A Travellerspoint blog

Peru (Part 1)

all seasons in one day

Hola from the country of multicolored corn and 55 varieties, the true home of the potato with up to 3000 varieties, disputed home of Pisco Sour (and has somewhere called Pisco) and where the rubbish trucks play monotone classic music on their rounds.

So with a quick border crossing we ended up in the bus station of the uninspiring town of Tacna but only for a couple of hours as our next destination was Arequipa. A city famed for it's huge Santa Catalina convent (which is like a citadelle within a city) and it's nearby Colca Canyon. Anyway before we could get on the bus we had a few hours to kill and ended up filling our stomachs with some delicious chicharrones which came with a spicy sauce, yey at last some food with a bit of a kick! Our first experience of a Peruvian bus was a mixed one. To begin with everyone was filmed with a camcorder getting on to the bus for security, the seats were fairly comfortable BUT the journey ended up taking 13 hours instead of 7!!!!!!! This was mainly down to two separate road blockages due to heavy rain which meant gravel, debris and torrents of water stopped traffic. Both times eventually the road was cleared thanks to some handy jcb's and we turned up in Arequipa at 3am instead of 7pm, a journey we'd rather forget. We managed to get in to our hostel thanks to the persistent ringing of the bell and shouting from our taxi driver and crashed as soon as we could!
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After a much needed lie in we wandered into the streets of Arequipa which is awash with impressive white stone colonial era buildings and of course a huge plaza flanked by a huge cathedral. We wandered around the town sampling the variety of food (huge in comparison to Chile & Argentina) and stopped for some coffee boosts now and again. We had decided that we would like to do a hike in the Colca Canyon so we had to spend some time scouting around the various adventure companies, always a pleasure listening to the sales pitches which start to sound the same after a while. We ended up deciding to go with Peru Schweiz Explorer which was recommended by our hostel and we were set to do the 2day 1night canyon trek, sorted. The next day we went to explore the convent in the morning because as it was still rainy season you could have glorious sunshine in the morning but the heavens could open in the afternoon. We got ourselves an english speaking guide and off we set around the huge nun house, part of which is still in use by the nuns today but a more modern building and far fewer numbers of the religious ladies. Apparently families would like to send their first born daughter to the convent so the majority of those there were from wealthy families and it took them 4 years to become a fully fledged nun. Lots of the nuns had their own houses and room for a maid aswell. By the sounds of things life for the nuns was not entirely one of hard worship and study but throw in some visitors and a few parties and your closer to reality. The powers that be in the homeland of Spain caught wind of this and sent over a more serious leader to straighten out the convent and the nuns, fun's over ladies! From that point the convent remained closed to public eyes until it was forced to open to the public in 1970. Also we learnt that one of the head nuns Ana de los angeles was one miracle away from stainthood, according to the catholic church you must conduct 3 miracles. To top off our religious adventures of the day we went into the massive Cathedral and set eyes on their prize possession the organ donated from Europe which got dented on the way and is now out of tune..... but it's still the biggest in South America. We managed to try some traditional Peruvian dishes which were amazing, definitely try the recoto relleneo (stuffed spicy red pepper).
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Our trip to the Colca Canyon started with 3am pick up nice and early including blankets and neck cushions ready for the trip over the mountains and down to the local village for breakfast. After the pit stop we join the local road/trek towards Cabanaconde and important old indigenous village, the further along the road we went the steeper hill sides became and lower the river got. The main living in these parts in farming, mainly types of corn, one of which purple in colour is fermented to create chicha the local tipple, and potatoes with some other native crops filling in the patchwork pieces of flat land, and off course every farmer has a donkey because someone needs to carry the stuff up and down and around the track's meandering through the canyon from one side and village to another. Our first stop was the Cruz del condor lookout as it was still early the clouds were hugging mountain sides, and even though we spotted some condors in the distance testing the early morning thermals they gave up pretty soon and disappeared back to bed. So we continued and stopped outside Cabanaconde to spilt in to our group and meet our guide Nestor a local young Quechuan ready to lead us through the next couple of days, after a 10 day carnival so a bit heavy headed. Also in our group was a Dutch couple from Amsterdam also on a south American adventure, and as the sun came out we departed down canyon path hugging the cliff face. As Nestor began to introduce him self and the surroundings we learnt that he was actually a shaman in training, taught by his grand farther since he was young he is the man in the know about the natural environment what plant to use for all kinds, and even though he's full trained and helps the community he will only become the shaman once his grandfather passes on. So as you can imagine as we walk down the path he's answering all the questions and pointing out all the useful plants, knowledge collected by local people and the people before. Even though the track was down hill it was still hard going, with the top of the canyon at 3600m and the river at 2400m everything is slightly harder than were used to as we zig zag down and round the canyon face heading to the bridge right at the bottom, making sure to stay cliff side when a procession of donkeys/mules dordle by. After over 2 ½ hours we cross the ruff concrete suspension bridge over the raging deep brown river and get a taste of some up hill before reaching the first village on the trail stretched along the lush hillside and have lunch at this simple hostel among the avocado trees. This would be a nice place to stop for the day, and the 3dayers do but we had to continue and as we were about to start the heavens opened so out come the plastic ponchos. We walk along the canyon down river following the pre Inka trail with Nestor pointing out the ancient aqueduct and the grave holes in the cliff, the higher you are the closer to god and important they were. After a big up hill we reach the next and biggest village with the introduced colonial catholic church and local junior school, the local children have to board in Cabanaconde to go to high school, it would be a mission to walk that every day. In the poring rain we wonder through the village with the majority of the houses now opting for the modern corrugated roofs instead of the traditional hay, better water resilience but not great with the hot days & cold nights, maybe a combo would be a option, but apparently the hay roof look ain’t in fashion, and as the young are opting for the town and cities the high altitude hay is too high maintenance. With the worst of the up hill over for today we continue along to reach the Inkan crop terrace the destination for the aqueduct now used only as a football pitch, and work our way down through the cactus forest collecting ripe cactus fruit (one bonus of trekking in wet season) before arriving at the second bridge to cross back to get to the oasis, a deserted village redeveloped for the tourists, it even has a hot spring in the cliff near by which is channelled down but unfortunately our hostel is at the end of the line so the pool was only lukewarm, not so inviting as we hoped in the rain. The hostel was in a great setting with the huts scattered between palm trees not far from the river with the canyon towering above on both sides. With no electricity and darkness falling we retreat to the communal area for food and some beer from the little shop before hitting the sack in preparation for the climb out the next morning.
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We got up before sunrise to get an early start after having a quick cactus fruit snack and begin the zig zag accent towering before us. As we climbed the sun slowly appeared lighting the canyon and the daunting task in front of us 1200m. As we trek up we get overtaken by strolling locals and some donkeys ,even a tourist opting for the easy donkey ride up, didn’t seem such a bad idea now at the half way marker. After just over there hours we make it to the top, it wasn’t easy, Sian double sticking it up but the view was great, in the annual race Nestor can run the whole trail in a staggering 2 ½ hours. It was time for breakfast so we wander through the flat corn patches to Cabanaconde where Nestor had to leave and guide his next group, he enjoyed his job and we don't blame him. After getting picked up in the town square we made our way back to the Cruz del condor lookout for a second chance to see the condors but only see some from a far, but luckily enough our next stop at a view point of the canyon, Meurig gets a flyby from the giant bird passing 2m over his head, so fast the photo is a bird blur, amazing, the condor is the biggest bird in the world and it looks a bit like a turkey with massive wings. Back in Chivay we get time for a dip in the local volcanic pools before getting an all you can eat buffet of local foods for lunch hmmm. So all there was left to do was stop at the lookout at 4900m on the way back but unfortunately it was a bit foggy & we eventually make it back to Arequipa in time to collect our bags and get to the bus terminal. Unfortunately our booked bus was the incorrect one as it didn’t stop in Ica, but fortunately that just meant we were early, but during the time we were sat waiting and tired, Sian's bag suddenly went missing, classic bag between legs sat in terminal and when Meurig came back from the shop it was gone. Luckily for us, EVERYTHING important was in Meurig's bag and not much could be done about it, and we were told to report it to the Nasca tourist police the next day.
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After our first night bus with Peru's Cruz Del Sur premier bus company we arrived in Nazca on time at 7.30am. We had sorted our hostel Nazca Trails but a bit of a schoolboy error we didn't note down the exact address, ooops! As it was so early none of the internet cafes were open so there was nothing for it Sian would have to dump Meurig in the plaza with the bags and walk around the area in search of the hostel, but best to have some breakfast first! After about 40 minutes finally success and off we trotted with the bags. Just as well we got there early because by 10am the sun was well and truly shining and the place was toasty. Our hostel owners were lovely and the place had a nice garden to chill in the hammocks plus the breakfast each day was definitely better than average hostel grub. First stop that day would have to be the tourist police station to get the report one the stolen bag. We weren't sure what the level of english would be so we were armed with our phrasebook but were pleasantly surprised as William the police sergeant was able to take down the details relatively easily with a few little tips from google translate. He gave us some tips about Nazca, where to eat etc, offered us the use of his camera for the lines flight as mine was unfortunately in the bag and asked if we would mind meeting his family the next day in the plaza for some photos, unfortunately we tried to find him there but failed. So the big attraction for Nazca, the lines can be seen best from the air but also there are some informative half day trips that take you up to the lines at ground level and give you some of the history followed by a visit to Maria Greiche's house where she did all her research work, her old VW campervan is still there. We managed to get onto one of the trips last minute plus our hostel guy gave us the trip for half price, now we would go up in the air knowing a bit more about the lines. Also that day we hired a taxi to head the 10km or so out of town to the Inca aqueducts which looked like huge holes dug out with a spiral pathway leading down to the bottom where a fairly small river ran, Meurig was impressed by this engineering feat! That night we sampled one of pc William's recommendations on where to eat, a roast chicken restaurant which had some good deals and more than enough tasty chicken.
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So it was time to get up in the air and see the famous lines from above & it was an early start with our flight scheduled for 7.30am. The plane was big enough to hold 6 people including the 2 pilots! The flight itself lasted about 30 minutes and took us around each of the shapes in the gravel leaning on each side so everyone had a chance to take some photos. It is impressive from above and quite surreal that these shapes were created hundreds and hundreds of years ago by people who couldn't get up in the air and could only see them from ground level! Next stop was 2 hours up the panamerica highway to Ica where we were heading for the tiny desert oasis of Huaccachina.
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Huaccachina is about 5km from Ica centre and had been described as a desert oasis but based on what we'd seen in Ica we weren't sure what to expect! Soon enough the huge sand dunes appeared and the road dropped down to reveal a small lagoon surrounded by a small village. We stayed at Bananas hostel which had it's own bar, restaurant and a pool, felt like ages since we'd been anywhere near a pool. We had a poolside cabin and sampled the delicious food and extremely strong pisco sours. The main activity in the area is sandboarding plus a ride in the sand buggy for a bargain price of £8. The driver had acquired the nickname of Schumacher's dad..... or someone said it should be Schumacher's crazy dad and that isn't far off based on his buggy driving. We were strapped in tight and taken around the dunes up and down near vertical hills of sand, loads of fun. Thankfully Schumie's dad started us off gently when it came to the sandboarding as quite a few of us had never been snowboarding let alone anything else! The boards had to waxed on the under side with a candle before each trip down the hill because the sand was like rough sandpaper slowing you down every time. The first couple of times were a bit shaky and there were a few falls but both of us managed to sand and slide down. Well that is until the very last hill which was ridiculously high and ridiculously steep!!!!! The trip finished as he sun went down over the dues and the scenery and colours were fantastic. We got back to Bananas just in time for another pisco sour with a kick :-) A couple from Nottingham we had met in Nazca were also in the hotel so it ended up being a night full of strong pisco sours. We made the most of the pool and nice food the next day and basically just lazed around in the sun before our early start the next morning to get the bus to the capital, Lima.
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Posted by Meurig ac Sian 18:54 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Peru (Part 2)

all seasons in one day

The bus trip up to Lima was not great for Sian as she had been up all night with a stomach bug but we made it and got a taxi to our Blue House hostel in Miraflores. We were eventually let in after trying to convince the workman who answered the door that we actually did have a reservation, it was the owner's day off, a rustic place but the Kitchen was in serious need of a deep clean! It did have a TV ready for the match against the old foe though! The weather in Lima was nice and sunny but not too hot which meant we were able to walk around and explore the area around the nice Park Kennedy surounded by McD, KFC, StarB's etc . Miraflores is one of many lively suburbs of the city, and close to the cliffy coast, and has a lively tourist vibe whilst still being a centre point with the locals. But as capitol cities goes there didn’t seem to be much here to do, so a bit of chill out time in amongst a bit of exploring. So after a day of doing little we awoke, had breakfast and watched the big game. Great individual try by Scot and never a try by Strettle, and for the first time in our life time we played badly, and England played well and we still won!!! So joyfully we wandered through Miraflores to find the pre Inkan temple of Huaca Pucllana nestled in the suburbs, from the sky it's said to outline the shape of a frog but there was little evidence of that from the ground as we walked round it to find the entrance. This majority restored adobe mud brick step temple is pretty big and dates from the 400AD several civilisations before Inka, so pretty old. It would seem that after every conquest the new culture would literally stamp their superiority over the last by building a new layer on top of this mud step pyramid and raid the internal tombs of the previous nobility, so it was at least 20m high. But obviously it's hard to guarantee the authenticity of the restoration work as it was a pile of mud, but it is more impressive now then it was as the years of wind, earthquakes, dirt bikes and a little rain had taken its toll. Interestingly although the building material was dry mud they did actually build their walls in matrix’s of large V shapes along the wall, allowing movement during earthquakes, something the new builders restoring the structure have failed to continue, with evidence from the recent earthquake which the guide was very proud to point out!!? Good luck with the rest of the work then!!!
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In Miraflores there is wealth of old coffee shops which I definitely indulged in from time to time, pages of different coffee's on the menu, everything from espresso to BonBon (made with condenced milk for the sweetness) to Irish. Shop front displays included massive quadruple plate size sandwiches with everything inside including a whole avocado's (which ain’t small here) and a boiled egg in the centre (Meurig regrets not having one now, definitely a sharer though) along with cakes, pies, slices and piles of Churos, long and thin sprinkled with sugar, some filled with dulche leche and vanilla, related some what to the doughnut and great with a coffee.
On the third day we made out way to the city centre, once the Spanish colonial Capital of South America so a little wealth around once upon a time, via the city's new and first public transport system, bus lanes, segregated bus lanes to be fair, down the centre of roads with some tunnels and underground stations, bit like a tram but just a bus, probably cheaper a lot cheaper though. We found our barrings amongst the grand buildings and made our way to Plaza San Martin, (this man got around, he liberated one country and just carried on) where we chilled out in the shade with the locals then headed down the shopping street to Plaza de Armas (classic) the oldest part of town including the bronze fountain (with whistling guards denying access to children) surrounded on all sides by grand buildings some mock and others original including the guarded Palace, Cathedral and the “exquisitely balconied” Archbishop's Palace (nice to see the clergy living a modest life in the new world). After wondering around we headed down to the river where we could see the shacks of the outer town spreading up the hills in the background just below the massive painted sings and lines on the hill tops above, obviously still a popular art to this day. After a good portion of grand buildings and dirty fumes we head back to Miraflores where we find the biggest and best stocked supermarket in south America so far and veg out before the move the next day. The move the next day wasn’t far just up the road to the Pirwa Hostel just a bit nicer as Nia Boyd was landing in town to join us for a three week trip. So after a wonder down to the cliffy coast during the day we found her in reception early evening trying to ask for Meurig and Sian which in south America aren’t easy names to communicate...!! First things first PINT so off we go and get ushered in to a pub/club and have some drinks and eventually a bite to eat. The next day we had our Cruz del Sur Bus booked for the afternoon so we had just enough time to take her on a quick tour around, check out a coffee shop and then head off to the very posh bus terminal to catch our Cama Suite bus for the 22hour journey to Cusco.
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The journey was pretty comfortable but at one point during the night we all woke up because the bus was going round continuously tight corners with quite a drop on the other side!!! As it became light the scenery had dramatically changed from the desert-like scene along the coast to green hilly countryside plus the temperature had dropped considerably! Cusco is 3300 meters above sea level so we had to make sure we spent enough time in the area to acclimatise before doing anything strenuous. We had booked into the Pariwana hostel which was centred around an old courtyard and we had potentially the comfiest beds we'd experienced in South America. So what to do in Cusco for a few days before our Inka Trek? Firstly we sampled the various eateries around, with the coffee and cake shops not disappointing. The main plaza in Cusco is impressive with the huge cathedral being the focal point but the plaza is so big that there is a second church and they have even managed to hide the mcdonalds and kfc in some very tasteful buildings.
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Cusco also has it's own Iesu Grist statue on the hilltop (I hope the one in Rio will be better) which is also next to some Inka ruins called sachsayhuman. We decided to get a taxi up and then walkk down the hill as the rain had stopped for a while and passed some photogenic lamas on the way. Another pastime in Cusco is shopping........ there are loads of markets, stalls & shops selling some very nice indigenous goods and some warm alpaca clothing which is a god send when the temperatures plummet at night. We also visited the Museo Inka and grabbed ourselves a guide who explained a huge amount about all things Inka from their dress, pottery, culture, Machu Picchu and the reasoning behind the human sacrifices. A fact we didn't know before was that early Cusco was built in the shape of a puma their sacred earth animal, well that was before the Spanish arrived, plundered, pillaged and destroyed all important Inka sites and build catholic churches over them, nice eh! So after a few days getting used to 3300m we were ready to start our Inka trek where we would have to climb just a little higher!!
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We did the standard 4 day 3 night Inka trek with Wayki trek company because they are owned by actual local Peruvians and not companies in the US or Australia!!! They plough some of their profits back into their indigenous village community which we got to see first hand in the porters' village where they have built a school and a library and the next bit of funding will go towards filling the library full of books. Our guide was Jose (Meurig kept calling him Juan!) and we were a group of 8, us 3, a father and daughter from Finland and 3 ladies from the US, so a nice mixed bunch of sexes and ages. It would have been kind of cruel if Meurig had been stuck with all girls again! Day 1 started at 5am when we were driven to the porters village then on to Ollyantaytambo to buy supplies like the essential plastic poncho. We were fed breakfast around 9am next to the first checkpoint of the trail head. Then after checking our tickets and getting our passports stamped we officially set foot on the Inka trail. In general day 1 is not too gruelling, the start of the path is fairly flat with some short uphill sections to the first Inka site. Afterwards is a nice mix of ups and downs to where we stopped for our first lunch. We were amazed by the food, starter, soup, main, desert and tea and coffee to finish, all this cooked in a tent by the chef all dressed up in his proper chef whites, unbelievable! Another couple of hours trekking and we reached the first campsite. The tents were all set up, with really warm sleeping bags & comfy mats and food was not long after, again there was more than enough.
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We needed a good night's sleep because day 2 was a killer we had to climb 1200m from 3000m to 4200m where the air was a lot thinner and we had to breathe nice and deep to get enough oxygen! Still at least we didn't have to do it in 3 hours like the Colca Canyon! After making it to the top, getting our breath back we had to descend 600m to where camp was set up and lunch was waiting for us and as a bonus we got in just before the heavy rain started! We had a couple of hours spare before snacks and supper were served so predictably everyone opted to go for a siesta! To keep our spirits up after such a gruelling day the chef had made us an amazing sponge cake!!!! Unfortunately 2 of the American ladies did not get into camp until 6pm and had to walk through the torrential downpour with Jose at hand making sure they were ok, we didn't fancy swapping places with them.
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Day 3 was a hard start with a steep uphill for about an hour, followed by varying gradients through the cloud forest and it was unfortunately our wettest day so a couple of the Inka sites on the way were only a short pit stop. Just before we got to camp for lunch again the heavens opened but we weren't too far away and dried off mostly whilst having lunch. Then it was all downhill, steep downhill in some bits to camp with a short detour to another Inka site shrouded in thick mist. Our last night camping and the best meal in Sian's opinion because we had Peruvian recoto relleneo (stuffed spicy pepper).
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So here we were day 4 and getting up ridiculously early at 3am to have breakfast and set off on the hours trek to the sungate of Machu Picchu as soon as the park opened at 5am. By the time we got through the check point and started walking the sun had come up enough so that we did not need our head torches and could walk fairly easily. It was a nice view following the valley around from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu mountain and finally up some devilish steps to the sungate and our first view of Machu Picchu itself!! There was some early morning cloud rising up the valley but we were able to glimpse the sacred city before the cloud got too high and hide everything! We waited about 20 minutes for it to rise higher but it was taking it's time so Jose led the way down the path to Machu Picchu. About halfway down we had got underneath the cloud and the place was there for all of us to see, amazing. To top it off by the time we got to the city walls the sun came out and stayed until early afternoon. As you would expect it was time for photos and everyone was trying to get that classic shot of Machu Picchu! We had to check in at the main gate with enough time for a strong coffee to keep us going then Jose started his tour of the city.
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The three of us had opted for the additional hike to the top of Hunanpicchu (the mountain overlooking the city) and had to leave the tour earlier as our ticket was valid until 11am. Huananpicchu looked incredibly steep and we had been told that it involves some climbing in parts. Somehow we all found the energy to get up to the summit pretty fast and it probably helped that Machu Picchu is only 2400m high, a lot lower than we had been used to. The view was incredible not just of Machu Picchu but the 3 valleys that converged around and the sun was still shining bright. Sian and Nia got a little lost trying to find the way down as we had actually come up the wrong way but we got down fine. Jose was waiting for us in Machu Picchu so that he could finish off the tour. Unfortunately the Inkas didn't get to finish that place but what they had built in 100 years using the primitive tools was amazing. One fact that we learnt left us gobsmacked, apparently in the 70's the Spanish royal family visited Machu Picchu and in order for their helicopter to be able to land right in the middle of the city a carved stone column was chopped down especially!!! I think the Spanish had done enough chopping, looting and destroying during their colonial time but this was just the icing on the cake, shameful!!! After our tour we got the bus down to Aguas Calientes with Jose to meet Mari and her dad (Finish guys) in a restaurant for some food and beer before our train ride back to Ollyantaytambo. Beer and pizza never tasted so good. The train ride was very picturesque and we were given some free snacks and they served beer so we couldn't say no. We arrived back in Cusco about 9pm tired and ready for a long hot shower, but the hard work was well and truly worth it, amazing experience.
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Next morning after breakfast it was off to the bus terminal and jump on the next bus for Puno, a city high up in the Andes and on the shore of the highest navigable lake in the world and largest in south America. The water level on Lake Titicaca is 3,811m with the level at it lowest for 50 years due to recent shortened rainy season and declining glaciers attributes. Although not the highest lake in the world it has won the title highest navigable lake by the importation of a British steam boat in the last century which used to navigate the water and still floats to this day. During the rainy season it gets quite wet but when we turned up that evening the roads were literally overflowing, which gave us little choice after arriving at Marlons House other than to stay in and order delivery pizza. The next day we set out on a ½ day trip to the local floating islands just of the coast. The man made floating islands are the home to some ancestors of indigenous people who to fled the invading Spanish forces by living on the water. After living initially on double reed boats they developed a design of floating islands based on cutting 1m square chunks of reed bed roots pinning and tying the together and tethering to rocks on the base to the shallow lake area. The base degrades, so over the 10year life span of the island every month the family lay fresh cut reeds over the base and under the wooden frame buildings. The ground is definitely still squelchy under foot but every family has their own area with a few huts for them and their animals, but the tourists seems to be their best method of income these days with tours, crafts and rides on the big reed boats. During the sunny periods it was nice but before we knew it the showers and blustery wind had appeared and proceeded to blow us round on the reed boat until we got wedged on some reeds and the family got their motor boat out to push us back to safety. As fast as the showers arrived they disappeared again, and the ride back to shore past the stranded pigs and converted prison hotel was great. With our last night in Peru upon us we set out on a mission to find cuy (guinea pig) and sample the traditional plate, we found a little recommended restaurant and order three chef specials and a bottle of Inka cola. The little buggers are a bit bony but taste like game/chicken and went really well with the mash and some sort of vegetable compote. As we still felt heavy legged after the mamouth trek it was back to the new posh room with cake, beer and wine to pack in preparation for the trip next door to Bolivia!!!
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Posted by Meurig ac Sian 18:52 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Northern Argentina & Northern Chile

all seasons in one day 28 °C

Hola from the capital of Argentina, home to about 13 million people, so twice the size of London! We arrived on a nice comfy overnight cama bus which even stopped in a restaurant on route and provided us with a meal! The bus station was huge and we eventually found our way to the rather ageing but original metro station to get to central. The hostel was in a pretty good location, literally a stones throw from their national monument, the Obelisco. We arrived on a Wednesday which means free or rather reduced price entry to the city's museums so off we trotted to the recommended Museo National de Bellas Artes in the Recoletta area of the city with loads of quirky perspective art, creations and even furniture! We headed back to central to grab some food and the abundance of pizza and pasta in this Spanish speaking city was quite staggering. Again we managed to find some walking tours for tips in Buenos Aires and decided it was the easiest way of getting to know the city. They did 2 tours each day covering different areas of town with the first mainly concentrating on the historic civic centre. We met Virgina our excitable Argentinian guide in front of the country's parliament house which sits next to a very grand looking squat!!! Apparently the squat has no electricity or running water and used to be a posh coffee house where politicians used to meet in secret when the military dictatorship occupied the parliament during the 70's. The parliament house sits at the end of the long Avenida Mayo which leads you down to the main plaza home to the pink palace, the not so impressive cathedral and some classic examples of Spanish colonial style buildings. The pink palace is home to the current female Argentinian president and is where Eva Peron stood on the balcony and made that famous speech! The plaza is a hive of activity and is a centre point for a lot of the almost daily protests in the city, that's why the security fences hardly ever get taken down! Apparently no one knows why the palace is pink but it definitely becomes a brighter shade at night.
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Buenos Aires definitely has a European feel to it and a lot of the buildings are what you would expect to see in somewhere like Barcelona or Paris. With a couple of hours to spare before the next tour in the afternoon we found a nice buffet style salad bar a nice change from meat, pizza, pasta and empanadas! The afternoon tour was led by Sol a lot less excitable but maybe a little more informative! The tour concentrated around the more affluent part of town Recoletta and took a more cultural stance than historical morning tour. We passed some extremely expensive Parisian-esque appartments, apparently all of the materials were brought from Europe during Argentina's hey day by the returning cattle and grain ships. We were taken to the Falklands war memorial and were told that most level headed Argentinians could not fathom why their government would have sent young, ill-trained soldiers into a doomed conflict. It was also interesting to hear that from a young age at school the children are taught that the islands are part of the Argentinian map and it is not until they get a bit older that they realise that in fact the islands are British territory! Previously we had no real opinion on the conflict but the ever souring relations between the UK and Argentina whilst we were there brought the issue to the fore somewhat. We found out that cosmetic surgery is a large part of Argentinian society with medical insurance companies offering free treatments as incentives for medicare, resulting in a lot of surprised/strained looking faces of all ages walking around Recoletta!!! There were plenty of designer stores and expensive hotels and some of the original Buenos Aires mansions. There was one which was still home to an ageing couple living in the top floor and had no children so they had pledged to donate the building to the city once both had passed away. The tour ended next to Recoletta cemetery which apparently is well worth a visit and is home to Evita's mausoleum. We did in fact visit the next day and it is amazing how grand the mausoleums are and after a fair bit of walking around we managed to find the famous grave! The story of her journey from death to being laid to rest in this mausoleum is not 100% known but definitely has some gruesome tales!
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Another famous area of Buenos Aires is Boca, home to the city's famous football team and the tango centric uber coloufull Caminito street and market. The area around Caminito is fairly run down and tourists are warned that crime can be an issue with such underprivileged citizens trying to make a living and is highlighted by the police presence. However Caminito itself was a hive of activity from restaurants and bars to tango shows and tourists participating in some dance lessons! The buildings are a mix of bright colours and make for some good photo opportunities. A visit to Buenos Aires wouldn't be complete without sampling some traditional coffee in one of the popular coffee houses and sampling some prime Argentinian steak. So first up the coffee and we headed to one of the oldest cafes in the city Cafe Tortoni. The interior has not changed since it opened and the waiters are dressed in the traditional uniform, and serving great coffee and cake, it was well worth a visit. As far as the steak was concerned we were recommended a restaurant in San Telmo by the walking tour guide Sol and it really didn't disappoint. The restaurant was packed and the atmosphere bubbling, a good sign, and the steaks were big and delicious, the special was served with plentiful potato and great sauce at a very reasonable price hmmmm. With another 18 hour bus journey booked for the evening all that was left to do on the last day was to head back over to the Recoletta area of town to have lunch and wonder round the weekend market and meander through the well established parks before heading back to the bus terminal for an over-nighter to Mendoza.
STEAK!!!

STEAK!!!

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Mendoza is on the Western side of Argentina back towards the Andes and is famous for it's wine production. We had booked a pretty good hostel called Empedrado due to the great reviews it had plus the free wine they provided every night!!!! The hostel did live up to expectation with a nice garden area with grape vines hanging plus you were allowed to help yourself to the juicy fruits, they had a dinky pool to cool off in plus there were activities each night. The best of all was the asado presentation where we learnt that an Argentinian bbq is a lot more than charring some meat on a stack of coals! It is seen as a bit of an honour to cook an asado for friends and family and usually takes 2 hours to cook the meat slowly, no black burnt bits in sight. Again the wine was flowing and the steak was truly delicious. We couldn't visit Mendoza without going on the renowned biking wine tour and yes Meurig did actually try some wine!!!! We hired a bike from the friendly family run Orange bikes and with our free map and water we set off in search of tasty winery. The first place we stopped off at was Bodega La Rural where there was a full on wine museum and I can honestly say I have not seen kegs that big before. We tagged on to a tour in Spanish and managed to pick up on bits of the information but decided it would be best to head over to the tasting area and sample some of the red flowing goods. The next stop was a providor next to La Rural where they grew their own olives and produced their own olive oil. We got a tasting session of everything from olive paste, jams, chutneys and the home made liquors, some of which were blow your brains strength!!! The biggest winery in the area was Treviche which was set in stately grounds and the old factory buildings added to the setting. The tour cost 30 pesos each but it lasted about an hour an a half and we got to sample some really good wines and learnt about which wines come from which type of barrels and the quality depends on how many times the barrel has been used to age the wine, plus to top it off they can only be used for a max of 5 years and are imported from France at a small price of 150 Euros. After all the wine we decided to head over to the beer garden where they had home made brews and a nice garden to hangout. When we headed back to Orange bikes we were given complimentary snacks and yep more wine......... :-) It was time to leave Mendoza and head north to our next destination Salta and another 20 hour bus journey coming up but this time we splashed out and went Andesmar the poshest company, and it even included on-board Bingo !!!
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Salta city is one of the most northern cities in Argentina with old colonial buildings in it's centre and the Andes looming in the surrounding countryside. The centre of town is home to a classic plaza full of Spanish-esque buildings and a large grandly decorated cathedral. The plaza is literally a hive of activity whether it be day or night with plenty of restaurants and cafes lining it's sides. Also in the plaza is the museum of Andean Culture which is home to some mummified sacrificed children which were found at the top of some of the nearby Andes mountains. Apparently children were sacrificed and placed on the top of mountains as a gift to the gods and the top of the mountain was seen as the closest place to god. The mummy was surprisingly still in tact and was kept shielded from public hands and cameras in a glass fronted chilly fridge. The museum was worth a visit but a bit on the pricy side seen as not everything was translated and there were no guides on offer. Our hostel was Salta Backpackers and also had a pool to chill out by and evening meals were prepared each evening, you could either go for the basic free meal or upgrade to the special e.g. another tasty asado. The group of people in the hotel were a good mixed bunch and we were even able to watch the Wales v Ireland 6 nations match in the tv room with some Aussies laughing at our excitable celebrations at the end! The town also has a cable car to the top of cerro San Bernardo which makes a good viewpoint of the surrounding area and the walk down the hundreds of steps is a lot easier than the walk up!
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4 hours north is the small town of Tilcara nestled in an arid valley full of giant cacti and surrounded my multicoloured layered mountains. Our hostel the rustic La Albahaca and was up the top of a steep cobbled street, but with a great “panoramic” view from the terrace area. The town is still developing as a tourist destination but the town square was a hive of activity when we wondered down that evening, with market stalls on all sides with a few restaurants and bars around. This town was probably the first real place so far where we had no choice other than to try out our best Spanish as English was non existent and had a really nice atmosphere with people up late eating and drinking. Other than soaking in the surroundings we had planned to visit the strategical positioned Pre Incan fort city of El Pucara well positioned on a hill in the centre of the valley but first we opted to walk up to the recommended waterfall for some great viewpoints. This was our first real taste of altitude and therefore made the walk up the mountain a bit of a challenge but great training for activities to come. The views on the way up were nice and walking through the arid, giant cacti landscape was something we hadn't experienced before, Sian can also testify that those cacti were definitely sharp. Eventually we reached the top only to find out we had to descend back into a small Gauge called the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat). After following the river we finally find the water fall!! I suppose any waterfall in an area as dry as this is bound to be an attraction but a nice walk up to it. After working our way down we head to the Pre Inka fortress, walking through the partly reconstructed residential buildings and to the reconstructed pyramid temple at the highest position with great view up, down and around the valley, not sure about the authenticity of the temple construction but obviously in a dominant location. The next day we planned to move west to the village of Pumamarca on the “main” road to San Pedro De Atacama, Chile to catch our bus, but we find out in the bus depot that the road west has suffered from flooding and has ripped half the road out. Not ideal as buses across the boarder here are not regular and with limited Spanish our hostel owner and his English speaking friend helped us out but nothing could be guaranteed. So the plan was to get the 6.30am bus and hope the local bus could get through and the international bus coming from Salta could meet us, so after a Llama pasta bolognese we got an early night.
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Leaving the hostel in the pitch darkness we jump on the local bus and sure enough make it to Pumamarca with the mountain of seven colours over looking the village. We had time to burn so hung out in the square as the sun came up waiting for anywhere to open for breakfast. By chance on an adventure to find the bus stop, we smell out a bakery still glossing the warm medilunas in a sugary glaze plus others delights waiting to be put on the shelves. With a selection of warm pastries we head to the bus stop just out of town and find a parked Andesmar bus locked up, so we found a rock to sit on and have breakfast, even popping in to a near by nice hotel to grab a coffee in turn. We notice a long line of lorries all the way down the road parked up next to the river and a group of police further up the road and eventually people start stirring on the bus, we eventually find out this bus was yesterday's bus and had been delayed all night by land slides further up, but luckily for us there were spare seats on board and the conductor let us jump on and no sooner as we sat down the road block let the first couple of vehicles through including the bus, Result!!!
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The bus journey renowned for its picturesque scenery did not disappoint, starting by rising up the windy road from the cacti filled valleys up and up over the mountains on to the Salt plains towards the Argentinian boarder control somewhere in the Andes range. As we descended to San Pedro de Atacama that late afternoon the heavens opened and hailed so hard to reduce viability to about 10m, in a Desert!!! We finally arrived, and after an inefficient passport control and a vigorous bag search off we walked into town. Unfortunately our free hostel pick up didn’t turn up so after picking up a map, we headed to our not ideally located (but cheap) Iquesa Hostel outside of town and didn’t go far that night.
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The small touristy town is located in the centre of a big wide valley with great views all around with the odd distant snow capped volcano. All the buildings seem to be one storey adobe mud brick constructions rendered in mud and flat'ish roofs, not a problem if you consider this to be one of the driest places in the world. There are a wealth of activities and tours to chose from and the number of travel agencies in town highlights this, we opted for a trip to visit the highest Geysers in the world along with a stop at some hot springs the next day but first that afternoon we headed off on the bikes to the Valley de Luna national park about 15Km west, not close but flat through the surrounding desert. Once you get into the valley the landscape becomes “moon like” and other worldly, there are your classic touristy mapped points of interest, named rock features such as the three sisters and amphitheatre and a couple of large sand dunes but just mainly an interesting place to cycle through. One of the selling points for the van tours is the sun set on top of the dunes, so once the evening begins they all descend on this one spot which did have a great view but we decided to leave the crowds and start back before the event as we actually had to cycle back and there were a few large dark clouds on the horizon. The journey back was great not only was it more down hill than we expected, we got a double entendre of the sun set to the west and a lightning show to the east whilst rolling through the desert back towards the light of town. Fortunately it only started raining hard 10min outside of town so we got back and jumped into a restaurant with an open fire and had nice pizza and a salad.
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The next morning it was a 4am start to get to the worlds highest Geysers, nice and early, unfortunately an hour and a half into the journey the van came to a muddy hault. All the rain the night before had made the road impassable and after an hour of spinning and pushing we got the van free and had to turn back, with sunrise views over the volcano and back to bed the only result of the early start. The reminder of the day didn’t come to much, with the damp hammocks in the hostel court yard very inviting, whilst the sun lasted... but we did rearrange the trip to the following last morning! Unfortunately the Atacama desert was certainly not living up to its reputation of driest place on earth, with rain that evening drenching the mud based town, with the roof of our room (along with most places probably) unable to hold back the rain, forcing us to reshuffle the dorm room in an attempt to keep most things not wet!!! So prospects for the next morning weren’t looking good, in-fact they didn’t even attempt to pick us up, so at 5am it was back to bed instead for a bit of a lie in before checking out! The tour company were very apologetic and a full refund was given so that afternoon we wondered round the drying sodden town, white washed buildings drip stained brown, had some food and headed back to the hostel to collect our bag's, luckily missing the next down pour but again having to rearrange our stuff in an attempt to miss the flood flowing through the reception. These buildings are just not designed for any volume of water, so it was all hands to brushes, mops and scoops to move the water out the front door saving what could be saved. So after helping out we headed quickly down town to catch our next overnight semi cama bus to Arica the border town to Peru.
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After an early, dusk arrival at this “up and coming” sea side city we eventually find our kiwi owned hostel Sunny Days after a wander around and a short taxi ride, where they gave us complementary breakfast at this lovely well run place. Conveniently this was the day of the Wales vs Scotland game and of course they had cable TV in their upstairs kitchen for us to watch the entertaining ESPN Spanish 6 nations program. The first half wasn’t anything worth writing home about but the second started with a Halfpenny try and Earthquake, we thought it was the spin dryer down stairs but we were informed by the Kiwi owner doing his rounds making checks and investigating the noise in the TV room. After the game we headed into town, not a vast amount around expect an overshadowing cliff and lots of sand but it was a Sunday so quite quiet & we had a bite to eat at a 50's themed restaurant and headed back via the diverse market for ice cream and supplies for super. The next morning after a great breakfast it was time to head north to country number 13, Peru!! With some directions from the Kiwi owner we head for the international depot i.e walled enclosure next to the bus depot to jump on either a bus or a colectivo (shared taxi), this wasn’t a hard decision as the cue for the bus was coming out the front entrance, so we splashed out the £2 extra each to eventually share a colectivo with a family of 4, mother and three daughters. After a short ride we arrive at the Chilean boarder and to our surprise the mother asks for our passports, she's was a Chilean police officer and therefore intended to bypass the undulating cue and continue on into Peru. We were told to stay with her two oldest daughters who were fairly confident she would come back with the stamps, and as we reached half way in the cue back she came and off we went over to the Peruvian boarder control. After the usual forms we were in, next stop Tacna.......

Posted by Meurig ac Sian 13:45 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Down, round, up through Patagonia

sunny

Hola from the country of the meaty slow cooking Asado, where young people gather with friends at Park's and street corners to sip Matte green tea with their top up hot water flasks, everything slows down mid day for a siesta and where night clubs don’t even open til 2am....!!!

Time to head over the Andes from Chile to Argentina........ Both countries may have united to drive out the Spanish but are far more frosty neighbours these days with various claims and disputes over differing sections of land! The trip was about 7 hours in total and we certainly passed some impressive scenery along the way. The cameras were definitely snap happy when we reached the Argentinian side of the Andes because the whole place was covered in a thick layer of grey volcanic dust. It felt like something from another planet and such was the thickness of the dust it seemed to be killing the trees and plants it covered! Surprisingly though the volcano which caused all this greyness isn't actually in Argentina but it's in Chile and it has dumped most of it's debris over the boarder and over the town where we were headed, San Carlos De Bariloche!

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The city is perched lakeside with great views of the amazing scenery looking back north west at the Andes, where the water uniquely drains west to the Pacific through the Andes. After exchanging money at a shop we jumped on a local bus into town & we found our nice hostel, Pudu located up the hill, but with great views out back. The area is famed for its skying and hiking and the town for its Chocolate delicatessen shops but due to the ash over the previous months the tourists have stayed away. In the good old lonely planet it describes cycling round the Circuito circuit as a must, so off we go, hopping on the local bus for the Quetrihue peninsular watching out for the bike hire location, which happened to be right next door to our first welsh tea house, but no time for cake this time. The terrain was definitely not flat, undulating between lakes and forests, and the beautiful weather accompanied the beaches,viewpoints and windy road well, stopping for a picnic lunch in a bay (ham and cheese sandwiches for a change) and the odd pit stop to allow Sian to catch up. The peninsular had an alpine feeling with fresh crystal clear water, rocky cliffs, tall trees and a fresh breeze, and not surprising quite a popular place to cycle, walk or just go for a cruse in the car. At the highest point we treated ourselves to a cup of tea and milkshake at a very well located vista cafe, before heading down hill back to the bike hire location and catching the bus back, thankfully the bike hire hostel had some spare pre pay bus tickets because “we” left ours in the room. We liked the area and the cool hostel and ended up staying a 4th night so we could go on a ½ day canoe trip further up in the hills on Lake Guherrez. We took the decision to not get the pick up from town and head up to the lake by the local bus and chill out by the lake and have lunch (ham and cheese again) only problem being the company didn’t turn up where we were told to wait, but we eventually go exploring a near by camp site and find the group already heading off. We jumped in and off we went with our nice guide and caught the group up, where we stopped and had tea and medialunas (croissants) on the pebble beach. The area is a lovely national park, land donated by Puerito Merino the Argentinian legend who helped claim the land for Argentina and draw the modern boundaries with Chile disclaiming the fact that if the water drained west to the Pacific and therefore should be part of Chile (the Argentinians have a few land claim issues). The lake is so crystal clear it's safe to drink and at best you can see 6-8m down, great place to canoe, and we passed some lush waterfront houses on the way back and can imagine it to be a lush place to live and holiday.

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Unfortunately it was time to leave Bariloche and an early start to catch the bus south about 5 hours to Esquel, where we would head west to the small village of Trevelin (does something look slightly similar to home???). Trevelin or Trefelin (Mill town) head of the Chubut River or Afon Camwy which reaches down to the east coast where the first welsh settlers landed. So we couldn't pass by the village without a little stop over as the place had a nice hostel with lovely views and a 'casa de te' or tea house preparing all kinds of delights e.g. teisen and bara brith. Unfortunately there was a small issue with ongoing bus along the infamous Ruta 40. The bus wasn't going on the day we expected, so it was that day or in four days!! We had to opt for the earliest departure as we couldn't fit in a 4 day pitstop – the schedule is tight, so much to see so little time! All was not lost as we had the whole of the afternoon to visit Trevelin and indulge in some delicious cakes and all you can drink tea...... lush. The funniest part of the whole visit was the fact that the cafe owner couldn't speak English and we couldn't speak Spanish so the only way we could communicate was to speak Welsh to each other, amazing considering we're so far from home and he was about 5th generation Argentinian! There were a few welsh flags around the main village square and the hostel where we were meant to chill out in for 2 days also spoke Welsh, home from home! It was time to return to Esquel after a fruitless attempt to find the statue of John Evans' horse, the founder of the settlement who was saved from a sure death accident by his horse.

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Back in Esquel our basic but not cheap ruta 40 bus turned up late, great considering the journey was already scheduled to take 18 hours. The road follows the Andes along the western side of Argentina and is famous among travellers due to the length of the not so comfortable journey past miles and miles of undulating dessert like Patagonian steepe over unsealed roads. We will never moan about a few pot holes in the roads at home, we love tarmac!!! So the journey ended up being 22 hours, a fair few dodgy films and a little sleep through fairly mind numbing scenery but an experience nonetheless and the destination was well worth it.....

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El Chalten is an Argentinian hiking mecca for people wanting to experience the Patagonian outdoors, and unsurprisingly most of the hostels were booked up but we managed to get a fairly expensive place for the first night! The town is not very old, it's only been around for about 20 years and was Argentina's way of putting off Chilean claims to the area, and has turned into one of the up and coming tourist destinations. The main attractions being the peaks of Fitz roy and Cerro Torre and the surrounding walking paths in the area. Also the more adventurous types flock there to make the most of the peaks with all their climbing gear. The town wouldn't win any awards for beauty but the national park Los Glaciers on it's doorstep most definitely would. We had planned to do a couple of hikes whilst we were there the first being the hike up to Cerro Torre and the glacial Lago Torre. The hike took around 6 hours to complete and had a fair few ups and downs but the view of the peak, and glacier flowing down it, and icebergs in lake beneath it was amazing.

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The second day was a round trip from the town towards Fitz Roy and back. The first part of the walk starts about 10km out of town via minibus or taxi in our case because the bus was full. The 10km if just a walk along the river up to the start of the mountainous area and then the interesting scenery starts!!! The views of Fitz Roy were more impressive than Cerro Torre and we were blessed with a perfectly clear blue sky, apparently this doesn't happen often. The path took us along the opposite side of the river to the peaks and each 200 yards brought about a different view of the imposing range. Whilst making the most of the many photo opportunities we could hear the glacier cracking and parts falling in the valley before us, quite an eerie sound. The path did lead up to the glacial lake but with tired limbs from 2 days of walking and the gravel mountain which led to it being too much of an effort we decided to go back towards the town and take advantage of the various viewpoints along the way. The next morning we found out what the view was like when there are clouds in the sky, not a patch on what we had experienced during the previous two days, we got a bit lucky there I reckon!

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The next destination was three hours down the road, El Calafate which is also right next to the Parque National Los Glaciers and most importantly the main departure point in order to visit Perito Moreno glacier. The town was definitely bigger than El Chalten and even more tourists around. We arranged our bus to the glacier for the following afternoon at the not so cheap price of £15 each plus then you have to pay another £15 each to get into the national park. It all sounds a bit steep but once you get to the glacier you soon forget about the price and it is potentially the most amazing natural sight we've visited during the trip. The glacier makes Franz Joseph in New Zealand look like a ice lolly and moves a minimum of 2m a day, shame we couldn't stretch the budget to do a walk on this bad boy! We visited in the afternoon because that is when apparently the glacier is most active and there were certainly massive chunks falling off. The biggest of which Meurig missed because he was ready with the camera for another piece which looked like it would go any minute. The humongous chunk of ice created some big waves when it fell and then rose us a few seconds later to bob around like a big old iceberg, pretty cool sight. The park have definitely catered for the tourists with lots of different viewing platforms and board walks to follow to get the best or different view of the glacier. At least once a decade the ice grows towards the land and attaches itself splitting the lake into two. Over time the pressure becomes too much and a tunnel and arch is created by the water underneath which collapses eventually to reunite both sides of the lake and the process starts again. There are a few walking tracks around El Calafate but the main attraction was definitely the glacier so having seen that it was time to move on.

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Unfortunately due to the forest fire in Torres Del Paine we couldn't justify the visit down there for a couple of hours of walking when you are meant to be able to follow a track lasting 4 days to see all the sights, and Ushwaia the southern most city just seemed that bit too far on its own, there's always next time....! So it was onwards and upwards to Puerto Madryn so the 51° parallel would be the furthest south we got!!!!

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After an 18hour journey we arrive at Puerto Mardyn or you could say Porth Madryn, the cliffs nearby this coastal town being the first landing point for the Welsh settlers. At first impressions of the area you wouldn’t blame them for doubting their ambition and want to get straight back on the same ship home. The surrounding area is desolate, bleak and varying shades of brown, life could not of been easy for the first who arrived, living in shacks carved out of the mud stone cliffs, but somehow out of probably sheer stubbornness they set up the first successful permanent settlement in this isolated area.

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The Wladfa (The colony) was land designated to the Welsh settlers by the Argentina government after negotiation with William J. Parry of Mardyn north Wales. The Argentine government were keen to set up a settlement in Patagonia to ward off any colonisation from other nations such as the British in the Falklands and Spanish and French, therefore offered limited financial support to the would be colony escaping English persecution at home, especially in relation to the attempt to outlaw the Welsh language. All previous settlements in the area had failed badly due to a combination of the climate and also the aggression of the local nomadic indigenous people, with the only activity in the area being the seasonal seal and whale hunting. For some reason apparently the Welsh settlers and indigenous people built up a peaceful coexistence and one of mutual support which helped to create the community which is there today. The only lush green area anywhere to be seen is an inland section of the Chubut valley/canyon the area designated to the Welsh settlers which they then engineered and irrigated to create the surprisingly green fields and villages west of Trelew. The area thrived on producing stock and grain to send back to Europe, even building a railway to connect up with the coast, but all that failed after the great depression. These days Trelew is a big sprawling city, with talk of big hydro and Nuclear projects for the future, but Puerto Mardyn is a big tourist haunt renowned for its Natural abundance of wildlife.

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As we arrived early in the day, we decided to walk through the town to our hostel, although Sian later regretted this JOINT decision, booking the Nice Hola Hostel 3ish Km away. The hostel owner Gaston was great and more than welcoming, and gave us a good intro to the area, pointing out the specific Welsh points of interest along with the numerous wildlife options to us and to our delight the all you can eat Asado (Argy BBQ) woop wooop!!!! During our time here we travelled out to Gaiman by bus with Trevor our friendly American traveller, walked round the town and had a good chat to the Museum curator at the Station Museum in very articulate Welsh and of course a Welsh tea at the busy Plas y Coed tea house which was pretty much a museum too. We also walked down the long beach to the Welsh memorial and Museum on the cliffs and on our last day we jumped on a trip to the Peninsular Valdes to sea the thriving Fur Seal colony on the north shore, the location of the Orca beaching technique to claim their seal pup pray, but unfortunately too early by weeks for this so had to be satisfied with a lively Penguin colony close up and some static blubbery elephant seals further down the coast. We had again hit a popular whale destination in the middle of the couple of months in the year that they are far away from home!!! Not destined to see any big blubbery mammals on this trip unfortunately, gonna have to find the buggers somewhere else some other time.... Onwards and upwards to the Argentinian capital!!!

Posted by Meurig ac Sian 18:58 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Chile (part 1)

sunny

Hola Chico's, from the country of hundreds of well fed stray dogs, Coffee with legs and Pisco Sours (an issue disputed with Peru)

So after a very very long day (we saw the morning of the 27th Dec twice!!!) in the air and making an unexpected stop off in Auckland we finally arrive in Santiago. As we fly over Chile the skies are clear and we start to get a decent impression of how mountainous Chile really is. Next challenge was making our way into the city center, finding the right bus and asking for a ticket in spanish! Some hand signals and a few basic words got us into the city and to the metro station as we needed to get to the Salvador area. Jetlag had definitely set in and we crashed out for the first afternoon/night but after about 14 hours sleep we felt a bit normal again. Our hostel was cheap and cheerful and even included a basic evening meal plus free wine on Wednesdays, wohoo at least 2 glasses for Sian then.

After so much sleep we managed to get up nice and early for our fist full day exploring the city and first up was a wander along the river east to the El Golf area. The river itself was less than impressive just fast flowing muddy brown, nothing attractive. El Golf is the new business district so plenty of modern building including what will be the tallest building in South America once it is finished. Whilst crossing the road at a set of lights a guy decided to prop his stool in the middle of the road and do some juggling tricks to amuse the waiting motorists. Seemed a bit of a weird sight back then but we've seen a few more since and it seems they get quite a bit in tips! We aimed to get to Bellavista for lunch as it is meant to be full of nice little restaurants and bars but somehow we ended up in the area next door, Patronato and found ourselves in the busiest local market. Quite a mixture of goings on, loads of food on sale, clothes stalls and a large group of men gambling and playing cards. We found a Mexican style restaurant to have lunch which had some fellow gringos outside. Just down the road was the old funicular which takes you to the top of Cerro San Cristobal and has been there since the 1920's. The hill gives great panoramic views of the city and has a white virgin Mary statue on the top and an open air church below, which at the time was still blasting out crimbo songs, Feliz Navidad. Unfortunately Santiago's skyline is plagued by the smoggy cloud that stops you from getting a clear view. At the bottom of the hill is Bellavista, so at last we had found the right area and it is definitely full of restaurants and bars.

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The main tourist area in Santiago is the Plaza D'Armas (arms square) which is home to the cathedral, old government buildings, post office and museums. The square is a hive of activity with kids making the most of the cool water in the fountains and some random entertainment in the band stand. We visited the Museo Historico Nacional to find out a bit more about Chile, unfortunately is was all in spanish with no obvious availability of bilingual guides but it is home to a good collection of presidential blue/white/red sashes warn by the various presidents including General Pinochet. Each day there are free walking tours of the city so we decided to join one and see what it's all about. The guide was a Chilean student (who we learnt are protesting for better education in Chile at the moment) and spoke really good english, & gave us a lot of information and history. Turns out in the earthquake in 2010 resulted in one of the towers of the cathedral crashing down into the square. Books in Chile are taxed very highly so lots of people use the libraries. A popular socialist president Salvador Allende was ousted from government by the military coup led by General Pinochet and bullet holes are still visible in some of the buildings around the presidential palace still. Chile's founding father Bernado O'Higgins was in fact an illegitimate son of you guessed it an Irish man, they get everywhere!Plus Cerro Santa Lucia in the middle of town is closed at night because loved up couples can't resist it's romantic setting. All in all the tour was well worth it and the guide makes his money from the tips he receives, so he has to impress. We made it back to the hostel via the green shady area along the river with a quick stop off to see some dancing and drumming being practiced.

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For New Years we had decided beforehand that we would go to Valparaiso on the west coast and booked up some inflated accommodation in advance, good job too because the place was jam packed. Its renowned apparently in South America for its NY's fireworks and street parties so not a bad place to be. We got a Tur Bus coach over early (not out of choice) the day before NY's eve and found our basic hostel up some steep steps in a alleyway! The city was founded by a mix of Europeans travelling round to the west coast of the states in their ships, so at one stage the place was a bustling port with some impressive wealthy, bold buildings. Sadly times changed after the Panama canal was completed & the place took a bit of a dive. The historical part of town is on the slopes of the bay, and very steep too. Rich people obviously don’t like walking up hills because the place is full of old fashioned escalators (two carriages, one up one down on a cable) hiding up alleyways on most streets taking you up to the next level for 100 Cl pesos less than 20p.

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Tours for tips seems to be hitting it off over here and we timed our visit to the tourist info perfectly to jump on the afternoon slot with about 30 others, so popular to. The tour guide was from the states who had adopted Valparaiso as his home, and dressed as Where's Wolly so stood out a little. He took us wandering round the more modern man made sea front made from the dumped ballast, and through the square up into the winding narrow streets of the upper town, even fitting us all on a electric tram/bus and giving free samples of local biscuits and Pisco Sours. The old centre of town is nice with a lot of rustic charm and posh restaurants and café’s, but it is defiantly rough around the edges with some area's that you wouldn’t go wandering through in the evening/night, but the place is leaving the dark times behind and starting to gear up for tourists more, which might be good. Our time here was spent wandering round checking out the different little area's, having a few drinks in the cafe's and deciphering the Spanish menus in the restaurants and for NY we stocked up with some bear and vodka and Fanta (classy) and went off into the streets in search of a good view point over the bay. We bumped into some Aussies from the hostel in Santiago and teamed up with them and a Finish girl to head up and up to a park, with a potentially great view of the fireworks. Obviously the locals knew of this park too and it was really busy, and by this time dark too, so we found a spot and merrily waited till midnight.

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The fireworks kicked off our 2012 with everyone around in a merry frenzy!!! Memoryies after this point do get slightly hazy and involve al street party on the way down and a hike back to the hostel! Our first day of the year will not be remembered for anything energetic with little more than a trip out looking for somewhere open to eat in the evening summoning all our energy, and preparing for the coach back to Santiago the next day.

When we arrived back in Santiago our hostel this time was slap bang in the centre of town in Baquedano district and it was only over the river to Bellavista's bars & restaurants, so that's where we went when we landed there at lunchtime. Meurig managed to find the cheapest meal we found in Santiago, good old chicken and for a change from chips there was rice, all for £2ish. The hostel was Footsteps and was a little nicer than our first place in Santiiago but didn't have the add benefit of a free evening meal. However we used the facilities that afternoon e.g. pool table, free wifi (makes such a difference from NZ & Oz) and decided what we could manage to post back home, the backpacks were just too heavy. The hostel was right near the Parque General Bustamante so off we trotted for a wander before finding some food. It seems that unlike home there are more people out & about come evening time rather than the afternoons, but then I suppose they get the weather for it but they definitely make good use of their parks & outdoor spaces.

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Our last day in Santiago was spent mainly around the area of Cerro Santa Lucia and parque forrestal after a quick stop at the main post office in Plaza D'Armas & eventually being able to understand what was going on in spanish. Cerro Santa Lucia is a city centre hill which is where Santiago was originally founded. The hill is home to some very nice gardens where we had a picnic and up the steps to the top is an old fort with a good viewing platform for some city views, shame about the hazzy smog once more! At the bottom of the hill the entrance is dominated by the impressive Font Neptune with water gushing from various places and some large sculptures, it would have been nice & refreshing to jump into the water! Our next bus booked that night down south to Pucon, so we had some time to kill before heading to the bus station and visited some art & craft markets and to Bellavista for a meal (again).

Our first overnight bus in South America was pleasing enough for the near 800km we travelled and the driver was far less scary than the ones on the night buses in Vietnam! We arrived in the lake district town of Pucon at around 9am and the sun was shining bright so the view of Volcan Villarrica hit us immediately. The town has a feel of the alps about it as most of the buildings are made from wood to look like winter ski resort cabins, apparently it can get quite cold here in winter! Even though the temperature was definitely in the high twenties the volcan was still snowcapped! The town has loads of nice eateries and bars and we managed to get a nice brekkie with a great view of Villarrica whilst waiting to check into our hostel. We stayed at Hostel Wohlenberg, sounds German right, well that's because around this area & especially a bit further south was home to a large number of German settlers, so as you can imagine there was a nice selection of beers around. Pucon is along the shores of Lake Viallarrica which has its own baking hot black sand beach (assuming its a lot to do with the huge lava spluttering mountain nearby) which is tourist central. We went to soak up some sun on our first afternoon and thought a nice dip in the lake would be a chance to cool off. Refreshing is an understatement!

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Next on the agenda was the main attraction, an ascent up to the top of the one of Chile's most active volcanoes! So an early start at 7am (it could have been earlier with some tours starting at 4.30am) we were suited & booted and packed into the van for the 30 minute trip to the base at the ski resort. The volcano is nearly 3000m meters high and the trip in the van took us to about half way up so only 1500m to go plus we took a short cut in the ski lift for a couple of hundred meters as the rest of the group voted for the lift, easy!! Armed with lots of sun cream and an ice pick off we set off up the snow capped beast. In our huge walking boots we followed the foot holes that the guides had created in front of us and made sure the ice pick was wedged into the ice with every footstep. Once we got into the grove we were making reasonable ground and took a few short cuts to pass some slower groups and got to our first break after about 25 mins. The next break was another 30 mins further up on a ridge created by a lava flow from the 1984 eruption (as old as Sian then). Suddenly once we left the ridge things got a lot windier which made the increasingly steep climb harder and the pace had to slow a little. After about another hour of hard climbing we got to within reach of the crater and the snow was replaced by volcanic rock deposits which made it more slippy underfoot!!

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Eventually we got to the crater face and were greeted by chocking poisonous fumes, sounds lovely but once we moved away from the wind's path the fumes cleared and we could breath again and the views were spectacular. The lava had receded compared with the same time last year according to our guide who had seen the bubbling stuff last year, Gutted. We could see at least two other snow capped volcanoes in the distance and looked down onto tiny Pucon town and the lake. After about 15 minutes at the summit the guide advised we should start the descent away from the fumes so once again it was time to breath in and hotfoot it carefully back down to the snow level. Now it was time for the fun to begin with our ultimate sledging back to the ski resort. After donning the ski gear and instructed how to use the ice pick as a break off we set down four or five dug out trails in the snow. Sian managed to lose her ice pick half way down one of the trails and had to stop, climb up the snow, warn the next person and retrieve the ice pick, no sweat!!!! It had to be one of the best moments of the whole trip and a must for anyone ever visiting Pucon, the guide told us a 70 year old woman had done it the day before us so no excuses, and looking back up at the peak from the car park we couldn't help feel satisfied. The day after was defiantly a recovery and chill out day with the biggest activities being an evening beer in one of the bars along the lake and a wonder through the craft market. With our next bus booked it was a fond farewell to Pucon and on the Puerto Varas.

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The bus journey to Puerto Varas was an easy 5 hours this time so we arrived mid afternoon but they take their siestas seriously and most places were shut so straight to the hostel. The town is again in the lake district and on the shores of another lake called Lago Llanquihue. The German influence is much more obvious in Puerto Varas with kuchen and coffee everywhere so we indulged in very nice looking cakes whilst trying to sort out our itinerary for the months to come. The narrow beaches along the lake draw in the crowds on a sunny Saturday afternoon even with the blustery wind and unfortunately due to the change in weather we couldn't see the top of Volcano Osorno, too many clouds. A short distance round the lake there is a strange looking old pump house building with a yellow VW beattle sticking out!! We went over for a look and realised it was actually a museum belonging to the local artist Pablo Fierro who seemed to recycle all kinds of things and packed them into the old house in an artistic way. It was free to visit but Sian couldn't leave without buying one of his small paintings of the Osorno volcano & lake! We carried on our walk along the lake then went inland into the town to look for some of the tourist sites on our map and the 17th century German church built in the town centre, it definitely stands out. After some more exploring of the relatively small town we got some supplies for supper and headed back to hostel to find there was a power cut. Luckily we were planning on dinning alfresco in the garden anyway!

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We ventured into the nearby Vincente Perez Rosales national park to take a look at the Petrohue falls which squeezed the turquoise water between volcanic rocks. The area around the falls had a few nature trails which we followed and had to continuously keep swatting away the humongous stripped horse fly looking things. After leaving the falls we headed for the village at the end of the remaining 6km of gravel road Petrohue by foot instead of waiting for the bus. We probably got about half way when a couple stopped and offered us a lift, probably because of our waving the relentless giant flies away!!!! The village sits on the edge of another huge lake called Todos los Santos which streches through the mountains to the boarder with Argentina and apparently is a journey undertaken by Che Guevara over the Andes. After soaking up the surroundings we hopped on the bus back to Puerto Varas and to another power cut at the hostel. This definitely was a sign that we should go out for food so off we trotted to the seafood restaurant highly recommended in the guide book. It didn't disappoint from the tangy pisco sours to the seafood chowder style stew, delicious and very filling, probably didn’t need the chips.
So after the first couple of weeks in South America it was time to bid farewell to Chile and head over the Andes to Argentina........

Posted by Meurig ac Sian 07:10 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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