Friday, 27 December 2013

A hitchhiker's guide to being a cowboy

This period of the travels has been one of firsts for us and particularly me as we have ventured into the world of hitchhiking and horse riding. Whereas I have scrounged lifts before, such as in Australia when I was stranded on the Great Ocean Walk (and ended up with a mention in Australian Geographic magazine), this was the first time that either of us have stood there literally with our thumbs out.
It all sounds rather risky and brave but the truth is that in this part of the world it is the common means of travel, even for the locals. What choice do you have when at best there is one bus per day, oversubscribed and impossible to reserve, and in some places there was only 2 buses per week!!
It has been fun though, if not a little inconvenient and if you want to learn Spanish then you probably can’t get a better opportunity to practice than this.

Flying from Santiago to Puerto Montt we pretty much missed out on the entire Lakes District but at least we were now on the fringes of northern Patagonia.
We couldn’t let the Lakes pass us completely by so from Puerto Montt we headed north by a mere 30 kilometres to the lakeside town of Puerto Varas, a German settlement founded in 1854 and famous for its Alpine style church and gigantic Volcano Osorno luming ominously over the lake in the background. Once familiar with the town we discovered that this alluring tourist photo of church / volcano was a completely doctored Photoshop image and couldn’t be replicated, but it really didn’t matter, the place was gorgeous.
I have recently been re-reading a friend’s blog from when her, Arancha’s sister and another mate were here back in June meaning that it was winter in Chile, and it is interesting how the weather can completely alter an experience, so due to the rain and low-lying cloud they only got to see the lake and not this view.
The gift of time comes massively in to play here as well because some of the things we got to see and do in this region were some of the best yet but it was only by having a lot of spare days (which are closing in on us) that we could make the effort to venture along the roads less travelled.

We didn’t really have a plan as such for Puerto Varas but we soon fell into one by chance and it turned out to be great.
We checked into a German owned hotel in the town and I only mention this because it was the oldest hospedaje in the town, built in 1914 and it was so old that the entire thing slanted to the side. Honestly, as you walked up or down and around the horseshoe shaped stairwell you fell into the wall and slid along it as you went; that is how slanted it was!
We were the only people staying here so it was a little spooky at night when the house would creak and groan as it moved and you walked by the empty bedrooms populated only by old metal hospital beds like some abandoned mental asylum.
The lake itself was a hive of water sporting activity, full of kayakers and windsurfers and of course the pink and purple sunsets that illuminated the Volcano’s Osorno and Tronador were tip-top.

So without any real ideas we decided to enquire about hiring bicycles and came out of the shop with a car rental!  
The opportunity to circumnavigate the entire lake and visit the natural sights on offer along the way was a must so off we set on a very miniature road trip – 150 kilometres and 1 night to be exact.

Our first mission in the car was a bit of a f*ck up and ended 30 minutes later with us sat on a public bus!! We needed to get back to Puerto Montt to book our bus tickets down into Patagonia and with only 1 bus per day it was imperative that we did book our seats when it was possible to do so.
We thought we knew the way to town but I missed the turning for the highway and then had to pay at the toll booth for the pleasure of getting back to where we had just come from. So we parked the car and made a quick return bus trip to Puerto Montt that was a lot less stressful and easier.
Back on the road trip we first stopped in the Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales – a place where you could admire the beauty of the lakes first hand as well as see the original 2 volcanos and a new one, Puntiagudo, shaped like a witches hat, all a little closer.
The lakes themselves were deep, deep blue and surrounded by high forested cliffs and you could understand why the area was popular with picnicking families and schools.
We walked around the edge of lake for a few kilometres and had a stone skimming competition with lava rocks. AJ won this round with a skim total of 7, which was very good considering the rocks we had to work with. This is how we roll and making your own entertainment is important.

 The national park’s main draw is Saltos Del Petrohue, an area of vicious white water rapids and waterfalls. The sheer force of the water was scary but there was one tube like rapid that would be awesome for a little canyoning adventure if it wasn’t completely off limits for being too damn dangerous.
After wandering around all of this it was now already late in the afternoon but the bonus of being so far south on the planet during summer means that it doesn’t get dark here until about 11pm, so there is plenty of time in the day. I think we currently have 18 hours of light per day.
Our plan for the late afternoon and evening was to spend it 1,200 metres up on the side of Volcan Osorno which is actually used as a ski mountain during the winter. We were the only guests staying at the TeSki Lodge and if you wanted to waste $30 you could ride the ski lifts up to 2,000 metres but I don’t see how the views would’ve have gotten that much better than from where we sat with a panorama that stretched out for miles upon miles.
For once we had planned ahead so after sneaking our own food and bottle of wine into the lodge we sat upstairs in comfy leather armchairs and watched the world and the day go by out of the floor to ceiling windows. It was a good day!

Before finishing up this briefest of road trips we completed our full circle of the lake the following day by visiting a couple more German style settlements and the view from the village of Frutillar Bajo was probably the best in the area because the volcanos appeared to be hovering above the lake on a line of clouds. 
Once we dropped the car off, we then headed back over to Puerto Montt in anticipation of our 7am bus journey the next day.

Puerto Montt is a funny old place. You would think that as this is the home of the airport for this region as well as being the departure point of the luxury liner to the bottom of Chile (which takes 3 days) the place would be tourist friendly and at least a little spruced up, but it was nothing of the sorts. It was a rough and ready sort of place in definite need of a good scrub and some development, but saying that it still did have some charm to it, probably in part to do with the yummy meat cooking on the street side BBQ’s!
Puerto Montt is the start point of the Carretera Austral, a 1,200km highway that winds down through Northern Patagonia and comes to an abrupt end at the ocean in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. From here you can either wait for a few days to catch a ferry or backtrack before taking a right turn into Argentina – there no other options.
Apparently doing the Carretera Austral is a sort of ‘thing’, a bit like saying you want to do Route 66 across the States. We had no idea about this at all until we were there but during the next couple of weeks we saw numerous parties ‘doing’ the Austral in their own way, whether it was via campervan, hitchhiking or by bicycle, which was a lot more common than you may think.

Completing our first leg of the Carretera Austral by getting from Puerto Montt to Chaiten was a sweet deal because it included an impromptu sightseeing trip. This part of the world is a web of rivers, peaks and sprawling glaciers so nothing is straightforward. It would take approx 10 hours to reach Chaiten but it was no hardship as our day was bus, ferry, bus, ferry, bus, ferry and then finally the bus again. It sounds like a pain but it was nothing of the sort. The ferries are vehicle transporters so we took the same bus all the way and one of the ferry legs lasted for 4 hours and took us down through a spectacular panorama of mountains and fjords across the bluest of oceans.
For those who don’t know, a fjord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by glacial erosion; so they are very nice to look at.
Add to this the spotting wild dolphins close to the boat and I would happily take more long bus journeys if they were like this.

Chaiten is located in the Pumalin National Park and the landscape is dominated by the Chaiten Volcano. This volcano last erupted in 2008 and to this day still sends up masses of sulphuric smoke into the sky.
We were amazed to see that evidence of that eruption still very much prevalent in the park and the town.
There were huge swathes of forest land that had literally been reduced to dead wasteland; a complete contrast between the grey and lifeless and the green and living land. Massive tracts of trees were lying in the dirt all facing the same direction from where the blast had left them and those that were still standing were bare hunks of wood.
As for the town itself you could still walk around and into the wrecks of the house that were now abandoned and left to ruin, buried half way up in volcanic ash!
Apparently at the time of the eruption Chaiten had a population of approx. 4,000 people but less than 1,000 returned, leaving it very much a town in decline.

We had envisioned staying in Chaiten for 2 days to explore the park and volcano before carrying on south but upon arrival a very friendly local known as Gringo Nick informed us that there were only 2 buses per week – Sunday and Wednesday. Today was Saturday so we had to make a choice; either we leave ourselves stranded for 4 days or we scrap the park and move on.
When I tell you that it was Saturday night, this pic below shows how lively the main street in town was at 9pm. Literally 1 man and his wheelbarrow!
Also there was nowhere to eat apart from the ingenious cafĂ© in a broken down bus. It was proper cool but you couldn’t eat hotdog and chips there for 4 days in a row. Well you could but it wouldn’t be good for the gut!
It was a shame to miss the park and for some reason we still haven’t learnt to do our research but it was a good and stern introduction to the fact that we were now in those harder to reach places of the world.
With our now little time we checked out the buried houses and walked along the beachfront in complete isolation because we just couldn’t face the thought of spending 4 days here.

Next up was Puyuhuapi. In comparison to most rides this was a short one, only about 4 hours and we sat there looking out of the windows, transfixed at the outside world. Kerela in southern India describes itself as ‘Gods own Country’ but I think they have it wrong, it is here.
No houses, no development, only nature at its most vivid of colours. Topaz blue lakes, aquamarine rivers, emerald green mountains topped off with diamond white glaciers (see what I did there?) – beaut as they say in Aus.
Puyuhuapi was a quaint little village on the banks of an ocean inlet and the hostel we stayed in was almost a private little holiday cottage. We shared it only with one other, an adventurous French guy who gave us some invaluable tips and advice for the rest of our journey down and we returned the favour for his trip north.
You can keep the Lonely Planet, nothing can compete with an honest backpacker exchange when it comes to travel info.
Talking of travel info, Puyuhuapi had a Tourist Information Office and I couldn’t believe that out here in the middle of nowhere the tourist officer was a fully-fledged ladyboy. Honestly, she could have easily fitted in to the Thailand scene; she was very convincing apart from the fact that she was well over 6 foot.

We had chosen to visit to Puyu’ to see the Ventisquero Colgante, a hanging glacier! The only problem was how to get there?
It was located 20km from town and there was only 1 bus per day – at 6am. The weather here follows a very particular pattern ie. it is cloudy and cool until about 11am and then it clears up and is roasting hot.
Apart from a potential glacial no show because it would be hidden behind the cloud, getting up at 5:30 to catch the bus sounded like a bullsh*t plan, so we decided to do it the local way – hitchhike.
Having now done this a few times it seems silly but we entered that day with trepidation, after all English lorry drivers murder prostitutes (we might have to rent ourselves out for a ride) and Arancha is from the land of Wolf Creek; the infamous true story of Ivan Milat who murdered 7 hitchhiking backpackers by axing them to death!!!!
But we needn’t have worried, we rubbed the belly of AJ’s traveling Buddha for luck and with our very first thumb up we had a lift! We had been waiting for precisely 90 seconds!!
Also, I never would’ve have thought that we would be successful so quickly and that I would have 2 new FB friends from it. We just happened to signal to 2 fellow backpackers, a Mexican / Israeli couple with a rental car on their honeymoon who were also headed to the glacier.

Getting there wasn’t completely straightforward as we got a flat tyre which needed to be changed right outside of the ranger office. The Israeli told us how he had been a mechanic during his National Service so we were confident that this minor hiccup was going to be resolved in very short time – but it wasn’t, it took about an hour.
I am absolutely useless with ‘man’ stuff, so I am not saying anything, but it doesn’t say a lot about the Israeli army when we are trying to jack the car up with the jack upside down and it was shifting under the weight of the car!! Danger, danger.
It took a teenage ranger to sort us out. My ego wasn’t damaged one bit, I am an office boy, but I think there was a dent in the pride of the 'army mechanic'. Ha ha.
He can rest easy in his manhood for the fact he did manage to change the tyre with a builder’s bum! It was pale, hairy and gross.

We envisioned making the 3km climb up to the lookout with our roadside saviours but they were too slow. In fact we spent 40 minutes at the lookout and didn’t see them again until we were on our way down.
Ventisquero Colgante was a sight to behold – the glacier crept over the edge between 2 mountains and made its way down to the lip of the precipice from where it hung waiting to meet its end from where it inevitably would break away from the main body and career down into the valley below. Numerous waterfalls spurted out from under the glacier itself creating a deafening sound of pure power and we stood for a long time just watching and waiting for something dramatic to happen.
Unfortunately for us we would not get to witness a carving event (when part of the glacier breaks away) but we heard it. It is typical that 10 minutes after we left whilst trying to get a good pic of a woodpecker we heard an almighty crack and crash as what must’ve been a large part of the glacier broke off – oh to have been the slow guys at this time, they had timed it perfectly!

After picnicking at a separate lookout we set about trying to now get back home knowing that if we really had to there was enough light left in the day to walk the 20kms but obviously not really wanting to because that would mean about 4 hours hard work and it was really hot.
Once again the Buddha sorted us out. We covered the first 5kms with a holidaying Chilean couple from Santiago whom we had met at the lookout and had had a little chat with, so I guess they were familiar enough with us to help us out and once they dropped us off it then only took 15 minutes and a few cars more to flag down a minibus heading back to town. Easy as peas.
This minibus belonged to the local fire brigade but fortunately for me and not so fortunate for Arancha these firemen were about 30 years and 40 kilograms past their prime. Result!
Our successful day ended with a mother dolphin and her calf swimming by as we watched the sunset over the lake.

There were actually 2 buses leaving from Puyuhuapi to the regional capital town of Coyhaique the next morning, both at 6am which seems odd really. Why not do one at 6am and one at 7am?
Anyway, we chose the wrong one.
The reason it was the wrong one was because about 2 hours in to the journey the other smashed into the back of us! We aren’t talking about a little bump either; it caved the back of our bus in and left itself with not much of a bonnet and bumper.
Nobody was hurt but the fuss some of the women made was ridiculous and it was like they were trapped in the mangled wreckage or something.
I am not sure what the process is here in Chile but we stopped at the one police station to report the incident but whereas the perpetrator (and other passengers on that bus) was away within 15 minutes we were there for about an hour.
When we did arrive in Coyhaique our day wasn’t finished. Our bags were in the twisted and firmly shut boot so we had to stay on the bus and make a detour to his ‘mate’ who was able to crowbar the thing open, before they gave us a lift back to town.
All’s well that ends well!

We were only in Coyhaique for one evening as we would be returning a few days later to fly out. Due to the difficulties of negotiating this part of the world and lack of road, we decided to explore a couple more places to the south on the Carreterra Austral before backtracking and flying further down and then backtrack on what we had missed as we head north. It seemed easier than heading into Argentina, to return to Chile before then going back into Argentina to then cross the border back in to Chile and then finally enter Argentina one final time and stay there.
By doing it our way we only do Chile – Argentina – Chile – Argentina. Much easier, yes?
The lay of the border is a little bonkers down here.

Coyhaique is the last outpost of civilisation before you enter the wild and once we left and got to Rio Tranquilo we really felt like we were at some end of the world type place.
Rio Tranquilo has a lot on offer if you have got a few hundred dollars in your pocket to spend on trips; which we do not.
This would only be a short stop and we planned to see one thing here – the Capilla de Marmol, or marble chapel.
This trip consisted of taking a boat out onto the clearest most transparent lake I have ever seen or drank from (I couldn’t help it, I had to try it) and the cost of the boat was $60 ie. the more people you had the cheaper it was per person.
Fortunately this wild outpost was flooded with backpackers, the most we have seen in weeks so after nearly agreeing to take a boat out on our own we found a group of 4 at the last minute to split the cost and that $40 saving was most welcome.
I have never seen rock formations like the ‘cathedral’ and the caves. Looking on Google Images we actually thought they were glacial tunnels, so were a little dumbstruck when we did see that they were in fact stone (really must do more research) but I think it maybe made them all the more impressive. You couldn’t help but snap away because each view or angle of the same point looked completely individual and we did our best to try to capture ‘that’ shot as we knew we would be using one of these pictures in our eventual house(s).

Woof woof

We now had 3 nights before our flight from Coyhaique, which didn’t seem like an issue until we learned that you couldn’t reserve a bus ticket for the 2 buses that pass through Rio per day. It was a case of turning up and seeing if your luck was in and there was space. Given that we already knew that the next day’s bus was sold out we gave the Buddha some extra love and rubs because we needed him.
Like the fat little hero he is, he didn’t let us down. There were a couple of private people carriers lined up next to the bus touting their services to the stranded masses and so along with a couple from England and 3 Japanese we got ourselves a lift to the next town we wanted to visit, 200kms away.
I must just mention Kammy and Tim from Guildford because when they are not back home working in the same industry as me (yawn) they go on an annual storm chasing holidays Storm chasing is something I have always wanted to do but thought that you could only do it with a specialist company. However, it turns out that with a little bit of study and some equipment, plus a decent sized set of boll*cks, you can do it yourself and witness the fury of mother-nature first hand. Seeing their eyes light up as they talked about the storms and tornados that they’ve seen in the past few years confirmed that this is definitely getting an underline on ‘the list’.
You have to live the dream people.

Villa Cerro Castillo (Castle on a hill) sits under the looming pointed granite spires of the Cerro Castillo Mountain, and is so named because it really does look like the castle of an evil lord like Skeletor (He-man) or the fortress of The Beast, from that classic 80’s film Krull.
We didn’t have the time to do the 4 day return trek to the lagoon at the base of the peak but we were determined to somehow get up there to see it.
It turns out that Kammy and Tim did it in 2 days, as did the French guy that we met in Puyuhuapi so we could’ve have done it if we’d found a tent to rent, but then I would have missed out on my cowboy adventure and a sore arse for 2 days afterwards!

I have never been on horse before but I wouldn’t say that I was nervous – if I’d had known what we would be doing on our excursion I would have been sh*tting myself and I now very much appreciate the proverb that ‘ignorance is bliss’.
Honestly, how different could it be to riding a camel, elephant or donkey on Skegness beach??

There were 2 options of horse riding trip, a) 3 hours along the river and back, or b) 4 hours of riding and 2 hours of walking up to the top of the mountain and back to see the lagoon.
Obviously we chose the most challenging.
It was only myself, Arancha, horse master Miguel and his 17 year old son on the excursion and my introduction to horse riding was as follows:
Miguel mounted the horse and said in Spanish, “Pull the reins this way to go left, this way to go right and back to stop. Let’s go!”
That was it. Now I was a little anxious.
That might sound ok to you but within my first 10 minutes on a horse we started to climb up and we are not talking about a gentle incline. This was a case of the horse trotting up to and leaping up a hill so steep that I would struggle to get up it on my own 2 legs and the ground was completely rubble and scree so the horses were slipping and sliding as they tried to get a purchase on the mountainside.
If Arancha who had been riding for 10 years and had her own horse growing up says it was the hardest and most technical ride she has done then I am taking that. You can make your Brokeback Mountain jokes but f*ck it, I raped that mother*cking mountain.
It is odd but the climb up and down this lengthy near vertical incline (serious!) where my life was in the hands of a horse that had no respect for me was the most exhilarating time I have had for ages and I loved it. Along with my own heart and swathes of adrenalin I could feel the horse’s heart pumping so strongly under me as she battled to get us up and over to easier ground that I couldn’t help but not enjoy it.
I tell you what though; I was not a fan of the horse deciding what it wanted to do and not what I wanted it to do. I did get a little bit frustrated when the guides and AJ are telling me what I was doing wrong, as if I should know what to do.
Still, it was a minor blip on what was a superb day and another thing to tick off the list – Cowboy, tick!

We haven’t even talked about the lagoon!
So the horse ride up to the plateau was about 2 hours and from there we scrambled 40 minutes up to the base of Cerro Castillo to come face to face with definitely one of the best views I will ever see.
I wish I had a panoramic function on the camera so that I could capture it all in one shot but from looking out across the land below to the row of the Andes in the distance we turned into the full face of Cerro Castillo towering tall and proud above us with 5 or 6 glaciers making their way down its sides to feed a luminous blue lagoon. This pics below show how we do lunch when we are work.
I don’t think you can ever take traveling for granted when you get to see stuff like this and I wish everybody could get to see some of these things and not just the 3 swimming pools of the all-inclusive hotel in Greece or Spain to really appreciate what we have.
I suppose it is just what you are in to isn’t it?

Leaving Villa Cerro Castillo posed the same problems as Rio Tranquilo but without the private cars option. Either we wait around until 2pm to see if the bus has space, having already passed through Rio, or hitchhike.
We just wanted to get back to Coyhaique and had given ourselves 2 nights to just in case.
It took us about 1 hour, a few cars and a couple run-throughs of Arancha’s hitchhike / pick me up dance until Jose and his logging truck stopped by the roadside and delivered us from ruin (or AJ getting her bangers out).
If you ever feel like you need some language practice then hitchhiking is the way to improve. Jose’s truck was old and slow and it took us 2.5 hours to do 95kms but we were not complaining. We would get back to Coyhaique in good time and we got to have a right old chat with him about all manner of things.
It is standard that hitchhiking is free but we felt like we needed to give Jose a tip and after refusing to take it a couple of times he finally accepted and drove off into the distance.
Feliz Navidad Jose!! (Merry Christmas).

So we had achieved this part of our mission and had explored the north of Patagonia and we also did it via 2 new modes of transport, hitchhiking and horse riding.
Our flight would now take us nearly all the way to the bottom, to Punta Arenas where we would spend Christmas before the very end of the road, literally where the road stops, at the world’s most southerly town of Ushuaia.

This part of the journey is also a pivotal moment in this adventure as it marks our final journey in southerly direction! Since leaving Canada on March 12th we have been going down and now nearly 10 months later we have reached the end. From here the only direction is north into the new year and towards home! 

Friday, 13 December 2013

2 is company and 3 in this case is definitely a crowd

Before we get back to the travel details let’s get straight to the heart of this blog post title.
Admittedly it is not 100% confirmed but we are 95% sure that we are correct.
It appears that for the past 4.5 months I have been harbouring an intruder and uninvited guest – a sandworm – in my FOOT!!
Backtracking a few months you will recall that in order for us to pass from Central America into South America we had to take a boat and did this via a 3 night trip along the San Blas Islands. After the trip we spent a night in visa limbo as we overstayed our welcome in Panama to enjoy one last debaucherous night of booze and skinny dipping in an uncompleted hostel on a deserted beach on the fringes of the jungles of the Darian Gap.
The 4 residents of the hostel all had red swirly patterns on their legs, the calling card of this particular larvae; and now I have it!
As stated we are not 100% certain but check out the pictures and tell me what you think.
I probably should go to a doctor but according to the guys at the hostel in Panama (and Google) I only need to take a dose of antibiotics to kill it off or wait for it to die on its own (it could take up to a year), so I am not overly fussed and I have sort of grown attached to Wilbur.
Still; I have broken international laws by transporting biological specimens over borders – so that’s another tick on the list!

One thing that I forgot to mention during my previous post which I think deserves a recall was during our time in Arica, just over the Chilean border with Peru.
We were walking along the street when I let out a massive ripper (it must’ve been over 50 decibels); it just couldn’t be helped. What I didn’t realise was that we were just coming upon an army checkpoint with an armed guard standing well within earshot, so as I saw him I could do little else but put on my most shocked face and exclaim “Arancha, that’s disgusting”. She was so taken aback that she was unable to respond in time before the guard looked at her and then ran into his bunker to tell the rest, and I carried on walking with another victory to my name. Yeah!

So, back to what we’ve been up to.

Leaving the Atacama Desert behind we took an overnight bus to the coastal city of Caldera and knew we would be arriving early doors. However, we were not expecting so much efficiency that we would be arriving 1.5 hours early meaning that it was 4am in the morning and the mother*ckers dropped us off on the side of the highway, at least 3km outside of the city limits.
This place was small and there was no chance of a cab at that time so with no other choice we walked. If Arancha’s mood was not, shall we say, great, then it definitely didn’t improve when I realised that I hadn’t written the address of the hostel down!!
I had marked its location on the map but of course that was wrong and there was no hostel in sight. For over an hour we wondered the dark streets, me with my head down trying to stay out of further trouble and in the end we found a hotel that was open and kind enough to let me use their WIFI so that I could get the house number.
Who would’ve thought such a small thing as a number, (number 157, I can’t forget it now) would cause so much trouble?
The worst thing was that the hostel was located on the only stretch of a particular road that I hadn’t checked because I thought that it couldn’t have possibly been there. What a nob!
Anyway, all’s well that ends well and we got in at about 6:30am and went straight to bed.

Just to interrupt – I am currently at Santiago airport and I just got to put the toilet paper in the actual toilet for the first time in about 8 months – wow!!!!!

So; Caldera. Hmmm, not our finest choice of destination. We had read that the beaches close by were definitely worth a visit but as for the town itself there was nothing to do. We arrived on a Sunday so everything was closed and the beach was full of families enjoying the sunshine.
I can’t tell you any more than that because there isn’t anything, except that we met an English couple at the hostel who we have now run into at 2 more hostels; which really isn’t that interesting is it?

There just wasn't much to do!
The next day we made our way to Bahia Inglesa (English Bay – named by the English pirates who took refuge here in the 17th century) and whereas most people take a cab we decided to walk the 5 kilometres there. We didn’t realise that the road would take up through a stretch of desert and we definitely lived up to the proverb that only mad dogs (Arancha (not really)) and Englishmen (Me) go out in the midday sun. Not our wisest choice to date.
We spent the afternoon lazing about on the beach at Bahia Inglesa and it was a beautiful beach / bay. The water was clear and the desert colours made the ocean look even bluer than it probably was, but it was absolutely freezing. The waters here are fed by the Humboldt Current and come up from Antarctica!!
This is the very same coastal current that aided the population of the once uninhabited Galapagos Islands (see Galapagos post from October).


A few hours down the coast, La Serena was the next port of call. We stayed in an excellent German run hostel and I can’t explain how nice it was to have proper bread, cheese, salami and real coffee for breakfast – yummy.
The beach would obviously be a good reason to visit the city, and it was fairly decent but my main objective for stopping here was to visit a working observatory.
La Serena is in the epicentre of the astronomical world and there are multiple observatories dotted about the high mountains funded and used by scientists the world over.
This part of Chile used to be lit by fluorescent street lighting but it turns out that it caused so much light pollution the government had to pay for a complete overhaul to phosphorus lighting and so in return for this investment Chile was granted a 10% use of all telescope time for life. I think that is a fair deal.


Having already gazed at the stars in Western Australia and the Atacama Desert Arancha decided against going on this trip and instead stayed in with a bottle of wine to watch a few chick flicks. I think she just wanted an evening of peace and quiet away from me.
So it was left to me to go on the trip with Pisar and his wife. Pisar was an old school American who was in Chile to give a lecture to physicians and was now enjoying some extracurricular activity with the missus.  
I don’t know what it is but I am meeting some seriously intelligent people of this trip. So far there have been surgeons, doctors, glacial scientists and avalanche specialists; I am interested to find out who I will meet next.
The observatory was located a 90 minute drive away up into the mountains and I was excited that I would finally get to experience a chance to go into a proper observation room – you know the telescopes in the white domes?
Whilst waiting for the sun to go down somebody mentioned the Southern Cross that can only be seen in the southern hemisphere (you can see it on the Aussie flag) and someone (an American) said, “Oh really, can I see it now, where is it?”
The sun is still up love, of course you can’t.

The star gazing was excellent and I got to see quite a few things close up such as Venus, the Tarantula nebula, another nebula that I forget the name of, the Andromeda Galaxy and various star clusters. Even without the telescopes there was plenty to see such as the constellations – Greek, Egyptian and modern day ones, as well as the numerous satellites passing overhead.
Definitely a worthwhile trip but Australia still rocks as the best place in the world to view the stars and Milky Way.

We did little else here apart from a trip to the cinema to watch the Hunger Games 2, it is nice to do normal stuff every now and again and I also suffered a flip-flop blow out that was so catastrophic that I had to walk the streets and around a mall like a barefooted hobo.

We were a little over the long bus journeys so decided that our next location of Valparaiso would be a long one; 5 days for us in one place is a very long time.
Valparaiso is the tourism jewel in the crown of northern Chile and being there you can certainly appreciate its appeal.
The city is located by the ocean and is built up on adjoining hills that you can either walk up or take a funicular (a sort of diagonal lift) to the top. Each hill has its own community and ‘thing’ going on and it is sort of like a bohemian and more grungier/dirtier San Francisco. The hillsides were characterised by their multi-coloured buildings and street art (that is graffiti to you and me but some of it was impressive) and there was a definite energy and vibe to the city as well as a crowd that was very young and student; we liked it a lot.

We stayed in a luminous green hostel situated half way up the main hill of Conception and were very much in the middle of it all; including the mountains of dog sh*t that promised to get you in your flip-flops if you weren’t concentrating.
The best part of our first day in Valpo (as it is known to the locals) was finding a restaurant that served real mashed potato. Honestly you can’t appreciate these little things unless you have had a diet of boiled rice for the previous few months.

In Valpo we took the free walking tour around the city with the Tours For Tips company who dress as Where’s Wally and do the tour for ‘free’ but you pay them with a tip at the end.
These companies are great and I reckon I could make a decent living doing it in London if I didn’t earn more doing what I do. We have done the tours in Cusco, Peru and now Valpo and Santiago in Chile and they are perfect for getting to see the highlights and must-sees as well as learn about the culture and all of those secret places that you wouldn’t get to visit if you just made your own way around.
On this tour we also learnt that being a UNESCO listed heritage site can also be a poisoned chalice; which I never really considered before.
I have no idea how many UNESCO listed places we have now visited on our travels, it is a lot, but usually they are temples, churches, a tourist site as such. Yes we have visited UNESCO listed towns before but the difference with Valpo is that it isn’t just a tourist attraction but also a working city with an important cargo port.
The problem with its UNESCO listing is that the town is now in economic decline (although I am sure tourism will keep it afloat) because big businesses will not invest in a place where it is not free to develop or construct due to the strict regulations and requirements put into place by UNESCO.
With this in mind you are now left with a central plaza that in parts looks dated and shabby with a couple of derelict buildings.

We explored the hills and were given a tour around some of the best artwork as well as given some history of the city which until the construction of the Panama Canal was a major port for those cargo ships braving the cape from Europe.
The Glassy Lady with Wally


We were given samples of the local produce such as Alfajores, a delicious chocolate and caramel biscuit and of course no tour is complete without a shot of Pisco Sour.
As it was Saturday and Valpo was clearly a weekend sort of place we decided to make a night of it.
The great thing about wine producing Chile is that it is so cheap to by a good bottle of wine – seriously you can get 1.5 litres of decent stuff for about £3. Well, it is what I call decent!
We started in the hostel on the vino tinto (red wine) and were soon joined by Jesse, an American (we are meeting so many of them) hailing from Boston who had a twitch that steadily got worse the more he drank.
From the hostel we visited the Irish Bar because there is always an Irish Bar and after that we went to a well-known live music spot called Cinzano.
Cinzano was a bar for the locals and tourists alike and an establishment where you could drink, dance and clap along to the various singers who came up to entertain us, none of whom were under the age of 70 years old. My favourite was a very old man who looked like a miniature version of Sir Ben Kingsley but with one eye in a waistcoat – he stamped and clapped his way through a rip-roaring set with a lot of fist pumping to boot.
A Scottish/Norwegian couple from the city tour were also propping up the bar so along with Jesse and a couple of locals, one who was a fat ringer for Lionel Messi, we got down to serious drinking business and got to bed at about 4am.
When we awoke all we wanted from that day was to eat greasy food, so we did.
We had also done that drunken thing of agreeing to meet Neil and Hilda (the couple from the night before) that evening and although we didn’t feel like it during the daytime by the evening we were all good and had a really nice time; although we messed up by going to a veggie restaurant – we all needed meat.

In Valpo the Aussie Sheila, who boobs we nearly saw on the bus when she was opening the roof hatch turned up at the hostel and they were still hanging very, very low.
What else did we do? We took the 612 bus, a supposedly roller-coaster of a ride along the top of the hills which it was not, we again explored the street art and little artisan markets and we went to visit the local sea lion colony and that’s about it.

Fortunately, the capital Santiago was only 2 hours away by bus and this would be our final stop before we would take a flight further south – because we really need to get a move on to get to the bottom of the world and back up for the rest of things we want to do before the world cup.

In terms of location Santiago must been one of the most perfectly placed capital cities on the planet. The beaches of Vina Del Mar are only an hour away by bus to the west, the Maipo Valley famed for its vineyards is an hour to the south and at the other end of the spectrum you can just about get to the closest ski fields via the city metro system – it has it all. Imagine being able to take the London Underground to go skiing?
Unfortunately for us we were visiting at the beginning of summer so there would be no snow fun for us but this also added to the major negative of this city – the pollution. The city is said to have over 1.5 million cars and so apart from being busy and noisy, during the heat of the day you just can’t see what would be a superb view out to the mountains that circle the eastern edge of the city. I have added Santiago to my list of re-visits as I would really like to see it on a crisp winter’s morning after a fresh snowfall.

As mentioned we had a flight booked to take us a few hundred kilometres further south to the heart of the lakes region of Chile so we had 6 nights in Santiago and although the city isn’t full of attractions like London or Rome for example, we still found plenty to do. I think it also helped that we stayed in 3 separate hostels over the week due to a combination of shabbiness and pricing – seriously, $50 per night for a hostel room is mental but I guess it was sort of worth it given the breakfast we were served which easily ranks as number 1 and it had a swimming pool.
We partook in another Tours For Tips which started at the Bella Artes Museum, which we visited later in the week, and took us through a small stretch of a park that runs as a green belt and lung of the city for 16 kilometres.
It is common for young Chileans to live at home until their mid to late twenties so the park becomes the only place that they can get some privacy with each other, therefore a walk through the park is more a competition for spotting the best PDA (Public Displays of Affection).
There was also a high proportion of lesbian activity going on and we are also talking about older women with girls in school uniform! I need say no more!!

The rest of the tour took us by one of the top 25 ice cream shops in the world (of course we ventured back here – the chocolate orange flavour with real orange in it was divine), we walked through the London and Paris districts and finally to the scene of a political massacre where suspected members of a revolutionary group, mostly under the age of 25 were dragged off the streets before being tortured and killed.
Such a messed up world we live in.     


Santiago also contains the largest cemetery in South America, covering a total area equivalent to 117 football pitches and we only covered a small proportion of it before we wilted under the temperatures that were reaching 36 degrees. We escaped the heat on one particular day by going to the fish markets and eating some of the best seafood we’ve ever had. AJ had a crab pie and being a Saturday I kept real like I was back in the motherland and had fish and chips – it was f*cking awesome.
The views across the city were nice from the peak of Santa Lucia hill and we braved the crowds of one of the busiest city centres I have seen (think Oxford Street over a much larger area – horrible) to buy our mutual Christmas presents for each other.
I had to actually go shopping twice because I got side tracked during our first search hour apart. There was a vegetarian protest in the main city square and about 150 vegetarians stood about holding various animal foetuses (as you do), so I had to walk around and check them all out.
Smile with your foetus!

The nightlife of the city was decent and we had a few beers in the Barrio Brasil area of town and also caught up with Celine, who we met on the Inca Trail trek from Denmark who is studying here, in Bella Vista, a street packed with bars and live music.

For our final day in the capital we took the metro out to the east of the city to visit Chile’s oldest vineyard – how cool is it to be able to visit real wineries via the metro?
The Cousino-Macul vineyard was founded in the 1800’s and now produces 4 million bottles of the good stuff per year. This is obviously a lot but only accounts for 25% of the production of Chile’s largest vineyard. But as our guide Miguel assured us, it is about quality not quantity.
The tour was good and the amount of science, dedication and experience that has gone into the art of making wine is crazy. The tour took us through the original buildings and we got to see the original oak vats used for production up until only a few years ago. These bad boys could hold 32,500 litres!
We had one tasting in the cellars and whilst we enjoyed the more than generous sample we got to look over the owners’ own collection of 20,000 bottles valued at $2,000,000. It was of course all locked up behind jail-cell like bars.
We got the try 3 wines on the tour but each one was about half a glass so we could definitely feel the effects on our empty stomachs by the end.
Arancha insisted that we buy a couple of bottles (as she always does in these places) so we now have to carry those about in our bags until Christmas Day – like they weren’t already heavy enough!


And that’s it for this post. With a hop, skip and a large jump we are now in the lakes district of Chile and on the cusp of Patagonia and so far in only 2 days we are super impressed and excited.
Ahead of us are more volcanoes and snowy mountains and we can now add some new features to explore such as the fjords and the glaciers – bring it on people, bring it on!