Monday, November 26, 2007

Chilly in Chile

We´ve been working our down the coast of Chile for the past few days. We began with a beautiful trip across the mountains from Argentina to arrive at the lake-side town of Puerto Varas. We went on a full-day trip to Chiloe island and we blessed with beautifully clear skies all day. Chiloe Island was at one stage the most important point along the westerly South American coast as it was the control point of the Magellan Strait, which was the only available trade route across from the Atlantic across to the Pacific and vice versa. Also one of the last Spanish strong-holds as independance was gained by the mainland towns. But after the creation of the Panama canal Chiloe has become a quiet sleepy place with painted wooden houses in very Germanic styles inherited from its early settlers. We took a boat trip out along the coast to visit the penguin colonies where there were also sea-lions and loads of different bird varieties. My favourite though were the cows taking a stroll along the beach. Along the way we stopped to have some oysters fresh out of the sea, I´m not exactly an oyster expert but other in group told me these were the best they´d ever tasted. In the evening we had an amazing dinner cooked in a traditional under ground pit of huge amounts of mussels, clams, pork, chicken, potatoes and onion bread. A really enjoyable day but unfortunately due to full moon, very low tides meant we couldn´t get onto the ferry home ´till about mid-night.

Next day we took a flight further south to the town of Punta Arenas. You may have heard of it in the news as it´s the town where the passengers from the Explorer ship were finally airlifted to. If you haven´t heard the GAP Explorer ship, which set out from Ushuaia on a 19-day Antartica trip, hit an iceberg and sank. Luckily all passengers and crew were all evacuated successful though they did spend about 6 hours in life-boats in ice-filled waters. The boat is actually owned by GAP the company I´m travelling with. It´s terrible news for the company but great that the evacuation was handled well and everyone safe.

The highlight of Punta Arenas is a trip to the Otway Penguin colony. You can actually walk along designated areas of the penguin colony and nesting group so you can get really close and the penguins don´t seem bothered as they waddle by. I´ve some funny video footage which I´ll hopefully get to show those interested when I get home. Definately a bite in the wind down this far south so we´re preparing ourselves for our journey further south.

From there we have travelled further north slightly to the town of Puerto Natales, which is starting point for trips into the Torres del Paine National Park. Taking it easy today catching up on mail and doing some shopping before we head of on 5 days of hiking/camping in the park! The weather can get really harsh here, particularly the icy winds so we´re all wondering about the camping at night certainly. So we´re all sort though our best warm thermals, fleeces and jackets as we have a limited weight that can be carried on the trip. The park is supposed to be stunning though so definately hoping for some clear days. Better go get myself ready and hopefully have some great photos to share in a few days.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bariloche, Argentina

Greetings from Argentina!

After a brief overnight in Buenos Aires, we flew down to Bariloche, Argentina´s biggest ski resort. (I´m coming back to B.A. for a few days at the end of this trip into Patagonia). It´s summer time here now so no skiing obviously - maybe I´ll have to come back in winter sometime. The town is all ´swiss-style´i.e. it´s looks like a US ski resort that it supposed to look Swiss. We´ve a Swiss girl in our group who is finding it all very funny particularly the St. Bernard dogs with barrels around their necks. There´s 12 in the group - English, Australian, Swedish, Swiss, and I´m the only Irish for a change. Lots of hand-made chocolate shops too which combined with the amount of steak we are eating is a bit dangerous. Everything you hear about Argentinian steak is so true - really delicious but you get absolutely massive servings. Just as well we´re going to be getting lots of exercise on this trip. Yesterday we hiked up into one of the surrounding ski areas with a great view around and today went out for a bike ride around the lakes - gorgeous views of the snow-capped mountains all around.

The weather here has been absolutely stunning since we arrived. Completely clear and about 25 degrees. From the top of the mountain we could see 360 degrees around and there wasn´t a wisp of cloud anywhere. Not sure how long this will last but enjoying it whilst we can.

The oddest to me is probably the long evenings - there´s still real heat in the sun at 6pm and it is still light at 9pm. We´re going to be going all the way south to the very southern tip at Ushuaia so not sure what time the sun sets down there - if at all.

That´s all for now, we´re off into Chile tomorrow to the Chilean lake district.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Devil´s Nose and Cuenca

It was an early 6am start from Baños to try and get to the 9:30 Devil´s Nose train but worth getting up early for. Along the route we had a great view of the Tungurahua and Chimborazo volcanos (6,310m). Ecuador has two parallel ranges of the Andes and the area between is known as the ´Avenue of the Volcanos´. Tungurahua was actually blowing out great clouds as we passed.

The Devil´s Nose is so called as the the train twists back and forth down through a tight mountain valley. It was a huge undertaking originally building this main transport route but now it is just used by tourists. At some points it has to go backwards as it zigzags down the mountain side. The best bit is that we got to sit on the roof on the way down which gave us a spectacular view. Really beautiful surrounds.

Cuenca is a lovely colonial city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. There´s a lot more money in this city than anywhere else we´ve been in Ecuador - some very nice houses and fancy shops. One of the most famous industries in Cuenca is the famous Ecuadorian hat, incorrectly known as a Panama hat! The hats sold as Panama hats are actually all hand-woven in this region. We did a trip around the factory to see how the hats are finished and shaped and styles applied. We then had great fun trying on lots of hats in the shop but were very disappointing customers as there was very little purchasing going on.

The culinary speciality of the region is these attractive creatures to the left - yep, it´s guinea pig. Apologies to anyone who had one as a pet but they are actually quite tasty! The restuarant did cut them into small pieces for us which made it a lot easier - I didn´t fancy having the head staring at me on my plate. We were in one of the most famous guinea pig restaurants in Ecuador, where Ecuadorian vips apparently come for special occasions.

Also in this region we visited Cajas National Park - there are over 235 lakes within the park. Ecuador is such amazing country as it has such diversity in such a small space. There´s something like 32 different eco-systems in the country. So in a single day you can travel from jungle to mountain to highlands.

After a brief overnight back in Quito, we travelled north to stay at a beautiful hacienda ranch for a couple of days. At 400 years old, it´s Ecuador´s oldest hacienda and has had a rich history over the years. Felt very lucky to have the priviledge to stay there.

Just down the road from the hacienda is the ´Middle of the World´ - latitude 000. We went to visit the Equator site where there is a massive sun-dial - at equinox there is no shadow at the equator. The indigenous people here figured this out thousands of years ago and therefore this area has been a sacred place for a long time. (The name Quito actually means Middle Earth). The guy there tried to convince us that all world globes should be side-ways with Ecuador as the centre of the world! I guess it´s all a matter of perspective but not sure it´s going to go global. It´s interesting though that Ecuadorians believe Chimborazo to be the highest mountain in the world - due to the fact that the world is flatter at the poles and fatter at the equator this mountain is further up into the sky than Everest.

We were lucky again with our visit to Cayembe volcano, which is the only place you can find a glacier bang on the equator. It was quite a dramatic drive up to the volcano as myself and two of the others were travelling up in a 37 year-old Land Rover whose back door kept flying open whenever we hit bumps, which we hit a lot of. So Emma and myself were clinging on to the seats to prevent ourselves and our stuff disappearing off down the mountain! We did a short hike to get to the start of the glacier and then climbed up the ice and snow for a bit, just in order to slide our way back down. It was good fun - some of the group went flying down the snow on a big plank which created great video footage.

That afternoon we went out for a horse ride around the local area of the hacienda (no rest for the wicked!). I luckily got the best behaved horse of the group who didn´t want to stop and eat all the green stuff it could find (unlike all the others) and was quite happy to clop along at the back without needing to fight for a position in the line. This area is now one of the largest producers of roses in the world - they even export roses to Holland! So we had a lovely gentle ride through the country-side.

Our final destination on the trip was the market town of Otavalo, which has the largest market in South America. We had a fun last night out with lots of mohitos and salsa dancing but after getting to bed at 3:30 we had to be up at 6:00 to get to the animal market. And I´m so glad I did get up as it was probably one of the funniest mornings of my life. Firstly Dana, one of the guys from the US, bought a piglet! So here was this big gringo walking around the market with a piglet on a string, who was screaching quite a bit (the piglet, not Dana) at being separated from his family. All the locals were just laughing as we walked around. Eventually Dana found a buyer for his piglet - sold at a $4 loss but the entertainment value was priceless. After a wander around the cattle section we were just heading back for breakfast when Edel spotted a lovely little goat which she purchased for $15. And so we headed back across the city with a goat in tow on a string. Everywhere we went there was just a wave of giggling locals at the `gringa with the goat´. We named the goat Little Henry after our tour leader and he was extremely well behaved and bonded well with his new parents. Edel was so attached to Little Henry that she didn´t want to sell the goat to anyone, even though we got some good offers through town. Eventually the restaurant owner, where we were having breakfast gave Little Henry a good home - he owns a hacienda-style hotel where Little Henry could live happily as a lawn-mower!

After the rest of the morning at the craft market we then headed back to Quito for the end of our tour. I´ve really loved this trip and Ecuador has definately been my favourite country on the trip so far. If anyone is thinking of coming to South America and only has a couple of weeks I´d definately recommend coming here as there is just so much diversity and so much to do in a small space. One of the reasons the trip was so good was that we had a brilliant tour leader, Henry, who as a trained ecologist knew so much about the flora and fauna but also about the history and info on all the areas that we visited, that it made the trip so much more interesting. He also had a real enthusiasm for his country that we couldn´t help loving it. Add to this a brilliant group, who were loads of fun and we had a lot of laughs, and it all adds up to an excellent trip! Very sad to say goodbye to everyone ... but next stop Argentina!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hot´n´humid in the jungle

Been a busy but very fun week since leaving Quito. After overnighting at the lovely hot springs at Papallacta we descended over the Andes to the lowlands at Tena. Our first stop was two nights in a Jungle Lodge, Shangri La, which was perched on a cliff looking down on the river Napo and out across the rainforest. A great place to hang out in a hammock. The whole of the area to the east of the Andes is known as the Amazon basin - the area we were in is known as the Amazon highlands as the rivers are still flowing downhill quite rapidly. The Napo joins with the Amazon itself a long way downstream from here.

We set off down the river in a dugout canoe and along the way visited a local culture museum and animal refuge. At the museum we learning about how the local people hunt, their boats, cooking, animals and food. We also got to have a go at using a blowpipe to shoot darts for hunting - well we were trying to hit a fixed target but I was impressed to get a dart into the board at least. The animal refuge houses animals that have been rescued from mistreatment and illegal pets. Lots iof monkeys that liked showing off, some scary looking ocelots (wild cats) and very noisy mackaws. The weather can change very suddenly here, one minute it´s hot and sunny and the next you´re in the middle of a thunderstorm. Guess that´s why they call it rainforest, eh?

The next day we went rafting down a tributory of the Napo which has class 3 rapids. So really good fun and nothing like as crazy as the class 5 rapids I´d been in previous on the Zambesi. We had three boats with 5 in each and actually had the Ecuadorian national rafting team as our guides so in very good hands. I still managed to fall out in the middle of one rapid and went for a bit of a scary swim but picked up safely at the far end. We stopped at one point at a cave where the mud is supposed to work as a very theraputic facepack so the raft-guides enjoyed themselves painting us up in yellow and grey coloured clay. It was a gorgeous, hot, sunny day which was pretty lucky as we were out on the water for about 5 hours.

From there we headed further into the jungle to stay with a local community for a couple of days. Our host family, Delphine, Estelle and their children were lovely and looked after us all extremely well. We were staying in lovely lodge huts. There is no electricity available in this region but we managed fine without it. The family cooked us amazing food each day on a basic gas stove. GAP, the company I`m travelling with, having been working with this family and the local community for the last 15 years.

In the morning we went to visit the local school which has been supported by GAP. Before the establishment of this school the local kids had to walk 1.5 hours to get to the nearest school in the town. There are just 12 pupils in the school at the moment. Estelle, our host mother, is the local teacher. The kids were very cute on the visit. First they all introduced themselves and then sang us some local songs. They learn both Spanish and Quichua here.

We then went out on a walk through the jungle with Delphine to learn more about the area, the plants and animals. It was extremely humid and lots of bugs but really interesting to hear how the local people know which plants to use for food, medicines, building, tools etc. The rivers here still have traces of gold in them so Delphine showed us how they pan for gold and actually found some small traces whilst we watched. We also tried some palm heart, coco fruit (some of us didn't quite get that we weren´t supposed to eat the coco bean raw which wasn´t the tastiest - obviously needs a bit of something doing before it becomes chocolate!) and lemon-tasting ants. And as you can see did our Tarzan vine-swinging impressions (wellies´n´all).

In the afternoon some of the crew went climbing waterfalls. But I decided to engage in my favourite activity instead - lying in a hammock. Apparently it was pretty crazy what they were climbing up but even worse coming down. That evening the family did a show of local music and dancing after dinner.

The next day it was on to Baños, famous for its hots thermals (hence the title which means baths) and the continuously active volcano, Tungurahua, which is just above the town. It`s nice to get away from the humidity of the jungle as we have headed back into the central Ecuadorian region again. We had a great night out in Baños. We were in a funny bar called the Leprecaun Bar which played the bizarrest mix of salsa, rock and classic 80s tunes that we managed to stay out dancing `til 3 am. The group are very good fun and we`re having a great laugh.

This morning we went for a bike trip down the along the beautiful valley from Baños to Rio Verde - all along there are huge waterfalls falling down to the river floor. It was a lovely ride as it was all downhill (we were all a bit rough around the edges after our late night)and we were able to catch a truck back up.

We are hoping to do the Devil`s Nose train ride tomorrow which is a highlight of the region. We then arrive in Cuenca which is another UNESCO World heritage city. So hope to tell you about that and hopefully get to upload some photos over the next couple of days.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Spent a few days relaxing in Quito before the start of a two-week trip around Ecuador. Quito has two main areas - the Old Town and the New Town. The New Town is where all the hotels, bars and restaurants are, known as ´Gringoland´to the locals. The Old Town is the Spanish Colonial centre which is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Incas destroyed the Inca city before the Spanish arrived so the Spanish built a new city on top of the Inca ruins. They liked their churches, those Conquistadors - there´s 18 Spanish churches in a km sq area.

Just met up with the new group for the next two weeks - there´s 13 of us plus our Ecuadorian local guide, a mix of Irish, English, Canadian, Australian, U.S. and Dutch. I had to laugh when I met my new room-mate and she lives in Dublin (originally from Meath). And of course it didn´t take us long to work out a friend in common, the famous Jane Ryan.

Ecuador is a very volcanic country and therefore has some great hot springs. Tonight we are going to be staying in a small town that has the best hot springs in Ecuador. Apparently the pools are right outside our cabin doors!

After than we are off to the Amazon jungle for 4 days. We are spending two days in a jungle lodge and two days staying with a local community which should be really interesting. Really looking forward to it - have my bug spray at the ready. Will hopefully manage to post update after that.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Snow at the equator!

Q: where in the world can you find snow at the equator?

Sounds a bit like a trick question but I got caught in a snow-storm today in Ecuador! Ecuador, so called because it lies on the equator, is the only point where high land and the equator intersect.

We were supposed to be mountain-biking down Cotopaxi, the worlds highest active volcano, but when we up to the normal start point at 4800m on the side of the volcano there was a snow-storm blowing. Its possible to do a two day hike to the summit across the glacier normally but not today. The bikes normally start their down-hill at the hikers refuge just below the start of the glacier. But sensibly our guide decided biking in snow mightnt be the wisest idea and no arguments from us on that. (Just two Belgiums and myself on the trip). So we drove back down to the plateau area at the base of the volcano where the weather was clear and began our ride across the flatish boulder field over volcanic ash paths. The boulders had been through out of the volcano during previous eruptions. The most recent was in 1877.
Actually a lovely ride as we continued on down through highland mountain meadows with wild horses around. Then we reached an area of rolling hills that was exactly like the Wicklow Mountains! Ecuador is very green after the desert areas of Peru and Bolivia. Our last section left us completely soaked and muddy though as a sudden downpour as we descended through the forest turned the track into a completely muddy mess. Good fun but I was very glad Id brought a complete change of clothes in the jeep before our two hour drive back to Quito. Apparently the weather in Ecuador is always unpredictable so better get used to changeable conditions - sound a bit familiar?