Monthly Archives: November 2011

Chile’s Northern Regions- La Serena and Arica

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…a whole lot of arid!

So the night bus from Mendoza to La Serena…by the time they switched the bus lights on at 6.30am in the morning I felt like someone had hit me in the face! It was not a comfortable journey to say the least, but we got across the border into Chile simply enough. The Argentinean customs and Chilean customs literally sit next to each other at the border office and after you’ve filled in a couple of forms, you que up one side to get stamped out of Argentina and then que up right next door to get stamped into Chile.  Bags get scanned and then your through. We got into La Serena 2 hours early but the hostel was open so we dumped our bags and chilled until our room was ready. We stayed at Hostal el Punto which had a more B & B feel to it than a hostel and lots of German retired couples staying in it which was quite random. But it was pleasant enough with lovely sunny courtyard areas and a good breakfast.

That afternoon we ventured out to explore the city. Downtown is quite pretty with colonial style buildings and its right by the sea. However the beach was quite unpleasant with lots of rubbish in the sand and unfinished beach side developments along the front. There was a cool lighthouse there though so we took a look around that and headed back into town. Really La Serena is just a base to explore the Elqui Valley inland towards the Andes, which we did on day 2 of our time there. We went with the straight forward named tour company- Elqui Valley Tours (!)- and our tour guide for the day called Hector was really good fun and knew everything. A real brain for facts and figures and he would pop quiz us through out the day to make sure we were listening and taking the info in! So lets see how much I remember….

So Elqui Valley. The word ‘Elqui’ means ‘Sound of the Andes’ and its a grape growing region harvesting grapes for eating, and making into wine and the national drink called Pisco. What you notice as you drive there is that this valley is really thin and the farms spread outwards from the small rivers that flow through the valley. The farmers also farm upwards terracing the valley sides to grow more vines or avocados which apparently have deeper stronger roots. And then above the green fields of produce the mountains are just arid, nothing on them apart from a few cactus’. Hopefully the picture above shows a bit of what I’m talking about there. Hector drove us through the valley and made stops at the Puclaro Dam and the capital city of the valley called Vicuna and told us about the history along the way. Everywhere you go you see references to a lady called Gabriela Mistral who was born and raised in the area and won a Nobel Prize for Literature . There are streets, plaza’s, shops, schools etc all named after her. She is evidently well-loved but she did give all her royalties from her poems to the children of the Elqui Valley so you can kind of see why they love her!

We then stopped off at a small Pisco distillery called ABA which has been making the drink since 1921. Although arguably it was the Peruvians who made the drink first, it is the Argentinians who call it their national drink (there was a Peruvian lady on the tour and her and Hector had a tongue and check spat about this as we drove along in Spanish…quite funny to observe!). Pisco starts its life as a wine but then is distilled into a high alcohol content liquor. The locals drink it neat with ice or make Pisco Sours with egg, lemon and ice (which personally sounds a bit gross!). We tried 4 types of Pisco. 1 that had been aged in an oak barrel and tasted like cognac/brandy. The second was ‘alcohol for pisco’ which was 67.5% and illegal to be sold in Chile…needless to say I coughed after tasting that one! And then a couple mixed with mango etc which were much more drinkable! The highlight of the day for me though was our lunch stop at a solar restaurant at a hill-side village called Villaseca. All the food is cooked in solar ovens in the solar kitchen outside. The ovens are orientated towards the sun and the rays are reflected using silver panels onto essentially wooden boxes with glass tops with the food inside which then cooks. I’ve included some pics so you can see what I’m talking about.There was also a hob/grill which used essentially a flattened out concave disco ball underneath it to reflect the sun rays up onto the rack. A kettle on top of that takes 12 minutes to boil so 2 to 3 times longer than conventional cooking but very very cool. Hector rang our orders through earlier in the day so the lunch was ready for when we arrived…we didn’t have to wait 3 hours or anything! I don’t know if it’s just the human geographer in me but the story behind this solar restaurant I found really affirming. So the story goes…the villagers of Villaseca are all quite poor and when they ran out of gas, or couldn’t afford gas in the first place, to cook  they used to go up into the mountains and cut down the small trees and shrubs to burn. This accelerated desertification of the slopes, made the slopes more unstable, bad stuff etc etc. So a group of students from the Chile Uni’s put a bid into the government to introduce solar ovens and solar kitchens into the village so the families could still cook for free without cutting down the trees. So now all the village homes have solar kitchens. Although the mountains still look pretty deserty to me! The restaurant we ate in is ran as a cooperative. All the ladies from the village work there in groups which rotate weekly. They all get paid the same (small) salary but get an equal share of the profits twice a year- once before Christmas in December and the second time in March before the children go back to school. A really simple, clever idea which seems to be working well for the village and the community and the food was really tasty too!

Our last day in La Serena was Tuesday and we took a walk around 5 of the whopping 29 churches across the city. Not many of them are used regularly for worship anymore but they are still nice looking buildings. The city was known as the ‘City of Bells’ as every hour on the hour all 29 churches used to ring their bells…must have been so loud! 10 years ago the local municipal government put a stop to this on the back of the many complaints from the locals that it was disrupting their sleep…I can see their point of view! We visited Iglesia Catedral, Iglesia Santo Domingo, Iglesia San Francisco, Iglesia San Agustin and Iglesia la Merced which are all open during the day and you can come and go quite freely. We also checked out the main 2 museums in the town. Museo Arqueologico de La Serena and Museo Historico Gabriel Gonzalez Videla. It cost 600 pesos to get into Arqueologico one but then you got into the Historico one for free which was good. The highlight of the two is the Easter Island exhibit in Museo Arqueologico which had a 3 meter tall Moai- the carved stone faces that Easter Island is famous for. It was really very cool and made me completely want to go and visit Easter Island. We looked into it but it is super expensive so we’re going to take a detour to Vina del Mar on the way back down to Sanitago which has a whole Easter Island Museum so we can learn a bit more about it then. I know I’m a geek! Our visit to the Museo Arqueologico got disrupted half way through by a loud siren like the ones used in the World War’s to raise the alarm of a bombing raid.  We got evacuated from the museum and pieced together from the ticket man’s spanish that this was a mock simulation of a tsunamis evacuation and the procedure was to head away from the coast until you are above the road called Balmaceda! In the end we just followed the stream of locals up the street to a little park which must have been a designated congregation point and waited there for 20 minutes. There were loads of people in hard hats and high vis’ jackets and TV crews and helicopters flying overhead and fire service and ambulances driving around. It was really quite exciting! But I don’t think people would have been so jovial in a real life tsunamis evacuation! I later found out that Chile gets a little earthquake weekly as it sits on a massive fault line and the La Serena area gets a big earthquake once every 10 years. The last big one was in 1997 so its 4 years over due…was kind of pleased that we were heading further north that evening!

So our longest bus journey yet was our overnight bus from La Serena to Arica. A massive 23 hours! It was comfortable enough, but we were completely unprepared. Bus’s in Argentina give you food but bus’ in Chile do not we discovered. So we rationed our packet of Pringle’s and half a bar of chocolate for dinner, breakfast and lunch! The landscape for the 23 hours was just desert, arid moon like landscape. Quite boring really! Until an hour before Arica when we were essentially driving on the edge of a canyon which was cool if a little scary! We arrived in Arica 4 pm on Wednesday and we’ve spent 2 nights here before heading up to Peru. Arica is a city and not a very pretty one! We’ve probably spent a night longer here than most travellers, and perhaps more than is necessary, as it is essentially a transition point to get the taxi across the border into Peru. But we’ve appreciated the break in the overnight buses and the hostel we have been staying at (Sunny Days Hostel)  is run by a kiwi called Ross who is lovely and has lots of places to flop, play cards and recuperate.

So off to Peru tomorrow at 10am and I really can’t wait. 7 days until we start the Inca Trek up to Machu Pichu- WOOP!

La Serena in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot and clear blue skies (they have 311 days and nights of clear skies a year apparently and that’s why there are plenty of observatories in Elqui Valley to star gaze)
  • Drink= Vino blanco that we bought on our bike and wine day in Mendoza
  • Food= Hostel homemade hamburgers (German run hostel!)
  • Must try whilst in the area= Pisco!

Arica in a (very brief!) snapshot:

  • Weather= Cloudy and warm in the mornings, clear, hot but really windy in the afternoons
  • Drink= Mango Pisco we bought in the Elqui Valley (yum!)
  • Food= Vegetable stir fry (a great fruit and veg market across the street from our hostel plus we need the vitamins!)
  • Smelliest place so far= In the Fisherman’s wharf where the sea lions and pelicans hang out (poo-ey!)

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

So, forget what I said in an earlier blog about getting by with only a few words of Spanish. Everyone who’s thinking of coming to South America should learn more of the local lingo than we did. Sure, I can buy things, order bus tickets and I can ask questions…but I don’t have a clue what the answer is. Not being able to understand the local lingo can also make border crossings a bit daunting. Luckily the one from Argentina to Chile wasn’t too bad, bus stopped at midnight, get out, passport stamped out of Argentina, into Chile, no questions, no problems. However on the 23 hour bus journey to Arica, the ‘bus guy’ collected our passports for some reason which made me feel very uneasy, as I don’t like it leaving my sight. I tried to ask in my best Spanish…”why take passport”, but of course I had no idea what the answer was and he spoke no English…fortunately after an hour of so we passed a checkpoint and our passports were returned to us!! Now, lets see how the Chile-Peru border crossing goes tomorrow, fingers crossed for someone who can ”ablo ingles”!!
 

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Travelling North- Bariloche and Mendoza

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Mountains, lakes and wineries…not a bad combination!

So there were two choices 1: to cross into Chile from Esquel and then travel north through Chile or 2: to stay in Argentina and travel north through the lake district and onwards. We chose option 2 for a multitude of reasons but main ones being the road networks are better in Argentina, Chile is the 2nd most expensive country in S. America after Mexico so best not to arrive too early, and, perhaps most influential, we would pass through Mendoza which has great wineries and opportunities for numerous tastings!

So just 5 hours on the bus and we arrived in Bariloche on Monday at lunch time. For bus entertainment, it was a film with Ashton Kutcher in it this time called ‘Killers’- a mix between Mr and Mrs Smith and Hot Fuzz! It passed the time none the less! The bus terminal in Bariloche is right on the edge of town, around 15 minute bus journey from the centre. So if you know when you are gonna leave and to where, it’s a good idea to buy your onward bus ticket whilst your there. To get into central Bariloche it’s really simple, bus numbers 10, 20, 21 or 22 all go into Centro Civico and cost 6 pesos.

Well what to say about Bariloche. It´s known as the capital of the Argentinean Lake District as it’s the biggest city in the area and is situated right on the banks of a MASSIVE lake called Lago Nahuel Huapi. You can see the Andes surrounding the lake and there is a really chilled out feel to the place. We stayed at a hostel called Achalay, just 2 blocks from Centro Civico. We were really impressed with it, and the owners Pabilo and Flora couldn’t do enough for you (including supplying homemade empanadas and pizza when we arrived-yum!).  The city has had a bit of a rough time recently and only just recovering from being covered in ash after Volcano Puyehue blew over in Chile in June. By the sounds Chile got off scot-free and the pacific wind blew all the ash clouds over into Argentina oops! After Bariloche got covered in thick ash, it rained for 5 days solid and turned all the ash in the street, roofs, drains, pipes into concrete. One of the roofs at our hostel collapsed with the weight! But the city looks great now and they only very occasionally just a light shower of ash when the wind is blowing right. Mother nature eh!

On Tuesday we walked up Cerro Otto and had an amazing view 1405 meter up of the lake and mountains. It’s the shortest walk you can do from Bariloche (2 hours there, 1 1/2 hours back). Hedd’s leg wasn’t great from the sciatica so we took it easy, but all these small treks are good prep for our 4 day Inca trek in Peru at the beginning of December. The views on the way up were brilliant. Lago Nahuel Huapi is so so big and has little islands within it. The pic above was taken from the panaramic point at the top- gorgeous! There was a refuge at the top too called Refuge Berghof which sold drinks and snacks and we chilled there, having lunch, reading our books and taking in the view. The refuge had loads of old expedition memorabilia inside- photos, journals and walking equipment. Looking at the maps I think there are a series of old refuges across this part of the Andes, together called ‘Club Andes’. The area is renowned for its climbing and you can walk or climb to all of them. The most famous being Refuge Frey- but that was a 6 hour hard trek up hill so we decided to give that a miss this time!

Whereas Trevelin and Gaiman had a heavy Welsh influence. Bariloche had a Swiss feel. There is a Swiss colony 30 mins East of the city on Lago P. Merono Este and you can see the influence quite heavily in the town of Bariloche- there are lots of restaurants selling Fondue and loads of chocolate shops with St Bernard dogs in the window! The scenery is quite Swiss looking so I can see why some of the Swiss immigrated over here back in the day. On Wednesday, our last day in Bariloche, we took a stroll around the town again and visited the Cathedral called San Carlos de Bariloche. Built in 1946, it had some impressive stone arches inside and great stained glass. Well worth a visit. After a bit more lazing about and a healthy lunch of ice cream (!) we boarded our next bus north- the 15.30 departure overnight bus to Mendoza.

So after 17 1/2 hours on the bus with no sound for the first 8 hours (its amazing how much you can get into films with no sound and just spanish subtitles!), we were quite relived to arrive at Mendoza bus terminal on Thursday morning. Although the last hour of the bus journey we were travelling through all the vine yards with the snowy Andes in the background which was quite spectacular. So Mendoza is a city- the biggest place we´ve visited since Buenos Aires- and like Bariloche, if you know when and where you are heading next, its worth getting your onward bus ticket whilst you’re at the terminal so you don´t have to trek back there during your stay (30 min walk from the central plaza). We got a taxi from the terminal to our hostel (17 pesos) but there are frequent buses too. We stayed at Hostel Empedrado who´s tag line is ´hostel and wine´and they didn´t let us down! You got a big free glass of red wine every night and the first night we were there they ran a free wine tasting which 1 red, 1 white and 1 dessert wine which went down very nicely. The receptionist Ana is fantastic, knows everything and speaks perfect english. The bathrooms are a bit tired and water temperature is temperamental but the positives about the place outweighed those negatives.

Thursday during the day we just explored the city and went to a little wine tasting at a vinerie (wine shop) called Sastre Burgos. Its 2 blocks up from the main plaza on Avenida Mitre. It cost 20 pesos and we tried around 10 different wines. Really good value for money, although it was a lot more red wine drinking than I´m used to! I got a bit home sick that afternoon as shops in Argentina are just starting to put out their Christmas displays in the windows and it got me to thinking about the lead up to Christmas which I absolutely love! But it’s not everyday that you´re travelling around the world so I have kept reminding myself of that. But at home you better be dusting off that tinsel for me and drinking my share of Mulled Wine! GB is a Christmas fairy short this year!

Yesterday we had the most fantastic day biking around the Maipu wine region and stopping off in the numerous wineries for tours and tastings. The weather was stunning and after 45 minutes on the local bus (line 10, number 173; cost 1.80 pesos), we arrived at Mr Hugo´s bike hire on Urquiza street in Maipu. This wife and husband run bike hire is great fun. They don´t speak a word of english but kept calling us chico´s (kids) and giving us cups of red wine! We eventually got 2 bikes  (30 pesos each for the day) and a map of the area and headed off, rather gingerly, to our first winery. Our first stop was Trapiche winery. It’s a big one but one with history and exports quite a lot to North America and all the countries in South America. We got there just in time for an english speaking tour with 2 other couples from Minnesota. Our guide was really knowledgeable but with a good sense of humour too and we got shown all the various stages of wine making, the grounds and then the tasting at the end. It cost 30 pesos and we got to taste 4 different high-class reds. We soon realised that the whole day will just be red wine and for non red wine drinkers this was quite daunting but we soon got over that and got stuck into the red. The Maipu region is renowned for their red wine called Malbec- a very powerful, smokey red- and we tried many Malbec´s throughout the day. The story goes that the Malbec grape originally came from France and the French called it ´Bad Mouth´as they thought it wasn´t very nice. An agricultural disease then spread across France, almost wiping out the Malbec grape. But some vines were exported to Argentina where the climate was perceived to be more favourable and so the grape wouldn´t be lost. And the Argentinians have loved it ever since. It goes very well with red meat, which Argentinians also eat a lot of, so I can see why they love it so much.

We then cycled 10 k south to a winery called Familia Di Tommas which was a complete contrast to Trapiche as it was small, family run and more artisan. It had a really homely feel and we got 20% off with our Mr Hugo bikes so only 16 pesos for this tour and tasting. This time we tried 3 reds and 1 dessert wine. The dessert wine was extremely sweet but a nice change after the reds! We had our picnic lunch within the vines and bought a bottle of white to take back with us. Next stop was Mevi winery which was different again as it is only 9 years old. We tried the young wines option which included a chardonnay (25 pesos) and relaxed on their sun terrace overlooking the vine yards and the Andes in the background. We were quite ´squiffy´by this point but surprisingly the cycling got easier the more you drank (!) which is a good thing as we then had the 10k cycle back to the start of the wineries to visit a chocolatiers, liquor and olive oil making place. I must have devoured half a basket of bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar before the guide could finish telling us about the produce! Plus the chocolate…it really hit the spot after a day on the wine! The liquors though, jee whizz, they were strong! I had an irish cream one which I couldn´t finish and then a pineapple one which wasn´t too bad.

The day ended back at Mr Hugo´s bike hire, with another complementary cup of wine! I can´t stress enough what a ´ledge´ (´legend´) Mr Hugo was. All the travellers who had hired his bikes that day head back to his place at 6pm when the wineries shut and then he holds a bit of a party with more wine and music. It was really good fun, and we met even more people from Minnesota! Then it was the number 173 bus back to Mendoza, 15 min walk to the hostel, more free wine, food and then major crash into bed! Great day!

So today is Saturday and we have to say bye to Mendoza. We headed to the cities big park called Parque Gral. San Martin and walked around the lake there. They have a water sports club on the lake and I saw a man single sculling in the lake- the first rowing I´ve seen this trip. He was in a really wide and old wooden single with wooden oars….maybe our kit at Royal Chester (my rowing club in the UK) isn´t so bad! We´re not only saying bye to Mendoza but also Argentina, our first country of 13 on this 5 1/2 month trip. Argentina is really a beautiful country and has treated us well.  But onwards we go into Chile on a 12  hour night bus to a seaside town called La Serena. Fingers crossed the border crossing won´t be too awkward!

Bariloche in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot, 24 degrees and clear blue sky’s
  • Food= Ice cream! A must is to go to Rapa Nui for ice cream, they sell it by weight and have amazing flavours (16 pesos for 1/4 kilo- enough for 2!)
  • Drink= Cocktails (happy hours 19.00-21.00 for those on a budget)
  • Watch out for= Stray dogs (they are harmless but like to sit really close to you!)

Mendoza in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot 24- 29 degrees but with a massive thunder-storm on Friday night
  • Food= Sweet things- jam pastries and dulce leche with everything (dulce leche has the consistency of chocolate spread but tastes what I imagine curly whirly chocolate bars would taste melted down!)
  • Drink= Malbec Vino Tinto ( Malbec red wine) of course!
  • An idiosyncrasy= The local buses don´t take  notes, only coins (very inconvenient), try to get a bus card which you can load with money at the bus station when you arrive. You can also top these up at most kiosks around the city too. This idiosyncrasy is common throughout Argentina, we managed to swap our bus card for Gaiman for one for Mendoza with a South African couple travelling South whilst in Bariloche. Worth an ask!

 Hedd’s Words of Wisdom:

Not exactly words of wisdom this time, but more of a reflection on wine. For those of you who know me well, there are two alcoholic drinks that I never drink – Beer and Red Wine…well after the last two days, i might have to amend that list. I still won´t be ordering a pint in the pub, but I might enjoy a glass of red wine with a meal from now one. This might come as a shock to my Dad in particular since I´ve always described his red wines as ´tasting like vinegar´but maybe that´s just his taste in wine. I thoroughly enjoyed the wine tours and enjoyed quite a few red wines…my favourite being a 50/50 blend of Malbec and Merlot, which we got at the Trapiche vineyard. Helen says I have expensive tastes as that one cost 240 pesos per bottle, the most expensive one we tried, but who cares, it was the nicest.

Trevelin- 180 degrees of Andes

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Wow, a little bit of Switzerland in South America!

After a 10 hour over night bus from Trelew to Esquel  (no DJ mixes this time, instead a Jennifer Anniston Rom Com classic called ´Just Go With It´), and then a local bus for 30 minutes from Equel South we arrived in a town called Trevelin on Thursday. The first thing you notice is the mountains and the trees- completely different landscape from East coast Argentina where we had just come from which is arid desert basically. It goes without saying (my Swiss origins and all!) that I much prefer the snow-capped mountain, evergreen tree backdrop that we would be calling home over the next 3 days.

We arrived at our hostel- Casa Verde- and just chilled, drank lots of tea and admired the amazing view which you can see in the pic above. The hostel is a log cabin and terribly cosy that made it hard to leave. But we managed to get out the door after lunch and made our way to the town´s Welsh Chapel called Capel Bethel and the adjoining school Ysgol Cymraeg. Where Gaiman was the Welsh stronghold in the East of Patagonia, Trevelin is its equivalent in the West. The Capel in Trevelin is much smaller than the one in Gaiman and is rarely used for worship but Azeus (the schools Argentinean Welsh teacher) who showed us round said that they were organising a service for Christmas. We also met a guy called Iwan who is from Porthmadog and is a permanent ´Mentor Patagonia´person covering Esquel and Trevelin promoting the Welsh language and such like. They both then showed us around the school. Ysgol Cymraeg currently has 20 adult and 20 children Welsh learners who come for around 1 1-2 hours after school for lessons. Azeus was marking Welsh language exams at the time, at which point he asked me (in Welsh) whether i would like to sit the exam too…I answered ¨Dim Diolch!¨ (¨No Thanks!¨) The school and the Capel were very basic building but the setting was amazing…the snow topped Andes surrounding the two buildings- spectacular.

Thursday evening was an evening of meeting and greeting and mate. Lets start with the meeting and greeting…We met up with Clare and Victor at the hostel to talk about our plans for the next 2 days with them. Clare works for the British Council on a project promoting the Welsh language in the area and is also a distant relative of mine on my Mum´s side! Victor is her partner who is also a tour guide and he was to take us out and about over our time in Trevelin! Iwan and Azeus from Ysgol  Cymraeg also popped in and we had some Argentian liquor which was yellow and tasted a bit of Mohito! It was a random quadruple language evening with me being the only first language English speaker in the room (that doesn´t happen very often!). We had Welsh, Spanish, French and English. And the conversation spanned all 4 languages, all at the same time at some points! I went to bed that evening with my head spinning and Hedd and I trying to piece together what we had just spoken about for the past 2 hours! We also had our first try of ´Mate´, a traditional Argentinean hot drink. Its made from dried leaves from the Yerba plant and is drunk from a palm sized wooden pot through a silver straw with a filter at one end. We had seen it everywhere in Argentina and were keen to try it. It’s a very social thing, you see groups of friends or family sharing a Mate, passing it around the circle catching up on gossip as they do. Our hostel manager Hoolie made one for us and I tried my hardest not to show my dislike for it after my first sip. Unfortunately I have a very animated face and she just laughed! It tasted bitter and then with a smokey after taste…like drinking a mix of coffee and cigarettes! Hmm, not for me!

Friday was the first of our Clare and Victor t0urs and we spent the whole day at Parque Nacional Los Alerces which is a national park 30 minutes from Trevelin full of lakes, rivers and forests in the foothills of the Andes. Our first stop in our 4×4 was at a viewpoint over looking a lagoon where we saw black necked swans and flamingos. As soon as we got out of the car we were hit with how crisp and fresh the air was. It was like you had a strong menthol sweet in your mouth every time you breathed. It was amazing. Especially coming from Gaiman/Puerto Madryn which were quite dusty. We then moved onto a spot just outside Villa Futalaufquen (the only settlement in the park- where all the park rangers live!) where, after walking a path edged with wild strawberries and purple Lupin flowers, we reached a cave with neolithic painting in it. These dated back before the Welsh, before the Indians to those who lived here then. Victor was really knowledgable about all the plants and animals and we ended up trying a fungus called llaollao which grows on a birch tree. It was creamy in colour and tasted sweet…like a mix between a dried apricot or an orange. It wasn´t the greatest! But the Indian women used to swear by it when they were pregnant as apparently it is very high in nutrients. So me and Hedd put it down as one of our 5 a day! After stopping off at a waterfall we had lunch on the banks of Lago Futalaufquen. The lakes are so clear in the park that they act like a mirror. There wasn´t a cloud in the sky so Lake Futalaufquen was a bright blue colour and you saw the reflection of the Andes Mountains in it too…very beautiful. The water is pure too so you can drink from any of the lakes or rivers in the national park which we did throughout the day. Apparently the national park is the largest natural water source in the world. Pretty damn impressive! We ended our day in the park by going to Pasarela Rio Arrayanes which is a small island which joins 3 different lakes- Lago Futalaufquen, Lago Menendez and Lago Verde. From the name, you can gather that Lago Verde was green in colour. This is because the lakes waters reflect the thick vegetation that surrounds it which gives it a gorgeous turquoise-green appearance. We went on a hour walk around the island, stopping at a beach on Lago Verde to have mate whilst enjoying a view of a glacier. As you can see from the picture, I still wasn´t liking the mate! But the view was spectacular. We got back to the hostel early evening, drunk on fresh air with rosey cheeks and ready for bed.

Day 2 of Clare and Victor tours was a trek up a 816 meter peak called ´Graig Goch´(´Red Rock´in Welsh). This was the plateux where the Welsh settlers who had travelled across the Chubut dessert from Gaiman arrived at to have first sight of the fertile valley and the Andes that surrounded it back in the 1890´s. There is a ceremony each year where locals of Welsh origins walk up to the top along with the Argentine Army Band and they raise a Argentinean flag and sing the Argentinean national anthem and then the Welsh national anthem. Quite an emotional day I imagine. After a 2 hour walk which was tough going at times (and we were doing the easier route apparently!) we arrived at the top and my goodness was it worth it. An 180 panoramic view of the snow topped Andes and the valley below. It was breath-taking, really breath-taking. You could have sat there and watched the view for hours and I think we did to an extent. With mate of course! We eventually decided to make our way down. But not before seeing 3 Condor birds. These birds are at the top of the food chain and adults grow to a wing span of 3 meters. Our 3 were still juveniles with a wing span of 1 meter and 1/2 with white tips on their wings. They were a good spot! On the way down we saw lots of Ibis birds too. These ones have long curved beaks and you hear them before you see them…their squark sounds like the horn off a child´s toy car!

After a well-earned siesta we met Clare and Victor at the local pizzeria called El Barataz off the main plaza which makes its own dark and blonde beer. It was the best pizza we´ve had and the blonde beer wasn´t too bad either! We sat with a family that Clare and Victor knew from the Welsh descendent community in the town. The mother of which called Margarette we found out is the lady who carves the Welsh love spoons which are then sold at the Welsh shop in Ruthin! Yet another crazy crazy coincidental connection!

So today we find ourselves in Esquel for an overnight stop over before heading north to a town by a lake called Bariloche. I´ve very much enjoyed our time in Welsh Patagonia with all its unexpected familiarity, dramatic scenery and, at times, bewildering randomness! But as Clare says, ¨anything is possible in Patagonia¨!

Trevelin in a snapshot:

  • Weather= 5 degrees out of the sun, up to 22 in the sun (locals call the Patagonian sun the poor mans coat!)
  • Food= Italian, pizza and spag bol
  • Drink= Mate (yuk!)
  • First sacrifice of the trip= My ipod, left on the overnight bus from Trelew!
  • First ´exhale, I´m completely relaxed´ moment of the trip= On top of Graig Goch overlooking the Andes

Hedd´s Words of Wisdom:

Knowing someone locally can make a massive difference when travelling. I have thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Trevelin and especially our hostel with that amazing view of the Andes. We had two fantastic day trips to the national park and up ´Graig Goch´,  which we definitely would not have done had we simply arrived here as normal tourists. So i´d like to thank Clare and Victor for all their help and especially for their company over the past few days. I only wish we knew more people like them in South America…the next five weeks were on our own!!

Gaiman- a little Welsh oasis

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Pnawn Da!

So on Sunday after a much more palatable bus journey of just 1 1/2 hours we arrived in Gaiman. As soon as we hit Gaiman the Welsh references began with Welsh flags flying, Welsh shop names and a Croeso sign at the towns entrance. The town is so green and colourful. Houses have front lawns and gardens full of Camellia´s- white, yellow, pink, red. The town is very pretty. 

But perhaps a bit of background now would come in handy….

So in 1880´s life was pretty tough for everyone in Britain, but particularly the Welsh. Poverty hit the country hard and the English were banning the Welsh language and traditions left right and centre. So a group of intrepid Welsh men and women boarded the boat Mimosa bound for Patagonia where they hoped to preserve and practice their Welsh language and culture for the future. Why Patagonia you ask? Well it hadn´t been colonised by any white people at this time (so the Welsh culture wouldn´t be diluted by others) and I think there was promise of fertile lands. However  the reality was quite different. Arriving at Puerto Madryn they would have been met by arid desert as far as the eye can see. In search of fresh water, they ventured into this desert and found the River Chubut. And eventually settled in Gaiman, where they began to irrigate the land and create it into the very green place it is now.

So we arrived on a Sunday, whether you knew the history or not, you would have known there was something Welsh about this town as everything was shut! So we did what we very often had to in Ruthin when caught out with no milk on a sunday…we went to the garage for essential supplies (water and chocolate)! So after getting slightly addicted to the American ´Law and Order´show, which seems to run on about 3 different Argentinean channels (!), we decided to head out to find somewhere to eat. Fortunately a lovely restaurant called Conei Wini was open and just after ordering an ´mimutes´(traditional dish of breaded meat!) the town had a power cut! Fair play the restaurant still prepared and served our dinner and we sat and ate by candle light. The lights came back on 40 minutes later just in time for the bill! We later found out that Gaiman got off lucky. The power cut affected everyone south of Buenos Aires! And whereas Gaiman got power back after 40 mins as they can feed power from the South as well as the North, Puerto Madryn (the town we had just come from) were still without power the next day…phew left there at the right time!

Monday I will rename, for this blog entry at least, ´Wales Day´! We did everything Welsh the town had to offer, starting off with walking the historical route around the town. We walked through the railway tunnel which the Welsh built in 1914 to connect the town to settlements further west without marking the landscape. (We had fun making echo sounds and flashing my head torch in a disco like manner for the 300 meters!) We saw the Camwy intermediate school which was the first  ever secondary school in Patagonia (now I think is a library). We went to see Gaiman´s first house built by David D Roberts in 1974- his family are thought to have been the first Welsh settlers in the town. (We had a look in the visitors book to see if anyone had visited recently from near Ruthin…closest we got was Abergele so not bad!). We then called into the Welsh nursery school called Ysgol Feithrin. After some intrepidation Hedd knocked and went in and gave what would become a heavily used opening line- “siarad Cymraeg?” (“do you speak Welsh?”). The nursery nurse did of course and warmly showed us around the nursery. Her and Hedd chatted away about the recent Eisteddfod and what goes on in the school (in Welsh of course- this i know from Hedds debrief after- this was common all day!). The school is for 1 1/2 to 5 year olds and they get caught in bilingually but mainly in Welsh. The nearest Welsh primary school after that is in Trelew (30 mins away). It was so bizarre but really quite brilliant walking around the school and seeing all the children’s displays and learning tool in Welsh.

So next stop was the Historic Regional Museum, and was well worth the 3 peso entry. There we met Fabio, who with his mother and grandmother, curate and run the museum. It was jam packed with relics, pictures and objects from the Welsh settlers and told their story much better than my brief history synopsis above. Fabio was also learning Welsh and enjoyed practicing it a little with Hedd. Fabio was so excited about the fact of another Welshmen in the town that he called his mum Luned who subsequently invited us to Welsh choir practice that night!

No trip to Gaiman would be without a visit to one of the Welsh tea houses. We went to ´Case de Te Ty Gwyn´ (´White House Tea House´) and for 70 peso´s (quite steep on our budget) you had all you can eat cake , stones and cheese sandwiches and copious amounts of tea! Needless to say, after 2 pots of tea and more stones consumed than in Cornwall that day, we ate and drank our 70 peso´s worth and didn´t need any dinner that night! Now Hedd´s Welsh ears were on full alert and we discovered another couple from Wales at the tea house. Hedd went over and said hi, but didn´t leave without a little dig at their accent (they were from South Wales!).  Before heading back to our hostel we stopped by the Welsh Chapel in the town called Capilla Bethel y Vieja. A lady there let us in and showed us round both the old Chapel the first Welsh settlers built and the newer one. The newer one Hedd said reminded him so much of his Capel at home in Gellifor so it was a surreal experience for him. The lady of course was learning Welsh and Hedd gathered that the Capel still held services in Welsh every Sunday at 10am, with a Welsh Sunday School run for the children bilingually (Welsh and Spanish) at the same time.

Back at the hostel we took a well deserved rest with a glass of vino blanco and began chatting to a new arrival to our hostel called Elen. Very small world moment was had- she is from St Asaph and over in Gaiman for 2 weeks with ´Mentor Patagonia´(´Venture Patagonia´) which is an organisation which encourages the Welsh language in Argentina! Very crazy! She was also going to choir so we all went to Welsh Choir practice, in a small town, in South America, 7000 miles away from Denbighshire! There was a lot of talking in Spanish, and then they sang 1 song in Spanish and 1 song in Welsh. The choir was brilliant. They had no accompaniment, just voice, and when they all sang together you were just hit with a wall of harmonised sound. It was great. Then we had chocolates and everyone left! Most surreal!

And that just leaves yesterday. After recovering from our ridiculously long walk in Puerto Madryn, we thought it time for another trek. This time to Parque Paleontologica ´Bryn Gwyn´ (´White Hill´). We got a taxi there and then walked up the hill stopping at the various fossils and skeleton displays along the way which was interesting. But what was the real treat was the view from the top. You saw the River Chubut weaving through the landscape and then a strip of lush green following it perhaps stretching 6k wide either side of the river with trees and farms. But then stretching after that and towards the hill we were sat and beyond is just arid land. Brown, grey land with small desert vegetation. The contrast was quite something and hats off to the Welsh for making such a change to the land all those years ago. We walked the 8k back into town and walked through some of the farms (some with Welsh names such as ´Taid´ meaning ´Grandad´). The irrigation channels you can see from the road which made the cultivation all possible.

So that was our 3 days in Gaiman. Off across the Chubut desert tonight on an overnight bus to Trevellin which sits in the shadow of the Andes. Lets hope the bus driver skips the DJ music mixes this time!

Gaiman in a snapshot:

  • Weather= 22-24 degrees but with a few rain storms (waterproof was worn for first time!)
  • Food=Cake again but this time with a Welsh twist (Welsh Cakes and Scones for breakfast!)
  • Drink= Tea of course!
  • Must do´s= Historical Regional Museum and having afternoon tea in Welsh Tea Room (open 3pm-7pm)
  • Percentage of conversations understood on average= 10% (Hedd did a sterling job of translating though!)
  • Welsh flag count= 2 in Puerto Madryn, 18 or so in Gaiman

Hedd´s words of wisdom: “Da ni yma o hyd”

Well, it may not be a new Wales as those aboard the Mimosa believed they would be creating, you might have to look a bit harder and scratch underneath the surface and look beyond the typical “tourist” tea houses, but the Welsh are still here and we should be proud of that fact. I realise now that although I knew of the connection between Wales and Patagonia, and knew a little of the story, I had no idea about what was achieved here. We should be proud as a nation of those brave soles that made the journey here, of the fact that Welsh is still spoken here and has survived over a 100 years, but also of what was created here. A barren (belive me, barren) landscape was transformed into nothing other than an oasis of green by the river. As the owner of the hostel in Puerto Madryn said, they created farms in the  middle of the desert – crazy!! That is some achievement.

Puerto Madryn- Whales and Penguins and Orcas, Oh My!

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So pleased we´ve arrived!

So we survived the bus- yey! This was helped (or un-helped!) by a series of Spanish films and music video DJ mixes entitled “I Love Latinos” and “1980´s Love Tunes”…the later sadly I discovered I knew most of the words too, and 16 hours in started singing along to Chris De Burgh, Whitney and Bryan Adams etc! I think I might have been getting a bit delirious at that point! We also caught the attention of a sniffer dog at one of the Argentian Police check points and had our bags checked…but other than that we arrived in Puerto Madryn un-scathed!

So what to saw about Puerto Madryn…Its nothing pretty to look at but its the base for travellers wanting to investigate the “nature” and “animal behaviour” and “natural interactions” (how the locals describe it) that surround the Peninsula. And that’s exactly what we did! We spent the day at PeninsulaValdes which is about an hour and half north of the town. First stop was Puerto Piramides where we went on a boat trip to find the Southern Right Whales. And we saw loads! They come to the bay to breed and also a year later to give birth so there were lots of Mothers and their calves. We saw them dive and jump and they got really close to the boat. And these whales are BIG really big. We also saw an albino white whale which is quite unusual and the boat’s crew got very excited at this point and started speaking very fast in Spanish so it must have been a good spot!

We then went to Punta Cantor where we saw the elephant seals. The males are 6 times as large as the females and have squashed and raised noses like an elephant. After the whale encounter these  seals were pretty dull! They lie about and only move very infrequently. However our patience with the seals paid off when 6 Orcas came into the shore to hunt the seals which was pretty amazing to see. All the orcas attempt to catch a seal failed which is surprising as they are massive and slow, but hey I´m not gonna criticise old Free Willie! We later was told that there is only 41 orcas in the whole coast of Argentina so we were really lucky to see them.

Another highlight for me was seeing the Penguins. We didn´t see many but the ones we did see were super cute and my attempts to persuade Hedd that of course it would be okay to nick one and put it in my bag you´ll be surprised to hear failed!

Yesterday we decided to have a “lie in” which turned out to be me getting up earlier than normal at 7am and reading with my head torch…ahh best laid plans! We also went on a massive 20k trek along the coast. We caught a taxi to 4 bays south of Puerto Madryn and then made our way back along the bays. It was tough going at times and extremely hot and I, as always, was inappropriately dressed for the weather and now sporting a rather rosie chest! Factor 50 from now on for sure. But the landscape was cool…kinda like Tenerife´s shore line with tall white arid cliffs and pebbly beaches. There was also white rock around the headlands which looks from the pictures like we are walking on the moon! We spent some time at one of the bays called Punto Loma where they is a permanent colony of sea lions. Now these animals were funny, they huddled together and were really noisy! They made a sound which was a cross between a sheep baa´íng and a person burping!

After 5 1/2 hours of walking we were damn pleased to get back to our hostel, collapse in the deck chairs and drink ice cold Coke! This was quickly replaced by a glass of vino blanco and we cooked a steak in good Argentinean style!

Off to Gaiman this lunch time to get our fill of Welsh Patagonia culture. Hedd´s been conversing with our next hostel manager in Welsh so, not knowing either Spanish or Welsh I imagine I will be perfecting my “smile and nod” action over the next couple of days!

Till next time….

Puerto Madryn in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot, 26 degrees and no cloud
  • Breakfast, lunch and dinner= CAKE! My particular favourite is the strawberry jam tart!
  • Drink: Quilmes or Vino (as always)
  • Must sees= Peninsula Valdes and, if you have the budget, Punto Tombo for more penguins
  • Lessons learnt= As Baz Lurman says “Wear (more) sunscreen”! 

 

Hedd´s words of wisdom:

Whales are magnificent creatures, up until the moment they showed up I was convinced that the trip was too touristy and was a waste of money. However the moment the Southern Right Whales showed up, you forgot all about the other tourists and just focused on these massive creatures, they were huge. It was a real shame to learn that their northern cousins the Northern Right Whales have been hunted to the brink of extinction and will disappear in the next few years…and that is a real shame.

Buenos Aires- the city of Tango

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¡Hola!

A 2 hour train journey, a 1 hour tube ride, a 13 hour flight, and 2 “so pleased I didn´t pay to see this at the cinema” movies later (!) we arrived in our first port of call- Buenos Aires.

From the air my first thoughts were blooming heck it is so flat! And it is, which after walking the city for the last 3 days is a god send. We we´re on a city introduction tour to ease ourselves into travelling so we had a bright, cheery man to pick us up from the air port. On the drive to our hotel, my second observation was that the for a city, Buenos Aires is very green. Lots of squares and parks and loads of trees. And these trees are tall…4 to 5 stories tall which make the houses almost look hidden under the canopy of green.

So after arriving at our hotel at 9am, we were out again by 10.30 to explore the San Telmo region of the city which plays host to a famous antiques market on Sunday. Now this market went on forever…it felt like a mix between Brick Lane in London, but without the tat, and an arts and craft fayre at a County Show, but not as overpriced! So we spent the morning wandering the street market, stopping off for some street food on the way for lunch- a chorizepan (aka sausage sandwich!)

On Monday, as part of our city introduction package, we got a bus tour of the city. Our guide did well to keep everyone happy in each of their languages, fair play. There were 2 Germas, 2 Brazileans, 4 Spanish and me and Hedd representing the English. The highlight of the tour was stopping off at the La Boca- the poorest neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. All the houses are painted in bright orange, blue, yellow, purple colours and couples dressed up in tango dress wandered the streets. In the afternoon we walked to Puerto Madero- one of the richest areas of Buenos Aires- which is location of the old dock warehouses which have now been turned into fancy offices, restaurants and apartments; much like the old Liverpool Docks mixed with the warehouses of Wapping in London; and treated ourselves to an ice cream! That evening we went out for what Argentina is famour for…Beef! We both had´Befe de Chorizo´, aka rump steak, and these things were thick. Needless to say we were stuffed afterwards!

Tuesday we walked alot! Walking down Av 9 de Julio (the widest avenue in the world apparently) we made our way to the French region of Buenos Aires called Recoleta in search of the resting place of Eva Peron (Evita). Now this isn´t as easy as it seems. We found the cemetry okay but the shrine/tomb was not marked on the cemetry map. So what followed was ´Challenge Anneka´/Índiana Jones´type mission to find her family tomb….alas in the end we followed a pair of old Spanish ladies who knew the way! The tomb was very unassuming, black marble, with red roses left by one of the many visitors she has daily. Afterwards we made our way to an adjacent park (there are lots in Recoleta!) where they has a massive art installation of a metal flower which is on hydrolics so in the day its petals are open, but at night they close. It was pretty impressive. We then tried to continue on this artistic appreciation with a visit to the National Museum of Fine Art….erm, went a bit over our heads! It didn´t help that the information boards were just in Spanish though and we stared meticulously at a Van Gogh painting for a while (the only artist we recognised!) so that redeemed us slightly!

The highlight of our 3 days in Buenos Aires has to be last night at Cafe Tortollini Tango show. It was amazing. We had to go down into the cellar at this Cafe and there we found lots of circular tables with the stage at one end. The show had its own band and tango singer and there were 4 couples dancing for an hour or so. I think the show had a story to it, about love, prostitution, money…but I think the detail got lost in the Spanish! But never the less we enjoyed it and it was a great way to spend our last night in Buenos Aires.

So today in Wednesday and we have a mamouth 18 hour bus journey to our next stop Puerto Madryn. Our bus leaves at 3pm and we get to our destination (hopefully!) at 9.10am tomorrow…ouch! I´ll let you know if we survived in my next entry!

Buenos Aires in a snapshot:

  • Weather: 22-24 degrees with cool wind
  • Food: Beef, pizza (big italian influence) and enpendadas (like cornish pasties!)
  • Drink: Vino of all colours and Quilles (local beer)
  • Craziest thing I saw a tourist do: Bike tour of the city (the roads are mad!)
  • Oddest thing I saw locals do: Coffee to deliver (literally a waiter with a tray with coffee, sugar, milk all in china cups running to deliver to customer else where!)

 

Hedd´s words of wisdom:

It might not be necessary to learn Spanish after all. We seem to be doing ok on “abla ingles”, “hola”, “gracias” and “vino blanco” so far. We even managed to go into a DIY shop and buy a sink plug (we forgot ours). Might not sound too hard, but given the guy spoke no English and couldnt make out Helen´s drawings of a sink with a plug, we did very well!!

 P.S. Photos to follow…I forgot my uploader!