A Travellerspoint blog

Weather with you or four seasons in one day?

The ups and downs...and ups...and ups...of our adventures near the Antarctic Circle!

all seasons in one day

If you're reading this, WE SURVIVED!!!

Now, before I begin, you might want to fetch yourself a cup tea or coffee first, maybe even a pot...it's been a while since our last post!

So what was it like I hear you say? Well...

Our first flight in 2 months and a bus ride brought us to the city of Puerto Natales (a city about the size of Market Deeping!) situated right at the bottom of the South American continent, lower than the Falkland Islands (no, not Las Malvinas...they are British - I say as I type in a dark corner where no Argies can see me) and only 270 miles from the end of the world, it is the hub to the Torres Del Paine National Park. This was the part of our adventure I was looking forward to the most, hoping to capture some great photos both day and night.

After a hectic time in Valparaiso and Santiago, it was great to find that our hostel was within walking distance of the bus terminal (and everything else!).

Tin House is a tiny little hostel with only one 4-bed dorm and 2 private doubles. It's so small and cosy, it's like being in the owners own home. We immediately fell in love with this place and we highly recommend it if anyone fancies a trekking trip to Patagonia. The owner was very friendly and helpful, booking all our buses to the park and out of Puerto Natales for us. If this is not your cup of tea, and for those looking for something a little more upmarket, there's Hotel Indigo, owned by Chile's first high-end boutique hotel company. If we could've, we would've...

Puerto Natales, though small, is surprisingly nice with some great little cafés and restaurants just off of the main Plaza de Armas. As is the local police station. No idea what it is they do down here, as the crime rate must be zero! Everyone knows everyone. Our first night took us to a little pizzeria called Mesita Grande which was superb. Having had the spicy lamb and smoked salmon pizzas, our minds were made up where we were going when we got back from Torres Del Paine. We also found a little vegetarian cafe/restaurant called El Living, another recommendation from a friend. Londoner-owned, this place serves the best coffee (it's Italian) and cake in town! Also a must!

Following another recommendation from the same friend, we hired our tent, sleeping mats and trekking poles from Casa Cecilia, a small hostel just off of the main square. For anyone thinking of visiting Patagonia and wanting to hire gear, I would highly recommend this place. Very friendly staff, the equipment is in good condition and also decent too. We had Therm-a-Rest and Exped sleeping mats which were light and rolled up relatively small, as well as a 4-season two-man tent which was very easy and quick to put up (we planned to camp for 5 of the 8 nights, staying in Refugio's for the other 3 for a bit of respite). We also found that they were relatively cheap compared to many companies (such as erratic rock) who charged much more. And if you pay in cash, they will give you a 25% discount - welcome to Argentina!!

Anyway, onto our route! It is colloquially known as "The Q", an 8 night / 9 day trek which consists of three parts (Yellow, Red and Blue Routes combined): Part 1 (Yellow Route) - from the edge of the park to the main area called "the tail", Part 2 (Red Route) - the main "W Trek" and then Part 3 (Blue Route) - hiking from where the "W Trek" ends, around the rear of the park and over the mountain pass, completing what is known as "The Circuit".

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Our food for the 9 days consisted of whatever we could carry that was light and involved the boiling of water which would be collected from all of the mountain streams. Basically, I'm talking sachets of soup, porridge oats, dry pasta and pasta sauces - nothing our little MSR stove couldn't handle (though after just a few hours, I questioned whether my back could handle it all! - 9 days worth is a lot!!). And no camping trip would be complete without an abundance of teabags!

And onto the trek...(the map will help you with the route)

Day 1: CONAF Administracion to Las Carretas - 2hrs walking. This was a very short day as we first had to take the bus into the park, arriving there around lunchtime and as our bags were at their heaviest, and was spent walking across the pampas. Las Carretas was a free campsite next to Rio Grey. Free means there is nothing there other than a small sign which could be missed and a little shelter which blends in with the hill where you could cook. But we loved it! It was so peaceful. Nothing but nature could be heard. There was nobody there except us and a nice Czech couple (whose tent we used to identify that we were actually at the campsite) who were cycling around South America (not jealous at all) and had just returned from Ushaia (still on my bucket list along with the Antarctic seeing as Han wouldn't go anywhere colder). Our first night (8pm bed time) also brought about our first taste, albeit mild, of the Patagonian winds. We both slept well except for some mice who took a liking to the walking pole / ice axe mounts on our daypack, practically knawing through them, clearly looking for food even though it didn't contain any! It also brought the arrival of 'Spanish Guy' who had pitched up after we had gone to bed. A very nice guy who was doing the same route as ourselves and who we saw everyday thereafter. In true style, we completely forgot his name immediately after he told us (Heimann? Simon?) and is now forever known as "Spanish Guy".

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Day 2: Las Carretas to Campanento Italiano - 5.5hrs. Woke up to a beautifully sunny day for the walk to Paine Grande and then on to Campamento Italiano. Not before having a delightful bowl of porridge made from water and powdered milk! Mmmmmm!? The hike crossed more pampas before following Rio Grey to the edge of Lago Pehoe where you got to see the reason why you walked "the tail" - the landscape of Torres Del Paine and the turquoise lakes at the baso of the mountains are all spread out in front of you, a sight you just don't see if you decide to miss out on this trail. We then followed the edge of Lago Pehoe to Paine Grande and a closer view of the Paine Massif and the Los Cuernos, stone pinnacles that look like spikes that have just come bursting up out of the ground, twisting towards the sky with sides so steep, snow cannot settle on them. This was also the first time we saw a glimpse of the destruction caused by the forest fire in 2012 and the start of new plant life in the area. The trees were still charred from the fire and looked like ghost gums found in Western Australia. Lago Pehoe itself looked amazing - a perfectly blue lake full of glacial water and one of the most beautiful lakes I've seen. It reminded us both of Lake Pukaki near Mount Cook in New Zealand. Upon arriving at Campamento Italiano, we pitched our tent right next to the river in a perfect spot, away from the masses. From here we could watch the sunset on the snowy mountains above.

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Day 3: Campamento Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos via Valle de Francés - 7hrs. Following a great nights sleep, waking to the sound of rushing water from the river (helping to drown out any snorers), we had another breakfast of the best porridge the world has known(!?), this time with raisins added to make it so much more special before leaving camp and hiking our way up the Valle de Francés and back. The walk up the valley takes in so many micro climates such as woodland, stand alone rock formations as well as several smaller mountain glaciers and many waterfalls. At the end of the valley there is a short but steep climb up to a mirador and view of the Los Cuernos and back to Lago Pehoe. Whilst an impressive sight, for the walk, we felt that the view from the mirador was a little bit disappointing as you still felt some way from the stone pinnacles and so, did not feel able to get a true sense of their behemoth size. Feeling peckish after our morning hike, we decided to eat lunch (yes, more cuppa soups) at the former Campamento Britanico just below the mirador of the Los Cuernos. I say former campsite because it is no longer in use, being the sight of a forest fire which started as a result of a wild camping stove. The lovely Czech couple we met on day 1 told us it was in fact a Czech guy who started it, which caused massive devastation across a very large part of the park. The lunch spot is now a deliberate reminder to tourists of the forest fire and cooking safety in the park. Indeed, much of the day was spent amongst burnt and destroyed forestation. We also heard that the guy who started the fire, campaigned for the Czech Government to make a large financial contribution to the Park's restoration, which unfortunately, the Chilean government spent on their military! Following lunch, we headed back to camp, packed up the tent and walked a further 2 hours to Refugio Los Cuernos, via a beautiful pebble beach on the edge of Lago Nordenskjold where we stopped and chilled out for a while, soaking up the last of the sun, skimming a few stones. We had arranged to spend a night in the Refugio here, as a break from the camping, and upon our arrival, we were very excited to get a hot shower and meal (half a roast chicken and mash!!) and a warm bed. We were lucky to be in the Refugio for the night too as you could see the gale force winds blowing in from the west, across the lake, creating big waves which crashed on the shore and whipping up the surface of the water into twisters and directing them straight at the Refugio and campsite. Typical however, as soon as I got my camera out, they vanished like an apparition! At one point when I was in my third story bunk, I thought the roof was literally going to blow right off. But after a few hours, the howling winds died and the sound of very loud and very annoying snoring from a Frenchman took over!! Just what I needed when we had a long day the next day and it being mostly uphill...

...Also, this day was our ten year anniversary of our first date so we celebrated in true style with a much needed...can of coke...each!

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Day 4: Refugio Los Cuernos to Campamento Las Torres - 6.5 to 8hrs. Today was a relatively early start with about a 3.5-4hr hike across lowland and marshes, with mountains to our left and turquoise blue lakes to our right. Not so many hills at the star which came as a welcome break. After this time, we came to a shortcut up to Refugio Chileno, our stop for lunch. I say shortcut, but in truth it saved us only about half a kilometre and was a pretty steep uphill section. Turning left into the next valley brought what we were expecting...very strong winds, which had blown in from the west and were then being channeled down the valley, exploding on the bend where we were stood, high up on a narrow trail, blowing us backwards. Heads down, bent forward we plodded on waiting for the next hill to shelter us from the gale force winds. Fortunately, once we were over the head, we were pretty much sheltered all the way to Refugio Chileno, just an hour further up the valley. On arrival, we found the little cooking shed and set about making our spicy pumpkin soup! Ooooh! Whilst tempting to stay here for fear of the strong winds at the campsite further up the valley, we decided to be good and carry on to the campsite. Again, in truth, it was the thought of having to trudge for 2hrs in the morning to watch the sunrise on the towers at 5am that really drove us on (in contrast it's only 45mins from the campsite). After another hour we arrived at Camping Las Torres and a nice little campsite it was too. Tucked away just off the trail in a small bunch of trees, it was sheltered from most of the wind and the worst of the weather with a little stream running through the middle to get your drinking water. From the campsite you could see the very tips of the towers tucked behind a hill so we knew how far we had to go in the morning which helped us (just!) with the idea of getting up at 4am! We did both think at the time that seeing as all of Patagonia and Torres Del Paine's scenery is so stunning, what's all the fuss about these three bits of rock?! And having had a long day already, we were happy to get settled in for dinner and an early night. However, just as the pots and pans came out, we saw that the towers were clear and the evening sun was coming in. Hoping we might capture some nice evening light, the "ah, f*** it, why not?" mentality kicked in and on the spur of the moment we decided to make the climb up to the top and see what all the fuss was about. As the sun was quickly dropping, and being eager to catch it before it descended to dusk, I made a speed ascent with nothing more than my camera and a walking pole to get some shots. Han was happy to stroll up behind and let me go with the warning that if she was not there within the hour, to come looking for her. I made it to the top in 27 minutes but sadly, I was too late to catch the sun. It did not matter however because as soon as the towers and the lake below broke the horizon, I instantly knew what all the fuss was about. They just looked incredible!! I still managed to get some shots of the towers, and with no cloud! What also made it more spectacular was that it was oddly quiet as, having gone up in the evening, pretty much everyone else had already been up, seen the towers and then made their way back down. Bang on the 45 minute mark, Han then arrived and we spent a few minutes there, just us (and literally 2 other people up there) soaking up the sheer beauty of nature at its best! I say only a few minutes because there were some crazily strong winds at the top, so strong that they nearly blew me off the rock I was standing on to take photos and into the glacial lake! That would not have been funny! I can't say whether these winds are nature at its best or at its worst but they were pretty fierce! The journey back down to the campsite was much slower due to the strong winds and the fact that clambering over rocks is much harder going down! With no more plans to go anywhere that evening and the thought of the 4am start, to head back to the top and watch the sunrise with our sleeping bags, camping stove, cups and the obligatory teabags, we had dinner of pasta and sauce (again) and then headed straight to sleep...or so we thought...Rain and strong winds in the night coupled with mice made for another restless nights sleep.

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Day 5: Campamento Las Torres to Refugio Torres Norte - 2.5hrs - The ridiculously early alarm call song of "American Woman" and the continuance of the precipitation outside, meant only one thing...we were not getting up at 4am. Instead, we woke up at 9:30am! Much more like the Round's everyone has come to love and know! But what did we find when we woke up? We discovered that we had nailed our decision to go up the day before. Immersed completely in low cloud, the towers were nowhere to be seen! A quick high five and fist pump later, our tent was down and drying, sleep mats were rolled up and rucksacks were ready to go. Not before we had noticed while having a nice brew that it was in fact snowing!! An hour later, the tent had been packed and we were back at Refugio Chileno for breakfast. Yep, you guessed it...porridge and raisins! Today was always planned to be a very short day due to the really early start we had expected to have. So when we got down to Refugio Torres Norte for our day of relaxation, recharging and refuelling, ready for our gruellingly long day tomorrow to Refugio Dickson (32km and time estimate of 11hrs!!), we didn't really feel like we needed it. Spanish Guy also stopped at Refugio Torres Norte but only for lunch before carrying on to Camping Serón, a campsite 4 hours further along the route and halfway to Dickson. He was somewhat surprised by our decision to have a short day and thought we were crazy when we told him about our intended hike the next day. He said he looked forward to seeing us at Refugio Dickson to see how knackered we looked. How very nice of him, haha!

On our way down the valley from Chileno to Torres Norte, we had fun watching all the 'day-hikers' and also the fresh-faced Patagonian trekkers on day 1 of the 5-day "W trek" going in the opposite direction, eager to see the towers. Though the feeling could not be helped at the time, Han was very happy to express it every time another poor soul (hoping to see what they came all the way to the edge of the Antarctic to see only to be disappointed on their arrival) walked past...smugness at the fact we had done it the day before! What made it better was the fact that as soon as we had finished our very short hike, getting to the Refugio for lunch (scrambled egg sandwich...heaven!), it absolutely threw it down with rain, whilst we were all toasty lying on a sofa in front of a wood burner. Couldn't have timed it more perfectly! Who's crazy now Spanish Guy?! :-)

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Day 6: Refugio Torres Norte to Refugio Dickson - 9 hr 30m - Today was an early start after a night of loud, annoying and snoring Germans. We did however leave later than the planned 6:30am but only by 15 minutes which is pretty normal by Round/Lacey standards. We hiked around the edge of the park and into the next valley and on to the "Circuit" trail. A new trail and with it, new weather. After a day of light rain and an evening of heavier rain, the temperature took a dramatic drop and the winds picked up - and an icey cold blast it was despite the fact the sun was out the majority of the time. On came the hat, gloves and waterproof (more for wind protection than anything else). Walking down into the valley, there was field after field after field of daisies with rabbits running through them and snow-capped mountains as the backdrop. It was like walking into a children's story or something out of the sound of music! Much better than the 6:45am scenery, which was wet, and whilst still beautiful, looked more like Scotland. We arrived at Camping Serón, just under 3,5hrs along our trail where we stopped for lunch - cream of mushroom soup but with the added bonus of a chicken liver pâté sandwich - at 10:45am! Best lunch yet...well up there with the scrambled egg sandwich. As we were just about to leave Serón, we saw two massive birds that were either hawks or some sort of eagle (I'm not up to date with my ornithology I'm afraid) swoop down and land right next to us. We managed to get some close ups of them before they flew off to grab a rabbit! We also saw Spanish Guy just getting up for breakfast, who couldn't believe we were at Serón already and had already hiked for 4 hours. Well, when you don't have siestas, you can get loads done!

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Our walk from Serón to Dickson was around 6 hours. It was much the same terrain as Torres to Serón, although, to Hannah's dismay, with much more uphill than the map suggested! In fact, it soon became clear that the sections of the map that related to the 'circuit' were much less accurate in terms of distance, time estimates and terrain than the sections which related to the W. We actually started to question whether the person who created the map has actually walked the full circuit!!. Anyway, upon arrival at Dickson, the location of the Refugio was amazing. It was placed in a small clearing on the bend of a river surrounded by mountains and two glaciers coming towards it. On a clear day, you also got a view of Los Cuernos from behind. Dickson was a cosy little Refugio with a warming wood burner and made all the more better because it had an amazing shower after our longest day yet, did great food and because we were the only people booked in for the night, which was funny given we booked back in August for fear we wouldn't get a bed. Safe to say, I had the best nights sleep so far.

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Day 7: Refugio Dickson to Campamento Los Perros. This was a shorter 4.5hr trek but it was all uphill to a mirador and our penultimate camp site. The day started with porridge and raisins and a cup of tea although the smell of toast coming from the Refugio was hard to ignore and we so nearly caved in!! The hike took us through another change in terrain, from the flat bottom of the valley, through the forests to the first signs of what was to come, rocky outcrops along a fast flowing and powerful river. Once again, we camped next to a beautifully clear river right at the base of the mountains. Amazing! The only downside was that, being at the base of a glacier, meant the campsite was pretty much freezing, so we spent most of the afternoon in our sleeping bags inside our tent, only venturing out to boil much needed cups of tea.

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Day 8: Campamento Los Perros to Camping Grey via the infamous John Gardner Pass (where winds have been known to hit 187kph!) taking in views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and Glacier Grey - 10.5hrs. The hardest, longest yet most scenic day of the trip. Our first 5.5hrs took us to Campamento Paso, the halfway point for the day and our rest stop after the John Gardner Pass, where winds have been known to hit 187kph! It had rained all night so when we set off in the morning, it was extremely muddy to the point of ridiculousness. If you have taken part, seen or heard of 'Tough Mudder' races, they are nothing compared to this. I stacked it several times with two of those occasions being quite spectacular. One resulted in two black and very wet shoes, a severely bruised backside, wet trousers and rucksack and the other resulted in any clothing that survived the first fall becoming muddy and a snapped trekking pole. I immediately felt better to see that Han had stacked it just as much as me and in equally spectacular fashion. These conditions made the pass incredibly slow going, but it was all worth it! As we came out of the forest, we saw the day had turned into a stunningly clear one and we were surrounded by mountains, glaciers and snow. And the views from the top of the John Gardner Pass were even more spectacular! The horizon gave way to amazing views of Glacier Grey, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and the Paine Massif and surrounding mountains. It was a truly incredible sight and one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. For a moment, I forgot about the 90kph winds and the fact that my hands were like ice cubes!

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After a further couple of hours of very steep descending (or mud-sliding), we arrived at Campimento Paso for lunch, the halfway point for the day and our rest stop after the John Gardner Pass. We were both exhausted, and were tempted to set up camp there, but after (another!) cuppa soup, we decided to continue with our plan to push on to spend the evening at Refugio Grey, a further 4 hours walk away, given that the map suggested it was all downhill. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the map lies(!) and this section was much harder than we anticipated, especially on our already tired legs, requiring the navigation of plenty of steep and rocky ascents as well as some crazy ladders! By the time we got to Refugio Grey, we were beyond exhausted both physically and mentally!! Weather beaten, covered in mud, tired from the concentration required to descend the pass safely in the conditions the rain the night before had presented us with our tanks...completely empty! Refugio Grey was a welcome sight and was by far the best Refugio on the circuit, and the one we were 100%...not staying in! At least, however, after the longest and toughest day yet,we were able to head to the bar for a well-deserved beer and chill in front of the wood burner, before heading to our tent where we quickly passed out!

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Day 9: The last day. Camping Grey to Paine Grande - 3hr trek. We both saw this as an easy day despite saying it was still a 3.5hr trek to Lago Pehoe to catch the catamaran to Pudeto for the bus transfer back to Puerto Natales. This was a very undulating section, not what the map said, which distinctly showed it being downhill! After 1h 20m, we saw a sign saying that we had done the hardest section, we were over the high point and 6km in...4km to go. After another hour of solid hiking, feeling the end is nigh and ready for our last cuppa on the stove before the boat, we saw the sign we had joked about but hoped we would never see...Lago Pehoe 3.5km!! What!?! We had just walked at a pretty fast pace for an entire hour!! 500m? Five hundred metres?!? Seriously? For f**** sake! Damn inaccurate signage!! So on we trod, upping the pace once more and 30mins later, appearing on the horizon, our final destination and the boat home. That was the fastest 3.5km we've ever walked! Anyway, most importantly we had completed the 'Q' trail, joining only a small percentage of trekkers to do so (the majority of trekkers only complete the 'W' or 'Circuit' routes). And to celebrate...of course, we had a brew!

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I have to say, we were extremely lucky with the weather the entire time we were there. It was mostly dry and clear yet also sunny on the odd day. We certainly experienced the ice cold Patagonian gale force winds but not so much that it made it too tough or an unpleasant experience. The only day of rain we had was day 5 and that was spent curled up on a sofa in front of a wood burner, book in hand. I say extremely lucky because we are told they are currently experiencing their coldest summer in a long time (apparently they had warmer days in June and July - the middle of their winter) and it had rained for two weeks straight prior to our arrival. We met a couple in Puerto Natales who knew a couple of Australian girls who spent 9 days in the Park doing the 'Q' and saw absolutely nada because of the constant rain and low cloud. That must have been one depressing experience...

CONAF (the administrative body that maintains the national park) do a great job of marking the trails and it is difficult to go wrong, but, as alluded to above, the signing and mapping of the park is terrible! Especially on the "Circuit". It's clear to see that the money is spent on the more trodden and popular "W trek" rather than the "Circuit" or "the tail". The signs constantly change and every map in the park you see is different with regards to times, distances and altitudes, and these are also different to the signs you see. Our recommendation, if you go to the park, ignore the times and profiles of the trail, these will only disappoint. Enjoy the adventure of the unknown!

Whilst any able and fit person can walk the "Circuit", I can safely say that given the unpredictability of the Patagonian weather and hiking conditions at any given moment, it should not be decided upon lightly and is not for the faint hearted. If you are unsure, I would say go for the "W Trek" or even day hikes from the various refugios.

Cold and unpredictable weather, strong winds, stupidly muddy and poorly maintained paths (on the circuit), aching and broken bodies at the end...would I do it all again? Most definitely! Definitely a wonder of the world not to be missed...

To celebrate our completion of the trail, once back in Puerto Natales we treated ourselves to a nice aromatherapy massage and spa day at Hotel Indigo, with its sauna and outdoor jacuzzi overlooking the lake and mountains (something I had promised Han at the start of the trek, and the incentive that kept her going throughout I suspect!). Best massages ever!! Not very backpacker of us but much needed (after all that walking our legs pretty much seized up on the bus back to Puerto Natales and we could barely walk when it came time to get off!).

...next up, a 6hr bus ride to Argentinian Patagonia...

Another slow border crossing back into Argentina though only an hour and a half this time so definitely in record time!!

El Calafate is the hub to the Argentine side of Patagonia with access to various national parks and El Chalten, home of Mount Fitz Roy or El Chalten as some call it. For us, it meant a trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier. As much as we would have loved to have visited El Chalten, the terrain is not dissimilar to Torres Del Paine and the glacier for us was just something not to be missed, so it wasn't exactly a difficult choice to make...

The Perito Moreno Glacier lies in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, home to around 300 glaciers. It is 30km in length and at its vertical front stands 60m above the surface of the lake (it stands 110m from the valley bed at its front, increasing to over 700m deep in the middle of the glacier!). It is the most stable glacier in the park and also in the world; it hasn't changed position in 120 years. This is due to the accumulation and melting zones sitting in equilibrium, the glacier growing and receding at the same rate in the winter and summer months respectively. The glacier also reaches the bottom of the lake rather than floating on its surface, further adding to its stability......right enough information...

On arrival at the glacier platforms, it hit us instantaneously how incredible it was - not only in size but also how it looked like a solid, vertical wall of ice, completely unlike any other glacier we have seen. The platforms are positioned at a 'rupture point', where two lakes meet with one flowing into the other. As the water from one moves across and under the glacier, it causes the glacier to form tunnels and then crack or rupture, sending broken shards of ice into the water or emerging like submarines from underneath. The 'rupturing' occurs almost constantly making sounds like thunder each time, making everyone (including me) jump for their cameras and scan the face of the wall waiting for the next big chunk to break. Sadly, the sounds come from deep within the ice and so, we only saw small sections drop off into the water (which was still pretty cool to see).

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Leaving the platforms, we then took a short boat ride up to the side of the glacier where we then continued on foot for another hour (more hiking, groan...) to the height of the glacier. Here, we were provided with safety harnesses and crampons ready to climb on to the ice and take a Sunday stroll across the glacier. After about an hour, we had walked to the centre of the glacier where we found a little spot for some lunch. This was not before passing some amazing crevasses and streams, where you could see the deep blue colour of the ice and the crystal clear water which you could drink to your hearts content.

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The glacier moves 2 metres per day towards the northern side of the glacier but only 20cm towards the edges, which makes it accessible for hiking on without the need for additional equipment like ice axes and ropes.

After lunch, we hiked for a further 2 hours where our guides managed to find some cool (no pun intended) little tunnels and caves as well as turquoise blue lakes for us to stare in amazement at (and crawl through if we dared). It was truly an awesome spectacle and we both agreed, this kicked Franz Josef Glacier's ass! We even found Superman´s Fortress of Solitude (the Lego version anyway!)

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After 3.5hrs on the ice, it was back to dry land before the short boat ride back to the mainland. But not before a complimentary whiskey on the 'glacier' rocks! This was not really Han's cup of tea, so I happily had a double of an already decent dram! Han managed a few sips with the classic look of "urgghhh!" thrown in after each swallow...

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Our last night in El Calafate brought around our second parilla, La Tablita - a recommendation from a friend that was just around the corner from our hostel. And it was fantastic! Han couldn't help but order the Bife de Chorizo again (a ma-hassssive steak - enough to share with me! ;-p) and I had the Cordero Patagonico (Patagonian lamb). I had seen them roasting it over hot coals whilst stood in the reception area (yes, they make a feature of this method in the waiting area - pic on Facebook and Instagram) and it just looked too good to pass up. How could I say no to my favourite meat? When it came, it was still on hot coals and basically was a chopped up lamb on a plate for you to pull apart! It was the most tender and juiciest lamb I have ever tasted and is a must for any lamb-lover visiting El Calafate. Not bad for around seven quid too! It is ridiculous how cheap the meat is in Argentina, yet is about 100 times better quality in terms of cut and size than anywhere in the UK!

The next day brought an end to our months of trekking, an end to the rainy seasons and an end to cold weather...we hope! So in true British style, anticipating temperatures in double figures, we dumped our worn out, disgusting walking tops and trousers in the hope they would no longer be needed and prepared to don our shorts and t-shirts! In doing so, we created some much needed space in our backpacks, ready to fill with other random, and no doubt probably pointless, souvenirs over the next 8 weeks...(I know, only 8 weeks left! Where has the time gone?!) Obviously I don't include a hammock or countless pairs of Havaianas as pointless. Who doesn't need a hammock in London?! Essential living.

Next up, the home of the tango, steak, gauchos and crazy football fans...that's right, it's Buenos Aires!!

Blimey...thats even tired me out! I hope there were enough pictures to break up the read!

Well, that´s all from me folks! Next up is Han so I shall sign out until Brazil!

Ciao!

Posted by shaunandhan 19:39 Archived in Argentina Tagged glacier argentina patagonia q_trail Comments (0)

Mendoza (Wine time!) & Valparaiso (the San Fran of Chile)

So after a rather pleasant bus ride (champagne on the bus? oh ok don't mind if we do!) we arrived in Mendoza, where we were excited to be spending 5 whole nights without moving anywhere!

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Our first impressions of Mendoza city were that it was incredibly hot (temperatures reached 40c while we were there!) and substantially bigger than we expected. This meant that our plan to spend our first day wandering the city was quickly revised into a much more sensible plan of going for a lovely lunch in a shaded courtyard, accompanied by a nice cold bottle of vino blanco! And so the drinking began...

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For those of you who don't know, Mendoza is Argentina's main wine growing region and is peppered with vineyards, specialising primarily in Malbec. It would, of course, have been rude not to sample any of these wines or visit these vineyards, so on our second day we hired bikes and headed off on a bike tour of one of the three main wine growing areas surrounding Mendoza city, Lujan (the others being Maipu and the Uco Valley).

Our first stop was at a vineyard called Lagarde, which we enjoyed so much we ended up spending half the day there and tasting 8 of their wines! This had nothing to do with the personal attention we were getting from the pretty Argentinian sommelier, who told Shaun he had a "good nose" and a "great palate", of course!! Having spent so long there, we only had time for tours/tastings at two more vineyards that day, but both of those were also excellent. Needless to say, by the time we'd also bought a bottle of our favourite wine at each, that days budget had gone well out the window!

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A couple of days later we decided to push the boat out and hire a car for the day to visit a couple of vineyards in the Uco Valley (around 75kms out of Mendoza at the base of the Andes) and see a bit more of the countryside. This was an awesome day as the wineries we visited (Salentein and Atamisque) were both impressive and driving through the area, with vines as far as you could see in every direction was fantastic.

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In the afternoon, we had decided to take a drive into the Andes to photograph some of the scenery we had heard so much about and try to catch a glimpse of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in South America). The drive was mind-blowing, with huge jagged red mountains lining the windy road and some beautiful sights along the way including a bright turquoise lake called Potrerillos, a giant river bank at the base of the Andes, which was miles long and looked like the huge wall surrounding Mordor in Lord of the Rings, and Puente del Inca, a natural rock formation that is covered in mineral deposits originating from the thermal waters that run down it making it almost rainbow coloured. We only got a brief glimpse of the summit of Aconcagua as the cloud was unfortunately coming in by the time we made it there, but it was still long enough for Shaun to say, "I wanna go up there, can we do that please?" Er....no!

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12 hours and over 530km later, we arrived back in Mendoza. On our final day, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice vineyard lunch, only for our best laid plans to be thwarted by the one thing we found fairly frustrating in Mendoza, namely the fact that all the better wineries insist on you making a reservation ahead of time, even if you just want to do a brief tasting, yet none of them ever seem to answer their phones or respond to emails! As a result of this, we ended up at a vineyard which was not one of our choices but was suggested by our hostel (maybe because it was the only one they could actually get hold of). When we arrived we were, rather bizarrely, shown to a private dining room off their main courtyard, in which they proceeded to serve us the biggest three course lunch we have ever had, including a T-bone steak each that pretty much filled the plate! While it wasn't quite the "terrace overlooking the vines" experience we had been planning, the food was definitely more than we expected and we left feeling like we'd never want to eat again!!

Needless to say we really enjoyed Mendoza and certainly, any weight we may have lost, was gained again thanks to all that wine and those fabulous steaks (Don Mario is a must for any steak lovers who ever find themselves in Mendoza - order the Bife de Chorizo) although we would have loved to have had a car for bit longer to see more of the countryside surrounding the city (and stayed in one of the estancia/lodges attached to a winery - Salentein! Salentein! Salentein!) so that's definitely one for our "places to come back to" list!

From Mendoza we crossed the border (again!!) into Chile, although not without getting stuck at border control for 4 hours, turning our 8 hour journey to Valparaiso into a 12 hour one! Grr! Luckily, however, when we finally arrived in Valparaiso at 10pm, we found that ordering a restaurant meal at 10.30pm seemed to be completely in-keeping with the locals, so we had no problems finding a great Chilean restaurant to feed and water us, which helped salvage an otherwise pretty frustrating day.

The next say was 'Valpo day' - our one full day in the city, so we made the most of it exploring as much as we could. Valparaiso is an artistic and incredibly pretty city, built on hills overlooking the Atlantic and surrounding a once bustling port. It's steep cobbled streets are awash with traditional 19th century houses which have been painted in an array of bright colours and there are lovely cafés, bars and restaurants on every corner. And that's not to mention the fact that the streets are also lined with street-art style paintings/murals (or Muriel's as I kept calling them, much to Shaun's amusement!) which create a bohemian vibe and endless photo opportunities. It really is a photographers paradise and we both found ourselves thinking that it was exactly what we thought San Francisco would be like, but wasn't! I think the photos below capture it much better than I possibly could in words.

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Given the number of steep hills in the city, to save our legs we took a few rides on Valparaiso's ascensores - funiculars dating from the 18th century, that whip you up the hill for 15p a ride. I enjoyed these much more than Oblivion at Alton Towers, and they're much cheaper too!

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We also discovered that, by pure fluke, the annual Dakar Rally (an off-road endurance rally for trucks, cars, motorbikes and quad bikes formally from Paris to Dakar but now through Bolivia, Argentina and Chile) was finishing in Valparaiso that day. Given that we had, unintentionally, been pretty much following the Dakar route for the last few weeks but missing the rally by a day or so everywhere we went, it seemed crazy not to try and take a look so we spent a couple of hours by the circuit, watching the riders parade through. Shaun was disappointed that we missed the cars coming through, and mainly just caught the motorbike riders, but I can't say I was complaining! The other great thing about the final stage of the rally being in town was that, unexpectedly, after dinner, we were treated to a fantastic fireworks display, which lasted for what felt like an age and was truly spectacular.

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The next day we spent some more time exploring the city (including visiting Cerro Carcel, which houses an ex-prison that has been turned into gardens and an exhibition space - can't see them doing that with Holloway!) before heading to the bus station to catch a bus to Santiago (1.5hours away). Here's where the fun started....

Having been told by our hostel that the buses to Santiago run every 15 minutes, we turned up at the bus station at 5.30pm to find it absolutely heaving with people and to find that seats on the buses were selling out at a rate of knots and going for a premium (most likely due to Dakar). Despite being first told at the bus company desk that there were spaces on a bus leaving at 6pm, when we came to book the tickets, they had gone and we were told the next available seats were at 8pm, only for the same to happen again and us to end up with tickets for a bus at 9.15pm (over 3.5 hours later!). (This chaos was also punctured with a brief interlude in which we spotted a bus with a different company leaving for Santiago that was practically empty but who's ticket office was closed. So having asked in our best Spanish if we could take the bus and buy a ticket onboard, and being told yes by one member of staff who then loaded our rucksacks on to the bus, we were then thwarted by a total 'jobsworth' rep for the company who came along and refused to let us buy tickets, and ordered our luggage off the bus! The bus then duly departed with around a tenth of the seats filled and us standing bemused in the manic bus terminal!) Anyway, when the time (finally!) came to catch our bus, this brought more chaos as, when we tried to board the bus 9.15pm bus to Santiago with the company we had booked with, we were told our tickets were for a different bus (also with that company and also leaving at 9.15pm but apparently from elsewhere!) which was nowhere to be seen amongst the 15+ buses at the station!! Given that we had to make it to Santiago that night to catch an early flight to Patagonia the next morning, we started to get pretty worried we were going to get stuck in Valparaiso. Eventually a helpful fellow passenger, who spoke English, came to our rescue and spoke to the unhelpful bus company staff for us and helped us find our bus (which, in typical South American style, was running late!) and we finally boarded bound for Santiago (although I can't tell you we have made it there yet as, as I write this it's midnight and we're still on that bus, now stuck in traffic!!)

So, hopefully, we'll catch our flight to Patagonia in the morning (thank god we are flying there as, after the last few bus journeys, I think if we never see another bus again it will be too soon!) and so our next update will be to hopefully let you know we have survived the abrupt change in climate and the 9 day trek we have planned in Torres del Paine National Park. Wish us luck!

Posted by shaunandhan 19:54 Comments (0)

Desert Days and Drinking Games

Two border crossings and too many shots!!

Following on from our exertions of climbing the conical volcano Licancabur and our final night of eating dry white rice with an over-fried egg plonked on top (I'm not a religious man but THANK GOD!), it was time to move on to our next destination...

The day brought about a few changes. Another country (#3), hotter weather, less clothing and a new Han!! It's safe to say that having made Hannah spend 2 more nights in Bolivia, she has never looked so pleased to leave a place (I don't which she was happier about - leaving Bolivia or getting further away from the slopes of Volcan Licancabur).

The Bolivian/Chile border is about 40km wide, is not patrolled by any Bolivian immigration security, probably due to their lacksidazical attitude to border security and the fact that you are leaving their country so they probably couldn't care less and are just happy you are going. Joking aside (although I'm not), I swear you could just walk in any direction and just vanish into Chile and nobody would be any the wiser...

Our border crossing brought us to San Pedro de Atacama, a small town on the edge of the 40km wide border on the Chilean side. It's over 2km lower in altitude than our last stop in Bolivia and lies on the edge of the Atacama Desert - the driest place on earth! It was immediately noticeable that despite being as remote as Uyuni in terms of surroundings, the town itself was much more developed and 'westernised'. Full of bars, restaurants, hostels and tour companies, it was a haven for travellers and backpackers alike - to relax and stretch those legs after long coach rides or, like us, 3 days crammed in a 4x4 on the salt flats.

Over excited by the sight of food other than rice and eggs, we decided to indulge ourselves with a nice meal at one of San Pedro's finest 'gastro pubs' - Adobe. In true style, I had the 'poor mans steak' and Han had the salmon filet. After the last few days, it was like heaven although with a price tag to match!

One of the main sights to see in the area is the Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley, aptly named because of the arid and jagged nature of the valley, shaped by the harsh weather the area is exposed to. Rather than take yet another tour, we decided to hire bikes and ride there with our new Aussie friends Luke and Hannah. We also decided to take a picnic, hoping we could stay for the sunset, which we had been told was worth the wait.

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It's not everyday you get to cycle through a desert and it was absolutely worth it as the views were incredible (although it was immediately apparent that our legs had not recovered from our climbing exertions a couple of days before!) We were very lucky because it had clouded over a little, giving us some shelter from the baking sun. We spent the afternoon exploring the area, climbing through natural caves and over sand dunes. At points, the nooks and crannies got so small, you literally had to crawl through with a head torch.

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We then enjoyed our picnic with stunning views over the valley (not before the compulsory running up and jumping off of massive sand dunes)

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although we unfortunately had to leave before the sun had fully set to return our bikes, on our ride back, we were treated to an incredible sunset across the desert instead.

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Our third day brought about a trip to Laguna Cejar, a lake with similar salinity to the Dead Sea. As it was a ridiculously hot day, the idea of floating around in a lake sounded perfect. Having never been to the Dead Sea, I didn't know what the sensation would feel like so found it very amusing when I tried to swim to the middle of the lake and found myself flapping around like a floundered fish on the shore! No matter what you did, everything just floated to the surface! And when you got out, you looked like someone had poured talcum powder all over you...literally! Any measure of a tan we thought we had was now bright white from all of the salt that had dried onto our skin! After a quick rinse, we then went to Salar de San Pedro, a mini version of the salt flats to take some more photos and to watch the sunset with a pisco sour (or four) in hand!

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The next day we had to say farewell to our Aussie friends and move on to Salta, Argentina.

Another country!! Número 4!! Argentina!

Salta - a bustling, sprawling city that lies in a basin surrounded by beautiful mountains and a temperature so constant it's a perpetual spring. According to Lonely Planet, "Salta is sophisticated and a favourite of many travellers"...not these ones! LP continues..."lighting romantic candles with its plaza-side cafés (erm, McDonalds) and the live música folklórica of its popular peñas (if their local folk music is Rick Astley and Whitesnake!)." You have probably got the gist of what we thought about Salta now, so the next paragraph on this 'sophisticated' place is very short!

Our first day in Salta was spent wandering around the city. We only spent one day in the city and we actually thought one day was enough. Given what we had read about Salta, we expected it to be very much Sucre, a picturesque colonial city, but sadly, we found it was very much like any other city although with a few pretty churches and an attractive main square.

Fortunately, desperate for some pure relaxation, we had also booked ourselves into a hostel about 40 mins out of the city where there is nothing to do but laze around a pool all day. It was also a way to recoup some of our inevitable overspend as the accommodation was free! We had 2 nights here and it was great! Our first bit of real relaxation so far. Not a cloud in the sky and completely surrounded by the Andes. We had an all you can eat Asado (BBQ) on the first night and, much to our drunken delight, it was also karaoke night! A few power ballads later and we'd pretty much drunk our days accommodation budget at the bar, so much for recouping that overspend! In the hope of saving some money, we had decided we wanted to cook the second night. However, we then found out the hostel didn't make their kitchen available to guests (the first one we had stayed in that didn't - typical!) as the accommodation was free, the only way they made their money was through the food and drink. Having spent money buying ingredients in Salta which we didn't want to go to waste, we asked to speak to the owner... Who funnily enough turned out to be a 30-something lad from Nottingham called Dre! Turning on the Mansfield charm and reminiscing about the good old nights out in Mansfield, the bromance was achieved and the kitchen became ours!! A few beers, blood-bombs (vodka, red bull and grenadine shots) and quesadillas later, we were sat around a bonfire, moaning about the youth of today before competing in a beer-pong competition. It was a truly international competition with my team-mate being an Israeli. We were gutted to lose in the final by one cup! The winners? The owner obviously...clearly played it one too many times, though great to see two Notts boys in the final...

With virtually no sleep (having had two boozy 4:30am finishes - well, me anyway) and a pretty bad hangover, the next day it was time to depart, not without Dre trying to persuade us to stay longer with the offer of jobs and free accommodation. ( I told you...sophisticated!) As tempting as it was with the AMAZING countryside, it was time to leave...and great timing too! Our last day in Salta brought rain...and a shed load of it!! Kind of summed up our thoughts on Salta city quicker than the first two paragraphs above!

Arriving back in town to catch our bus, after traversing flooded roads and fallen trees in our taxi from the hostel, we decided we had time to grab a few empanadas for lunch before jumping in a quick taxi to the bus station. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the rain meant that now every taxi was full. Being on the other side of the city, with only 30mins till we catch our bus and it throwing it down with rain, obviously we only had one clear option...to walk! With no time to stop to put rain gear on, we trudged in our flip flops through the flooded streets. Soaked to the bone, we arrived at the station with 5 minutes to spare, just enough time to print our tickets off first...if there was a printer!?! Having seen the man on the bus company counter looking somewhat grumpy and like he wouldn't help an old lady cross the street, our only option was to send in our best weapon...Hannah! She managed to sweet talk him into printing our tickets off just in time to make it to our bus with only seconds to spare. Literally as soon as we stepped on, the doors closed and we were off! Note to self - NEVER leave it that close again...

Our reward for making the bus? A 20hr journey to Mendoza!!?! But all was good! We had food, we had silence and most importantly we had 180 degree recliners!!

Sleeeeeeeeeeep...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Posted by shaunandhan 18:22 Comments (0)

Getting down and salty and reaching new heights!

Uyuni, Salt flats tour and climbing volcano Licancabur

So from the lovely Sucre, we moved on to the distinctly less lovely Uyuni, the starting point for our 3 day Salar de Uyuni (Salt flats) tour which would finish in Chile. We had heard some pretty bad things about Uyuni (dead end town, shoddy accommodation, bad service...) so we were pretty excited to arrive(!) after an 8 hour bus ride and thrilled to see that it completely lived up to its reputation. All this was compounded by the fact that when we arrived at our hostel, we were told that they had given our room away to someone else, and there was no room left at the inn so to speak!

Happily we found somewhere else to stay fairly quickly, run by a grumpy and inhospitable Bolivian woman (something we are starting to consider pretty typical I'm afraid to say) who insisted we pay up front, would not let us see the room and sternly told us we were allowed one shower each in 24hours to last no more than 3 minutes! Let's just say we were pretty glad we only had to sleep there for one night!

On a happier note, we had been met off the bus by a representative for the tour company with whom we had booked our tour, who confirmed our places on the tour departing the following morning. Having read so many bad reviews about all the different tour companies who run the salt flats tours, we had been prepared for the worst, so to find everything was in order was a relief.

The following morning, we reported to the office and were assigned our jeep and driver (Miguel) for the tour. We also discovered that our jeep would be one of a convey of 4 jeeps, each carrying 6 passengers, so we would have 24 travelling companions - no bad thing for a tour departing on New Year's Eve!

Our first stop was at the 'famous' train cemetery just outside Uyuni. This is something that seemed to appear on the itineraries of all the tours we looked at and is basically a group of old trains rusting on the side of a disused railway line. As we got out of the car begrudgingly, we noticed that everyone else seemed to be having the same thoughts as us, mainly questioning why all the tours stop here and mumbling about what a waste of time it is. However we were all clearly equally fickle as, as soon as we were told you could climb on the trains, we were off - happily crawling around and striking various silly photo poses on top of and around them. Such children! Give Shaun something to climb on and he's gone...

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Our next stop was the salt flats themselves. The Bolivian salt flats are the world's largest salt flats, measuring 180km by 90km and were created when the Andes came into existence, land-locking a section of the ocean which subsequently dried up in the sun. The flats really are a sight to behold, the blinding white ground for as far as you can see contrasting with the blue sky and creating the impression of vehicles in the distance floating rather than driving away from you. Also, since we are in Bolivia during their rainy season, some rainwater had settled on certain parts of the flats, creating perfect mirrors. It really is quite incredible.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the flats (including stopping at a huge coral island in the middle which is filled with giant cacti, many 20 feet or more high - they grow 1cm a year and the tallest is 9 metres!) and spending plenty of time taking lots of pictures, mostly silly ones! I'm sure most of you have seen them before but, for those who haven't, the lack of ability to gain perspective on the vast plains of the flats, reveals some bizarre and hilarious photo opportunities!

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I should mention that, while we were doing this, our guides/drivers all disappeared off to hunt a stranded llama that had been spotted wandering on the salt flats the week before for our dinner!

We finished the day watching the sunset over the flats, which despite there being a lot of cloud around, was pretty spectacular.

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As the sun went down, the weather came in and we set off to find our hotel in the pitch dark with rain lashing down on the windscreen. After driving for a while, we realised we seemed to have lost the other jeeps and our driver Miguel was looking increasingly vexed. Eventually he explained that we were lost and he had no idea where he was going, the darkness, rain and lack of horizon or landmark making every direction look the same! We tried not to get too worried, consoling ourselves by listing the snacks (and alcohol) we all had in the car and would see us through the night, but in truth none of us were relishing the prospect of spending New Year's Eve night in the car! Happily, after a while we spotted some lights in the distance and when we got closer we saw it was the other cars - great! Well, until we pulled up next to the them and it was clear they had no better idea where we were! After continuing to drive around for a further while longer, regularly making u-turns and driving back in the exact same direction from where we had just been, thankfully eventually it seemed the drivers had found the road and we were heading towards some lights hurrah!

We finally made it to our accommodation around 9pm and found it to be a cosy 'salt hotel', with the walls made from tightly packed salt bricks and the beds and tables made of salt! Pretty cool! As it was New Year's Eve, to kick off the party, the drivers brought in a complimentary bottle of Bolivia's finest (!) bubbly for each table, which came as a great surprise and got everyone in the party spirit. Shaun and I had also befriended a lovely Aussie couple and sharing our red wine and their bottle of champers, made for a great evening drinking and laughing. The countdown came and went and after many happy new year shouts and hugs, we all piled outside to see some fireworks that were going off in the local village. It all felt surprisingly new year-sy considering our remote location! More alcohol was consumed and we finally crawled into our salt bed at 3am, a mere 3 hours before our wake up call for day 2, ouch!!

Day 2 predictably brought a fair few hangovers so it was a good job we only had to sit in a car and be driven around, although it was a shame about the bumpy terrain! Today we would be heading away from the salt flats, towards Chile, through some pretty spectacular scenery - volcanos galore, volcanic lagoons home to hundreds of flamingos, driving across the Siloli desert and seeing enormous natural volcanic rock formations (more climbing opportunities for Shaun!) and finishing at Laguna Colorada (aka the red lagoon).

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That night we stayed at a VERY basic hostel near the lagoon, which was run by another group of inhospitable Bolivians, who frowned and shouted at us in Spanish when we dared ask what time dinner was and generally looked at us with disdain every time they walked past. The evening was saved again though by the great company of our jeep companions, the Aussie couple and a Canadian couple, and topped off by a fabulous bit of after dinner star gazing - well this was until our kind Bolivian hosts decided to lock us outside! We finally got in, after much banging, only to be shouted at in Spanish for banging on the door (quite what else we were supposed to do who knows?!). Gotta love those Bolivians!

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The third and final day of the tour brought an early (5am) start, a welcome trip to some natural hot springs (the cleanest we have felt in a few days!) and more fantastic scenery including natural geysers, more desert driving amongst beautifully colourful volcanic mountains and topped off by our final stop, Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde is so called because of its bright green colour caused by the minerals and arsenic (yes, arsenic!) present in the water and sits directly in front of the perfectly conical Volcano Licancabur, which was to be mine and Shaun's next challenge - we had arranged to stay two further nights in Bolivia and, with a local guide, attempt to climb the volcano the following day. At a height of 5960m, and with incredibly steep sides, it was certainly going to be a challenge!

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We sadly said goodbye to our great group at the border and our driver took us to the Refugio which would be our home for the next two nights as we attempted the volcano climb. We arranged the guide for the following day and were told that it would be a 3am start(!) since we had to make the summit by around 10am, before the wind gets up.

So the next morning, or should I say, in the middle of the night(!) we were up and at 3.30 we were off, in the pitch dark to start our ascent. Probably a good thing as we couldn't see how steep it was again and chicken out!

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For the first couple of hours we walked in the dark, headtorches on, until the sun came up around 6am, revealing a gorgeous clear sunny day - perfect weather for the climb.

Unfortunately, pretty early on into the climb I started to suffer pretty badly with altitude sickness, feeling nauseous and dizzy (we started our ascent at 4400m and it wasn't long before we were over 5000m) so we had to take it pretty slow and take regular breaks. We continued in this way for a couple of hours until, at around 8.15, the guide decided I was too sick to make it to the summit before our turnaround time, so suggested I wait in a sunny spot while he and Shaun went ahead and then came back for me a couple of hours later. I happily agreed, anything to get rid of the nausea.

That said, being the stubborn person I am, It didn't take long for me to start to feel frustrated that I had come so far but was to be stuck sitting on the mountainside for the next few hours. So, when about 10 minutes later, I was found by a hilarious Brazilian guy and his wife, that we had met earlier, who insisted I continue walking with them and that they would get me to the top ("taking small steps and big breaths"), which they said I was only 30 minutes away from, I had to continue.

Meanwhile, Shaun and our guide headed off and picked up the pace considerably, making it to the summit at around 9.45 after a gruelling last 300m, which pretty much involved rock climbing, rather than walking. I'm told the views from the top looked pretty amazing, given that it is possible to see Chile, Bolivia and Argentina and a huge lake in the crater of the volcano, making it all worthwhile.

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They didn't linger up there though, keen to get back to me. Only to find me, much to their surprise, trudging up towards them with a couple of Brazilians (and, I quote, "a green face"!) less than 200m from the summit (I should note here that the 30minute time estimate of the Brazilian guy was pretty conservative, given we had now been walking for over 1.5hours and were still not there!)

Unfortunately, despite being so close to the summit (I had made it to 5787m, the summit being at 5960m), and despite the Brazilians' insistence that I could still make the summit ("just another 30 minutes!"), the guide was keen that we head down in case the weather worsened and, for safety (and my stomach and head)'s sake, I obliged, feeling a little frustrated but still pretty proud.

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The downhill was another experience as, in the interests on time, and saving our fast failing legs, we followed the guide away from the path we had taken up to a fairly sheer section of sand and rocks, and watched as he started to slide down the mountain using a sort of sideways skiing motion! At first it was pretty fun, but soon our thighs started to burn and the falls onto our bums became more and more regular. Anyway, after what felt like an age, we finally made it down to the guides jeep (it was still only about 12.30pm!) only to be told that he couldn't get it started and we would have to push it to jump start it!! Literally the last thing we needed!!

Anyway, we both made it back in one piece and feeling absolutely exhausted but pretty proud of ourselves. Unfortunately, we have limited photos of the climb as we focussed on taking great GoPro footage, all of which has subsequently got lost :-( so you´ll just have to take our word for how awesome it was!

Next stop, Chile for a few days before crossing into Argentina and making our way to Mendoza for a well deserved rest and a big glass (or several!) of wine!

Watch this space..!

Posted by shaunandhan 09:58 Archived in Bolivia Comments (5)

To Bolivia...and beyond!!

Part V - Changing countries...

Well, we're one month in, still in Peru and still on page one of our itinerary...we've gone a long way!? Looking back however, we discovered how much we have already seen and done - some major trips such as the Amazon Jungle, Arequipa, the Colca Canyon and the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, and it seems a very long time since Big Al dropped us off at Bromley-by-Bow tube station to head to the airport, only to realise there were no tubes running (and only after Al had set the Jazz in motion on the A12).

Following the amazing Inca Trek, our next destination was Puno - gateway to Lake Titicaca and the Uros Islands, or the "reed islands". We had heard plenty of things about Puno from fellow travellers and all recommended the same thing...skip it and carry on straight through to Copacabana! Despite their top recommendation, we were determined to see it for ourselves.

Opting for a lesser class bus for our relatively short overnight journey (6.5hrs) from Cusco, we thought a little sleep would rejuvenate us for the next day. Alas, our efforts were thwarted by 2hrs of a Danish TV drama playing full blast throughout the bus. Trying to understand any word other than "Tak" didn't prove a problem however, with the assistance of Spanish subtitles!?

We finally arrived in Puno at 5am. It immediately became apparent the advice given by our fellow travellers was...ahem...accurate. Have to say, not the prettiest. Maybe a nice hot shower in our hotel would change everything, oh hang on, no check-in til 1:30pm!! Argh! We therefore decided to dump our bags at the hotel and head straight to the Uros Islands.

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The Uros Islands are a group of 80+ small islands just off the coast of Puno that are made of reeds and float on Lake Titicaca. Their origin stems from the Spanish conquest who forced the inhabitants of Puno into hard labour. Wanting to avoid this, they built boats from the reeds and set sail on the lake. The eventually turned their boats into Islands by cutting and tying blocks of reeds together and then building huts and kitchens on them. The Islands are then anchored down to prevent them floating away (or accidentally into Bolivia!). Thereafter, they have lived tax-free on the lake, only heading to land in order to obtain supplies or medical assistance. Many of the islands today are built specifically for tourists but some still house families who have to replace the reed blocks every 35 years, and replace the top reed layer every 15 days. Despite the touristic nature of the area, we found it interesting to see how they are built (and knowing that they were once built for a purpose other than tourism) and truly amazing that this was how they once lived. Uros Islands - tick.

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Before catching our next bus over the border to Bolivia, we were pleasantly surprised to run into our hilarious Swiss trekking buddies Vince and Michael from the Inca Trail on the main high street. Deciding to meet later for dinner, when we arrived we had yet another pleasant surprise...more of our trekking buddies from the Inca trail had happened to bump into Vince and Michael on their way to meeting us and we had a great little reunion dinner.

The next morning we caught our bus from Puno to Copacabana (our first stop in Bolivia) with one border crossing en route. By sheer coincidence, Vince and Michael happened to be on the same bus so time was spent laughing and joking with them which made the bus journey so much more pleasant. Well, this was before Vince told us that Copacabana had no ATM's. (Thanks Vince! ;-) Ignorance would have been bliss) and with very few Peruvian Soles to exchange and even less US dollars, panic set in. With no option but to chance it, we arrived in Copacabana to find one cashpoint (yay!) but one only - naturally we bled it dry!

We said our farewells to the Swiss contingent and boarded a boat to our next stop Isla del Sol. Our hostel was at the southern end of the island at the top of another set of giant Inca steps! The recommendation to leave your main 'mochilas' on the mainland and only take day packs was well-founded!

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent drinking cervezas, listening to Christmas carols on our iPod, eating pizza and watching an amazing sunset on the west side off the Island followed by a lightening storm. For the first time, it actually felt like we were on holiday - no horrible smells, no cars, no horns - silence. Pure relaxation.

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The storm made for an interesting nights sleeping only because our ensuite bathroom (check us out) was basically a shed attached to our room which was part of the main building, with a plastic corrugated roof on top. In the middle of the night, the rain and winds were so hard I was half expecting to open the bathroom door in the morning and see a scene out of the movie 2012, bathroom completely removed and just the plumbed toilet still standing!

The next day involved an early start in order to take the 3-4 hour hike from Yumani, through the Challe Communidad to the north end of the island to Chincana (a set of Inca ruins) and Challe'pampa (a small fishing town). This was an amazing day. For the entire duration, we saw no other people ahead or behind us. It was so peaceful and scenic - walking along the top of the hills, beautiful sunshine, the azure blue waters of the east and west coasts on each side of the path and no signs of any modern technology.

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At the end of the island were some ruins where we chilled out for a while with a bottle of agua and some gummy bears. Sitting there above a pristine beach below with a little stone jetty and turquoise waters, we couldn't help but think how much it reminded us of Orapiu on Waiheke Island in New Zealand. When we get back, there will be even more pressure exerted by the Round/Lacey/Round-Lacey household to build on that land Al and Marilyn!

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After our walk we caught a boat back to Copacabana and enjoyed just chilling out on the roof, soaking up the great weather.

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A 3hr bus journey then took us to La Paz, our destination for Christmas. The scenery along the way was breath-taking and involved at one point, getting off of the bus, so it could then be transported on a flat-bed barge across a short stretch of water, whilst we took a boat. As a Christmas present to each other, we had decided to treat ourselves to a little bit of luxury and 2 nights at the Stannum Boutique Hotel in downtown La Paz. For Christmas Day, we planned a duvet day, consisting of watching DVD's in bed with room service throughout the day. A bottle of bubbly and a couple of cocktails on the swanky bar in the evening made for a great Christmas as did catching up with family via Skype.

Boxing Day brought around a day I had been looking forward to and which Han had been dreading - the North Yungas Road Bike Ride. For those that have seen Top Gear's Bolivia Special, this road is more aptly known as 'The Worlds Most Dangerous Road' or even better, The Death Road! Leaving at 6:30am, I said my farewells to Han. If I was going to die, there couldn't have been a better day for it, the weather was amazing, with even better vistas. It The first 22km of the 62km was on asphalt, giving everyone time to get used to their full suspension Kona mountain bikes. Before starting the 40km stretch of narrow dirt track, with waterfalls eroding it even thinner, falling rocks and vertical drops ranging from 500m to over 1km (it looked like a scene out of Avatar) our Aussie guide (Marcus) made sure we made an offering to Pachamama - 96% alcohol. To the tire, to Mother Earth, to our lips!! It still burns now! But if you were asleep before, you were definitely awake now!

Arriving at the North Yungas Road, it was a little disconcerting to see several graves on the road side as well as burnt out cars and buses at the bottom of some of the drops when I looked over the edge. With instructions to go slow and stay near the back, I did exactly as I was told. Sitting directly behind the guide at the front, going pretty quick (I had a GoPro on, it was only fair) I safely made my way to the bottom where an ice cold, refreshing beer was waiting for me. This was followed by a short trip to a monkey rescue centre for a hot shower and a tour of centre. Getting up close and personal with squirrel, spider and howler monkeys was pretty cool as well as the colourful macaws.

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I made the mistake of thinking I was safe but then I was told we were taking the bus back up the death road. I thought a bike was wide enough but a bus!!?! This was a hell of a lot more scary. We stopped at the thinnest part of the road and the gap between the bus wheel and the edge was about 10cm with a 1.1km vertical drop just the other side. Marcus thought it would be funny to open the bus doors right at that point and hang off the edge! The road then got worse as the cloud cover came in - no idea how the bus driver could see the road, and even more so the edge of the drop! With 35 years experience of driving it however, he got us to the top safely. With Han a little nervous about me riding the Death Road, I had strict instructions to text/call her as soon as I had made it to the bottom (or not) as the case may be. So I did what all good husbands would - failed to do either. In my defence I had no signal for most of the day and when I did, I had no credit on my phone. She had to instead settle for a hug back at our new digs when I arrived at 9pm at night, some 13hrs after leaving.

We did think about visiting La Paz's San Pedro prison, famous for it being (in effect) run by its inmates, who live inside with their families and who have jobs. Having found that tourism in the prison is illegal (despite there being hundreds of stories of tourists visiting the place) and getting in requires the (increasingly difficult and expensive) bribing of a guard and their trust to release you once you're ready to go (having been branded with a number so they know who to release and who should rightly be there), we thought it best that it remain something we only read in 'Marching Powder'!

The next day brought our next stop - Sucre, Bolivia's "white city" and their judicial capital. Getting here was not without incident however - a 14hr bus journey with no toilet on board (I rephrase, there was a toilet but the assistants just refused to open it). If we needed to go, it involved telling the bus drivers' assistant who then told the bus driver to pull over. When he pulled over, we asked where the baño was, he just gesticulated in a circular motion next to the bus, as if to say, "anywhere here." This was fine for me but not so dignified for Han. To signal their displeasure at the inconvenience of us having stop for us (because of course it's a ludicrous notion that someone would need the toilet even once in 14 hours!), they even tried to drive off! It meant that we had to take it in turns to hang out of the bus door to prevent it from closing and driving off without either one of us!!

But it was all worth it. We finally arrived in Sucre, where we were due to spend a couple of days, and it is a gorgeous place. Our hostel CasArte Takubamba is amazing. It's like a little Spanish villa complex with a small courtyard for sunbathing and chilling in a hammock (which is where I am right now!).

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Another colonial city, it had a completely different feel to it to any other part of Bolivia we had seen so far (clean, polite folk and no smell of urine, well once we left the bus station anyway!). On our second day here we happily bumped into a couple of Aussies Luke and Hannah, who Han made the mistake of calling Kiwis (sorry NZ family!) who we first met on Isla del Sol, with whom we spent a great evening of dinner and drinks, chatting about anything and nothing as well as reminiscing about the same horrendous bus journey we had both endured only one night apart. It seems our trip is very similar to theirs and so our paths are sure to cross again in the future.

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It's a shame we cannot stay here longer but the new year, the salt flats and hopefully plenty of funny photos await!!

Feliz Navidad y prospero Nuevo Años to all our family and friends.

Posted by shaunandhan 18:57 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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