Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Salta, San Pedro De Atacama and Salares De Uyuni

We wanted to break up our journey from Mendoza to San Pedro De Atacama so we decided to stop off in Salta (northern Arg) for a couple of days. We took a local bus out to the countryside to do a bit of walking and ended up following a little river through a lush, green valley. In fact we could have been in Wales, it was even drizzling! Very beautiful though, even with some of the locals laughing at us having our picnic in the rain.From here we travelled to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile which gave us our first real taste of high altitude as the bus crosses the Andes at an altitude of approx 4400 metres above sea level. As the journey was in the day we were able to appreciate the most amazing views as the bus negotiated endless switchbacks. We weren´t sure whether we experienced any effects of being so high up, at the hostel in Salta the night before we´d enjoyed a BBQ (again with as much wine as we could drink, seems to be a common theme here...!) so felt a bit tender anyway!

San Pedro is a nice little place (if a little on the touristy side) consisting of dirt roads and adobe housing, and is perched on the edge of the Atacama desert, apparently the driest in the world. We were greeted at the bus terminal by different touts from various local hostels and picked one at random. It turned out to be an excellent choice, a gorgeous little adobe development with a courtyard furnished with hammocks. We even upgraded from a standard double to a room with a big double bed, two singles and a little lounge area as it cost 7 pounds per night each as opposed to 6 (and this is a honeymoon you know!).
Julia had bought us a sunrise visit to the nearby El Tatio geysers as a wedding present which, despite the 4am get up, was awesome. The geyser field was amazing (if a little cold at 4321 metres at that time in the morning!). We were given breakfast including hard boiled eggs prepared in the boiling water from the geysers! We also had a dip in some hot springs which was lovely considering the air temperature was still around 5 degrees! On the way back to San Pedro we stopped at a little village and had llama kebabs and goats cheese empanada´s (essentially Cornish pasties!) for lunch - no wine this time though.
Another thing that the area is known for is the very clear and normally cloudless skies, making star gazing opportunities excellent. We´d had recommendations from people we´d met in Salta to do a tour to a little observatory run by a well known French astronomer, so we booked on to do this. The guy is quite an eccentric but obviously really knows his stuff. We started with a session just looking at the sky with the naked eye and he used a green laser pen to point out various stars and constellations. We then moved to his garden which has around 10 different telescopes pointing to different parts of the sky. Through these we got to see jupiter, subaru (the one the car´s named after!) and loads of other stars.

We left San Pedro on a 3 day jeep tour which took us first to the Bolivian Border (a tiny hut in the middle of nowhere with a Bolivian flag) and then to some of the most amazing places we´ve ever seen.
The first day consisted of white, green and red lagoons, more flamingos than you could imagine and a brief swim in some hot springs before dinner. Our driver was called Mario and his wife, Eva did all the cooking. She was fantastic and continually managed to cook up tasty meals for all us hungry gringos! Also in our jeep were Tom and Wendy (from Belgium) and Juan and Jose Luis (from Spain). Quite a squeeze but great fun non the less.
The first nights accommodation was basic to say the least. A six bed cell with no hot water and no electricity. Al and I huddled together under about 7 blankets to conserve body heat as the temperature dropped to -15 degrees.

On the second day we saw Dali´s rocks and views of Bolivias only active volcano. We also broke down and from that point on we all had to push the jeep whenever we needed to get it started! We stayed in a tiny but friendy village called Colcha K and this time we had warm showers - a real treat!

We left Cocha K at 5am in order to reach the salt flats for sunrise. Unfortunately it was a little cloudy but the pancakes smothered in dulche de leche made up for the lack of good photo opportunities. In the middle of the salt flats there is an island covered in massive cacti which you can walk around and see 360 degree views of the salt flats. It was incredible. We sat at the top and looked out at the miles and miles of white salt - a really magical moment.
Where´s the Wally? (Above picture is expecially for Emma - can you spot me?!!)

We then went out onto the salt flats and had lots of fun taking silly photos (the classics - see below!).

The tour ended in Uyuni but as there is not alot to see and do here Mario, our driver, had kindly fixed us up with another jeep to take us the 5 hours down to Tupiza. This turned out to be a brilliant experience as Al and I were the only non-Bolivians in the jeep. Our driver, Carlos was fortunately very careful as the trip through the mountains could have been pretty hairy if we´d taken the bus. The other passengers consisted of a little old lady in her bowler hat who was continually munching coca leaves and giggling and a couple with their young son, Diego. We made two stops on the journey, one to let the couple off and to pick up two more men and a woman and the other in the mountains for "pi pi". It was at this point I realised why the little bolivian women where such big skirts and I began to regret my choice of combat trousers for the journey!

Next stop Potosi,

lots of love

The Masons xxxx

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Mendoza, in pictures....

Thanks to Mikey we had a wine tour in Mendoza.....

Many barrels of wine...

A HUGE barrel of wine...


Tasting wine... (in matching tops)...

Arriving at the restaurant for a late lunch (including as much wine as we could manage...)

Amazing food laid out for us.....

After `managing´ many, many glasses of wine .....

Now off to Salta for a detox!


Al and Jo x x

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Valparaiso, Vina Del Mar, Ritoque and Santiago

Another relatively short bus ride (of 10 hours....) and we'd arrived in the very colourful coastal city of Valparaiso. We had 2 days exploring here and the neighbouring city of Vina Del Mar. Valpo has a cool open air art gallery where artists have been invited to use the sides of houses and walls in a suburb to paint. Vina has quite a nice big beach and a huge colony of pelicans that swoop around the coast.We discovered our next stop by accident when we were looking for hostels in Valpo. It caught our eye as it was a really small hostel in a secluded location right on the beach about an hour north up the coast, in a small place called Ritoque. We didn't want to head straight to Santiago as we were waiting on a bank card that was being mailed out to the main post office there, so we decided to book into this secluded little place for a couple of nights. We got to Ritoque to find a cool A-frame hostel a stones throw from a beach that stretched 12km. The owner, who describes himself as a citizen of the world (later admitting that this was because he didn't like saying he was American!) is a lovely guy (Ian) and is really hospitable. He showed us to our room which was on a mezzanine floor in the A-frame building meaning that in the morning you could sit up in bed and have a gorgeous view of big waves rolling in off the Pacific. We decided to try a bit of surfing, saw a gorgeous sunset and, along with some other guests from the hostel, Ian arranged for the beach shack restaurant to open up just for us (as its still out of season) where we were treated to Chilean sea bass that the owner had caught that morning! Needless to say it tasted incredible.
We dragged ourselves away from Ritoque, partly because it was gorgeous and partly because we had heard that Santiago was pretty average in terms of cities. The sun was shining when we arrived and we actually loved Santiago (although this may have been also due to fact that we drank ALOT of the Chilean cocktail called Pisco Sours, and the fact that our hostel had a swimming pool!). We also went to the big park at the side of the city that is on a small mountain and spent a few hours lazing in the shade of the palm trees watching life go by down below. Some of the hostel staff also took us out to a salsa club which for some reason we decided to go to in flip-flops. We arrived to the sound of a really excellent live band and a room full of Chileans moshing and, fuelled by the afore mentioned pisco sours, we launched into the melee. Neither of us really remember how we got home but we were happy to find both pairs of flip-flops next to our bunkbed the following day!

Next stop is over the Andes to Mendoza, the home of Argentinian wine (yes, more drinking).

Keep in touch.

Mr and Mrs Mason x x x

Friday, 10 October 2008

Pucon, Chile

We arrived in Pucon on 7/10/08 after crossing the Chilean border (again! the passports are filling up nicely!). We approached the town in the evening and the dramatic backdrop of the active, smoking Volcano Villarica was amazing (and somewhat daunting given that one of our wedding gift list presents was to climb to the top!). After having climbed another mountain and completed a 25km bike ride in the previous 3 days we were planning on having a rest day before attempting the volcano.

However whilst checking in to the hostel we were persuaded by one of the girls who worked there and a couple of fellow guests to climb the volcano the next morning as the weather forecast was favourable (it´s not possible to go up there if there´s even a suggestion of bad weather). So straight after checking in we went along to the excursion shop to be fitted up with boots, crampons, windproofs and ice picks! We were asked to return at 6.50am the next morning to make our way up to the base of the volcano. The staff reassured us that it was all totally safe, the volcano had it´s last major eruption in 1984 destroying another local town....!

So bleary eyed the following day we were driven up to the base along with our 2 fellow guests and our guide (and also co-owner of the hostel) Gustavo. Four and a half hours of leg burning negotiation of icy slopes later we were standing right on the edge of the crater at the top of the volcano at an altitude of 2874m with amazing views of surrounding lakes and countryside, as well as a few other distant volcanos. The volcano smoke really gets to the back of the throat, not ideal when the air´s starting to get quite thin and you´ve just been climbing for a few hours!

(Jo didn´t tell me I looked like this......)

We sat right next to the crater edge and had probably the most extreme picnic we´ve ever experienced taking in the views and getting our breath and strength back. The best bit was yet to come - we donned these special big shorts (REALLY flattering!) and trotted to the edge of the slope we´d just climbed. With our guide leading the way, we all plonked ourselves down and proceeded to tobogan on our backsides all the way to the bottom of the volcano! Not quite as cool as the some of the locals who make the climb with skis or snowboards on their backs and carve their way down, but damn good fun and the best sledging ever!

We then rewarded ourselves with the next day relaxing next to the lake that the town sits on, basking in the glorious sunshine and nursing some aching bodyparts, and some really odd sunburn (Jo´s nostrils!!). Pucon is beautiful and we´ve loved it here. The hostel has it´s very own 2 month old black labrador puppy called Jaco and it´s been really difficult to resist the temptation to pop him into our backpacks before checking out. Next stop is Valparaiso and Vina Del Mar and then possibly on to Santiago.

Missing you all.

Love from

Jaco, Jo and Al x x x

ps this is a link to a cool video that our guide put together a while back

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

El Calafate - El Chalten - 35 hours on bus - Bariloche

We decided to splash out on a flight for half of our journey from Ushuaia to the next destination El Calafate as it cut out a slightly painful 12 hour bus ride through a tiny portion of Chile (meaning lots of borders, searching bags for fruit and meat and a silly amount of passport stamping!). The flight was with a company called LADE who are a state owned Argentinian airline run by the airforce (as most of you know, I´m partial to a bit of aviation love, so if it gets too boring just skip this paragraph). The plane was a tiny propeller plane with broken seats, the take off down the Beagle Channel into a big headwind coming in off the Atlantic was extremely hairy! The plane kept dropping as it was fighting the wind and Jo and I were holding very tightly on to one another (as the seatbelts were pretty useless too). As things settled though we got some amazing views of Tierra Del Fuego, as well as an inflight drink, so it wasn´t all that bad.

After landing in Rio Gallegos and a short bus ride (only 4 hours this time!) we arrived in El Calafate. From here we visited the awesome Perito Moreno glacier, we were both blown away by it. We stood for ages just watching huge chunks of ice splinter off into the lake below, the sound it makes is unbelievable! We also took a boat ride to the north face of the glacier which gave us a good appreciation of the height of the face (about 55-60m above the level of the lake).

From our cool hostel in Calafate we arranged a 2 day transfer El Chalten for 2 nights to visit the national park where we walked to the base of Mount Fitz Roy. It was a great walk, but unfortunately quite a cloudy and snowy day so we couldn´t see the mountain too clearly. We did see woodpeckers and condors swooping below us though.

Next stop was Bariloche in the Argentinian lake district. Annoyingly Ruta 40 (made famous by Che Guevara) that connects El Calafate to Bariloche is still closed due to snow, so it was back down to Rio Gallegos, then back up the east coast and cut across to Bariloche - a record 35 hour bus ride for us! As mentioned before though the buses in Argentina are first class however this was maybe a tad on the long side and the stale ham and cheese sandwiches didn´t really make up for it. Bariloche was beautiful though and on the first day there we hiked to the top of Cerro Otto (big mountain behind the town) which gave us great views of the town and the Nahuel Huapi lake that it sits on. The following day we took a bus out to one end of the lake to do part of the Circo Chiquito cycling circuit around the lake. Somewhat naively we thought that a ride around a lake would be fairly flat and given that it was only 25km we thought we´d cruise it. Unfortunately it also sits pretty close to the Andes so we set off for a leg burning, 4 hour bike ride up some pretty big inclines! Managed to find a completely secluded lake side beach for lunch though that made it all worthwhile! Think the guy in the hire shop found our John Wayne walking impressions most amusing after we´d returned the bikes!

We´ve now come across to Chile, to a small town called Pucon with an amazing backdrop of Volcano Villarica. The weather is improving and we were particularly pleased to hear that it´s been raining in London! We´ll blog again soon.

Hope everyone´s well.

Lots of love.

Al and Jo xxx