Tag Archives: Lakes

Queenstown- Routeburn and the Rest


A toast to Queenstown’s magnetism and Routeburn’s Beauty…cheers!

After an early 6am start on the bus and stops along the way, including the mirrored Lake Matheson, Thunder Creek waterfall and the Blue Pools, we arrived in Queenstown late afternoon on the 31st January. It was our last day with Whales so we planned a big night out with him to say thanks, meeting at the famous Ferg Burger for dinner and then onto the bars. Now a bit about Ferg Burger- it was started by a local back in the day as a bakery to begin with as he felt you could never get good bread. Then he went onto gourmet burgers and its reputation is now global. Open 22 hours a day, 7 days a week and almost always packed with locals and travellers alike. And these burgers were big! As you can see from the pic and just as lovely as the reviews say they are. Then it was the big night out (haven’t had one of those in a while!) and we both enjoyed the 2 for 1 wristbands Stray got us. Plus there was a dance floor which I pretty much stayed on for most of the night!

Next day we just chilled and explored Queenstown. So a bit about Queenstown…it’s titled the adventure capital of NZ; hot in summer, freezing in winter- 2 ski fields really close by; it has a resident population of 20,000 people but a huge transient traveller population which doubles that figure and then some; its by a lake and surrounded by mountains. Hedd and I fell in love with it! So the 1st Feb was Hedd and I’s 18 months anniversary (awww) so we went out for lunch as a treat, walked the lakeside, and booked some crazy adventure stuff for us to do over our time here. Next day was bungy day and the day after was Hedd’s skydive- check out the blog post ‘Queenstown- the Adventurous Stuff’ for more about that. And after Hedd’s skydive it was time to get ready for our 2 night, 3 day tramp along the Routeburn Track the next day.

The Routeburn Tramp- 4th – 6th February

Day One

  • Distance= 8.8 km
  • Time= 4 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Forest and Plains

We got picked up by the Tracknet bus at 8am to take us to the start point of the Routeburn track at the Routeburn Shelter in Mt Aspiring National Park. At 10am, from 600 m above sea level, we started making our way up through beech forest where we saw NZ’s smallest bird (like a tiny fat robin) called the Rifleman; along the Sugarloaf and Bridel Veil streams of gorgeous powder blue colour; and over lots of cool swing bridges. Walking with full packs was a a bit of a shock but we figured they could only get lighter as we ate more of our food supplies as the days went on (we forgot we still had to carry all our rubbish with us though!). We stopped for lunch at the first hut along the track called the Routeburn Flats Hut, where the warden called Liz was just finishing up cleaning after the overnight trampers. Oh a bit of context needed…The Routeburn is  one of the Department of Conservation’s ‘Great Walks’, which means that the track enjoys a higher standard of track maintenance and hut facilities. Each hut along the Great Walks tracks has a warden who works 8 days on, 6 days off (they walk in) and is responsible for maintaining the hut and the track that surrounds it. The huts along the Routeburn have gas, running water, flushing toilets and bunk beds. Luxury! So after the Flats hut, we walked over more swing bridges through more beech forest and got some ace views of the valley where a recent land slip had taken the trees down at the side of the path. We arrived at Routeburn Falls Hut at 2.30pm, claimed two beds and then boiled some water for a nice cup of tea with powdered milk (yuk!). The hut was in a fab location and had a big veranda overlooking the valley and a small waterfall behind it. We cooked up filled pasta and sauce for tea and ate from the pan. We met our warden called Keith at ‘Hut Talk’ at 7.30pm and he talked us through hut safety, etiquette etc; which all seemed pretty pointless as we’d been here since 2.30pm and had used all the facilities and were just about to go to bed! And that’s just what we did.

Day Two

  • Distance= 11.3 km
  • Time= 6 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Stunning snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes

After a surprisingly good nights sleep, considering we were sharing the room with 26 other people, a cuppa and a cereal bar, we were ready for day 2- our longest day and steepest incline for walking. We set off at 8am for the steady climb up the Harris Saddle. It was tough going but we hardly felt our packs or the ache in our legs because our minds were captivated by the landscape and views that surrounded us. Behind us as we climbed was the Routeburn Valley, Lake Harris came into view on our right and the snow topped Darran Mountains were to the front of us. It really was spectacular and bathed in the morning light too- magnificent! We did the climb at good pace too, getting to the top and the highest point of the Routeburn track (1255 m) within 1 1/5 hours. However as we got to the Harris Saddle Shelter the fog set in, with the wind blowing moments of clarity and disguise with the fog in equal measure. We could see the top of the mountain behind the shelter so we dumped our bags in the shelter and decided to do the side trip up Conical Hill, hoping the fog would clear some more by the time we got to the top. It was a tough old climb/ scramble up a very steep side for 45 minutes, the majority of which we were walking through fog and thought ourselves bonkers! But then we reached the top and the sky was blue, sun was out and the views were spectacular. From the top we had a superb view of the Hollyford Valley through to Martins Bay at the coast and the Tasman Sea. It was fantastic. After 30 mins or so we made the scrabble/slide back down to the Shelter again, had some lunch, retrieved our bags and continues the walk towards Lake MacKenzie Hut where we were staying that night. We were now in Fiordland National Park and the track seemed to go on forever now and after the excitement of the Harris Saddle and Conical Hill, a rocky path slowly going downhill was a bt boring! But we kept on spying the view along Hollyford Valley to the Sea which was lovely and eventually we got our first sight of Lake MacKenzie. It looked so close but we soon realised we had a way to go as we zigzagged back and forth down the slope to get to it. The last bit of the walk was through bush land- moss-covered trees and leafy paths. Looked all very mystical and Hedd and I had a few Lord of the Rings moments! Eventually we caught sight of our hut, arriving again at 2.30pm. Lake MacKenzie was pretty but not as spectacular as Lake Harris but we got to paddle in this one which was fun but freezing! After a relax we went off to explore more of the lake and went to a place called Split Rock which was exactly that a Split Rock. And then came back to the hut and chatted to our group of tramp buddies who we had shared the bus with by the lake. We sat and had dinner with them too (filled pasta and sauce again!), and waited for our Hut Talk with our warden. This one was called Clive and this was his 17th season as Lake MacKenzie Hut Warden and he was a complete nutter! He went on for 1 1/2 hours telling stories that didn’t really make sense. He finally let us go to bed at 9.15pm with a cryptic warning about possums. But I was too tired to work it out so just went to sleep and hoped not to need to go to the loo in the night!

Day Three

  •  Distance= 12 km
  • Time= 5 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Forest and alpine wetland

Our last day of the tramp and we were up and out on the track by 8am again. We crossed a small flat before climbing steeply to the bush line over steps of tree roots and rock. And I thought it was all downhill today! Where the trees parted a little we were afforded with a view of the Hollyford Valley out to the Tasman sea with a mystical hanging of mist that gave it a very different character to the same view we saw yesterday. It was quite beautiful. We passed an area called the Orchard which is a natural clearing enclosing Ribbonwoods resembling fruit trees, and then we hit Earland Falls. Wow that’s a big waterfall! 174 m and the path took you right up close to it. You soon felt wet from the spray but it did a perfect job of cooling us down. We then made the gradual descent to Lake Howden Hut- our lunch stop. I took of my shoes and padded about in my socks enjoying the sunshine at the hut. Although th sandflies were out and causing their usual annoyance! As we were there 2 boys walked past with the hind legs of a deer around their necks. They had obviously gone hunting and this was some sort of hunting trophy display- they certainly looked pleased with themselves but I thought it just looked grotesque. After being put off having anymore food, we set off again up hill towards the Key Summit Track turn off. We dumped our bags by the sign and took our remaining lunch to have at the top. A steep zig zag path up through the bush-line took us to the alpine wetland where you get a view of 3 major river systems. There was a 30 minute nature walk around the top, so we took the information card and wandered around finding the various pegs to read about. We had our sandwiches at the view-point overlooking Lake Marian. We had great views of the Darran Mts and Hollyford Valley. But really nothing that we hadn’t seen before on Day 2 so we completed the nature trail and headed back down to the main track. Last little bit now- down hill through Silver Beech forest. The sound of the Milford Highway was getting louder and we arrived at the Divide Shelter- the end point of the track and the lowest crossing point of the Southern Alps- at 1.42pm. I know the precise time as Craig one of our friends from the bus was clocking everyone in in his diary! We bantered with the group (5 from California and 2 from Stockport) until the bus came at 3.15pm to pick us up. It was a 3 1/2 hour haul back to Queenstown (I slept most of the way!) and we arrived at 7.45pm, just enough time to get a shower and a celebratory Ferg Burger and cider before crashing into bed. Phew we had done it!

So back in the adventure capital of NZ and on the 7th Hedd did some white water rafting and the next day we both did Mad Dog River Boarding (check out the blog post titled ‘Queenstown- the adventurous stuff for more on that). For our last afternoon in Queenstown we found 1/2 price wine tasting on a website bookme.co.nz. The place was called Wine Tastes and you can taste over 80 NZ wines. You get a card which is loaded with money and you can pick any of the wine to have a taste, 1/2 glass or full glass of. It’s really quite clever. So we got there at 3pm and left at 4pm after trying 8 different wines and enjoying a 1/2 glass of our favourites. We found they had a free tasting session of 6 wines at 5pm so we hopped home for a piece of toast and then was back to try them! Cheapest drinking session we’ve had in NZ and a good way to say bye to our extended stay in the captivating township of Queenstown.

Queenstown and Routeburn in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Queenstown on the whole sunny; Routeburn a mix of sun and cloud
  • Food= the mighty Ferg Burger!
  • Drink= Milo on the Routeburn and Wine in Queenstown
  • Definitely check out= http://www.bookme.co.nz to save some money on Queenstown’s (expensive) activities
  • Definitely on the Routeburn you should= walk Conical Hill and slap on ‘Goodbye Sandfly’ lotion whenever you stop!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

At the end of Day 1, the ranger told us there would be no point going up Conical Hill if it was foggy and not to bother if we couldn’t see the top. Now you should probably listen to the rangers 99% of the time, but I’m glad we didn’t. When we started our side trip up Conical Hill, the fog didn’t look that bad, but we couldn’t see the top , however I was convinced it would clear by the time we got to the top. I was still convinced half way up when we could only see a few yards in front of us and one old lady turned around complaining that it wasn’t worth it as she couldn’t see anything. But we perservered and got our reward. When we got near the top, the fog started to clear and we could start to see the mountains and sky again, but nothing prepared us for the sight ahead. Over the last few rocks, we emerged on the top of the hill and stared in amazement at the snow-capped mountains right in front of us, the valleys to the left and the Tasman sea far off to the right. This was the highlight of the three-day tramp for me, it was stunning and it we would have never seen it had we listened to the ranger…

Back in Chile and a Hop Over into Boliva- San Pedro de Atacama and the Salar de Uyuni


Salar de Uyuni- a mirror on the world.

So after over 24 hours on the go, starting with a bus from Ariquipa to Tacna (Peru), then a taxi collective over the border to Arica (Chile), then an overnight bus from Arica, we finally arrived in San Pedro de Atacama at 10am on Monday. The journey, although long, was bearable. Although we did have to get off the bus with all our bags to pass through a regional checkpoint once we got into Chile at 4am! I swear Chile is more fussed about travel within their country than across their borders, quite ridiculous! So San Pedro is a small travellers town, full of people in their 20´s, found either in the main square watching the world go by or on bikes peddling along San Ped´s dusty dirt roads. The town is within the Atacama desert, the most arid desert in the world, and the sun is strong, the air dry and the sky a perfect powdery blue. Most buildings are single storey and called ´adobe´ houses with interior yards and roofs made of clay and hay. Everything is either white or an earthy reddy-brown colour; against the bright blue sky, is a pleasure on the eyes. First night in San Pedro we stayed at Hostel Campo Base, which was a comfortable hostel with a lovely cleaner-come-cook-come-tourist-information-point called Marie who made amazing scrabbled eggs! We also found a great restaurant called ? on the plaza, where you can sit and people watch and which serves great comfort food in massive portion…very welcome after 24 hours travelling and 2 days of little eating after being poorly!

Tuesday marked the start of our 4 day, 3 night tour into Bolivia through Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and to Salar de Uyuni. Our tour company (Cordillera Traveller) picked us up from our hostel at 8am and took us through Chilean immigration which was 10 minutes out of town…yet another Chile exit stamp in my passport! It was then another 30 minutes to the Bolivian immigration point, in the middle of nowhere- desert all around with 1 stone building with ´Immigration Boliva´painted on the side! Needless to say the border crossing was easy, 1 form to fill in and 1 stamp in the passport. Then it was time to transfer our bags and ourselves from the mini bus into the 4×4´s which would be taking us through the reserve and salt plain over the next 3 days. We were a group of 11 so they split us up into 2 4×4´s. In our 4×4 we had Catalina and Fred from Portugal and are Ryan Air air stewards, and Rachel and Acil from Perth. Rachel we found was originally from Wales, moving over to Perth when she was 12. But she had Cymru tattooed on her wrist so I think she is still a die-hard Welshy! Our driver was called Celso and spoke no English, so Fred was appointed official translator and tour guide sitting in the front with Celso and asking our various questions about the landscape we were travelling through. He was a complete star the whole 3 days.

So the landscape in the Reserve is barren desert, but not in an ugly way. Like San Ped´everywhere was a reddy-brown earthy colour, with naturally coloured mountains of green, orange and red smudges and bright reflective lakes throughout. First stop on our tour of the Reserve was Laguna Blanco. As the name suggests it was a white lake, the bolsite mineral in the water making the water look white. It was so reflective that it acted like a mirror to the sky and the flamingo´s that resided there. Then it was back on the 4×4 to the next lake called Laguna Verde. This lake was a gorgeous aquamarine colour which looked extremely vivid against the sand colour of the mountains that surround it. The turquoise colour comes from the copper and sulphur minerals in the water. On the way to the hot springs, our driver pointed out an area of rock formations which had inspired a lot of the surrealist Salvador Dali´s paintings. There are 2 rocks standing tall which are called ´the twins´, and apparently Dali saw himself as their brother…odd if you ask me, but he was a surrealist after all! The hot springs, called Termas de Polques, were sulfurous water pools at 4200 meters, naturally hot at 30 degrees. We couldn´t spend too long in them (20 mins) as at altitude just sitting in the pools wipe you out. Although feeling exhausted afterwards, it was lovely sitting in them and chatting to the others on our tour. There was just one more stop before lunch which was at the Sol de Manana Geysers at 4950 meters- the highest point of the tour. These were boiling mud pots and sulfurous fumaroles which let off plumes of gas which smelt like rotten eggs! We had to be careful around them as the ground can be unstable and our driver told us a true horror story of a tourist who fell in and got burnt from head to toe and they had to send for a helicopter from La Paz, but that took 3 hours….needless to say we were careful! Our stop for lunch was the last stop for day 1, at our hostel for that night in the middle of nowhere! Our group of 11 spent the afternoon and evening playing cards. Food was pretty basic but not inedible. And after dinner we went outside to star gaze. One word, wow! The sky was packed full of stars, like a dome of stars surrounding you as you looked up. We saw the milky way too, it looks like a patch of cloud in the sky of otherwise canvas of sharp glints of light (the stars).

So day 2 began with a false start. Acil´s alarm went off and diligently we all got up and got ready for the day. 20 minutes later we realised it was actually 5 o´clock and not 7 o´clock when we needed to be up. So we all went back to bed in our clothes for 2 hours! Acil got confused with the Bolivian time difference (1 hour behind Chile time), bless her! Anyway when we then got up, it was a quick breakfast and back onto the 4×4´s to explore further the Reserve. First stop was to Laguna Colorado which got nominated for 1 of the new 7 wonders of the world. It didn´t get onto the final list, but it is easy to see why it made the shortlist. The lake is massive and a pinky-red colour due to the minerals in the water. It’s just 30 cm´s deep and reflects everything, and is full of flamingo´s. 1 million flamingo´s across the whole of the reserve, with the majority living in Laguna Colorado. We saw all 3 varieties of flamingos- the Flamenco Andino (with black tails), Flamenco Chileno (more white) and the rarer Flamenco de James (more pink). It was really cool seeing them in flight. They look super funny when they land; like they are landing on hot coals, their feet move up and down and you can imagine they are squawking “ooh, ahh, ouchh”! Next stop was at the Arbol de Piedra, which is a rock which has been eroded by the wind and now looks like a tree. It really did look like a tree, fair play, and was the nearest thing to vegetation in an otherwise arid landscape, even if it is rock! We then travelled across the Altiplanic (a platform at altitude) stopping off at the 3 altiplanic lakes called Canapa, Hedionda and Honda. They were much the same, but not as impressive as Laguna Colorado. After lunch (where I tried to pretended the grit in my pasta was pepper- inevitable hazard in a desert!), we stopped off at a view-point to see the Abaroa volcano. It is still active and had a small plume of gas coming off it which was a bit ominous. So we were quick to get back on the 4×4 to make our way to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. This wasn´t before stopping within a mini salt plain, with a random set of train tracks running through it (I have no idea where it led or came from), and Fred taking a turn at driving the 4×4 (we stopped just before San Juan town so Celso, our actual driver, wouldn´t get in trouble)! That night we stayed at Hotel de Sal on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The whole building is made from salt blocks, including all furniture inside, and complete with a loose salt floor. It was pretty impressive, although the loose salt floor a little impracticable!

Day 3 of the tour and also Catalina´s 23rd birthday and we had cake for breakfast! Fred also, rather resourcefully, fashioned up 2 candles from a cork which was very sweet. We were off by 7am and right into the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar is the world´s largest salt flat covering over 12,00 square meters and rests at 3653 meters high. It was part of a prehistoric salt lake called Lago Minchin which covered most of South West Bolivia, and was fed by Lake Titicaca in its day, but which has now dried up. And this has created a massive white salt surface i.e. Salar de Uyuni! Now this is meant to be one of the dryest places in the world, but lo and behold it rained over night creating a shallow film of water over the salt plain. This only meant that the salt plain was even more reflective. You couldn´t see where the salt plain finished and the sky began and in the morning sun it looked even more spectacular. The place was horizonless. I can only imagine this is what people in the olden days felt when they set sail, thinking the world was flat. You really felt that any moment the 4×4 would just fall off the end of the plain! We all had fun creating novelty photographs on the plain as a group. Jumping, creating the evolution model all of us in a line and playing around with perspective so it looks like you were standing on people’s heads or sitting on people’s hands. It was good fun! As we continued to drive across the salt plain, we kept seeing graves marked with a cross. Our driver said that these marked places where people had lost their lives on the plain. For example, quite recently 2 american tourists who hired their own car to drive across the plain, got lost, decided to sleep in their car and died of exposure…nasty! Near the centre of the plain, it began to dry up as the sun had evaporated all the rain from the night before. The ground looked like icy snow and crunched slightly when you walked on it. We then stopped at the Museo de Sal which used to be the first salt hotel on the Salar called Hotel Playa Blanca. However it got closed down as its sewerage polluted the salt pan. Consequently the authorities banned the building of hotels in the middle of the Salar, and instead they are only allowed to build around the edges. Right outside of the hotel/museum was a mound of salt, upon which lots of flags from around the world were flying. The multi-colour of the flags against the blue sky and white plain looked out of this world. Very cool. Although the Union Jack looked like it had seen better days! Next stop on the Salar was to what they call the salt eyes, where water underneath the salt plain bubbles up creating little volcanoes of water. Right next door to this was a salt mine, where we saw a man with a shovel who´s job it is to scoop up the salt into piles which then get collected to be processed for table salt. Fred got talking to him and found out that he works 16 hour days in the same 5 meter by 5 meter area of the plain! When asked whether he enjoyed working mining salt, he answered “he has to eat”. We then left the plain and had lunch at the salt town called Colchani. Then it was off to Uyuni town, the last stop on our tour. They took us to the outskirts of the town to a place they call the train cemetery. It is the place where all the coal powered trans were taken to be dumped when they were no longer needed after the Pacific War and then again when electric trains were introduced. It was quite an unreal sight seeing lots of different trains, carriages and engines just sitting there in the middle of nowhere. However many of them had a lot of graffiti on them which made the place look even more neglected and the surrounding area was dotted with garbage which wasn´t very nice. So all in all we were pleased to get back to the main square of Uyuni (although the town itself is a bit neglected too!) for our debrief and good byes with the guys and gals in our group. It was just Hedd and I and a swiss lady called Astrid which was making the trip back to San Pedro, the rest of the group was heading further into Bolivia. So after 1/2 hour it was back into a different 4×4 with our new driver Ronald to head back to Chile. After 4 hours of travelling we arrived in a small town called Villa Mar where we were having an overnight stop over. By 8.30pm we were in bed to prepare for our 4am wake up to continue the journey to Chile. We went to bed with the stars and woke up with them. Sun rise was around 5.30am and only then did it start to warm up. It was a pretty chilly trip up till then! We got to the Bolivian border by 9.30am, got another stamp in our passports, said bye to Ronald our 4×4 driver and then onto a minibus to take us the rest of the way. Crossing the Chilean entry border was laborious but fine and we finally arrived in San Pedro at 1 pm. A long day and it wasn´t even past lunch time! But it was an ace tour and we chilled for the rest of the day looking over our pictures from the trip.

Our remaining time in San Pedro has been a very relaxed affair. Sleeping in, strolling around the dusty streets and lazing about in the plaza. We had booked to go on what they call a ´star tour´last night, where you got taken into the desert and shown the nights sky plus a trip to an observatory. However it got canceled at last minute due to over 50% cloud cover! Very bad luck seeing as most world class observatories are based in the Atacama desert due to its reliability of over 300 days clear skies a year! ´C’est la vie´ as they say. In conciliation, Hedd downloaded a Solar System Advent Calendar App on his ipod and I got to open 17 doors at once whilst listening to some Christmas tunes…I got up to the planet Saturn! So today we are off on a 23 hour bus journey South to a place called Vina del Mar, just north of Santiago. I feel like I´m on the wind down now after our gallop around South America. We´ve packed heck of a lot in and still 2 more places to see. But just 6 more days until we fly to Fiji…that´ll be a big change!

San Pedro de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Fierce sun in the day but blooming cold at night!
  • Food= Basic but edible on the tour; big portions and hearty (Algarrobo restaurant) or yummy breakfast pancakes (Salon de Te) in San Ped´
  • Drink= Water, water and more water (the air is really dry here)
  • Salt plain tour highlight= Gazing at the endless horizon on the wet surface of Salar de Uyuni

Hedd´s word´s of wisdom:

When I decided a long time ago now that we should do the Salt Plains tour into Bolivia, I did so on the basis that we would be visiting one of the driest places on earth, it was even described alien environment. So on the 3rd day of our tour I was quite disappointed to be informed that there had been a lot of rain and that we would be unable to visit certain parts of the “Salar”. However my disappointment soon vanished as we drove into the Salar”, which covered in water, looked like an endless lake on one side and and like I would imagine the North Pole on the other side. When we stopped it was  surreal, the water reflected the sky perfectly to the point where it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the earth began. Magical. We were then informed that the tours would have to stop in a few days because the water would be too deep. So instead of feeling disappointed, I now feel lucky to have experienced something only a few people a year will get to see.

Travelling North- Bariloche and Mendoza


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.