Friday, 30 November 2007


We did actually pop into Santiago previously. About 3 weeks ago we spent a few hours waiting in the bus station for a bus to Patagonia. Hardly time to get a fair impression of the capital of Chile and probably one of the 4 most commercially important cities in South America. We´re here for 3 days this time.

First impressions are a bit strange. We wondered into the centre on Sunday morning and the place was completely dead. Nobody about. The guards outside Pinochet´s old palace looked bored out of their minds. We quickly found a very nice bit of park on the side of a hill and climbed to the top to get a better overview of the city. It´s in a spectacular location on a plane at the foot of the Andes. It was a bit hazy, but you can just make out the snowy peaks in the far background of the photo on the left. Other than the location, it could be a city in either Europe or North America. It didn´t feel like a South American city in the same way that La Paz certainly did. Everything seems to work for instance... Anyway, it´ll do fine for a couple of days before we head of to Rapa Nui which we´re both very excited about.

El Chalten - Fitzroy Massif

We had wondered about heading back to Buenos Aires after seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier, perhaps for a bit of beach action, but after a short chat with the airline we realised that there was no way we could change our flights. We didn`t fancy a 33 hour bus ride either, so we decided to head off to El Chalten to see the Fitzroy Massif. After 4 hours on the bus ( about half off road ), we arrived in Hades. Driving wind and rain did not bode well for a trip to the shops, never mind a 2 day hike in the mountains.....

What a difference a night can make ! The sun was shining, the sky was blue and as we headed up into the mountains from the hostal the wind started to drop too. I ended up hiking up the mountain in shorts and boots for most of the day resulting in some nice rucksac strap lines on my back, though the rest of the squad seemed keen to retain their waterproofs, fleeces and long trousers. I think there`s something wrong with them. The views were spectacular. The photos on the left show the Glacier Grande and the Cerro Torre mountains.

The next day we headed up again to get a better view of the Fitzroy Massif. Again we were blessed with good weather and the views were again awesome. Patagonia really has the mountain scenery thing sussed out. The photo on the right is of the Fitzroy. Pretty isn`t it ?

As we suspected before we left, all this activity has had a strange effect on our physiology. We now have nice toned legs from the hiking, but large guts from all the food and beer we`ve been stuffing our faces with. Would you like some profile photos to admire ?

As I write this, we`re back down in Calafate. Tomorrow we all fly back to Buenos Aires. Dog and Becky will stay there studying Spanish with a Granny for 2 or 3 weeks and will then fly back to California for Xmas. Athena and I hop across to Santiago for a couple of days and then head out into the Pacific to Rapa Nui ( Easter Island ). Its supposed to be the most isolated piece of land in the world, so we`re hoping the plane is well maintained....

Here´s a couple of vids of the mountains.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier

We´re still in Patagonia, but we`re back in Argentina in a town called El Calafate. The town was originally established in the 1920s as a stopping off place for farmers taking their wool across to the Atlantic coast ( about 2 months ride away ! ), but today its main claim to fame is its proximity to the Perito Moreno Glacier.

The Perito Moreno isn`t the biggest or grandest glacier in the area, but two things make it stand out. One is its accessability and the second is `The Big Ruptures` ( more of this in a moment ).

As you approach the glacier it looks just like you`d expect. A big ice sheet stretching across the lake. It`s only when you get closer that you again start to see the huge fissures and crevices that litter its surface. Also, when you get close, you start to hear the creaks and groans coming from the ice. Everynow and again chunks fall off the snout into the water - sounds like a rifle going off, followed by a clattering and then a splash. Really fascinating to watch.
To give you some idea of scale, the snout is about 150 tall ( about 50m above water and 100 below ). The ice in the centre of the snout takes about 200 years to get there from being a snowflake in the mountain top, whilst the at the edges, the process takes about 400 years. Boundary layers in action !

Later on in the day, we wandered down to the lake front. The whole beach area is littered with icebergs and berglets. Very pretty. You can`t really get bored of scenery like this.

Anyway, what´s `The Big Rupture´I hear you ask .. . . The Lago Argentina, that the glacier flows into, is roughly in a C shape. The glacier flows into the bulge of the C from left to right, just where a peninsular juts out from right to left. The glacier advances at about 1m per day so if it puts a bit of a spurt on, it can bridge across to the peninsular and effectively create an ice dam that splits the lake into two halves. Once this happens, one side of the lake tends to fill up with melt water more quickly, so the water level can be up to 8m different ( it`s about 2m different at the moment ). This volume of water pressing on the ice dam takes its toll and eventually the water will tunnel under the dam and rupture it. The event is hugely spectacular as the ice wall shatters and millions of tonnes of water cascade through the gap. The last time this happened was about 3 years ago. Who knows how long the current dam will last ? Could be anything from another year to another twenty.

Here´s a sweep of the glacier, with me wibbling on about the ice dam etc etc ( bit overexposed I`m afraid- the camera doesn`t like video of glaciers it would seem ) .

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Torres del Paine - Day 4-5

The fourth day of our trip skipped the edges of Lago Nordenskjold again and headed up the Valle Frances. The weather got better as the day went on and we got excellent views of the Cumbre Range ( left ) and the Cerro Range ( right ). We also had a very nice afternoon nap in the sun before descending down to Lago Pehoe for the night.

The fifth and final day was going to be a big one. The 22km up the edge of Lago Grey promised to give us a view of the massive Grey Glacier. The effort was definately worth it, though the glorious spring weather certainly made the experience all the richer. As we got towards the glacier we started to see large icebergs floating down the lake. The first full view we got of the glacier is in the photo on the left. It seemed to stretch away to infinity, but I suppose the source is probably the snowy peaks in the backgroud. Once we got really close, we realised how rough the surface was. The uppercrust is covered in waves, cracks, fissures and crevices, whilst the snout itself is very jagged as icebergs calve and fall off into the lake. Awesome.

The four hour boat and bus trip back to Puerto Natales was a bit of a slog. This got worse when we got back to the hostal and found that they had no water whatsoever. This got even worse when the crappy restaurant we went to for some tea were so slow, that we had to return to the hostal to avoid being locked out before the food came. Arse and double arse.

View across Lago Nordenskjold and of the Cerros ( horns ).

Torres del Paine - Day 1-2-3

The Chilean Torres del Paine National Park covers a small, but very spectacular, mountain range in Souther Patagonia. The mountains are not part of the Southern Andes range ( they were formed about 12million years ago when a plug of granite forced its way upwards through the surrounding sedimentary rock ) and hence they tend to be very distictive. Very pointy and craggy. We came here to ogle the scenery and to trek about 65km across the park.

The first afternoon of the trip was, to be frank, grim . It was only about 8km from the park entrance to the first hostal, but the weather was atrocious. The wind was incredible and seeing as the walk was pretty much entirely across exposed lowlands, it was very much a slog. Think we`ll forget about that one....

The next day was much more exciting. The most famous bits of the range are the three Torres ( towers ). We climbed up to them, on all fours for the final section, but unfortunately, the weather was pretty poor. Didn`t stop them being an awe inspiring sight though. You can just see two of the towers in the photo on the left. The third tower is hidden behind the lefthand mountainside. The photos we took from much closer are too cloudy. There`s a bit of video at the bottom just to prove we made it !

The weather on the 3rd day was much better, which was nice. The walk was relatively easy as we passed Lago Nodrenskjold on our left and Monte Almirante Nieto on our right. Not much more to say other than that the scenery was again breathtaking.

The infamous Torres del Paine Orc

Friday, 16 November 2007

Slow Boat from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales

We wanted to get down into deepest Patagonia and what way better than on a luxury cruise ?

Unfortunately, there wasn`t one so we got a car ferry for the 4 day voyage through 1500km of spectacular Chilean coastal scenery. It was a little cramped in the 4 berth cabin ( The Dog has now been banned from eating fish soup when in shared accomodation after some unpleasant after effects.. ) but it was very snug and generally we all thought the boat was pretty comfortable.

The trip was really all about the scenery and it didn`t dissappoint. Right from the outset we were navigating through channels and inlets between fabulous mountain ranges. We did have to head out into the Pacific during one night and boy, did it get rough. We all hunkered down in the cabin during the worst of it, but there was talk of chunder amongst the other passengers in the morning. Not from us hearty sailers though.
Treat of the trip was a close approach to Glacier Pio XI ( snappy name... ) which is supposedly the largest ( by what measure I`m not sure ) in South America. It certainly looked very impressive.

Peurto Natales reminds me of Ramsey ( Isle of Man ) on a wet Sunday in March, so I won`t go into anymore details.... And I won`t even begin to mention German tour groups....

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Pucon and the Villarica Volcano

Well the journey down through half of Chile went very well, and morning found us in Pucon in the Chilean Lake District. It´s a very nice town that reminded me and The Dog of Queenstown in New Zealand.

Apart from the stunning scenery, the major attraction is the proximity to Villarica volcano. The volcano is very much active. The town has a system of traffic light signals to denote it´s mood. Green is good. Red is very, very bad. Bit sobering that....

Seeing as the green light was shining, we donned all our clothes, helmets, ice-axes and cramp-ons and headed up in bright spring sunshine. We cheated a little in that there is a ski-lift up the lower slopes, but pretty soon we were climbing hard. The volcano is a perfect cone, so there was no easy route - you just have to zig-zag straight up. Unfortunately, about halfway up, the weather turned on us. Howling winds and low clouds made the ascent into a bit of trial. Athena was badly spooked by the steep slopes and didn´t share my confidence that the ice-axe would arrest a slide. To say she didn´t enoy the final part of the climb would be a cosmic understatement. Anyway, much to her credit, she made it to the top. We hoped to look down into the lava pools in the crater, but the wind and the acrid sulphurous smoke drove us away with streaming eyes and burning lungs after only a few minutes. So, we didn´t really get the views we´d hoped for, but we all felt like we´d acheived something getting up there in the adverse conditions.
Getting down was a doddle. The slopes are pretty much rock and boulder free, so it was a simple case of sitting down in the snow and sliding down on your arse. The ice-axe provided a brake when we ran out of bottle, which was frequently as we were descending through thick cloud in white-out conditions... Once we did get a bit lower and broke through the low cloud we did finally get some wonderful views of the surrounding mountains, lakes and valleys.
We were all pretty knackered after the days climbing, so for the evening, we headed of to the local agua calientes. The pools were so hot, they were only just tolerable, but like brave little soldiers, we stuck it out and bobbed around soaking away the aches and pains, whilst drinking beers and star gazing. Nice way to end the day.
We´re off deeper into Patagonia tomorrow. Four days on a converted cargo ship loom....
Here´s a bit of video from the side of the mountain, before the weather turned on us.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

San Pedro de Atacama

We crossed the border from Bolivia into Chile. Apart from the Australian coke-heads desperately trying to use up their supplies of Bolivian Marching Powder before we got to the customs shed, it was pretty uneventful....

The first town across the border is San Pedro de Atacama. The town sprang up at the cross-roads between an Argentina-Bolivia-Chile route and the North-South route up Chile. Nowadays its very much a tourist staging post. It´s amazing the difference between the Bolivian side of the border. Chile is very much more developed and is obviously much more afluent. Gone are the bird´s nests of wiring, dodgy drains etc... Prices are now close to European levels, which is a bit of a shock to the wallet after travelling through Peru and especially Bolivia.

The main attraction of the town is the spectacular desert and volcano scenery. The Atacama desert ( most arid in the world supposedly ) starts just south of the town and stretches hundreds of miles into Chile. About 7 miles into the desert ( up a bloody great big hill when you´re on a pushbike ) is a view over the Valley of the Moon. Look at the photo to the left - you can see how it got it´s name !

The other feature that we really enjoyed were the spectacular desert and volcano sunsets. Check this puppy out ! Everywhere you looked on the horizon were the cones of volcanoes. The place is surrounded by them. Hope they stay dormant.

We start a travel marathon shortly. We get a bus from Atacama to Calama, a flight to Santiago, then an overnight bus down to Pucon. Tired already.....

Here´s a sweep of the Valley of the Moon and Atacama

And here´s us cycling down the Valley of the Dead....

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Hot Pools and Laguna Verde

A short journey on from the Geysers was another mountain lagoon, though this one was very special. The water feeding it was hot ! Damn hot ! So, after a nice cup of tea, it was time for groups of shivering Gringos to lower themselves into the steaming pool. Note the joy on the faces ! There were quite different expressions when they got out into the sub-zero breeze afterwards... Reminds me of the those Japanese monkeys that live in the high mountains that spend all their spare time in geothermal pools...

Final stop on our tour of the Bolivian south was the Laguna Verde - a large lake that sits in the shadow of the Licancabur volcano ( 5880m ish ). Apparantly the reason it is green is due to the Copper and Arsenic salts dissolved in it. Not really suitable for swimming then, but very, very pretty. The volcano marks the border with Chile, so after an exciting border crossing ( Dog had to make a ´donation´to the Bolivian customs Xmas fund . . . . ), that was it for Bolivia.

Next stop, San Pedro de Atacama in Chile...


We got up at 4.30am so we could head off to some Geysers for dawn. Bloody hell it was cold ! The hostel was on the edge of a lagoon at about 4500m, so before the sun had got chance to warm things up, the temperature was way below zero. Had to wear long trousers !!
The jeep took about an hour to climb up through a 5000m pass under the shadow of the Michina volcano. The sight of the geyser field at sunrise made it all worth it though. It was still way below zero, so we all took delights in warming ourselves in the jets of hot steam. The bubbling pools of hot mud looked very inviting, but the stench of sulphur kept us away...

Here´s a general sweep of the area.

And here´s a shot of The Dog warming his cockles and mussels in a steam jet....


Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Bolivian Desert South of Salar de Uyuni

Travelling south from the Salar de Uyuni, we entered a bizarre high altitude desert area that was littered with Volcanic formations. The photo on the left follows the railway tracks to Chile. We travelled across huge plateaus surrounded by Volcanos ( extinct and not-so-extinct )and came across a number of strange coloured lagoons populated with Flamingoes. Throughout the day´s journey, we´d constantly be peering out of the jeep windows at wierd and wonderful scenery ( Rock Tree in the photo below for instance ) . It really was like travelling across the surface of an alien planet. Our joy was somewhat tempered when we arrived at our accomodation for the night. One poxy flea-bitten blanket, a bed made from old cardboard boxes and no running water made for an uncomfortable stay as the night time temperatures dropped well below freezing......

Here´s a clip of some Bolivian desert motorway mayhem....

Salar de Uyuni

A 12 hour overnight bus ( half on dirt roads.... ) got us down to the town of Uyuni. Just west of the town are the Salar de Uyuni - an area of salt flats approximately 160km x 120km. Bloody huge. We started our tour of the area by visiting an old train scrap yard. Doesn´t sound too interesting, except that one of the wrecks is supposed to be one of the trains robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid during their period on the run in Bolivia. Kind of cool...

The salt flats themselves are vast. They were formed millions of years ago when the same tectonic forces that forced the Andes skywards, also lifted up a huge inland sea. Over the millenia, the sun evaporated the water to leave the salt flats behind. It´s very strange landscape. Everything is white, which makes it very hard to judge the size and distance of objects ( see photo of the 4x4 nudging into my water bottle for instance ). It´s a very harsh enviroment, but it was amazingly beautiful.
We spend the night in a hostel built entirely from rock salt blocks. Even the furniture was salt. I checked by licking things. The photo on the left was our view at sunset. Fab.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Cycling Down the World´s Most Dangerous Road

A bit of background first... "The World´s Most Dangerous Road" runs from La Paz up on the Altiplano, down into the jungle near a town called Coroico. A fair part of it is tarmaced, but the dodgy bit is a very steep, rough single track dirt road that clings to the side of a mountain with huge vertical cliffs on one side and huge vertical drops on the other. And, just to spice things up a little, those krazeee Bolivians swap the traffic sense ( ie ride on the left, not the right side of the road ), on some sections of the road. Its not clear which....
Until recently, it was one of the major links between La Paz and the jungle, so was heavy with traffic, but now a modern bypass has provided an alternative route for most of the traffic. About time, ´cos the annual death toll averaged 200 people per annum, hence the nickname....

The bit that we cycled started at a mountain pass called La Cumbre ( 4700m altitude ) and decended down to Yolosa ( 1100m altitude ). That´s a total drop of 3600m or about 3 Ben Nevis´... The first 30km were on tarmac so it gave us time to adapt to the bikes. The final 45km were on the dodgy single track dirt road. The bikes were excellent, so even though the road was terrible, the bikes seemed to float down even though we were travelling at about 50kmh for bits of it. The drops were a bit intimidating, but the guide just told us not to look.... During the decent, 3 of our group of 14 people fell off, though nobody was badly hurt, with a Spanish lad needing just one stitch to his eyebrow. Nobody went over the edge !

Athena had more sense than to subject herself to this trial and decended in the support bus. Unfortunately, this gave her much more time to stare into the abyss at the side of the road, and to spot graves and car wrecks in the bottom..

Bit scary, but a great day out !

Thursday, 1 November 2007


A week in the Amazon takes its toll on one´s personal hygiene. This was my shirt collar halfway through the trip. I reckon this beats my previous personal best from The Boy´s trip into the Atlas Mountains about 6 years ago. Athena is very impressed - I can tell by the way she´s gone very quiet.

And in case you think I was exaggerating about the number of insects in the jungle, here´s a clip of the light bulb just outside our cabin door ...

Rurrenabaque Jungle

Rurrenabaque lies on the banks of the River Beni. About 3 hours up the river is the Madidi National Park, a huge area of the forest that the Bolivian government has protected against development. It was a very difficult place to be - very hot, very very humid and full of insects. Standing perfectly motionless would still induce a sweat of Niagra proportions. Nevertheless, we still saw a huge variety of exotic creatures.
We saw, more Cayman, Hummingbirds, Soldier Ants, Fire Ants, Leafcutter Ants ( see photo of one having an encoutner with a spider ), Wild Pigs, Spider Monkeys, Mice, Yellow Frogs, Red Maccaws, Green Maccaws, and more random insects than I can ( or want ) to remember. We also spotted a Tarantula´s nest, but we didn´t hang around to meet the resident.. The hightlights were probably tracking the grunts and snorts of the Wild Pigs through the jungle until we finally spotted them. Or walking along a track at nightime until we hit a large pond, and then realising that all the points of light reflecting back from the pond from our torches, were the eyes of submerged Cayman.....
We had a great time, but after a week, we were all very glad to get back upto to La Paz and cool down...

Here´s clip from the boat ride up the Beni...

Rurrenebaque Pampas

Rurrenebaque is only a 50 minute flight ( or 15 hour bus ride ) away from La Paz, but it´s a world away in terms of enviroment. It´s down in the Bolivian Amazon basin so is hot and very, very, humid.
The Pampas area is basically a huge swamp. Wildlife tends to congregate along the banks of the rivers, so it´s a great place to see weird stuff. We had a couple of days there, trawling up and down the rivers in small boats. We saw Cappuchino Monkeys, Black Howler Monkeys, Red Howler Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Capibarra ( 30 kg of rodent see photo ), Pink River Dolphins, Great Rhea, Cormorants, White Knecked Heron, Tiger Heron, Striated Heron, Eagrets, Storks, Vultures, Great Black Hawks, Lesser Kiskadee, Blue Crowned Trogons, Squirrel Cuckoos, Amazonian Kingfishers, Ringed Kingfishers, Red Capped Cardinals, a Three Toed Sloth, Catfish, Sardines, White Pirahna, loads of Caymans ( the local flavour of Alligators ) and billions upon billions of MOSQUITOES.

We also spent a morning hiking along a very long and very hot road in search of Anacondas. We only found the skeletons of two young snakes on the road ( probably road kill ), but we did find a large Rattlesnake coiled up in a bush. It´s supposed to be the most poisonous snake in the America´s so instead of poking it with a long stick, we left it well alone.

Here´s a video clip of our close encounter with a Cayman. Moments after taking this clip, the boat disturbed a submerged tree branch. It looked like a Cayman was trying to get into the boat with us, so me and The Dog squealed like little girls .. .