Thursday, 31 March 2011

Biking in Bariloche

So, the bus trip was really comfy, but I have to share this. There was a hilarious handwritten sign on the door of the loo -

In case this is tricky to read, it says, 'Please batrooms only to pi, dont poop on it.' Hah-de-hah ha hah!

Anyway, we arrived in Bariloche in the evening, checked into our hostel, and went to an Irish pub for a disappointing meal and overpriced beer. But the rest of Bariloche was certainly not disappointing - like Pucon, it has a Swiss feel, and is surrounded by gorgeous mountains and lakes. The view from our dorm room was incredible. The town itself is full of Swiss-style wood and stone buildings, many of which are chocolaterias.

While we stayed there we did a great bike ride called the 'Circuito Chico', which is about 20km and very hilly indeed! We took our time over it, stopping at viewpoints and taking a detour on a walk through a forest for a picnic lunch by the 'Lago Escondido' [hidden lake], and it was a great day out. It was pretty tough - on steep hills I got off the bike and walked it up the slope! At the bike hire place we met three lovely people - Emma, Emily and Daniel - who we saw a lot on the ride. On the last stretch of the circuit, we all met up and stopped at a microbrewery to try some local beers. Yum!

Bikes and lakes -

Having a celebratory drink with Emma, Emily and Daniel at the end of the circuit -

That evening our hostel hosted an asado, which is an Argentinian BBQ on a huge grill, with loads of different meats and some yummy grilled veggies for me! Here is the enormous grill -

Just the ticket after a hard day's cycling.

The next day we climbed nearby Cerro Campanario. Lots of people take the ski lift up to the top, but we walked it! The view from the top is one of the best in the world [according to National Geographic] - you can see the whole 'Seven Lakes' district and mountains on the horizon. Absolutely breathtaking -

We met lots of nice people at our hostel, and on our last night we all went out on the town to see a band play at a club. I couldn't catch many of the lyrics, but they were pretty good! The next day we had a plenty of time to recover on our 20-hour bus journey to Buenos Aires. Yes, 20 hours. Actually, it was far comfier than a plane ride - big reclining seats, nice meals and films to watch. I even got a veggie meal! Which brings us to our current location - Buenos Aires. I love BA so far, and we've settled here for the next few weeks while we do some serious Spanish classes. More updates to come soon...

Friday, 25 March 2011

Volcano time!

Well, we got as far south as the northern end of Patagonia - the Lakes District. It is absolutely gorgeous, cold and mountainous, and it reminded us of a European Alpine region. One major difference about Pucón, though, is that it is overlooked by an active volcano which is constantly smoking! Here is the view of Volcán Villarica from outside our hostel:

Naturally, we decided that the thing to do was to climb to the top of this sulphurous mountain, so we did! It was an early start (6am), and we met our guide and got our gear together for the hike. The volcano is covered with snow, so we needed actual snow mountaineering gear and layers of windproof clothing. There were about 12 of us in our group, and four really lovely guides who made the whole day fantastic. We got a ski-lift up the first bit of the hill (it cuts out a boring hour of walking over gravel), and then started zig-zagging up the steep slope. The trek was reasonably tough, but we stopped regularly to catch our breath so it wasn´t too hard. We got to the snow line pretty quickly, and even near the beggining the views were incredible!

Here´s Stu at our first rest stop, with the Lake District stretching out behind:

The view up towards the volcano. It was really windy all along this snowy ridge - I was genuinely worried I was going to be blown sideways down the slope on several occasions!:

More volcano views:

As we progressed, the slope got steeper and snowier, and we had to go slowly to keep our footing. We had ice picks to steady ourselves and to dig into the snow if we slipped (the blustery wind and ice nearly blew me over a few times, but no one actually tumbled down)! After four hours of uphill shuffling, we reached the summit. The hot, smoking crater belches burning, sulphurous smoke that gets in your eyes and throat and makes you cough! It smells like eggs and burning. We couldn´t see any lava; even when I peered as far as I could down into the crater, the smoke obscured any sight of the magma. Nevertheless, we felt an awesome sense of achievement to have got to the top of a real, active volcano.

At the summit, with the smoking crater behind us:

The view from the top, with more mountains in the distance:

After a break for lunch out of the way of the smelly volcano smoke, we headed back down to earth. This is where it got really fun, because the quickest way down is to slide down the snowy mountain-side on your bum! We had plastic trays to sit on to make us go faster, and used our ice picks to control our speed and stop. It was brilliant fun, and as you can imagine it was much faster on the way down!

Here we are, nearly at the bottom of the mountain:

Back at our hostel, the whole group had a few beers and relaxed after an exhausting day. We were in a hostel called The Tree House, and here I am having a nice sit down in a hammock under the tree house itself:

Being a volcanic area, Pucón also boasts some nearby hot springs, and what better way to rest our weary muscles after a day´s trekking than to sit in a massive natural hot tub? So a group of us headed out and spent the evening in lovely hot rock pools with a glass of Chilean red wine.

We spent one more day pottering about Pucón, and then spent an entire day on buses getting to Bariloche, which is just over the border in Argentina. The border crossing was a bit tedious, but actually pretty straightforward, and the buses here are really comfy. I will update you all on our days in Bariloche as soon as I can find a computer that will let me upload more photos...

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Arrival in Chile: From Santiago to Valparaiso

Hola amigos! I sit writing this in Argentina, with Ania and I well and truly behind on our blog entries yet again. But as I´m sure you´ll agree, I always console myself that if we haven´t been diligently writing our blog, it´s because we have been getting out there, having fun and seeing the world! Perhaps that´s just an excuse!

But forget Argentina for a moment, because it is my job to fill you in on our first few days in South America, on that lovely little sliver of land known as Chile! We flew into Santiago on 10th March, which for us was The Longest Day Ever (TM). Neither of us had flown through the international date line before, but it meant the 10th March 2011 was about 40 hours long for us. We can both honestly say that on 10th March 2011, at 1pm, we were in Auckland, NZ; AND Santiago, Chile! Wow! As a consequence, we spent a lot of time in Santiago jetlagged, tired and confused! It´s a beautiful city and we had some fun there and met some very nice fellow travellers, but it didn´t blow either of us away. I was surprised to see how green and European a city it is, despite hearing that from lots of people before we arrived. We had four days or so in Santiago, which we spent walking around the city, visiting a museum on pre-Columbian (as in Christopher Colombus) history in South America. We also had a great barbeque at our hostel and met some great people from the USA, Australia and Brazil!

Out and about in Santiago, at the Santa Lucia Hill:

Our next stop is where I think we both started to truly enjoy the South American and Chilean legs of our trip! After holding out for a few days because of tsunami warnings, we went to the coast, to Valparaiso. Also known as Valpo, this place is a bohemian harbour and beach town with lots of hills and ramshackle houses in a variety of vibrant colours. I like to think of it as a cross between Brighton and Valetta in Malta! We stayed in the excellent Luna Sonrisa hostel, run by a guy who writes for Footprint guidebooks in Chile.

Ania on our street in Valpo, the hill leads down to the sea:

The view from a hostel across the road at night. We sat drinking beer with Isaac from Australia and Brian from California, with this to look at!

Some old dudes playing cards in the town centre in Valpo. I was very proud of myself asking if I could take a photo in some Spanish which Ania helped me rehearse in whispers nearby beforehand! They didn´t laugh at me, which was kind of them. We think the guy in the middle standing up looks like a cross between Johnny Depp and Jermaine from Flight of the Conchords!

One day we also caught a bus to nearby Viña del Mar, a small beach town just down the coast (Hove to Valpo´s Brighton). It was ok, nothing particularly special! It´s been really good to just ride the bus with the locals though. We sat eating empañadas (South American pasties) waiting for our bus home by the side of the road, which felt pretty authentic!

One of the highlights of our stay in Valpo was visiting Pablo Neruda´s house. PN was a poet who lived in the 1900s. I hadn´t heard of him but really liked his house. Unfortunately we couldn´t take photos inside but his house was cool! It had five floors, each with a wonderful panoramic view of the sea. The lounge and bar were particularly good! Here´s a shot of the house from outside.Valpo´s houses are covered in murals. We took several shots, but here are some of our favourites:

On our last day in Valparaiso we went on a boat tour of the harbour. We got pretty close to these sea lions (interestingly, sea wolves in Spanish). The one on the right really roared at me right before this photo was taken. He had serious fish breath!

This slogan was everywhere in Valpo, on t-shirts, on walls and then we found it on these TVs! It says ´Switch off your TV: live your life!´

In places, Valparaiso is very hilly and they have these old, rickety, wooden lifts called ascensors that, for a small fee, take you up the hillside. By our last day we still hadn´t got one, so we caught this one and filmed it. It was great fun and a welcome change from climbing up hills!

At this point the weather had been great. Really sunny and warm but with a nice breeze. But things were about to get colder as we headed south next to northern Patagonia and Pucón...

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Bye bye New Zealand!

It has become something of a tradition on this blog for us to write a little summary when we leave a country of 'things we'll miss' and things we won't miss, so here's the dirt on New Zealand:

Things we'll miss about New Zealand:
  • The friendliness of Kiwis - people regularly say hello to you in the street, and almost everyone we met was incredibly kind and welcoming. Kiwis appeared to have a particular soft-spot for Brits, too!
  • The fantastic scenery round every bend in the road. Mountains, lakes, valleys, sea views, winding rivers and miles of unspoiled open spaces.
  • Like in Australia, it's so easy to travel in NZ. There are lots of tourist information sites, everything is well-signposted, and there are loads of free amenities available to the free-loading public such as toilets, showers, BBQs, picnic areas, etc. And of course, English is the national language, which makes travelling there incredibly easy for us. We're looking forward to the challenge of learning/practising a new language, though!
  • Wine-tasting. Again! There are lots of vineyards across New Zealand, and we made sure we got to a few of them to sample the yummy wine.
  • The outdoorsy lifestyle. Like in Australia, there is a big emphasis on getting out of the house and back to nature. Trekking, hiking, biking, kayaking, fishing, the lot. New Zealand is also the extreme sports centre of the world, so sky dives, bungee jumps, white water rafting, and pretty much any other adrenaline rush you can think of is on offer there.
  • It's a lot more affordable than Australia! Obviously the exchange rate will always affect this one, but things in NZ were generally the same price as at home, and we didn't spend all of our time in supermarkets horrified at the prices, which did happen in Oz. We'll also miss that the $NZ was two-to-one with the pound when we were there. It was always easy to convert into 'home prices'!
  • The beer. I'm really enjoying trying the different brews from around the world on this trip, and NZ did not disappoint. My favourite was 'Sassy Red', brewed by Macs. Yum!
  • The Lord of the Rings. Ania and I are HUGE fans of LOTR: both the movies and the books. Tolkien may have been English, but LOTR has a special place in Kiwis' hearts thanks to Peter Jackson's amazing movie version of the story. Visiting the WETA workshop in Wellington; doing the Tongariro (Mordor) trek; and best of all, visiting Hobbiton (near Matamata) made us feel like great big kids. It was truly magical!
  • Dan and Sarah. We had a wonderful time living in our Jucy campervan, and then later in a cottage in Ashburton, with Dan and Sarah. It was great to make such brilliant friends on our travels!
Things we won't miss about New Zealand:
  • The road rage. Kiwis are almost universally friendly and good-natured until they get behind the wheel of a car, at which point we found people to be surprisingly pushy and quick to anger. Perhaps it was more surprising because it seemed so out of character...
  • The horrific earthquake that affected Christchurch. Very sad.
That's all we can think of for the negatives! All in all, we loved New Zealand, and would recommend it to anyone!

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Last days in New Zealand...

Well, we are now in Chile, but let me get you all up to date by telling you about our last week or so in NZ. We had planned to drop off our campervan in Christchurch and then live there for a week, but of course after the earthquake we changed our plans and avoided the area. We found a place to stay on a farm in Ashburton, south of Christchurch, with Ruth, Wayne and their family. They have a lovely self-contained cottage on the farm called 'At Violinos' which we rented with Dan and Sarah for a week, and it was a really lovely and relaxing place to be. In the mornings we could go and feed the chickens and get some eggs. The family really included us, and had us over for dinner with them three times! Ruth is a very accomplished violinist, and she has given the farm a musical theme, decorated with musical notes and clefs. On our first night we had an impromptu concert from Stephan, Ruth's youngest, who played some excellent alto saxophone!

Stu had use of a guitar while we were there, which he enjoyed. Here he is serenading the sheep:

Dinner with the family! Ruth is Swiss, so here she treated us to a meal of 'raclette':

One of the days we were in Ashburton, Ruth took us out for a hike in the nearby Mt Hutt area. Ruth obviously does this all the time, and she put us to shame racing off up the steep track while we panted behind her! It was a very pretty hike through forest, past waterfalls, and with some gorgeous views of the flat plains below.

A short detour, climbing up beside a waterfall:
The views from the walk:

Later, Ruth drove us to Rakaia Gorge, to see these amazing views:

It was a very relaxing week, and just the tonic after a month of living in a van!

Stu and I then said our goodbyes to Dan and Sarah, who were staying on in Ashburton, and we caught a flight back to Auckland for our last few days in New Zealand. We stayed in the same hostel as before, City Garden Lodge, in lovely Parnell. Parnell is a bit posh, full of lovely little eateries and walkable to the city centre. Here I am in one of Parnell's little cobbled alleys:

Relaxing at our hostel:While in Auckland, we visited the huge Auckland Museum, which has an extensive exhibition of Maori articfacts and a cultural performance where we saw traditional Maori dances, poi and the haka (war dance, designed to intimidate the enemy, and made famous by the All Blacks rugby team).

Maori designs:
The next day we took the ferry to the nearby island of Rangitoto. Auckland is in a volcanic region, and Rangitoto is the most recently active volcano, formed by a series of eruptions between 600 and 700 years ago. We trekked up the cone to the top, and walked around the crater at the top (now full of forest). The island is still surprisingly volcano-like, covered in black lava rock which still hasn't been completely grown over since the last eruption.

Looking back at the Auckland skyline from the ferry:

Views of the Hauraki Gulf from the top of Rangitoto:

There are also some pretty cool lava caves on Rangitoto, which were formed by lava and then left as underground tunnels when the lava receded. Here is Stu emerging from one of the caves:

On our last full day in NZ, we took another ferry to the island of Waiheke, which (unlike Rangitoto) is properly inhabited with towns and lots of vineyards. So, of course, we did some wine-tasting! Waiheke also grows lots of olives, so we learned about olive harvesting and olive oil production too. It was a beautiful day, and a lovely way to spend our last day - looking at Auckland city across the water with a glass of wine in hand.

Vines on the left, olive trees on the right:

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Finishing Van Trips and Avoiding Earthquakes

Hello everyone! We are back in Auckland now and catching up on our blog entries. Thanks to everyone who got in touch after the Christchurch earthquake to see if we were ok. We were and we are!

After leaving Queenstown we stopped for a night in Te Anau, an area near New Zealand's famous Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound. This was a place to chill out and have some downtime for us. I think our best achievement here was watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD in our van. Sarah (who had notoriously fallen asleep during every film we watched) stayed awake for all three! Well done! :)

On 21st we headed to Dunedin, a cool little city about five hours drive south of Christchurch. We drank some great beer in a place called The Green Man, which brewed five of its own beers and had the longest happy hour I have ever heard of (six hours every day!).

We did the Cadbury's Chocolate Factory tour in Dunedin, a must for any chocolate fan. The tour was very reasonably priced actually, even without the Jucy vans deal which the four of us used. We had a very good guide called Dominic who walked us through the different rooms, giving us facts and then testing our chocolate knowledge as we went. Each of us was given a small plastic bag which we got to fill with goodies on the way and the tour ended with the chocolate waterfall inside the purple silo: a tonne of chocolate falling thirty metres for no reason! Everyone had to wear a hair net on the tour, plus the more beardy gents (including myself) also had to don a snood:

Posing outside the factory with an authentic old-fashioned Cadbury's van:

The earthquake hit Christchurch while we were on the tour, so as we came out people were talking about it, but it wasn't until later that we realised how serious it was. We were due to go to Christchurch the day after the quake, but changed our plans and spent a night in Rakaia, about an hour and a half south of the city. After staying in this small town, we then headed north of Christchurch to a place called Kaikoura. On the way we briefly got lost and found ourselves inside the earthquake zone. It was really shocking and quite upsetting to see so many buildings destroyed and cracks everywhere in the roads and pavements.

Kaikoura is a great little town that's been built around its tourism trade, which thrives on whale, dolphin, seal and albatross-spotting tours. We booked ourselves in on a seal tour with Top Spot Seal Swim and had quite a strange time. I say strange, because the tour really has to be broken down into two parts: 1) Swimming with seals in the bay was magical. They were so close to us and we had a good long swim with them, with even more seals and their pups sitting on the rocks nearby. The tour company provided us with gear like wetsuits, fins, masks and snorkels. I was swimming along in the very cold water, the visability was very poor, when suddenly a seal came right towards me out of the gloom. They're very playful creatures and it was breath-taking to see it swim so close to me! 2) Our guide was not very good, unprofessional, rude, aggressive and racist. Those aren't the words you want to describe someone who's leading your group for the morning are they?! While I'd recommend going to swim with seals in Kaikoura, don't do it with this company. The man who took us was horrible, particularly to two Dutch girls in our group, whose list of crimes included 'speaking Dutch'. He also left us on some rocks in the bay at one point to get some more shoes from the van (one of mine had broken). But that's not the way to end this account. I'll repeat myself and end it in the way it should be remembered: swimming with seals in the bay was magical!

Unfortunately neither of us has an underwater camera so we didn't get any photos of these wonderful seals. I've picked this picture from Google images instead:

After spending two nights at the beautiful Peketa Beach camp site in Kaikoura we headed back to the outskirts of Christchurch where we dropped off our Jucy van, that's been home to myself, Ania, Dan and Sarah for the past four weeks! We've had a wonderful road trip, but as was the case in Australia, four weeks is enough in a van! Goodbye Jucy, you served us well!

Sarah demonstrates the comfort of the 'up bed' in our van. I can assure you that those things in the foreground are my thumbs.