Admiring Asuncion

There were a mere 12 people on the Amazsonas flight from Santa Cruz to Asuncion (the capital of Paraguay if you haven’t heard of it).   While Paraguay is technically a more touristed country than Bolivia, most of these ‘tourists’ are Brazilian day trippers visiting Iguazu Falls which is at the intersection of the borders of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.    Beyond that Paraguay is rarely visited, but it has intrigued me for years, as an old school friend was sent here on high school exchange for a year.  I remember him returning whippet thin after a years worth of giardia and an impressive grasp of Guarani swear words.
I was expecting crumbled colonial architecture, some battered old cars…. a kinda sea level Bolivia/crossed with Cuba….,  Hmmm, honestly, hubby and I wondered if we had taken a flight to Miami instead.  We left the spotless airport and drove to the hotel, which was in the posh shopping mall district, lots of lovely big 4x4s and design shops.   Theres’ a burger king, mcds, and a johnny rockets all within five mins of our hotel.  blimey!  We feel like we are in a posh Miami suburb.   I suspected downtown is a bit more gritty, and was looking forward to seeing it.
Hubby and I were dirty and tired, so am embarrassed to confess we availed ourselves of the Johnny rocket (super authentic and local – not!!!) for dinner and followed it up with a McFlurry at the standalone mcds dessert shop (never seen one of those before).   That’s a total failure of travelling…. but sometimes it’s a good and easy call.

 

Up early for a work conference call, which I did parallel processing with a fine breakfast including excellent local corn bread and fruit dipped in dulce de leche (caramel).   We eventually summoned the courage to venture out of the aircon luxury of our hotel and got a cab to the bustling Mercado Quatro.   It was a celebration of plastic, tat, and super cheap clothes that didn’t appear to cover much flesh.   The other prevalent stall was the choclo stall, where hardy chicas were husking corn and cutting it off the cob….. it seemed odd to me, as i would expect people could do that themselves.  Almost every vendor had a yerba mate thermos and a cup.  Its clearly a national addiction.

 

We continued wandering into town, aiming to visit the Museo de las Memorias, but sadly it was closed.   During the 30 + year Stroessner dictatorship this was the detention centre where the opposition were tortured and murdered.  Paraguay doesn’t have a great track record on human rights.  His tenure ended in 1989 in a military coup.  Sadly the new president is also an unhelpful reminder of the dictatorship as he is the son of the former dictators private secretary

 

One of the upsides about travelling to new countries is it forces you to learn a bit more about them.  The only real things I knew about Paraguay before arriving was that it was one of the few landlocked countries in South America.  I also knew that it was technically one of the highest consumers of scotch in the world in the 90s (40-50 times the normal rate per person)….. it wasn’t really a country of alcoholics, rather the import duties in brazil meant tonnes of of whiskey was imported to Paraguay and then smuggled through porous borders into Brazil.

 

Reading up on countries you always find out some truly weird stuff.  Paraguay’s weird anecdote is that Nietzche’s sister moved here to set up a racially pure aryan community called ’Nueva Germania’.  Most of them died, or returned home within a couple of years, and the few that stayed and survived only did so by working with the locals.    Paraguay is apparently an alluring destination for utopian settlements, there was also a teetotaling Nueva Australia (still there today) and the Mennonites.  Fabulously, Paraguay is one of the nations in South America where the indigenous culture is still very much alive and kicking, with the native language Guarani being as widely spoken as Spanish.

 

Asuncion is blessed with a tonne of crumbling colonial architecture, some terrific street art, and a couple of beautiful well maintained buildings like the Palacio Lopez.   We wandered for several hours taking photos and chatting to friendly locals.

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Combined with the colonial architecture is a fairly well established tent city and shanty town right between the cathedral and the national congress.  Its a rough life, but the shanty town was pretty well kept, and the locals were busy living their lives and doing their laundry and gossiping in the streets.
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Tents on the park

 

There also seems to be a pretty dominant presence of my sisters in this town…. some of the best feminist graffiti i have seen, certainly in South America – not a continent well regarded for its feminist stances.

 

Hubby and I aren’t exactly huge fans of traditional holidays, so we don’t celebrate New Years eve unless we happen to be in a town with friends.  Neither of us could see the point of spending $150 each for unlimited booze and food (we don’t really drink) in the company of a bunch of strangers.  Last year we had a terrific new years eve dinner for about $5 in a food court in India.  This year we were hoping to replicate the experience, but it was not to be.  We headed out looking for food just after 8 and all the shops were closed or closing, with security guards locking the doors.  We spied a sausage vendor street side who was looking like quite a promising option, but then we found a pretty decent local place which was doing takeout.  Dinner was an excellent Pollo Milanese with potatoes on cream, followed by an excellent local alfajore.   We were asleep by 10.30 :-).
We had another lazy morning in the hotel….having exhausted the sites of the city the day before, and everything was totally closed, and headed to the airport.  Its amusingly quiet and low  key in Asuncion, I wish all airports were that easy.
Well, farewell Asuncion, you surprised me, it was so much posher and nicer than I expected, and I loved the gritty downtown.
194 down, three more to go.  Next stop, (hopefully) Saudi!!!,

January 1, 2019

Additional info

  • A couple of good blogs here

 

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Brutalist modernist Chapel of the Sainted Sacrament

Revisiting the Bolivian Altiplano

We left San Pedro in Chile at 8.15 and made our way to what might be one of the highest  border posts in the world.   It was a 90 minute wait – so long in fact, several of the neighbouring vans got out tables and thermos and made breakfast.   After finally leaving Chile we drove a few km to enter Bolivia.
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Road to Bolivia after the check point

It took five minutes to clear Bolivian immigration, we didn’t even see the immigration people – someone took our passports to get stamped while we transferred our bags into Don Emilios lovely 4×4 Lexus which we had for the two of us.  Last time I was here I was squished in with six tourists like sardines – the joys of having a full time job mean that I spend a bit more these days.

Last time I was in Bolivia, it really was a bit like the Wild West.  I have vivid memories of Potosi – where you could buy sticks of dynamite to blow up in the desert, and Tupiza where butch and the sundance kid made their final stand.  I was hopeful that these traits had stood the test of time and we weren’t going to be inundated with WiFi :-).   I guess importantly last time I was here, I was unaware that in a few short weeks I would meet a lovely French dude on a bus in Peru and end up marrying him.  I quite like the symmetry in us returning here on holiday.   Hubby has always meant to come in any case as 25 years ago he worked in the Bolivian embassy in Paris.  Anyway, enough with the reminiscing….

Lagunas in Eduardo Alvarez park….

Five minutes after leaving the border we checked into the Eduardo Alvarez national park.  First stop the stunning Laguna blanca – white with Borax and fed from subterranean springs.  The reflections of the surrounding volcanoes were amazing.

 

 

We meandered a bit further, passing some hardy motorcyclists who were getting a great arm work out on the rough road to Laguna verde.  Perhaps more aptly names ‘once was verde’, as given some volcanic activity she is more brown these days with the majestic Licancabur volcano towering behind.

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Laguna Verde with Licancabur in the background
We drove on through the amazing high plains landscape, steep mountains wit swirls of red, white and black from the minerals and passed the Dali desert – largely man made as these are remnants of former buildings.
We passed a few hardy solo Cyclists.  That’s gotta be a tough gig, Cycling in this terrain would be tough enough, but combine the altitude and the infrequent access to water, I don’t know how they do it!

Steaming at 4200m in the hot springs

We stopped at Laguna salada for a dip in the hot springs of Termas de polces, which I had blissfully to myself for 15 minutes before the horses arrived and then we had and a pretty decent lunch of chicken, pasta and veges.
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In the hot springs
After that we went to check out the geysers and fumaroles at Sol de Manana at 4900m – it was headache time!
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Sol de Manana

Vivid red (the lake) and out of breath (me) at Laguna Colorada

We descended a little to the Laguna Colorada – a place that I still had vivid memories of 20 years later.  There are less flamingos than before but the colour of the water is still a stunning vivid red.   Strolling was challenging and I was having to take extra deep breathes to try and get some oxygen in….. at least we walked some, lots of people barely struggled past the first mirador.

 

 

And then we went to check out the rocks at Arbol de piedra, which was overrun by tourists, including some lovely Japanese tourists in dresses and prada flats – an excellent outfit for downtown London, a bit less excellent for the windy freezing altiplano.

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Arbol de Piedra

Headaches in the desert – humans weren’t designed for this altitude

We got to the Tayka Desert hotel around five – it was actually quite nice, and had WiFi and a hot shower.  Both hubby and I were struggling with the headaches!   I don’t normally suffer from altitude and hubby is allergic to diamox (the pill you take to avoid altitude sickness) so that is not ideal either.  Oh well, we had a nice but fast dinner watching the sun go down and we were in bed by 8pm.   Neither of us had a great night sleep.  I kept waking up struggling for air and feeling like my head was in a vice grip.   We survived but it wasn’t pleasant.   It was exactly like a terrible hangover – horrible head, nauseous and very dry mouth –  a good reminder of why I barely drink these days.   Neither of us could even get much food down the next morning (and everyone knows how much I can eat).  Others had suffered as well and apparently a couple of the guests had gotten oxygen in the middle of the night!   We probably should have…..next time!   We were looking forward to sleeping at a lower altitude the next night!
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View from Tayka Desert Hotel

Descending through the lakes

We set off around 8, and the light on the desert and mountains was lovely.  It was a lazy morning driving through some lovely altiplano lagunas –  Honda, Chiakota, Hedionda and Canapa  -all of which had lovely flocks of flamingos!   We really are in the middle of nowhere… just a bunch of dirt tracks which the locals know well enough to navigate.   The only thing out here is 4x4s with tourists…. and you can see them in the distance with the dust rising up behind them.

 

 

We headed over to the Chilean border to take a look at the ollaygue volcano but the clouds had rolled in so we couldn’t see anything.   Next up rock valley, which was the final straw in my toilet paper annoyance for this trip.   I won’t rant mid blog, but feel free to see my rant at the bottom.  Almost every bush had dirty toilet paper on it – bloody tourists!

Desolate Pueblos in the desert

We stopped in a small place in Alota for lunch – again way too much food.   The highlight was seeing a Japanese tourist in high heels and a shawl….not sure how she was walking around the rocks in those shoes.  Alota really feels like the arse end of nowhere – completely desolate, with mud constructed houses.  It feels bleak now, and it is mid summer, I can’t imagine what it is like in the winter.  We were cheered up though by some of the ‘graffiti’ on the houses reminding us not to ruin the planet

 

 

After that it was a long drive to Uyuni.  We stopped in the small pueblo of San Cristobal and had a wander around.  It was very traditional with lots of little ladies in traditional hats and skirts.  But  what warmed my heart was when we saw a bunch of young girls in smart soccer uniforms.   We followed them and watched a petty aggressive girls five a side game that almost the whole village was watching!   Excellent !!!  I love seeing young women given the opportunity to play sport.

The cemetery of trains

Fortunately we were descending all day, and by the time we arrived in uyuni we were at 3600m and we were feeling energetic enough to clamber all over the old trains at the train cemetery, which is a fun place to visit.

 

 

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Uyuni train cemetery

On the moonscape of the Salar de uyuni

We made it to our exceptionally nice hotel by 5 – the Luna Salada – which is made out of salt, and more importantlyis lovely  and  had pretty decent WiFi until the power went out.  Dinner was a decent buffet of spicy chicken and llama.  We were entertained by an incredible thunder and lightening storm outside.  The down side of this means we might not be able to drive over the Salar the next day.  Fingers crossed 🙂

 

 

after another enormous breakfast, Don Emilio collected us and we headed towards the Salar. The Salar is apparently best visited in the dry season. However, it can be spectacular in the rainy season as there is a thin layer of water on the salt which reflects perfectly like a mirror. The worst scenario is if there has been a lot of rain, and in our case it had rained all night. It didn’t start off well, it was grey and gloomy and the Salar appeared to be more muddy brown than white, but the sun came out eventually and we were half blinded by the glare. It’s hard to describe but being on the Salar is quite otherwordly…. we stopped for lunch (an elegant affair that Emilio put together) and it was like being alone in the universe with nothing as far as the eye could see apart from the vague shadows of the mountain ranges in the far distance. It was definitely worth a revisit even if the weather wasn’t optimal.

 

 

Warning – wear sunscreen, as neither of us realised how burnt we were getting, until we saw our faces that evening

Next up, the obligatory visit to the artisan market. I genuinely don’t know who buys woolly hats with llamas or jewellery boxes carved out of salt, but I did support the local commerce by buying some bath salts, which at least I will use.

Checking out the sights of uyuni

In many ways uyuni is still a pretty small town…. and it hasn’t changed much over the years apart from a couple of streets squarely aimed at tourists, restaurants with prominent WiFi signs and pretty uniform menus of Mexican, omelettes and variants of meat and chips. We wandered around town, marvelling at the goods on display in the market, and eventually retreated to the ‘best cafe in town’ for a truly awful coffee! We made it to the airport with time to spare, billed as an international airport, it’s truly tiny. But 45 minutes flying to la Paz beats 12 hours on a freezing night bus with no heating and broken windows, which was how I did it last time.

 

Quick tour of la Paz

Amaszonas had helpfully moved our flight to Asuncion forward several hours, so my planned day of wandering around la Paz went out the window. But we got up early and managed to see the major sights in town for a few hours before heading the airport.

 

 

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La Paz street art

Our favourite was the Mercado Rodriguez, bustling at 7am on a rainy Saturday morning….with many of the cholitas protecting their bowler hats with plastic bags. We also popped in for a quick mass at San Francisco. A lovely way to spend the morning. Next stop Paraguay

La Paz, December 30, 2018

CREDIT TO HUBBY FOR MOST OF THESE PHOTOS!

Additional notes

* you can book a cheap and rough version of this trip for 150-200usd locally, and can go in either direction (San Pedro to uyuni or vice versa ), and there is always space, tonnes of tours leave every day (there are literally swarms of 4wds at the main sites) – expect it to be basic.

* We paid considerably more than that for a private comfortable four wheel drive with Ruta verde and the nice hotels – the taykas which have hot water and proper rooms and decent food. Having done both versions, I was happy I paid more

* Getting there – You can drive to uyuni from la Paz in four hours or fly in 45 minutes. And you can get to San Pedro from Calama in an hour (shuttles at the airport), and calama is a two hour flight from Santiago.

* We were only briefly in la Paz, so opted for a very cheap hotel – the Rosario which was all we needed

* Bolivia is a great place to visit, and I spent a lot more time when I was last here, and would recommend coroico, (cycling the death road to get there), flying down to rurrenabaque to see the Amazon (I saw a jaguar), tupiza, potosi and of course heading overland to Peru via Titicaca. It is worth noting that while there are 100 time more tourists than 20 years ago, it is still relatively quiet compared to other tourist hotspots, so don’t be put off

Toilet paper rant – to be clear, I have no beef with people going to the toilet in the wilderness, nature calls and all that. But, why on earth do people think it is acceptable to leave toilet paper behind – it’s disgusting, it’s bad for the animals, and it ruins places. The altiplano was littered with toilet paper in ever place we went. It’s high and dry on the altiplano so that paper is NOT going to biodegrade any time soon. If you need to go to the loo, go ahead, but please stay 50m away from any water, and if you use paper, then take it with you. A ziplock bag is perfect. Or you can skip the paper and just shake dry. It’s not hard. If you need to poop, then either hold it or dig a proper hole and bury it. Travelling around west Africa on a truck with 10 women, we all got off the truck to pee in the bush, and we all bought our paper back to the truck to chuck in the trash to get burnt – it’s easy. Ok, rant over!!!

Acclimatising in the Atacama

The atacama has changed in 20 years …

San Pedro de atacama has changed a lot in the 20 years since I was last here.  In essence it is still a tiny village of 2500 people, but it is also the most visited tourist town in chile.  Every door front is a tourist agency, a restaurant or a souvenir shop.   It’s nice, but it was nicer before. We are here to acclimatise at 2600m before heading over to Bolivia to the altiplano which is at 4500-5000, and I have learnt the hard way to make sure that I acclimatise first. And San Pedro is a lovely place to spend a few days.
We spent the first afternoon wandering around adjusting to the altitude and finding the best empanada in the town.  We also tried to ignore all the tourists – but it was hard.  It’s been a long time since I have travelled with this many tourists (one of the upsides of travelling in Africa is you don’t have to see tourists with too short shorts and bad tattoos).

Avoiding christmas like the grinches we are…

It was Christmas Eve, and the hotel were somewhat surprised we didn’t want the eight course celebration menu.  I love how we celebrate Christmas – we basically ignore it – no gifts, no stress cooking for lots of people, but we use the money to go and have amazing holidays :-).   We had eyed up a burger place for dinner but sadly it was closed. We tried a bunch of other places, all were full or closed, and ended up at the Adobe which was overpriced but fine.  Hubby* had a healthy poor mans steak (steak, fries for four, and two fried eggs) and I had steak pilpil (with garlic and chilli).   After that we hit up Heladaria Babalu for good local ice cream (although we had been ruined  by Valparaíso where the portions were twice the size for the same price).  We had quinoa and chanar ice cream – not bad, and hit the bed!   Altitude makes me sleepy.

Mountain biking in the devils throat

After huge breakfast with some bizarre raw croissants, but excellent bacon and bread, we summoned our courage and borrowed some bikes from the hotel and headed up to Catapre.   It was a nice cool bike ride along some rough tracks, and when you get there, its an excellent mountain biking track through a long gorge (the devils throat).   Anyone who knows me, knows that I am as uncoordinated as can be (‘unco’ as we say in NZ), so I have never been great on a mountain bike.   Blissfully I didn’t take any major spills though did get some impressive skids in.    At the end of the throat, there was a stunning hike up to a great look out point.  At 2600m, it gets hard to breathe!
hubby in the devil’s throat
hubby in the devil’s throat
me in the devils throat
part of the cycling path in the devils throat
Puddles in Catarpe
We cruised back down the throat and then popped up along to river to see the lovely chapel of San Isidro.   It’s definitely different travelling with hubby as he takes time to take beautiful photos….. I lost him for ten minutes as he was taking photos of the reflections in the puddles :-), and he also takes photos with me in them, which is kinda odd
View from the mirador in Catarpe
San Isidro Chapel

Checking out the Quitor de Pukara

After Catapre we went to see the quitor de Pukara – and old Inca site.  It was a nice well graded 20 minute hike to the top, and for entertainment, I ran down the 1.6k in 10 minutes.   Even running downhill at this altitude had me out of breath.   We came back to town in search of an empanada, but sadly Emporio Andini was closed so we had to make do with Super empanadas (twice the price and half as good).
View down the Catarpe valley from Quitor de Pukara
Face carved in the rock at Quitor de Pukara

Tour to the moon valley

A quick trip back to the hotel and then we were back with the tourists to take a tour to the Valle de la Luna.
View down into the Moon Valley
The tour was my idea of hell!  Too many people and too slow, and it was when I wished we had rented a car.  The guide was terrible, and spent ages explaining completely irrelevant facts in truly terrible English.    Honestly! I got told off at one point for not staying with the group – group tours are not for me.  Fingers crossed we have a different guide tomorrow!!!!    Having a scramble through the caverns was quite interesting
Hubby and I in the caverns

We did have a lovely time at the top of the big dune in the park watching the light as the sun went down.
Sunset on the Dunes
View from the Dunes
Hubby at sunset
We got back to the hotel late so had a sandwich and ice cream for dinner and hit the hay as we had a 6am pick up booked.

Off to the altiplano lakes at 4200m

Early the next morning we were in a van with more or less the same folks, but thankfully a much better guide to head 100km south to the lakes Miñiques and Miscanti at 4200m.  The light was lovely and the lakes were stunning.  We were the first tourists there (though hordes more arrived later).  Felipe whipped us up an outstanding breakfast of eggs, avocado, ham and local toasted breads.   We strolled around a bit, but the local people are doing an excellent job keeping tourists out of the ecosystem.  You have to stay on the paths, and while it is mildly annoying for a second, I am actually very happy with how well they are protecting the landscape (though locals had told me Conaf was more worried about the mining companies than the environment, as 40% of the worlds lithium comes from the region).
Laguna Mimiques
Hubby hiking
Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti

Flamingos on the salt flats

From there we went to socaire to see the ancient irrigation system and a church, stopped by at the Tropic of Capricorn sign for some obligatory Instagram photos, and then headed to Laguna chaxo to see the flamingos and the salt flats.  I love flamingos!!!!
Tropic de capricorn
Atacama Salt flats
Flamingos on the Atacama Salt flats

Icecream, empanadas and burgers…

We then headed back to San Pedro via Toconao (for quinoa ice cream).   It was a lovely easy day in the back of the van, and tours here are pretty cheap – we paid 40 usd each including a great breakfast.    We had a late lunch at Andino – another excellent empanada, and then we made use of our lovely hotel room by lying down for a couple of hours doing nothing until dinner time.
The burger joint was back in business- and it was a great burger
Next step the salar de uyuni in Bolivia- the reason I wanted to come back, as I am pretty sure the hubby will love it
December 27, 2018, San Pedro de Atacama

Additional info

  • To get there fly to calama airport and then get a transfer with transvip for 12,000 per person or 75000 for a private
  • All hotels are overpriced, especially at Christmas.   We stayed at the Noi which was fine, but we paid twice what it was worth for similar hotels in chile
  • Best empanadas and cake at Emporio Andino,  Burgers at the burger garden were excellent
  • There are multiple day tours.  If you don’t want stress or navigation just take some of those tours.  There are lots of places in biking distances but it is hot :-).

*Note for new readers to the blog, hubby prefers to keep a low profile, so he doesn’t ever get named on the blog….. though I have finally started putting pictures of his face (versus the back of his head) on the blog.

Street art in Valparaiso

The hubby part of the vacation has just started – cue nice hotels, more leisurely days and lots of photos.  We started in Valparaiso – without question,  my (now) favourite city in South America.  Filled with colourful chaotic houses and the most prolific street art I have ever seen, the town won my heart.  Points should be deducted for the ever-present dog shit, too many hippies, and alleys and stairways that reek of cooked piss, but we still loved it.

We spent two days wandering the streets of town, up and down the crazy stair cases (Valpo is built on bonkers steep hills) and meandering from art piece to art piece, occasionally stopping for coffee, icecream or empanadas.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  If you don’t like street art, you can stop reading here.  The rest of the post is just pictures of street art and houses (with some hotel and restaurant details at the end).

Next stop the Atacama.

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Voga Guesthouse
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Bread shop
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Holding the window
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Crazy Cats
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Rude Kermit

 

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Stairs Subida Ferrari

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View from concepcion
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Concepcion
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Cultural Park
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Almirante Motte
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Flowery girls
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A bird in the hand
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Alien ninjas?
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Paseo Yugoslav
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Miramar
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Paseo Yugoslav
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Paseo Yugoslav
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Paseo Yugoslav
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Templeman
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Templeman
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French man walking
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Pirate
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Old lady

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Paseo Pierre Loti
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Paseo Atkinson
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Cafe Brighton
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Stairs Urriola
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Concepcion
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Papudo stairs
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Papudo
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Papudo
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Amigos
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Papudo
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Papudo
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Urriola

amp

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Murdered for being a lesbian – memorial
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Laundry
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Museo Cielo Abierto
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Museo Cielo Abierto
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Neruda College
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Neruda’s house – top left
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Avenida Alemania
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Almirante Montt Houses
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Avenida Alemania
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Hector Calvo Stairs

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Additional notes

We stayed at Voga guesthouse – it was lovely, with an excellent breakfast

We ate at Cafe Entro Cerros (amazing sandwiches and best coffee we had in Valpo), Cafe Plaza Moro (friendly, ok coffee)  and La Concepcion (good ceviche, but overpriced).  The icecream at Emporio La Rosa (multiple locations) was outstandingly good (we went twice)

You can walk every in Valpo no problems

 

Valparaiso, December 24, 2018

Hiking the O circuit in Torres del Paine

I arrived in Punta Arenas as tired as you would expect after 18.5 hours of flying and made my way to the lovely ilaia hotel.

The next morning I started my journey to Torres del Paine. The road adjoins the Magellan straits at the beginning and the wind literally howls off the water. The landscape is endless plaines, windy and stunted trees, with the rare house made of corrugated iron and blasted wood. Further north the landscape softened with beautiful roadside lupins, mountain views and flocks of guanaco. It was desolate but quite beautiful. The voyage was made entertaining by my companion Lorenzo – a 78 year old Italian who has been everywhere, and was hilariously charming with his pickup lines.

After three buses and 7 hours, I arrived at the welcome centre for the Torres park. I wanted to leave immediately. There were way too many people!!!. I had a quick Diet Coke and found the trail head and set off as fast as I could.

Blissfully I saw no one for the 13k to Camp Seron which took a little over 2 hours. But, the landscape was uninspiring, like a farm in NZ. The only thing interesting I saw was a herd of horses, and much of the trail followed a fence line. Part of me was worried that I had made a huge mistake and I was going to have a crap few days hiking. Oh well. Things got mildly better at the end when the trail opened up in a river valley.

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Sector Seron – view down to Rio Paine
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Next to Camp Seron

The campsite was much flasher than I expected. There were flushing loos, showers, and there was food available (at appropriately high price points). Posh people had dinner inside with three courses. Dodgy campers had dinner in a drafty tent (park rules limit the locations where people can cook. While this is annoying, I understand it, as the park has twice had massive sections burn down as a result of hikers cooking fires). In case you wondered, I was with the dodgys eating instant mash potato.

 

I went to bed early and was serenaded by the howling wind wearing all my clothes

Day 1 Camp Seron to Camp Perros (33k 6 hours)

I was up early with the wind noise. It was freezing so I illegally made breakfast in bed (cooking up coffee from my sleeping bag). I didn’t head out particularly early for me but was the first out at seven.  I didn’t pass anyone en route to the guard post at cordiron, and I was the first to check in with the guards (a mandatory procedure on the O circuit). The route was relatively flat and meandered along the Rio Paine. Nice but nothing spectacular.  But at least I had the trail to myself.

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Coiron – with really strong winds next to Lake Paine
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Coiron
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Lake Dickson – the camp is on the spit

I was delighted to head over the ridge to see the lovely camp Dickson (after 19k) at 10.30, but surprised to to find people still hanging out finishing breakfast – honestly how long does it take to get up in the morning!   I was starving so had some pasta and coffee and then headed out again through a lovely bush trail. I put some good music on and amused myself by counting how many hikers I overtook (31). The highlight of the day was the glacier at Perros about a km before Camp Perros. The glacier feeds a pale green lake which is stunning. As you crest the ridge to see the lake the wind was so strong it blew me several metres backward.

 

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Rio Perros
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Glacier Perros
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Glacier Perros

I arrived at the campsite far too early at 2pm, and passed the afternoon drinking tea in the cooking room and listening to all the young kids talking about their big OEs (gap years). I am feeling so old. I also found two ‘kiwi’ guys (actually a Brit who lives in Nz and an American who used to), to entertain me. I strolled back to check out the glacier as the sun had come out, still stunning. More tea, some pasta and chocolate and then in bed by 8.30 listening to the wind howl

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Home for the night

Day 2 – Camp Perros to Refugio Paine grande (34k 7 hours)

I had wanted to sleep in as it was raining, but lots of people were up early talking so I gave up and made myself a coffee at 5.45 and hit the trail out of perros at 6.30. I passed two surprised people at 7 and then had the trail to myself for the three hours to Camp Paso.  It was a freezing windy misty rainy morning heading up the pass, in and out of the trees (which were blissfully warm) and then back into the howling wind on the rocky scree slopes. I had my hardcore mountain gloves on but was going full kiwi in my shorts. I have a cold so it was a bit of a slog going up the hill, trying not to sweat too much as that sweat would make me cold when I hit the top and the wind. The hills was dotted with orange trail markers which are very reminiscent of Nz.

I took some photos near the top, and put on an extra layer and my hands froze. As I went over the pass I had no feeling in my fingers and it took me ten minutes of heading down hill to make my hands work to get the camera out. Which was a shame, as the view was astounding. As you come over the pass it looks like there is a huge white lake below you, except it’s a glacier. I have never approached a glacier from above before and it was amazing.

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Grey Glacier from the pass
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Grey Glacier

I bombed the steep slope down the hill, willing my fingers back to life and hoping I didn’t fall as I wouldnt be able to use my hands! I was happy to arrive at camp paso at 9.30 to make a coffee. The ranger wasn’t impressed that I woke him up, but it is mandatory to register when you pass and he hadn’t left the book out. I was amused to find at least half a dozen occupants in camp still packing up

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Grey Glacier
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Grey Glacier
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Grey Glacier

 

From Camp Paso it was an easy two hour stroll down to Refugio Grey with the trail popping in and out of the trees to stunning views of the glacier. There were three awesome suspension bridges, and some excellent rocky rooty sections which reminded me of home

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Grey Glacier falling into Grey Lake
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Grey Glacier falling into Grey Lake

I got to Camp Grey at 11.45 so decided to have a lazy lunch, and the ‘kiwi’ guys from the night before rolled up (it turned out two of them had left perros an hour before I had, and had made it to Paso ten minutes before me but were too nice to wake up the ranger). We had a long gossip with three cups of tea and some tuna and then I decided to roll on. Grey was a bit of a zoo with music and a shop and too many day hikers

From Grey to Paine grande was not my favourite. This is where the ‘O’ circuit (which is one way and requires you to actually carry stuff) intersects with the W circuit and the day hikers, most of whom haven’t learnt basic trail etiquette of saying hello and letting faster hikers go by. But I had quite a lot of fun in my shorts and T-shirt (everyone else was heavily rugged up) body surfing the howling winds along the ridge line.

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Grey to Paine Grande through the fire damaged (cause by someone smoking apparently)

I got to Paine grande just after three and was shocked by how many people there were. I contemplated briefly ordering a pizza in the restaurant but decided instead to retreat to the campers kitchen where I belong. Am sitting here surrounded by various nationalities cooking up a range of freeze dried delicacies (I had mug shot pasta), and drinking more tea with some alfajores I treated myself to at the mini market

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Paine Grande camping – my worst nightmare

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I tried to go to sleep early but the tourist neighbours weren’t great at their camping etiquette and kept talking until 10.30, well after hiker bedtime

Day 3 Paine Grande to Chileno via Mirador Britanico (38k, 8 hours)

I woke up without the alarm at 5.30am and decided to get moving. I was planning to do the up and back hike from camp Italiano to mirador britanico and by all accounts it can be heaving. I was in luck as I had a solo stroll from Refuge Paine to the Italian camp. There was a crowd there about to start so I got going before them. I did get overtaken the first time on the trip, a guy who was running the 60k w circuit in a day. I used the motivation of being overtaken to speed up and I tailgated him to the top. The mirador (lookout) was amazing. Stunning views of the glaciers frances on one side and the Torres de Paine (from the back side) ok the other. It was a magical morning!!!

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Cerro Paine Grande
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Back of Las Torres from the Valle del Frances
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View from Mirador Britannic
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View up Valle del Frances

Coming back down I started to hit the legions of hikers, so was glad i had made it up early.  I was starving and hadn’t had coffee so stopped to cook up an odd breakfast of couscous and coffee and then headed out along the side of Lake Nordenskjold to Los Cuernos refuge. I stopped for a quick dip in the lake (bloody freezing) and then stopped into the refuge for a Diet Coke and some biscuits and a chat with an international bunch of hikers I had met the day before

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Lake Nordenskjold

From there it was a meandering 16k to the campsite at chileno. It was hot so at each stream I came to, i took my shirt off, dunked it in the water, squeezed it over my head and put it back on again. Bliss – it’s hikers aircon

I arrived at chileno at 3.30pm and was planning to head up to the towers but was told I couldn’t as the closed the path further up at 4pm. Oh well, I was always going to go in the morning anyway, but it would have been nice to see the evening light.

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Home at Chileno camping

To make up for it I had my first shower in four days (the other places had cold showers and there was no way I was doing that). I was probably overdue as I noticed that the people walking past me smelled of soap today, which is normally a signal that I don’t smell great. I am really putting icebreaker to the test on the ‘no stink’ promise on their clothes.

As Chileno doesn’t allow campers to use cooking stoves, I ordered a big arse pizza, it was so big I could only eat half (the rest I had later for second dinner and breakfast). Then I had several litres of fluid (Diet Coke, tea, hot chocolate and rehydration fluids) and couldn’t resist paying $10 for the WiFi. Of the 247 emails I had, only about three were urgent. Off to lie in the tent and hope for quiet neighbours.

Final morning walking out

All I had to do today was wander up to the famous towers and then stroll out of the park to get the bus. Most people go up very early in the morning to get there before sunrise, but I had heard stories of people getting really cold in the dark so decided to sleep in and head up later. It was a good decision. I left at 5.30 and didn’t see a single person for the first 40 minutes of the hike up, and then the last 20 mins there were lots of freezing people coming down. The walk took me just over an hour but would have taken longer in the middle of the night in the dark with a head torch and lots of people in the way. The view was lovely but I met some Belgians who had headed up at 1.45 am, it took them two hours to get there and then they sat freezing for over an hour until the sun came up. The view wasn’t that lovely that I would have been happy to freeze my butt off.

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Torres
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Torres

I stayed for 15 minutes and then strolled back to chileno refuge for coffee and cold pizza for breakfast. It was only 3km to get out of the park so I wasn’t in any rush to get out as the bus wasn’t until 14.30.  It was amusing watching the day hikers struggling up the hill even at the very beginning of the trail. Some of them were even taking a break in the first km. Good on them for giving it a go, but I did wonder if all of them would make it

I found a posh hotel at the base of the hill and rolled in for a coffee and some strawberry tart and caught up on my email. I got chatting to a fascinating Aussie guy who had been tracking puma in the park (you can follow him at chris canguro on insta), he had the most amazing pictures and it was good to know the pumas are being looked after.

After that, more cake and Diet Coke and the bus to Puerto Natales.

Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas

I had a free afternoon wandering around Puerto Natales and most of a day wandering around Punta Arenas waiting to get back to Santiago.  While neither is a worthy destination in their own right, they were both friendly towns, with a good vibe,  decent coffee, lovely street art and interesting buildings.

Next stop meeting the hubby in Valparaiso and then off to the Atacama

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Street Mural – Puerto Natales
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Street Mural – Puerto Natales
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Street Mural – Punta Arenas
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Street Mural – Punta Arenas
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Street Mural – Punta Arenas

Additional notes

  • To get to Patagonia, Fly to Santiago then take a Three hour flight to punta arenas. From there take a three hour bus to Puerto Natales (Fernandez) then another two hour bus to Laguna amarga, and then you can hike the dusty 7km to the park entry (on the road) or get the shuttle which takes 5 minutes
  • Don’t bother with a water filter, it was fine to drink everywhere
  • If money is no problem you can underpack food as there is chocolate and biscuits at every refuge, but there are no good dehydrated meals so bring those
  • If I did it again I would probably pay more for a private transfer to the park from the airport at Punta Arenas, as all the bus trips take a lot of time. I would also do more each day, as three days is more than enough.
  • I stayed at hotel ilaia in Punta Arenas and vendaval in Puerto Natales- both were good

 

December 21, 2018, Punta Arenas

Running around Jersey

It will take a while for me to sort out visiting the final four countries in my target 197, so I have decided to gently add a few more territories to my list to give me something to do in the meantime (everything from the Faroe Islands to potentially Pitcairn). And in the spirit of being creative I thought I would combine my love of running with visiting a new territory and run around the island of Jersey (including the 5k to and from the airport to the coast, I reckon it’s about 87k of running and 77k around the island). I am taking it easy these days coming back from injury so have split it into two days of running with a night in a nice hotel. Early morning departures from Gatwick are grim, but I made the 5.15 Gatwick express and was well on time for my 7 am flight with bleary eyes.

We were an hour late but I eventually got out of the airport, and was delighted that the weather was nicer than expectedly. The run to the coast was frustrating…. my legs despise concrete so I walked it as I couldn’t find a path up on the dunes (though have figured that out for tomorrow). The coast was lovely but the tide was high so running on the sand was out of the question and the esplanade was more concrete so I wasn’t getting much running done.

After a lovely stroll up the esplanade, I finally hit the cliff path starting at la Porte….. aah happiness. There path from there on was fantastic. Stunning heather, endless bays, great views.

I was starving by 11.30 so stopped at the seaside cafe in la Greve for an excellent bacon bap and a modest slice of carrot cake (and a cup of tea and a Diet Coke). The cake was excellent but was probably a bad idea as it bounced around in my stomach for the next few km.

The rest of the day past swiftly jogging from village to village. I stopped again for two more diet cokes in la Vallette and filled up my water.

I arrived at the main road into la Rozel a little before four and promptly fell in the road getting out of the way of a car (an excellent graze)….. but limped my way up to the lovely country hotel where I had decided to stay the night. All in it was only about 37k of running (just under six hours) so the walking guide I was using must have been off on the distances. Oh well, not a bad thing to finish early, even though I was ready to do another 8-10k.

I chatted with the lovely folks at the hotel who found me some first aid supplies (it was a posh hotel and I was making the place look very untidy with blood gushing down my leg and sweat and dirt all over my face. I am always delighted when posh hotels don’t bat an eyelid when you turn up gross and sweaty.

They did tip me off that the path back to the airport if I continued was 90% flat road, which is my idea of hell, so am abandoning my circumnavigation plan and going back the way I came – the 25km of cliff path was fantastic

I had a bath, and headed down to the excellent local pub for steak and chips and knickerbocker glory! Life is good!!! Then in bed by 9pm

I woke up the next day to torrential rain. I had a full English breakfast and then decided to take advantage of the break in the weather to head out. It was lovely for about five minutes and the rain came back. Honestly it was a gruelling morning….. I wasn’t really prepared for the weather….after about 8k I had lost feeling in my fingers.

I made it to a pub at 12k and had a latte, tried to get feeling back in my fingers, and gave myself a stern talking to. I packed on a few more layers, a hat, some gloves and put on a podcast about a women who did a deca Ironman (literally 40k swim, 420k run and 1800k bike ride over 12 days), and told myself to harden the f up.

At 20k I decided to give into the shakes and retreat to a cafe. I had two cups of tea and a lamb roll and got the bus to the airport. I put all my clothes on and had two more coffees and some cake and fudge. It took me four hours to warm up. Hmmmm, note to self, pack more warm clothes for my upcoming trip to guernsey.

I would recommend the coastal path in the north. It’s lovely….. I stayed at the Chateau La Chaire, and ate at their pub in Rozel. It’s an easy trip from London with several flights a day.

Sunday 14 October, 2018

Date night in Oslo

My husband has visited over 80 countries in the world without really trying.  He accompanies me sometimes, when he has time and appetite.  As a result, he has been to Afghanistan, Angola, Sao Tome, Mauritania – some pretty obscure travel destinations.   However, as we met after I had travelled extensively in Europe, he has never been to Scotland, Ireland, Germany or Norway or any number of ‘normal’ countries in Europe..

So, I have decided to take my husband on monthly date nights to European cities that he hasn’t been to before.  I am also secretly trying to get him to visit 100 countries.   This month, its Oslo!

Its not a detailed post, (really its just an excuse to publish our photos), but here are our tips for how to have a date night/weekend in Oslo

After a delayed flight from London, we only got to downtown Oslo at 2pm, so we checked into our hotel (right next to the station) and headed out ….

 

Take the ferry to the Bydog peninsular

The peninsular of bydog reminds me of cape cod – enormous white wooden villas, trees and lots of yachts.  It is also home to a handful of excellent museums.  To get there, take the ferry included in the oslo pass from Aker Brugge

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Ships in the harbour
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Choppy water for sailing

Visit the Norwegian Folk Museum

I mostly went to this museum  to see this for the beautiful old stave church, and it was worth it.  For the more down-home among you, you can see them working the traditional farm on the weekends

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Old stave church
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traditional Deli
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solo sign

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Check out the viking ship museum – just like amazonprime

okay, this was purely for entertainment, inspired by watching vikings on prime.  the ships are quite beautiful

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And then wander over to the Kontiki Museum

I found this museum oddly irritating as it was about six white guys who built a raft to prove you could get from Peru to easter island on a small vessel. Given my ancestors were canoeing around the pacific a millennium ago, i am not sure why we should celebrate that some white guys can do it.

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Kontiki museum
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Kontiki raft

Cross the road to Norways most famous museum – the Fram museum

This was the boat with which the norwegians conquered the south pole before anyone else figured out how to deal with the ice.  It was great to visit, you actually get to wander around the ship interior.

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Prow of the fram

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Wander around the peninsular

The peninsular is lovely, especially on a September day, with the sun shining and the harbour full of yachts

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Wander around downtown

After taking the ferry back to town, we spent a couple of hours meandering around town before dinner.  There were lots of nice buildings, but it was these loos donated from france (with the national motto of Liberte, egalite and fraternity) which caught my eye.  They were donated to celebrate 200 years of the Norwegian constitution, which was to some extent based on the french constitution

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Have dinner date at a Michelin starred restaurant

We went to Galt.  It wasn’t cheap but it was amazing.  The highlights were a cured lamb flat bread snack, and halibut with griddled cabbage.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  10 courses, and then we had to walk back to the hotel to digest.

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Check out the Vigeland installation at Frogner Park

We got up relatively early and had a huge Nordic breakfast (mackerel, eggs, rye bread, bacon, sausage and fruit).  Then we headed up to Frogner park to see the sculptures.  Mr Vigeland was a man before his time, most of his works were completed in the early 1900s.  Frogner park has over 200 of his sculptures and they were extraordinaryIMG_3454.jpgIMG_3457.jpgIMG_3462.jpgIMG_3465.jpgIMG_3468.jpgIMG_3470.jpgIMG_3475-3648655052-1537711245655.jpg

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Don’t pee on the walls

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Check out the Astrup Fearnley Modern art museum

Its a lovely museum on the harbour.  Small but perfectly formed with an excellent cafe.  Also check out the sculpture garden next door

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Wander around grunerlokka

Grunerlokka is a hip and happening neighbourhood with some spectacular graffiti.  There is a small but love sunday market at bla.  And after a wander you can head to mathallen for lunch (its an upmarket foodhall).  From Mathallen it is an easy half hour stroll along a stream back to town

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Walk on the roof of the opera house and check out the interior

The opera house is a lovely structure, but the highlight was walking up the sloping roof to check out the views of the harbour.  We were fortunate that there was performance going on when we visited so we heard some of it

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It was an excellent weekend, where we ended up walking about 15km each day.  Also is delightful, really lovely, wonderful food, and easy to stroll around.  Though bring your wallet, as everything is eye-wateringly expensive (average salaries in Oslo are almost double what they are in London, and so are the prices)

Oslo, September 23, 2018

Additional notes

  • Stayed at Opera Thon – right next to Oslo Central Station (Oslo S).  
  • Definitely use the Oslo Pass – its 400 NOK for 24 hours for free entry to most museums and free public transport.  Given most museums were 120 NOK, it was a good deal, and included the ferry to the bydog peninsular
  • Flights are super cheap with Norwegian
  • Take the NSB/local train to town – its only 23 minutes, a couple minutes slower than the private express train which is double the price

Bouncing around Bangui, Central African Republic

Another full day of flying…

Another day experiencing the delights of West African airlines.   Taking off from Niamey at 7am, and eventually landing in Bangui at 17.30 via Ouaga, Lome and Douala.   Happily, I only had one minor hiccup which involved a sprint through Lomé airport to get the Bangui flight, if I had missed it, the next one was two days later.
The flight to Bangui was relatively full and most people on the plane were from the UN or a NGO.  The friendly Malian chap next to me was probably not the ideal companion as he spent most of the time telling me that Bangui was incredibly dangerous and that the locals would ‘kill each other like animals with hardly any reason’.   Hmmmmmm!

A deserved place at the bottom of the development index?

In fairness, Central African Republic undoubtedly deserves a reputation for violence and chaos – hence the number of UN and aid workers. In a continent of mad dictators, CAR has had some good ones –  most notorious was Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who took the power by force on 31 December 1965, and then declared himself Emperor of the Central African Empire. He was eventually overthrown in a coup.   More recently war broke out in 2014 between the Muslim Seleka (largely nomads) and the Christian anti – balaka’s (largely agriculturalists).  More than 20% of the population of 5 million have been displaced (thats the highest displacement ever recorded globally in a conflict).  Now the country is largely partitioned with the christians in the south/west and the muslims in the north/east.  While the government is in Bangui, it is obvious they are not in control of the country, and by all accounts, they are barely in control of the city.  There are now at least 14 armed rebel groups active in the country as both of the major factions have splintered and criminalised – which makes peace negotiations pretty difficult.   The UN have 14,0000 troops here, but their mission is at best perceived as ineffective.  Worse, there have been signifiant allegations of sexual abuse against the peace keepers.  The going rate for a prostitute is a 1000 CIFAs for the UN peacekeepers (about €1.50, enough to feed the children given there are few other options to earn)  CAR is the country rated lowest on the global 2015 UN development index (188 out of 188), it had the lowest GDP per capita (at PPP) in 2017, it is estimated to be the unhealthiest country and the worst country in which to be young….Its not an optimistic outlook. 

DRC embassy
National museum – apparently it has been looted and there is hardly anything left to see

Arriving in the poorest place in the world

Arriving in Bangui airport there are tonnes of UN planes and a decent military presence.   The immigration procedures are as chaotic as you would expect  and I was forced to give a minor manners lesson to a guy with a UN passport who tried to shove me out of his way at the visa desk (my manners lesson combined my sharp kiwi elbows with some appropriate French questioning about how his mother would feel about him shoving a lady).   Formalities complete I was let out of the airport by the UN soldier and met by the lovely Benjamin to go to the guesthouse who assured me that things were relatively calm at the moment.

Boganda monument
Post office

Getting lucky with the guesthouse

I had gotten lucky, after months of persistent email communication I secured a reservation at the Karakandji guesthouse, which is the best place to stay in town, but normally booked up with long term guests.  The other alternative is the Ledger plaza which at Usd300 per night is highway robbery given the AC barely functions (and when it does it pumps mould spores in the air) and most people who stay there get food poisoning.   In contrast the Karakandji is a reasonable 70 USD per night, and is actually inside the Norwegian/Swedish consulate and owned by Charlotte Mararv – the Consul -her family have lived in CAR for 40 years and she was born here.
The guesthouse is simple but lovely, and my room was in one of the houses with shared bathrooms.  The advantage of staying in a place like this is that you meet more interesting people than you do in a posh hotel.  My housemates were a wonderful collection of strong women from around the world (Niger,Haiti, France and America) and we had a wonderful evening discussing politics, men, life and Africa.
I went to sleep with the rain hammering down on the roof and it was still going strong in the morning.  I eventually roused myself out of bed, made a coffee and wandered off to find some breakfast.   One of my housemates was worried about me wandering around as everyone else gets cars everywhere, but I decided to give it a go.  Again the most problematic issue here is petty crime, which I am fine with.
the guesthouse – and the swedish and norwegian consulate

The ‘streets’ of Bangui

Navigating the ‘streets’ required some of my trail running skills, but I managed to submerge my foot in the red mud within two minutes of leaving.   I don’t think street maintenance is high on the agenda here
School – called toast and chocolate
typical bangui street
First stop the grand cafe for a pain au raisin (which amusingly contained three raisins) and a terrible coffee.  After that more wandering.   Everyone here seems reasonably friendly, although a bit surprised to see me walking around.   People are staring.   Though the polite ones (normally a bit older) follow up the stare with a bonjour.  The atmosphere feels pretty relaxed, tonnes of vendors and some excellent African beats pumping out from various stalls.   I like this place.
PK0
PK0
I stopped off at the patisserie capitole in a vain attempt to get a decent coffee.  Fail!  And then wandered around the cathedral which is pretty lovely.  I sat outside for a while watching some local girls practise some sort of hip hop dancing – no photos though, they were camera shy.
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Then a bit more aimless wandering as I had already ticked off the main tourist site on trip advisor (the cathedral).  No 2 was a beauty salon with two reviews.  And no.3 was PK5 – the Muslim District which is a no go area given recent tension and gun fighting.   I found a posh supermarket and bought some lunch and wandered some more and then went back to the meditative gardens of the guesthouse to read a book!

UN harassment and a nice arse

In the afternoon I headed out for another long stroll which was significantly less tranquil.  It started well with another swing by the cathedral and then a stroll round the government buildings.  The guards at the central african bank were polite when denying my request to take a photo of the very groovy building.  Unfortunately the UN guards at the presidential palace were less polite and two of them pointed guns at me… oh well!  You will have the check out the palace for yourselves – its a very cool art deco building.
Roundabout at PK0 – kilometre zero
Peace and national concord for development

I then wandered into town, where I was yelled at by an officious looking man for filming, which I wasn’t.  And then a lovely young man (not) followed me for about 5 minutes telling me I had a nice arse (‘jolie fesse’)…. which is ironic, as I have no arse to speak of, and the women here have magnificent backsides.  To round out my stroll, on the way back to the guesthouse, the road was blocked by about 50 angry folk all yelling and brandishing fists, with some police at the scene.  I figured out it was a car vs truck accident (the car lost), but everyone decided to weigh in to the melee.  I backtracked and came home the long way round.

Friday night in Bangui

Some of the lovely ladies at the guesthouse had offered to take me out for the evening.  We went to the Oubangui hotel and watch the sun set over the Ubangi river – with the DRC on the other bank of the river (apparently there are always men with guns on that side so none of the pirogues cross over).   And then we went to the very low key Escale to have an outstandingly good maboke, which is a mild fish curry, made of capitaine, cooked in a banana leaf and served with plantains.  It was excellent, and the best meal I have had in this trip.   More gossip ensued, though I had an easier run this evening as we were mostly in frenglish, rather than french.   It was a delightful way to end the day.
Ubangi river
Ubangi river
Housemates from Karakandji at La Escale

Only two bribes

The lovely Benjamin was bright and early to take me to the airport. Just as well as the battery was dead in the 4wd and he had to run around the corner to the consul’s dads house to borrow another one. The streets were already lively at 6.30 with the street side stalls opening up. The airport was a typically chaotic west/Central African experience. My bag was searched a full six times! I was however mildly concerned about their standing on the corruption index, as I was only asked for two bribes….. I expected more. They clearly need to up their game. Note that I do occasionally pay bribes but it’s rare and I need a good reason to do so. These guys were all fine when I said I had already spent my last local money and sadly didn’t even have enough for breakfast. Amazingly we left on time! Next stop Casablanca where I have a layover long enough to visit the art museum, have a nice dinner and a sleep. Onward to Gatwick tomorrow morning
Four more to go
Bangui August 25, 2018

Side note

Our flight back from Casablanca to London was delayed by five hours as one of the pilots didn’t show up! It was interesting to watch the crowd….. there was outrage, shouting, threats of solicitors and frequent demands to see the airport manager. Quite a few of the passengers were moaning like it’s the end of the world. Having just left CAR which is a war zone where women prostitute themselves for €1.50 to feed their kids, it is hard to get upset about a flight delay in an airport where there is air con, WiFi and a Starbucks. That is the gift of travelling in Africa, it makes me more grateful for everything I have. And yes we eventually got to London six hours late.
the no.2 attraction in bangui according to trip advisor

Sacrificing sheep in Niamey, Niger

Six airports, six countries (four not on purpose), five flights, 14 hours from A to B ….. where A to B was only 90 minutes of flying time apart

Getting to Niamey wasn’t as easy as it should have been! In theory, Niamey is about 90 minutes flying time from N’djamena. Unfortunately there aren’t any direct flights, or even any indirect flights. I had booked a route leaving N’djamena (Chad) at 7am that was supposed to arrive in Niamey at 17.45, after four consecutive flights (via Douala (Cameroon), Lome (Togo) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)). West Africa being the fun place it is, I got a surprise bonus country, as we also ended up going through Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire). Apparently one of the Asky planes was broken, so they just shoved us all on one plane and added a drop off in Abidjan – but they didn’t tell us that until we had boarded. Note I had already spent a lot of time in each of those four countries previously, so there was no upside to revisiting their airports. On the bright side I only had to get off the plane in Lome, and they had wifi in the terminal. I had contemplated going overland, but it would have been three days in a bush taxi and it wasn’t particularly safe at the moment with Boko Haram.

These things used to bug me when I started travelling, now i feel like 12 hours of travel on five flights with free food, aircon and loos is better than 12 hours in the back of bush taxi smushed between sweaty passengers. I wasn’t even that bothered by the extra two hours going to Abidjan…. in Africa, I am just grateful to arrive :-).

Relaxing evening – steak frites

I finally arrived at Niamey at 19.20 just in time to watch the sun setting over the river as we landed…. 12 hours since the 7.15am departure from N’djamena. There were twenty of us disembarking – 4 chinese workers (all of whom had tried to get off in Ouaga by accident), one lebanese guy, 4 african business men and three women with an assortment of children. We really are at the end of the world.

Mr Amadou was there to pick me up, and i was surprised by how lively the streets were, and how many motorbikes were going past with live sheep on them. He explained that I have arrived just in time for the festival of mutton – Tabaski or Eid el Adha (the festival of sacrifice) – in celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Apparently everyone has to slaughter a lamb, give one-third to the poor, one-third to friends and neighbour’s and have one third for your family. That would explain the flocks of sheep road side, and the sheep on the moto -taxis, its a bit like being back in NZ

I arrived at the lovely Tabakady restaurant and hotel to be greeted by the lovely Ida from Togo and the lovely Moroccan manager. Its nice to meet some women. This place is one of the best restaurants in Niger which also has a few basic rooms attached. I highly recommend it. I have said it before, and i know i am repeating myself, but the upside of french colonisation is that you can get an excellent steak frites with sauce au poivre in the unlikeliest of places. It was an excellent dinner! Off to bed to get some sleep after my 4.40am wake up call, i needed too rest up for the lamb festival.

I woke up freezing – the air conditioning had two settings – ferocious or off. I decided to drag myself out of bed to get going before it got too hot. After an excellent breakfast of omelette, croissants and Bissap juice I headed out to stroll around town. Apparently Niamey is famous for muggings rather than kidnappings, and I’m ok with mugging so was happy to walk. Kidnappings I am less cool with! (note I did avoid the two main mugging spots of town, I am not a complete fool.)

Wandering the streets

It was a sleepy morning for a Wednesday, and it turns out the the downside of the sheep festival is that pretty much everything is closed. The upside is that the smaller streets were full of friendly locals preparing for a feast. I do love walking around African cities. Locals aren’t used to seeing toubabs (white people) walk – toubabs are a species normally spotted in 4wds. As a result most people are surprised to see you and are keen to say hello. I also get optimistically chatted up by all manner of young men, who seem to be using me as a good excuse to try out their pick up lines….. am pretty sure most of them would run screaming if i appeared mildly interested.

First stop the perpetual lady of succour – the main cathedral. It was an interesting brutal concrete building with natural air con provided through the designed holes in the brick work. It was sleepy and lovely.

Niamey cathedral
Niamey cathedral

Crying in the zoo

After that, I went to the national open air museum. It was officially closed but an entrepreneurial guard let me in (i.e. in return for a modest bribe). All the pavilions and shops were closed so there wasn’t much to see. I hadn’t realised the museum also had a zoo, and by accident I ended up near the animals. I hate zoos in general, but this was awful. Tiny filthy cages. I started crying when I saw the chimps and then the lion cage. It was vile. Poor animals. I decided it was time to move on.

Dinosaur at the zoo
Zoo pavilion
Zoo pavilion

Coffee and the NationalAssembly

I stopped into Amandine cafe to fortify myself with a coffee and take advantage of the air con. It was 10 am and I was already drenched in sweat. Its not technically that hot here – probably 35, but it feels like 45. Properly restored I headed out to continue sweating and walking. I saw the National Assembly (and the guard gave me permission for a photo), and also checked out some of the other government buildings.

Congress
Main square
National Assembly
Hotel du Ville

Rubbish in the grand market

I then headed around the Grand market. The actual market was closed today but there were a few stalls open. When open, there are 5000 stalls in the main market, but it has burnt down more than once given the closely packed quarters. The rubbish was depressing!

Grande marches entrance
Grande marches entrance
When closed the vendors leave most stuff there but cover it up

Blood in the streets

After that I meandered through the streets strolling the few kilometres to the Ghadaffi mosque. The small streets had become abattoirs with blood literally running in the streets. They weren’t joking when they said that it was a festival of lamb sacrifice – i gave up counting when I had passed 100 slaughtered lambs. There are clearly no butchers here with nicely vacuum packed cuts of lamb. Groups of men with sharp knives were slaughtering, skinning and gutting the sheep every few metres along the streets. It was extraordinary. The small kids were digging holes to bury the entrails. The young boys were sent off to buy sticks to skewer the whole lambs. Other family members were building fires. If i was ever going to become a vegan again, today was the day. On the bright side, it was quite nice to see men actually doing physical work, typically its women in Africa who do all the work. Today the ladies were in their finest clothes and observing proceedings from afar.

These men were butchering street side – it was a continual bloodletting
Later in the morning, butchering done
Later in the morning, butchering done
Now time for cooking

Ghadaffi’s gift

I eventually reached the Ghadaffi mosque – which was gifted to Niger from Gadaffi. Prayers had finished for today so I was invited in to take a look around. It was a stunning mosque, with beautifully intricate tile work, and unusual yellow tiles. After having a gossip on the steps with the custodians, who were trying to persuade me to go and buy them a lamb, I summoned up the energy to stroll back to town.

Ghadaffi mosque
Ghadaffi mosque
Ghadaffi mosque
Mosque guardian

It was sweltering by the time I got back to the hotel so I opted for a laze by the pool with a Diet Coke, and a chat with the wait staff who gave me some free lamb to eat (honestly it was pretty delicious).

Another wee stroll, some more energetic exercise catching a huge cockroach in my room, and then a quiet pizza by the pool. And so ends my amusing time in Niamey. Another early night as have another 5am pick up

I was up early this morning, earlier than my driver so had an amusing ten minutes hanging with the security guards outside the hotel who were fully kitted our with laptops and phones and watching Nigerian dance videos – hilarious. And now am loving the airport, after two nights of dial up speed, the high speed WiFi provided for free by the Chinese corporation at the airport is amazing! Also reinforcing my view that we are at the end of the world, there were only 10 passengers on the flight with 50 spare seats.

5 more to go, next stop Bangui
Niamey August 23, 2018

Additional notes

  • Stayed at Tabakady – a restaurant with a few rooms and a nice pool
  • Flew in with Asky and out with Air Burkina when asky cancelled their flight ; RAM might be a better choice though

Negotiating in N’djamena

I am on the final count down to my list of 197 – just 7 more to go.  Most people quickly figure out from that number the implication is that the remainder are largely sketchy countries.   And they would be right.  This week we have a trifecta of UN development index winners.  There are only 188 countries on the UN development list (out of 193 UN sovereign states some like Tuvalu, San Marino and Monaco are too small).   And this week I get to visit no.s 186,187 and 188 respectively.  It will be an interesting week.

First stop N’djamena, Chad

The flight from Casa seemed unusually touristy, with a lot more pale folks than I am used to going to central or west africa.  Turns out the flight was bound for Nairobi, and only 40 of us got off at N’djamena.  The airport was clean and lovely, and staffed with more people than passengers.  The men here are charming and I was asked out twice before i got out of the terminal (they must have a thing for grubby backpackers with wrinkles and grey hair).   The lovely Toide picked me up and bought me to the Hilton – an extraordinarily lovely hotel that I had found a cracking deal on for 90 euros a night.
After a good night sleep and an excellent (if absurdly over-priced) buffet breakfast – I headed out to see the ‘sights’ of N’djamena.   It is a little tricky to take photographs in town as the police are quite sensitive, so I had decided to go with a guide as at least that way I was less likely to get stopped, hassled and bribed. (At least two of the nutters facebook group have had probs with the police here, so i come forewarned)

Bustling street life

The streets are bustling… and N’djamena is wealthier than I expected.  There is plenty of money in this town – lots of lovely hotels, new buildings going up, and vast numbers of shiny 4wds…. though undoubtedly the wealth is in the hands of the minority.  The main avenues are broad and wide, with lots of commerce on the street, including a lively sheep market
Street life
Street life – this place has an odd name thought – the buvette (cafe) of Wembley from the centre of greenland – someone’s geography is a bit off
Street life

Fossils in the museum

We headed to the national museum of Chad.   Museums are never top of my list of things to do, but as trip advisor will indicate, there isn’t a long list of things to see in ndjamena.   Honestly I get bored in the V&A so there was limited likelihood I was going to be enthralled by this museum.  The museum was small but enthusiastically kept.   There isn’t a huge amount to see but some of the Jewelry and fossils were fascinating.    There is a bonus exhibition about independence from France, which consists of about 20 pictures of politicians, it was riveting.
Mother Africa
Chad museum

Kuran slates at the Chad museum
Kuran versus at the Chad museum
Chad museum

Organised chaos at the grand Marche

Next up, my favourite thing to do in Africa – head to the markets.   N’djamena’s grand market is true to African form – it seems chaotic but is incredibly organised.   Each quarter serves a defined purpose – second hand clothing from Zara and mango piled high to be picked through, pharmaceuticals tended by white robed Muslims, women from the villages with fruit and veg, and the obligatory Chinese plastic tat which you find worldwide.   We wandered round for half an hour soaking up the vibes and avoiding the kids asking me for cash.
Market

Market

Market
Market
Market
Market

A war of attrition with the souvenir stall holders

Honestly, I try and avoid visiting souvenir markets, but apparently there wasn’t much else to see and we had some free time (yes we have all heard that one before and I fell for it willingly).  Business was probably pretty slow, so the fifty or so stall holders were pretty happy to see me.  It was exhausting to be 1 tourist with 50 vendors, and it was a war of attrition I had no hope of winning.  It is rare that I buy souvenirs, but some of the masks were lovely, so my pack is now weighed down with two more plus a very groovy comb.  I would like to think that i held my own in the negotiations, but these days I am a lazy old tourist of the type I despised when I was backpacking around Asia at 20 hustling everything down to the last rupee.  Now I don’t really care what the price is provided it isn’t daylight robbery…..
Successful vendors
Successful vendors
Successful vendors

Celebration of ‘independence’

We headed to see the Place du nation.  African nations do monuments to independence well!  This one was a treat.  The highlight for me was the world globe, mostly because NZ was actually on it!   Taking photos here was a sensitive manoeuvre – we were only allowed to face in one direction with the presidents palace behind us.  God forbid someone take a photo of the presidents palace.   Idriss Deby is a model of African democracy…. he has been president since 1990, and he removed the term limits to enable himself to be ‘elected’ five times.   He doesn’t hold the record – I think that is still Equatorial Guinea with 38 years of the same ‘democratically’ elected guy.

Place du Nation
Place du Nation
Across from the palace is the cathedral which is sadly closed for renovation.   It was tricky to get a picture given the proximity to the palace but eventually a vaguely official looking dude in camouflage gear said it would be ok.  I imagine it was lovely and will be again.
Cathedral

“No tourist card no photo” at the Mosque

We passed by the grand mosque and stopped to see if we could take a photo.  The ‘friendly’ militia were adamant that I couldn’t take a photo without a tourist card – irrelevant that such a thing doesn’t exist.  Oh well!  Apparently I could be boko haram scoping it out for bombing (and they have executed suicide bombings in ndjamena numerous times).  It isn’t the nicest mosque in the world in any case, but have popped in a picture from google images for your edification.
picture from beautifulmosque.com

Sunning by the river

After that back to the hotel for a couple of hours sunning myself next to the river.  Its incongruous hanging out in the Hilton in N’djamena, as I don’t really feel like I am in Africa.  The guest list of the hotel was on display as i was paying this evening, and half the US consulate appears to be living here…., its not my typical African experience.    Heading to Niger tomorrow at the crack of dawn, and normalcy will be restored as I am staying at one of the cheaper guesthouses I could find.   I will be looking forward to a bed of any description after four flights with Asky tomorrow (N’djamena to Douala to Lome to Ouagadougou to Niamey),  🙂
View of the river from the hotel
View of the river from the hotel
6 more to go
N’djamena 20 August 2018

Notes

  • I stayed at the Hilton N’djamena.  It was lovely, staff were delightful!  Shop around for a deal
  • I cut a deal with the hilton driver to take me around town, you can contact Toide on toide2006@yahoo.fr or +23566471272.  he speaks english and french.

Side note – i still hate flights in africa

Travelling in Africa is never boring.  The flight times are loose guidelines versus actual commitments.  Getting to three of my last four countries in Africa was never going to be easy given the limited connections.   I had constructed an optimistic flight booking through Casablanca to ndjamena, then on to Niamey (the neighboring country)  via Douala, Lome, and Ouagadougou, then back to Bangui via Ouagadougou, Lome and Douala (don’t ask, I tried to do it in the other order but it didn’t work), then back to London via Casablanca.   Things had already gone a bit pear shaped with Asky cancelling the first leg of the Niamey to Bangui leg a few weeks ago, but I had found an exorbitantly priced ticket on Air Burkina to replace that leg.   And I was unsurprised when I got to Gatwick this morning to find my flight was delayed an hour.  Given my connection time was originally only 75 minutes, I was not wildly hopeful I would make it with just 15 minutes.  I did a dead sprint across the airport, smiled my way to the front of the security line and made it to the gate with one minute to spare!  Happy to have done so, as the next flight to N’djamena wasn’t for two more days.   Fingers crossed the rest works out….., I don’t expect it to, ….but thats part of the joy of being in Africa…., you are pleasantly surprised when stuff actually works.