Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

26 April 2010

Easter Island!

I didn’t know how to start this next edition of our blog so I asked the Geezer. His response “two shit films later and we were in Easter Island”.

After six weeks of cold weather, we arrive on Isla de Pascua (Easter Island) with day packs full of winter clothes. It hadn’t registered with either of us that we were heading to a tropical island so we swelter in the heat at the airport wondering if we’ve lost the plot. This time around we haven’t booked any accommodation following the advice of various guide books which say that accommodation touts mob the plane when you arrive. Unable to spot a single tout we mooch off into the town with our thick winter jackets and hiking boots feeling stupid.

The island itself is quite small with the barest of facilities which surprises us. The landscape reminds me of New Zealand – black volcanic rocks, the greenest grass, the bluest sea and islanders that look Maori but speak Spanish. The town consists of one main street with a handful of mini markets and restaurants that charge exorbitant prices just to walk in the door. A couple of coffees set us back $10USD which in South American terms is daylight robbery. Slightly alarmed at the expense of the place we come across a moody hostel with even moodier owners – who later redeem themselves by bringing us a fruit shake and freshly baked banana bread because they feel sorry for us being ill from the dodgy tacos we’d eaten a few days back!

We wander down to the ocean and catch our first glimpse of a moai. We are pretty excited –especially the Geezer who has waited for this moment for years. We hang around to watch a fabulous sunset and call it a night.

The next day is Sunday and the entire island has shut down. Even the dogs have disappeared. We can’t find any information on tours and are scared to scratch ourselves in case it costs another $10. We come across several places that rent out jeeps and given that the island is so quiet we decide to give driving on the opposite side of the road a go.

It feels weird at first driving on the other side of the road but I soon get used to it and before long we are flying along towards our first stop – Anakena Beach. The beach is a beautiful backdrop for four moai that are lined up on a platform. The moai have hats on made of red volcanic rock carved out of a volcano on the island. We take loads of pictures and then drive past lots of ruins to Ahu Tongariki, a large open space that has 15 moai lined up on a platform. They are so handsome and stand proud. We spend quite a bit of time there marvelling at the moai before moving on to Rano Kao where the so called ‘unfinished moai’ are. Some of them are still set in the stone from which they are carved while others have fallen and are lying face down. But the ones that really blow us away are the famous moai that feature in most pictures of Easter Island.

We stop at a pasta place on the way back to the hostel where the owner picks fresh basil out of his garden to make our pasta and is playing the Rolling Stones which Geezer dribbles all over. We planned to only hire the jeep for a day but we’ve had such a great time whizzing around the island and there is still more to see so we hire it a second day.

Day two of our driving tour and we head to Puna Pau which is the volcano where the moai’s hats are carved from. There are many hats still lying about on the volcano. Then it’s on to Ahu Akivi where there are seven moai lined up on a platform. These are the only moai that face the water. Most of the other moai on the island have their backs to the water so that they can watch over the villages that used to be there. All that remains of the villages are ruins but the many of the moai still stand tall – some having been restored. It surprises us that so many of the moai are lying in ruins. The most famous ones have been restored but the island has clearly taken a battering after several earthquakes and tsunamis.

The roads around the island are atrocious. It’s pretty much impossible to go over 30kph because they are so terrible. The Geezer takes over the wheel but is relegated back to the passenger seat after getting a bit too excited and fish-tailing the jeep!

We spend the rest of the day driving back around to the moai taking more pictures, soaking in the atmosphere of the island, and trying not to move too much in case it makes us hungry.

By some miracle, despite bags of winter clothes, we have still packed our togs and we finish with a swim at Anakena Beach. The last swim we had was in Antarctica so, needless to say, the water is significantly warmer!

On the way back to the hostel we find a couple of tired looking French travellers standing on the side of the road and drive them back to town. We wander down to the water for another beautiful sunset with the moai at Ahu Tahai and sit in our hostel room eating hot chip butties.

Two shit films later and we are back in Santiago.

22 April 2010

15 April 2010: Volcaneers Grim and Lod-ge

Feeling a bit sad to leave Bariloche we make our way back in to Chile for some volcano action. The view crossing the Andes is amazing. We reach immigration where we are frogmarched off the bus to line up in alphabetical order to get our passports stamped. After all the Gonzales’ have lined up, a Mr Grim is called out. “Mr Grim???” “Mr Frederick Grim??”. We absolutely kill ourselves laughing and then try to hold it in because its best to behave here.

Then “Mrs Lod—geh?” “Mrs Lod-geh??” which sets us both off again. Their attemts at pronouncing Green and Lodge were almost there! 

First stop back in Chile is Puerto Varas which has a Mt Fuji look alike. It’s nice but we decide to move further north to Pucon where we’ve heard that the volcano is really smoking! And we aren’t disappointed.

Volcan Villarrica is Pucon’s backdrop and it huffs away, billowing smoke that lights up red from the reflection of its lava lake at night.

Our hostel offers us a guide to climb it the next day and we enthusiastically jump at the chance – well I’m enthusiastic until I see them fitting us with crampons and ice picks which makes me wonder what I’m getting myself in for.

Some stats about Volcan Villarrica: It is one of only four volcanos in the world to have an active lava lake in its crater. Height: 2847m. Last eruption: 1971. Active: in the last two weeks – Yes! Estimated hiking time from chairlift at 1400m: 4 hours. (More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villarrica_(volcano))

My fears about not being able to keep up with the group are quickly allayed when our guide, Inrique, assures us we will walk slowly but consistently. There is just Geezer, me and an Italian in our group. The Italian doesn’t speak English so Geez and I pretty much keep to ourselves. It is very steep and once we hit the snow Inrique fits the crampons to our shoes to make it easier to walk on the ice. The hostel has hired me hiking boots which are like weights on my feet. With the crampons, they weigh a ton. The guide tells us to hold the ice pick ‘like this.. not like the way you see in the movies’. But he says they are more to steady us than anything else... mmm OK I think.

The smoke at the top seems to get closer and closer and around lunchtime we hit the top. I don’t know what to expect. An American at the hostel had said that we might see lava and that we would never forget peering in the top of a volcano.

What I don’t expect is the smoke to be so strong. Just as we reach the top it seems to blow straight into us and everyone throws their heads underneath their jackets to get some protection. It is pretty overwhelming and our guide ushers us over the side of the cone.

I’m amazed at how small the opening is – I’m guessing 20m across. The radius of the top is much larger – perhaps 200m across. As we walk around the cone, our guide finds a suitable viewpoint where we see red hot lava bubbling away. We are gobsmacked. Occasionally the lava comes a bit higher allowing us to get some great photos. The smoke again heads our way so we move to the other side where we have a great view of the lava. Inrique tells us that he hasn’t seen lava for two years and in the last two weeks it has suddenly sprung to life.

The Geezer and I are in awe. We could spend the entire day here but our guide hurries us along and we have a few minutes to soak in the view of two other Chilean volcanos and the Andes mountains. It really is something.

We hurry back over the lip of the volcano and strap on a thick black sheet to our backsides. We make our way over to a series of ditches carved out in the ice. And we slide all the way down to the chairlift on our bums like a team of bobsledders. I seem to create a giant snowball in front of me which slows me down. Geezer yells at me to sit on a blue paddle that we have also carried up top with us. ‘Lean back’ he yells. ‘You’ll go faster!’.

I lean back - probably too far - and suddenly take off, hurtling down the mountain, swiping a rock that catches my elbow and nervous that I’m heading straight for my group who are waiting for me. Geezer breaks my fall and I collect him on the way through. We finish up looking like a giant snowball with arms and legs protruding. It is great fun but Geezer’s camera doesn’t fare so well.

It’s not until we reach the bottom that we realise how good our guide was. Some of the other groups hadn’t been told about the tobogganing and he had let us take extra time for photos. Some of the other guides seemed more aggressive.

We finish up back in Pucon devouring tacos (which we will later regret) and hop on a bus to Santiago bound for Easter Island!

The Lakes District of Argentina - Bariloche

When you’re in a travel routine, it's surprising how far and fast you can move. But it gets tiring. Up early to sightsee. Night bus to the next stop. Sleep. Sight see. Back on the bus.  

Maybe you're thinking, 'yeah right... stop moaning... half your luck’. As fabulous as travelling is, it makes you weary.

What will each stop will bring? Will it be one of those places where you hang your boots up for a few days? 

For me, Bariloche is one of those places. 

We had arrived late at night with no reservation and begged Hostel 1004 for a bed. It's a penthouse with a killer view and a good reputation. Thankfully two travellers had checked out late.

 I've literally arrived in Bariloche when I have to rush back to Buenos Aires to sort out my passport and get a camera fixed. So I arrive back at the hostel knackered. Geezer is pretty much sitting where I left him days earlier.

Bariloche has one of the top ten views in the world (as voted by National Geographic) and is also one of the top ten places to fish in the world. So we feel pretty good about kicking back here – so good in fact that I get a sudden urge to cook (happens rarely). I research Argentinean recipes and make a kick arse meal of steak with the most delicious salsa that accompanies everything here.

In my absence Geezer has made friends. American Ned, a fishing expert, tells Geezer he will take him fly fishing. A pool of dribble forms underneath Geezers chin at the thought of a boys fishing trip. He's been talking about fishing since we reached Patagonia. 

So the next day, Geezer heads off with Ned and I’m contemplating a day of leisure when an English girl pops her head in the kitchen to ask whether I’d be interested in a girls shopping trip to El Bolson – a tiny hippy town. It’s market day there. Bring it on sister! 

I have five minutes to throw on jeans and bolt to the bus where I bump in to two English girls we’d shared a room with in El Chalten.

We arrive back later that night for wine tasting at the hostel (never a good idea combining backpackers with cheap wine). I discover La 10 Empanadas across the road (it’s like finding the midnight kebab mecca) and we gorge ourselves on arguably the best empanadas in Argy Bargy (empanadas are like mini pastries stuffed with just about anything – cheese, tomato, spinach, meat).

I stagger to bed at some ungodly hour while realising that I’ve promised to go on a 25km bike ride in the morning around the Circuito Chico trail of Bariloche.

I wake up with a cheap red wine hangover and stumble to the bus. But it’s not till I’m on the bus that I realise everyone is looking chipper and has bike pants on. I stare down at my entirely inappropriate attire and wish I’d eaten something. A few kms in, my bike chokes and everyone has bolted for the hills except Geezer who is waiting patiently for me. My pants keep catching in the pedals, the seat is no bigger than a pear and harder than rock, the gears keep slipping and I’m so hungry I could eat the handlebars.

So I hurl my bike off into the distance (well not really but it’s what’s going through my mind), declare I’m going home and fold my arms with a ‘hmph’. Geezer (still waiting patiently) swops our bikes over and we finally get going. I later hear him muttering choice words to the crappy bike that he has so gallantly taken over. Thanks Geez!

 All I can say is thank God the views are amazing because riding (or getting off and pushing) 25km up and down mountains with a hangover, an empty stomach and a sore backside is hard work. The view we see at the top is pretty special. We can see most of the seven lakes surrounding Bariloche and castle-like houses in the distance. It reminds me of Austria or some place Swiss.

Back in town I launch head first in to the biggest bowl of pasta while Geezer opts for beer on the balcony. I inhale my pasta, pay the bill and wonder if I’ve said something stupid in Spanish to the waitress who goes off chortling to herself. It’s not until I look in the mirror that I realise I have helmet hair, mascara smeared down to my chin and a big chunk of spaghetti stuck to my face. Noice.

Having every intention to leave the next day we decide to stay the next night as well – because – well it is just so damn nice here and we want to see the chairlift that takes you to this top ten view... which by the way is pretty stunning – but top ten?? You decide!

We stay up late that night chatting to the staff at the hostel – one of whom takes a shine to Geezer and tells him that she wants him to stay but that perhaps I can keep travelling. 

Cue **nervous laugh** from Geezer.

We have been here six fabulous days... and the staff call us into the lounge to present Geezer and I with a bottle of red to thank us for staying. We are flawed. It’s not often that you come across a place that makes you feel like you’re at home.

9 April 2010

Patagonia: El Chalten and Route 40

We allow ourselves a few days to recover from the pain of Torres del Paine and head further north back in to Argentina to El Chalten – another popular hiking spot. El Chalten is nestled in a valley and is surrounded by jagged, rocky peaks, one of which is Mt Fitz Roy. We get in late to Chalten and the hostel tells us that they only have a ten bed dorm available (we’ve become dorm snobs and generally a ten bed dorm means no sleep tonight with the comings and goings of eight others).

We are both on the top bunk and the beds are barely wide enough for a child. My bunk has no walls next to it so I feel as though I’m suspended precariously in the middle of the room afraid to turn over in case I crash to the floor.

We are up early the next day to do the nine hour hike to Mt Fitz Roy. The walk is moderately difficult except for the last hour which is vertical. I keep thinking thank god the view will be good. And it is. Sensational in fact. There is barely a cloud in the sky and we walk crunch, crunch, crunch over fresh snow. It is beautiful.

I don’t think we have recovered from the four day hike in Torres del Paine because we struggle back down the mountain.

The next day we hike up to Laguna Torre to see the Cerro Torres peaks but when we get to the lookout it is cloudy and I’m knackered and still recovering from a cold so I head back leaving Geezer to finish the hike. I decide to head back a different way and am overwhelmed by the view coming back down the hill towards Chalten. Maybe walking on your own makes you notice the scenery more but I sit for about half an hour staring at the view. There is no noise except a soft wind. There is no pollution so I can see for miles and miles. The water is so pure that you can drink straight from the stream and it is icy cold and delicious. And the air smells earthy and yum. What a life!

I fall asleep back at the hostel, enjoying a people-free dorm, and wake at 7pm just as the sun is setting. Have a quick look around the hostel... no Geezer. Am not overly concerned until I bump into some dorm mates who have come back from the same walk and left slightly earlier than us. They hadn’t passed him.

At 8pm it is now dark and I’m worrying because Geezer has no jacket, no food and no torch and I’m feeling horrendously guilty for having left him. By 9pm it is pitch black outside and I’m frantic asking people in the hostel if they have spotted him. Nope no one has and even the receptionist starts to look concerned. At 9.15pm I put my jacket on and start off down the street not having a clue where I’m going but feeling useless pacing the floor of the hostel.
And then I spot him. Stumbling towards me in the dark, sweating, sore, exhausted and a bit distressed. He had taken a wrong turn and had run most of the way back in the dark. We are both relieved! I knock back a shot of whisky and Geezer curls up in bed.

We are up with the sparrows the next morning to catch a bus out of El Chalten to Bariloche via Ruta 40 (Route 40) – a famous ‘adventurous’ road.

The journey takes two days with an overnight stopover in Perito Moreno. Day one is a 14 hour bus ride and it is horrendous... actually it is horrific. The bus has no air conditioning and the windscreen is so cracked it looks like it is about to fall out. The road is a dirt road so it is bumpy as hell. The bus has no toilet so people line up on the side of the road when they need to go. (I gracefully hold it in until the bus eventually stops and then run to the toilet screaming.) To make matters worse, when we finally do reach a bathroom, I’m followed in by a weird Israeli guy who stares at me while I’m waiting for the loo. I give him my most menacing look but even that doesn’t deter him.

We arrive in Perito Moreno, a tiny country town, late in the night and stay at a hotel that can only be described as an absolute sh*thole (literally - I will say no more). We are put into a dorm with two other blokes (one who has a bowel problem all night and the toilet is right next to my bed - and the other has a zip fetish and zips and unzips his bag ALL night). I crawl into the top bunk which lurches over towards the wall and I feel like I’m going to pour out of it onto the guy below. THEN I discover that there are bed bugs in the bed!!! The whole dorm scratches like mad (except Geezer who is snoring within minutes) which is kind of funny but not really. So I lie awake listening to the music created by four people scratching, snoring, zipping and flushing sometimes in unison. Then up at 7.45am for another horrendous 14 hour bus ride on another dirt road in a slightly better bus with broken seats. At least it has a toilet – although I’m so dehydrated from the day before so as not to need the bathroom that it’s of no use.

They say that Ruta 40 is for the adventurous. Personally I think it’s for the plain stupid. The scenery is desert and scrub and the whole journey turns out to be another budget breaker.

But in the last hour of the trip we enter into the lakes district and the scenery is again stunning. And the sun is setting so we are rewarded with another bright pink sunset. We arrive in to Bariloche with no accommodation booked and head towards a hostel (Hostel 1004) that’s been recommended. It is on the 10th floor of an apartment building with a great big balcony overlooking the most spectacular lake and Andes mountains. They have great music playing and a huge kitchen where you can cook your own meals. They even have spices and oil to cook with... AND it’s $10 a night. We can’t believe it.

See??? It IS the simple things!!

"Always look on the bright side of life..." (**whistles**)

Patagonia and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Following our Antarctic adventure, Geezer and I head north to Puerto Natales, Chile via Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas turns out to be a bit of a disaster because our main reason for going there – a chairlift up to Isla Magdalena – has just closed for the winter. The other reason is to visit a naval museum to learn more about the Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and it is ordinary.

So we book a bus out of Punta Arenas and wait at the bus station. On the bus the day before, Geezer had spotted the time and noted it was an hour behind. We figured since we had crossed the border from Argy Bargy, there must have been a time change. Our bus to Puerto Natales leaves at 2pm. We stare at a clock for perhaps half an hour before realising it says 2:55pm, ask the woman at the desk showing her our watch and she tells us (looking at us like we are complete morons) yes we have missed the bus – turns to her co-worker and keels over laughing – not even trying to disguise that she is laughing at us. So we wait till 6pm for the next one.

Eventually we arrive in Puerto Natales, keen to start our five day hike through the ‘best national park in South America’ – Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We spend the day hiring camping gear and buying food for five days –all of which we have to carry with us (no sherpas here).

We are up with the sparrows the next day (and witness one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen) and catch the bus to Torres del Paine slightly anxious about the weight of our packs. But we figure it is a nice trek so we’ll be fine.

We arrive several hours later, get given a map with the trails and are left standing on the side of the road wondering what to do next. So we start walking, hit the first hill of the ‘W’ circuit and take our first rest. We are both sweating profusely and saying some choice words. What the hell have we got ourselves in to? Geezer has packed a chess set, hair gel, speakers and a litre of wine. I’ve packed more chocolate than I want to admit, all sorts of electrical equipment and ten changes of clothes too many. And we feel slightly silly. Our packs weigh more than they usually do.

We laugh about it and keep going – for about ten more minutes and then stop to have a cup of tea. The two hour walk takes us about eight. We arrive at the very top late in the day - just about dead – cook a moody pasta and collapse into our minus five degree sleeping bags, thinking that at least we’ll be warm. We wake about two hours later frozen solid. The temperature must be 0 degrees and the sleeping bags are nowhere near warm enough. We huddle together with teeth chattering till it’s time to get up for a pre-dawn hike to the see the stunning Chilean version of the Three Sisters.

The walk is just about vertical and everyone steams past us while we puff and pant our way to the top – and pretty much miss the sunrise. Geezer gets a second wind and climbs even higher to get a better view while I stay put and admire the view.

So it’s day two of the hike and now that we know what we are in for, we pfaff around until lunchtime, putting off the inevitable and walk 16km to the second camp past glaciers, mountains and some stunning scenery.

The next camp has a refuge with a chef and we are so exhausted that when we hear turkey and mashed potatoes are on the menu we fork out an exorbitant amount of money instead of cooking more moody pasta. Geezer is so tired that he props his head up with his knife and fork to stop himself from falling face first into his mashed potato. I hate turkey but I am so hungry and in need of hot food that I eat it anyway.

We skulk back to our tent in the bitter cold, cursing the people that are staying in the warm refuge. We hop into our sleeping bags and within minutes hear rustling in the tent. Geezer is sent outside to inspect. Poking around in our backpacks is a rat (Geezer initially tells me it’s a mouse because I am bordering on hysterical). He hisses at it and it disappears – for about five minutes. We bring the food inside the tent but all night there is activity outside the tent and neither of us sleeps.

The next morning we pack up and Geezer finds the cask of wine empty with a hole nibbled in the side. The bastard rat has drunk the wine! Having lugged the wine for the past two days, Geezer is absolutely disgusted. We then notice that there is a hole in the side of the tent near where the food bag was. Days later we hear horror stories of people waking in the night to find rats crawling over their sleeping bags.

Day three and we set off again late. We are tired, cold, dirty, damp and feeling every muscle. We walk another 6km and arrive at camp three (Camp Italiano) at 3pm. We set up the tent, cook a late lunch and set off for the 15km hike ahead leaving our packs behind. While the sun sets quite late, we take torches thinking that it will be touch and go as to whether we make it back before dark.

The hike takes us much longer because half way up we witness a massive avalanche on the mountain next to us and stand there captivated for probably far too long. We eventually get to the lookout at the top and the view is breathtaking. There is a pink sky and we can see all the way down the valley from where we have hiked and are surrounded by giant rocky mountains and a glacier. It is just before sunset so unfortunately we can’t stay.

By this stage it’s 730pm, the sun is setting fast and we have a 7.5km walk back to the camp. We practically run through a forest trying to beat the dark. But the sun sets and pretty soon we find ourselves walking in the dark. On the way up we had crossed rivers and scrambled over massive boulders marked by pink ribbons. The trail is fairly well marked but in the dark it’s a different story and a couple of times we lose our way. We are both nervous and comfort ourselves every time we find a marker yelling out in wobbly voices... found one! Pink ribbon over here!

When we know we have found our way back, we sit down in the dark and drink the rest of our hot tea. It’s only then we look up and see the mountains and glacier lit up by an almost full moon and the stars are out. The view from there is fabulous.

We arrive at the camp, spending what feels like ages looking for our tent and huddle in for another freezing night.

So far the weather has been terrific which is unusual in this park but today we wake up to rain. We are in agony from carrying our packs and the two hour ‘easy’ walk takes forever. We arrive at the bottom of the ‘W’ where the homeward bound ferry leaves from. We have one more afternoon hike but the weather is closing in and there is little chance of seeing the glacier at the top so we decide to jump on the ferry home – absolutely stuffed.

Was it worth the pain? Well I think so. And we lived to tell the tale.