Bus stops and abandoned stations in Abkhazia (Breakaway Russian Republics part 1)

A complicated history, and now a breakaway state

Abkhazia (population 240,000) is wedged between the Black Sea and Caucasus mountains, and neighboured by Georgia and Russia.  Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in a bloody war between 1992-93, shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart. In 2008, after a five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia, Moscow officially recognised the republic as independent.  It is a complicated conflict, and I won’t profess to have a clue about who is right or wrong (in all of these situations there tends to be right and wrong on both sides in any case). Georgians represented more than 50% of the population prior to independence and abkhazians less than 30%.  The population is now 40% of what it was. Today the UN still consider Abkhazia to be part of Georgia. Abhkazia is only officially recognised by Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria and Venezuela.   The economy is largely held up by the million or so Russian tourists who come every summer for a cheap Black Sea experience (it feels like the British equivalent of going to Benidorm).   

Gagra Theatre
Gagra Theatre
Gagra Theatre


The lottery of life 

Many Abkhazians only have Abkhazian passports (unless they are lucky enough to have a Russian parent). Technically they can get a Georgian passport, but apparently that isn’t really allowed as ‘the security services will come after you’.  I had never really contemplated what life was like as a ‘citizen’ of a largely unrecognised state.  Officially this means that they can only go to the countries that recognise them.  Practically this means they can only go to Russia, as there are no direct flights from Russia to any of the other places that recognise them, and it isn’t obvious that airlines would even recognise an Abkhazian passport as an official ID.    I have always felt grateful for having passport(s) that allow me relative freedom of movement, but even with passports from less popular countries it is still feasible to get a visa to go to many places.  I can’t imagine not being free to travel – such is the lottery of birth!  I am grateful every time I travel that I was born when and where I was. 


Sochi,Gagra and Russian tourists 

We arrived in Abkhazia via Sochi – a Black Sea resort for working class Russians, now famous for the Winter Olympics.   It took an hour to get through Russian passport control, we were apparently the fifth (non Russian) tourists the border chief had seen that year, so he had to ask us a few questions.   On the Abkhazian side, they waved us through but I made our guide stop so I could get a passport stamp.  They tried to talk me out of it, as they were worried I would have problems in Georgia, but we eventually persuaded them. 

Abandoned house
Abandoned house


Our first stop was Gagra, a soviet beach resort, starting with a visit to the Tsereteli playground.   Zurab Tsereteli is a famous Georgian artist, still alive today and with a whole museum in Tbilisi dedicated to his work.  He is famous for his use of mosaics and curves and as well as the playground he was responsible for some of the finest bus stops in Abkhazia.  We had a stroll along the beach, stopping for an excellent Turkish coffee.  We visited the abandoned cinema and an excellent abandoned villa (formerly home to the princes masseuse).

Tsereteli playground
Tsereteli playground
Tsereteli playground


Ritsa national park

We headed up the gagra valley to the Ritsa national park.  The valley becomes a stunning gorge carved out over centuries by a fast flowing snow fed river.   The road culminates at Stalin’s dacha, a place he only visited five times, on the banks of crystal blue lake Ritsa.  It was nice but was somewhat marred by the presence of a road (I am a kiwi and prefer to walk in the mountains than go by road), and somewhat marred by the presence of a lot of Russian tourists, but probably mostly marred by the animals tied up on the side of the road for tourists to take photos with.  Eagles, peacocks and monkeys on leashes less than 20cm long.   It was awful, and the practice would die out pretty quickly if the Russian tourists weren’t paying 100 rubles to have a photo taken with the peacock.

Ritsa
Ritsa
Ritsa

 
Dinner and finding a husband

On the way back we stopped at the abandoned train station in Gagra – the architecture is amazing.   And we checked out the old abandoned soviet market and the beach.  

Gagra train station
Gagra train station

Black Sea in Gagra

Dinner was shashlik and kachapuri (excellent Georgian cheese bread), followed by strudel.   Service wasn’t brilliant, but was typically Russian, with the food taking an hour to arrive and it was delivered by a grumpy looking waitress.  They drove us out of the restaurant eventually by pumping up the volume on bad Russian pop. 
Dinner conversation was amusing.  Our guide, Diana, is fiercely proud of being Abkhazian, with every sight being introduced with ‘isn’t it amazing?  Isn’t it the best thing you have ever seen?’.   The sights weren’t normally that amazing, but her enthusiasm was commendable.    Somewhat incongruently, she wasn’t a great cultural fit with the locals.  By her account, abkhazians are still very conservative, especially in villages.    Women are apparently not allowed to work outside the home, date any man they aren’t going to marry, speak too much to their husbands in public, divorce or generally bring shame to their husbands or fathers.   And as a thank you, the men do nothing to contribute to the house.  It sounds fantastic.   But Diana is stuck here and can’t travel as she doesn’t have a Russian passport.  We did spend some of our time figuring out how she could get one, marrying one of her more trustworthy cousins who already has a Russian passport is apparently the best idea. 


Donuts and bus stops

The next morning, we had an excellent Russian breakfast, eggs, bread, and cottage cheese donut things which were amazing and a few Turkish coffees each and then headed out for a meandering journey to Sukhumi. Sergei our driver had gone home last night and had bought his lovely daughter Katia back with him, she was trying to improve her English, but was as shy as you would expect a 12 year old to be.
The morning started with some incredible bus stops by Tsereveli – the Whale/dolphin, the Spaceship, the Fish, the Cock, and the Creature of the sea.

For more bus stop photos see here and here

Pitsunda and soviet beach resorts 

We then strolled along the coast at Pitsunda, it was like being transported back to how I imagine 70s Russia might have been.  Incredible architecture!  

Pitsunda architecture
Black Sea in Pitsunda
Pitsunda playground
Pitsunda playground


We also visited an incredibly cool cathedral with a mildly interesting exterior but a very groovy interior with an incredible Art Deco organ and seats that looked like they were stolen from a 1950s cinema. 

Pitsunda cathedral
Pitsunda cathedral


We passed by the ruined church in Miusera, which was a bustling picnic spot.  The church was surrounded by platforms of Georgian houses that had been destroyed during the war, it was eerie.  The area has now been turned into a national park.

Miusera church
Miusera church


Lunch cooked over the fire with the hunters 

Our lunch stop was with a family in the village of Achandara.  We couldn’t find their house so the matriarch despatched her son in a battered Lada to come and find us.   We ate in a wooden cabin adorned with bear and wolf skins shot by her sons, and she cooked us a kind of polenta above a wood fire which we ate with spicy beans, pork knuckle and homemade cheese.   We finished it off with feijoa jam and bread (she made everything herself).

Homecooked lunch


Stuffed to the gills, Sergei took us to the cosmopolitan Sukhumi.  We visited two abandoned railway station (Sukhumi and Baratashvali) and the botanical gardens.  

Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Baratashvali station
Baratashvali station

We also saw the main square which is famous for the abandoned Georgian government building which the Abkhazians burnt from the inside and have vowed to leave as a monument.  It was been covered with hoardings commemorating 25 years of independence.

Georgian government building (hoarding celebrating 25 years of independence)
Georgian government building

Glitterati in Sukhumi

Dinner was a surreal experience in the ‘top’ hotel in Abkhazia.  We had borscht, kebab and local honey cake.  Everyone around us was ordering off the extensive sushi menu.  I have never quite seen sushi like it – oversized, elaborately decorated with mayonnaise and lurid sprinkles…. I am not sure what the Japanese would have made of it.  Our fellow diners were clearly the glitterati of Abkhazia with Chanel bags and very high heels!  


Morning run along the seafront

I woke up early enough for a run and headed out along the seafront.  In the distance I spied what looked like several men in black shell suits loitering around a kids playground…. it all looked quite dodgy and I was contemplating turning back.   As I got closer I realised it was an outdoor gym area and the blokes were all doing press ups!  The promenade was busy with (mostly) men strolling and a few more doing squats and push ups.  A great way to start the day.  

Black Sea cafe in Sukhumi
Sukhumi market


The benefit of the run was quickly destroyed by breakfast, a ridiculously large spread with porridge, sausages, eggs, vegetables and more of the incredible cottage cheese pancakes with a couple of cups of coffee.   Fortified we headed to the bazaar for a wander around.  Apparently the opening of a big supermarket nearby is ruining trade, and the bazaar is largely run by Armenians.  There was a spectacular array of merchandise, my favourites being the camouflage gumboot shoe and the nut sugar strings. 


Setting an FKT on Anakopia

The tourist highlight of Abkhazia (for those who are less obsessed with soviet bus stops) is the Anakopia fortress and the new Athos monastery.  Diana, our 25 year old guide assured me it was a 40 minute hike to the fortress, I took the challenge and made it in 12 (somewhat miffed as I had taken one wrong turn and lost a minute or so, I was even more miffed on the way down as I found all the shortcuts so reckon I could do it in 8 now).   The view over the Black Sea is stunning, and I lay in the sun like a lizard on a rock for 20 minutes waiting for Diana :-).  

Anakopia fortress
Anakopia chapel

We climbed the tower, took a photo with the Abkhazian flag that Diana had carried up for the purpose – it is the hand of peace, seven stars for seven districts and green and white stripes to demonstrate Christian and Muslim harmony.   We also visited the tiny and mostly ruined Orthodox Church along with a few smartly dressed elderly local ladies who had made the climb.  The downhill took 7 minutes (and I still missed a few shortcuts).

Anakopia chapel

Soviet tourism in the cave of New Athos


After that we went to see the ‘famous amazing cave of new athos’.  It was large!  Sadly, it was a tourist production where the tourists are put on a train, and then we had to walk very slowly for an hour and a half through the caves, in a big crowd.  I put a podcast on and stayed at the back…. waiting until the lady who was responsible for turning out the lights came behind me to move to the next spot.  On the bright side it was an anthropological exercise in Russian tourist watching.

We also had the pleasure of visiting another abandoned station – Psirtskha – beautifully located on the river.

Psirtskha abandoned station
Psirtskha abandoned station
Psirtskha abandoned station

Lunch followed with more kachapuri, stew, grilled pork and a nut and cabbage dish and more Turkish coffee.   From there we wandered to perhaps my favourite abandoned train station –  Psirtskha station – it was more like a posh gazebo, and was beautifully located on the river.   
Then we headed up to the old Monastery.   It was more stunning  from a distance when you could see all the gold cupolas reflecting the sunlight.   There was an old man painting icons for the tourists.  We had a chat, and he asked where I was from.  I said NZ, and he asked if I was Maori.   I asked him if he knew New Zealander’s, he said I was the first one he had met but was curious about polynesians as he was a fan of Gauguin.   Is a stunning monastery, with incredible paintings inside.

New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery


Back to Russia

After that we meandered back to Russia by way of a bonus palace and church on the way and one final bus stop.   Exiting was slightly tricky as I had to rustle up the guard to get my exit stamp, he was very impressed with my greeting and thanks in Abkhazian. Entering russian took a bit longer, as my passport seem to raise a few red flags!   
I would recommend Abkhazia for 3-4 days purely for the bus stops and the train stations.  The monastery was lovely also.   We didn’t see everything and next time I would quite like to do a lot of hiking in the high mountains.  

Stephs’ photos are here


Gagra, 5 May, 2019

Other notes

  • For the kiwis they have feijoas here – it’s amazing, feijoa juice, jam, it was amazing…. that’s a reason to visit 
  • It’s very cheap here.  Abkhazia is deceptively poor.  The average teachers salary $250 per month, a flat in Sukhumi cost $65k to buy, which means property is very unaffordable.  For foreigners, everything seems cheap.  
  • We booked this as part of a bigger holiday through native eye in the UK, but you could probably book direct with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer.  If you wanted to go off-roading, you could also contact Sergei at off-roading Abkhazia.
  • We stayed at Hotel Abaat in Gagra and Hotel Leon in Sukhum and both were good 
  • I would suggest learning a few words in Abkhazian, the locals were always thrilled when I said thank you very much (itabob idootsana) and very good (dar ibzyo) 

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

Faces of Afghanistan

Its a few weeks since we have gotten back from Afghanistan, and I shared most of my photos in earlier posts.  However, regular readers will know my hubby is a much better photographer than I am, and here is a guest post of his favourite faces of Afghanistan….