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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Isla del Sol

An early bus, La Paz staying behing and a couple of hours later, the amazing scenary of this sea of sweet water located at 4000m of altitude that is Lake Titicaca. Destination: Copacabana and La Isla del Sol.

It is definitely a nice journey, with an interesting boat crossing 1h away from Copacabana, where we leave the bus, enter a boat and the bus crosses the lake on its own boat. I had never seen that before, but it works. It just makes the journey last about 30min more!

After reaching Copacabana we decide to buy the boat tickets to Isla del Sol and have to have a nice lunch before we get to the Island. It takes another hour to reach our destination. Then it comes one of hardest things I've done on this trip. Moving 200m uphill carrying my backpack. I move step by step, following the kid whom Emma negociated a room with. He looks like a mountain goat moving from step to step as if it was easy. We are at 4000m... He's a nice kid and the room is really ok with a view over the lake and the sunrise, which is supposed to be really nice.

After a deserved rest, we decide to explore the island. It is a small Island, this island where the Incas believed their supreme god was born - the sun. There are a few ruins around the island. The biggest ones are on the northern part of the island, so we decide to walk the Inca trail tomorrow and visit those. For the rest of the afternoon we wander around some ruins located south from the setlement and just spend our time wandering between tea houses and restaurants. There's really nothing to do, specially after the sun sets!

Getting up early, around 6, to see the sun rising prooved to be a fantastic experience. The sun erupts from behind the beautifull snow picks of the Andes bringing life and movement to the Island. We start our hike around 7. It took us almost 3 hours to do the 6-8 Km trail from south to north, until the ruins of the old Inca setlement. It's not the type of ruins I'm used to, so I am a bit disappointed, but the hike was really nice, although it was extenuating and hard due to the altitude.

After finishing our hike we go to the northern harbour and immediately take a boat to the southern part of the island. Once there I rush uphill to pick up our stuff while Emma stays and tries to convince the boat drivers to wait for us. It works, I didn't faint which means that my body is getting used to the altitude. Back in Copacabana we only have time to buy the bus ticket to La Paz and buy something to eat.

I am very quiet the whole trip. I know that tomorrow I will start moving back to my normal life. I will still stop for a couple of days in Antofagasta in Chile and meet Aurelie whom I had met in Valdivia. The plan was to go back to San Pedro and do some climbing, but I had to cancel that part due to my sudden change of plans. Well, that's life. A quiet evening watching some Confederations match and a very good meal in a fancy restaurant was my way to say goodbye to La Paz, this huge city, surrounded by enormous snowie peacks where I decided to go back to Europe and to the real world...

Friday, September 25, 2009

La Paz

I'm not a fan of poluted, noisy, traffic-congested big cities, as many of you must have noticed by now. So what brings me to La Paz and makes me stay here 4 days?

Well, first the city itself is located at 3600m above sea level and I'm curious to see how is it possible to build such a big city at such a high altitude. There are a few monuments that are worth a visit, but I'm kind of tired of beautiful churches, by now... Another reason for the visit is doing the world famous Corrida de la Muerte, a downhill mountain bike circuit, via what used to be the main road between two important cities in the Andes. The name reflects the amount of people that have died over the years in this road. In our days it's mostly a touristic attraction for adrenaline adventurers that want to defye gravity and move almost 3000m in altitude in about 4 hours. There are also some 6000m mountains that can be climbed even by people with little experience and I was planning to climb Huyani Potosi, the smalest of them all. It's a 2-3 day adventure.

I asked Emma, whom i had met in Santa Cruz to book me a place at her hostel. We met in that evening for dinner. It's always nice to have someone to show us the city or at least to show us the nice places to eat! Emma is a studying to become a Medical Doctor in Oxford, but for the last few months she's been doing volunteer work both in Nicaragua and here in La Paz. She's really into it and I admire her for what she has been doing. And she is a great company.

On my first day in La Paz I woke up with some news that make me decide to end the trip earlier and go back to Portugal within a week time. On the time I have left I have time to do La corrida de la muerte, go to lake Titicaca and then go back to Chile, visit Antofagasta and finally fly to Santiago and from there back to Europe. So this first day is spent taking care of all the bureaucracies, changing ticket dates and so and so on. One thing, if you ever buy a round the world ticket from Oneworld, make sure your first flight is with British Airways. My first flight was with Finnair and that makes them responsible for any ticket changes you might need to do (at least everytime one calls British Airways that's what they tell us!) . Well, Finnair does not fly to south america so it was a crasy race against time, some telephone fights with Finland and in the end a visit to the nearest Lan office solved it all. Instead of flying to Portugal I had to fly to Vigo, which is quite close to the border, so that wasn't such a problem. And I'll arrive still in time for a friend's wedding! Which means meeting half of my friends while still jet lagged...Lets see how it goes!

La corrida de la muerte

I decided to do the death race with the agency from my hostel. I thought there wouldn't be many people doing it with them. Well, this was a mistake. A group of over 20 people with only 3 guides awaited me... At least the bike they gave me was good. The first part of the race was on a fantastic asfalt road, the perfect place to let ourselves go, but instead the stupid guides wanted to keep the group together and that made us stop every 3 or 4 minutes. I got tired of that and just passed the guide and enjoyed a nice downhill until the check point. Others that had been complayining about it followed me and in the end we were discussing with the guides that that was not what we paid for. Some people in the group actually wanted to move fast! They were three so they could split the group in 3 and everyone would still have fun. Specially on that asfalt road which was perfectly safe!
The dangerous part of the "race" comes when we reach the gravel road. This road goes around the mountains, there are no protective barriers, and stones and holes on the road make it a really adventure to combine speed with balance, always with one thing in our minds: one distraction and I end up at the end of the 1000m high cliff that's just at my left! Nevertheless it was really funny, adrenaline at its max and a terrible pain in the hands due to the strength I put in holding the bike to the road! 4h later we were done. The fastest guys all felt that we could have done it faster if they had allowed us, but, whatever, next time I'll follow the suggestions I was given by other people and pay a bit more to do it. I didn't fish around in different companies as I should have!



La Paz

The rest of my time in La Paz was spent walking around, climbing up and down (not easy at this altitude) taking some pictures of the amazing scenary in which this city was built. Remove all the cars and garbage from the city and I would love living here! I just love mountains!

Next stop in Lake Titicaca and La Isla del Sol. Emma decided to join me. This is great because I haven't been in the mood to talk to strangers lately. I guess I am getting the "almost over" mood...

The Missions Circuit

I didn't have enough time to visit all the missions. That's a 5 day thing, or shorter if you go with a travel agency, but i prefered to take the local transports and do it on my own.

My first stop was in Concepcion. Since this was the first mission that I visited I was really impressed with the wood-works. I wandered around it for 1 hour taking pictured until I decided it was time to figer out how to get out of there. I soon realised that the next bus to San Ignacio, my next stop is, whether within an hour or tomorrow at 5 pm. I forgot to mention, that the settlements around the missions are small and there's not much to do or see here. So I just decided to pick up (after a small discussion with the hostel guy which wanted to keep all my money when I stayed there only for an hour and didn't even use the bed) my stuff and hop on the bus the was heading to San Ignacio that day. This could have been a really bad decision...

I started feeling sick about half way between Concepcion and San Ignacio. Flu sypmtoms appeared quite fast and I couldn't wait to get off that bus and find a hotel to relax... It was after midnight when I arrived in San Ignacio. I asked a British couple whether I could follow them in the look for a hostel and just moved on with one thing in my mind: the nearest hospital is 12h away so lets hope this is a normal flu! I stayed in the first hotel we found. I bargained the price and ended up staying there for a couple of nights. The room was a bit noisy, but clean, confortable and breakfast was included which given the circunstances was perfect. A bit pricy for Bolivia, but whatever. I needed a place like that.

A few paracetamols later I adventured out of the hotel and tried to find a place to eat. It was Sunday and most places were closed, opening only in the evening. I also inquired about the buses to San Rafael. By now I had decided to skip one of the missions and try to get back to Santa Cruz as fast as possible... There were only buses at midday, the next day. So I had a full day to rest and try to recover a bit more. The mission in San Ignacio didn't impress me that much. There's a lake quite close and the square has some really nice statues.

In San Rafael, another adventure. Finding a place for the night. There are two, but...none is highly recommended! I end up staying in a room with a really dirty toilet, a bed where it's impossible to find a confortable place to lay down and with a very strange lady as my host! This is the simplest of all the missions I have visited. It's nice but a bit neglected, and it's possible to see that not many tourists stop here... Only a stupid, sick guy like me ends up here, I moan...

Finally I arrive in San José de Chiquititos, the place where the train stops and from where I'll go back to Santa Cruz. Instead of waiting 4 more hours for the train I decide to take the bus which departs at 20.30. I still have 6 hours to see one mission!!! It is actually really nice the one in San José, the only built from stone and that is still being rebuilt. I wandered around the square reading and writing. If I had known the kind of road that the bus was going to go on, I would have probably rented a room for resting during the afternoon. But I had seen some asfalt when my bus reached San José and concluded that the road to Santa Cruz was all paved... Once again wrong conclusions that resulted in a dusty sandy road and a bus having to stop twice with a broken engine...

Santa Cruz

Potosi stayed behind and the road to Sucre was taken once again. A connection to Santa Cruz, the wealthiest state in the country awaits me. After a small discussion with one of the tickets agencies I got a ticket in the last seat of the bus. I don't know if this was the worst bus ride of my life, but the asfalt ended like an hour after our departure. Then I lost count of the rivers we crossed (and by crossing I don't mean going over it using a bridge!). A tire exploded, fortunately when the bus was fighting to climb up a mountain. People around me kept coughing and sneezing and throwing garbage to the floor of the bus and through the windows. Well, this is the real Bolivia, that people kept talking about...

Why coming to Santa Cruz. The guide doesn't mention much about it, not many touristic atractions. Well, I'm going to meet Dario's brother (me and Dario used to live in the same corridor in Utrecht when we were exchange students) and hang out with his friends for a couple of days. Meeting locals and talking about their lives is one of the things I appreciate the most. I decided to stay in a cheap hotel very close to the city center. Not the cosiest place in the world, but I've stayed in worse places...

And Santa Cruz was only partying and meeting Diego's friends. It was really nice and funny, but after two days in the city I was ready to keep moving.

From Santa Cruz there are 3 or 4 options, tourist wise I mean. One is to go back to real Bolivia and head on to La Paz. Another is to take the "death train" to Brasil and visit the pantanal. Another is to move north and visit an National Park in the Amazonia. The last one and probably the one least people choose is to make the Missions circuit. The Jesuits once created a Theocratic state in this part of South America. They had the support of the local Indian (Guaranis) and since they were located in a very remote area, Portugal and Spain had no control over them for many years. Today the missions are no longer a missionary place. They were abandoned shortly after the Jesuits were expeled around the end of the 18th century, but the Indian settlements continued and today they are small cities that grew up around the missions. Left abandoned the missions almost disappeared, until UNESCU decided to make them a world heritage site. Today they have all been recovered. Appart from going to La Paz all the other options were quite expensive so, I decided to leave La Paz for when I returned to Santa Cruz after visiting the missions.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Potosi - Or, A return ticket to Hell....

Potosi was once the richest city in the world. It was from these mines than Spain built its empire, exploring the silver from Cerro Rico. But it was not only the mountain that the spanish explored. The Quetchua people, who inhabit the region,and many others were used and abused to explore the mines. The mountain, Cerro Rico, is today an intruiquite mixture of tunnels which are in risk of collapsing after over 500 years of exploration. But Potosi is not only mines. The money that came from the mines, was used to build a number of Churches around the city, that still shows a lot of colonial architecture. It is located at around 4600 m above sea level, making it impossible to walk fast... The setting around the city is amazing. But the mines was the main reason for my visit to Potosi...

I arrived in Potosi, mid afternoon and after wandering around the city trying to find a place to stay I arrived to a hostel at the same time as a german guy. We ended up sharing a room just to try and save some money. After dropping our backpacks we went to town, got a cup of coffee, and introduced each other :) The funny thing about backpacking is that names are not important. As long as people share the same objective, experiences can be shared and you'll just remember the person for what you shared with him or her and probably remember the nationality and not much more. After the coffee we decided to book our trip to the mines for the next day. We decided to do it with the most expensive agency, mostly because they had an extra guide in each group that helps anyone who feels bad to go back and get out of the mine. Knowing what I was about to face, I felt that it was good to invest two extra euros and feel that I was somewhat "safer"

The mines (short summary of the four pages I wrote in my diary after the visit...)

Small, hot, cold, unbreathable, dusty, tiny galleries, safety measures... a mirage... After hearing so much about the mines from Nicoles and other people I met on this trip I felt obliged to visit the mines in Potosi. I could have done as some people that, whether because they are claustrofobic, or because they just didn't feel they could stand watching this in loco just decided to watch the movie "The Devil's Miner", which tells the story of a 14-year old miner... Hearing about it or watching a movie about it is not enough for me... So I decided that I had to go there. And it was a terryfing experience... Many start working in the mines when they are only 12 years old. They work 10 hours per day, from dawn till dusk, crawling through small holes, breathing their own death. The particles in the air are responsible for lung silicosis, which gives these miners a life expectancy of 35! Watching those dark, wrinckled faces, carrying an empty look, that are capable of smiling only when we offer them some coca leaves, cigarrettes, drinks or dinamite, or sometimes, when we tell a joke, was depressing. I feel hopeless, there's nothing I can do appart from offering them those small things that keep them alive, and at the same time working and dying... We went down to the fourth level of the mine, over 50 m. On the way back I have to stop several times. I feel breathless, I'm sweatting a lot, I can hardly breath... I feel like running the hell out of there but, that's not possible. The climb is steap, too steap... I have to crawl for 15 min to reach the first level. I'm lucky I'm the first in the line, otherwise I would have to "eat" the others dust. I admire these men and women and I feel sad for them. They don't see any other opportunities in their lives and that's why they keep working in the mines, hoping the Tio will show them where to find the silver.

I did the tour with the spanish speaking group. After 1 month in South America I can understand most of what people say and I am starting to speak Spanish. My group is formed by some "older" people, that are as impressed as me. In the end we are given the opportunity to blast some dinamite. We prefer offering our dinamite to the miners. Some kids from the other groups are holding the litten dinamite bars while taking pictures... (later in the trip while speaking to other kids I realized that their main purpose in visiting the mines was having the chance to blast some dinamite...)

These men and women that I saw working should be offered the title of national heroes. No one should be allowed to work in such conditions in the 21st century. These working conditions are probably the same they had in 15th century when the Spanish arrived and enslaved the natives to work in the mines. Once they were slaves of the Spanish. Slavery was abolished, but now they are still slaves of the mountain. In a poor country like Bolivia is (stupidly poor, given the amount of natural resources they have) they make the economy work, extracting silver and other minerals from the mountains so that we can wear it around our necks or hang it from ears, belly buttons or just decorate our homes. And what do they gain from this? In most cases, a premature awful death, broken dreams... They organize themselves in groups of 10, most of the times they are brought together by family laces. So, if an accident happens... you know what i mean! They choose the place to dig based on their knowledge and on luck. They worship the devil - Tio - offering him everything, from cigarretes, coca leaves, alcool, condoms, to lama sacrifices. Many swear they have met the Tio in the mine before...

I only watched manual work in this visit. They use some machines to dig the mountain, but most of the work is made by hand, with their own sweat.

These are big men and woman. I feel small next to them. Sadly, this is one of the marking moments of my trip. I'll now come back to my pink world, eating in nice restaurants while they continue chewing coca leaves for breakfast, lunch and tea... Spending my afternoons in a terrace by the ocean while they have the darkness surrounding them. These are Quetchuas, exploited for centuries by different empires. These are heroes. What will be of them when the minerals are finished? I asked the guide. Emmigration, is his answer. I ask nothing else and just rush out of there.

I feel like I took a 2 hours return trip to hell. Potosi, once the richest city in the world, financed the rise of an empire, is still there, in the Andes, a mountain filled with holes that offer hope and death at the same time, a prison where many decide to encarcerate their lives.

The rest of Potosi

I spent the rest of my time in Potosi, wandering around the town, watching the beautiful façades from churches and enjoying my time with the Swiss and French that went to the mines with me. The dinner was really funny and wine just kept us talking and laughing until they asked us to leave the restaurant. A funny evening after an impressing experience. Back to my pink world, I guess...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sucre

Clean, quiet, pretty and relaxing, that's Sucre and that's exactly what one is looking for after so many days in cold and rough places.

The trip from Uyuni to Sucre was my first contact with Bolivian roads and buses. It wasn't as bad as I thought, but the worse was still to come...

Well, there's not much to say about Sucre. I went there with Britt, the dutch girl from the Uyuni trip. We stayed there three days just wandering around the city, trying different cafes and restaurants and doing some sightseing - this can be hard since the main attraction, churches, appear to be closed most of the times...

Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, although the government sits in La Paz which is the official capital. Just like in Uyuni, there's a lot of native americans around. That was so far one of the biggest surprise about this country. The multi-ethnicity of Bolivia, with around 30 different languages spoken around the country. It's an organized and as clean as an southern american city can get (surprisingly close to european standards, believe me). I loved my visit here. It was hard to go back on the road...

Monday, June 29, 2009

"(...) La Charla con los amigos me confirmó una vez más que uno es de onde mejor se siente.(...)"

Luís Sepulveda,in Patagonia Express, read during the energy recovery days spent in beautiful and relaxing Sucre

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Salar de Uyuni tour

3 days through mountains, deserts, altiplanic lagoons and salars. Three days of cold, extreme heat, bumpy roads, dust, no confort at all. Three days of astonishing landscapes, beautiful lagoons, gorgeous flamincos, and of creepy and funny salars. Three days that end in the biggest salar in the world, above 3000 m. The salt flats of Uyuni are just so white and big that all sunlight is reflected which causes the loss of horizon and causes mirages, like mountains floating or the feeling of being surrounded by water.

Three fantastic days. Great company, the 12 people distributed by 2 jeeps had a great time. This also made this hard journey easier. You never know what to expect when you enter a tour like this. It's not a tour for the normal tourist. Sleeping at 4800m in a unheated shelter, is not easy. Breathing is not easy at such altitude. The cold at night is extreme. Running, or exercising just forget it (although we managed to play some football in the salt flats, but it took me at least 30 min to recover my breath!). But I can tell you that I don't regret at all of having taken this trip. And I'm happy I did it from Chile and not the other way around, because like this the last thing in the trip is the salt flats, and that's the main attraction of the 3 days tour (it's 4 days if you want to go back to the starting point).

So in summary, the tour starts with a bus trip from San Pedro to the Bolivian border, where one meets our travel mates. 2 Brazilians, 1 french, 1 dutch, 1 american, 2 british guys and 2 couples, one german and one british were the 12 adventurers. At the Bolivian border we have breakfast and stamp our passport. A picture of Evo Morales, the populist Bolivian leader welcomes us in Bolivia. And then hop we go in our 4 WDs up the mountains. The first stop is at the Laguna Blanca, so called because of the Borax minerals that give it a white colour. The lagoon turns green and becomes Laguna Verde a few km ahead due to the accumulation of sulfates. We continued to the hot springs. This was a fantastic moment. The water was really really warm (much better than in the geisers del Tatio) and it felt great to enter the water and just relax 20 min before continuing the bumpy road. The geisers sol de mañana followed. I couldn't see a single geiser, just fumaroles, so this was kind of a disappointment. The Dali desert, so called because of a Dali painting that looks exactly the same, awaits everyone who passes, quietly without producing a single sound. It's a beautiful place. The final stop of the first day was the redish laguna colorada, full of red algae and home to three different species of flamincos. A beautiful place at over 4000 meters. Our shelter was not far away and we spent the time talking and playing cards and dice. It was a funny night where everyone got to know each other a bit more.

The second day starts with the laguna colorada, followed by the stone tree, an eroded rock that somehow resembles a tree. Around it there are more stones that people keep on climbing. I end up finding one that resembles a bird, or maybe it's just my imagination seing things in the middle of the desert. We proceed, visiting a few altiplanic lagoons, that are not as spectacular as the ones from the first day. There were also the coloured mountain and the Ollegue volcano on the route, before we pass through the first salar (and the train line that ends in Antofagasta). Our place for the night was the salt hotel, a peculiar place where all the walls are made of salt! We visited some mumies right next to it, once we arrived and then it was just time to relax, have a warm shower and wait for bed time to come! The big day was awaiting.

And finally the Salar de Uyuni comes. Big, huge, empty, white, imense, quiet and beatiful. All these feelings come to me as we enter the salar. I want to stop and take the funny pictures that I've seen from other people. The lack of an horizon produces very funny optical ilusions, specially when you take photographs. We stoped for an hour and acted like children with a new toy during that hour. The guides are probably so used to that that don't even bother to come out of the car. We next moved on to the IncaHuasi Island, an island in the middle of the salar, that is covered in cactus, the only thing that grows in this place. Some are over a 1000 years old! Impressive! As we are finishing lunch me and Clement see some bolivians playing with a ball. We run to join them and spend the next 30 min trying to run at 3000 meters. It was really funny. Football breaking barriers, as it should be! We are informed that the road blocks that had closed the access to Uyuni for the last few days, are over and continue our trip towards the city. Before being dropped off in the city center we visit the train cemetery, a strange place where a bunch of old locomotives are rottening in the sun.

And so it ended the trip in the lost city of Uyuni, a place that, appart from being the gateway to one of the most exquisite tours in the world, has little to offer even to the normal backpacker, that doesn't demand much. We spent the rest of the day trying to get some money (there's one ATM in town that doesn't always work), eating some decent food and trying to keep warm. We said goodbye to the brave ones who decided to leave immediately and try to relax in the cold rooms of this remote place, that doesn't have a single paved road connecting it anywhere else in the country. Tomorrow it is going to be a long journey to Sucre, via Potosi, but I want to relax at a lower altitude before continuing to explore south america and Bolivia. The last days have been amazing and full of different feelings and experiences. Lets hope it stays like this. :)

I would also like to recomend the Cordillera travel agency tour. I had heard really bad experiences from the salar tour. I think mine was quite OK. I don't know if it was from the tour operator, the company or what, so just be aware that these three or four days are not easy and no tour company offers a confortable upper class journey. I didn't have any complaints from these guys, but others have had. There are no tour operators without complains, so I believe it is luck that determines a good experience :)

RC
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San Pedro de Atacama

There's probably no other place on earth like San Pedro de Atacama. At times it just feels like we are in another planet. The lunar landscapes at the Valle de la Luna, become even more mysterious and strange, as the sun sets. Valle de la Muerte, is just a beautiful place where I wouldn't like to get lost. Quebrada del Diablo an example of what water can do, having built a beautiful and enormous canyon. The Geysers del Tatio at sun rise look like hell, if it exists.

This is San Pedro de Atacama, a small city, in the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world, in the northern part of Chile, right next to Bolivia. Everyone that had been there told me I had to go there. And so I did. My first image of the desert was on the bus. It is a long way from Santiago to San Pedro. So long that I decided to break the journey in two and stay at the lost city of Copiapó one night. I regret I did that, but it was probably wise to do it. But Copiapó has just nothing to offer the normal tourist. It's an old miners city, that seems to be waiting something to stop existing. But lets not talk about that... Lets talk about Antofagasta and its beautiful coloured houses standing just in front of the high dry mountains by the pacific ocean. I didn't stop there, my bus just went through it, but I wished I did... I might go back to northern Chile by the end of the month and visit it and do somethings I missed in San Pedro. But the best part of this long trip was the sunset on the road between Antofagasta and San Pedro. All the sky turned orange, it was beautiful and the perfect welcome card to the most peculiar place I've ever been to!

I'm a huge fan of deserts. Don't ask me why... It's just such an empty place that it makes me feel so empty that the brain just starts thinking and racionalizing so fast as if it is trying to compensate for the lack of everything. And so, as I approach San Pedro, the more aware I am of what surrounds me and probably that reflects all the visual images I had during the days I spent here!

I met Guy as we left the bus, when we arrived in San Pedro. Although we went to different hostels, it was very likely that we would meet in the small city center. And so we did. We spent the next 3 days doing things together around the city. We biked to Quebrada del Diablo and the Valle de la Luna (although in this part of the trip we had to push the bike more than biking due to the strong wind that kept blowing sand into us), hiked to Valle de la Muerte and sandboarded the dune, and took the perfect tour to Geisers del Tatio. We also planned the Uyuni Salar tour together. I lost count of the pictures I took in these 3 days. Everywhere I turned a postcard like picture seemed to lay in front of me.

I can't write much more about San Pedro. It was just too beautiful and my vocabulary too limited to describe it. I'll leave you with the pictures as soon as I find a place to upload them! Meanwhile, if you are really curious about it, just google it. San Pedro, the most alien place in the face of earth.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

“..., como buenos fueron aquellos días pendientes de un sueldo que no llegaba. Bajo las aspas de un ventilador que no producía ninguna brisa, pero compartidos com mujeres y hombres de gran nobleza que me ofrecieron lo mejor de símismos."

Luis Sepúlveda, in Patagonia Express

(While sitting on a endless bus trip through the Atacama desert.)

Valparaiso

There's definitely a special vibe in Valparaiso. I don't know what it is, but it makes you feel like climbing the Cerros, sitting down in cafes writing and thinking, talking to people and appreciating good wine. I spent 3 nights in Valparaiso, 4 days in total. There's nothing left to see after so many days in such a small city, but you still feel like staying longer. You never know if at night at the hostel you are going to meet some amazing people or if a spontaneous guitar unplugged will end with the police knocking at the door at 2 a.m.

I went straight to Valparaiso from Valdivia, so that I could meet Stepan before he left South America. We were both in the same mood when we met and just spent the rest of the day walking around, talking, drinking wine. He left the day after, after a long walk through the Cerros in the company of Guillaume, a french guy that was staying at the same hostel. Later in the afternoon Nicole entered the dorm and we started talking. Well, many things in common resulted in endless conversations, enjoying the amazing Carmenère wine (to those who are wine fans I strongly recommend the red Candelaria) and the famous Cordillera del Diablo white (the red is more famous but I still have to try it). We also did the same walk I had done with Stepan and Guillaume, but this time there was no fog and we had a perfect view over the city. We also went to Isla Negra to visit Neruda's house and both felt that in such a place with that perfect setting anyone can feel inspired to write. La Sebastiana, his house in Valparaiso also had a fantastic location, but giveme a furious ocean releasing its anger against the dark and indifferent rocks and I can spend hours day dreaming!
My last night in Valparaiso was fantastic. First Nicole insisted in preparing dinner and the only thing she almost allowed me to do was appreciating the wine with her. After dinner, and after talking about movies for a long long time, we decided to go to a restaurant and get a desert. Back in the hostel, some people were out in the yard drinking and playing the guitar. We joined and started teasing the players to play things that everyone could sing, ending with Alejandro, the hostel owner improvising a song in the latin way, the neighbours complaining about the noise, moving inside and looking for the lyrics and tabs for the songs on the and the police showing up when we were almost done with it. It was a very unpredictable and spontaneous party that was fantastic. Well, if you ever go to Valparaiso I strongly recommend staying in Hostal Patiperro. It's super clean, great atmosphere and great people working there. And the morning coffee is great.

And so Valparaiso stayed behind. I bring a huge collection of graffiti pictures in my camera but many others were not captured by my objective. Maybe i'll come back some day... I'm sure it will be different, but I also feel that something new can always happen in the city, given the type of people who choose this place to settle down for a some time.

Friday, May 22, 2009

It's a rainning day..........

Or it's a rainny week, that's more what I should say...

After a fantastic sunny day in Pucón where we mostly rested from the previous day effort, we took a bus to Puerto Varas in the lakes district.

Somewhere in the middle of the bus journey it began to rain and it was a foggy, wet and cold Puerto Varas that welcomed us. The first goal was finding a place to stay. There aren't many low budget options in town and the best one was closed for holidays... So we had to stay in an old, dark, sinister house - Residencial Hellwig - , hoping that the next day would bring better weather conditions.

Well, it didn't... so after walking around the city for a while, without seing any of the volcanos that should be visible from the lake, we decided to grab our stuff and head on to Purto Montt, from where we would take the boat down south to Puerto Natales in a few days. But since I'm feeling extremelly cold, I started thinking if it would be worth going south... I want to hike down there, and just going there without hiking is not an option for me. And since I don't have gear to hike in the cold, or camp in the snow and don't want to invest a lot of money on that at this stage, I start considering quiting from going south. I know I'll be extremely disapointed, because that was one of my objectives from the moment I started thinking about this trip, but on the other hand, spending money and just feeling bad all the time with the cold is not motivating as well. I had 4 days to make a decision. During that time period we hardly did anything. The weather got worse, heavy rain joined the party and we spent one and half day without almost leaving the hostel Vista Hermosa in Puerto Montt.

After two nights at the hostel we decided to visit Chiloé, a traditional island, where it is believed potatos were cultured for the first time. We headed on to Castro, the main city on the island, staying in Hostel Cordillera. The sun appeared every now and then, so we were able to wander around the town checking what it is famous for: the palafitos and the church (together with a few more on the island they are part of Unesco world heritage sites). In the evening we decided to try the local speciallity and were surprised by a huge dish of Curanto, composed of sea shells, mussels, bacon, chorizo, potatos. It was good, but I've had better.

The next day we went to Acao to see the oldest church in the island and try to see some more things. Unfortunately there was nothing else to see and we just went back to Castro and moved back to Puerto Montt. Chiloé is a nice place, but with the rain it is impossible to do some of the things it has to offer, like the Pacific hike that goes through some seal and penguin colonies.



We have both decided by now that we are not going to take the boat down south. The weather is too bad to enjoy the boat ride. I am still considering taking the boat to Laguna San Rafael, but after calling Navimag I am forced to change my plans, because the boat is fully booked.

I then decide to start heading North, and book a bus trip to Valdivia. Tiago decides he wants to continue south and books a bus to Punta Arenas. So we separate once again. We will probably meet again in Peru or Bolivia. My plans now are to visit northern Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. He wants to visit Argentina as well.

Valdivia

I arrive in Valdivia under heavy rain (yes, I will continue complaining about the rain until the end of the post...) and after unsuccessfully trying to figer out which colectivo would take me to the hostel, I start walking when the rain gives me a break!

I decided to stay in Albergue Latino in the 7000 pesos rooms, that include breakfast and bed linen. I am really glad I did that. I met great people there. Camilla, Martin, Barbara, Gesa, Ellody, just to name the ones whom I remember the names, made my days and nights much brighter than they would have been. Well the first night I went with Martin and Camilla to the Bar Ultima Frontera, a really nice alternative bar (I would erase those metal songs they played in the last hour) where we had some beers and spoke until 2 am.

The day after I spent it in front of the computer taking care of somethings that came up in the last days, but the weather was really bad, so I didn't feel it was a lost day. The evening, that was really funny! I went out with the two german girls, Barbara and Gesa, met Camilla and some more people from the hostel in a bar where they a live band playing some jazz mixed with latin rythms and after that the three of us moved to Club Luna, where some DJs were having a theme party. We stayed there until 5 am, and only left because they threw us out!

In the my last day in Valdivia, I finally decided to go around and check out the city. Me and Ellody, who arrived in the hostel at 9.30 am, forcing me out of bed :p, joined me in the wet sightseing... We first went to the fish market, by the river, where huge sea lions, are standing waiting for the leftovers from the fishes. It's impressing how these animals seem to be almost domesticated and know exactly what is going to happen each time one of the market employers begins preparing a fish. From there we decided to go to Niebla, a city 20 min away by bus on the coast. It is famous for its fort and for the food gastronomy fair. We visited the fort (since it is a national holiday there is no entrance fee), tried to take some pictures and admire the views. They must be amazing, but there is just too much fog and rain that reduce the visibility. From the fort we continued walking towards the gastronomy fair. We ordered a plate of Milcao, some speciality from Chiloé. It was an amazing dish, well worth the money and the journey to Niebla. After that, since we were kind of wet, we went back to the hostel and just relaxed the rest of the day near the fireplace (and managed to dry my clothes before leaving). At 8.30 pm I took the nightbus to Valparaiso, where I have planned to meet Stepan, the Czech guy from Easter island.

Pucón

We changed our mind, right before leaving Santiago and decided to hop off the bus in Pucón for an extra 500 pesos.

Rafting brought us to Pucón, since it is extremely cheap and has some great rivers to do it. In the end, we didn't do any rafting, but climbed a vocano, an active one.

So after a night spent in the bus (the most confortable bus I've ever been in, but still sleeping on a bus is not for me...) we arrived in town, took a ride from Germano to his hostel, Hostel German and decided to check in there. It's a nice place not so far from the center and almost new. After checking in it was time to hunt for the best price for climbing the volcano and doing some rafting. From the first place where we asked prices (the hostel), to one of the last, we were able to lower the price 50% for the rafting and 1/3 for the volcano climbing. We decided to do only one activity and chose the volcano. Sierra Nevada was the agency we chose, mostly for the price (30000 pesos). We spent the rest of the day doing some shopping and relaxing at the hostel. There were quite a lot of nice people at the hostel, but Andrés, a Chilean Medicine student doing a 1 month internship in Pucón was the nicest one. We spent a lot of time speaking in the evenings after he came back from work.

I kind of missed the alarm clock, or I forgot to turn it on, I don't, but instead of waking up slowly, having a nice breakfast and then checking in at the agency at 6.30, we got up at 6.45 and ran to the agency... Fortunately, we were there right on time and after dressing up the gear we proceeded to the Villarrica Volcano. It's almost a 1h drive to get there. After we got there, the guides ask if we want to go back due to the weather conditions (it's cloudy and there's a high chance of snow or rain, which will force us to turn back without refund) but no one wants to go back! We begin the climbing. It's not easy. It's cold, slippery and climbing on the snow demands a lot more effort than what I'm used to. Nevertheless, I manage to keep the guide's pace and stay with the front group. This made me reach the top, because 150m from the top it started to snow, but my group was above the cloud and it was possible to see the top of the volcano, so we didn't turn back. All the other groups had to turn back, because they had no visibility. I had some gear problems with the gramps (that's what happens when you choose the cheapest company...), but one of the guides was able to fix them (they broke 4 times in the steepest part of the glacier...) and I was the last to reach the crater. Due to this, I only had time to take some pictures, have some water and then had to begin descending, without resting... But it felt great to be at the top. I know that the risks of eruption are minimal, there are only some active fumaroles right now, but standing there on the crater and seing the smoke coming out of it is impressive. The last eruption was in the 80s, the last big eruption was in the 70s. The worst part, as usual, was going downhill. My knees started hurting as usual. We met the other groups that had to turn back at the top of the ski lift, where we stoped to have something to eat and where I could finally rest! Then it was another 30 min to the parking lot, but due to the snow, our van couldn't make it all the way up, so we had to walk another 20 min downhill...

I was really happy to arrive in Pucón because it meant getting rid of those unconfortable boots and I could go to the hostel and take a warm shower! I was feeling extremelly cold. Then it was time to relax. I reached the top and was extremely happy for that :)

Just one last thing, never choose the cheapest company, or if you do so, ask to check the equipment before you decide going with them. Nothing went wrong in the end, but I still wonder how I would have gonne down if they hadn't been able fix my gramps.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Finally in Chile

Santiago de Chile is known for the permanent smog that covers the city. The amount of traffic together with the spectacular mountains that surround the city are the reasons for this.


Well the day we arrived we didn't notice this. We immediately took a taxi from the airport to Vitacura, with a stop at the bus terminal to drop Stepan who is going to Mendonza. In Vitacura we were welcomed by Muriel and her son Martin. Muriel is a good friend of a friend of Tiago and was kind enough to host us for a few days. And what a host, despite working all the time, looking after her two year old child, she still found time to talk with us in the evenings (sorry for my lousy spanish) for hours, show us some Chilean gastronomy and take us to Valparaiso, 150 km away from Santiago, by the coast.


Santiago

What does Santiago has to offer a tourist? There's some museums, the cathedral, some other churches, Pablo Nerudas house and then shopping and food.

The Plaza de Armas is what I would call the city center, although the city has different centers. Around this square one finds the beautiful roman-catholic cathedral, the main post office building, the national museum, some galleries and a small park. Not far is the Palacio La Moneda, the president's official residence and the pre columbine museum.


In our first day around Santiago we walked and walked and walked... I spent some time at the beautiful post office building in plaza de armas sending some stuff home and after that we went around the city. We had lunch at the food market, visited Cerro Santa Lucia and then just wandered around trying to buy books (in the country of Neruda, Allende, Sepulveda, Donoso among many others this can be a hard and expensive quest) and clothes. We still found time to visit La Chascona the house Neruda built to spend time with his mistress, later second wife.


At night Muriel surprised us with a typical Chilean dish, which I still have to ask for the recipe. We had to wake up early the next day because we were going to Valparaiso, but we still managed to stay up late talking.


Valparaiso


I must confess I wasn't very eager to visit Valparaiso, but I'm glad I went there. Yes, it's a touristic place but it is charming, beautiful and inspiring. The beautiful facades in Cerro Alegre, overlooking the harbour are fantastic. And then the grafitis that cover many walls some with political purposes, others just works of urban art, give it a special feeling. It's one of those places where you would like to sit down in a cafe writing and thinking, watching the time pass by. Unfortunately time was something we didn't have, so after eating the traditional dish of Valparaiso - Chorrillana - a huge dish with french fries, small pieces of beef, onion and a slice of cheese on top in The Mastodonte, we went to Viña del Mar. This is Santiago's beach resort, it's covered with skyscrapers and concrete. It was just not my place... After Viña we went back home. Muriel went to a concert and we stayed home planning the coming days.



Santiago


It's a completely different city Santiago on a Sunday morning. There is hardly any traffic, no people on the streets (apart from peruvian emigrants trying to call home) and almost everything is closed. What brings us to town then? The entrance in the museums is for free on sundays and we want to visit La Moneda. La Moneda can only be visited after 3 because there is something official going on so we head on to the Pre Columbine museum. It's a good collection they have on display here and explanations in spanish are very good. It's possible to learn a lot here. La Moneda was a bit disappointing, since it is not possible to visit it inside, just the courtyard.


After seing everything we sat down in a cafe close to Cerro Santa Lucia until it was time to go back home, pack, say goodbye to Muriel and Martin and move on to the bus terminal where we will take the night bus to Villarrica.

Monday, May 11, 2009

My phone number for the coming month

In case you miss me :p

+56995643078

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island on the Western World, is the most exotic destination of our trip. It's a small volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific, halfway between Chile and Tahiti. It is administered by Chile but it has a special administrative autonomy.

The trip to Rapa Nui was not as nice as it could have been... There was this jerk sitting behind me making noises and stupid comments permanently all night. And this time I was so tired that I actually fell asleep 20 min after I started watching a movie. We later found out that he is kind of the King of the Rapa Nui people... If I had a king like that I would be ashamed!

What did I know about Easter Island, before I arrived. Well, its people almost exterminated themselves, by over exploring the island resources. They built and moved huge statues accross the island. There were hardly any trees in the island. All this was true. Just a few more things missing, that were aprehended during our stay.

We arrived under heavy rain and heavy wind. We asked arround in airport some prices of places to stay, and decided to stay in the one that offered us the best deal. Residencial Miro, administered by good mooded Sandra. It was a great choice because of the company we found there. Jan, from Belgium, who had been living and working in New Zealand for the last 5 years and is now on his way back home, with a great sense of humour and fantastic unimaginable stories about his life as a travel guide (unfortunately I am not allowed to tell them here because he is writing a book about those stories; when it comes out I´ll announce it here). Stepan, from Czech Republic was the other inhabitant of the hostel, is also on around the world trip and just had to spend his time listening to us loughing and talking, but I think he enjoyed. :)

The first day in Easter Island was a real emotion. Heavy rain and wind (which made me get soaked from the waist down) and a quest to get some Pesos... Only the Maestro/Mastercard network work in Easter Island and I have 2 visas and one Mastercard that I don´t know the pin... In the end after visiting the two ATMs and the bank we asked for a cash advance at the money exchange office in the village and got charged 15% commission for that... After the money quest I just had to sleep for a couple of hours.


Rapa Nui


It's definitely a special place and I feel i'm really lucky for having been given the chance to come here. Not many people will come to visit and try to understand the misteries that surround this culture.

We were also fortunate for having found great company at our hostel. The stay in Easter Island without John and Stepan wouldn't have been the same. It's amazing how in such a small place, with so little to do, I never felt bored! John is an amazing story teller. I'm really looking forward for his book to be published. I doubt you've told us any of the stories you're gonna publish and if those were that unusual, astonishing and funny, the ones in the book will most likely be that and much more. Unfortunately I can't tell any of those stories here otherwise he might sue me :)

Well, what did we do in Easter Island? Of course we had to watch the statues. They're spread out all over the island. They were all thrown down and vandalised by the Rapa Nui people, in what is believed to be a consequence of the several conflicts between the different tribes. The ones that are found standing were recovered by archeological works done in the last century. It is really impressive to walk around the vulcano where the statues were carved out of the stone, wandering around the statues that were never moved to other parts of the island, trying to imagine how it would have been to transport these huge structures intact sometimes several km through irregular ground. In order to visit all the statues in one day we rented a 4WD jeep and I was designated as the driver, my first time behind a jeep's wheel. Besides visiting the statues, we also went down to the beach, where Stepan and Tiago decided to try the water. This is an amazing place. At the entrance there's a huge group of statues. There's also a cave some meters up on the cliffs which is possible to visit. The day ended with us trying to find a boat for John to go fishing (that's his hobby) but unfortunately it seems like Easter Island is no longer a fishing paradise. According to a local fisherman, the water is too warm for the big fish. Consequences of the global warming? Maybe, who knows. Later in the day me and Tiago moved to the other side of the village, to where Sandra lives (an overbooking problem apparently). The place was much better than the other one, but we were too far from our new friends and got a bit annoyed with that. We met later in the night to have dinner at the restaurant that overlooks the harbour and planned on meeting the next day for lunch at the same place.

On my last day in Rapa Nui I had planned to do a long hike up the biggest volcano on the island. First I stopped at the local artcrafts market to buy some souvenirs. Then I just followed the coast north. Since I left home until the end of the day I was never alone. There was a dog that adopted me as his owner for the day and followed me everywhere (they were two at times). A couple of km after I started I saw these amazing cliffs going into the ocean and just went down and sat there writing for a long time. My faithful friends kept an eye on me all the time and were extremely happy when I came back on the track. It was almost lunch time by then and so I decided to meet the others.
After lunch, a coastal walk followed, with a stop at an artificial lake that is in contact with the ocean for me to bathe in Easter Island, and after that we headed on to the museum. It's a really simple museum, but I end up learning a few things about the island's history. The most important of all was that the statues represent their ancesters. Since this was our last day at the island, we decided to meet later in the afternoon. We had a few beers overlooking the ocean and an astonishing sunset and then we continued at the hostel until midnight. We say goodbye to John. It was great meeting him. And Stepan is taking the same flight as we are, so we won't say goodbye before Santiago.

Going back to Easter Island...only if I have the opportunity, never on purpose. I only missed the southern tip of the island, that has a really beautiful volcano with a lake in a steep crater and some petroglyphs in the village where it is said that the bird-man used to live. And compared to continental Chile, Easter Island is extremely expensive.

Tahiti

For a while I thought this text would start the following way: "if Tahiti rhymes with paradise for you, just grab another travel magazine because that's just bullshit!". But fortunately it changed.

Papeete

We arrived in French Polynesia late in the evening. I had pre booked the cheapest shithole in town. Sorry for the "S" words, but the reason for that is that the first day in Tahiti was more like hell. The only good thing was the great company of Adam, Anna and later Lis. But lets take it in parts.
First just a short description of what is Tahiti. Tahiti is a french vacation colony, which in a way is good because it's EU territory so we can just go through the border control without any questions. Tahiti is also a surfers paradise. What we didn't know was that this was only in the southern part of the island and that Papeete, the capital, had no beach. So we arrived in Papeete in the evening and took a taxi to the Hostel TeAmo, very close to the city center where we paid only 2550 XPF per night. I sat down in the reception reading when Adam arrived. He had also taken our flight but it took him a bit longer to get out of the airport, probably because he is from the USA. Unfortunately he makes the same mistake as we did and books two nights. We started talking and after a while Anna also from the US arrived and joined us. We talked about our trips and about Anna's experience in a boat. She is in Papeete to work in a teaching sailing boat that will sail to Hawaii in a week time. We only went to bed when the hostel owner asked us to make less noise.

The next day in Papeete was really depressing... First it was the first of May (our second in two days since we gained one day of life when crossing the international time line) so most things were closed. Then we found out there was no beach in Papeete and worse, there were no buses to the southern beaches. We then confirmed in situ that Tahiti is really expensive and that Papeete is a place to get out of as fast as possible! What to do then? Well me and Adam just grabbed some beers and sat down in the "lounge" of the hostel talking and laughing the rest of the afternoon in Tiago's and Anna's company.

In the evening the three guys went for dinner at the great open air food night market in the harbour where they serve all sorts of grilled stuff at reasonable prices. After that we grabbed Anna and Lis from their sailing boat and went for a beer at the 3 Broisseurs. Of course we were talking a lot about the life on the boat and we were curious about funny stories that happen onboard.

Moorea

There´s two options in Tahiti if one wants to get some sun and beach: one is to go to the south of the island, the other is to take a ferry to the neighbour island of Moorea, which is only 30 min away.

We took the second option. We took the bus from the ferry terminal to Haapit. After 30 min Tiago saw a sign indicating Mark´s place to the right. I pressed something and the bus stopped. After 10 min walking in a muddy road (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that is has been raining like hell during parts of the day!) we met Mark, who didn´t seem very happy to see us at first. He was probably thinking where he would put the three of us. Once he figered it out, his mood changed and he started talking about his place and the amazing Moorea (where the sea water is so pure that if we can filter through our teeth you can drink it, Marks words). We had to wait for over an hour for our "room" to be ready. During that time we were playing football in the garden and getting our head wet with cold water (the temperature and humidity are amazingly high).

After droping our stuff Mark, who was going to pick up some people from the harbour gave us a ride to the amazing paradise, Pineapple beach. And finally we said "thank god, Tahiti is like we imagined it would be"! Torquoise clear waters, white sand, coconut trees, sun. In other words, paradise. :) We entered the water and immediately something huge with about 1m diameter comes and meets us. It frightened us until we noticed what it was. A stinger ray. And after the first one two more came. Amazing, I had never experienced that! We spent the rest of the day relaxing at the beach, reading and some sleeping and snoring!

In the evening we had a few beers and after that decided to crash a party that was happening on the other side of Mark´s complex. We met with a really nice group of French and Polynesian who have moved to Tahiti and live and work there and spent the rest of the night talking and partying. In the end of the evening (1.30 am...) we still went to a bar in the village and closed it (at 2.00 am...).

In the last day in Moorea and Tahiti, we were planning to climb the mountain from where we should get a great 360 degrees over the island and the lagoon that surrounds it. Unfortunately, it started pouring down when we finished breakfast and it only stopped a couple of hours before we had to take the ferry back to Tahiti, which didn't give us enough time. At three in the afternoon me and Tiago put our bags down by the main road that goes arround the island. There should be a bus passing sometime after three... There are no timetables and the bus drivers only start their buses if they feel there will be enough passangers to pay for the trip! Well, we waited for 45 min and when we were almost preparing to take off our t-shirts and start hitch-hiking two of the girls we had met the night before, passed by and offered us a lift.

We then said goodbye to paradise (we were going back to Papeete and from there we had to make time before going to the airport) a paradise that is not for a backpacker's pocket, but it was still worth spending 4 days here.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Final notes about New Zealand

I simply loved it. It's an amazing country, specially the Southern island.

I feel like postponing my departure and stay longer, but just can't afford it. It's almost impossible to be bored in this country, unless you don't have much money. And I went a bit over budget here... 57 euros/day, 7 euros above the budget. Well it's not a big deal, but I have to save some in Tahiti, even if that means doing nothing and just enjoy the beach.

I have to come back some day... 2 weeks is not enough. 1 month will give time not only to enjoy and do some sightseeing but also to wait and relax when the weather prevents you from following your plans. It remains as one of my dream destinations.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Auckland

It feels good to be back in a big city. Specially when it's a city like Auckland, well organized, clean, not so much traffic or noise.

I called Sylvia, the Mexican girl I had met in Fox. I will join her and her friends later on to celebrate her birthday.

It was great to go out again, specially with latin people. You're just making jokes and laughing all the time. It was great. Have to do it more often.

Well, after a good party night, the day after is always very slow. I had planned to do the coast to coast track, a 12 km track that goes from the west to the east coast of Auckland. I made it till the museum. Then a few rain drops just made me change my mind, go back to the city center and just spend some time in a book shop checking some travel guides.

So I didn't see much of the tourist attractions Auckland has to offer, but I got a feeling of the city. It's easy to understand why it's listed on the top list of the best places to live in the world.


Road Triping in NZ

Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

Queenstown and the beautiful lake soon stay behind as I hit the road on my rented Toyota. It's my first time driving an automatic gear car. It's boring and frustrating at times.

The adrenaline levels lower down as soon as the landscape changes. I'm on my way to Dunedin on the east coast. It's amazing the effect Queenstown has on the most normal of the mortals. There's simply so much to do there! If I had the money I would have done a few more things (yes Magnus, sky diving would have been one of those). And if the ski season had started already I would be hitting the slopes.

Well, back to the normal tourism, what brings me to this students city? It's not the fun, but it might be funny anyway. I am going straight to the Otago Peninsula, where I hope i'll see the rare yellow eyed penguins, sea lions, blue penguins, seals and albatros. I first head towards the albatros refuge center. It's a controlled natural reserve, where we have to pay to see the place where the albatros gather and breed. I am happy just with a cup of coffee in their great cafe and with seeing them fly. I still go down to the beach nearby, where the blue penguins apparently spend the night, but a sign says they don't arrive before 6 if they happen to come. So I just decide to head on to Sandfly beach, where I know I will encounter sea lions and the chances of seeing the yellow eyed penguins is high.

Sandfly beach is a beautiful wild beach. It's a really steep downhill trail through loose sand from the car park to the beach. On the way some cheap that are feeding on the green wavy hills that surround the coast line, look at me surprised.

As soon as I reach the beach I head towards the closest ravine. I think I saw something moving. And I had! :) walking up the cliff there was a yellow eyed penguim. He hid on the bushes looking at me but I am still able to see it clearly and take some pictures. I then start walking to the other end of the beach. 50m from me I see a penguim rushing out of the water and going into the dunes. A stupid tourist runs after it probably just to get the perfect shot. What an idiot. I continue walking and suddenly I spot a huge brown thing moving around where the waves break. As I walk closer I spot a sea lion enjoying himself in the waves. He seemed like he was posing at us. First playing around in the water and then rolling in the sand. He was still doing it when I left the beach, almost an hour later. I spent at least 15 min looking at it. We don't have these kind of things back home, or to be more correct, we don't have them in the wild within easy access to everyone. I continue walking, pass by a couple of sea lions that sleeping. They look like they had a hard day. When I reach the other end of the beach i see two more penguins up in the hill. I try climbing a rock to see them better but loose my balance and make some noise. This scared a few sea lions that I hadn't noticed sleeping on the rocks. Fortunately they just complain and look at me, giving me time to take some pictures of them and the penguins and leave. On the way back to the car I see two more penguins rushing out from the sea and am surprised with an astonishing sunset.

I was planning on reaching Christchurch the same day, but I took some time leaving Dunedin so just stayed in a small town halfway.

Kaikoura
Remember this city. It's reallysmall but one of the most beautiful places i've ever been to. The huge mountains covered in snow crashing into the sea make this almost look unreal, like those pictures we sometimes sea in books and that make us think that such a place doesn't exist. Kaikoura is famous for whale watching (i skipped this although it wasn't that expensive) and the seal colony. As I park the car at the end of the small peninsula immediately spot a few seals, sleeping just next to the cars. I then go up the hill and follow the trail that leads gives access to the beach where the seals are. The smell isn't very appealing as I get close to them. But it's fantastic just being there watching dozens of seals swimming, resting in the sun, playing in the water. Some don't seem very pleased to see me and just dived and left. There's also a huge stone on the beach that with a little bit of imagination resembles a seal. Funny to find it there.

Back in town I start talking with an irish guy - John - and an Italian - Marco. John was on a fishing trip earlier in the day and brought lot of sea food that he says not to be able to finish. He offers me a huge cray fish. That was the best dinner since I arrived in NZ! Later that day we went for a few drinks in town. Just one final note about Kaikoura: never forget to turn off the lights of your car...

The North Island
I leave behind the beautiful southern island and take the ferry to Wellington. My plans for the North Island are, to visit the Te Papa museum in Wellington, do the Tongariru crossing (you may know this mountain as Mordor, from the Lord of The Rings) and check the volcanic activity around Rotorua, before arriving in Auckland where the road trip ends as well as the visit to NZ.

Unfortunately, the rain showed up and a huge storm made it impossible to do the Tongariru crossing and enjoy the other places as I could have.

Nevertheless, I wandered arround the great Te Papa museum in Auckland, where I learned a bit more about the story of this country and specially about the Maori people. Then I went North to the Tongariro National Park. I still managed to see the mountain but the day after when I woke up the storm had started. But it's a beautiful terrifying mountain, just like the image you have from the movie! After that I moved North, passing by the enormous lake Taupo and ending up in Rotorua, where the air smells to sulfur all the time. This is due to the intense volcanic activity present in the area. I visited some geisers, saw some mud pools and hot springs. It would have been great if the weather was good. Finally and continued my way to Auckland where the road trip ended.

Queenstown and the Routeburn track

Queenstown

9 am check-in at AJ Hacket, the Bungy jump shop. After some routine questions they weight me and write a number on my hand. 20 min of waiting time follow. I look around and notice a guy with a terrified face. He happens to be doing the same jump as me and is having second thoughts about it... Georg, is a german guy who was working for a couple of months in a farm and is now enjoying the country for a couple of weeks before going back home.

The bus journey to the Nevis jumping place takes about 40 min. Then it's time to put on all the stuff we need. I end up talking with a brasilian girl most of the time. Well, the jump is terrifying and fantastic at the same time. Everything happens quite fast, but it's impossible not to remember those 8 sec of free fall. I end up buying the video instead of the printed photos as was my first intention. I can make photos from the video later. I've uploaded part of the video to the Queenstown album in case you're still trying to understand how high are 134m!




Preparing for the Routeburn track

Back in town, I have lunch with Georg and we plan to go together to Milford Sounds tomorrow and on the way back he leaves me in The Divide where I start my walk.

Then I have to rush from one place to another to prepare for the coming three days. First buying the hut permits, which allow me to stay at the Department of Conservation (DOC) huts along the way. I make a mistake doing the reservation so I have to go back there a second time. The weather forecast is fantastic, they expect clear weather for the rest of the week, which is quite unusual. This means i'm fine with the gear I have. Just need to buy the food for the next three days. There are cooking facilities in the huts, but no food. It's the main difference to Nepal. Last thing to do is booking the bus from the end of the track in Routeborn shelter back to Queenstown. After this, I just need to unpack my backpack, leaving only things to sleep and to keep me warm and the food I bought. I'm actually carrying mostly food. After Nepal I'm not doing the same mistake. I'll wear the same clothes for 3 days!

Later in the evening I meet Georg for dinner and for a beer. We agree on leaving Queenstown at 8 am tomorrow.

The Routeburn

Well, after a couple of hours on the road I understood I wouldn't have time to go to Milford Sounds, so we just stopped in Te Anau for a coffee (and for me to buy a pot... I completely forgot about it) and then continued in the direction of Milford.

At 12.30 I said goodbye to Georg. We agree on meeting again when i'm back in Queenstown. And then here I am tramping in New Zealand :)

The three days of tramping were fantastic. The scenaries are beautiful, the view from the top of Conical Hill is breathtaking. On one side you can see the river flowing down in the valley, ending in the sea that is visible because the weather is fantastic. On the other side of the mountain there's a white carpet of clouds covering a lake. It really feels like jumping on them and float. I ended up meeting some really nice people in the huts. The huts were the biggest problem actually. They're not heated in the sleeping bunkers so it gets pretty cold at night (below 0) and I was not prepared for such extreme temperatures! I managed but was a bit uncomfortable both nights. The second problem I had were the blisters on my calfs. Liliana, the cushioned bandages you gave me saved me :) and finally a minor wet feet problem in the last day due to the frost on the vegetation from a side track I went on (goretex my hass!), completes the list of difficulties I experienced. Nope, compared to the ABC climb, this was a piece of cake! It is actually possible to do it in 2 days easily, without rushing too much.

I come to the end exhausted but happy. It was perfect, just as I thought it would be. I actually now feel like doing more, but... I don't have time :( The Rees Daart track, the Milford and the Kepler are really appealing! Maybe in a future visit. I also realise that if I want to do some more trekking I should probably buy new shoes...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Quote

Thanks to dreams, in the history of the galaxy the world has been reinvented more often than are stars. From the book, "Mister Pip" by the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The TranzAlpine and the glaciers

The TranzAlpine and the glaciers

I love traveling by train. The steady pace and the slow changes in landscape allow me to travel anywhere. This time I enter the train worried. I don't want to be stuck in Greymouth, I just don't have time for that, and I don't wish that much going north. Then there's the weather problem. If the storm continues I won't enjoy things as I should and I will probably have to cancel the "great walk" i'm planning to do.

Well, I call the shuttle company and the lady tells me they have no information yet, but she can put my name on the drivers list and then he'll inform me when he gets to Greymouth if he can proceed or not.

It didn't leave me relieved but what can I do?! A british middle aged guy sits in front of me. We do the usual conversation and when the train departs I ask him if he wants me to get him a cup of coffee. He has a broken arm; he had planned to drive around NZ on a motorcycle but on the second day a car crashed into him. He seems to be a nice funny guy... Unfortunately, he speaks so fast that at certain point I only nod and stop trying to follow him! Meanwhile, the TranzAlpine leaves the east coast plains and enters the mountains. The scenaries immediately make me cheer up and relax. This is what brought me to NZ and I want to enjoy every minute of it! Steep mountains ending in valleys crossed by rivers that run in fury. The Autumn vegetation, mixed with the grey and moisty weather make things look mysterious and make my mind and imagination flow, just like the rivers down in the valleys.
I went to open wagon to take some pictures just for 10 min. There's too many japanese... I don't feel like fighting for the best spot. Anyway, the best camera is my own vision and appreciating things with my own eyes.

After Arthur's Pass, right before we begin our descent to Greymouth the rain makes its appearance. It's not that bad, but the ocean is still far. The trip is not that spectacular on this side of the mountains, so me and the english guy spend most of the time trying to communicate (Chelsea fan, he is).

Greymouth, getting my bag from the luggage wagon and rushing to the i-site to see if they have any information about the road. Still nothing... They tell me to wait for the bus and see what the bus driver has to say.

The bus driver tells us that the road is open for now, but there's no guarantees we can make it to Franz Josef. The trip then continues normally. When we are only 30 min away from our destination I see the reason for the road being cut. Simply in a 90 degrees curve to the right, when the road is following the course of a large river, there's just no road! The power of the water caused a landslide and the road ended up 50m down in the river... Fortunately these guys must be used to this because they made a gravel road just next to where the asfalt once was. I was really surprised with the bridges they have here. On a main highway most of the bridges are one lane only! Seems really primitive to me and uncomfortable.



Franz Josef

It took me a while to find the Glow Worm Hostel reception, but as soon as I find it, I leave my stuff and rush to the i-site to book accommodation for tomorrow in Fox and buy the bus ticket.

I then finally sit down in the kitchen relaxing and waiting for the free vegetable soup they serve at 6. At 6 sharp they tell us to help ourselves, and so we do.
I sat in front of an English guy, Andy, and started talking about NZ and our trips. He is also on a RTW trip. We agree on meeting later for a few beers. As we pass by the 3-4 bars the village has, we realise that it will be the same having a beer at the hostel, but cheaper and end up buying a 6-pack and sitting down in the kitchen. As we start talking, an American couple jumps into the conversation. We were talking about our plans for south america and they have just came from there. Well once again (i've heard and read it before) they strongly recommended Colombia. That was their favourite place and it's yet very unexplored in what concerns tourism, due to all the political issues. Me and Andy ended up finishing the six pack and the cider he had in his car as we started talking about music. He listens to good stuff.

The glacier
I had booked a shuttle yesterday to take me to the glacier, but since Andy is heading there as well I ask him for a ride and run to the reception to cancel the shuttle.

15 min after we parked and began the glacier walk, we reached a river. You can see the glacier from there, but it's just too far away to get the right feeling of it. So, we just took our shoes off, pulled our pants up and rushed through the ice cold water.

Before we got to the glacier we had to do it once again. Well, when we got to the barriers saying dangerous behond this point we weren't satisfied yet, so we just followed a guided tour by a side trail and half an hour later we were not only right next to Franz Josef glacier, but we could actually touch it and had we the right gear we would have been able to walk on it", for free! Nevertheless, it was a great experience and it was well worth the time.



Fox glacier
I took the bus to Fox later in the afternoon. It's just a 30 min ride. I stayed at the Ivory Towers hostel. It was an ok place, but with a strange open room door system, which means nothing valuable can stay in the room. I stay in a 4 people dorm with Max, a really nice russian guy that lives in Sydney. Later in the evening we meet Sylvia, a Mexican who is studying in Auckland and once she heard my travel plans she immediately offered to show me around in Mexico City, when I get there. Later a Dutch girl who stayed at the same place as me in Franz Josef came in and said she had just came back from a track where you can see lots of glow worms. Well I grabbed my torch and there we go, me and Max, into the dark rain forest, walking a 20 min trail without knowing exactly what to look for. But we found them! First we saw some isolated little blue lights but as we walk further we saw dozens of little lights, making the dark forest look like a Christmas tree. Amazingly beautiful.

The next morning I wake up early. My plan is to walk to the glacier back and forth in time to catch the bus to Queenstown at 11 am. It's just 8km, so two hours are more than enough for that. It was a bit disappointing this trip to the glacier. The main trail is blocked for security reasons and the other trail is being used by organized tours and one of the guides is not in a good mood and I don't feel like fighting, so I just stand there at the viewpoint enjoying the river of ice from a distance and then I go back.

Back in the hostel, I pack up my stuff and then spend an hour talking with Sylvia. We'll probably meet in Auckland and go out and party. It's always good to go out with people who know the city. I also called AJ Bungy to book the Nevis jump. I ask a few questions about my back problems. They say it is ok and so now it's settled. I'm going to jump from 134m. I must be out of my mind! At 11 the shuttle picks me up and there I am on the way to the world capital of adrenaline :)

First days in New Zealand

Long before the Lord of The Rings brought up to everyone's TV the amazing scenaries of New Zealand, I was already fascinated by this small country of 4 million people and 45 million cheap (according to the bus driver from the Akaroa shuttle). Don't ask me why, I can't answer that question, but the excitement to being here at last is big.

In New Zealand me and Tiago went separate ways. Our objectives were different so it was better that each followed his own way and in the end both of us will probably be happy with the Kiwi experience.

First days in NZ
The day before leaving Sydney I booked a flight from Auckland to Christchurch, in the Southern island. This is where most of the things I want to do and see are located, so this way I save time and money.

Christchurch
Christchurch is a nice city, close to the coast. It appears to have grown around the cathedral square. The Cathedral itself is an old 200 years building, really beautiful, specially at night, when it becomes really mysterious. My flight arrived two hours late, had some problems with the first hostel I had contacted and the second I contacted didn't want to take a booking but told me to show up. After spending 5 min finding north, I managed to find Coachman Backpackers. I had to ring the bell 3-4 times before someone answered... It seems like the reception closes at night, so the guy from the hostel didn't feel like letting me in, but in the end he did! And I'm very happy for that, it is a really nice place, with a huge lounge where I spent my time planning my trip before going to sleep.

I stayed 2 nights in Christchurch, but didn't see much of it. Since I am going back I can leave that for later. My first objective was to get a train ticket in the TranzAlpine to Greymouth, on the west coast. I went to the i-site for that. The information centers in this country are fantastic. Really well organized, they provide all the information required and offer non commissioned bookings. Good and efficient as all tourist offices should be. I left the i-site directly to the Akaroa shuttle. I decided to spend the first day in NZ exploring the countryside in Banks peninsula, about 80 km from Christchurch.

The Banks Peninsula
The journey to Akaroa takes around 2h30m because the bus follows a touristic route that takes us to Birdlings Flat (where I first see how rivers can really look grey in this country due to the sediments they carry as they flow through the grey stones), Little River and then through the mountains, from where we get fantastic views over Pigeon bay and Akaroa bay.

There's not much to tell about Akaroa. It's a small city, proud of its French origin. You can see this in the names of some shops/hotels, the streets names and in some houses you even see the French flag waving in the wind. One thing I start to realise in this day trip is on how Kiwis make tourist attractions out of nothing. At least to me who comes from a country with almost 900 years of history.

As I have nothing planned and don't feel like going on a tour to watch the dolphins, I decide to make one of the many walks through the mountains that they have organized. The Akaroa Heritage walk takes me through steep hills, initially surrounded by trees, and later by grass fields where cheaps get scared by my presence and run as fast as they can from me. Once I reached the top I relaxed in the shelter and organized the rest of my day.

The return journey to Christchurch could be done in an hour if we hadn't stopped in a milk house where a tray with cheese was waiting... Great, if I liked cheese...

Back in Christchurch it was time to plan the next couple of days. I booked a bed at the Glow Worm hostel in Franz Josef and then tried to book a bus trip from Greymouth to Franz Josef. The answer from the shuttle company left me worried. Apparently the storms that caused floods in Southern Australia last week crossed the Tasman sea and... Caused floods on the West Coast which washed away part of the only road that goes through the West Coast! I decide to stick to my plans and call back in the morning when I catch the train to see how the situation is.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Final notes about Australia

Australia, the island - continent! There was not enough time to see it and have a real feeling of the australian lifestyle.

We were treated as kings in Sydney. We were really spoiled by Manuel and Manuela. I just hope we didn't give too much work. I loved Sydney. It's beautiful, it has plenty of life and a great atmosphere. It is also a huge melting pot with people from different parts of the world living and working there.

The road trip was nice. We saw a lot of the natural wonders of eastern Australia. We saw most of what we wanted. I had thought about taking a few more surf lessons, but in the end I didn't have the surfing spirit. But the class I took was good and well worth the money. It also missed some night life in our trip, but when you're sleeping in camping sites it is hard to go anywhere. Besides, being on the road is exhausting, so there was not much energy left at the end of the day...

The great barrier reef was the top of the trip and I can definitely consider returning there for diving in the future.

In Australia I was once again bellow my budget. I had planned on spending 50 euros/day and ended up spending around 45 euros/day.

Australia is a bit too far and too big for a normal vacation. I would consider living there for a while. Vacation, only if it's long.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sydney - part II

I went to Townsville on easter Saturday to catch the plane back to Sidney on Easter day. Townsville is a small nice city by the coast. It's one of the places where you can take boats to the Whitsunday islands, so there's a lot of tourists staying in the city. It's quite nice to walk in downtown and in the "Strand". As there was no one else in my room and hardly anyone in the hostel I took the day off and relaxed. Just did as little as possible.

Back to Sidney

A surprise awaited us on the return to Sydney. Family Camelo gathered and prepared a barbecue. Easter doesn't mean much to me, but in Stockholm I was used to join together with the portuguese community and prepare a long Sunday lunch. Well, that's exactly what happened in Sydney: great food, great wine, fantastic company and loads of good mood.

After this we had two days left to visit Sydney. My first stop was the Opera House. I took the guided tour which took us to the concert halls while they were explaining the historical details of the project, the construction challenges, the way the different spectacles are organized. It was a great 1h walk, well worth the $24. The end of the tour made me a bit sad. The brilliant Danish architect who designed this masterpiece of modern architecture never saw his work completed because he was fired for political reasons. In the end they show an interview with him in the room that was named after him, and which is used as a reception room. Lets hope his son inherited his genius since he now works in the renovation of the Opera House.

Since it was an awful grey day in Sidney I left the harbour bridge for next day and went to walk around The Rocks, where the city started and made a long visit to the museum of contemporary art, where there was a great retrospective exhibition of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Some of her works are fantastic. It was well worth the time I spent there.

Back home, a surprise awaited us: "caldo verde" one of my favourite portuguese dishes was the first course. And after it a great dish of roasted fish. It felt like being home :)

In the last day in Sydney, I went to the north shore of the harbour and walked along Levandar bay until I reached Blue Point from where you get amazing views of the harbour bay, Harbour bridge and the Opera House. The day was sunny and beautiful so it felt great just to wander around walking, crossing the Harbour bridge on foot, getting lost in the huge and peaceful botanical gardens. Before I met Tiago in the Australian museum, I went past the art gallery of New South Wales, and am still regretting having been to the Australian museum instead of the impressionism exhibition that was on the AGNSW that was mostly about the master Monet, with 30 paintings from him.

In the evening another portuguese dinner "arroz de cabidela" and a visit to the Italian quarter of the city, before going back home and pack. New Zealand is one day away :)