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.