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25 June, 2009 – Monday, June 29, 2009
spent a night in the Peruvian town of Piura before taking a bus to
cross the border and travel to Loja, Ecuador. Looking at the changing
landscape outside our window we could tell that we were about to
enter a new country. We had been traveling in semi-arid areas for the
past month but now everything was getting noticeably greener and
weren’t all that many people on our bus to Ecuador so we expected
border formalities to be over quite quickly – thats not quite what
happened. We were the only gringos (white people) on the bus and the
only ones who had to get off and go through border formalities. We
waited behind someone at the window to get our Peru exit stamp, but
they wouldn’t give it to us until we went across the road to get a
police check done. So, we got our passports checked by the police on
one side of the road then crossed over the road again to get them
stamped on the other side. After that, we had to walk across the
bridge over the river dividing Peru from Ecuador (the bus had already
gone through and everyone was waiting for us at the other side)
before being given a full medical exam to make sure we didn’t have
swine flue (they looked in our mouths and checked our blood pressure
and breathing). Then the immigration official spent about five
minutes scrutinizing my passport and ringing someone to check
something before I was finally let into Ecuador.
landscape isn’t the only thing that changed between the two countries
– there are also big cultural differences between them. Ecuador
seems far more developed and westernized than Peru. Sure, Ecuador has
poverty and other problems, but these are much less visible and
in-your-face than they are in Peru. You also notice the difference
when you arrive at bus stations. When you walk out of a bus station
in Peru you are immediately swarmed by hordes of taxi drivers all
wanting to bring you to your accommodation, but in Ecuador everything
is much more relaxed and you hardly get any hassle at all.
Ecuadorians just seem to be friendlier and less confrontational to
travelers (which made a nice change).
was our first stop in Ecuador. This pleasant town is located at
altitude and surrounded by green hills and was a good base to explore
some of the places of interest in the area. It’s not a tourist town
which meant we got to see a bit of what a normal Ecuadorian city
looks like – well, it wasn’t very different from any town you might
find back home. We spent a bit longer in the town than planned after
Grainne got sick after suspected wheat contamination.
the saturday we travelled by taxi to Podacarpus national park. This
park was described as being a biodiversity hotspot, so it had to be
seen. Unfortunately we chose a bad day to see it. It had been raining
lightly in the town before we went, but up in the hills where the
park was located there was a torrential downpour of rain taking
place. We arranged for the taxi to pick us up later and paid our
entrance fee before venturing out on the mud-lined trails to get
soaked by huge drops of water dripping from the trees. The only
animal life we saw was a drowned looking eagle that stayed near the
entrance (where it was fed by the park rangers). Apart from that, we
had a miserable time hoping over puddles before deciding to call it
quits. It was also quite cold. We were getting close to the equator,
but the altitude and rain conspired to keep temperatures down. We
walked back to the entrance where the park rangers had a fire which
we used to warm and dry ourselves. The rain eased later in the
afternoon, but never enough to make it worth our while walking
outside. We just waited for our taxi to come back and wrote the day
off – learning from the experience that rubber boots might be a
wise investment in this part of the world. We had experienced more
rain in one day than we had in the previous two months since leaving
Easter island in Chile.
had more success with our outing on Monday after Grainne had
recovered from her sickness. We headed to the nearby town of
Vilcabamba, which is famous as an area where people have long life
expectancy. Some foreigners have made their home here in the hopes
that they might benefit from the increased longevity too. We walked
along a river where people were washing themselves and their clothes
(one person was washing their car) and crossed a collapsed bridge
before visiting a nature reserve just outside. We went for a walk
along the trails and saw a large variety of interesting insects and
Jun 30, 2009 – Thursday, 2 July, 2009
moved on to the City of Cuenca, a few hours north of Loja by bus.
This city has lots of old colonial buildings as well as some Inca
ruins. We spent the day after we arrived exploring the ruins and the
museum beside it which housed an interesting collection of shrunken heads! They were quite curious looking and still had all the hair
attached. This was the fate of murderers in indigenous jungle tribes
around these parts. It was believed they were possessed by an evil
spirit so the punishment was to have their head cut off, boiled in a
chemical concoction made entirely from plants where after a bit of
time it begins to shrink until it reaches the size of a fist. The
eyes and mouth were sealed to prevent the evil spirit from escaping.
This must also have acted as quite an effective deterrent!
next day we visited Cajas national park, about an hour by public bus
from the city. We were dropped off the entrance to the park in the
lashing rain and wondered if we in for a repeat of our wash-out we
experience in Loja. This time we were prepared for wet weather
(although we were still lacking the essential rubber boots), and the
cold temperatures (altitude is about 3800 metres). Not everyone was
quite so well prepared, we came across one poor Irish girl who turned
up without a coat and she was looking soaked and pretty cold, but
nevertheless was happy to continue walking around the lake at the
entrance to the park.
park was quite different from what I expected – it was like a
mountainous bog in Ireland and was more similar to west Cork in
January than something you’d expect to find in the tropics. But, it
had some things that you’d never find in Ireland, like the strange
fern like plants with long stalks sticking out of the ground, the
gnarly trees, and the pretty red and yellow flowers that grew
everywhere. We could hear plenty of frogs that were enjoying all the
wetness, but we didn’t manage to see any. Birds were few and far
just hiked around the lake near the park entrance and explored part
of another trail leading away from the lake. Our lack of rubber boots
meant we had to do lots of puddle jumping (we still ended up with wet
feet) so this kept us from doing too much exploring. And luckily the
clouds didn’t descend that day (which they often do around there), so
we got good views of the surrounding mountains. It also meant we
didn’t get disoriented, unlike one girl we had read about who got
lost in the fog.
3 July, 2009 – Sunday, 5 July, 2009 (3 nights)
5 August, 2009 – Sunday, 9 August, 2009 (5 nights)
14 August, 2009 – Monday, 17 August, 2009 (4 nights)
8 August, 2009 (2 nights)
spent a total of 14 nights in Quito on four different occasions this
year yet I hardly did anything touristy at all while I was there –
I just visited the old town one day. (Grainne
was only there 11 nights – I spent a few extra nights in Quito while
she was off doing better things in the Galapagos isands). Most
of the time spent in Quito was in ‘waiting’ mode as we waited for
various trips to start. Life in waiting mode meant we didn’t do an
awful lot except going to supermarkets and restaurants, and spending
lots of time on our little computers taking advantage of the free
wifi in our hostel. I had told Grainne that I had found Quito one of
the most ‘livable’ cities I had come across in South America last
year, and this forced waiting time gave us a glimpse of what it might
be like to live here. This city of 1.4 million people is nestled the
hills at an altitude of 2800M and has a pleasant climate all year
round, with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees most of the time.
Its very westernized and its pretty easy to find a good variety of
reasonably cheap food. I’ve been there so many times by now (2 times
last year, 4 times this year) that I almost feel like a local, and I
have this nagging feeling that I’ll be back again some day.
only tourist venture was to explore the old part of the city on
independence day eve (August 9th) – the day Grainne left
on her Galapagos trip. I had expected tons of things to be happening
all over the city to mark the occasion, but unfortunately the main
event seemed to take place late at night, beyond the time I wanted to
be out in the city alone. During the day there were massive crowds
queuing to visit all the museum which were free that day, so a museum
visit was not appealing either. I just had to be content to wade
through massive crowds and look at the old colonial buildings that
dotted the center.
day before leaving Quito the first time (July 5) we had a major
shopping expedition. We were about to head out to a cloud forest
reserve called “Reserva biologica Los Cedros” (Los Cedros
biological reserve) to work as volunteers for a month, so Jose, the
owner of the reserve, had given us a list of stuff to buy in the
supermarket. He told us initially that he wanted 50KG of food, but he
changed the list at the last moment to a lighter amount. We found out
later that he thought we were complaining when I asked how people
normally transported such heavy loads, even though I had only wanted
assurance that it was easy to do logistically (which it was – the
taxi do the bus station pulled up right beside the bus we needed to
catch and the bus dropped us off right in front of the place where we
were collected by Jose’s mules). So, we had already gotten off to a
bad start with Jose (more on this later).
biologica Los Cedros, Ecuador (Los Cedros biological reserve)
6 July, 2009 – Wed, 5 August, 2009
got up on Monday morning way too early for my liking and caught the
6am bus leaving Quito bound for the small village of Chontal almost 3
hours north (crossing the equator along the way). We arrived in the
village and got some breakfast then waited another 3 hours until the
mules arrived that were going to take us up to Los Cedros. Two mules
carried our gear and the food we had bought in Quito, while we got to
ride the other mules. We had read horror stories in other peoples
blogs about this ride, so we were all psyched up for it – we even
put all our stuff inside plastic bags in case the mules slipped at
the river crossing we had to make.
ride started out pleasant enough. Grainne and I are pretty clueless
when it comes to mules and horses, so the mules pretty much did as
they liked – stopping when they liked to eat any tasty looking
grass they saw along the way. We plodded along the road for a few
hours until we came to the point where we had to leave the road –
where we were faced by a downward slope of at least 60 degrees.
Grainne and I looked at each other in disbelief as the mules ahead of
us disappeared over the steep edge of the road one by one. Then it
was our mules turn – we both held on for dear life as the mules began
to step over the edge. We managed to survived, but were hoping there
were no other nasty surprises in store.
path we rode along narrowed and the mules began a constant battle
with each other to get to the front. The mule at the front could stop
whenever it wanted to get a mouthful of grass, so all the mules
fought over who had pole position. They’d cut in front of each other
and get pretty angry whenever another mule attempted to overtake
them. It didn’t help that the slowest mule often seemed to be the one
who got to the front, so traffic jams inevitably formed whenever the
front mule stopped to eat. Sometimes a mule would give a quick kick
if the mule behind it got too close – one particular kick from a mule
in front of me ended up hitting me on the shin! My mule also had a
fondness for walking near the edge of the path in the places where
there likely to be overhanging branches or barbed wire fences. I
quickly learned to duck at the sight of an approaching branch.
Grainne vowed to walk down the mountain when the time came to leave
rather than to have to endure another mule ride. However, the mules
were much better behaved on the way back – this probably had
something to do with a different person being in charge on the return
by the time we got to Los Cedros at 5pm we were really glad to be
getting off the mules. We were met by the owner, Jose, and his dog
Picolina. It was just before sunset so we were keen to get to our
room and have a shower before it got dark(there were no lights in the
shower room, but there was hot water!). We also met two of the other
volunteers who were staying there, Isabelle from France, and Andrea
had planned to stay in Los Cedros for a month to work as volunteers
-and both of us were looking forward to a break from having to
constantly pack our bags and move from one place to the next. Los
Cedros is a large cloud forest reserve sitting on top of a mountain
with a highly scenic landscape and an impressive diversity of life.
There were tons of different animals and plants to be seen (see list
below), and plenty of trails to walk whenever we got the chance.
were also kept pretty busy with volunteering tasks. Amoung the tasks
we did were: clearing trails with rakes and machetes, watering and
sowing plants in the green house, feeding the chickens, cleaning
guest rooms and making beds on the odd occasion when other guests
arrived, picking lemons and making lemonade, helping in the kitchen
when it was busy and doing any other odd jobs that needed doing. Trail clearing could sometimes be an unenthusiastic
task – on one occasion we had to walk for two and a half hours to
clear a section of trail. We spent about 2 hours clearing the trail
before spending another two and a half hours walking back to the
our first day we helped to build a bridge and move rocks to make
a step for it. The bambo bridge was tied together with string and placed on top of a high rock, so we needed to make steps for it for people to step off. Jose spotted a big rock nearby that he thought would be ideal and we spent most of the next hour moving this big rock to form a step. The rick got stuck in some places due to friction against other rocks lying below it, but any suggestions offered to Jose about how to move the rock were instantly dismissed. We were all a little baffled why Jose was so insistent on moving this particular rock – it would have been quicker just to stack a pile of little rocks together for people to step on. I quickly learned that Jose tended to formed fixed opinions about how to do things and it was a pointless task trying to convince him of any alternatives.
Most weekday mornings were devoted to various volunteer tasks, but
occasionally we had to do stuff later in the day if it was needed.
However, the afternoons and weekends were mostly free to do as we
liked – which usually involved sitting in hammocks, reading, talking to
other people, playing cards or watching the birds and other wildlife
in the garden. One popular card game was the Ecuadorian game of
“Cuarenta” (forty) that Danilo, one of the Ecuadorian workers
there, taught us. We also taught the others how to play the Russian
card game “Durak” (fool) which we had learned to play on the
trans-siberian last year
we weren’t too tired from all the work we might head out on the
trails. There were some trails heading uphill behind the house, but
the main trail involved hiking downhill to the river for about twenty
minutes (which meant a dreaded hike back up the same hill to get back
to the house). From the river the trails branched out – one went up
along the river to a waterfall and there were a few going up the hill
on the other side of the valley. The monkeys of Los Cedros lived
somewhere on the other side, and despite several attempts to find
them we never got to see them, although there was plenty of evidence
that they were around. We could often hear them calling from the
other side of the valley and while hiking on the trails we came
across a swarm of the flies that liked to follow them (this meant
they were within 50M of us, but we couldn’t see them through the
trees), plus we saw the discarded shells of fruit they had eaten. In
fact, it was usually hard to see anything on the trails other than
trees, some flowers and the occasional odd looking insects. The best
wildlife watching area was actually in the area around the house –
the lack of large trees near the house meant that you could see
further. The moths that were attracted to the lights during the night
would settle down to sleep during the day and this would attract the
birds who liked to eat them. The bananas left on the bird table also
attracted the attention of a few interested birds. Most of the other
birds we saw were just passing through the area on the way to
in Los Cedros were usually big, vegetarian and plain. They didn’t
have a working fridge so meat was a bit of a rarity, so I got pretty
excited whenever chicken or beef was on the menu. Lunches usually
consisted of lots and lots of beans – and quite a few people were
getting the associated bouts of wind! I knew beforehand that beans
were a staple here so I had prepared for the anticipated bean
overdose by buying some mint tea – Grainne can testify from the
odorless room at night that this worked pretty well. Not all meals we
had there were filling. We often had just a soup for an evening meal.
Luckily this was usually accompanied by freshly baked bread, so I
managed to fill up by eating as much bread as possible (the bread was
quite tasty when fresh, but not so good the next day). On the days
when there was no bread I got pretty hungry. Probably the worst meal
we had was a sweet pineapple soup with fried (thin) bread – yes, we
had a sweet soup as a dinner. I don’t like pineapple, but luckily the
cooks (who were both Ecuadorian) had prepared a special gluten-free
soup for Grainne which she was willing to share. It was actually
quite a good soup.
cooks were usually pretty good at catering for Grainne’s gluten-free
requirements, and it was only when they were busy that they would ask
Grainne if she could make her own food. Not everyone was so
understanding. Jose (the guy running the place) seemed to take a
disliking to us from the start (the feeling was mutual). From the
snide comments he made, it appeared he thought Grainne was being a
bit of a primadonna by requesting gluten-free food. He didn’t
understand the effects it would have on her – nor did he bother
asking any questions in an attempt to understand. He kept referring
to her as a “serolac” (for some reason he could pronounce the
word ceoliac correctly, later we found out serolac is the name of a
laxative medicine sold in Ecuador) and he would talk about “some
people here have weird allergies” when new people arrived. In fact
he didn’t seem very interested to know anything about us or our
fellow volunteers – a pity really as some volunteers had
potentially extremely useful skills. Isabelle, one of the volunteers,
worked in the tourism industry, while Andrea, the other volunteer,
had worked in a charity as a fund-raising and a volunteer coordinator
– all useful skills to someone running a nature reserve which
survives on having volunteers and tourists visit it. Most discussions
at the dinner table revolved around Ecuadorian politics or
conservation, but Jose made the majority of the contributions to the
discussions as we were mostly ignored, or criticized, if we tried
making a contribution to the discussion. I quickly gave up talking at
had read a blog before we went to Los Cedros which described Jose as
a “crotchety old coot”. After looking up the dictionary
definition for these words I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. I
suppose this is the type of personality it takes to set up and
stubbornly defend a nature reserve against miners, loggers and other
people who want to destroy the place. He deserves a lot of credit for
protecting this place, but unfortunately it means he isn’t the most
people-friendly person you’re likely to meet. Spending a lot of time alone in a cloud forest is doesn’t help with people skills.
came to a head between us at dinner one night half way through our
stay. Jose was upset because a DVD player he wanted to send to his
daughter had fallen off the back of a mule – this meant he was in a
bit of a foul humor. He had drunk a little bit too much alcohol and
said some nasty things to us (such as calling us retarded). He accused us of not pulling our weight – but that’s mainly because he didn’t see the work we did. We preferred to do the cleanup work rather than cooking as this minimized our time with Jose, but he never seemed to notice that the big mess he left after cooking (his cooking usually involved lots of oil) seemed to magically disappear every time. It was his loud and aggressive manner during these accusations that caught us most by surprise. If he had some issue with us why didn’t he just have a civil conversation with us? We have to say a big thanks Isabelle and Andrea for sticking up for us.
After things turned nasty I told
Grainne to just walk away from the dinner table – it would be better to
wait until he’s sober and talk properly then. I was kind of sorry for Isabelle and Andrea for leaving them with a foul tempered Jose, but I felt we really didn’t have to put up with that sort of behaviour. From the things he said
we couldn’t possibly have stayed there any longer without an
acknowledgment from him that he had behaved appallingly and luckily
when we spoke to him early the next day he had realized he had acted
completely inappropriately and apologized without us needed to prompt
him. We were willing to give him a second chance, but it was hard to
forget what had happened and things were a little strained between us
after that point. He tended to go to bed soon after dinner for the
remainder of our stay – this suited us fine.
in Los Cedros was a bit like being a contestant on Big brother –
you’re constantly surrounded by the same people every day, some of
whom you might not like very well. Little annoyances blow up into
being issues because there’s noting else around to distract your
attention. If it wasn’t for the sanity provided by Andrea and
Isabelle (the other volunteers) I don’t think Grainne and I would
have stayed there as long as we did. We were sad to see them leave
and a bit apprehensive about being there by ourselves, but In the end
it worked out OK.
in all, it was nice having an extended break from our constant
traveling, and being surrounded by nature at such close quarters was
a great experience. It is unfortunate that we couldn’t get on better
with Jose, because it was otherwise an amazing place to spend a
month. Now, looking back a month later, I miss
having all the natural stuff at our doorstep, but I don’t think I’ll
ever miss our dinners with Jose.
We had a less eventful mule ride on the way out of Los Cedros. We left a day early because one of the german girls who arrived as volunteers needed to see a Doctor, so everyone (Jose included) went down the mountain together. The only yikes moment came when Jose insisted on taking a short cut which meant having to cross a deep and swiftly moving river. Going this way cut 20 minutes off the journey time but involved Grainne (who had walked down the mountain rather than facing a mule ride) having to get on my horse and sit behind me holding on to me – the same way 2 people might ride a motor bike. The mule was pretty big so getting off proved a bit difficult for her. To make things worse our luggage almost ended up in the river as the mule carrying the bags wobbled into the river and dipped one of Grainne’s bags into the water.
We finally got back to civilization, and after a 3 hour bus journey (where I had an interneting conversation with an Ecuadorian hotel owner in Spanish) we got back to Quito. I was eager to have large quantities of meat-laden food with an ice cold beer to wash it down – so we headed off to a mexican restaurant where my wish came true. This was followed by some more alcohol in the form of ‘pisco sours‘ and some badly missed time on the internet. Ahh, civilization….
August 10 – August 14, 2009
While Grainne was off enjoying watching boobies in the Galapagos I headed north again to the small town of Mindo. This place is surrounded by cloud forest with similar sorts of plants and animals that I saw in Los Cedros, but minus Jose. However, I needed to walk quite bit before I could get as close to nature as I could in the reserve. Most days there I went out walking, heading a different direction each day, but it was hard to find anywhere to walk off road. The only place I found where you walk surrounded by forest was in the area around Nambillo waterfall. I had to walk over an hour uphill to get to it, but when I got there they had a cable car which zips you from one side of a valley to the other (I wish Los Cedros had one of these things) to the top of a trail that various waterfalls. It was relatively hot in Mindo, so I didn’t want to walk around all day. I took the opportunity to do a bit of relaxing in the hotel where it was much cooler, and I didn’t really do an awful lot else.
18 August, 2009 – Friday, 21 August, 2009
Grainne got back from her Galapagos trip on Sunday 16, and we had a flight booked to Cuba for the following sunday, so this left us with a week to spare in Ecuador. We spent a couple of days in Quito while Grainne relaxed after her trip before heading out on our last Ecuadorian venture to the small town of Banos, three hours by bus south of Quito.
Banos has a dramatic setting nestled under the shadow of the Tungurahua volcano. It is surrounded on three sides by steep mountain slopes and an impressive canyon on the fourth side. A myriad of waterfalls drop over the edge of the canyon, while the ‘virgin of the holy water’ waterfall hangs over the town, taking on a fairytale like appearance from certain angles. The town itself is famous for taffy making. Taffy is a sweet which is made by attaching the stuff to a peg on a wall and repeatedly pulling it. We saw this happening in the numerous sweet shops scattered throughout the place.
The day we arrived we dropped our bags at our hostel (which was full of Isrealis who were traveling after military service) and headed straight for the gorge. We crossed the large road traffic bridge at the top of the canyon before walking down to the bottom to get a better look at the river and to cross the lower "San fransisco" pedestrian bridge. Along the way we encountered some strangely dressed and strange acting teenager smoking some funny stuff nd wondered wether this area ws safe to walk in. We passed them without them giving us any hassle and headed back up the other side of the canyon. Meanwhile all the excitment was happening on the higher bridge. Some ropes came flying over the edge followed by some feet-first bungee jumpers. They asked if we wated to jump too, but frankly I can think of better ways of spending my money rathr than jumping over a bridge atttached to a rubber band.
We spent the next couple of days walking in various parts of the town when it wasn’t raining. In the afternoon of our first full day in Banos we headed out to a point where the gorge narrowed dramatically. We stood on the "San martin" bridge located at the narrowest point, where we gazed down a long distance to the rushing river below. It was quite a dizzying sight. Another day we walked to the "bellavista" to get an overview the town passing the "virgin of the holy water" waterfall along the way. Many miracles have been attributed to the "virgin of the holy water" and the cathedral in the town is also dedicated to her. Inside the church there are lots of paintings depicting the miracles she is believed to be responsible for – such as a man whose car pllunged into the nearby canyon, but who was saved by somehow having the presence of mind to pray to the virgin as he plunged to the bottom. She is also believed to protect the town of banos from the looming volcano.
After our banos stint it was time to head back to Quito for a few days where we prepared ourselves for the next leg of our journey. We were about to leave South america behind us and head up to central america. Next stop Cuba…..
I did each day
24 June: bus from trujillo to Piura, late evening meal
25 June: bus to loja, medical test at the border
26 June: looking around loja – market, ??? virgin
27 June: a wet day in podacarpus, spent $50 to get soaked and sit
beside a fire
28 June: grainne sick
29 June: vilcabamba, feats of st peter and st paul, nature reserve
30 June: Arrive cuenca
1 July: museum with shrunken heads, Inca ruins
2 July: Cajas national park, badly prepared irish girl walking in
3 July: Arrive quito, exhaust fume smell in hotel room, mexican
4 July: shopping for wellies and other essentials, supermarket
5 July: watched wimbledon final, Supermarket shopping in Quito, last
6 July: early bus to chontal, Mule ride to los cedros. evening –
fireflies, bats, dinner – wine controversy
7 July: bridge building and rock moving
8 July: danilo home sick for rest of week, hydroelectric plant being
fixed, water garden, walk on ‘cascada trail’, suzanne arrives
9 July: clearing cascada trail near our bridge
10 July: clearing trail on other side, cook brings out lunch
11July: day off, new people arrive – don, abbey (volunteers 10
days), monkey guy (1 day)
12 July: day off, power cut in evening – hydroelectric system
13 July: suzanne leaves, fausto in quito so no work, alcoholic grape
juice for dinner
14 July: fausto still in quito, join danilo for trail clearing,
generator in evening, bastille day – fruit punch, pizza, brownies
15 July: fausto and danilo go to get fuel for generator, walk to
river to turn off tap for hydroelectric plant, various card games in
16 July: chickens lay 3 eggs, abbey makes chocolate biscuits,
gathering mustard seeds and planting them
17 July: earthquake 4.20am, pulled muscle in shoulder, sleep-in while
others cleared cascada trail
18 July: afternoon playing Durak, roast dinner
19 July: lights go out early – lots of moths and other night
20 July: airing blankets, cleaning shower, spraying for bats, Jose
gets offensive at dinner
21 July: Jose apologizes, preparing for arrival of 11 french tourists
and their guide
22 July: Catering for 11 tourists
23 July: tourists leave, clear out rooms and prepare for next group
arriving at weekend
24 July: go hiking on the bracilargo trail. see evidence of monkeys
25 July: Isabella leaves
26 July: jose in an unusual good mood, by lunchtime back to normal as
extra people for lunch, 4 Spanish tourists arrive
27 July: 2 american guys arrive, playing card games
28 July: spanish tourists leave (turns out later $250 went missing
while they were in los cedros)
30 July: Andrea leaves plus the american guys and jose (going to the
inaugural meeting of the paroquial concil). raking bottom of
observatory trail near the river cleared by Fausto, lots of flies
evidence of monkeys nearby, but don’t see them
31 July:go to top of observatory trail to rake it – 5 hours of
walking to do 2 hours of work!
1 Aug: jose comes back with beef! read botany book
2 Aug: continue reading. more beef. not much contact with jose
3 Aug: clearing the “inca” trail and the usual jobs. 2 german
4 Aug: showing the german girls around
5 Aug: left los cedros one day earlier than expected – one of the
german girls were sick and tourists arriving on friday – back to
civilization (mexican for dinner – with meat!)
6 Aug: supermarket run, wifi, met german girls for dinner in
7 Aug: grainne’s back sore so don’t do much
9 Aug: grainne goes to galapagos, wander around old town of quito,
200th anniversary of quito’s independence, queues at
10 Aug: bus to mindo – I’m the only person most of the way. walk
around mindo and along river
11 Aug: walk up to cable car across valley. walk on trails and visit
12 Aug: another valley walk – see some animal with a bushy tail.
mostly uneventful walk
13 Aug: walk along river stopping at some points.
14 Aug: back to quito
15 Aug: don’t do much
16 Aug: grainne returns
17 Aug: change accommodation in quito
18 Aug: bus to banos, staying in ‘isreali’ hostel, wander around
canyon near town, cross san fransisco bridge, strange acting
teenagers smoking something funny, see bungee jumpers
19 Aug: rain in morning, walk out to san martin bridge, impressive
20 Aug: walk to virgin of the holy water waterfall, long walk to
‘bellavista’ lookout point passing other waterfalls
21 Aug: visit cathedral of the virgin of the holy water, try taffy
and sugar cane, bus back to quito
22 Aug:preparing for flight to Cuba (printing stuff out, supermarket
and animals of los cedros
are hundreds of species of plants and animals in los cedros, most of
which we don’t know the names of. These are the ones we encountered
most commonly, or ones that made an impression in some way….
tucon barbit, yellow tucon, white line tanager, rose faced parrot,
“blue bird”, “yellow pidgeon”,various hummingbirds,
woodpeckers, “turkey” bird
crawlies: butterflies and moths of all shapes,
sizes and colours (including ones bigger than my hand), dragon flies,
giant snails, large spiders, tarantulas (we didn’t see any, but
others did), a dead scorpion, stick insects, insects looking like
large leaves, numerous horseflies that bite, large black bees as big
as a ping pong ball, green iridescent ants, lots of fireflies –
mainly producing blue/white lights at night but some producing orange
lights, large beetles (and small ones too), cicadas and frogs that
sang through the night.
bats(who lived above our room and produced a lot of droppings we
had to sweep up every day), possums (one was killed by the cat which
a long triangular snout), armadillos (who dug lots of holes in the
garden), agoutis (large rodents which Grainne saw, but I didn’t).
Howler monkeys and cappuchins (we never saw these), speckled bears
(again, we never saw any of these)
lots of trees, mosses and flowers whose names I don’t know. Some rare
: Frogs (we didn’t see any
but could hear them at night), small lizards, tiny fish in the rivers
people of Los Cedros
Jose( (owner), Fausto (older guy who does the hard physical work),
Danilo (age 16, helps fausto), Soma (the cook), Betty (the other
Andrea (english volunteer, here when we arrived, left Jul 30),
Isabella (french volunteer, here when we arrived, left Jul 25),
Suzanne (talkative german tourist, arrived Jul 8, left Jul 13), Don
and Abbey (american ornithologists, stayed Jul 11 – 20 ), German
girls (arrived Aug 3 for 1 month)
and marie (monkey researcher who collects monkey poo for
parasite research, stayed Jul 11), Mike and Craig (American guys),
french tourists (group of 11 plus guide), spanish tourists (group of
May 29, 2009 – Friday, May 30, 2009
was time to leave the relatively safe countries (by latin american
standards) of Chile and Argentina and head north into Peru – or
scary south America, as Grainne likes to call it. She had told me
stories of all the local hassling her when she was in India, but I
reassured her that Peru wouldn’t be nearly as bad, and so far it
soon as we got to the collectivo station (collectivos are shared
taxis) in Arica, chile we could already sense that we were about to
enter a new country. It all seemed very chaotic and disorganized –
swarms of Peruvian collectivo drivers approached us as soon as we got
out of our taxi to offer us a collectivo to the border. One guy only
needed two more spaces to fill, so we went with him. We still had to
wait around as paperwork needed to be filled in but and the other
three people in the shared taxi didn’t show up for ages.
border crossings all went quite smoothly, and it wasn’t long before
arrived in Tacna, Peru. We headed to the bus station across the road,
ignoring numerous offers from people to bring us to lots of cities we
didn’t want to go to, We booked a bus to Arequipa with ‘Cruz del Sur’
– one of the more reputable bus companies in Peru. They were quite
security conscious – they checked everyones hand luggage (but not
very thoroughly, Grainne managed to get through with her pen knife),
and they took a video of everyone on the bus. They were also pretty
concerned about safety – they track the buses speed (high speed bus
crashes are extremely common in Peru) and forced everyone to wear
their seatbelt (they say they’ll report you to officials if you don’t
wear your seatbelt!). They also had a game of bingo on board to pass
the time – good for Spanish number practice.
arrived in Arequipa, Peru late in the evening with only enough time
to get some dinner and check out the supermarkets. I had been in
Arequipa back in 2001, but it is quite different these days to how I
remember it – it seems much more developed now. Most of the people
are as well dressed as you would see in any European city. We didn’t
plan to stay long in the city. We stayed for a day to visit Santa
Catalina convent where nuns from high class families lived in
decadent surroundings, and enjoyed the comfortable lifestyles they
were accustomed to. The convent is still in use today, but on a
smaller scale, and the picturesque historic buildings are open to the
May 30, 2009 – Friday, 5 June, 2009
following day we headed on a local bus to the town of Cabanaconde,
about 6 hours drive from Arequipa. The local buses in Peru are full
of character and make an interesting way to travel, but they stop
frequently to let people on and off, so they take ages to go
anywhere. One of the characters on the bus was a guy who ranted very
loudly for half an hour (like a born-again christian preacher) about
some health product in the hope of selling it to his captive
audience. He didn’t have many takers.
three hours we reached the town of Chivay, situated at the start of
the Colca canyon, the worlds second deepest canyon. At this point of
the journey lots of indigenous locals from the canyon area, many
wearing traditional dress (with accompanying smells of BO), began to
pile on the bus until it was almost full to capacity. The bus winded
its way around the canyon in the dark finally reaching our
Cabanconde there’s a fierce rivalry between hostel owners which
manifests itself in some dirty tricks by hostel owners to get as many
gringos (westerners) on the bus to go to their place. One trick we
came across was to get the gringos off the bus before the final stop
and make them walk to the hostel (with all their luggage) so that
other hostel owners wouldn’t get a chance to meet the gringos and
tell them what was available in their place, and at what price. I
imagine the gringos would have been annoyed when they found out the
hostel they were going to was right beside the final bus stop, so
they needlessly carried all their luggage half way across the
village, plus they’d been deprived of the opportunity to check out
weren’t falling for any tricks – we’d already decided where we
wanted to go after doing some research and no one was going to
persuade us to go anywhere else. We ended up staying at a place
called Pachamama, which had some great food at good prices. The
restaurant was often full, so a couple of ties we ate at one of the
local restaurants (not aimed at tourists) where you could have a good
meal for just over 1 euro!
is located near to the edge of Colca canyon and there were plenty of
paths in the area to go hiking on and see the canyon from different
perspectives. So on sunday morning we headed for a lookout point over
the canyon, but ended up getting a bit lost. We could clearly see
where the edge of the canyon was, but we misunderstood the
instructions the hostel owner gave us so we couldn’t quite figure out
how to get there. The land around here is terraced with many small
stone-wall enclosed fields, so trying to figure out how to get to the
edge was a bit like trying to solve a 3 dimensional maze. We caught
some glimpses of the canyon through the bushes near a place where an
open sewer ran down the side of the canyon, so there wasn’t much
incentive to stay there too long. The area around Cabanaconde is
quite rural and undeveloped, so during our wanderings we came across
lots of farm animals and locals wearing traditional costumes (for
some reason we never saw any men in traditional costumes, only
women). Later in the afternoon we got better instructions and ended
up getting a better view of the impressively deep canyon.
on Sunday afternoon we were invited to watch a football match by
Ludwig, the guy who owned the hostel where we were staying (despite
having a German sounding name of Ludwig, he was pure Peruvian).
Ludwig’s brother was playing for the local team so we went along to
support him and act as official photographers of the match – which
is just as well because he managed to score 2 goals, both of which I
captured on camera. There was lots of local interest in the match,
and some of the old ladies knitted as they cheered on the home team.
The game disappointingly ended in a tie – 2 all.
had intended to do some hikes down into the canyon, but Grainne got
sick with a chest infection and then food poisoning, so these were
called off. Grainne spent two days in bed getting better. In the
times she was better we hiked to various other lookout points over
the canyon. We could see many villages dotted on the other side of
the canyon, all clinging to the edge of the steep mountainsides. On
one of the days we took a bus to “mirador cruz del condor”, the
deepest part of the canyon. Every morning huge crowds gather here to
watch condors fly overhead. We went there during the afternoon, so we
got to see the condors minus the crowds (we were the only people
6 June, 2009
arrived back to Arequipa on friday evening and stayed there for one
more day so that Grainne could see Juanita the ice maiden. Junaita
was a girl who was offered as a human sacrifice to the mountain gods
by the Incas. She was buried so high up that her corpse was frozen
and well preserved even after hundreds of years. She is now on show
in one of Arequipa’s museums, so we paid her a visit. Afterwards we
went out for a late lunch / early dinner in a turkish restaurant and
then went shopping in a nearby hypermarket. I would never have
expected such things to exist in Peru, but I guess things really have
changed a lot since my last visit.
7 June, 2009 – Thursday, 11 June, 2009
took an overnight bus and arrived in Cusco very early on sunday
morning.I went to sleep for a few hours after we arrived and then we
headed out to see a bit of cuzco. There was some sort of festival
going on near our hostel (at puente grau), with lots of locals out in
their finery. The colourful characters marching down the street were
interesting to watch, and this was our first glimpse of what Corpus
Christi might be like.
had timed our stay in Cuzco to coincide with the catholic religious
festival of Corpus Christi (latin for ‘body of christ’) which took
place on Thursday, June 11th. This festival is celebrated in much of
latin america, and the processions in Cuzco are particularly
decadent. The Spanish introduced the festival to replace an Inca
festival where the locals paraded mummies around the streets. These
days they parade large statues of saints around the streets of the
city – each saint coming from a different parish in the city. The
celebrations started on Wednesday when all of the saints arrived at
Cuzco’s main cathedral. Large groups of men from each parish carried
their parish’s saint to the cathedral accompanied by musicians and
dancers. It was quite a spectacle which lasted for many hours. In
neighbouring streets people were selling food, including the delicacy
of roasted guinea pig.
pageantry continued on Thursday when an outdoor mass was held outside
the cathedral with all of the 15 saints overlooking the proceedings.
After the mass the bishop placed the holy communion in a glass
container for everyone to see, which was then placed into a silver
chariot to be paraded around the central plaza. The 15 saints joined
in the parade,along with accompanying marching bands and dancers. The
whole thing was quite slow and it was nearly sunset by the time it
was all over.
had also changed a bit since I was last here 8 years ago. There were
far more tourists here now, and the people selling you stuff seemed
fr less annoying than before – these days a polite ‘no gracias’ is
enough to get rid of a would-be picture seller or shoeshiner, but 8
years ago they were a lot more persistent and would often follow you.
in Cuzco we went to some of the museums and outlying Inca ruins that
I had visited before. On Monday we visited Qorikancha, an Inca
religious site which had a cathedral and convent built on top of it,
then headed to the market to get a refreshing juice from one of the
Tuesday we ventured out of the city to the town of Pisac to see a
large complex of Inca ruins scattered over the hilltops overlooking
the town. I had been here before, but I hadn’t seen the whole site. I
was surprised at how much larger it was than I remembered. We walked
around the ruins for many hours before heading back to look at the
markets in Pisac (also a lot bigger than they were 8 years ago –
now spilling out of the main plaza and into the side streets) and
then going back to cuzco. Later that evening we went to a cultural
dance show which was a bit staged – we very much appreciated and
preferred the real thing we saw in the Corpus Christi parade.
and Macchu Pichu
12 June, 2009 – Sunday, 14 June, 2009
wasn’t feeling the best on friday – I think I had some dodgy chicken
the day before. The stomach cramps held off long enough to get a bus
and then a taxi to the village of Ollantaytambo, over two hours from
Cuzco. I retired to bed for a few hours, and went exploring the town
with Grainne when I felt a bit better later that afternoon. The main
site here are the large Inca ruins that dominate the town. We visited
these on Saturday, as well as wandering down some of the backstreets
– including an Inca Passage that led along a wall down to the train
on Saturday evening we took a train from Ollantytambo to Aguas
Calientes, situated below the Inca ruins at Macchu Pichu. These ruins
are located at the top of a hill, where they remained undiscovered
until last century. They among the best preserved of all the Inca
got up early on Sunday to see MP as the sun came over the hills to
the east. Even though I had been to Macchu Pichu (MP) before, it was
nice to see it again, and it was still as impressive as the first
time i saw it. There were lots of people there who had just finishing
walking the 4-day Inca trail, and I was pretty glad that this time
around I had taken the train and not just finished a 4 day hike! We
spent most of the day wandering around the ruins, although more
sections were out-of bounds now than was the case back in 2001. As
before, it was easy enough to find quite areas of the ruins to sit
and avoid the crowds (particularly in the residential sector), and we
even managed to find some viscachas in the quiet areas that call the
ruins their home.
biggest danger in MP is getting whistled at by officials who make
sure everyone sticks to the paths and nobody stands or sits on the
stonework. Of course we got whistled at for sitting on a terrace we
weren’t supposed to be on – so we hastily moved on. We stayed in MP
for as long as possible, until the guards kicked us out just before
sunset. Its really is quite a special place.
15 June, 2009 – Wednesday, 17 June, 2009
got the train back to Ollantaytambo on Monday morning. We negotiated
with a driver, Wilbur, to bring us all the way back to Cuzco for 40
Soles (about 10 Euro). We had seen this guy back in Cuzco the
previous friday offering to take us to Ollantaytambo, so the fact
that he was here suggested he might be legitimate. We hopped in the
car and he bagan driving, pointing out items of interest along the
way, like a hill that was shaped like a frog. The whole way Wilbur
chatted with us about his family and life in Peru. He had graduated
from college as a computer programmer, but couldn’t find work, so he
now drove for a living.
had just passed the town of Urubamba when we were stopped at a police
checkpoint. Wilbur got out of the car and went with the police to the
other side of the road. A few minutes later one of the policemen came
over and tapped on the window asking if we spoke spanish. He
explained to us in spanish that Wilbur didn’t have any official
documents – ie. we weren’t in a taxi. They called for a collectivo
to bring us back to Cuzco, while Wilbur remained at the side of the
road with the police – we’ll never know what happened to him in the
end, but i can’t imagine it was good, In the end we only ended up
paying 10 soles for our journey.
in the afternoon we got another taxi to one of the hills overlooking
Cuzco where we visited the Inca ruin of Saqsaywaman and the statute
of the white Christ (which, strangely enough, was denoted by Palestinians in 1945). We walked back downhill to have dinner in one of
our favourite restaurants in Cuzco, where we got a tasty 3 course
meal for 12 soles (3 euros).
next two days were spent in transit. On Tuesday we took an overnight
bus at 1pm to Lima. Soon after arriving in Lima on Wednesday we
caught another bus going to the city of Huaraz. We arrived in Huaraz
late at night so we took a taxi to our hostel. The taxi driver didn’t
seem to have a clue where he was going, stopping to ask for
directions at several other hotels.
18 June, 20008 – Monday, 22 June, 2008
only stayed in Huaraz one night, and got out of there as quickly as
possible. It looks like a city that’s a bit rough around the edges,
and it didn’t feel particularly safe. We took a ccollectivo to Yungay
where we took an onward taxi to a mountain lodge situated less than a
kilometer from Huascaran national park. The lodge, Llanganuco lodge,
is situated on hill overlooking a valley with a view of more than 3
of the white peaks in the cordillera blanca – including the highest
mountain in the tropics, Huascaran. It is run by Charlie, a guy from
england, who now lives in Peru. It seems like his whole family is
over here – while we were there his mother was staying over with him
for a few months, while his brother runs another lodge nearer Huaraz.
It was interesting to hear his stories of the problems he faced
setting up a business here, but he eventually managed it – and
result is pretty good, They had great food there, and the beds had
proper duvets – not the five independently moving blankets we had
encountered in most other places in Peru. Bue being in the middle of
nowhere meant we had no mobile phone coverage, no internet and no
electricity (except for a couple of hours when the generator was
day we arrived we headed out to a nearby lake which has some old
ruins. We were in the middle of nowhere, but nevertheless on our way
to the ruins we were approached by a guy who wanted to sell us
marijuana (he definitely said this word, but we’re not entirely sure
if he was selling it or looking to buy it – he might have thought
we said we were from holland). By the time we got to the lake there
was a woman washing her clothes. Her husband was with her and they
were shouting something to us. We just ignored them and started
walking around the lake away from them (I got wet feet jumping over a
river where the bank on the other side was just mud and wasn’t very
solid). Even in the middle of nowhere we weren’t getting much peace.
We went back to the lake on the last day of our visit, and there was
no one hassling us (the day of hassle was unusual), just peace and
quiet and some humming birds.
went for a hike through the Llanganuco valley on Friday to see some
of the lakes. Charlie gave us some great advise and directions before
setting out on the walk, and we saw lots of interesting birds, plants
and stunning scenery along the way. We also had enough time just to
sit and admire our surroundings without feeling too rushed.
proved to be our most interesting and memorable day during our stay.
We headed up the rajururi valley to visit a place where ice falls
from an overhanging glacier. As we entered the narrow valley we were
stopped by a couple of guys who told us we needed some sort of
documents or tickets. Apparently there is some sort of dispute
between the local communities over water rights and this had
something to do with all of this. Anyway, after I told them we were
only going for a day and I asked for their documents the problem
sorted itself out and they let us continue on our way.
passed more locals sitting beside the main river that drained the
valley along the way before heading up further to a point where we
needed to ford the river. So, we took off our shoes and socks, dipped
our feet in the freezing glacier melt water, and carefully crept over
the slippery rocks to get to the other side. Everything went smoothly
and we continued walking uphill through the valley after drying our
feet. We came across some persistent bees who seemed to want to
follow us but we couldn’t understand why – surely all the abundant
flowers around us would be tastier to a bee? Anyway, we did our best
to get rid of any follower bees.
eventually reached the bottom part where ice from the glacier had
accumulated. It was all grey, covered in dust and rocks from the
surrounding area. We continued uphill through the steepest bit to
get to the base of the cliff where ice landed when it fell from the
glacier. I had just reached the top left hand side of the ridge
where the bottom of the cliff was visible when a large chunk of ice
broke of the glacier hanging high above and began to fall down the
cliff. Grainne saw it first and called out to me, but I had already
heard the rumble of ice above and was startled to see hundreds of
tons of ice plummeting over the cliff – and heading straight
towards us! My first instinct was to run to high ground to minimize
our chances of getting covered by the avalanche. I shouted to Grainne
to run up the high ground to our left (apparently she felt there was
no danger until I said this). She was lower down than I was and
couldn’t see as much as I could. Running uphill, I didn’t have much
time to look at the falling ice until I felt it was safe. I looked
over a few times to see what direction the ice was going, and began
to get more alarmed when I saw large volumes of ice bouncing of the
left hand side of the cliff only a couple hundred meters in front of
us. Weird thoughts related to survival instincts started entering my
mind. I started to look for boulders to hide behind in case the ice
got any closer. I also wondered if i should go down to the same level
as Grainne in case we got buried so that we wouldn’t be alone.
ice flow began to subside and I felt a bit safer – safe
enough to take some photos and videos of this rare and spectacular
sight, even if it was slightly scary and too close for comfort, A
wave of cold air mixed with tiny bits of ice (which felt like snow)
washed over us, as we watched the end of the spectacle where smaller
bits of ice flowed down the rocks like a waterfall. Then there was
calm. We sat in awe and talked about what had just happened while
eating some well deserved lunch. We were only about 50 meters from
where the ice settled – pretty close.
more than half an hour we began to hear more rumbling up above. We
stood up, startled, wondering if another avalanche was going to
follow – the glacier was unstable now, so who knew what would
happen next. A waterfall of meltwater from the glacier usually flowed
down this cliff face, and both of us had noticed that it had stopped,
but neither of us had thought through the implications. The waterfall
had obviously been blocked by ice up higher, and all this water had
to start flowing again at some point – this is what caused the
rumbling. We watched as the pent-up waterfall came back to life in
dramatic spurts, and thirty minutes worth of melt water hurtled down
the cliff in thirty seconds.
the waterfall came back to a steady flow, but it was then we realised
that all the newly fallen ice in front of us was now blocking the
natural flow of the water from the waterfall and It didn’t take us
too long to conclude that the river downstream would flood
dramatically when this bigger blockage sorted itself out. This was
the same river we had forded further downstream – so, if we didn’t
cross it in time we could potentially get stuck on the wrong side of
the flooding river!
hastily ran down the valley to get back to the fording point. When we
reached it we noticed the river level was noticeably lower than
before – obviously due to the blockage caused by the fallen ice. We
listened to make sure there were no rumbles from the river surging
upstream before crossing as quickly as possible (I managed to slip on
a rock and got a bit wet). The locals we met on the way up were still
sitting beside the river. I tried to warn them of the danger, but I
think they just thought ‘silly foreigner’ – I’m sure they knew what
was going to happen, having seen it many times before.
finally reached the end of the valley, and watched the river from a
safe distance for signs of flooding, but none came. after half an
hour we continued our walk home, and another half hour later we could
hear rumbles from the valley we had just left – probably from the
river sorting itself out.
sunday we began hiking to another lake, laguna 69 – the views from
the lake are supposed to be spectacular. However, it was raining that
morning (which is very unusual for this time of year) and most of the
peaks were shrouded in cloud, so we only hiked for about an hour in
the rain before deciding to call it quits. We walked back down the
valley to the llangnuco lakes where it wasn’t raining. Sometimes we
had to walk on the road where there was lots of traffic – we think
was related to the markets they have in Yungay every sunday.
left the beauty of Huascaran national park on Monday and headed back
to Huaraz for our onward journey to Trujillo. Our collectivo had a
mad driver at the wheel who beeped at everything and overtook
anything on wheels. At one point there was dog crossing the road in
front of us, and when the dog didn’t get out of the way after some
beeping, the driver just ran over him. Grainne and I just looked at
each other in disbelief as we listened to the yelping dog sounds
quickly recede into the distance behind us.
our hairy bus ride we headed out to a Thai restaurant in Huaraz,
where we had some great food before getting on the overnight bus to
23 June, 2009 – Wednesday, 24 June, 2009
was only given a 30 day visa to visit Peru, so we were rapidly
running out of time. We were planning our escape strategy from Peru,
which involved getting a series of buses for a few days, to
eventually arrive in Ecuador. The first point on our journey was
Trujillo. This city made quite a contrast to Huaraz – being much
more civilized. Its not really much of a tourist city, and seems to
be full of smartly dressed business people.
is located beside some of the oldest runs in the americas. We went to
visit the oldest of these Huaca de la luna and Huaca del sol. The
impressive pyramid like structure are over 1500 years old and were
built by the Moche people. They’re still in the process of
excavating the ruins, but there was lots of interesting artwork on
the walls. The Huaca de la luna was used as a sacrifical temple,
where captured enemies were beheaded. The artworks on the wall
depicted the god of beheadings as well as other creature –
including a dragon like creature holding a decapitated head. It was
all quite interesting, if a little bit morbid. We didn’t get to visit
the other ruins in the area.
hotel we stayed in Trujillo had a great super-fast wifi connection,
so after our absence of internet in Llanganuco we spent a lot of time
online. We left trujillo on Wednesday afternoon to go to Piura where
we await a buss to take us to Ecuador.
we did each day
28 May: cross border to tacna, onward bus to arequipa arriving in
29 May: santa catalina
30 May: bus to cabanaconde – lots of colourful characters
31 May: trying to find lookout and getting lost, football match,
finding lookout (guy with face infection)
1 June: 2 more lookouts
2 June: grainne sick
3 June: grainne sick
4 June: grainne feeling a bit better so went to cruz del condor
5 June: bus back to arequipa – 6 hours, more colourful characters
6 June: museum to see juanita mummy, shopping & internet, bus to
7 June: arrive cusco early, sleep until noon, parades,
8 June: qoranchi/santa domingo, market, [[[gap hotel]], irish bar
9 June: pisac ruins and market, folk dancing show
10 June: saints go marching to cathedral for corpus christi, roasted
guinea pigs, qoranchi
11 June: corpus christi mass and processions
12 June: bus to ollantaytambo, not feelinng well
13 June: ollantaytambo ruins, train to aguas calientes
14 June: macchu pichu
15 June:back to cusco, taxi driver stopped by police, sacsaywayman
and white christ, restaurant
16 June: 1pm bus to Lima
17 June: Lima to Huaraz, strange taxi ride
18 June: Huraz->yangay->charlie’s walk to lake, guy offering
19 June: walk along llanganuco valley, mosquitos
20 June: walk in another valley, stopped by guys at entrance,
crossing river in bare feet,lots of birds and bees, avalanche, leech,
blocked waterfall, low stream(slipped), warn locals, hear roaring
21 June: plan to walk to lake 69, rain, poor views, snow up top,
walk back in valley.
22 June: peaceful walk out to lake, taxi to yungay, collectivo to
Huaraz with crazy driver who ran over a dog. thai food, Overnight bus
23 June: Internet in Trujillo, Huaca del sol and de la luna built by
La Serena and Elqui valley, Chile
caught a bus to La Serena, which we used as a base to explore the
nearby Elqui valley. As we drove north from Santiago the landscape
became noticeably drier, and cactuses became to get more common. By
the time we reached La Serena it was clear that we that we were now
in the Atacama desert – the world’s driest desert. Along the coast
there is a constant fog hanging in the air, but it never rains. The
cold Humbolt currnt from Antacrtica travels along the coast of chile
and is too cold to provide any moisture to the warm parched land in
this part of the country.
booked a day trip for Tuesday to visit the Elqui valley. This valley
is a little oasis of green in the desert, and is the home to the
Pisco drink that we drank so much of in Brannigan’s pub in Santiago.
The tour included a visit to two Pisco factories, so we were eagerly
anticipating some Pisco tasting. Pisco is made by distilling
fermented grapes, and has a similar strength to whiskey. It can be
drunk straight like whiskey, but the favored method is to mix it with
lemon juice to create a Pisco Sour, a very tasty drink. The
day trip also involved a visit to a hydroelectric dam, where some
stall-holders were selling the fruit of the copoa cactus, which we
tried. We also visited the home town of the Nobel prize winning
chilean poet, Gabriella Mistral, were we saw her grave and the house
where she grew up.
Elqui valley has over 300 cloudless days, so it is home to several
large internationally operated telescopes. Having an interest in
astronomy, I was keen to visit one, and we had organized our day trip
to visit an observatory in the evening to look at the stars.
Unfortunately this had to be canceled due to cloudiness! The weather
forecast wasn’t looking better for the following few days, so decided
we would move on to our next destination the following evening.
spent our next day visiting the town nearest La serena, called
Coquimbo. The main attraction here was the steel church designed by
the famous architect Eiffel. I had to knock on the church just to
check it really was made of steel, and yep, it did have the right
hallow sound to it. We also came across a mosque on our short visit
to Coquimbo – which was a bit odd to find in South America. The
predominant religion here is Catholicism, but Christian Evangelical
churches seem to be making an in-roads here judging by the number of
different Christian churches of different flavours we have seen so
far on our travels here.
Pedro de Atacama, Chile
May 7, 2009 – Tuesday, May 12, 2009
took a 17 hour long night bus to our next destination, San Pedro de
Atacama. This small dusty town is an oasis in the Atacama desert and
is located about 2500 meters above sea level. Its a very touristy
town, and even though we had heard it was an expensive place to eat
and stay, it didn’t seem to bad to us (probably had something to do
with it being low season). There were plenty of restaurants to choose
from and many of them had a bonfire in the middle that you could sit
around. They were all competing with each other, so it was possible
to get a nice three course set meal (drink included) for 6000 pesos
or less (about 8 euro).
planned to base ourselves here for a few days to explore the
surrounding high altitude countryside. Our first day was spent
acclimatizing to the altitude before going any higher – I knew from
previous trips that many people experience problems adjusting to high
altitude, so we weren’t going to rush it. We walked out to Pukara de
Quitor, a nearby old pre-incan fortress which was built by the
Tiwinaku culture. It reminded me a bit of macchu Picchu, but in much
drier surroundings. We stayed there until sunset when we were treated
to a full moon rising above the desert mountains.
arranged a day trip for the next day to see the salt flats and some
high altitude lakes. The Atacama salt flats are quite different to
the ones I had visited last year in bolivia (which were just flat and
white) – they have more of a brownish colour and they formed weird
shaped crystals. There were also plenty of flamingos feeding and
flying around the nearby slat lakes. We had breakfast there before
heading off to our next stop.
spent a few minutes looking at the thatched roof church in Socaire
before heading up to some lakes about 4500 meters above sea level.
the air was noticeably thinner up here – it was a bit of hard work
to walk uphill, and it was pretty cold too. Despite this, there is
still plenty of wildlife to be found up there. We spotted vicunas
(related to the alpaca), an Andean fox, and many birds. We had our
lunch up there before heading back down and stopping in the small
town of Tocanao on the way back. Theres a small canyon near the town
which is incredibly green because of the fresh water running though
it – all this greenness contrasted greatly with the completely
barren desert found only a few meters away.
organized herself to go on another day trip the following day to see
some geysers. I opted out because I had seen similar geysers in
Bolivia the year before, plus I didn’t like the idea of a 4am start
in the morning. That time of the morning is incredibly cold in San
Pedro because of the altitude and the cloudless skies. So, Grainne
went off on her trip and I slept.
the time Monday had arrived there were only a few more things we
wanted to see in San Pedro, We planned to hire bikes for 24 hours in
the afternoon, but at lunch time Grainne broke a tooth on a rice
cracker and suddenly our plans had to change. It was a tooth that her
dentist was reluctant to do anything to in case it fell apart – and
now it was in danger of doing that while we were still in Chile. We
had to find a dentist quick if the tooth was to be saved. So we
decided to leave San Pedro the following day to go to the nearest big
city – Iquique.
leaving San Pedro we took the opportunity to admire the pitch black
southern skies . So, that night we walked away from lights the town
with torches to do some star gazing and to take some interesting
photos. The milky way was very easy to see here, as well as the
Magellanic clouds. We could even see some of the northern hemisphere
stars such as The Plough (Big Dipper/Ursa Major). It was even
possible to see the faint Zodiacal light (which is formed by light
reflecting off dust in the plane of the solar system).
May 13, 2009 – Thursday, May 21, 2009
left San Pedro early on Tuesday afternoon and arrived in the coastal
city of Iquique at 10pm. We booked a hotel for the first night, but
planned finding cheaper accommodation afterwards, We got up early
next morning and headed to a dentist I found on the internet. They
had a look at Grainne’s tooth and explained that a root canal was the
only way to save it. This ended up involving 5 sessions with the
dentists on 5 different days, each session lasting over an hour.
Having her mouth open for so long caused the muscles in her jaw to
get pretty sore. On the positive side, they did their best to get it
done as quick as possible (1 week), and it cost far less to get it
done here that it would have cost in Ireland or Australia.
had a couple of changes in accommodation while we waited for the
dental work to be done. After the hotel we moved into li-ming hostal
near the central market, which was extremely basic with
non-functioning wifi, so after one night we move to “backpacker
hostel’ near the beach. This was a much nicer place with all the
facilities we could hope for, and at a good price. There were a lot
of beach-lovers and surfers passing through there, and the place had
a bar and large pool table (which had tiny pockets, so you needed to
be super accurate, and every game took ages to finish).
had plenty of time to visit the attractions of Iquique. The city
occupies a small piece of flat ground near sea level, hemmed in by
the ocean on one side and tall mountains of barren sand on the other.
It used to be part of Peru, but it was captured by Chile during the
war of the pacific, which started when the Peruvian government tried
to collect taxes from the inhabitants who were mainly Chilean in
nationality. The town boomed when nitrates were being mined in the
surrounding area and were being shipped out of Iquique’s port. A lot
of fancy houses were built using the nitrate riches, many of which
are still found on the main street – Baquedano street.
the weekend Grainne had no dental work done, so we had time to take a
shared taxi to visit the abandoned nitrate town of Humberstone. This
town looks like something out of a wild west movie, and it would have
been busting place during the nitrate boom. Nowadays it is just a
rusting collection of buildings – a school, a theatre, a hotel,
shops, a hospital (with graffiti on the wall saying such-and-such was
born in this room) lots of houses, and even a swimming pool! The
industrial buildings were at the back of the town. When there was
silence, there was an eerie emptiness in the place – all you could
hear loose corrugated iron creaking in the wind. Unfortunately a lot
of the time there was loud music being piped in the central square,
which sort of degraded the experience.
went on a boat trip out into the bay on Sunday passing colonies of
seal lions along the way. The boat trips goes out to the location
where a Chilean naval vessel called the Esmerelda sank. The sinking
of this boat on May 21, 1879 signaled the start of the war of the
Pacific and the day is now celebrated as a holiday in Chile (Navy
day). After we arrived back at the port we sat and watched some sea
lions who were sunning themselves on the quay. They were sometimes
affectionate towards each other – but they were all male, so the
object of affection usually wasn’t happy with the advances being
made, and many fights broke out as a result. Other things we did in
our week in Iquique involved visiting the long stretches of beach
near our hostel, both of us got hair cuts, and we did some shopping
at ZoFri – Iquique’s duty free shopping centre.
as May 21 is a holiday here, and we were at the place where it all
started, we were hoping there might be something on to mark the
event. I went to the tourist information office to find out what was
on, while Grainne had her last dental session. When I asked what was
on to celebrate the day, I got the response ‘why?’ which pretty much
suggested that there wasn’t going to be fireworks or anything else
more interesting than the 2 hour military parade they were going to
have, so we decided there wasn’t anything on worth sticking around
for. Grainne’s tooth was finally fixed, so we moved on to our next
destination, Arica, right at the far north end of Chile.
May 22, 2009 – Monday, May 25, 2009
only spent a night in Arica, then rented a car on Friday to explore
the high altitude parks near Putre. The bank holiday on the 21st
meant that most of the cars were already rented out, so we had to
take what was left. We ended up taking a 4 wheel drive diesel pick up
truck. We drove on the steep winding road to Putre, stopping to see
some Geoglyphs (large stone shapes placed on the hills hundreds of
years ago by indigenous Indians) along the way. We stopped at another
pre-incan fortress before we eventually arrived at the small town of
Putre, located at about 3500 meters, just before sunset.
stayed at a place called Chakana, a short distance outside the town.
The place was run by a German guy who was very friendly and helpful
at the start of our visit. He seemed to be always there to help in
the first couple of days, but we never saw him in the last couple of
days. We weren’t sure if we had done something to offend him, like
not turning up for dinner in a restaurant when we weren’t invited, or
by having dinner in a restaurant that they boycotted because they
didn’t like the owner. There were an english/australian couple there
the first couple of nights that we went out to dinner with (in the
hadn’t been at altitude in over a week, so we needed to
re-acclimatize. On our first day we went on a hike along a canyon
near our accommodation. There were lots of cacti to be seen, and I
got a little too eager photographing them that I fell on top of one
and ended up with several spiky cacti fruits stuck on my hand. It was
pretty painful removing the hook-like spikes from my hand, but
grainne helped by sharply pulling on one that was firmly embedded in
my skin and was too painful for me to pull out myself. At the end of
the hike we came across some rock painting drawn by Indians thousands
of years ago.
recovered from the cactus incident relatively quickly and in the
evening we drove out to ‘los cuevos’ a place 20km away and located at
about 4400 meters above sea level. It was quite chilly, and on the drive there we
could see ice in various shaded places near the road. When we got
there we could see lots of vicuna, and the peaks of some snow capped
volcanoes were peeping over the hills in the distance. We managed to
briefly see some viscachas (rabbit sized rodents that look like a
cross between a kangaroo and a rabbit) running on the rocks.
day we went on a longer drive to Lauca national park. We got closer
to the volcanoes, and admired them from many different angles. We
visited the high altitude village of Parinacota (spotting a viscacha
along the way), and the nearby bofedal (wetlands), as well as more
lama filled bofedal further to the north, and one of the worlds highest
lakes, chungara, near the Bolivian border. this lake had an abundance
of bird life – from flamingos, to ducks and something that looked
like a seagull.
day of driving on Monday led us to the salt flats of the Salar de
Surire. It was a long drive to get there, but we made the most of our
four wheel drive, at one stage driving through a river where the
bridge had been washed away. We passed a geyser spouting volcano and
saw plenty more lamas, vicuñas, flamingos (some of which were
black and white!) and even some ostrich-like ñandus. There
were some thermal springs there that we had a bit of a dip into. We
didn’t get to stay as long at the salt flats as we would have liked,
because it took much longer to drive there than we expected, plus we
did an awful lot of stopping along the way.
, May 26, 2009 – Wednesday, May 27, 2009
filling up our engine the old fashioned way (pouring diesel into it
from an oil cannister) we headed back to Arica on tuesday morning. We
only stopped once to site-see on the way back, at an Incan ruin half
way between Arica and Putre.
arrived back in Arica in the afternoon and planned to stay two
nights, to check out the town, to do a laundry run, and to prepare
for crossing into Peru. In Arica, we found yet another steel church
designed by Eiffel, and we climbed to a lookout point over the city
to watch sunset, where we also saw lots of red-headed vulture-like
birds circling around below us. We were then northward-bound,
heading for Peru.
What we did day by day:
4 May: bus to la serena, stayed at Aji Verde hostel
5 May: bus tour to Elqui valley
6 May: Coquimbo, bus to San Pedro de Atacama in evening, 18 hour trip
ahead of us
7 May:Arrived in San Pedro in afternoon, looked around town and
8 May: walk to Pukara de Quitor
8 May: Daytrip to Salar de atacama, tokanao, socaire, high altitude
10 May: Grainne did her trip to the geysers while I slept. museum in
11 May: lazy day, got up for late lunch, Grainne’s tooth broke,
starts at night
12 May: lunchtime bus, 7 hour journey horribly warm. arrived 10pm at
13 May: Grainne saw dentist, diagnosed root canal, wandered around
14 May: changed hostel, more dental work for Grainne, visit ZoFri
15 May: Changed hostel again, lots of travellers. Grainne gets more
dental work, got a hair cut, beach for sunset
16 May: no dentist,went to humberstone,dressed up old women singing
17 May: walked to harbour, saw pelicans along the way, boat trip,
lots of seal lions
18 May: more dental work for grainne, nice meal in sunfish hotel
19 May: more dental work for grainne
20 May: final session of dental work for grainne, ate out at same
21 May: Bus to Arica where we stayed overnight,, looked around city
22 May: Rented 4 wheel drive, drove to Putre, saw geoglyphs and a
preincan fortress on the way, dinner with australian/english couple
23 May: Walk in canyon to see indian paintings, fell on cactus, drove
to los cuevas late afternoon, uninvited to dinner
24 May: Parinacota, Bofidela, high altitude lakes, volcanoes
25 May: Salar de Surir
26 May: Went back to Arica, arrived early afternoon
27 May: Arica – watched sunset over sea from viewpoint
April 19, 2009 – Monday. April 20, 2009
left Pucon on an overnight bus on Saturday to travel to the capital
and dizzy metropolis (because of the smog) of Santiago, Chile. I was
here last year, but apart from some drinking outings with an old work
colleague (Johnathan) who was on his honeymoon, Santiago didn’t have
an awful lot to offer. We only came here this year because we had
booked a flight to easter Island on tuesday and we wanted to arrive
early to ensure we didn’t miss it. We also had plans to visit cuba
for the May day celebrations after we returned from Easter island, so
we needed to go to the embassy to get some visas to travel there.
trip to embassy was a bit of a non-event. The embassy closes at 1pm
and we got up early and took a taxi to get there. When we arrived we
were told they only accepted US dollars as payment for the visa, but
we only had chilean pesos, so we were summarily sent to a bureau de
change a mile down the road where we bought the afore mentioned
dollars (some of which I suspect were fake), When we finally got back
we queued for about half an hour before seeing the consul. It turned
out that because we wanted the visa in a short time-frame we needed
to pay double the price – in american dollars. So there we were,
with half the american dollars we needed and only half an hour before
closing time with not enough time to go back down the road and get
more. We called it quits and decided to wait until our return from
easter island to get the visas.
I mentioned before, Santiago isn’t the most exciting place in the
world. We didn’t do an awful lot else in our time there, just
wandered around the town and met some random drunk Irish guys on the
street (on a sunday afternoon) who recognised the Dublin Jersy I was
wearing with a shout of ‘are youse from dublin?’.
April 21, 2009 – Tuesday, April 28, 2009
caught an early morning flight from Santiago to Easter island (also
part of Chile), The island is a small volcanic speck located in the
middle of the pacific ocean thousands of miles from the nearest
inhabited settlement and it gets its name from the day it was
discovered by Europeans, easter sunday 1722. The island is also known
as Rapa Nui among the local inhabitants and it is mostly famous for
the large number of stone statues, called Moai, that were built by
the settlers and which later got toppled over and abandoned. Today,
many of these statues have been restored to there former glory.
history of Rapa Nui is quite interesting, and I had read about it a
few years ago in a book by Jared Diamond called “collapse”. The
island was settled by polynesians over 1,000 years ago, but unlike
other polynesian cultures they began to build Moai as a form of
ancestor worship – each Moai representing a dead former chief. The
statues are usually found along the coast, and almost all of them
face inland – overlooking the villages where people lived. As time
progressed, the island experienced a population explosion, which led
to the destruction of all of the forests on the island and
consequently the means of making any boats to leave the island.
Eventually this led to soil erosion and inter-tribal war fare which
culminated in the collapse of the Rapa Nui culture and the toppling
of all the Maoi by rival tribes. After much bloodshed the tribes
managed to find a sort of truce in the form of the ‘birdman’ cult
where the chief of each tribe sponsored a competitor in a race to
collect the first sooty-tern egg of the year from an off shore rocky
island. The winner of the competition would become the birdman for
the year and the tribe he belonged to would become the ruling tribe
for the year. After this period of history the outside world began to
encroach on Rapa Nui. Diseases brought by Europeans ravaged the
island, but the final nail in the coffin to Rapa Nui culture occurred
when some Peruvian slave ships arrived and took most of the male
inhabitants captive. After that, the island only had a few curious
visitors until the US government sponsored the building of a high
quality runway on the island – mainly to provide an emergency
landing area for the space shuttle. Nowadays there are tons of
tourists roaming the island.
arrived at the airport and were greeted by Sandra, our host for the
week, who brought us to our accommodation in the island’s only town,
Hanga Roa. She was a very firendly host who helpfully gave us
information about lots of things we could do in the area. We were
eager to see some Moai up-close, so after a quick lunch we headed out
to the nearest Ahu (an Ahu is the stone platform that the Moai stand
on). a place called Tahai. We ended up visiting this ahu quite
regularly, most often at sunset, so we have tons of photos of it.
This place also proved a popular sunset spot for other tourists,so we
never had the place to ourselves
first full day on Rapa Nui was a rainy day – a museum day, which
was good to get the history of the place. The rain had cleared, so
afterwards we headed to another nearby Ahu called Hanga Kio’e where
we were treated to a sunset with a moai without any other people
weather improved the next day so we started out on the first long
hike of our stay. We hiked past an Ahu and a cave near ocean level
which had some old cave paintings and went up to the top of the rano
kau crater. The crater is a remnant of one of the three volcanoes
that formed the island, and it was quite spectacular to look down
into the small reed covered ponds that dotted the bottom. we hiked
along the edge of the carter before arriving at Orongo village. This
place is perched between the edge of the crater and a sheer cliff
facing out to the ocean. It consists of a collection of buildings
with small doors, but it was only used as a ceremonial village back
in the times of the birdman cult. The view was pretty spectacular
here too, especially the far end where you have a volcanic crater on
one side and a steep ocean cliff on the other. The islands where the
sooty-tern nests were visible out to sea. It was hard to imagine how
people could have scaled the cliff to swim out to the island to
retrieve an egg, but somehow they managed it.
in the ocean we could see a small cloud of “cartoon rain” –
remember those cartoons where a small cloud follows one of the
characters? This form of rain is pretty common in easter island –
its a small cloud which hovers in one spot dumping lots of rain in
one location. We encountered it a few times during our stay. One time
half the garden in the house we were staying in was being drenched by
rain, while the other side of the garden was perfectly dry. It was
all a bit odd.
day we hired a small jeep type car for a day which let us explore the
eastern side of the island. We drove on a road heading east, going
carefully past the many wild horses that inhabit the island Our
first stop was Anakena, easter island’s only sizable beach. There was
a large ahu here which was home to 5 moai, many of which also had
hats (called Puka). A smaller ahu nearby had a single moai placed on
it which was restored to its standing position by an archeaologist
who wanted to demonstrate the techniques the moai-builders could have
used to make the moai stand. There was a very tropical feel to this
place, with waves crashing against the palm tree lined sandy shore.
stop was Ahu Te Pito Kura where the largest moai ever standing is now
lying face down on the ground. At 10 meters tall, It was impressively
big – its hat was bigger than Grainne! After that we visited some
rock carvings at papavaka before heading to ahu togariki which
is home to no less than 15 moai. Most of these moais had been toppled
over by a tsunami in 1960 but they had since been restored. However,
there were still a couple of fallen moai nearby.
highlight of the day was a visit to Ranu raruku where the Moai were
carved out stone from this quarry. Just before the collapse of the
Rapa Nui culture they were in the process of carving out hundreds of
the statues, but most of these never left the quarry and today they
stand like eerie stone figures rising out of the ground. Looking at
all the statues gives the impression of a culture imploding at the
height of its development. It was diverting too much energy into
making statues and not enough to making food and replanting forests –
people today certainly have a thing or two to learn from the Rapa Nui
civilization collapse. We visited many other ahu that day, as well as
the Puna Pau quarry where the hats were produced.
day we went for another hike. We walked along the northern coast of
the island. We found some lava tunnels along the way, as well as
several Ahu. This part of the island is not visited by many people
because the only way to get there is on foot and we didn’t meet any
other tourists that day. None of the Ahus in this part of the island
had been restored, so every one that we found was surrounded by
toppled moai lying broken on the ground. Looking at all these toppled
statues really gave the impression of the end of civilization. We
also saw lots of abandoned stone dwellings which added to this
impression. It reminded us a bit of the abandoned famine villages in
the west of Ireland, where farmers were forced to eek out a living on
poor quality land before everything went horribly wrong.
ended our hike back in Anakena where we had a paddle to wash away all
the dust we had collected, while enjoying the sunset, and headed
back to town by a pre-arranged taxi.
relaxed a bit more on our final few days on Easter island, visiting
Ana Kakenga cave one day, and taking a trip to the beach the next. We
also went to see a doggy B-grade movie called Rapa Nui (produced by
Kevin costner, thats how bad it was) which told a compressed version
of Rapa Nui history. The most ridiculous scene involved an iceberg
appearing from nowhere (Rapa Nui is almost in the tropics) – the
ailing chief thought this was the ‘white canoe’ that was prophesied
to take him to the next world, so he gleefully climbed to the top
waiting for it to sail away.
week after we arrived it was time to say goodbye to the island in the
middle of nowhere and head back to Santiago.
29 April, 2009 – Sunday, 3 May, 2009
had planned on traveling to Cuba and then onward to Mexico, but we
didn’t count on swine flu breaking out in Mexico. All our flights had
been booked and now we had one day to decide whether or not to go. So
we trawled the internet to find out as much information as possible
about the outbreak. It appeared that this flue wasn’t any worse than
any other flue, but that governments and people were reacting to it
in a very irrational way. In the end we decided to postpone our visit
– the Mexican government was shutting down tourists sites, so
there’d be nothing to visit, and Cuba was canceling flights to
Mexico. Cuba was the last place we wanted to get stuck, so we decided
to stay on in Chile and continue heading north.
we had to change plans and research what to do next. It took us a few
days to figure out what we were going to do – our most productive
planning session took place during happy hour in Brannigan’s pub,
with copious amounts of Pisco sour (the national drink of Chile).
I mentioned before, Santiago is not the most exciting place in the
world to visit, but it would make a reasonably good place to live.
There are plenty of shopping centers and well stocked supermarkets,
so our extended stay in Santiago was pretty easy. We took time to
relax and make use of the free wifi in the hostel. – as well as
enjoying one of their weekly BBQs, That said, Grainne still wasn’t
convinced that Santiago was as boring as I had told her, so we went
out exploring on some of the days. By the end of our stay she was
starting to understand why I thought Santiago wasn’t tourist central.
It probably had something to do with the constant smog which obscured
most of the views from the viewing points at the top of the hills in
the city, and the fact that the most exciting thing we saw in our
time there was a pirate riding a motorcycle in park O’higgins.
What we did day by day
19 April: arrived into Santiago in morning, planned trip to Cuba and
20 April: Cuban visa issues, dvd burning, getting ready for Easter
21 April: plane to Easter Island, Moai at Tahai
22 April: rained a lot, museum, sunset to ourselves at Hanga Kio’e
23 April: various Maoi in Hanga roa, Ana Kai Tangata, manavai garden,
Rano Kau crater, Orongo village
24 April: driving tour of island.Visited lots of places over 8 hours
25 April: long walk from Tahai to Anakena – end of civilisation
26 April: relaxed, Ana Kakenga in afternoon, meal in Au bout du monde
27 April: relaxed, swam, last sunset, Te Moana for dinner and watched
Rapa Nui film
28 April: flew back to santiago
29 April: Mexican flu so postponed travel plans for Central America
30 April: caught up on sleep, Santa Lucia park, Brannigans pub for
happy hour and lots of pisco sour.
1 May: looked at Quinta and Bernardo O Higgins park. BBQ at Eco
2 May: enjoyed food selection in supermarket, internetting,
3 May: same as Sat.
March 27, 2009 – April 4, 2009
We arrived to a windy Bariloche late in
the afternoon and made our way to our hostel. Bariloche (or more formally, San Carlos de Bariloche) is located at the southern end of lake Nahuel huapi and is situated right in
the middle of Naheul Huapi national park. I had been here before last year, so I already had my bearings. It was raining on and off the day we arrived, but Grainne was keen to get out and about. She wanted to do some spanish classes to help improve her spanish, so we went out to check out what various schools had to offer. I went along hoping to do some private lessons to get more confidence with speaking spanish.
While looking for one of the schools we stumbled on a gluten free shop called ‘Quinoa’ . Grainne was like a kid in a sweet shop looking at the large selection of cakes and bicuits she could eat. They even sold gluten free beer made from corn (but were temporarily out of stock), as well as argentinian specialities like alfajores, empenadas and even pizza – impressively, all are made without wheat. The lemon cake quickly became a firm favourite.
Bariloche is famous for a few things – it’s a great winter sports location, but it also has some great chocolate. If you’ve ever been to chile or argentina you know that good chocolate is hard to come by. It wasn’t long before Grainne went to try some for herself (I’m not eating much chocolate these days due to my high cholesterol levels). This time she really was like a kid in a sweet shop – a shop full of chocolate. With easter fast approaching, we were in the perfect location …
Our first couple of days in Bariloche weren’t particularly exciting, apart from having a rare encounter with another Irish couple in our hostel. We had wet weather most of the time. We didn’t have a proper outing until Sunday when we headed to a place called Llao lloa about 25km west of Bariloche and also located on the shores of lake Nahuel Huapi. There’s a fancy hotel there which has some great views of the mountains and lakes, so we decided to escape the all-too-common rain showers to admire the view while having a drink in the hotel’s cafe. When it wasn’t raining we walked in the scenic area around the hotel while practicing our Spanish conversation skills.
Sunday was also the day we moved accomodation, We had been staying in a place called marcopolo hostel, but because we planned staying for a week we looked around harder to find a good deal. The folks in Marcopolo wouldn’t give us a discount for staying for a week, so we found somewhere cheaper to stay which had in-room wifi (which maropolo advertise they have, even though they don’t). We ended up in Pudu hostel, almost across the road. Its run by an Irish couple and the hostel had great views across lake Nahuel Huapi. Probably the best thing about the place (apart from the in-room wifi) was the free irish-style scones they served for breakfast. They also had curry nights and BBQ nights during the week.
On mornday morning we were down to the serious business of Spanish lessons at ‘la montana’ Spanish school. We got up early (way too early for my liking) to take a Spanish level test.We had arrived first, but a steady stream of people kept coming through the door, and all of them wanted to start lessons that day. The woman taking our test got a bit overwhelmed by the mob. It also didn’t help that some of the teachers were sick, so that there were far too many students and not enough teachers. I was pretty adamant about wanting private lessons, because I knew from previous group lessons I had done that I wouldn’t get enough practice talking otherwise. They didn’t have enough teachers for a private class so I had to start classes on tuesday. Grainne chose to do group classes but found the first day boring when she was put in a class that had too many people at very different levels, all lower than her. We thought hard about whether or not we would return the next day, but in the end we gave them the benefit of the doubt and deferred the decision until the next day.
The next day was a bit better, I got the private lessons I wanted and Grainne’s class was alot smaller after the lowest level people were put in another class. Later in the evening we went ice-skating with some other people in the school.
We got a break from spanish lessons on Thursday, which was bank holiday in Argentina (Grainne had extra classes on Wednesday to make up the hours.) So, we decided to go back out to Lloa lloa municipal reserve which lies to the west of the hotel we had visited the previous sunday. The entrance to the first walk was guarded by an oddly coloured green jesus. There were several scenic spots along the way, such as the small congregation of arryan trees (more about these later), some nice lake-side beaches, a "hidden lake" as well as some lookout points over a lake towards the mountains. We also practiced talking alot of spanish with each other.
Friday brought our last day of lessons, and rain. We headed out for a mexican meal that evening to celebrate the end of classes. On saturday we went out west again, this time to a place called Colonia Suiza (swiss colony). It was a bit of a damp squib. The market they had there was closed, and the main specialty of this town is fondue – which neither me nor grainne could eat (I’m off cheese for cholesterol reasons, and the bread you dip into the cheese contains too much gluten for Grainne). I did try the other specialty they have here – some artisan beer, but I suspect it may not have been the best judging by the diarrhea I had soon after. The buses don’t run all that frequently here so we had lots of time to kill, so we just walked around the village – which didn’t take very long.
7 lakes, 6 nights, 5 sunny days, 4 wheels , 3 national parks, 2 people and 1 volcano
April 5, 2009 – April 11, 2009
On Sunday morning we got up early and I went out in the rain to collect a rental car which was going to be our home for the next week. Seeing as the weather wasn’t great we thought it would be a good idea to travel as far north as possible because we weren’t going to be doing any walking in the rain. Our first destination was San Martin de Los Andes, about 200km north Bariloche. We
headed out along the famous ‘7 lakes’ drive, but the bad weather meant
we couldn’t see very much. The roads were paved with mud and rubble which was only made worse by the rain. We had to return this way to go
back to Bariloche, so we just hoped the weather would be better on the
return journey (which it was).
We christened our car "The Gut" to reflect its registration number, but it did have some personality problems – it complained vigorously about traveling so far in the rain by squealing in low gears. At one point we heard loud squealing accompanied by smoke coming out from under the bonnet. It sounded like a dodgy fan belt, and all this rain was making it worse. I had to drive The Gut carefully but we eventually discovered the problem was indeed a loose fan-belt which a mechanic tightened for us the next day in San Martin.
San martin is located in a highly scenic setting at the end of a lake surrounded by high hills. Like Bariloche, its also situated in a national park – this time its "Lanin national park". We arrived late in the afternoon in the rain, so we just settled in to our accomodation.
Next day we got some information about walks in the area and walked along a hill running beside the lake to the ‘Bandurias’ lookout point overlooking the lake. This was located on land owned by a Mapuche community (indian tribal lands) so we had to pay a mapuche woman for our visit. The rain held off for most of the day, but the clouds were still low and the view from the top was quite misty, but still nice to look at. We also drove The Gut to the ‘Arrayan’ lookout point on the other side of the lake. The road leading out from the lookout point of it was quite narrow with a very steep edge, which is just perfect when your driving a dodgy rent a car and could potentially meet oncoming traffic at any moment (luckily we didn’t).
The weather began to clear the following day (tuesday), and five gloriously sunny days followed. We had decided to drive north to see Lanin volcano and luckily we had asked for information on the best spots to view the volcano in the national park office in San Martin. They guy there gave us lots of information and said that most tourists go to the lake on the south side of the volcano, but that the road to the north was in a much better condition and there are some nice walks to do there. We followed his advice and found ourselves in an area full of monkey puzzle trees. Monkey puzzles are indigenous to this area and they formed small forests in some areas. The trees are also a firm favourite of noisy squaking parrots who congregate on the trees.
We hiked up a small hill near the Chile border which had a terrific view of the volcano on one side and lake Tromen on the other. Better still we had the lookout point all to ourselves. In the two hours we spent there no one else showed up. It was a perfect day – perfect weather, great views and perfect quietness (apart from the odd woodpecker).
On the way back from the volcano we stopped in the town of Junin de los Andes to see some interesting religious statues. The statues were built by Mapuches and portrayed different aspects of the life of Jesus. Interestingly, the statue portraying the devil tempting Jesus had several faces, one of which was George bush, another ‘face’ was a mirror that I guess was meant to represent the face of the person looking at the statue.
The following day we headed back along the seven lakes drive, but this time we were treated to sunshine. We stopped at various lookout points to admire the view – which we very much appreciated after the mucky day we had the last time we came this way.
We headed back to the town of Villa Agnostura back to the shores of the largest lake in the region, Lake Nahueal Huapi. The road was being blocked by road protesters who blocked a bridge with tree branches and set something on fire beside the roadblock. So, we just turned around and went to look at some more lakes near the chile border and just hoped the police would come and move them on. When we returned the road block was still in full swing, but there were different cars sitting there this time. We waited for quite a while before they finally let us through – we guessed they had some sort of agreement with the police to let cars through every so often because there was a small police presence on the other side that didn’t seem to be doing much about the situation.
We arrived in villa agnostura late in the afternoon and dropped off our luggage into our accommodation. We then headed out to the nearby Quetrihue peninsula where we hiked to a lookout point over lake Nahuel Huapi. We were treated to a great sunset that evening.
Next day we woke up early to go hiking in the nearby Arryanes national park. The is a "park within a park", being wholly contained in Nahuel Huapi national park. It consists of a peninsula which juts out into lake Nahuel Huapi. The star attraction here is the forest of Arryan trees which lies at the very bottom of the peninsula, some 12km walk from the entrance. Arryan trees are very distinctive, having orange bark. I had been there before last year on a really touristy boat trip. Walking there instead of taking a boat was a nice change, but it did involve having to walk over 25 km in one day. Luckily it was a pretty flat walk, and we managed to avoid paying the entrance fee by starting our walk before 9am.
The following day we drove to Mount Tronodor, which lies to the south of Bariloche. The area around this mountain is very scenic, and the trees changing colour only enhanced the effect. We stayed in the luxurious hotel Tronodor which is located reasonably close to the mountain. This meant we could stay overnight and avoid having to drive out and back in to the park.
After lunch at the hotel (which came complete with a snooty waiter) we went to see the black glacier that lies at the bottom of the mountain. Its quite unusual, having distinct dark layers where the surrounding dark rocks had become embedded in the ice. The icebergs that float in the small lake in front of the glacier share the same distinctive bands, which seem to resemble a layered cake. Afterwards we walked to the unusual ‘las nalcas’ waterfall that shoots off the edge of cliff into a pool below some distance out from the edge of the cliff. It was possible to walk behind the long narrow spout of water and feel the breeze it creates as it hits the pool below.
On the drive back from the waterfall we saw a large black animal scurrying through the bushes away from us. At first I assumed it was a dog, but we saw it in the middle of nowhere far from any villages or towns, so it’s highly probable we saw a puma.
After a night of luxury we went on some of the walks located near to the hotel. We pretty much had the walks to ourselves – so they were quite peaceful (except for the wasps) and relaxing. Then it was back to Bariloche for two nights until we could catch a bus back to Chile.
Easter sunday and heading to chile
April 12, 2009 – April 13, 2009
Finally, easter sunday arrived. I had been avoiding anything containing fat and cholesterol since I started traveling after getting a ridiculously high reading for my cholesterol level. Easter sunday was the day I decided to throw the diet out the window and indulge in the cholcolate that Bariloche is famous for. We had to return the car, so we said our goodbyes to “the Gut” before heading out to a couple of chocolate shops in the hopes of acquiring another type of gut.
Bariloche’s chocolate shops are usually pretty empty, with only a handful of wide-eyed tourists browsing inside, but easter proved to be an exception, The locals were buying chocolate by the kilo, and seemingly getting each chocolate individually wrapped. Grainne got stuck behind one guy who was individually choosing chocolates to put in a large box, and repeatedly changed his mind. We spent over an hour in various queues, but when I eventually got to taste the chocolate it was definitely worth the wait! I stuffed myself silly with chocolate that day.
In the afternoon we went by bus to the bottom of a hill called “campanario” where we took a cable car to get the summit which has a spectacular 360 view of the surrounding lake district. It was quite cloudy, but the rays of sunlight streaming through the clouds only added to the views. National geographic described this location as being one of the 10 best views in the world. Given the number of nice views I have come across in my travels to date I’m not sure if that’s strictly true – but it was quite nice to sit in the cafe at the top eating chocolate cake (at least I was breaking the diet in style!) and looking out at the myriad of lakes and hills surrounding us.
Next day it was time to say adios to the Argentinian side of the lake district as we headed back into Chile. We took the bus from Bariloche to Orsono crossing the border just north of villa agnostura. This crossing is highly scenic, and also has one of the longest ‘no mans land’ between land based border posts that I have come across so far – we drove for about 40 minutes after leaving the argentian border post before we arrived at the chilean side. On the way to Orsorno we could see the volcano of the same name on our right hand side. If you ignore the looming volcano, you could almost imagine you were back in Ireland – the landscapes are surprisingly similar.
We didn’t stay too long in Orsorno seeing as its not much of a tourist town. We hopped on the first bus out of there to Pucon, where we arrived at 11pm at night. We had nothing booked, but luckily there were plenty of hospedaje owners there touting places, so we just went along with one of them, a friendly woman called Monica.
April 14, 2009 – April 17, 2009
We had only intended to stay with Monica for one night because we had some planning to do and wanted to use WIFI which was available in some of the other hostels in the town. I told Monica we were going to change to another place early in the morning before I headed out in search of alternative accommodation, but in the space between me going out to look for something and returning she had gone out and bought a WIFI router. This caught me a bit off guard because I had just told another hostel owner we would be going to his place shortly. We ended up staying with Monica for the following four days even though there were quite a lot of teething problem with the WIFI. She made a huge effort to make sure we were happy. She was also good for practicing our spanish with – we spent an evening chatting with her in spanish along with a guy who was half Italian and half Argentinian. She even washed our clothes for free. We felt she deserved more than the cheap prices she was charging so we gave her a present when we left to show our appreciation.
This was my second time in Pucon. I had come here last year to climb the nearby Villarrica volcano but my plans were thwarted by bad weather, so i thought it would be good to return and try again. On tuesday we headed to one of the tour agents who organise tours to the volcano and booked a trip for the following day. We tried on boots and other gear before spending the rest of the day wandering around the town.
We awoke early on wednesday morning to sunshine – perfect weather for volcano hiking. In fact it was probably the best weather they had all week. The hike began at 8am as we headed to the base of the volcano by bus. We soon began our ascent up the steep slopes of gravelly soil. In the winter they have skiing here, but the ski lifts were closed so we had to hike up the hard way (the ski lifts go 1/4 of the way up). A few hours of hard work followed until we reached ice about half way up. At this point we had a quick bite to eat before donning our crampons and continuing the ascent. The slope was quite steep in parts, but the crampons kept us from sliping. Unfortunately I had a bad habit of hitting the crampons on my two feet together and I ended up face first in the snow a few times. After the end of the ice section we had a steep scramble up rubbly volcanic rocks to finally reach the summit. We were treated to some great panoramic views there, and got to see the steaming volcanic vent which periodically sent sulphur fumes our direction. After having some lunch and a good look around we began our descent. I had been looking forward to the possibility of sliding down the ice
in the small taboggan type thing they provided, but the ice turned out
to be too slippy so we just had to descend the old fashioned way – one
step at a time. The descent was much quicker than the uphill struggle because the snow was quite fluffy so there was little to fear from falling, and the gravelly soil meant that every step also involved sliding a bit further downhill. We got back down the mountain in about 2 hours, but it had taken about 4 hours to ascend. We had some well deserved beers back at the tour office were we talked with our trekking companions about the day and our travels.
We were pretty tired and exhausted the next day so we headed out on a local bus to Los Posones thermal baths to ease the pain in our aching muscles. The baths were outdoor and located beside a river with a steep walk downhill to get there. We could feel our muscles groan with the aching on the walk downhill. The water in the baths was a bit too hot at times for my liking so I spent as much time out of the water as in it, but Grainne was pretty pleased with being able to submerge in warm water.
Enough of the relaxation – we went walking again the next day. This time we headed to a national park called Huerquehue. We wanted to visit some of the lakes in the park so we started hiking towards them. We didn’t realise to get to them we would be faced with a long walk going uphill almost the whole way. If we had known that we probably would have opted for staying by the shores of the lake near the entrance to the park. Anyway, there were a few scenic lookouts and waterfalls to admire along the way. At the top we found lakes surrounded by monkey puzle trees, as well as a couple dead mice along the paths that seemed strangely intact. Its as if the mice just collapsed in a heap on the path. The highlight of the trip was seeing a strange brown animal with long ears sitting on the path some distance in front of us. It looked a bit like a fox with long ears, but after a lot of googling we still haven’t managed to find out what it was. It moved far to quickly for us to get a decent photo.
We had a nice lie-in on our final day in Pucon. When we eventaully managed to wake up we went out and looked around the town taking in the sites such as the christ redeemer statue on a hill to the south and the harbour area. We even gave some argentinans directions to the tourist office in spanish. Then, after some dinner in a arabic restaurant in Pucon, we headed back to our hospedaje, said goodbye to Monica and headed to the nearby bus station to get the night bus to Santiago.
What we did each day:
Friday, 27 March: Arrive
Bariloche,Grainne find ceoliac shop
Saturday, 28 March: Rain, Ceoliac beer,
chocolate, talking to other Irish couple
Sunday, 29 March: Changed accomodation,
Monday, 30 March: Spanish school,
grainne not happy with classes
Tuesday, 31 March: First day of classes
for me, ice skating
Wednesday, 1 April: second day of
classes, grainne gets extra class
Thursday, 2 April: Llao llao municipal
park, Green Jesus
Friday, 3 April: Last day of classes
Saturday, 4 April: Colonia suiza
Sunday, 5 April: Rented car for a week,
Raining all day, 7 lakes drive, car trouble, arrive san martin de los
Monday, 6 April: look out points
Bandurias and arrayan, car repair
Tuesday, 7 April: Volcan Lanin, monkey
puzzles, views over lake Tromen, Religious statues
Wednesday, 8 April: drive to villa
agnostura, road protests, sunset, supermarket incident
Thursday, 9 April: arrayan forest
Friday, 10 April: Hotel tronador, Black
glacier, pampa linda, de las nalcas waterfall, puma
Saturday, 11 April: Day walk in area
Sunday, 12 April: Returned car,
chocolate shopping, Campanario lookout
Monday, 13 April: Leave Bariloche, 4
hour wait in Orsorno, Arrive Pucon
Tuesday, 14 April: Change hostels?
Wifi. Booking volcano tour, walking around pucon,sunset
Wednesday, 15 April: Volcan villarrica
Thursday, 16 April: Los Posones Thermas
Friday, 17 April: Huerquehue national
Saturday, 18 April: Late morning, wandering around pucon, leave on night bus to santiago
March 3 – March 9, 2009
spent a few hours in El Calafate before catching the late afternoon
bus to El Chalten. The main things we needed to do in El Calafate
were to take out more Argentinian money and to taste the calafate
berry sorbet. According to a local saying : whoever tastes the
calafate berry will return – in my case this has already proved
arrived in El chalten late in the evening and took up residence in a
hostel where the bus dropped us off. El chalten is conveniently
located in a small valley beneath the towering Fitzroy mountain
range. Unfortunately this valley acts like a wind tunnel – there
always seems to be a gale of wind blowing through the valley and it
always blows in the same direction. I had visited this place
before, but I enjoyed the day-hikes in the area, so i didn’t mind
coming back to spend a longer time in the area admiring the scenery.
town is located near the border with Chile and was founded relatively
recently so that Argentina could claim territorial rights over the
area. The town is still in the process of being built and building
sites are everywhere. Last year there was no ATM here so you needed
to bring all the money you needed with you – I was very surprised
to see a new ATM this year near the entrance to the town beside the
place where they’re building a new bus station. I guess el chalten will be firmly on the tourist map for years to come.
Fitzroy peak dominates the mountain range and is flanked by numerous
other glaciated peaks. Most of the walks out of the town involve a
steep climb uphill before coming to flatter ground as you approach
the peaks. My favourite walk in the area is the hike to laguna torre
where you walk towards a glacier crossing over a series of three
moraines along the way. At the end you reach a small lake which sits
in front of a glacier flowing down from the peaks. Another good walk
leads up to a lookout point where the whole range is in full view.
There is also a lake nearby which is nice to sit beside and watch
reflections from the mountains. We were pretty lucky to have a clear
day doing that- when i did it last year it was raining and most of
the peaks were covered in cloud when I reached the lookout.
of most interesting and challenging walk proved to be one that in
theory should have been the easiest and boring. We chose to walk to
Lago Viedma, a large lake that lies in the steppes beyond the base of
the mountain range. Along this trail the peaks of the Fitzroy are
hidden by the foothills. For this reason its definitely not the most
popular track, and in fact we didn’t meet anyone else there (unlike
other tracks where you would meet someone every ten minutes or so).
Its probably a track that people would go on when they had exhausted
all the others – we only did it because the buses here don’t go
daily so we got stuck here a little longer than expected and we had
done all the other walks.
trail started interestingly enough. We passed though a landscape of
huge terraces which look like they had formed during different
periods of glaciation. Towards the bottom of the terraces the path
began to gradually disappear, until it vanished completely. It was
around this time I began to feel a stinging sensation on my chest –
a wasp had crawled in there and decided to sting me. As I tried to
get it out it kept stinging, so I resorted to taking off the bag I
was carrying and my t-shirt to get rid of it. I ended up with four
red bumps on my chest, but luckily the pain was no worse than a
nettle sting and it stopped hurting pretty quickly.
was out to prickle us that day, even the plants. We could see the
lake in the distance so when the path became extinct we were forced
to go cross-country. Unfortunately most of this country proved to be
full of prickly bushes. Even when we managed to negotiate our way
around the bushes we would periodically run into marshy land where
our feet would get drenched. So most of the last part of the trek was
spent walking in the narrow stretch of ground between the prickles
and the marsh. Every so often the track would resurrect itself
temporarily, just before dying out again.
eventually reached the lake where we relaxed (while Grainne made
friends with a kitten we found there) before heading back on our
non-existent track. We thought going back might be easier, we knew
what was coming up. However, we chose to walk beside the fence that
ran the whole way from the start of the track to the lake. There was
a slight hint of a trail there, but of course this eventually
vanished too – right at the base of ridiculously steep hill full of
prickly plants. We had several failed attempts to ascend the slope
before giving up and trying to go around it instead. We managed to
pick up another trail which successfully got us out of the marshes
and prickly bush region. We thought it wasn’t a good idea to stop
for too long on the way back – daylight would soon be ending, an
the half eaten hares we found suggested there might be pumas in the
area! We ended our hike with tons of scrapes from the bushes and lots
of prickly seeds embedded in our shoes and clothing, which I’m still
finding nearly 3 weeks later.
in el chalten we also took some time to rest for a bit. We did some
of the shorter walks – one to a waterfall on one of the wetter
days, and one up to viewing point over the town which also provides a
good view of the mountain range. All this walking was starting to
take its toll – i was getting quite red from chafing from my trousers
which must be made from some cheap material. We
also needed to time to figure out what we were going to to do next.
In the end we decided we would cross back into Chile.
Crossing into Chile
March 10 – March 11, 2009
left El Chalten by overnight bus heading to Los Antiguos, the cherry
capital of Argentina, situated on the shores of Lake Buenos Aires. The
town is close to the chile border, so it proves a convenient point at
which to cross over. On the bus from El Chalten we placed bets on
when the first poo would be done in the bus toilet that we were
sitting beside – last year when I did this journey the whole bus
smelled, so this time around we were pre-armed with lots of smelly
stuff like aftershave. I’m pretty glad to report that neither of us
won and that the entire journey was smell free (well apart from the
usual backpacker odours).
in Los antiguos we pretty much repeated all the activities I had done
the last time I was here (see my March 2008 archive) – seeing the
lake and buying fruit from one of the many farms in the area. Next
morning we got up and caught a minibus to cross over the border and
had some lentils confiscated from us by customs officials who don’t
let fruit and veg into Chile. We arrived in Chile Chico about an hour
after leaving Los Antiguos 8km away – our quickest border crossing
chico is the first town I visited on this trip so far that I’ve never
visited before. It was bit strange not knowing where to go for
hostels/buses as I’d had over a month having prior knowledge of the
places we were visiting, but now I was now happily moving into
chico is located on the shores of lake general carrerra – the same
lake los antiguous is located on, but it has a different name on the
Chilean side. The lake is situated only a few blocks from the centre
of the town and gives a nice scenic backdrop to the town when viewed
from the lookout point on a hill near the main square. Near the
lookout point theres an elaborately decorated statue of the virgin
mary. There are two routes out of chile chico, one by a long road
that winds around the lake, but the option we chose was to catch the
ferry across the lake. The boat doesn’t run every day but we had
timed it so that we’d have one day to explore the town and would
leave by boat the next day.
March 12 – March 22, 2009
We crossed lake General Carrera by boat to reach puerto ibañez where most people piled onto the minibuses that would bring us to the biggest town in the region, Coyhaique. A old local woman we saw, who must have been over 70, had a different mode of transport home. She didn’t appear to be the most agile person I’ve ever seen, but nonetheless she donned bikers leathers and a helmet and managed to swing her leg over a reasonably large bike to sit, legs astide, behind the similarly aged guy who was giving her a lift. Fair play to her. Our minibus then traveled through some spctacular mountain scenery to reach Cothaique where we would begin our trip on the Carretera austral.
The Carretera Austral is a road built under the orders of General
Pinochet back in the 80s. It was intended to connect the communities
in the far south of Chile with each other and the rest of the
country. It also provided a convenient way of transporting the army
around so that it could better prevent neighbouring Argentina from
chipping away at Chilean territory, like they had done with el
calafate. It has the added bonus that it travels through some impressively scenic areas – most of the road travels through small valleys lying between towering mountains and it often skirts along the edges of pretty lakes and fjords.
is the largest town in this part of chile and its central section is
laid out in an unusual pentagonal design which sometimes makes it
easy to get a bit lost, even armed with a map. The one good feature
of the central pentagonal plaza is that the park had free wifi
access, unfortunately its cold and wet most of the time in this part
of chile so its hard to sit outside and use it most of the time. We
headed to the information centre in the main pentagon before looking
for somewhere to stay. The day we arrived was mostly spent
finding out information for our trip along the carretera.
saturday we headed out by taxi to the nearby Coyhaique reserve. It
was quite cold, in fact there was a blanket of freshly fallen snow lying on the
tops of the surrounding mountains. The reserve itself was almost
completely devoid of other people and we pretty much had the hiking
trail to ourselves. The reserve lies on a foothill of a larger
mountain overlooking the town and there were some nice views over
the town, as well as picturesque lake to admire.
Next day we headed out, by bus, to a small port town called Puerto Aisen. Well, its a strange sort of port. Its located in a highly scenic valley, but it was a bit odd to see all these fishing boats around with not a drop of the sea in view. The port sits on a river near the end of a long fjord, and most of the boats are moored along the river. The place used to be an important port many years ago, but the river silted up and the port moved further downstream, closer to the fjord.
Our daytrip to Puerto Aisen got off to a bad start when we sat waiting in the bus station for nearly an hour and a half. The bus was due to leave at 11.30 but when it didn’t turn up on time we put it down to roadworks which are pretty common in this part of Chile. It wasn’t until 12pm when I noticed other people being told that the next bus was due to leave at 11.30 that I began to get suspicious. I asked again, then I suddenly realised what the problem was – the clocks had changed because it was the end of summer time. We’d turned up an hour too early. I had forgotten that the clock changes here aren’t necessarily on the last Sunday of March, and we hadn’t bothered to check when the change would happen. We felt like a pair of idiots.
We wandered around the scenic Puerto Aisen for a few hours. We visited the local cemetery which had some interesting mausoleums that looked like houses before going down some small country roads. We crossed over a suspension bridge and shortly after stopped for lunch by the side of the river. It was at this point that our rain gear got its first serious test. It began to rain quite heavily and we were at least 40 minutes walk from the bus stop. We headed back to the bus in the rain. I’m happy to say my trousers were very good at keeping out the rain, however my ‘water resistant’ coat didn’t do as well, leaving my top half a bit wetter than I’d like. Grainne had the opposite problem. Her coat was fine, but ended up with wet legs.
We had been planning to rent a car for a few days starting on Monday, but they had run out of smaller cars and the only ones left where 4X4 that were much more expensive to rent than we were willing to pay. We wanted to drive to some places on the carretera austral that we thought would be hard to get to otherwise. So we dumped the idea of renting a car and decided to take the bus instead and try to get private transport when we got further up the road. It turned out we made the right decision – after a few hours driving along the bumpy unpaved road in the bus the idea of driving on it in a small car would not have been appealing. We booked the bus for the following day, which left us with a free afternoon. We headed out to rio simpson national park which we disappointed to find out it had no accessible trails, however we also visited the nearby ‘cascada de la virgen’, a waterfall dedicated to the virgin Mary. There’s a large Mary statute nearby with a sheltered place for lighting candles and leaving offerings. The devout beep their horns as they pass the shrine. The first time we noticed a passing car beeping we thought they were beeping at us to get off the side of the road. When other cars beeped aswell, even when they couldn’t have seen us, we figured it must have something to do with the shrine. I suppose it a much safer than the irish practice of blessing oneself when passing a church or graveyard, removing a hand from the steering wheel in the process.
Tuesday was St.Patrick’s day and we spent most of the day on the bus from Coyhaique to Puyuhuapi, a small village further north along the carreterra. We hadn’t a hope of finding an Irish pub here, so we settled for a cheap carton of wine instead. At least the weather was typical for an Irish paddy’s day – lots of rain. We had arrived in the early afternoon and found somewhere to stay in a hospedaje (kind of like a bed and breakfast) near the place where the bus dropped us off. When I inquired about whether or not they had any space I was asked if I was Isreali. Apparently saying no was the correct answer, as a few people turned up the next day and were told the place was full, even though there were tons of empty rooms in the house. It seems people around these parts don’t like Isrealis, and after a while I was beginning to understand why.
It’s common for Isrealies to go traveling when they finish their compulsory military training, which they do after finishing school and before entering college. It seems that their favourite destinations are Patagonia and Nepal, mainly because these fit young people like trekking, and these are the best places in the world to go for trekking. The carreterra in particular must get a great write up in the Isreali
version of the Lonely Planet given the number of Isrealis straight out
of army service that we encountered there. About 95% of the travelers
on the busses in the area were from Isreal, even though it only has a
population of about 7 million. Unfortunately the young Isrealies have an annoying habit of traveling in packs which ended up impacting on us in several ways (more about this later). And, as you might have guessed,a gang of noisy young people are not the most sought after customers by most of the people running the hotels and hospedajes around here. I heard a story from an Australian couple I met later that one group they saw sent one guy out to hitch for a lift while the others remained hidden. A car eventually pulled up to give a lift to the guy who looked like he was alone, only to see a gang of people jump out from the bushes. The car understandably sped away as quick as possible, as I’m sure I would have done in the same situation.
The small village of Puyuhuapi is located at the end of the picturesque ventesquero fjord. We planned to use the town as a base to explore the surrounding area, and we were there for a few days because the buses don’t run regularly in that part of the world. We took a shared ‘chilexpress’ taxi to Queulat national park to see the ventisquero glacier This is an unusual ‘hanging glacier’ which sits in a high valley with a large cascading waterfall coming out from underneath. We hiked up to a viewing point overlooking the valley the glacier hangs into (seeing woodpeckers and hummingbirds along the way) and waited in anticipation to see if a piece of the glacier would fall into the valley below. We weren’t lucky enough to witness this event, but we returned two days later for second try. Second time around we stayed a bit longer and did some of the other shorter walks in the area. We also decided to try walking along a longer trail ignoring the sign saying the track was closed, but we eventually turned back as there didn’t seem to be anything interesting on this trail, just lots of steep and slippy hill climbs and leeches! On other days in Puyuhuapi we just walked around the town, and managed to spot several hawks and a kingfisher, as well as lots of typical rural scenery (sheep, cows etc…). We also made use of the free wifi they had in a park opposite the town hall – a pretty unexpected bonus in such small place miles from anywhere.
The following Saturday afternoon we caught the bus to Futeleufu, a town near the Argetinian border. Our original plan had been to continue traveling up the carretera until will literally ran out of road. However, our plans were thwarted by the Chaiten volcano which was very much still active. Its most recent eruption, which happened last February, sent out a cloud of ash that landed in Futeleufu. While were were there we noticed lots of the white powdery ash still covering many of the plants, as well as lying accumulated in certain areas. While in Futeleufu we met a scientist who was studying the effects of the volcano. Apparently the volcano is expected to erupt again sometime soon, and next time its going to be bigger. We just hoped we wouldn’t be too close when that happened.
We arrived into the town late at night and were not happy when all the Israelis on our bus quickly piled off the bus and took all the beds in the hostel where the bus stopped. I spent quite a long time going from place to place in the dark trying to find somewhere to stay for the night, only to be told repeatedly that they were full. Now it isn’t exactly high season around here given the pretty cold temperatures, so I’m pretty sure they couldn’t all have been full. There weren’t exactly hordes of tourists around here other than the Israelis and us. I suspect the people were just turning away all foreigners because of the ‘Israeli effect’. By the end I resorted to making my nationality pretty clear before I asked for a room, just in case, and eventually we fond somewhere to stay.
We were pretty hungry after our journey so we went out for something to eat in a restaurant near the bus stop. During my search for accomodation I had noticed a strange cross lit in the distance. We thought it was worthy of further investigation, so we began a ‘pilgrimage’ by ‘following the light’, passing a saint’ (a St. Bernard dog, that is) along the way before reaching the bottom of a dark hill. We climbed the hill and came upon a shrine to Mary. Unusually, this shrine had lots of flashing lights which played Christmas carols (in the middle of march?). Hmmm, there certainly are lots of strange religious things in south america, and this is yet one more example.
Next morning we explored the town and its surroundings. The town looks quite different in the daylight and it has a small lake nearby which provides the setting for a duck gangland war. While we were there one gang approached the other and they had a bit of a face off before the other gang retreated and were chased by the others. Who knew ducks lived such interesting social lives.
Futeleufu is a popular spot for rafting and kayaking, but we weren’t to keen to try these activities in the cold temperatures we had that day, so after admiring the town’s scenic surroundings for one day before heading over the Argentinan border the next day.
Esquel and Los Alereces national park
March 23 – March 26, 2009.
We arrived in Esquel before midday on Monday morning and made a beeline to a hostel we had spotted near the bus station. We hoped to get there before all the Israelis who were on the bus, but as it turned out, they were going en masse elsewhere. We wanted to stay in the nearby Los Alereces national park and went looking for information Our best option was to try camping out, so we hit the supermarket and prepared for a few days of campiing. We got up earl next morning to catch the bus but found out that they didn’t go every day and that there was no other formof transport in the park. We either had the choice of coming back the following day or to stay until Saturday. We deferred our decision until later.
When we arrived the park we hired equipment and set up camp. We were the only people camping at the campsite which had pretty cute puppys. Later we headed out on a long, but reasonably uninteresting walk. to some unimpressive small waterfalls The scenery was nice enough but by this stage we had been spoilt by all the amazing scenery we had seen elsewhere in Patagonia. We managed to see some baby alerece trees which are long living and grow incredibly straight – baby alerce trees look like telegraph poles. That night we cooked dinner over an open fire. It took us over two hours to get the fire lit and hot enough to boil water. In the end we decided we wouldn’t stay until saturday – the walks in the area just weren’t interesting enough and we just weren’t patient enough to wait so long for food to cook.
The bus back to Esquel was in the evening and Grainne had pre-booked a boat trip to see the old alerce trees further north in the park. This left me with a day to myself. I packed up all our stuff and went for a walk when I randomly came upon a place called ‘Pinturas Respuestres’ pretty close to our campsite. This rocky outcrop formed a small hill that I went up to get some nice views of the surrounding area, There were also some rock paintings at the base of the rocky hill that were geometric in design and date back about 3000 years. This short walk turned out to be much more interesting than the one i had done the day before. I spent the rest of the day resting near the nearby lake and doing some short walks. I then met up with grainne on the bus back to Esquel.
Our final day in esquel was a laundry day which was pretty uneventful. We visited the unirish kilkenny Irish bar to take advantage of the free wifi. I had a beer while Grainne had sex on the beach. Next day we headed to Bariloche.
Broing day to day description of what we did
3 Mar: bus to El Calafate, shopping+money getting, bus to El Chalten.
4 Mar: rainy, walked to Chorilla del Salta waterfall, relaxed in
5 Mar: walked to Laguna Torre, looked at Glaciar Torre, wind, puma
6 Mar: easy day to research plans, write blogs, rest legs
7 Mar: walked towards the bottom of Cerro Poincenot, passing mirador
of Fitzroy+neighbours. Also Lake Capri
8 Mar: most eventful walk, to Lake Viedma at Bahía
waist-high thorny bushes, kittens, hares, eaten hares
9 Mar: postcard day, in hostel while waiting for 23.25 night bus to
Tue 10 Mar: los antiguos
Wed 11 Mar: cross border to chile chico
12 Mar: boat to Puerto Ibañez,
bus to Coyhaique.
13 Mar: supermarket, rain, local museum, Pioneer Place
14 Mar: Coyhaique national reserve
15 Mar: Puerto Aisen, walked out past bridge to river. boats,
cemetery with little houses, got soaked
16 Mar: planned to hire car, but needed big truck so decided to bus
to Puayhuapi instead. took bus to Cascada la Virgen instead. also rio
simpson nat park.
17 Mar: 8am bus to Puyuhuapi. Celebrated paddys day with $2 wine and
staying on Bernardo O Higgins St
18 Mar: sunny warm day, Queulat National park in morning. Explored
Puyuhuapi in afternoon
19 Mar: caught up on sleep, then wandered around shore in uyuhuapi.
20 Mar: Parque Queulat again.
21 Mar:morning wifi in park,caught bus to futeleufu,changing money
with germans,problems finding accomodation,following the sign of the
22 Mar:exploring futeleufu, finding volcanic dust, meeting scientist
23 Mar:bus to esquel,making decisions about going to park
24 Mar:fbus to parque natiocional los alerces, cinco saltos walk,
lots of flies, cooking dinner on a fire
25 Mar:grainne goes on boat by herself,I see cave paintings, wander
around lake, bus back from park
26 Mar:laundry day
Yep, I’m back on the road again. I’ve noticed my blog was starting to become a bit boring, so this time around I’m going to avoid the boring day by day description of what i did and try sticking to my original goal of describing the quirky things I’ve seen and done along the way. I’ll only describe the boring bits if it helps to fill in the context. I’ll’ finish each blog with the boring day to day summary for my own benefit.
I spent a month in Australia catching up with Grainne and other friends before it was back on the plane to South America – first stop Buenos Aires. Grainne had left three days before me because of difficulties in coordinating our flights, and left me the fine job of clearing out all the stuff she had left behind in her apartment. I got up early on february 14th to clear out the rest of Grainne’s stuff before heading to the airport to get the 11am flight to Buenos Aires. I ended up having the longest valentines day ever, and not just because I spent the end of it with Grainne (only kidding) – I had crossed over the international date line. I arrived in Buenos Aries at 11 am on valentines day.
I wasn’t in Argentina long before all the memories of the most annoying things about this country flooded back :
– shop assistants constantly asking for change, but you don’t have any because you gave it away in the last shop who wanted it
– ATMs that only dispense a maximum of about 100 dollars at a time and charge you 4 dollars for each transaction (thats if you’re lucky enough to find an ATM that takes your card)
– Supermarkets with a surprising choice of pasta, tomato sauces and little else.
We ended our valentines day at the Cafe Tortini tango show, complete with greasy haired Latino men and dolled up Porteno women (people of Buenos Aires call themselves portenos). The highlight of the show wasn’t the dancing, but the interval act which consisted of two guys whirling around little balls attached to the ends of pieces of string which made interesting percussionary sounds when they hit the ground. We were quite impressed that they managed to avoid knotting themselves up in string, and quite relieved that the little balls didn’t fly off the string into the audience.
Next day Grainne was keen to visit ‘Tierra Santa’ – the bizarre religious theme park I had visited last time I was here. We carefully avoided the young, scruffily dressed boy at the bus stop who was playing with a big knife and opted to get a taxi there instead. Last time I went to ‘Tierra Santa’ it was cool and relatively crowd free. This time around it was hot and the queues were surprisingly long. We wandered through the plastic replica palm trees and visited the various shows in the theme park – such as “creation” where biblical creation mythology is played out using flowing water, lasers, dry ice and a gorilla who gives the audience ‘the finger’. The strangest show is ‘resurrection’ where a giant sized Jesus rises from the dead every hour to the music of hallelujah.
Next day we took a flight to el calafate. where I had also been before. It ws surprisingly colder than last year, but that have something to do with having been in Buenos Aires and Australia where temperatures were around 30C.
The main attraction in El Calafate is the massive Perito Moreno glacier, one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. Last year the glacier had reached up to the headland where people view it from. This blockage cuts off the natural flow of water between two lakes, and last year this natural dam was dramatically broken (sometime after i had visited it) and there was now a big gap where before there was glacier
We didn’t stay too long in El Calafate, but headed south to the Chilean town of Puerto Natales. This is the place most people go to arrange a trip the Torres del Paine national park. Grainne was feeling brave and decided she could deal with the cold, so we decided we would try camping there. We ended spending 10 days there.
The Torres del Paine mountain range is separated from the main belt of the Andes by Lago Grey (Grey Lake) and at 11 million years old, it is much younger range. It has many impressive jagged peaks, lots of glaciers and gets its name from the large towers (Torres in spanish) that dominate the park. I had been here before but i was keen to come back and have a longer, more relaxed stay this time around.
We spent our first night in a refugio (kind of like a hostel in mountains) before crossing an iceberg littered Lago Grey to get to our first campsite near the Grey glacier. Last time i came here I had done it as a day walk, so I only managed to stay in the area for about 30 minutes (in the rain) before I headed off again. I was keen to spend more time beside the glacier. It was a great location as we spent the best part of the next three days walking in the area and admiring the glacier from different angles. Every day we would wake up to find a different iceberg floating past our campsite. High above the campsite we could see white peaks showing above the trees, and at night when the clouds cleared we were treated to pitch black skies studded with hundreds of stars and the wispy white Milkyway galaxy. It wasn’t all roses though: the toilets were often broken, the picnic tables weren’t the cleanest and there was only one shower where you had to queue for ages to use it (but it did have hot water). It rained quite a lot there too, but probably worst of all was the coldness at night – well a huge block of ice nearby tends to do that sort of thing. Each evening we cooked our own food using the cooking equipment we had rented – but the food was mostly tinned or dried so the meals didn’t tend to be very exciting.
Our original plan was to camp for a few days, to do some day hikes in the area we were staying in, and then move to a different location by boat or bus – and we packed accordingly (ie. our bags were heavy). In a fit of madness we decided it might be a good idea to try walking along the trails to one of the other campsites (Lago Pehoe) with our ridiculously heavy backpacks. So next day we got up reasonably early and began toiling along the 11km path to the next camp, heavy bags in tow, going up some pretty steep slopes. We managed the steep bits fine, and were quite proud to be doing so well without feeling too sore or tired. It was about half way through the walk when we began to question our decision – we had reached the highest point of the walk. We had to walk through a narrow pass in the hills where the wind was being funneled through. We were barely able to stay upright, and our huge backpacks didn’t help – they just increased our surface area and pretty much turned us into heavy kites! I got through the windiest bit and went back to help Grainne, who sat down to wait for the wind to ease (which wasn’t going to happen any time soon). I tried putting her backpack on put got blown in the wind and awkwardly landed on an angled rock where I hurt my ankle. We still had another 2 or 3 hours of walking ahead of us, so this was not a good time to twist an ankle. I kept walking on but I wasn’t to keen to stop for any length of time in case my ankled cooled off leaving me unable to walk (this had happened to me once before).
It was a big relief when we saw the topaz blue of Lago Pehoe (Lake Pehoe)
We were both pretty relieved to reach our destination at Lago Pehoe. My ankle starting hurting when it cooled down soon after I stopped walking. Luckily it wasn’t too bad the next day. That night we treated ourselves to well deserved bottle of wine. I also got a 3 course meal at the nearby Refugio (unfortunately the food had too much meat and wheat for grainne).
We spent the next day recovering from our long hike, visiting a nearby river and watching a family of upland geese. The day after we walked to Valle Frances (French valley), through sun and rain, and jumped over lots of mucky puddles along the way. When we reached the valley we sat down in the howling wind and gazed at the glacier that fills the middle of the valley. Much to my relief I managed to convince Grainne that we wouldn’t have time to get to the top of the valley.
We spent a total of three nights at lago pehoe before getting the boat that crosses the lake heading to our final camping spot at Torre Central campsite. We hiked to a flat calm leech infested lake the afternoon we arrived, but Grainne got a bit grumpy with herself after she didn’t get up early enough next morning to set out on the hike to the lookout point for the Torres. I was reasonably happy to skip that particular hike given that I had done it before and it involves a scramble up some pretty steep rocks at the end. The weather was pretty wet and cloudy so I doubt the view would have been great anyway.
We decided to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner in a restaurant that evening. After a week of slumming it in tents and cooking it was quite a contrast to have a three course meal with expensive wine. It was amusing to watch another couple of backpackers share a meal for one while we had no expense spared.
We had exhausted most of the best walks by our last day in the park and headed out on one of the tracks that form the O track. It wasn´t the most exciting walk of the trip, and I began to lose enthusiasm quickly when the rain set in. We returned our our tents following a newly forming river that had discovered the track we were walking on was better than its old river valley. We speculated if this bit of geology in action might one day become a mighty river. We thought it appropriate to name the new river after its discoverers, ourselves – and so it became named the mighty Grandrew river.
Next day we returned to Puerto natales to some boring stuff like laundry and interneting before heading back to Argentina and on towards the fitzroy mountains.
My blog stops here as we´re finding it difficult to find time to update blogs, theres just too many other things we´d rather be doing. More will come later…..
Boring day by day stuff
Saturday 14 Feb: traveled to Buenos aires, dinner and tango show at night
Sunday 15 Feb: visited Punte de Mujer bridge, docklands, Tierra Santa
Monday 16 Feb: plane to el calafate, bird reserve in evening
Tuesday 17 Feb: Perito Moreno glacier
Wednesday 18 Feb: bus trip to Puerto Natales, long border crossing, organised camping trip
Thursday 19 Feb: Afternoon bus to Torres del Paine, stay at refugio Posada Rio Cerrano.
Friday 20 Feb: boat to Lago Grey Camping site, walked to glaciar look out
Saturday 21 Feb: walked to other glaciar lookouts. View of stars in evening.
Sunday 22 Feb: walked part of way towards Lake Pehoe, stopped by lago gray for a long time.
Monday 23 Feb: packed all our gear and hiked to Lake Pehoe campsite. Heavy bags, hard walk.
Tuesday 24 Feb: easy day round Lake Pehoe shore. Saw upland goose family.
Wednesday 25 Feb: walked along W to Valle Fancais to look at glaciar there
Thursday 26 Feb: catamaran and bus to Hosteria las Torres campsite. Walked a little bit of W west. Wandering minstrel appeared the first time. Cooked dinner in pouring rain
Friday 27 Feb: walked to Campo Serrano (not up early enough to do full walk to Mirador and clouds came down). Treated ourselves to a nice dinner where 2 backpackers shared dinner for 1.
Saturday 28 Feb: walked part of O Circuit. Not exciting and v cold (snowed overnight). Decided to splash out on nice dnner again after Wandering minstrel reappeared
Sunday 1 Mar: lunchtime bus back to Puerto Natales and Internet.
Monday 2 Mar: Puerto Natales
Sunday, 30 November, 2008
I arrived in Barcelona, Spain early on Sunday and made my way to collect the keys to the apartment I had booked here. The grumpy attendant eventually gave me the keys after he told me that I wasn’t allowed to check in until midday. I got to the apartment dropped my stuff and headed out to explore the city.
Barcelona is located on the Mediterranean and was home to the Olympics back in 1992. It is the capital of the Catalan region of Spain. The people of Catalonia speak a different language from the Spanish, but the languages are quite similar and most people speak both languages.
The first stop on my city tour was the city park which used to be a fortified area in the city. It now houses the zoo and the Catalan parliament. Many of the buildings there date back to an exposition held in Barcelona over 100 years ago. I then wandered around the coastal area of the city before strolling through the “ramblas” which is the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Barcelona. I walked down ferran street where I passed at least three irish pubs within 1 minutes walk of each other – I always knew Irish bars were popular, but this was a bit crazy. After a brief visit to a (strangely) open-air cathedral I went back to the sea to walk along the coastal path before heading back to the apartment. There were two other rooms in the apartment, but none of them seemed to be occupied – it seemed I was going to have this place to myself.
Monday, 1 December, 2008
I started my first Spanish lessons with Don Quixote language school. We had a test before being put into our classes. I was put into a class at level B1 – an intermediate level class! That was pretty surprising given my atrocious ability to actually speak the language (listening, reading and writing are much easier than speaking. When you speak you need to recall words and grammar as you speak, which is much tougher). Most of the others in the class were able to speak much more fluently than me. Everything was taught through Spanish and I was able to follow what was going on most of the time, but I kept pretty quiet given my poor ability to form coherent sentences. Luckily I wasn’t the worst in the class.
After classes I visited the church of sagrada familia. This famous church was designed by the architect Guadi. It’s very “art-deco” looking, and it’s still under construction. Most of the church is built on geometric principles, so that was interesting. I went up to the top of the church where I got a good view of the city at sunset.
Later in the evening we had a free welcome lunch for the language school. I got talking to some of my fellow students in spanglish. The meal wasn’t very filling though, so me and another irish guy I met there went off for some tapas and a drink afterwards.
Tuesday, 2 December, 2008 – Friday, 5 December, 2008
After classes on Tuesday I went along for a guided tour of the “gothic district” of Barcelona that was organised by the language school. The tour was in Spanish, but guy talked slow enough that I could of the arc in Paris and was built at the time of the Barcelona exposition (which coincided with an exposition happing in Paris at the same time). We went back to the city park I had visited on Sunday, but this time I was given the explanation of what everything meant. We then went to the square which was the last place the Spanish conquered in Catalonia. Apparently, every year on the anniversary of the fall of Catalonia, large numbers of people gather in this square to mark the occasion. The tour continued showing us the roman remains of the city, before we finished in a market near the cathedral which was selling a large number of Christmas decorations.
I took a bit of a break from tours on Wednesday, but I did manage to visit the Picasso museum. I learned that Picasso was actually quite a talented painter – his early stuff is quite impressive. I don’t like his later stuff – it looks like it could have been painted by a 5 year old, but I suppose he had gotten bored painting the naturalistic stuff so branched out into stuff like cubism. Pity, the natural looking stuff was much better in my (philistine) opinion.
On Thursday, after classes, I went to park Guell. This used to be the home of Gaudi, the architect. It was full of elaborate ceramic work created by the architect. I was supposed to meet other people from the Spanish school here, but I was late. I hadn’t counted on having to climb the mountain which faced me as I walked out of the metro station. Luckily there were out-door escalators to help people get to the top, but still, I ended up being late.
Friday was my final day of classes in Barcelona, but luckily they didn’t give me a test. In the evening I went along with some of my classmates to see the magic fountain. The lights and the water coming out of the fountain are choreographed to music, including some Olympic – related themes (chariots of fire theme music and the Freddy Mercury & Montserrat Caballe ‘Barcelona’ duet).
Saturday, 6 December 2008
I moved to a hostel on Saturday and set out to explore the montjuic area of Barcelona. This is a large hill to the west of the city that provides some great views over the city. I started by heading back to the magic fountain which lies in front of the catalan art museum and then walked uphill through some gardens before reaching a grand panoramic view over the coast near the castle that stands at the top of the hill. The fortified area around the castle is quite big and I walked all the way around it. There aren’t many people walking around the part of the fortification furthest away from the castle, so it was nice and quiet there. There were some great views to be had from there. As it started to get dark I walked back down the hill to the ramblas area for food and then went to see James Bond in Spanish. I had to work hard to translate what was going on and I was starting to get a bit lost (luckily you don’t need to translate car chases and explosions) until I stopped trying to translate and just listen. Something seemed to click and I began understanding more of what was going on once I stopped trying to translate everything – weird feeling.
Sunday, 7 December, 2008
I headed out to Montserrat early on Sunday. Montserrat is a monastery situated in some very strange looking hills. It is the place where some children supposedly saw a vision of Mary in a cave many centuries ago. The children told their elders who also came to the cave and found Mary there too. They informed the local religious leaders who also came and found the vision and declared it a miracle. Grainne had been there before and recommended it. My experience of the place was quite different from hers – the weather was foggy the whole day, so I didn’t get to see much of the strange rock formations I had hoped to see. The place was also full of people – it might have been because it was a Sunday wedged between 2 bank holidays (December 6th is the day the Spanish signed their constitution, December 8th is the assumption of Mary, both are holidays in Spain).
I also managed to visit the cave where the vision occurred. This area had fewer people, but was still quite busy. The cave itself has been turned into a church. The back of the cave is where the alter is located, but apart from that it looks like a normal church. Its difficult to imagine what this place would have looked like when the children first saw the visions.
Monday, 8 December, 2008 – Thursday, 11 December, 2008
I decided to take a week off from studying Spanish and took a bus to Andorra on Monday morning. Anodrra is a tiny country wedged between spain and france, which is famous for two things: mountains and duty free (its not in the EU). I went there to go skiing for a few days. It only took 3.5 hours to get there from Barcelona, and scenery as we approached Andorra was quite scenic. I arrived to my hotel in the town of Arnisal and had a great mountain view from my balcony, but I arrived too late in the day to go skiing. I made use of the time by finding out how to get a skipass and rent equipment so that I’d be prepared for the next day.
I got up on Tuesday morning and headed to one of the shops near the ski lift to rent some gear. For some strange reason they don’t rent ski clothing in Andorra (they did when I was in New Zealand – that was the only other place I had gone skiing), so I had to go without special ski trousers that prevent you getting wet. I was just skiining in ordinary jeans (and I did get wet when I sat on a wet chair lift). The weather was great on the first day – sunny and no wind. The skill of skiing is a bit like riding a bike, you don’t really forget it, so luckily I didn’t fall too much. The slopes in Arnisal are ideal for beginners being long and wide. I managed to ski on the intermediate slope without much difficulty. The main hitch of the day was when I got stuck on the chair lift for about 20 minutes when the electricity went out.
I went skiing again on Wednesday and Thursday. The weather had gotten worse – It was snowing, cloudly, windy and a lot colder. The wind was the worst part because loose snow was being blown into my face as I was skiing (not a lot of fun). The slopes were also quite icy from the low temperatures which made skiing a little trickier. I kept to the lower (beginner) slopes on Thursday when the wind up the top proved to be way to strong (there were quite a few time I couldn’t see where I was going because of all the loose snow being blown around). I think I have improved a bit after my three days of skiing, I can control where I’m going a lot better now.
Friday, 12 December, 2008 – Saturday, 13 December, 2008
I left Andorra by bus early on Friday morning and went back to Barcelona where I took a flight to Madrid. I was planning to stay there for a couple of nights before heading to Salamanca for another week of Spanish lessons. I arrived in Madrid mid-afternoon and looked around the city for a few hours before it got dark. The hostel was located very close to the commercial heart of the city right beside plenty of cafes and restaurants.
On Saturday I had planned to walk around the city and visit the teleferico – a cable car that runs to a large park area to the west of the city. I had gotten as far as the Almudena cathedral when it started to rain quite heavily, so that pretty much ruined any plans I had for the day. I spent the rest of the day travelling from museum to museum via the efficient Madrid metro system. I went to visit the ‘anthropological museum’ and the ‘natural history museum’. Between the two I almost had a similar museum experience as the ‘regional history museums’ I had visited while in Russian – with plenty of displays of indigenous cultures, stuffed animals – all that was missing was the soviet memorabilia and the eagle eyed babushkas.
Sunday, 14 December, 2008
I took the bus to Salamanca early in the afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to find it had WIFI (on a moving bus!). As a result the journey passed pretty quickly and when I arrived I went to collect the key to my accommodation. I was staying in a shared apartment with other students. After talking to them for a bit I went outside to look around the town before it got dark. There are plenty of old buildings here and it reminded me a lot of Cordoba. Salamanca is an old university town and it has a high student population, which means that there is plenty of nightlife here. The front of the university building is elaborately decorated and it is said that anyone who finds the frog sculpture which is hidden among the carvings will have luck for the rest of their life and will get married within a year. Gráinne will be glad to know that I didn’t manage to see it.
After getting some food I headed out to an Irish bar to watch a football match. I got talking to one of the locals, which proved a great chance to try out the Spanish I’ve been learning.
Monday, 15 December, 2008 – Friday, 19 December, 2008
I got up early on Monday to begin Spanish lessons, but when I arrived I was told my lessons would be in the afternoon. So I went back to the apartment, had a bit of a siesta and headed out for classes again in the afternoon. I was in another class of 8 students – 3 from the UK, 2 from china, 1 Australian, 1 Dutch and me. Our first teacher, Gloria, was a bit of a character who was very animated when talking (and she always spoke very quickly in spanish). I wish I could have understood more of what she was saying because those who could were often in stitches with laughter. After classes I went out for some drinks and food with one of my classmates, George, who had also just started (most of the others had been here a month or more). We headed out to a tapas bar recommended by one of my flatmates. I didn’t eat anything too adventurous, but George ordered pigs ears and duck liver.
It began snowing on Tuesday morning. By the time I was going to class it was near blizzard conditions and a thick blanket had already formed on the ground. This pretty much ruined the plans I had of doing some site seeing, although it was pretty picturesque, and the many students here were having great fun having snowball fights in the main square.
I did some sightseeing on Wednesday morning and luckily there was still quite a bit of snow around so I got some nice photos. I visited the Dominican monastery, which was pretty empty, but the snow made the central courtyard look particularly scenic.
On Thursday evening we headed out after class to celebrate the birthday of one of our class mates. We got some tapas (which come free when you order a drink in many of the bars here) before heading to an Irish bar for some more serious sized (ie pint sized) drinks. We then met more of our class mates before heading to another pub near my apartment. More pub crawling followed, eventually ending in rounds of shots in another bar. Somehow I managed to lose the group, but seeing as it was 2am I felt it was time to call it quits anyway. I didn’t surface again until 2pm on Friday, when I quickly got something to eat and did my Spanish homework before heading back into class. I wasn’t feeling the best, so I declined the invitation for yet more drinks on Friday night.
Saturday, 20 December, 2008 – Tuesday, 23 December, 2008
I left Salamanca early on Saturday afternoon to go back to Madrid. Some guy was selling a ticket to Madrid he said he couldn’t exchange, so I bought it off him – normally I’d be very wary of buying a ticket that way, but I thought I’d give it a shot rather than queuing. Luckily the ticket was legitimate and I got on the bus OK. I arrived in Madrid and dropped my bags before heading out.
There was a very festive atmosphere in the city which probably had something to do with it being the last weekend before Christmas. The traffic had been diverted from some of the streets in the centre to cope with the huge crowds of people. There were several Christmas markets around and many people were wearing santa hats or colourful wigs. On one pedestrian street (calle del arenal) crowds were gathered around 5 different bands who were all singing and banging on various instruments (one group banged on drums, another on pots). Not far away a crowd had gathered on calle del celenque to see an enormous animatronic elf singing in front of the ‘el corte ingles’ department store ‘. I watched all these various antics before heading to the cinema and then returning to the hostel
On Sunday I managed to complete the walk I had attempted to do on Saturday 13th. I walked past the cathedral and headed towards the temple of Debod – an Egyptian temple donated to the Spanish by the Egyptian government for their help with restoring other Egyptian temples. I must admit I hadn’t read anything about the temple before I entered it so I was a little bit confused when I walked inside and found loads of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The whole time I was inside I kept wondering why on earth an Egyptian temple was sitting in the middle in Madrid.
After my temple experience I walked to the teleferico and took a ride on ‘the flattest cable car’ in the world. Unlike most other cable cars, this one doesn’t go up the side of a mountain, instead it allows you to float over the trees over fairly gently sloping ground. The cable car terminates in the large ‘casa de campo’ park, a haven for joggers, cyclists and amusement-ground enthusiasts. I wasn’t interested in any of these so I wandered around the less frequented areas of the park (which was in a very natural looking state) in some very pleasant temperatures. I spent a couple of hours walking and then went back to the city to do a bit more siteseeing before making some skype phonecalls home.
I went on a day trip to Toledo on Monday, my final full day in Spain. This scenic city is located on the top of a hill less than an hour’s drive by bus from Madrid. It is an historic city with plenty of old buildings. Armed with only a photograph of a map (the tourist office was closed) I set out to explore the city. The history of the city and its proximity to Madrid means that its very popular with tourists – there were quite a few tourists wandering the chilly streets and this was the first time I’ve come across a working cathedral where you had to pay to enter. However the decoration within Toledo cathedral was very impressive in its intricacy so I spent quite a while looking inside. After the cathedral visit I continued to look around places I thought might be interesting based on my map-photograph. I stayed until sunset before heading back to Madrid for a leisurely evening.
Next morning I went to the airport to get a flight back to Ireland for christmas.
My travels continue in 2009. My current plans are to travel to Australia on January 16th to see Grainne. Then we’ll both head to South America for a valentine’s day in Buenos Aires before many months of travelling in South and Central america.
Saturday, 17 November, 2008
Well, I’m back on my travels again. This time I’ve gone to spain for jusrt over a month mainly to learn spanish. I really enjoyed speaking the language when I was in south america, so I thought it would be nice to become more fluent (plus it wouldn’t hurt the CV to show that I’ve actually achieved something useful in my year of bumming around the world). I’m back to travelling by myself as Grainne awaits her citizenship ceremony in Australia.
I got the 6 o’clock flight from dublin to madrid with Iberia airlines and checked into my hotel. I had messed up my first booking by making it for the wrong, date so I had to make a second booking for a different hotel a few hours before I got on the plane. When I turned up they hadn’t received my internet booking, but luckily they had plenty of room. So I settled in, watched Satrsky and Hutch in spanish and surfed the interent (on the free wifi) for a bit before heading to bed.
Sunday, 16 November, 2008
On sunday morning I headed to the train station to catch the train to Cordoba. Cordoba is a small city in the south of spain (but not on the coast). I chose Cordoba as my first destination mainly because its an old city which isn’t over-run with toursists and its situated right in the heartland of the castillian speaking part of spain (spain has numerous languages such as basque and catalan, but castillian is the main language and its the one we know as ‘spanish’). I arrived in Cordoba late in the afternoon and was met by my two new flatmates, Jessica and Emma. They work as english teachers in Cordoba, but they also study spanish in the same school as me. They showed me the way to the apartment and after I settled in I went exploring. I was looking for places to get information about the city, but sunday is a bad day to do anything here because everything is shut.
Cordoba is quite a picturesque city, so i was pretty pleased with my choice – its not a bad place to spend a couple of weeks. One of the spots I walked passed were the walls of the city that face the river. There were some dodgy characters here – including one guy who kept staring at me while I was sitting on a bench, and another guy who dissappeared behind the bushes when he saw me approach. I’m not sure what was going on, but the way they acted made it seem like they were planning a heist (although there was nothing you’d be able to steal around there except for some trees). So after my brief walk around the old part of the city I did some food shopping before heading back to the apartment for the night
Monday, 17 November, 2008
I headed to my first spanish class on monday morning. I would have 4 hours of lessons a day every weekday morning for the next 2 weeks. I have two separate classes – I’m the only person in one of the classes and there’s only one other person in my other class, so they’re both pretty small. The classes are completely in spanish (except when I get completely lost), so I’m being forced to listen to spanish and to speak spanish for 4 hours a day. This is pretty good for improving my language skills.
After classes I went to find information on the walks that you can do in the hills around cordoba, and headed for another city walk around Cordoba before it got dark.
Tuesday, 18 November, 2008
After spanish classes I decided to go for one of the walks in the hills that I gotten information on. I took the bus to the outskirts of the city and began walking to ‘the hermitage’ which is located on a hill overlooking the city.There are quite a few caves dotted throughout the hills surrounding the city where hermits went to live and spend their lives in solitude. The first place I came to was the cave of saint diego de alcala whose claim to fame was the ability to heal sick donkeys! The walk then went through An olive grove before heading up to the hills. The walk wasn’t marked very well and there were plenty of forks in the road which weren’t signposted, so it’s not terribly surprising I got lost on the way up. Luckily the hermitage is marked by a huge statue which I headed towards when I lost the path. I eventually picked up the path again and continued uphill. There are stations of the cross marking the last kilometre of the walk before you reach the hermitage and the views over the city from here were brilliant. Unfortunately the hermitage itself was closed and wouldn’t re-open until 4.30pm. I just had to be content to look at the magnificent view through the gates because I couldn’t wait until it opened – if I waited it would be dark by the time I got back down again. When I eventually returned to the city I was treated to a spectacular sunset before I headed home for the evening.
Wednesday, 19 November, 2008
After classes on Wednesday a school group activity was organised to visit the mesquita. The mesquita was a mosque that was built in the islamic style by the moors, and it is one of the major tourist sites in Cordoba. The building is huge and when the Christian took the city over again it was converted intro a number of cathedrals and churches. It was a bit odd going into the large building and finding a cathedral in the middle. There’s tons of verses from the Quran written in arabic writing inside, but these weren’t removed because the Spaniards who took over the place didn’t realise what it was (they just thought it was a decoration!).
The trip to the mesquita was led by one of the teachers from the spanish school, so we only got the descriptions of things in spanish. After our visit we went for a short walking tour of the city followed by a drink in one of the traditional tea houses that dot the city.
Later in the evening I went out for some drinks with my housemates, Emma and Jessie. We went out to a jazz club were we met one of the guys from Emma and Jessie’s spanish class who is also an english teacher. His friend was there too, who like me is on a grand tour of the world. Unlike me he got the money for his travels from his inheritance when his mother died (apparently he started travelling soon after she died!).
Thursday, 20 November, 2008
During my usual afternoon walk i decided to go and get my hair cut. It turned out to be more of an experience than I had expected. I enetered a smokey babershop where I saw an old guy reading a newspaper. He got up (somewhat slowly) and asked me what I wanted. He started making general conversation before starting to show me a magazine he was in. The title of the article was "the last ‘bohemian’ barber in cordoba". When he struggled to make out the writing on the blades for the razor I started wondering if I really wanted to trust this guy to cut my hair. He proceeded (very slowly and with much stopping) to cut my hair and tell me about how long he’d been working here. He had taken the business over from his father and had now been working 33 years in the same place (he was 66). He kept pointing out different things in the shop and commenting on how old they were. He hadn’t a word of english so I had to make do with my limited spanish. I didn’t always understand what he was saying, but maybe that was lucky because I’m sure he would have kept me there for hours if I had. He probably doesn’t get many customers, so he was eager to talk.
Friday, 21 November, 2008
I went for my usual waqder around the city after Spanish classes and on friday evening we went out for some drinks with workmates of Jessica and Emma. Emma’s friend also joined us, who had just arrived from England to stay for the weekend. After drinks we headed out to get some kebabs, which were quite cheap and pretty tasty.
Saturday, 22 November, 2008
I had a bit of a lie in on saturday, but still got up reasonably early in the morning to catch a bus out to the sierra (the hills surrounding cordoba). I went to a place called sierra mureano where I began a walk of approximately 10km. It was a nice walk through quiet rural areas. The highlight was walking along a section of an old roman road. There were also some roman bridges and some areas of geolocial interest to see along the way. The weather was sunny (but the sun is low so no need for suncream) and about 20C, pretty pleasant walking weather. This trail was as badly marked as the previous one, luckily I came accross some other walkers who knew where to go when the walking tracked passed through a town (ie. the track dissappeared and became a road for a while).
Sunday, 23 November, 2008
I headed into Seville early on Sunday morning. I headed for the centre where there was a precession going on. People were carrying a float of a statue of mary. I had seen this stuff on TV before, but this was the first time I had seen it in real life. A marching band played music as the statue was paraded through the narrow streets of the town.
Seville resembles Cordoba in many ways. This is probably because both have a similar history. Both were founded by the romans and occupied by the moors before being taken back by the christians. They both have winding back alleys which provide shade from the strong sun during summer, as well as providing a good opportunity for some scenic photos.
After having a quick look at the cathedral (there was a mass in progress so I could only see a part of it), and attempting to get into the alcazar (old converted mosque which closes early on sunday) I went to spanish plaza where they have mosaics of each of spain’s main cities. I also spent time in the nearby park and went for a walk along the river. Later in the afternoon I visited the Andelucian parliament, some old roman columns and got a glimpse of a convent (which was also closed).
Monday, 24 November, 2008
I was the only person in my class when I turned up to Spanish lessons on Monday. In fact I would be having private lessons all week. This also means my hours are cut from 4 hours a day to 2 hours. This gives me much more spare time after classes, and much less opportunity to speak Spanish. Its not ideal, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
Emma’s friend who stayed for the weekend had forgotten his passport and only realised this when he got to Malaga where he was going to catch a flight. He didn’t have enough time to come back to Cordoba, so I volunteered to bring it to Malaga for him. So I got to visit Malaga for all of 40 minutes until the return train arrived. It would soon be getting dark when I arrived there so there was no point attempting any siteseeing on my unexpected trip.
Tuesday, 25 November, 2008 – Friday, 28 November, 2008
I continued going to classes every morning, and went for walks around the city. Most of my plans for doing walks outside the city were scuppered when I realised that the bus I needed to catch only left at 8am in the morning and 3pm in the afternoon. The morning bus was out due to classes and the afternoon bus was just far too late to get out there, walk, and get before dark. The weather was also noticeably colder this week than last, which also didn’t encourage me to go out much – especially because I had seen most of the stuff I wanted to the week before. I did get a chance to do plenty of interneting to figure out where was I was going to next. I think I’ll only spend a maximum of one week anywhere in future.
I had a test in Spanish class on Friday, which I am glad to say I passed. I did OK in most sections except the one on pronouns. I just didn’t understand the rest of the sentences where I had to fill in the blanks.
Saturday, 29 November, 2008
Saturday was my last day in Cordoba. I thought I might do one of the hill walks, but the weather didn’t agree – it was raining on and off most of the day. Instead I headed to the alczar of christian kings, which was a fortified castle built by the christian king Alfonso XI on the site of the original muslim alcazar.The castle had some good views over the cities, some interesting roman mosaics inside, and some nice gardens outside. In the evening it was time to catch the night train on to my next destination, Barcelona.