Wine, beer, beef, chocolate – and wine

(Santiago, Chile to The Lakes, Argentina)

“It was as if I had been travelling in a tunnel for months and had just popped out of the other end, at the far side of the earth, in a place that was maddeningly familiar.”

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Strangely familiar

So said Paul Theroux on arriving in Argentina, after his epic train journey from Boston 40 years ago.  Not that the Argentines and Chileans like to be compared to each other (unless it is to say that you absolutely, definitely, categorically prefer their country to the other…), but my feelings on arriving in Santiago, Chile, weren’t far off.

In Santiago the local neighbourhood became my neighbourhood.  Full of character, with cobbled streets, an old tramline, multi-coloured warehouses and homes.

Had normality resumed?  Morning runs (proof that muscle memory and the effects of altitude aren’t just myths?), my own cooking (no rice!), kids running through fountains in the park on a hot Sunday afternoon, and a bottle of wine at a chichi pavement café in the evening sunshine.

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Resumption of normality (and doggy friend #1)

And then there were my canine friends.  The Englishman and his dog has nothing on Chile (and Argentina too, it turns out).  The burgeoning population of stray dogs have been a sad sight to me since I arrived in Mexico back in October, but the residents of Santiago are such dog lovers that they feed, shelter – even clothe (yes, you read that right)– the strays.  The local pound had to be shut down a few years back… Having said that, I nearly lost a flip flop to yet another pair of mating dogs during an open-air concert a few days later (don’t ask), so I’m not altogether won round by this doggy charity.

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You’ll never walk alone…

Now adopting dogs is one thing – but what happens when they adopt you?  Looking at it from Buster’s point of view though, he probably thought I was the stray, not the other way round… (Funny that even when you try to be alone, someone/thing always intervenes.  In the Rockies I diligently kept all food outside my tent for fear of a (real) bear hug in the middle of the night.  In Argentina’s Lake District, I was more worried about my new “friend” breaking in and going for my porridge oats…)

Back to Chile though, and my “normality” was given a kick in the teeth when I visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.  Because, even in (my) living memory, things were not always so normal.  September 11th had a significance for millions of Chileans long before the date became etched in the mind of the rest of the world.  On that day, in 1973, a military junta led by General Pinochet and (allegedly, possibly…) supported by the CIA threw out the (first ever democratically elected) Marxist government and took charge.

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Chilean hands of defiance

They didn’t just walk in either.  Well, actually, they did.  But then once everyone had already put their hands up and said “yes, ok, maybe you can do better, let’s give you a chance”, they still sent some war planes over and bombed the hell out of the seat of government.  What, they didn’t need an office?  Apparently not.  Symbolic gestures for the sake of the tabloids aren’t a new thing, it turns out.

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International Declaration of Human Rights – now on display for all

Many of you will know all about this already, so I won’t go into the full history (again – consult Google/Wikipedia!).  But my own knowledge was shaky to say the least, and I am grateful to the many Chileans for filling me in on the blanks that still remained, even after spending a chilling two hours in the museum learning too much (though probably not enough) about the 17 years of dictatorship, torture, and disappearances under Pinochet’s rule.

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Silencing, copper mining, education – an artist’s depiction

Now in the interests of balance, it is generally accepted that the country was in a right old mess before the coup. But on the other hand Allende’s (unwelcome) taxing of the huge copper industry was also funding free primary and secondary education – a novel idea at the time, and a legacy that remains to this day.  There are so many shades of grey though, even my tour guide was worried about speaking her mind.  It is still an enormously divided country – it seems that you are either on the left or the right, there is no centre ground.  There are some clear wrongs and clear rights, but no-one seems to have yet worked out which side was best.  I suspect this is because the answer is: Neither.  Imagine the problems the writers of the history curriculum have keeping everyone happy?!

End of the lesson for now though.

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Valparaiso – view from ancient funicular

And on to Valparaiso, notable for its steep hills, colourful port, ancient wooden funiculars, street art of all varieties (painters, dancers, and surprisingly decent musicians for once) and sea food.  Not so sure about range of unidentifiable molluscs floating in my lunchtime soup though.

“Valpo” is also notable for its no-go areas.  Including the thriving, bustling market with its huge population of cats (taking refuge from the dogs?), and kindly stall holders – who dolled out free personal security advice along with free bunches of parsley. I was more grateful for the latter.

I wasn’t sorry to leave though – it was the first time on my trip that a bus driver has been rude and unhelpful, and the first time I have been made to feel guilty by baggage handlers in the bus station (look, I know it’s a heavy bag, but I am considerably smaller and lighter than any of you and I can still manage it, right?).

Time to move on.  And probably time to consider some lonesome travel again too – after one too many “mauled by a bear/slept on a cactus” stories from a 50-something Canadian in one hostel, Justin Bieber on repeat in another (did I miss the moment when this became acceptable taste in music?), and the sheets being whipped off my bed by some drunken Irishmen in yet another (I’m not proud of my 1am outburst, they were only trying to persuade me to go dancing with them after all, and I only have myself to blame for the two-day wine hangover I was suffering…).  On the other hand, I was also lulled to sleep by another Irishman reciting Shakespeare sonnets from his top bunk that same night, so sometimes I just have to take the rough with the smooth!

Somewhere back there I mentioned wine though .  And so to my discovery of Carmenere – the grape exclusive to Chile after the disease wiped it out from Europe – and now my new favourite.  Luckily Concho y Toro (makers of the delightful cheap’n’cheerful Casillero del Diablo) didn’t disappoint.  The fact that they were also happy for us to take a stroll amongst their vines, eating as many juicy, sweet grapes as we liked, notched them even further up on my “favourites” list.

Just across the mountains, and across another border into Argentina, Mendoza is the other famous wine (and hangover) producing region of South America.  Harvest was in action, and I watched the high-tech de-stemmer with its high-tech sweepers (ripped up cardboard boxes) working away whilst nursing a glass of half-fermented, milky Chardonnay.  Can’t necessarily recommend it, but it would have been rude to refuse…

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Farewell to Chile (part 1)

But having marvelled at the dramatic, rugged mountains between Santiago and Mendoza, with their folds of pinks, greys, and yellows, passing Aconcagua (highest mountain in the Americas) and choosing the worst possible moment to go to the loo (learning point: look out for the hairpin bends next time…), it was time to continue on my relentless march south.

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Bus Bingo!

This time the boredom of the pampas was relieved not only by spotting the odd herd of wild horses (or not wild?  Difficult to tell in such vast empty spaces), but also by – wait for it – Bus Bingo!  Finally, some family fun for all – a welcome change from the usual violent/full volume movie screenings.  I actually did reasonably well, even without the Two Fat Ladies.  However the final victor was my neighbour across the aisle.  I would have suggested we share his prize – a jolly nice looking bottle of wine – but then his companion decided to bring out some cream cheese and crackers as an accompaniment. And the sight of his 8 inch “pocket knife” (no, no euphemism – it was alarming enough as it was) glinting in the sunshine a few feet away swiftly made me rethink.  I went back to my book.

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Colonia Suiza

Finally to the Lake District.  Which, in these parts, bears more resemblance to the European Alps than Cumbria.  I even camped in a tiny hamlet called Colonia Suiza.  And who said the Swiss never tried to build an empire?  Chalets, lakes, forests, mountains – and chocolate.  Disappointingly the “best chocolate in Argentina” still had more of a hint of Hershey than Lindt, but I still believed it was my duty as a tourist to try it out.  And to finish it.  Every.  Last.  Crumb.

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When in Argentina…

Being in Argentina, it has also been my duty to eat meat.  Lots of it.  The best beef empanadas since Mexico (from a little road-side stall near Mount Aconcagua, in case you’re passing by), an enormous juicy rib-eye in Bariloche, and an authentic “asado” (Argentinian BBQ) experience in my campsite. I was invited to join some friendly bus drivers who also appeared to be masters of the embers, sweeping them from the pile of burning wood to keep the meat at just the right temperature to cook the… Well, the chewiest bit of beef I’ve ever eaten actually.  Still, it gave me a chance to practise the “3 S”s (Spanish, Spanglish and Sign language) with varying degrees of success, for which I thank them.

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How to build an (alternative) oven

The next day, having sworn to give my stomach a break, I was persuaded to try a Curanto.  For those not in the know (anyone?), this is an Argentinian/Chilean feast of medieval proportions.  Beef, pork, chicken, chorizo, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, squashes, apples, all piled high on burning hot stones, covered with a layer of young leaves and branches, then a few hessian sacks with heaps of soil thrown on top.  After a couple of hours, the anticipation is palpable.  The smell of hot earth, a couple of spades lying idly by…  And then the big reveal, with onlookers applauding as the chefs carefully removed each element with their asbestos fingers.  I dutifully accompanied my feast with a locally brewed raspberry beer (well if it’s alright for the Belgians…).  I know a few people who would have been in heaven, even during the meat-coma aftermath.  I suspect they know who they are too.  I, however, was more excited by the carrot I finally managed to eat for my dinner.

Aside from all of the eating, the Lake District also saw me cycling and hiking in bright sunshine.  Passing dogs probably raised an eyebrow as they heard me muttering “come on little engine” to my legs (yup) as I cranked down the gears going up the gravelly hills, imagining all of that dulce de leche petrol sloshing through my bloodstream…  Worth it for the incredible views of the same, endless lake going on and on.  And on.  Around peninsulas, up fjords like oil paintings (question: is a fjord still a fjord once it is inland?), towards the hazy mountains on the horizon.

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The lake that just keeps giving.  On and on.  And on.

Then the next day I spent dodging rain showers, grinning inexplicably at nothing but the fun of being the only solitary soul on a pebble beach, the pine trees howling at each other behind me in the wind, the squalls whipping up spray from the lake and throwing it into my face, and kelpies dancing across the water…

Well, it was Paddy’s Day – spirits and madness infect us all (!)

Or maybe it was just that I’d finally decided to go cold turkey on the wine.

The chills of Patagonia next though – we’ll see how long that one lasts.

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UnBoliviable…

Bolivia – the country of extremes!

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Bolivian sunset

Or so they tell us…

  1. The world’s highest navigable lake! Except that I’ve already walked to a higher lake on this trip, and that wouldn’t have even required a compass…
  2. The world’s highest capital city. Finally!  I’ve been keeping you in suspense about this one since I visited Quito.  Only to discover that La Paz’s claim turns out to be in serious doubt. Hmmm.
  3. South America’s biggest flea market. Now I’ve not actually researched this one, I only heard it in passing – but let’s let them have it.
  4. The world’s most dangerous road! Except it turns out that the “Death Road” reputation actually came from fatalities during its construction, not accidents since.  Not that the truth stops thousands of tourists claiming their “I’m a survivor…” T shirts. (Yes, me too.)
  5. The loudest/best/most notorious party hostel. In the world?  On the continent?  In the city? We’ll come back to that one.
  6. The world’s highest and driest desert. But I drove past at least five freshwater lakes and bathed in hot springs – so what’s that all about?!
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Highest/driest desert in the world?

But now I feel bad.  It may well be too good to be true – unBoliviable indeed (this is even the Bolivians’ favourite pun, don’t blame me), but do we really care?  I suspect not.  Let’s take a closer look…

First up:

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Lake Titicaca flooring

1. The world’s highest navigable lake. Lake Titicaca.  Whether it is the name (stop giggling) or the claim, this has been some sort of mythical place in my mind since school geography classes.  And to clear up confusion, everyone openly acknowledges that the lake is not the highest in the world.  The “navigable” part is important – and has more to do with steam boats than whether the needle still works on your compass.

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How to make yourself a floating island

In any case, Lake Titicaca is now more famous for its floating reed islands, around 1,000 of which bob about at the Peruvian end of the lake – reassuringly anchored to the surrounding reed beds, so at least the residents are unlikely to get a surprise when they wake up in the morning.  Unless they’ve upset the neighbours and been towed away (which has apparently been known…).

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A beautiful pea green boat

I also took a ride on a beautiful pea green pussycat-boat.  Clearly currently estranged from the owl, who may have sailed away with the morning’s busker from our first boat.  A one-man-band, I feel I should actually praise him for managing to play Obladi Oblada with guitar and pan pipes in entirely different keys and tempos – something that actually takes great skill.  Pleased to report that Hey Jude was marginally better.

Determined to make the most of my 20 year wait to visit Lake Titicaca, I spent the night on another (non-floating) island, in the home of an old farmer, Augustine, and his wife Julia.  Nestled amongst the terraced fields, a garden full of roses, donkey braying outside, black pots and kettles on the hearth – and solar panels.  Dinner was maize soup followed by a bowl of pasta with potato sauce and a side of rice.  Any bread with that?

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Alpaca handicrafts

On nearby Taquilla Island, there is a gender-reversal in the production of the UNESCO-protected handicrafts.  This leads to a brilliant Monty Pythonesque sign above the main store: “The Knitting Men”.  I am convinced that they do a dance in alpaca stockings every morning before the tourists arrive.

My final drive along the lake shore, whilst slightly less direct than planned, turned into the journey that just kept on giving.  The original Copacabana (no immediately obvious music and passion, but then it was only 11am); an unexpected ferry ride; fishing boats moored at the end of reed channels; flat plains surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks.  Finally a breath-taking view of La Paz, as the plains suddenly opened into a huge chasm, with densely packed buildings filling every available space as far as the eye could see.

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(Maybe, possibly) the highest capital city in the world…

Smoothly bringing us to:

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Anything odd about this?

2. The highest capital city in the world. Which it may or may not be (depending on your definition of “Capital” – Bolivia actually thinks it has two anyway, but you can Wikipedia that one), but it is certainly the highest city I’ve ever been in.  La Paz isn’t as touristy as other cities either – instead it is really all about living (sometimes backwards, don’t trust those clocks…) and (just, given the altitude) breathing.

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Bolivian haute cuisine.  Posh tomato ketchup.

And eating.  On one day I devoured a plate of deep fried pastries with a glass of hot corn & berry “api”(ness – yes, that pun is well deserved) at a local market.  And on another I gave myself a five star treat at Gustu Restaurant (run by the people behind Denmark’s Noma – as this is sadly way beyond the Average Joe’s (or Helen’s) price range, their Bolivian venture was the answer).  Fish carpaccio, posh pulled pork and Bolivian rosé into which the waitress poured (wait for it) tomato juice…?  Don’t – no actually, do – try this at home.  Strangely delicious.

La Paz is also another South American city that has embraced cable cars.  One of which took me up to…

3. The biggest flea market in South America!   I didn’t see any fleas – though I suspect they weren’t far away – but you can certainly buy anything and everything else.  Car parts, camera batteries, “genuine” Nike running shoes, your own phone (watch it), enormous plates of pork scratchings, and dragons.

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Potions potions potions

Somewhat stranger, at the bottom of the hill, was the Witches Market.  Dried out llama foetuses hanging above the doorways (?), and a perfect line-up of potions on the shelves offering to aid negotiations, love – and cleaning.  Have I got that in the right order?  Answers on a post card.

4. And so to the most dangerous road.

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Unassuming looking “Death Road”

In reality, the ride is more like a nice day out in the park for anyone with any previous mountain biking experience.  More of a challenge for me though – my lovely light triathlon bike doesn’t really compare.  Alarmingly I discovered that the less I braked, the less I skidded.  Uh oh.  Five hours of freewheeling from 4,500m to 1,200m altitude, from cold, misty, bare mountains to humid, muddy forest. Since the new tarmac road was built on the other side of the valley, there is also very little other traffic – apart from (yes) one ambulance, making it a lot less dangerous than it once was.

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Somewhere under there is the “safe” road

In fact our only real drama on the way down was a road block from villagers demanding bribes to let us past.  Not that I condone bribery in any way, shape or form (oh hello hard-earned professional qualification), but in all honesty I can’t really blame them.  Foreigners pay anywhere from £40-70 each, none of which the villagers see, to trash their road and get in their way without paying the slightest attention to their lives or culture.  An extra £2 each towards the community seems a small price to pay.  Just make it official!

A few hours later, the return journey up the new road provided its own drama.  We were eventually allowed through the latest landslide after an hour of (frustrating) deliberation.  A great melée of vehicles slip sliding over the sand and rock still spilling down from the hillside above, and road workers trying in vain to direct the traffic through a cacophony of pointless horns.

But we eventually made it back in one piece, to the…

5. Loudest/best/most notorious party hostel! Here goes.

The Lonely Planet tells us that “20somethings will love it, 30somethings will loathe it”.

I am delighted to report that plenty other 30somethings chose to ignore the Lonely Planet’s advice too.  (Well I had to join the backpackers’ trail at some point…)

In fact the bar staff were doing more shots than the customers, and the three Australians I met with matching tattoos on their butt cheeks (yes, oh yes) weren’t in Bolivia, but Peru.  And anyway, who wouldn’t want to fall into bed a mere 30 seconds from an Irish pub?

Sorry.  Sorry sorry sorry…

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Deep fried goodness and a glass of api-ness

I was even a little dubious about the alleged police raid.  We were all ushered out of the bar before they “arrived”, and ended up in a nightclub conveniently owned by one of the hostel staff.  For those of you in the know (and for those of you not, be thankful) this was a perfect replica of 151 complete with 18 year old Gap Yah students (Milly, Bunty, Torqs), glass and booze on the dance floor, and Now 56 (or whatever we’ve got to) on the playlist.  The only difference was that the inevitable dance-off, between a Tasmanian and a Swede, was really remarkably impressive.  British men, I’ve said this before (remember salsa in Cali?) – watch and learn…

And then the next day I spent the whole morning in front of the rugby.  Judge me as much as you like (and if you don’t, I will) but it was a pretty great 24 hours…

Time to go dry again though.  And where better than:

6. The Bolivian Salt Flats, morphing into the Siloli Desert – itself part of the larger Atacama across the border in Chile, and hence justifiably included in the “highest/driest” desert tag.

Well what else would you do with an extra day in the year?

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Final resting place…

First to the infamous train graveyard outside Uyuni – its rusting remains as sunburnt as the gringos clambering all over and inside them.  They have now been replaced by newer models which export the astounding richness of minerals from Bolivia – leaving the government in a quandary.  Lithium is the latest “must have”, but how to extract it whilst protecting the equally astounding landscape of the salt flats?  (Some Germans think they know the answer – either watch this space – or visit now before it is all ripped up!)

IMG_8272The Salt Flats feature on most bucket lists, and they didn’t disappoint.  A whole day of driving across a vast plain of white, covered by a shallow layer of water; bubbles and salt crystals catching the sunlight as they floated past; reflections of the clouds and distant mountains; a patchwork of hexagons.  And, ummm, watch out for the yellow snow effect…  Of course multiple salt puns and comedy photos were also involved.  A once-in-a-lifetime day that couldn’t be beaten.IMG_8359_2787

Or could it?

The next day started with endless fields of quinoa (apparently Bolivia’s is the best in the world – can’t dispute that one either), like mini Christmas trees with their tips dipped in pots of red, purple, yellow, and white paint.

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Did you see something move…?

And then a geologist’s playground.  Fossilised coral to go along with the salt (something to do with the crash of the Titanic.  We tried explaining the difference between Titanic and tectonic to our guide, but in vain…) and a line of snow-capped volcanoes extending all the way down into Chile.  Big open skies, stunning blue lakes, pink flamingos, lithe wild llamas, cartoon-like blobby green cactuses, and then mile upon mile of hot, bare sand.  At which point the car broke down.

Truly the most barren yet beautiful landscape I have ever seen though.  I took myself off for a moment of solitude at the end of the day and ran along the lakeshore at sunset, chasing the lengthening shadows; then watched where I trod over bubbling geysers as the sun rose again 10 hours later.

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Paradise (and for the flamingos too)

And pause.  And breathe.

My final farewell to Bolivia was at the most bizarre and remote border crossing I’ve ever experienced.  A small mud hut in the middle of the desert at the foot of an active volcano – with no loos.  My lungs were still burning an hour after my dash across the highest/driest desert in the world to find an appropriate boulder instead.  In hindsight not the best move – but sometimes you have no choice…

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Beautiful desolation

And so to Chile, where I very nearly went skiing.  On sand.  “We only have instructors for boarding though, so do you have experience?”  Well yes, of sorts. On snow.  Mud.  Heather…

Sadly boring and disappointing logistics meant that my sand-skiing debut was abandoned in the end.  I could make up the stories for you, but I may just wait for Australia (?)
Bet I could have done it in Bolivia though…

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Final Bolivian sunrise