South America 2012

Yet another belated catch-up post! At the start of 2012, only a few months after returning from Nepal again, I took off for South America with a good friend and not much in the way of planning. Rather, we had a rough outline in mind, but apart from our first night’s accommodation and the (other) Inca Trail trek we had nothing booked and all other “plans” went out the window on our first night in Buenos Aires.

In an effort to get the blog back up to date, this post will cover the entire 6 weeks in one hit, and be mostly photographs. Unfortunately this trip was also when I finally got frustrated with my photography skills and camera; I have since upgraded the camera, although not the ability. I apologise for the sub-standard quality of most of the pictures.

TL;DR: I loved South America. It is quite large though, and we attempted to cover way too much of it in 6 short weeks, but I wouldn’t change much (just so long as I get to go back).

Argentina

We flew into Buenos Aires, and owing to that flight winding up while we were away, were to fly out of Chile. The first step is paying the delightfully honestly named “reciprocity fee” (ie, “your country charges a fee to our citizens, so we’re going to make some money off you too”).

Struggling with jetlag we set off exploring from the hostel, and unfortunately managed to find the financial district — initial impressions of the city weren’t that glamorous. The morning after we met a returningtraveller at a hostel Spanish class, and she showed us around. Via a fasionable district (whose name I forget), and quite a lot of wine, we spent the afternoon in bohemian-hip Palermo then had some of the best steak I’ve ever eaten at La Cabrera. Secondary impressions were much different: Buenos Aires is a sexxxxxy city, full of extraordinarily attractive people and very European-styled architecture.

We also learned that wine carafs are shaped like penguins (“Pinguinos”). I don’t know why either, but we saw quite a few of them.

The next day travel exhaustion hit like a hammer, and we were woken about midday by the hostel staff evicting us. Blearily we wandered out with our guide friend again and explored La Boca, including the famous La Bombonera stadium where Boca Juniors (Maradona’s club) play.

On a whim, based on nothing more than a conversation at the hostel the day before, we found the bus station that evening and managed to figure out how to buy over-night tickets to Mendoza — wine country! Buses are a real treat (if you pay enough, which is still fairly cheap); much roomier than aeroplanes, plus they feed you, play you a movie, and even bingo! (Good for practicing our still-limited Spanish).

Mendoza was fun, and the main activity is hiring a bike and touring the myriad vineyards. The local drivers seem well acquainted with slightly unsteady tourists late in the day. Not many photos from that experience however.

Patagonia

From Mendoza it was time to head south for the Torres del Paine… and on no planning ahead that meant struggling with online booking forms to eventually find flights, then fly back to Buenos Aires and spend the night in a bar at the airport before an extremely early flight south to El Calafate. The plan was to catch a bus over the border into Chilean Patagonia, to the town of Puerto Natales. Unfortunately—it’s almost as if this was planned—there is a single bus a day, which leaves just before the only flight in arrives. So, there was nothing for it but to find accommodation, and book a tour to the Perito Moreno glacier (the only attraction in El Calafate!). The glacier is amazing, but they also leave you there to try and see ice breaking off, for 7 hours. There is a single cafe above the viewing area: again, it could almost have been planned! We instead stuck it out, and as luck would have it got chatting to 3 others (one couple and a solo) who we wound up walking with.

The next morning we caught the bus to Puerto Natales, found accommodation and visited the regular trekker’s information session held at a local gear shop. The rest of the day was shopping, hiring equipment, and packing.

The trek itself was magnificent, and naturally the photos don’t capture it at all. We were quite lucky with the weather too. While waiting for a ferry across the lake to the trailhead we went on a short walk to a nearby waterfall… just as the heavens opened and we got completely soaked through. I will admit to a few misgivings at this point, but after that we really had amazing weather (although “amazing” also includes wind gusts that made it impossible to stand).

As we were leaving the park we suddenly realised that the Navimag ferry was an option—we had heard about it before leaving Australia, but our then-“plan” meant we would miss it. Back in Puerto Natales though we managed to get tickets, then had to book an extra night (meaning two extra days since the ferry left the evening of the following day). The scenery through the fjiordlands is unquestionably magnificent, but it is similarly magnificent for 3 full days; that plus the extra days in Puerto Natales wrote off close to a week, which in a 6 week holiday we could ill-afford. I would recommend it if you have the time, but it is the only thing I would change about my own experience, really.

The boat arrives in Puerto Montt, for which the Lonely Planet’s inspiring advice is “catch a bus to Puerto Varas”. So we did that, and despite our early arrival meaning nothing was open we did find a local hostel that agreed to take us on a tour. Puerto Varas has quite a lot of Germanic influences, but our tour was exploring the volcanic mountains and the nearby lake. My personal highlight was noticing—and only just avoiding stepping on—a rather rare Darwin’s tree frog, which as you can see in the photo has almost lost its green colour in order to again blend in with the now-dead foliage.

At the end of the day we caught another plane up to Santiago.

Santiago de Chile

We arrived late in the evening and had no accommodation booked, apart from a “tip” from the hostel guy in Puerto Varas. So we caught a taxi to this tip, who was rather surprised to see us and certainly in no position to offer lodging. He did take us on a walk, rather bemused at this point, a few blocks away where a few people all stuck their heads out of second-story windows, and eventually a door opened and we had a bed for the night. It turned out that a few people on the street offered spare rooms for rent, mostly to university exchange students, but at the time it was quite a bizarre experience.

Initial impressions of Santiago were… rather underwhelming. It was only later that we realised it was Easter weekend and most people were away (and those remaining were obviously not in a mood to open their businesses). We experienced a much more lively Santiago when we stayed our final night there before flying home!

Peru (Macchu Picchu)

From Santiago we flew up to Cusco in Peru, the old capital and the launching place for trekking to Machu Picchu. This was the only thing we had booked in, and because the main Inca Trail books out months in advance (and we were not that organised) and has visitor limits, we had opted for the less well-known Salkantay route. I don’t regret this for a second; it was less populus, hits a higher altitude, and generally definitely felt like an adventure (albeit, unlike in Patagonia an adventure where most of our luggage was carried for us and all meals prepared for us!). It is also a porter route, which means lots of horses go on the path, which meant it was incredibly muddy.

We had a few slight detours around fresh land slips, none more so than at the end where we had to catch a jeep to the spot where most of the road had simply fallen down the steep incline, get out and nervously walk the 1 metre of remaining road to the other side and catch another jeep.

Eventually we arrived in Aguas Calientes for the morning visit to Machu Picchu itself. I honestly did not expect to be that impressed; granted the photos are spectacular, but you typically only ever see the same slightly-elevated view, and I cynically expected it to have more a plasticy theme-park feel to it. Boy was I wrong: not only is the setting so much more stunning in person, but the scale and detail up-close is just breath-taking. We also climbed Huena Picchu for an areal view.

Bolivia

We had booked flights into Bolivia before our trek, and had arrived back in civilisation (internet) to find that they had been cancelled, so we had to find a bus instead.

We spent a day or so exploring La Paz, which is a rather beautiful city at quite a high elevation, and with markets that go even higher with no end in site! Following that we caught a bus to Uyuni for the standard 3-day 2-nights “salt flats of Uyuni tour”. Our jeep had 3 separate travel-pairs, and we all got on like a house on fire. The scenery is just remarkable too, from the train graveyard (so much more fun than you’d expect!), to the bizarre lack of visual perspective on the salt flats themselves (watching people posing photographs is almost as much fun as posing them yourself), to the surreal colours and rock formations in the deserts. Bolivia is beautiful, and definitely on my list of places to visit more thoroughly.

We finished by crossing the border back into Chile in San Pedro de Atacama.

Valparaiso

For our final stop of the trip we had splurged on nice accommodation in Valparaiso. Unfortunately we were unable to splurge on transport there, where our usual last-minute strategy let us down and we had to watch our Canadian travel buddies have a leisurely dinner and fly there, while we sucked it up on a 24 hour bus ride to Santiago, then walk to a different bus station and catch another bus. Then we couldn’t find a taxi at that time of night, but some local guy loitering around was more than happy to pretend to be one.

Valparaiso is a beautiful town and amazing to wander. Set on some very steep hills, it was a once-booming port town that fell into disrepair as the port business dried up, only to be reinvigorated as a tourist town. It still has that slightly edgy, slightly gritty feel to much of it, while the other distinguishing feature is the astonishing amount of graffiti murals covering the steep hills.

Mark Hepburn 15 December 2013
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