Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Puerto Natales

I arrived in Puerto Natales around 9pm. This is a pretty small town so finding the hostel is easy. And the hostel was nice and warm which I was very pleased about.

The first thing I did was book my bus ticket to Torres del Paine for tomorrow. Then I had to race up to the supermarket to get some food for tomorrow. Luckily Chile is not like Australia and things stay open a lot later. With tomorrow's activities sorted I went looking for el living, the town's one any only veggie place. It is a fantastic veggie restaurant run by an English family so its really easy to get food that is vegan, gluten free, whatever. They understand them all! The pumpkin soup was delicious. I will be coming back to try the vegan chickpea patties when its not too late at night for a big meal!

The next day got up early for las torres. The bus takes about two hours. Then the shuttle to the park's hotel takes another 20 mins. The guy at the hostel told me that the walk to the lookout would take about fours hours to to get there and four hours back. In total it was 19km. This did not phase me too much, since I've done a half marathon and 20km runs before. I've also walked around all day. Like Santiago for example. Not that I was super happy about having to walk 19km but I was looking forward to las torres.

It turns out this walk taught me something about myself I did not know until today. I pretty much hate hiking. Seriously the volcano was really hard, but you could see the top and tobogganing down was awesome. But here, I had no idea what was ahead of me or how much longer it would take. After three hours of walking mostly up the mountain I was so bored and I just really wanted to get there. And no, there is no bus. If you want to go to the lookout, you have to walk. I was so glad I didn't do the W circuit. And I was glad once again I didn't do the Inca trail at Machu Picchu. The only thing worse than hiking is hiking it with a 10kg backpack and a tent! I'm so glad I'm getting the bus back tonight. Anyway enough bitching about camping and hiking. I did it and got to see some nice stuff along the way. Patagonia is a particularly beautiful part of the world.

 


Towards the end it wasn't even a path anymore, just rocks. Then I got to the lookout, which wasn't really a lookout but more rocks. But that's ok, its about the view. Time for lunch with this lovely view. After taking four hours to get here, I only stayed about 15 minutes cos it was so cold! The weather in this park varies a lot. At the start of the path, I was regretting not wearing shorts cos it was quite warm, then massive winds came along, then some rain and at las torres it was really, really cold and raining. Hence the rubbish photo of las torres.



So I headed back down the mountain. This was easier on one level, but really hard on your knees. I later developed a sort of jogging technique which lessened the jarring and sped up the process. It still took ages though.



On the way back I wanted to drink water from the river cos you can here. The water tasted really nice and pure. No dirt or chemical or plastic bottle taste. This is one of the most unpolluted parts of the world. You must take all your rubbish away with you and everyone does. I didn't see any litter. It's nice that everyone respects the beauty of this park.
 
Got back to the park hotel at about 5pm. The last shuttle to the bus is 7.30pm. Time for a well earned beer me thinks! By now it was so nice to be sitting on comfy couches instead of rocks. And it was warm! I didn't even care that the beer was expensive.

On the way back to Puerto Natales we saw lots of llama looking creatures. I believe there are four similar species including llamas, alpacas and two others. I think this might be one of the others since it looks significantly bigger than the ones I saw in Peru. Or they are llamas and I'm taking complete shite. They just wander around doing whatever. I wonder if they have any natural predators down here, apart from tour buses? I also saw some birds that  look like emus but smaller.

There is evidence of the bushfire that ripped through here engulfing much of the park last month. But nature, unlike people's houses, recovers fast. Already there's lots of green coming up through the ashes. Some trees were already knee height. The park ranger that got on the bus at the start to explain the park rules told us that campers could not light any fires at all. Hope they brought lots of sandwiches and fruit!

After getting back to Puerto Natales I went to el living for some more pumpkin soup. It was just so good. I've also noticed that a lot of the restaurants advertise that their fruit and veg is organic and locally grown. I really like that, especially in such a pristine environment. Let's hope big farming doesn't come in and fuck it all up!

The next morning was a chance to sleep in. So nice. My legs hurt quite a lot today after all the walking up and down mountains over the past couple of days. I walked around the town down to the water.


I like this place (for a few days anyway). It's very quiet and peaceful and full of Germans. It's like mini Deutschland! I've heard more German here than Spanish. Some girl even spoke to me in German yesterday. Unlike me, those Germans all love their hiking so places like this attract lots of them.

Not sure what these guys did. I imagine the one on the left is impressed with the size of right guy's feet. You know what they say.


I'm pretty far south. Although Punta Arenas was more south.


Although the northern hemisphere equivalent is London which doesn't seem the same. Maybe because here is a lot more isolated so you feel like you're nearer to Antarctica compared to London and the Arctic.

They have the fanciest bins I've ever seen here.


I went back to el living for lunch and had the chickpea patties and was very glad I did. It came with a fresh salad and no bread this time. I'm so sick of eating bread everyday, I can't wait to get off it again when I get home.

Given most people go camping from here, there's lots of shops specialising in outdoor stuff including dried fruit and nuts. I bought this selection of apples, bananas and figs. They also had these strawberries. Not sure what they did to them but they are quite sweet like jam. Yum.


I would have bought more but I'll probably have to eat them all today before I cross back into Argentina tonight. Although I think Argentina cares less about food coming across the border than Chile. Chile has some of the strictest quarantine laws I've seen outside of Australia.

I am also a little bit addicted to this fruit and nut mix. I've eaten so many bags since I've been here. Nuts, dried coconut, cranberries and pineapple. It's my go to vegan snack and really good! Better for you than bags of chips.


None of the houses here look really built for the cold. I haven't seen any double glazed windows at all. People must freeze in winter. Brr!



After a nice relaxing day with yummy food, I got the bus at 6pm for el Calafate in Argentina. It look less than half an hour to reach the border. Then it was off the bus, get stamped out of Chile. Get back on the bus and go up to Argentina. Unlike going into Brazil, everyone got off the bus this time and got stamped into Argentina. On to el Calafate!

Punta Arenas

I left Pucon early this morning heading to Temuco. This town was not exciting at all from the bus so I'm glad I did not stay there. Got a cab out to the airport from the bus station, since there's no public transport out there. The cab even had a meter, no bargaining required. Actually I've noticed that with Chile after Peru. No one is harassing you to buy tourist shit you don't want, take cabs, eat in their restaurants etc. Based on my experiences in Asia as well, there is a correlation between the wealth of a nation and people annoying you.

Today I was flying sky airlines, Chile's budget airline compared to LAN. Although it wasn't that cheap. First stop Puerto Montt then a connecting flight to Punta Arenas. The airline was fine. It left more or less on time and my bag didn't get lost so no complaints. I also enjoyed reading an article in their inflight magazine about raw veganism. Raw veganism in South America? Love it. Not that I met any.

I asked for a seat on the left side of the plane cos I knew this is the better side for looking out the window. Do you think I got the left side? No. And I know the word is izquierda cos it look me 6 months to pronounce it properly! Anyway, looking past the people on the left, the scenery out the windows was spectactular. Mountains on the left, and leaving Puerto Montt, the archipelago of islands on the right.

I switched seats at one point to see the mountains better. An older man was sitting next to me and he was from France but lived in Mexico. So I had a French/Spanish conversation with him. It was actually really good, cos like most non-native Spanish speakers he spoke slowly so he was much easier to understand. He aslo spoke French slowly so I could understand that as well. My speaking (of either) isn't that great, but I can understand a fair bit more when accents, speed and slang words aren't getting in the way.

I got the mini bus into Punta Arenas from the airport. I like this, its cheap and drops you wherever you want. I needed the bus station. Said au revoir to Christian and bought my ticket to Puerto Natales for 5pm. That left me with an hour to explore Punta Arenas.


After about two minutes I was confused by the existence of this town. It is the windiest place EVER. Why would they build a town here? Seriously, I was trying to walk and getting no where or being pushed along almost running. Ridiculous. And it turns twigs and dirt etc. into missiles which hurt a lot when they land in your face and eyes. There's no way you could ever ride a bike here. That would be so dangerous.

Tim, water feature.


I did see some cool birds that looked a bit like penguins.


You know you're very far south when you have a government department which includes Antarctica.


It goes without saying this place is cold. An hour later I was glad to be on the warm bus and heading north to my final destination for the day, Puerto Natales!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Pucon

I got up to get to the tour place for 6.30am. It had been raining overnight and the clouds were still around. This was not looking good for climbing the Villarrica Volcano. We waited about 45 minutes and then the guy told us that the weather at the base was too bad and the tour would not go today. We put our names down for tomorrow hoping it would be better since that's the only other day any of us could do.

I was staying in a different hostel to everyone else, since I'd prebooked a bed at ecole since it has a veggie restaurant as part of it. At around 10.30am I headed over to the other hostel. This cool giant dog lives there. He looks like a bear! His name is Thomas but he would only be your friend if you gave him food. Otherwise, he just lay there not coming when you called him over. Arse.


So, then I was keen to find out what we would do today instead. Oh my god, what a task that was. 'I want to go mountain bike riding', 'I want to go to the waterfalls', 'I want to go to the beach and drink wine'. This went on for about 2 hours cos no one could decide on anything or who they were going to go with. Then I think everyone got bored and started leaving. I was in the bus to the beach with wine group. It's surprising, I know. Seriously, even this was like herding cats! Someone would wander off into shops, and then someone else would go looking for them, then we'd be down to two people standing around going "where did the rest go now?" and we'd be waiting around again. So finally we make it onto a bus going up to lake Caburgua, which has a very nice beach.

One of the girls on the bus tour is Spanish. She did all the talking to find out which bus to take cos we had to get off before before the end for the waterfalls. I was watching a group of guys just standing there mesmerised by what she was saying. I asked her later if the South Americans take the piss out of her accent. She said yes, but her defence was they can't spell properly cos they pronounce s and z the same, unlike in Spanish. She then pointed out two hand written signs to make her point. Snap!

So on the way we stopped in at some waterfalls. They were nice enough but you couldn't swim in them which is a bit boring.



Here are some cool heads on the beach.


On the way back from the beach we found the English boys, who were having pisco sours. Sounds good, so we decided to have one too. They were so good at this bar. And I don't know who's right, but Peru claims it's their drink and so does Chile. After this one, I think Chile is winning. That said, I like the passionfruit pisco drink better anyway, which I had in Peru. Of course I was ordering mine without egg white, which is the traditional way to make them so they go really fluffy on the top. Eggs in drinks freaks me out regardless of the vegan thing. It's just plain weird!

We got back to Pucon and the Pachamama bus picked us up to take us to some hot springs. These were much nicer than the Aguas Calientes springs. For a start, they weren't all murky. They were also much warmer. We had to keep getting into the Liucura River, which was freezing, and then jumping back into a hot pool. But the hot and cold sensation felt so nice. Here's a nice shot of my arse climbing into the river!


By the time we got back to Pucon, it was late. After dinner and packing up my stuff to leave at 6.30am again, it was 1.30am. I went to sleep for what seemed like about five minutes before I had to get up. Urgh! Checked out of my room and headed down to the tour place. The sky was cloudless and there was no rain over night. This was a good sign and the tour to the volcano was on. The adventure companies are great. They provide you with all the gear you need including good quality snow boots. You just need lunch and sunblock basically.
 
So off the bus goes to the volcano. Driving up to it is starting to look quite daunting. It is 2,800m above sea level, the same as Machu Picchu.


This is a popular ski resort in winter so we could take a chairlift up the first 1,000m. If you don't do this, you add 2-3 hours to your day. Bollocks to that.

Coming from a subtropical place, I believe this was my first time on a ski lift. It was really high and freaked me out cos it had no safety bar on the front and I am scared of heights. As a result you can only take it up, not down the mountain. I had some American guy next to me who I asked to keep talking to distract me. I found out he sells beer for a living. Sweet. Pity he didn't have one on him then.

Then the climbing started. At the start it was mostly rock, and our ice picks doubled as walking stick things. I only slipped over once so that was good. Then came the snow and ice. This was harder to walk in. Plus the mountain got steeper as you ascended. Half way up we had our first rest. I can't believe how hungry it makes you.


Then we had another break after about 30 mins more of climbing. Seriously this break couldn't come soon enough. It was definitely getting harder and we were all knackered. I doubt everyone who tried made it to the top. This was physically one of the hardest things I've ever done.


 
Towards the top we were back into rocks. This bit was really steep and I started getting worried about getting down the mountain. Too late to back out now. Then we reached the top. This is our Pachamama group. Only four of us went up but we all made it. Hooray!


Fuck it was cold! But the views were spectacular.
 


This one has Pucon and the lake in the background.

 
Also, I know that something weird is going on with the contrast on my phone. I don't know how to fix it or edit the photos on a PC since all the computer editing programs are in Spanish.

This is what the inside of an active volcano looks like.



Thankfully the smoke from the volcano was blowing the other way so we could stay up there for 45 mins or so. Sometimes you can only stay up there for five minutes cos the smoke is poisonous. We had masks in our bags but I think they are only good for an hour and sometimes you need them for part of the climb.

These are our guides. They were awesome. At the top the just wrestled each other and hid each other's backpacks. Considering they are the ones we needed to rely on if something goes wrong, I was slightly concerned about that.


You need one guide for every 6-8 people. There were probably a good 300 people or so on tours today.

Then came the getting down part. We had to put all our gear on for this including a toilet seat lid thing.


This is why.



Tobogganing down the mountain on your arse on the toilet seat lid was AWESOME!!!!
Although I was shit and kept getting stuck cos I don't weigh enough apparently (I know, terrible). At one point I hooked onto a guide and he took me down. His technique was really good, obviously, so I didn't have to do anything.

The Canadian guy, Ryan, then told me about toboozing, which is where you get drunk then toboggan down the mountain. That sounds pretty fun and slightly dangerous. However, it still doesn't make me want to move to Canada.

We got to do about five toboggan paths before the rocks were back. This didn't take too long to walk down and we were back on the bus. Back in Pucon we got to have a free beer with the group and the guides. We were all exhausted so a beer went down an absolute treat. Then I saw two guides get on their mountain bikes to ride home. That is some serious fitness.

I said good bye to the boys. My plan tonight was go to go to Temuco and stay there since I have an a flight tomorrow. Temuco is two hours from Pucon. However, I really couldn't be bothered trying to find a hostel when I got there plus there are only two on hostelworld and neither is near the bus station. Temuco is also boring and there are no veggie restaurants. Time for Plan B. First, check the first bus out in the morning: 6am, good. Second, go back to ecole and see if I can get a bed. Done. Third, have dinner at a reasonable time for the first time in two nights. Done. I like this hostel cos of the veggie restaurant. It's not the best food I've had in South America, but it's still ok.

Since I was exhausted and had to get up at 5.30am in the morning, it was an early night for me. I was glad no one else was staying in the room, it made uninterrupted sleep easier without others coming in late. Tomorrow, I head south. Way south!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pichilemu

I left the hostel today around 9am. The hostel in Santiago talked me into the Pachamama bus tour to Pucon. I did not originally plan this but it would allow me to see some other stuff along the way, and it would be fun since there will be a bunch of other backpackers on the bus. Also, the timing was perfect for when I wanted to leave Santiago and for my flight out of Pucon on the 26/01.

There are 11 people on the tour and they all seem pretty cool. Another girl is vegan, so that might make things a bit easier if there's more than one of us. Safety in numbers.

The bus left Santiago and we headed towards Pichilemu, about 200km south west of Santiago on the coast. Along the way we stopped at Pomaire. This town was kinda small and boring and seems to survive on selling clay pots to tourists. While this might work for those driving from Santiago for a day trip, it's not so good for backpackers. Still, it was nice to get off the bus for half an hour and walk around.
 
Then we stopped in at Rapel dam, which was probably once a nice river but now provides hydro electricity to Santiago. It was not overly exciting. Although I would like to see the inside of a power station. I think that would be cool.


We arrived in Pichilemu in time for lunch. Jen (the other vegan) and I went to one place recommended by our guide and everyone else went to get empanadas. I still really want to try one, but after walking around the town I'm guessing I won't be getting one anywhere here since every single one has cheese and a different kind of carcass in it.


But things started to looking up when Jen told me where I can get vegan empanadas in Buenos Aires. That is definitely something to look forward to next week when I go back.

I went for a walk down the beach after lunch. Apparently this is South America's best surf. Looks more like a swimming beach to me. I'm guessing the surf beach is further along maybe?




Not sure about this black sand. Call me racist but I like white sand better. Although this is an improvement on Lima's beach, which just had rocks to lie on. So comfy!

Here you can go horse riding on the beach. Not really my thing, but there's a lot of horses so it must be popular.


This looks more fun.


Our hostel is just off the beach and is pretty cool.


Plus some hot guy just walked past wearing no shirt and was wheeling a mountain bike with one hand and had a surfboard in the other. Hello.
 
Later on we went to watch the sunset over the ocean. This was nice cos we only get the sunrises over the Pacific in Australia. I've seen both now. That is me standing there too.


The next morning we left early for Pucon. On the way we stopped at the Colchagua museum in Santa Cruz. I read on someone else's blog that it is owned by Carlos Cardoen, who was on the FBI's most wanted list for dealing arms to the middle east during the Cold War and therefore was unable to leave Chile. There you go. Anyway, this place was awesome. It had everything from dinosaurs and bugs in amber (very Jurassic Park) to pre-Columbian pottery (only a few erotic ones, Lima must have scooped up most if them), and Spanish invasion stuff. They also had some pre-Inca mummies which were older than the Egyptian mummies, and shrunken mummy heads. It was real heads with hair and everything but monkey sized. I think they take the scull out and then dehydrate it somehow. Weird but cool. Again, you can't take photos of anything.

They also have a whole section dedicated to the rescue of the 33 miners in 2010. That was fascinating. I took a photo on the sly of the actual capsule used to pull them out.


Then there was a section on cars, which doesn't really interest me but I had time to look in there. And I'm SO glad I did cos I found this.



I have no idea why the Delorean from Back to the Future was in a museum portraying South American history, but it is awesome. Or the Doc and Marty were lurking about in there somewhere, having just arrived from 1985.

Next up was lunch. We had all prepared our own for the bus trip and were sitting down outside somewhere. I asked Ryan if he wanted to borrow my knife to cut his tomato. He pulls out some heavy duty thing that he probably kills bears and wolverines in Canada with, and says "that's not a knife, this is a knife". His timing was perfect.

 
This sign amused me.


After lunch it was back on the bus towards Pucon. We still had about 7 hours to go and were bored. The area we are passing through is very agricultural and dry. Brown grass reminds me of Australia. Plus there are lot of eucalyptus trees here too. No koalas though. We also passed a lot of wineries but our driver would't stop so we could get wine. That would have livened the bus ride up a bit.

We finally got to Pucon really late. Then we had to go book our volcano tour for 6.30am tomorrow morning. These late nights early mornings are killing me! But I am looking forward to seeing inside a volcano tomorrow.