A Travellerspoint blog

Canada, round 2!

Toronto, Quebec City, Montreal and the 5 day train journey across Canada back to Vancouver. Oh and Matthew's 40th Birthday! Seriously?

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For only a few bucks extra, we found out that the return flight we took to South America, did not have to return to the same place, namely Vancouver which you have read about at the start of our adventure. And so our flight north from Lima in Peru, arrived into the city of Toronto, in the east of Canada.

Starting our day's travel from Bogota in Colombia, made for a tiring day, but an ice cream stop in Lima airport put a smile on our face, our last taste of the delightful South American ice cream that has refreshed our palate on many a hot day!

Also a breath taking view of the New York city sky line, a first for me, as we stopped briefly at Newark Airport, Debs being the first to spot the Statue of Liberty! It was here Debs almost 'lost' me at passport control. What is it with Americans? Dare I say it as my visits have only been at airports, but they have been so stereotypical. Back in October I was stunned to see teenagers so large that they had to be driven to the departure gates! And this time, an American who simply could not understand why I was moving to New Zealand! The passport control conversation went a little like this:
'Good morning, where is your destination after Canada?'
'Good morning, New Zealand'.
'Why are you going there?'
'Because my girlfriend is a Kiwi'.
'What is a Kiwi?'
'Well, someone who comes from New Zealand'.
'And when are you going home?'
'I am not, I will live in New Zealand'.
'Why?'
'Well because me girlfriend is a Kiwi, I mean comes from New Zealand'.
'But after that, when will you go home?'
'No New Zealand will be my new home'.
'Why?'

And so it went on, I simply answered his questions straight, but he was just not getting the answers he either wanted or understood. It was so hard not to start becoming sarcastic and rude. He was so ignorant to the possibility of moving country. And he worked in passport control! Unreal. Debs was very quick to calm me down telling me, correctly, never to upset an American passport control person, they have a surprising amount of power to just turn you around if they do not like you!!

Anyway, safely arriving in Toronto, we were greeted at the airport by Lia. Lia and Mike and their gorgeous energetic daughter Anna, were to kindly put us up while we stayed in Toronto. And much to our delight, the cold spell of -20C had recently passed, and an unseasonably warm +15C was hanging around. That afternoon we were in our running shorts and jogging along the river!! So much for needing to buy a down jacket the moment we arrived!

Before leaving Bogota, we bought a cuddly fluffy stuffed horse we named Carlos in anticipation of sweetening Anna to our stay with her. (And luckily for us when we bought it, we found out it was 2 for 1 day at the kids shop, so we got Carlos's twin and gave him to our host there Elena, as we knew she had a 4 year old neice. Apparently there is no chance of the neice ever receiving it, Elena fell in love with him at once and wanted to keep him as a reminder of our stay!) Anna also fell in love with Carlos, and many a happy hour was spent playing with both of them in the lounge to squeals of delight from Anna!

Toronto does not have a huge amount to offer the casual tourist, but getting to know Lia, Mike and Anna was a joy. Lia's cooking kept us very well fed, and the highlight of our brief stay was a trip to Niagara Falls, just an hour away. Impressive, very impressive, and my first proper glimpse of America at ground level. We got thoroughly soaked in the spray from the falls, but enjoyed it none the less.

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Moving on from Toronto fairly quickly, we headed further east to Quebec City via train, and so the start of my mammoth, in every sense of the word, birthday celebrations. 40? Seriously? Every who knows me, knows how immature I can be, and I want to stay a teenager in my mind as long as I can! Debs started as she meant to go on with much generosity and surprised me with first class train travel! Amazing what telling people it is your birthday can do; I got a free bottle of wine, and a complete kids play pack! Told you I was immature! 40? Seriously?

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We arrived in Quebec city in the dark of the eve of my birthday, St Patrick's Day. Unbeknownst to us was 2 things, firstly that the Red Bull Crashed Ice was taking place that night, (try You Tubing that one, crazy wipeouts as skaters race each othere down the frozen steep streets!) and secondly that Quebec City has a lot of Irish influence. And so after dropping our bags, in the most delightful guest house of our entire trip (more generosity from Debs!) we headed into the old part of Quebec City to have a look around. There were huge dumps of snow by the side of the roads, and the gloves were definately needed, but everyone was in good spirit, and we finished the night with a couple of beers, and flaming sambuca shots in the appropriately named St Matthew's Bar!

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The morning of my birthday was one to remember. (Other than being 40 of course! Seriously?) I managed a SKYPE phone call to my family over breakfast which in itself was a feast, the breakfast that is! And Debs had kindly got some anecdotes from family and friends from over the years to make me laugh and smile as they could not be with me on this day. Later, a lazy day of exploring the beautiful town along the banks of the St Lawrence river, and a cheeky birthday beer, all followed by a yummy meal at Le Lapin Saute restaurant. Rabbit is actually quite tasty!

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Monday morning we awoke to the pitter patter sound of not rain, but melting snow, the warm weather continuing. And so arriving at the Ice Hotel at 5.15pm, very excited about staying the night, we were disappointed, but I suppose not entirely surprised to see a notice saying that from 5pm that day, the hotel has had to close early for the season due to melting starting. Gutted! Thankfully they were expecting us as our UK mobile had not been turned on for a while, and their sympathy meant we at least got shown around for starters. The structure is incredible. Each year they try to better the one before, and it was stunning to walk around even if we were getting dripped on! There is a church there that sees many weddings over the winter, complete with ice altar and pews, and a bar with its own ice slide! The rooms were equally impressive, with raised beds, yes, still ice, but with plenty of blankets.

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While this is something I particularly wanted to experience, I sensed Debs was quite glad when they said we were to be put up in a 5 star hotel nearby as compensation (as well a full refund, how kind!) And so after our initial disappointment, we made sure we enjoyed the evening and my birthday in style, warm style! A swim, a sauna, a paid for 3 course meal, and a bedroom suite so large, we got to choose which bed to sleep in! We went for the one in the loft!

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Next day we headed out into the country and stopped to try our hands, I mean feet, at snowshoeing. Lots of fun, and again so warm that we finished in only t-shirts! We soon got the hang of it, and thoroughly enjoyed the tranquility around the frozen lake (when we weren't snowbombing each other or being pushed into the deep, un-compacted snow).

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That night we stayed in a quaint small town called Baie St Paul. We awoke to blocks of ice slowly flowing down the river and could not resist going for a run, cold though it was.

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Taking the train back to Montreal, we looked up a good friend we met on our travels in Bolivia. Marie kindly put us up and we had lots of fun, along with her housemate Anya, exploring the city.

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Montreal has a good vibe, a fun atmosphere and we would have liked to stay longer. Again the warm temperature stayed, and after finding somewhere that sold South American empanadas once again for old time's sake, we enjoyed the first BBQ of the season with Marie and friends, as well as playing frisbee and trying Marie's hula hoop in the park!

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Back briefly to check that Anna had been looking after Carlos in Toronto, and to say goodbye to Lia and Mike's warm hospitality, we start, what was for me (and for Debs too, although she might not like to admit it) the highlight of Canada this time around: a 5 day train journey across the length of Canada. A birthday present of huge proportions, and one to savour and remember for years to come.

Although a bit last minute, taking this train is something I had dreamed of to get across Canada. In my mind the best way to see the country - so much better than flying. This legendary 5 day epic 4,466km journey actually travals across 3 time zones!

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We had a cozy little room with a bunk bed, and our own toilet and sink. Very private, and only a couple of carriages away from the last one which was a high glass domed carriage giving unrestricted panoramic views. Being able to see forward above the train, was new to me, and I loved sitting upstairs taking in the changing countryside.

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As with all long journeys with the same people for the whole way, you get to chat lots and get to know them pretty well which made the trip all the more enjoyable. There were many different people from different countries, but it was great to see so many Canadians enjoying their country too. And then the food. They managed 3 sittings per meal from a tiny kitchen, and we were immensely impressed both with the quality and the selection. Eating so well whilst travelling through the countryside was a real highlight.

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We passed through 3 main landscapes. Initially upon leaving Toronto, the train heads north and into the cold, before turning west through a landscape full of frozen lakes, in the Ontario province. This frozen landscape also continued through the next province of Manitoba where a long stop in Winnipeg gave us time to go for a morning run, much to surprise of our fellow passengers! Next was the vast open prairies of the province of Saskatchewan with little to see other than the odd beaver building its dam, but still very beautiful by their flat emptiness. And finally we awoke in the dark early hours to a blizzard in Edmonton as we progressed through Alberta and into British Colombia for the highlight, the Rockies mountain range. The blizzard had passed by mid morning, and soon the blue sky could be seen for a stunning day of viewing the snow covered mountains. Strange to imagine that this mountain range passes down the length of northern America, and then down the spine of South America as well, where not long ago, we were enjoying the views in Patagonia!

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Before we knew it, we were back in Vancouver and this time staying with a Couchsurfing host, Dean. Always a bit of a gamble saying yes to an area or part of a city you do not know. But we struck gold here, Dean's appartment was right in the centre, on the 8th floor, and spotless. We had a corner room with 2 walls being floor to ceiling windows! Dean was incredibly generous, and we loved chatting to him and learning the rules of curling, his winter pastime, and softball, his summer pastime!

Our last day included another walk around Stanley Park...

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...before heading to the airport for the long flight down across the Pacific, to Deborah's homeland, New Zealand. Our incredible, amazing and completely awesome adventures complete....

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Posted by DebandMatt 14:02 Archived in Canada Tagged travel train montreal quebec toronto falls canada vancouver niagara via across Comments (1)

Colombia

Mountains, beaches, jungle, cloud forest, quaint towns and cosmopolitan cities.

After a smooth flight enjoying watching the Amazon river snake its way through the forest below us, we start our time in Colombia in Bogota, couchsurfing with Elena, a Bogatano who has a great sense of fun and a fantastic circle of friends, who quickly become our friends too.

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We spend a couple of days checking out Bogota – both the touristy old city, up on the hill at Monserrate (where we got hailed on), and the areas where more of the locals live. We sample Colombia’s culinary delights at a food market that had set up outside the cathedral - stewed meat with yukka, plantain and salted potatoes, lulo, a fermented rice drink (which was a massive ‘yuk’ for me while M thought it rather tasty...), meringue, passionfruit curd, Colombian coffee and rice pudding with red fruits – yum yum!

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We are introduced to Tejo, Colombia’s national sport where you throw a lead weight at a box of clay containing small packets of gunpowder. The objective being to hit the gunpowder and make it go ‘bang!’. The danger element being heightened by payment for lane rental being made in the purchase of beer. M is in his element here and just gets better as the beer flows and the group starts chanting ‘Matthew, Matthew, Matthew, Matthew’ every time M takes up his tejo ready for a throw. M is the star of the show and is even complimented on his technique by one of the old boys playing in the next lane!

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And we get to see the party side of Bogata with a night out with Elena, Dario and Dimitrio at the Teatron. The aguadiente flowed and OMG can these boys and girls dance - salsa, techno, reggeton, no matter what, they can shake to it, and we had a good go at keeping up!

Next up was Villa de Leyva, a beautiful colonial town with a peaceful countryside hostel. Nearby sites included a massive fossil of an old swimming dinosaur...and ‘Colombia’s Stonehenge’ nearby.

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We discovered these attractions by bicycle and also found a bodega selling feijoa wine – yum! And then I found the feijoas themselves – more yumminess!! We were joined by Amanda (an American couchsurfing lady we had met while playing tejo) on a beautiful morning walk up to a nearby waterfall and onto the viewpoint over the town.

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San Gil gave me the chance to do a tandem paraglide. Soaring and swooping like a bird over the vast Chicamocha Canyon was magical! (M had done a fair bit of solo paragliding before, so just came along to check out the canyon and take a few photos). Unfortunately the drive up to the canyon and back wasn’t so pleasant with all the twists and turns, and so for the evening's night bus journey over the same roads we grabbed some heavy duty motion sickness tablets that also knocked us out for most of the 12 hour journey!

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Up to Santa Marta and Taganga we had the chance to enjoy being beach bums by day and dancing away the nights to a live 11 piece carnival band from Belgium that was in the area after playing at the Barraquicha festival. We loved the vibe in Taganga. OK, it is touristy and the beach isn’t the best ever, but everyone was very chilled, the food was great (Baba Ganoush did the best fillet mignon with red wine jus) and rum and coke in the evening on the beachfront went down very well.

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Tayrona National Park was a little piece of paradise. Big boulders on the golden sand of windswept Caribbean beaches, jungle filled with butterflies and monkeys, sleeping to the sound of the surf crashing onto the beach and the wind whipping through the palms...

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We also ate some of the best seafood here – prawns in tamarind, which was a new taste sensation for M, and seabass in a crust of plantain, yum! We also had a very sweaty hike through the jungle and clambering over and around massive boulders to Peubolito, a ruined city of the Tayronan people which was really quite impressive, even more so as we were the only people there! We then continued our hike another couple of hours onto the road, seeing some massive spiders and a snake on the way. This worried us a little as night fell and our last 30mins of hiking was done in the dark with head torches and the moon to keep us from treading on any of the nastier creatures. The jungle takes on quite a different mood as darkness falls, so many new sounds! But we were fine and were back to Taganga just before our local roast chicken restaurant closed for the night for a massive meal.

Onto Cartagena where our first impressions of a chaotic, grubby and sprawling town gave way to the charms of the old, walled city. Beautiful colonial buildings are sealed within the walls to keep the sea spray of the wild Caribbean sea out. Wandering around the city walls is a delight with the cooling breeze moderating the otherwise scorching heat of this city. I check out the modern art museum and the much better Oro and Zanu museum which tells not only about the history of gold in Colombia, but about the Zanu people and how they changed a large area of Colombia through digging well thought out irrigation channels to keep their crops and houses above water in times of flood and prevent drought devastating their crops too. My cravings for spice were tempered by a tiny indian restaurant and we had a delightful night in Cafe Havana sipping mojitos while a live band played some of my favourite cuban tunes. We explored one of the many local Forts....with its tunnels and turrets, got a little lost and found ourselves wandering through the back streets of Getesmani where the locals had pulled their chairs out onto the street to relax, chat to their neighbours and enjoy the evening breeze.

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Back up on the city walls Cafe del Mar was pumping out techno beats and as prices were also imitating Ibiza we hung out on the fringes of this open air bar with ice cream and our own drinks to dance and enjoy all that this bar had to offer, but on the budget of two increasingly skint travellers.

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An overnight bus takes us to Medillin which is back up in the mountains and has a beautiful spring-time climate - M is very happy with that! We use the cable car that is part of the public transport to see the city from the air, zipping up and down the hills and over houses (some are shacks clinging onto the hillsides).

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And we discover the yummy fruit salad in papaya/watermelon juice sold on roadside stalls which is the perfect healthy snack to combat the many '4 carbs' meals we've found ourselves eating. Also a visit to the botanical gardens is a highlight with a Butterfly House showing us even more stunning species of these beautiful creatures.

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Our bus to Manizales resembles a rollercoaster, but our manic driver somehow gets us there without incident. Phew. We stay at the mountain house hostel (highly recommended!), head out on the town with some fellow travellers, sample the local rum (way too easy to drink!) and chat to a few locals.

Next on our travels is staying in the mountains in Solento, a beautiful small town surrounded by coffee plantations, farms and with the Cocora Valley just down the road. Our first night is out on a farm where we spot fireflies in the fields, chat to our hostess Luz Angela in spanish and are woken early by the builders...luckily an early start is needed to get us up into town ready for our coffee plantation tour. Finca Don Eduardo is a small, organic coffee plantation where the weeding was all done by hand and the land was planted in layers with tall bamboo and bananas, then citrus and coffee, and pineapple lower down. We see the full coffee process, from the ripe fruit through to dried and roasted bean, and then we get to sample the freshly produced and ground coffee - Wow!! Even M enjoyed it! Buzzing, we head out to the Cocora Valley with Laura and Darra. Wet, but so beautiful!

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On our way back to Bogota, what we thought would be an inevitable robbery at some point on the trip, nearly happened. I took our two day bags onto the bus with me while M took the big backpacks to place in the hold. I take two seats near the front of the bus and am told they are occupied. The guy who has told me this grabs M's bag and heads towards the back of the bus. He shows me to two new seats and places M's bag above my head and reaches for mine. I decline and keep it with me, but in the barrage of spanish forget that M's bag is above my head rather than next to me. M gets on board and clocks that his bag is above my head but is more preoccupied with asserting his authority over the guy he thinks is having a go at chatting me up. Next thing we know, only seconds later, is M's bag appears at the front of the bus, held up by a security guard...It seems that the bag was wrapped in a red coat and escorted off the bus right under our noses, we assume by an accomplice. Luckily a security guard thought it unlikely that a Colombian would have a fancy green and grey Rohan day bag on his back and stopped him as he left the station! We're promptly had to get off the bus, grab our bags out of the hold and head to the police station where we were asked to ID the thief...but it's not the guy we're expecting and my 'police spanish' isn't up to much. They want us to say this guy took our bag, but we can't say it was him - we've never seen him before. And weirdly he's right there eyeballing us across the room. The police ask us to discuss the matter with him...what we would discuss and how I don't know... A couple of hours later and with the promised CCTV still not being available we've decided to call it a day. Using google translate 'Lord Matthew' has signed a statement saying he can't proceed any further...

By 10pm we are finally in Bogota. Elena takes our mind off the mornings events and takes us out to a friends birthday drinks. Sunday sees a relaxed brunch, lots of chatting, elevenses (well afternoon tea actually...) and helping Elena work out that she may just be able to travel to India and Egypt - it is easy to forget just how lucky we are to have citizenship of westernised countries and the opportunities that affords us. We have an amazing last supper with Elena, Dario, Domitrio and Carlos - which they sneakily pay for while M uses the bathroom taking the money with him...So we take them out for 80's style cocktails ;-) The goodbyes are sad - we never expected such generosity, hospitality and warmth and really hope to see our Bogatano friends again! Muchas gracias amigos!!

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Posted by DebandMatt 22:47 Archived in Colombia Tagged villa santa de bogota cartagena marta taganga san_gil leyva tayrona_national_park tejo Comments (0)

A brief visit to Uruguay and back to Buenos Aires

We return to Buenos Aires and visit Colonia and Montevideo in Uruguay before flying up to Colombia

After a whole day on the bus from Bariloche, we're happy to be back on our feet and in Buenos Aires. We meet up with Fabiana who has grabbed our bags from Carlos's apartment (although we later discovered that a few items including M's dancing shoes and my contact lenses had fallen out of the bags and were still under the bed...) and head over to Gustavo's apartment for pizza and a night in. Gustavo is an amazing host and we chat a fair portion of the night away :) This visit to BA doesn't see so much tango, but more bars, clubs and some great art at MALBA - especially the exhibition of Carlos Cruz-Diez's work!

It's a short boat ride over to Colonia and well worth the trip for the stunning sunset and peaceful ambiance of the town set on the banks of the estuary. There is a quaint little lighthouse to climb and lots of beaches to chill on. Our evening meal is accompanied by some very pleasant Uruguayan wine and we are serenaded by three classical guitarists :)

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Montevideo is a city, so not so peaceful. In fact as we walk through the old part of town down to the waterfront, a mad old man takes a dislike to us and starts throwing stones. Luckily, he's a bad shot! Down at the waterfront people are fishing and chilling as the waves crash against the sea walls. We stay for the sunset and then trundle back to our guesthouse - using the main roads this time!

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And before we know it, it's time to jump on our plane to Colombia...with a brief overnight stop in BA where we catch up with Gustavo, try traditional BA pizza and then head back to the airport in the early hours...

Posted by DebandMatt 04:01 Archived in Uruguay Tagged uruguay colonia montevideo Comments (1)

Picturesque Patagonia

Hiking in front of the granite pillars of Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, cruising through the fjords with Minke whales and summiting the active Villarrica volcano.

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Handing in the keys to our BA home for the past month is sad, we´ve loved our spot on the 20th floor right in the middle of it all, but we´re also excited about getting into the Patagonian countryside.

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It´s just a 10min taxi ride to the domestic airport and we wizz through old fashioned light touch security controls (no little bags for liquids here) and board our flight to El Calafate. The guy sat next to me is an elderly Argentino who is a retired cyclist (who had raced in NZ) who grew up in El Calafate and is visiting his family who still live down there. He´s really chatty and doesn´t seem to mind that my spanish is rather stilted...When we start getting clear views of the Andes and lots of bright blue lakes he´s almost as excited as us - apparently we´re very lucky as there is normally a lot of cloud surrounding the mountain tops. Mt Fitz Roy is instantly recognisable, standing proud with it´s sheer granite walls absent of snow and ice.

The weather is definately on our side and we land at 6pm to 18 degrees, blue sky and only a gentle breeze! M heads through to see if he can sort us out a hire car while I collect our bags. We´re in luck and drive off in a brand new VW ´Gol´. [Although it´s rather pricier than a similar hire would be in the UK, and with much steeper excesses - especially if you roll the car, which is surprisingly common with the high winds here, so we´ll try to avoid that...]

We check our bags into Hostal Buenos Aires [he he] and head out for an evening drive. The gravel road is slow going, but the views are great! Snowy mountains, glaciers and lakes - perfect. I spot some people picking berries on the roadside - must be the calafate berry. The saying goes that 'once you eat calafate berries you'll be back'. At our next photo stop I spot a bush and we do some sampling - when you get a juicy ripe berry they sure are good!

We watch the sun set behind the mountains and head back to the hostel for a good nights kip.

Next morning, following a gorgeous drive to El Chalten we get the low down on the hiking in the region, pick up a map and some empanadas and set out to Laguna Torre.

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The walk is undulating through stands of ragged beech trees and scrubby, rocky plains with plenty of viewpoints of the striking three peaks of Cerro Torre (3102m), Aguja Egger (2990m) and Cerro Standhardt (2800m) and glacier Torre. We drink from a clear, cold, spring-fed river - deliciously pure and so refeshing in the heat of the day!

Our lunch is eaten here....not bad eh?!

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The camping spot is just beautiful, and we are now wishing that we'd hired camping gear and were spending the night. But we're staying at a hostel back in town so start the hike back.

Three hours of driving and six of hiking have used up our energy, so we treat ourselves to dinner out. Estepa is a guide book recommendation, but we're surprised when it is empty at 9pm...it seems that even in trekking country late dinners are the norm. M starts with a rather strong local beer while I order a bottle of malbec. We both go for the lamb in calafate berry jus, which turns out to be a great choice - succulent lamb chops and a steak accompanied by a dark purple sauce that compliments the lamb perfectly. It's served with great accompaniments and is getting very close to being Michelin star standard. Oh and the malbec is rather tasty too :)

Our hostel turns out to be rather chaotic and noisy, but luckily we're sharing with two very nice people who also want a good night's sleep...

I'm up early and head to the tiny kitchen to rustle up some pasta and hard boiled eggs to sustain us through the day's trek ahead. There are no matches for the gas cooker so I head to reception and get given a flaming metal stick which creats quite a stir as I walk through the common area full of sleepy travellers with their morning coffee! M turns up just as I finish (timing being a strong point...) and we grab some breakfast. We're then told that we have to change rooms, so bags are quickly packed, put back into storage and we head out onto the trail.

The sky is once again clear and blue and the day warms quickly. The trail is a little longer than yesterday's with a steep last 90 minutes to get to Laguna de los Tres and the famous views of Mt Fitz Roy. It was a challenge, but we are raring to go :)

It takes us 5 1/2 hours, with plenty of stops to take in the views, observe a woodpecker with a vivid red tuft (he was a bit of a dandy, as you can see) and drink more cold fresh mountain spring water (better than anything you could get out of a bottle!). And the final views of Mt Fitz Roy are awesome!!

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We linger, watching the tiny black dots that are climbers head up through the snow and ice and wonder which peaks they will head to.
The path down is tough - I've always found steep downhills harder than the climb up - but we are entertained by two Andean Condors playing in the afternoon thermals. I wish that I could use the thermals to float down!

We both agree that while the two day hikes have been fantastic, having a small, light tent and the necessary camping gear would have been even better as the campsites were so beautiful, the weather fantastic, and then you could do the walk as a 3 day loop - which would be much easier too.

A small detour to a nearby waterfall is made for dinner, and then we head back to the hostel to find our room, shower and flop into bed. Unfortunately our plans are scuppered by the two Israeli girls we are sharing with who keep the light on, gossip, and straighten their hair until 1am, then come back at 3am, turn the light on again, leave the room, come back...Ahhhrrr!! We get up at 5am and leave with no lights and minimal sound to show them how travellers should behave...

We head back to El Calafate taking in the sunrise and the morning light hitting Mt Fitz Roy. Birds of prey pick over carrion on the road and we disturb foxes sunning themselves on the tarmac.

In town we fill the thermos, grab a bag of croissants and head straight to Glacier Perito Moreno. The viewpoints along the way are pretty, but it is once we reach the walkway facing the glacier that we are 'wowwed' by the height, enormity and beauty of this very grand glacier.
We spend a lot of time watching out for chunks of ice to crash into the lake, wandering around the paths admiring the collosal ice wall and beautiful aquamarine blue of the freshly cut ice and listerning to the glacier creak and groan. Man can she be noisy!!

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All of this after our lack of sleep last night leads us to stop in a picnic spot to take a brief siesta in the car...Apparently this is the thing to do - every other car seems to be full of snoozing Argentinos!

8am the next day and we're on a bus to Puerto Natales in Chile. We get chatting to Alex and Anna (two Brits who live in Clapham Junction - barely 2 miles from where we were in Southfields) who are also booked on the Navimag cruise through the Chilean Fjords north to Puerto Montt.

We get some views of the stunning Torres del Pain mountain range from the bus and from the port area of Puerto Natales. Even though the mountain tops are covered in cloud they still envoke a sense of drama.

We buy wine, fruit and snacks for the cruise and check in at the posh hotel on the waterfront while we wait for our ship to arrive and be cleaned. Check-in has been moved to midnight and so as soon as we're onboard we tuck ourselves up into the cosy, curtained bunks and are asleep by 1am.

Sailing out of Puerto Natales we are surrounded by stark granite hills, narrow channels, Andean peaks and glaciers. Soon the moody clouds clear to reveal a bright hot sun. And while enjoing a few rays we spot our first whale spraying it's fountain of water, only 200m from our boat!

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At breakfast, we meet Geannie and Dean, who are on their second date no less! They are an American pair with rather alternative lifestyles (she's a tour america guide, he's a marine biologist who works on a research ship), hence meeting for only the second time in Chile for a 5 week date. We figure that the fact that they keep disappearing means things are going well ;-) Appropriately for a cruise in this part of the world, we finish the day watching "March of the Penguins" on the large screen.

Morning call for Puerto Eden wakes me and I jump out of my bunk to see this colourful little village of only 172 inhabitants. M is close behind me and we enjoy a peaceful moment in the Captain's bridge as the ship navigates some narrow channels.

We see a lot more minke whales today as the channels open up. They are in small pods and sometimes we can see 4 or 5 pods at once. One pod comes super close to the ship and we watch one do a barrel roll at the ships bow - Wow! We also love watching the sea lions as they jump over the waves and dive through the clean blue waters. They are so playful! And as we approach a wreck the sunlight streams down in a god-like moment and there are flocks of many kinds of sea birds all circling around the rusted masts.

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Before we know it we're out at sea rolling on the swell. It's not at all rough, but lots of tummies are getting wobbly...I'm fine with my ginger tea, but I manage to score the last sea sickness tablet from behind the bar for M as soon as I spot him turning green. We watch a documentary on South Georgia and by then the tablet has taken effect and we pass out.

Next day, the morning's view from the Captain's Bridge is of mist rising from the fjords, filling the valleys and blanketing the mountains.

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A chilly wind takes us into the bar where we meet Christel and Joost (a Dutch couple who have just spent 3 months driving around Africa in a 4x4). So as the sun comes out again we have quite a gang together on the back deck devouring the booze we've all bought on board.
Tonight's entertainment is Bingo, with prizes of wine, 'Navimag' fleeces and shot glasses. Christel and Joost come up trumps with wine and a rather fetching fleece. The rest of us are well entertained losers who get to share the wine - Cheers!

Hangovers mist our early start to disembark in Puerto Montt. A much more plesant mist is lifting from the port with bright sunshine sparkling through - beautiful.

We all went for an amusing walk along the promenade - loving the 'outdoor gym'/adult playground (or at least that's what Geannie and Dean tried to turn it into...). And then we headed onto Puerto Varas along with Anna and Alex.

After checking into our hostel we head to a Rodeo that's in town. A rather lengthly detour on the bus later we arrive to this oddball show. There's no lassoing, or barrel racing here. Just two horses at a time hearding a steer around the track and then slamming it into a cushioned part of the coral. Hmmm, while I could see that this required a lot of skill from both the gouchos and the horses it was not my cup of tea. And neither was it M's. Despite being a fair distance away from the horses, the dust swirling in the air set his allergies off and soon we are hitching a ride to get a swollen faced M back to the hostel and under the shower.

Moving onto Villarrica we catch a glimpse of an international triathalon (which leaves M pining) and then stumble across Chile's version of a country fair. Asados of whole lambs, locally produced cheeses, fruits and baked goodies, plus lads that were only too pleased to give me a rather enormous glass of wine. We watch a traditional game called 'Pallin' which is a little like hockey, but on a very narrow pitch and bought some honey shampoo and lip balm. Then we head back to our comfy family run B&B for the best night's sleep :) Breakfast is a really social affair with all the Chilean and Argentinian tourists giving us tips around the big breakfast table - and with cake coming at the end it feels more like a dinner party!

Pucon is our next stop and a random hostel finds us with a guy approaching us outside the information centre. His private room is the same price as a dorm and while it's a tad rustic, we decide to stay. We want to climb Volcan Villarrica, but wake to a storm so decide that hot springs are a much better choice. We arrive at 'Los Pozones' in the middle of a torrential downpour, so despite wearing all our wet weather gear we start out cold and wet. So the soothing warm waters are even more welcome to warm us through. We get chatting to Darren and Deborah, a couple from Yorkshire who are also heading to New Zealand. See you guys there :) And then, after a false start (who would have thought there were two tourist information offices in one town) we meet up with Cristel and Joost at an Italian restaurant for a yummy meal.
The forecast for Volcan Villarrica is getting better, but it's recommended that we wait one more day for the best conditions. So off we head to Huerquehue National Park instead. The park is beautiful, with mist rising off the peaty lakes, dense forest with monkey puzzle trees standing tall and the clouds parting to give us a glimpse of the volcano.

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We're up at 5:45am to prep for our climb. Porridge for breakky, thermos full of tea, sandwiches and snacks packed and we head into town to Summit Chile, the company who will get us to the top. We meet Claudio, our Swiss trained mountain guide, Chris, the assistant guide, and the rest of our group; Kathleen and Emily - sisters from Florida, and Stephan - from Austria. On goes the gear - gaters, windproof pants and jacket. Our packs hold crampons, ice axe, mittens, plastic and material as protectors for our descent and hard hats.

A short drive to the base of the volcano and then a brief ascent on an old rickety ski lift gets us started. Claudio gives us a briefing on how to climb - Frankenstien steps, two points of contact for every step, and how to use our ice axe - and then we're off. The first section is rocky but soon we're on icy snow. Claudio stops us and we get our crampons out. Our next lesson is on how to walk wearing crampons - 'cowboy steps' this time. With the crampons on there is no sliding around and we can safely take a steeper route than the other groups, which we steadily overtake.

While most of the time we are concentrating on the simplest of tasks - putting one foot in front of the other - every now and then we look out at the view. Wow!

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Finally we reach the top and go check out the crater. It is steaming away, throwing out noxious fumes, but unfortunately no lava (recently this has become a rare event).

Sliding down the volcano on our butts makes the descent a highlight! It sure beats trudging down :) We'll be looking out for snowy mountains/volcanoes to climb and slide down from here on in!

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And we were really pleased that we did the climb with Summit Chile - Claudio was a very professional guide, where elsewhere there looked to be a lot of cowboys. And we learnt a thing or two too!

Back in Pucon, we drink a well earnt beer on the pumping lakeside beach with Kathleen and Emily. Chris soon joins us and the beach volleyball tournament is entered, and won! Great work chicos! Emily and Kathleen have a rule that if you go to a lake (or anything else watery) you HAVE to go in - so off they go with M in tow. I decide to stay dry, guard our gear and take photos...

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Later that night, which is very clear, we manage to see the red glow of the volcano through the smoke and steam above the crater from our hostel window in the dark, very cool!

Next day we catch the bus from Pucon to San Martin de los Andes in Argentina. It is a beautiful ride through lush, rugged scenery which changes to become much more arid once we hit Argentina. On the border we have amazing views of Volcan Lanin, another text book volcano.

Arriving at San Martin we find a hostel a couple of blocks from the lakefront and head straight down to catch the last hour of sun on the beach. Lago Lacar is steep sided and is picturesquely surrounded by craggy Andean foothils.

It happens that we have stumbled upon San Martin's national day and there are parades through town celebrating the local services, polo teams, gauchos and other local groups. And amongst all the activities, there is even a triathlon too. That evening, we decide to head out to the Chapelco Golf Club for a picnic and an evening of classical music. Very civilised!

We hitchhike back and are immediately picked up by Rachel, Isaias and Judit who offer to take us to see their father's art gallery. This is one artistic family! As well as the father's amazing oil paintings with their thick texture and wonderful colours created with a palatte knife (for a look go to www.georg.com), the children are all talented too. Isaia's photography is stunning and the other brothers and sisters are painters, potters, designers... And some of this great work is housed in a stunning custom built gallery of four levels on the edge of the national park. And as if painting was not enough, we are even entertained as we browse by the father playing his grand piano! Once our eyes have stopped popping out, Isaias drops us off in town and we head back to our hostel via a serving of Mamusia's helado - yum!
We opt to take the bus to Bariloche that goes via the seven lakes route. Ash from Volcan Puyehue in Chile is in the air and has settled thickly, floating on the surface of some of the lakes and changing the feel of this area.

We want to head straight out and get trekking, but we need sleeping bags to stay warm in the refugios, and the one shop that rents these is closed. So we find a hotel and head out for a yummy steak dinner - being delayed isn't so bad.

Next morning I pop out to hire some bulky, old fashioned sleeping bags and we grab food for lunches and snacks. Trekking permit issued and we're ready to go...only the bus takes pre-bought tickets only and while it waits for me to run across the road, they are out and it won't wait any longer...so we have two hours to kill until the next one comes along. Time to sort out our flights to Bogota.

Back in BA our friend Carlos has some of our stuff and is holidaying a little longer than originally planned, so we're having to rework our schedule...return flights to Iguassu are $900 for the pair of us...a bit too steep for a waterfall we figure, even a really big waterfall. Instead we find flights from Montevideo, to Bogata via BA for $200 less than the very same flight from BA. It doesn't make sense, but we book it anyway.

Back at the bus stop we see a pretty blond lady who looks a lot like Emily - and is Emily! So it works that we got the later bus in the end anyway. Emily joins us on our hike to Refugio Lopez :-) She's just doing a day walk though and so heads back down the hill after we find a beautiful viewpoint and a stream to dangle our feet in.

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Up at the refugio we have great views to sip red wine and watch the sunset from. Bliss.

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Next is the tough day of the hike with two steep climbs, one very steep descent and some bouldering (a surprise addition to finish the day off). As we work our way up to the first ridge it is calm and sunny, but as we approach the top the wind sweeps powerfully over the ridge, so we keep ourselves low to the ground until we have dropped a safe distance over the other side. We had been told that this is the most dangerous part of the hike and we zig-zag down the steep scree slope carefully. At the base we are greated by a tranquil valley full of pretty little streams and only two people hiking the other way. The last ridge we have to cross would be easy in calm weather, but the strong winds that Patagonia can get make it slow and treacherous going. We can now see Refugio Italiana on the far side of Laguna Negro, it looks deceivingly close, but it takes another hour to scramble and boulder our way around the steep sides of the Laguna while the wind whips the lake into white caps and tries to soak us from below. Hot tea inside the refugio never tasted so good!

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Our hike out in the morning is down the mountainside and then along a river - easy :) While waiting for the bus some Argentinian tourists pull over and ask if we know the way back into Bariloche. We do and want to go there too, so get a ride into town in exchange for giving directions. Then it's back to the hotel to pick up our stuff, and the next thing we know is we're on a 21hr, $US180, bus ride back to Buenos Aires. But the big comfy cama seats make it alright.

Posted by DebandMatt 03:29 Archived in Argentina Tagged mountains sea hiking fjords whales chile argentina lions patagonia villarrica navimag Comments (0)

One month in Buenos Aires

A chance to unpack the bags, meet the locals and dance tango!

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Buenos Aires is different from the South America we've seen so far, it's a bit like a European city, only friendly, subtropical and with some wierd bureaucratic practices (which we felt when we needed US dollars to pay for our apartment). There are a few indigenous South Americans here, but I think there are similar numbers in London. Most people seam to be descendants of Spaniards or Italians and after many years of living here have developed their own culture. Porteños love to party! It seams here that to eat before 9pm and hit a club before 2am is a social disgrace and there are many nights when we don't leave the party till 5am.

After spending our first night in a hostel in 'downtown' and taking the opportunity to cycle around much of the city while roads have their Sunday quiet moment we decide that our original idea of staying in Palermo Viejo is a good one. We book an apartment and move in on Monday - to the 20th floor! Our views over the city are fantastic! There is one hiccup as only cash payment is accepted and it will take us at least three days to get enough money out of the ATM (apartments like this in BA aren't the bargain they once were) and then we find that we can't change this into US$ due to a new rule the government has brought in...but tourists need pesos and I need dollars and I use this fact and 5 sets of tourists later we have changed all that we need :)

The first night in our apartment we go for a wander to check out our bit of town and then flop into a pizza restaurant. The waitress is super friendly and answers our multitude of questions - nearest swimming pools, best bars and clubs...And then M bumps into a chap called Carlos who just happens to be one of the few people in BA who does triathlons. Carlos is there with his family, including his 7 year old son Mateo and 3 week old daughter Luciania (very cute!!). Laura doesn't speak much English, so we converse with my strained Spanish while M and Carlos chat away in English. Carlos asks who we will be spending Christmas with and then when he finds out we have no family here he insists that we join them! Their food arrives and Carlos and M arrange to meet for a run the next day :)

We're a bit apprehensive about intruding on their Christmas, but Carlos is insistent and arranges a ride for us out to a friends country house with his brother, Christian, and girlfriend, Cynthia on Christmas Eve. The day is filled with lounging around the pool, playing football with Mateo and chatting with the other family members who arrive throughout the afternoon and evening. We light a bonfire so that there are coals for the parrilla and Laura's parents arrive with the meat. Laura's father wastes no time in shovelling red embers up under the grill and getting the meat cooking. He also does some asado pizza (BBQed pizza), morcilla (black pudding) and smaller cuts of meat as nibbles to keep us going. Yummy! I chat away to all in a mixture of English and Spanish while M tends to prefer to stick with English, which luckily most speak fairly well. Well into the evening we sit down to eat. The cuts of meat come one after another off the massive knife of Laura's dad. As midnight approaches fireworks start going off and we wake Mateo. Christmas is celebrated at midnight with Sidre (Sweet Cider) and Mateo finding a wheelbarrow full of presents! Most are for him, but there are a few for the adults and Luciania too, which Mateo reluctantly hands out.

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Finally it's time to pack up and head back into town. The fireworks continue as we're driven along a jam-packed motorway. Aparently driving home at 2am on Christmas morning is normal here - luckily we haven't found the Argentinians to be big drinkers, but their driving leaves a lot to be desired!!

Back at our flat we have a panoramic view of the city's fireworks, which are not showing any sign of finishing. We crash out before they do.

Christmas Day is a more restful affair and M and I spend the day together, chatting with family, eating a beautiful steak that our local butcher has provided for us and drinking a fine, rich Malbec and Argentinian 'champagne'. We venture out to the park just before sunset to find it filled with rollerbladers, cyclists, strollers and families picnicing.

On New Years Eve M ran an 8km race with 3200 others! It's the biggest race in BA's calender and Carlos was comparing :) M did amazingly well, coming in the top 10%!! Especially as he'd barely fitted in any training and it was super hot!!

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We'd been told that New Years Eve is another mad night for fireworks, but that it's a family celebration more than a grand party with friends. So we decide to keep our celebrations relaxed with a lovely meal followed by watching the fireworks from the roof of our apartment. This is just perfect as most of the fireworks are let off by individuals or families here in BA, so the spectical isn't just in one location and we had a great view of it all.

On New Years Day everything was closed, so we thought we'd enjoy wandering around some of the touristy parts of town...which were rammed! San Telmo's antiques market was up and running, a tango band provided great music and we enjoyed a coffee con leche and submarino (dark chocolate bar that you dissolve in hot milk - M's favorite!) in an historic bar. Wandering down to La Boca, we walk along the waterfront and then find the famous Caminito area with it's beautiful colourful buildings. On our way home we passed the Casa Rosada, the parliament house, from which Evita Peron amongst others rallied the masses with speeches from the balcony.

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The other key even we had while in BA was Louise and Mario's wedding. Louise is a friend of M's who went off travelling around the world, met Mario in BA, fell in love and came back to stay! The wedding was so much fun :) We met Sarah and Remy (friends who had come over from London) and headed over to meet up with Louise's family. The ceremony was at 8pm in a beautiful church in an ecological reserve. We then headed to the reception where there was great food off the parrilla, speeches (got to bring a few English traditions over), singing and dancing. In the early hours a tango song was played and M and I took to the floor...and found we were joined by Louise's parents...none of the Argentinians at the wedding danced tango. So we had quite an audience! Several sets of ochos, some heros and a couple of gauchos later we were being praised for our tango skill...phew!

And this leads me to one of the main activities of our time in BA...bailar tango :) We take lots of lessons lessons, from a variety of teachers (not really the best way of doing it when you're a beginner, but it was fun...) and go to lots of milongas (this is a social dance, there will be a DJ or some live music and the tables and chairs are placed around the dancefloor so that men can easily invite the ladies to dance). Some of the milongas are full of amazing dancers and I don't get asked to dance, either because they don't know my ability or because M is sitting next to me, but we're happy to watch and enjoy a drink. Other milongas have more of a mixed bag of dancers and are less formal. These suit us much better!us much better and I'm up dancing most of the night. M dances mainly with me - it's much harder for an inexperienced guy to ask ladies to dance than the other way around as the man has to lead, watch out for other dancers who may cut you up and keep the rhythm. The more I dance the more admiration I have for the male lead. But even when he's not dancing M has a great time watching, enjoying the music and chatting to the friendly Portenos.

We also go to some great bars, a couple of clubs, a few yummy restaurants and eat A LOT of helado (italian style icecream, Mmmm). We meet up with some couchsurfers for coffee, beer, tango, language exchange and general chit chat. And we meet lots of other travellers who are having a ball, just like us!

(PS. More photos to follow once we get a chance to download them onto a laptop that works!)

Posted by DebandMatt 16:33 Archived in Argentina Tagged argentina buenos_aires Comments (0)

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