A Travellerspoint blog

February 2016

Preparing for Patagonia: Chilean style

View Australian adventure! & Getting to know Chile & Exploring Patagonia on Rebecca Heller's travel map.

When I decided to head to Patagonia, I dutifully read up on both the Argentinian and Chilean side, which is where I really learned about the Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia. It didn't even occur to me that I could trek it independently of a tour, so I started researching companies. They turned out to be pretty expensive and I assumed my best bet would be to stick to some day trips.

However, I met several people on my Uyuni/ Salt Flats tour who had been trekking there and they all gave me tidbits of advice and encouragement to go and do the trek independently. There were a few women like me who'd gone alone, also with minimal previous trekking experience, and that's how something that had not originally been on my agenda at all, turned into a new adventure I could realistically do.

As per the advice I was given I tried to get to Puerto Natales in time for the 3pm information and advice session at Base Camp. Base Camp is a pub and trekking rental store next door to, and run by, the Erratic Rock hostel, their staff give this talk every single day and stay around to answer all the questions you have. I'll include some of that advice as I go here, but if you're planning to trek, especially the O or the Q, please don't take my words as gospel, still go to the talk if you can, as they will give up to date and more specific advice.

Thanks to a longer than necessary border control (and which border crossing isn't?), I arrived at the talk at 3.15, a little flustered having missed the beginning. It didn't matter though, I heard all the advice for people wanting to do the W trek, normally a 5 day trek. I had had to wait in El Calafate as the buses had been full, so I only had 4 days to complete the trek which the staff there helped me plan.

The rest of that afternoon was about preparing everything I needed for the next four days, including equipment hire and food shopping. As I was going alone, I needed to be able to carry everything for myself, and knowing exactly what to buy was quite tricky as you need to pack food that will properly sustain you but that is light and resealable. There was plenty of umming and ahhing in the supermarket but finally I settled on dinners of rice, veg from a carton, soup packets to add flavour, and tuna. For breakfast I purchased the two portion packet of oatmeal from Base Camp as I didn't want to buy a whole box for just me and for lunch I got rice cakes, nuts and raisins.

In the end, I took about the right amount and type of food. This included some beloved chocolate, as we had been advised to take some sort of treat. I was also glad they reminded me to bring ziplock bags, which are excellent for sealing open food packets without them leaking.

The next challenge was packing the bag with the right distribution. I had been lucky to get a bed at Erratic Rock (they don't take reservations!) so I was close to some very knowledgable people. Thankfully, someone noticed my phaffing and decided to help me pack it all in! No the process he noticed I had purchased a large plastic bottle to take with me. Horrified, he rushed into his room and returned with a 500ml bottle, and almost demanded I swapped since there was no need to carry the extra weight. I was slightly sceptical, but actually this was one of the best pieces of advice.

Unlike other treks, the Torres del Paine national park is full of fresh and clean streams and rivers, so rather than schlepp around 2 litres, it's much better to carry a small bottle and refill it all the time.

After what was probably way too much flapping about, I finally finished packing up and collapsed into a very comfy bed ahead of my early start the following morning.

Posted by Rebecca Heller 03:06 Archived in Chile Tagged landscapes preparation patagonia hikes Comments (0)

Patagonia: Argentinian style

View Getting to know Chile & Exploring Patagonia on Rebecca Heller's travel map.

I had had it in my mind that I wanted to go to Patagonia as part of my trip. After looking into the buses, I realised I could fly from Buenos Aires to El Calafate for a similar price to the bus whilst saving myself a whole heap of time. It's not that it wouldn't be worth the bus down. To contrary, I think with all the time and money in the world it would be wonderful. That, however, is not my reality so fly I did.

The view of Lago Argentina as we flew into El Calafate was nothing short of magical. The water was turquoise in a way I've only ever seen on the telly or in an old Polly Pocket seaside toy I once had and the surface sparkled like the Eiffel Tower after dark.

The following day I went on the Alternative Tour to the Perito Moreno glacier that my hostel offered. Since I've never done one of those tours before, I'm not so sure what was so alternative, but that didn't really matter. For the record, you can go independent of a tour if you prefer but the price difference isn't very big and you get more for your money on a tour.

My guide book told me that the Perito Moreno Glacier is one of Argentina's greatest natural wonders, and it wasn't wrong. It is a pretty spectacular wall of brilliant white and bright blue ice that seems to go on forever. It's considered a stable glacier, meaning that on average it is not advancing or receding. However, I was lucky enough to witness it in an advanced state, where the ice blocks the river from the main body of water. Eventually, the pressure will builds, and the river water will force it's way through the ice. The rupture that will occur soon is said to be spectacular.

When I got back from Puerto Natales and the trek in the Torres del Paine national park in Chile (more on this in another post), I was pretty exhausted from the trek and had planned on a day of rest and laziness. However, I ended up meeting someone who'd been in the same hostel in Puerto Natales and we decided to visit the natural reserve and Laguna Argentina.

It was a gorgeous sunny day and we ended up spending over 4 hours there. I think it helped that Ofir is a bird watching enthusiast. I was planning to visit and mooch round quickly but enthusiasm is contagious and very soon I was excited when I spotted various species through the binoculars we hired. It seems enthusiasm may be not be good for memory as I can no longer tell you which birds I saw.

We were also befriended by a dog. It's often tricky to know if dogs are stray in this part of the world as they don't wear tags and this particular dog looked clean and well fed. However, Alexa, as we named her, stayed with us for hours and no one seemed to be looking for her so it's fairly safe to assume she's a stray. I'd describe myself as dog shy so it took me a while to bcomfortable having her bound about around us, but I warmed up to her eventually. Had we not needed to go to the supermarket, Ofir may just have tried to adopt her as his new travelling companion, and whilst it's probably for the best he didn't, he was very sad at the loss of his new best friend.

I didn't spend long in El Calafate, but I have great memories from my visit (apart from the names of the birds I saw...) and would highly recommend a visit.

Posted by Rebecca Heller 20:04 Archived in Argentina Tagged lakes glacier patagonia Comments (0)

Bueno Buenos Aires

Kosher meat and the best ice cream I've ever had (not straight afterwards of course!)

View Exploring Patagonia & Into Argentina & A week in Bolivia on Rebecca Heller's travel map.

Buenos Aires is a big city and there are many things that I like to think I'll remember about my trip, but in case I don't, I'll try and cover here, the things that I will now associated with Buenos Aires.

They call Buenos Aires the Paris of Latin America because the aristocracy that built the city we see today modelled their buildings on classical architectural styles. For this reason I think it felt like the most familiar place I had visited so far, which turned out to be a nice way to mark 3 months of travelling.

Kosher meat
Once we had finally navigated the train and metro systems to get to our hostel, the main item on the agenda was to visit the Kosher restaurants to get some Kosher steak. I had not eaten meat in 3 months, and whilst I could have happily continued without it, I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to indulge (which we did!).

The first night we went to Al Galope in the Recoleta district. At first, the style and atmosphere reminded me of Blooms (an old family favourite restaurant in Golders Green) but the service distinctly less hasty than Blooms, and the waiters we extremely helpful. In fact, we got so overexcited that our waiter actually suggested we stopped ordering food and if we still felt hungry, we could order more! It was sound advice as we were both royally stuffed and extremely grateful for the fairly lengthy stroll back to the hostel. It was so tasty that we went back there a few days later.

We also visited the Kosher McDonalds. Now I was in two minds about this one at first. I didn't go to the one in Israel, so why would I in Buenos Aires? But eventually the idea grew on me and we made the special metro trip to the shopping centre that houses the Kosher McDonalds.

Once we had established it was on the top floor we really had no trouble spotting it. Firstly it says KOSHER underneath the logo, but secondly, we recognised the clientele as Kosher meat eating folk. Not being familiar with McDonalds ordering we ordered double burgers, which I can safely say was too much. The cashier reminded us that the burger would come without cheese, and just wanted to check we were OK with that. It seems unlikely that you would stumble across the Kosher one by mistake so I can't imagine too many people get upset that there's no cheese in their burger...

Seeing the city
We decided to go on the free walking tour of Recoleta, including a visit to the Recoleta Cemetery, where Evita is buried. The tour was excellent - very informative, funny guide, lots to see. I generally find the free tours best as the guides really work hard for their money. We also did a lot of walking in general. Buenos Aires is much bigger than it looks, with 6 blocks on a map, taking considerably longer than it looks like it should.

Best ice cream ever
I have had plenty of ice cream in my time, so I don't say this lightly. In Buenos Aires we had the best ice cream I've ever had.

We tried several vendors, as is only right, and we were impressed. Due to high Italian immigration, there are plenty of top quality gelaterias but at Cadore we shared a combination of coffee, dulce de leche, and dark chocolate, which was the best chocolate ice cream I've ever had! Like I said, I don't say that lightly; that's some serious praise.

Posted by Rebecca Heller 11:37 Archived in Argentina Tagged walking city meat icecream Comments (0)

Lake Titicaca - making ourselves at home on the water

My tour in Peru included a visit to some islands on Lake Titicaca, culminating in a homestay.

We were given a list of things to bring, including a gift of useful food (rice, oats, fruit, veg...) and had a little time to prepare ourselves.

Lake Titicaca is the largest high-altitude body of water in the world at a mere 284m deep and 8500m square kilometres. What does that mean in real terms? It means that once we left the Puno shore, it really did feel as though we were at sea, not on a lake.

Our first stop was to one of the Uros Floating Islands. These are man-made islands, built from reeds. We were greeted by island inhabitants, invited into their homes to try on national dress, offered handicrafts for sale, and went on an a short ride on their 'Mercedes Benz' (a large boat made from reeds.

We then made our way to Isla Taquile, where the big attraction is that men have to impress a lady by knitting her a hat. If she reckons the hat isn't good enough, a woman can send the man away, in one fowl 'must-try-harder', he must go away and practice and try again when he has improved.

Finally we made our way to Island Amantaní where we would stay for the night. First there was the football match against local boys and then we met our hosts for the night and next day. Before heading 'home', local men and women in traditional dress performed a dance, dressed us up in traditional attire (I had 4 skirts on!) and we had to try and copy the dance. I'm sure we looked fairly ridiculous and may have butchered the moves, but it was pretty funny.

Kat and I made our way to our host house, having been warned that everything may be extremely basic. Turns out, Kat and I had our own bedroom and bathroom (albeit with a self flush system) - pretty swish! The house was more a collection of rooms added over time, as and when necessary. The kitchen was a small room, with an old school stove - fire below and a collection of pots to make everything in.

We were entertained by the middle granddaughter, a very confident 11 year who lives on the mainland, her younger brother of 8 and their cousin, also 8. Whilst their Grandmother, Aurora, speaks primarily Aymara, the kids only spoke castellano, which meant I was able to play mediator and we could all communicate!

The first game up was hide and seek, which unfortunately only lasted a single round since there was only one hiding place in the whole room. Pretty sure they loved it anyway.

Conversation turned to ghost stories with all the kids convinced they'd seen ghosts. It wasn't until dinner that the conversation got really weird, with one of the boys describing an alternative version of the Teletubbies where Tinkywinky decapitates Po. It was one of those moments where I was convinced my Spanish wasn't as good as I thought it was, but he repeated the story and I do believe I understood correctly.

The next morning, my vegetarian gluten free breakfast consisted of...5 boiled potatoes and a boiled egg. I'm not complaining, I was very full. In fact, I didn't finish all the potato, it was a bit much really so early in the day.

Our 'work' consisted of us watching Aurora milk the cow and us following whilst she herded the sheep. I managed to help by tying up the sheep in the field so they couldn't escape. We then helped to clear hay, or dried reeds, from another field. It wasn't hard core farm work, but it did give a glimpse into their daily lives.

It was a little sad knowing that Aurora spends most of the year alone. Her children and grandchildren live on the mainland; the kids spend their summers there helping out but none of them speak the native Aymara, so the language will die out with Aurora's generation. Who knows what will happen on the island? As more people leave and those who stay open their homes to tourism, the culture and traditions are bound to change. We'll have to wait and see.

Posted by Rebecca Heller 18:38 Archived in Peru Tagged lakes tour altitude Comments (0)

My week in Bolivia

View Getting to know Chile & Exploring Patagonia & Into Argentina & A week in Bolivia on Rebecca Heller's travel map.

I arrived in La Paz with my tour group, pretty tired after 3 weeks on the go. We went for a short walking tour and when we got back to the hotel, Simon was waiting for me there.

Simon and I spent the next morning perusing the extensive Witches Market with Sean. You see near enough the same thing in every shop, for near enough the same price, and whilst haggling is a thing there, it turns out Simon and I are not that good at it. When you convert the savings we made it probably comes to all of about £5. If you want all the typical souvenirs though, this is the place to come!

We decided not to stay an extra night in La Paz and head to Uyuni that night since we didn't have all the time in the world, so off to the bus station we went.

It turns out the buses in Bolivia are not as nice or comfy as the ones in Peru but it was cheap so that made up for it. We arrived at Uyuni at an unsociable 4am and found ourselves in a cafe with other weary travellers, waiting for the travel agencies to open.

We had been advised that it was cheaper to book directly in Uyuni, rather than La Paz, and the best way to find a company was to ask for recommendations. Guide books and online advice all said it was best to pay a little more for the safety and quality of the tour and in the end we followed a recommendation to book the three day tour with Red Planet.

I don't know if it was cheaper in the end as this tour was pretty prices compared to the others, but it came highly recommended and ran in English. It also turned out to be the same tour as Doriano was on (Doriano was part of my previous tour group) so that was added fun!

I think it was totally worth the effort to pay a little extra, as we had a fun comprehensive tour that included the Salt Flats themselves, the Cactus Island, stays in a salt hotel, a hotel with hot springs for a midnight dip. They catered well for vegetarian and gluten free so I wasn't hungry - what more can you ask for?!

The only thing I really knew about this part of Bolivia was the salt desert where you take fun perspective photos (which we took lots of!), so the rest was a bonus. The landscape is spectacular, and by doing a three day tour I saw way more than I was expecting. We saw mountains, volcanoes, lakes (including a red lake), flamingos and more.

I also met people who had already been to places I was planning to visit in Patagonia and so I got a lot of good information and advice, especially about hiking in the Torres del Paine national park in Chile (all the advice was super helpful, as I'll explain in a later post!).

The only negative thing was that Simon wasn't feeling well, so we had him dosed up on medicine so that he could still enjoy the tour.

We decided to get a bus straight to the border with Argentina, rather than stay in Uyuni. We wanted to get to Buenos Aires sooner rather than later, so we endured nearly 48 hours on buses. We put up with the border crossing, which was the most inefficient system I'd seen and was a little soul destroying (don't try and attempt it in a hurry!). Thankfully, the drive through northern Argentina is beautiful and it wasn't as uncomfortable as it could have been.

I have a feeling I missed some other exciting and interesting parts of Bolivia by rushing through, but time did not allow plenty of stops this time. Oh well, it's just somewhere I'll have to come back to!

Posted by Rebecca Heller 08:25 Archived in Bolivia Tagged desert volcanoes mountain tour salt uyuni Comments (0)

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