Star Gazing in the Atacama Desert

My dear friend Nathan, had recommended one particular tour whilst in San Pedro, known as the French Astrologer. Although I have never really been into astrology as a child, given his strong recommendation I was actually quite excited and was looking forward to having another attempt at learning more about the stars and more generally our solar system (hopefully this Frenchie would have more luck at getting through to me than my awful physics teacher,Mr Archer, did so many years ago).

Initially we were told that the tour was not taking place due to the fact that a full moon was only days away, as such the tours were normally suspended for around a week at this time due to the lack of visibility. Luckily we were able to get onto the last day of tour before they shut down. My first impression of the tour really did bring me back to those days in the science lab, being board out of my mind, not really following what’s was being said and too petrified to ask a question.

What was marketed as a French expert providing the tours was in fact a Canadian with all the trappings of being an American; an overwhelming sense of superiority over any would-be astrologer with the need to joke about any wrong answer given during the group history lesson section of the tour. To make matters worse he insisted on making inappropriate innuendoes at any given opportunity making the already on edge group even more uncomfortable.

In a shear stroke of brilliance he abruptly ended his piss take of anyone who thought Pluto was in fact a planet ( which supposedly it isn’t!) by excusing himself before running to the lodge completely out of the blue forcing the real French astrologer to pick up where he had left off. Given his obvious popularity amongst the group, rumours soon spread that he had a bout of diarrhoea which made it even more gratifying. Unfortunately he returned five minutes later only to inform us that he thought he had a deadly spider in his jacket and had to quickly get undressed in fear of being bitten. It was in fact a figment of his imagination, however this didn’t do much for my imagination; spending the remainder of the tour paranoid that I could feel a spider crawling up my leg! I only have two words for this guy…DICK HEAD!

The fear aside, I did find the rest of the tour really interesting, particularly the second part of the tour which involved us looking through 9 pre set telescopes.

Unfortunately we couldn’t take any pictures thorough the lenses (apart from the final one specially set up to take pictures of the moon) so i have attached some images from the internet of what we saw.

1. The moon close up- unlike the face that we see in the Northern hemisphere, this actually looks like a bunny rabbit this side of the equator.

2. Jupiter- this appears to be the brightest star next to the moon. We were lucky enough to see it at a point where there was a small black dot on it which was the shadow cast by o e of it’s 4 moons.

3. Sirius – the brightest star in the sky with a blueish tinge.

4. The 7 beautiful sisters or in ‘geek’- Pleiades

5. The small Magellanic cloud – FYI there are two (one is larger) and they simply look like dull patches in the night skye. They are in fact two other galaxies that are companions to our milky way….making me think that E.T could actually be true after all!

This was even more special since we can’t see this in the Northern hemisphere

6. Close up of the moon and it’s creators ( this is from Dre’s camera )

7. A cluster of 6 million stars (my favourite)

8. Betelgeuse (pronounced Beetle Juice) – the second brightest star in the constellation Orion with a red tinge

9. Sword of Orion

We also had some other constellations pointed out to us.

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By garyabela Posted in Chile

The dusty desert town of San Pedro de Atacama

This dusty village in the heart of the desert and is a backpackers Mecca, with good quality hostels and vibrant outdoor restaurants lining its main strip, along with countless numbers of tour providers arranging a whole host of excursions to the surrounding Volcanos, lagoons/lakes, geysers and valleys.

Given the hefty price tags on everything here, we decided to opt out of the tours in favour of a 4 day 4×4 tour into cheaper Bolivia who share this truly fascinating part of the world.

Given the popularity of the Salt lake tours into Bolivia we had to stay a couple of nights in San Pedro to enjoy the town; a welcomed rest from the constant coach trips of recent weeks.

We stayed in a cheap, comfortable hostel (Corvatsch) which had the cleanest bathrooms we have ever seen! A result of the 3 miniature humans that cleaned the hostel and the toilets every 30 minutes. Whilst a pleasant surprise at first, it became increasingly annoying when trying to do what one does in the loo! Another annoyance was the bizarre set up of the men toilets!

We met some interesting fellow travellers during our stay ranging from a bald brash she-man of a woman originally from Jersey who now was a high-flying corporate accountant doing M&A at Deloitte to a really interesting ( somewhat batty) 50 something single mother from Venezuela (Laura Ceacco) who was on holiday for two weeks with her strange and clearly gay 10 year old son.

Laura is an intelligent, well-travelled published author who has been black listed by what is effectively a dictatorship government in Venezuela that could talk for England about pretty much anything; reminding me of the great chats I used to have with Laida´s mother many many years ago. She also suffers from bi polar depression and was able to articulate a fascinating insight into the disease, something my mother has never truly been able to explain to me. She referrers to it as an emotional disease rather than a mental one which it is so often described as being. Her explanation of the various highs and lows one can experience whilst being in a complete clear state of mind, really hit home, helping put the many years of my mothers suffering into context.

On a lighter note we also spent our time here finally putting Andres tri-pod to use. Given that the nights in the desert are so dark we figured out how to use the long exposure on his fancy camera which was hours of fun!

By garyabela Posted in Chile

Heading north to the Atacama Desert

Since all bus tickets out of Santiago heading north were sold out, we narrowly escaped being stuck in Santiago for 5 extra days by eventually getting the last two seats on a 24 hour coach to Calama. Although not our intended destination, it got us within an hour or so of San Pedro de Atacama; our last stop before leaving Chile.

Due to the fact that the coach wasn’t heading to the tourist hub of San Pedro, it was full of local mine workers heading north via Chiles second largest and important city, Antofagasta.

Since we were the only gringos on board we had developed a strange following from the mine workers, who seemed to stare at us is bemusement at the fact that, as perusal, we were wearing shorts and flip-flops whilst they preferred to be wrapped up warm in thick jackets. One particular local decided to break the ice and practice his English with us since he had spent some time living in Sweden before returning to Chile 8 years ago to capitalise on its prosperity. Whilst interesting at first, he turned out to be a bit of a freak; stubbornly attempting to get us to stay in Calama with him and go out for dinner before finding some prostitutes!

The highlight for the men (apart from Andres shorts) was when we were taking a lunch stop at the central bus terminal. After quickly grabbing some food we decided to have a quick look at the city from a view-point whilst having a fag. My after food ritual was abruptly brought to an end when Andre looked back over to the terminal only to see our coach leaving and the local men on the bus banging at the windows for our attention. After a mad dash (fag still in hand), we managed to stop the bus, where a sea of laughter greeted us as we passed our newly found fan club; ‘the freak’ being at the centre of it all.

As with most of the long haul coach trips we had taken over the past few weeks coming from the South, we passed through most of the same, flat scenery that simply didn’t seem to change. This all changed when entering into the Atacama desert, which is the driest most deserted place we had seen so far. Had it not been for the few mining communities that we passed along the way, you could have been on the moon for all you knew.

The most interesting part of the final climb up the mountains was passing the ghost towns of Chuquicamata and in particular Chacabuco. This place was once the worlds greatest copper producers with mines that go on for miles. The US Anaconda Copper mining Company effectively muscled out the local firms and created a fully functioning mining town which now lays completly derelict and in ruins following the fallout with the Americans and the nationalisation of the mine.

Interestingly by the 1960s the 3 largest mines owned by Anaconda controlled over 80% of Chiles copper production. This accounted for 60% of total exports and 80% of the countries tax revenues. By this point the copper had all but run out and the entire community had to relocate to the larger town of Calama. Strangely the ghost town is now a national monument, however it is now deemed unsafe following an earthquake in 2007. It was also a prisoner camp during the early years of the Pinochet regime.

Chacabuco ghost town 3, Pan de Azucar National Park, Chile
This travel blog photo’s source is TravelPod page: I hate camping!!!
Chacabuco ghost town 4, Pan de Azucar National Park, Chile
This travel blog photo’s source is TravelPod page: I hate camping!!!
By garyabela Posted in Chile

Vina Concha y Toro – the largest winery in the world

Given the amount of steak and wine I have consumed as part of my job, it would have been sacrilegious for me to not visit a few vineyards whist in Chile. On top of providing me with a load of information that I can hopefully remember well enough to recite during my next business lunch, it was one of the highlights of our time in middle Chile.

We did a tour of the largest and most important wine companies in the world, Concha y Toro, who own a number of different brands that are marketed globally.

Interestingly, the UK has for the first time,topped the US as their biggest consumer; proof that the power of the city lunches has not been dampened by the poor economy…I suppose when things get bad drink is even more popular!

The tour consisted of a walk around some of the 9500 hector which are spread around various regions in Chile (Maipo, Maule, Rapel, Colchagua, Curico) owned by the firm.

Our tour guide ´Ronnie´ explained the history of the firm and the various grapes grown, as well as the process by which the wine is actually produced. Given my keen interest, I did take some notes, which unfortunately due to the number of different wine tastings done along the way seemed to be some what erratic when reading them back.

The Concha y Toro Vineyard was founded by Don Melchor de Santiago Concha y Toro and his wife, Emiliana Subercaseaux, in 1883.To start the winery, he brought grape varieties from the Bordeaux region in France. The origins of Concha y Toro are connected to Chilean nobility and aristocracy that is delicately imbedded in this history of Chile following independence from Spanish rule.

Given the poor relations with Spain, they decided to import some of the best grapes from France such as; Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot, and Carmenère which all thrived in the diverse types of land found in Chile.

The key to the firms and in fact the countries success in producing world-class wines at affordable prices is quite simply, the country’s geography. Chile is in reality an island that is cut off from the rest of the world; the north is cut off from Peru and Bolivia by the largest and driest desert (Atacama), the Andes, effectively isolated the country from the East and Argentina, the south, is the most southerly point in the world before you reach the Antarctic and finally to the west is the Pacific with the next neighbour being Japan!

Aside from an interesting explanation as to the locals weariness towards foreigners, this unique barrier to the rest of the world is the very reason they don´t have any disease within agriculture, thus the inexistence of pesticides. It also helps explain the border situation I found myself in when crossing from Argentina!

The diverse landscape found within Chile also provides the ideal conditions for most type fo grape to flourish, all accept Malbech which requires more humidity, and is therefore grown in Argentina instead.

The Cabernet Sauvignon was for me one of the most interesting grapes and one of my favourites wines to taste. The vine itself is a strong , wild vine that actually needs poor soil with sand and stone and not many nutrients to produce the best grape.In addition to this, they also starve the vine of water before harvesting (untill near death!) so that the vine concentrates all its energy on producing the best fruit to continue ´its legacy´ so to speak, thus requiring true skill to grow this grape successfully.

The other interesting grape, that is fast becoming the signature grape of both the firm and the country is the Carmenère. It is also known as the lost grape since it was brought over to Chile from France in the late 1800´s, however completely died out in Europe following the disastrous fungus, phylloxera, that pretty much wiped out the French vineyards. Given the unorganised planting of the vines in Chile a lot of them were mixed together, as such most red wine in Chile was thought to be Merlot.

After scientific investigation in the 80´s this grape was in fact discovered to be thriving in Chile. With a considerable amount of investment and time the vines where carefully analysed and separated to once again create enough pure Carmenere to go into production. Given the difficulties of producing this grape, Chile remains the only producer of it in the world.

Concha y Toro have recently developed what they feel to be the best Carmenere in a new vineyard at the base of the Andes (Cachapoal River) where it has been able to flourish on the rich nutrients of the soil and fresh glacier water. They have created a new brand and belive the 2007 and 2009 harvest to best the best it has ever produced. The wine itself has not yet been given a score by the experts and so is still relatively cheap. It is expected to receive a 100 score this year and so will without doubt rocket in price and so great investment for any wine collector.

Grande Reserve ,CARMENERE Cachapoal River

It is not only the planting and harvesting of the wine that have become extremely scientific, but also the fermentation of them. The firm have spent considerable amounts developing the most advance technology in the world for their cellars. They use only the finest oak for the barrels with American oak for the cheaper wines and the older more refined French oak for the premium wine. Each barrel costs over $1000 and will only ever be used 4 times depending on the number of months required for the particular grape. The first use of a barrel creates the most expensive and finest wine brand (Grand Reserve), although all of the wines here are of the finest quality irrespective of the price.

Ironically it is in fact the first and oldest cellar that still produces the best wine due to the consistent temperature and humidity it provides. This original cellar was built by the actual founder Mr Concha y Torro and has an interesting myth attached to it.

In the beginning the firm used cheap local labour to produce the wine which also meant that theft in the cellars was rife. Given that the locals were poorly educated and had strong beliefs in religion, Mr Concha y Torro began a myth that the cellar was haunted by the devil. He even went as far as spooking the workers with noises and flashes of light to ensure they believed him. They all soon quit out of fear and were replaced with cheaper immigrants from Europe.

The back of the cellar has always been reserved for the families own personal collection. They now only own a 3% stake in the company although they do have a number of rights regarding the brand and the use of the family name.

By garyabela Posted in Chile

Santiago

Contrary to my pre conceived ideas of yet another big, hustling capital Santiago has been one of the biggest surprises since it seems to be a really chilled out, spacious, trendy/hipster city with a cool cafe culture ( well the parts we saw).

We only spent two days there since the things of interest are confined to 3 areas that all interlinked from Plaza de Armas in central downtown area through to the two surrounding hills of Santa Lucia and Cristobal which enclose the neighbourhoods (barrios) of Bellavista and Lastarria

The city has clearly seen a huge amount of growth over recent times which makes sense since any business done in Chile, most likely passes through their capital. Unlike other cities, Santiago has the space and infrastructure to cope with such expansion.

I think everybody has seen the image of Santiago nestled in-between two imposing mountain ranges; the Andes and the Cordillera, however the one thing that the pictures don’t quite seem to capture is the sheer vastness of the flat dry land in-between the two. The city has been carefully mapped out in an American style grid with one of the best metro systems we have seen in any city.

The other thing that the postcard pictures always manage to photo shop out is the smog! Although not unbearable, it frustratingly blocks the view of the surrounding mountains. It does however, make for some of the best sunsets from the cities highest point Cerro San Cristobal which on top of an open air church as a huge statue of Maria overlooking the city.

It’s not just the city planning that is American in its style/influence, there is without question an American stamp on this city, which I think is leaving it in somewhat of an identity crises and one of the main reason why those from Valparaiso hate the place.

Although I have never been to LA, from what I have seen and coincidentally what I am currently reading about (Brett Easton Ellis book ‘less than zero’ which is based in LA) there are a number of similarities, the most obvious being the large signs on every surrounding hill with the barrios name overlooking the neighbourhood imitating the famous Hollywood sign.

Socially, you can see the influence of American sitcoms on the teenagers, who all hang out at the large mall complexes just outside of town with big group of boys and girls all frantically using BB messenger. Public shows of affection seem to transcend every age group with men and women in passionate embraces everywhere! I have read about a particular park in the city which is a place where all the teenagers go to ‘make out’ with each other….and they wonder why they are loosing some of the strong catholic traditions with teenage pregnancy becoming an ever-increasing issue.

There is also a clear version of ‘the American Dream’ here with a true determined work ethic of the majority of people moving to the city. They move here, seeking the materialistic trappings that a previously cut off and socially reserved nation are a now openly embracing. With all the good and bad that can bring, it will be interesting to see how this develops over the years since in general I would say that the Chileans are the most reserved and understated culture within all of South America (of what I have seen). I have also been told that they do, however, have a subtle yet ruthless dog eat dog mentality; Something I am sure was not always a part of their makeup. It will be interesting to see if this elbow society reaches South, to the more traditional, smaller towns.

The one thing that has spread, is the unhealthy American food! Everything seems to be fried with everyplace selling cheap hamburgers, steak sandwiches and hot dogs with the most insane amount melted cheese and Mayo that they put on everything…helps explain the number of overweight kids we have seen.

One of the main reasons to come to Santiago was for Andre to meet up with an old uni mate, Lennie ( aka Ritalin Lennie) who was a fascinating character with a wicked sense of humour about his ADD which was exaggerated even more after drinking one too many Pisco Sours (the national drink).

We also stayed in one of the nicest hostels, a penthouse above the main historical Plaza de Armas which luckily for us was buzzing with concerts and a city marathon for their version of children in need, called Teleton.

By garyabela Posted in Chile

Valparaiso

The overnight coach from Osorno to Santiago was onboard a particularly old, dirty and uncomfortable bus that left us feeling shattered and broken.The need to recharge our batteries and have a more chilled day is this reason that we decided to skip the capital (Santiago) in favour of Valparaiso, the smaller more interesting laid back city we heard such great things about.

Valparaiso is the old capital and the seat of congress which is surrounded by 45 cerros (hills). The downtown (flat) area is a gritty, busy, bustling port awash with homeless alcoholics that share the left overs from the large fish and veg markets with the huge and quite aggressive seagulls and pelicans.

Interestingly it is the 100s of stray cats and dogs that tend to be the biggest beneficiaries, particularly the dogs who are all extremely well fed by the locals. We later found out that the culture in Chile is to raise a dog during the puppy stage ( usually for the kids) before throwing them on the street once grown to fend for themselves. The macho culture also doesn’t allow for neutering irrespective of the mammal, resulting in hundreds of mongrel strays that have seemed to create their own society of gangs and hierarchies throughout the city and country for that matter.

As with most historically important ports, Valparaiso was the birth place of the Chilean banking system, benefiting from a huge influx of immigration (particularly from Europe) which has paved the way for it being the centre of the arts and progressive thinking.

The political importance of the city, as well as the fact that is was also the birth place of General Pinochet has, I believe, shaped the strong anti capitalist leftist student subculture present here. similar to what we have seen in Buenos Aires and Berlin, these minority groups come to the fore during times of repression and begin to blossom immediately after the fall of a dictatorship.

I remember the controversial arrest of Pinochet in London back in 1998, but was more concerned about partying at the time to pay much attention to it.

The key to understanding Chile today is to understand Pinochet’s military rule which began via his coup back in ’73 following the demise (apparent suicide) of the worlds first democratically elected Marxist president (Salvador Allende). He ruled through repression, torture and murder right through to ’89 with a strong influence in politics up until ’94.

Interestingly people’s opinions of Pinochet are somewhat divided given the radical economic policies of free trade that have successfully helped make Chile one of the strongest economies of this continent. The US involvement with Pinochet’s coupe and the fact that nearly all of the large copper, gas and nitrate firms that underpin this economy are owned by US firms, has a very real impact on the culture in Chile (less so in the south) … not necessarily always for the better.

We stayed in a truly bohemian hostel that was in an area where most tourists wouldn’t really go ( cerros Alegre). The couple that own the hostel (which is really more of a cheap bed sit for the builders or port workers) were without question the leftist product of the recent history explained above. They were interesting, well-read hipster types that on the surface seemed to be living the idyllic bohemian lifestyle. The husband spent most of the day ‘running’ the cool cafe below the hostel, collecting books and discussing politics with musicians, artists; basically anyone with the time, whilst the wife looked after the 5 or so rooms they rented above.

After spending some time with them during our stay, I couldn’t help but see a more sombre harsh reality that their once youthful activist exterior had begun to crack along with the building. Both in their late 30’s early 40’s they are beginning to show the signs of aging with an expression hard to explain in words. Frustration at the ill distributed wealth in Chile and the fatigue of living day-to-day lay behind their welcoming smiles. Upon reflection and after our first night, what I thought was a look that reflected some of the social and political issues of this booming economy could have simply been a lack of sleep!

Our room was partitioned with a single door that had broken glass widows at the very top, as such we were able to hear every little thing our neighbour was up to. Normally this wouldn’t be of interest , however the lady that occupied the room was a local butch lesbian who seemed to have a very close relationship with both the husband and wife! Let’s just say my impression of the liberal couple changed some what after the 1st night!

Another interesting difference with this particular portal city, is their unique take on titty bars, which in themselves are no surprise given the amount of port workers. The difference here, is that they are open 24 hours and are in fact coffee bars! No alcohol is served and they are an accepted part of society since most Chilean men cheat on their wives as a matter of course ( may be a huge generalisation that is most likely changing as the legal status of women have recently been transformed to allow divorce and heavier sentencing against sexual harassment)

Whilst I have probably painted a pretty grim picture so far, this city is absolutely beautiful and a true highlight of our trip so far. The 45 different hills ( neighbourhoods) surrounding the downtown are an assortment of colourful tin boxes that have elements of European design depending on the origin of the immigrants that settled there.

The hills of Carcel, Algre and Bellavista are simply huge art galleries with some of the best graffiti we have ever seen. Every corner seemed to have groups of local art students drawing or panting the most vibrant city scenes. It is no wonder that the spectacular faded beauty of these hills have long drawn in South Americas most famous poets, painters and would be philosophers. The 15 rattling acensores ( funiculars) that crank you up into the hills add another dimension to this unexpected charm.

By garyabela Posted in Chile

El Calafete – a rollercosta of emotions

The next stop was back across the border into Argentina to see Glacier Perito Moreno. Our memories of what is truly a spectacular natural wonder of the world will always be overshadowed by the first real down point of the trip; where we both had thoughts of just going home.

Before I go into it, the pics below show this amazing glacier which completely mesmorises you, forcing you to simply stare at it for hours as it creeks; eagerly awaiting a large chunk of ice to break off and plummet into the lake below causing a thundering sound that echoes across the entire width spanning over 5 km. The realisation that this is the reminiscence of the ice age makes the whole experience even more magical.

The one main issue with all of the places we have seen in the south of this beautiful continent is that the governments have cottoned onto the fact that wealthy OAPs will ‘pay up’ to see the many ‘National’ Parks. Particularly in Argentina, where they leave you no other option but to take a tour bus into the parks, which on top of the hefty entry fee makes them an expensive excursion that can at times leave you thinking, was it really worth the money? This is especially true when stuck behind a whole tour group of slow walking, rude grannies that always manage to successfully push you to the side to get the view you have been patiently queueing to see, leaving you constantly questioning how far you can take the firm stance before the stubborn witches actually fall over from pushing into you! Forever labelling you a granny basher 😦

The ever soaring cost of the trip and the obvious misjudgement from our part on how much we were mentally prepared to spend on this adventure does play on the mind and effect some of the decisions you make when planning what to see next. It´s for this very reason that we decided to skip Bariloche and the surrounding Lake District since we had heard that it was effectively the Switzerland of South America.

This particular decision had taken some days to agree on, which would mean that we would take a flight directly to Santiago (missing out a large chunk of both Argentina and Chile) from a larger town we had already passed a couple of days prior enroute to El Calefate.

To cut a long story short, the cheap flight we had passed on due to our indecisiveness was no longer available resulting in us making a decision to make the 2500km journey using a number of different long haul buses taking 4 days and 3 nights at a pretty hefty price passing through the lake district.

Had it not been for a dear ‘traveling friend’ informing us of an altrernative cheap daily flight from a different neighbouring town (that would have got us there in half the time and at half the price) we would have been non the wiser to our huge error.

To make maters worse the first 5 hours of the first leg of the trip was onboard a pretty shabby coach which inaddition to the realisation that his would be home for the next 3 days made it quite a depresing moment. Thankfully we changed onto a superior bus and were fed, helping us to pull ourselves together and actually enjoy the wonderful sunsets across the endless plains of Patagonia (even Puft ended enjoying it!)

After 36 hours watching movie after movie, eating pretty awful food, we were happy to reach Barelocie for a quick overnight stay before taking the first of two buses the following day to get us to Santiago on Wednesday morning at 7am (please bear in mind that we left El Calefte at 4:20 on Saturday!)

Whilst it is very similar to Switzerland it was without question a beautiful part of the word that in hindesight we should have stayed at for a couple of days, particulary since the sun was shining and the hostel (a penthouse of an old 70s highrise) was the most welcoming place we had ever been too with amazing views and a cool bunch of fellow travellers.

Another highlight of the trip was the final crossing back into Chile which took us by the errupting volcano that has been causing havock with the flights due to the ash cloud which has covered everything in the region, killing trees and poluting the lagoons.

Losing my camping virginity: The W trek

We had met a lovely German couple in Ushuaia (Nils and Johana) who we arranged to meet up with again in Porto Natales to make arrangements to do a five day/ four night camping trip within the national park Torres del Paine, which had seemed to have developed legendary status amongst the travellers we had met, particulary the most commen trek known as the W circuit.

Given that we had absolutely no equipment to do such a thing, we spent the majority of our first day running around trying to rent things from the various “only fools and horses” types that seemed to be at every corner…some of whom were just out right strange, particularly a girl who offered to take us to a place to rent a tent and clothes only to hound us for over an hour with the most bizarre conversation about Calvin Klein and her love of rhubarb! I should have seen the early warning signs when the first thing she said to me was, ” you must be Spanish being so short with such big nose!”…. charming…not

The weather within the mountains is notoriously unpredictable due to the various micro climates at the various levels of altitude, however we were comforted by the “experts” at Eratic Rock who give a free briefing about the treks who said that it would never really rain for more than an hour and that you could experience all 4 seasons in any given day. Either we were extremely unlucky or they were just outright wrong since it seemed to rain and snow for 3 days straight!

This was not the camping experience that I had signed up for…at least I was surrounded by ‘tha Gerrmanns’ who like most, are keen hikers and camping experts…or so I thought! They all seemed completely taken aback by the lack of facilities at each camp site and the cold weather conditions often starting most sentences with, “in Europe we wouldn’t have this…..bla bla bla”

Thankfully my inappropriate coments helped keep spirits up throughout the tougher moments, some of which included: leaking tents, food that took hours to warm up on the little gas hob, the non existence of any showers and what felt like subzero tempertatures.

We did at least have the fortune of being blessed with a day of sunshine the day before and morning of our final and longest hike up to the top of a valley to see what we heard was the highlight of the trek; the sunrise on the rock face of the famous three peaks.

The one thing we did get lucky on was the time of year we chose to come, the whole park was a sea of red given the blooming “Fire Bush” which only blooms for two weeks of the year.

Given our luck, by the time we got to the final leg of the hike up the mountain we hit a snow storm forcing us to seek refuge in a Refugio until it cleared. There isn’t much to report about the four hours spent killing time; apart from the hours of fun we all had at Andre’s expense. Finally Andre had taken the baton from me for doing the most stupid thing to date ( aka my border crossing moment) which I will let the pic below explain!

The plan was to spend the night at the highest camp site to wake up before sunrise to do the final 40 min climb with our sleeping bags and equipment to make breakfast to watch this spectacular sunrise. Of course, this night was to be the coldest of them all, with zero visibility due to the snow which meant we just spent the night in the cold, in wet tents, sleeping on the floor for nothing! Oh and to top it all off we had to hike back down in the rain to get back to the bus stop which took about 6 hours.

Despite what may read like an absolute nightmare , particularly for a city boy, camping virgin, I actually had a great time and don’t regret doing it at all…whether I would do it all over again is another thing.

Although we didn’t catch the sunrise the pic below should explain what all the pain was meant to be for!

By garyabela Posted in Chile

Patagonia and Southern Chile: the crossing of the border

We planned to spend the next leg of our trip zig zaging up from the most southerly point in Argentina through Patagonia, crossing into Chile along the way until we reach the warmer temperatures of Santiago and beyond.

Our first stop was Torres del Paine which is accessed through Porto Natales in Chile. The coach journey from Ushuaia took over 18 hours; whilst we weren’t expecting it to take so long we did start the trip prepared with a whole selection of ingredients in the new set of tupperware we had bought. Yes we have taken the bold step of spending a proportion of the daily budget on tupperware! It can’t get more exciting than this.

The only problem to this new found organisation (clearly the German influence in this powerful traveling dynamic duo that we have become) was me the ” Danny Devito” of the relationship…those of you who have seen the 80s classic Twins will know exactly what I mean!

In an attempt to be more efficient, I decided to take the lead in filling out the various forms that get handed to you when boarding the coach. What appeared to be standard type of questions that usually require you to tick the ‘no’ box seemed pretty straight forward to me, so I filled it out quickly for the both of us and thought nothing of it. It was only when getting to the Argentine border where we were waiting to get back on the coach did it dawn on me that I might have made a huge mistake. Whilst waiting, the English guy in front of us offered us a ham sandwich each saying that he had to eat them because the Chilean border is quite tough on what you can and can’t bring into the country…meat being a particular no no.

I had a classic blonde moment thinking that’s fine because we have pate….( I know completely retarded). Anyway to cut a long story short we had a complete panic within the 10 minuets it took us to cross no mans land to the Chilean border trying to stuff as much of the food down us as possible. Upon arrival at the border there were signs everywhere explaining what wasn’t allowed in which lead me to painfully empty out the remaining contents of the tupperware into the bin, knowing full well that this particular faux pas was going to haunt me for some time.

Suspiciously about 50 meters from the border is the first, and what we later realised the ONLY stop for the next 12 hours; conveniently at an overpriced cafe. As a penance for my stupidity I decided that I did not quite deserve any food or drink , although even if I had wanted to, we didn’t actually have any Chilean Pesos anyway.

To add salt to the wound, we sat next to two sneaky Israeli girls who were giggling to themselves for successfully smuggling their lunch boxes through customs as they tucked into their lunch…obviously what appeared to be a luggage scanner was either switched off or manned by a complete moron. My only one saving grace was that Andre had managed to scoff down 4 of the 5 pate baguettes in under 5 minuets which meant that for the time being he was complete stuffed!

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Five hours into the 12 hour slog we had come to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t be stopping anywhere to buy any food or water and that even if we did,we didn’t have the correct currency to pay for anything anyway. As you can imagine this didn’t make for conducive relations with the already uncomfortable 6’5 giant to my right.

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However, as if an act from god, we were both blessed with a truly magical experience when crossing the Strait of Magellan that helped thaw the icy relations; a group of what appeared to be over 30 dolphins playing in the waves of the ferry.

We eventually reached our final destination where we parted with what now had become a true enemy; the English guy in front ( for making us panic for no reason, leading me to go against the Israeli in me). By this time it was almost midnight and we still had to find our hostel in the freezing cold. Its for this reason we allowed ourselves to be effectively picked up by a granny and her husband in a car offering a cheaper hostel for the night.

Whilst a charming couple that were once a good looking pair this was no hostel….it was their house which I can only describe as a poorly constructed plywood assortment of boxes with suspicious gas heaters. Bizarrely they did have a huge TV with CNN which helped ease the fear of dying form carbon monoxide poisoning during our sleep.

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