2007 April. South America

Well it´s a long way to South America via the U.S.A, 36 hours door to door in fact. At least  we go home direct via Auckland and shorten the whole affair by some ten hours. Took a day or two to recover and get over the rocket ride. We navigated the streets of Santiago whilst we got our bearings and feeling back in our bodies. It is a big city of some 4 million with a few special parks and a sky that is rarely seen due to industrial strength pollution. Second only to Mexico City if you are statistically minded. Shame really ’cause there are the magnificent snow-capped Andes looming overhead but sadly they’re rarely seen. Didn’t fully appreciate them on the first day when they were clearly visible, then we didn’t spot them again until the plane lifted us above the thick layer of smog heading to Puerto Montt.

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Looking down from the park over Santiago, Chile. Yes the smog is thick.

Cities are cities to me, I live in one all year so I always feel better to be in the country and out of the familiar. We picked up a car at Puerto Montt, the gateway to the lakes district, many craggy mountains and snow-capped volcanos (alive and dead) We pick up a Hertz car, they´ve always been good in the past, this one has a cracked windscreen, every panels dented and the doors creak like it´s twenty years old. It has under 70 thousand clicks on the clock, I don´t get it. Ten minutes after taking possession I do, there are no road rules that I can make out. OK by me but the roads other than the main highways are all bone shattering goat tracks. Every thousand klms must be like a years wear and tear, I add another year in only three days
We are staying in Frutillar a pleasant town against a large lake with volcanic Mt.Orsono looming across the water, it’s very picturesque. The hotel is simple, magnificent views and good food. Spend an interesting night talking to a Norwegian who was helping the owner set up a large salmon farm. It is a new industry here but with fewer rules and less Government interference than Europe it seems that they believe it is easier to earn big money quickly. I could see the glint in their eyes.

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Mt Osorno, the spitting image of Mt Fuji, half a world away. Cloud swirls tightly.

Have just spent three days of solid driving. Up volcanos, down long valleys of salmon farms and jagged Andes backdrops and a long day of over 500 klms to Chiloe island, just off the coast and a couple of car ferries away.

IMG_0355You only pay rates on your house on land so the locals build them just tethering….

Today we headed along a lovely valley loaded with fish farms and breath-taking scenery. Stopped in the middle of nowhere for a break from the bone jarring dirt roads. Took a picture of the lake and spotted an old yellowed plastic bag. Wouldn’t normally notice it but there is very little litter here. It contained nearly half a million pesos ! (Aus $1000) Yes, am still gob smacked, in the middle of nowhere not even a parking area and not a town for 30 klms in either direction !
Getting a dose of culture tonight, there is a concert at an ultra modern concert hall, think small-scale Opera house, it sit out over a lake with Mt Orsono front and centre in the background. The town is trying to reinvigorate itself, with no rapids or bungy jumping to be had they have decided on the arts ? Why not, they are half way through this major building project and are already using the front half of the Opera house looking over the lake.

IMG_0382The partially built Opera House with Mt Orsono across the lake.

The highlight in the food stakes has to have been the suggestion to go to a farmhouse for a meal. ‘Fit us in’ I gestured in my best Spanish ! The night comes and we skid up the dirt roads in pitch black to a sign for Se Cocina. The owner greets us in the farm lane and escorts us along a floodlit lawn into a purpose-built restaurant for up to 20 people, we are the only guests and he has opened especially. The kitchen is the stage and he, his apprentice and pot scrubber turn out course after course of magnificent food. Pate and home-baked rolls appear out of the wood fired oven, tiny pieces of fillet on a huge cast-iron grille which is over a metre long. A pause before gravolax and a clam bisque and then main course of white fish with mash and grilled egg-plant. Desert is figs cooked almost to jam stage and crepes. All washed down with pisco sours ( compulsory) white wine and an almond liquor to finish us off. I have taken some photos of the place, we felt like royalty, the whole meal was like being in theatre with so much care for the food and a backdrop of the huge fire of the grille.

IMG_0344Se Cocina

IMG_0345The adjustable grille at Se Cocina. The food was just fantastic.

IMG_0348The only two guests and the best dining experience of my life.

We are met at Puerto Montt for the five-hour bus ride to Explora. the landscape is flat and barren, wind-swept and offering little of our final destination. The road is flat and bumpy dirt. they are trying to reduce the drive time by paving the road, some task considering its isolation. They have progressed by 100 klms per year and hope to have it completely paved in another three years. Then the hoards will be all over this pristine place but for today Robyn and I give in to the rough commute. Our arrival to this deluxe resort owned by a Chilean billionaire is in stark contrast the surrounds, the luxe building sits low and easy against the harsh vista. Guides talk to us about the available walks as we sip Pisco sours and get braver with our ability. We stand at our bedroom window staring out into the wilderness, a full moon clearly highlighting the craggy mountains cloaked in Partial cloud. we can hear the ferocious wind tearing the grass out of the ground. We are near the end of the world.

IMG_0435Explora hotel. The luxury is in its location. Remote Patagonia.

IMG_0409The view from our bedroom.

I choose to walk to the foot of the Torres de Paine the most symbolic and renown mountains in the area. A motley crew climb into a van and we rattle our way an hour from our lodge. We trudge for five hours uphill following a silver-grey river and then into a beech forest tinged with the colours of Autumn. The trees hug the ground the wind  virtually pruning these hardy branches to within a metre of the ground. My knees hurt the continual pounding and uneven ground testing the joints.Lunch is next to a glacier, we huddle behind large boulders but the sound of the wind keeps us all rugged up. Looming above us the smooth surface of the three towers which make up Torres how they can be climbed is beyond me but 16 climbers did just that this past summer. late afternoon we are back at the van and celebrate by drinking a cold beer in even colder conditions. Back at the lodge I thaw out in a deep bath with a view of the mountains clearly disable from my warm but waterlogged position. Bliss.

IMG_0399Our lunch spot beneath Torres de Paine

Our walking group shrinks each day first 18 then 11 and now 9. Yesterday’s 30 klms did a few more in and Lucas is killing his father with his exuberance and his father’s determination to keep up, when he really can’t. Each day my body has been a little sorer, even the morning shower refuses to give me back my youth. Todays walk is to the glacier face. We will walk there whilst Robyn and some other far smarter guests will catch a boat and pick us up in the afternoon. Again we walk through a beech forest, it is stoney silent and free of the wind that seems to buffet you from all sides. Finally we seem glimpses of Grey lake, yes a very adventurous name ? We walk a stony beach prodding at icy sculptures which were once grand icebergs. as we get closer to the glacier the distinctive blue of the bergs becomes more prominent. Evidently a lack of oxygen in the ice causes the blue hue.We sit and eat crille sandwiches for lunch, yes whale food. Another new experience !

IMG_0445The blue face of the glacier.

A couple of rubber zodiacs pick us up and ferry us out to the main boat and we motor along the edge of the glacier without being so close as to be hit by calving icebergs. You can hear the groaning as the ice splinters and breaks before dropping into the lake. Global warming at its finest. The guide leans over the edge of the boat and chips away a chunk of blue ice. perfect he tells us for chilling down our Pisco sours, we raise our glasses and salute what has been a few days of magnificent walking in pristine country. The cold out on the water and the long break after lunch means that when we are dropped off to walk back into camp that we hobble and shuffle like a group of geriatrics, reality strikes !

IMG_0393So…who’s going to get wet first ?

Since spoiling ourselves rotten at the Explora lodge in Patagonia we have had to go out and fend for ourselves again in the not so luxurious but challenging unknown world. It started with the arranged accommodation falling through and a smallish town of Ushuaia, the furthest, most Southern town in the world. It ran out of money over Easter. What a brilliant way to get Robyn to stop shopping, simply have all of the towns ATMs run dry and for three days the only question was when will the truck come to refill ?   On landing in Ushaia I rang our hotel to advise them that we had arrived, the discussion with the hotel reception went something like this  ¨Hi remember me, we spoke from Australia ?” Pause… “Yes, but I let your room to someone else ! ¨ silence……    A taxi driver helped us out with an apartment, grander than normal and at under $A70 a bit less than our Australian booked room. Luck.IMG_0524Tierra del Fuego the stepping off point for most cruises to Antarctica

For all of that the Tierra Del Fuego National park was spectacular. The first days walk unfortunately did poor Robyn in. It was 15 klms thru bog and she limped into the Park huts with me later that afternoon muddied, battered and badly bruised from constantly slipping over. We did see fire-red wood peckers hammering away at the trees and imported Canadian beavers decimating the waterways. as they built their dams and drowned the once happy trees.

IMG_0536The fire-red head of a woodpecker, rat a tap, tapping away into the nearby tree trunks.

Robyn latched onto some Pommy guy over a cup of chocolate at the Park kiosk and when I questioned her interest she announced that at least he thought the walk was difficult ! Should have sold her on the spot, she likes England and agreeing partners.

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The Park walk that wore poor Robyn out.

We flew up to Buenos Aires for a few days. A throbbing city that rarely seems to stop. We were both a little bewildered after the peace and quiet of the isolated South but soon forgot all of that based on the fantastic food available and the strength of the Aussie dollar in Argentina. Top dinners with a bottle of their best wine is costing us fifty bucks with a tip. Can’t complain about that but the locals are unable to spend up. Their pesos has been in a spiral for 5-6 years.
We went to a tango show last night, it was an enthusiastic crowd and the dancers got into it, all but telling us to leave the room so that they could finish what they had started ! After the show we went on to dinner ( 11pm and ordering dinner, me of 9.30pm to bed ! ) We met two women from Portland, Oregon who come to BA simply to Tango dance for three weeks. They do this every two years and have seen none of the rest of the country. Like going to Tamworth and only listening to the music ?

IMG_0621Smouldering emotions on the faces of the dancers.
Quiet day today Robyn was up half the night cuddling the porcelain, something she ate ? First sickness of any type. I arranged for us to go to the Iguazu falls tomorrow for a couple of days. It was a late decision after talking to people about going to Uruguay for more than a day. Was it worth it to tick off another country with no other real reason ? ¨Why ?¨They all said,¨ We were bored after an hour off the ferry ¨ Anyway we have an early start and a two-hour flight to the Brazilian border, the roar of the falls is supposed to be fantastic and they spill 3 million litres per second ! Victoria could do with that in its backyard after years of drought !

IMG_0720The Iguazu Falls, you could hear the thunderous roar well before they cam into view.

Well an early morning flight to the Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian border was well worth the money, especially on returning to Buenos Aires to find it had been raining the whole time we had been in the sub tropical weather two hours North. Within an hour of landing our arranged pickup had us in the Iguazu National Park and hooking up with a walking tour of the fauna and Falls. Neither of us were ready for the steamy weather nor the millions of butterflies which cover all surfaces. There is something like 450 different types and you brush them away constantly as they flap around your face. Saw some toucans, they really do have monstrously out of proportion beaks and make a very distinctive sound. I got a few snaps but they don’t let you get very close before buzzing off. I guess they would be instinct if not for that built-in fear. There were alligators in the river and huge turtles craning their necks looking for their next meal from quieter waters. Plenty of spindly legged water birds, all there to get a feed on anything that floated past. Oh yeah, the mozzies are ferocious and carry dengue fever, great…..

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You couldnt stand on them but they were everywhere.

You see a plume of smoke like spray well before you can hear the roar of the falls. They are huge and as you walk the steel walkways you see people returning soaking wet ? Are they diving in ? No, the spray simply soaks everything including a mist on your camera lenses the first time you lift it into the air. Unless you have a wide-angle lenses you really can’t do the panoramic view justice. Anyway we walked and admired the falls from every position, taking far too many shots. We ( I) decided we needed to see the falls from the river and ended up returning the next morning. The walk through the jungle down to the departure spot for the jet boat was as good as the river boat ride. There were millions and millions of butterflies in huge piles on the water’s edge in the sun fluttering about. You didn’t want to walk past them for fear of ruining the moment.

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The butterflies in every colour imaginable.

The boat ride was summed up by Robyn as a boy thing. The boat ¨christens¨ all passengers by nosing its way under the erupting base of the falls until everyone has been soaked by the falls and the boat has taken in enough water. Just prior to this you are given a large waterproof bag to store your cameras and anything important. Try to imaging twenty odd Tarzan types and a few Janes , hair stuck to their foreheads urging the driver to take us further under the falls. Robyn was right, a boy thing….gee she got horribly wet and sloshed her way back up to the top of the falls, hoping the sun would drip dry us.

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Are you ready for a baptism ?

Had a late afternoon beer at the Sheraton which has somehow been able to build a monstrous hotel INSIDE the National Park with a magnificent view across the whole falls, best seen from the bar, where else ! Get me another drink will you dear……….. Back into town and our reality, a bathroom with a shower which soaked everything and everyone and a breakfast bar that delivered on appearance only, there’s a blonde joke in there somewhere ! A swim in the pool was a fitting finale to our two-day jaunt then it was back to Buenos Aires.
Sunday morning, no rain in BA and keen to go to the local soccer derby between Boca Junior and River Plate. The hotel staff cannot believe I have managed to get a ticket. The average employee earns $600 american a month, I have paid $250…….almost two weeks wages for a couple of hours entertainment ? The game is more like life and death to these people and after wondering whether my bodyguard come guide would show up he was pretty much on time. There was eight diehards in total and our guide had a few rules, don’t lose sight of me, look confident or they will know you are a gringo and rob you. Please don’t stand up if River Plate kick a goal and clap or cheer, I could not protect you from this act of stupidity ! Heart beating we left the mini bus and made our way into the ground. It holds about 50 thousand fans. They give the opposition 2800 seats in the top of three tiers. The crowd scream and sing so loud the Boca fans are known as the 12th man i.e. give their team an unfair advantage with the support equivalent to an extra player. A really touching scene was at the turnstiles where every person has a full police search and then must pass through Boca fans screaming at the River fans as they climb the stairs to their seats that they will be waiting for them after the game, oh yeah, and something about their mothers….
The game was fantastic but the real spectacle was the fans who did not stop the singing from the time we arrived until we had left. Guys sat precariously six metres above the ground on top of the huge security fence, shirts off screaming in support for their team or in fright at realizing where they put themselves. I was very aware that surrounding supporters expected me to sing and bounce up and down in unison for the whole game, even though my Spanish can only get me a queso sandwich or dos pisco sours. The River fans were not shy, singing that they felt Boca had insufficient supporters to fill the stadium which infuriated the Boca fans who waved with floppy hands like we will come up there and kill you bastardos. The piece de resistance was a guy who had a heart attack in the next section from us. They carried him out on a stretcher with everyone screaming at him, tapping him with words of reassurance. What did they ask, I wondered. The guide replied with a blank face, “they what to know his seat number”, and then smiled. The game finished one all and the River fans were very happy and refused to leave. Thirty odd riot police with batons drawn, chased them down the stairs and out. Fifteen minutes later the local Boca fans were allowed to go. We trudged back to the van without drama and back to our hotel, got our bags and headed straight to the airport and Santiago.
With a small amount of sleep we have decided to celebrate the last day of this trip at the Chilean wineries. Picked up at 9.15am not really feeling like a sharp white wine or even a smooth red, I can still taste the toothpaste. We are at the cellar door at 11am and swilling wine within half an hour without looking anyone else in the eye, luckily it is very good wine. The others in our wine tour group are from Air CANADA and their passengers will get very smiley service tonight. Bet the flight attendants are asleep before the passengers. We sober up with a walk around the city and another meal at El Toro, a hip little place at the groovy end of town.

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