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

Off the beaten track – Port au Prince, Haiti

Haiti didn’t have a wonderful tourist reputation before the earthquake, and sadly now there is probably even less reason to visit Haiti.   I wanted to check it out and see if it was as bad as people said.   Especially given I have spent a lot of time in Miami, where most people have a general aversion to Haitians.   Honestly my Miami experience of Haitians was limited to taxi drivers who weren’t great drivers who didn’t know how to indicate (not an issue limited to Haitians to be honest, I find Miami drivers to be among the worst in the world), and who tried to over charge me (again, an issue for all taxi drivers).

So, I booked a flight and a hotel and then valiantly tried to sort an itinerary to see the best of Haiti.  I eventually got a response from a local tour agent, and sorted out a driver for the day.  Given many of the ‘tourist sights’ were destroyed in the earthquake, there wasn’t actually that much to see.   Things to do:

Visit the museum du pantheon

A surprisingly well curated museum with some excellent exhibitions, including some great modern art – definitely exceeded my expectations.

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See the cathedral ruins

Very interesting to walk around, and as yet unclear as to whether or not they will be rebuilding it

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Visit the iron market.

Honest confession – I hated the iron market with its art displays and voodoo.  Not based on aversion to voodoo, but because there were way too many live animals tied up on short leads and obviously malnutritioned.   It was depressing, and even if I was someone who bought souvenirs (I am not), I wouldn’t buy from anyone who was maltreating an animal – which was everyone in the market

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See the wooden architecture

There are lots of ‘gingerbread houses’ dotted around port au prince.  Most notable is the Hotel Olofsson, which you can go and wander around even if you aren’t staying there.  It was made famous by Graham Greene is is novel the Comedians.

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So what was my verdict – honestly, not a country I would put at the top of my list of potential destinations.  Without question, in my opinion, I would visit every other country in the Caribbean before visiting Haiti.  However if you happen to be in town, it is an interesting place to visit.

 

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Additional info
  • I stayed at the holiday inn express – it was fine and had a pool.  You will appreciate the pool as it is swelteringly hot in Port au prince
  • Travel around town is slow and difficult, don’t assume a short journey will be quick, and make sure you leave plenty of time to get to the airport.  Traffic is nuts, and my driver was diligent in making sure our doors were always locked.  He didn’t have a great degree of confidence in his fellow Haitians not to rob us blind
  • Take USD cash in small denominations
  • I did not head out of Port au Prince, but apparently Cap Haitien and Jacmel are interesting

Off the Beaten Track – Guyana

Guyana – Not to be confused with French Guiana (its neighbour) is the least visited country in Latin America!  Neighbouring Suriname to the East and Venezuela to the West, it is most famous (at least to me) for the Jim Jones commune in Jonestown where 990 Americans died from cyanide poisoning.  It is also unusual as being the only South American Nation with English as an official language.  There aren’t many things to do, so don’t plan on spending a long time in country, but while you are there you can…

Wander around Georgetown

It takes no more than an hour to walk around the whole town, even with the oppressive heat that makes you want to melt into the pavement.   I really enjoyed the central market, but I suspect this was less about the quality of the retail outlets and more about the heady reggae beats and the retro smell of weed!  I also find it incredibly amusing when every man you walk by tries to pick you up, not in an offensive way but in a friendly, ‘why the hell not give it a try’ way.  I am pretty sure this is not because I am anything to look at, but more because there are very few tourists in this town!

Civic Building Georgetown
Civic Building Georgetown

While avoiding getting a contact high from the ganja, take a look at the lovely wooden architecture.  The civic buildings were nice, and the wooden cathedral is apparently the largest wooden structure in the world.

Georgetown Cathedral
Georgetown Cathedral
take a tour to the Kaieteur Falls

Full confession, I didn’t get to go!!!! There weren’t enough people in town to fill the plane and so the trip was cancelled!!!!.  It looks lovely, so I would give it a shot if you are in town

Kaietur Falls

ride a boat up the river to santa mission

Another confession, this was actually pretty boring and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have a free day.  It was nice and relaxing to go up the river, but there was really nada to see at the ‘indigenous’ village.   Have low expectations and you will have a fine day

River boat ride
River boat ride
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Santa Mission Village
Additional tips
  • I stayed at Cara Lodge which was one of the nicer places in George town and an easy walk to everywhere
  • I tried and failed to sort a few tours out remotely and as such didn’t make it to Kaieteur falls.  But I did find the guys at Wonderland tours helpful when I got there and they sort out my trip up the river
  • Don’t wander around town at night, as quite a few of the streets are dodgy, and the canals/open sewers would be easy to fall into as there isn’t much in the way of street lighting

 

Places to Return to – Guatemala

I was quite torn about visiting Guatemala! While the pictures looked beguiling, I was taking my mum, dad and husband on a trip around central America, and was worried about their safety.   A legitimate concern given the violent crime rates are the highest in Latin America (which is a high bar to begin with).  My dad too is a stubborn hardy kiwi bloke who contrarily seeks out dangerous situations.  Case in point, when I asked him not to walk up Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua (as apparently it was a hot spot for tourist muggings).  He promptly went up there the next morning before breakfast.  I told him he might have been robbed, and he proudly told me he took no money so they couldn’t rob him.  Note to non frequent travellers – you really want to make sure you have some money for people to steal from you, at least $20 if not $50!  I am not joking!….. better they steal $50 from you than get pissed off and shoot you as you have nothing for them.   Anyway, parental frustrations and concerns aside, Guatemala was the highlight of that trip for us all.   The only other thing to note is there are more gringos here than I typically like to see on holiday, so make sure you time your visits to places to avoid them as much as possible!
Girl in the street in San Pedro
Girl in the street in San Pedro
Visiting the villages around Atitlan
Be smart, as there are quite a few tourists in Panajachel, so go and find the villages which are less visited.  There are lovely places to eat, and hugely photogenic local ladies to take pictures of.  The air is clean and it is is stunningly beautiful on the lake.  We went to Santa Cruz, San Marcos and San Pedro and enjoyed wandering around.
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Buys carrying a heavy load in Atitlan
Stayed at Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo in Panajachel, but there are tonnes of good options in Atitlan, eat anywhere as it is a bit of a gringo paradise
Head to Tikal to see the ruins
Make sure you stay the night, as the flights from Guatemala city land en masse in the morning and then there are swarms of people all over the ruins (we made the mistake of being on the plane with the swarms).  Frances Ford Coppola has a famous hotel nearby if you feel like going glam https://www.thefamilycoppolaresorts.com/en/la-lancha/location.
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Ruins of Tikal
The ruins are amazing, and if you are fit and ok with ditching your guide there is some terrific hiking.    While you are out there definitely pop over the border to Belize and see the ruins of Caracol and Xunantunich (a regret of mine that we didn’t as I ended up flying in 3 years later to see these)
go to the market in chichicastenango
Yes this was a tourist nightmare, overrun with gringos by 10 am.  However, if you want to see the locals, then stay the night, get up at 6am to watch them set up and get the hell out before the hordes arrive at 10 am on their buses.  We really enjoyed having breakfast at one of the stalls and chatting with the locals
Dad bargaining at the market
Hang out with the gringos in Antigua
Antigua really is lovely!  There is really nothing to do here except eat!  We whiled away plenty of hours drinking decent coffee and eating cake…. it is just one of those things you do when you have been travelling and haven’t had a decent coffee or anything yummy to eat for a few weeks.  Thats why places like Antigua suck you in and you get stuck doing nothing but energetically finding new coffee and cake places every day :-).  There are some nice things to see between the cake shops, so take your camera with you.  The plaza Mayor, Arco de Santa Catalina, Cathedral San Jose and Convento de las Capuchinas are all lovely!
Locals Laundry in Antigua
Locals Laundry in Antigua
Stayed at the uber luxurious Palacio de Dona Leonor.  It was beautiful and enormous.  Not my normal travelling style, but it was a gift for Ma and Pa for their 60th birthdays.  Eat anywhere with cake!
Additional tips
  • Reading back on this post it seems that visiting Guatemala is a bit like going on safari.  You want to be up and out between 6-10am and then again perhaps in the late afternoon.  But you want to avoid the middle of the day, when the gringos are at their most active.   It really is worth the early mornings
  • I prebooked almost everything in Guatemala as was keen to look after Ma and Pa.   Elizabeth Bell came highly recommended, but charged a premium.   Things did work like clock work.   You can contact her at www.antiguatours.net. If I was going by myself I would probably use local buses
  • Guatemala City is one of the dodgiest places in Latin America.  Antigua is less than an hour from the airport in a car, so there is no reason to stay in the City.  We were amused by how many carpet and plastic stores had armed guards!

Visited December 2011