A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: rebecca.banks21

20th November - 7th December

Ushuaia, Puerto Madryn and Buenos Aires

sunny 27 °C

We arrived in Ushuaia, the 'bottom of the world' (the southernmost city in the world), after a 13-hour bus ride from Puerto Natales. The border crossing was the easiest yet - they didn't even pretend to check our bags at Argentinian customs so our habit of fruit smuggling continued unhindered. It was amazing to arrive in broad daylight though it was so late. The sun only sets around 10pm (with usable light even later), so it was a shock getting back to the UK in December! Sadly it's difficult to make the most of it, as the weather in Ushuaia is just so bad. It was windy, grey and cold every day. It was hard to believe it was summer, and we really wondered how people cope there in the winter. We just considered ourselves lucky that it didn't rain too much while we were there. After an early night, we woke up fresh and headed up to a glacier located just outside of the town. Getting there involved walking up a ski slope that had been closed for the 'summer', which was slightly surreal. At the top we climbed for around 15 minutes in the snow before coming across a fantastic view of the town and the port.

The following day was the second round of the Argentinian presidential elections, which we followed avidly as it was very likely to affect the 'blue' or unofficial exchange rate for us. Scioli was the favourite and he was the successor of the incumbent president, who restricted access to foreign currency giving rise to this double exchange rate (much higher on the street than officially). However, the winner was Macri, who vowed to remove the restrictions as soon as possible. We rushed to change our dollars at a good rate as soon as we found out, as Argentina is almost unaffordable at the official rate. It seems that the country will probably change dramatically over the next five years. I would love to come back and find out.

While the Argentinians were out voting, we headed to the Tierra del Fuego national park. It was a lovely surprise to bump into a friend we had made a month earlier and we all hiked together exchanging the stories of our epic Torres del Paine trek. Most of the trails were along the coast and were absolutely stunning. The air was biting but we had a great walk, through woods and across cold beaches. Eventually we reached the Chilean 'border', a token sign saying not to go any further alongside three branches placed on the ground in a line. I really did wonder why they bother with such strict checks in some places, while in others you could simply walk across completely unnoticed...

The next day it was already light when we got on the bus at 5am. We had a 12-hour journey to Rio Gallegos, which unavoidably involved crossing briefly back into Chile and out again (there goes another full page of my passport). There we had a 3-hour wait before boarding an 18-hour bus to Puerto Madryn. It was a very long day but we were well used to buses by this point and the second bus was very comfortable. We were even given wine with our dinner, Malbec of course. It was a very pleasant surprise when we arrived in Puerto Madryn and stepped out of the bus in 25-degree sunshine. We were obviously a lot further north but we had expected it to be very windy in the port and nowhere near as summery. We checked in and spent the afternoon wandering around the very pleasant town. We could have been in California - there were runners everywhere and people doing weights on the beach, and the cafes along the front were full of people enjoying the warm weather.

The next day we were up early to go to Peninsula Valdes, the nature reserve that was the reason we had stopped at Puerto Madryn. Though this was one of the most expensive trips we had done, it was well worth it as it was also one of the best days of our whole journey. In the morning we spotted guanacos and rheas and spent a while trying to find the orcas that the area is so famous for. They sometimes even come onto the beach in order to hunt seal pups. Sadly we didn't see any but we saw endless elephant seals and sea lions basking in the sun and we spotted an armadillo hiding in the bushes. We also saw penguins unbelievably close (less than 1m away), which was an unforgettable experience (who knew penguins sneeze?). In the afternoon we went out on a boat to try and spot some Southern right whales (ballena franca austral). We got lucky within 5 minutes when we spotted mother and her calf swimming fairly close to shore. We followed them for at least half an hour while the 'baby' (enormous) played and the mother tried to keep up. At one point I was about a metre away as they swam right next to the boat. After that we headed to another area where we were again incredibly lucky to see a whale jumping. We were told we don't really know why they do this, though there are many theories.

The next day it was finally time to make our way to Buenos Aires, my last stop before going home. We had time to relax in the morning and even went for a run by the beach. The bus was comfortable, if odd. Rather than serving our meal on the bus, as every other bus company had done, we were herded off the bus at 10.45pm (I will never get used to how late Argentinians eat) and given dinner in a roadside restaurant. It wasn't bad though and we slept well, having become so used to spending nights on buses. We arrived mid-morning and headed straight to the hostel, already excited by the beautiful weather (between 25 and 30 and not a cloud in the sky). We had transferred money to be picked up in cash when we arrived, as we had run out of dollars and couldn't face paying 50% more for the official exchange rate. This meant going to a slightly dodgy part of town to pick it up. I was stopped by a woman telling me my rucksack was open. Luckily I had all my valuables in my money belt but it was an eye-opener, and after that we left everything we could possibly do without in the hostel locker. That evening we had our first 'night out' (we never made it out of the hostel) since Santiago. We chose a 'party hostel', though it wouldn't normally be our thing, as we wanted to make the most of my last week and enjoy ourselves. That we certainly did.

Though we often tried to have an early night, we inevitably ended up going for drinks until late. Given that it could be 1am before you get back from dinner, a late night in BA would be 6 or 7am! We had saved a lot of money by cooking pretty much the whole time we had been in Chile and Argentina so we were able to eat out most nights in BA. I think by the end of the week I had eaten most of a cow. The steak is so delicious and incredibly cheap, as is the red wine. It does make you wonder how they don't all suffer heart attacks in Argentina and whether Europeans cutting down on their meat consumption will really make much difference to climate change given the amount consumed there. Another BA specialty is the ice cream, supposedly better than Italian gelato. I have to say, I wasn't disappointed.

BA wasn't just partying. We spent full days wandering around the various districts. La Boca was originally the immigrant quarter. It is famous for its brightly coloured houses and as the home of tango. Palermo is the wealthy area. The streets are leafy and full of bars and restaurants that spill out onto the pavement. San Telmo is an older district with a wide variety of architecture (both French and Italian-style houses) and a fantastic market at weekends that we spent 3 hours at. Recoleta is also a richer neighbourhood, where we saw many old mansions and the famous cemetery where past personalities, such as Eva Peron (Evita) are buried in ridiculously lavish tombs. Whilst there we also had to give tango a try. We had a couple of lessons where we learnt the basic steps, and we went to a tango show one evening, which told the story of the development of the dance over the years. It was an amazing thing to see - the dancers are so elegant and the music was brilliant too. Sadly, too soon it was time for me to leave (Sophie leaves from Rio in two weeks). Though I was obviously looking forward to being home again, I had mixed feelings when I had to go.

I'm now back in the UK after a very easy journey home. I thought it would be stranger being back and that it would take a while to get used to again, but as soon as I landed everything felt normal and as if nothing had really changed. There are a few things I'm really hoping I'll take from this trip. I've really enjoyed living very simply - not just in terms of spending less, but the fact that I was surviving with very few belongings and basically no cosmetic products. I really appreciate 'luxuries' now like hot water and any kind of customer service at all. I'd like to keep the resilience I've developed, the ability to stay positive when things go wrong because you don't really have any choice other than to quit and go home. I'd also love it if I retained my ability to sleep pretty much anywhere!

Before I finish this final post, I'd like to thank my family for being there to help whenever I've been in a difficult situation, my boyfriend for supporting me the whole way and of course Sophie for essentially being a fantastic friend. Travelling together can put a friendship under a lot of pressure but I don't feel like we were even close to falling out. It's been a pleasure. Finally, I've met a lot of incredible people on my journey, from all over the world - please stay in touch and say hi if you're in London.

Posted by rebecca.banks21 00:46 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

22nd October - 19th November

Pucón, Bariloche, Chiloé, Chile Chico, El Chaltén, El Calafate, Torres del Paine

all seasons in one day 5 °C

We arrived at 7.15am in Pucón after a 10-hour night bus from Santiago and casually strolled across the street (it's a very small town) to our hostel. Luckily another guest was awake to let us in, as no staff arrived until 8am and we would have had to wait outside in the cold. Other than that minor issue, the hostel was one of the nicest we've stayed in. Like all the buildings in Pucón it looked like a pretty, rustic, cosy ski chalet - almost entirely made out of wood with a stove that was kept burning all night. The staff were really helpful and gave us a lot of tips as to what to do in the area and the price included towels. If you've ever used a camping towel (and I have, for almost 4 months) you'll understand what a luxury this is!

We had a relaxed morning - I read and caught up with people and Sophie slept, having not got much rest on the bus. In the afternoon we set off on a hike that was recommended to us by the hostel, with a 'treasure map' to lead us there. The walk was very picturesque and the scenery almost looked British. Compared to everywhere else I have been on the trip so far, Pucón was very green! The only difference was the snowcapped volcanoes in the background. We found the trail with no difficulties and were almost at our destination (a waterfall little known about) when we took a wrong turn and found ourselves scrambling down an incredibly steep, muddy hill. We reached the river but the vegetation was so dense that we couldn't find a way out other than to very reluctantly turn round and climb back up. Luckily we made it back to the path, just glad that the search parties didn't have to be sent out for us.

The next day we set off at 8am for a full day's trekking in the Cañi reserve, half an hour away from Pucón by bus. The trail was absolutely beautiful from the start. For the first hour we walked past endless farms and little huts with lambs, pigs, goats and cows and then we carried on into the forest. It was a stunning day but it stayed cool all morning, which we were grateful for, particularly as the vast majority of the walk was uphill. Every so often there would be a gap in the trees giving us a breathtaking view of the surrounding volcanoes. After a couple of hours it started to get surreal. Despite the spring sunshine, the path was covered in snow. We were glad we had listened to the advice to hire poles for the day, though we'd been thinking they were useless all morning. It didn't take long until my boots were soaked through, especially as every other step I seemed to sink in half a metre. Progress was slow and got even slower when we hit a steep hill and were constantly in danger of sliding down, but it was beautiful. The snow was still untouched in places and there were monkey puzzle trees everywhere. Finally we reached the summit and weren't disappointed by the 360 degree viewpoint of the whole region. We could even see into Argentina from where we were. Heading back down was much quicker, though we had to hurry to make sure we were back in time for the bus, and my legs felt pretty battered afterwards.

On our final day in Pucón we enjoyed a relaxed morning and planned to go kayaking in the afternoon. Unfortunately it was too windy and would have been dangerous so we took a walk by the beautiful lake instead and soaked up the sunshine on the black (volcanic) beach.

Pucón is such a lovely town that it was sad to leave, but we were still excited to be on our way to Argentina the next morning. Sadly this meant spending the best part of 12 hours on a bus. We arrived late at night in Bariloche and went straight to bed when we made it to the hostel. Following on from the trend we set in Bolivia, we found out that the Argentinian presidential elections were the next day. Having expected everything to be closed like in la Paz, we were pleasantly surprised to find at least some things open. We wandered around town admiring the alpine chalets (the town could be a ski resort in Switzerland or Austria) and enjoying the fresh air. Due to the incumbent president's policy of severe restrictions on foreign currency, dollars and pounds are like gold dust and are worth a lot more than the official rate on the black market. We found this out before crossing the border and made sure we had plenty of dollars with us. Though there had recently been crackdowns, it really wasn't difficult to find somewhere to change the money - you just have to walk down the street and people approach you offering 'cambio?'.

That afternoon we managed to get a fairly cheap private tour around the 'circuito chico' not far from Bariloche. We learnt a lot about the area - about the architecture, the fact that most hotels are owned by powerful trade unions and occasionally burned to the ground, that a prominent former nazi had been running one of the best schools in Bariloche until he was finally prosecuted in Germany a few years ago. We were also constantly reminded of the fact that Brits aren't always particularly welcome in Argentina. There are many streets and businesses with the name Malvinas (their name for the Falklands) and the map in our hostel quite clearly labelled the islands as belonging to Argentina. Still, we had no problems and everyone seemed very friendly so we weren't too worried. The circuito chico was stunning. Our guide took us to several lakes with beautiful views of snowcapped mountains and pine forests. We also stopped off at the Swiss colony which looked like a year-round Christmas market.

The next day we set off early on a tour to 'el tronador' (thundering), a volcano set in a beautiful national park. It was a long drive but worth it for more beautiful views. The water in the lakes and rivers around Bariloche is the clearest I've ever seen. You can see everything metres below the surface. It makes you want to jump in, but the icy temperature of the water all year round puts a stop to that. Despite the changeable weather we were finally convinced that it was spring by a bed of daffodils that we saw on the way. This was surreal, especially as everyone at home is now getting used to dark evenings and cold weather. Our tour finished at the so-called black glacier. The ice looks like rock at first sight, as the wind blows so much dust into it that it is no longer white (hence the name), but you're reminded that it is a glacier by the ice floating on the lake below. It was a bleak landscape but beautiful, though it was a shame the peak of the volcano was in cloud.

On our third day in Bariloche we decided to do a hike without a tour and were given advice by the local trekking association. We had to take two buses but it was absolutely worth it. Though short, particularly as we had to stop before the top where the path was blocked by snow, the trail had some of the most breathtaking views we've seen all trip. We also had perfect weather and it was wonderful to be out in the sun. We were followed for the whole walk by a dog. Normally I wouldn't mind this, but this dog jumped up on us, clipped our heels and slobbered all over us for the whole journey. We just couldn't get him to go away! There was a nervous moment too when we were approached by a curious cow and were worried the dog would cause problems. In the end we found someone who knew the owner and he came to get him. We weren't sorry to say goodbye!

The next morning we got up in the dark to catch our bus to the island of Chiloé off the coast of Chile. This meant another border crossing, the first vaguely serious attempt at customs checks we'd had all trip. We made it to Ancud, a small town on the island, mid-afternoon and set off in search of a hostel. In the end we settled for a rather strange place (kind of like us just staying in a strange lady's house) because there really wasn't much on offer. Given how much we had heard about Chiloé before arriving, there really isn't much tourism there, the economy mainly based on fishing and agriculture. We wandered round the town a little but settled in pretty early, as there wasn't much else to do! The next day we had another private tour, this time to see the penguins in the north of the island. The drive was stunning and we were struck by how similar it looks to Britain, particularly the Lake District. If I'd have woken up there, I'd have thought I was at home. We boarded a small boat with a few other tourists to go and see the penguins that live on the rocks just off the coast. There are humboldts and magallenicos. They come there to lay their eggs in spring and in summer apparently there are thousands. We were happy to have seen around 20 and we also managed to spot a sea otter which was exciting. In the remainder of the tour we climbed up the cliffs for a spectacular view of the beach and we also tried a local fruit that looks like rhubarb but is more savoury in flavour and grows wild all over the island.

After the tour we headed to Castro, the island's largest town (around 55,000 people). It certainly had more going on than Ancud but it's still pretty small and quiet. One interesting feature is the rows of palafitos, or colourful huts on stilts that jut out into the sea. We were lucky enough to stay in one for our two nights there. Though expensive, the palafitos are homely and we enjoyed the home comforts after so long on the road. From Castro we took a day trip to the Chiloé national park. The bus dropped us off right outside and we completed all of the short trails in the area. There was a surprising variety of landscapes, which is perhaps why this was designated a protected area. We walked through marshlands, forests and dunes while learning a lot about the fragile ecosystems there.

Our plan after Chiloé was to head down south as far as possible in Chile (buses are far cheaper there than in Argentina) and then to cross over into Argentina and head to El Calafate and El Chaltén, but this was much more difficult than we thought. There was only one bus a week from Puerto Montt (near Chiloé) to the border town of Coyhaique and we were slowly running out of time so couldn't really afford to wait for that. Instead we found a boat from the south of the island to take us to Puerto Chacabuco, near to Coyhaique. It took 28 hours but was really worth doing, just for the incredible views of the Chilean coastline. However, even when we arrived, getting across the border wasn't plain sailing. We had to take a minivan to a tiny port on the Lago General Carrera, the largest in Chile, then take another 3-hour ferry to Chile Chico. By the time we arrived another day had passed and it was already dark, but luckily we found accommodation with a man named Jaime who essentially took us into his home. We decided to have one day off the road and had heard there was a lot to do around Chile Chico, but were disappointed to find that no tour agencies were open and there was no public transport to take us to the national park nearby. Jaime offered to drop us off at his farm, only 15km away from the park, and told us it would only take us a couple of hours to get there by horse. He didn't really understand why we were so bemused by this offer (we quite clearly didn't have a horse) and seemed almost offended when we didn't take him up on it. We started to panic, thinking we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing to stave off the boredom, but we eventually found a guide who agreed to take us and we actually had a really great day. We went on a 5-hour hike and saw some really fascinating rock formations (formed under the sea) and cave paintings from civilisations that had been there thousands of years ago.

The next day we did the half-hour journey across the border to Argentina (Los Antiguos) and spent the day relaxing in the sun in yet another tiny town while waiting for our bus to El Calafate that evening. The bus was delayed by 3 hours, but we made friends in the bus station with our uno cards and learnt various international rules that we hadn't played before! As soon as we arrived in El Calafate we jumped on yet another bus to the nearby town of El Chaltén and finally arrived late that evening. Both towns surprised us in that they were full of groups of older tourists. Up until this point we had only really met travellers like ourselves - young and very much on a budget! But these were different places altogether, clearly cashing in on the wealthy tourists' custom. Despite this, they still had a certain alpine charm, with cosy wooden buildings and fires going everywhere.
El Chaltén is a bit of a hiking Mecca and describes itself as the 'hiking capital of the world'. We were lucky to have beautiful weather and while we were there we went on two stunning day treks in the area. They were long but easy and so well-marked that you didn't even need a map. We walked past beautiful blue glacial lakes, rivers and snowcapped mountains and relaxed with great Argentinian wine in the evenings. After a couple of days we returned to El Calafate in order to see its only real draw, the Perito Moreno glacier. This was an expensive day trip from the town, but absolutely worth it. The glacier is breathtaking. It is 250 squared km in area and up to 50m in height (above the water). In places it is bright blue, made even more striking by the contrast with the cloudy lake it sits on. You are dropped off at the top of the hill overlooking the ice and there are kilometres of walkways and many platforms leading you much closer to the glacier. The most impressive thing about being there is listening to the very frequent cracking noises (it sounds a lot like thunder) as pieces of ice break off and crash down into the water. This glacier is one of only three in Patagonia that is actually growing so we were very lucky to have been able to see it.

After El Calafate, it was time to head back to Chile one last time in order to visit the Torres del Paine national park. We took a very early bus to Puerto Natales. In itself, Puerto Natales is a fairly insignificant town with not a lot going on, except boats that come and go from both the north of Chile and Antarctica. However, there is a huge amount of tourism from the national park and Puerto Natales serves as the base for trekkers. We found a lovely hostel with very friendly and helpful owners who told us where to go to get all the information and kit we needed for the 8-day trek we planned to do. First we headed to CONAF, the organisation that runs the park, as we needed a trekking map and we had also heard that the full circuit (what we wanted to do) was still closed due to snow and general bad weather. They confirmed that this was the case but gave us lots of information on how to do the shorter and well-trodden W trek instead. However, when we got back to the hostel the owner was confused, as they'd had guests who had set off to do the longer trek and hadn't returned, so had assumed it must be open. We then set out back to CONAF where they finally bothered to call the park to check and then told us it was in fact open. Oh, South America! We then had a mad rush to hire all the equipment we needed - tent, sleeping bags, mats, trekking poles (for the snow), a stove and pans and to buy gas and the food we needed for the week. Never having done anything on this scale before, it was hard to decide what to take and what to leave behind, but we were lucky to have met a very experienced trekker a couple of weeks before who gave us lots of tips. In the end we were very strict and only took the lightest food we could possibly find (dried noodles and powdered mash) and our only luxury products were baby wipes and dry shampoo. We didn't regret it though, as our bags were still around 15kg each when everything was packed and ready to go.

We caught the 7.30am bus to the park and met a French trekker on the way who was setting off to do the circuit on his own, but ended up doing it all with us. It was nice to have more company and we felt a little safer with another person there, though he wasn't much more experienced than us. We arrived at around 10am and then had to register with the park and watch a safety video before setting off. Just as we were about to leave, it started to rain. This didn't bode well, but luckily it was no more than a few drops, though it was on and off all day. Far worse was the wind. We knew that it would be bad - southern Patagonia certainly has a reputation when it comes to wind, and we'd seen forecasts for winds between 80 and 90 km/h, but we still weren't really prepared for it. The landscape was pretty bleak - the sky was grey and we walked past endless burnt trees (the remnants of a devastating forest fire), battered by the gale. Thankfully, the walk wasn't too long or difficult and we arrived at our first camp mid-afternoon, just as the sun was coming out. We were already glad to be rid of our rucksacks and weren't looking forward to the much longer day to follow, but we had a pleasant enough evening in camp eating our dried noodles and chatting to other trekkers. The night was less pleasant. The tent seemed to be at the point of blowing away for most of the night, which made it difficult to sleep.

We got up early the next day and packed up after a miserably small breakfast. We set off on the long but relatively straightforward walk to the next camp. Apart from a couple of moments as we were walking along the side of a hill where we thought we might be blown away, we arrived unscathed at what we had planned to be our next camp by 1.30pm. We didn't fancy the idea of sitting around all afternoon and we had heard that bad weather was on its way, so though we had already walked close to 20km, we carried on to the next camp to give ourselves a spare day in case the infamous pass ('paso') was closed. The afternoon was tough. My back ached continuously from the bag and my legs were about to give up as a lot of this stretch was uphill. I was checking my watch a lot of the time, trying to carry on until we could justifiably stop again. Having said that, the landscape was wonderful. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and we walked through luscious green forest with views of the snowy mountains in the background. The national park seemed to outdo itself with very bad signs. At different parts on the same stretch of trail it would tell us a different total distance to walk and would inform us we had only 5km to go but then increase this on a later sign. We wondered who had made these signs, as we could have done a more accurate job by simply guessing the distances by our walking speed. Anyway, after a frustrating last '2km' we arrived at a stunning laguna and then followed the trail round to the next camp, set in the forest so at least a little more sheltered from the wind than the camp the night before. It was already fairly late so we pitched the tent and cooked quickly before heading to bed.

A large guided group was setting out to do the pass at 7 am and the ranger advised us to leave at a similar time, for safety in numbers on the trail. When we actually made it to the trail, it was easy to see why. But first we managed to get lost within 5 minutes of leaving camp. We had missed one of the orange markers and had set off on what looked like a path but was more of a product of our hopeful imaginations. Luckily we followed our instincts and turned back after around 15 minutes so no search party was needed. The actual trail wasn't much better, to be honest. Though clear, it was a mud bath, full of branches and other obstacles. It took all my concentration not to get my shoes soaked through before we had even reached the snow. After around an hour we reached the first patches of snow and were almost immediately trekking across entirely white, icy slopes. The wind was so bad that both Sophie and I were blown to the ground at one point. This was the most difficult and dangerous bit of trekking I had ever done and our adrenaline levels were pretty high the further we got. It was blowing a gale and snowing after an hour and a half, but I didn't even want to stop to put on my gloves. We just powered on, glad that at least there wasn't a white-out (an Italian had got lost and strayed off the path the year before and frozen to death). The remainder of the ascent alternated between plodding through snow and up patches of rocks. It was truly bleak, but we were reassured by the fact that there were a few others on the trail and that there were clear footprints for us to follow. It was too cold to stop at the summit so we headed straight down the other side, hoping for slightly more shelter there. The conditions were much the same, but on the other side we had intermittent views of the awesome Glacier Grey, which we walked alongside for several hours during the rest of that day. Just when the 'path' seemed to be easier going, we hit a section where there was just no way to stay on our feet. The only option was to slide. I was so grateful for my waterproof trousers at that point! Eventually we hit the more sheltered forest again, which was precarious and steep and brutal on our knees, but at least we weren't scared. We stopped quickly for lunch at the Paso camp before carrying on for a few more hours to the much more luxurious camp Grey, where the longer circuit trek meets the W trek and civilisation starts again. By the time we arrived the rain was torrential. We put our tent up as quickly as we could then rushed to the refugio where we had somewhere to dry out and cook. It was hard not to be jealous of all the tourists staying in proper beds, enjoying the bar and the restaurant meals there, but at least we had the satisfaction of having done the trek 'properly' (that was all we really had!).

The night was another tough one. I was so worried about not touching the sides of our frankly minuscule tent (and so not getting my sleeping bag wet), that I didn't get much sleep. It was all pretty pointless anyway, as everything was soaked through by the morning. We woke to yet more rain and were pretty miserable as we faced the prospect of walking through the wet all day with sopping equipment. The wind was unbelievably strong yet again and we had a few nail-biting moments on some of the narrower and steeper paths where we were clinging on for dear life. Thankfully, by the time we arrived in the next camp for lunch, the sun had come out a little and we jumped at the chance to dry out our things. Given how strong the wind was, our tent was dry within a few minutes and we set off in slightly higher spirits on the much shorter walk to the next camp. We had assumed that the W trek, given its popularity and the number of very unprepared people on it, who looked like the longest walk they had done before was from their hotel to the taxi, would be much better maintained and easy in comparison to the first half of the full circuit. However, the paths were in complete disarray and the bridges were just horrifying. We walked past countless bridges that were in pieces scattered all over the river they had formerly crossed. This didn't inspire much confidence when we walked over ones that were still 'standing' but looking rotten and creaking a little too much. It became a running joke - how dodgy can a bridge actually be while still remaining crossable? Despite this, we made it to our next camp for the night. It was very basic and involved a 10 minute walk to the bathrooms in the pouring rain.

Our kit was soaked through again by the morning and we weren't able to go up to one of the more spectacular viewpoints as we had planned due to the bad weather. Luckily this meant that we only had a short walk that day to our next camp. We arrived, again in the rain, and found a spot to pitch before Sophie realised she had left the tent poles and pegs back at the previous camp. We were so fed up by this point that we could have given up, but good on Sophie, she just got on with it and headed straight back for the poles, thankful that it was the shortest stretch of the trek that she had to repeat. Meanwhile, I cleaned and dried our kit by the stove in the camp and made friends with the Chilean porters, who insisted on giving me piles of their food and mate, a traditional herbal tea drink (with its own rules as to how to drink it in a 'mate session') very popular in Argentina and certain parts of Chile. The rain was still torrential by the evening but at least we had somewhere warm and dry to sit and we shared stories with some other travellers from the UK and Australia. The next morning I woke up feeling like the cheekbone below my right eye was a little bruised. My sleeping bag was full of toggles and other things that got in my face while I was trying to sleep so I just assumed I had been lying on one of those. I rolled over and asked Sophie if it was bruised and her response said it all. 'Not bruised, no ...'. The look of horror was enough for me to realise it was a little more than that. I could now feel that my eye was swollen to around the size of a tennis ball and I could barely open it. We scrambled out of the tent to try and find some medical help but there was no one to be found. Even when the refugio staff finally turned up, they said they couldn't give me any medication in case I had a bad reaction to it. How ironic ... It was a response we might have expected in Europe but not there, where health and safety doesn't really seem to exist as a concept. Luckily lots of the other trekkers had antihistamines. None of them had the boxes with them so I ended up just taking a cocktail of various pills and within two hours my eye had gone down enough for me to be able to open it, but I still looked like I had been punched.

The stares on the walk that day were not enjoyable but I just tried my best to ignore it and focus on getting to where we needed to be. It wasn't easy to stay positive when I then went and stepped in a river and could feel the water running between my toes for the rest of the morning, but we made it to our final camp and the knowledge that it was the last night kept us going. We managed to get our kit dry again and went to go and enjoy a rare moment of sunshine in the afternoon. The night was cold. It snowed on and off and I got into my sleeping bag wearing everything I had, including my full set off waterproofs. We got up at 5am the next day in order to head up to the famous 'torres' from which the park gets its name. We were incredibly grateful to have a completely dry set of kit to pack up and we left our bags at camp to collect afterwards. The walk up to the torres was short but difficult. After half an hour we hit sheet ice and resorted to hopping from rock to rock in our determination not to get injured at this point. The air was biting but it was worth every moment for the view we had at the top. It felt like all of the trekking had finally paid off to be able to see that landscape. We couldn't stay there long in the cold so we carefully made our way back down and picked up the bags before completing the circuit on a pretty easy stretch. We ran across the 'finish line' and spent a few relaxed hours waiting with the other hikers we'd met along the way, just enjoying the fact that we had finally finished, and survived. Given how some of the other circuit walkers looked, it seemed Sophie and I had almost finished in style, despite everything that had gone wrong! I slept most of the way back to Puerto Natales and had the best shower of my life when we got back. The last few days have involved us trying our very best to put back on the weight we lost (eating a lot of chocolate), sleeping and just generally lazing around. It has been amazing! Tomorrow we're off to Ushuaia, the southernmost city on the continent. After Tierra del Fuego, we're heading back up to Buenos Aires where my flight leaves from in only two and a half weeks. It's hard to believe I'm almost at the end of my journey and while I'm really looking forward to going home, I am trying my best to make the most of the last part of my adventure. There'll only be one more post after this. Can't wait to see you all soon!

Posted by rebecca.banks21 06:12 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

18th September - 21st October

Bolivia, the Inka trail and northern Chile

20 °C

I left Lima first thing and landed in Cusco bright and early. It was so great to be back in Cusco, even just for a day. I left my bags at a friend's flat and spent the day walking around a lot and enjoying the Peruvian food. It felt like going home, which was nice after travelling for so long. I then headed to the bus station for my 10pm bus to Copacabana, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Having only been in Peru so far, I was a little nervous to be heading to a new country but excited to be meeting Sophie there.

I was dropped off and directed to a colectivo which I (silly me) assumed would be taking me to the border, but I was told to get off in a village in the middle of nowhere. I had no choice but to get into a taxi. Luckily it wasn't too far and I found the border in the end. It's not exactly the best protected border in the world. I almost walked across without going through immigration by accident. There's no one checking and you actually have to search quite hard to find first the Peruvian office for your exit stamp, and then the Bolivian office to enter the country. After 30 minutes or so I was officially in Bolivia. I then took another colectivo the 8km to Copacabana.

Copacabana is a village on the edge of the lake, which has a couple of hills with great views over the bay, but is otherwise just a port to the popular tourist destination of Isla del Sol. I spent the morning pottering around and enjoying the sun. I then went to try and book an island tour for the next day for Sophie and me. However, I was told that no boats at all would be leaving the port that day due to 'elections'. It turned out there was a referendum the following day in Bolivia and the government had banned transport of all forms (including taxis) that day. We decided it would be better to go straight to La Paz rather than hang around in the tiny Copacabana for another day, which meant a nail-biting half an hour while I was desperately hoping for Sophie to arrive before the last bus left for La Paz. Luckily she did, with two minutes to spare!

We arrived in La Paz 4 hours later (11pm) with no clue where we were (apparently the bus terminal was too much to ask) and in torrential rain, something I haven't seen since leaving the UK. I had written down the address of a hostel but that didn't seem to exist so we ran across the road to another place. Though a hotel, we thought we'd treat ourselves at £8 a night. After a great sleep we got up early to try and find an agency to book our jungle tour with. Unfortunately, we hadn't put two and two together and hadn't realised that La Paz would be completely shut down too. Absolutely nothing was open. Luckily, a couple of hours later we found one agency open and didn't really have a choice but to book with them, leaving 2 days later. After a quick wander around the actually very charming centre we gave up and headed back to the hotel for a nap. A few hours later I started to feel unwell and a couple of hours after that I was in the throes of food poisoning. I don't think I've ever been so intensively sick. I was very lucky and after 12 hours it had stopped and I was able to start trying to regain all the fluids I'd lost (which I'm still doing now). By the time we had to catch our flight to the jungle I was weak but essentially ok. The plane was the smallest I have ever come across. There were 19 passengers, 2 pilots (with no door between us and them) and no other crew. Though only 40 minutes, I was battling not to be sick with my weak stomach and all the turbulence. It didn't help that it was around 35 degrees and incredibly humid when we landed. The "airport" was the smallest I've ever seen. It consisted of one small waiting room (the gate was a covered terrace outside) and security was a man with a hand-held metal detector. We took a bus for the 10 minute journey into "town" and checked into a hostel. We spent the rest of the day relaxing in hammocks and trying to get used to the oppressive heat.

The next day we headed to the tour agency for 8.30am and got straight into the jeep that took us to las Pampas (fertile lowlands along the river). We drove for around three hours crammed into the back of the very hot jeep and emerged at the other end already filthy due to the amount of dust on the road. Luckily the journey went quite quickly as we spent the time getting to know the rest of our group (pretty much all Brits our age, including a couple of BPP law students!). At the other end we were told to change into shorts and swimming clothes and then we got straight into our boat.

The journey to our lodge took the rest of the afternoon. We floated along the river making plenty of stops on the way to observe the incredibly abundant wildlife. Where in Peru it was relatively difficult to spot a caiman and involved a certain amount of luck, in the pampas it certainly didn't. We must have seen over a hundred on our journey, some as close as half a metre away. We had to shout to our guide at points not to drive us any closer because we didn't want to lose a limb. We also saw hundreds of turtles and a huge range of beautiful birds. We had a fright when a fish leapt into the boat like a kamikaze and it took us a good five minutes to catch it and throw it out again. We arrived at the lodge after a few hours. It is entirely built on stilts around 3 metres above the ground so that it doesn't get flooded in rainy season when the river can easily rise 5 metres. There is also a family of monkeys there which run in and out of the rooms. My crackers went missing so I presume they enjoyed a feast on me. We enjoyed popcorn and some delicious Bolivian coconut biscuits before heading off to watch the sunset, armed with the strongest insect repellent money can buy. For sunset we headed in the boat to what appeared to be the local football field / drinking establishment. The location was probably chosen for the guides' entertainment rather than ours but we still enjoyed watching the sun go down. We then got back into the boat for some night-time caiman spotting, using torches to spot the reflection of their eyes in the water. Our slightly drunk guide picked up a baby caiman to show us. It started making a noise which, as he informed the rather alarmed group, was a call for help to mummy caiman. We were rather relieved when he put it back down.

After a very sweaty night of very little sleep, we got up to a delicious breakfast of pancakes and fruit before heading out for some anaconda spotting. We wandered round the grassy flatlands for around an hour before the guide spotted one and brought it to show us. We had to cover our hands in mud so that the chemicals from our sun cream and repellent didn't harm the snake but then we all had a chance to hold it and take pictures. In the afternoon we went piranha fishing. This mostly consisted of us feeding the piranhas different types of bait as, no matter how well you attached it to the rod, they always seemed to be able to get the food off unscathed. In the end we all managed to catch something and Sophie even caught three. We had a full rack of fish to eat for dinner later that day. There really isn't much meat on a piranha but it was an experience to eat something I'd caught myself. Other highlights of the day included seeing flamingos in flight and crashing into a caiman when Sophie was right at the front of the boat and watching it almost jump out of the way.

On the final day we woke up early to go and watch the sunrise. It's amazing that close to the equator. You can see the sun moving because it happens so quickly. In the morning we had the chance to swim in the river with the friendly pink Dolphins that live there. They look very strange but it was a wonderful experience to be in the (very very dirty) water with them. Then it was time to head back to Rurrenabaque on the jeep. We relaxed in the pool in the hostel and had an early night.

Having woken up before 5am to catch our flight, we were annoyed when we found out it was delayed by an hour and a half. As you can imagine from my description above, entertainment is thin on the ground in Rurrenabaque airport so it was a long wait. We were then told that the plane had broken down in la Paz. They couldn't even assure us that we would be able to leave Rurrenabaque that day. We had been looking forward to escaping the heat and getting to Cusco to acclimatise for our Inka trail so this wasn't good news. We reached a new low when the best entertainment we could think of was trying to work our way through the combinations on Sophie's padlock to which she has forgotten the code. After more than 6 hours in the airport we were ecstatic to get on the plane (everyone cheered when we took off). We spent a couple of hours in la Paz then got straight on a bus to Cusco where we arrived at 5.30 the next morning.

I really enjoyed being back in Cusco, showing Sophie around and seeing friends when she was exploring the sacred valley. We went to a salsa class and had a brilliant night out too. The night before the Inka trail we went to the language school for our briefing. Unfortunately the man from the agency was one of the most unpleasant people I've ever met and informed us completely unapologetically that we would not be climbing Huayna Picchu (a peak above Machu Picchu with great views) though we'd booked in March, as he'd messed up the reservation. After much discussion he refunded us the money and booked Machu Picchu mountain for us instead. We didn't really have a choice but to accept and try to remain positive. Thankfully, our experience was much better than we had expected given this introduction. We were relieved to meet our two fantastic guides the next morning and we were lucky to be a group of only 5 people, the two of us with three lovely Brits.

The first day was relatively easy. We walked for around six hours after reaching the start of the trail by minivan. The terrain was undulating and not too difficult though Sophie and I, as the only two people without porters, were getting used to our heavy bags with all our clothes, snacks, sleeping bags and mats for the trail. As on the Santa Cruz trek, the food was absolutely fantastic. I couldn't cook things that complicated in a kitchen, let alone a tent. It was also luxurious compared to the other trek. While they were disgusting, there were at least flushing toilets and taps with running water the whole way. The staff brought tea to our tents when we woke up and bowls of warm water for washing in the afternoon. Sophie and I were also sharing a huge tent, which made getting dressed and packing a lot easier.

I slept like a log and so felt surprisingly fresh when we woke up at 5.30 to start trekking on the second day. We had been told this would be the toughest day so we were all a little nervous when we set off. It became clear as soon as we started ascending just how important acclimatisation is. Though I had my heavy bag I found the three-hour ascent up dead woman's pass relatively straight forward. Sophie coped well too though she was slightly behind me, as she'd only had a few days to get used to the altitude. However, one guy in our group really struggled. We later found out that their agency had allowed them to book a flight to Cusco from sea level the day before starting the trail. As soon as he started going downhill again, he seemed to recover but woke up in the night vomiting and had a splitting headache. We were all pretty worried but the guide seemed calm about the situation and sure enough he was able to walk with us the next day.

The third day was probably the toughest for me as it was long and involved a lot of going down so my legs felt pretty battered by the end of the day. However, it was the day with the best views of the trek. Until that point the landscape had been very similar to that in Cusco - high but a little barren and dry. But that day just before lunch it seemed as if we had suddenly stepped into the rainforest. We were suddenly surrounded by luscious vegetation, the mountains were green and much more as we had imagined the trail to be. The air was muggy and it rained on and off all day. We finally reached our camp just before dark and enjoyed our last dinner together.

The next day we woke up at 3am and packed up as quickly as we could before heading to the control point for Machu Picchu. We were one of the first groups in the queue and so didn't mind waiting the two hours before the gate finally opened at 5.30. Fuelled by adrenaline we then almost ran the final stretch for an hour up to Machu Picchu's famous sun gate. It was worth it as there were only around five people there when we arrived and we were able to take in the spectacular view of the ruins below before it got too busy. A lot of people say they didn't enjoy Machu Picchu as it's too touristy. It's true that the place is absolutely swamped with tourists but I expected that and still found it magical to arrive there, particularly with the achievement of completing the Inka trail behind us.

We headed down to the ruins and the guide gave us a tour. We then had time to wander round ourselves and get more pictures. Sophie and I then decided to walk down to the nearest town to save money on the outrageously priced bus. The trail said it would take an hour so we assumed it would be less, as we generally walk fairly fast. We power-walked despite very tired legs all the way down the very steep steps but it still took us 1 hour 15. Perhaps the hour was 'porter time'. They carry up to 35kg yet race ahead on the trail to set up the tents and get cooking before the tourists get there...

We finally arrived in the town and enjoyed a well-earned beer (which went straight to my head) then headed to the thermal springs to ease the muscles before getting on the train back to Cusco. We arrived exhausted at 11pm but just couldn't resist one last night out in Cusco with the group from the trek. We finally got to bed at 5am when it was already getting light.

I had a relaxed day in Cusco and then slept very well on the night bus back to la Paz. The queues at the border were horrendous and it didn't help that they didn't want to allow the American girl from our bus to enter the country. The Americans are unlucky in that they get charged extortionate amounts to enter a lot of the countries in South America (for us it's free). They refused to accept her dollars, first saying they were fake (they weren't) then admitting they didn't want folded dollars! We managed in the end as Sophie had some pristine dollars to swap. It was another quick stop there before we boarded a second night bus to Uyuni. We hadn't been looking forward to this bus as we'd read that the roads were largely unpaved. Either they were better than expected or we were just too exhausted to notice. Anyway, we were pleasantly surprised when we were woken up in Uyuni having slept pretty well.

We checked into our hotel and slept even more then got up to go and book a tour for the salt flats. Uyuni really doesn't have much going for it and as everything is closed at lunch time, it was like walking round a ghost town. We had to wait but finally found an open agency and organised our tour for the next day. We then headed to the train graveyard just outside the town where we made the most of the fact that we were the only people there to climb on the trains and take lots of pictures. There's something very eerie about the place as it truly feels like it's in the middle of nowhere. Stuck for anything else to do, we celebrated Sophie's birthday with a bottle of wine and a sleepover in our room with the heater on full blast (Uyuni gets very very cold at night).

The next day we were picked up around 10am to start our tour of the salt flats. We were in a group with two Italians, a guy from Switzerland and a girl from France. Our guide was very good and drove more carefully than I've ever seen anyone drive in South America! The first day was all about seeing the salt flats. They begin just outside Uyuni and stretch for miles and miles. The ground is a brilliant white and you can't look at it without sunglasses. Parts are completely flat and others are marked by strange hexagonal shapes like honeycomb. We stopped at an island which the Inkas used to use as a refuge when crossing that stretch of the desert. The contrast of the brown earth with huge (3-4m) cacti against the white desert was really striking. We made a few other short stops on the way but mostly we just drove and stared out of the jeep at the almost alien landscape. The first night we spent in a salt hotel. The walls were made of salt bricks, the tables, chairs and beds too and the floor was covered in salt. We were worried it would be cold but it was actually very insulated so we slept well.

The second day we headed into a different section of the desert - no longer salty but full of different colours, browns and reds and lots of volcanoes. We passed several beautiful lakes with flamingos including the lago colorado with terracotta-coloured water. The wind was biting and at times unbearable. At a few of the stops we jumped out to take pictures then ran for the safety of the jeep as soon as we could. The second night was very cold. As the sun went down I progressively put on more and more layers until I had no more clothes to wear. I was very glad I had asked the agency to include a sleeping bag in the price, so I at least managed to get some sleep.

On the final day we got up and left the shelter before sunrise and headed to the geysers. These are vents of boiling hot steam from the ground. These ones are at around 5,000m so we certainly felt the altitude and the cold when we got out of the jeep. We were warned to keep well away and to be honest the sulphur smell meant we didn't want to get much closer. We only found out later that a woman had fallen into one and suffered 80% burns the week before on the Chilean side of the desert. After the geysers we headed to a beautiful thermal spring. Unlike some of the others I have visited, the water was crystal clear and very warm. It was worth getting changed in the cold to enjoy the water.

Then it was straight to the border to head into Chile. In typical Bolivian fashion the border was slow and they also tried to charge us an unofficial exit fee. We argued a bit and because the queue was long they just let us get away without paying. We hopped on a bus and that took us to San Pedro de Atacama, our first destination in Chile.

San Pedro is a pretty little town but it is essentially just a slightly more European extension of Peru and Bolivia - the food served was the same and the landscape hadn't really changed much. We spent a few relaxing days in San Pedro making the most of the beautiful sunshine and enjoying cheap Chilean wine by the hostel fire before we headed further south. On the first evening we went to the 'moon valley'. I could see why it was called this as the landscape certainly looks very lunar but the reddish colour made it seem a bit more like Mars than the moon. Unfortunately we had been told shorts would be fine and then suffered when the wind blew mounds of sharp sand against our legs and faces, but the views were worth it. We also hired bikes while we were there and had a great day exploring the caves and winding paths of the 'devil's canyon'. While we enjoyed San Pedro, we were ready to move on to the bigger and more exciting Santiago and that helped motivate us to get on the 24-hour bus which took us there. It was thankfully very comfortable and I slept a lot as well as reading two books to pass the time.

Santiago is a completely different world to everywhere else I've seen in South America so far. For a start, they have a metro system so we didn't have to rely on taxis, colectivos or unlabelled buses to find our hostel. The hostel also had reliable running water and fully functioning wifi. It was like landing in a European city and it was a shock, but a pleasant one. It was also European in other ways - our first day there was my first experience of proper rain outside the jungle of the whole trip. We took refuge in the human rights museum (on Pinochet's dictatorship), which was excellent. It was all in Spanish so my dictionary got a fair bit of use but the exhibits were very good and we learnt a lot about this scarily recent period of Chile's history. The weather was much better the next day and we made the most of the spring sunshine with a four-hour walking tour, followed by climbing Santiago's two hills. All in all we walked almost 20 miles that day. We also tried the local terremoto (earthquake) cocktail for the first time which is delicious but very strong. The next day we relaxed and took in another museum - the history museum, where we learned about Chilean independence among other things.

Next stop was Valparaiso, a very pretty town on the coast less than two hours from Santiago. The whole town is full of character and colour. It's a unesco world heritage site for its beautiful and unique painted facades and it's also the home to congress. It was an attempt to try and move some importance to cities other than Santiago (where over a third of the population live) but didn't really work, as most members still commute from the capital! Valparaiso is wonderful for wandering around on a sunny afternoon. It has so many little art shops and cafes, and the winding steep streets give you amazing views at so many different angles. There is art everywhere - everything is painted and it's almost impossible to take it all in, but we did our best in between many empanadas and more terremotos...

After two nights there we headed back to Santiago for a night and did a tour of a local winery (accessible by metro!) that afternoon. The wines were really good quality and incredibly good value and we learnt a little about Chilean wine production too!

We just arrived in Pucón in the Chilean Lake District after a night bus from Santiago. This will be our gateway to Patagonia so plenty of hiking and stunning landscapes to come! The original plan was to head to Mendoza in Argentina but unfortunately the border has been closed a lot due to unseasonably late snow (probably due to el niño). What a year to come to South America! Anyway, that's all for now. I have less than 7 weeks left before my flight back home so it's a race through Patagonia to the southernmost tip of the continent before we head back up to Buenos Aires.

Posted by rebecca.banks21 16:25 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

13th August - 17th September

Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Nasca, Ica, Huacachina, Paracas, Huaraz, Huanchaco and Lobitos

sunny 25 °C

Once again, I've failed to keep up with this and will now give you another huge post. I guess it shows I'm having fun! The last month has been hectic to say the least, and I've also had very limited internet access for most of it. While it's actually quite nice having a break from the Internet and reading a lot, it makes it difficult to stay in touch with everybody so apologies for neglecting you!

After returning to Cusco from the jungle, I left on a night bus for Arequipa. I managed to get a cheap ticket on Cruz del Sur, the most reputable bus company here, and basically had the bus to myself so had a pretty good night's sleep. We were also treated to a game of bingo before the lights were turned off (why?!!). I arrived in Arequipa at 5.30am and took a taxi to the house I was staying in for my workaway project. Workaway is a website that matches volunteers with projects all over the world. The idea is that you work a few hours a day in return for a free stay, like I did in Cusco but more organised. I eventually arrived after the taxi driver had driven me around for half an hour before admitting he didn't know where the house was. There are no sat navs here (Peru doesn't even have postcodes) and the idea of taxi drivers having to pass a test as thorough as in London is laughable, but I got there in the end. I felt welcome straight away and had breakfast with Kaori and her mischievous but lovable dog Spi. Alongside Kaori, there were two other girls - one from Latvia and the other from Argentina, so it was a very international house. I enjoyed hearing about everyone's different cultures and I got a chance to get used to Argentinian Spanish, which is much less clear than Peruvian, before going there. Kaori's plan is to open a hostel and is in the process of making all the furniture from wooden crates. It's a really clever idea and looks great, but it's hard work. I quickly realised that I am terrible with a hammer so stuck to helping out by cleaning instead. Apart from work, I spent a lot of the time in the kitchen that week. After having just a stove and a single pan in Cusco, this kitchen was a luxury and I was able to do some baking which made me feel at home. I made scones and two batches of brownies for the girls in the house. Kaori is really passionate about cooking so I also learned a lot from her. She's half Japanese, half Peruvian so I got to try all sorts of different things. Among them were chicken feet, cow's stomach, queso helado (a milk ice cream with cinnamon from Arequipa that looks like a big cheese before it's scooped) and rocoto relleno (a large chilli stuffed with mince and cheese). Overall it was a nice relaxed week. In the mornings I went running. Though at 2300m, it seemed easy after spending so long a thousand metres higher. I spent the afternoons wandering around the colonial town, which is charming, though I prefer Cusco, and enjoying the sun. What is impressive is the backdrop throughout the city of the three 5000m+ volcanoes (Misti, Pikchu Pikchu and Chachani) nearby. I couldn't take enough photos.

At 3am on the 20th I was picked up by a tour agency to head to Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world, supposedly only beaten by the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon. It was a long and rough drive but we arrived in the village of Chivay, just inside the Colca national park at 7.30 for a quick breakfast. Not having been given much information to prepare me for the trip, I hadn't realised it would be so cold, but the altitude (3640m) and wind at the top of the canyon made it very uncomfortable. Luckily, we got straight back in to the van and by the time we reached the Mirador del Condor, the sun had come out. We were very lucky to see several condors from this viewpoint and they flew very close. It was truly spectacular, though difficult to capture on camera. We then headed to the starting point for our trek and left there around 10.30am. Pretty much all of the first day involved a long descent into the canyon. The views were incredible, we just had to be careful in the strong sun. I met some great people in my group and we talked all the way. Unfortunately, our guide was disappointing. We were all a little bemused when he seemed to be struggling with the walk and turned up 10 minutes after everyone else, dripping with sweat. We all made jokes about his non-existent time-keeping skills, referring to "Peruvian time" (half an hour later than planned). He also didn't speak English and enlisted me to translate. I didn't mind but it was frustrating for the people who couldn't understand him. Luckily, we didn't need much help, though it would have been nice to learn a little more about the area. That evening we arrived in the oasis at the bottom of the canyon. I had a quick icy shower to wash off all the dust and sun cream and we all headed to bed early. The next day we set off in the dark at 5am to hike back up to the top of the canyon. I've done a fair bit of hiking before, but I have to say that this was one of the toughest walks I can remember doing. In just over two hours we ascended 1200m from 2200m to 3400m with about 15 false summits, all before breakfast. One of our group started wheezing (probably altitude sickness) and had to go up on a mule. Having said that, the hike was very rewarding. We saw the sun rise and were treated to more spectacular views as we climbed. Breakfast was very welcome at the top and we then got back into the van to slowly head to Arequipa. We stopped off at the highest point of 4900m, officially the highest I've been, to take pictures, and for an alpaca steak for lunch. We made it back to Arequipa by 5 and I then got on another night bus to Nasca with my very achy legs.

When I arrived in Nasca, I quickly found an agency that could offer me a tour of the lines from the ground. I had already decided that 100$ for a half hour flight over the lines wasn't worth it. I'm glad I chose to do it that way - I had a brilliant guide for 3-4 hours who really knew his stuff, from the history of the Nasca culture to the various theories and conspiracy stories surrounding the lines. From various viewing towers I saw a selection of the lines including the tree and the hand. It was sad to see that part of the Panamerica highway cut directly through one of the images, though the government knew about the lines at the time. It seems like protecting cultural heritage can still be an uphill battle here. We were also briefly taken to see gold being produced in Nasca. While they assured us that working closely with mercury (to separate out the gold) without protective clothing is perfectly safe, as it won't evaporate, I couldn't help being dubious.

In the early afternoon I boarded a very hot bus to Ica, a couple of hours further north. I managed to find a very cheap hotel so I had the luxury of a private room for the night. Once I had checked in I decided to wander into town to have a look around. This was a mistake. People don't walk in general in Peru. I had a frustrating moment when looking for a village near Arequipa that I knew was less than 2km away (so easily walkable). I asked how to walk there and was simply repeatedly told where the bus left from. Ica was worse. I don't think I've ever been harassed so much by both taxis and people on the street. It didn't help that I didn't see another gringo while I was there. I eventually gave up and just took a taxi back. I decided to cut my losses and headed straight to Huacachina the next day, hoping to have a better time there.

Huacachina could hardly have been a more different experience. While annoyingly touristy, I enjoyed not being stared at and generally feeling safe. Huacachina is an oasis in the desert around 5km from Ica. The dunes are what attracts the tourists, as everyone wants to try sandboarding and to go for a ride in a sand buggy. With the perfect dunes you could almost be in the Sahara - it's very surreal. I decided to climb one of the larger dunes to watch the sunset that evening. The best way to get up is to follow the more worn 'path' up the less steep part of the dune. Unfortunately I ignored that advice and ploughed straight up. I regretted that decision almost instantly as my legs started to burn and I slipped down half a metre for every metre I climbed. Eventually I made it to the top and watched the beautiful sunset over the sand before having a great time sliding back down. In the morning I went for a run on the dunes before the haze cleared and the sun got too hot. Running uphill on sand is so hard, but it was one of the best and most surreal runs I've done. You don't get that every day in central London. After breakfast I headed out on my sand buggy tour. The best way to describe it is like a roller coaster. The driver took us up and down the steepest dunes. I just had to avoid opening my mouth so I didn't swallow sand. We then found a spot for sandboarding. The first couple of runs I stood like on a snowboard but realised that you can't carve so stopping is pretty tricky! After hitting the sand hard, I decided to try the next run lying on the board. By the time we were done I had sand everywhere - in my teeth, my ears, under my clothes... I did my best to shake everything off and then set off for Paracas, as I wanted to get there by that evening.

Though I had been told there was a direct bus, it turned out there wasn't, and I ended up taking a bus and two colectivos to get there. To be honest, I don't know how well a bus would have coped as there wasn't even a proper road for the last few kilometres. Paracas is a pretty little fishing town on the Pacific Coast. Sadly, it is slightly ruined by the sheer amount of litter, but it still has charm. I found a nice cafe for an incredibly fresh ceviche. Ceviche is probably Peru's most famous dish. It's raw fish or other seafood (cooked) with red onion, lime juice and sometimes chilli. It's served with potato or yucca and cancha (a type of maize that's fried dry and salted). It's delicious and I'll miss it when I leave the coast. The next morning I headed out at 8am to go the the Islas Ballestas, also called the Peruvian mini Galapagos. On the way we stopped at another drawing, similar to those at Nasca, but carved deeply into the rock rather than just drawn in the sand. It's amazing how these pictures seem to have been made independently, at completely different times. We then headed to the islands. There is so much wildlife for what seem like such barren islands. I saw pelicans, Peruvian boobies (I know!), turkey vultures, Humboldt penguins, sea lions, guanay cormorants, incaturns, starfish and mussels, along with so many other birds whose names I've forgotten. One patch of the island appears black from a distance because of the sheer density of the birds on it. There is just one man living on the islands and he is there to harvest guano, which fetches very high prices. It wouldn't be my ideal career - I don't think Freshfields needs to worry! In the afternoon I headed to the Paracas national park. The landscape is beautiful but bleak. It seems amazing that such a desert would be given national park status but then you learn that most of what is being protected is in the sea. There is a huge diversity of sea life under protection and I learnt that Peru is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. I had a relaxed evening with another ceviche and then headed to Lima the next day on the bus. Unfortunately my cagoule and other jacket were stolen on the bus so I had to go to the police station for a report when I arrived. It doesn't seem like much but when you travel with the bare minimum and something as important as your cagoule is stolen, you feel very vulnerable. I assumed I would be able to find another when I arrived in Huaraz, a trekking Mecca, but for whatever reason, they had no outdoor shops! Luckily I found a shop that would rent me a jacket for my treks.

On the first day in Huaraz I relaxed after another night bus with little sleep and then headed to the hot springs in the afternoon. I then had a very early night and was out by 5.45 the next day to trek to Laguna 69. We saw three lakes, all an intense blue because of the glaciers. We trekked for around 5 hours in total up to the final lake at an altitude of 4650m. Though much higher, the walk was much easier than the Colca trek. Unfortunately, I chose the worst day for weather. Other people who had done the trek advised me to wear shorts because the sun is strong and very hot when it comes out. Luckily I didn't take their advice because the sun never did come out and it was snowing at the top - not ideal conditions for hanging around to enjoy the view. Thankfully, I had great weather on the Santa Cruz trek, which I set off for at 6am the next day. This is probably the most well-known trek in the area (Cordillera Blanca, Peruvian Andes) and covers 36km over 3 or 4 days, reaching an altitude of 4750m. The first morning was spent on the bus on a very narrow road with breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains. When we arrived at the start of the trek, we were divided into groups and had a fairly easy, flat walk for around 4 hours to our first camp. The mules took all of the heavy equipment so we were able to focus on the walk. The camp (as with all of the camps we stayed at) was spectacular, with beautiful views of the 6000m+ peaks in the area. We were truly in the middle of nowhere for four days - the 'toilet' was a hole in the ground, I wouldn't even call it a long drop... Having said that, we were all surprised by the quality of the food. The guides were not just there to lead us in the day, they also prepared our breakfast (including pancakes!), lunch, tea and two-course dinner! I certainly wouldn't be capable of preparing all of that in a tent. Sadly, the equipment didn't live up to the same standard. On the first night, none of the group slept because the sleeping bags just weren't designed for those temperatures. It turned out they had forgotten to give us extra blankets that we were meant to have... With those, filling plastic water bottles with hot water and putting them in our sleeping bags, and wearing everything we had with us (literally everything) the following nights were more comfortable. The second day, we set off at 7.00 to avoid the insects in camp that come out when the sun rises. This was the longest and hardest day of walking, including our trek up to the pass at 4750m. However, thanks to a month spent in Cusco and another couple of weeks at altitude, I coped well and was surprised not to be too out of breath. At the top we were almost at the snow level of the mountains and again, the view was incredible. We arrived nice and early in camp and had a great evening sharing stories and jokes from each of our home countries. On the third day, most of the walk involved going down through a spectacular canyon. A few years ago there was a huge landslide which wiped out a lot of the plants and animals there, leaving it strikingly bare now. We followed the river all the way down, through a much more fertile landscape and our final camp was in a relatively 'urban' village, meaning that there was a shop and a real toilet. We celebrated with a beer and enjoyed the relatively warm air. On the final morning we all headed to the hot springs nearby, which were very welcome after so much walking, then headed back onto the bus to return to Huaraz. We all met up for a final meal there before going our separate ways.

My night bus arrived in Trujillo on the northern coast at 4.15am rather than the scheduled 6am. With no buses running until 7, I had no choice but to wait it out in the bus terminal trying not to fall asleep (I didn't want to be robbed again). I had originally planned to spend the night in Trujillo, another pretty colonial town, before making my way slowly further north, but for whatever reason, there are no affordable hostels there. I was recommended to head to Huanchaco, a surfing village around 10km away and I ended up staying for 5 days. I got some breakfast and headed straight out for my first surfing lesson. After struggling into a wetsuit and practising paddling and standing up on dry land, we got into the water. Huanchaco is a great place to learn to surf - the waves are fairly small but consistent and, of course, it's sunny all year round. I had difficulty believing it was winter when walking around in shorts (for the first time on my trip). I was really happy to stand up on my first wave and within a few days (surfing for an hour or two, twice a day) I was able to do some basic turns. While snowboarding certainly helps with my position and balance, surfing is very different. You don't have lifts to help you, so most of the time when you're a beginner is spent paddling back out after trying to catch a wave. The ceviche and beer was certainly welcome at the end of the day. A highlight in Huanchaco was meeting and having drinks with the current surfing world champion, though it was hard not to feel a little nervous when he wished me luck for my lesson!

After that, it was time to head up to Lobitos for my next Workaway project. I arrived at 8am after yet another night bus. Everyone in Huanchaco had raved about the surfing there but had told me that there was nothing else there. I thought it was strange that people living in a pretty small village were telling me this, but they were right. Lobitos is not really even a village - it's a desert with a few houses where water is hard to come by (we had to ration it at times), let alone Internet. If you don't surf, there's no point being there, but it's easy to sea what they were raving about. The waves were perfect, though difficult for a beginner. I had a bit of a shock the first morning when I went out to surf just after arriving and was pulled under by the current a few times. Thankfully, after a day or two of practice I was more used to battling the current and, though not catching the big waves, I was happy to be able to catch some smaller ones myself (without having someone to push me). It was also nice to have sand underfoot rather than the sharp rocks that cut me all over my hands and feet in Huanchaco. I was staying with Hugo, who is originally from Lima but moved to Lobitos a few years ago for the relaxed lifestyle and great surfing. He rents and repairs boards and is a surf photographer. His home was simple and still under construction but I had everything I needed, including Hugo's excellent cooking! He also has a beautiful golden retriever who loves the sea and even climbs onto the board to surf a couple of waves. While quiet, I can see the appeal of living there and I really enjoyed my 8 days surfing, running, reading and having a beer with the locals and other surfing tourists. Surfing is definitely something I want to carry on with in the future - next stop Cornwall!

It's hard to believe it but I'm almost at the halfway point of my journey, which means it's time to go and meet Sophie. I'm now in Lima and tomorrow I'm flying back to Cusco from where I'll head to Bolivia. I'll miss the warmth of the North but it's exciting to be moving on to a different country and I'm looking forward to having someone to share the rest of my travels with. I'll keep you updated!

Posted by rebecca.banks21 13:48 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

31st July - 11th August

Last two weeks in Cusco and Tambopata National Park

sunny 35 °C

So in keeping with my promise to write more often, here is the second instalment of my travel diary.

I have spent most of my time since I last wrote in Cusco, finishing my language course and working for four hours each day preparing the breakfast and clearing up in my hostel (in return for a free stay). Though it meant getting up at 7am every day, no matter whether I´d been out the night before, I actually found working a great experience and I´m looking forward to the three other weeks of work I have lined up around Peru. It´s a great way to meet people and to get to know a place better. The hostel staff have loved telling me about all their local festivals and traditions (as I mentioned last time, there are a lot) and señora Ana spent the whole morning feeding me up every day, which I can´t complain about. It has also been a good opportunity to practise my Spanish while having a good gossip. My Spanish has come on a lot in the last two weeks. I´m starting to get a much better feel for it and I can navigate basic conversations without too many problems. My vocab has also improved a huge amount. I´m excited to see what it will be like after four more months. I´m glad I chose Peru as the place to learn, though - apparently both Chilean and Argentinian Spanish is very strange.

Other than class and work, I´ve had a more relaxing couple of weeks seeing friends, going to salsa class and going for long walks in the mountains around Cusco. One highlight was my visit to an animal sanctuary around half an hour from Cusco. They rescue rare species and each animal has its own story. For two pounds I got a private tour! They have a lot of llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos. I learnt a lot about them when I went on the llama walk in Berlin last year and I was told that, by nature, they don´t like contact. I mentioned this to my guide and he told me there was a llama there that loved hugs and asked if I wanted to hug it, which made me incredibly happy. They also had pumas who had been rescued from a nightclub in Lima and some condors, including a `baby´ (enormous). It was a rare chance to see condors up close, though I hope to see them in the wild later on in my trip.

It was very sad to say goodbye to Cusco after such a long time. It feels like a small town, though it´s actually a pretty big city, and it´s great to see lots of friendly faces when you´re out and about. I was also sad to leave the language school and the friends I made there, but it´s time to move on. Directly after my last Spanish class, I took the night bus to Puerto Maldonado. Though it´s only 10 hours away, it´s a different world. The sheer range of landscapes and climates within Peru never ceases to amaze me. Cusco is dry, high altitude, around 23 degrees in the day but 0 at night. Puerto Maldonado is in the Amazon rainforest. It´s around 35 degrees every day and the humidity is almost unbearable. You spend all day drenched in a mix of water, sweat, sun cream and insect repellent. Having said that, I really enjoyed the warmth after the cold nights in Cusco, and you get used to the humidity as long as you accept that nothing will ever really be dry.

I arrived there at 7 in the morning and was slightly stressed (if not surprised) when I realised that the person who was meant to collect me from the bus station hadn´t turned up. I also only had the number of the agency in Cusco I had booked with, not the local company. Luckily, it´s a small place and the other agents were able to call around and find out where I was supposed to go. After cleaning up a little in the agency office, I got straight on a boat to Yakari lodge, where I was staying for my time in the jungle. The river Madre de Dios is a large tributary of the Amazon that forms the main tourist area of Tambopata. The lodge was a luxury compared to my hostel stays and was picturesque in the way it fit in to the jungle scenery. All of the huts are open, with mosquito nets covering the windows and there are hammocks everywhere for relaxing between excursions. I even had a hut to myself with a private bathroom. The food was also great. After eating a lot of rubbish in Cusco it was a welcome change to get three healthy meals a day with lots of fresh fruit and salads. It was interesting to try some new foods including yucca and cactus fruit. I was happy to come out with only a few mosquito bites. Considering I get eaten alive in Europe in the summer, I thought it would be worse but my repellent seemed to work pretty well. It should, given that it has melted the labels off other bottles in my bag when it has leaked before. The whole place is teaming with wildlife. You can hear it all day and all night. The birds have very unusual and interesting calls. I also found a frog and a rat in my room at different points. Oh well, at least there were no spiders in there!

The first morning we travelled further along the river to do a zipline and a canopy walk 60m above the forest floor. Though I have done a lot of similar things before, I enjoyed the trek into the forest and I learnt a lot about the plants and butterflies from our guide. After lunch, we got into kayaks to paddle to monkey island. I was slightly dubious about getting too close to the water that is after all home to piranhas and caimans, among many other things. However, we were reassured that they weren´t interested in people so it was even safe to swim. The monkey island is home to rescued monkeys, who wouldn´t survive in the wild. They are very used to humans, which makes it a lot easier to see them than in other places. They all gathered round to take the bananas we brought and one monkey even climbed up someone´s leg to take the seeds he had in his pocket. After dinner we headed back into the boat for a night-time excursion, hoping to see the caimans. It reminds you how remote you are when the guide starts searching on the bank you have just stepped off to get into the boat ... You spot the caimans by the reflection of their eyes from the torch. We spotted quite a few along the river bank, but unfortunately didn´t get very close because they disappeared as soon as we tried to approach. However, we were very lucky to spot to capybaras. Our guide, who grew up in the area, said he´d never seen capybaras so still and willing to let us approach. We watched them for around 15 minutes from about a metre away. This was probably because they were two babies (around 3 months old, though already half a metre long) abandoned by their mother. Unfortunately he didn´t rate their chances of survival, but we couldn´t intervene. We were also lucky enough to spot a porcupine.

The next day we spent the whole day at Lake Sandoval. This is a protected area and no motor boats are allowed, so we left ours at the river and walked for around an hour to get to some paddle boats to take us further. During the walk the guide spotted a ´friend of his´and told us to stay very still and quiet. He fetched a stick and poked around for a while in a hole in the ground, then pulled out a huge spider. This disappeared again and he pulled the same spider out 5 minutes later, dead. It turns out that was the baby, and it had just been eaten by its mother (around 20cm). Apparently tarantulas turn to cannibalism when times get tough in the dry season. I don´t think they´ll be my favourite animals any time soon. On the lake we saw a huge amount of wildlife, including macaws, vultures, herons, tortoises, butterflies the size of plates and birds the guide called ´prehistoric´because of their resemblance to pterodactyls. We spotted some more caimans and I was lucky enough to see an anaconda in the water. After lunch our guide said he heard a group of monkeys, though the rest of us heard nothing until 5 minutes later. We very quietly paddled to the edge of the lake and waited for them to emerge from the trees. Though we had seen monkeys the day before, it was a privilege to see truly wild monkeys. Our luck continued and we even spotted a sloth high up in one of the trees.

Unfortunately our luck didn´t continue the next day. We were supposed to leave the lodge at 4.30am to catch the macaws at sunrise but unfortunately there was a storm in the night that didn´t stop until the next afternoon. I have never seen so much rain. The river rose by 2.5 metres in one night. Fortunately, we were able to go and visit a local native family. As with my experience on Amantani island, this was uncomfortable for me. They just looked sad and, though they said many many times that they were happy to have us there, I couldn´t help feeling like we were a burden. It was still an interesting trip - they showed us some of their hand-made musical instruments, children´s toys and we got to try archery using their bow and arrows. We also learnt a local dance and talked a little about their culture (their Spanish is minimal so communication was difficult). It is sad to know that these native traditions are already dying out. Their children go to school and are likely to choose to live in Puerto Maldonado later in life. There are also few areas of this part of the jungle that remain untouched. In the afternoon we tried to catch some piranhas but the water was just too deep and fast-flowing due to the rain. Sadly, just as the rain stopped, it was time to leave. I look forward to going back to the rainforest in Bolivia. It was a surreal experience knowing that I was in the Amazon and I actually enjoyed the lack of internet for a few days.

Tomorrow night I´m off to Arequipa on yet another night bus and I have found another week´s work in a hostel there. I have heard great things about the city so I look forward to seeing it myself. Thanks for reading again and I hope to find the chance to write again soon.

Posted by rebecca.banks21 15:55 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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