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Horsing around

12 Jul
Lake trek moment

Riding in to a glistening mountain lake was the highlight of our Chilean horse trek with Lot.

Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina
[by Jeremy]

We haven’t seen another soul all day. The mountains reflect as if the lake were a shimmering sheet of tinted glass. The gentle swish as we ride through the shallows of the clear lake waters is the only sound. This is nature, on a grand scale and at its raw and unspoiled best.

It would have been hard to make the trip – the visit of my sister Karen and 19-year-old nephew Callum – more perfect at that moment – but it hadn’t started so well.

Keen readers will recall that when Paula’s parents came to visit last year they got delayed in the US due to freak storms. Then when they finally got to Buenos Aires they couldn’t reach us in San Martin de Los Andes because of unseasonal snow. Two days later they finally landed, having been diverted to Bariloche and then had to endure a 5-hour drive through a blizzard back to our cabaña.

That’s why we left nothing to chance when Karen and Callum came to visit. Everything’s organised – now I can sit down and read the paper. What’s that? A national general strike? On the day they are due to land in Buenos Aires?

Bugger. We stand right behind those fighting for better wages in the face of high inflation – we just wish the struggle had taken place on a different day! Nothing to be done but put in place Plan B.

Apartment view

View from our apartment in Bariloche – all we needed now was someone to share it with.

Frantic phone calls to our good friends Karen (yes, another Karen – this could get confusing) and Gustavo in BA to beg for their spare room and their services as tour guides for a couple of days, and accommodation and friendly faces are sorted.

Now to rebook the flight. No problem. Aerolineas Argentinas book it for the day after the strike ends and they will arrive with us only about 30 hours later than anticipated.

What’s that? Aerolineas Argentinas have cancelled the reservation? Why? What do you mean you don’t know? Who asked you to? You don’t know that either. I don’t know the words in Spanish for incompetent bunch of shits but another 24-hour delay is now inevitable.

At least they can enjoy a nice time in BA. So it’s off to Boca to visit the famous football stadium and dockers’ houses. Does that man have a knife? Yes, he does and he seems to want all their money and jewellery. Quick thinking by our friend Karen persuades them my sister has nothing on her and they make do with yanking off her gold chain and stealing Karen’s phone and some useless bank cards.

So by the time they finally arrive with us it’s fair to say we are feeling more pressure than ever to deliver the holiday of a lifetime. My sister isn’t demanding – she just insists we see a smoking volcano, a snow-capped volcano, a glacier, spend a night in the Andes, go horse riding, see some waterfalls…oh, and photograph lots of birds including a condor and a woodpecker.

Day one in the Lakes District we are lucky to see anything at all, but at least when the clouds obscure the views in Argentina you can rely on great wine and sumptuous steak to make you feel better. We order three big steaks between the four of us – they bring us five. Why? Because this is Argentina and they didn’t think we had enough meat.

And from then on things just start getting better and better. By the next day we have blue skies, incredible views over the lakes, we climb to a mirador and snack on chorizo and blue cheese, we drink great wines, catch up and plan the next few days.

Lake selfie

Together at at last. Whoop!

Karen and Callum, Cerro Catedral, Bariloche

Karen and Callum at the top of Cerro Catedral – with view of Lago Nahuel Huapi – Bariloche.

One thing you can be sure of with my sister is there will be no sitting around relaxing – she hasn’t come all this way not to spend every minute seeing something.

So we hit the road early next morning for the spectacular Ruta de los Siete Lagos, a wonderful scenic drive bathed in blue skies and sunshine, a fantastic wine bar en route, a few delicious alfajores, a comfortable – if slightly strange – cabaña in San Martin de Los Andes and a slap-up binge on boar, venison and craft ales at El Regional.

Suitably fortified we break for the Chilean border and the first – but not the last – f&@king hell – moment of the trip. After a bird-filled drive, a lakeside picnic and the customary border sign photo opportunities, there’s still disappointment about the volcanoes hiding in the clouds.

We wind our way down the cordillera towards the house in Curarrehue owned by the very generous parents of Santiago – one of the pupils in my sister’s class back in the UK (no, she’s not educationally challenged, she’s the teacher) – which has been offered to us for as long as we need it. As we approach the village I take a glance in the wing mirror to be greeted by the sight of the massive snow-capped peak of Volcan Lanin graciously emerging. Bing! First target down.

Volcano Lanin Chile

Karen gets her first look at the majestic Volcano Lanin, Chile-Argentina border.

Curarrehue is a small village. The house is 7km further out in the wilds, along a gravel road. It’s a spectacular setting and a beautiful wooden house. On the way, in the distance we can make out the smoking cone of Volcan Villarrica. It just about counts as target number 2 but we’ll have a much closer encounter in the coming days.

We arrive at the house to be welcomed by Santiago’s granny , Isilda. And what a welcome! A delicious cazuela has been lovingly prepared and we quickly become aware this is no one-off. Isilda wants to look after us – and I really mean look after us, so well. She won’t hear of us going to buy bread, she’s up first thing in the morning getting the fire going and baking delicious bread. We offer to cook dinner – she looks at us witheringly and serves up another scrummy treat. Callum gets his first – and definitely not last – taste of the super-sweet caramelly dulce de leche. He’s in heaven.

In return for all the kindness, we accidentally leave the door open and let a mad goat in to the house to run amok. Whoops.

Karen and Isilda

Karen and Isilda, our adopted Chilean granny! Curarrehue, Chile.

Slice of pie

Isilda supplied us with a constant flow of homemade treats.

Over the next few days we never stop. We all brave the challenge of some tough white-water rafting – fantastic fun if a little nerve-wracking at times. We drive as close as you can to the smoking mass of Volcan Villarrica – the exclusion zone is still in force after it erupted just two weeks before we visited. We take a madcap night-time drive up in to the mountains to bathe in an ‘unofficial’ thermal springs with no electricity, but a few candles and plenty of wine and laughs.

Volcano Villaricca, flanked by monkey puzzle trees, near Pucon, Chile.

Volcano Villaricca, flanked by monkey puzzle trees, near Pucon, Chile.

Next day we take to the horses – this is no conventional tourist horse ride. Lot, Santiago’s uncle who lives next door, takes us out to round up his wild horses, then we saddle them up and prepare them before setting off over the mountains. We ride across the plateau, through a monkey puzzle tree forest to a hidden lake, accessible only on horseback, where Lot had grown up. We ride through the lake. It is incredible. The reflections are perfect. The stillness eerie. It is one of those days when you can’t stop smiling, except when finally you grimace after 8 hours in the saddle. Or if you are Paula and you ride smack in to a tree and almost end up in the enchanted but freezing lake. Honestly, we didn’t laugh.

Craving a night out we head for the village. The first restaurant is open but apparently has little or no food. Nor does the second. Like many a time on this trip we end up somewhere unexpected – at the restaurant attached to the gas station. It’s surprisingly tasty and serves a good bottle of wine too.

With our departure fast approaching we get ready for the big family send-off. A lamb asado is prepared, relatives gather, we chat, laugh and frankly wish we had more time to spend with such a welcoming and fun family.

But there’s no rest for the wicked – some targets haven’t been met yet. We have the most stunning day’s drive back to Argentina. Volcan Lanin is majestic. And it’s like we’ve organised a bird display – they swoop, they sing, they dart and then the condors glide high overhead. Bing!

Our final adventure is to get high up in to the Andes, sleep in a refuge and do an ice hike across a glacier the following day. The route up to Pampa Linda is incredible but as we arrive at base camp the wind and sleet begins – we have no choice but to try and make the 4-5 hour hike up to the mountain refuge. Within half an hour the skies begin to clear and the vistas become amazing – back down in to the valley, up to the snow capped peaks, across to the burning red of the autumn forests.

Hiking to Refugio Otto Meiling, Argentina

Hiking through autumn leaves to Refugio Otto Meiling, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina

As we near the trickiest part of the hike the massive glacier and its accompanying 1,000ft waterfall makes itself heard and then seen, crashing down in to the valley. It is stunning. But it’s also not good for a vertigo sufferer like me – sheer cliffs and a precarious route along the edge to the refugio. To make matters worse the snow is starting and it’s getting late.

Castaño Overo glacier

The snowy weather closes in as we approach the Castaño Overo glacier, with its massive waterfalls. Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina.

I decide I cannot go on, I urge the others to go ahead and I will retreat to the van. They, understandably, don’t want me to have to go down alone, especially as it will be dark in two hours. An impasse. I win. I head back down, at a trot to start with, then a full-on run – I make it back down the five-hour route in well under two hours, persuade the cafe owner to open the door, sell me a beer and fall shattered in to bed with views of where I hope they have arrived.

They have arrived, and while I’m worrying about them they have no such worries. The park ranger has let them know I’ve made it back down and they are happily tucking in to a gourmet feast, courtesy of the owners of the mountain refuge. Their climb up wasn’t easy, as the snow had got heavier, but the warmth of the welcome more than made up for any hardship.

Gourmet dinner at Refugio Otto Meiling

They tried to get over our separation.. with a gourmet dinner at the mountain refuge, Otto Meiling. Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina.

In the morning they were greeted with new snowfall and views they will never forget.

It’s fair to say everyone finds the ice hike a bit scary as they lowered themselves in to crevasses on the end of a rope but, hey, it’s another incredible and unforgettable experience and surely the final target is met.

Er, no. What about that woodpecker? While they are hanging off the end of a rope I’m trekking in the picturesque valley below. What’s that? A woodpecker? Sure is. I take a picture with Karen’s camera to prove it. Bing? They insist it is photoshopped. It’s so unfair!

The worst thing about having family and friends to visit is having to say goodbye – but that isn’t the case this time. Hold on. Before you think me cruel and heartless it’s because we knew we were heading back to the UK for a visit just 12 days later – knowing the luck they had getting here, we wonder if we might arrive before they do.

Days: 1,378
Miles: 37,366
Things we now know to be true: There’s no point in arguing with a Chilean granny.

See no evil, hear no evil...

What happens on the trip, stays on the trip.

EVEN MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW! Click on any image to open as a slideshow.

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Because I’m worth it

16 Mar
Picnic stop with a view

Picnic stop with a view – Lago Nordernskjold, Torres del Paine national park, Chile.

Esquel, Patagonia, Argentina
[by Jeremy]

Well, we’re here now. I suppose we better go and see what all the fuss is about.

There are some places that are so hyped, so over-hyped, so busy with group tours, so universally covered in glossy travel magazines or eulogised by backpackers that you instinctively feel like you’re going to hate them, or at least fail to see what the awe’s all about.

We felt like that years ago when we went to the Taj Mahal – and yet it is a truly amazing building with an astonishing history, that you cannot help but feel the wonder. We felt the same about Machu Picchu – it would probably just be a big tourist trap. I suppose to some extent it is but, wow, it was truly incredible.

And so to Torres del Paine, the jewel in the crown of Chile’s national parks, the towering granite spires gracing posters, t-shirts, stickers, keyrings and just about everything else – all probably made in China.

We’d heard about its beauty from so many other travellers – and about the crowds, the shuffling along hiking trails and the sky-high costs.

But once again, whilst some of that is true, every negative is far outweighed by the stunning scenery.

Las Torres, Chile

The spectacular Las Torres mirador, Torres del Paine national park, Chile. Not too shabby.

There were lots of hikers on the route to the Mirador de las Torres but it is the most amazing sight. The kind of view – set against yet another stunning clear blue sky – that makes you think it’s been photo-shopped until you realise you are actually looking at it through your own eyes and not the computer-enhanced vision of the tourist brochures.

The azure-lake set against the glacial backdrop, and the greys, reds and browns of the spires make it hard to tear yourself away.

But do so you must, because Torres del Paine is much more than just one amazing view. It offers – depending on your fitness – days of excellent hiking and jaw-dropping vistas. Fresh from our hike to the towers we shoved a rented tent and stove, our sleeping bags and the obligatory hikers’ pasta/noodles/soup/crackers into our rucksacks and set off for three days walking around Lago Nordernskjold to the massive peaks of Los Cuernos and up the valley to Glaciar del Frances and the mirador Britanico, with its panorama of peaks, waterfalls and glaciars.

Mirador Britanico, Torres del Paine

The view from Mirador Britanico, Torres del Paine national park, Chile.

By night the glaciar treated us to what sounded like a thunderstorm as chunks of ice crashed down the mountainside; by day we had the chance to view the spectacle. Weary but happy, we retired to camp to cook up a one-pot feast, straight from the packet. Washing up was scenic but freezing as we doused our dishes in glacial meltwater. Sleep came easily.

We love a good hike but three days carrying all our own food, tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment and clothes is about us much as the old bones can take these days. We always felt pretty pleased with ourselves after conquering another 6-8 hour trek, only to meet someone way older than us doing the full eight-day circuit.

But we had things to do and places to be – at least that was our excuse. So reluctantly we waved goodbye to Torres del Paine and headed back towards Argentina and the excitement of meeting old friends from home.

Sharon and her husband Mark are travelling for a year with their three children – Isobel, Leo and Rory. Having completed their Australian leg they flew to Santiago, hired a car and were now steaming down Ruta 40 towards us.

Despite the fact we had already visited El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier, and El Chalten with its world-class trekking, we were up for a return visit.

And so we hiked, barbequed, ate, laughed, gossiped, planned, marvelled at the scenery and drank our way through a week or so with good friends. Of course meeting new people has been one of the joys of this trip, but spending time with people you’ve known for decades is like nectar for the soul.

At Perito Moreno we struck lucky. Within minutes of arriving we got a ringside view of a skyscraper-sized chunk of ice crashing down in to the lake. At El Chalten, we set out trekking in cloud but as we approached the Fitzroy viewpoint the craggy peaks poked out of the cloud and the skies turned blue.

Ice fall! Perito Moreno

Aftermath of a massive ice fall at the Perito Moreno glaciar, Argentina.

All too soon it was time for the inevitable selfies and reluctant goodbyes. When would we ever see them again?

Well, in about 12km actually. We were at the side of the road, I was under the van trying to find the source of a worrying rattle. They stopped. Looked concerned. Waved. And left. Bye!

Actually the rattle was nothing to worry about and soon we too were battling the fierce Patagonian winds as they headed north and we drove a dirt road to the east, in search of penguins.

We knew they’d be worth it.

Days: 1,260
Miles: 34,195
Things we now know to be true: Thinking of things we now know to be true is much more difficult after 1,260 days than it was at the beginning.

More photos in the gallery below. Click on any photo to open the slideshow.

 

Land of fire

11 Feb
Beware of guanacos, Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is both harsh and beautifully desolate.

El Calafate, Argentina
[by Paula]

When European explorers reached ‘the end of the world’ at Tierra del Fuego in the 1500s, they called it the ‘land of fire’ because they could see hundreds of little blazes on the coastline and believed the indigenous natives were waiting to ambush them.

In fact, the people were just minding their own business. They were living in a pretty inhospitable place with a wind-chill factor that – as the Brits say – would freeze the balls off a brass monkey, yet they went around naked. Not surprisingly, they lit a lot of fires, including inside their wooden canoes while they were out fishing.

With that in mind, it seemed rather churlish of us to complain about the cold.

Jeez though, it was freezing. But we’d made it to Tierra del Fuego and absolutely nothing was going to piss on that bonfire.

On leaving El Calafate last month (we are now back here again), our first quest had been to find somewhere to fill our propane tank. We headed to the industrial city of Rio Gallegos, where our Buenos Aires friend Gustavo is originally from. He hadn’t exactly over-sold Gallegos as an ideal holiday destination, and it felt as miserable, wet and windy as we’d expected.

But on the sunny side, we did find the gas plant and they were at least able to partially fill the tank. The van feels kind of sad without the cooker, which is also a source of heat in the evenings, so it was relief all round when we pulled away from the factory and headed south again.

Before long we were exiting the country and boarding the ferry to Tierra del Fuego, which is a series of islands split between Argentina and Chile.

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Colourful yet brooding – Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina.

Given that we were arriving about a year later than we’d originally estimated, it might sound strange to say that suddenly it all felt like it was happening in a rush! We so wanted to get there without anything going wrong, but at the same time we were aware that arriving might feel like the end of an era, and almost started to mentally drag our feet.

Meanwhile, we had two separate superstitions going on.

Jeremy had his ‘Spurs fan’ syndrome. This is something that supporters of the football club Tottenham Hotspur suffer from – as soon as they are winning they become convinced they are going to ‘throw it all away’ and behave in a far more nervous, negative and irrational way than when they are losing. As we got closer to our goal, with every mile Jeremy was thinking: “I can hardly bear the fact that we are almost there. But at least even if we break down here, we can get a tow to Ushuaia.

I had my ‘morbid journalist’ syndrome. This derives from reading/writing too many headlines about people who are tragically cut down just as their lives have reached a high point – such as, ‘tragic newlyweds eaten by shark on honeymoon’ or ‘crash victim was travelling to meet long lost twin’. You get the idea. As we got closer to our goal, with every mile I was thinking: “I hope we get there before we die.”

So with those cheerful, unspoken, thoughts we set off from the fabulous campsite in Tolhuin to very carefully drive the final 100km to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia.

“I thought: ‘This is it. This is how we die’.”

Big days such as these can sometimes turn out to be an anti-climax, so I was genuinely surprised that as we played Jeremy’s ‘end of the world’ playlist during the drive, we both got a bit choked up. It’s a cliche, but during the trip we really haven’t focused on our so-called destination. But during many months of uncertainty when our van was broken down in Ecuador, we realised it would matter to us if the chance to reach our goal was taken away.

About 5km before the city, we both needed to pee. As we pulled over to a riverside parking area, a guy came running over to ask for our help. His jeep had become totally wedged in a muddy dip near the river, with its nose pointing upwards. We couldn’t get the van down there to pull him out, so tried a few other ways to get traction on his wheels, to no avail.

What was really needed was a lot of weight on the front – he asked us to stand on the bumper while he tried to get it moving. It seemed a bit dangerous because if the car did lurch forwards into action, we’d have nothing to hold on to but fresh air.

We climbed onto the bumper and bounced up and down while he cranked it, the tyres throwing mud about 10ft in the air.

I thought: “This is it. This is how we die. Squashed under a little jeep, in the mud, 5km north of Ushuaia. Tragic, and yet also a bit embarrassing.”

The bumper tactic was unsuccessful, but at least we were alive. He called his mate to come and drag him out, and we were out of there. Within a few minutes we turned a corner and there was Ushuaia, and we were jumping about and celebrating, which we briefly blogged about the day after we arrived.

Ushuaia - we're here!

Made it!

It was great to bump into our friends Rike and Martin that night, who helped us mark the moment with a few Cape Horn beers and some Patagonian lamb. Within a few days we were also making new drinking buddies of Rebecca and Bruce, of Yellow Van Days – Brits who shipped a T4 van like ours from the UK and are at the beginning of their journey.

Being a Brit in Argentina has caused no issues for us but there is, to say the least, a difficult relationship between our two countries. The Malvinas/Falklands dispute with Britain is a significant part of life all over Argentina, but it’s particularly noticeable in Tierra del Fuego – which considers itself to be part of the same region as the Malvinas.

'The Malvinas are Argentinian'

‘The Malvinas are Argentinian’

There are signs, monuments and references to the 1982 war with the UK all over the place. One notice at the dock quotes a local law banning “English pirates” who are there to plunder Argentina’s natural resources. It’s an ever-present topic for debate here, and it’s something we want to blog on later in more detail.

From Ushuaia we spent a couple of days wandering in Tierra del Fuego national park, where some of the colours and landscapes – not to mention the wild weather – are reminiscent of Scotland.

It’s in the park that the road actually ends for real, at Bahia Lapataia, about 20km south of Ushuaia. After that, you’re just staring across the Beagle Channel, towards the more remote islands of the archipelago and the Antarctic.

Beagle Channel

Bahia Ensenada, Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego National Park.

After a few days it was time to turn north. North! A new chapter was beginning, and it got off to a damn good start. We headed straight back into the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, towards one of the biggest wildlife ‘must sees’ on our list – a relatively new King penguin colony south of Porvenir.

It doesn’t open til 11am but, like keen little penguin nerds, we slept outside the gate the night before, alongside another two campers. At 8am the next day, the park guard knocked on our door and asked if we’d like to go in before opening – a film crew was there and they wanted some foreign tourists wandering around in the background. We were out of the van like a shot.

To spend more than two hours watching the penguins reflected in the water under a blue sky, with hardly another soul around, felt like a massive privilege.

These chaps are amazing. Being royalty and all that, they’re not so silly and clumsy as the proletariat penguins, with their daft antics and lack of balance. Oh no, they do a lot of dignified standing around, looking like they feel rather important.

As if the day wasn’t quite going well enough, in the late morning a little furry head appeared on the bank about 100 metres away. It looked like an otter at first, then someone pointed out it was a tiny baby sea lion.

We couldn’t believe our luck when the wee guy then plopped into the water and started making a beeline for where we were standing.

Hello! Baby sea lion

A baby sea lion pops up to say hello, Bahia Inutil, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

We all held our breaths. Did he realise we were there? Yes, he clearly did – not only that, but he put on a show for a good 20 minutes, posing this way and that, even doing a back-bend at one point and looking at us upside down with his big milky round eyes.

Baby sea lion pose

Striking a pose – this baby sea lion was really turning it on for the cameras.

The park guard explained that he was three weeks old, and spent all day alone while his mother was out hunting for food. Perhaps he was just lonely?! Exhausted from his performance, he flaked out on the bank and took a nap at our feet.

We were tickled pink as we drove off towards Porvenir. Not only had we seen amazing wildlife, but it was the first properly summery day we’d had in ages and we were basking in it.

As we approached Bahia Chilota, we were hoping to see some more dolphins. Just as we turned into the bay, a whole group of Peale’s dolphins started somersaulting and racing along in the water in front of us, their white bellies glistening in the sun. Let me say again, we couldn’t believe it.

Dolphin back-flip, Chile

A Peale’s dolphin does a back-flip, Bahia Chilota, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

We decided to drive out to a lighthouse just beyond the town, and there found the most incredible free-camping spot overlooking the bay.

Camping near Porvenir

Great free-camping spot at the lighthouse, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

The dolphins continued to put on a show, especially when a ferry passed and they went nuts with excitement, leaping in front of the bow and always seeming to just miss a collision by inches.

For the first time in ages, we ate dinner outside, the sun still warming our necks well after 9pm. We knew it was going to be a cracking sunset – all we had to do was try to stay awake til then! One of the many joys of this part of the world – as in the north of Britain – are the sunsets that come as late as 11pm.

It truly was a perfect day, the blazing skies providing an ideal end to our trip to the land of fire.

Great free-camping spot at the  lighthouse, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

Sunset, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

Days: 1,227
Miles: 32,176
Things we now know to be true: Perseverance pays off.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW. CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO OPEN THE SLIDESHOW:-

 

Charming Chiloé

19 Jan
A penguin tries really hard to get everyone's attention, Parque Ahuenco, Chiloé

A penguin tries really hard to get everyone’s attention, Parque Ahuenco, Chiloé

Ushuaia, Argentina
[by Paula]

Last week we blogged ‘live’ from our arrival in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. But there’s still some catching up to do about the places we visited on the way here, over the last month. Here’s a flashback to Chiloé, Chile, in December.

In these chillier climes, there are few things that can drive us out of bed at sunrise.

But given that we were in one of the most stunning parts of the Chilean island of Chiloé, where the mist hangs on the river at dawn, where the waters are teeming with birdlife, and where the best way to enjoy it is to drag your sorry buttocks outside while the day is young, we were prepared to make some exceptions.

Moreover, we’d again been blessed with some atypically fabulous weather, so it seemed like a good time to once more embrace our inner outdoorsy.

We’d made our base in rural Chepu, where an exceedingly friendly couple had allowed us to camp on their land and helped us arrange some water-based activities in the area. They had a prime hilltop spot, from which we had an amazing view of the river from the van.

Dawn river mist, Chepu, Chiloé

Dawn mist over the river in Chepu was the daily view from our van, Chiloé

On day one the water was deathly still as we took a boat across the river to a trailhead that lead to a penguin colony at Parque Ahuenco. On the way we saw kingfishers subduing their relatively large prey by thrashing around on a branch, knocking the fish senseless before swallowing it whole.

The five-hour hike passed long stretches of wild beach and peaceful forest, taking us past a massive beached shipwreck.

Shipwreck, Chiloé

Shipwreck, Chiloé

With it still being low season, we only saw one other person (a park employee) all day. We couldn’t have felt luckier to be able to spend an hour watching the penguins without another soul in sight. From a little viewing area about 50 metres from their colony, we were basically treated to a free slapstick comedy show. The thing about penguins is that when they’re not in the water, they really are a bit rubbish. They can’t fly and they can’t walk very well either. They trip and fall over – a lot. And that just never stops being hilarious.

We watched them huddling for little conflabs, chattering to each other, kissing, throwing their heads back and honking loudly, and playing in the water. They would climb on the rocks then slip and fall on the way down. Oops! Sometimes they would fall while just walking along on flat sand, landing on their protruding bellies and bouncing back up to carry on as if nothing had happened. Oops! As I said, it just never gets old.

Penguin huddle, Chiloé

Penguins huddle for a conflab, Parque Ahuenco, Chiloé.

We left very reluctantly, tearing ourselves away because it’s only possible to enter and exit the colony at low tide, and we were running of out time.

The following day we took a longer boat ride along the Rio Chepu to Laguna Coluco. The glassy early-morning water gave off some incredible reflections.

Boat trip to Laguna Coluco, Chepu, Chiloé

Boat trip to Laguna Coluco, Chepu, Chiloé

En route we passed through an enormous colony of nesting gulls (gaviotas cahuil, or brown-hooded gulls) who migrate to Chiloé from the north every summer. Hundreds flew overhead as we quietly puttered along, and were constantly swooping in among the reeds where they were nesting. They made a big commotion and often flew uncomfortably close to us, by way of protecting the eggs and fluffy brown chicks that were secreted nearby.

Nesting gull, Chiloé

Brown-hooded gulls (gaviota cahuil) migrate to Chiloé for summer, and nest in reeds on the rivers.

Boat trips around Chepu have an additional fascination, in that they pass through a blackened, sunken forest that lends a creepy air to the misty reflections on the water.

The valley was flooded after the 9.5-magnitude Chilean earthquake and tsunami of 1960 – the largest recorded quake of the 20th century – leaving huge sections of forest drowned in salt water.

Early morning mist on the river at Chepu, Chiloé

Sunken forest, Chepu, Chiloé

On day three Jeremy opted for a lie-in, while I headed off on a kayak, which I’d been hankering to do for a while. Having found a pal to go with – a Norwegian woman whose husband was equally unmoved by kayaking – we set off early and pushed our boat into the misty river. It was so tranquil we felt compelled to talk only in whispers.

We had been drawn to Chiloé for all sorts of reasons. Islands so often have a cultural identity that is ferociously independent, almost rebellious against the nations they inhabit, and Chiloé is no exception. And while modern life has very much arrived here, there remains a rugged feel, where fishing still dominates, ancient traditions and beliefs endure, and community is all.

Chiloé’s famous wood-shingled architecture – including colourful ‘palafito’ homes which are raised on stilts, and a wealth of UNESCO-acclaimed churches – has probably become its most famous ‘brand’. While most remain simple family homes, smoke puffing all day from wood stoves used for cooking and heating, streets in towns like Castro have been given the shabby-chic treatment, with old houses turned into boutique hotels and organic cafes.

After leaving Chepu we spent a few days exploring the towns and villages of the northern half of the island, including a trip to sleepy Isla Quinchao – one of many islands in the Chiloé archipelago – and a few peaceful days walking in the national park.

During our nine days there, we ate out for lunch more frequently than we had done in a long time, not least because we were so thrilled about the abundance of fish and seafood and the chance to sample some distinctive local cuisine.

We slurped shellfish soups and casseroles, chowed through Chilote ‘milcao’ (a dense, usually steamed, potato cake that’s often stuffed with pork fat) and got very excited about having ‘real’ fish and chips again.

But the star of the show was Chiloé’s famous dish, curanto. We do love a challenge, and curanto is a pulse-racingly giant platter of food that – following two attempts – only one of us ever managed to complete. It’s a protein overload of giant mussels and clams, smoked pork belly, chicken, chorizo, potato and two types of milcao. In case you haven’t had enough food, or salt, a cup of strong broth is served on the side.

Curanto, Quetalmahue, Chiloé

Curanto is a pulse-raising platter of giant mussels, clams, smoked pork, chorizo, chicken, potato, and two types of ‘milcao’ (dense potato cake). A cup of salty broth is served on the side.

The traditional way to cook curanto is similar to old-style Polynesian methods, involving burying the food in a shallow earth ‘oven’ of hot stones, leaves and damp cloths. It’s still used on some occasions but these days many people do the curanto in a large pot, which still follows the same method of tightly layering the food and slowly steaming it.

In the village Quetalmahue, we asked if we could watch some of the pre-Sunday lunch preparation at one of Chiloé’s well-known curanto restaurants.

On the way there we’d picked up two German hitchhikers, Rafael and Annali, and the four of us made polite faces as we were offered some raw oysters to sample. My previous memories of oysters were dominated by a sensation of gulping down seawater. I hoped I wouldn’t gag as it went down, but luckily these were delicious!

Preparing shellfish for curanto, Quetalmahue, Chiloé

Preparing shellfish, Quetalmahue, Chiloé

When we returned north to Ancud, the weather turned a bit colder and wetter. We’d booked a ferry from Puerto Montt to the small Chilean port of Chaiten, for a couple of days before Christmas. But we’d been continually changing our minds about what route we wanted to take after that – more of Chile or back into Argentina?

We headed to Puerto Montt and spent the day pottering around before our 10-hour overnight ferry journey. As there was no point in going to a campsite, the day included spending a long time sitting in the car looking out to sea and eating snacks. During our time around Osorno and in Chiloé we hadn’t spotted any of the promised dolphins, so were delighted to witness several large groups playing in the shallow waters right in front of the van.

Dolphins! Puerto Montt

Dolphins playing in the water, Puerto Montt, Chile.

So distracted were we by the dolphins, that we failed to notice a robbery directly  across the road from the back of the van. The first we knew of it was when a family of Brazilian tourists started yelling, screaming and crying. Their car window had been smashed and all their luggage taken from a restaurant car park while they were inside having a meal. They came to ask us if we’d seen anything. “Not a thing! We were watching the dolphins, honest!” we protested.

We felt terrible. Also, it seemed so unlikely that we wouldn’t have noticed this happening a few feet away, that we felt a little bit under suspicion. They kept finding reasons to come back and ask more questions, while furtively looking around and inside our van. To steal four suitcases and then sit there with them in our parked car would have been audacious to say the least, but we understood their distress – losing all their stuff just two days before Christmas – so let them quietly look while saying nothing.

We eventually headed off to the ferry, and enjoyed the lovely evening with a drink on the deck.

Sunset from ferry, Puerto Montt

Sunset from the ferry in Puerto Montt, before we left for Chaiten.

The night was spent on uncomfortable chairs, while two lumpen pre-teens played football in the space directly front of us (under instruction from their dad), which we’d naively assumed was meant for our legs. The family had also arrived with a remote-controlled helicopter for the children to play with.

A friendly note to parents: toy helicopter + confined space + a few hundred people trying to sleep = high chance your child could be thrown overboard by a mysterious stranger. We quietly chuckled to each other when they couldn’t get it to work. Bah humbug indeed!

We docked in the morning, amid low grey skies and relentless drizzle. All the passengers lined up to disembark, while their relatives waved frantically from the dock, excited about the start of the Christmas holiday. It was then that the ferry staff announced there would be a two hour delay in getting off because the tide was too low to get the ramp down onto the jetty. This appeared to be a surprise.

No one protested, and we all shuffled back into the salon, which by now stank of the morning breath of 200 unwashed passengers. As we waited we wondered why a ferry company would have no prior knowledge of the tides!

Talking of bah humbug, we’d made no particular plans for Christmas, deciding it wasn’t important enough to particularly alter our route. Having said that, when we finally disembarked and drove into the thick mist, it confirmed something we’d been suspecting for a few days – we didn’t really fancy Christmas on a dirt road in the rain. We’d loved our detour into Chile but felt an inexplicable pull back towards Argentina.

We never really had a pre-planned route for this journey. Sometimes these decisions are made in the mood of the moment, with weather often being a major factor. Maybe it would be sunny on the other side of the border?! Maybe we could barbeque a steak?! Maybe there would be unicorns and rainbows in our Christmas stockings?!

With that, we turned east and headed for the border.

Days: 1,204
Miles: 31,249
Things we now know to be true: Penguins walk like they’re wearing someone else’s flippers.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:

 

 

Return to Chile

7 Jan
Seaweed lady

Members of the Huilliche community make an income from collecting seaweed on the beaches of the Pacific coast, Chile.

El Calafate, Argentina
[by Paula]

It was more than a year since we’d last been in Chile, and what a year it had been.

The country is ridiculously long and skinny. But not only did the northern Atacama desert seem like a million miles away in physical terms, mentally it was a whole world away – back in a time when we’d left our broken home in Ecuador and travelled there van-less, not knowing if we would ever get it back.

Despite those problems, we’d loved the country then and were keen to get another taste.

Shortly after my mum and dad returned home from their trip to Argentina, we stayed in the country for a few more days, doing a short dog-leg to El Bolson. As we went down in elevation, the spring flowers became even more riotous.

We camped at Lago Puelo and from a breezy mirador overlooking the lake, we could see Chile in the distance.

Lago Puelo, Argentina

We could see through the gap to Chile from Lago Puelo in Argentina.

Soon after, we crossed the border at Pajaritos, taking us into the heart of the Chilean Lakes District and taking the van into the country for the first time.

Not surprisingly, the area is choc-a-bloc with pristine lakes, rivers and volcanoes to be admired. But first we headed due west to the Pacific coast, to visit a series of Huilliche villages, which are among Chile’s few remaining indigenous communities.

Our previous experience of Chile’s coast had been quite bleak, so we were blown away to find places like this, and this, and this.

Choroy Traiguén, Chile

Choroy Traiguén, Pacific coast, Osorno, Chile

 

Beach, Maicolpué, Chile

Sunset beer spot next to our campsite in Maicolpué, Osorno, Chile.

 

Tril Tril beach, Pacific coast, Chile

Tril Tril beach, Pacific coast, Chile

Not for the first time we found an obviously blossoming – albeit small scale – tourism infrastructure that seemed inexplicably dormant. Perhaps it was still too early in the season, but all the campgrounds, and facilities like brand new toilets and tourism offices, were closed. Luckily they weren’t very security-conscious either so – after checking with a local – we pulled into the closed campground at the foot of the sand dunes in the village of Maicolpué and used it as a base for a couple of days of exploration.

From our peaceful spot we got our first proper sight of the cute colourful wood-tiled homes so typical of this part of the country, and couldn’t stop snapping photos of them.

Maicolpué, Chile

Colourful houses of Maicolpué, Pacific coast, Osorno, Chile.

Trying our best to understand the accents, we chatted to the ladies on the beach who make a living from collecting and selling seaweed for use in cooking or sushi.

Collecting seaweed for sale

Members of the Huilliche community make an income from collecting seaweed on the beaches of the Pacific coast, Chile.

We drove down the almost vertical road to Tril Tril and walked on a deserted beach, wondering if it ever got busy.

Tril Tril beach, Pacific coast, Chile

Tril Tril beach, Pacific coast, Chile

En route to Manzano, juice dripped down our chins as we sampled one of the very best things about the Chilean coast – fried seafood and cheese empanadas that are so good they make you want to apply for residency.

In contrast to the desiccated north, this region of Chile receives a very regular dumping of rain, with the summer months only enjoying ‘less wet’ weather than the winter. So we were braced for some tricky days, but they hardly ever arrived.

“You’re lucky, make the most of this weather!” people kept telling us – and we did.

We headed south again, along Lago Llanquihue, one of several areas that’s been visibly influenced by German immigrants who came in their thousands in the late 19th century. We kept doing double-takes at the Bavarian style architecture and signs advertising ‘kuchen’ and strudel for sale. It may have turned out to be the most expensive coffee and cake stop of the whole trip, but we did indulge just once.

A major highlight of this leg was a stay in delightful Cochamó and a two-night trip from there to the ‘Chilean Yosemite’ at La Junta.

Only accessible by horse or on foot, it truly was a gem. It had been ages since we’d been riding, so we opted to go up the valley by horse and then hike back down. We’re pretty inexperienced, so the rocky, muddy climb – involving several river crossings – was quite a thrill and a challenge for us. My misbehaving horse had a penchant for taking shortcuts that avoided the trail and went straight through dense bushes instead. Arriving with a wild look and a few more scratches – and twigs attached – than I’d set out with, I decided to put my application for Horsewoman of the Year on the back-burner for a while.

The scenery in the valley was quite something – giant granite peaks that looked just like, you guessed it, a scaled down version of Yosemite national park in the USA.

River beach, La Junta, Chile

The trip to La Junta passes crystal clear waters and river beaches.

 

We spent our free day there choosing one of the hikes to do in the area.

When choosing a hike we usually tend to do two things:-
1. Where possible, we’ll almost always pick the hike that goes up high and gives a great view.
2. We’ll do totally inadequate research so that, every now and again, the above hike unexpectedly scares the living crap out of Jeremy (regular readers will remember his crippling vertigo).

From the off the hike was very steep but was in a forest, so no frightening edges to worry about. Even the parts that involved pulling ourselves up using ropes didn’t faze Jeremy too much. Once we reached sections of exposed sheer rock, he started to feel a bit wobbly.

As we so often have to do, I went ahead to check out the next section for scary bits.

“I think you’ll be okay with that,” I said when I returned.

Ten minutes later he was on his hands and knees, shaking, sweating and shouting “where the hell have you brought me? … ah! ah! argh!” and I realised I might have slightly misjudged it.

We were still in forest, but the knowledge that the trees were basically clinging to a rock face and the view of the sheer cliffs across the valley had sent him into a spin of dry-retching and panic. The exact same thing had happened to us on a hike in Yosemite! Damn.

After a short stand-off, we got him to a place where he felt safer. “Leave me here and go on a bit,” he said. “I really really want you to see the view, I don’t want you to do all this for nothing.”

I walked on, and within a few minutes was thanking my lucky stars I hadn’t dragged Jeremy any further. I have virtually no fear of heights, but even my legs were jelly when I reached the first viewpoint from a ledge that had a worryingly spongy feel underfoot. It was worth it though!

I carried on a little, marvelling at how close we seemed to have got to the tops of the granite peaks. The refugio’s buildings were a series of little dots below.

View from La Junta hike

Spot the refuge below…

Round the next corner I peered ahead to see where the path was. There was no path – just some ropes that disappeared under a hanging rock. I took that as my cue to quit while I was ahead, and go back to check on whether Jeremy’s fingers were still clamped around a tree root.

My legs were shaking with excitement and tension when I got back. We slip-slod back down the hill and found a hot rock by a waterfall to rest and reflect. Phew.

We’d arrived by horse, but to get back out of the area on foot we had to use an old-fashioned-looking – but very effective – pulley system to get across the river. No matter how old one gets, there are some things that just never stop being fun. Weeeeee!

River pulley fun, La Junta, Chile

Crossing the river by pulley in La Junta

After the five-hour hike back down to Cochamó we drove south to Puelo and luxuriated in the steaming shower at a lovely campground in the village.

For Jeremy’s birthday we asked at the only local restaurant if it would be open the following night. Consistent with the kind of ‘half shut’ feel of everything at this time of year, they said they’d be open if we told them what we wanted to eat beforehand and promised to come. We ordered Patagonian lamb and took off for a night of bush camping at nearby Lago Tagua Tagua, and a ferry ride to the other end of the lake. After a hot dusty hike we hitched back to the port and shivered on the chilly boat journey back.

birthday selfie

Keeping warm on the ferry ride back along Lago Tagua Tagua – Jeremy’s 48th birthday.

It was a very tasty, if rather solitary, birthday dinner, and we reflected on how all of Jeremy’s on-the-road birthdays had been odd in one way or another! I promised to at least hire him some friends for his 50th in 2016…

We set off down the coast again the next day, and took a little ferry north towards Puerto Montt. The black skies were more characteristic of the Lakes District we’d read about. Besides, perhaps it was good preparation for the next stage. After a few days we’d be heading towards the island of Chiloé, which has an almost year-round climate described as ‘misting or raining’ when it’s not ‘sprinkling or drizzling’.

Would our luck hold? We’d been pretty spoiled up until now, but it was time to man up, dig out the raincoats again and head into the mist.

Days: 1,193
Miles: 30,488
Things we now know to be true: Seafood and cheese, together in an empanada. So wrong, yet so right.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:-

Rock ‘n roll nights

15 Nov
Colourful Valparaiso

Multi-coloured  Valparaiso.

Jupapina, nr Mallasa, Bolivia
[by Paula]

We spent a day trying to decide where to go for the last portion of my brother’s visit. We could still make it to Peru for some trekking? Maybe pop over to Argentina?

After Derek left, Jeremy I were either going to be scooting back up north to Ecuador to collect our van (remember the van?), or heading directly to Bolivia to begin a voluntary work placement we’d set up, which meant the most illogical thing to do would be to head south again.

So that’s exactly what we did.

Let’s hire another car, we said, and drive south to Santiago – it’s only 1,670 kilometres (1,012 miles) each way!

We were getting to know this Atacama Desert road pretty well. A bit under-prepared on the provisions, we pulled into a little roadside posada for dinner before pushing on for our second visit to Pan de Azucar national park. We pitched our tents as the sun set behind the island, then settled in for a night of, well, not very much. So disorganised had we been that we only had one can of beer and a handful of sweets for entertainment. But it’s amazing what you can do with nothing. We trawled the site for wood, lit a fire and shared the can. Rock ‘n roll!

Setting up camp, Pan de Azucar national park, Chile.

Setting up at sunset, Pan de Azucar national park, Chile.

Then Derek did his best Bear Grylls impersonation and showed us you can boil water in a paper (yes, paper) cup on the fire. Most exciting cup of coffee I’ve ever had! If we can make a cuppa from nothing, we can survive anything.

We left early the next morning and pulled into Chañaral for one of Chile’s best any-time-of-the-day snacks, a hulking great steak and avocado sandwich. Happy 14th wedding anniversary to us!

Another long day of driving, and several gas station coffees later, we made it well south of La Serena and into new territory for Jeremy and me. We had high hopes for a campsite called Termas de Socos, which reportedly had natural hot thermal waters. We pulled into an empty, very locked, campsite. Bugger. We took our unwashed, rather unpleasant looking, selves into the very posh hotel next door to ask if they could help. They phoned the campsite owner who came down and opened it for us – an entire, massive campsite to ourselves! The ‘thermal pool’ was empty but the bonus was that the owner also ran a restaurant just up the road.

Campfire night

Anniversary campfire! Termas de Socos, Chile.

We pitched the tents and headed straight up there for a totally delicious – and cheap – dinner of roasted goat and ribs with the most orgasmic mashed potato in history.

Back at the tents, Derek went into full pyromaniac mode with the campfire, and we willingly colluded. The music was cranked up, and the more we drank the more outrageous the fire got. Luckily no one was around to hear the singing.

On our wedding day I’m not sure what we thought we’d be doing 14 years hence, but it probably wasn’t that.

Next morning we found the perfect antidote to a hangover and a few days without a shower. The very posh hotel next door rented out natural hot baths – bingo! We each got an individual room with a huge bath and unlimited hot water. Ahhhhhhh.

Three squeaky clean, slightly wrinkled, bodies climbed back into the car and headed for Valparaiso. We were amazed we easily found our B&B in the city’s crooked, windy, unbelievably steep streets. From our room we had a fantastic view over the bay.

We spent three nights in this kooky, artsy city which is part grimy and edgy, part pretty and funky. One of the most remarkable things about it is that seemingly the entire city has been, willingly, given over to graffiti art, murals and brightly painted buildings, which makes for some great aimless street-wandering.

Derek and I took the ascensor (while Jeremy took his vertigo for a steep walk) up to the Cerros Concepcion and Alegre district, where we shopped, then ate the thickest seafood chowder known to man.

We visited the late, uber-famous, Chilean poet/activist/politician Pablo Neruda’s fabulous home and mooched round the city’s ornate cemetery.

Having not quite adjusted to Chile’s late night culture (band starts at midnight, what?!) we heroically managed to prop our eyelids open to watch some sublime live music – the mesmerising, accordion-wielding, gypsy-jazz-salsa singer Pascuala Ilabaca and her band Fauna.

Mercado Central, Santiago

Fish galore at the Mercado Central, Santiago.

Derek’s final stop in Santiago was brief, but not too brief to visit the famous Mercado Central, a vast and chaotic emporium of fish sellers and fish restaurants. We sampled a few dishes – king fish, eel and merluza – while watching several of Santiago’s upper echelons order king crabs at well over US$100 a go. The waiters delivered them with a flourish, as everyone watched and took photos, which was presumably the reaction they were hoping for! We left enough of a gap before scoffing ceviche and one of the best tres leches cakes ever encountered, at bar The Clinic – the official bar of Chile’s political magazine of the same name.

The following day was a repeat of That Horrible Goodbye, as Derek took off back to Scotland and his wife Fiona and kids Skye and Finn – who had kindly loaned him to us for a while. Hasta luego hermano!

We’d been hoping we could dash back to Ecuador, collect the van, and make it (almost) on time to Bolivia, for the work project we’d organised. But while the mechanic had managed to source and install a manual gearbox in the van, there was still an issue with the computer understanding what the heck was going on, and a part had been ordered from Germany to try to resolve it.

We didn’t see the point in going back to Ecuador to wait around, when we had something great lined up in Bolivia, so we decided to head straight there and worry about the van once it was fully repaired.

First we had to return the hire car in Calama. We bombed it back up north in a long two days. The journey included an epic search for somewhere to camp or lodge near Antofagasta, on the coast. All campsites turned out to be closed or too rough-looking to contemplate. We searched nearby coastal ‘resorts’ which turned out to be more of those creepy half-abandoned encampments we’d seen before. When we enquired about camping or staying in cabins were told everything was ‘closed for maintenance’.

All lodgings in the town of Mejillones were booked out with miners – we almost got desperate enough to ask in a dire-looking dosshouse. But one look at the way the plastic ‘garden’ furniture was chained to the fence outside gave us pause to reconsider.

Car bed

Sometimes there’s nothing else for it but to give up and wind back the driver’s seat.

We found a posh hotel a few miles away, parked on the edge of their property and slept in the car. Oh what crusties we have become.

Things got creepier the next day when we took a different route up the coast and, in the early morning fog, came across a baby cemetery right on the beach. A huge area was filled with Victorian-style wooden cribs, most of which had cuddly toys tied to them. Some of the graves were 100+ years old, but most of the toys were quite new. There are some great things about Chile’s northern coast, but some of it is just damn weird.

We headed on to Calama, and delivered the car before setting up camp for a couple of nights to sort ourselves out and prepare for our big project in Bolivia, where we hoped to stay for up to six months.

After that we’d resume the trip south towards Argentina, but for now, the next chapter awaited.

Days: 772
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,259
Things we now know to be true: You can boil water over a fire using a paper cup. Honestly.

PHOTO GALLERY BELOW!

UnBoliviable

6 Nov
Jeremy jumps for joy, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Yay, it’s snowing! No wait, hang on, this is salt.

Jupapina, nr Mallasa, Bolivia
[by Paula]

Not for the first time, I was sorely tempted to get down on all fours and lick the ground.

Could it really be a 12,000sq km blindingly-white desert of salt we saw before us? It was reminiscent of one of those movies where they try to depict ‘heaven’ by making everything all white and floaty and unreal.

Along with my brother Derek – who was visiting for a few weeks – we were taking a three-day 4×4 tour of Bolivia’s south west corner. For countless reasons, it’s one of the most popular trips to do in the country. It’s typically described as a tour of the salt flats, with one of the main draws being the largest salt ‘lake’ in the world, Salar de Uyuni. But it is so much more than that.

This region of Bolivia is a smorgasbord of ever-changing landscapes, of unfeasibly luminescent colours, that it looks for all the world as if someone’s created the whole thing in Photoshop.

Each time we claimed we’d ‘never seen anything so incredible’, we’d drive for a little while, then happen upon a scene more mind-blowing than the last.

There was the suspended reality of the salt flats, which are so uniform and vast that tourists love to play with the lack of perspective and take comedy photos that portray them as huge or tiny. It’s a rite of passage that would have been churlish to deny ourselves.

Little Jeremy and Derek, Salar de Uyuni.

Honey, I’ve shrunk Jeremy and Derek. Silly perspective-bending moments, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Then, just as we thought the salar would never end, we arrived at Isla Incahuasi, a whopping great pre-historic island in the middle of the encrusted lake, which is blanketed in giant cacti. From the top we had an amazing view of the flats, much of which has crusted into surreal hexagonal tiles.

After an incredible sunset on the flats, and dinner at our hostal – which was entirely made of salt, what else? (the hostal, not the dinner) – we wrapped up against the cold and went out to gaze at the stars, and our own moon-shadows.

The next day was a feast of rock forests, altiplano lakes, pink flamingos and a procession of incredible snow-capped mountains to top off the scene. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we arrived at Laguna Colorada, which is turned red by natural algae.

Flamingo, salt lagoon, Bolivia.

In the pink. Flamingo, salt lagoon, Bolivia.

We were agreed that the trip so far was one of the best things we’d done on all of our travels. It’s not necessarily a cakewalk though. It can be very cold at times, the accommodation on most tours is communal and fairly basic, and both nights are spent sleeping at very high altitudes, of up to 4,300m – which often means, at best, sleeplessness and headaches and sometimes worse symptoms of altitude sickness.

On the second night, Derek was suffering pretty badly and – to top it off – had had zero sleep before our wake-up call for a 5am start. He was feeling fairly shitty, and needed to get to a lower elevation.

Problem was, we had 12 hours of driving at altitude ahead of us, followed immediately by a 12-hour overnight bus journey to La Paz, one of the highest cities in the world. A couple of nights before we’d made this crazy last-minute plan to try to make it to Peru within Derek’s short trip – more trekking at altitude! Not good.

Salt hostel, Bolivia

Basic but comfy accommodation at a hostel made of salt – all furniture included!

We quickly decided it wasn’t worth putting his holiday in jeopardy by overdoing it, and cancelled the plan to go to Peru. That morning the tour skirted the Chilean border and, luckily, Derek had the chance to skip the last few hours (mostly just involving the drive back to Uyuni) and head quickly back over the border to San Pedro de Atacama, at a mere 2,500m.

Before he departed we saw sunrise at the one of the highest geyser fields in the world – Sol de Mañana, at a gasping 5,000m. We then warmed our chilled early-morning bones at the sublime natural hot springs at Laguna Polques. The reaction of every single person who sank into that hot steaming pool was identical – aaaahhhhhhhhhhoooooohuhhhyes!

The (almost) final stop was the strikingly green Laguna Verde. Saving the best for last!? It’s hard to choose a ‘best’ from this trip, but that was one hell of a green, shiny, not-completely-real-looking lake. When you look at photos of this famous laguna, you just assume they’ve been enhanced. They haven’t.

Laguna Verde, Bolivia

The impossibly-luminous Laguna Verde. Panoramic pic courtesy of Derek Jolly.

It was lovely having so much time with Derek, whom we rarely see for more than a few days at a time. Now suddenly he was gone! Jeremy and I had no option but to continue back to Uyuni, as we’d left half of our gear there. After a final, gorgeous, stop-off at a hidden oasis, and a brief pause to let some wild ostriches cross our path, we dug in for the long drive back.

After a long, remarkably unpleasant, bus journey from Uyuni to San Pedro the next day we were reunited.

With Peru off the table, all we had to do now was make a new plan for Derek’s final week. North, south, east or west?

Days: 763
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,259
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes table salt really is a table made of salt.

PHOTO GALLERY BELOW!
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NOTE: We were delighted with the company we chose for the tour. There are many disreputable firms in Uyuni, so choose carefully if you go. To date there are nearly 1,000 reviews on Trip Advisor.
We would happily recommend family-run Quechua Connection, based in the centre of Uyuni. Email Jose at quechuaconnection4wd@hotmail.com – he can speak English if you need that.
Great guys, safe drivers, food very good and nutritional – Jose is also a nifty photographer for those tricky salt flats pics.

—-

Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

The red lake, Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

PHOTOS! PHOTOS! PHOTOS! Click on the gallery below for a taster of south-west Bolivia.