packing our bags for our NZ adventure. However, we've been pleasantly surprised by Santiago. Its a really nice modern city with plenty of shops, nice parks, a gerat metro system, a cool fish market, and even a famous vineyard which you can reach by the metro. It is freezing cold here though, I guess it will acclimatise us for New Zealand. You can also head out to the slopes for a days snowboarding from here in the city, the ski slopes are only an hour away, but we've decided to hold off til New Zealand since they haven't had a decent dump of snow here in a week conditions are meant to be getting icy.
Next stop, NewZealand!
Update on 14/07/2009 from Huaraz, Peru
What a 6 weeks we have had since the last blog update in Panama city. Are we getting bored of the travels?? Not a chance it seems to just get better and better every week, might have to have a chat to the bank manager to see if we can extend it a bit into 2010 :-)
Picture perfect island paradise
To cross the border into Colombia we took what is now becoming a really popular route for backpackers, crossing by sailing boat from Central America back to South America.
Our boat was called the Stahlratte "Steel Rat". Holding 17 passengers and 4 crew members, it is an old converted fishing boat with hammocks, cool outdoor dining area, pirate type swings off the boat and plenty deck space. It brought us safely across the Carribbean sea to Cartagena, Colombia. In total the trip lasted nearly 4 days, and it can definitely be classed in that growing category of trip highlights. The first day sailing we passing loads of small beautiful islands. Some of them were populated with the Kuna people, one of the oldest tribes in south america, they are trying to keep hold of their traditions, with colourful clothes & jewellery, and from what we could see based on there boat navigation skills a fair bit of drinking as well. We were getting impatient seeing all these beautiful islands, but eventually after 3 hrs sailing we reached our paradise for the next few days. Where we dropped anchor was worth the wait, we were surrounded by beautiful reefs, and a collection of deserted white sandy beach islands, each one no more then 100 metres in length & width, with no evidence of anyone ever living on them, just a few palm trees and crystal clear waters. There were 2 islands a nice 100m swim from the boat, and if we felt up to the exertion, another one about 200m from the boat. Over the next 36 hours, before we had our long 30+hrs sailing to get to Caragena in Colombia, we swam from the boat, had fun on the tarzan swing, sunbathed, walked around the islands and generally did nothing. When feeling really energetic, we snorkelled around the reefs only a few feet away from where the boat was anchored spotting some more nurse sharks and lots more colourful fish. The food on the boat was amazing, the first evening we swam across to one of the islands and had a BBQ & beers on the beach before swimming back to the boat to sleep. The following evening the Kuna people brought us a tank of lobsters, one of the best meals from our travels so far, reckon we had about 6-8 baby lobsters each! The boat was really good fun, all backpackers. It included 2 belgium ladies Ingrid and Nicole who have been travelling for over 5 years now and who have some crazy and hilarious stories. Their current 5 year plan is to travel the world without using any cars orr buses, currently they are cycling through central and south america, past adventures have included buying a camel YES!!, buying a rickshaw, walking, dragging a sled through syberia. We have met some Belgians since who have told us the two are celebrities back home! We could have stayed here for so much longer we absolutely loved the place. The last day on the boat was a slightly different story, the seas were quite rough (Well the captain said they were calm) but for those of us not used to being on boats for so long it was pretty rocky, about 6 of the passengers were getting sick, while the rest were sleeping and drowsy after talking so many motion sickness tablets. By the time we landed in Cartagena we were looking forward to getting back on dry land, and starting our South America adventure, part 2.
Mud, Glorious Mud
Arriving in colombia was by far the easiest ever border crossing, given we had just sailed one of the biggest drug trafficking routes in the world, we expected long delays, searches though all our bags, etc but instead, one of the custom dudes rocked up in his boat, took our passports and then the captain dropped us ashore (without our passports) telling us we could meet him later that night in a hostel to get them back. So there we were in Colombia without passports, no border crossing, wandering around what is at first impressions a beautiful colonial fort town of Cartagena, but when you wander outside the touristy bits it does have a dodgy side, i.e. hundreds prostitutes hanging around certain areas, and so many guys selling coke on the streets.
Outside of wandering the cool old town in Colombia, a highlight of the city was the mud volcano about an hours drive outside Caragena. When we "climbed" this volcano (100 metres high) we really thought it was a scam at first, seeing a small pool of mud "full of nutrients for your skin", we thought these guys were having a laugh, but then you walk/slide into the mud and it is such a strange feeling. The mud is hundreds of feet deep, but you can't sink with the density of the mud. If your legs float to the top of the mud, it is almost impossible to force them back down again, and so hard to control where you move in the mud. It was an unreal experience, much like the feeling of being suspended weightless in space I imagine. Although picking mud out of our ears and everywhere for the next few days was hard work! The other highlight from Cartagena was Grainne's, she found this place called Crepes & Waffles and she loved the place so much that for the next 4 weeks going through Colombia she was constantly searching for some more of their franchise.
On the food front, there is some really great street food in Colombia as well, while there we got to like their Papas Rellenas (Mashed potato fried, with a mini shepherds pie in the middle), Arepas (pitta style potato/corn bread, stuffed with sausages, chichen, veg and spices) and Cerviches (tubs of prawns, fish, with a really tasty dressing, like prawn cocktails at home).
Taganga - Carribbean Coast
Next stop after Cartagena was Taganga, a few hours drive east of Cartagena. To get there we got a local bus out of Cartagena to the main bus terminal, where Eoin nearly lost his temper with this incredibly annoying passenger who must have been on drugs or something, the situation not helped by an even crazier bus driver, who crossed the island of grass in between lanes to overtake someone and was generally driving like a madman. Then the Colombian bus network redeemed itself by a lovely bus with Berlinas the whole way to Taganga. This was the first of many pleasant experiences on the buses in Colombia, we were really surprised by how good the buses were here.
Once we arrived in Taganga, this small little fishing village, we headed straight to our hostel a lovely place called Casa De Felipe, one of the nicest hostels we have stayed in, then down the road to a place recommended to us by an Irish couple, Dave & Noreen, who we met in Nicaragua for a tasty baguette stuffed with tonnes of meat, just like the huge college rolls we used to get in the old college bar in UCC! After that we got straight onto all the local tour companies to haggle for the best price we could so that we could start the Lost City trek the next day. Eventually we managed to book the trip with Sierra tour and the following day we set off for a 5 day trek through the jungle during which we would reach the lost city of the now extinct Tayrona people, while also passing through what used to be one of the biggest cocaine producing regions in Colombia (before the military clamped down and now all the production has moved to the south west corner of Colombia bordering Brazil in the Amazon forests.)
Finding the Lost City
We hadn't heard much about this trek along our travels, outside of backpackers getting kidnapped here a number of years ago, but we liked the sound of what we had read in books and on the internet about the trail and the ruins, and hence decided to do it, and in the end we were not let down. it was a fantastic trip, way above our expectations.
We headed off with the smallest bag of clothes possible between the two of us (yep, the same clothes for 5 days), but it really wasn't worth bringing anything more, as the place was so hot and sticky, and for sleeping at night we used to sleep in hammocks at the different rest points along the trail and go for a swim in the river to have a wash and clean en route. We had a really cool group, 9 of us in total, a few English, Americans, and not to forget the Great Dane, one of the funniest and nicest characters we have met travelling. He even brought a football with him so that when we reached the lost city we ended up having a game of football with the colombian military on this famous sight, great fun tackling this fellas who had grendades strapped around then, needless to say we let then win most of the 50/50 tackles.
The highlights included the Lost City itself which was amazing; the views over the jungle; the river crossings about 20 in total along the trek, some of which were waist deep in parts; the swimming holes which were a great relief from the heat; seeing the biggest tarantula we have ever seen; the group we had was great as was the banter over cards at night time; sleeping in hammocks; the tour of a local now shut down "coca cola" factory; Grainne playing around with a grenade at the lost city pretending it was deodorant can, then posing for a photo with a machine gun pointed in the face of the soldier next to her; and finally playing soccer on the top of the lost city with the Colombian military.
Things we didn't like about the trek were the fact nothing dried, our clothes were damp for 5 days and the mosquitos lots of them, but would definitely recommend the trip to anyone and we would do it again in a flash.
A last taste of Carribbean Paradise
Once back in Taganga after the lost city trip, we didn't waste any time and the following day we hopped on a boat to Tayrona national park, about 1 hr drive or boat trip away from Taganga. We decided to get the boat which was more expensive then the bus but where we were rumoured to be able to not have to pay the park fee if we landed on the beach, this was true up until a month ago, but now some "park rangers" there were collecting money from people arriving by boat and from the looks of it pocketting it themselves. The boat pulled up on a beach near Cabo de San Juan beach where we planned to stay 2 nights, from where everyone onboard scattered like a military boat landing in a war film, for the next 3 hrs we all tried to evade the park rangers eventually we all had to pay the scamsters with the exception of Grainne.
Tayrona was perfect for after the lost city trek, it has some of the nicest beaches we have seen on our travels and beautiful clear hot Carribbean waters. Chilling out here on the beach for the next 2 days, sleeping in our hammocks again and hanging outwith Jim and Ciara from the lost city trek, playing chess on the beach was great. If we had the time we would have loved to have stayed here for longer or on some of the other beaches around the park. Grainne got sick on our last day in the park, suspected dengue fever which loads of people in Tayrona had picked up, and lasted a week.
San Gil, the heart of Colombia
After our beach-time, we got back on the road, catching an overnight bus to San Gil in the middle of Colombia, about halfway between the coast and Bogota, the capital. Overnight journeys are no fun with a sick girl. Anyway, we arrived in San Gil, and were really pleasantly surprised with the place. We were thinking of it as just a convenient stopover on our way though to Bogota, but it turned out to be one of our favourite places. We stayed in a brilliant Australian-run hostel there, Macondo, which had a really nice gang of people staying there. Our first morning there we discovered their famous fruit and veg market in the middle of town, bought a load of new and random fruits (Colombia is famous for its variety of unusual fruits) and experimented back in the hostel which was equipped with a blender. That afternoon, with Grainne still feeling fairly sick, we took a bus to a local village, Barichara, this picture perfect adobe village, really well maintained, beautiful white washed houses, seemed like it should be a really touristy place but we were the only ones there. Eoin got lunch: soup, folloed by meat, rice, salad and fresh juice, for $3, which we came to discover was about $1 above the average price in Colombia - brilliant! After that we walked down the hill to Guane, an even quieter village, just as pretty as Barichara, complete with old men in the square watching the tourists like we were aliens arrived on our spaceship. We sat in the square for an hour and a half, the only action we saw was when the village's only car pulled out of the square, then half an hour later a dozen women crossed the square to go to mass, and finally the days greatest excitement when the daliy bus pulled in to take us back to San Gil.
The following day we browsed the extensive (and really cheaply priced) adventure sports leaflets in the hostel, and decided to go paragliding. Something neither of us had never tried and was really cheap here, $30. (They also had a bungee jump for $12.50 which we decided to pass on!) For 15 minutes, we got a tandem paragliding ride, swooping and spiralling down through avalley. It was really good fun.
our last day in san Gil, we visited a gorgeous waterfall, an 80 metre rock face which you can rapel, or abseil down. Eoin didn't think it scary enough, having had bigger and better thrills abseiling off the side of Guys Hospital in London a few years ago. Grainne, however despite not having eaten for 4 days cos she was still sick, thought it was a great idea, and threw herself off the side of it. Really good fun, though the force of the water by the bottom of the waterfall was really strong.
Bogota for 12 hours only
A really nice city, we spent the day between night buses wandering round the old part f the city, also went to the police Museum, which was OK, some interesting stuff on the drug baron, Pablo Escobar. We also visited the Botero Museum, a famous artist who paints pictures of rotund comic-style people. We spent a few hours in the Gold Museum too, satisfying the magpie in Grainne, though thankfully she didn't take any souvenirs. All museumed out (most unlike us!) we hopped on another nightbus to the Zona Cafetera.
Next stop was the Zona Cafetera, a gorgeous area of rolling mountains, lakes, and green fields. We stayed here for a few days in a town called Salento. It is the heart of Colombia's world-famous coffee industry, every second farm growing coffee, and it seemed like the rest were farming trout. So we drank strong, fresh coffee every morning and ate delicious trout every night for dinner. Super. We did a hike up through an area known as Valle De Corcora, a really nice walk up a mountain passing forest, rivers en route and, bizarrely, huge palm trees all over the mountains, eventhough we were hours away from the coast. There was just something amiss with the image of cows grazing in fields right next to giant palm trees! A great stop on the trail was at this small finca farm, where there was hundreds of humming birds, we sat watching them fly around the place and sheltering from the rain for a good hour, although it drove Eoin nuts as he could never get a good picture of the little feckers, they were moving so quickly. We also met some more really nice Colombians who were in Salento on their holidays. This was one of the highlights of Colombia, the people were so friendly, genuinely curious about us and our lives back home, and seemed really grateful that tourists are starting to visit their country which has had so much bad press through the years. Only negative about this hike was for the first time since March, we got caught in rain, we were totally soaked to the bone and cold by the time we got back to Salento, in stark contrast to the group the day before who got sunburnt. We returned to our hostel looking forward to a nice hot shower (seemed like it had been a few months since we'd stayed in a hostel which had hot showers as this one had advertised), only to find cold water. We were gutted and even more gutted later that night when we saw steam coming out of the bathroom and someone popping out saying the shower was too HOT, we never realised we had to turn on the hot water.
By pure chance when we were here, it was public holidays for the Colombians, so the main square was full every night with people, bands, and music. We watched one really random group playing music but using nothing but kitchen utensils, pots, spoons to create all their sounds, a good laugh to see but we think they should stick with the cooking.
En route to Ecuador
Leaving the Zona Cafetera, we started our 3 day bus journey to Quito in Ecuador. No nightbuses for this part of the journey, cos the roads are meant to be really dangerous after dark in southern Colombia. There was a huge military presence along the way alright. We broke up the journey after our first 12 hours in buses in Popayan, a beautiful colonial city, nicknamed the White City. Another really gorgeous place that didn't have any tourists, here we stayed in a hostel called HostelTrail, which was fantastic, like being in a proper home again, with hot showers and all :-) While shopping in the grocery store on our first night here, we heard this massive bang, the lighting went out and it was pitch black. We got an awful fright, at first, after hearing all the stories about safetly or lack of in southern Colombia, we thought a bomb had gone off, but we later found out it was a massive bolt of lightning. We were seperated, Eoin in the dairy and Grainne in the sweets and biscuits aisle, and we spent the 30 seconds or so in the pitch black running around the supermarket looking for each other. It was a happy reunion in the pasta aisle.
We left Popayan really relaxed after a day exploring the city, and then hopped on another bus working out way towards the border town of Ipiales, which was your typical dirty border town, but it did have an amazing cathedral about 45 minutes outside. The name of this place was "Santuario Las Lajas" an amazing piece of architecture where the cathedral was built out of the side of a canyon with the river below. The cathedral went from one side of the canyon to the other, and the alter for the cathedral was built out of the side of face of the canyon wall. Outside of this the only other memorable thing was our cheapest accomodation to date and cheapest meal to date in colombia, all in $2.50 for soup, bread, mineral and steak with salad and rice, not too shabby at all, and our accomodation in the 3 start hotel was $12 with cable tv.
After all of the dodgy stories of people getting robbed on buses in Equador we arrived in Quito safe and sound and to be honest didn't feel any bit in danger anywhere along the way. It felt pretty safe and the people were nice, including the lovely lady who came on our bus with ice creams at just the right time !! Quito in particular has a really bad reputation from other travels and again, we were very surprised, we found it a really nice city, with a beautiful old town, and a new town with glitzy places to eat, drink and shop. We found a really posh bar with outside seats that had 2 for 1 on all drinks all day, so as backpackers we loved the place and stopped here every day. Grainne also liked Quito again as she managed to track down another crepes & waffles. We stopped off in Basilica del Voto Nacional while in Quito as well, scrambling up some pretty dodgy steps, ladders and tunnels to get great views over the city.
Spoiling ourselves in the Galapagos
The main reason we came to Ecuador was for the Galapagos, this was to be the treat of all treats on our travels (we know there have already been too many) but this one was special. We decided to splash out and booked a 8 day cruise on one of te first class boats called Nemo II. We got a last-minute deal, getting over 50% off the original price, there was almost no difference in price between the cheaper boats and the more expensive boats in the last minute market so we decided to splash out the extra $100 or so. We even told them it was our honeymoon, which is technically true, although slightly pushing it given we are now over 10 months married, but it worked and we got upgraded to the best cabin on board our 12 person catarmaran.
We had high expectations for the trip, especially given the fact this 8 day cruise was more expensive then our whole 2 months in Central america put together, and it actually exceeded our expectations. It was an amazing place, our double bedroom en suite was great, the hottest showers we have had in months, fresh towels every day, the best food we have had in ages, I reckon we must have ate at least a month worth of food, it was so good, our cook was an absolute legend with the spread he put on every day. The boat itself was beautiful with decking on top and around the front, and then a dining area inside with massive plazma TV and outside from where you could also jump straight off the boat for some snorkelling. Yes, it is probably pretty obvious that this boat and the service we got blew us away, it was pure quality.
Outside of the boat, the Galapagos and it's archipelago of islands was incredibly beautiful. We woke each morning in a new bay, moored next to a new stunning island and beaches, varying from really rocky volcanic terrain, to white powder sand beaches just like the Carribbean, to rugged cliffs just like home. Each day usually invovled an hour of snorkelling in the morning and an hour of snorkelling in the afternoon and 2 island walking excursions. The walking excursions were great, usually across the volcanic terrain of most the islands, lava fields and weird looking cactuses and plants, but also the diverse wildlife that could be found. Highlights from an animals we saw on land were the tortoises, albatross, marine and land iguanas, tropic bird, blue footed boobies, friget bird with it's massive red belly when the male tried to tempt the female for a bit of jiggy jiggy time, the nasca boobies, lava heron, flamingos, colourful bright red crabs and so much more. In the water snorkelled with penguins who were really cheeky, making as if they were swimming straight for you with their pointy beak, then diving down at the last minute. The sea lions were so playful in the water, especially the younger ones and would bite your flipper and swim in circles around you. Grainne kept diving down and playing with them under the water, barrel-rolling with them, and playing with them, until one day the mama sea lion came along and barked at the young ones to stop their messing and get looking for food. We were warned that the big sea lions could be dangerous enough so Grainne never swam so fast away from them. The other massive highlight was swimming with the giant sea turtles. One day we found about 5 or 6 massive turtles, the bigger ones about 1metre across. Again, the younger ones were less shy and we would swim alongside them just marvelling at how graceful they looked when they swam. We also swam with galapagos shark (looked like great white), white tip reef & black tip reef sharks, ,and really luckily, the hammerhead sharks. Add to that some beautiful eagle rays, sting rays, parrot fish, and so so much more. It was like snorkelling in any coral reef, but just everything was bigger and better. The amount of marine life we saw was incredible and it was every day. We also saw some manta rays jumping a few metres out of the water and flipping like a pancake in the air, something they do to shake off the bacteria from their scales. Between the boat and the Galapagos this for us was the major highlights from our 10 months travelling so far.
Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Humpback Whales Mating Season
You would have thought we had enough of sea life, but instead straight away after our flight from the Galapagos landed in Guayaquil we jumped on a 4 hr bus journey back to the coast, to a small fishing village called Puerto Lopez. We were here for one reason only and that was to see humpback whales. We just missed them off the coast of Costa Rica, so when we knew they were around here, we jumped at the chance of seeing them. They were truly awesome. Watching them for over 1hr from about 20 metres away (and at one stage one jumped right next to the boat and dived under the little boat we were in - we were sure we'd be swimming with them next!) was fascinating as the males jumped fully out of the water and flicked their massive tails into the air to impress the female humpback whales, although you couldn't really tell the difference between which ones were male and female!!
| || |
We had a last minute change of heart in Guayaquil bus station in Ecuador after coming back to this city straight from watching the whales in the morning and decided to skip the southern part of Ecuador and head to Huaraz in the North of Peru. In total we travelled for nearly 3 days straight, which also included 2 overnight bus journeys and a lovely stop off for about 6 hrs in Trujillo, a town in the north of Peru where we had a great dinner and did some shopping in town. The nightbuses in Peru were great and we jumped on our first cama bus with Linea who we used the whole way down from Piura to Huaraz. In south America, there are 2 classes of seats in buses: semi-cama, which, after Africa, we thought was the bees knees, a nice seat that goes back about 130 degrees, sometimes some food, plenty leg-room; and cama, with only 3 seats across every row theey are much wider, normally nice soft leather, reclining further back, with blankets and pillows and good food. This was the first time we splashed out the extra $5 on a cama seat and we're a bit concerned we'll never be able to go back to cattle-class semi-cama!! It was great though arriving in Huaraz as fresh as a daisy ready to do treks and explore the town straight away. Grainne in particular loved the bus journey mainly because they showed one of those slapstick comedy videos over and over, "Just for Laughs" playing practical jokes on people, and she had the hysterics for about 3 hrs of the journey.
Our rush to Huaraz from Ecuador was well worth, this is a place we love, at over 3,000 metres altitude surrounded by beautiful snow capped mountians. A climbers and trekkers heaven, you could stay here for months doing the different treks and we nearly changed our flights to do this, only later to promise and come back on a separate holiday instead.
On our first 2 days here we did a couple of day hikes to acclimitise before starting off on our 4 day trek. One of the hikes was about 8km above Huaraz to ruins called Willkawain which were in all truth pretty rubbish, but again it was just to get us walking at higher altitude and the second day hike was more like it, to the beautiful glacier crater lake called Laguna Churrup, up at well over 4,200 metres. This was a really stunning day hike, although fairly dodgy in parts as we had to scale over icy rocks, which Eoin didn't particularly enjoy. The day was made more enjoyable by us meeting a lovely Belgian couple called Tezz & Karen, PE teachers, who, after fully digesting how much free time they have each year have nearly convinced us both to start a career in teaching.
Later that evening we picked up our camping gear, bought our porridge, pasta, soup, chocolate biscuits, etc and got ready for our 4 day trek starting the next day.
Cordillias Blancas - Santa Cruz to Llanganuco - Patagonia eat your heart out
| || |
This was it, more of what we have come to love on our travels. We were chatting the other day and realised that so far on the trip we have done about 50 days of hiking which were ~20km in distance, not including loads of shorter hikes, cycles, etc. It is definitely what we have enjoyed most of the travels, heading off into the wilderness on our own, with a tent, all our food (which is getting better each time), our little gas cookers and of course our camera, which is battered and bruised at this stage from over use.
Back in January when we trekked around El Chalten and the Fitzroy mountain ranger in Argentina, and Torres Del Paine in Chile, we really thought this is it, trekking cannot beat the beauty of these mountain ranges, but I think we may have been wrong... this 4 day trip blew us away. Maybe because we hadn't really heard of the Cordilleras Blancas and our expectations were not massive, and maybe cos they were much quieter than Patagonia (and cheaper!) but it certainly gives Patagonia some competition. It was amazing, the valleys, glacier lakes, etc were out of this world. We also liked the fact that here we had total freedom in that we could camp wherever we liked, just pitching our tent on any flat piece of land, although normally having to share space with the cows and donkeys that roamed the mountains.
It is a sign of us getting used to the altitude in that we found this trek fairly easy-going, even though we reached points higher then 4,750 metres in altitude (when in Africa we went to 4660m and the altitude really hit us) and we carried all our own gear, while almost everyone else was on expensive tours with donkeys, porters and guides.
On the 2nd day of trekking we hiked up to a beautiful lake, we were the only ones there, with beautiful glaciers behind it, gorgeous turquoise water, beautiful peaks surrounding (including Alpa Mayo, the peak made famous by the Paramount Pictures logo) and the glacier overhead creaking and groaning as parts of it struggled to come loose into the lake below. The highlight was on day 3, hiking over the Punto Union pass, we were rewarded with 360 degrees of picture perfect peaks, turquiose lakes, jagged cliff faces and valleys below.
Although we did get friendly with 2 other trekkers from the States, Mike & Mary who we met a few times during the trip and getting buses to the start of the trek. They were a lovely couple on a break from their peace corps work in Ecuador. Other than that we spent a good deal of the trek enjoying each others company and having the trekking paths, places to pitch the tent and viewpoints to ourselves, we really loved the freedom and adventure of this trek.
Update on 26/03/2009 from Miami Airport, USA. A short nights sleep on the airport floor mainly spent trying to fathom how Grainne actually managed to sleep!
For the last 10 days we have been in Ireland/UK, back for Grainne's sister, Niamh's wedding. We had a brilliant 10 days, Paddy's day in London, wedding in Kerry & a birthday party in Cork, topped off by Ireland winning the six nations. And you can all thank us for bringing home the sun with us too! Felt a bit strange getting on the road again, but we are already pretty excited about the next few months travelling in central america. Updated flights details are on our webpage in case any of you fancy a holiday out to meet us
It's been a couple of month's now since the last blog update, only 9 months left travelling :-( February & March have been fairly different months compared to January, gone are the days of powder soups, pasta, rice and sleeping in tents, to a fair amount of overight bus journeys and hitting a whole host of great towns/cities in both Chile and the west part of Argentina and then chillling out on the lovely beaches on the southeast coast of Brazil, finishing up in Rio De Janeiro & learning a new appreciation for south american cakes along the way.
After leaving Puerto Natales in Chile, we took the easy option skipping the 30+ hr bus journey to work our way up to central Chile and instead took the 2hr flight up to Puerto Montt, Chile and better still it was cheaper than the bus :-) This flight actually ended up being a sight-seeing trip in itself, we had clear blue skies for the most part and we flew over the Patagonian Andes below. The views were brilliant, we got a birds eye view of the Fitz Roys and some other mountains and glaciers we had seen from ground level already, loads of other remote glaciers and fjords, and most stunning of all was seeing the volcano next to Chaiten which erupted in May 2008 destroying the whole town, and is still billowing out huge clouds of ash nearly a year later.
Once in Puerto Montt, we took a short bus journey to Puerto Varas, next to a beautiful lake, with savage views across the lake of another volcano, Osorno. Chile from what we could see so far is the land of volcanos. Puerto Varas was a little German town bizarrely enough, with about 40% of the people living here either being German natives or 1st generation. Nice little town and we did a day trip to Osorno volcano from here walking up dried lava fields up the side of the volcano. This was all going well, till we saw the lava rivers starting to fill up with muddy water from the melting snow above which resulted in us having to go off piste to dodge the streams which were morphing into rivers.
| || |
After Puerto Varas, it was time for some adventure, so we headed to Villarica, which is another quiet little Chilean town north of Puerto Varas, but close to Pucon, one of the main adventure towns in Chile. While here we did white-water rafting which was a first for both of us. We were on the river for about 2 hours, and it was up there with the highlights of the trip. A gerat adrenaline rush, as we crashed through Class 5 rapids, taking a battering along the way. Our big mistake at the end was to let the guide convince us for the last small rapid, to jump out of the boat lying on our backs in the water feet first and go through the rapid, big mistake, we both suffered sever bruising of the glutis maximus!
The last few days in Villarica, we got back in the saddle after 6 months of no cycling, we did a 60km mountainbike trail... think our respect for mountain bikers has jumped a fair bit after this day, it was dirt roads pretty much the whole way, the views again were great of another active volcano with snow on top called Villarica volcano, but our bodies were bate by the end as the terrain was very hilly and full of rocks, think we'd both take road cycling any day. One of the main reasons people head to Pucon & Villarica is to climb the volcano, using ice picks to get to the summit, then having a look at the active volcano on top, and the best part, sliding on your ass most of the way down on the snow. unfortunatly though our climb was cancelled for 2 days in a row because of cloud cover, so we did some cycling and drinking vino tinto instead.
From Villarica, we jumped on the bus heading back into Argentina, landing in the lakefront town called Bariloche. We had only 3 days here, but we definitely could have spent more, well Grainne for sure as every second shop was either a chocloate shop, a chocolate factoy, a cake shop or an ice cream parlour. Bariloche probably had the most scenic views we have seen yet on our travels, picture-perfect lakes and mountains and nice warm weather too was a nice surprise after Patagonia! Here we did more cycling, a nice 60km route called the Circuito Chico cycle. It was a great relief to be cycling on roads again after the dirt tracks of Chile, think Eoin's getting soft with old age now. The rest of time in Bariloche waws spent mastering our technique for getting free chocolate i.e. pretending we were serious buyers and then getting loads of samples, eating them as fast as possible and legging it when they were all finished. We did a few cool hikes/walks out of the town as well.
From Bariloche we headed off to a hippie town called El Bolson staying in this cool hostel that we could have stayed a few weeks. Some lovely walks here, their town market draws in the crowds too, a funky forest which burned down and these all these artists came along and created scuptures out of the trees.
Long overdue, we boarded our first overnight bus journey to Mendoza (not quite sure how we managed to avoid them so far, these were to be a real feature of our S American experience). The bus journeys were soo much more pleasant than the aftrican buses, as I think we've mentioned already. A whole seat to ourselves, reclining seat at that, and some journeys they come round and feed and water you! We stayed in Mendoza for 3 nights. We had a good wander around the city the first day, checking out the main square, shops (Grainne) and probably the best city park we have ever been to. It is massive, funnily enough there was a sign up for a big triathlon race the next day, I could see Grainne's mind thinking about entering :-) Apart from Grainne buying shoes for Niamh's wedding, a backpacker with high heels!!, wandering the city, the park, the other thing we did while in Mendoza was to head wine tasting for the day. Seeing as it was valentine's Day we rented a tandem bike and cycling around to a handful of vineyards tasting some vino. The tandem was an "interesting" experience. Or experiment maybe. Actually no, more like an exam. A test of trust and teamwork. Team Focus got a marginal pass. Grainne was in the back, blatantly not pushing the pedals and letting Eoin do all the work, but putting all her trust in Eoin's steering, which, after a few glasses of wine was pretty dodgy. It was a really enjoyable day out, although injuries resulted as we rented a parent and child tandem bike, with Grainne's knees hitting Eoin in the ass evertime she peddled.
Salta, Argentina ....
| || |
Salta was the next stop on our travels, another long overnight bus, which started well with the bus conductor giving us food, drink and playing a game of bingo on the bus, but then the delays started, so we ended up having a very long frustrating journey north to Salta. By the time we arrived we were in bad form, and first impressions of Salta around the bus station were very bad, to make matters worse our hostel had given away our bedroom for the night, but they managed to source another one down the road. At this stage we had decided we were not going to stay here more then 1 night, but in the end we grew to love this town, with gorgeous architecture, a nice atmosphere, and the best restaurant we have eaten in for a long time ("La Monumental" if you're ever here).
our main reason for hitting Salta oringially was to head out to a Gaucho ranch for the night, recommended by Siofra & Dave when they were travelling which we did the next day. Our cowboy was Enrique, in his 50's and with only 2 English phrases in his vocabulary, "Son of a bitch" and "Eat more, good for sex". He was however a great host and aside from the language barrier we had one of the best days and nights of our trip so far. The morning we got there we headed off on a horse ride, though fields, rivers, etc which were stunning. After an hour the cowboy asked if we wanted to go for a gallop. The language barrier problem meant we thought he was asking did we want a rest, so after our enthusiastic "si si" he gave the horses an almighty wallop that set them off galloping. Bearing in mind we hadn't even trotted at this stage and this was Grainne's first time on a horse (although she did tell them she had experience, I don't think being on a camel & an elephant ccounts!) you should have seen her hanging on for dear life to the horses neck as her feet came out of her "pedals"! Still surprised she survived it. After the morning ride, we headed back for a huge barbeque lunch. Mucho respect I have to say for Enrique, I'm amazed he is still alive, as for the whole meal he ploughed us all with literlly litres of red wine, steak, etc Eoin must have eaten more than a kilo of fillet steak. We (Eoin) ended up drinking too much and as a result we ended up skipping the afternoon horse riding session, postponing it til the next day instead.
Humahuaca, Northwest Argentina Carnival .....
This was up there in our "most bizarre weekend" short-list. We had expected dancing, music, costumes, but instead we ended up spending 2 days throwing water bombs, talcum powder, and shaving foam at randomers, young or old it didn't matter. It's a free-for-all battle of men vs the women and we loved it. You knew the seasoned carnavalers, all wearing hats and goggles. You couldn't discount anyone as an enemy. This little old lady, about 90 years old, destroyed Eoin with shaving foam one evening. It was some craic, drinking and having fights for 3 days.
The first day here was some craic, we were wandering around the cobbled streets, checking out the main square, then we came across this small pub filled with mainly a bunch of lads and a few women, dancing, drunk and covered in 'talco' powder, they invited us in so we decided to join them. It was definitely one of the highlights from our weekend here, for the next few hours we danced, drank and threw talco at each other. There was live music and singing. Not to unlike the wran in west kerry actually. Turns out we had gate crashed some fella's birthday party, but it was a gerat introduction to the carnaval, the guys there explained the weekend itinerary to us!
Humahuaca it's was a gorgeous little town in it's own right, tiny, but beautfiul, and the backdrop of the canyons, hills covered in cacti and great rock formations made the place so picturesque.
After leaving Humahuaca, it was off to Salta once more, then another 24+hr bus the whole way to Iguazu Falls, these were awesome, incredibly beautiful, but it was such a change from Salta & Humahuaca as there were tourists everywhere. We spent 2 day's at the waterfalls on the Argentina side, then one on the Brazil side. It was really amazing. We preferred the Argentinian side, there was much more to do here, hikes, views right on top of the falls at Gargantua del Diablo (The Devil's Throat), we did a boat ride up to the falls etc. On the Brazilian side there was a nice panoramic view, but it was much further away and you didn;t get a sense of the incredible force of the fall that you got on the other side.
Some Brazilian Beach Time: Parati, Trindade & Ilha Grande
After Iguazu Falls we hopped on another overnight bus, the last of this leg of the trip. Quickly passed through Sao Paolo, and got the short bus up to Trindade, a small fishing village about 25km soutyh of the more touristy Paraty. We kind of found this place, Trindade by accident but ended up absolutely loving in. In the end we stayed here 5 nights in total, apart from Buenos Aires that was the most time we had stayed in one spot. The hostel here was brilliant (Kaissara), the beaches were gorgeous and really quiet, and it just felt off the beaten track and a nice atmosphere. We also found a cake worthy of "Top South American Cake" title, Passion Cheesecake, savage, so much so that we were willing to sacrifice dinner one night to eat more of it.
The pace of our travels had really eased off by now, as we hit the Brazilian coast. From Paraty (which is a lovely colonial town too, we spent 2 nights here), we got a bus 2 hours along the coast to the town Angra Dos Reis, where we got a bus across to Ilha Grande. This is a real back-packer haunt, a lovely island with no cars, where you have to trek 2 hours through the jungle to go to some lovely beaches. Probably our favourite beach in South America here, Lopez Mendez, white sandy beaches and great waves of turquise water. But quite busy, and I think we preferred Trindade overall.
Relaxing in Rio
After that it was on to the "hectic" pace of Rio de Janeiro. Another brilliant city. Torn as to whether we preferred it to Buenos Aires. I think BsAs wins by a neck. Although Rio has amazing beaches, great cafes, shops, restaurants, nightlife, I think BsAs just felt more like a city, a busier atmosphere. We stayed in Ipanema, a lovely part of the city, and really safe... after all the warnings about Rio, we found it a really safe city.We rented an apartment in posto 9 in Ipanema, 1 block from the sea, it was perfect. Was nice to get away from the back-packer scene for a while too, almost every night in Brasil so far we'd been in dorm rooms. Ipanema has a great beach, loads of beach volley ball players :-) and some of the vainest people we have ever seen, Brazilians here love themselves, especially along Ipanema and Copacabana. Great for people-watching!
| || |
We took the lazy option for once and did all the tourist things in a one day tour (christ the redeemer, santa teresa, sugarloaf) We also went to Santa Teresa and Lapa another day, cool bohemian neighbourhoods with samba clubs. Also got to see a great match in the Maracana, a local derby between Botafoga and Vasco.
Update on 29/01/2009 from Erratic Rock Hostel in Puerto Natales, Chile
One month into our round the world adventure and so far it has been brilliant, bizarrely enough we have actually stayed in tents more often then accomodation so far, we must be missing our tent from Moshi !! we landed in Buenos Aires (BA) on the 3rd of January for Eoin's actual birthday but second birthday celebration in a week! It was a great way to start the travelling. We managed to catch up with Denis and Orla Russell for a bit of a session up in Palermo hitting a quality steak restaurant called La Cabrera, thanks for the tip Liam. Denis and orla were in BA on the end of their honeymoon, it was great to gatecrash for a few good sessions of beer, steak and tango!
Landing in BA was bizarre at the start, after the hassles of travelling in Africa it was like been in Rome, Paris, Madrid or even Cork (OK, that's stretching it a bit!). Travelling in Argentina is just a pleasure: assigned seats, buses leaving on time, one price for everyone, and no hassle, we loved it straight away, it feels like one of the safest countries we have visited.
We spent 6 days in BA, loving being back in a big city again, it reminded us of living in London and the great buzz you get from being in the big city. Best advice we got was from J.Law and that was to just wander the streets of the city. Our days were spent checking out random areas, heading for walks around the Palermo parks, Recoleta, San Telmo and Boca.
We caught the ferry for a day trip over to Uruguay as well, to this little seafront town called Colonia Del Sacramento, a lovely quaint little town, very like Dubrovnik in Croatia or the small towns you would come across on the coast of France.
Main highlights in BA were the buzz and the atmosphere of the city, heading to a Tango show in Cafe Tortino, drinking beers in the square in San Telmo watching the local golden oldies dance [no need for a Tango show just head here instead about 10pm-1am on sunday nights], hitting the sunday market behind the Recoleta (which is this massive OTT graveyard for famous Argentinians who bizarrely enough have loads of Irish surnames!!) and sitting on the grass listening to different bands belting out tunes there by the market. The food also needs to get a mention... the steaks were out of this world, also found great ice cream, coffee, and chocolate. As if the Christmas binge wasn't enough!
| || |
After our big-city break in BA, we jumped on a south-bound plane to Patogonia, El Calafate. This place was like the skiing villages you come across in the Alps. We spent a day here, picking up camping supplies for the 2 novices (and trying to figure out instructions in Spanish as to how to assemble a camping cooker, tent etc!), then jumped on the bus to a place called El Chalten, base of the Fitzroy mountain range. Daire had recommended this place, slightly off the beaten track of the Gringo Trail, and well worth the diversion... beautiful snow-capped mountains, electric blue lakes, glaciers and one of the most difficult climbing peaks in the world.
We decided on doing a 5 day, 4 night trek here, so rented our camping gear, bought the pasta, rice, cup a soups, thermos and cooker and headed off to the wilderness for our adventure. The 1st day was great, clear blue skies, dinner tasted great and no rain, although we did manage to break our Thermos before we even got our first cup of hot water out of it. Camping facilities up the mountain were pretty spartan. Basically the only thing that marked a campsite apart from any of the rest of the mountain was that it had a nearby hole in the ground with an unsteady board on top, which was the toilet. It made for a great adventure though, getting our water from the streams, totally dependent on the supplies we had brought with us etc. We managed to head up to the Fitzroy viewpoint, to Lago los Tres, on the first day (Check out the picture gallery), this was stunning up here, so nice we nearly went for a swim (well, nearly probably stretching it a little, had a change of mind after we felt the water which can't have been more than a couple of degrees, it was the result of a melting glacier after all!). The next couple of days were more of the same, some great hiking, amazing views and the weather wasn't too bad. For a place renowned for bad weather, we were starting to think that these bad weather reports were over-dramatised, the Argentinians were just soft, or maybe the luck of the Irish was on our side.
Hmmm.. not so lucky. Day 4 in our Fitzroy camping trip soon turned out to be grimmer than the GRIM CHALLENGE (an 8 mile run we annually subject ourselves to during Christmas party season, involving running through bogs, wading through rivers and general misery). The downpour actually started on our 3rd night of the trek and basically didn't stop for over 36 hrs. The morning of the 4th day we awoke to a slightly damp tent, but we had booked an ice trekking day trip so had to leave the damp gear and hope the rain would let up and maybe even our tent would dry off whilst we were scrambling over the glacier. Actually we assumed the trek was going to be cancelled given the bad conditions (they said they hadn't gotten rain and snow so bad during summer in a long time), but no, off we headed to the Glacier Grande for our ice trek. We were soaked to the bone within about 5 minutes (NOTE: goretex and water-proofing is a MYTH, a cruel scam), and frozen with the cold. In theory it was a really good day out as it included a river crossing by rope, 2hr forest trek to get to the glacier, a few hours climbing on the glacier with crampons, exploring the crevasses in the ice etc, but unfortunately the elements just didn't co-operate and we couldn't really enjoy it with the cold and rain. It was nearly 4pm before we got back to the campsite, frozen, to find our tent was now totally flooded and everything soaked in it. We hopped into the damp sleeping bags to try thaw out, thought about staying there for the night, but then decided to bolt it down the mountain. Only problem was we had back packs now about twice their original weight with all the wet gear, it was getting late, and all the paths back down the mountains were now flooded. Still, we do love a grim challenge so we ran all the way down the mountain, a 3.5 hour trek reduced to a 1.5 hour trot! That was the start of the fun, once in town, as it is peak season and nobody was camping because of the weather, everywhere was booked out, so the 2 of us were pretty miserable walking around town trying to find somewhere to stay for the night, we were getting so desperate we were nearly going to head back to the original hostel we stayed in and ask could we sleep in the store room. As it worked out, after reaching the 8th hostel of the night, we eventually found a bed and we were the happiest campers in town. But we were never camping again. EVER...
Perito Moreno Glacier
Back in El Calafate now, clothes washed and feeling warm again, we did a day trip out to the Perito Moreno Glacier, this place was breath-taking, watching this massive glacier (hundreds of square kilometres in size, bigger than Israel) shed hunge chunks of ice every few minutes which crashed to the water like claps of thunder was unreal, but saying that it wasn't our highlight from our time in el calafate, that was definitely the roast chicken we got from the supermarket after 5 days of camping food!!
From El Calafate, we headed off towards Puerto Natales where we are now, about 5hr journey. The night before getting the bus we bought heaps of fruit to make up for the 5-a-day we'd missed out on whilst camping, ham for sandwiches, etc for the journey, only to be given a custom form with an hour to go to the border, stating that none of the above can be brought into the country and you will be fined if you have them!! So we had to munch the lot before the border, a full melon, bunch of bananas, 4 peaches, 2 apples, 2 pears, and a sandwich with about 10 slices of ham in it. Built up a few fruit credits.
When we got to Puerto Natales we stayed in a great hostel for a night, Erratic Rock (where we are now). This place has been great, with loads of information for the hikes in the nearby National Park, Torres Del Paine. After the camping experience of the previous week our appetite for camping again was not the highest and we were thinking, at most, of doing the basic version of the trek in TdP, known as the "W", 70km, 4 or 5 days in the mountains, DEFINITELY enough. But after chatting to the people at the hostel here, our rubber arms were twisted and we ended up deciding to doing a 10 day 140+km trek, where we would have to carry all our own camping, cooking, trekking gear ourselves, including our 3 meals a day. If you want to read about the trek check out this link http://www.patagoniablacksheep.com/patagonia-articles/torres-del-paine-trekking-tour-the-q it's up there with one of the best experiences we have ever done, made a lot easier by the advice from the experienced staff here in the hostel. We got great tips about how to keep our backpack weight down, catering up the mountain (lots of porridge, pasta and cup a soup!) and keeping comfortable (which involved wearing the same trekking gear for the full 10 days, with a clean dry set of clothes for each night. Yes. We smelt nasty).
Our trip into the park was as eventful as we have found all modes of transport to be on our adventures to date (and we thought we had left the dodgy bus journeys behind us in Africa). It was really windy the day we entered the park, winds were over 90kph, which, I am informed is VERY STRONG. We drove past another bus where the windows had shattered because of the force of the wind. So we all pulled the curtains and pressed our hands against the windows (not sure if this actually helped!). Then we saw a massive gust of wind coming across the lake we were driving towards, it was lifting the water from the surface like a mini tornado. When it hit the bus it shattered the driver's wind-screen. We all ducked, luckily no-body was hurt and the driver, whilst shook, maintained control of the bus. So we all stayed in the bus cos it was too windy outside until the next bus passed and our driver flagged it down. We all swicthed bus, but 10 minutes later, the exact same thing happened to our replacement bus. Is it just us?! Are we inflicting bad transport luck wherever we go? So this time we decided to spare any further buses from damage and started walking, along with 2 Aussie guys who were doing the trek with us. We had no idea where in the park we were, how far from any walking trails, and the wind was incredibly strong, we were nearly leaning into the wind at 45 degrees and keeping our centre of gravity low to the ground just to stay upright. Very luckily for us, our guardian angel arrived, in the form of a really lovely American lady, Shayna Cunningham who picked us up in her rental car and went out of her way to drop us to where we wanted to start our trek. Luckily we only had about 10km to cover that day, which was more than enough in that wind.
Highlights from the trip include the amazing view points coming over John Gardner pass of the Glacier Grey below, it was even more special than the Perito Moreno Glacier as there was hardly another trekker to be seen; the Torres Del Paine peaks for sunrise which were spectacular; climbing up to another viewpoint in Valley Frances with mini-avalanches going off alongside us.
We had great banter along the way, we did the trek with 2 Aussies, "Ice-man" and Rhys, and along the way also had the company of a canadian couple we meet in Fitzroys Jenn and Jordan, as well as a few more gringos we had met here in the hostel. Many evening passed playing cards, travel chess, trying to cook dinner, being jealous of other campers culinary efforts, and talking about what food we would have on our return to civilsation.
The weather was actually pretty good after the winds of the first day. Most of the rain fell at night so we were mainly walking in dry conditions. One night it poured down and we had to cross a river the folowing day. This same river had rendered the "W" circuit closed for 3 days in a row for the first time in 10 years as the river level had risen by over a metre, making the route impassable as the currents were so strong and there was no bridge on this section of the route. We took a chance anyway to cross, how bad could it be?! Bad. The strength of the current was unreal. With the water up to Eoin's waist, he tried 3 times to cross at different points but the current was too strong and he nearly got carried away by the rapids. Frozen and drenched as we had now been at the crossing for nearly 45 minutes, Team Focus were beaten and were about to turn back when this crazy French lad arrived, who must do Parkour or something back home and managed to find a route across the boulders which were all submerged in water. We made it across thanks to his help, probably (definitely) a bit stupid but we survived. As it worked out the water level dropped over 3 feet during the day making the pass fine that evening, but we never were the patient types!! The aussies with us had a problem when they tried to cross after us, we had set of trekking earlier that morning, and they lost half their tent at the river crossing, but luckily survived it too.
It was some unreal experience this trek and our camping skills have come on no end! It was quite hard work, physically demanding covering that distance (some days up to 30km) with all our gear on our backs, but we were rewarded with some fantastic sights and a great sense of acheivement finishing it, not just for covering the distance, but surviving for 10 days in the wilderness.
Back in Puerto Natales now. The last couple of days have been great, eating cakes and getting good coffee, heading out for dinner and drinking great cheap Chilean wine in the hostel with the aussies who left last night. We even have a VCR in the room, what a treat! We are heading up further north in Chile tomorrow to the lake District in search of a warmer climate! Catching a flight to Puerto Montt and from there onto Puerto Varas for a couple of nights, then Pucan where we plan to hike an active volcano, do some mountain biking and read some books.
Make sure to email us on your skype names if you have an account, every accomodation barr our tent(!), has had wi-fi in it so far.