Friday, January 26, 2007

The Best for Last

Well not exactly true that we've saved the best for last, although the past week here in Argentina has been once again full of amazing sights and natural wonders. Great fun riding on the roof of a safari track through the spectacular Quebrada del Toro, following the route of the Tren de los Nubes, one of the highest railways in the world. Quite surreal - brightly coloured layers of rock covered with giant cactus trees, towering up to over 10m in places! We visited pre-Inca ruins and traditional villages high in the mountains.
Enjoyed a relaxing few days in Salta la Linda (Salta the beautiful), in the northwest corner of the country. Incredible how green the whole region is in comparison with the same area on the other side of the Andes (there you have the Atacama desert).
Our last stop before returning to Buenos Aires and onwards to Brussels was Iguazu. On the border with Brazil and Paraguay are the spectacular falls, which allegedly (never having seen them myself) make falls such as Niagara pale into insignificance. They cover a huge area and can be viewed from a series of walkways on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides of the border. Alternatively, you can have the close-up experience, as we did, with a trip right up to and under the falls in an inflatable dingy, leaving you literally soaked to the skin! Not much chance of drying off either as the falls are in the heart of the rainforest with 90% humidity. Surprised by how much wildlife we saw, despite the crowds of tourists. Thousands of brightly coloured butterflies (which seemed to be particularly attracted to Marc!), birds including parrots and toucans, crocodiles, coatis (like ragoons), iguanas ... and the list goes on!
Don't think the trip has had time to remotely sink in yet and it will take a long time to process all the sights, sounds, flavours and impressions we've encountered on our travels. Amazing to think that in the space of a month and a half, we've travelled over an area the size of Europe - from the bustling metropolis of Buenos Aires to the end of the world via the middle of nowhere. We've stood on glaciars, climbed mountains, travelled up to over 4000m in the desert, watched sunsets in lunar landscapes, witnessed smouldering volcanoes, erupting geysers, journeyed through brightly coloured gorges, across emerald lakes, rivers, oceans... Not to mention the fauna - walking with penguins, exotic birds, reptiles, sea otters and sea lions, guanacos, llamas... We've eaten some of the best steaks ever, more pies that one should eat in a lifetime, and drunk many a bottle of fabulous Chilean and Argentinian wine. You can't go wrong in a country that sells Mumm or Chandon bubbly for 4 euro a bottle!
But what's really made it has been the friendliness of the people, their openess and enthusiasm, the incredible hospitality of our hosts and knowlegdge of our guides who've shared their history and culture with us. All in all, a trip of a lifetime!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Travels North

Santiago might not have much to offer by way of stunning architecture but what it does have is the most spectacularly located swimming pool I've ever seen! Morning spent wine tasting in the Maipo valley, afternoon spent lazing by the pool with a view over the Andes (albeit through the smog!), can't think of a better way to enjoy a city.
Quite a contrast arriving in San Pedro de Atacama a couple of days later. A small white-washed, adobe village in the heart of the Atacama desert, in northern Chile. Stunning backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes rising to the staggering height of 6500 m, some with smoke rising although not actually erupting. Visited Valle de la Luna and clambered up a huge sand dune to watch the sunset, the volcanic rocks of the valley and Andes in the background changed from pink, to orange to red. Close to San Pedro you have the huge salt lakes of the Salar de Atacama, amazingly full of life with flamingos, lizards, foxes. The air is pure and clear up here but it's literally breathtaking at over 4000m altitude. We visited small traditional villages nestled high in the mountains or deep down in the gorges where life doesn't seem to have changed for thousands of years. People live from subsistence crop farming and llama rearing. The plains are dotted with vicunas, guanacos, llamas and amusing green, long-whiskered rabbit-like creatures.
Our last day here we got up at the ungodly hour of 3.30 (hardly worth going to bed in the first place), to travel to El Tatio close to the Bolivian border. What a sight to behold, almost 100 geysers spurting out water jets rising in columns of up to 20m. An eery effect of swirling steam and bubbling pools as the early morning rays broke through. By 8.30, the sun was up and the show was over but before leaving had to take a plunge into one of the thermal pools. Great way to warm up after over an hour of standing around in temperatures of minus 10.
I thought that living in bureaucratic Belgium and having had a lot of experience of southern countries, I would be immune to excessive, unecessary paperwork. However, the Chileans beat the rest of the world hands down. Lists, vouchers, queues upon queues and brick walls have unfortunately been the only real downside to the trip. And getting the bus from San Pedro to Salta in Argentina has to have been our worst experience of rudeness and inefficiency on this whole trip. Will spare the details but at last we made it on to the bus. Although relations between the two countries seem to have improved, crossing by land is still a long, painstaking process. Two hours wasted on the Chilean side, then a two hour drive through what seemed like a sort of no man's land, followed by two hours at the Argentinian border.
The bus is so chronically slow that at least you have ample time to appreciate your surroundings. And have to say makes the whole frustrating business worth every second. Travel to a height of almost 5000m passing the foot of volcanoes, sparkling salt lakes, multicoloured gorges. Quite simply, beautiful.
Only one week to go, but still Salta to discover and Iguazu falls to round off our trip.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Mountains, Lakes, Forests, Glaciers...

Luck really does seem to be on our side. We arrived in El Chalten on January 4th to glorious sunshine and spectacular views of the peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, which dominate the northern part of the Los Glaciares National Park. Even the bus driver seemed excited by the view, which was surprising until we found out that apparently it was the first day of sunshine in 2 months, and it was to stay with us. El Chalten is a funny little place, only established in the mid-80's so Argentina could guarantee it's claim on this part of the continent, it's touristy but laid back with dirt roads and the best restaurants we've encountered so far on our travels. Thorougly enjoyed our stay here, long walks to the foot of the peaks through beautiful countryside with adventurous twists, such as crossing rivers on death slides and trekking on the Glaciar Grande. Our last morning we were treated to the Dawn of Fire, one of the most breathtaking sunrises I've ever seen, before embarking on a long day of travel back to El Calafate along a bumpy, dirt road followed by an even bumpier flight to Bariloche in the lake district.
The best thing about Bariloche has to be the place where we stayed, Hosteria Katy, run by a Slovene family who've been there over 30 years. Very homely, welcoming sort of place where we were spoilt by copious amounts of delicious, home-made cooking. Located along the lakeside close to the famous Llao Llao hotel and park. The whole area is made up of a network of lakes and rivers, surrounded by mountains and forests. It was incredible to find rainforest, although the Patagonian variety, so anything but hot and humid. The area not only looked a lot like Switzerland but we even discovered a village called Colonia Suiza, founded by Swiss emigrants at the end of the 19th century, and savoured a yummy cheese fondue in the afternoon sun!
Despite the warm weather, Marc was the only one mad enough to take a plunge into the icy-cold, emerald waters of Lake Nahuel Huapi. Bariloche is a touristy place, similar to some of the Alpine ski resorts, but it was fun to observe the Argentinians on holiday and we joined in, taking a cable car and chair lift up to the top of Cerro Catedral. Here you could have your photo taken with a snowman or go absailing or sledging.
The trip to Chile has to be yet another of the highlights. A 12-hour journey by boat and bus across the lakes and through the mountains to Puerto Varas, with views of glaciar-tipped volcanoes and turquoise waterfalls en route. Only downside were the huge horseflies which plagued us in great swarms whenever we stopped anywhere, now know why Petrohue translates as land of the big black flies! We arrived just in time to enjoy sunset on the perfectly formed Osorno volcano on the shores of Lake Llanique, the third largest lake in South America.
The next morning we travelled by bus and ferry to the unique and mysterious island of Chiloe. Sea lions and dolphins accompanied us on our journey. We'd been warned by fellow travellers and all the guidebooks that it rains 365 days of the year on Chiloe, but once again they were proven wrong. Chiloe is famous for its mystical legends and creatures, including Trauco, an ugly little gnome, who seduces women with his bad breath and is blamed for many of the high number of unwanted pregnancies! It is also known for its brightly coloured, wooden churches, now protected as Unesco world heritage. However, what impressed me the most was the wonderful hospitality and friendliness of the islanders. Just to give an example, we knocked on a door, in the tiny boat makers' village of San Juan, to ask to use the loo and before we knew it were invited in. The old lady, who'd invited us in, then disappeared off only to return 5 minutes later and beckon us through to the kitchen where, to our amazement, she'd laid out a full afternoon tea with homemade bread, jams, cheese... We then stayed that night with a local family in another small fishing village, dominated by a rather out-of-place blue, red and white church, and once again were treated to great home cooking and warm hospitality.
Despite our short stay on the island we managed to fit in a lot of the sights, including a boat trip to a group of small islands where we could again watch the penguins, but this time also the pelicans and sea otters, who put on a great show for our benefit!
We then had to sadly wave goodbye to our friends, Rebecca and Mike, who were heading home, and we set off on our journey North.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year!

Many happy hours with the penguins and several hundred photos later, we left Punta Arenas and travelled by bus to Puerto Natales. The next leg of our journey was to be more active, adventurous, with 4 days walking in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The setting was spectacular for our first night at the Refugio Laguna Amarga and after getting to know the locals, the guanacos (similar to llamas, spit at you if they're not happy!) and flamingos, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset on the towering peaks, the torres of Torres del Paine. Mad as we are, we crawled out of bed in the freezing cold and pitch dark at 4.30 to watch sunrise, and the snow on the mountains turn pink, and were pleased in retrospect that we did as by the time we got out of bed a second time, 4 hours later, the clouds had rolled in and it had started to rain. The next 3 days we experienced all 4 seasons, having to change from t-shirt and shorts to rain gear and woolly hats and back again in rapid succesion as the weather alternated between glorious sunshine and hailstones or snow storms. Regardless of the weather though, the one thing that stands out in my mind is the vivid colours of the park - the turquoise to emerald waters of the lakes, the rich variety of orchids and other wild flowers, the snow, the different types of rock which made up the mountain ranges...
It was a Hogmanay with a difference: mountain hut with an amazing view of the Grey Glaciar. Hungry from our exertions, we were greeted by the welcome sight and smell of whole lambs sizzling on racks over an open fire. We'd lugged a bottle of champagne all the way up there and a chunk of ice, which had broken off the glaciar, proved to be an excellent fridge! Weary from our long hike there, we opted to see in the Belgian and British New Year with a rather out-of-tune rendition of Auld Lang Syne followed by Flower of Scotland, but didn't manage to stay up long enough for the Chilean one! Although, don't know whether it was revenge for our singing, but we could certainly hear the Chileans celebrate their's!
Relieved that we'd planned a lazy New Year's Day: a relaxing 3-hr boat trip to see the glaciar close up (I'd always thought the photos I'd seen of blue glaciars had to be a trick of photo shop but they really are a bright, piercing, intense blue - a breathtaking sight!) and then a return bus to Puerto Natales. One thing we've discovered so far on our travels is that everything in Chile moves at a chronically slow pace, including restaurant service. Nearly missed our connecting bus in Puerto Natales as it took an hour and a half to get served soup and a sandwich. Good but not entirely convinced that it was worth the wait...
Today, back across the border to Argentinian Patagonia along a rather bumpy and slow road. A fairly bleak landscape but occasionally brightened up by beatiful flowers or wildlife, including the ostrich-like rheas. Tomorrow, we head out for a day at the Perito Moreno glaciar where we'll be fitted out in hiking gear and crampons to walk on the glaciar itself.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

End of the World

Thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my last week in Buenos Aires. Took in more of the sights and museums but also spent a lot of time just pottering around the harbour area and shopping districts... Marc arrived on the Saturday evening and Sunday was spent doing a whistlestop tour of the main attractions, the Boca area, San Telmo with its colourful street markets and Puerto Madero. Xmas eve we went to a fantastic tango show out in the sticks and well off the beaten tourist track, great to experience a Christmas with a difference. Luckily we managed to find a taxi home but quite a minefield getting back to the hotel, the streets were empty of cars and instead people were setting of dodgy fireworks slap bang in the middle of the road. Bit scary when our driver drove straight over one!
Not easy dragging ourselves out of bed on Christmas morning for our early flight to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. Spectacular views over the Beagle Channel as we landed at the end of the world. Our friends, Rebecca and Mike, joined us there and we spent the afternoon exploring Ushuaia, didn't take long as not a huge deal to see! Boxing day we headed out to kayak our way along the Beagle Channel to Estancia Harberton, an old ranch once run by missionaries. We were blessed by sunshine, which brought out the sea lions, a whole family just basking in the sun! Then took a boat trip to see a penguin colony, Magellanic penguins, so cute! Heading off again this afternoon to see more and this time also to get to walk like penguins with the penguins and, as our guide said, make new friends here in South America!
Another real highlight was a walk along the coast in the Tierra del Fuego national park. Beautiful landscapes and an amazing amount of birdlife, have never seen so many woodpeckers from close up, along with ibis and local species of waterfowl. Tomorrow we leave for Torres del Paine national park where we'll be seeing in the New Year. A Happy Hogmanay to all!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Buenos Aires

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A week in Buenos Aires

Can´t believe how quickly the time has flown by and yet at the same time feel I´ve been here for months I´ve done so much! Overwhelming amount to see and do here in the city and surrounding area. Thing I enjoy most though is just hopping on a bus or metro (any time expect rush hour that is!) and stepping out at a stop or station to discover a completely different barrio of Buenos Aires.
Have now taken in most of the main tourist sites. Highlights- La Boca, definitely the most touristy of all but still worth seeing the fun, brightly coloured houses and the equally bright Juniors stadium; lots of small, interesting museums to visit such as the Evita Museum, which is very well done; Fine Arts Museum, contains an impressive collection of works of art, but best of all don´t need to fight through the crowds to see the paintings, had the place almost to myself!; Teatro Colon, which was the largest theatre in the world until they built the Sydney Opera House. It´s undergoing renovation at the moment so unfortunately no performances on (good reason to return to BA!), but fascinating to see how they still make everything themselves from costumes, to wigs and shoes, stage sets etc deep underground below the theatre itself.
One thing that´s struck me is how green the city is, really nice parks to relax in and a bit of shade from the scorching sun. Favourites - Botanical Gardens and the Rosedal.
Yesterday, visited the Tigre Delta just outside BA, a different world from the noisy, mad city. An area of interlinking rivers and canals, very green and peaceful. The old, wooden houses are all on stilts as it regularly floods. Took a train to get there which travels along the coast, or rather the banks of the Rio Plata, which seperates Argentina from Uruguay, not so much plata (silver) coloured as brown and muddy.
Can´t not mention the food, which here basically boils down to white bread, cheese, red meat and icecream. Oh, and empanadas, sort of pie filled with, surprise, surprise, cheese or meat! Great if you´re on an Atkin´s diet!! Having said that, the icecream beats most of the best I´ve had in Italy, which is saying something! And have eaten the best steak ever, or to be more accurate it was more like half a cow, for the ridiculous price of 4 euros (and it was enough to feed at least two large adults!). Not a city for veggies! Very odd to be eating strawberries and peaches in season, just a week before Xmas!
Have of course taken hundreds of photos and included just a wee sample of them here, the rest will just have to wait til I get home.
Time is definitely flying past, too fast to be able to squeeze in everything, as I´m wont to do, before continuing our journey South.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

First impressions of Buenos Aires

After a long and gruelling journey, almost 22 hours door-to-door, I arrived at my final destination on Saturday evening. Suffice to say, would not recommend Iberia for long-haul flights! Buenos Aires international airport is nothing to write home about but did find it amusing that to get from passport control to the luggage belts you had to walk through the duty free shop! I have a sneaky feeling that I´m going to return very poor from this trip, it is a shopper´s paradise!
Taxi driver got completely lost trying to find the place where I´m supposed to be staying, which I found slightly worrying at 11 o´clock at night, but eventually made it and was met by my host. She´s a lovely Argentinian lady, well-travelled so couldn´t have worked out better. And she doesn´t have any dogs!
First impressions of the city - don´t feel I´ve left Europe! Presumably that will change as I get to know the city, which is huge, hectic, bustling but fascinating. Keep thinking I´m in Italy, the accent in Spanish is so Italian, feel very at home and there are pizzerias everywhere. Yesterday, just visited the Recoleta district as didn´t dare to be overly adventurous on my first day. Did the usual touristy thing of going to visit the cemetry and Eva Peron´s tomb, wandered around the fabulous designer stores, and ended up visiting the interesting Malba museum of Latin American 20th century art.
Today, scary experience of getting to work by metro, the subte as it´s known here. Got out after 3 stops, couldn´t breath from the feeling of claustrophobia. Never been so frightened of being crushed to death! Did the rest of the journey on foot so was half an hour late for my first class, not best first impression!
Now off out into the heat to explore a bit more. School organises visits most afternoons, plus weekend excursions, so looks like I´m going to have a busy two weeks, not forgetting of course that I´m hear to study and already have a heap of homework to do. Can´t wait!

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