South American Adventure – February 2014

South American Adventure – Day One – Thursday 20th February 2014

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A first this morning – the taxi arrived and we were ready! 7am departure for the trip to Heathrow and I was packed and ready to go. I must admit that my heart sunk a bit when we passed our house again five minutes later (the driver turned the wrong way onto the A14 – the job he had yesterday said that was the quickest way). After this small false start, we started again – the driver said he had only been doing the job a couple of months and was still learning. Hmm – good job we knew the way, as he did ask a couple of times “is this the right turn?”. “What time is the flight?” asks Paul. “12.20” I reply. “Should have got an overnight hotel at the airport” says Paul “Traffic on the M25 is going to be murder at this time of day.” Let’s look on the bright side then! I got a new phone contract a couple of months ago, and it came with a “free” Deezer app – gives one the ability to download music to the phone. I had dutifully done so – and now decided to plug Il Divo into my ears and hope that we didn’t sit on the M25 for over four hours and miss the flight!

We arrived at Terminal 5 for our British Airways flight to Rio de Janeiro at 9.30am – just over two hours from home, and two wonderful albums later. I could get used to plugging in and forgetting the rest of the world! A quick check in as ever at Terminal 5, it really is the best terminal I have ever flown in or out of. Straight into the business class lounge for breakfast (thank you, once again, Avios for the complimentary flights) and a chill out before our twelve hour flight. We took off a few minutes late, but who is counting when you are plied with champagne –Taittinger at that! British Airways now allow kindles to be kept on during take off and landing – such a difference. There is nothing more annoying than having to switch off a good book for twenty minutes just in case Jeffrey Archer interferes with the aircraft’s systems. How likely is that going to be??

A really smooth flight, some good food and wines, and caught up with, amongst others, Sunshine on Leith that I missed when it was in the cinema. What a lovely film – and very uplifting. Paul slept (or not, so he says) most of the way. We were soon beginning the descent into Rio, arriving there at 9pm – three hours behind UK time. For once, the arrival form was really easy to fill in, and we were soon in the short queue for immigration and getting our bags, which were already on the carousel when we came through. I had prebooked a transfer, and there he was just outside the customs hall. Excellent! We took a short walk to a lovely air conditioned car – the temperature in Rio was 27 degrees. It was around thirty minutes to get to the JW Marriott on Copacabana Beach – we are only here this time around for twelve hours in total. Long story – but needless to say Avios had something to do with it! But, the driver spoke very good English and we had a commentary of where we were and what we were passing all the way to the hotel. “The way that the traffic is going tonight is not the same as the way that it will be going in the morning” so he says. It gets changed depending on the amount of traffic. Is that thinking outside the box – or just trying to stop tourists hiring cars! At least we will know something of the layout of Rio for when we come back in three and a bit weeks time. It was pitch dark, but saw the stature of Christ lit up high on the hill, and passed the shanty towns and then into the city and on to the beach. The moon was hanging in the sky just above the horizon – beautiful. The beach bars were buzzing – but we were not, so straight to the room and sleep. Good job we were only here for one overnight – the room had an “atrium view”. I am not a lover of rooms overlooking the interior of the hotel, but as we had an early morning call and then out, so the curtains didn’t actually get drawn back.

South American Adventure – Day Two – Friday 21st February 2014

An early morning call at 6.30am – Paul was so pleased. It didn’t take long to get our things together and check out of the hotel. Only seems like yesterday we arrived!! No prebooked transfer on the way back, so the doorman hailed a yellow taxi from the street. There are different colour taxis for difference parts of the city – yellow will take you out to the airport. The sun was beating down this early in the morning – it was a beautiful day! Sunglasses out, and we set off for the aiport. And the driver was right from last night – the traffic is now going a different way to what it was when we arrived. We passed most of the places again in daylight this morning – Christ was still keeping an eye on the city from his perch. He has apparently now had his thumb glued back on after it fell off after being struck by lightening a few weeks ago. The shanty towns didn’t look so bad in daylight – the driver last night had said you could get a tour round there. I quite fancied that – but then I got “the look” from Paul who obviously didn’t. That is another three and a bit weeks away – might have lost him by then!! We got to the airport in half an hour – we were warned that it would take about an hour in rush hour traffic, but most of the traffic was going the other way. We hardly got held up at all. And the bill was under 60 Brazilian Reals – well under £20. The check in was really slow – perhaps it had been a good move to get here early.

The international airport is not exactly what I had envisioned. It is very basic, and we struggled to get a coffee and something to eat. Economy and no lounges all the way until our homeward flight – oh dear! We bought what we thought were latte’s and muffin’s – neither being exactly that. The coffee tasted as though it was made of condensed milk, and the muffins certainly were not muffins. No idea what they were, but won’t be buying something that looks like that again! One choice of coffee shop – take it or leave it. The international airport certainly isn’t one that will be sticking in my mind as state of the art.

Paul decided to take a picture of our plane when we went to the gate – I thought it was a bit odd, the writing on the side looked very much like Alitalia. We were flying Aerolineas Argentinas. Nobody seemed to speak any English, but this was the gate that was on the departures board. Then I noticed that the next flight down from ours was an Alitalia to Rome – don’t think we are going to be on that plane, but we have a nice picture of it! The queue started moving, so like proper English folk we joined on the end – not really knowing where we were going. We showed our boarding cards, but no-one really wanted to look. Oh well – just have to see if anyone else is sitting in our seats, and then we will know that we are on the wrong flight! No – our seats were empty so we must be on the right one. I had booked a window and Paul an aisle – and luckily, even though the plane seemed packed, no-one sat in between us so we had plenty of room. It wasn’t so bad – it could (and probably will be by the end of the trip) have been a whole lot worse.

The three hour trip to Buenes Aires went fairly quickly – and we actually had what looked like a ham and cheese roll, and it was a ham and cheese roll. The international airport at Buenes Aires competes well with that in Rio. We were off the plane quite quickly, and onto a bus for a twenty yard trip. We were through passport control – the form here was only one per family, so as the head Paul filled it in (!) This one actually wanted the make, model and number of your mobile phone as well as the normal information. When we got through the other side we realised we still had the form – not quite sure when and where that should have gone. The carousel for the luggage here was something else. It couldn’t have gone any slower if someone was winding it up from outside. But, our bags duly arrived, and off we went to meet our prebooked transfer – or not. No-one there with our name on a board. We waited half an hour – called all the very useful local numbers and got a recorded message in Spanish on each one. After scouting round for one last time, Paul changed some dollars into Argentinian Pesos and we headed out for a taxi. Not a problem at all – apart from the driver didn’t speak much English and the luggage was piled on the front seat as there wasn’t much room in the boot. I had the address of the hotel written down, and he put it into his sat nav – oh no, not another one that is still learning! He dropped us off somewhere close to the hotel – he wasn’t sure where it was – and it turns out it was just across the road. Near enough! 280 pesos later – around £30 – we were wheeling our cases up the ramp. The doorman came running down to help – obviously doesn’t see “walk in’s” at the Plaza Hotel that often.

After successfully checking in, I asked the chap behind the desk to phone the transfer company to let them know we had arrived, and that they hadn’t! The woman on the end of the phone insisted there had been someone there and we missed them. She said she would get the rep to phone, which she dutifully did fifteen minutes later. She then insisted she was there – although the times she arrived and left seemed to differ whenever she repeated them. I knew she wasn’t there – and it was making me cross when she kept insisting she was. In the end, I found out that she had been at the wrong airport – which she found quite funny, then suggested that the pilot must have decided to land at the wrong airport. I know transport is renowned to be hit and miss in South America, including flights, but I can now put some of that down to stupidity. Don’t these people look at the flight number and check it has landed and where?? I soon had enough of her, and hoped we wouldn’t bump into each other during our trip. Idiot!!

That had got me hot under the collar, so there was nothing more for it but to relax by the pool and a campari or two. Guaranteed to cool things down. Let the holiday begin – albeit 24 hours late due to landing in a different country to start with. Better late than never! We didn’t venture too far for dinner – apparently the Plaza Bar is reputed to be among the best in Buenes Aires, and the Plaza Grill is reputed to be among the best in Buenes Aires – wonder whose propaganda I have been reading! We did try them though, and although we have nothing to compare them with, they were very good. Paul ordered a steak, and I have never seen one as big and thick as this one. Even he couldn’t finish it! But it finished us – early night I think!

South American Adventure – Day Three, Saturday 22nd February 2014

After a good nights sleep, we were awake well in time for our full days walking tour of Buenos Aires. We decided to have a recce of the area, and go and get a coffee and some breakfast. We walked down the street and came across a McCafe. There was a distinct absence of any other coffee shops so we had a latte and muffin – that really was a latte and muffin. Brits abroad!!

Ceri met us at 10.00am – our tour guide for the day from BuenosTours. He was born in Canada of British parents with a Welsh name and now lives in Argentina, so there was no language barrier. He spoke perfect Spanish, and because he has lived in the city for around eight years, knew it like the back of his hand. The first job we had to do was to exchange some money on the “blue” market. The hard currency here is dollars, and we got 11.4 to the dollar as opposed to the 7.8 on the official market. This, apparently, is the way everyone works. Inflation is quite high, and the peso is not a good currency to have. The dollar is worth a lot more. We had been warned of changing money on the streets, as you may get fake notes, but when you are with a local it seemed very safe to do so. The government taxes everything that comes in to the country over and above a very nominal allowance, so it is also hard to get anything here. What is available in the shops is very expensive, like mobile phones, and if you order one from another country the government looks at it and decides how much tax you should pay on it – often then making it not worth getting. This apparently was the thinking behind putting the mobile phone make and model on the paper – but as we were told the idea and the reality are two different things. Nobody has their immigration form taken from them as this was the idea and the reality was nobody wants to do anything with it.

We then got in a taxi to start our tour in the oldest part of the city – San Telmo. On the way we passed the “Pink House” which is a bit like the White House in the USA, but the president doesn’t actually live here. There was a large statue of Christopher Columbus at the back of it, that was all in pieces over the ground. The present president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, decided that it had to come down. This was an unpopular choice, and as soon as the pieces hit the ground the Governor of Buenos Aires declared it property of the City and there it still is. We heard about the history of when the British were here, and then the Spanish, and how they fought for independence. The streets in this part are cobbled and very narrow, and not particularly well kept. The buildings were ornate, if not a little unloved. We passed the San Telmo markets that are on at the weekend, where tourists and locals alike shop. There are many monuments to various generals, and some of the buildings are absolutely magnificent. Next to them were newer buildings that were downright ugly. We stopped for a coffee and croissant in a typical café and sat at the table Ceri took us to. “This is the exact table that the pope used to sit at every day to have a coffee before he went to the Cathedral where he was Arch Bishop before he moved to the Vatican” says Ceri. Paul was sitting on “the chair”. That gave a slightly different perspective to the morning coffee! It was a fantastic place, with tango music playing in the background.

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We passed a church that still had cannon balls embedded in one of the towers, although I think they must be replicas because if they were originals the tower wouldn’t still be standing. Again, it was when they were fighting the British. We then walked around the square in front of the Pink House – this is where protests about various things happen just about every day. There is a permanent protest about the Malvinas (Falklands) and a police presence all around. But everything was peaceful, and apparently usually is. The Pink House was made famous by Eva Peron, and we saw the balcony where she and her husband made many of their speeches. The most famous one, the “Don’t cry for me Argentina” one was made from there in the film, but not in real life. Just made it easier to say it was! Just down the road was the Cathedral, where we stopped for a short while to have a look. It was a lovely building, with the body of General San Martin in a mausoleum down the right side aisle guarded by two soldiers. There was a changing of the guard whilst we were there. The new guards come marching in with tourists scattering to either side of them. If one of the tourist doesn’t notice them coming, or gets in their way, they just march on the spot until the way is clear. Quite amusing. On the other side down the left hand aisle is a board filled with Jewish writing – one of the things that has shown how moderate the present pope is, and probably helped him to get his present job! There are not any other Catholic places of worship that allow other religions in. The cathedral has been rebuilt six times for various reasons, which is why it looks in such good shape I think! The roads now are wide, as are the pavements, and the buildings are in a completely different style. We had a quick look in the famous Café Tortoni – there was a queue to get in for overpriced coffee and not so good food we are told – but it looks good! I much preferred to have sat on the Pope’s seat anyway.

We then went a few stops on the underground – the British designed it and the Irish built it. We were even entertained by buskers actually on the train. Very cheap – about 25p. Much cheaper than the London version! We then were back around the park outside our hotel where we had walked this morning. There was the most enormous rubber tree in middle, with metal supports holding up its gargantuan branches. These trees are very common in Argentina – the Gauchos used them for cover. There are a couple of statues here, and in the distance a clock tower that was originally called the Tower of the English. After the Falklands war it was renamed the Monumental Tower, and a memorial to the Argentinian dead was erected facing it.

We then walked past a very grand house (we had walked past a few, but I can’t now remember which family owned what, but La Paz was one of them) that once had a very good view. Apparently, the daughter of one house was going to marry the son of another wealthy family, but his father told him he would disinherit him if he did. He shrugged his shoulders and married someone else to keep the money. The daughter then built a huge building in the front his one, so that he couldn’t have any view anymore – a woman scorned etc… We walked down into the Recoleta District, which is the new “Chelsea” of around here. Full of art galleries and very grand houses – this is where the rich and famous now live. We had lunch in a little restaurant that is famed for its pasties – who said they originated from Cornwall? They were delicious. And it was accompanied by a Penguin of wine. No – I’m not drunk or seeing things. The wine here doesn’t come in a carafe, it comes in a Penguin. Neat!!

The next stop was up to the Cemetery of Recoleta. The poor used to bury their dead here, but when it was decided that this was going to be the cemetery for the rich, the poor were “politely asked to go away”! This, we were told, was not like any other cemetery you have ever seen. A cemetery is a cemetery I thought. No. It was a cemetery like I had never seen. Space is sold here, and there are rows and rows of mausoleums. Some very large, some very small, but the whole thing is like a town with streets and houses on either side. Many of the generals and famous people have a spot here – anyone that wants to buy a plot and build what ever they would like to be buried in. Many are made of marble, some a brick, some have stained glass windows, some have seats inside, and some have coffins! Not buried at all. The whole family can go in as long as there is room – so the deeper you bury them the more you can get in. Some have servants buried with them – well, outside the mausoleum but within the confines of the plot. Even in death they have their rightful place! The stories that come with some of these were amazing – something you don’t get out of a guidebook. Then we came to Eva Peron – who was buried under her family name of Duarte. Shortly after she died her husband, the president, was overthrown by a military coup, so the body had to be hidden. It had been taken to Milan, and buried there for fifteen years under an assumed name. Juan Peron had fled the country, but in 1973 came out of exile and was elected president again. He had the body exhumed, and was then taken to La Recoleta cemetery and buried in the Duarte family plot. This is one of the most popular mausoleums in the cemetery. There are constantly flowers left on the front of the gates to the entrance. Above one of the mausoleums was a satellite dish – perhaps some of the living relatives like to watch the football whilst visiting the dearly departed! It really is a surreal place – you just don’t imagine that you are walking amongst rows and rows of dead people. Some of the stories we were told involved tragic deaths and ghosts. Yeah right! Wouldn’t like to be here after dark though!

From here, we went to a lovely ice cream parlour and tried some of the rows and rows of flavours that they have. Very refreshing! This brought our tour to an end. What a fantastic way to have seen this city. It is the best way to have seen the city, and to have experienced it both as a tourist and a local. We were probably about a mile from our hotel, so we retraced our steps and got back to the hotel at around 6.30pm having walked around eight miles during the day. Not once did we feel threatened or intimidated, but we had been warned to not show any jewellery or phones. Just sensible precautions in a place where pick pockets and thieves operate – as in most large cities.

A shower and change and we were ready to go to the Dinner and Tango Show – when in Buenos Aires… The Esquina Carlos Gardel in supposed to be one of the better shows – and there are quite a few. This one includes transfers from the hotel – the venue was around twenty minutes in an area of Buenos Aires that we hadn’t been earlier on in the day. We passed lots of bars and clubs – it was Saturday night and was quite busy. We were shown in and to the table – a lovely table at the front of the “dress circle”. We were given champagne and the menu – very civilised. The bottom tier was rows and rows of long tables and people were packed in. I much preferred where we were – but we had paid for the VIP section (as one does when backpacking as we are!). The menu looked good, but I had read reviews that the food was only OK. It was OK. Nothing special, although the steak that I had must have been five inches thick. The wine was poured freely – not bad either. A film was being played on a large screen with the history of the Argentine Tango – quite a history because it took over half an hour. Spanish with English subtitles – although some of it was miss spelt and lost in translation.
We were then invited to have our photo taken with a couple of the tango dancers – and then in the tango position ourselves. I could just imagine Craig Revel Horwood saying “yours arms are hopeless darling”! I somehow don’t think we will be purchasing that keepsake. The show started soon after that, and was very pleasant. It was about an hour and a half of various dancers, and a male and a female singer.

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I looked over at Paul and could see that he was riveted – not! Oh dear – it was a long and busy day and this was not the way he would have liked to have finished it. Was it worth the money – probably not. Would have I wanted to have left Buenos Aires without seeing a tango show – definitely not. It had to be done. The show finished around midnight, and the transfer back to the hotel was very smooth and efficient. Considering how many people were gushing out of the building, this is the bit where the VIP comes in handy. Back to the hotel to fall into bed ready for an early morning call to go back to the airport! I can see on Paul’s face that he really wanted a couple of weeks relaxing in the Caribbean. Instead, I have organised a kind of boot camp. We shouldn’t have gone to see The Adventures of Walter Mittey or whatever it was – gave me itchy feet!

South American Adventure – Day Four, Sunday 23rd February 2014

Early morning call at 07.45am. We are getting a bit blasé with the two hour check in and starting to cut it a bit fine. Paul decided he was going to nip down the road to get a McCafe coffee, but came back empty handed as they were shut. We had used all the powdered milk up yesterday, and not enough time now to order some more and put the filter machine on. Oh well – we will have to get one at the airport.

We checked out and ordered a taxi from the front desk. They organised a hotel car for 134 pesos – we got 11.4 to the dollar yesterday, so well under £20. When we came from the airport, the taxi charged us 280 pesos. I somehow think we had been “done”. Probably less than £10 extra, but it was the principle that sticks in the throat. It was a metered taxi, so we probably were taken on a lovely loop around the city to get to the hotel. This time the roads were empty as it was a Sunday morning. Didn’t stop the driver going as fast as he possibly could in between red traffic lights – and there were a few. I am surprised we haven’t had any scratches or scrapes so far, they all seem to think they are Fernando Alonso. We are leaving from the same airport we came in to – but the domestic bit instead of the international. Must have been where our illustrious guide was waiting for us when we arrived a couple of days ago. Still can’t believe that!

The queue to check in for our flight to Trelew was enormous – all domestic flights with Aerolineas Argentinas were using the same check in desks. This is why you need to be there two hours before!! I was heartened by the fact that when one of the flights was closing and there were people on it in the queue, they pulled them out to the front to check them in. They wouldn’t leave us behind – would they? We got to the front of the queue no problem though. For some reason, domestic flights only allow 15kg of luggage. Not going to happen with us – Paul was dead on the 23kg we had for most of our flights, but mine was 27kg. He had dutifully weighed it for me before we left home, and told me I had to unpack 4kg worth. That wasn’t going to happen. What I need is what I need. One of us sticks to the rules, and one of us flies by the seat of our pants!! I was prepared to hand over my credit card for the oodles of excess baggage costs, but the check in guy just smiled and told us to have a good flight. Good man!

It was plain sailing from here, through security and up to a lovely coffee shop where a latte was a latte, and a muffin was a muffin. Things were looking up! The flight boarded a few minutes later, and we actually took off early. A very pleasant flight of just under two hours. The snack was a box of bags – one biscuit bits and two biscuits. Filled a hole! As we made our way South, the scenery dramatically changed. The water got a whole lot bluer, and the towns and cities disappeared. The land was so flat!

We arrived in a beautifully clean and tidy little airport. There was one baggage carousel that started almost immediately, and we collected the bags ten minutes before we were due to have landed. Result! Phillipe from Eurotur was duly waiting for us, sign in hand, and we loaded the bags into his four wheel drive and off we went for the 40 or so kilometres to Puerto Madryn. The road from the airport is one long road from Buenes Aires in the North to Ushuaia in the South – virtually the length of the country. There were no turn offs before Puerto Madryn, so it seems it is very difficult to get lost here. There was a dead cow by the side of the road – it had been hit by a car or truck. Looking to the left and right there is nothing but flat grazing land as far as the eye can see – and only the one road we are on. How stupid can cows be? Phillippe did say that one of the volcanoes in Chile erupted last year. The ash was blown this way, and it shut the airport for 100 days. They were having to drive customers back to Buenos Aires or on to Ushuaia by car – sixteen hours to the north and over twenty hours to the south. We arrived at Puerto Madryn in just over half an hour. We drove through the town and he pointed out various fish and meat restaurants should we wish to indulge. The Hotel Territorio is right at the other end of the town, on the coast overlooking the bay. There is a beautiful walk all the way into town via a sidewalk next to the beach.

The weather is again glorious – around 25 degrees. There are a few sunbeds overlooking the bay – one of them had my name on for a couple of hours. Paul went to sleep for the afternoon – just can’t understand it. Anyone would think that I have organised a packed itinerary! Phillipe said that it may rain this afternoon – it hasn’t actually rained in Puerto Madryn since last October. It had rained in Trelew, but didn’t get as far as here. Didn’t get as far as here today either.

We went into town for dinner tonight – and decided to walk. Well I did, and Paul just followed. He would have preferred to take a taxi. It was a beautiful evening, and the beach was virtually deserted. There were a few people walking their dogs, and a lady cycling along the sand, but apart from that very few people. The tide was on its way out, and seemed to be going out in front of our eyes. Just left birds paddling in the pools that it left. There was a stage set up on the edge of town, and a band was just starting to play. It got better the further we walked from it! There were football pitches set up along the edge of the beach, and loads of local children were playing. There was an area where teenagers were skateboarding and body popping. This place really does have a good atmosphere. It took around an hour to walk to the restaurant that Paul had his eye on from earlier – Ambigo. They did good prawns apparently. I did say that the walk was a lot better than getting the taxi – not sure if the answer I received was a positive or a negative!! The menu was all in Spanish so it was going to be hit and miss what we actually had. They didn’t open until 7.30pm – we arrived at 7.25pm from our walk so perfect timing. They had free wifi so I thought it might be a good idea to use google translate from my phone, But the wifi needed a password – and that was just a step too far! We just guessed.

The food was good – and including all the drinks came to 330 pesos – around £22. Very good value for money. The sunset was lovely – red sky at night and all that. Should be a good day tomorrow then. The taxi office was right across the road – no-one here speaks English! Paul put a Spanish twang onto the name of the hotel, and she immediately understood where we wanted to go. Result. The taxi fare was 35 pesos – £2. This country is certainly good value for money!

South American Adventure – Day Five, Monday 24th February, 2014

Another early morning call – this time we have breakfast to eat before we go. Well – if you could call it breakfast. No egg station here – in fact, not a an egg in sight. A couple of loaves of bread and a toaster, but you need a spare hour or so to wait for it to toast. The coffee was hot though, and there were muffins!

Filipe picked us up at 8.00am for our trip to Rawson, initially for our zodiac trip to see commerson dolphins. Just before we left the hotel it started to spit with rain – it had finally arrived, the first rain since October! Across the whole of the bay was the most vivid and complete rainbow I have ever seen. One end actually went into the bay – never seen one where the end is so clearly defined. We travelled through a few showers for about an hour until we came to Port Rawson. Unfortunately the harbour master had decided that it was too windy, and had just closed the port to anything going in or out. Bugger! We drove and had a look at the entrance to the open water through the harbour walls, and there were some quite hefty waves smashing down. Hmm – I am sure it would have been OK, but I could see the look of relief on someone’s face!

We then had to retrace our steps to get to the road to Punta Tombo – the largest Megallanic Penguin colony in the world. It took around two hours to get here, travelling along lonely roads with nothing but a great expanse to either side. The desert like soil only allows a very small amount of vegetation to grow, and not very high at that. All of the surrounding lands are sheep “estancias” – although there was a distinct lack of sheep. I suppose when you have the run of hundreds of miles of land you aren’t likely to want to be beside a road! The only place where the terrain changed was along the valley of the river, where there were trees and greenery abound. We did learn that it was the Welsh that came over and started the villages here – Filipe’s wife has Welsh ancestors. Apparently there are many Welsh descendents in this part of the world. Probably why there are so many sheep! We turned off the normal road surface with about 20 kilometres to go – and then it was gravel all the way. Good job we had a 4×4. We first went to the Visitor Centre – a fairly new building but not very well built. Most of the toilets were out of order, and it apparently leaks when it rains. Luckily for us we had left the rain well behind. It showed what animals we were going to see, and an insight into the life of the penguin. One room had TV’s all the way round, and were meant to be showing a film where the animals move from one to the other seamlessly. Some were day, some were night, and all were doing their own thing! Must have been installed by the same people that installed the toilets and built the roof. At the height of the season, there are over 200,000 pairs of penguins here. We had to get back in the car for the last kilometre down to where the boardwalk starts. As soon as we got out of the car there was a penguin sitting under a tree. We may have left the rain behind, but the wind certainly came with us, and we needed the fleeces and coats that we had brought. On the way down the paths, it was simply littered with penguins. They build their nests either under a bush, or dig a hole – small or large will do. Some were in pairs, and some were on their own.

They arrive back to the colony in September/October time from warmer waters. They make their way back to usually the same nest as they had vacated at the end of the previous summer. These nests can be up to three kilometres away from the ocean. If the lady of the house is in, the male will stick with her from last time. They mate, and the eggs are laid October/November time. Both male and female will look after the one or two eggs until they hatch. They will hatch after forty or so days, so usually be the end of December all the young are born. The young will feed from their parents until February time, when they will make their way into the sea and that will be the last they see of them. Unlike children these days!! By mid April all the penguins disappear in the water, and don’t come back until the weather has warmed up again.

Consequently, most of the chicks had gone by today. There were a few left, and it was absolutely fascinating watching them take food from the back of their parent’s throat. One of the first things Filipe pointed out was a sparrow. Paul and I looked at each other and thought he was mad! We have them back in the garden at home – we were here to see penguins. Not sure how many times he has been here though – he probably makes it his mission to try and spot anything other than penguins because of the amount of times he has been here. He did point out some beautiful Harrier Falcons and other birds of prey that the name escapes me now! Had to get a few bird shots in! The penguin sheds its feathers once a year, and this was the back end of when this was happening. Some of the penguins looked as if they had fur coats on, as the new feathers were under the old feathers and make them look very fat. Some had half and half, and looked a bit scanky! Most were absolutely adorable. Some were resting in their holes alone or in pairs – some were doing more than resting in their holes with their partner! Some were making a noise like a donkey – sticking their beaks high in the air and shouting at the top of their voices to make themselves heard. No idea why! Probably a male having a paddy! Others were waddling about, either with somewhere to go or someone to see. Penguins have right of way here – if they attempt to cross the path you must let them go. The rule is you mustn’t get any closer than three feet to the penguin. If there was one just the other side of the path, and you bop down to get a picture, it keeps putting it’s head from side to side to see you better. Looks as if it is talking to you!

Going down to the beach area, there were many, many more. They were swimming and jumping in the water, and generally having fun. Once they were in the water, they were like a rocket propelled grenade with the speed that they got to when chasing for fish. They swam on their sides and back and splashed around – supposedly to clean their feathers, but looked as if it was good fun to me. Back around their nests, little rodent like creatures kept darting around – a bit like a guinea pig. Nobody bothered anyone though – the penguins only eat fish and the rodents only eat from the undergrowth. Other animals were wandering around also including a guanaco which is a llama type thing related to a camel. Amazing. It seemed like we had only been there an hour or so, but we had been there over three hours. It is just timeless to watch these creatures going about their business.

On the way back, Filipe spotted an armadillo – well he said he did but I didn’t see it. Would have liked to have done though. We had a sandwich at the little café place – run by one person who was making the tea as well. This place has up to three thousand people visit in a day in high season – hope they all don’t want a cup of tea!! Today there were very few – at some points it was as if we were all on our own. Perfect!

It took us a couple of hours to get back, and the sun was shining when we arrived. Time to relax in the sun – it doesn’t actually go down until around 8.30pm so heavenly after a long day. Think there may be a few more of them coming up………….

South American Adventure – Day Six, Tuesday 25th February 2014

Early morning call this morning as we are leaving the Hotel Territorio and moving on to the Peninsula Valdes – via a few places. Filipe was meant to pick us up, but he had been called away to a cruise ship that had arrived first thing. Sure enough, when we opened the curtains this morning the Golden Princess was docked at the pier. Thank goodness we were not at Punta Tombo today – they may be getting close to their high season totals of three thousand people in a day today!

Juan came to pick us up at 8.00am – from what we had nick named the ghost hotel. There seemed to be hardly any guests, and even less staff. I rang the bell three times to check out, and it was only when we went and banged on the kitchen door that someone came. A beautiful hotel in a beautiful position, but I feel some things need a little tweaking. Juan’s English was only a tad better than our Spanish. That could cause some fun. As we had missed the dolphins yesterday, the “company” had decided that we could have a boat tour to see sea lions on the way to Estancia Rincon Chico today. Not a problem – the boat leaves at 9.30am and an hour or so after it arrived back we would be arriving at the estancia for lunch.

The sun was absolutely glorious today – the bay sparkled like diamonds. What a lovely day for hundreds of people to pour off the ship and swamp the little town of Puerto Madryn. We drove for about an hour, and had to pay a toll to get onto the peninsula. A little further on there was a museum we stopped at that gave an indication of the original inhabitants and the wildlife that was here. We stopped there for ten or so minutes – along with a few buses from the cruise ship – you could see all the people with their coloured numbered stickers. I think this place probably sees only a few people a day usually – today there were hoards.

We drove to a little town called Puerto Pyramides which is where the boat was leaving from. The tide seemed quite a long way out, but I assumed that there was a pier or something around the corner. We got decked out with life jackets, and had to give our names and passport numbers. Is this so they know who they have lost on the way? We walked down the road, and round onto the beach. There was an enormous double decker zodiac – never seen one of them before – hitched up to an enormous tractor. A couple of smaller boats were taken down to the sea edge by tractors, and then backed into the water. Novel! We sat on the boat, fleeces and coats on, boiling. What on earth was the hold up? There were about ten people on the boat – lovely. After about half an hour of beginning to steam up, another trail of about thirty or so people came across the sand. Cruise ship people! That filled the boat up to its rafters. Lovely, not.

We were towed into the water and backed in, and then we set off. We were going at such a slow pace – probably so the people that were taking pictures with their ipads were fine. I was beginning to think this was not such a good idea. Some people went to the upper deck, but I found a bit between decks where you got on and off that was empty. Suited me fine. The safety instructions and all the commentary was in Spanish – they didn’t speak a word of English. At least if they lost us they would know who it was – the only ones that couldn’t understand a word. I wish I spoke Spanish!

As we rounded the corner, the whole cliff top (when I say cliff, I mean a lump of rock that was about the same height as the top tier of the zodiac) was full of cormorants. All lined up and ready to go. A couple were drying off their wings after fishing. A giant petrol was flying overhead – wow, what a sight! And then the sea lions came into view. There were tens and tens of them on the top of the rocks. A mother and her babies, groups of adults, all just lifting their heads to see who it was that came to pay them a visit. We slowly made our way along the cliffs, watching all the sea lions from a short distance. The people made me a bit annoyed – ipads and elbows everywhere. Hey ho.

We were out for about an hour, then the tractor backed into the water and we had to shoot straight into the trailer bit to get hooked up. Made it with the first shot! I think he had done that before. We were towed back up the sand, and off the boat. That was on OK trip – my god I am getting fussy. Paul said he thought that was far too sedate and sanitised for me – he was totally right – but he said it was perfect for him. Good. Something I have done right at last, albeit unintentionally.

We got back in the car, and Juan pointed at the map – we were going to go on a small expedition of the peninsula before getting to Rincon Chico. Neither of us really wanted that, but it was very hard to portray – it was easier to just let him go where he wanted. We drove for about an hour – great expanse of nothingness either side except for a few choique’s – ostrich like birds – roaming freely. Then he spotted an armadillo – excellent! Now I have seen one. And in Spanish!!

We took some photographs at the Mirador viewpoint, lovely views, but just wanted to get where we were going now. Saw some rabbits that were as big as wart hogs. My god – what is coming next! Half an hour and we were turning in to the road that led to Estancia Rincon Chico. Hurrah! The gravel roads that we had been on since virtually leaving Puerto Pyramides seemed to have done something to the car – there was a distinct sound of something wanting to fall off at any minute. Not my problem now we are here!!

We arrived at the Estancia – a working sheep ranch that has eight rooms for guests. Roxanna met us at the gate, and showed us to our room. What a view! A beautiful expanse of nothing but peaceful nothingness. The place is very rustic – electricity is only on between 7pm and 11pm. Who needs electricity? But what a wonderful place. This is my sort of holiday. Paul’s sort can come later – now it is my turn!

We had lunch cooked for us – it is full board here. One choice – take it or leave it – but lovely home cooked food by the owner Maria. A three course lunch that was probably the best food that we have eaten since we arrived on this continent. We finished lunch, and within fifteen minutes the land rover was ready for us at the front, and we set off for the twenty minute drive to the beach to see the elephant seals. This is the reason you come to Estancia Rincon Chico. Their beaches are full of elephant seals at various times of the year. Even David Attenborough has been here to film documentaries on the animals. We walked the last few yards, and rounded the corner onto the beach. There were at least thirty males laying on the beach, and as we crept at the back some lifted their heads to see if we were going to cause any trouble. They soon laid them back down when they felt we were no threat. We had to keep quite low, as someone standing up might look as though they were ready for a fight. With weights up to three tonnes per animal – we were not ready for a fight!

We sat at the back and watched the seals moving from one position to another. At this time of year the seals are predominantly males that have come onto the beach to moult. What is it with us – if we come to see an animal it is in the process of moulting! Some of them had half their old skin on – it looked as if they had ragged clothes on. They have hands like ours with fingernails, that they use to scratch themselves to help with getting rid of the skin. Once they start to moult, they lay on the beach in the sun to dry out the old skin so that it comes off quicker. Once they have moulted completely, the older ones go back in the sea and then swim to the Falklands. Short trip of about 1,500 kilometres! One made his way down the beach and swam off when we were there. Amazing!

We watched for about an hour – two males having a face off, one male pushing the other into the sea – and all of this around twenty feet away. “You like?” says Roxanna. “We go to see bigger ones!” We walked for fifteen or so minutes around the beach to the other side of the cliff – passing a few odds and sods of elephant seals on the way – and there was about twenty massive seals. Why do all the biggest ones congregate in the same area? We got even closer to these ones – around six feet away. Just sitting and listening to their snorts – the “boss” of the group lets out an enormous yell, but no-one cares. In this season, no-one has to be the alpha male. In the reproducing season the beach is completely covered, but you can’t get this close as the males are usually ready for a fight.

How long we sat and watched I don’t know – all I know is that my bum went numb. Paul had a bright blue coat on that one of the biggest seals seemed to eye up – he kept flopping his way nearer and nearer to him. If a seal wants to sit where we are, he will sit there. You either move or get sat on – and with seals up to five tonnes moving is the best option. How surreal it felt to be sitting on a rock in the middle of the biggest, fattest elephant seals that I have ever seen. What an experience! We walked back to the land rover to make our way back to the house, and saw more of the wart hog rabbits. Weird creatures! And ostriches and guanacos and hundreds of sheep. What a place.

It was gone seven when we got back to the house, so the electricity was on. I had brought my hair dryer with me, as I had a feeling there wouldn’t be one here, and I was right. I am sure they won’t mind me using it once a day! The water was hot for the shower, and my camera battery was plugged in to recharge. I had, surprisingly, been taking quite a few photos!

Dinner was another three course affair – good job we are only here for two nights as we might have left as big as a house. Augustin, the owner and Maria’s husband, came and introduced himself and told us the history of the estancia. He is fifth generation on the farm, and it was he that opened it for guests in 2001. Very interesting story – and he left a DVD for us to watch of the David Attenborough documentary that was shot here. Very interesting!
South American Adventure – Day Seven, Wednesday 26th February 2014

A very civilised start to the day today. Breakfast at 8.45am. We are the only guests at the ranch until later on today, so breakfast was all for us. The table was laid with fresh fruit, cheese and an assortment of pastries – all cooked by Maria. We had eggs – I was beginning to think there were no chickens in Argentina! We are certainly eating well here.

Our activity this morning was horse riding – not sure whether the look on Paul’s face was horror or amazement. We walked over to the stables where a little family of guanacos followed us. Maria came out with a packet of biscuits, went over to one of the gates and called a couple of the sheep by name. They duly trotted over to get their biscuits. She insisted that her sheep – she had reared a few when they lost their mother – knew their names. I saw nothing to disbelieve her! The guanacos were not going to be left out, so they came as soon as they saw the biscuits opened. Novel pets!

Augustine was coming out with us this morning – and had a hat on that would have adorned any tea pot in the UK. It looked like he had a tea bag hanging from one side – but when he put it in his ear I realised what it was. Ipods have reached Argentina! We went over to the most enormous horses ever – well they seemed that way to me. Will Paul get on one or won’t he? Yes he will. Then he got off and changed horses. False start. They produced a step to help you get on – an upturned bucket, very sturdy! – and fitted your feet into the stirrups once up there. So far, so good. We were going for a three hour ride to the cliffs, along the cliff tops and back. We started out, and the sheep all ran in the same direction. Augustine said when they see the horses they think a gaucho is coming to herd them together. I don’t think we will quite make the grade for that job on this ride!

On the way we saw guanacos, maras (the wart hog like rabbits) and hundreds of woolly sheep. It was so peaceful, just the noise of the horses hooves on the soft ground. It took about an hour to reach the cliffs – Paul was more groucho than gaucho by this time. His back did not take to riding a horse. He got off – not sure how he is going to get back on as the upturned bucket didn’t make the journey with us. From the top of the cliffs we saw elephant seals on the beach below. The tide was quite a way out leaving rock pools and green seaweed strewn on the sands. It was so beautiful – although really windy. Roxanna had said we needed fleece and jacket – but as it was so hot when we left we only put a fleece on. This was too much. I am sure it was in the upper 20’s, but the wind was keeping it slightly cooler. Paul tried again atop his horse for a little while, but felt much better walking than riding, so Roxanna and I went ahead and he and Augustine walked with their horses and put the world to rights for the next hour or so. Augustine said he was now going to call him John Wayne. Hmm. It was a lovely, lovely morning. Paul said he enjoyed it except for his back – not sure if he did really, but at least he tried.

Back to the ranch and lunch! Another three course meal that I cut down to two – I really do not want to leave this place another stone heavier. We had the most delightful prawn risotto – I might have to get the recipe for this before we leave. And pudding – should have really said no but I am sure it had strawberries in there somewhere. Need to keep up the five a day!

Two more people are joining us this afternoon, so we will go back to the beach with the elephant seals after they arrive – around 4pm. So – an afternoon of leisure. The second novelty of the day!

When the two Italian gentlemen arrived, we all got in the land rover and headed down to the beach again. I don’t think I will ever get fed up of sitting and watching the elephant seals – every day is different. We made our way to the beach, and there was just as many there if not more. A couple of youngsters were play fighting in the surf, whilst the elders of the group just laid sunning themselves. The wind had got up this afternoon, and the sand was getting in my eyes, nose, mouth and ears amongst other places!

We stayed there for an hour or so, then made our way down to the other end of the beach where the big boys hang out. On the way we saw a single sea lion – I think he had got out at the wrong place. He was the only one of his kind, so he had a look around and then just got back in and swam away. The were well over twenty of the heavies at this end of the beach. They were quite a bit livelier than they were yesterday. Mouths were opening all over the place, trying to develop a hierarchy. Usually, the one with the biggest elephant nose is the boss – he is the oldest.

One just laid on his side, on occasion scratching his stomach, and then stretched from the top of his head, through his hands and all the way down his back to his tail. Just like a human! They were all lined up, top and tailed, like kippers. If one tried to get more comfortable, the other one would move and then it would all kick off – in a small way. As they are all here to moult and nothing else, there is little point in getting in a proper fight. Just worth telling the others who is boss if they will listen, and if they don’t, go back to sleep again.

One of the Italians had a lime green coat that zipped up the front, over the face an over the hood. The eyes were like a beetles goggle eyes sewed into the coat. Looked a bit daft, but I bet he didn’t have sand where the sun don’t shine! The sun, though, was still shining. It was so hot. We said goodbye to the elephant seals and made our way to the land rover. Last time for these wonderful creatures. On the way back to the ranch we saw so many wild animals – it is just a lovely, lovely place here. So peaceful, and so special.

We did bring a momento back – when I took off my shoes I think half of the beach fell out. It was gone 7pm when we got back – the sun doesn’t set until nearly 8.30pm at this time of year here. Another lovely meal for dinner – Maria is such a good cook. She brought us out a little clay pot as a present as we are leaving in the morning. Another special touch from this special place.

Roxanna took us outside after dinner to show us the stars. The moon doesn’t rise until well after 1am, so it was completely dark. As soon as our eyes became accustomed to the darkness, the sky was absolutely full. She showed us the Southern Cross, Jupiter and Mars. She pointed out the milky way that goes from east to west. An upside down Orion, Leo and Taurus. A few more that I can’t remember which, but it was just magical – and so clear. Another thing to remember.
South American Adventure – Day Eight, Thursday 27th February 2014

We are leaving Estancia Rincon Chico this morning – all too soon. The transfer is booked for 9.00am so we had breakfast at 8.30am. Roxanna asked how we would like our eggs – poached I think this morning. This seemed to be a new one on her – and Maria. “How do you do poached eggs?” Cookery lesson number one. They came out rather good for a first attempt – and they seemed very pleased they had added something new to their repertoire. It doesn’t take long to pack when you haven’t unpacked – the down side of this trip. Living out of a suitcase. I will be sad to leave this place – it was just perfect.

We were waiting on the porch for Juan to arrive and the family of pet guanacos came to say goodbye. They are so friendly – they come and have a sniff around our faces and necks as if to give us a kiss goodbye. Then the little one picks up the ash tray with her teeth and Paul had to rescue it (one of the Italians smoked). She started to eat the cigarette butts instead – yuck! We waited and waited – Juan did not arrive. What is plan B? Haven’t got one. There is no internet until 7pm tonight when the generator comes on, and no phone signal. Oh well – perhaps we will just have to stay here. 9.30am comes and goes and then at 9.40am Augustine comes out and says that he has spoken to the transfer company on his satellite phone, and they have us down for a 9.00am transfer. Correct. He tells them they have a problem – it is 9.40am and no Juan. They have a problem – I think we have a problem. No passing taxi here to flag down.

In the distance he spots a moving speck of light. “There is a car coming” he says. It is like looking out in the wild west trying to spot the dust from the wagon trains. The car stops to open the gates along the way and just keeps driving – doesn’t bother to shut them after him. Augustine is not happy – he could lose all his sheep through an open gate. For the second time this morning we introduce something new – the word plonker. They hadn’t heard of that word before, but I have a feeling they may be using it again. Then the car stops a half mile away and all the doors open. “Perhaps he is cleaning the car” says Augustine “he has plenty of time!” At last he arrives – in shades and shorts – and we get the cases in. Big hugs from Maria and Augustine and Roxanna – how many times does this happen from the owners of the establishment?

We get under way, and he does stop and shut all the gates on the way back. Hopefully the sheep didn’t spot the open gate and make a run for it. They all seem quite happy – as far as being able to spot a happy sheep goes – so probably not worth the effort. For about an hour we are on the gravel roads – and the rattle is still there. Whatever was about to fall off is still holding on for dear life. We pull onto the tarmac road, and we must be in range for the phone signal. His mobile pings quite a few times – wonder who that will be? As we have plenty of time (!) he pulls over and reads his texts. He sends a convoluted text back – probably easier than speaking to someone and getting his ear chewed off. No doubt he needs time to get his story straight. We now travel at 140km an hour – passing everything else on the road. Don’t panic Mr Mainwearing – they won’t go without us!

We do the three hour trip (Roxanna’s timing) in two hours and a quarter. Not bad – we are all still in one piece. The airport is as pleasant to check in to as it was to arrive. Very civilised. Juan brings the bags in, takes them to the check in desk and hugs the baggage man. Hopefully with them chatting they won’t notice how heavy our luggage is. No, they don’t. No excess baggage charges here either. There is an airport tax – 32 pesos each, about £20. I think this is for the airport rather than the government, as we haven’t had to pay it anywhere else. Even time for a coffee before we board the hour and a half flight to El Calafate!

The flight left early – my god, everything so far is punctual. We got another box of biscuit snacks, a lemon biscuit and a chocolate biscuit. Those that have been on the flight since Buenos Aires will be getting their second box – and after El Calafate the flight goes on to Ushuaia, so those staying on will probably get three. Lucky them! El Calafate Airport was as small and clean and efficient as Trelew – although the bags did take a little while longer to arrive. When they did they were soaking wet – we had arrived in a rain storm. We were met by a chap from Eurotur, who said it hardly ever rained in El Calafate – seem to have heard that one before. By the time we had driven to the downtown area – about twenty minutes, the sun was out again and it was really warm. A good part of my 27kg of luggage is jumpers and warm clothes – not sure I am going to need them. This was one of my “cold” stops.

The town has a very alpine feel – many of the shops and restaurants are chalet style, as is our hotel, the Posada Los Alamos. Although this is a huge chalet, which takes up both sides of the road. One side is a golf club and swimming pool and restaurant, the other side mainly rooms. We are checked in very quickly and taken to our room. “Up in the elevator, and then you have to walk” we were told. We are in the loft conversion! But it is a lovely room, with a slanted ceiling, and a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table. “My sort of hotel” says Paul. Happy again – whoopee.

We walked the two blocks or so to the main street, and decided to have something to eat in one of the pavement cafes. The whole feel of this town is après ski – and a good proportion of people are young backpackers I think. Most of the menus are again in Spanish, so just pick a number, any number, and see what comes! I think we are getting a little better than that now, and what we thought we ordered was what we ordered. It was a “Home Beer” pub, and the lager Paul ordered was a non gassy cloudy offering. We sat at the restaurant that was the fullest, thinking it must be the best, but I think everyone else must have done the same. We found out the chef was called SpongeBob – hmm. It filled a hole – not like Maria’s cooking.
South American Adventure – Day Nine, Friday 28th February 2014

We had a quite relaxed start to the day – only had to get up at 8.00am this morning. We crossed the road to get to the breakfast room – we were just welcomed in, no room number checked or asked our names. Backpackers – if you want a complimentary breakfast just go to the Hotel Posada Los Alamos! It filled a hole – Maria’s name is going to be coming up quite a bit feel in the next few weeks! The minibus was picking us up at 9.00am for our trip today to the Perito Moreno Glacier. It duly came at 9.15am (we come to expect this now, we are in the land of manyana) – there were three other couples already on – not too bad. We had one more hotel to pick up from though – would you believe a family with a child! A small one at that. Nor a quiet one. The couple in front of us said that they were on their flight yesterday, and he ran up and down the aisle all the way from Buenos Aires. Oh, what joy!

We left El Calafate for the 80 kilometre journey to the glacier. On the way out there was a huge lake that had hundreds of ducks and swans and flamingos on. Didn’t expect to see any flamingos here. The scenery along the way was superb – the Andes were just about in view with their snow covered tops. We stopped at one point so that the guide could show us the Calafate Bush. Novel – getting out of a bus to look at a bush. Normally have to get out of a bus and find a bush to pee behind!

We had to enter a National Park about 50 kilometres out, which is where the glacier is. The 130 peso fee to get into the park was included in our tour – but someone had to get on the bus and take everyone’s ticket, stamp it, and give it back to them. Makes a job for someone I suppose. We then snaked our way upwards, and stopped at a look out on the way. From here, we could see the lake and the massive glacier that looked as though it was falling between the mountains and had just come to a full stop at the bottom. The wall of ice was around sixty metres high, with a further eighty to one hundred and twenty metres below the surface of the lake. Impressive.

We drove on a further few miles, and dropped off the Japanese group and the family (phew) at the “port” for them to have a boat trip. We went onwards to the actual glacier. We had four hours here – I thought at the time quite a long time. There was a café at the top, so we bought a bottle of water and then headed down the fingers of walkways from the top, down through the forest. It was amazing, and so well laid out. There were many, many steps, but seats and look outs all along the way. Every now and then you could hear a crack like a whip, and then a sound like rolling thunder. We then realised what it was. When little parts of the ice break off the main glacier it makes a cracking sound, and then when it hits the water it is like thunder. A huge outward ripple is made in the water, and then the blob of ice bobs back up to the top. It was amazing to watch. The walkways were colour coded, so if you just wanted to do a gentle walk you stuck to yellow, red was harder with more steps and orange was medium.

We walked down the red first, which took us to the south face of the glacier. The perimeter that was facing the lake was around five kilometres long – the rest wedged between the mountains. What fantastic photos – I have a feeling I may be looking at next years Travel Stop Christmas Card! Pieces were breaking off every twenty minutes or so – you just had to be looking in the right direction, because once you heard the noise it had already happened. It was another glorious day – in the early twenties I would imagine. Who would think that you could be stood next to this much ice wearing at tee shirt.

We went back up to the café for a cup of tea, and then decided to do the orange route as the finale. We walked down and to the right, on the south face of the glacier. It was much quieter down here, and we found an area called the “North Balcony” that had a seat, was a lovely sun trap from the wind, and we were all on our own. Peace. There was no noise, just us. I said to Paul that I thought there was a big bit just in front of us that looked as if it might break off. He said that wouldn’t go for weeks. Then there was an almighty roar. From the little snowball like size bits of ice that were coming from the top just in front of us, the whole sheer face of the glacier came crashing down. What a spectacular sight! Paul’s battery on his camera was just about to give out, but he managed to video most of it. It was sheer luck that I was looking at it, and managed to take stills from the tiny snowball start to the whole thing crashing into the lake. Wow!

We made our way back to the top to meet the guide and the rest of the group. “Did you see that” she said. “That was a unique event – never seen that before”. The English couple said they were in the café at the time, and heard it from in there. How lucky were we?? Extremely, I would say. We then started to make our way back to El Calafate, so happy. We got dropped off a mile or so before we got back to town, so that we could walk along the shores of the lake and see the flamingos. There were four or five not far from the shore, but the main flock was a few hundred yards out. Did they not know we were coming? We had a good walk though, and there were so many ducks and swans in the lake it was still lovely to look at. Got a bit lost going back to the hotel – it seemed very easy when we left this morning! Not too lost – Paul have the aforethought to put the hotel note pad in his pocket (not sure why) and just showed some bar tender and he pointed in the right direction. Time for a cocktail I believe! And to review a few photos and videos!!

South American Adventure – Day Ten, Saturday 1st March 2014

Paul compared the holiday today to boot camp. The alarm went off at 6.00am – normal time to get up for me. Boot camp would be more like 4.00am – it could be arranged…… We are being collected at 7.15am for our “All Glacier Navigation” tour. I think by the end of today, I will be all glaciered out. But as we are here.. As usual, the pick up came at 7.30am – the one day we are late the pick up will be on time! We were again one of the last to be picked up, and the mini bus was full. We met the same English couple as yesterday – these must be the two “to do” tours here. “I read your blog last night” she says. “I will have to be careful what I say to you today!” Oh my god – I definitely will have to think carefully what I say if people we meet on the way are reading it! Ha ha. I wonder how many people I have upset already over the last few years.

The journey to the port took around forty minutes. When I first knew the size of the boat – it takes around 200 people – there was probably a look of horror on my face. We were told that we could upgrade – and as one does – we did. Business class on the boat. If you have to go on a boat with 200 people, it is best if you don’t have to sit with them! We didn’t get any special treatment at the start though – this was not the only boat going. There were probably in the range of three to four hundred people queuing to get onto the jetty where the boat went from. We had our national park tickets already paid for in advance with the tour. If you don’t have them, you have to queue at a little hut to get them. Not everyone was aware they had to do this, so they walked all the way down to the jetty, only to have to walk all the way to get the ticket.

Once we were on board we had the “Captain’s Club”. We were shown upstairs to the front of the catamaran to a separate lounge area where the captain drives the boat. There were sixteen lovely comfortable business class style seats. If I have to spend all day on a boat, this isn’t a bad way to do it. All sixteen seats were full – they cost 300 pesos extra per person, but included all the tea, coffee, chocolate, wine, beer etc that you wanted. That was Paul sorted out for the day! Our steward was Juan, and he looked after us very well.

We set off, firstly heading to the Upsala Glacier. This is one of the largest in the Los GlaciarsNational Park. It took around an hour and a half to get there, and on the way we were given croissants as well. Very civilised. We had to go through the narrowest part of Lake Argentina to get there, so I decided to go downstairs and out to the front of the boat. I stood at the front, and remembered the last time I was on a boat I had decided that a fleece was fine and didn’t take my jacket, hat and gloves. That was a mistake then, and here I was standing in the wind in only my fleece and thinking why have I done this again? Plonker. Down here, there were hoards of people – albeit rather more sensibly dressed! As we approached the glacier, there were large and small icebergs. Some huge. Hope the captain is looking where he is going! Most people then decided to do their Titanic impression and have their photograph taken at the front of the ship with their arms outstretched. After the two hundredth person, I was getting a bit fed up of elbows in my face. One chap had to have one taken with his camera, then his video camera, then his ipad. Not sure how he had enough hands to carry them all.

This glacier may have been bigger than the Perito Mereno yesterday, but it hadn’t have the wall of ice that stands proud from the water. It just comes down like a river to the lake. Very impressive though – although no great big collapses like yesterday. That is going to take some beating! We then moved on to the next glacier – Spegazinni – which took around twenty minutes to get to. This was similar to Perito Moreno, with a high wall of ice. I went back upstairs – there were a couple of doors that opened to the outside from up there, so decided I wouldn’t brave the hoards again. At least upstairs there will only be another fifteen pairs of elbows to contend with! It was a really good view – and nowhere near as cold, as you could jump in and out very easily to warm up. It was actually only when we were sailing that it was cold. When we were at the glaciers or going slowly along the front of them it was beautiful. The sun was shining again – we have been really lucky with the weather.

After we left this glacier, we have a two hour trip to get to Perito Moreno – the last glacier on the schedule. Juan brought sandwiches round – went very well with the ham and cheese roll I had in my camera bag that I made at breakfast. I haven’t done that before – it was a last minute thought that we were on the boat all day with nothing to eat! Nobody seemed to mind – in actual fact I don’t know if they even noticed we were there. As I said, backpackers can get a free breakfast! The sun was beating down through the windows, and the lake was so calm – it all combined to make a half hours snooze unavoidable! This is a very easy way to spend a day.

The last glacier was Perito Moreno again. This one is the most famous not only because of its accessability, but because of the dramatic pieces that come away. As we were approaching, we could see the walkways that we had been on yesterday. We sailed up the within a couple of hundred yards at one point of the glacier wall. I remember seeing a sign by one of the walkways yesterday saying that several people had been killed by the falling ice because they were too close to the edge. I think the walkways had all been moved back to prevent this happening. I am sure we have quite a quick reverse speed if needed! But alas, even though we spent another half an hour or so sailing up and down the face of the glacier, there were only minor collapses. There were several ooohs and aaaahs – it was spectacular to some. But it all has to be put in perspective – we saw a massive collapse yesterday, and dribs and drabs like this are not going to cut the mustard anymore.

We left the glacier for the hour or so to get back to the port, and I feel that I am now glaciered out. Yesterday was amazing, and if I had to choose between the two tours I would have chosen yesterdays every time. This one was good, and if we hadn’t done yesterday I would have enjoyed it more I think. But, for me, it was again a little too sedate. I would definitely recommend paying the extra to get the better seats and all that comes with it. It really was a bun fight trying to take pictures downstairs. We were met by the minibus after disembarking, and taken back to the hotel for our last evening in El Calafate.

We tried the town again tonight for something to eat. We chose a restaurant and decided to have lamb – it is apparently good here. Even after a pint of campari (that is how it came, not how much I ordered!) it still tasted as if it had been cooking since last Christmas. Paul’s dish wasn’t too bad. We had passed an ice cream parlour – Tito’s – on the way, so decided to get pudding there. Only about forty flavours to choose from! At least I am managing to get some calories (ha ha, as if I need them!).
South American Adventure – Day Eleven, Sunday 2nd March 2014

Early start again this morning, as we are being picked up and driving to Torres del Paine in Chile. After a quick breakfast, we checked out of the hotel. The driver was on time! We left the hotel at 8.00am, for what he said (in the little English that he had) was a four hour drive. We started off in part cloudy weather, but it soon changed into glorious sunshine. The road was good, and there was little else in the way of traffic once we had left El Calafate.

We had a spectacular view of the Andes at one point. We stopped to take a picture. He was explaining something about the mountains – it didn’t seem to hamper him that we could understand nothing. Just smile and nod! We continued our journey south west, and the flat lands that we had got used to changed into rolling hills. The wildlife didn’t change – still choiques, guanacos and sheep. A little further on, and there were birds of prey just sitting in a line on the fence poles watching us go past – one after the other. There was a condor just gliding next to the car for several seconds.

We turned off the remote open road and after one hundred yards or so there was a petrol station – with loads of people milling about. There were a couple of locals with stalls selling souvenirs, and a bus full of a local football team – the Defensores, or so it said on their backs. Where did they all come from?

We set off again, and after a couple of hours, we turned onto a small gravel road. It turns out this was the road that the border crossing was on. Nothing more than a farm track. At the first part, we had to leave Argentina. We took our passports in to a wooden shack. One queue was for people coming in, and one queue for people going out. Luckily, ours was the shortest queue. The Argentinian Army was in charge here – the 43rd Squadron or something. My passport was stamped quickly, and Paul handed his over. Lopez (or so it said on his lapel) said something to Paul. He thought there was a problem – but he was actually wishing him Happy Birthday for tomorrow! Thought I might have had to have gone on without him there. We then had to drive a mile or so through no man’s land. We then came to some more buildings, where we had to get out with our passports again. The driver had given us some forms to fill in to get into Chile – this was where they had to be stamped. Just before us a bus had pulled up – and the whole bus load was in the queue before us. Quite a wait. Nobody turned up behind us, not even after we had had the passports stamped. Just bad luck. I had noticed that everyone was having their luggage scanned. The driver went back and got our suitcases, and then the hand luggage. He brought my handbag with everything hanging out the top where I had just fudged about and got my passport out. Bloody hell! We got through no problem, the car was checked by the immigration people, and we made our way out onto the road again. There was a proper road for a while – well, a road with large pot holes in. They all had a lovely large ring of white paint around them, so someone knew they were there. Just didn’t want to fix them I suppose.

We turned off onto a gravel road again after a few minutes – you could see how much traffic was up ahead as there was a cloud of dust following any vehicle. Just a couple of cars, and we soon lost them. After a while he turned off onto another gravel road, and had to stop and open a gate. Looked as if we were going into someone’s property, but there was no sign. We could be being kidnapped I suppose. How many security checks did we do when we got into the car? None. We weren’t. After twenty or so minutes of travelling upwards, with the most glorious view of the mountains to our left, I could see some cabin like properties up ahead. This was Awasi – the extravagance of this trip. Or Paul’s birthday present. No looking on the internet for something the night before this year for me! He did ask earlier whether I had been mistaken and booked a tent in a field. I assured him not.

Wow! This place is something else. We were welcomed by Ximona, the general manager and JP, who is to be our guide for the time we are here. Lunch was on the menu first, and what a view from our table. Then I noticed that my glasses were not in my bag. They must have fell out when the driver pulled my bag out of the car at the border crossing. This is the second pair I have lost on this trip – Paul reckoned the guanacos at
Rincon Chica had the first pair. They disappeared into thin air. I have never lost a pair of glassed before – now I have lost two! There are only twelve cabins here, and everyone else was out for the day. The food was excellent – I think I may have to worry about my calorie intake here. King Crab salad to start, conga risotto, and crème brulee was served after we had been met with mate (the local hollybush tea) and cookies. Just about managed it – I think we are going to have work hard here to build up an appetite!

We then had a briefing with JP as to what and where we would like to go over the next four days. It turns out that he has had a few days off, and had been to El Calafate with his girlfriend. We were at Perito Moreno on the same day! He didn’t see the big collapse, so Paul had much glee showing him his video of it. Paul said he wanted to trek the big mountain (!) so that is on the cards for tomorrow. Then we will do some small trails, and then mountain biking. Horses were mentioned, but brushed aside! The weather forecast for the next few days is good – perfect for trekking. Not sure about us though – would probably call us overcast at the very least, but we will see.

Next we were shown to our villa. They are all separate cabins, none overlooking the others. The view is magnificent – the picture above is what we wake up to. The last time we had a view like this was in the Himalayas, but then we had a hole for a toilet and were sleeping on a slab of concrete in a sleeping bag. Not quite like this. There is a huge living area with sofas, and a fully stocked mini bar and coffee machine with windows all the way round on all sides. Our bags had been unpacked by the time we got to our villa – Paul saw some walking poles just be the front door and said he had some just like those! They were his!! The bathroom was ultra luxurious, with robes and the softest towels. The hot tub was being stoked up – literally. There is a fire under the hot tub, and it had been lit ready for our arrival. There was a little hot tub kit in a basket, with slippers and towels etc, to use for going out. It is going to be hard staying here!

Sitting in the hot tub felt a bit like a missionary must have felt like being boiled ready to be eaten by the cannibals. The fire was underneath heating up the water, and there we were sitting in it. The view though was amazing – right down through the valley to the lake and the mountains. There were cows all around, noisily chomping away on the grass, birds making a racket and a few wasps buzzing about. They seemed to take a liking to his red wine, so he donated it! Better that than us. I think there might be a nest around, as there were quite a few. Paul got very good at swishing the water at them – then they just went away. Perhaps someone in a nearby hot tub had something better than red wine to tempt them with.

The cows are all over the place – on the way to dinner (we are in the cabin furthest away from the main cabin) the path seemed to have a few additions of fresh cow poo. There is a torch on the key, so will have to make sure that is used to find a way through without treading in anything untoward in the dark. The food, unsurprisingly, was superb for dinner. So well presented, and in small proportions. The chef introduced himself – he is from Argentina – and said he would cook whatever we wanted. We’ll see if we make it back in one piece tomorrow – or if we are in a fit state to eat!!

South American Adventure – Day Twelve, Monday 3rd March 2014

We had chosen a departure time of 9.00am for the hike to Las Torres today. Paul had left the window shutters open, so we could wake up to that magnificent view. A good view to wake up to on your birthday – Happy Birthday Paul. I hope you like your present! A leisurely breakfast – everything cooked to order, of course!

JP was waiting for us when we had finished – today we had a driver as well as a guide. Macarena – JP’s girlfriend. Apparently this is the most demanding trail in the park, and it helps if the guides don’t have to drive back. Ha! If he is going to be knackered what is that going to make us? He made sure we had coats, poles, etc etc before we set off. It took a little under an hour to get to the start of the trail. We had to leave the hotel, go on some little back roads, race a couple of choiques, clear away a few guanacos and then take the 4 x 4 along a bit of a river to cross to the other side. The normal commute to work then! We passed a huge lake with a flock of flamingos having their breakfast – will take a picture of them on the way back. We got the tickets for the National Park (all taken care of by Awasi) and drove to the start of the trail, which was at the back of the Hotel Las Torres. We passed Bastian, the waiter we met yesterday at lunch. It was his last day as he was heading back to university, but he is obviously going to do the same trail as us before he leaves this part of the country. He was hitch hiking.

At the start of the trail, it was quite flat. There was a small gradient going down – in the back of my mind I was thinking I bet I’m not going to like this coming back. It is a straight there and back trail, rather than a circular one. There is a circular one, but that takes about six days. Think we will stick to the there and back! One of the first things we had to do was to cross a river on a wibbly wobbly bridge. I have been here before – it was like ground hog day. We went across one at a time, as it was a bit flimsy – there was a flimsy bit of wire to hold you in if it tipped – not! No problem, we all got across fine. I somehow didn’t think this was going to be the last of my flash backs.

PJ said that the first bit of the trail he put into three sections – the easy, the bit harder, and the harder still. Then we go down (I hate that, can’t see the point because we are going to have to come up again) and then we go up through a forest bit, and then it gets really steep up to the top. It’s Paul’s birthday – he chose the trail, he can choose to go as far as he wants. We started the first bit – PJ’s easy bit – and my legs felt like lead. Why hadn’t I done a bit more training? Why hadn’t I lost some weight? Why was I here??? The first bit conquered, we started the second bit. Bastian came up behind us, with two jackets on and a hood. I was sweating buckets with just my tee shirt. He literally bounced past – don’t think he will have any issues getting to the top. I had my camera, so it is really good to stop to take some pictures and get your breath back. It was quite overcast this morning, excellent weather for hiking. This second bit had some tricky sections – there was a lot of loose gravely stuff that meant you went up and slid back down again if you weren’t careful. Most people, as usual, were passing us. Some coming the other way looked like I felt – their faces were bathed in sweat, and they looked as if they had just ran a marathon. I had only just started! Paul thought he saw a sun bed on the side of the next mountain – could have done with that here. It was only a couple of pieces wood that just looked that shape. Somehow don’t think I am going to find one today.

We then got to the third bit. This was, as PJ predicted, harder. At one point there was a sign that stated there were “rolling stones” coming down the mountain on my left (with the big lips and tongue on the sign as well – someone has a sense of humour) a sheer drop on my right, and horse poo on the twelve inch or so path to walk on. Am I really paying for this?? Horses have right of way on the paths – just hope I don’t meet one. They have mostly separate paths, but on occasions they are the same one. A couple of gauchos passed us, music blaring. Suppose this is the equivalent of a Subaru in our country! This bit really was like being back in the Himalayas. Great big rocks to get up, tree roots to contend with, and a never ending upward slope. The trouble is with an up and down trail, the further you go, the further you have come back. Every step I was taking, I knew I had got to do it all again in reverse.

We rounded a corner, and got a fairly good view of the top of the mountain and the three towers. Now we had to go down. And up. And down. A couple more streams to cross, some with bits of wood across to help, some with stepping stones. Oh, how I remember it well. After about two and a half hours of trekking, we came to a Refuge – a bit like the tea houses in Nepal, but here you can only pitch your tent. There were quite a few tents pitched – I could have done with a lie down! PJ decided here was a good place for lunch – it was just gone 1.00pm. He had brought it with him in this backpack. We had cauliflower soup – it was lovely. Sandwiches, cookies, muffins, fresh fruit – all prepared by the chef. Unfortunately we had to share it with about a hundred mosquitoes. Glad I brought the insect repellent. Shame I had left it in the room. I didn’t expect mosquitoes here – I thought it was going to be far too cold for them. As it was, it was rather warm. PJ gave us what looked like a white tablet in a cellophane wrapper. “Pour water on it, and you can wash your hands” he said. Like magic, when you poured water onto the “tablet” it expanded into a material like cloth to wash your hands and face. Never seen one of them before.

Paul decided that he wanted to go on – he actually wanted to get to the top. I tried to keep the look of horror off my face. It’s his birthday – he can choose. Those words were coming back to haunt me. The next section was uphill through the forest. It was quite pleasant, as it wasn’t as hot in here. But it was still uphill – and we weren’t anywhere near the steep bit yet! After about another forty minutes Paul asked when we would be able to get another view of the top and the towers. The answer was not until we hit the summit – at least another two or three hours upward at our pace. I was wondering if I should find a nice tree to sit underneath and wait for them to come back down – I was sure that my muscles were not going to last the duration. Paul had a think, and decided that he wouldn’t make it to the top. He decided to head back down – good man! Going down sounds easier than going up, but it has its pitfalls. The loose gravel going up is still loose going down, and the big steps over the rocks going up and sometimes easier thajn the big drops going down. Good job JP was there to give a helping hand! I think his initials should be short for Just Perfect.

We got back to the Refuge, and then headed straight back out for the down and up and down and up bit. The sun had now come out, and it was so hot on my back. Thank god it hadn’t been this hot when we were coming up – not sure I would have made it this far. I think my muscles thought that I was doing a giant snow plough all the way down the mountain. With steep terrain, and loose gravel, if you start to gain momentum you are not going to stop. I saw a few people come to grief on the gravel – I did not want to be the next one. Hence the muscles screaming as I had the brakes on most of the way down. We drank plenty of water – we refilled the bottles in a stream. We really needed it – it was hot hot hot. There were a couple of condors gliding high in the sky – very graceful birds. At around 4.30pm we were in sight of the finishing line. Just that hill to get up that we had gone down to start with. “This is nothing” says Paul striding up it. My legs beg to differ! It was as I predicted – I did not like it at all. But, we made it up to the top, and over to the 4 x 4 where Macarena had cold beers and drinks. Perfect. We made our way back to Awasi, and stopped to take a picture of the flamingos, but they were not there. I seem to remember this happening before. Next time I see a flamingo, I am going to take it’s picture there and then.

A reverse commute to get back to Awasi and the hot tub beckons. Only trouble is the fire wasn’t lit early enough, and it still needs another hour to heat up properly. Not an issue for Paul – another beer and he won’t even be able to tell what temperature it was. A plate of jam at the side for the wasps, and he is well away!

My glasses have apparently been found in the back of the car that brought us here, and should have been dropped off this afternoon with another lot of guests. After another fabulous dinner – Michelin star standard I believe – Paul gets a lovely birthday cake with candles on! All the room sing happy birthday – and I think he wants to crawl under the table! My glasses haven’t come though. So, I continue to read menus and kindles with my tinted glasses – looking like either a cool dude or a plonker!

South American Adventure – Day Thirteen, Tuesday 4th March 2014

Another fairly leisurely start – we are meeting JP at 9.30am so breakfast at 9.00am. It is so tranquil here – even in the communal areas and dining areas. Nothing is hurried. It turns out the Manager here, Rosario, has a son that is the main chef at Sandals Ocho Rios – and she holidays there every year. We compared notes! The weather here has apparently been doing odd things. For the whole of their summer, they have not had good weather. There was snow here on and off until the middle of February – virtually unheard of. For the last couple of weeks the weather has been lovely – just in time for their winter to start again in a couple of months. Can’t complain. One of the main issues in Patagonia is the wind – it can get up to 200km an hour, and causes all sorts of problems. The trail that we walked yesterday can be too dangerous in parts (I can understand that!) to walk when the wind is up. We haven’t really had that much wind since we have been here, so we have been really lucky.

We are not going to have such an arduous day today. We first went to the park, via the normal commute, but to a different entrance. The first trail we did was just by this entrance, to the Sarmiento Lake. This is the main area where Pumas are sighted. There are loads of guanacos about, so I should imagine no pumas at the moment. This trail is nowhere near as demanding as yesterday, but I can still feel my muscles pulling a little on the uphills. It was only about an hour, and down to the beautiful lake, and then back again. We then moved on a little to SwanLake. I don’t think that is it’s real name, but it was full of swans. And a very loud American bus pulled up – the bus and the passengers! They left, and there was peace again.

We then went on another lookout up a hill, where we could see the three horns – a mountain range that is on the front of the local beer, and the Paine Massif. There is a glacier up there, and the top is covered in cloud. It looks as if it is snowing on the top. We then went to a trail that took us to Salto Grande – the largest of the waterfalls in the park. This one definitely shuts in bad weather. There have been two mini buses full of passengers tipped over with the wind. A metal sign with writing on both sides is completely obliterated on one side where the wind has picked up the stones and pebble dashed it clean. The falls were not exactly Niagara, but it was bigger than I anticipated. There were some rapids over rocks, before bottlenecking into the fall to the lower level lake. When the sun was out, there was a rainbow in the spray. We finished the walk here, and then drove to a campsite for lunch.

Lunch today was in a cool box rather than a back pack. There were little hut like things with picnic tables under and outside – mostly empty. We chose one, and parked the car next to it. JP then put a tablecloth on the picnic table, and got out red wine and glasses. That’s Paul’s lunch taken care of! He then put on surgical gloves – I wondered what was going to happen next!! He got out a bag of cheese, and started to cut it. Phew! We also had smoked salmon, salad, quinoa salad and pea soup. This is the sort of picnic I like. Cookies and muffins to follow – although Paul thought they were more like buns, so now PJ knows a new word. Not sure if the chef will be happy with him calling them buns to other guests though.

With that packed up and out of the way, we continued around Lake Pehoe. It was really scenic, and was turning out to be another beautiful day. We then did another trail to Salto Chico – the small water falls. They were not as large as the other one, but still very picturesque. A couple of condors flew in and sat on the mountain opposite. They are very graceful creatures, and I haven’t got a really good picture of one yet. This was as close as I was going to get, as they seemed to put their feet up and switch the TV on. Didn’t seem as they were going to move from there for a while. We continued past the waterfall and around the lake. There were a couple of steamer ducks just bobbing about in the peace and quiet. Don’t blame them. Back to the car, and it was time to head off back to the hotel. Along the way we stopped to take a photo of the Paine Massif with a rain shower in front of it – the sun was shining on the water and it looked fascinating. All the way home we were keeping our eyes out for pumas – not a lot of chance seeing them at this time of day though – usually early in the morning or last thing at night. You never know! I do now. We aren’t going to see one!

This dinner thing here is getting quite boring. The food is so good day after day. Nothing to complain about. Tonight was scallops – one of the best scallop dishes I have ever tasted – and Patagonian Salmon. Superb. Paul had meat that you could cut with a spoon. Lovely – but I feel we could get used to this, and it is going to come hard when we have to leave it all behind!
South American Adventure – Day Fourteen, Wednesday 5th March 2014

Paul had decided that we were going to go mountain biking this morning. Sounds wonderful – not! But, I had given him the choice here, so with a smile on my face I agreed to give it a go. So, after another lovely breakfast JP brings the car around with four bikes on the back. Macarena is driving again today – so we have a support vehicle. Bit like the Tour de France. We are going to cycle on the Estancia that the hotel is located on, so not far to go. We stop at the little gaucho huts, but there is no-one home except a little black dog called Tequila. What a little dear! He was rescued by the gauchos from the river several weeks ago when he was very tiny – only a couple of weeks old. The rest of the litter and the mother were never found – they think they either drowned or an eagle got the pups. The staff from the hotel “adopted” him, and took him to their hostel where they all stay, and between them and inbetween their shifts and days off they weaned him and took care of him. Now he is about ten weeks old, he has been given back to the gauchos for training – they knew the mother and she was a good working dog, so they think this one will be as well.

He was so pleased to see Macarena and JP that he didn’t want to leave them, so he came with us the short distance in the car. We stopped, got the bikes off the back and kitted up with helmets and gloves. The wind decided to pick up at this point. It was a little downhill to start, so that bit was easy. Then there was a long, long uphill. Not a steep uphill, but enough for my leg muscles to start complaining so I got off and walked. Not exactly what Paul had in mind – he was way up ahead. Oh dear – I think I might just give up and sit in the support vehicle. At least that way Paul can get a good ride in. When we got to the top of the hill, there was a dried up river bed to cross, and the wind had really picked up. Paul decided that we would turn round and ride back – at least most of the way was downhill and the wind would be behind us. We had been riding for about forty minutes (or walking in some cases!) so with the way back it would have been about an hour. At least we can say that we tried. Tequila was quite happy sitting in the car watching!

It was a fairly easy ride back, being mostly downhill and the wind pushing us. The only small issued were avoiding the rocks and tree roots that were there to help you sail over the handle bars if you weren’t looking. I did my best to avoid that – in fact we all did. Paul decided to cycle back to the gaucho huts – uphill – show off! We loaded the bikes back onto the back of the car, and decided to go back for a coffee, pick up a packed lunch, and go back to the park for a couple of short hikes. Sounds like a plan – Tequila didn’t agree. It didn’t include him. No matter how we tried to leave him, he just came bounding up. We had to take the car a little way down the hill, and JP took him back. After a couple of false starts, he managed to get away.

We had a coffee, picked up the lunch and headed for another entrance to the park at Laguna Azul. It was really windy now – the wind had been whistling around the car on the way. A few kilometres inside the park entrance was a picnic spot – with a large inside room if it was windy. It was, so we set up the picnic inside. Just normal sandwiches today – but they were smoked salmon – and cakes and muffins and other bits and pieces. Not bad for being knocked up in a few minutes! This place also had cooking equipment in, tea and coffee, water – so for anyone that was caught short it was great. We didn’t need any because we had out own (don’t think they ran to smoked salmon sandwiches!).

By the time we packed up, the wind had completely died. The sun was out, and it was again a perfect day. Macarena decided to come on the hike with us – it was a beautiful walk. Up through the forest and along the side of the mountain, with the view of the lake and the three towers that we could see from our room. The top of them was shrouded in cloud, but the sun was out so shone on the water and snow on the top of the mountains. It wasn’t a long hike, probably an hour or so, but it was really pleasant. Tee shirt weather again, and no wind. JP said he had never known the weather to be so good three days on the trot. Lucky, lucky, lucky!

We then drove a while to come to another lovely waterfall – Cascada Paine. There was so much water coming down – it was really full today. The sun must be melting the snow on the lower mountains. The sun was shining on the spray, and in several places you could see a rainbow. Another beautiful spot. So many places, and hardly any other people. Peaceful and beautiful.

We were driving from here, and came to Laguna Amarga – and there in the distance around the corner was the biggest flock of flamingos we had seen so far. What a treat! We pulled up to take some pictures, but the water was probably two hundred yards away from the road. The bank didn’t look to bad to get down (not too sure about getting back up again, but not to worry about that yet) so Macarena and I climbed down to get a bit closer. We edged closer, and the ones closest to us didn’t really like us being there, so started to swim towards the middle of the lake. Some were still standing at the edge, so we got a bit closer and a bit closer. One decided to take off, and then they all went. Never seen a flock of flamingos fly before – it was fantastic. Sorry to the other people that had just pulled up to get some pictures! The bank this far down was easier to climb back up, so no rope needed to pull me in!

One thing left on the list then – the puma! We had to give it one last go. Macarena had seen one near to where their cave is, so we headed for there. We pulled off the road, and drove down the grassy hill to as close to the cave as we thought we ought to get. Then we got out and walked. There were a few bones all around, but no puma. It was just not to be today. There was a carcass of a guanaco stripped clean, so they are here somewhere. Probably in the bushes taking pictures of us!!

A lovely last day at Awasi. It really is a fantastic experience – and having your own driver and guide you can do what you want, when you want, and change your mind if you so choose. Otherwise we might have been mountain biking all day! JP and Macarena joined us for dinner this evening – another good point to this hotel. They know how to look after their staff as well as customers. And – the bonus – my glasses turned up. They have had a very circuitous route – Awasi to El Calafate back to Awasi (but not dropped off) back to El Calafate dropped off at Eolo Hotel (in El Calafate – why??) and then here. Just in time!

South American Adventure – Day Fifteen, Thursday 6th March 2014

Our last morning at Awasi. No more watching the condors twist their way upwards whilst having a shower, or waking up to the view of the three towers. It really does look like Mordor – I expected Frodo Baggins to appear at any moment. The last trip to breakfast – perhaps I won’t miss that. The journey from our home to the main lodge, not the breakfast. Twelve steep steps from the cabin to the road, a hundred yards upwards on the road, and then another hundred yards or so upwards on a steep gravel pathway. Builds up the appetite!

No JP waiting to take us to the park – all a bit wrong somehow. This morning is really chilly – the weather does seem to have changed. The breakfast yet again was lovely. Frederico, the Argentine Chef, came out as he does most meals to make sure the food is to our liking. Not sure what he would do if we said no. Most people have already left for the day, so only us to attend to. Nothing else for it – I will have to go and pack. The coat, that I have briefly put on once and really didn’t need, is going to the bottom of the case. A kilo I could have saved. And the hat and the gloves. It doesn’t take long to put everything away, but it does feel rather sad to be doing so.

JP is driving us to Puerto Natales, and then we have another transfer company taking us from there to Punta Arenas for a one night stop before our flight tomorrow to Calama. He is there – for the last time – as punctual as ever. Awasi have even given him a packed lunch for us, and a little bag of chocolates for the journey. They really do think of everything. After everyone has come out to say their goodbyes, we start off for the two hour journey. Puerto Natales is the nearest town to Awasi, albeit two hours away, so JP has a shopping list to bring back. We start our usual commute, and two red foxes cross the road in front of us. And back again. This journey just never is boring. We leave the mountains of the park behind – the weather does not look good there either. The wind is blowing a gale, and it looks as if there is snow on the lower mountains. It rained fairly heavily during the night, so the trails in the park are not going to be good first thing.

After about an hour we pass a little village called Cerro Castillo. This is where Awasi have taken over a house for all the staff – there are up to fifty of them living there at any one time. It looks a lovely country house – but quite a way to travel there and back every day. Going towards Puerto Natales, the scenery changes from the mountains back to the flat. When we arrive there, the Le Boreal is moored just offshore. Must be one of their ports of call. The car is waiting for us, so we transfer the luggage and set off for the three hour trip from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas.

The wind gets even worse on the way – the car is being blown around as the road is just next to wide open spaces both sides. The driver doesn’t speak English – the only words Paul knows are Vino Tinto, so she just nods and stops at a place for him to get some. I think the joke was lost in translation somewhat! It had bathrooms though, so some use. The heavens absolutely opened just before we arrived into Punto Arenas – the sea as we were coming in was so rough. There were some poor road construction workers that were done up for the weather conditions. I somehow don’t think this is unusual. Punto Arenas seems very industrial – and large. This looks like an important freight port, and all the industries associated with it. I am sure there is a lovely town in there somewhere, but when we arrive at the hotel it is a case of making a dash for it before we are blown away and soaked.

We are staying at the Cabo de Hornos – a very respectable establishment for one night. We have a corner room on the sixth floor, and when we get in the room the wind is whistling around the building making an awful racket. Hopefully it will calm down! The rain has stopped, so we decided to go out and get something to eat – and would you believe we needed the coats. The one at the bottom of the very neatly packed case. Oh well, at least we needed it once on the trip. And the case is not neatly packed anymore. It was like Antarctica outside – well, we are well on the way there. One of my trips for the future – Paul said he will enjoy waving me off. Seems I haven’t yet been able to persuade him to come!

Nobody here speaks English. None of those we met anyway. We ended up in a semi fast food restaurant – the emphasis on food and not fast. It had beer on the menu so that was good enough for Paul. We had a couple of hamburgers, which weren’t actually too bad. No fries – not sure why. Perhaps they don’t go in for them here. It certainly wasn’t Awasi standard, but it filled a hole. Coming back Guns ‘n’ Roses were playing in the square – the CD rather than the group – at full blast. And it was just below our window. Oh what joy! Wind or heavy metal? Take your pick, or if you’re really lucky you can have both!
South American Adventure – Day Sixteen, Friday 7th March 2014

We woke up this morning overlooking the Straits of Megallan – not a bad view – and the sun was shining! The day started off with a bonus – the hotel had an egg station, and the chef was from New Zealand, so it was easy to convey what sort of omelette we wanted. There was a bit of controversy over what time we were being picked up – our flight was at 10.40am, and when we arrived last night the hotel gave us a printed itinerary which said the transfer to the airport would be at 8.15am. The guy that checked us in said that the transfer would be at 9.00am. Hmm – what time do we go for? The airport was about half an hour away, so for the two hour check in 8.15am would be about right. He insisted that 9.00am was the up to date time, so we plumped for 9.00am. At 9.00am on the dot the transfer arrived! Phew.

We made our way to the airport. On the way, there was a replica of the ship that Ferdinand Magellan sailed over to Chile on when he discovered the water channel that was ultimately named after him. It looked surprisingly like the Golden Hind – same era I suppose. When we arrived at the airport, the queue for LAN was nearly out of the door. No problemo, said the guide, and then scuttled off! Up to us then! An American couple behind us was on the same flight, so hopefully they wouldn’t go without both of us. There were self service check in machines that we were supposed to have used if we hadn’t checked in online. I tried – it was all in Spanish – and it didn’t like my name, my passport number or my booking reference. Just hope I don’t get to the front of the queue then have to go back and try it again.

The check in man was very helpful and checked us in – and didn’t notice the excess luggage kilos. We have a connecting flight in Santiago – 35 minutes from landing from Punta Arenas to taking off for Calama. Once we had given the luggage in, he asked me to sign for the baggage. Never had to do that before. Was this a sign that this was going to be the last we saw of it? Hope not! There was a later flight, but what is the point if the earlier one is sold as a connecting ticket? He assured us that there would be no problem at all – I believed him! We had time for a quick coffee (the second worst that Paul has ever had!) before we realised that the flight was delayed. This is the first flight that has been delayed, and the only one that we really needed to take off on time. Delayed for 35 minutes would you believe. I saw the same check in man, so decided to see if he could change the flight now. No problem he was still saying – it will arrive at 2.20pm. How? He is going to put his foot down! OK – so the next flight takes off at 2.45pm. We have now gone down to 25 minutes connection.

The flight actually takes off at 11.25am. Que sera sera – whatever will be will be. Nothing I can do about it now, so no point in speculating. This flight is really full. I have a very nice young man sitting between me and Paul who speaks a little English. Quite pleasant. We take off and the scenery soon changes from the green spaces to hills and mountains. We leave the coastal waters behind, and head north for three hours to Santiago. Paul takes his ticket to the air crew, and tells them to hold the plane – we will run! They say no problem! I have never had a plane that takes so long to disembark passengers. Everyone seems to be taking their time, getting their bags down from the overhead lockers, putting their jackets on etc etc. One person out every ten seconds or so.

Eventually it is our turn, and we run up the ramp. The first chap we ask sends us in the wrong direction, but I notice the gate number on the overhead screens. Backwards, down the escalator and along to gate number 30. Some foreign gibberish comes our way when they scan the boarding cards, and we are the last on the bus to get to the aircraft, and they shut the doors and start reversing before we have hardly chance to put the seat belts on. This was not a full flight, but someone else was sitting in our seats. We are then shown to two empty rows, so we get three seats each. The bonus of being last on! Not sure about the luggage though. Did they have it marked up for a short connection? I don’t think so. Oh well – have to see when we get there.

The flight was just under two hours. The scenery now had really changed. We had flown up the spine of South America with some good views of the Andes. Now we were in the desert region, with nothing but sand for miles and miles. I could see an airport below, but it had lots of construction vehicles all around. As we landed, I could see steam rollers seeming to be laying out a runway. The terminal building was nothing but a shell. It was like the holiday in the Carry On movie that they rolled up to that had a half built hotel. We walked off the plane, through a walkway made of red and white plastic shields, past all the workman knocking and painting, and past the back end of the luggage carousel. The first lot had come off the plane – ours wasn’t on the trolley that I could see. I was confident that if it wasn’t first off it didn’t make it. We walked around to the front of the carousel and waited – I couldn’t help but think this was a futile exercise. It was! We were the last people standing, watching an empty carousel chug around.

We went to one official that didn’t speak any English. I saw the Explora driver waiting for us – and he spoke English. Good. He could translate for us. The first time ever I have arrived and the bags haven’t. Could be a good few days in the hot desert, trekking, with jeans and shoes on. I had the baggage receipts, so thought they would be scanned and the computer would tell them whereabouts the bags were. No. Had to fill in a form, and tell them what was in the case. I am sure it will be on the next flight. But still had to fill in the form. I got a copy, and they said they would let me know when and if it turned up. I could see the look on Paul’s face – he had already asked me why I booked such a short connection. Why exactly? Wish I hadn’t now.

We set off for the one and a quarter hour car journey to the Explora Hotel. The landscape was amazing. We went over mountains, past desert, past rock formations that looked as if we were on the moon and a huge volcano. Wow. What varying scenery we have had on this trip. Just out of nowhere, we turned off the road and was transported into a little town that looked as if it had come straight out of a spaghetti western. The little houses looked as if they were made of mud. I expected Clint Eastwood to come around the corner at any time! We turned into the hotel, and drove around the stables and onto a little courtyard at the front. We were met and taken in to get the keys to the room – it looked like the High Chapparal (for those old enough to remember it). The rooms were very authentic, and looked like we were staying on the ranch in the TV programme. We had a wander, and found a beautiful pool. I took a picture of an enormous caterpillar – but it turned out to be a bean. I could have sworn I saw it move!

We then had a “presentation” of the hotel and all the excursions that are on offer. It actually boiled down to only a couple for tomorrow, as the others were all booked. Bit like Centre Parcs – you have to be first in the queue to get the ones you want. JP – where are you? There were a couple of nice ones – so as long as the bags arrive with our trekking boots we will be OK. If not – massage and pool I think!

Dinner was very good. The restaurant was lovely, and the food good. The unfortunate thing about this hotel is that it follows Awasi – and that is never going to be easy. I think it is going to take several years to get anything that comes up to the standard I feel! But, the bags arrived at about 10pm, so full steam ahead.
South American Adventure – Day Seventeen, Saturday 8th March 2014

We had signed up for a six kilometre hike to the Luna Valley this morning. At the presentation last night, we had been told it was an easy flat hike. Seemed the perfect start to our time in the desert.

After breakfast, we met the five others that were going on the trip and Andreas, the guide. Andreas suggested that I bring my walking poles – couldn’t see the point on a flat six kilometre hike, but I went back to the room and got them anyway. Paul already had his. He suggested that I took a hat , but apart from my woolly one that I haven’t yet worn I haven’t got another one. The temperature is going to be well in the twenties today, so I thought the woolly one inappropriate! I hoped this group weren’t going to be too fast – not used to trekking with a group. Oh well – it is only six kilometres so they can’t leave me too far behind! We got in one of the Explorar vans, and drove the fifteen minutes to the start of the hike.

We started on a flat rock surface, that was very similar to entering the siq in Jordan to get to Petra. High rocks either side that offered some shade at this time in the morning – the sun hadn’t quite come up over the top of the left hand ones. The rock formations were amazing – and interspersed were sand dunes that were completely flat. I was, as usual, back marker. At least I could take pictures and go at my own pace. After a couple of kilometres we came to a dead end. Not quite sure what was going on, I heard one of the others say that Andreas was trying a new route today. What? He hadn’t been here before? Oh well – have to go back to the beginning and start again. No. We went back a few yards, and he decided to climb up the top of the right hand mountain. He came running back down. Glad that’s not the way I thought to myself. Unfortunately, it was the way. My god, am I glad I bought my poles. It was steep, sandy, rocky, and excruciatingly difficult. It just seemed to keep going up and up. By this time, we were in full sun. What had I signed up for today? Not this!

We eventually got to the top – I have never seen anything like it. How I ever got up I don’t know. At least I was up – and perhaps the rest will be flat. No. Don’t be silly. There may have been a couple of flat sections, but I think my mind missed them. The rocks were now like giant cactuses, having to put your feet on the end of the rocks rather than down in between them. How much more of this is there? Some of the rock was really soft, like walking on a carpet. Paul pointed out that he hoped there wasn’t a hole underneath so we went right through. Thanks for that! “Only just around that pyramid shaped mountain” said Andreas. Oh good I thought. Wrong. Round and up over that pyramid shaped mountain was the entrance to a huge arena in the middle of a circle of mountains. It must have been a mile across. At least it was flat. We all had a group picture taken here – looking really happy because we thought the end was near. Wrong again. We had to walk across the arena – but at the other end there was only mountains. I had a feeling that we were going to have to go over them to get out. Right. “Over that black mountain, and then only another kilometre and a half the other side” says Andreas. The black mountain was the biggest one there. Bugger!

“It is extremely easy – nowhere near as hard as it looks.” Ha! I said I am taking a picture of that, and will tell him when (or if) I manage to get over it whether it was extremely easy. As I thought, it wasn’t. Climbing over that was one of the most scariest things I have ever done in my life. The trail – if you could call it that – was probably a shoe width wide at most. You had to balance on the cactus type rocks to traverse it, as well as going up. To the right was a cavernous drop. I taught Andreas a new phrase at that point. “Really easy my arse.” He thought that was funny. He was now carrying my camera bag, and yanking me from one rock to the next. Oh my god – how I got up that mountain I have no idea. I was exhausted, hot, scared and thinking that if I fall down now I am going to die. When we got to the top Andreas said he had never lost anyone before. Always a first time! He kept calling me his favourite – felt like he was Bruce Forsyth on Strictly with the no hopers!

When we got to the top was the finish – no! More up and more down and more round the corner. The sun has now been shining directly on my head for over three hours – that is going to be my excuse for any crazy things I do in the future. Paul was not happy – I could see him thinking that the Caribbean would have been a much better option. I am tending to agree with him! My legs have now gone to jelly. The Gatorade comes out of Andreas’ bag – refills the salt apparently. I don’t argue – it is an excuse to stop to drink it. As we go around another corner there is a little cave under an overhanging rock – and it is in the shade. I did contemplate having a kip, but as it was rocks for the floor I thought I would be swapping one form of hell for another.

When was this ever going to end? As we walked up a huge sand dune Paul spied a road in the distance. Hope! Did we go straight to it? No. Was it flat to get to? No. Even a flat surface in the distance is actually lots of ups and downs in reality. After nearly four hours hiking in the direct sunlight the Explora van comes in to sight. I have never been so pleased to sit in a car. I have never sweated as much (you really didn’t need to know that) and been so exhausted. Or I don’t think so. Might be like having a baby and forgetting the pain. I have been to Annapurna Base Camp, so it might have happened at some point in that trip.

There were cold drinks in the van, that were gladly received by all. Two of the group fared better than the others – but as usual I was always at the end. The end of my tether! The drive back to the hotel was only twenty minutes or so – and we had the joy of picking what we wanted to do tomorrow when we got back. Ha! Another six kilometre trek. Are we mad or what? But the upside was that we cancelled this afternoons excursion and spent it by the pool. Excellent recuperation. And by the time we got back to the room we had a bottle of win delivered from the Excursions Desk for the rubbish information that they gave us about the trek. Thank you very much, but I think we would have probably done it anyway, but been a little more prepared mentally.

We had dinner with the other five people on the trek – even if we were slow they are still talking to us. Karen & Jim from New York, Stefan from Germany and Lilian and Michael from Colombia but living in Miami. Lilian was kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas in 1999 for four months – fascinating people you meet on holiday! We then had a little lesson on astronomy. There is a giant telescope and observatory on the hotel site, and we saw a blazing star, the nebulas around Orion’s belt, the moons and the bands around Jupiter and all the craters on the moon. Amazing end to the day!
South American Adventure – Day Eighteen, Sunday 9th March 29014

Another six kilometre hike this morning – are we mad or what? There was hardly anyone at breakfast – most of our “group” had decided on the trip at 6.00am start. Just left us – and two guides. Are we that bad? Has our reputation preceded us? It seems that there have been timing issues this morning. All the mobile phones have changed time to one hour prior – this should have been the weekend that the clocks went back for summer time ending. Apparently, because it has been such good weather the government have decided to postpone it for 28 days. But the phones still all changed, so some people didn’t turn up until an hour later. Some got up an hour earlier because they had set their phones to alarm. Just trust the untechnological wrist watch!

We met our guides Danelo and Maria, and drove the twenty minutes or so to the start of the trek. We had put on the factor 50, got the poles and hopefully were ready. When we stopped in the front of a big mountain and said that was the way up I thought he was joking. No. That was the way up. “This is the hard part” says Danelo. I remember what the easy bit was yesterday, so I dreaded to think what hard was going to be like. Perhaps that was why they sent two guides – to pull us up on ropes! I was not proud at all – I accepted help right from the start. I gave up one of my poles and let Danelo yank me up. I wouldn’t say it was a sheer climb, but it seemed like it to me. It was about forty metres straight up. Because of the extra help I had, I got to the top feeling only slightly breathless.

It was a great view from the top. From here we went along inside the mountain range to a sheer face that had rock art on, that was around five hundred years old. A llama, a face, a cross – nothing dramatic but amazing that it had survived that long. This was a place, apparently, where shepherds used to camp out at night. From here we could also see the sulphur rising from the two active volcanoes in the region. One of them last erupted in about 2009 I think he said. He also said Chile was a place where there is about fifty earthquakes a day – only little ones though. Haven’t felt a thing! We walked along the trails, and came to quite a sandy top. There were bike tracks up here. Danelo said they carry the bikes up – my god, bad enough me getting up let alone carrying a bicycle!

We then climbed a bit more – and yes, there had to be a track in the middle of the mountain with a sheer drop to the left that was only a shoe size wide. Always has to be one! We came out at the most amazing place. It was as if we were walking along the top of the world. We seemed to be higher than all the surrounding mountains, and we looked into a huge deep gorge that looked similar to the Grand Canyon. We took a break here – the sun was beating down on us but from up here there was a beautiful breeze. Wow – it was really a long way down! Then Danelo said that’s where we are going. Then he laughed. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. That’s where we went. It was a bit tricky, but we made it. The rock and sand made it very slippery, but I suppose it could have been worse if it had been raining. There was only one bit that was a sheer drop of about three feet – Danelo put his leg up and said to use that as a step. So I did. Not sure if he knows how much I weigh! We got into the gorge and there was a lovely flat trail. The only downside was that the breeze had disappeared as we were now in between two high walls, and it was pretty hot down there. We actually saw another person – mountain biking. Because this bit is quite flat, it is ideal for bringing bikes into. Don’t think I will bother though! But over the two days of trekking, this is the first unknown person we have seen – can hardly say it has been crowded. We worked our way like a snake in and out of the way the river used to be in years gone by. All that is left now is an empty trail, with magnificent rock formations either side. At one point the rocks looked as if they had faces carved in them like Mount Rushmore – but it was just an illusion. High up in one of the crags was on owls nest – not much wildlife here! Some of the way was like going through caves where earthquakes had knocked huge pieces of rock to the ground, leaving a cavernous entrance and exit.

As we were in a gorge that we climbed a long way down into, I was dreading the bit at the end where we would have a long climb out. I tried to put that bit to the back of my mind and just enjoy the bit I was on. Fortunately, the gorge ended and was replaced by a tree lined avenue. It was a really lovely hike. Apart from the first bit, the rest was a piece of cake – that’s how I remember it now! It was hot, but not too hot. It was hard in places, but not too hard. Perfect! The car was waiting for us just down the road with cold juice and beer. Ha! I can put up with this.

We went back to the hotel for lunch, and met up with the rest of the group that had had the 6.00am start. We had a lovely two hour lunch – this is what holidays are all about. Talking American politics, Cuban politics, Colombian politics, the state of the world etc etc…..

We then had a trip out to the Atacama Salt Flats. There were six of us on this trip – plus two guides again. We are getting a reputation! We first of all stopped off in the small village of Toconao. We had a look at the old bell tower – very similar to the one in the Magnificent Seven. I expected Yul Brynner to be in the church opposite! We walked down a whole load of back streets and little footpaths, looking at various fruits and vegetation, then we came out on to an expanse of desert. In the distance there was a dip, and in it was a pool of water and trees and dense green vegetation. An oasis in the desert. They do exist. Or have I had one too many camparis? We then drove on, past the famous Alma Observatory which is high in the mountains, onto the Flamingo National Park. We were here for the sunset. We first had a little video about the Park, how it was set up and what we were expected to see here. There is a mass of salt – although it isn’t flat, it is extremely bumpy. There is a flat path all the way past the lagoons though, for about half a mile or so, so the wildlife can be viewed. There were some flamingos, but they were about 400 yards away. Plenty of other little birds were feeding in the shallow waters though. We were keeping our eye out for lizards – a couple quickly shot in holes so we really only viewed their tails. Paul saw one shoot under a rock, that he lifted up, and managed to get on video. I bet he wondered where his roof had gone!

When the sun went down, the mountains turned the most beautiful reds and browns. It really cast a fantastic colour show on the mountain range – and even the volcano with the puff of sulphur escaping from the top. We drove the forty five or so minutes to get back to the hotel – where we had dinner with the usual crowd. Our last night here, so the last night we are all going to be together. Sad, but I am sure we are all going to keep in touch.
South American Adventure – Day Nineteen, Monday 10th March 2014

We are leaving the Explora in San Pedro de Atacama this morning – far too early. Three nights is not enough – we could have done with one more. At breakfast we say goodbye again to new found friends – some flying today at various times and some staying for an extra night. Christian from Guest Relations has arranged a lunch box for us, as we are taking the bus from the San Pedro de Atacama Bus Station to Salta. We have a transfer at 9.00am for the five minute journey to the bus station! Overkill. The bus station is so called because it is where buses call in and collect passengers – the similarity there ends. There is a board with a whole list of departures for the day in chalk – a small room with chairs and a little shop where you can buy drinks and snacks. The transfer drops us off, and we are in loads of time for the departure. Buses come and go, but none so far to Salta. 9.30am comes and goes – apart from no-one speaking English – and we haven’t a clue what is going on. There are a lot of back packers here, so I am sure they are waiting for the same bus as us! A couple more come in – none with Saltaon the front, and none saying Pullman which is the company we have booked with. The bus station is right next to a football pitch with a small seating area. Completely in sand, with no markings. If you can play on this, grass must be a doddle!

At 10.00am a Pullman bus pulls in with Salta on the front. Yippee! At least we aren’t stranded. Everyone in the bus station gets up – it must be a full bus. Paul was not keen on this option to start with, and I can tell by his face he isn’t impressed so far! Out luggage is loaded, and it seems we have paid for first class – what else? I am glad to see the odd child that was getting on was not in our section. Eventually everyone is loaded, and we set off – an hour late. Manyana! We get a few yards down the road and stop. For about fifteen minutes. No idea why, and as no-one speaks English no chance of finding out. The bus started its journey in Calama about an hour earlier, so must have been held up there before even getting to us. Doesn’t seem as if they are keen to make up for lost time!

We start off again, and a chap comes out with a couple of packets of biscuits. Then he comes round with a Fanta. I didn’t think we got anything on the bus – perhaps this is the first class treatment! We leave San Pedro de Atacama the opposite way to which we came in. The volcanoes and rolling mountains are on our left, and we continue on this road until we come to some more salt flats and lagoons on both sides of the road. The border to Bolivia is only five kilometres away at one point, so we must be skirting that. It is about two and a bit hours before we get to the border with Argentina.

This seems, as first glance, to be a much more efficient border control that the one we came from Argentina to Chile when we left El Calafate to get to Torres del Paine. It seems there is only one office, which both countries share. We all get off the bus, and get in the queue to leave Chile. Once we have had our documents stamped, and I got a wink from the official (or he has a tick) we then have to get in the next queue to get in to Argentina. This happens to be the man sitting next to the one that just checked us out of Chile. Once we have then been checked into Argentina, we have to go back outside where all of our luggage has been taken out of the bus, and pull it into the same office and put it through a x-ray machine. Then we have to drag it back out and load it back on the bus. We left our lunch box on the bus, and wondered if it would have been confiscated by the time we got back on! The luggage now has to be segregated, as there are two stops. Jujoy and Salta. Salta goes on first, because that is the last stop. Once all the luggage as been reloaded, we had to hang around as one lady had an Australian passport and they seemed to want some visa money from her. Her husband then seemed to lose her completely, so we had half an hour or so extra for this. Not sure if it got sorted out or we left them behind!

We then started to make our way through the mountains. I could not believe how the scenery changed from one minute to the next. The mountains were sand, then they were black volcanic rock, then they were covered in the yellow grass clumps, then they were copper red, then they were sand coloured again. At points, they were like sand dunes, then they were gravel, then they were hard rock. Amazing. I took pictures all along as Paul had gone to sleep – at least he can see the replay! The snow capped tips of some of the mountains were always in the distance. There were dust storms over the ground near to the further mountains, that was pushing the dust up into twisters.

We then started the hard climb up through Andes. The roads twisted and turned, and the scenery just got more and more amazing. There were birds flying along the side of the bus, and llamas and donkeys on the sides of the mountains. Then came the cacti. I have never seen anything like it! There were a few to start with, and I had to look twice. They were growing on the sides of the mountains, and were about ten feet high. Some higher than that. A few to start with, and then the mountains were covered with them. Some must have been higher than twenty feet. Paul even stayed awake at this point. We then went past more salt flats. These were completely different to the ones we had walked in between. It looked as if the ground was completely covered with snow – really thick. There were a couple of diggers scooping it up into huge piles – will have to look on the packet where my salt comes from next time I buy some!

Once we had gone through this region we started on the downward slope. We passed a sign saying that we were at 4170 metres – not sure if that was the highest point or not. Not long after this, going down the other side of the mountains, we could see the cloud below us. What a weird sight. It was like cotton wool stuffed between the rocks. Not as nice when we actually drove into it though. It was like going through thick fog – and with the roads very narrow and several hairpins in a row I was glad I was not driving.

We got our of the bottom of the clouds, and the mountains had changed completely again. They were now covered with green vegetation, and there were trees appearing. Don’t seem to have seen any trees for weeks! There were waterfalls coming down the mountains, and it all seemed to be a different land. Once we had travelled about two thirds of the way down, we stopped at a village called Jujoy, which is meant to be one of the prettiest villages in the Andes. It certainly seems that way, although we are still covered in cloud. I think the mountains must stop the clouds moving from this way, and maybe always have a cloud covering.

Once we had got to the bottom of the mountain range, and six o’clock was on its way we thought we were nearly there. 6.00pm was the scheduled arrival time at Salta, although we had had several delays. 6 o’clock came and went, as did 7 o’clock. Paul predicted 7.30pm – one hour late and half an hour extra at the border. 7.30pm came and went as did 8.00pm. It was now pitch black. Every time we saw some lights, like a town, we got all excited only to sail past. We were sitting on the driver side, with the drivers compartment similar to an airline cockpit. The only window we could see out of was to our left, which had none of the signs on. If we could have seen how far it was to go, we would have had a better idea.

8.30pm came and went. Now we were getting fed up. It has been a fantastic bus journey – whatever Paul says when we get back – and it was now taking too long. At last we saw a huge amount of lights ahead – that must be Salta. It was. We arrived in the bus station (and it was a proper bus station – it was huge) at just gone 9.00pm. Then it was a bun fight for the cases. Two poor chaps were trying to unload them, and everyone was crowding round to get theirs. We eventually got them, and walked out to the front where there were taxis waiting. I had booked the Sheraton for just one night – but the taxi driver didn’t speak English. I would have thought Sheraton was the same in any language. I got the reservation email out to show him the address. He still didn’t understand. I don’t think he could read. Paul showed him the Sheraton logo – the penny then dropped. I knew I brought Paul for a reason! It took ten minutes or so to get the hotel, and about 20 pesos – £3 or so. Bargain! A quick drink in the bar and drop – it is really exhausting sitting on your bum all day!

South American Adventure – Day Twenty, Tuesday 11th March

A really easy start to the day today – nothing to be on time for this morning. We had a voucher for a “Welcome Coffee” when we arrived, so decided to have that whilst looking at the map and deciding what to do. The Sheraton is right at the back of Salta, built into the San Bernadino hill. There is a cable car that takes you up to the top of the hill for a view over the whole of Salta. It is a really cloudy morning, so not much point. There is a swimming pool on the second floor, which gives a fairly good view over the city, so that is good enough. It is about eleven blocks to walk to the main square, along very Spanish looking roads and houses. The graffiti on the walls is very artistic – albeit a bit weird. About half way there, there is a puff of red smoke up ahead, and a lot of car horns. It seems there is a protest of some sort – no idea what. There are marshals, and all of the protestors are in cars with stickers on the side. It gridlocks the whole place. One of the cars conked out and had to be pushed. All very peaceful and well behaved, as far as I could see.

We could see the main square in the distance by the large pink dome of the cathedral. It wasn’t far to walk at all. The main square was beautiful. The buildings all around were all old, with pavement cafes most of the way round. The middle had a large statue and waterfall and grassy area. There were hundreds of birds – some chap was selling bird food, just like Trafalgar Square used to have. Children were running about, and it had a really good feel.

We went into a museum just off the main square (just after I lost Paul, after I stopped to take pictures and he followed a policeman who was showing him where the museum was). It was the MAAM – we had heard about this as in 1999 three mummified children were found at the top of a volcano. They were here in this museum. It was a really important Inca find. They used to drug the children and bury them alive – to cut a long story short – and these three were found in fairly good shape. But not alive of course! It is amazing that we are still finding things from hundreds of years ago, and horrific to find out what is done in the name of religion. Archaeology is still a good business to be in.

After a short walk around the main part of the town, we sat at one of the pavement cafes to have lunch. This is where we realised that we had come out with only a handful of pesos, a few dollars and no credit card. Not used to having to pay for things! We did a deal with the waiter – who gave us somewhere in the middle of the official rate and the black market rate for our dollars. Ha! Seasoned travellers or plonkers! It was a very pleasant way to spend lunch, although the food wasn’t. Oh well – ambiance is king.

We slowly made our way back to the hotel, and spent an hour or so reading by the pool before having to get a taxi to the airport for our flight to Iguazu. It was again a really old battered taxi that took us the thirty or so minutes to the airpot – 80 pesos, about £7. We passed the bus station – I could see Paul thinking “Why don’t we go by bus” – not! Driving into the airport was like driving into a country estate – lovely green grass and trees all along the perimeter. Lovely little airport – very kind check in man that yet again did not give us any excess luggage charges. And a good cup of coffee at the café. Can recommend departing from this airport. Let’s just hope the bags depart as well!

The flight has actually had a slight schedule change, and is leaving ten minutes earlier than originally planned at 1905. And it leaves bang on time. As we take off and go through the clouds, the tops of the Andes are still standing proud as we come through the top of them. Magical – seeing the tops through a mass of white cotton wool. The one and a half hour flight goes very smoothly and quickly – we have another box containing biscuit snacks, a lemon biscuit and a chocolate biscuit. Last time on Aerolinas Argentinas, so last box!

We arrive, and the bags do too. Unfortunately, the transfer didn’t. Everyone on the flight got their transfers – we were the only ones left in the airport. And the only ones that spoke English. The telephone number of the hotel didn’t work from my mobile – a bit of déjà vu here! Someone came that spoke English, and we organised a taxi that would take US dollars – didn’t have enough Argentinean for the trip to the Brazil side where we are staying. But saying that, it was only $50 so not enough to break the bank.

We load the cases, and start the trip. We quickly pass the turn off for the falls on the Argentinean side, and then pass a whole row of hotels with neon signs advertising their wares. After about half an hour, we come to the border point. They have been taking notes from Macdonalds – this one is a drive through. Our passports are stamped to leave Argentina, and we go over the no mans land – the Iguazu River. One side it is Argentina, the other is Brazil. Once over the other side, no-one seems bothered to stamp our passports, we could have driven straight over. Not sure how that would work when we come to leave! The taxi driver takes our passports and parks and takes them in to get them stamped.

Another ten minutes or so down the road (he is a bit of a speedy Gonzales, who knows where the speed cameras are!) we are at the entrance to the National Park where the hotel is situated. This is as far as the taxi can go – we then have to transfer to a National Park vehicle for the last twenty minutes to the Hotel Das Cataratas. On the way, a skunk crosses the road in front of us. The driver informs us that there are many animals in the park, including Jaguar and Puma. Paul’s eyes light up. Chances of seeing either of them – nada!!

The receptionist checks us in like a robot, and doesn’t seem too bothered that the transfer didn’t arrive (the one that they had arranged). She blames someone else and quickly goes on to something else. Not impressed so far! But, this hotel is in the place you want to be. They can perhaps not offer the service one expects for a hotel of this standard as they have the monopoly on the location. The room was nothing special – but the views………. And the noise of the falls thundering right in front of the hotel, and the fact that you are right there. That is what you pay for here – hopefully my impression of the hotel will improve. But you can’t get away from location, location, location! And sitting having a campari and Brazil Nuts and being bitten by horrible little insects is second to none!
South American Adventure – Day Twenty One, Wednesday 12th March 2014

An early start after a really good nights sleep! We have got a tour booked this morning for the Argentine side of the Falls. The way through the grounds to breakfast there is a coati (racoon like creature) going through one of the bins to see what he could find. What he didn’t want was just being thrown to the ground. After a lovely breakfast we meet Arlete at 8.30am in the reception. This is through one of the few companies that have access to the National Park in their own vehicles, so we are right ready to go. There is a whole bus load of Japanese ready to get on their bus in reception – and another bus load just behind them. Am I glad we have got a car!

We have to go through border controls again – the opposite way this time. Arlete seems surprised we do not have a Brazilian paper in our passports – we would have had trouble with the next flight without it. She has a few in her bag, so fills one in for us to get stamped on the way back. It is quite quick, and then across the river. In the daylight, we can see both ways up the river. On the right hand side we could see to Paraguay. The Brazilian side of the bridge had the colours of the Brazilian flag along the side, and after the middle it changed to the colours of the Argentinean flag. Couldn’t see that in the dark last night. We then had to go through the drive through Argentine passport control – we are going to have so many stamps in our passports! From there it was straight to the Park on this side. The driver left us at the main entrance, where there was a big map of the park so we could see where we were going.

The first stop was a fall called The Devils Throat. There was a fifteen or so minute walk to a little train station, where we had to queue to get on a train. The queue was quite long, so we didn’t get on the first train. Whilst we were waiting for the next one we were entertained by a family of coatis climbing up the trees opposite and pinching the fruit. Fascinating! The train took about ten minutes to get to the start of the walkways to get to the Devils Throat – so named because the sound it makes is like a throat noise. It is the biggest of all of the falls. It is about a kilometre and a half to walk along metal walkways to get there. There is a lot of water to cross – this part is shut if the water is too high. A few months ago parts of the bridge were swept away by the amount of water coming down the river. It is all repaired now thankfully. Once we get to a certain point, we can see the spray wafting high into the air that is coming from the falls.

We also pass a little alligator in the water, and a huge catfish, and some lovely birds in the trees. So much more here than just water! As we near to the actual falls you can hear the water thundering down into the river below. Deafening! The walkways at the end are pretty crowded, and everyone coming back is soaked. When we get to the end I can see why. The mist and spray that comes off the water is fine when the wind is blowing away from you, but when a gust comes in your direction it is a wet gust. All the water comes with it. It cannot be avoided. Does nothing for the hair!! Or the camera. Everything gets soaked. Oh dear! But hopefully got some good shots.

The camera does dry out eventually on the walk back to the train station. There was a lovely condensation blob on the lens that I think may have upset some of the photos – not sure when it arrived. Stopped me taking another hundred or so on the way back! When we arrived at the station there was about a hundred butterflies flying around in the same area – they are so colourful, and there is so many of them, everywhere. The train takes the ten minute journey back to the start, where we continue our walk to the Adam & Eve falls, and the Bossetti falls. It is all on metal walkways, and really easy to see all of the falls. That is, unless there are people in your way! Everyone seems to want to take a “selfie” with the falls in the background. It takes around an hour to go all around these. The views are spectacular – with a lovely rainbow at the base of be Bossetti.
We walk back via the Sheraton Hotel – and spy a toucan flying right overhead. Arlete arranges for us to have a quick show round of the hotel – it is undergoing some outside painting at the minute, so has a lovely green coat on. The rooms are very nice – and the ones facing the falls have a spectacular view. I would say the rooms are better than the Das Cataratas lead in rooms, but the whole standard of the place is not quite there. Second best if the Das Cataratas is full!

We then have to do the reverse journey – about an hour – through Argentine and then Brazilian border control. At least we have our pieces of paper stamped now! When we get back to the hotel we just go and have a quick word with the Tours people that should have arranged our transport last night. They were very apologetic – boils down to they forgot! They have arranged for a free helicopter trip tomorrow to make up for it. Sounds fair enough!

Time for a chill out by the pool. As soon as we get to the pool, an attendant is bringing us towels, followed by a waiter who takes the drinks order. This is what you pay for here – and what was missing last night – service! A lovely couple of hours recharging the batteries. Cold towels come next, followed by nuts. Ha! I could get used to this.

There is a barbecue for dinner tonight. Not just any old barbeque. Soup, salad, ten sorts of meat with all the accompaniments and pudding. So, not going to starve here then. It is priced accordingly for a five star Orient Express Hotel, but you are paying for so much more than the food. Apart from check in, the service has been exemplary. We ate around the pool, the food was good, the service was excellent. I love it here.
South American Adventure – Day Twenty Two, Thursday 13th March 2014

Another of the benefits of staying at the Hotel Das Cataratas – they offer a complimentary guided tour of the Brazil side of the falls before the park opens. So, after breakfast, we met the guide at 8.15am and just had to walk outside of the reception to start our tour. The Argentine side of the falls are far bigger, far more spectacular, but you can only see the full extent of this from the Brazilian side. The Argentines have the show, but the Brazilians have the view.

How peaceful and pleasant it was this morning. Yet another morning with not a cloud in the sky. We walked across the road, and started on the tarmac trails that run alongside the falls. To start with, you can see the smaller of the falls – the ones that we were walking over on metal walkways yesterday with the rest of the world! Whenever I wanted to stop and take a picture there was no-one in the way – no-one barging past – heaven! The guide gave us an overview of the river and how it had evolved, but as there were about twenty people in the group (and we were at the back, of course) it was hard to hear everything. Didn’t really matter. The spectacle was there before us, in all it’s glory. And at this time in the morning, the rainbows were glinting in the sun as it came up over the thundering water and shone onto the spray.

All the way along the water was gushing over the edge of the eighty or so metre drop. It was a completely different view to yesterday – and in the peace and quiet at this time of the morning was perfect. The walkway went right up to the Devil’s Throat. This time, the walkway was down at the bottom rather than at the top – so getting wet was the only option again! But a completely different perspective. A better one I think. At this end, there is an elevator that takes you back up to the road, as the trail had been going gradually downhill all the way. It is then a half mile walk back to the hotel.

If you only have one day here, then I think the Brazilian side would be the way to go. If you had two, like us, then do the Argentine side first and then the Brazilian side. And if you can, stay at the Das Cataratas to enjoy the falls virtually on your own. You could have walked as soon as it was light – another benefit only applicable here – until it is dark. It is so much better without other people!

When we got back to the hotel, we had a driver waiting for us to take us for our helicopter trip over the falls. Another perspective! The heliport is just outside the National Park Entrance, so not far. The trip lasts ten minutes – long enough to get a really good view. There were several people in front of us – the helicopter takes seven people – but at ten minutes a trip only we didn’t have to wait long. We were all strapped in, and took off over the rainforest. It was massive, and went on for miles. Apart from the roads and the river, there was nothing but trees for miles. The view was fabulous – and there was another rainbow shining in the middle of the falls. It went over them a couple of times so everyone could get a good view – and a really good view of the hotel from the air. It was all over too quickly.

We got back to the heliport, and the driver was waiting to take us to the Bird Park – just across the road. This, he said, was also paid for, so they have taken forgetting us at the airport seriously. Unless this all comes on our hotel bill! The Bird Park is meant to be one of the best in the world – not having been to any before I have nothing to compare it with. I don’t really like seeing any animals caged, so this was not a totally comfortable experience. They all seemed fairly happy – with some species not in cages at all. It seems they can fly off whenever they want, but seem not to want to, so it can’t be all bad. It does seem to be quite good – many of the areas have natural trees and it is all in natural light, so I suppose if they have to be caged this is as good as any. There is also a butterfly house – a huge amount of butterflies, and massive! And an alligator or two – not sure how they fit in to the “Bird Park” scenario. And plenty of little nibbly crawly things that decided as we had arrived they would have lunch!

The driver waited and took us back to the hotel when we finished the mile or so walk around the different species. Another part of an afternoon by the pool – someone’s happy! We ate tonight in the A La Carte restaurant – with “breathtaking views of the falls”. Unfortunately, all the outside tables were booked, and we sat inside with only a breathtaking sound of the falls! It was pitch black, so they were very hard to see anyway. The food, though, was excellent. As one would expect!
South American Adventure – Day Twenty Three, Friday 14th March 2014

We have to say goodbye to Iguazu today. What a bun fight in the reception to check out – there was several people all checking out at the same time, and some people were just not polite. If they weren’t the next in the queue, shove and then you are! Just not my thing – let them get before me. What goes around comes around! Our driver from yesterday was there waiting to take us to the airport. What a lovely man he is. He said that there is one direct flight to Rio and one to Sao Paulo, and they virtually go at exactly the same time. Must have been a man that set that timetable up!

I got to the front, eventually, and none of the tours were on the bill, neither was the transfer to the airport. Well done for sorting that out and going over and above what they had to. On the way to the airport I complained to the driver that we had seen no jaguars or pumas. He got his ipad out, and showed us a video that he had shot the other day of a jaguar out the back of the hotel by the pool. He saw it in his car headlights, stopped the car, wound down the window and got about a two minute video with his iphone. Who needs a Nikon! Just a shame that we hadn’t seen one in the flesh. Never mind – always next time!

We got to the airport and most of the people we had seen in the reception were now in the queue to check in. Oh what joy. It was only a small airport, but not as nice as the other small airports we have used in the past three weeks. We had to check in at one of the self service check in machines – had to get help in the end. Just getting used to Spanish, now the Portuguese element has thrown a spanner in the works. We drop the bags off at the TAM checkin desk – and the girl charges me excess baggage! First time this trip. Probably got a jobsworth – 55 Brazilian reals, just over £15. Not too bad. Looking at all the check in counters, ours was sending people over to the excess baggage window all the time. Just picked the wrong one. We got to the gate in loads of time though – but must have been daydreaming as we nearly missed getting on the flight. That’s the trouble when all the announcements are in foreign. They called it in English to start with, and then all the other announcements were only in Portuguese. When we looked the Sao Paulo flight was boarding, and our gate was closed. A quick run and we made it – just! Paul had to check with the air hostess that we were on the right plane – they just pointed in the general direction of about three planes and we got on one of them. It was OK – it was the right one.

We took off, and saw the falls in the distance with their mist wafting high into the air. We could the see the helicopter buzzing around – on the Brazilian side only. They are very what is mine is mine and yours is yours. The helicopter is not allowed to go into Argentinean air space, the boat on the Argentinean side is not allowed on the Brazilian side of the river and vice versa. What a palaver. What is the matter with sharing?

The two hour flights went quickly, with only a bag of cheesy biscuits. Not even a box with a proper biscuit in. I can tell you quite a lot about the in flight catering on Latin American flights now! We met all the same people at the baggage carousel that were in the hotel reception again – still pushing in. How rude! One lady was actually videoing the baggage carousel and the people standing around it – I don’t think I would want to see her holiday video when she gets home. It is probably six hours long and very boring! The bags arrive, and we go to the exit – will there be someone there or won’t there? Yes, there is! Yippee. Doesn’t speak a word of English though.

That didn’t stop him telling us what everything was on the way to the hotel. A bridge that was still in construction was definitely nearer to meeting in the middle than when we passed it three weeks ago. Back to where we started on 20th February, and on the final leg. How it has gone so quickly. The carnival in Rio has been and gone whilst we have been away, but the stands are still in place, and all the signs are still there. There is a broken down float at the side of the road – not sure if it has been abandoned, or waiting for next year! Another hot day – it is forecast for 32 degrees this weekend.

We check in to the Copacabana Palace. Magical from the outside (although it reminds Paul of the Grand in Brighton and the bombing of Maggie Thatcher) and magical from the inside. The only trouble is it is full of people. And children. It is heaving at the rafters. We went to the pool to get a drink and decide what we are going to do for the next three days, and it is packed. Oh dear. I am used to space – here they have packed in as much as they can. When we got back up to the room there was a lovely bottle of Moet Champagne on the table – with a card welcoming Mr Ballard. Must have delivered it to the wrong room – sorry Mr Ballard, your loss is our gain. Will enjoy that!

We went for a stroll along Copacabana Beach – it was completely dark now and the moon almost full. The beach was transformed to a sports academy – football nets virtually the whole way along or volleyball. There were hoards of youngsters and older people playing football – in an organised manner, not just higgledy piggeldy. Can see some of the future Ronaldinho’s here. We walked all the way along – people were displaying their wares, there was fast food places and candy floss for sale. A glorified Blackpool – but with better weather. All of the hotels had the same bland look from the outside – huge and impersonal. I think we have the best of the bunch. We stopped to have something to eat at one of the pavement cafes – pleasant enough but nothing special. It was good to people watch.

When we got back to the hotel, the card that came with the champagne had been changed to one that said Mrs Bridget – must be for us then! Won’t feel so guilty now!
South American Adventure – Day Twenty Four, Saturday 15th March 2014

We decided to get up early to do the Corcovado Tour to Christ the Redeemer. We had a super breakfast by the pool, and had already found out that there were direct vans to the Corcovadojust a couple of blocks from our hotel. We walked to the Praca do Lido just along CopacabanaBeach in time to buy a ticket (51 reais, about £15 each) which includes the entry ticket and return transport, for when the first van left at 8.00am. This was meant to avoid the crowds! It took around 45 minutes to get to the top of the mountain, where we disembarked and got the elevator to the bottom of the statue. It was an absolutely glorious day, with a clear blue sky. It was amazing – and what a feat of engineering. His middle finger on his right hand still needed a little patching up from a lightening strike, but his thumb, which was chipped last month, seems to be OK now. Seems it happens quite a lot, but he is a long way up and probably the thing nearest to strike.

It was OK when we first got up there – no queues, but after being there half an hour or so the place was packed. Everybody wanted to have their picture taken in the pose. The views over the city of Rio were amazing – the flight path was actually below our view point, and we could see planes landing from above. It was quite hazy, and just as we were leaving there was a real haze hanging over the city. Not sure if that was pollution or heat mist. We got back to where the vans left from – no queues again yet – and headed back to Copacabana. Lovely few hours.

The beach was packed when we got back – miles and miles of beautiful sandy beach, with miles and miles of people on it. Looked like Benidorm. Copacabana Palace have a little area with sun beds and a beach service. A piece of haven in the middle of hustle and bustle. We have a small interlude by the pool, before I go on an adventure on my own.

This afternoon I have booked a “Favela Tour” – a tour of one of the shanty towns. Instead of going in a car and just looking, I have booked a walking tour, run by a guy that lives in the favela of Rochinha. This is the biggest favela in South America, and houses around 300,000 people. Paul has decided that it is not his cup of tea, and opts to stay by the pool!

It is about half an hour to walk to the meeting place of the tour – further down CopacabanaBeach. Dembore is the tour guide, and he also lives in the favela. There is another English couple, an Israeli and two Austrian ladies. We start by getting on a bus. We have to travel the way that the people who live there travel. We get on an already full bus, and it stops probably ten more times and picks up more people. We have to feel the “heat” of the people, so Dembore says. Quite right – it was rather hot. But everyone is so friendly. Paul seems to think that will be the last he is going to see of me – he thinks it is extremely dangerous. I think it will probably be safer than walking along Copacabana Beach!

We take the bus right to the top of the favela – it is a huge expanse that occupies the whole of a hillside. We have gone up and up – almost as far as we did this morning to Corcorvado. We can see the statue across on another hilltop from where we get off the bus. The noise and the traffic are constant. There is one main street, seven not main streets and about 500 alleyways. The houses are built into the hillside, and don’t look too steady, but apparently some have been here for over one hundred years. Sometimes, another storey is just added to an existing house. Building regulations?? I don’t think so. In actual fact, this is a bit like the Vatican Citywith a law all its own.

They were originally illegal housing, but the government couldn’t get rid of the people. They moved them on, but they just kept coming back. In the end, they let them stay. But they didn’t have anything except what they built. No water, electricity etc. The drug dealers started here to make money to pay for the info structure of the community – not sure that it is quite the same now. There are, apparently, a lot of drug dealers. They have put a police presence in the favela for show for the World Cup. I saw a few with machine guns just standing on the streets. There have been a couple of occasions when there have been shootings. This is what gives it a bad name.

But this is such a strong community – considering how many people live here, Dembore seems to know most of them. They all stop to have a chat, and to talk with us – albeit we can’t chat back as no-one speaks English. All the businesses are run by people in the favela. 99% of the families living here are working – many of them are taxi drivers and work in the hotels. That is quite an impressive record. Everyone here is happy – and I don’t feel threatened at all. This is not how it is portrayed to the outside world. Not sure I would like to live there though – it is very basic, the little alleyways are only inches wide, and the steps! If you live at the top, you could walk up two hundred steps to get to your house. Imagine going to the shop, getting back home and realising you have forgotten the milk! But, those that don’t have much are usually happy with their lot.

There are little motor bike taxis buzzing about – they only can work in the favela, and the busses are full to the brim. For all those that work, they use them to get in and out. As it is a Saturday night, there are barbeques on the street – and music! Everywhere. Couldn’t go and have a quiet lie down here. Apparently the noise won’t stop until about 6.00am tomorrow morning. We then stop off at the house of the man that runs the tours. The tours are paying for a DJ Project called Spin Rochinha that is training young adults to be DJ’s. This gives them something to do to perhaps earn money, and if they are busy they don’t have time to sell drugs. One of the guys turns up for his training – he comes over two hours each way from another favela. We stayed there chatting for ages – then Dembore suggests we go and get dinner at a restaurant in the favela. Everyone agrees – not sure that Paul is going to be happy eating on his own tonight! I sent him a text just to let him know I was still alive, and not to cash in the life insurance just yet.

We went down the road a bit to a little restaurant – only pizza etc on the menu, but I hardly expected gourmet food. It was good enough – everyone had at least two drinks, food, and we all split Dembore’s dinner between us and it came to less than £10 each. Bargain. The party was getting into real swing now – so much so that I had missed at least two calls from Paul. Tried to ring him, but then he didn’t answer. Oh well!

We walked down and out of the favela onto the main road. We went on an overpass to cross the road, and looked back at the hillside full of lights from the favela. It was a really lovely afternoon and evening, with some really lovely people. I decided on a taxi rather than a bus to get back – I am sure Paul was worrying. When I got back to the hotel he gave me a big hug. He (weirdly) had been reading a book where a guy was in the middle of a drug shoot out in a favela in Rio. He had tried to ring several times, I hadn’t answered, and he was really worried. Oh dear! Next time he will have to come with me!
South American Adventure – Day Twenty Five, Sunday 16th March 2014

Today is the last full day in Rio. After a relaxed breakfast, we have booked a tour with Eat Rio. This is a walking tour, tasting typical Brazilian food. We took at taxi to the Nova Capela Restaurant, which is where the tour was starting in the Lapa District. Good start – the restaurant was chained closed. We were slightly early, but soon Tom and Manuella arrived, follwed by two American couples and a German lady. Tom is from UK originally, but is now married to Manuella and has set up the Eat Rio Tours. They were as surprised that the restaurant was closed as well. No problem. That is what I like to hear!

We moved down the road five minutes, and arranged to have the same dish in a different restaurant. It was a salted cod fish and other stuff ball, deep fried to give it a crispy shell. This was cut open, drizzled with olive oil and then (optionally) a hot pepper sauce poured on. It was delicious. This was washed down with a traditional pineapple and mint drink. Round one done – we set off to the next restaurant.

We then walked by the Lapa Arches, or the Carioqua Aquaduct, which were built in the 1700’s. This was originally built to carry water to the part of the city that was inhabited, but this actual part of it has two storey arches that span around 270 metres. Very impressive. It is not used for this any more – in actual fact I don’t think at the moment it is used for anything. We then walked past the Escardaria Seladon, a set of steps in done in mosaic by a penniless artist from scraps in the 1990’s. They were done to improve the look of the steps. He was found burnt to death on them in 2013. Yuk!

We then went on to our second tasting. We went to a fruit and vegetable market, and had a tapiocas. I can remember this name, as I thought it was going to be a milk pudding! It wasn’t. It was made of a starch from a vegetable called Manioc. After going through some process to get the starch, there are ladies on the stall with frying pans than turn it into tapiocas. They fry it, then put in either a sweet or savoury filling, turn it in half like an omelette and you eat it like a sandwich. It was delicious, if somewhat different to anything I have tasted before.

The whole of the fruit and veg market was buzzing. Many of the stalls were cutting the fruit to let you taste it. We had some mango that was so sweet – and so cheap! Some of the fruits were recognisable, but some I had never seen before. We then went on to have another drink. This was made with pure sugar cane. There were a couple of men with a machine in a van, and they fed the actual sugar cane into it. A bit like a big juicer. The liquid that came out was then mixed with other things – not sure what, and then you had it in the cup. There was a squeeze of lime that went in last. Another delicious drink.

We then went into the metro. A very good system. The station and the train were air conditioned – lovely, it was a very hot day again. We went two stops, and then got off in another district. We then had a weird soup. I will explain it. It contains cyanide, a plant that is an anaesthetic, a couple of other things that make it gloopy and a whole prawn. They are selling it – so I am eating it! Apparently the cyanide is cooked out, so it isn’t poisonous when you come to eat it. Hope the chef hasn’t got the hump about anything! It wasn’t too bad – very salty, and no matter how I tried to eat the prawn whole I couldn’t bear the thought of the crunch, so shelled it. The shell was really soft, and very hard to peel. Still did it though. My mouth definitely went a bit numb, but I didn’t fall down dead (for the second day in a row!). We also had a dish made of the acai berry here. A very refreshing frozen drink type thing. Made your mouth and teeth purple. Went with the fact that I couldn’t feel them anyway!

We then walked some more to another market, and had a very alcoholic drink here over ice that came in either passion fruit or coconut flavour. That made everyone happy! Strong, but pleasant. Out last stop was in a restaurant that had been converted from slave quarters before slavery was abolished. We had Brazilian beer (think we might have already tried that one!) and then another traditional Brazilian dish. There was a meat dish that was stew like with beans and pork rib, rice, a green kale like vegetable, and something else that you sprinkle over the top. It was lovely – but by this time everyone was full to the brim. There was live music here, and full of locals having a very social Sunday afternoon.

What a lovely tour. I think I have remembered everything we had to eat – so much. No idea about the names though. Meeting local people, and trying food that we would not have even known what it was let alone order it. A really good idea.

After the tour we got a taxi to the base of Sugar Loaf Mountain. We were going up for the sunset. A really good time to go – there was no queues for the cable car at all. Sixty one reais each – around £17. We rode the first cable car, then took some pictures from the first stage before getting on the next cable car to get to the top of Sugar Loaf. The views from the top are stunning – 360 degrees around the whole of Rio. We got up to the top at around 5pm, so half an hour or so to wait for the sun to go behind the mountains behind the Christ statue. We had a little walk around the park area at the top – Paul saw a monkey at the point when I had lost him, so I never got to see one. There were a few people up there, but nowhere near as many as during the day. And I think this is the best time to come. You get the views in daylight, and the magical rays and colours that the sunset brings. I think the sun should have set a few inches to the left, so that it was right behind the statue. Instead it went down behind a hill full of electric and power pylons. Nice!

No waiting to go back down either. We thought we would try and walk back to the hotel – didn’t look that far when we up the mountain. As long as there was a way through a couple of other mountains, Copacabana Beach would be right there. After walking about half an hour, and not really knowing where we were, we decided it would be beneficial to grab a taxi. I think that was the right choice. We would have got back to the hotel about midnight!

A quick drink when we got back. Paul bumped into a Restaurant Manager that he had been talking to last night when he thought I was not coming out of the favela. He was glad to see me too! Who doesn’t know where I have been?
South American Adventure – Day Twenty Six, Monday 17th March 2014

Our last day – tonight we fly home to London. Not to waste the last day – much to Paul’s dismay – I think it best we get up early, have an early breakfast, and go on a walking tour that I have found. I don’t think he wants me to go “off into the sunset” again, so agrees to come with me. I think he was ideally thinking of a day on the beach!

The meeting place is in Carioca Sqaure, under the Carioca Clock. The concierge says that the quickest way to get there is metro, but we decide to take a taxi. On a Monday morning, in probably rush hour. After about forty five minutes in the taxi, we can see why he suggested the metro. After sitting in stationery traffic, we make hand signals to the driver, pay him, and as far as possible think we are setting off in the right direction. We are, and we get there with thirty seconds to spare. Better than thirty seconds after they have left! This is a free walking tour – but very much with tips expected at the end. It attracts a lot of backpackers, and consequently there is around forty people on the tour.

The girl that is taking it is very enthusiastic, has very good English, and her voice seems to carry a long way, so no problem. We start just off the square at St Anthony’s Church. In here, it has a line of photographs of the square from the 1600’s to present day. As you would expect, it has changed considerably. From a lake back in the 1600’s, through to the commercial centre and stock exchange that it is today. Unrecognisable. But good to see it change in small slices. St Anthony is apparently the saint of marriage – you pray to him help find you a spouse. Not heard of him before!

We then walked through some streets to the Colombo Bakery, one of the oldest bakeries and café in Rio. Apparently, even our own Queen has taken tea here. It was very old fashioned, and lovely inside, with so many cakes and pastries…….. But, we were on a tour so couldn’t stop! We then went through little cobbled streets that were the hub of industry in the 1800’s, and then into another cobbled street where the rich used to live – but only the facades of the houses remain. Carmen Miranda had a house here – I can remember my mum once putting a bunch of bananas on her head and dancing like Carmen. Her house is now a café. I had a Carmen Miranda cocktail at the Copacabana Palace a couple of nights ago.

We then moved to the Imperial Palace, where we heard a little about the history of Brazil and Portugal, and King John 6th. This was his palace when he came over in 1808, but he was a little disappointed. It certainly didn’t look much like a royal palace. But in 1808 it would have been better than the ordinary! We came out of another corner of the palace, which has been turned into a book and record shop, and a fabulous palace stood in front of us. Tiradentes Palace far exceeds the Imperial Palace for grandeur and beauty. It opened in the early 1900’s, and was a built on the ground of an old jail that housed a chap called Tiradentes who was a member of the Brazilian Independence Movement. It now houses the Legislative Assembly of the state of Rio.

We then went past a Haviananas flip flop shop – never heard of them, but several people went mad. Thought they must be good – presents bought! We then walked on to the main square, that was circled by old and beautiful buildings – the Library, the Theatre and the Fine Arts Museum. Fantastic. We then went to the Selaron steps that we went past yesterday – this time we walked up a few, but were advised not to go to the top. This is where the area changes, and you could get knifed for your camera. Enough said! We finished at the Lapa Arches, and then some of us went to lunch at a traditional Brazilian restaurant. Most of our fellow companions were young backpackers from all over the world comparing stories. Oh what it is to be young!

We went back to the hotel on the metro – a lot easier, and the station was just behind the hotel. I then let Paul have an hour or so by the pool before it was time to pack and get ready for the flight home.

We are both very sad to be leaving. It was a wonderful adventure!

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