Monday, June 11, 2007

4th - June (Salvador, Brazil)

After an itchy night, I woke up with a lot of mozzie bites which swelled to the size of two pence pieces so looked really good for the beach! The beach is very busy and there are guys coming along every two minutes trying to sell you stuff so it's not exatly the most relaxing beach ever. There are other beaches a short bus ride away but as I am feeling lazy this is the only beach I went to during my stay here. One guy came along with a watering can and watered my feet which took me by surprise. By 14.00 I decided I should probably get indoors as I didn't want to burn and I had plenty more days to toast myself, however, it rained for the next two days and I began to regret that decision. I had eight days in Salvador with the main objective of relaxing and getting a tan, the weather was always hot but raining or overcast at least half of the time. When the sun did come out it was scorching and I did manage to get a bit darker but nowhere near as dark as some of the natives...... Salvador is 'Africa in exile', where the African slaves settled making Salvador a very interesting cultural experience. The historical centre has lots of churches and colonial buildings, the sound of the drumming bands echo along the narrow cobbled streets, there are women dressed like those terrible toilet roll holders that old women have in their bathroom, there are some very nice local dishes such as the fish moqueca and calbresa, bright, vivid, colourful art and there are of course beggers, thieves and people trying to sell you stuff you don't want. Salvador is a busy tourist spot but mostly it seems with Brazilian tourists.

There were a load of 20ish year old Brazilian students over here on some kind of project/holiday staying at the hostel which meant it all got a bit noisy at times but was also good for a few drinks so my time here was mostly speant relaxing, reading, laying on the beach whenever possible, drinking, and watching football, tennis and films; really just winding down before returning to Blighty.

I had to get from Salvador to Rio as my flight home was from there, managed to find a cheap flight the day before the flight home but couldn't book online without a brazilian credit card so got the hostel owner to book it over the phone. However, what I thought was an 11.00 flight turned out to be an 08.00 flight so when I arrived at the airport I had missed it which could have been terrible if I hadn't managed to get on a later flight but that was delayed and I ended up spending ten hours at the airport and arrived at my hostel in Rio just before midnight. I had planned to do some gift shopping in Rio but only managed to buy a few pairs of havianas before leaving for the airport where I stocked up on Brazil t-shirts.

The British Airways flight home took thirteen hours and was very disapointing from an entertainment perspective and I found it very difficult to sleep. I was expecting a huge 'welcome home' banner at the airport but instead Carly was there holding baby Casey who was wearing a 'welcome home uncle Adam' t-shirt, and behind them was Mum, Dad and Daniel. We had some food before heading to Lambourn to see my Nan and uncle Jim, we popped into the pub where Dada and Dan let me beat them at pool. Later that evening we had a good curry which I had been looking forward to for a while.

On the Saturday, Carly and Dan had a barbecue and as a surprise a load of my mates turned up which was very nice. Later, Dan and I went into town where we met up with some of Dan's mates and I got hit over the head with a bottle - it's good to be back.

Thank you everyone for reading the blog.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

25th May - 3rd June (Buenos Aries and Uruguay)

Sorry - no photos until I replace the stolen USB cable for my camera.

Flying into Buenos Aries we got the birds eye view of the impressive bowl shaped river plate stadium. We were unsure which would be the best area to stay in between San Telmo and Palermo - after some deliberation we decided on the former. It was a public holiday and the streets were pretty empty but the hostels and hotels we tried were full or didn't have a room for three. I volunteered to stand in the street and guard the bags while the other two checked out a hostel, and stooped down to strap the sleeping bag to my rucksack at which point I felt something wet hit the back of my head and neck. As I looked around me a woman told me that it was a bird shit and provided me with water and tissues, it was all down the back of my jumper and was the runniest most vinegary smelling bird shit ever so I was very grateful to the woman helping me to clean it off. But then she was gone and so was my big bag, we were on a crossroads so she could have gone left or right and disapeared quickly and I couldn't leave the remaining bags to give chase anyway. I felt like a complete idiot but was glad they had took mine as I knew there was not much of value in there - mostly clothes. The most annoying things to lose were Cusco paintings, my kiwi and boomerang, the warranty to my broken camera, the travel towel, skydive video, all the little movies (eg the Maori rapper) that were on the photo cds (the photos are all saved on flicka - thank god!), the mountain madness t-shirt and my mp3 recharger which none of the electrical shops here have. The lads reappeared and decided we should get a taxi to Palermo where we checked into a hostel with a bar where we drank a load of cheap wine then went out to some bars and clubs until about 05.00. A strong G&T was the final straw that sent me off to sleep with my head on the table as Jamie and I were sat with a couple of girls (not that I remember any of this!)

We jumped out of bed at 11.00 as we had decided to check out and move to a nice hotel which we had found on the internet. This was in the central area. From here we went via taxi to the San Telmo police station to report the theft, our taxi driver spoke reasonable English and offered to translate in the police station for me - I don't know how I would have got anywhere without him as the police spoke very little English. Having suddenly remembered that the bag was stufffed with hi-tech equipment and $100 bills I made my report before the driver took us to a massive shopping mall to replace some clothes. We tipped the driver well - he was a really nice guy. After a couple of hours I was feeling the worse for wear and we had all had enough of shopping so we went back, had some beers, gave the boys another pool lesson and ate fajitas.

Sunday was pleasant; we went to the big market with lots of antiques, art, junk and street performers; a nice atmosphere. We ate lovely food with a little wine and I bought some good quality shoes to match the suit that I will soon be wearing to Casey's christening and Richie's wedding. In the evening we went into several bars, in one of which we seemed to be very popular with the multitude of girls who kept looking over at us - it turned out to be some sort of brothel although it looked just like a normal bar. We drank up and left.

Monday was a real struggle to get up. We had booked a three and a half hour bicycle tour of the city. We all wore shorts and it was freezing with an icy cold wind that numbed our fingers. Our young female guide was lovely and informative and we managed to enjoy the tour despite the cold. We went to another shopping mall to buy a few more things. In the evening I needed a couple of energy drinks to get me going, again everywhere seemed quiet but we stayed out late and finished the night playing cards and eating the pizzas we had delivered until 06.00 whilst reminiscing about Bullseye!

The first taxi driver we asked to take us to the cemetry dropped us at completely the wrong end of town (god knows what he thought we said!), lucky the cabs are cheap so we just got another one to the right place. 54,843 square metres with 4,800 vaults housing the bodies of wealthy and important argentinians. Some incredibly grand tombs, coffins and statues including that of Evita. We walked to the big metal flower in the park and then to a British Airways office which was of absolutely no use in replacing my stolen flight ticket home. For the evening we had booked up at the cafe Tortoni to see the amazing Tango show; the music, dancers, drummers and costumes were incredible, the food not so great. We drank until 03.00.

Tired and a little hungover, we rushed around to get to the port for 09.00, however the 09.00 ferry is a slow one, the fast one leaves at 11.15 but arrives in Colonia (Uruguay) at about the same time so we killed time by going to La Boca to buy some pictures that we had seen during the bike tour. In Colonia, I checked into a hostel and dumped my bags, the boys were going back to Buenos Aries the same day as they were flying home that evening. We strolled around the old part of the city; very picturesque cobbled streets and colonial architecture, a good lunch and then the boys were gone. In the evening I went back to the old part of town to see it with it's old gas style lamps lit on the houses - it was deathly quiet and I was about the only person around. Back at the hostel I got chatting to a nice Irish family and I hate to admit I never had a drop of alcohol (sorry boys!).

Colonia is lovely but there isn't much reason to stay more than a day so I took a bus to the capital 'Montevideo', home of the first ever world cup. Checked into a hostel located right on the lovely plaza independiencia and soon realised that it was full of predominantly gay blokes, one of which was determined to get me batting for his side! I quickly left to explore the city which is full of surprises; it's a lovely place, with so many impressive buildings; churches, massive banks, loads of museums, nice little market stalls, park areas, huge statues and of course scattered among these are the usual horrible drab grey highrise blocks and ugly crumbling eyesores and some persistent but polite begging kids. In the evening I went out with a few of the straight people from the hostel to a lively bar with a band playing where I seemed to be getting somewhere with both a nice American girl called Jackie and a Danish/Bolivian girl who was very drunk. Back at the hostel Jackie fell asleep as we watched Saw 3.

I went for lunch with Jackie and her friend Mark, quite possibly the healthiest lunch I have had in a year as it was a huge salad buffet, however I did finish it off with an extremely rich piece of chocolate pie! We walked around the streets and into a couple of museums then played cards and used the net before going out for a few bottles of wine and a magnificent steak in red wine sauce - perfect!

Jackie and Mark left in the morning, I took a bus ride with all my stuff to the bus station hoping there might me a bus leaving for Port Alegre (from there flights to Salvador seem to be much cheaper). There wasn't one until 21.00 so took my stuff back to the hostel. The bus journeys were entertaining; people come on to beg, sing, read poetry, play instruments and sell bits and bobs. I walked around the city again, the breeze was cold but it was quite hot in the sun. I discovered that you can't buy flights online over here without a Brazilian credit card. Before leaving the hostel again for the bus station the gays made me eat some food which was nice but I was worried that it might be spiked! I was glad to get away!

On the bus, I was told that I would be fined at the border for not having a piece of paper that was supposed to be given to me as I enetered Uruguay (that really annoyed me as I'd never had it), but luckily I slept through the border crossing and they must have let it go. In the evening there was a U2 live dvd, in the morning Placebo sang 'Where is my mind?' with Frank Black on stage - much better than the usual tosh I have to sit through! I arrived at Port Alegre on a Sunday, waited an hour for tourist info to open and was told the only place to buy flights is at the airport. I would maybe have liked a day in Port Alegre but at 08.30 took a short, expensive taxi ride to the airport where I booked an 11.00 flight to Salvador where I am hoping as it is quite a long way north of Rio it will be hot and sunny for my last week or so, so that I can come home with a tan! I arrived in the late evening in the Barra area of Salvador, it was hot and sticky which I thought bode well for a day in the sun the next day. The dorm at Albergue do Porto seemed pleasant enough and the showers were hot. I was warned as I left to get food that the streets aren't safe at night and not to take anything valuable, so I walked around all jittery and jumpy before stopping for a horrible pizza on the seafront which didn't seem like there was much going on. I made it safely back to the hostel.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

10th - 24th May (Mountain madness and Daz and Jamie in Brazil)

Firstly, I apologise for the fact my blog is way behind and secondly for the lack of photos - both will be rectified as soon as possible......

Back at La Paz I shared a room with Chris and Kim. I had a haircut that lasted an hour and a half as the barber was keen to learn a little English so that he could impress his daughter who was learning it at school. We found a good English type pub with decent food called 'Olivers travels'. The following day was one of the most exciting of the trip; cycling down death road!!! On superb mountain bikes with full suspension and disc brakes we cycled 64km, 61km of it downhill at up to 60kmh and mostly on winding gravel road with massive drops off the edge should you get it horribly wrong. Aaron, our English guide stopped us regularly along the way to tell us tragic tales of buses, lorries, cars and cycling tourists that had plummeted to their doom. Some of the views were amazing although there was a fair bit of cloud and mist around. I enjoyed every minute of it although the short uphill bit was a struggle (I blame the altitude). The road, though a bit hairy at times, is nowhere near as dangerous as it once was as there is now an alternative road which takes most of the vehicles leaving the cyclists to speed down the old road without much chance of meeting oncoming vehicles.

The following day I did a lot of gift shopping as there is loads of cool stuff around the La Paz shops and stalls. This got posted home a couple of days later.

I had to fly to Santiago in order to go on to Rio, this involved a stop at Iquique where we all had to get off, go through the same process of getting passports checked and bags scanned before getting back on - seemed a little stupid to me. Stayed overnight then flew on to Rio and it felt weird after once having such a huge pile of flight tickets to be down to the last one - the flight back home. After what seemed like a long flight and a long bus journey, I arrived in Copacabana where Darren and Jamie had arrived from England the previous day. I checked in to the plush hotel room they had booked, had the best shower I'd had in ages and went out on the town to catch up on everything over a few beers. Copacabana was one place I had heard quite a lot of bad stories about so I was a bit worried but the main streets were busy and well lit and soon put me at ease.

We spent a day being driven around the city sights by a good English speaking guide, including the sugarloaf mountain cable car, churches and cathedrals, the brightly coloured steps where we met the mad artist, various good viewpoints of the city and a good traditional lunch. Unfortunately the clouds never cleared from around the famous christ statue on Corcovado so we had to save that for the next day. A lot of the women like to wear very skimpy shorts which is fine by me!

Dazza went hand gliding and landed on the beach while I laid down and got a little burnt in a very short time. We took the obligatory photos of the christ statue before walking along Ipanema beach watching the super fit volleyball players as we went. There was a guy doing keepie ups with everything from a pea sized ball, an egg, to a coconut, he was very good, a few days later we saw him on MTV Brasil. In the evening we went to the MaracaƱa stadium where we watched the local team win the semi final of the Copa de Brasil 4-2. The stadium is the biggest in the world, it once held 210,000 but now it is all seating holds a meagre 130,000, very impressive but much more sedated than my experience at the away end of Colo Colo in Santiago.

The next day we took a boat to Ihla Grande where we stayed in an excellent and cheap posada (like a B&B). We spent most of the day on the beach, the sun was super hot and the sea was refreshingly cool and calm. I could get used to this, but it didn't last. In the evening we drank beer and Capriahnas, the traditional local drink, sickly sweet and very strong. The next day started clear and hot and we arranged a boat trip with a bloke at the posada; when we arrived at the port, in amongst all the lovely boats with decks where you could lie out and drink beer whilst being surrounded by beautiful chicas, we found our crappy little fishing boat and we were a little miffed at having booked up with this guy, however, it was a nice day, we snorkelled amongst some thankfully harmless jellyfish (that really gave Jamie the willies) and stopped at some pleasant beaches. It clouded over and we got back just as the rain started, we drank, played cards and 'chatted' to some local girls who spoke neither English or Spanish (they speak Portuguese here) before heading to the pretty crappy local nightclub.

I wish I had managed to get a photo of it - they have a red VW camper fire engine, it's hilarious! I've also seen them used as ambulances. It had rained on and off during the night but was now a downpour that would last all day, we watched the tedious FA cup final, played cards, and I ate jacket potato with mozzarella to which I added a big dollop of the marmite my friend Rich had sent over with Jamie. He also sent some much appreciated tetley tea bags and chocolate. There are not too many options here when the weather is bad, even the internet goes down so eventually we were left with no choice but to drink!

Again it rained most of the night but by morning it had slowed to drizzle. We took the boat to the mainland and a bus to Paraty, a really nice colonial town with cobbled streets, nice buildings, restaurants and shops (a bit pricey). We stayed in a nice B&B and I bought my first ever pair of flip flops (havianas) which were particularly hard work on the cobbles. We watched 'Blood Diamond', one of my pirate dvds and the quality was pretty bad. For the next few days the lads suffered a little with stomach aches and sore throats, I was fine though as I am made of stronger stuff!

The bus to Sao Paulo took five hours and a little kid threw up all over the aisle. Some of the coast, about an hour south of Paraty was stunning with expensive looking beach houses and a lot of boats. The bus on to Iguazu was nice but there was a massive fat woman with an irregular snore that lasted from the minute we got on to when we got off sixteen hours later. I watched Dukes of Hazard in Portuguese with Spanish subtitles before falling asleep with my walkman on. We stayed in a hostel on the Argie side of Iguazu but made a trip back across to the Brazil side to get some good views of the falls. Jamie was feeling quite ill that night and he spent the next morning in bed. Daz and I made the most of having lost the veggie by going to a parrilla for an all you can eat bbq meat fest. Jamie made it out to watch the champions league final on a big screen in a cafe with no atmosphere. Pizza and beer and six games of pool undefeated.

It's funny how some Argie restaurants have no concept of vegetarianism; one place where we had clearly stated in Spanish that Jamie was veggie brought out quesiladas which Jamie bit into and swallowed before realising had meat in. A bloke came out to explain that it was ok as it was only ham, not beef!!!

The sun was shining on the third day in Iguazu and we took a bus to the Argie side of the falls which was spectacular, we also went out on a jet boat where we got drenched by the spray. Some of the walkways that usually sit a little way above the water were now off limits; 6,000 cubic metres per second of water was falling instead of the usual 1,300 and as you stand on one of the walkways that overlooks the edge of a big fall it's amazing to watch, it put me in a bit of a trance so I could almost feel myself going over the edge. A quiet night in as Jamie tries to let his throat recover in time for the drinking to come in Buenos Aries, there's not too much to do in Iguazu town anyway.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

28th April - 10th May (Salar de Uyuni and Rurenabaque)

I started the day with a much needed hot shower before taking the bus to Copacabana, just inside the Bolivian border, where I had planned to stay for a day or two with a visit to Isla del Sol. This plan quickly changed when I realised there were no ATMs and I had little money. Immidiately noticed how cheap Bolivia is when I ate fajitas for lunch. Bolivia is the cheapest country in South America, especially for accomodation which costs between 20 and 40 Bolivianos (16 Bolivianos = 1 Pound). So, after lunch I got on a bus to La Paz, the capital, a four hour journey.
The road to La Paz comes in from above the city so there are good views of what looks like a brick and concrete explosion at the heart of what must once have been a beautiful green valley surrounded by mountains - the buildings have spread from the centre outwards and upwards, it is a mess but quite an impressive mess! There I found the adventure brew hostel, nice, clean and sociable but with cold showers. Met some English girls and went out for food and drink (2 pints and a risotto for 50B - bargain!). Over the next couple of weeks I would be coming and going from La Paz as it is central to all the places I want to visit. The Bolivians are not an attractive bunch of people; the babys and young kids seem cute enough with their rosey red cheeks but then it all goes wrong.
There don't seem to be any young women; they must go from schoolgirl to fat old woman in shapeless dresses and aprons overnight!

The next day I booked a ticket to Uyuni (70B for a 11 hour journey) before taking a look around the coca museum and the witches market where you can buy anything from Llama feotus' to stuffed frogs! La Paz is the highest city above sea level in the world so breathing can still be a problem, especially walking up the steep hill to the bus station carrying my increasingly heavy bag as buses go past directing their black smoke directly into my lungs - this must be how a forty-a-day habit feels!!!

The eleven hour bus ride to Uyuni is the bumpiest road ever. The journey was at night but any hopes I had of sleeping were misplaced. I was sat just above the rear axle which sounded like it could snap at any moment leaving the bus to drag it's arse like a dog with a pooey bottom! I met Becky from England and we chatted for a while between failed attempts at sleep. We arrived at 05.00 to a temperature of between -5 and -10 with no wind and me wearing my shorts! We walked around knocking on doors until a hostel eventually let us in. We slept until midday, had lunch, booked a tour for tomorrow and walked around the bright, cold and not too exciting town. In the evening I went for beer, pizza and wine with Becky, a pleasant evening that ended with a little accident which would tarnish my experience of the next few days.....

Travelling has made me appreciate some of the things I take for granted back home, take for example my current predicament which has made me appreciate the basic human neccesity of having a good fart without ruining a pair of pants. When things return to normal I will make sure I fully appreciate letting rip with confidence!

The Salar de Uyuni trip is three days and two nights. It's an amazing place with great scenery but the roads are very bumpy in our four wheel drive and I spent a lot of time clenching my buttocks. Also, the nights are very cold and my one pair of trousers are currently out of commission; the others in the group just think I am mental for wearing shorts every evening. There are seven of us in the group and they are a good young bunch; the Belgian couple speak good Spanish and English which is lucky as they translate everything the driver says. The driver is not a tour guide, which means there are no useful explanations of how the salt lakes and other interesting features are formed, other than that it was a very worthwhile trip with great scenery.The first place of interest along the journey is the train cemetry - I believe these are British trains once used for transporting valuable minerals.

The salt flats are 12,000 square km of salt, there are buildings made from salt bricks, and coral islands with loads of cactii, there are lakes with flamingoes (if only the zoom were working on my camera), geysers and bubbling mud pools, hot spas and lovely sunsets and sunrises.
The accomodation on the second night was freezing cold and very basic with grim toilets with no seats - just what I need! During these few days, the food provided has been ok but again I have no appetite and have eaten very little.
I decided against the hellish road back to La Paz and opted for a 01.45 train which goes halfway (slept all the way), followed by a coach on a toll road arriving at La Paz at 13.20. I felt like my stomach was starting to improve so planned my next trip for the next few days; the wetlands of Rurenabaque. Unfortunately I spoke too soon and much of the evening was spent on the toilet, however, thankfully the situation did improve for Rurenabaque.

The small plane left from the La Paz military base at 07.40, a patchwork of fields below as we headed north. The skies were perfectly clear until we reached mountains that held back a flood of unbroken thick white cloud for miles and miles until there were more mountains, beyond which the skies were clear again and miles of jungle and river could be seen below. We landed on a gravel track runway of a tiny airport surrounded by jungle before being transported to the small town of Rurenabaque where there were lots of travel agencies for the pampas (wetlands) and jungle tours. I had been told the wetlands were good so I went for that and checked into a nice cheap room. Skyped Mum, Dad and Carly before spending most of the Saturday afternoon trying to change dollars into bolivianos, finally succeeding in a pharmacy. I ate most of a huge lasagne with my appetite returning. In the evening I went to an excellent bar where I met Aussie Chris, chatted to him for a while and it turns out he is in my group tomorrow.

I managed to get away from the bar at a reasonably sensible time. At the Indigena tours office Chris looked like death, he didn't enjoy the bumpy three hour journey to the boat. A nice canadian family of five and dutch girl Kim made up the rest of the group. Over the next three days we saw black monkeys, howler monkeys and the inquisitive squirrel monkeys (remember my zoom doesn't work),
an anteater up a tree, a capiberra (huge rodent), pink fresh water dolphins, turtles, a cayman (like a croc), bats, tucans, mcaws, an owl, hawks, condors, kingfishers, storks, hummingbirds, cormorants and other smaller colorful birds. On the first evening we took the motor boat to the sunset bar; as soon as the sun went down the mozzys attacked and we whizzed back on the boat amid the swarm, it was horrible but we got surprisingly few bites - there was worse to come though.

The next morning, we walked in borrowed wellies through the muddy swampy marshland looking for anacondas with no success. My wellies had holes in so my feet were soaked and I really didn't enjoy the walk as I spent the whole time trying to swat the mozzys that were all over me and biting through my clothes. My fifty percent deet wasn't as strong as the others' and I suffered the worst of it with bites absolutely everywhere. More mozzys were waiting for me under my net at the dorm so my feet and ankles took a pasting! Also in the night, something brushed against me which scared the bjesus out of me, I leapt out of bed shouting obscenities, waking everyone. I thought it was a rat or something but it was more likely the resident cat. By the time I found my torch it was gone.

I went fishing for the very first time. In the rain, we went out in the boat and dangled tiny chunks of meat on the end of some fishing wire in the water. Everyone on the boat other than Chris and I were catching pirahnas and catfish and I soon realised why I had never had the urge to try this so called sport before. The journey back to Rurenabaque was interesting as the road had become very boggy with all the rain and several buses were stuck. At several of the worst bits we had to get out and walk as the 4x4 ploughed through. Back at Rurenabaque all flights were cancelled and we tried to arrange a 4x4 to get us back to La Paz which would have been another hellish journey but we failed in that quest, the rain stopped and the flights started again.

Friday, April 27, 2007

23rd - 27th April (Nasca to Puno)

We had travelled back down to the much less oppressive altitude of 598m, my plastic water bottle had completely caved in. I thought it best to get the flight done as soon as possible as the sky was perfectly clear. 192 soles to share a Cessna with four old Italians for half an hour as the pilot swung around each of the images below so that people on both sides of the plane could see clearly. The Nasca lines are mysterious images carved into the mostly flat rocky landscape below by several different civilisations between 900bc and 600ad. Nobody can prove exactly why and it is the different theories that make them so fascinating. See Lots of geometric lines, a monkey, hummingbird, astronaut, spider, dog whale.
The photos from above were no good as the colours involved are kind of grey on a grey background but when I went to planetarium later that night for a fantastically entertaining and informative presentation on the lines, the mystery surrounding them became much greater. Also I saw the rings of saturn clearly through a telescope and the craters of the half moon as if I could reach out and touch them.

The town of Nasca isn't at all pretty with most of the buildings looking like they are not yet finished. The main street is nice enough and well lit at night. It is extremely hot. I bought 8 dvds for 12 soles so they should be top quality and legal!
I went to the Museo Antinini which would have ben completely dull if it weren't for the wonderful trophy heads! After a lunch that I never managed I sat and read for a while before taking a tour with a taxi driver to see bones and mummies out in the desert,
stopping at the less than fascinating gold prospectors and pottery working place where they tried to sell me stuff I had no use for. I Arived 45 minuted early for the 23.00 bus which arrived an hour and a quarter late.

I awoke on the bus around sunrise, the hills looked like massive sand dunes with a scattering of rocks on them. This desolation continued for miles until suddenly we got to an area irrigated by the river that was lush with trees and farmland. There was a confusing bus change but we eventually got to where we were going and I met Raymond, a strange young Korean living in Canada. We booked in to the lovely and cheap 'Hospedaje el caminante class'(15S), went to the museo santaurios andinos for an interesting presentation on the young Inca sacrifices found in the nearby mountains, and the very weird contemporary art museum. The football kicked off earlier than I expected so I missed most of the Chelsea 1-0 Liverpool first leg but watched the rest in an Irish pub. In the evening I ate Ceviche (marinated raw fish) as I can't quite bring myself to eat the local delicacy of fried guinea pig (served whole). Ray and I went out drinking with a couple of others and played some pool.

The next morning we went to the Convento Santa Catalina which is a massive convent village for years hidden from public view behind huge walls, a fascinating building, pleasant gardens and all that but it seems I am unable to find much enjoyment from anything religious and trudged around completely bored. Later Ray and I caught a 20S bus to Puno, the price was reflected in the standard, an hour late leaving, dirty and for a while I thought the most uncomfortable bus I had ever been on as my chair wouldn't recline and the guys in front did until he was almost behind me! But then I remembered some of those bus journeys in asia and just laughed as the truly horible martial arts slapstick film played loudly above me.

We arrived in Puno in the evening. It was dark and the streets were wet and dirty. The buildings, again unfinished. We tried looking for a sociable hostel but instead found a dive with a bathroom that had a smell that could make your nose run, your eyes water. Truly horrible. We went out for Lasagne and even that never really got my appetite going. I thought of Carly's lasagne, with garlic bread and a lovely trifle for pudding. Back at our 12S hostel, the beds were actually pretty good and I slept well despite being back at the uncomfortable altitude of 3,855m (taking tablets again).

The hotel shower was cold and looked horrid so I skipped it. Puno looks just as bad in the day. Ray and I walked to the port where we joined a 15S half day boat tour to the floating reed islands of Uros. The people here have an interesting lifestyle living mostly off of fishing although they do supplement this by selling tat to tourists! The morning was hot and bright but it rained when we got back to Puno, I ate another half meal before we changed to a much nicer 30S hotel.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

16th - 22nd April (The Quechua Trail and Cusco)

I had gone from virtually sea level in Lima to 3,310m in Cusco. In the next two days I would reach 4,200m before descending to Macchupicchu. I started taking the altitude sickness pills as a precaution as well as drinking Coca tea (very nice), chewing coca leaves (not nice) and eating coca candy (okish).

My alarm was set for 05.15 but the bus was late despite me being the first pick up. Eighty-two km to the start point with some nice views of rural life along the way including farmers ploughing fields using Oxen (how quaint!) and people making mud bricks to build their houses. I bought a bamboo walking stick from one of the women with a baby strapped to her (there must be a local law that says you are not allowed to sell on the streets unless you have a baby strapped to your back). Todays walk was mostly gentle but it was hot, sometimes cloudy and a quick shower at lunch.
I was the only Brit in the group of 11 Norweigan, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Brazilian and Israeli. My camera, only about six months old but having taken six years worth of photos has chosen this perfect moment to play up with some of the buttons not working; luckily I can still take photos but playback and delete are no longer possible.

The Inca trail lasts four days and should really be called the Quechua trail; the people were known as the Quechua, the Inca was their king and had a seperate route to Macchupicchu which is now impassable. I don't want to bore you with the facts (mainly as I don't remember them) but if you are interested see and

The porters and cooks of the many groups constantly whizz past with 30kg plus strapped to their backs, tents, cooking stoves, tables, chairs and food. The food is always good and plentiful especially on the last day when we collect their tips from the group, we had more food than a Bavarian schnitzelfest that night! They wake us up with a cup of tea in the mornings, pancakes for breakfast, a good lunch, supper and sometimes a snack inbetween. I sampled the local corn beer made by the farmers 'Cheecha', like blonde beer with a dash of fairy lemon. Some of the views, mist and cloud permitting are fantastic and in the rainforest section in particular you can see brightly coloured flowers, butterflies and birds including the oil slick colours of the hummingbird as it darts between the trumpet flowers (very difficult to photograph!). There are several archeological sites of interest along the way which our guide Miguel told us about along the way. As soon as it gets dark (about 19.45) we go to bed as there are no fires allowed and of course it goes completely black. The trail is about 48km I think. The second day is about 4.5 hours uphill until 4,200m followed by 1.5 hours downhill. The third day is mostly downhill which I was dreading with my old knees but they were fine and the final day.....

Up at 04.00 in pitch black. 04.30, a quick breakfast then leave for the checkpoint 10 minutes away where we wait in a queue for it to open at 05.30. One by one our tickets are checked and we race to get to the site before anyone else gets there to ruin it! It is a short but hard walk to the sun gate where at around 06.00 we caught our first glimpse of Macchupicchu from above just as the sun was coming over the peak of the mountain casting the first rays of light onto a small section of it. A few photos from there before continuing down, taking photos along the way. I took so many photos because every different point seemed to offer something new and every few minutes the sun was casting different shadows (and as you know I can't delete!).
We waited around for a while to gather for group photos before Miguel gave us the fascinating guided tour. Then, time was our own, the 18 year old dutch lads and I had to climb Waynapicchu (the mountain next to Macchupicchu in all the postcards) which has really steep steps carved into the side of it and on a perfectly clear day like today provides some amazing views.
Strangely, only at the very top, there are loads of butterflies swarming about. We took pictures of ourselves on the very highest point of the mountain, sat for a while taking in the view then climbed back down.
From there Q took the 30 minute bus down to Agua Calientes town while Jon and I ran down the god knows how many steps for 25 minutes and walked the 15 minute road with calves burning (how do the porters do it?!). A celebratory beer and pizza and then for some reason my train time was different to the rest, a five hour journey along the Urubamba river with an increasingly sore throat.

The photo cd that I had left behind had been hand delivered to my hostel which was a great relief.

I spent the night alternating betrween uncontrollable shivering and sweating and for a few days in Cusco I felt like absolute shit. I rattled when I walked but no amount of paracetomol or nurofen seemed to help. In the mornings I would decide that it would do me good to get out and about but after a few hours would be in desperate need of my bed, feeling like I would soon collapse in the heat and altitude. I remember waking at midnight after an afternoon in bed thinking how am I going to sleep now, but I did, lots and lots of sleep and lazing around but without much getting better. I watched Hitch, Spartan, Goal and the rather gory Hostel. I had a nice room to myself which was costing me a bit extra but it was worth it just to be able to cough and sneeze without bothering anyone else. I've realised that four days of walking and a few days of not eating has left me looking like a thin version of Albert Steptoe! On the third day of being ill, i spent the morning skyping back home and felt almost human and also like I had got my appetite back so I went for an Alpaca steak which was nice but a little too salty. After struggling to force down as much as I could (about half) I started feeling a little dizzy, then the small amount of light in the pokey locals restaurant suddenly seemed blinding and I really thought I was going to pass out. I managed to order a bottle of water, had to grope around to find it as I couldn't see a thing, and drank until my vision returned. After settling the bill I sat in the nearby park until I felt reasonably normal again. In the afternoon I was nearly tempted to buy a fairly large streetscene painting, had a look around the pre-columbian art museum and the Catedral del Cusco which is as impressive inside as it is outside despite my mistrust of all things Christian. I got my shoes shined and was called a marthafocker by a young boy trying to sell me postcards. At 18.00 I took a bus to Nasca which wound around the mountains until I fell asleep. When I awoke at sunrise we were still winding around mountains but now they were made of bright pink rock with a blue, grey and pink sky all around. There was litle vegitation and looked pretty desolate but I watched the changing scenery for the rest of the journey to Nasca.
11th - 15th April (Into Peru)

Before leaving Santiago, I did manage to contact a couple of my old friends from Sammies, Sarah and Catie who I met up with for a couple of very strange cocktails (on Sarahs recomendation) and a good chat about all kinds of rubbish. I would have been happy to stay out all night but managed to get myself in bed for midnight. At 3.15, having just uncovered my ears to deaden the sex noises of the couple across the room (after staying in so many dorm rooms it's surprising that it hasn't happened before really!) the alarm went off, I dressed and gathered my things in the dark. Olivia, a cute little English girl was on the same shuttle bus, after checking in we went for a bite to eat where we met Rosie; another cute English girl who Olivia had met previously. Things were looking up! Olivia was going to Cusco, Rosie and I were both going to Lima but on different flights so I arranged to meet Rosie at the Lima airport where I held up a board with her name on. We crammed onto the tiny bus on route S to Miraflores with our huge rucksacks on our laps and looked frantically between the 'footprint' road map and the passing street names, none of which tallied up! Eventually we got off and found Nomade hostel that I had booked online which had plenty of room for Rosie as well. We checked in and went for a lovely lunch in a quiet but frienly restaurant. Many places to lunch menus which are either set or have limited choice and are incredibly cheap, if on a tight budget it is worthwhile eating your main meal at lunch time and a snack from the supermarket later. Our three course meal came to 15 soles each (6 soles = 1 pound). We walked through the streets of Miraflores (a well to do suberb of Lima) and along the sea front for the rest of the afternoon, got some food from the supermarket and Rosie cooked it at the hostel. Everything was perfect apart from having to settle for cheap boxed wine as the price of wine here is about the same as in England which comes as a terrible shock after Argentina. We ate, drank and watched 'The Departed' with Matt Damon and Leo di Capreo which was pretty good.

Our plan to hire bikes the next day didn't work out so we ended up walking again, this time with a young American called Max in tow, we stopped at the same place for lunch and looked around lots of local craft markets where I started to realise just how hard it was going to be to find suitable gifts. We went an an hour long open top bus tour where I nearly froze to death, didn't understand a word of the Spanish commentary and saw very little of any interest whatsoever. Back at the hostel we ate, drank and watched 'Notes from a scandal', also pretty good.

The next day Rosie and I took a taxi to central Lima, walked around and took a Spanish guided minibus tour up Cerro San Christobal. The bus did about 10 laps around the block in Lima before setting off up the hill in order to fill the bus, taking about 40 minutes. The most interesting views were of the slum huts built into the side of the hill.
At midday we caught a glimpse of the changing of the guard, with as much pomp and ceremony as back home. We went to a restaurant run by nuns who confused me by speaking French where I had some lovely trout and then we walked around the shops until Rosie went to her Lima hotel to meet the group she would be touring with for the next seven weeks and I went back to Miraflores where I bought a big 45Soles jumper for the Inca trail, a 13S burger king and watched 'Team America' (f#ck yeah!). Lima was much nicer than I expected, very busy and noisy but some very nice buildings and a lot to see. Miraflores is also very nice but it was about time to go.

I spent the morning killing time, then when I got to Lima airport realised that I had left my photo cd in the hostal computer. I found the Peru national footy shirts that Christophe had requested, ate a McChicken sandwich and hopped on the plane. Cusco is amazing, the plaza de aramas is the most perfect cetral square I have ever seen, especially at night when it and the hillside behind it is a mass of lights. The fountain, the huge cathedral del Cusco and the church all glow in just the right amount of light, the women with babies strapped to their backs and long braided hair beneath their traditional hats try to sell all kinds of stuff but stop short of harrassment as the tourist police are keeping a close vigil. The streets leading off of the plaza are narrow, cobbled and full of character until eventually you get to normal scummy streets with scummy cars and scummy buildings. Straight away I noticed the difference in altitude; just walking along a level street had me breathing out of my arse. Apparently I should have allowed a couple of days to acclimatise in Cusco before hitting the trail, too late I'm booked in for tomorrow. Apart from sorting out a few neccesary items for the trek (including altitude sickness pills), I haggled down a metre long street scene and a small portrait of a local child to 105S, ate some pasta and sampled the local brew 'Cusquena' which is pretty good. I slept like a man with a Llama on his chest - badly.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

4th - 11th April (Full circle - Mendoza back to Santiago via Valparaiso)

I felt pretty tired after my long journey which was a good excuse to sit in the hostel all afternoon drinking beer and watching the first leg champions league games of Chelsea and Man.U. I went to bed early and later awoke to the sound of a girl farting in her sleep - nice! The hostel is okay apart from there is only one working shower so had to wait a while in the morning. Later I paid 30 pesos for a bike tour of the city which was really crap. The guy just led the way as two other guys and I followed out to a nice park, up a hill to a crap view and back to the shop. I think we were expecting to take in some of the sights of the city and be told some mind-blowingly interesting facts about them. Ate lunch with the Argie and English guy from the bike tour and hung around chatting for most of the afternoon. I felt pretty ill for some reason though and thought I was coming down with something but it was fine the next day. I tried to get on the Mountain tour which I was told was very good but it was fully booked. Cooked pasta and watched Goldmember.

The next day I took a local bus to Maipu, where I picked up a bike and a plan of the area for 35 pesos and rode around all the bodegas (vinyards) and a wine museum with a very good guided tour. Of course there was some unavoidable tasting involved. The sun was hot but we are quite high above sea level and there is a gentle icy breeze coming off of the mountains. The bodegas are lovely and the mountain backdrop very picturesque but the town itself is scruffy. I learned a little about wine production and tasting techniques and enjoyed the day despite the only restaurant on the route being full and having nothing but wine and fruit to keep me going. Back at the hostel there was a nice BBQ consisting of salty chunks of beef and some bread which I washed down with a bottle of red. Wine in Argentina is even cheaper than in Chile so it is mandatory to pick up a bottle every time I go to the supermarket!

Managed to find a second hand bookshop at last and bought Bill Bryson's 'Neither here nor there - travels in Europe'. Got my ears lowered for 20 pesos by a bloge whose hand was shaking when he used the scisors, still he managed a good job. Steak and chips for 17pesos then a bus across the border at 13.15 to Valparaiso, Chile. Unfortunately I had forgotton there was still fruit in my bag from yesterdays bike trip which nearly landed me in jail at the border crossing. The woman really wasn't very happy but I had no idea what she was saying! My Spanish had also let me down on getting information about the journey as I thought they had seventeen hours when it was actually seven so I arrive late at night and not early in the morning as I had thought. I phoned the hostel I had booked for the following night and they had space and sent a taxi to get me from the station. The hostel is a little scruffy but fine and the dutch girls were there as well as an Irish fella called Keith who I got on well with.
The town used to be quite grand but apart from one or two impressive buildings the whole place looks like it's falling apart, it has suffered from pirates, fires and earthquakes destroying most of it's colonial past.
The centre is the dock area and from here there are 42 hills rising up in a crescent formation with old buildings (mostly diapidated) and slum huts intermingled together on the steep slopes. There are a lot of beggars, drunks and ne'erdowells around and this is the first place in South America where I have felt a little bit wary and kept my hand on my wallet, especially at night. A lot of the smaller streets stink of piss and at one point I had to check my pants as the stench seemed to be following me around! Keith has been here a while waiting for a credit card to arrive and he really likes it here. After a while I decided I quite like it as well, it is grubby, smelly, graffiti covered, scruffy, littered and full of dodgy characters but it has real character, a real change from some of the places I have been that are just like a little tourist village. There are beaches at nearby Vina del Mar which is supposed to be more upmarket and my plan had been to laze around there for a couple of days but the weather was overcast a lot of the time so I never made it. The bars look really nice; small, cosy and a bohemian atmosphere.

There is an area of seafood restaurants (which is also the red light district at night), where i sampled the local wares (that's wares, not whores!)
I had a lovely paella that had an ocean full of seafood, chicken, chorizo and beef one lunch time and some nice salmon the next. Discovered that 'American Pie - the wedding' is terrible. One night Keith and I decided to go out for a couple of beers which ended up being a pisco cola session in a night club which somehow went on until gone 05.00. The next morning I felt surprisingly well and hung around waiting to watch Man.U's 7-1 demolition of Roma and Chelsea getting through against Valencia. As soon as that was over I got on a bus to Santiago where I stayed at La Casa Roja, a lovely big building with too many young idiots getting drunk, making noise and puking up - I was never like that! I ate at an empty Chinese restaurant and spent the following day just killing time. I have an early flight to Lima tomorrow

Monday, April 02, 2007

28th March - 4th April (Worrying about flight change, Israelis and cash card)

I had a flight booked as part of my round the world ticket from Santiago to Lima on the 30th of March but had planned to get this changed as I decided to take the journey south first. I didn't change the date straight away because I wasn't sure what to change it to. But by the 28th I was cutting it a little too fine and if I miss one flight I've heard they for some reason cancel your remaining flights and that would be a big problem. After ringing several numbers and getting nowhere my last chance was in Barriloche, my next destination, which according to the book had a LAN airlines office. If the book is out of date on this I'm in trouble. The only bus to Bariloche was at 21.30 ariving at 11.00 on the 29th. I walked along the street where the LAN office was supposed to be but couldn't see it which worried me but a visit to tourist information gave me their new address and everything got sorted. Phew! New problem. The Israelis are in town en mass and all the best hostels are booked up (nobody that I speak to has much good to say about Israeli travellers). I eventually found a place but the bathrooms were in a bit of a state. Some of the Israelis were a bit annoying but a couple were nice and friendly.

Barriloche, surrounded by lakes and mountains is a pretty big town and wants to be Swiss. The church and many of the buildings are modelled in a Swiss style and the town square would look lovely if it weren't for all the grafitti. Apart from the usual array of shops selling hiking gear and souvenirs to tourists there are a load of shops selling Swiss style chocolates, fodues and loads of different flavoured ice creams.
At the moment they have massive window displays with easter eggs the size of houses. I think dad would have slobbered over the window in a Homer Simpson style. Despite all the chocolate available I have noticed that some of the local women are of a higher standard than I have seen previously! I managed to book a nicer hostel for the next two nights.

The next day I took the local bus to Llao Llao for a pleasant forest walk with lookouts over a couple of lakes. Later, at the internet cafe I bumped into the dutch girls who were again planning to hire a car which I was happy to join for a trip to see the seven lakes tomorrow.

Sanne and I shared the driving of the little Fiat with Steffi and an Aussie guy called Lee from their hostel. We drove for about 400km over mostly bumpy gravel roads. There was some nice scenery but nothing amazing (maybe I have been spoilt by all the lakes and mountains in NZ!).
The final stretch did have some weird, gravity defying rock formations but we couldn´t stop the car as the fuel light had been on for a while and the sun was about to disappear.
We had already changed a punctured tyre but luckily we made it to a fuel station without further adventure. After a shower and some fast food I went to the girls' hostel where we played drinking games with red wine then went clubbing until gone 05.00. I didn't drink much after the hostel as I was worried about getting in to my top bunk with low ceiling!

The next day I had to find another hostel as they had reservations, again the best ones were full but I found a pretty basic one with a very friendly owner. I didn´t realise until later that the bed was far too soft, the matress was just a piece of old sponge and the pillow was disgusting. I had visions of a bad back and all kinds of crawlie things coming out of the sponge! I walked around the town to clear my head, cooked pasta for lunch and used the internet for a while before getting my cash card swallowed by an ATM. Bugger! Hopefully will be able to sort it out at the bank tomorrow. Back at the hostel I started to read 'Five Boys' by Mick Jackson which I had found in a hostel book swap area but then Rocky 3 came on the tv.

The next day was a public holiday so the bank wasn´t open. I was hoping to get on a coach to Mendoza today but will have to put that on hold. The weather is nice again and the town is pleasant enough to just kick around doing nothing much. I don't really want another night on the sponge (although I slept very well) but I can't be bothered to look for yet another place.

The bank opened on Tuesday. I was there by 09.15 by which time the queue snaked around the large hall several times. There was at least a hundred people waiting and it took me an hour an fifteen minutes to get to the front. I had rehearsed my opening line "a domingo mi tarjeta esta dentro la machina" which although I realised was terrible Spanish thought it would probably get the message across "on Sunday, my card is inside the machine". The man said something back which I couldn't understand but seemed to be dismissing me so I asked "¿alguien hablas Inglis?" and luckily a woman came over who understood me and managed to recover my card. I hadn't planned on taking this long so had to run to book my coach to Mendoza, run up the steep hills to check out of my hostel and take a cab to the bus station, arriving just on time for the 11.30 bus having had no breakfast and no time to buy any food for the journey. Luckily, they served up some edible lunch to keep me going. The first part of the journey went past some of the unusual rock formations and I took some photos through the window. As darkness came I slept reasonably well considering there was no 'cama' bus available and had to slum it in 'semi cama' meaning an ordinary reclining seat instead of the lay-z-boys I'd become used to.

I arrived in Mendoza at 06.30 with nowhere to stay, so hung around the bus station until it was light then went out looking. Again, most of the places were booked but I found somewhere then looked around the town. Not at all what I was expecting. The name 'Mendoza' to me conjures up pleasant rolling hills of vinyards and villas but is in fact a sprawling modern city with noise and cars everywhere. There aren't even any old buildings as the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1861 and was completely rebuilt. I hadn't seen a McDonalds in a while and thouroughly enjoyed my grilled chicken sandwich.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

18th - 27th March (Towers of pain to ocean of soup)

The bus from Punto Arenas to Puerto Natales only took three hours and I spent most of that chatting to a middle aged Brit/NZ couple; Kevin and Sue. I checked in to a cosy place called 'Patagonian Adventures' who are also well equipped to deal with all of your trekking needs and very helpful. Puerto Natales itself is pretty small but nice enough. I spent some time researching my five day Torres del Paine trek and doing some urgent laundry. I met Rafael from Switzerland who needed a trek partner which seemed like a good idea. We went to a nearby restaurant with Kevin and Sue where my huge plate of delicious lamb cost only 4,500. At a nearby shop I bought a wooly hat and gloves for my trek. Back at the hostel I arranged the hire of a rucksack, stove, chunky fleece and a sleeping mat. It is possible to hire tents en route to avoid carrying them around which is a bit more expensive but I thought worth it. I have my own sleeping bag. I went to the supermarket and stocked up on mostly noodles, dry soup, flavoured rice and a large nestle choc nut(yum).

We were up bright and early and joined a bus load of people for the three hour journey to the start of the trek, this point would also be our camp for the first night as our trek went out and back here. There are luxurious refugios at these places which charge a fortune and also go against the spirit of the adventure. For a while we couldn´t find anyone to hire a tent from and while searching we met Jim and Sian, an English/Welsh couple in the same predicament. Eventually, thanks to Rafael's Spanish we were sorted and on the trek with the bulk of our stuff left at the site. We walked for about six and a half hours, in warm weather but with gusts of wind that could almost lift you off of your feet. At the end of the track, culminating in quite a hefty climb, we reached the view of the three 'torres' with only a little cloud to obstruct the view - the wind was very cold here so we went back down to the trees to light our stoves; noodles never tasted so good! Back at the camp ground I had an ice cold shower before someone told me they turn on the gas a little later. Unfortunately I had to share a fairly small tent with Rafael which got smaller as the side nearly caved in in the wind - not a great nights sleep!

The second day was supposed to be a gentle four hours but the four of us went the wrong way meaning a two hour uphill walk in the strong sun with all of our stuff on our backs, another little diversion later and the walk became six and a half hours. The chap from the first campsite had called ahead to the next one to reserve us a couple of tents. It´s amazing how good this crap food tastes when you are hungry enough! For the second night, as everything went totally black the sky became mad with stars but this time the tents were more sheltered and I slept pretty well.

An early start on the third day as this was to be the longest and hardest. I awoke with a cold and sore throat. After two hours of walking my knee was giving me some niggling pain but I continued past the end of the track up a steep, slippery pile of boulders as the cloud turned to drizzle then snow trying to reach a summit. The whole of my chocolate rations were used up today. Eventually I turned back defeated but the journey down was hell on my knee and painfully slow. Rafael meanwhile had left me for dead, some trek partner he turned out to be. Luckily I met Jim and Sian at the bottom who walk at a much more leisurely pace and continued the rest of the way with them.
With my Inca trail not too far away I decided not to risk further aggrivation to my knee and took the boat and bus back to Puerto Natales. I was dissapointed not to complete the trek but it had been a good 3 days. Back at the Puerto Natales I bumped into Christian (who I met in Santiago) and his friend Nathan so we went to the restaurant where we has a veritable smorgasboard including fish and seafood soup, king crab, mussels, clams, lamb, chorizo and of course virtually no vegetables (as is the South American way).

The next day I took an 8000 peso bus across the border (no problems) to El Calafate, Argentina. The journey was through miles and miles of flat browny green fields, always with a snow topped mountain range somewhere in the distance. Along this mostly empty lancscape there were occaisionally sheep, guanacos (from the llama family), ostriches (all of these I guess were being farmed) and ostriches at a small shallow lake. The 'hostel del Sur' had been recommended to me and some others from the bus were heading there so that´s where I went. The hostel was fantastic and a great place to sit around and chat. The town is small and nice but clearly set up for tourists. I spent some time exploring the town and skyping home before going back to the hostel for bbq, beer and wine (all you can eat/drink for 30 Argie pesos, 6 Argie pesos = 1 pound) The hostel is 30 pesos per night and that is apparently about as expensive as it gets.

In the morning, two dutch girls, a 47 year old American bloke and I hired a car and went off to see the rather impressive Moreno glacier. A short walk allowed us to see the glacier from several viewpoints quite close to the huge terminal face.
There was regular creakings as the thing inched slowly forward and a few loud bangs as large chunks fell off, usually not visible as they were on the inside but sometimes falling off of the front and splashing into the lake. We stood around for quite a while hoping to catch a large collapse on film but eventually it got cold so we left. This soup doesn´t taste so great now I´m not exhausted but I brought enough for at least five days, luckily now I have some lovely Argie Malbec to wash it down for under 6 pesos (that's a pound) a bottle. The cheap boxes of wine cost half that and also taste okay to my discerning palate! I spent the evening chatting to among others, a cockney geezer with a swedish wife who had become totally cockney!

And so, at 15.00 the next day I was once again on a bus, this time to Puerto Madryn. These bus journeys seem to make up the bulk of my spending but then they do cross huge expanses of land. This one was 22 hours in a nice leather lay-z-boy. Again, large open planes, never far from sun, clouds and rain so rainbows are common, at one point I could see both ends of a rainbow that arched over the road ahead of us like a gateway into the unknown. I watched Tom Hanks in 'Terminal' and 'Batman begins'. Cadburys chocolate over here is not so good.

'La Tosca' was recommended to me, but both the hostel and the town seemed pretty dead at first (it was siesta time). Puerto Madryn is a big town, there is a lot here but seemingly not that much going on. There is no-one much to talk to at the hostel and the only interesting thing I did here was scuba dive. 470 pesos is a little expensive but the prospect of diving with the sea lions won me over. A bright blue sky and the sea looked fairly calm, however the boat was tiny and by the time we reached the sea lions I was feeling a bit dodgy. The dive itself was pointless as the ocean had been replaced by pea soup, we did get to swim right up to the sea lions on the surface though and the cute young pups were intrigued by us. As soon as I was back on the boat I got rid of my breakfast before going on to another site where I dived about 20 metres to the ship wreck 'Albatross', the visibility was much better and despite my thick dry suit the water felt extremely cold. The ship had sunk 45 years ago and was covered in barnacles etc. it was good to go right inside and look around. Once back on land I went for a pepper steak to fill my empty belly (27pesos) and spent the rest of the day lazing on the not so pretty beach listening to music. Back at the hostel boredom reached new levels, with the Martin Amis book finished I read bits from a NZ book about how to save for your retirement (it´s near impossible to find a good English book anywhere!) This asparagus flavoured rice has really lost it´s appeal!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

12th - 17th March (further south)

The 22 hour bus journey to Coyhaique, was in a normal coach, not the super duper deluxe kind that I had before but it wasn´t as bad as I expected. There was a middle aged couple from dorset who I spoke to for quite a while, four movies back to back dubbed in Spanish, some beautiful scenery, mountains, lakes, the sea, trees and then a wild west landscape with an unusual lilac sky in the east as the sun set in the west. The journry crossed into Argentina and back into Chile so there was some time spent at border crossings. When we arrived I checked in to an hospedaje and walked around the nice little town surrounded by mountains, a pleasant atmosphere with locals and a few tourists strolling around - the only problem is the dogs. By the afternoon I felt like I was jet-lagged. I didn´t do much in my three days here and actually got quite bored. The second day was ok with a nice long walk around the forest reserve, from way up in the hills I could just about make out the sound of cars engines and barking dogs. The third day was too hot for the dogs and for once they were quiet.

I was looking forward to my 30,000 peso flight to Punto Arenas (further south) on Sky air because I was told the views over the moutains would be amazing and I had a window seat. The brief glimpses through holes in the cloud looked pretty good. In Punto Arenas I found a nice, virtually empty hostel (tourist season ends at the end of February). David, the chilean guy that runs it is very helpful and friendly. I spent a lot of time trying to work out a way to head further south into Tierre del Fuego and back but options are fairly limited at this time of year so I settled for a two hour boat trip across the channel into Porvenir, a run down town with nothing to see or do, luckily I had a Sudoku that I had tore from a newspaper and this filled my time as I sat by the sea. It was an extremely windy day and the return journey was put back by four hours but thankfully it ran as I really didn´t want to have to spend the night in this hole. The book describes it as picturesque with quaint houses, I think that took some imagination, the houses are delapidated tin huts painted in bright colours.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

5th - 11th March (Travelling south by bus)

So you lot thing this is all just a big relaxing holiday? Well, I´ll have you know that it is very stressful, hard work. There are two reasons for this; 1. things are done differently and it is not always obvious how things are done, 2. not knowing the language too well obviously makes things difficult, this exacerbates the first problem! Some examples: 1. The nightclub where you have to go to one booth to pay for the drink of your choice, collect a ticket and then go over to the bar to collect said drink. 2. The department store where I went to a counter to look at a watch and decided I would take it, not so fast! The woman kept hold of the watch and gestured to a counter where I went to pay the 10,500 pesos, I was given a slip of paper which I was about to take back to the first counter, too easy! The woman gestured me towards another counter where I handed over my slip of paper as the first woman arrived with my watch. 3. The restaurant where I wandered in and wondered do I order at this little booth or is that just for paying at the end? I decided on the latter so sat at a table (should I have waited to be seated?) and waited for someone to bring me a menu. I waited a while before walking out never knowing if I should have just ordered from the woman in the booth. 4. I am currently trying to organise a bus south to Coyhaique, this involves a 30 minute minibus followed by a 21.5 hour journey (bad enough!) but it is quite difficult to organise the second journey as I have to deal with the bus station that is 30 minutes away. In Oz/NZ you can do these things on the net, I´m not sure if you can do that here but the websites are only in Spanish. My phone call over a bad skype connection went nowhere so I ended up taking an hour round trip just to book my ticket. So now do you appreciate that soon after I return to blighty I am going to need a relaxing holiday?!!

Anyway, my bus from Santiago left at 23.00. There are several standards of bus and several different companies (especially in Santiago), I went for the 'Jet Sur' salon cama which was cheaper by far than the bigger companies but provided total luxury in a fully reclining seat with leg rest (like a lay-ze-boy), pillow and blanket for 12,000 pesos. I arrived in Pucon at 08.45 having had at least four hours of sleep. The 'hostel refugio' which I had booked online, was right next to the bus station and very comfortable and quietly sociable.
The town is very pretty with great views of the snow topped volcano although it looks like it was built purely for tourists. From midday I hired a mountain bike, cycled about 24km over mostly bumpy dirt track then fell asleep by the lake. The 22km ride back along the main road seemed to go on for ever.
At the hostel I watched Liverpool and Chelsea get through to the next round of the champions league.

Up at 06.20 for a guided hike up the volcano, sky looking iffy. By the time I and about 20 others got to the base of the volcano the sky was still dodgy so we waited a while before given the option of going back and getting a refund of our 38,000 pesos (quite expensive I thought) or giving it a go and possibly not going all the way to the top.
Everyone went for the second option and sure enough the sky got worse so after climbing up 800 feet we slid most of the way down on our arses on ready made toboggan runs in the ice which was great fun if a little chilly! If only I could have gone yesterday, the weather was perfect. Spent most of the rest of the day watching more champions league action.

During the night there was thunder, lightning and heavy rain. It was still raining in the morning. I spent the morning talking to a couple from South Africa who had travelled in the oppsite direction to me and gave me some useful advice on where to go and how to get there. At midday, almost everyone from the hostel jumped into a minibus and went to the hot springs. There were several pools of different temperatures and with the rain falling on our heads they were absolutely lovely. We sat in the pools chatting and relaxing all afternoon until my hands resembled shrivelled up prunes.

The next day started quite leisurely, breakfast, shower, a stroll to the bus station to get some information. There was a bus leaving for Puerto Montt in five minutes so I ran back, grabbed my stuff, paid some money and ran back, catching it as it was leaving the station. 5,900 pesos. Six hours later I wandered around the Puerto Montt station to find a bus to Castro on the island of Chiloe, that too was just about to leave. Another four hours and 4,300 pesos including a ferry ride. The weather had got progressively worse as we travelled south. The landscape of green farmland, trees and cows along with the grey skies and drizzle reminded me of England. I tried to get into a hostel from my book but it was full so as it was getting dark I was invited into a 'Hospadaje' which I´m sure was just this old ladys house. Not a word of English was spoken and there didn´t seem to be any other travellers although there were plenty of rooms. It was nice and clean, the woman (Judith) seemed friendly, I had a nice little room to myself and breakfast was included for 4,000 pesos a night.

It seems that stray dogs are not just a Santiago thing, the barking made an unwelcome interupption to my otherwise good nights sleep. In the morning I walked along the seafront and around the town, more of a fishing port than a seaside resort, there is a steep drop from the town to the sea and the slopes are filled with brightly coloured stilted houses. The dogs bark constantly and there are a lot more cars than I expected (I guess I just think of islands as being tranquil places). All kinds of things are sold from wheelbarrows in the street, including tuna. I sampled 'milcaos' from a street stall, fried potato cakes with some kind of meat in the centre, tasted like corned beef hash. Only 500 pesos and not particularly tasty or healthy! I took a short bus trip south to Chonchi where there was plenty of tranquility. Actually there was nothing there but a brightly coloured church and drizzle so after walking around the town twice I returned to Castro. I had planned on finding a nice seafood restaurant in the evening, but Judith fed me some warm bread cakes and the weather was pretty horrible so I just stayed in and read my Martin Amis book which I think is aimed at a more intellectual reader than me!

The clocks went back an hour so I ended up on the 07.50 bus to Puerto Varas instead of the 08.50.
On the trip back over the channel I looked out to see seals jumping out of the water and Pelicans flying. Just over four hours later I arrived and checked into the 'Compass del Sur' hostel, walked around the sunny and cloudy pleasant town, and stopped at a restaurant to sample 'Congria' fish as recommended in my guide book. The texture was similar to cod and tasted ok but not as good as the salmon I had recently. Afterwards I looked up Congria in my dictionary and found that it was Conga Eel.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

26th February - 5th March (Segunda manana de Santiago)
Charles (hostel owner), Sarah and I:

On the whole, it's just been more of the same for my second week in Santiago; struggling to get to grips with the lingo, socialising, fantastic weather, watching pirated films and not much else. Sabina, a forty year old Canadian mother of two boys, who has been living in Chile for a while, joined the school. She had picked up some vocabulary, mostly from her boys who learn Spanish at school, but her actual spoken Spanish wasn't that great. Sabina and I made up a class on our own for the second week which made life a lot easier. I went out for lunch a few times with the other more advanced Spanish speakers and mostly just sat, listened and tried to understand a little of what was going on. Of course, two weeks of Spanish is nothing like enough to enable me to converse properly but hopefully it will help me to get around and survive!

Things I've noticed in Santiago are:

1. People snogging in public places - this goes on in the street, the parks, on the metro, everywhere and nobody seems to mind. It's not just teenagers either, it's people of all ages, people older than my parents - sick!

2. There are lots of stray dogs roaming the streets - they are often in packs but seem to be unthreatening to humans.

3. Everyone smokes - Cigarettes in Chile are about one fifth of the price in England, in Argentina they are apparently half the price of here! So, it's not just Chileans that are smoking but most of the people in the hostel are also puffing away as they sit out on the patio. I went to a house party the other night and it was ridiculous, I was moving from room to room just trying to get away from smokers. Uuugh!

4. Police cars are green and white, fire engines are green.
5. Men leer at women - it's the done thing, so, when in Rome etc.. but seriously, it's funny, when I was walking along with some people from the school, one of them a nice brazillian girl, I walked behind her and just watched the reaction of the men. Manual workers were predictably the worst offenders, whistling etc, but the old businessmen in suits were also pretty obvious with their ogling.

Other things I've done this week include my second attempt at Sushi - I hadn't tried it since Karen introduced me to it in Melbourne and it's ok but I'm still not a huge fan. I tried to move the date of my Inca trail booking as my plans have developed (I want to go south first), but it turns out you can't move it so after much thinking I cancelled the trek (losing $100 U.S.) and will hopefully rebook it for later. I watched a lot of films; Crash (very good), Farce of the penguins (stupidly funny), Napoleon Dynamite (not for me), Children of Men (rubbish), Rocky Balboa (hmmm, I feel like I've seen it before!), Jackass 2 (not as good as the first), Da Vinci code (not bad), still planning on seeing Hotel Rwanda and A scanner darkly before I leave on Monday.

Anyway, that's about it for now. Seeya.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

16th - 25th February (My first week in Santiago, Chile)
The terrorists here have gone back to more conventional forms of weaponry.....

I had pre-booked a two week hostel and language course together online for $399 U.S. Hostel de Sammy is a little shabby, the showers run boiling hot and freezing cold and if you want to go to bed early and get a good nights sleep you will be woke up around 05.00 by people coming back from the clubs. The owner is ok but he is a very loud American who seems to annoy a lot of people in a Basil Fawlty kind of way.
People are drinking on the patio until late every night so there is always someone to hang around with and it's a really sociable place. There is also a crappy pool table, table footy, free internet, a good tv and dvd player and free breakfast. My first night out, a club where the dance floor was packed from start to finish, ended around 06.00. My main problem here is that my Spanish lessons are monday to friday 10.00 - 13.30 so I am burning the candle at both ends. My first two days of Spanish lessons were pretty horrible, after a little one on one session I was thrown into a group of five who already knew quite a lot (there were no other absolute beginners to put me with). I thought maybe this would make me learn a lot quicker but after day two where I understood virtually none of what had gone on I was thinking of complaining and demanding more one on one sessions. The lessons are not like how we learnt languages in school, ie. translating between English and German, they speak no English so if you are not getting something they can only try to explain in Spanish. I decided to stick with it for day three expecting that I would say something afterwards but somehow a lot more of the lesson made sense. Sometimes the school organises things in the afternoon or evening, so I have socialised a bit with the other people at the school. I attempt to converse in Spanish but most of the time revert to English pretty quickly. We went to an Italian restaurant where I spoke to a nice girl called Rebeccah from Bristol, I also attempted a Salsa lesson which was a good laugh. I have homework every night!

The money here is very easy to convert as there are roughly 1000 pesos to the pound. Everything seems pretty cheap here - I am drinking every night but a 2 litre box of wine costs under 2,000 pesos so why not? You can eat good food at the restaurants for about 5,000 pesos and I have eaten some lovely paella and some fantastic salmon with seafood.

There was a norwegian guy called Kim here in my first week. I went with him and some others to watch the local team 'Colo Colo' play a league game. We were with the home fans, the atmosphere was good but a little scary - Kim told me not to take my camera out of my pocket and to keep hold of my wallet. Colo Colo won 4-2. The fans were singing and dancing for the full ninety minutes. The stadium looks smaller and less impressive than the county ground but apparently can hold up to 65,000. The ticket cost only 3,500 pesos.

A few days later, River Plate (from Buenos Aries in Argentina) came to play in the early stages of the Copa Libertadores (their equivalent of our Champions League). Kim is a fan of River Plate so an Argie staying at the hostel called Nicolas, Kim and I went in the away end. The tickets cost 5,500 pesos, I imagine a Champions League game costs at least ten times that. For some reason we went really early, we and the other River fans spent three hours getting abused in Spanish by the Colo fans with a lot of gestures involving crotch grabbing. There was lots of stuff being thrown our way including a coin that hit me in the head and a bag of nuts that hit Kim in the face. Once the game kicked off the atmosphere was amazing, there were fireworks and flares and lots of singing and dancing. It quietened down for a while in the second half when River went 2-0 up but soon got going again when Colo got one back and when River had a player sent off. It finished 2-1 and the home fans were held back to let the away fans escape, we ran to the exit as we were bombarded with more stuff. I have attached videos of the River fans and of the goals. The quality of the football was fantastic - loads of great one and two touch footy. Definitely the best live game I have been to and don't forget I have been to the County Ground!

What with all the study and socialising I haven't really explored Santiago much yet. The area where I stay (close to Republica Metro station) has a faded European charm to it. Many of the buildings look like they were once very grand but now need some tlc.
Towards the centre there are lots of grand churches, museums etc which are in a much better state. On my first day here, there was some rain and strong winds were blowing the leaves from the trees so it felt like Autumn, but every day since has been incredibly hot and clear. The streets generally feel pretty safe and I have no problem walking around at night. After a week my Spanish is still rubbish and when the assistant at the supermarket asked me something I had no idea what she said, but I did have a succesful trip into town where I managed to buy a plug adaptor and an alarm clock using a little Spanish and some made up words like 'electrica' (if in doubt take an English word and add an 'a' or 'o'!) On Saturday I spent four hours on the patio doing revision and I feel like some progress has been made. I also got my shoulders a bit burnt. A heavy night out last night and today is Sunday, I watched the Coca Cola cup final, lounged around a lot and caught up with my blog. I'm still not sure where I am going next but I'm looking forward to it.