Monday, January 28, 2008

Navimag Cruise

There are two ways of getting down to Torres del Paine's National Park from Bariloche. A 36 hour bus ride from hell or a 4 day boat cruise down the fjords of the Chilean coast. We opted for the cruise which began in Puerto Montt, Chile.
Before hopping on the the boat we went for lunch at a nearby cafe. Some guys walked in looking like Robin Hood's merry band. They stood in front of our table and serenaded us. In the end the guy playing the tambourine turned his instrument into a collection dish for coins. His connection with Robin Hood was stronger than we thought!
In the boarding lounge we fretted as we looked around and wondered who our potential cabin mates were going to be. All we saw were obese American couples.  We were certain that would mean a lot of snoring, a lot of "me" talk and that the small cabin would be crowded with their oversized luggage. Imagine our relief when we found we were sharing with a Swiss Couple: Heidi and Ursin - the exact opposite of our nightmare. Moreover, with their inbuilt Swiss efficiency chromosomes they were sure to help us work out the best way to fit both the luggage and us into the cabin at the same time!
And now for the big question...what on earth were we going to do with ourselves for 4 days on a boat? We need not have worried. Throughout the day announcements were made over the loudspeaker advising us in 3 different languages that it was time to wake up, time to have breakfast, time to watch a documentary, time to have lunch, time to see this or that outside, time to have get the idea. When we weren't being told what to do, we engaged in Yahtzee championships. 
The boat we were travelling on was called 'The Navimag'. It was essentially an old cargo boat used to transport goods to Puerto Eden (more about that shortly). You can see in the photo below how we negotiated our way through narrow channels which had been created between small islands.
The Navimag still delivers goods to Puerto Eden and hence it was a rather convenient opportunity for us to get off the boat. Here you can see our first view of the small port. It was literally comprised of only two streets, a church and some houses.
Puerto Eden is home to a smattering of the remaining Kawesqar tribe of Patagonia. In days gone by entire families spent most of their lives in kayaks. Dad would sit up at the front navigating. He'd hunt for sea lions and fish. He would also wear the umbilical cord of his first born around his neck for a year. If it did not break this would bring his family good luck. Mum would sit at the back steering. She too would go hunting for fish by diving in the freezing waters naked with a basket around her neck. Meanwhile the kids would sit in the middle tending to a fire. There is no evidence to suggest they engaged in Yahtzee championships. Here you can see one of these old kayaks...not as posh as you would imagine a house boat to look.
Later we would stumble across another old relic. We started to feel like the Navimag was a luxury boat...
That afternoon we passed Glacier Pio XI.  Look how inviting it seems! Our resolve to hike on a glacier was growing.
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The food on board was pretty average but occasionally they would spice things up by adding some bright colouring to it. We found that the brighter the colour, the more unidentifiable the flavour.
That evening was our last on the boat and we all celebrated with a game of Bingo. The winner of the first round was some old guy who used his 15 seconds of fame to grab the hostess' arse during a celebratory dance. Unfortunately we have no evidence of this because we hardly thought to bring our camera to a game of Bingo!
The following day whilst packing up we found a rather interesting item in our bedroom - a pair of underpants clearly belonging to a girl. But after a quick round of 'whose are these?' the owner failed to materialise. We threw them in the bin but continued to speculate as to who the owner could be. We decided that the most likely scenario was as follows: Ursin had invited a male friend into our room earlier that day to view something on his computer. We considered that the friend might have been carrying them with him as a souvenir of sorts and accidentally dropped them. It was possible since his friend had made no secret of the fact that he was interested in some Japanese girl sharing his cabin. We landed up throwing them away as none of us were game to ask the question...none except Jez. The results of the interrogation were fruitless, Ursin's friend strongly denied the claim. Finally, Jez took matters into his own hands...Click on the video to find out what happens when Jez inspects the label...
Finally we arrived in Port Natales, the spring board to our hike in the Torres Del Paines National Park. 

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bariloche: Tronador

The plan was to hike 17.5 km up Cerro Tronador to see its glacier and stay at the refugio overnight at the top. The mountain has a thick icecap covering it with tongues of ice descending and reshaping the landscape. Tronador means Thunderer in Spanish and it refers to the roaring sound produced as the ice cracks. As the glacier expands it pushes everything out of its way, gobbling up any sign of life and spitting out dead trees and stones.  On the way up we would see the spectacular glacier, and in places where it had receded, its trail of destruction.
Having some expectation of what this might actually look like, we were somewhat surprised when we found ourselves trekking through thick forest...
We were also surprised to find out that it was a stinker of a day and we would be accompanied by a bothersome business of flies. But not just any flies, horse flies. The enormous type that draw blood and madden horses. Here you can see one that landed on TZ's hat. Jez was extremely chivalrous and killed that fly (and others) with one almighty smack leaving TZ somewhat dazed.
After hiking about four hours of steep incline we saw through a clearing in the forest our first sneak preview of the glacier:
As we grew closer the glacier replaced the forest and dominated the landscape. We could see and hear mother nature at work. As the glacier melted it thundered, and streams were created. An idea entered our imagination ... what did this look like up close and more importantly could we walk on it?
We approached the summit separately. Jez was a good half hour in front and started to panic. Our accommodation was somewhat...smaller than he expected and not as hospitable-looking as he assumed it would be. None of this mattered. He knew that if it did not have a power outlet for TZ's hairdryer all bets were off...Minutes later, he learnt that this was not where we were going to sleep. It was in fact a storage shed!
The actual refugio was a lot more impressive than the storage shed. Unfortunately though it still didnt have any power outlets. All the energy needs were supplied by solar panels. Food was carried up by backpack, and once a year heavy supplies such as gas bottles were brought up by helicopter. At least they dont have to go too far for fresh water!

Despite the difficulties, the friendly staff at the refugio prepared for us the very best steak we ate whilst in Argentina.IMG_3754
When we arrived we joined the other backpackers wandering around, stupefied by exhaustion and the overwhelming view.
We spent the afternoon with jaws agape, and were thrilled by the spectacle of circling condors.
It may look like we roughed it a bit, but if you look closely at this picture of TZ reading her book and enjoying a hot chocolate, you can see some people camped outside. The Argentinians (ie non-gringos) even prepared food that they had schlepped up the mountain themselves.
Meanwhile, Jez was brushing up on his Patagonian history by reading Bruce Chatwin's classic 'In Patagonia'. If the man himself were alive today, he would be most impressed by the setting in which his book was being read. Although he might not be so happy to learn that the erstwhile, mostly undiscovered farthermost end-of-the-world region that he knew back in the 70s now swarms with millions of tourists...
One of the staff at the refugio ran ice-hiking trips across the glacier. Jez was excited at the idea of using crampons although he wasnt exactly sure what they were. Unfortunately the expedition collapsed when a bunch of Frenchies pulled out. In retrospect it was hard to be disappointed with the croissant munchers, as their intention to exert themselves outlasted their compatriots in WWII. See below Jez's frustration in pantomime.
Note the luminous Kermit green backpack Jez is sporting. Keen observers will note a distinct lack of it in subsequent photos. This is because the backpack was bought in haste the day before we hiked up Tronador. After struggling to fit all his things in it for a mere two day hike, Jez flipped out. How could he possibly use this microscopic thing for our up and coming 5 day hike in Torres del Paines? It was simply impossible! There was only one solution. The backpack must be restored to its original condition and returned to the shop for an exchange. And there was only one person who could pull this off, his wife. She would scrub off the mud, soak away the the sweat stains, trim the fraying straps and re-attach the label. It was almost perfect and not a bit stinky! Luckily for us the poor lighting in the store sealed the deal and the staff were none the wiser. Jez successfully upgraded his Mini to the Kingswood station wagon of backpacks.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


To cut a long story short it was one hell of a schlep to get from Sucre, Bolivia down to Bariloche, Argentina.
Click here to see The Route. First prize goes to anyone who can figure out a pattern in our route (we are also eligible to enter this competition as we are also in the dark on this one.)
The race was on! We had to make it down to Patagonia before the small summer window closed, and this vast steppe returned to its normal inhospitable self. There was trekking to be done, penguins to visit and above all, we had to find out just how close we could get to Antarctica.
Bariloche was our first stop in Patagonia as we travelled from north to south. To our delight we discovered that our hostel was located on the beach front, affording a vantage of pink sunsets by dusk and the full moon by night.
In the winter time Bariloche is a Mecca for skiers. As an aside, why do we use that phrase? Do Arabs ski in the desert?
The largest slope is called Catedral mountain (the Spaniards saw Christian symbology in almost every natural feature). As it was summer we took a cable car up and then hiked back down.
**editor's note - it is safer if we offend everyone equally, so how about a Jewish joke? Why do Jews have big noses? Because air is free!**
On return to Bariloche we had a hearty appetite. I braved venison, but TZ decided to stick to what she knows and ordered a potato salad. My venison was great, but TZ was a tad disappointed by how literally the Argentinians take their potato salad. Half cooked, cold, slabs of potato with a sprig of parsley to make it really gourmet.
As Bariloche is in the heart of the lake district we decided to take a kayak out one afternoon. I was amused by the apparent boob job given to TZ by the life vest. I wasnt as chuffed when I realised it had the same effect on me. We were lucky to catch a completely windless afternoon (save for the effect of half cooked potatoes...). We could see every detail of the lake bottom, from the tree roots and stones to the trout that began to jump at twilight.
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Another day we set off to explore the national park Bahai Lopez. We took a bus to one end of the park, spent the day meandering across and picked up another bus on the other side to return to Bariloche.
In the middle of the park we stumbled upon a golf course and then discovered a 5 star resort hotel called Llao Llao. We mustered the chutzpah to enter the resort in our backpacker clothes and enquired about the price of a room. The cheapest was US$500 and the prices went up exponentially from there. We told them our Personal Assistant would call to make a booking after we had decided between Llao Llao and our accommodation back in Bariloche, Hostel Bed Bugs...
Like Belgium, fine chocolate shops can be found on every corner of Bariloche's tourist centre. As dedicated tourists we took it upon our selves to extensively sample their range. Another little known fact is that the northernmost Patagonian glaciers can be found close by. We did the maths and realised that we could burn off the excess calories and see the glacier at the same time. Stay tuned for more...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Salta - Day Tripping

Before we arrived in Salta, we we told one of the main attractions was to take the "Tren A Las Nubes" - Train to the Clouds. As the name suggests, this is one of the highest railways services in the world and yes, it is capable of transporting people directly to the clouds. So when we booked the tour we were somewhat disappointed to find out that the train was not in service. We were however able to hire a guide for the day who would drive us to the clouds and beyond as well as show us the original Tren a Las Nubes.

Salta has many more hidden gems including an impressive collection of cacti. There are about a thousand different types of cacti worldwide and although we haven't seen all of them, I think we agreed that these were the most photogenic. We never tired of the old ´group hug´ photo.

At one point we stopped in the middle of nowhere for a bite to eat. We could only see a handful of houses and the one we stopped in front of was actually a restaurant. In it, there was a variety of items made from cacti wood including this bicycle. We learnt that this particular type of cactus grows about 1cm a year making cactus wood pretty valuable and rendering this bicycle an antique.

In the following weeks we would see more llamas than you could wrestle to ground. However, on our first encounter we were a little unlucky. As we got out of the car to take photos, the sneaky buggers disappeared. Our less than adequate camera lens was unable to zoom in on them now far off in the distance. Afraid we would not have any evidence of having seen them, we did the next best thing. We improvised with a fake llama...

Where did we get a fake llama from you may wonder? This little old lady on your left sold it to us. She may look frail but don´t let her appearance fool you. When we stopped for lunch, she pounced on us like a vicious used-cars salesman. Strangely, when we got the bill for our lunch, the waiter came over and announced the bill. He said each one of us owed ARG$25 (about AUS$10). An argument ensued over the fact that we had all ordered different things which would surely have different prices. Somehow in the end he won and just made up some prices which equalled his original total. As it so happens this would not be the last time bills would be announced or made up.

We drove on up into the mountains to a place called Tastil to see the ancient dwelling remains of a pre-Incan villiage. Unfortunately we cannot actually tell you anything about it because our lazy-arse guide chose to have a nap in the car and not actually use his English skills (which we had paid a premium for) to explain to us what we were seeing. In fact, we were lucky to even have a photo here as some German tourist refused to move for us to take pictures. He was visibly upset that we did not want him in our photos. "But I like to have you in my photos," he exclaimed. And he did. Creepy...

All day we had been winding up and around Salta´s stunning surrounding mountains never tiring of the views. So it was quite a shock when all of a sudden a sea of white land appeared before us: Jujuy´s salt flats. Jujuy is not far from Salta but it´s not much to see as far as towns go. Its salt flats though are impressive enough to visit on a day trip. Having never set foot on such a strange terrain before, we didn't know that this moonscape would turn us into complete lunatics.

alt=Mind you, initially I didn´t feel its effect and looked on curiously as Jez´s behaviour grew more and more bizarre. Yes, of course that includes stripping down to nothing but his shoes and hat to salute the salt gods but I cannot in good conscience condone that picture being published in our blog...Instead, click on this picture to see a video of us regressing back to our childhoods when singing nursery rhymes and skipping off into the sunset was socially acceptable.

Friday, January 11, 2008

San Lorenzo

When we arrived in the beautiful little city of Salta in Northern Argentina, we knew there was something very special about it. Whilst exploring the city centre we savoured the idea that Salta was a hub for domestic tourism and were therefore unlikely to see many other gringos around. So you can imagine our surprise when all of a sudden we bumped into our gringo friend Kat! We had met her in Buenos Aires whilst studying Spanish. Actually, to be perfectly honest it wasnt THAT much of a surprise, we´d already bumped into her in Iguazu...

Not having the first clue as to what we were actually here to see, we headed to the tourist information centre. We decided we all wanted to go horse riding in the nearby town of San Lorenzo and agreed to meet at a restaurant the next morning.

At breakfast the following day, I noticed a dog poke his head through the window grill. As usual, I made a lot of high pitched cutsie sounds to it. When we left, the dog was behind us and Jez commented that I had made a new friend. Now there are a LOT of stray dogs around and generally they are pretty self sufficient and don't bother people. So when the dog crossed the street with us and turned the corner we started to suspect he was following us. A few blocks later we arrived in the city centre with our new friend in tow and spotted Kat waiting for us. "Look who followed us all the way from our hostel," we said excitedly. "I was also followed," she said pointing to a big black dog that was loyally sitting next to her.

When we got up to leave, both dogs got up and followed us. We found this both amusing and concerning. We were used to walking dogs on a lead. Telling them when to stop, sit, look left right and left again and then cross the street. But these dogs just ran across roads negotiating traffic, stopping to inspect scrap food and lapping up drain water. Somehow, another dog joined the crew. After proving he could successfully make it across the road without getting run over, he was accepted into the group.

Anyway, after about 20 mins we landed up at the bus stop and wondered if we could take our new friends with us? We never rule out anything anymore, too many strange things happen to us! Turns out we didn't need to worry. The dogs waited patiently with us and when the bus came they didn't try to get on it.

Shortly we arrived in San Lorenzo, a stunning town with rolling green hills and magnificent houses. Nestled into one of these hills is the Los Amigos horse riding club. For a bargain price we got to ride 3 beautiful horses into the hills for an hour. The horse riding itself though was rather informal. No helmets, no indemnity forms and no experience needed.

Jez and his horse were like two peas in a pod. No need to show the matching picture of Jez ...

alt=After our ride, we got to feed the horses...although as you can see from this picture, the horses happily munched on what they could along the way. Click on the photo to your left see Jez feeding his horse and listen out for him trying to remember its name.

But the day wasn't over yet. The horses weren´t the only ones that needed to be fed. Across from the horse riding place, was a little restaurant. To the left is their menu and we decided to be adventurous and try the tamale and humita. Tamale consists of steam-cooked corn meal dough filled with vegetables or meat and wrapped in an inedible corn husk. The humita is similar but sweet. After many of these, we were ready for a hike.

Well it was less of a hike and more of a relaxing walk through the forest on a clearly marked trail. San Lorenzo had not seen the last of us, days later we would return and stay overnight at El Castillo - The Castle. It was built over 100 years ago by an Italian gunsmith as an extravagant summer holiday home but abandoned due to the enormous financial overhead. An American backpacker picked up the pieces and restored it into its current state - a stunning hotel and restaurant.

This was the view from our balcony. We would be fortunate enough to meet the American backpacker whilst he was up a ladder diligently plucking figs off a tree right outside our room...