• An awesome 2013 in just 12 Photos

    2013 was great, we packed a lot into 12 months, visiting 16 countries across 4 continents.

    It started in read more

  • Eating Chilli and other Chilly adventures in Chile

    So besides hiking in about 20 national parks and ski touring some cool places we did a lot of duller stuff associated with such a long trip. While this was often a bit dull it also sometimes led to micro-adventures of its own!

    Chile has so few laundrettes, it is harder to find a place to wash clothes than it is to find a sober travelling Australian. We always ended up wearing the same stuff for several weeks after giving up walking around towns and getting directions to places that were non-existent, closed or took 3 days to wash my socks! Osorno was a “favourite” place; we had 6 hours to kill here, and kill is an appropriate word as after 5 hours here you were about ready to! (One exception it had a fantastic cake shop). We had a similar long wait in Chillan, which has a fascinating market but nothing else. After 2 hours of hanging about in Chillan we drove until we got bored and then cooked up pancakes in a public park with an audience of local, slightly feral village kids! The place we ended up at had a super cool huge wooden bridge – see below:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    During our trip we drove miles and miles and we saw some amazing stuff from the side of the road. Rarely anything uber spectacular just lots of cool scenes; rainbows over forests, sheep being herded; flocks of ibis in cow fields. We particularly liked this traffic island near the Argentine border before Volcan Lanin:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Before my trip to Chile I had never seen oxen pulling carts before, these beasts are huge – taller than the locals (OK so Chileans are quite short!). Often the carts were attached directly to the horns which must be a little uncomfortable for them. The island of Chiloe was a particular oxen hotspot, which went with the slow way of life there. Below is a picture of horse and cart, fairly common in remote rural areas of South America; I guess it’s cheaper to run than an old tractor. After our earlier trip to Eastern Europe and Albania in particular it seemed to have become a fairly normal sight this summer.


    After celebrating our escape from Osorno a few weeks earlier, we found ourselves once again stuck in the town. This time we were en route to Argentina and Bariloche, however Chilean national day was on and the connecting buses from Osorno to Bariloche were full so we had to overnight in Osorno. Worse still everything was closed as it was a national holiday. We knocked on guesthouse doors trying to find a place to stay, and of those that answered the prices seemed sky high; finally we used our old Lonely Planet book to find a budget B&B. The lady who answered was in her late 60s wearing her dressing gown at midday. We entered her house, which was full of… lets call it “old lady chic”. Porcelain, white lace everywhere, jars of jam in glass cabinets in the hall and a pervading smell of the 1970s. It was cheap and had cable TV to pass the time in Osorno though so we weren’t complaining!

    We coincided with both Bolivia’s and Chile’s national holidays celebrating their foundation as countries: cue much band playing, marching and partying. We did see a great parade in Orsorno including canons mounted on donkeys, men with truncheons dressed in hats and the ski regiment of the army. We ate some bitter oversized rhubarb which came with a free bag of MSG(?!) from a street vendor and watched kids throwing confetti in random people’s faces. See the ski army in picture below;


    With all this driving we got to know the roads well. Generally the highways are in great condition; better than Belgium’s anyway. The Pan American Highway is like the backbone: a fast dual carriageway, the major artery, loaded with executive coaches, lorries and 1000s of cars around the Santiago area. However given how busy this road is it was surprising how many people used it as a footpath and cycle lane regardless of the direction of traffic. Some stretches were so busy with people that it was like a computer game where you had to swerve to avoid hitting people – it was sketchy, super sketchy. Now walking along the highway during the day is bad enough, but at night with no reflectors or lights it is crazy. Hitting a stray dog was even more inevitable, amazingly we avoided hitting the hordes of pure breeds roaming the streets. The “road” in picture below was particularly fun, it was up Shangri La valley near Nevados de Chillan resort. You can just make out the snow starting to fall:


    This is what the same area above looked like the next morning……powder day! We skied the volcano you can see above the resort.

    There is little more disturbing than being suddenly awoken by a loud “thump, thump, thump” of the police banging on a window, with the blue lights flashing as you open you sleepy eyes. It happened last to me in Banff, Canada, my nemesis city (it really is just a tourist-filled Disneyland outdoor town), where I was fined for illegal camping in a fairly non-illegal looking place. In Chile we knew it is legal to camp/sleep in our vehicle if we were just off public highways, but this parking up in random places sometimes led to a bit of suspicion from the police hence the early morning wake up calls, however they just wanted to know what we were up to. They were always friendly after seeing our passport and wished us a good holiday. A lack of Spanish always sped things up too – the police quickly lost interest in trying to communicate using our pidgin Spanish!

    The weather frequently got the better of us on this trip. This is the approach to Volcan Lanin; we never summited as the cloud was always too thick. It also started snowing soon after we took this picture. 

    To live up to the Chilli title we found the food fairly wanting in Chile, although the fresh fruit and veg could be superb. The empanadas were also a saving grace, especially with sweet onion and dash of chilli. Otherwise the food just seemed to lack imagination, and there seemed to be an obsession with western fair like pizzas. It appears to me that the economic and cultural development that has rapidly overtaken the country has not yet been applied to the cuisine. It is very much subsistence food: basic but filling with limited spice or flavour. Of course I am generalising – there are spectacular restaurants like in Putre in northern Chile where we found a real gem. Also some dishes that use great fresh simple ingredients can be spectacular, the traditional fish dishes on Chiloe follow this logic. However generally in random towns in middle and southern Chile the food sucked. The wine though is a different story!!

    Marion is vegetarian, and wasn’t too sure in advance what kind of veggie options she might find in Chile. In general we cooked fresh stuff to save money and to save ourselves from the large amount of artificial additives that frequently make an appearance in S American processed food. Generally we found that good fresh fruit and veg was available almost everywhere and it was much cheaper in the local green grocer shops than in the supermarkets. In particular Avocadoes were crazy cheap and we had them with almost every meal. The supermarkets were full of processed junk, a lot of which contained non veggie animal fat and gelatine, not to mention a lot of weird random stuff that’s mostly banned in Europe. As for eating out, the veggie options were generally pretty limited / boring, although at the above-mentioned favourite restaurant in Putre we did find some interesting vegetarian options on offer using local delicacies like pond weed (tasted better than it sounds!). All in it is probably is a better place to be a meat lover, and we haven’t even started on Argentine steak….

  • Sajama National park, Bolivia

    Sajama National Park in Bolivia is quite simply amazing. It doesn´t feature much in the guide books, it’s pretty hard to reach and generally just too much hassle for most. However this means vast unspoilt landscapes remain surrounded by spectacular mountains, empty hot springs and a real sense of adventure. It really is one of the greatest places I have ever been.

    Llama's in Sajama park, Bolivia


    Our approach started in Oruro located in the cental altiplano of Bolvia. It was an unexciting and slightly random town, we were there to explore the city but quickly decided to book a bus back out again. The bus we booked was bound for Arica in Chile, but we were planning to hop off in the middle of nowhere and walk or hitchhike into the Sajama national park. In reality we couldn´t quite follow the Spanish instructions at the bus office but it seemed the bus we had booked, didn´t go exactly where we wanted. We had to get a local bus 125km to meet another bus from La Paz at a random road junction and I suspect we paid more for this privilege than the locals! After waiting for an hour in the middle of nowhere we caught the connecting La Paz bus heading to Arica. A kind Chilean man, who is now my facebook friend, translated our plans for getting to Sajama for the driver to understand, so everything was working out just fine. Then we missed the turn off to the park, apparently we could get a taxi easier from Tambo Quebo the border town, I suspect the driver just forgot! After 2 hours waiting for a taxi in Tambo Quebo it seemed walking might have been a better option. Thankfully we were allowed to sit in a telephone booth shop, if that’s the proper name for these places, to keep warm. The border is at 4000m+ so the air is pretty cold as sunset approaches. The warm ‘shop’ was in reality the dodgey border crossing fixer. It was interesting watching, as every 5 minutes another man came in and handed over cash, received cash or received small parcels over the counter. This was clearly the place you could get whatever you wanted in the area. (except a taxi!) Apparently the taxi drivers were all at the Fiesta or something, but finally a local man was tracked down and in the now complete darkness we handed over 100 Boliviano´s to finally get into the park. As I said accessibility for the independent traveler is not straight forward.

    Flags flying on the altiplano in Bolivia

    The shot below is a stunning sunset over the village of Sajama.
    Sunset over the volcanoes in Sajama
    After a scary and bumpy ride down a long dirt road we pulled up in a village, it was almost completely dark except for the odd electric light flickering. We entered the only open hostel in the village. A 5 year old boy showed us to our room. We had our own 6 bed dorm in a domed, hobbit like building covered with grass and made with mud brick walls. The en suite had no hot water but was pleasant enough as it avoided a cold late night trip outside! At 4600m the village was rather chilly under the clear and starry sky, not even the bright glare of the perfectly defined Milky Way helped. We brought food with us so chose to decline the hostel dinner on offer. This seemed a lucky escape when we entered the kitchen. I am pretty used to eating at random places and from roadside stalls but this was different, dirty plates everywhere a rack of dead animal parts, bones and a hacksaw for preparing, kids running around and few dirty pans used for cooking. Maybe the altitude prevented bacteria but I was happy as Marion prepared our boring pasta, the other few guests enjoyed their dinner in ignorance of what lurked behind the kitchen door!

    Llama's in Sajama National Park, Bolivia

    Next day we hiked for about 6km which at that altitude was quite breathless. We arrived at some remote empty hotsprings, with the best view you could possibly imagine, take a look at the photos!

    Small mud brick village in depths of Sajama

    We walked back between Llamas and volcanoes, visited deserted mud brick villages, saw the odd nomadic looking man aimlessly wandering around.
    There was another hike we were recommended which was to some geysers and up some hills with great views. Another option is a hike/climb up  Sajama the highest mountain in Bolivia at about 6542m, which we passed on. Apparently the locals had a football game at the top a few years back, so can’t be that bad to climb!
    Traffic jam at altitude, Chile and Bolivia border crossing
    After a few days staying in and exploring the park we shared a lift back to the border. We then hitched across no mans land to Chile with a kind border official, his car had seen better days so we gave him a few Bolivianos for the ride, retrospectively thinking it is probably not the done thing to give Chilean border officials cash, but never mind. We then hiked into the almost as stunning Lauca national park in Chile, which deserves its own blog post!

  • Exploring Potosi, Sucre and Oruro, Bolivia

    A quick tour of Potosi, Sucre and Oruro three cities that sit proudly on the high Altiplano of Bolivia. Potosi fabled for its silver mines is actually the highest city in the world at 4090m. It has outstanding colonial architecture with a beautiful renovated central square. The square is lined by Potosi cathedral and the Spanish Colonial Mint. The dominating Cerro Rico was rich in silver from 1556 to 1783 about 45,000 tons were mined. The Spanish decimated indigenous labour and imported 1000s of slaves to endure the mines, it is fair to say the history of the city and mines is hard. The current mines are a bit of a tourist attraction where you can go and see what a hard life the miners have, most are drunk or on narcotics it seems. The life expectancy is less than 40. We declined to take a day trip to the mines and instead explored the fascinating streets and buildings. There is a bit of an ethical dilemma here as to whether the ‘extreme’ tourist mine tours help or hinder the progress towards safer conditions.

    There were numerous interesting artisan shops, I purchased some nice warm hand woven Alpaca socks and a fashionable hipster Alpaca jumper. Marion picked up a nice scarf and some woven wall hangings all at very fair and pretty sustainable prices. If we didn’t have 2 months of ski touring ahead we would have bought more of the locally made artisanal textiles.
    Cakes in Potosi, Bolivia
    Next up was the stunning Colonial Acrhitecture of Sucre, a good spot to take time out and learn Spanish or exploring the surrounding villages. The downtown is well preserved with many interesting buildings. There is also a good sized covered market full of lots of random stuff. We bought a few nice woven items but it was significantly pricer than Potosi. It is also known as the Chocolate capital of Bolivia as the French translation hints at. TO be honest I wasn’t blown away by the chocolates, maybe I just didn’t buy the good stuff though! At 2810m it is not super high but a nice all round cool climate. It felt pretty warm during August i.e. mid winter when we were visiting.
    National Day celebrations in Potosi, Bolivia
    As the constitutional capital of Bolivia it hosts many interesting buildings such as Sucre cathedral, the national library, The house of freedom and the Archbishops house. All date from colonial times and most share the whitewashed exterior that I felt defines the city.

    We were fortunate to time our visit with Bolivia´s national day on 6th August. This meant huge celebrations, many marching bands, a few well dressed dignitaries, military parades and so many versions of the national anthem!

    Potosi was hosting a national marching band event, while Sucre was more of an event fitting of its constitutional capital status, with endless marches of endless groups of people. The entire city must have been involved. It went on for literally two days. We came back at 9am after a late night and they were still marching!
    From Sucre we bussed up to Oruru an eight hour ride so we paid a couple dollars more for the cama deluxe bus. It also left at a convenient time. Sadly it had no working toilet, massively bald tyres and generally a scarily worn out. No toilet all night was interesting we had to ask the driver to stop then find spot by roadside, fine for me but Marion found it less tolerable! It was also bit disconcerting trying to sleep on a bus when it is dark outside but the road is twisting and turning up and down some seriously under engineered roads in the Andes all at some great altitude. It was probably best not to see all the roads but then again your imagination runs wild with what was behind the veil of darkness!

    Oruru was dull we arrived at 6.30am and decided to leave as soon as possible. We wanted to get direct to Sajama National park, this proved hard, no one would help. We were sent on two wild goose chases to random bus offices around town trying to find a bus. It seemed like one should exist but it was beyond us to find it. We bought a ticket to Arica in Chile then we just had to get off by the border so we could hitch or taxi into the park. The village of Sajama is 15km off the main road so walking at the 4400m altitude is not your best bet. In hindsight getting a local bus to Patacamaya a junction with the La Paz-Arica road would be the best option and getting a ride from there would be possible.

  • Northern Chile San Pedro de Atacama

    After our first attempt at snowboarding being a little thin on the snow, we decided the best thing to do was head north and wait for an improvement. This being the southern hemisphere heading North means getting hotter, in fact we headed to the desert.

    After 26 hours on the bus from Santiago we arrived in the dark at San Pedro, in the heart of the Atacama Desert. It is strange how different places feel at night, the quaint mud brick Adobe houses seem more sinister and the dogs howling add to the aura as we get lost in the back streets. This is the driest place on earth with some spots never recording any rain. Therefore despite the altitude the chances for any snow were almost non existent. It seems San Pedro is firmly on the back packer route and this means tours and day trips galore.

    San Pedro is a fun place but it is full of tourists and gap yearers. There is no real sense of the true remoteness . Everyone is discussing how they had “done” Argentina in 2 weeks  meaning they had been to Buenos Aires and Mendoza  as well as maybe Iguazu falls. It was slightly depressing to see everyone following the same lonely planet route, spending so much on uninspired rip off day trips and sadly us having to join the to get anywhere in San Pedro. We signed up for 3 trips, sand boarding, sunrise at Tatio geysers and a 3 day trip across the altiplano into Ulyuni in Bolivia. It became apparent that one really needs to rent a 4×4 to explore this area and for the trip across the salt flats into Bolivia the vastness needs a good map. Next time I would rent a vehicle and try to explore myself, but it was too late for that this time.

    Sand boarding is pretty lame I am glad I tried it but it is bit like snowboarding in slow motion, it is frustrating, and definitely not like riding powder as the guide informed us it would be. This misleading information should have warranted a refund! The views were great and a spectacular sunset drinking Pisco sours on a mountain top finished off a good day.

    The geysers, were spectacular at a height of 4600m this is the highest thermal activity and geysers in the world. The night time low temperature freezes the water, building up pressure that gets released at sunrise. It is busy, a compulsory stop on the lonely planet route, snap snap, sit in hot water then complain about the cold and bumpy roads. This is what most people enjoyed. Taking time away from the crowds though it is a serene place with atmospheric steam swirling in the first shards of morning sunlight.

    We then left San Pedro for Bolivia ona 3 day trip across the Altiplano and the vast salt flats. The entire distance was covered in land cruisers on rough tracks or on solid salt.