August 2017
  • Day82

    Uruguay by the Sea

    October 31, 2017 in Uruguay ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Leaving Argentina

    After our trip to the Parana frontiers, we nipped into town and had lunch with Robert De Niro, before returning to the hotel to finish packing. As we were not catching the bus to our next destination until 5.45pm, we had extended our check-out until 2pm. So, after stowing our bags at reception, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool with the Wifi. The journey to Concordia took all night, with no blankets, pillows, or food, until nearly midnight when we stopped at a terminal to pick them up, along with a large number of other passengers, and the hostess. We should have learnt from experience and been more prepared (we had brought fruit and a couple of biscuits this time, and had had a large, late lunch), but it was too little. We had thought it couldn't happen again!

    When we reached Concordia, around seven the next morning, we had planned to catch the bus into Uruguay, but enquiries revealed that we had missed it by just 5 minutes - the next one wasn't until late afternoon. So we decided to take a taxi to the ferry instead, and cross the border via the river. However, the driver told us that the service no longer ran. We had no means of checking this out, so rather than risk being stranded, we let him take us over the border to Salto, to the bus station. We had planned on spending some time here in any case, before our next bus left, if things had gone to plan, but this gave us even longer for our visit. Second mistake. As this had all happened so fast, we had not thought to get any Uruguayan money, so again we had to search out a Cambio before we could eat breakfast - the station facilities were not open so early on in the morning.

    After refuelling, we caught the bus into Salto Central, and wiled away the morning, strolling along the river and exploring the plazas and sidestreets. I lost my photos of the central square (accidental deletion), so you'll have to take my word that it was a very pleasant and well kept town, by South American standards. You could walk the pavements without falling down a large hole (actual event in Cusco), of which more later. We had empanadas from a coffee booth outside the cathedral, and a drink in a cafe in the main shopping area, before Chris posed for a photo with Suarez - luckily just a statue. Chris didn't fancy being bitten on his arm, which already has various injuries, both surgical and volleyball related. Apparently Suarez was born in Salto. On the way back to the station, we waved to 'Steptoe', an old man on a rag and bone cart before heading onward - an uneventful six hour bus ride to our penultimate destination of the trip...

    Montevideo

    Six days in an apartment with a sea view, to stroll along the prom, to rest and recuperate before our flight back. No more long bus journeys. No need to go out to eat if we didn't want to. Enough time to just look at one thing a day, catch up with my blog, or just do nothing for a bit if the fancy took us. We did go out to eat on the first night, but we soon discovered Bradleys by the Sea (opposite our hotel), which had all the staples, fresh food, and a deli counter - things that we could take 'home' and chop up, or just warm in the microwave, saving valuable lying down time.

    The promenade in question was a 10 km long ramblas, along a perfect crescent shaped bay, edged with apartments and hotels, so we weren't short of space to roam. There were palm trees every few feet, presently being pruned for Spring, and large grassy areas for recreation. Our first day in the city was beautifully warm and, as we walked east along the sea, the locals were certainly taking advantage of the sunshine, and were recreating fully. There were lots of ladies walking fast (rather than jogging), mostly in full lycra fitness gear and baseball caps. De rigueur for the older man was 'shirtless', to better display the pre-exercise abs above their shorts. The poodles wore those plastic, Hollywood sun visors that faded starlets wear, or the ladies that Jon Voight picked up in Midnight Cowboy. Chris had done his running earlier - he couldn't have competed with the mid-morning Montevideons.

    We walked over a sandy, sea-grass area, past the massive ant trails, to a concrete jetty that jutted into the sea. This was where the dogs exercised - standing on rocks as the waves came in, waiting for their owners to throw their rubber rings, so that they could swim. Chris tried a paddle on our last day, and assures me that it was warm, which explains why they were so keen. The beach birds were unusual here. There were some seagulls and cormorants, but also lots of pigeons and doves, and a heron, and a kingfisher; this is where the River Plate merges with the South Atlantic, and obviously the birds as well. The results of this can also be seen in the colour of the water, which is clay earth brown, more like the Amazon than the clear blue sea, but with contrasting pure white horses, whipped up by the gusty winds. One day, on first glance I thought the tide was out, because the water looked more like mud flats than ocean, gilded peach by the early sun. On our second day, it was still bright, but very breezy, and the sea was peppered with sails, spinnakers taut to bursting. Large grey ships lined the horizon. On day three, we walked westward down the ramblas, as far as the Naval Museum, to watch the video about the Graf Spee, the German battle ship that was crippled by the British in WW2, subject of the classic film, 'Battle of the River Plate' that Chris is so interested in. On the Thursday, we found our way to the port to buy our ferry tickets to Buenos Aires. Last leg. After we had sidestepped security (the Southern Lapwing that fiercely guards the port building), Chris asked for a photo in front of the big ships in the dock. It was only after posting it, alongside a wartime picture of the port, taken from a documentary about the Graf Spee, that he realised he had been standing in exactly the same place, in front of the same building.

    We explored the old town, with its large stone gate, preserved in a concrete surround, and the many plazas, all containing huge statues, often with multiple figures and fountains. Then there was the trendy, arty area with its Parisian style market - the local crafts and Montmartre style paintings, with tango too. On the Sunday, when all the main shops were closed, art spaces sprang up, filled with junk sculpture. Poky little book shops opened their doors, selling anything from 1950s fashion hardbacks, to Lawrence Durrell and local artwork. On our second day, we discovered the place they created tango, or rather the music that had made it more acceptable and respectable, and popularised it enough to allow a variety of people to dance it. Prior to this, it had only been performed by men, who danced with each other (as a type of fighting apparently), and 'low class women'. I think the guide may have meant prostitutes. The music was 'La Cumpasita', which I'm sure that almost nobody has heard of, but that everybody who hears it will instantly recognise as the classic piece of tango music that it is. It has even been on Strictly. On the rainy day (and I do mean torrential) we visited the National Theatre (Teatro de Solis) for a tour - we were treated to several mini dramas, by a young couple with just a rose and a suitcase as props. We were then entertained by a German on the tour, who asked multiple questions, "...and when were the chandelier blue prints destroyed? How did that happen?" They were bombed by the Luftwaffe in a glass factory in Birmingham in WW2! He obviously wasn't listening properly when the guide explained this in detail earlier. "The crystal came from France, but nobody will ever ever ever be able to recreate the scintillating, dazzling, decorative lights if they are ever damaged", said the guide. The day before we left, we visited the Museum of the Carnival. It is a big thing in Montevideo, the rhythms and costumes influenced by the different cultures allowed access through the port. We were not even aware that the city had one - perhaps overshadowed by Rio? However, here it is different - performed on outdoor stages, and in mini tableaux, rather than in processions as in the Brazilian versions.

    Leaving Uruguay
    This morning we caught that ferry we booked, which turned out to be a very fast catamaran. We had counted on it taking four hours to get us to Buenos Aires, but we got here in two and a half, and arrived just after lunch at a relaxed and quirky hotel - lots of terracotta-tiled, stepped levels, with copious potted plants, and mini terraces overlooking the internal courtyard reception and the roof tops of hip Palermo Soho. We have come full circle in South America. We visited this area on our city bus tour on our first stay in Buenos Aires, when we stopped here for lunch in a pavement cafe. This time we spent the afternoon exploring further, and picking a restaurant for this evening. We went for a different one in the end but were not disappointed. Final flight tomorrow afternoon. Hasta luego. Until the next time.

    Post Script:
    We shared our hotel room with quite a number of large mosquitos. As the Dalai Lama said, "If you think you're too small to make a difference, spend the night with a mosquito."
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  • Day80

    Argentinian Interlude

    October 29, 2017 in Argentina ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Once we had floated over the Parana River into Argentina at Puerto Iguazu, we laboured up the long steep hill into town, in the heat, with our bags. We only had Paraguayan money, and dollars, and there was no means of exchanging it for Argentinian pesos at the little port where we had landed, so the offer of a taxi was not an option. At the top, we went straight to the nearest Cambio to stand in front of the large fan, then took a taxi to the hotel. Once settled, (and chilled), we walked into town, which we now knew to be quite close by, for lunch. We ate at a self-service buffet restaurant which charged by weight and had a Robert de Niro look-alike waiter who served your drinks and puds. Really good, home made fare, and the most delicious lemon soufflé with passion fruit sauce, which we had again when we visited a second time :)

    In the afternoon, we decided to go over into Brazil, just 30 minutes away by bus. Definitely a wasted trip. There was nothing to see, and by the time we got there, all the shops were closing - we hadn't factored in the time difference between Argentina and Brazil. We were told that the bus back also stopped at the central plaza with a cathedral (as well as at the bus terminal), so we decided to walk there to catch it, so that, in Chris' words, "At least we would have seen something of interest." We marched down the longest central street, in history, ever, in a gathering wind, dry leaves swirling Oz-like around our heads, large drops of rain staining our t shirts. We never visited the church, just a bus stop, where we waited about half an hour for our number - well, at least we got another stamp in our passport. That afternoon and evening, we experienced some real rainforest weather, so to avoid a head to toe soaking, we went straight to an early dinner from Brazil, rather than going back to the hotel.

    Next day was our trip to the Iguazu Falls. Once we arrived at the National Park, we caught the little tourist train to the walkway that takes you to the top of the Falls. Just after the previous load of passengers had disembarked, some wild things came out of the woods and got on - a team of coatis, the South American Raccoons, who kindly swept the carriage for us before our trip. They were everywhere at the park - on and under the cafe tables, scurrying around our feet, or competing for the midges with the capuchin monkey, who was currently on the roof of the drinks bar. The birds were velvety rich, with teddy glass eyes and silk fan crests, and the trees were dressed with spidery, acid-lemon orchids. The cataracts are huge - there are so many falls within the Falls, and so many different levels and directions in which they drop from the massive rocks and cliffs that make up Iguazu, that unless you are in a helicopter, or have a drone, it is impossible to view them as a whole. There are mini forests growing on some of the largest outcrops at the centre of the Falls, yet the tiniest swifts dart in and out of the spray, which often obliterates whole sections of the sight as it drops, and spumes back up to the sky where the condors soar. I imagined the birds living in the smallest holes and caves, under the weight of water, along the river bed. Photographs cannot capture the scale and drama of the scene.

    On our last morning in Puerto Iguazu, we took a walk to the edge of town, to a monument overlooking the Parana, with views of the banks of the other two countries (Brazil and Paraguay), that, along with Argentina, make up the three frontiers on the river. I bought a dinosaur shark tooth pendant from a craft stall to remember the day.
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  • Day79

    Paraguay

    October 28, 2017 in Paraguay ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    The Sun Shone in Asuncion

    It was a lovely flight from La Paz to Asuncion, with great views of the snowy mountains. Chris was a bit disappointed with the size of the plane - it was too big for him, but we took a picture of a dilapidated twin prop plane and tagged the relatives to scare them, as compensation. Actually, it was two flights, with the first terminating at Santa Cruz. Our second flight left half an hour later, so we even had a built in toilet stop, and time for a quick argument (about snacks) - hangry! We stepped off the plane into an oven - a steam oven.

    The hotel was excellent. We had a traditional large suite, with parquet floors, twin Queen beds, writing desk, large wooden sideboard for that essential holiday china, and a separate dressing area leading to the barthroom. We took advantage of the hotel's laundry service, which was so efficient that we thought some items had not been returned - they had delivered it back to our room while we were out, but only half (t shirts etc) was neatly folded on the bed. The other items (trousers, dresses, long sleeved tops) had been hung in the wardrobe. On the edge of the pool, the hotel had it own trattoria style restaurant, where we ate for two out of the three nights of our stay, and particularly enjoyed the live traditional music and folk dancing. We actually recognised one of the tunes from the trolley bus minstrel in Valparaiso - we're turning into true South American officianados. Our motel, which was 3 star was attached to a larger, more modern hotel on the opposite side of the pool, where we took their 5 star breakfast (all inclusive) in their first floor sun room. This is where we saw our crew from the La Paz flight on our first morning - we only stay at the best places!

    It was so unbearably hot that day as we walked out into the city centre (only 10-15 minutes away), that after a brief stop in a dark, cool junk shop (house clearance tat which made me feel slightly anxious), and after having been moved on by the security police for looking over the parapet and seeing the people living in the shanties on the edge of the River Paraguay, we ducked desperately into the cathedral to get cool. Sweat was trickling down our temples, despite the marble floors and the large fans, but I was still shocked at having been told to leave what was an obvious place to look out over the river that runs through Paraguay's capital city. Basically, don't look at the poor people! After this, we sweated at the railway station, or what's left of it. It's a museum now, with a Stephenson's Rocket type train with a large funnel (the Sapucai) on a plinth at one end, and a 'Casey Jones and his Canonball Express Wild West train' (wood-panelled carriages, a buffet car, and front and back 'balcony' views) at the other.

    Next we decided to go to the Botanical Gardens, just a short walk away (or so we thought). It would definitely be cooler there - all those trees and large shady plants. After wandering round for a bit until my legs stopped working in protest, we decided to try a cab. Lucky we did, because the gardens were 20 minutes away by car, and were no cooler than the town. We were dropped outside the Natural History Museum at the near end of the gardens, so we ducked straight in there to get cool again - the taxi had been like a sauna, even with the windows wide open (with pollution thrown in). After we had had our fill of badly stuffed exotic animals (5 minutes), we walked to the 'palacio' at the other end of the garden, before giving in and sitting on a bench for a few minutes, then walking back to the main entrance to get another taxi. The beautiful, bright orange, flowering trees and the green parrots made me feel a bit better about the hot journey back, but not much.

    We had genuinely thought that we'd be skipping around like altitude acclimatised athletes when we came down to sea-level from the high mountains in Bolivia, but hadn't factored in the 38 degree heat on the edge of the rainforest. We arrived back into the Plaza de Los Heroes, from where we traipsed to a large restaurant we had spotted earlier. Amazing air conditioning, and absolutely packed, mainly with lunching office workers, it turned out to be one of the oldest and most prestigious cafe-restaurants in the city. Established in the 60s, but in a late 19th Century building, it had good food, beer, and mix and match freshly squeezed/pulped juices! Perfect! After lunch we went back to the hotel for a long swim in the pool. Even more perfect!

    The next day, we walked to the Presidential Palace which was a little like the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires...pink, and then walked to the sanitised, landscaped edge of the river, with Ascuncion writ large in concrete. We were allowed to look at this bit. We strolled along the prom a bit further, to find a small boat which appeared to be running trips out onto the river from a tiny jetty. We didn't resist the opportunity, along with three over-excited Argentinians. The chug chug of the exhaust turned Chris into Humphrey Bogart. There were in fact a few reeds where the heron sat, but this was condor country, with harbour cranes. We then explored a derelict part of the port with a particularly interesting war memorial, featuring a broken earthenware nativity scene (with no baby Jesus) nestling amongst its graphite coloured obelisks. This day was much cooler because it had rained the previous evening, so we explored a few more squares and revisited places too hot to stop on the previous day. In the evening we tried Bolsi, (our lunchtime cool retreat), for dinner. Not as quirky as the hotel restaurant, but good food, and a change of scene. We enjoyed our bit of r & r in the sun.

    Gangsters' Paradise

    The best bus journey of the trip was the one that took us from Asuncion to Cuidad del Este, the romantically named City of the East. It was one straight road all the way, and what was supposed to take eight hours took just six. The coach was clean, the seats were wide and comfortable, and we had the best spot up front - double the leg room, a great view in fine weather, and Wifi. On arrival, a taxi from the station took us to our hotel, via a checkpoint (with armed guards) where we were required to show our passports. We were a little confused because we hadn't crossed any borders yet. As far as we knew, we were still in Paraguay. We then entered what can only be described as a 'compound', a controlled area that looked like a wealthy Californian estate, with large detached houses - many were mansions, with colonnaded porches, stepped paths up to large front doors, metal lions on plinths at the bottom - that kind of shit. Some earlier research had revealed the town (not in fact a city) to be a tax haven, where goods and drugs are traded with impunity. People mainly seem to visit for the shopping, for obvious reasons. All the more surprising then, that our little corner of town was so heavily guarded and 'policed'. When we went out for dinner 'over the border' that evening, we had to pass through the checkpoint again, and were stopped by a security guard on a moped whilst we walked the last part of the journey (all 50m of it) to the restaurant. We had apparently been less of a worry to the administration whilst driving, when we were just waved through with a Mona Lisa smile from the man at the barrier. Our means of transport may have been a factor here though...On arrival at the hotel we had been told at reception that they did not provide dinner, and that we could either send out for it, or be taken in a golf cart to a nearby restaurant. We decided to eat out and requested the lift. The receptionist disappeared, and returned a few minutes later, driving the buggy. He invited Chris to sit beside him, so I sat on the back. He then gesticulated that I was sitting in the wrong place, and began to demonstrate the controls. Chris realised before I did that we were expected to drive ourselves - no lights - no indicators - across a maze like estate - in the dark. We found our way there, but got lost on the way back. Two gringos in a golf cart are definitely non-threatening, but a massive embarrassment when asking for directions from people who drive mercedes.

    The bizarre Wonderland that we had stumbled into was 'The Parana Country Club' - protected on one side by the checkpoints, and on the other by the impenetrable, Brazilian rainforest, which lay on the far bank of the fast flowing Parana River (initially misheard as 'Piranha' - it sounds more 007). We had chosen the hotel at random, simply because it looked a good place to relax - it had a pool, and, from the pictures, it appeared to have spectacular views from the balconies. It definitely wasn't because of the guns and the gates, of which we had been totally unaware. Our personal theory was that the policing was to protect the bad, rather than the good. Think Lord Lucan, and imagine war criminals and drugs barons, living in splendid isolation on the edge of the jungle - true identities fading along with the grandeur, the golf courses a cover (and location) for dodgy dealing on the greens.

    We appeared to be the only guests at first - floating alone in the bougainvillea and mosquito scattered pool, and wandering silently on the jasmine scented balconies, photographing the single launch which drifted engineless with the flow of the river, all to an insomniac's soundtrack of soft rain and birdcalls. Later we saw a handful of people on the terrace beyond the breakfast room, and spoke with a Brazilian couple who could point (across the river) to where they had travelled from. I did ask the man if he had swum, but he didn't get the joke. Lost in translation, despite my accompanying mime.

    The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast in front of the sort of huge fireplace you see in the homes of the villains in Columbo, the mantelpiece filled with golfing trophies (probably the murder weapon), we called for our taxi. This took us to a small border ferry point, just south of the city where we could go directly into Argentina across the river, avoiding Brazil, heading for the Falls.
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  • Day77

    Bolivia Hop

    October 26, 2017 in Bolivia ⋅ 🌙 11 °C

    We left Peru for Bolivia on the Saturday evening, the day after Chris' Birthday. We went by taxi to the Bolivia Hop bus station (a journey and a half in itself), via a previously unvisited part of Cusco. All the roads were full of market stalls, people selling off the street, and piles and piles of rubbish. It was carnage. When we finally arrived, we registered our details with the Dutch lady who had sold us our tickets, and waited to board the bus. It was quite a comfy coach - some young travellers in the seats opposite proclaimed it 'the bus from heaven' as they sat down, but they'd been up in the rainforest. We had chosen it because of its reputation for clean toilets, but it also had quilts, rather than the usual blankets - later to become redundant because the heaters were turned up so high in the night. The bus guide's early instruction, that the toilets were only to be used for number one, not number two, and definitely not number three explained the cleanliness of the facilities - we never did discover what number three involved (guess it may have something to do with alcohol), or what you were meant to do if number two, or number three was imminent. Our man expected us to ask him to stop the bus, which conjured up disturbing visions of Paula Radcliffe crouching behind a cactus. I was tired!

    We arrived in Puno, on the Peruvian edge of Lake Titicaca around 5.30 in the morning, and were walked round the corner to a small restaurant for our breakfast - very dry (and cold) scrambled egg, with bread and jam and tea. We were then given the option of a two hour trip on the lake, or to look around the town. I had had a day on this side of the lake three years ago, and knew that we wouldn't see much in a couple of hours, so we opted to stay where we were. We went for a short walk up the road from the bus, to the port, but it was pretty cold, so we sat in the bus for the rest of the time and Skyped the rellies, who were all having a pre-arranged Sunday lunch for the occasion.

    We were soon on our way again, heading for the border into Bolivia. We arrived mid-morning, which became midday with the time difference. Passport stamping was a formality. The tricky bit here was that you couldn't drive across the border - all bags had to be unloaded from the coach, and we had to walk with them, uphill, at an altitude of 3865m. Breathe through your nose not your mouth is the advice. Another coach was then waiting for us at the other side of the stone archway at the top of the hill - not a good choice of location for a street park by our driver, who then spent the next ten minutes doing excruciating, crunching hill starts with a now heavily laden bus.

    Next stop was to be on the Bolivian side of the lake, at a place called Copacabana. Here we did opt for the trip, which was meant to be a four hour visit to the Isla del Sol - what it actually entailed was a one and a half hour boat journey to the island, 35 minutes to walk up the steep cliff and back, with a similar one and a half hour trip on the way back. We stayed on the boat - well, what we actually did was to get off the boat for 15 minutes to take photos (of the lovely donkeys, and the Inca steps) whilst the skipper bailed out the bilges. The boat had been so packed with travellers that he had had to go carefully to avoid sinking! He then sailed the few 'remainers' round the headland to wait for the brave hill-runners to come down the cliff on the other side. We left singing Barry Manilow (Lola, she was a showgirl) thinking it would be plain sailing as far as La Paz. Never assume anything in South America. The bus, and us (separately as it turned out) had to cross part of the lake by boat. The passengers were in a small cabin cruiser, whilst the coach was floated out on a barge. Having been micro-managed up to this point, we were swiftly abandoned by our guide on the other side as all travellers went in different directions, searching for loos and street food in the chaotic street market in the dark! We did find both, and each other, and the bus, and the food was delicious - proper freshly cooked sausages, with the works (mayonnaise, salad, tomatoes, onions) in rolls. Sod the dodgy tummies, carefully cultivated in Cusco. Once safely back on the bus, it was onwards to La Paz, where we were dropped directly at our hotel door.

    La Paz is a very strange place...

    On our first morning in the city, we walked down the steep, rain sodden street from our hotel. Everything was 'out there' - the goods were laid out in piles on the pavements, the traditional ladies (or cholitas) perched in the middle, clear tarpaulins covering their wide pleated skirts, and plastic bags covering their tall hats. Public transport was straight out of the USA in the 1950s - I wouldn't have been surprised to see Marty McFly riding one of the brightly coloured, long bonnet, Dodge buses with the silver stars on the front. The wiring was also out there - all tangled up - nearly touching the pavement and the people. We emerged, slightly dazed, into Plaza San Francisco to see groups of locals gathered on the steps of the cathedral, the men wearing black gangster hats, and the women their high brown derbies. According to the walking tour guide, we can blame the British for the ladies' strange fashion choices - a large company which made headgear for local workers on the railways (which the British established in South America) made the Derby hats too small, thinking that because the Bolivians were short, that their heads would also be comparatively tiny. The hats didn't fit, so they 'sold' them to the local women by convincing them that they were an essential accessory, to go with their fancy skirts (also adopted from European fashions of the 1800s) - the Bolivian ladies took to these skirts because they emphasised the width of their hips, and revealed the meatiness of their calfs, both attractive features to the average enlightened Bolivian man who wanted a strong wife who could carry a lot - both children and loads. Across the square from San Francisco church, the steps leading up to the market were submerged in a protest of teenagers (dressed as fruit and veg), demanding and promoting healthy eating. A bizarre contrast next to the elegant, straight backed cholita, with the obligatory crocheted shawl, pinny/housecoat, and jumbo sized shopping bag. A cholita's hat has no visible means of support, seemingly precariously balanced, yet secure, relying solely on good posture, making them some of the healthiest people in the world, with very few heart, lung or kidney problems. If only I'd worn a hat, I might not have such a dodgy back!

    Another golden nugget of information from our walking tour guide was the continuing tradition of human sacrifice (to the earthquake gods) - some individuals will search out alcoholic or drug addict street dwellers with no relatives, ply them with shots and bury them in concrete in the foundations of new buildings (allegedly). We have noticed that there is a lot of new building going on throughout South America, so the opportunity is definitely there. Llama foetuses are also used for the same purpose - hung up, or laid out and surrounded by piles of sweets and sparkly things, they are sold on market stalls, to be displayed at meal tables on high days and holidays.

    La Paz is lawless...

    The San Pedro Prison, named after the square on which it sits, is slap bang in the middle of the city, and right at the centre of much of the criminal activity in town. All of the best drugs (the purest sugar, as the guide referred to them) are manufactured and dealt there - orders for non-inmates are thrown in nappies from the upstairs windows of the building. The institution also contributes to the weird element of La Paz in that families of criminals are forced to live in the jail with their relatives. They can go out and take part in their normal activities during the day, but must return there at night. Prisoners also pay for their own accommodation, meaning that the richest, most successful criminals (usually the major drug barons) can afford the best rooms, living in luxury at the posh end of the prison, whilst the petty criminals languish in squalor at the other. Until quite recently, the wealthiest and most notorious drug baron, who continued to operate his business from the jail, also ran tours of the prison for tourists, 'allowing' them to stay the night for a fee. However, he has now been released, and the remaining criminal element who continue this tradition are not so 'honourable', and refuse to let unsuspecting punters out again, unless they pay them bucket loads of cash of course!

    Much of the info given by our guide was so bizarre that we were left scratching our heads, wondering if it could possibly be true, but all of it has since been confirmed on the internet, so it must be.

    La Paz is up, and coming...

    It's certainly very high - at 3640m, it is the highest capital in the world, if you believe that La Paz is in fact the capital. Many Bolivians argue that Sucre is a contender for the title, as the country's administrative centre. La Paz has overcome its vertical geography with a new state of the art transport system, its cable car, which presently has three colour coded lines, with two or three more in development. The yellow line, which we were advised to ride, gives perfect panoramic views over the city, including the insides of people's sitting rooms as it sails inches away from their front windows, and the contents of their washing lines as it floats above their backyards. All of this while surrounded by crag-tooth mountains.

    As we were leaving La Paz in the taxi to the airport (oh the bliss - no bus journey), we drove through the famous 'Witches Market' at its busiest time, packed with cholitas in their colourful finery. There were all manner of hats and shiny, pleated, petticoated skirts - Bolivian women's skirts have sparkly bits and pleats that go both vertically and horizontally, creating a checquered effect. Stallholders (if a tarpaulin on the street can be called a stall), perched atop mountains of potatoes, or surrounded by huge melons and exotic fruits, nursing their babies, or chatting with their fellow cholitas. The ladies don't like having their pictures taken - I had asked, so this would have been the perfect opportunity to take a cheeky snap or two through the car window without them being able to object - the best photo ops always arrive when your camera is packed in its case for the flight.
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  • Day70

    The Worst Journey

    October 19, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ☁️ 7 °C

    Arequipa to Cusco. I've done it before, both ways actually, each time on overnight coaches. It was tiring. Nobody sleeps that well on a bus, regardless of how far the seats recline, or how snuggly the duvet. However, this bus journey was something else entirely. Due to previous bad experiences on overnight coaches (lack of sleep, and unusable toilets) we had decided to travel during the day. That was our first mistake. Only one bus company travelled from Arequipa to Cusco in daylight hours - warning sign missed. It seemed like a good company - the buses looked very swish and glossy in the brochure. The reality was slightly different. The bus was very dirty. I didn't use the toilet. Second mistake was the price. I wasn't aware until just before we travelled how cheap it was (Chris purchased the tickets). Nearly 500km for £13 for the two of us! Another warning sign missed. Our luxury coach turned out to be a local service, stopping everywhere, mainly, it seemed, to let anybody who wanted to sell anything to get on, often for quite some miles. Some people did get off, but not at 'official' stops, i.e those where you could get off and be able to get back on again - aka those with facilities, such as toilets. Remember, I didn't use the bus toilet! This added hours to the journey time, with absolutely no benefit to the passengers. We discovered later that we had in fact done a massive detour, almost as far as Lake Titicaca. We knew this because we went through a town called Juliaca, a place straight out of Slumdog Millionaire - unmade roads, chaos around a railway line that ran straight down the centre of its Main Street, surrounded by stalls where people were cooking, and selling food, and anything else that the locals had been able to lay their hands on. Weird contraptions, hand-crafted pimped up motorbikes and push bikes, some with plastic windows in tarpaulin covers (a la Wendy House) were the vehicles of choice. There were no cars.

    As we first got onto the coach, I noticed a man standing at the front of the bus. He began to talk about the toilets, informing us of their location (not relevant to me), and letting us know that there would be a couple of stops during the journey (fat chance). He then appeared to begin a stand-up routine. Several people chuckled. He asked us what our nationality was and then drew the attention of the other passengers to our presence, leading to much oohing and aahing and craning of necks to observe the two curiosities in the centre of the bus. We were the only extranjeros on the vehicle, probably because it wasn't the sort of bus they should be travelling in. Despite some (if not all) of the information being superfluous, I thought, "How lovely - the bus may be cheap, but at least it's cheerful." However, he continued. I did lose track for a while but then I pricked up my ears at the word 'colostomy'. He was talking about medical procedures, Cancer and stomach problems! I quickly realised this was a sales pitch (even before he produced his life-saving, preventative sachets of herbal tea). Despite nobody expressing the slightest interest, he persisted, and continued to speak for 44 minutes - Chris timed him.

    At the beginning of our journey we spent a large amount of time (at least an hour) driving round in circles on the outskirts of Arequipa. At one point we ended up by a large pile of grit in the middle of some roadworks, with our driver unable to reverse out of the situation - we concluded he had gone the wrong way. After he had eventually been able to get back on track, and we were on the 'right' road, Chris looked out of the window ahead of us and remarked, "Is that volcano erupting?" My reply, "Oh yeah" and I quickly got my camera out. It wasn't a major eruption obviously - we are still here, rather than petrified in a museum in Lima, but there was a significant plume of smoke high in the sky and we were heading towards it.

    Things were quiet for a while. I had time to observe our fellow passengers. The man in the seat opposite was chilly. It was hot on the bus, which had no air conditioning, but he was wearing a traditional lumberjack/cowboy shirt, in the thickest, blanket-weight, brush cotton material, and had a grey, mock-fur fleece sleeping bag over his knees. Chris and I were just in t shirts, so I wasn't surprised that he spent most of his journey asleep. Then there was Klinger (he bore a strong physical resemblance, and appeared slightly manic), a man that Chris got into conversation with on his journey to the toilet and, several times after that when the man approached him, encouraged by their initial interaction. I asked Chris what they had been talking about. His answer, "Not a bloody clue".

    About lunch time, another man got onto the bus and stood at the front. I thought, oh no, not more quack doctor potions. I was wrong. He began to preach at us - not quite as long as the other man - just half an hour. Towards the end of the journey (although it felt as if it would never end) we went through a mountainous area, the mountains being sheer rock faces at the edge of the road. It was at this point that I started to feel unwell. I felt as if I couldn't breathe properly. Even though we had already visited places at a much higher altitude in the Atacama Desert, I began to worry that I was suffering from altitude sickness and had a mild panic attack. Thought process, "We're in the middle of god knows where, on a dodgy bus that almost certainly would not be carrying oxygen and was a long way from any hospital which might be of any help." I had to do some serious yoga breathing to overcome that one.

    Our trip was meant to be ten hours, but actually took about thirteen. We finally arrived in Cusco around 9.30pm, so a late meal in the restaurant directly opposite the hotel was a smart decision, especially as it turned out to be our eating place of choice on several other occasions. Never again, no more bus trips, EVER, I said...
    Just 24 hours for our next one into Bolivia!! Although we did have a two week gap in between.
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  • Day70

    Breaking Borders: San Pedro to Arequipa

    October 19, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ☀️ 22 °C

    The overnight coach left San Pedro around 8pm on the Wednesday. Destination Arica, 25km this side of the border with Peru. Our bus was very basic. It didn't appear to have been prepped. There were no blankets and, initially, no conductor. The driver had to help load the bags into the trunk. About an hour and a half into the journey, at a town called Calama, a large number of men, and the conductor (although he did very little during the journey) got onto the bus. We deduced that these people were miners, returning home after a stint of work in the open cast copper mine just north of the town. They quickly fell asleep, but not before one kind man had swapped seats, so that Chris and I (we had not been able to buy adjacent seats) could sit together.

    We arrived into Arica around 5am on the Thursday. Our first priority was to buy tea, and a large piece of heavy, bread pudding style cake from a breakfast booth in the bus station, before purchasing what we thought was a station exit ticket. After a few enquiries, we found out that the collectivos that would take us to the border were located in another station a few metres up the road. Once there, we were approached by a taxi driver who offered to take us across the border for 3,500 pesos. We then (on his instruction) purchased the correct exit ticket, and were ushered into his cab, along with three other unsuspecting victims...sorry, passengers. He took our passports and promptly disappeared for ten minutes. It was at this point that I thought, "What if he doesn't bring them back?" We had read up about how the crossing works, and were expecting the process to involve a taxi driver taking us across the border, but it did require some trust that this was a legitimate person offering the service. It did help that there were other people involved and that he looked trustworthy, if a bit gruff, grumpy and monosyllabic. It was 5 O'clock in the morning though - I wasn't feeling too hot myself. He came back, luckily clutching our documents.

    We began our drive to the border in a vehicle in which nothing on the dashboard appeared to be working, including the speedo. It was still dark, and again, I thought, "In theory he could be taking us anywhere. It could be like 'Walkabout' (I would be Jenny Agutter of course). He might take us into the wilderness and dump us, to rely on the kindness and expertise of the natives to enable us to survive". Luckily he dropped us at the border, so this was not necessary. We queued outside (it was chilly) for about an hour. Sensibly, exit (from Chile) and entry (into Peru) are alongside each other here, at post office style booths. As I entered Peru, I was asked by the male border official if I was married - Chris was just about to leave Chile at the adjacent booth, so I just pointed at him to indicate my status. This caused some amusement, and much winking, and ring finger pointing, and raising of eyebrows, but it broke the ice, and the nervous atmosphere.

    When the formalities were over, the taxi driver was waiting for us at the other side of the building. After putting our watches back two hours, we piled into the car again, and he drove us to Tacna, where we were handed over to another man who, after directing us to the money changing tables (replete with embroidered table cloths, plastic flowers and fabric pachamama style dolls), rushed us to the bus station in the hope of getting us onto the 6.15. We didn't make it, as it was 6.05 when we left the station, but he continued to liaise with the bus company, and arranged our passage on the next bus an hour later. We had time to spare, so had breakfast - fried egg sandwiches and juice, again in a station cafe, where we were approached by a man wearing a now familiar outfit (remember the queue for O'Higgins Park in Santiago) - a blonde, wool-braided wig, false eyelashes, rouge, and a flowery dress with stuffed boobs and bum. He addressed us with "Que lindos chicos" and tried to palm us off with some chewing gum. We resisted.

    Our bus journey was uneventful, although long and tortuous, with sheer drops and barren, hilly scenery. In the occasional town, rows of stalls selling miscellaneous items and street food meant that we had regular visitors to the bus - ladies with baskets of homemade cakes and pastries containing a thousand calories each, and dulce de leche. We arrived in Arequipa mid afternoon, and took a 'deluxe' taxi from inside the station to our hotel. The traffic was horrific which meant we drove slowly enough to notice a whole road full of men with sewing machines out on the streets. We vowed to return, to have the broken straps on our rucksack mended. On arrival, our hotel was lovely - the interior decor reminiscent of the Santa Catalina Monastery around the corner, with internal courtyards, rooftop balcony gardens, terracotta floors, and potted cacti decorating the public areas. We later discovered that it had originally been a monastery. Our room was huge, with an almost double width, castle thick, wooden bathroom door, a large walk in shower with net venting to the internal courtyard, and a large (extra wide) comfy bed. Such luxury to be clean and to relax after such a long eventful journey from one country to another. In the early evening we walked to the Plaza de Armas where the cathedral was lit up. The male voice choir were inside, practising for the weekend services. We then had tea, on a street where I had eaten before when visiting alone, three years earlier.

    The next day, Friday, we went by local yellow taxi (Chris' choice, because he likes the fun of the fair) to the station, to purchase our bus tickets to Cusco. We just survived the trip - the driver had his rosary, his statue of Jesus, and his brass medallion of the Virgin Mary, just in case. Another taxi, safer this time, took us to where we could get our bag mended. After lunch I took Chris to see the Santa Catalina monastery, a trip down a very peaceful memory lane for me, complete with hummingbirds flitting around as we drank a cup of tea in the cafe! Then, a return trip to the Plaza de Armas where we saw yet another parade - this time all teenagers, in fancy embroidered costumes. In the evening, we had dinner at a rather nice restaurant. We sat outside in a small courtyard and I had the best Pisco Sour of our trip, fixed by Kevin, our initially quite formal, but eventually chatty waiter. Perhaps he needed to make his first Pisco to warm up.

    Next up. "Not another bus trip!" To Cusco and Picaflor House.
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  • Day63

    The Oasis in the Desert

    October 12, 2017 in Chile ⋅ ☀️ 22 °C

    San Pedro de Atacama

    We left Valparaiso on the afternoon of the 22nd September, headed for the desert. First, another bus trip (only 6 hours this time), hugging the coast on part of the Pan-American Highway, which runs from Ushuaia in Argentina to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska! Weird cacti dotted the cliffs, flashes of ocean, and strange feathered plants, like Indian braves, riding over the headland from the sea. We arrived around 10pm at a large modern hotel, in a place called La Serena where we were to spend one night. After dumping our bags in the room, we headed straight to the bar, for the complimentary pisco sours. Priorities. There's not a lot to say about La Serena, except that it is the second oldest town in Chile after Santiago. We visited the central square and three out of its many churches in the morning, then had a bizarre, porridge like meal called chupa for lunch - a one pot, faintly seafood tasting dish, covered in cheese, with a crab's claw stuck in the middle of it.

    The second bus trip left La Serena around 4pm, an overnighter, arriving in San Pedro de Atacama around 8am. It rarely rains in the Atacama Desert (15mm a year), so we had been lucky enough to witness a particularly rare spectacle in these parts on the bus journey - the Desierto Florido, or Flowering of the Desert, although we didn't realise we'd seen it until afterwards. I had heard of the phenomenon, but imagined exotic blooms on cacti, not a ground cover of delicate yellow and purple flowers that looked like moorland blooms. After breakfast at the bus station cafe, we hot-hiked over pot holes with our bags to our hotel, a ranch style hostel behind an anonymous red clay wall. Built around a central courtyard, it had a small outdoor pool and comfy outdoor seating. The Portuguese receptionist wasn't up for letting us check into our room early, so she filled a bit of time by giving us detailed info on the trips we could take over the next couple of days. We chose one for that afternoon, to visit 'The Valley of the Moon' (Valle de la Luna), and to see the sunset over the desert. It didn't start until 4pm and it was hot in the desert, so we sat for a while to cool off under the verandah and drank coca tea - it was also very high where we were going.

    We headed into 'town' where we looked around the small central square. It was Sunday morning so we walked into the beautiful *adobe church, to the sound of children singing - they were practising up on the minstrels gallery, led by a nun on an electric guitar. Other children were milling around excitedly, giving out the service sheets and consulting with the priest. Apart from the Sister Act up on the balcony and the priest who gave the sermon, the service was conducted by the children. The whole affair was very relaxed - people walked around, went out, came back in again or ran after their toddlers. Then, about ten minutes in, an elderly lady walked down the aisle from the back, with a small white poodle on a lead, dressed for the occasion in a frill-edged flowery dress, and I mean the dog, not the old lady. The creature looked decidedly unimpressed by proceedings and sat under its owner's chair trying to stare us out. Perhaps she didn't like having her photo taken, or wearing a dress. Half way through, we left by the large double-doored side entrance which had been left open throughout, letting the sun in, and went for lunch (the priest was going on a bit). We had the 'Quiche Menu' in a small cafe - Spanish omelette style pie, followed by apple pie. Diet starts on our return.

    *"Adobe is a building material made from earth and often organic material. Adobe means 'mudbrick' in Spanish" - Wikipaedia

    On the afternoon minibus trip, the lunar landscape consisted of strange twisted rock formations, peach coloured crags dusted with a frosting of salt, and large sand dunes scattered with small stone chippings, bleached pure white by the sun. The view when we climbed up and across the top of the sand dune was to a barren valley, clay roads and a backdrop of snow-topped volcanoes. 'Chris of Atacama' in his makeshift scarf-turban completed the picture, before we headed to an escarpment to watch the sun set over the desert.

    Our next trip, with a 7am start was called Las Rocas Rojas (Red Rocks). First we drove to the salt flats, getting closer and closer to the steaming volcano (reassuringly, the guide told us, it does this every morning), to see the flamingos. There are three types - Andean, which are the rarest, and have yellow legs. Chilean, which have greyish legs, pink knees, and bills that are more than 50% black. Then there are the James flamingos, thought to be extinct, until a single colony was found in 1956 - they have brick red legs, a yellow bill, and are pale pink with carmine streaks. We also saw black and white Andean avocets and the small Puna plover, which moves in a darting fashion, making it difficult to capture facing the right way. After our short trek round the water, we were ready for breakfast, cooked by our driver/guide/chef on a small gas stove in front of the van. The best breakfast of our trip, it consisted of scrambled eggs, toasted cobs, mashed avocado, orange juice, tea and coffee, and 'brownie' which was like a ginger cake texture, but with a chocolate taste. After a brief stop, to visit a tiny adobe church, with stonework porch, thatched roof, and hand painted friezes, we arrived at the beautiful flower blue lakes of the altiplano, 4,120m high. First was Lake Miscanti, which we hiked down to and around - a lone vicuña on its far side, significant patches of snow still lying due to storms the previous week. This day was clear and bright though, the tufts of 'pasta brava' or 'brave grass' (because it survives in the hostile environment) golden in the sunshine. We then walked over a boulder-marked way, across the plain, with backward views to the lake and the snow-topped volcano-mountains behind. The largest of these volcanos (Miniques) gives its name to the smaller lake which we visited later for a 'panorama' because its eruption (hopefully some time ago) separated it from the larger Lake Miscanti. On the road again, our guide spotted a fluffy-tailed rabbit creature. What it was, nobody knows...perhaps it was that mystery creature sighted in Quorn a couple of months back?

    Finally, Red Rocks - an unassuming name for a truly gorgeous beach, on the edge of the palest aquamarine and lavender lake, heavenly in its elevated spot. The red rocks themselves were a pastel pavement of salmon pinks, blues, lemons and browns, scattered with Neolithic tomb arrangements of terracotta boulders, creating pools near the shore which would have been tempting if it hadn't been for the arsenic contained in those seemingly clear waters. All of this with a backdrop of the obligatory snow-capped volcanos. Two of our party were so enamoured that they were half an hour late for our meet-back at the bus. The rest of the passengers (and ourselves) were not very forgiving, as our late lunch, at a pre-arranged restaurant about 40 minutes away, was now even later. We did get to see vicuña on the way though, very close up, as they decided to cross our path and stand in the middle of the road, posing for a heavily laden passing cyclist who had his camera ready. After lunch we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and visited a small village with a shot-up church (or possibly just paint-flaked by the heat), and a realistic phallic cactus.

    The next morning, before we left the desert, we chose a relaxing trip to the thermal pools (fed by the volcanos). Next stop Arequipa. Finally, Peru!
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  • Day56

    Valparaiso

    October 5, 2017 in Chile ⋅ 🌙 13 °C

    We stayed at the Hotel Brighton, a yellow, clapperboard house, perched on the edge of one of the many hills upon which Valparaiso is built. Opinion varies - the poet Pablo Neruda said that there were no hills in Valparaiso, using the geographical definition of a hill as a separate entity. However, the general consensus is that there are at least 42. From our black and white tiled hotel terrace, there were views to the city, the sea, and to a small square, directly down from our bedroom window. When we stood in the square, at the beginning of our free walking tour, the hotel loomed garishly over the group, and we were simply able to point skyward when asked where we were staying. In fact, our walking route eventually took us past our accommodation, to take in the brilliant views from the promenade just beyond it.

    Valparaiso was once very grand, an important naval town because of its location, and has a number of fine buildings and monuments that indicate its former glory. However, the building of the Panama Canal put paid to all that - Valparaiso is no longer a stopping point for shipping, travelling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and has gone into a steady decline ever since. For example, in its heyday, there were thirty one lifts dotted around Valparaiso, to assist with pedestrian transport up its many hills, but now only fourteen remain, most of which are out of service. When we were there, only two were in use. Another, the one nearest to our hotel, was under renovation.

    The walking tour we joined was led by Dani, a very knowledgable local who has lived in Valparaiso all his life, even attending one of the many universities in the city. I don't think there is anything he doesn't know about his place of birth - politics, street art, culture, history, and more politics, and he didn't leave anything out. We started about 10.15, and he said to expect his tour to last about 5 hours! Luckily there was a stop for lunch, at a cafe that sold great empanadas (South American pasties).

    Valparaiso is particularly known for its colourful houses, street art and graffiti and it did seem that every available space was decorated. Dani said that there is a section of Valparaiso society who feel that this is a bad thing, and that some of the culture of the town is being lost as a result. He took us to a gated alleyway that had once been his favourite tour stop because of the variety and ever-changing nature of its artwork. It was now painted in magnolia - the owner had decided that, although he appreciated the street art, he wanted things doing "the right way" and was only going to allow specially invited artists to decorate his walls. It is true that even the most traditional of buildings has not been spared the vivid decorative treatment. There is graffiti on walls, floors, doors, steps - one staircase was painted as a piano keyboard, and another with a message, "We are not hippies, we are happies". Not quite as profound as the 'poesia' that I saw written on Cusco's walls three years earlier, but very flowery and cheerful, nonetheless. A rare place without graffiti, a telegraph pole, was yarn bombed in protest, and bunting was strung in the gaps between houses. I personally think the wiring in the town is more of an eyesore than some of the less accomplished graffiti and tags (all of it visible, twisted like some Gordian knot, and often hanging within touching distance), and also a serious fire hazard - there was in fact a massive fire in Valparaiso in 2014 that killed 15 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes.

    Transport was interesting in Valparaiso too. We saw a VW Beatle, still in working order being driven round the cobbled streets near our hotel, and obviously there was the remains of the lift system for higher ground. My personal favourite however, was the slide that connected one level of ground to another on Concepcion HilI. I may even have used it if it hadn't been for my dodgy back. Chris didn't hold back though, despite the queue of school children waiting for a turn. Most interesting though were the trolley buses, many of which were relics from the 1950s. As we left the town, we deliberately travelled on one of the oldest of these vehicles, and were rewarded with a tune from a busker on a mandolin who serenaded us from the back of the bus.

    Would I recommend staying at Hotel Brighton? Probably not. Our room was quite dark and dingy, down some stairs in the middle of the terrrace. The bathroom was fairly grotty, with a Bleasby style 'killer shower' (personal family joke), and the bed was very uncomfortable, with shot springs - extremely painful on a bad back. However, the restaurant was excellent - the food was delicious, and the views from the terrace (where we could have taken the very good breakfast, if we were hard enough) were exceptional.
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  • Day54

    Independent Chile: Santiago

    October 3, 2017 in Chile ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    We left the Wild Hostal early on the Sunday, to catch the bus back to Punta Arenas for our flight to Santiago. It was a beautiful afternoon as we approached the city - a silver pool of molten silver in the river delta, and blue waves of mountains under the wing as we came into land. The 'boutique' hotel was 1930s deco, with a black and white tiled hall leading to a wide, winding, concrete staircase. We were at the very top, in a large room with very very creaky floorboards, extra wide bed, and antique furniture. We could hear that next door had the same flooring. Breakfast was at chintzy tables overlooking the courtyard garden, and I had my daily fight with the avant garde fruit juicing machine to the sound of 30s and 40s dance band music. Following check-in, we walked across the bridge into an area recommended by the hotel and had dinner, high up on an outside terrace, looking out over a lively mall of restaurants bars and shops. It was Independence Day weekend, so whole families were out celebrating.

    After breakfast on the Monday, we walked through the Parque Forestal which connected our hotel in Providencia with downtown Santiago. The sun was shining, and even though it was early, it was pleasantly warm. Created on reclaimed land from the Mapocho River, the park consists of a central walkway, edged with lines of plane trees and small grassy areas dotted with sculptures, including the imposing German Fountain. With a large boat at its heart and surrounded by numerous Roman sea gods, the fountain symbolises the different aspects of Chile's Independence and was commissioned by the Germans in the run up to the centenary of the event. This led us, up a steep slope, to yet another park, on a hill, with a palace at its peak. After signing the visitor's book at the entrance gate, we strolled around the flowerbeds and took photos of the views, before heading towards the Plaza de Armas where we were hoping there may be a parade. We were not disappointed. People had already started to gather at the gated railings which had been closed under the colonnades, to prevent access along the near side of the square, and soldiers with white plumed helmets had begun to line up on the far side. We stood with a very diverse and extremely friendly group of people. In fact some may say that we were accosted. There was the man who (once he realised we were English) gave us a running commentary of the event, a large amount of which we didn't understand. This was after he had shown us his identity card to prove his own English heritage - his surname was Taylor. Another man told us in which direction the soldiers would march. He informed us that the open-topped limo (presently parked outside the cathedral and flanked by security) had been used to transport the Queen around Santiago when she went on her tour of South America in 1967. He must have been a mere child in the 60s, so we were aware of how significant this event must have been for the Chileans. However, on this occasion the car was waiting to transport the president, who was attending a service in the cathedral. Another man who had obviously prepared for the occasion with a few drinks, told us where we could find food - most shops were closed for the day. When we got stuck on one part of the conversation, he asked his partner to help because, he said, he spoke good English. He promptly replied (in English), "Oh I don't feel like speaking English today". Front view 'seats' at the railings were taken by the lady in a wheelchair wearing full arctic weather gear (remember it was warm), and her friend, who was slumped asleep at her feet. The open car, the sniper on the roof of the tower block, the high ranking military with gold lanyards and epaulettes, dripping with medals that they couldn't possibly have lived long enough to earn - I couldn't help thinking of President Kennedy and the grassy knoll, or The Day of the Jackal. I was very wary of using the telephoto on my camera in case the man on the roof mistook it for a gun, but I summoned the courage and I shot him.

    In the afternoon, we crossed the bridge to explore downtown Providencia, a grungy area over the bridge from our hotel, with dramatic, slightly militant street art and numerous cafes and restaurants. Santiago's funicular is in this area, and the foot of the hill is full of stalls crammed with essential items for the tourists to buy. The merchandise was very similar to the stuff on sale at Goose Fair - sugary drinks and greasy snacks and brightly coloured, fluffy, shiny things. You know it's a fiesta day in South America when there's a man with a llama (decked out in pom-poms and embroidered saddle cloths) walking through the market - selling photos. There were massive queues for the lift, so we walked up part way to get misty views of the bottoms of the mountains that surround Santiago. We returned for dinner to this area - a barbecue restaurant where we sat outside (in our coats) to eat charred chunks of meat on sticks, called anticucchos. Rather chewy, but very authentic.

    On Tuesday, we returned to the Plaza de Armas, which was now open for viewing - a lovely square with large, protected trees, a cathedral, and a grand, iced, wedgewood-blue building, and three felt hobby horses (without the rockers), mummy, daddy and baby sized, decorating the central space?! Chris had his hair cut by a hairdresser who seemed to specialise in wigs, which were hanging from every available space in the tiny salon. Fortunately Chris decided to opt for the razaradora, rather than the rug. We had lunch in a fish hall - rather cold, but good fish in sauce, with fried potatoes. In the afternoon, we caught the metro out to O'Higgins Park for the main Independence Day military parade, with floats and flags and feathers in abundance, and the president's head, just visible above the crowd, in that car again. We had had to work for this spectacle - at least an hour queueing, resisting the obligatory food and drink from the impromptu street vendors, and a dodgy scrum at the end when late arrivals tried to push in. We were entertained though, by a man carrying a can of beer, with rouged cheeks, false eyelashes, and wearing a plaited wig and a flowery dress, probably shouting 'Up the army!', but we weren't sure.

    Wednesday morning, before our bus trip to Valparaiso, we got up early to avoid the competition for the funicular, and were first on the car to the top to see the statue of Mary, the outdoor church, the three crosses, and the magnificent views over the city. Quick trip on the metro again with our luggage, and onwards, by bus, yet again.
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  • Day49

    Puerto Natales

    September 28, 2017 in Chile ⋅ ⛅ 3 °C

    Thursday 14th Sept, late afternoon...

    A taxi from the bus station at Puerto Natales took us to the Wild Hostal and a warm welcome from Yari, our Finnish host. Hijo (Son), the dog, was looking out for us on the back of the sofa in the window of the reception bar. Yari's Chilean partner was on the late shift. Our room for the first two nights was one of three, in a chalet in the garden, very influenced by the owner's Scandinavian roots - coat hooks made out of tree branches, wood floors, and all hand-made fixtures and fittings. A lovely view of the white blossom tree from the stepped verandah. Very cosy. After a trip to the bank, and then to the travel agents to book our onward flight (too tortuous to describe! - maybe later), we 'stayed in' and had home-made beef burgers made by Yari and his daughter (working there for the season), local (and free) beer, and alfajores (a biscuit filled with dulce de leche).

    On Yari's advice, we had booked trips for the next two days. The first, to see the massive Perito Moreno Glacier was the following day, and involved a very long journey. After a speedy breakfast at the hostal, we set off at 6.30am and didn't arrive until about 2pm in the afternoon. We had taken bread, cheese and fruit but were grateful for the hot chocolate & croissant and empanada stops. The glacier is at a place called Calafate and is part of the Parque Nacional de Los Glaciares which melt to create Lago 'Argentina'. So, unfortunately, this also meant that we had to endure another border crossing(s), because the huge Glacier is just into Argentina and you may remember that Puerto Natales is in Chile. Sigh. We actually had to wait for the border (a series of huts) to open at 8am. This is where our 'hairy' moment with the 'mascota mut' took place. Luckily, he obviously hadn't got a taste for apples and oranges stuffed into pockets.

    The Moreno is much visited because of how close you can get to it - the walkway and viewing points are suspended above it. It is a spectacular size and colour - its edges are like the White Cliffs of Dover, and it is true, ice-blue. Small sections had broken away, or calved, to form ice flows. The glacier moves, and we heard the great boom and groan as it came into contact with and was compressed against the capes. The weather was 'apocalyptic, torrential rain', and even though we were wearing over-capes, I have to admit that we virtually jogged the route over the walkways, frantically snapping pics and trying to use small dry bits of my clothing (there were none after the first five minutes) to wipe the lens. By the time we reached the cafe we were drenched, but others of the party were wet down to their underwear. It was only Chris' internet ponchos that saved us the same fate. We made the long trek home, drying scarves and socks on the bus heaters as we went.

    The next day, we went on a much more relaxing mini-bus tour, with a guide who took us into the Torres del Paine National Park, searching for wildlife, and stopping as and when we found anything :) Again, we paid foreigners' rates to get in. There was just one easy trek, to one of the two waterfalls that we visited. We stopped for a 'panorama' of a lake. We saw an American eagle. We were able to get close-ups of guanaco, and we saw a long distance puma - as the guide said, "probably better long-distance". At a lunch stop, where we ate our pre-prepared lunch in a picnic shelter at a chalet site, we also saw cara cara birds. Actually, I think they were after our bread and cheese. The best bit for me though, was a walk across a beautiful beach, situated at the foot of a swish hotel, with misty views of the 6km wide and 30m high Great Grey Glacier in the distance - it could just be seen as a pure white area connecting the two promontories of the bay. The beach itself was water-colour and charcoal, in tonal greys. Finally, a trip to a wide-mouthed cave (not a frog) in an area where dinosaurs had roamed free. There were even dinosaur sized guanaco and horses in them days, but the main character was a massive sloth/bear, which was re-created for visitors at the cave entrance.

    A reasonable return time meant a leisurely meal at the 'Wild' place, again with free beer, and a move to our new room (very large) in the main house, with shared washing facilities with the true hostellers in the dorms. We don't even share a bathroom with each other at home, but it was ok. We survived.
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