A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: DeeandZarius

Sucre, Bolivia: A whistle stop tour of 'The White City'

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View South America 2014 on DeeandZarius's travel map.

Friday 4th April - Sunday 6th April 2014

We hadn't envisaged being resuced at such speed from Uyuni so of course we had nowhere booked to stay. I had been in email contact with a hostel, La Dolce Vita, during the week and we had agreed that when we had a better idea of when we might get out and they had a better idea of when their stranded guests could get out, we would make a plan. So when we turned up on the doorstep unannounced at 11am on a Friday morning and met Jacquline, a very nice French man, we were relieved to be invited in and told there was one vacant room. It felt like a bit of a whirlwind. Less than two hours earlier we had been having breakfast in a city more than 200 miles away and there we were unpacking our bags in yet another new room. What a strange morning! For the first time during our travels after arriving somewhere new, I felt like a lie down rather than exploring! We decided to take the morning off.

A taste of what was to come at Sucre airport
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In the afternnon we ventured out to find food and see what our surroundings were like. Sucre is a Unesco World Heritage Site and known as The White City because of the white-washed colonial style buildings. It's a pretty place. It attracts hordes of travellers every year who stay for weeks at a time to learn Spanish. The Bolivians speak in a very clear, slow manner that makes it easier to understand. Or so they say. People generally love it as a city and end up staying much longer than planned. It was stange walking the streets and passing as many foreigners going about their daily business as locals.

While researching what to do we read that dinosaur footprints had been discovered near the town in a cement quarry back in the early '90s. The tracks are on a veritcla wall and are the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world. Well, Zarius loves all things to do with dinosaurs so the next day we set off to check out these footprints and visit the dinosaur park, Parque Cretácico, that has opened on the grounds. We eventually found the number 4 collectivo going in the right direction (ahem) that dropped us off outside the gate, in the middle of a quarry. At first we were sure we had gone wrong (again), but when we looked up the hill in front of us, past the lorries and rubble, we could see glimpses of a manicured side walk and tarmac road.

The park is for kids, lets get that clear from the outset. We were the only adults there without a child in tow. But it didn't matter, we loved it! They have done an amazing job with the park, it's small, unbelievably well kept and bursting with life size sculptures of every dinosaur imaginable. Impressive to say the least. Especially for me, knowing far less about these prehistoric beasts than Zarius. The colossal, life size diplodocus was definitely my favourite. The wall with the tracks can be viewed from the park but you can't get up close to it. It was here that we tried our first Mocochinchi, a cold peach cider that seems to be sold everywhere in Bolivia. At the time of course we didn't know what it was. We could taste the cinnamon but had no idea what the weird looking shrivelled up stone at the bottom on the glass was. That would be the dehydrated peach...

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My favourite!
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RAWR!
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Getting a closer look at the footprints
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A Mocochinchi
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Our drive back was eye-opening. For the first few miles we drove through what is best described at the 'mechanic' quarter. Best described that way by me. It's garage, after garage, after garage for miles on end. What was quite sad is the age of the kids working there. Little boys, all decked out in child size overalls. Some on a break, kicking a ball about, all covered from head to toe in grease. The garages slowly gave way to specialised car part shops. One that only sold side mirrors for example, another that did bumpers, one for lights, another for doors. We had some of their customers hop on the bus carrying one spare part or another, dripping in oil, off to be repaired. After the mechanic quarter we hit the markets. We slowed to a crawl through streets lined with stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to clothes, blankets and even beds. We later read mixed reviews on whether it is safe to venture into the market on foot as a tourist or not. It was great to get a glimpse of it from the bus.

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Chicken sandwich for 25p
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The city has a spectacular viewpoint from the top of Recoleta hill. It's a bit of a hike up the steep hill, particularly with the altitude, but the views over the city from the gorgeous restaurant at the top make it worth the walk. We set up base on deck chairs overlooking a flower filled garden for the afternoon and enjoyed the views, the sangria and the Spanish tortilla!

I liked this guy's way of thinking
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Gorgeous views. If only I could click my heels and go back...
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On our last day we explored the town properly, re-visting a great fruit and veg market that we discovered on our first day and venturing into the adjoining meat market, where you can buy every part of an animal imaginable. Which Zarius found fascinating. I tried to avert my eyes from the cow noses and pig heads and concentrate on the colourful spread of fruits and vegetables instead. We happened upon a family festival in one of the parks, again being the only people there with no children in tow, but enjoying it all the same. And we had lunch in a place I had been admiring since we arrived. It was on the main square, on the second floor and each table was jutting out of the building on a little balcony. So pretty!

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CLOSE YOUR EYES FOR THE NEXT PIC IF YOU'RE SQUEAMISH!

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Family fun day
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Who needs Paris?!
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People crowded round a TV shop watching the soaps
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The restaurant with the pretty balconies
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La Paz was next on our itinerary but we decided that rather than stopping over we would simply change buses there and go straight to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. We couldn't face another city and word on the street was, we would find sunshine and relaxation in Copacabana. Just what the doctor ordered. We would then backtrack to La Paz once we had taken a couple of days off. There were still issues with the strikes so only one bus company was running a service to La Paz giving us very little choice, but luckily it was a company we had read good reviews about. This journey was the one I was dreading most. Again because I had read too much about it. The drunk drivers and the accidents and things like how you should sit in the middle of the bus and not the front or back because you have more chance of surviving a crash. Yes this is the kind of thing people write about online and I am the kind of person who reads it. Much to Zarius' dismay. So we got our seats in the middle of the bus and it was the last time we would do that in Bolivia....

Posted by DeeandZarius 08:44 Archived in Bolivia Tagged sucre_bolivia recoleta_sucre dinosaur_park_sucre_bolivia parque_cretácico_sucre Comments (2)

Uyuni, Bolivia: Stranded

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View South America 2014 on DeeandZarius's travel map.

Wednesday 2nd April - Friday 4th April 2014

We got dropped off from the salt flats tour in Uyuni. What we expected to be a city was in fact a town. A town with very little in it. That's one of the interesting things about travelling, you have no idea what to expect in each new place. Because Uyuni comes up so much in blogs and guide books about Bolivia we had painted a picture in our heads of this sizeable town or city. Tall buildings, dusty roads, bustling and a little bit dreary, but big.

As we got closer my eye was drawn to the barren fields at the side of the road, they were filled with something colourful. All the fields. I was staring out the window, as were the others, all watching these colourful things blowing in the wind. Colour for as far as the eye could see. I couldn't figure out what they were, it looked like they were tied to long wires hanging low and stretching across every field. But the penny suddenly dropped, it was rubbish. Colourful pastic bags littered each and every field and the dirt roads beyond...

We had one stop before our tour finished and that was the train cemetary. It's full of old rusting disused steam trains that were decommissioned when the Americans brought in bigger and better trains (or that's the story we heard) and they have been left there to rot. Eventually someone had the idea to make it an attraction and they put a sign up. Job done. It is in fact like a massive playground for adults. People climbing all over the trains, hanging out of windows, running along the top to jump carriages, lying across the tracks...

Our convoy arriving in Uyuni
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When we got out of the jeep at the office we were informed that there were road blocks throughout the country on all main roads so there was no way out. We were all stranded. We had read about the high risk of road blocks in Bolivia but it's hard to believe it will happen to you until it does! It didn't stop every single one of us walking to the bus station to try and buy non-existant tickets though. Only to be told exactly what we already knew. So the streets of Uyuni were swarming with tourists walking around like headless chickens. It was way worse for others who had onward travel booked from La Paz, arrangements that would cost a lot to change. And of course most people had decided to leave immediately after the tour and had nowhere to stay and the hostels were filling up quickly. The standard of accomodation wasn't great either so there was a bit of a panicked air. For us it was better. We had time on our side, a nice hotel booked and we looked at it as an adventure!

We had booked a hotel for one night, Tonito Hotel, and it was glorious. Huge, powerful hot running water and a warm comfortable bed. Bliss. And as for breakfast the next morning...amazing. It's American/Bolivian run and the American influences were very evident. We feasted on pancakes and different breads, eggs and ham, cereals, pastries, fruit, juices. It was good. And the place filled up with people from other hostels and hotels who had heard about the spread.

As much of an adventure as it was, of all the places we could have got stranded, Uyuni was definitely the worst! It's a military town and has little to offer. The internet is extremely slow to non-existant so we couldnt even catch up on admin and planning. We explored every inch of the town, strolling aimlessly, sitting on benches and watching everyone else strolling aimlessly. To be fair it was an interesting insight into local life. All the women dressed in their beautifully coloured skirts with tall hats and long plaits swinging down their backs. We kept seeing the same faces and every day there were new faces arriving which made us worry that even if the roads opened we wouldn't be able to get tickets to get out which led to regular trips to bus offices and flight offices.

Our hotel was next door to the army base and we had some serious signs in reception. Only turn left when you exist (towards the town) and never right towards the base. Do not take any photos. When you hear the national anthem at 8am in the morning observe 1 minute of silence and remove your hat or better still don't be outside at 8am!

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I didn't realise at the time but this man was wagging his finger at me for taking a photo. Oops! large_90_IMG_5385.jpg
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Possibly the ugliest dog in the world. Poor dog.
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And the cutest dog
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Our hotel
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Please connect...please connect...please connect...
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Sampling the local beer. Not bad.
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On the Friday morning over breakfast the owner mentioned that she had somehow managed to get the phone number of a pilot who was landing a commercial plane in Uyuni that morning en-route to Sucre. Our next stop. The plane wasn't picking up passengers but she wanted to speak to him and see what he could do, if anything. She kept calling but his phone was off because he was still in the air. We decided to wander up town to the train station to see if anything had changed (it hadn't) and as we walked back to the hotel there was a commotion going on outside. The owner had sent someone looking for us, she spoke to the pilot and he would take us to Sucre but we needed to leave immediately, he was waiting on the run way. And so began a mad dash, I had to throw everything into our bags while Zarius checked out and in three minutes flat we were jumping into the back of their van. Her husband whizzed across town at top speed with 7 of us in the back. The airport is tiny and as we arrived staff were standing at the door waiting to meet us and usher us through. There was a lot of frantic hand signals and a mad dash by all 7 of us to the ATM machine as the guy at the check-in desk hand wrote our boarding cards. It was the quickest check-in and security check of our lives and within 20 minutes of returning to the hotel we were boarding a plane full of bemused looking faces. We hadn't thought that the plane would be full! As soon as we clicked our seat belts closed we were off. Sucre was a short hop away and we got a drink and a snack too. Eat your heart out Michael O'Leary...

The airport. And our plane!
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Posted by DeeandZarius 09:06 Archived in Bolivia Tagged bolivia uyuni_bolivia salt_flats_tour train_cemetary_uyuni tonito_hotel_uyuni Comments (0)

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia: 3 epic days to the Salt Flats

We got picked up first the next morning and on time by a lovely local man who didn't speak a word of English and came to some mad conclusion that I was fluent in Spanish. I became his confident, he shared jokes with me, asked me to explain to others what was going on and gave me a running commentary on the hold ups at border control. I understood little of what he said but smiles and a laugh every now and then seemed to be all he needed.

Once at the Bolivian border we were met by two 4X4s. We were to be split up. The lovely driver hopped out and declared we would team up with the German couple and two Swedish girls and the Irish/American couple and the 4 French would be in the other jeep. Our group were quick to bond. We had clearly all read the reviews and within seconds of being grouped together we agreed a rotation programme for the back two seats in the jeep (very important!) and that if we saw our driver drinking we wouldn't put up with it!

The Bolivian border crossing
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Some jeep bonding
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Agreement one went as planned. We took a day per pair in the back. Agreement two went out the window when our driver was spotted drinking at stop two. Seriously?! Stop 2?! They couldn't get further than that point before having a beer or two. Well, I was hacked off, as was everyone else but we agreed to leave it go on the first occasion and wait for it to happen again. Miraculously it didn't. I don't know if it was our talking loudly about our dissatisfaction with drink driving or if it honestly was a one off or of course they may have just become very good at hiding it! But it wasn't a problem again for the rest of the tour. Our driver, as sullen and moody as he was at times, drove incredibly well. We felt 100% safe throughout the 3 days.

Once in the car and on the road the 6 of us chatted non-stop about absolutely everything imaginable! We didn't shut up. We had 4 different cultures to compare after all. It felt like we weren't in the car all that much on the first day. The stops were frequent and every 30 minutes we were hopping out to photograph this and that.

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Hot Springs of Polques in the desert. It was freezing out but the rewards for braving it were worth it. Or so I was told.
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Geysers Sol de Manana, the smell and the fumes were toxic. It reminded me of the volcano. We didn't hang around long
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It was late afternoon when we arrived at our hostel for the night. It was literally in the middle of nowhere! Mountains and desert and then this long thin building with a tin roof being held on with bricks. We were ushered in and shown to the first door which the driver announced was our dormitory for the night. Everyone and I honestly mean everyone in our group let out a chorus of 'wow, this is so much better than we thought'. And all I could think was, seriously, where have you slept before?! It was a concrete room with 7 beds. 7 platforms of concrete with a mattress on top of each and a couple of blankets. Except for the 7th bed because we were only 6. The 7th bed was stripped bear and only had a thin, well worn mattress on concrete and it reminded me of a drug den from the movies. So as everyone gushed over the comfort of the room, I tried to block the images of Trainspotting from my mind.

Our little house for the night
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The dining room
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After dropping our bags off we climbed back into the car for the last stop of the day. The Red lagoon filled with flamingos. Beautiful. I have never seen so many flamingos so close up in my life. We stood watching and photographing them for about an hour before the cold got the better of us and we retreated to the car.

Laguna Colorada
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Once back at the shelter, a late lunch was served. I had claimed to be vegetarian for the 3 days because I wanted to do everything to avoid stomach problems and had read that all the food was carted around in the back of the jeep each day only to be cooked up that night. Zarius had also decided to go veggie. But as soon as a dish of the most unappetising hotdog sausages was placed on our table, Zarius fell apart. Within seconds, he had 4 on his plate and one in his mouth wolfing them down. I stuck to the peeled slices of tomato and cucumber instead.

That night we all sat around wearing every item of clothing we owned. It's cold in the desert! We were staying at 4,300 metres so everyone was tired, a bit breathless and busy trying not to think about altitude sickness. The electricity went out early so we sat with a torch and a candle and continued our conversations. Annabelle, the German girl gave me some tips on coping with sleeping in the cold. Basically I was to go to bed with as much clothes on as possible including my puffy jacket and a wooly hat. I could take off my outer trousers but leave leggings on and the next morning just get up and put the trousers on over the leggings. It all sounded extreme but as the evening wore on and the cold set in I could understand the logic. It was a sleepless night. It was absolutely freezing, minus 10 and just two blankets over us. If you lay really still you could warm your spot up but if even a toe moved out of place it undid all the good work and sent shivers up your whole body. Zarius didn't sleep for a different reason. Altitude. He was wide awake and inside his silk liner he was like a caged animal. He spent the night thrashing about, any time I fell asleep he woke me with his tossing and turning. So in the silence of the night all you could hear every 30 minutes or so was me in a loud angry whisper saying 'ZARIUS, SHHHH!'. We were all wrecked the next day except for the Germans who are in South America to climb mountains and have absolutely every piece of gear imaginable. They had their own super duper sleeping bags and didn't need their blankets. They slept soundly.

Eating dinner wearing everything we owned!
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Another clear night sky
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The next day the car was quiet. It was Zarius and my turn to take the reject seats in the back. First stop was the rock formations. Then 3 lakes in a row. All quite spaced out so we were stuck in the back a lot. By the third lake we were a little bit over it. The highlight of that day was the rock formations in the morning and then we had another 10 hours in the back. The Irish/American couple (Dan and Suzanne) in the other jeep were on day 2 in the back, rotation being ignored in their car. So by the time we all got to our next hostel for the night they were well hacked off!! Luckily we had stopped for wine and Dan had brought his guitar and the Swedish girls could sing so cue an international singalong! We were spending the second night on the edge of the salt flats in a hostel that not only had private rooms, but the option to take a 5 minute hot shower for 10 Bolivianos (85p). Sold. Divine. The water is piped in from 7km away and the sun heats it on it's journey. It was roasting and plentiful for all those who opted in. The room was still cold but we had FOUR blankets and that accompanied by a glass or two of vino and the sheer exhaustion from the night before made for a sound nights sleep.

Sunrise outside our hostel. We couldn't wait to get up!
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Packing up the jeeps for day two on the road.
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Desierto de Siloli rock formations
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It's basically a big playground for adults. Everywhere you looked there were people scrambling, climbing and hanging!
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Team photo
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Some great signs along the way
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They knew how to get us where it hurts
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Zarius gritting his teeth after 10 hours in the back with his knees at his chin
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And then we arrived at a place called San Juan. The first town in two days!
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We all celebrated with a nice cold beer, much to the amusement of the shop keeper who looked like she had never seen so many gringos before!
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Our salt hostel. Everything was made of salt, including the beds!
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My alarm woke us at 5.15 the next morning to pack up and watch the sun rise over the slat flats. The sunrise was a big thing for all of us. And you had to vote on who wanted to get up for it and who wanted to stay in bed and skip it. All 12 of us wanted to get up. It was a stressful morning. Our driver dilly dallied and then disappeared and we could see the sunlight starting to line the horizon. When we finally reappeared one of the girls hurried him on which caused him to throw a huge strop and he decided to move in slow motion to get his dissatisfaction across. But we made it for the sunrise in the end and although very pretty, we all felt that we may have built it up a little too much!

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The salt flats is the highlight of the 3 days. What we had been waiting for and it is extraordinary. The expanse. It's hard to take it. We visited a cactus island (officially named Fish Island because of it's shape) first which was home to thousands of different sized cacti, and I realised I had never really been up close to such ginormous plants. They are very impressive and beautiful too.

La Isla del Pescado/Fish Island
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Breakfast al fresco
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And then it was photo time. The moment we had all been waiting for...perspective shots. What no one had told us was, it's so hard! Zarius and I were useless at it. Really bad. We spent a good hour at it and didn't end up with any really perfect ones. The Germans were naturals. And the Swedes did a good job too. I don't know what went wrong with us!

A llama built from blocks of salt
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Haha, this one turned out surprisingly well!
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A museum in the old salt hotel
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Lunch in the last town of our trip, Colchani, on the edge of the Salt Flats and close to our final destination, Uyuni.
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Our last team lunch
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Which didn't stop Zarius from sampling some llama being cooked on the side of the street.
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This toilet made me laugh. Notice how it doesn't have any connecting pipes! Good effort though
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And this is a sad seen that is far too common. Places are being destroyed with rubbish
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And then we started to wind down to the end of the trip. We'd had fun, seen a lot of natural wonders and nature at its best. But we were ready to finish. It was a lot of driving in a very cramped space. Would we do it again knowing what we now know? I'm not sure. We would probably do a one day trip into the salt flats. It's the highlight after all. That said, we don't regret it at all and the memories will be with us forever.

Posted by DeeandZarius 10:10 Archived in Bolivia Tagged salt_flats_bolivia Comments (3)

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: A rugged oasis in the desert

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View South America 2014 on DeeandZarius's travel map.

Saturday 29th - Monday 31March 2014

It was another scenic bus journey. More climbing narrow winding roads carved out of the mountains. We travelled some of the road we would have had we rented a car and the scenery was beautiful. The colours! Incredible.

This next leg was going to be our first experience of Altitude. To put things into perspective, the highest mountain in Ireland is 1,038 metres and as we drove we watched the climb on Zarius' watch, hitting 4, 600m at the highest point. Only to dip straight over the mountain and descend again. But not for long. The border crossing is incredible. A small concrete building in the middle of nowhere. It was absolutely freezing. All the officials were bundled up in layers, their jaws never stopping with the coca leaves they were chewing to ward off altitude sickness. As we queued to get stamped out of Argentina at one counter and into Chile at the next we noticed our breathing was laboured. The first signs we felt. It's odd, feeling breathless from doing nothing.

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Steadily climbing
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Another border crossing in the middle of nowhere
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First class my foot
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And there it is in the distance
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San Pedro de Atacama
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Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama was like nothing we have experienced before. It appears from nowhere, in the desert, this small dusty town. Some of the streets are unpaved and the white houses all look a little unfinished and unkept. It's places like this, that are so different to what we know (or expect) that get us excited. We wandered the unmarked streets with a group of guys from the bus all trying to find our hostels. Ours, Aji Verde, turned out to be on the outskirts of this tiny town. The room was minute with low ceilings and weird angles and random steps and I can't tell you how many times Zarius banged his head off something or other (including the sink?!) and we both tripped on the killer step. We couldn't wait to get out of the place in the end! Another weird thing, while we're talking about the room, was the static electricity because of the dry air. I woke Zarius up one night because the sheets were actually sparking. Or so it seemed. Every time I moved, the room lit up with explosions of static. Mad. But the best thing about the intensely dry air was my hair. It just dried, frizz free, 100% straight and for the first time I could wear it down. Amazing!

The town itself is packed with travellers and lined with shops selling tours to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), and to visit Geysers, and of course the reason most of us were there, the 3 day salt flats tour in Bolivia. But despite the fact that this is such a touristy place we loved it. Firstly the food was amazing, expensive like everything else here, but so good. So we feasted. It was a welcome break from chicken, steak or fish with chips.

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Another town with an amazing backdrop...
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It was safe to eat the greens
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So I made the most of it. As soon as we left Chile there was to be no more salads...
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We booked our Valle de la Luna tour through our hostel, the first and last time we give the responsibility to someone else. They got the collection point wrong and even when we had been waiting 10 minutes and went back to ask they insisted it was correct. And after 30 minutes they insisted it was 'Chilean time' but I made them call the agency and of course we had missed the collection. It was our last day so our only chance and it's something I had wanted to do since the outset. Zarius was MAD. And ordinarily under such circumstances its best to steer him clear of the intended recipient of his anger but I really really wanted to do this tour so I stood back, not a tactic I use lightly, but on this occasion it had the desired affect and we were quickly bundled into the back of a paid for taxi zooming across the desert chasing the bus which had an hour head start on us. When we caught up they had stopped and were waiting for us at the entrance of the valley. Perfect timing and well worth fighting for. The second part of the tour is Death Valley, equally as impressive and we were dropped off to watch the sunset.

Where we finally caught up at the start of the canyon
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NASA used Moon Valley as a testing ground for the Mars rover because of the similarities in terrain
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We all stood silently listening to the sound of the rocks contracting after a day in the desert sun
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Moving on to Death Valley
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Warming up after watching the sun set in the desert
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Another amazingly clear sky
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In between eating and exploring we had our salt flats tour to book. We had read endless, I mean endless horror stories about this 3 day, two night tour. Every review you read slates some element of it. Be it drunk drivers, food poisoning, or sub par living conditions. It's enough to make you not want to go through with it. But then in the same breath, all these people claim it's life changing, the most beautiful and otherworldly scenery you will ever see. It would seem that despite the drunkeness, bad food and bad board, everyone had a ball. From the get go, this was the 3 days of the 3 months that I was most looking forward to. The largest salt flats in the world. It was hard to comprehend or even imagine what that would be like.

We reviewed agencies offering this tour to within an inch of their life and quickly established that for every one good review, there were 5 bad. We knew this in advance, I had done some research, written down company names that hadn't been completely slated, only to discover in San Pedro that none of the chosen ones started the tour in San Pedro, so it was back to the drawing board.

We wasted HOURS trying to decide what agent to go with, even though we both knew it really didn't matter. You could have the slickest, nicest sales person ever, waxing lyrical about the tour but at the end of the day it came down to the driver, and the sales person would be nowhere to be seen at that stage. Other than the driver and the car, they all took the same route, all stayed in pretty much the same hostels and served the same food. We ended up going for the slickest, smoothest salesman ever. Haha, well that combined with the fact that we saw the list of people who had already signed up and we saw two Germans, two Swedes, one Irish, one American, two French and a Brazilian. The Brazilian never materialised but the others did. Our thinking was, at least in a mixed car, the likelihood of people speaking English was high. Simple as that. And as confident as that. That all the mainland Europeans would speak English! And they did!

The agencies make it clear that the first night will be spent in a shelter with limited electricity and no hot water never mind showers. At least they tell you. Still, for someone like me, it's hard to picture. Actually impossible. I had no point of reference, having never even camped in my life. So it would definitely be an adventure.

San Pedro was somewhere that we both could have spent another few days but we would have had to move hostels (too much head bumping) and also...I had that nervous feeling where I just wanted to get the tour over and down with. I was excited but dreading it all at once. And that is why people who do no research in advance are often in a much better position...

Posted by DeeandZarius 12:49 Archived in Chile Tagged san_pedro_de_atacama valle_de_la_luna atacama_desert Comments (4)

Salta, Argentina: The straw that broke the camels back

semi-overcast 15 °C
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Thursday 27th - Saturday 29th March 2014

So this truly was going to be the first epic bus journey. 18 hours! We were very suspicious before we even arrived at the bus station as to the quality of the bus. And the minute I saw it I knew the guy had lied. It was an old bus BUT although the seats were old and narrow, we had FRONT ROW SEATS UPSTAIRS! Finally! The fact that the TV was on the floor and I had to angle my head weirdly to see it seemed like a small price to pay.

As we settled in, the host came round with drinks, it was in a small plastic cup, it was clear, it was fizzing, could it be that we were about to get champagne and first row seats?! No. It was 7up. But a girl can dream. We were first given a snack, the usual sugar packed treats and then a few hours later dinner was served. Zarius dug straight in and declared the meal as devine, and when I laughed added the caveat of 'for this kind of meal' but I have to say, when I cut into the beef I could see where he was going with this bold statement. The beef was super tender. As was the pork. We have paid good money for a lot worse.

We slept quite well actually, despite the loud annoying buzzer that sprang into life, red flashing light and all, anytime the driver went over 100km per hour, (which seemed to be on the hour every hour). Then as suspected at 9am the next morning we were told we would have to change buses. Surprise surprise. But it was nice to stretch our legs and get a bit of air and when our new bus turned up, it was exactly that. New. And the whole bus was cama suite class so we had lie flat beds for the last 4 hours of our journey! It's the small things...

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Yay! Front row seat (which turned out to be terrifying at times)
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The gourmet dinner experience begins
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It might be 9am and I may have slept well but I am using the lie flat bed regardless
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As salta appeared in the distance it looked like a city carved out of the lush green mountains. And it looked big, but once off the bus we realised it was a strange mix of big (ish) city made up of small town buildings. We found our hostel, Hostel in Salta (exactly whats it says on the tin!), on foot and checked in. It was super clean so we were happy. I felt shattered for some reason so it was evening before we ventured out. Salta is a loud city, made up of lots of narrow streets full of beeping cars. It's bustling and crowded and caters for us. The tourist. Salta is another place that people raved about but to be honest we couldn't see what the attraction was. We were starting to feel disillusioned by Northern Argentina. Outside of Salta the mountains were meant to be amazing so we decided to stay one day in the city to explore and then rent a car for a couple of days and do some touring.

Our hostel, having a facelift
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There is a cable car that takes you up a hill overlooking the city so the next morning we hopped on. The views are nice, but it felt like we were just going through the motions. We sat down on a bench and took some time to reflect. We realised we were hanging around for the sake of it, because it was on our itinerary and was something that people said we should do but not something we were actually enjoying. We were both excited about the Atacama desert and then moving into Bolivia and came to the conclusion that if we weren't feeling it, there was no point in renting a car to drive around for 3 days looking at scenery. We could go straight back to Chile and start our next adventure. With that agreed, we got the cable car back down and went to the bus station to book our tickets out the next morning. It would be an early start.

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We woke up to rain, it was still dark and it looked miserable out. We packed up and checked out and began our wet walk to the station. It was 6am on a Saturday morning and the streets were alive with the stragglers from the night before. Every doorstep seemed to be occupied by a canoodling couple and before long we felt like we had stumbled upon a red light district. Two prostitutes walked by us, wearing towering heels with very short skirts and little else. We passed a lot of weird and wonderful things on that street and I was glad when I saw the bus station appear at the end of it.

The bus, although not bad, was the worst to date. It smelled very bad and wasn't very comfortable. We were served a very balanced breakfast of a small packets of custard creams and a slice of cake each and off we set. The Atacama Desert here we come!

Posted by DeeandZarius 19:12 Archived in Argentina Tagged salta_argentina Comments (0)

Mendoza, Argentina: It's all about the vineyards. Or is it?

sunny 23 °C
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Sunday 23rd - Wednesday 26th March 2014

The main reason, if not the only reason people go to Mendoza is for the wine. And we were no different. Everyone does at least one wine tour and normally on a bike. More specifically a Mr Hugo bike. And that's what we had planned. So let me get this out of the way now...we didn't end up doing a wine tour. Nope. We went to Mendoza and we did not visit one vineyard. We did however drink local wine, which definitely played a role in not making it on a wine tour. But I'm jumping ahead...

We were up early in Santiago to do the bus journey that we had heard so much about, crossing the Andes through the famous Los Libertadores/Uspallata pass. It turned out to be as amazing as we had been told it would be. The climb is incredible and the views breathtaking. Up and up these narrow winding roads, climbing steadily cutting right through the mountains. And then the colours! And what's also amazing is that you truly feel like it's the middle of nowhere and then we'd pass a house. A shop. A restaurant. And I couldn't help but think, who lives there?!

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When we arrived in Mendoza we were completely shocked by the size of it. When I thought about it and the wine tasting I had visions of this small town with people riding their bikes into the country side. Hair blowing in the wind, basket on the front...it turns out, it isn't like that at all. In fact Mendoza is a city. This came as a surprise. And secondly, you don't cycle on country roads with rolling hills in the background. You cycle on main roads, with trucks zooming past blowing dust in your face. Or so we were told. It sounded like it was hard, sweaty, and sometimes dangerous, work. A little bit disorganised and chaotic, nothing like the vineyards we had visited in say South Africa. But people recommended that we still give it a go, just adjust our expectations accordingly. It sounded to us like it might be case of something being a 'must-do' and turning out not to be all it was cracked up to be. Guidebooks lie all the time. It's a fact. They are far too nice about everything.

It was a Sunday when we arrived and it was like a ghost town. We were informed that Monday was a bank holiday, so everything would be closed too. Sometimes things just aren't meant to be. We did some exploring, wandered the streets, found the main square, some good places to eat and declared Mendoza, OK. Not what we expected, but nice enough.

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Cafe Jack looks suspiciously like Cafe Nero
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I love the fact that we got served a slice of ice-cream as our desert in one place. Ah, Neapolitan, a favourite from my childhood
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We decided to do the biking on Monday morning, seeing as there wouldn't be much else happening in the city. We got up early (it's never too early for Argentinian wine we were told) and set off with vague directions to a bus stop and even vaguer instructions on how to get a card to pay for the bus. As I mentioned it was a bank holiday so everywhere that sold bus cards seemed to be closed. 40 minutes later we eventually acquired a card and made our way to the bus stop. We just missed one and chased it down the road but it was having none of it and left us standing in its wake. And then the wait began. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes...we took a stroll back up the road to check out some other bus stops and we were approached by a super friendly, super keen local who was very concerned about us and gave us very clear instructions on where we should be. Back at the original stop. We noticed buses turning off before our stop though and now an hour had passed and we went exploring again and it looked like maybe we had been on the wrong road after all and now we had lost so much time between bus cards and wrong bus stops that it didn't seem worthwhile going. It's a long cycle between each winery and you only fit in 3 anyway so we called it a day and sloped off back to our hostel.

The hostel, Hostel Lao, was really nice and had very friendly owners. The woman was very upset that our morning hadn't been a success and told us about a horse riding trip that afternoon if we wanted to join. There was an American couple who had signed up and having spoken to them ever so briefly the night before (and classed them as sound and normal) we thought what the heck, lets do it.

Calling it horse riding is a stretch. These horses are well versed on the route and pretty much lead the way. Getting them to change course would be a challenge. That said, mine had a little bit of a rebellious streak and at one point, took off, in the wrong direction, me bouncing up and down on the back, pulling at the reins for dear life, luckily I managed to turn him and get him back on track before I had to be rescued by our gaucho leaders, Nacho and Alejandro. These guys were pretty cool. The real deal. They looked like they had just ridden in from the set of a western movie. We rode down through a valley, that eventually opened up to a huge scrub filled plain, as far as the eye could see.

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My little black beauty
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Saddled up and ready to go
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Caught in action. He constantly stopped and threw his head to the ground to eat, causing me to abruptly be hauled forward off the saddle. He was a handful, lil' black beauty
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The sun was setting as we made our way back to the ranch
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Afterwards they laid on a meat heavy BBQ washed down with local red wine (as mentioned in paragraph 1) and with our new American friends (Noelle A.K.A Jennifer Aniston and Dave) we ate and drank like there was no tomorrow. Nacho and Alejandro got in the party mood with us and whipped out their guitars and before long we were sitting round an open fire, swilling red wine, singing at the top of our lungs. Every time they stopped there were cries of "mas" "mas" and each time they relented and played "just one more". As the night went on, there was dancing, more bonding and a great pile of empty gallon bottles of wine piling up in the corner.

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Photo courtesy of Noelle and Dave

The next day we were meant to attempt the vineyards again...we reasoned that we had drank enough local wine (in a local setting too!) the night before, not to feel guilty about giving it a miss. Noelle and Dave were leaving that night so we all headed to a local greasy spoon for something called 'lomo completo', basically a huge steak sandwich with everything you can imagine on it.

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We were leaving the next day and wanted to make our way up north to Salta going through the San Juan and Rioja regions. There are two national parks that we wanted to visit but it was all very complicated so after a lot of humming and hawing we decided it would be best to skip that section and head straight to Salta. An 18 hour bus journey, the longest and most epic bus journey for us yet. So it was off to the bus station again. It's a time consuming process, there are lots of different bus companies and they all have their own offices, buses, schedules and prices. Meaning we had to visit them all. And none of them had two cama seats left. As we were discussing what to do in the final office, a young guy turned up and declared he had two seats in 'cama' left. This seemed odd as the woman was adamant she didn't. But he had a little chat with her and she confirmed they had seats. Where would we like to sit. So not only did they now have seats available, we had a choice. And no other bus company in the whole station could offer us one seat never mind two. It's tricky in these situations, you feel like they may be ripping you off, but they assure you they are not. He claimed it was a new bus and we were pretty desperate and had little options so took two seats. He then handed us two tickets each. One to Tucuman and the other from Tucuman to Salta. We weren't happy but again he convinced us that it was indeed a direct bus and it's just how they do their ticketing and we would not need to change buses. We were curious to see how it would pan out.

That night we bid farewell to Noelle and Dave, it had been fun. They were coming to the end of a year long trip. We agreed that we should definitely try and meet up again in the future, whatever the continent might be!

Although we didn't actually achieve much of what we wanted to in Mendoza, it now sits firmly up there as one of the highlights of our trip. The horse riding evening was so much fun, made even more so by the new friends we made.

Posted by DeeandZarius 16:53 Archived in Argentina Tagged argentina mendoza horse_rising_mendoza Comments (0)

Vicuna, Chile: Star gazing in the Elqui Valley

sunny 27 °C
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Wednesday 19th March - 23rd March 2014

It was a loooooong bus journey but we eventually arrived in La Serena in the early evening.

The Elqui Valley is well known for it's clear night skies. It's the ideal location for some star gazing and the hills are dotted with observatories. It was also the birth place of Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American to win the Noble Prize in Literature.

Researching it beforehand it sounded like La Serena, at the start of Valle del Elqui, was a good town to base ourselves in and it's on the coast and apparently had a nice beach. We were sold. As we drove from Santiago the sun continued to shine until about 10 minutes before we arrived at our destination when the clouds set in and the temperature dropped and we couldn't help but think, typical! We checked into a German run hostel, Hostal El Punto, if you're going to choose any nationality to run a hostel you would expect the Germans to do it efficiently and we weren't disappointed. Our room was clean and had a lovely outside terrace and of course lots of lists and instructions on what you can an can't do. They get a bad wrap online for being too strict but it didn't bother us. And we only had one night. We went exploring in the dark and decided we didn't really like the town so we were glad we only had the one night. Then we headed down to the beach and our opinions started to change. Anytime we see water we're sold! So we popped into the reception of some chalets on the waterfront and it turns out they had one free and we could just pop by in the morning to take it. But when we woke up the next morning it was cold and grey and we decided it would be miserable on the beach so we packed up and set off to find a bus to take us deeper into the valley to small town called Vicuna.

This was a complicated morning. We had read that we could go directly from La Serena to Mendoza where we were heading next so we decided to book our tickets for a few days time. We lugged our backpacks to the bus terminal only to be told that buses only leave on Sunday nights. Hmmm..we wanted to leave on Saturday. There was another bus company who apparently had daily buses but their office was downtown not in the station. So after a lot of faffing about we hopped in a taxi that had no meter and got completely ripped off but arrived at the office of this bus company only to be told that yes they should have daily buses but they don't anymore. I couldn't understand her explanation why, but she advised us to try the bus station. We decided to leave it. We couldn't be bothered so instead went to find a collectivo to Vicuna. After more wrong directions and endless walking about we asked a lovely driver who pointed us in the right direction (completely opposite to where we had been told) and we shortly found ourselves whizzing through the countryside and ten minutes out of La Serena, the sun was back!

We didn't have a place to stay in Vicuna but had a name, Hostal Aldea del Elqui, and a street and it's a very small town so we found it easily without a map. They had a room free overlooking the gorgeous garden with a small pool, hammocks, a double swing and tables and chairs and we decided to do little and instead enjoy the sunshine.

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Later we walked up the street to book a trip the the observatory and the person in the tourist information office recommended a short hike from town to watch the sunset. Cerro de la Virgen. We enjoyed the garden for the afternoon and then set off on our walk. It wasn't as clearly marked as we had expected and after a few wrong turns and some help from the friendly locals we were back on track. The immediate difference with this trail to others we have done, apart from the complete lack of signage, is the litter. The sides of the road are almost knee deep in rubbish. It's sad to see it in such a poor condition.

Although the walk was very short, it was steep. Not helped by the fact that we went wrong and took a gravel route straight up instead of the winding road! But the views were amazing and the sunset beautiful.

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The halfway mark
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A shrine to the Virgin Mary alongside the town's communication towers!
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One of the observatories in the distance
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The next day after breakfast, which was in fact a dessert table, I kid you not, we set off to explore the town. It's definitely not bustling. It's pretty, but slow. The main square, Plaza de Armas, is very pretty and it has some interesting buildings around it. We planned on walking out to the Pisco Brewery that afternoon but once we got back to that tranquil garden there was no shifting us.

Torre Bauer, apparently commissioned by a former German town Mayor, who had it shipped over from Germany. Sounds very extravagant so it might not be true. It now houses the tourist information office.
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A sculpture of the face of Gabriela Mistral
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We managed to drag ourselves away as the sun went down to join a tour to The Mammalluca Observatory. And what an experience that turned out to be. I have never seen a sky like it, with so many stars. It was incredible. The Milky Way was completely visible and the guide used a 2km laser to show us the other constellations. Wow. All I wanted to do was lie on the ground and look at the sky all night. They had other plans though. The tour includes a short film about astronomy and the constellations and some mad facts about the biggest telescope in the world, currently residing in Chile, and the plans for the next biggest one, also to be housed in Chile and the costs...80 billion dollars! They are still trying to get it approved. And then we got to look through a couple of telescopes to see Mars up close Saturn with its ring. Impressive as it was, I still preferred what I saw with the naked eye. There were just so many stars! The sky was matted with them, it was incredible, I have never seen anything like it.

It felt like something out of a movie, looking up at the sky through the open roof
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The super duper 2km laser in action
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Capturing the night sky with a camera is not easy. I took one pic, it was a black screen, so I gave up. Zarius had a bit more success and managed to get some of the Milky Way...
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The next day it was time to leave, in hindsight we should have stayed longer but with so much still to come we didn't know what the impact would be later on, whether we'd have to skip other places. This is the first and only time during the trip that we made this mistake. So I guess we're doing pretty well!

We had decided to skip the direct bus, it was working out far too complicated and instead opted to take a lunchtime bus back to Santiago, stay the night and get an early bus the next day to Mendoza. The journey to Santiago was uneventful and it meant we had one more lovely dinner in Bellavista. It felt like arriving home, if just for one night. Then the next day we were up early again to catch our bus to Mendoza, the long awaited Argentinian wine region.

Posted by DeeandZarius 07:47 Archived in Chile Tagged vicuna_chile the_elqui_valley la_serena star_gazing_elqui_valley Comments (1)

Santiago, Chile: Painting the town green

sunny 27 °C
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Friday 14th March - Wednesday 19th March 2014

We arrived in Santiago in the early afternoon and hopped in a taxi to take us to Happy House Hostel. A pretty cool hostel. It's a huge old house, perfectly restored with original features, vintage decor and a huge outside area with a plunge pool.

We set out walking and within less than 5 minutes we were both thinking the same thing, 'we're going to like this city'. It's got a really nice feel to it. It's big but manageable, the metro is easy to use, the architecture is impressive and it's divided up into really cool little barrios. That night we ended up in the Bellavista neighbourhood, which as it happens is one of the best places to hang out.

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The next day top of our list was the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. We got the audio headset which made a massive difference because not a lot of it is in English. We weren't familiar with the history of Chile so this museum was like a shocking 3 hour history lesson. They've had a tough past and the museum has done such an amazing job laying it all out and taking you through it year by year, blow by blow.

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Over the 5 days we visited multiple parks (the best being the Sculpture Park), the Museum of Fine Art, the very modern shopping centre (with H&M and Topshop where I got my shopping fix!) and got the Funicular (cable car) up Cerro San Cristobal with the 14 metre statue of the Virgin Mary at the top. The views over the city and of the Andes are incredible.

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The Museum of Fine Art
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A local dog chilling at the bottom of the steps of Cerro San Cristobal
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On our third day we moved to Castillo Surfista Hostel, home of Duke, the skate boarding dog! A giant, slobbering hyperactive dog who caused havoc over the 3 days we were there. I had a love/hate relationship with Duke. I loved him from afar but when he got too close with his drooling jowls, whooshing tail and eager puppy-ness I wasn't so keen.

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We had moved to be closer to my cousin Damien and the bar he owns, Fiddlers Irish Bar. The best Irish bar in Santiago! That night we watched a Chilean band play Irish music and Chilean dancers dressed in full Irish dancing costumes doing the jig. It was brilliant! And then we sat on the roof terrace catching up on the last 5 years of life with Damien, until way to early the next morning!

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On St. Patricks day Damien had a few surprises in store at Fiddlers and overlooking Fiddlers, or Santiago to be more precise. He had been planning for a year and had managed to convince the city council to let him turn the statue of the Virgin Mary on Cerro San Cristobal green for the weekend! He invited Zarius and I to do the honours. But before we did, we watched a flash mob of 25 Irish dancers appear in front of his bar. One lone dancer firstly appeared, placing a wooden platform on the ground and without music started dancing, the only sound were the shoes against the board. Then slowly 24 others materialised, each with a wooden platform of their own and then the sound of Irish music filled the air as 25 sets of synchronised feet performed an incredible dance. And then as suddenly as they had appeared, they dispersed into the cheering crowds that had gathered. They had literally stopped traffic!

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But there was no time for us to hang about and drink green beer we needed to get to Mary! We all hopped in a cab and raced to the hill before it shut its gates for the night. The taxi driver weaving his way through the what seemed like hundreds of cyclists making their way to the top of the hill. The sun was setting behind the city and it was truly beautiful. As the crowds left and Damien skilfully set up the lamps, we looked down on the city and thought, yup, we could live here. And then it was dark. Zarius and I took our places and at the count of three plugged in the lights and there she was in all her green glory, Mary, with her arms outstretched over the city. What a sight. What an experience. Thanks Damien, what a great wedding gift, it's a memory we will never forget.

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The race is on. Damien and Zarius carrying the lamps the last leg of the journey
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TAH DAH!
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On the way down to top it all off we had the most perfect 'moonrise'
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Of course it was back to the bar later that night to join the throngs of people from all over the world celebrating St. Paddy's day at Fiddlers bar. We were joined by Phillip, an Irish guy we had met at our hostel, the first Irish person of the trip to date! We drank outside and soaked up the atmosphere until the local police arrived and dispersed the crowd!

On our last day in Santiago Damien recommended we take the metro to the end of the line, Los Dominicos, where there's a handicraft village. What a lovely way to spend our last day. It was a welcome break from the city, a little haven tucked away and bursting with art and crafts and little eateries. It reminded us both of South Africa actually.

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That night we joined Damien and his girlfriend Daniella in Bellavista and ate Chorrillana (chips topped with egg, beef, sausage, onions...) which they washed down with Fanschop (beer mixed with Fanta Orange) while we stuck to plain old beer. We had such a wonderful 5 days in Sanitago, it was great hanging out with Damien and Daniella, they really made our stay. I don't think it will be our last visit, we definitely want to go back.

But no matter what, I'll always be the little cousin!
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The next morning, nursing somewhat sore heads, we headed for the bus station to catch our bus to La Serena in the Elqui Valley.

Posted by DeeandZarius 12:26 Archived in Chile Tagged santiago cerro_san_cristobal fiddlers_irish_bar_santiago st_patricks_day_santiago best_irish_bar_santiago fiddlers_irish_bar Comments (1)

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