Quebradas & Vineyards

From Tupiza we jumped in a Colectivo (shared taxi) to the Argentinan border. We’d heard it was a nightmare to cross as it’s drugs trafficking route (apparently flights from Argentina to the US and Europe are much more common and less suspicious than flights from Bolivia). So we were expecting the worst (hours of queues, thorough bag searches etc) but apparently a quick squeeze of the handle of a bag is all they need to tell what’s inside so 5 minutes later we’d crossed the bridge back into Argentina and the land of lovely, luxurious buses. I can’t quite explain how excited we were by the buses at the time, however it was soon diminished as we arrived at the chaotic La Quiaca bus station only to realise this was definitely more of a Bolivian bus station in spirit if not in location. Nonetheless, we got our bus (which wasn’t too bad) down to Salta. Arriving that night, the difference between how far our peso went in Bolivia as opposed to Argentina was glaringly obvious and our windowless hostel room with gaping holes in the ceiling so we could hear all the antics of the 18-year old British backpackers getting wasted in the kitchen made us feel very old (but at 5am when they were throwing up, we were glad we weren’t still that age.)

Unfortunately we weren’t feeling particularly well so the next day we took a “Sunday” and decided not to do alot. However, Salta’s charms were obvious – gorgeous colonial architecture, incredibly friendly people (it’s not everyday a lady stops you on the street and tells you you’re beautiful!) and a thriving cultural scene. The next day we were off to Cafayate (the highest altitude vineyard region in the world) but we vowed that on the way back we’d take a couple more days to mooch around Salta and enjoy all it had to offer.

So Cafayate. What a town, not much bigger than a village but perfectly formed. We arrived at our beautiful hostel with vineyards growing in its huge courtyard and settled in for a few beautiful sunny days and freezing cold nights. Apparently this is perfect weather for grapes to grow in and we were soon supping some Torrontes (fruity but dry white wine) and Tannat (a strong but tasty red wine) – two grapes that the Cafayatians are particularly proud of. Several days of bodega tours ensued (James now says there’s not really any need for him to go to anymore tours as after Mendoza and he claims he can pretty much tell me the entire process of wine making but I’m pretty sure it’s more to do with the fact he wants to fit in more drinking time!)

Surrounding Cafayate is the area of Quebrada de Cafayate, some of the most dramatic scenery we have encountered. So one afternoon off we set to explore the area. Just a 5 minute drive outside of town and you are accosted with huge changes, from vineyards to forest, to desert and then suddenly to the quebrada (which means a small valley, usually with a river at the bottom). This valley receives little rain that it is a haven for cacti and stunning wind-eroded rock formations as well as incredible geological marvels where red, green and yellow rock strata can be seen in front of multi-coloured mountains. A rock eroded into the shape of a toad, an enormous natural amphitheatre (where apparently one of the Gallagher brothers has performed) and the Devil’s Throat (an eerie cavernous splitting of the rocks that in Calchaqui tradition should not be entered as you will meet the devil). Having spent so much time in Patagonia we really didn’t think that the landscapes would be able to be beaten, but I have to say, this region certainly gives it a run for its money.

After eating our fill of empanadas (a dozen a day – I hope – keeps the doctor away?!) and downing enough high-altitude wine (even in the guise of a Torrentes & Malbec ice-cream) we reluctantly headed back to Salta for a couple of days seeing the sights we’d previously missed. This included the Museo de Alta Montana (the museum of High Mountain) in which are the best-preserved mummies in the world, 3 Inca children who were sacrificed to Pacha Mama (mother earth) at high altitude in the 16th century and because of the altitude and freezing conditions were perfectly preserved. Needless to say I was terrified and made James go first into each room to tell me exactly what was in there but it is definitely one of the most fascinating and emotional museums I’ve ever been to. The little children, with their hair still perfectly held in place, their sandals and clothes still in tact and the offerings that were with them perfectly preserved in all their multi-coloured glory are truly haunting but somehow rather peaceful too.

After a couple of days in Salta, we found ourselves with only 2 weeks to go until our flight out of Santiago so decided it was probably time to get ourselves back to Chile. So we departed from Salta early one morning for the epic high altitude journey, again through breathtaking scenery, crossing more salt flats and going up to over 4000m to reach the small dusty tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. It’s fair to say that initially we weren’t bowled over. The few streets were overrun with tourists – albeit of varying ages and nationalities – and the associated touts. However after a few days we relented a little and decided that there was still a little charm left in this isolated town, not just because of its cute plazas and gorgeous cactus wood church, but also because of the stunning surrounding (we rather enjoyed clambering around the desert, exploring the pre-Columbian ruins of Pukara de Quitor like a smaller and less well preserved Machu Picchu, running down sand-dunes and watching the sunset and moonrise over Valle de la Luna).

So with just over a week before our flight and the start of our elongated journey home, we are making our way slowly and a little sadly towards Santiago with a few stops on the way. It’s going to be an emotional day when we finally say goodbye to this incredible continent.

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Bolivian salt flats

From Sucre we stopped over briefly in Potosi, the highest city in the world. It’s next to a mountain that had so much silver in it that it almost single-handedly bankrolled the Spanish empire for a couple of hundred years. Mining still goes on but mainly for tin. We decided not to go on a mine tour as the mining practices have not changed much in the last 3 centuries and being trapped in a tiny dark tunnel at 4,000 metres didn’t seem like that much fun. But we visited a museum of the Spanish royal mint which was touted as the finest museum in South America in the Lonely Planet and a Carmelite Convent. The former failed to live up to it’s hype but the latter was surprisingly fascinating, aided by an excellent tour guide.

From Potosi we continued south to Tupiza, famous for it’s association with the deaths of Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance kid. Here we started a 4 day tour of the Bolivan altiplano, culminating in a visit to the largest salt flats in the world.

We managed to avoid the crowds by doing the tour from South to North rather than the other way round and fortunately we landed an excellent tour guide/mechanic and cook. Crucially we also got on really well with the other couple on the tour, pretty important considering we were spending upwards of 7 hours a day in a jeep with them!

We were up before dawn most days in order to see the sun rise over an abandoned, ghost ridden town or the salt flats themselves. I do not have the vocabulary to describe the amazing scenery from the searingly white salt flats to a smoking volcano to brightly coloured lakes filled with sulphur and other natural minerals. We bathed in hot springs, climbed huge rock formations, felt light headed at 5,000 metres above sea level, watched the drivers change punctured tires unbelievably quickly, and ate amazing food (including llama) somehow cooked in the boot of the truck. We saw flocks of flamingos, herds of llamas, ancient mines from hundreds of years ago and modern geothermal energy experiments. For the first 2 nights we slept in basic rooms in tiny hamlets where the local boys demonstrated their lung capacities by playing football 4 km above sea level and the entrepreneurially minded girls sold overpriced friendship braclets to the tourists. On the final night we stayed in a lovely hostel made of salt which even had hot water!

It was an amazing experience, straight away leapfrogging into the top 2 or 3 things we’ve done on this trip. The photos don’t do it justice but hopefully give some idea of some of the things we saw.

Back in Tupiza, we decided to recreate the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (the horseriding bit not the bank robbing bit) and hired a guy and some horses and galloped off into the sunset. Well sort of. Luckily for us we didn’t have to do much other than hang on as the horses knew the exact route and where they were supposed to stop so we could admire the scenery and where they were supposed to trot and canter and try and make us fall off. Claire seemed to enjoy this a bit too much and keeps on talking about getting a horse and keeping it in the carpark behind the flat in Camden…I remain unconvinced.

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Celebrations in Sucre

Our first week in Bolivia has certainly been an interesting – if relaxed – one.

Having flown into Santa Cruz in the east of the country, we spent a couple of days wondering around this, the largest city in Bolivia. With over a million people, it was quite a change to the Pantanal and looking back we realised that we hadn’t actually been in a city of considerable size since Buenos Aires. The city itself was not the most exciting for a tourist (particularly considering the fact that we didn’t manage to find two museums, the other two we looked for weren’t open and the park we went in search of turned out to be a concrete jungle with absolutely no shade!) but it was certainly fun to be in a new Spanish speaking(!) country and seeing lots of people in more traditional dress, enjoy the colonial plazas and eat some delicious food. In fact, the highlight may be our hotel. I know it sounds ridiculous but we soon realised how far a GB£ goes in Bolivia and our hotel (costing the same as hostels in Brazil) was sheer luxury. Nonetheless, we were eager to head toward our next destination, Sucre.

Known as “La Ciudad Blanca” – the white city – due to the stunning white facades of the numerous streets of colonial style buildings. Although we weren’t expecting the same kind of transport as Brazil & Argentina, it didn’t make the journey any more pleasant…the journey took 17 hours rather than the advertised 13 with children asleep all along the aisle floor, no toilet, and all on unpaved road, I think we managed about 3 hours of sleep between us. But we arrived in good spirits, just relieved that we’d made it and could now walk again. The bus station was equally haphazard but we jumped in a taxi and off we sped up the hill to our guesthouse, Casa Al Tronco.

The hostel is in an area called Recoleta and when we arrived our room hadn’t yet been vacated so without further ado we were urged by the eccentric owner towards a coffee shop for half an hour to grab some breakfast before we fell into bed. It was only then we realised what a stunning location we were in. The coffee shop was just past a plaza of one of the churches under a magnificent viewing “mirador” across the entire city with the terracotta roofs, white facades and hundreds of churches gleaming back at us. We had a 3 course breakfast with fresh juices, eggs & bacon and some slightly unusual but tasty additions like beetroot and radish and went back to the hostel to sleep in our room that had a 180 degree panorama of the city.

That day we (for obvious reasons) didn’t do alot but over the next few days we realised how fortunate we were in our timing of our visit to the city. The 25th of May is Independence Day in Bolivia and it was declaration was signed in the city of Sucre itself. And here we were confronted with dozens of street processions, fireworks at night, parties and dancing in the plazas and a huge parade on the day itself. It was absolutely stunnning. We also managed to fit in a trip to the mini Eiffel Tower (suprisingly high and suprisingly wobbly!), a phenomenal museum of masks that had been collected from around the region and several trips to the central market which is a feast on the senses – every kind of fruit imaginable (and a few more to boot), chicken feet, half a cow, tasty empanadas and every kind of household item you could ever possibly need.

On our last day, we headed off the the “Parque Cretacico” – working quarry just outside the city which contains the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world.

We are now sitting at a lofty 4050m in Potosi and trying to take it easy…though with this altitude you don’t have alot of choice!

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The Pantanal

From Florianopolis we took a flight towards the border with Bolivia to an area known as the Panatanal. The journey was a little more exciting that we would have liked: we misread the flight time on the tickets and ordered a taxi for 6am rather than 6pm. Trying to explain this to the taxi driver when he arrived in our non existent Portuguese was not easy or fun. When we finally arrived in Campo Grande at 11.30pm, the guy from the hostel who was supposed to pick us up was no where to be seen. So we got a taxi to the hostel which turned out to the wrong place and the guy at reception told us to walk to another hostel (in the dead of night, in a strange city, with all our bags). Eventually we got it sorted but it wasn’t an auspicious start.

We booked a 4 day tour, staying in some rustic, ant infested huts in a tiny village called Lontra on the Rio Miranda. Each year this river (and others) floods, rising from less than 3 metres deep to more than 18 metres deep and creates the world’s largest wetlands. This year had had the worst floods since 1974 and we could see the tide marks on the houses.

On the first afternoon/evening we went piranha fishing to catch our supper although fortunately we had plenty of rice and beans too as there is surprisingly little flesh on piranhas. The next morning we went out on a boat trip and saw hundreds of birds from huge Jabiru stalks, herons, egrets and toucans. There were howler monkeys playing in the trees and capybaras (the world’s largest rodent) on the banks and, of course, 2 metre long caiman in the water.

In the evening we climbed into the back of a safari truck (which we had to push to start) and went on a night drive. This was a bit less exciting as we were restricted to the one road in the area that hadn’t been washed away but we saw 2 foxes and plenty of caiman’s eyes glinting in the water.

We also went on a couple of hikes which made us (well, me) feel like an extra in a in Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, wading through waist deep swamp water, surrounded by mosquitoes, grateful of the fact we could see the caiman in the water unlike the anacondas. It certainly got the pulse racing! We also saw loads of wildlife including herds(?) of wildboar, racoons, deer and armadillos but unfortunately not any puma or jaguars although we did see footprints of both.

Speaking to others, we were clearly incredibly lucky with the amount of wildlife we saw. We also had an guide who spoke perfect English and had phenomenal hearing, even over and above the sound of us falling over and slapping mosquitoes. From here we intended to go back to Campo Grande and fly to Bolivia. However we were persuaded by some fellow travelers that we had time to squeeze in a quick snorkel in the Rio Sucuri near a town called Bonito. Apparently they are quite militant about protecting this area and it showed. The water was amazingly clear and we drifted down river for an hour or so admiring the fish before taking a taxi back into town and jumping on a 5 hour bus back to Campo Grande. Then, a couple of hours in, the bus broke down. The driver jumped out to fix it and the minutes and then the hours ticked by, getting closer and closer to our flight’s departure time. In the end they sent another bus which provided us with a spare part and we got the airport just in time.

So we’re now in Bolivia, enjoying how cheap everything is and the fact that we can understand what people are saying! We’ll blog again soon…

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Beaches in Brazil

So we’ve finally made it to the beach (one where the water / weather is warm enough for us to swim anyway) and it’s heaven!

From Foz do Iguacu we took an overnight bus to the town of Florianopolis on the island of Santa Catarina on the south-eastern coast of Brazil. We had been umming-and-erring about whether it was worth the ridiculous number of kilometres but fortunately it was and as the 4 days we’d planned turned into 9, I can safely say that we definitely made the right decision.

Once we got to the island we and headed straight to the east coast to a place on the beach called Barra da Lagoa. It’s a tiny town / village full of surf shops and bronzed gods (and goddesses) and enough amazing seafood & salad to keep even our expanding waistlines satisfied. We spent a good few days working our way through the miles of deserted sand & surf, sipping a Caipirinha or two and enjoying the hammocks at our simple but cute hostel before deciding that actually we liked the island so much we’d stay a bit longer. We were after a change of scenery, so we took a gamble and headed not far away but more inland to a tiny place we’d seen on the internet that looked really peaceful and a bit off the beaten track. What a find! For the same price as our hostel (which, although charming, had only 2 toilets in the entire place and was fairly grotty to say the least) we found ourselves in a studio with our own kitchen (including an oven – the first in our hostel experience), our own washing machine, a plasma TV & sofa in our own sitting room, a pool and even better – stairs up to our bedroom! Madness. Needless to say we settled ourselves in and have been enjoying all the luxuries and cooking ourselves up a storm. Bacon & eggs for breakfast yesterday, pancakes this morning, a roast dinner (OMG!) and shepherd’s pie! Of course it’s not all been slaving away in the kitchen – we’re a 20 minute walk away from the beach across some stunning sand dunes and 10 minutes bus from the town on the island. The people here seem just so friendly and welcoming – we played Uno with the guys at the hostel, wave daily to the man at the bus stop, had fresh coconut milk with a couple who we met in a cafe chatting about life in Brazil and went for lunch with the owner of the studio and his son at a per kilo restaurant (a great invention – it’s a buffet where they charge you for how much your plate of food weighs).

But unfortunately time is ticking and we’ve suddenly become aware that we have to be on the other side of the continent in 6 weeks for our flight to Easter Island. So our next stop is going to be our last in Brazil – and it’ll be right back to the other side of the country to the Pantanal before heading across to Bolivia. Brazil is just too enormous to get our teeth into properly  just yet- we’re going to have to save the rest of it for next time!!

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Iguazu Falls

We continued north from San Ignacio to the border town of Puerto Iguazu. The bus was mercifully pain-free unlike the one to San Ignacio which broke down at 3 in the morning and the driver flagged another down and herded us on without us having a clue where our luggage was.

The Iguazu falls were possibly the only item definitely on our itinerary when we were planning back in London. Despite this, in a way, I didn’t really have that high expectations. After all, a waterfall is a waterfall isn’t it? And our initial impressions seemed to confirm my fears – the weather was grey and the waterfall, well, just wasn’t that big. Fortunately, as we explored the walkways and look out points on the Argentinian side this all changed. Even though April and May are apparently the driest months, the noise and power of the 275 falls that make up Iguazu was amazing. I just loved standing in front of a roaring, foaming, falling wall of water.

We took a boat trip to see the falls from a slightly different perspective (ie a wetter perspective as the boat takes you right under the falls) and then just as the sun came out we sat and had lunch on a beach. The sun brought with it swarms of swifts that nest under the fall, beautiful rainbows and much needed warmth to dry us out after the boat trip. We ended the day walking to the top of the “Devil’s Throat”, the fiercest bit of the falls and marveling at it’s scale.

A couple of days later, we crossed the border to Brazil to view the falls from the other side. The weather was beautiful, the crowds not too bad, waterfall looking pretty special, but 15 minutes in we realised we’d forgotten to charge the camera. A schoolboy error. Through careful nurturing of the 1 bar we managed to eek out a few photos but as Claire put it, we’ll have to do what they did in the olden days and use our memories!

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Ruins in San Ignacio

On the way to Iguazu, we thought we’d make one final stop at the town of San Ignacio in the state of Misiones. This was the site of some ruins that James had heard about of a 17th century Jesuit Mission. Apparently these Missions were a social experiment that is still held in much esteem. Usually around two Jesuit priests lived alongside 2 – 6000 indigenous Guarani, providing shelter from the “bandeirantes” who were attacking the Guarani to capture them and sell them as slaves. Both the Jesuits and the Guarani managed to mix their cultures without facing any violent conflicts. Apparently, it was one of the few cases in which colonists did not suppress indigenous culture but taught the Gospels and encouraged new ways of work and social organization. Many of the local traditions were kept, and the arts (music, sculpture, architecture) became highly developed within the Missions. The style of architecture is called Baroque Guarani and once we saw it, we understood why. Incredible arches, engravings and immaculate town planning (all around a central plaza) are still evident in stunning red sandstone. The place had an incredible sound & light show – we had no idea to expect, but were bowled over by talking trees, music from the ruins and images of children running around (made by light projections onto misted water) made for a truly haunting sensory experience.

But aside from the ruins, we loved San Ignacio. It was a tiny town, with only about three paved roads in the place and a laid back atmosphere to match. Lounging around the pool in glorious sunshine, cycling around the town, visiting the house of my dreams (overlooking Rio Parana, which unfortunately already belongs to a museum of Horacio Quiroga – a Uruguayan writer) sipping cold beers in hammocks, playing with the hostels gorgeous puppy Chino and losing (sorely!) to James at table tennis countless times all made for a very enjoyable stay. Inevitably, we ended up staying longer than we intended and enjoyed every second.

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Buenos Aires…again!

Returning to Buenos Aires was not in the initial plan but it allowed us to retake some pictures we’d taken first time round that were on the camera that was stolen and also go to a tango show which we didn’t get round to before.

We ended up staying in a hostel just outside of the San Telmo district we stayed in before as Easter weekend had resulted in an influx of tourists filling up all nice hostels. The area wasn’t too special and each time a moped zoomed by we tensed up remembering our unpleasant incident in Mendoza. On the plus side, the internet was really quick so we were able to spend hours reading thousands and thousands of reviews of extortionately expensive tango shows each of which gave conflicting reports to try and decide which one to go to. In the end we gave up and went to San Telmo planning to wander round and have a look at a few of the venues and see if that helped us make our decision. First we went to Taconeando and were immediately collared by one of the dancers. After a bit of hard bargaining, we got a 3 course meal and the show for just over half it was officially advertised for.

The food wasn’t spectacular favouring quantity over quality but bits were certainly imaginative: a starter of thinly sliced roast beef served cold in a creamy tuna and anchovy sauce. As we got there quite early, we had prime seats, close enough to see the action, far enough away not to be kicked by a swinging dancer’s leg. The show had a live band and was interspersed with some singers but it was the dancing that was the best bit. While I have no idea if the dancing was technically proficient, it was good enough for me and had plenty of emotion and arguably better footwork than we saw at the River Plate football game. Scantily clad female dancers being thrown around by dark, brooding males made for a very enjoyable evening. We both, however, managed to resist the invitation to get up on stage afterwards and dance with the professionals…

The rest of Buenos Aires was fairly uneventful compared to the show. We enjoyed the sun and warm weather we were so desperate for down south. We retraced some of our steps from 8 weeks ago and replaced some missing photos. And wishing to live up to the unofficial subtext of this trip which, according to Janet is “the Clopkinsons eat their way round South America”, we found an “all you can eat” Chinese restaurant and gave it an absolute battering.

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It snows at the End of the World

I am now writing from our bed on Larry, our lovely new little laptop (courtesy of tax free shopping in Chile)! Makes things a lot easier than trying to get to an internet cafe and hopefully means we’ll be able to upload all our photos.

So almost 8 weeks to the day, we find ourselves back in Buenos Aires, having taken a flight, not quite as far as Rio (plan A) or as Iguazu (plan B) from Ushuaia.  But the purse strings reign and this was the cheapest option…so once again we will be getting on a bus and I will chime the oft repeated “this is probably our last long bus journey in Argentina” up to some Jesuit ruins in San Ignacio for a few days before finally (over a month later than we had thought) we’ll arrive at Iguazu Falls.

Before we arrived in Buenos Aires, we spent 6 days at the bottom of the world, drunk in the southern most city, eaten at “Fin del mundo” cafe and wallowed in all things Tierra del Fuego. And what a place it is. As we walked out of our B&B the first morning (we’d arrived in the dark the night before after a pretty gruelling 14 hour bus journey from Chile – DEFINITELY the worst  journey yet) I couldn’t believe the stunning backdrop under which all the residents of Ushuaia live their daily lives.

The port town (from which most Antarctic cruises depart) is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and fronted by a beautiful blue bay. There is enough going on to keep all the residents busy but it is still small enough to feel lovely and safe and like you can get to know the centre of the town in just a few days. We spent our time there walking up to Glacier Martial (in the snow…there is a chance that I may have been a little grumpy walking most of the way up) but once we got to the top, although freezing, the views soon cheered me up. And I’ve always been a fan of walking downhill so the rest of the day was extremely pleasant indeed!

We also visited the old prison (Ushuaia became a penal colony in the 1890s) which has been transformed into a great little museum, with displays on the maritime history (from the Yamana people – who were wiped out within a decade of westerners settling – to Antarctic rescues with icebreakers), the quest for the south pole and the prison itself. Unfortunately I didn’t learn an awful lot because most of the displays were in the old prison cells and they freaked me out so I spent most of the time just leaning in through the doorways to try and read what it was about!

We also spent an amazing day at the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, which was absolutely stunning. Autumn is in full swing in the park and we were completely surrounded by the most magnificent reds, golds, yellows and greens. The photos don’t come close to capturing it (I’ve uploaded quite a few more on the photos page) but I can assure you, it was breathtaking! There is also a beaver colony in the park…they were introduced from Canada a few decades ago and they’ve completely overrun the place and we did spot a few as the dipped and dived through the lake – they looked just like dolphins! They have made huge dams in a number of the rivers and decimated huge numbers of the trees in the park that apparently don’t grow back resulting in numerous eerie tree graveyards dotted around the place. We spent hours just sitting on the shore and listening to the absolute silence. Heaven.

But here we are back in BA – a complete contrast! But I’ll leave James to fill you in on our time here in the not too distant future!

Love to all xx

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Doing the “W”

From El Calafate, we took a bus south across the border to Puerto Natales in Chile. From here we planned to do the “W” trek (named after the shape of the route) in Torres del Paine national park. The first thing we did when we arrived at our hostel was put up the tent that we’ve carried round with us for 6 and a half weeks to make sure the bits were all there. They were but seeing as the top sheet barely covered the ground sheet, we decided it probably wasn’t up to autumnal Patagonian weather. With hindsight we probably could have guessed this as the tent said “Beach” in huge letters on the bag but on the plus side we did manage to sell it for CH$10,000 which has enough zeros to make it sound like a huge amount of money!

We spent a day wandering round the town hiring equipment  (a proper tent, waterproof trousers, camping stove etc ), bought half the food in the supermarket and a few other bits and pieces like thermal leggings for me (James). It was only afterwards we realised the reason why the woman in the shop kept on stifling laughter was not because she was amazed by my muscular legs but because I was trying on women’s leggings…

The next morning with our rucksacks filled to the brim (each weighing 20kg) we took a bus to the park then a boat across Lago Pehoe to Paine Grande campsite. Here we took a risk and hid some 4kg of our food in the communal kitchens as we’d be returning here on the night of day 2 and began the trek. After a nice bit of flat through a valley we began to climb. And climb. And climb. After about 2 hours we reached the top and were rewarded with amazing views of Glacier Grey in the distance and lake in the foreground, milky ice blue from melted glacier ice. A few hours later we arrived at Refugio and Campsite Grey and we pitched our tent in the drizzling rain on a sandy beach as icebergs that had broken off from the glacier floated by. As the sun set, we snuck into the refugio and warmed ourselves around the wood burner. Much to my surprise, this, combined with my leggings, resulted in a very reasonable night’s sleep.

The next morning we hiked a short distance to a mirador (view point) over the glacier but didn’t stay long as it was beginning to rain. We then retraced the 11km we did on the first day and camped at Paine Grande. Fortunately the food we had stashed away was untouched so we weren’t going to have to go hungry for the next few days. Although that day had been mainly dry, that evening, the temperature dropped significantly and without a refugio with a fire to warm us up, we put all our clothes on and snuggled together to try to get some sleep.

It turned out to be a long and painful night and it was only after the sun rose that we realised that the ground sheet and our sleeping bags were damp. Porridge with loads of chocolate melted in it perked us up and we set off east towards Valle Frances, which we’d been told was the most beautiful part of the park. Our plan was to drop our bags off at Campsite Italiano and head into the valley for lunch before returning and pitching camp a couple of hours further along the route. Unfortunately the weather was not on our side. Clouds and mist came down, the temperature refused to go up (we later found out that it peaked at 3⁰C) and the rain just got heavier and heavier. After a brief excursion into the mist in Valle Frances we turned round and powered on through the rain to Refugio and Campsite Cuernos. The sight of 2 collapsed and waterlogged tents caused us to take the easy option and take 2 beds in the refugio. Being warm and dry was heavenly but the weather did not improve the next morning and Claire began to struggle with the hills and the weight of her pack. We reached Hotel Los Torres at lunch time where we planned to drop our bags and hike 6 hours there and back to see the famous Torres, stay 1 more night and then get the bus out the next day. However, speaking to some people who had been up to see the Torres that morning but had been unable to because of the mist, combined with Claire’s dislike of the hills and my dislike of damp sleeping bags, we cut our losses and took the bus out of the park that day.

We were frustrated that we hadn’t seen the Torres which are supposedly the star attraction of the park, but looking back, walking almost 50km in 3 full days trekking while carrying nearly 20kg each in some really unfavourable weather conditions really doesn’t sound too bad. So we decided to celebrate with a cheeky little steak, a bottle of Merlot and a plan to fly north to get some sun as soon as possible!

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