Sunday, 21 February 2010

Hello Easter Island, goodbye South America

Our last stop in South America, after four incredible months of hitting the continent’s highlights, is Easter Island where we’re sat writing this now watching the sunset over the ocean from our campsite. The island is beautiful – a mix between tropical and windswept dramatic terrain (like a cross between a Scottish isle and Fiji) and has a fascinating history and culture. A few interesting facts about the place:
  • It is believed to be the most isolated inhabited place in the world – it sits slap bang in the middle of the Pacific with no other civilisations around for thousands of miles
  • The island is famous for its moai – large stone sculpted heads (some as high as 10m) believed to have been dedicated to deceased family members or clan chiefs and amazingly sculpted, transported and erected in various spots around the island
  • People think the island was first colonised in 1000AD by Polynesians who must have sailed over 2000 miles to find the place! This is like looking for a very small needle in a giant (and very dangerous) haystack!
  • It was visited (but not discovered) by Capitan Cook
  • Some people believe the island became over-populated with the locals exhausting much of the trees and natural food supplies ultimately resorting to cannibalism
  • The country was also raided for slaves and the slave raiders purposefully introduced smallpox – virtually wiping out all the island people
Island scenery


    Some examples of moai...

    So the small island has had a bit of a colourful history... Anyway, we have had a brilliant few days here. The weather has been amazing and the sea air very much welcomed. We arrived in the morning, hired bikes and set off to explore. The following day we hired a jeep and spent the day doing a tour of the island visiting the moais and other ancient ritual sites as well as a stunning tropical beach. Yesterday we climbed to the top of an extinct volcano crater, now filled with a huge lake and admired the views across the island and out to sea. On the way back down we saw a giant turtle sunning itself on the beach.

    Elizabeth's new friend

    The amazing beach

    The volcano crater

    After all the walking we decided today to rent a scooter and drive across the island back to the beach and have a lazy day eating BBQ food, lying in the sun, swimming in the sea etc. It’s been amazing. Tomorrow is our last day and we’re going to visit the museum in the morning and probably spend the rest of the day back on the beach (our flight is at 10:30pm).

    Our next stop is Tahiti (which we’re very much looking forward to!) which will take us into continent number three of the trip – Australasia (or Oceania to be precise). Since Easter Island is Chilean-owned it means tomorrow is officially our last day in South America!

    The sunset

    ...and now the moon's out

    Our favourite bits from North and South America

    Things we’ve seen and done
    • The whole of the road-trip around the USA (with one exception, the dodgy hostel in Salt Lake City)
    • The heavenly view from the top of Cotopaxi, Ecuador
    • Hiring a local’s motorbike and finding one of the most secluded and beautiful beaches in Brazil
    • Getting soaked in the falls at Iguazu, Brazil
    • Being a part of the action at the Maracana stadium when Flamengo won the Brazilian league title
    • Surfing with wild dolphins in Pipa, Brazil
    • Watching the sunrise over the Andes on my Aconcagua summit attempt and knowing that we were likely to be the highest people in North and South America (and possibly the world!) at that moment
    • Stargazing and pondering the meaning of life at the observatory near La Serena, Chile

    Places we’ve slept
    • Our first few nights were spent at the infamous “Ashbrook Hotel”, West Hollywood, LA – great location, generous hospitality and early morning wake-up calls!
    • The Wynn, Las Vegas – sometimes 5* luxury just cannot be beaten
    • Pousada Campestre, Trancoso, Brazil – an accidental find with delicious breakfasts (fresh fruit and cake!), it triples its price in peak season and is a stone’s throw from Madonna’s holiday home (A-list celebrity hangout, need we say more)
    • Casa 579, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – my retreat in Rio with views over “The Marvellous City” whilst Tom faced adversities in the Andes

    Places we’ve eaten and drank at
    • Swinging Steak, Utah –flame-grilled steaks cooked by a real cowboy, washed down with Polygamy Porter beers
    • Monterey Fish House, California – very much a locals’ place serving delicious fresh fish
    • Green Eggs and Ham, Mancora, Peru – not exactly traditional Peruvian breakfasts but nevertheless a great start to the day
    • The Creperie, Tibau, Brazil – incredible sunset and crepes!
    • Don Julio, Buenos Aires – two lunches and couldn’t find fault with either (chocolate volcano dessert to die for)
    • Gran Danzon, Buenos Aires – uber-trendy bar with awesome cocktails
    • Botega Septima, Mendoza – celebrating Tom’s return from Aconcagua in style with top-notch Argentinian wine flowing

    Quotes that said it all
    • American guy, “Where are you from?” Me, “London” American guy, “ Ah London (pause), Paris, you must be French”
    • “I’ve lived in Vegas for 18 years, never been to the Grand Canyon though” – bell-boy at the Wynn hotel
    • “Oh my Chreestmas” – Marco our Inca Trail guide
    • “My eye-lids are sweating” – Elizabeth

    And so continent number 3 here we come!!

    Where will the trip take us next...?!

    Wednesday, 17 February 2010

    We love Chile!

    Border crossing - Chilean style

    Working our way back up the spine of the Andes we crossed into Chile and were greeted by a typical Chilean landscape - a huge snow-capped volcano towering above us. We arrived at the town of Pucon which according to the Lonely Planet is the place to holiday if you're Chilean. Having already been impressed by Argentina's relaxed lifestyle we were even more so with Chile's. It seems espresso drinking and reading the paper are the orders of the day!

    Pucon has a stunning setting, another massive volcano dominates one side of the town (although for the three days we were there it was shrouded in cloud...!) and on the other there is a huge lake. Volcan Villarrica seemed like a good challenge so we set the alarm for 5am, hurried down our breakfast and waited for our minibus to arrive... and we waited. Unfortunately the weather wasn't in our favour and our early start was wasted. So instead we decided to give white-water rafting a try (my first attempt). I must admit I was already feeling nervous but when our guide informed us in broken English it was a grade V/VI river I looked at Tom for reassurance which was a bad idea, "grade V/VI is probably something you should only attempt once you've had a few tries and not as a beginner". In actual fact it was so much fun, albeit in icy cold water. There was one moment when my true colours came out - we were told to jump off a 4m high rock into the river as the rapids were too strong for us to tackle in the raft (we left our guide Max to it!). Somehow I think a skydive in Australia is going to be a big ask as I chickened out and had to be led around the rocks by a very unimpressed Chilean kayaker who didn't hold back embarrassing me infront of the group by making chicken noises! Back at the hostel we met another couple travelling for a year who coincidentally are taking the same flights as us to Easter Island and Tahiti (our off-the-beaten track route maybe isn't so off-the-beaten track!)

    With just over a week before our departure from Santiago and South America we decided to head north to the city of Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of 14 small hills with a large port about an hour away from Chile's capital. It is referred to as a "Little San Francisco" and its easy to see why with the arty but slightly worn-out look of the place. Our hostel was a lovely old mansion house complete with cats and overlooking the bay. When we arrived the weather was glorious so we headed out to explore the city centre.
    Houses up the hill in Valparaiso
     The beach at Vina del Mar
    Day 2 we headed further up the coast to the beach town of Vina del Mar, another holiday spot for the city dwellers. Accidentally we stayed on the bus for a bit too long and when we saw signs for Mendoza (the town across the Andes in Argentina) we began to worry. Fortunately the bus driver took one look at us, laughed and headed back towards the beach. The Chilean people are similar to Brazilians in their friendliness, although look more like the Peruvians but slightly taller!

    Our room in the guesthouse, Valparaiso

    Our stay in Valparaiso was great, we picked a gorgeous place for lunch back up the hill near the hostel, again overlooking the Pacific and treated ourselves to a bottle of Chile's finest vino tinto (which is actually very cheap!)

    From Valparaiso we headed north again to a town called La Serena. I must admit we weren't totally enamoured with La Serena - there is a serious discrepancy between the guide book's description and the reality but hey ho. Anyway our main reasons for heading north were to taste some locally made pisco - grape brandy - and to check out the observatories.

    The Elqui Valley, home to the pisco grapes is like a barren, dusty desert which similarly to Mendoza (Argentina's wine region) has been irrigated in places allowing the grapes to grow in the hot, dry climate. We hired a car and spent the day cruising around and visited the major pisco distillery.

    Vineyard in the Elqui valley

    As the sun began to set we headed up into the mountains to the Mamalluca observatory which is one of many in the area. What an incredible "show". As the light began to fade, stars began to emerge in the sky which reminded me of our time in Yellowstone National Park where as sunset hits the animals begin to appear.

    Sunset over the Elqui valley

    By 10pm we had an incredible view of the Milky Way and through the telescope were able to see two other galaxies only visible in the Southern Hemisphere which in a few million years are going to collide with the Milky Way and will be the end of us!! One of the most facinating things for me was when our guide pointed our a few roving satellites which are visible without looking through a telescope and there are around 10,000 up there orbiting! They look like little cars with their headlights on. Mars also made an appearance and Tom inevitably was in his element (being a stargazer and all)!

    Telescopes at the ready...

    The night sky
    From La Serena we bussed our way to Santiago, yesterday we wandered around the city which is similar to Buenos Aires in terms of large parks and lovely European-looking architecture. As its Shrove Tuesday we've also managed to squeeze in one of two home-made pancakes (impressing the other travellers in the hostel I must add!)

    Pancakes a la Elizabeth

    Monday, 8 February 2010

    Patagonia - windy fun 'down south'

    Ok - we’re currently on the first of two bus journeys to get us from Argentina into Chile so I thought what better time than the now to blog about our adventures in Patagonia. We have visited three amazing places in this beautiful region 1) The glacier near El Calafate 2) Torres del Paine in Chile and 3) The Fitzroys - all described below...

    1) El Calafate and the glacier
    Leaving Bariloche (in the Argentine Lake District) we travelled on a 30hr(!) bus journey south to El Calafate – the main town in Patagonia. The bus had no onboard catering so whenever we pulled into a service station I would run out (attempting to overtake the Israelis who were represented en-masse on the bus) to get to the front of the queue to buy empanadas (like a beef pasty). Not the most relaxing of journeys but we arrived in one piece nonetheless!

    On our first full day in El Calafate we took a bus to the Perito Moreno national park where a gigantic glacier is located. See here for the wikipedia entry. This thing is enormous. Boats in the lake that surrounds it look like dots and the glacier extends back into the mountains as far as the eye can see. We spent our afternoon relaxing in the sun at the main vista points and marvelling at the enormity and intricacy of it. Every now and then gigantic chunks of ice would break off and fall into the lake making thunderous noises and sending tidal waves rippling through the lake (see pics below). Very cool!



    2) Torres del Paine in Chile
    The next day trip we did was to Torres del Paine – tall protruding mountains located in Chile's number one national park. Sadly we weren’t as lucky with the weather and it was a wet (and very windy) day driving around looking at lakes, the odd waterfall (which was situated amazingly between two lakes adjoined at different levels) and a lot of guanacos (like llamas). Despite the weather it was all very interesting although Elizabeth dozed off mid-afternoon (clearly exhausted from being chauffeured around) and slept for several hours on the bus!



    3) The Fitzroys
    The next day we left El Calafate and headed to El Chalten, a small town next to the Fitzroys which some argue are the most iconic mountains in the entire continent. The day we arrived the weather was quite cold so we did a mini hike to a few viewing points of the mountains. The mountains themselves are absolutely stunning and one of our highlights of Argentina. The next day we did the longest hike in the park which took us from 10am to 7pm up to the base of the mountains where there is another smaller glacier and pristine lake. It was great to do some hiking (and a bit of exercise) again having been on a lot of buses recently.

     Arguably one of the best things about the Fitzroys and El Chalten was the small microbrewery on the same street as our hostel where they make two types of homemade beers onsite – we asked for a tour of the ‘brewery’. We had a lot of fun sampling the different varieties and planning the next and final country of our South America leg - Chile...