I left UK on May 19th for 10 months of freedom and exploration with a Round the World ticket. Will I find New Zealand as perfect as it was fifteen years ago? How has Australia changed? Will I learn any Spanish in S America?

Monday, October 31, 2005

Camino de Canon Del Azul, Argentina, PHOTOS

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hippy Days in El Bolson

El Bolson
There are places like El Bolson all over the world - it declared itself a nuclear free town in the 80s and has a very lively craft fair three times a week, there are people living here from all over the world escapees from modern city life who have come here for the fantastic scenery clean air and to set up businesses making artesanal beer or ice cream or building log cabins - I feel very at home here and have already exceeded my original alloted days though I came earlier too as I decided I really didn't like Bariloche at all - it feels artifical and cold compared to the warmth and reality of El Bolson. I had an offer of a ride in a car to see the 7 lakes but I thought I just want to get right out of here and caught the first bus I could on thursday morning.
Right at the heart of El Bolson ( which in Castellano means "the bag" ) is Jauja - pronounced Howha - which is an ice cream shop beyond parralel. It sells about 30 flavours all glistening in thier stainless steel containers looking richly tempting - maquis , fruits of the forest, blackcurrant, hazelnut, mate cocida , passionfruit, andean chocolate- and every single one tasting fantastic.
ON both sides of the town the ANdes rise up abruptly with snow capped peaks which even though it is Spring here now will last throughout summer as will the glaciers hidden behind the peaks. A few miles out of Bolson is Lago Puelo from where you can cross into Chile.
I am staying at El Pueblito which is a logcabin beside a roaring green river. Three dogs and a cat , all rather rotund, live there too. Local people seem to drop in frequently and on the first night I was invited to share pizza with about 8 people who had dropped round to watch a video on Quantum Physics (What the Bleep - all the rage in NZ too when I got there) which I watched too as was in English. From Quantum physics comes the concept that we all create our own destinies and affect our own health with our thought patterns etc and that we create our own realities and that often we choose not to see what we cannot explain ( but they didnt go as far as showing us little aliens running round) . ANyway all a bit radical for the Catholic church as it totally obviates a need to worship an exterior god who holds fate in the balance. Nothing new there then - but it reminded me that this philosophy is obviously the basis for films such as The Matrix and Run Lola Run and the theory that we fall into these emotional patterns which we get addicted to is very credible and reminded me that I have a few I need to break! Discussed more at length with a Brazilian Doctor who was staying at the hostel , in front of roaring log fire with more excellent red wine. the Doctor and his friend and myself and Carolina from Barcelona were the only people staying in the hostel which was such a relief from Bariloche.
Big cat came looking for food and affection and the dogs nuzzled round our legs. Slept in home made wooden bunks in the wooden dorm with sound of the river Quemquem running just beyond the windows.

It was just me and Carolina in the dormitory; this is low season but I can see that El Bolson must be heaving in the summer months - December January February - there are so many cabins, lodges, hotels etc and restuarnats that are not open now - I am very glad I will be missing that. Our Hostel can accomodate 40 people and is already booked out for the summer by school groups.

Carolina is a silversmith and has lived adn worked in Mexico in the areas I want to go ( Chiapas and Oaxaca) to for a year and a half but is now having a bit of a holiday in Argentina. She buys silver whereever she goes and of course it is much much cheaper to buy here in S AMerica than in Spain so makes sense to live and work here. I think I am going to buy some of her rings as they are really beautiful. I looked for some in the Bolson craft market which was on when i arrived on thursday but saw nothing I liked. Some really different stuff here though. I did buy a book by a photographer who came here in the 70s and who started a movement to protect the forests of the area which at one point were totally sold off for clear fell logging including ancient 400 yr old coihue trees. Thankfully the pressure group worked and the government withdrew the logging contract.
I also bought a large bag of morel mushrooms ( hongas in spanish) which I turned into a sauce last night for pasta with a bit of blue cheese and some leeks ( porros ) - absolutely delicious and good to have a bit of a break from steak! Carolina is vegetarian so this helps in avoiding buying red meat when in the supermarket.

Lago Puelo
With Carolina caught the bus out to the Lake for a bit of a walk. I was getting excited by all hte differnt birds there are here - the loudest and most obvious are the Teros , who have beautiful marking os of green white and red but who squawk raucously all the time , are always in pairs and bob their heads up and down for no apparent reason- unless as this is the breeding season they only do this at this time of year. We came across a pair with the female sitting on her eggs on the groundt but the silly thing had made her nest right by the main path with no cover whatsoever so there was feroucious squawking on part of male to distract us.
In town I have seen a lot of Bandurrias - they are huge with curved beaks and birght red legs and hang out in big groups. There are also smaller birds who perch on wires and have bright red breasts ( pechos) and some bireds with wonderful song but whom I cant see.
The air smelt like sweet honey which I can only think is the pine trees as couldn't see another blossom though there are fruit trees in blossom elsewhere and bees buzzing in Maytrees.
More later!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Puerto Pañuelo to Puerto Blest

Did the tour thing - well sort of - I caught the tour boat from one port to land at Puerto Blest and then walked through Valdivian rainforest - there are hot rainforests and cold rainforests and of course this is the latter. Lots of caña coihue - kind of bamboo - and huge coihue trees one over 500 years old. Was lovely and quiet as the whole boat except me went off on a coach trip to see another lake - they were two huge groups travelling together and thank goodness becasue there were about 200 of them and a walk with them in the woods would have been a nightmare! There are lots and lots of birds, woodcreepers and a type of parrot ,hummingbirds and of course I didn't see but wild cats and patagonian owl and deer.
Boat trip was stunning we sailed up an arm of the lake with huge snow clad mountians on either side. Passing a small island , Sentenial Island, we slowed down and the ships horn was sounded 3 times in honour of the founder of the National Park - the first in Argentina - and the tour guide explained that he died alone forgotten and penniless so they make up for it now. It was really very nearly a bit of a teary moment.
I was contemplating a water fall quietly on my own when suddenly another person came round the corner , and another and another until the entire flood of 200 persons started to arrive at the platform so I legged it down to the waiting boat. How could anyone possibly appreciate the scenery amongst 199 other human beings all crowding adn pressing to get the best picture? Beyond me. But they probably thought I was a bit mad being on my own.

Bariloche, Lake District

Bariloche is a town complete with traffic lights one way systems and modern looking stone houses with wooden shingle roofs, very smart and prosperous looking not a million miles away from somewhere in the Lake District like Ambleside - the comparisons are obvious because it sits on the side of the great Lago Nahuel Huapi but it is more often referred to as Argentina's Switzwerland .
Shops sell hiking equipment and tours and there are huge chocolate emporiums - about 4 major labels here with shops the size of department stores. There are also dangerously for me, artesanal ice cream shops - selling heavenly confections of chestnut , passionfruit and mora(bit like blackberry).
It is also freezing freezing cold and full of pine trees. The sultry heat of Mendoza has been replaced with an icy blast that takes me straight back to the UK in October. It doesn't really make me want to stay very long and I half contemplate a quick zip up to the north east to the semi tropical regions near Iguazu.
However the thought of another 22 hour or worse bus ride is enough to have me running up the mountain - well half a mountain. I got a lift from the hostel to their alternative hostel retreat accessible by 4x4 and from there scrambled up to the top of Cerro Otto ( 1405m) where there is a cable car and a revolving restuarant which blasts out for no good reason 80's pop eg" Emotional Rescue" over the mountain tops. Cursing the music under my breath as it was interfering badly with my communion with nature, I set off on one of the trails along the mountain ridge till I was out of earshot - fantastic view of the islands in the lake which are wooded with old beech and coihue trees. It was very windy and snowed heavily for a while and I sheltered under a fallen tree but when the sun reappeared ate a banana and breathed deeply.
Instead of walking down which I didnt really fancy becuse from the way up I knew it would be more like skiing I took the cable car which lurched upwards alarmingly at first and swayed violently from side to side in the wind .....I was just a little bit scared!

Hostel 1004
is called this because it is apartment number 1004 on top of a 10 floor apartmnet building right bang in the centre of Bariloche. Not exactly a Bustillo classic ( famous Argentinian architect who designed the even more famous Llao Llao hotel about 15 k away) but it has a wonderful view of the lake and islands from floor to ceiling sliding glass windows which span length of living area. It's run by a group of 6 very enterprising young Argentians half of whom stay in the town hostel and the others run the mountain retreat - they seem to have got things worked out very well and everything is very well organised and relaxed and they are on hand all the time to answer questions etc. Play nice music, lots of areas to sit in and smell of incence. Good big tables to encourage communal dining experience.
Completely by co incidence Lalin and Victoria were staying in same building but on 7th floor in their own apartment and I went and had dinner with them that night. Lalin is Spanish, from near Galicia and Victoria from Lanacshire, where they met but they lived for a year in Dublin very nice couple but of course won't be able to show a photo of them now.

A Captain Haddock moment

Somehow during the 22 hour bus trip from Mendoza to Bariloche someone got into my small backpack which was under my feet most of the time and stole my digital camera. Wouldn't have been all that bad in the great scheme of things but in the little side pocket were 3 full compact flash cards containing in the region of 600 photos not to mention the photos which were not downloaded on the card in the camera. !!!Billions of Blue blistering barnacles!!!
However I am in good company. In the supermarket in Bariloche pondering which pasta to buy I bumped into Lalin and Victoria ( Cafayete , EL Balcon) once more and about their second sentence was how on the bus from Mendoza to St Martin de Andes their camera had gone missing from their bag which was between Lalins' legs the whole way. Blimey! And another French couple had had their digital camera stolen on a bus.........................etc etc.Well , just pictures I suppose and at least I have the other film camera , second hand Canon I bought in Trujillo.
I suppose it may have been because I was almost having one of those self congratultory it didnt happen to me moments thinking how Argentina was the least likely place for me to get fleeced- oh so wrong!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Cuyabeno jungle , Amazon Basin Ecuador PHOTOS!

Mendoza, Argentina

Everyone raves about Mendoza but I havent found anything to really get excited about. Seb and Jez and I went to see a tango performance ( solo guitar player) which started at midnight last night - which is normal. The performer was brilliant but I have found things like the squares and streets and the park not nearly as beautiful as everyone makes out. Perhaps beacuse they are mostly new as earthquakes have destroyed the old centre.
Best thing has been hanging out with Seb and Jez and just talking on the patio of the hostel, about their travel experiences and some of the eccentrics they have met. I might have to repeat some of these as there has been a distinct lack of eccentrics on my journey- always good for a story.
I did a wine tour- in a mini van - whizzed round one big bodega - Norton - a smaller family one - Cabrini - and then a botique bodega - ie they grow the grapes ( autor wines) but borrow production equipment- Efrain Varquez.
Some of the things I learned which in my complete ignorance I never knew:
  • How to taste wine with all 5 senses
  • The first taste of any wine will always be bad - all the negative qualities are apparent - you need to taste 3 times to appreciate the complexity
  • The price of a bottle indicates the quality ie how long it will keep
  • Wine aged in a new oak barrell will last from 5-10 years and is considered better ie imparts more tannin flavour to the wine sec ond time around the barrell has less potency etc.
  • Oak for barrels is imported from France , US and Russia. No Argentinan oak is considered too rough.
  • You don' t pull out the cork too fast so it pops - because this" stresses" the wine- sorry but I find that hard to believe.

Apparently very few sprays are used in this region - they have the heat but not the humidty which leads to many vine diseases. Worst problems are mice and ants eating away at the soft roots and hail in the wet season - they put nets over the best fruit. The chopped up stalks from the seperation process are recycled as fertiliser on the vines . Vines live about 100 years before are rooted out - really ?

I ve tried - all these in region of $8-15 Arg:

Finca La Escondida- 2002 Malbec -serie reservada - nice - but cork didnt come out very easily-

Santa Julia Syrah 2004 - horrible

Norton Cab sav 2003 aged 12 months in barrel then 6 months in bottle - ok but I suspect their most expensive bottle at $150 argentian would be better

Alta vista premium malbec Lujan de Cuyo - very nice

Efrain Varquez Syrah 2003 - very nice thank you.

Diego Maradona wine - I am dying to try! But really only for the novelty factor.

There are hundreds of vineyards in the area so it would be impossible to see them all. I have yet to try Lopez wine which was reccomended to me by Lucas the radio producer from BA- so will look out for it.

Aloe vera health drink seller in Lima

Shoe Lace man in Arequipa

Sorry - continuing to have problems with photos on this site - this pic was successfully imported and has mysteriously disappeared despite downloading a special programme to make it more foolproof- very frustrating!

Friday, October 21, 2005

Trees on walk near Lago Puelo

El Bolson and Lago Puelo

Gaiman, Welsh Village in Chubut Valley Argentina PHOTOS

Welsh chair, harmonium pedals, chapel , settlers houses , old station now a museum) Robot slide in children's playground

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Bus Trip - Cafayate - Tucaman - Mendoza

The end of an era arrived. Five long termers decided independantly to call an end to the Cafayete caballa and found ourselves booked on the same bus at 6am to Tucaman one morning- Ingrid, Gabriella and John myself and Stoke Newington John.
We drove out again on the road past Quilmes the bus stopping to pick up people on the way. In that 6 hour journey the following people sat next to me:
  • a man who was ill and couldn't walk well at all
  • a schoolgirl who giggled continuously
  • an elderly lady
  • a teacher called Fanny
  • a mother and small boy on her lap who just as I was falling asleep decided he wanted me to play with him and started a game of kicking me ( but he was really very sweet and I didnt mind at all)

When Fanny got on we were climbing up the Infiernillo Pass to 3040m above sea level to the school where she teaches - its a really arid bare landscape again - just bare rocks and mountains and a few cactus. Foxes live ( zorros) here and there are some small yellowish plants which she said were good for estomacho problems. People don't make much money here - they herd goats and keep donkeys and not much else. Some of the children walk to school from their homes 6 or 7 kms away and it often snows.

Over the pass the landscape changed completely - we started to zig zag down through a valley which could almost have been in Britain - there were trees and purple flowers ,buttercups and grass and ferns and it set off a real pang in me for the lushness of Wales and Herefordshire! There were rivers with big moss covered boulders but the houses - adobe give it a away together with the epiphytes on the trees and the pink flowered bromeliads.

We arrived in Tucaman , which is down on a plain and as we got off the bus the heat hit us. Just walking left you sweltering. Here we said goodbye to John and Gabriella who were staying in tucaman. JOhn and I bought tickets for Mendoza and Ingrid for Buenos Aires had to wait till 5.30pm for our bus which would get us into Mendoza at 8am.

On the bus( big double decker semi cama - which means the seat reclines a bit- as well were Sebastian and Jezebel,who I remembered from El Balcon - French couple who had left Cafayate a couple of days earlier and confirmed that it was pretty impossible to do anything in Tucaman because of the heat. I found a wonderful ice cream place but otherwise was pleased to be getting out of T.

Apart from a drugs search at 10pm ( armed police and sniffer dogs) our journey was uneventful and I managed to sleep quite a bit though there was a sudden lurch at one point which Seb and Jez confirmed was a narrow miss of a pram crossing the road in the dark.

Cafayate - Boca v River

Sunday 16th October
The big final of the Agentinian league - the famous Boca Juniors versus arch rivals River ( Plate). I 'm not normally a big football fan but as it is supposedly such a big thing here ( there is even a wine produced in Mendoza called Diego Maradona) though to be honest I wouldn't have known really as there are not exactly kids playing football on every block. I'd say music was bigger.
But anyway in the hostel we were all moderately interested in watching the game and I think we all expected to see it on the dining room/kitchen TV but it was also Dia de Madre - Mothers day - so the family ( Ma, Pa and 6 children and grandchildren ) had had a huge meal together on the big table and were still there ( although Mother got no reprieve from washing up!). So Marco decided to take us to the local boozer in the family pick up ( Melissa, David and Curtis from US, Ingrid from France, George from US/Argentina , Gabriella and John and me from UK. Inside the bar was full to brim of very drunk men who on the whole seemed perfectly happy that we gatecrashed and took over two tables - I think Marcos is able to pull strings in there - and the bottles of beer starting arriving and disappearing equally quickly - Quilmes - (after the nearby archaelological site) - which is slightly better than Salta ( after Salta naturally) brand beer. We were gaily shouting Boca and turning round to wink and whoop at the Argentinians when River looked in danger of ceding a goal when Marcos told us that everyone supports River and we quicky swapped alliances but really no one seemed at all bothered by it and there really wasn't the same kind of audience involvement in the game as in the UK - in fact we had the usual fare of 80's pop anthems blaring out all the way through which would never happen at home.
The match was a bit disappointing as it was more of a fist and boot fight and I wondered if yellow cards simply don't exist in Argentina as everyone seemed to be allowed to do what they liked. The score was 0-0 at the end and afterwards Ingrid and Gabriella celebrated by dancing salsa with locals.

Cafayate - Quilmes

As soon as I arrived in Cafayate I asked the only agency in town ( owned and run by El Balcon Bros inc) about going to Quilmes - Las Ruinas- about an hour away by car but for some reason they just weren't keen on going out there and quoted me an exorbitant price to put me off. But after a few days and with more and more people succumbing to the Cafayete velcro effect there were enough us interested to pile into a taxi. I was actually going off the city limits! Every day people went off on active excursions exploring the canyon, walking and climbing trips or bike rides and came back exhausted and having earned their bife de chorizo whilst I hadn't done more than wander down to the wine museum or to put in some real hours at the internet. But to be honest I did still feel slightly heady so it was probably just as well.

Ironically after 4 days of perfect weather the ominous looking purple storm clouds of the previous day which were gathering over the mountains failed to dissipate and having smelt like rain it did just that just as we were leaving in the taxi - a real downpour too which is highly unusual for this time of year - the rainy season doesn't get going until December. Being a party of Brits ( Felicity and Andrew, two doctors from Glasgow who had just spent a month doctoring in the Chaco of Argentina eating slabs of beef and being horrified at the amount of drugs merrily dispensed for slightest of ailments and John, Stoke Newington London ie just down road from me -whose name I kept forgetting - David Andrew John??) and one Jess from the US, we were not going to be to daunted by a bit of a soaking and squeezed in for the hour's drive. An empty road cutting through rolling land of and and small rocks vegetated by light green sagebrush dark and twisted stunted trees with the occasoinal giant cactus leading up to the mountains- wonderfully beautiful and quite unlike any other landscape so far in S America - then it changed again as we descended almost unnoticably to the floodplain and the vegetation was now a low yellow kind of pampas grass which is what I wanted to call it but not sure if that is what it is - anyway it was more abundant and taller than the sparse Peruvian puna ichu grass. The mountains were further away from us too but also higher as we could see sprinkling of snow on the top. From the main road there is a 5km track which takes you to the base of the ruins.

Still pouring when we decanted. There were only two other people walking around a the same time as us. The ruins have been somewhat controversially restored - well the walls of the various dwelling types rebuilt, but it does give you a good idea of the scale of the place - home to about 5000 inhabitants - the people managed to fend off the Incas but not in the end the Spanish and they were all marched off to leave the place deserted. The houses etc are built in terraces right up the mountain side and we climbed up to the two lookout posts to see as far as the river but no further in the grey sky but we could see the fields and fields of cactus stretched out and in amongst them it was possible to make out the grids of stones forming the remainder of Quilmes.

Cactus wood is used for furniture and as a building material ( mainly for roofs) throughout Southern Bolivia and Northern Argentina- it looks very attractive with the gaps between the dense fibres giving it a distinct look and must be quite robust. The other wood which is used is ....................................................- a native tree which is extremely dense and heavy- also alamo.

Unfortunatley the view from the top is a little spoilt by the concrete hotel and the little museum and enormous souvenir shop. But I thought to myself what a good idea if you were travelling without a car - to get here by taxi or dropped off by bus stay the night ( though not sure if the hotel was actually open) so you could take photos at sunset which I imagine on a clear day would be fabulous.
Lots of people leave out Quilmes as understandably they feel a bit "ruined out" and no you cant really compare these ruins in stature and complexity to the Incan stonemasters' brilliant structures but for the setting and sense of a lost people these labrythine stoneworks are defintely worth the visit- even in the pouring rain.

NW Argentina - Cafayete - Almost a home!

Tucaman Bus station 4pm

I ve just left Cafayete after 8 nights - longest stay apart from the epic Cusco month and if you don`t count the mammoth 17 day Huayhuash trek (pronounced "Why wash?" answer :because you might meet a sacsahyuahan - the site up on hill above Cusco- pronounced "sexy woman" this is Rob´s joke not mine! ).

From Salta I wanted to go to both Cachi - high in the mountains and Cafayete but with limited time Cafayete won. Cachi I very much regret not getting too. The lady in the Salta museum when she heard I wanted to go said OOOh be careful! There are lots of alien abductions there! She helpfully gave me the name of someone who is expert on OUNI s as UFOs are known in S America should I feel the need to investigate further. Alas it was not to be. So I will miss out on the other attraction which was the cactus wood roof and pulpit of the local church. I think aliens might be spicing up the local tourist industry.

The bus strip from Salta takes you through the Valle Quebrada de Cafayate - awesome Canyons of red and variegated colours. On the bus I sat next to Anna who lives in Cafayete and she invited me round for goats cheese but directions to her house weren`t very clear so I never did get there.
Cafayete is a very pretty little town set against a backdrop of the Andes and where the main industry is wine production. I don´t know what it was exactly but I didnt get off to a very auspicious start - the morning after I arrived I felt extremely dizzy and then became feverish and then was very sick. The family run hostal El Balcon were wonderful and drove me to the local hospital -felt miles at the time but was about two blocks. I was too ill to think about cost or whether the walls were clean - and ended up in a bed with a drip for the rest of the day and most of the night. The doctors and nurses were very kind and then Señor El Balcon, and his daughter, Noelie and one of his granddaughters visited me to see how I was. Very sweet of them. Mystery as to what exactly it was - food? altitude ? ( but only 1000m asl) two Scottish doctors I subsequently met( Felicity and Andrew) suggested it was postitional vertigo and my own theory was it was some kind of a headacheless migraine. When I ventured this to teh Doctor the next day he wrote me a prescription for a migraine pill. Anyway I am fine now and as foreigners do not have to pay for the public heath service I gave them a good sized donation. Very glad I wasnt in Bolivia in the desert somewhere though!

Cafayete is the perfect town just to do very little - and the hostal was always full of interesting people keen to socialise -I met oceanographers, a photographer, a radio producer , doctors etc etc so I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We had barbeques together out on the patio - perhaps the best steak I have ever had, together with wonderful sausages - black pudding ones and solid beefy ones and good wine from Cafayete at just 1.50 UK a bottle.
It is very much a family home as well - ma and pa , 4 brothers and 2 sisters and their children live here or nearby. Brothers Marco and Sergio sang and played guitar for us - Marco with a wonderfully resonant voice - terribly sad songs. There is still something of the sadness of the Andes here.
Probably because of the heat, life moves along at a very slow pace - large London plane trees line the wide streets which never seem partciularly busy, with little cafes and restaurants and shops selling sombreros and artesanal stuff - lots of things made from cactus wood and silver. A local heladeria ( ice cream shop) sells wine ice cream - not really my cup of tea - Torrontes ( white) and cab sav flavours but I preferred the fruit as usual and here you can buy tunas - which isn't fish but the little green fruit produced by the cactus. Unusual but refreshing taste.

There is a little wine museum with lots of old barrels and photos of bodega founders and a museum of funerary urns. One whole room filled with the same tye of urns that I saw in the Salta museum - with little tapas - or lids on top - and decorated as if they were bodies with thin stick little arms and slitty sloping eyes - looking exactly like modern day representations of little green men.

More bicycles than cars. Everything stops at 1pm every day for a long siesta - most shops reopen at 5pm but restaurants don`t even open their doors until 8pm. It takes a while to get used to.
The main variety of grape is the Malbec along with the Tannant which I had never heard of before and that´s because it no longer exists in Europe - it was destroyed by a fungus. Going strong though in Cafayete! I am no expert but all of the 6 bodegas , mostly all small family run , produce jolly nice tintos - Nanni, Etchart and Hermanos San Domingo. the local speciality is a white wine made from the Torrontes grape which I found too sweet.
The vineyards mean that the surrounding roads are green with the vines - harvest not until March so everything was pretty quiet. Some of the roads are lined with another huge tree , enormnous girth adn height all looking very old - I wondered if they might be elm? But I think they are more likely to be a native tree.
Most of the wines are made to be drunk young as far as I could tell. With a good bottle costing about Arg$6.50 - that`s one pound ten pence sterling mas o menos. You can buy the most wonderful saucisses , and morcilla - the Argentinaian version of black pudding sausages 6 for Arg$4 and prime filet steak - $4.50 for two sizeable pieces`from the local butchers. As you can imagine BBQs out on the patio were very popular.

If you like BBQ you can also wander out into the nearby streets where locals BBQ on the street in parraildas - mixed meats - you can eat barbequed tongue if you care to ( texture isnt nearly a bad as you would think and it tastes OK ) but the asado - beef steaks are wonderful. Eaten with salad and bread and of course and good red wine.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Salta- Pilgrims and a Musuem

October 9th , 10th 2005
I went to hear some live music in a restaurant on the main Plaza of Salta (which is called 9th July). These two were sitting just across from me and asked me in English "Are you a writer?" Unfortunately I had to disappoint them beacause I was busy working out what I have been spending on average a month and how much money I have got left next to the interminable route planning which probably has me frowning away as if I am penning the next Booker( Man) prize winner. However they asked me to join them anyway ( see more below).

I read on internet that an Irishman has won this years Booker with a novel called " The Sea" - am dying to read a decent book - Shirley Maclaine's Out on A Limb - although diverting - ( her journey into believing in reincarnation) and featuring not bad desciptions of Peru and amusing bits about "channellers" speaking from the spirit world and her affair with a British politician in the labour cabinet - who on earth was it - sometime in the 70s??? - didn't really satisfy and had me idly looking up Shirl on web. Sure enough she has her own eponymous webpage but to read or hear what she is up to you have to hand over hard cash so I don't know whether her enlightenment is ongoing . However I hadn't realised that Warren Beatty was her brother. But he is just a name isnt he? I can't name a single film he has been in. Currently reading "The Cloud Forest" by Peter Matthieson which is a travelogue written in lovely style by American Naturalist in the 60s. Fascinating because most of the places he talks about I have now been to.
Dearth of books in English across S America - hostals are the only hope as some have book exchanges. However they have a very unfair system - you have to hand over two books to get one out- and I've only ploughed through Shirl so far.

Other Spiritual Journeys
Shirl is into reincarnation and talking to spirits - My new friends ( mother and daughter from Montevideo Uruguay) had come to Salta on a different spiritual journey - a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Immaculate Mother which is somewhere up on the hill above the city. The Immaculate mother appeared as an apparition to someone in 1996 on the site to give a message to people that our ways are too loose. There is a photo on the pilgrimage web site ( where you can book your transport and group visit ) of the appartion which looks to me like sunlight filtered through starburst filter coming through trees. But there are also pictures of people fainting when they are touched , standing in a circle , by .. I 'm not sure who but a lady in a grey skirt.. who is perhaps the channeller or voice of the Immaculate Mother? My Uruguayan friends said that they fainted too.

I arrived in Salta on a Sunday - everything closes for the siesta from 4pm- 8pm but the streets are wonderful and quiet at this time with just the occassional battered Ford Falcon or old Peugeots looking deceptively like Morris Oxfords rattling by. there are modern cars but a huge battalion of these relics which must survive because of the very agreeable climate - it is sunny and warm here all day and doesnt get cold at night. Night sky is clear and bright too. Palms soar up from the plaza 9th July, there is grass on insetead of dust and all in all it is a very pleasant place with tree lined avenues and monumental churches ( San Fransciso startling with its plum and gold exterior - with marbled festooned curtains over the huge doorway making it look more like a theatre than a church) and monasteries still occupied and not open to public.
I expecxted to do my post and other neccessary things including much needed hair cut on Monday but it turned out ot be a public holiday and just as quiet if not more than Sunday. Instead I found a museum not in the guide book , well the custodian saw me and beckoned me in. It was a museum( www.porvenirr.com.ar) dedicated to "Pajarito"( little bird) Velarde - housed in the small one room house that he lived in on a corner opposite a girls school Was a great museum very moving - all his things are just as they were when he died . He was a bohemian scandal in conservative highly religious Salta - his house was open to musicians and artists and politiicans and sports people ( the Boca Juniors for 2 whole days - whole team) with a none stop party pretty much- he had a collection of over 10,000 folkloric records - tango etc but also from all over worlds. Worked in the bank which was three blocks away but was enough of an eccentic to cycle 10 blocks to where his car was every day and drive in. But his main thing was helping and hosting rehearals for local folklore groups - eg the Fronteras. He seemed to be adored by people. His friends took to sending him letters with a drawing or a picture of a bird instead of an address and they always got htere. Even when sent from Peru! In the picture top left I am wearing a hat which belonged to Carlos Gardel , the most famous Tango man in Argentina who gave it to Pajarito. I was the only person in the museum for about an hour so I had a personal guide in Karen who kindly spoke very slowly for me to understand with mimes as well !
The room is stuffed with objects that people gave him, gaucho lances, jungle bags, masks from Oruro in Bolivia book collection, a huge bed made from the wood of the palo santo tree ( came across this in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia- it smells of incence) which is incredibly heavy - imposible to lift. It took 7 years to make and has two little birds carved on either side of the bedstead.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Night Bus

8th/9th October

Tupiza - Villazon
On the dusty road again! Two and a half hours on another dusty bumpy unpaved road paralleling the train track ( only 2 a week) to Villazon on the Argentinian border. We stopped all the time to let people on and off ( with no where discernible in sight for them to go or come from which is also the way in S America) and the passengers in front , a young family, kept the window open most of the way , letting the dust fly in. The landscape was slowly changing - there were big tree cacuts plants with trunk and upright branches - candelabra cactus. There were more ordinary trees and rivulets of water giving the land more of a colour contrast - it really wa s quite beautiful.

I had my head in a book mugging up on the border crossing . I was the only gringo on the bus.

Was immediately surrounded by throng of touts asking me where I was going. After a while I thought OK maybe a good idea to buy a ticket now to Salta and then that is one thing accomplished. So I bought a bus ticket with departure time of 11pm nad walked down through the blaze of colour nad actibity that is Villazon - you can buy just about anything there - I used my remaining bolivianos on an orange juice, some peanuts, some beggars and then had none left to get my fortune told by a shaman using coca leaves in a tiny little cardboard and purple blanket booth . I could have asked him what my best travel route across Argentina would be in my five remaining weeks as it is getting increasingly harder to cut things out when people keep telling you how you just cant miss out the Iguazu Falls etc.
I got my exit stamp and entry stamp for Argentina across the bridge without much fuss and took a taxi to La Quilca in Argentina.
In the bus terminal I was told my ticket wasn't for the company with exactly the same name on their office door . I' m not sure how this all happened - lack of fluent castellano surely didn't help - but finally someone in the company ( though was it my bus company or anothers?) exhanged my ticket ( just a voucher apparently) for a ticket for Salta which left at 8pm - ie in an hour.
arriving at 4am. I found the only other gringo in the terminal , a French exchange studnet studying in COrdoba, who was pleased to have someone to talk to as she'd been travelling more or less 56 hours straight to get back for her classes after a break in Peru.The same thing had happened to her but shed advised getting on a later bus if possible to avoid arriving so early in morning. I managed to chnage my ticket for a departure not at 11pm but midnight. We sat in a cafe and talked until the Cordoba bus left at 11pm.

My bus left the terminal ( with me) on time at midnight. I was the only gringo on the bus. But then bizarrely we drove to what looked like a car park and sat there for nearly an hour with the lights and engine on for nearly an hour . Eventually a soldier got on and asked us to get off the bus with all our baggage. We stood in a line whilst everything in every bag was checked and I was asked where I was going ,how long where I was staying etc. At the border there was a big sign saying bluntly "The Malvinas belong to Argentina" I hoped this generation of soldiers were too young to harbour resentments over the war.

Eventually all back on the bus we set off again but by now I was wide awake and only dozed a bit before at 3am we stopped again ! for yet another disembark and bag search. They are looking for coca leaves (which are illegal in Argentina I think) and or drugs . The soldiers were very nice and smiley to me and didn't empty my backpack the second time ( relief). I slept a bit .
As it got light ( 5am) we passed through a town with streams of people walking along the main road , dressed ordinarily there were families , babies in pushchairs, groups of young people, dogs etc all going in one direction - the bus went for what seemed miles and was diverted because of the procession but I have no idea where they were all going or why so early. Another mystery.

My final hope of a bit of kip were shattered by two very loud Brazilian couples who climbed on board amidst a fug of perfume . Loud salsa music blared from behind the seats in front of me . ( Of course there were empty seats both behind me and in front) When bored of that they played with their mobile phone ring tones. Aaahhhh Public transport ! I was too stunned to protest.

Tupiza, Southern Bolivia

6th October
I caught the bus from Potosi to Tupiza - a 6 hour journey on an unpaved road. From one outpost to another as we passed through miles and miles of scree and giant cactus strewn hills broken up by dry river beds. As we pulled out of Potosi we passed a typically Andean scene; a woman milking a donkey right beside some railway tracks and handing the steaming glassful to a man with a briefcase under his arm.
A middle aged campesino woman with layer upon layer of clothing, jumpers and skirts swelling her bulk and wedging her firmly into her seat complete with blankets on knees and topped off with a jaunty woolen blue hat sat next to me for the duration; she had staked out her territory with bags and blankets which I climbed over to get to the window seat. But she was friendly and said to me with a grin in castellano -" we are travelling companions" and she offered me a deep fried maize rectangle from a large greasy bag which I accepted in the name of companionship and international relations. Seconds later I was regretting this , thinking of my bag devoid of any sustenance bar water;what on earth was I going to offer her in return?
I was saved by the travelling salesman who was selling a green ointment (which cured everything from arthritis to headaches) very loudly from the front of the bus , miraculously managing to stay upright whilst doing so. My friend eagerly accepted the free trial dab but turned to me and said plaintively - no hay plata - there is no money- so of course when sale time came I bought her a reciprocal tin which she accepted without much outward show of suprise! Perhaps gringas can be relied on to help out now and then.

Beautiful setting under rich red rocks this town with a population of 20k is laid out in a grid and is served by both bus and train - being the penultimate stop before the border at Villazon.
Hotel Mirtu on Calle Chachas was lovely and a good place to meet people. Geraniums outside my door and a swimming pool just beyond that with gorgeous backdrop of dark red rock - my room (with bedside light 8/10) with own bathroom ( clean with really good hot water) cost me 45 bolivianos a night which included breakfast - roughly four pounds sterling.
Lots of interesting people there, many doing extended trips - all much younger than me - a photographer from US with his Brazilian/Argentinian girlfriend on their way to start a new life together in Buenos Aires.

Had a very good lasagne in one restaurant (25 bolivianos - one pound twenty pence- expensive!) - "Tupizza" ( natch) and a very mediocre one in a cafe called "California" ( if you find yourself in Tupizza) and a wonderful almuerzo (set lunch) in a local hotel- for 7 bvs - soup, salad, meatballs and rice and fruit:best way to eat.

However as nice as some elements of Tupiza were there was an undercurrent of unease for me.. I felt more selfconscious here than anywhere else I have been ( though had a bit of "I 'm not happy being on my own patch" as well which didn't help) and I realised that it was because for the first time in 5 months of S AMerica I heard people muttering at me under their breath.. "gringa" and other things probably less innocuous that I am glad I didn't understand. And in the market there were no smiles - or interest in selling me anything - in fact quite the opposite. There is thinly veiled resentment of foreigners here and I really picked up on it. I would say hola to children who stared at me and there faces remained as impassive and rigid as before. I saw lots of wonderful photo opportunites but felt completely inhibited about taking my camera out - it was just going to exacerbate an already sullen atmosphere - so when I saw a dovecote sitting rather incongrously on a running track in the town stadium I thought well I can't offend anyone taking a picture of an inanimate object. How wrong!
The gate was open and there was a plaque with words to the effect of "Welcome to our town stadium" with some rose bushes etc - looking very like a public place- someone came out of a side building and I said hello and pointed to the dovecote and said I'd like to take a picture beause he just stared at me - I kept walking as he said nothing. I had just taken the picture when I heard a loud growl behind me - a large black dog was barking at me and a young girl and a woman had emerged from the building - probably a house I now realised and were just standing silently glaring at me with hostility - I backed round the edge of the fence telling the dog in as firm a voice as I could muster "everything is ok" and trying not to appear afraid. though I was inside thinking please don't bite me ! I got to the gate - no one had said anything at all - I turned to the man and said sorry - the gate was open - but they remained silent with openly hostile gazes. Hmmmm.
I can only guess what they think of us from this encounter - some people like the owners of the hostels and restaurants make a good living of course but the others less fortunate just see us swanning around with our cameras etc -free to travel and pay what must seem to them small fortunes for food and lodging and of course there is going to be resentment.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

29th September
Day 1 - Uyuni to Incahuasi Island (left)
Day 2 - Salar de Chiguana, Ollague Volcano, Laguna Colorado, Desert of Siloli
Day 3 - Sol de Mañana, Vally of Dali, Laguna Verde, Sleep at Villa Mar
Day 4 - Valley of Rocks, Train Cemetery, Uyuni

Everyone but everyone tells you that if you do just one thing in Bolivia it should be to visit the Salar (salt flats) near Uyuni . Four days in a jeep through the most amazing delsolate and suprising landscapes really is one of the undoubted highlights of any trip to South America- but I kept well away from brochures and travelogues in order that what I saw was as much as possible a suprise so that I wouldn't be disappointed by the reality.

The guide books are full of horror stories about tours with drunk drivers and appalling food. However our team, husband and wife ( well we think) Orlando and Marlene were perfectly sober and Marlene's picnics more than acceptable. However the health of the vehicle was sometimes in question - usual cracked windscreen and windows held together with duct tape which is the norm in S America - both Marlene and Orlando kept glancing anxiously into their side mirrors checking on the bodywork as if something was about to drop off all the time. We did actually make a pit stop right beside a lake filled with flamingos which suited me fine -Marlene handed Orlando , under the car, spanners one by one. I went down to the shore to stalk the birds and took photos flat on my stomach of the sandpipers their little legs whirring in a blur along the salty shore. Along the same shore I came across an abandoned flamingo egg ( they nest March- July) , one family that didn't make it - as female only lays one egg a season -further on were the pathetic feather and bone remains of a dead flamingo with a solitary small pink feather.
None of the driving teams speak English, not really necessary where the main activity is taking photographs and gasping and ahhing as each new landscape unfurls.
In the heat and refraction large rock formations seemed to be hanging in the air like alien spacecraft their sharp edges rounded off. In the desert we spotted objects shimmering in the distance trying to guess what they were "Its a jeep- No its a bicycle " - yes some people are mad enough to cover miles and miles of sand and dusty roads in blazing heat with all their kit. None of them looked like they wer eenjoying it that much. But I suppose at night once all the jeeps ahve gone by it must be the most fantastically solitary place. Once we saw a strange figure with a hump " A camel!" but it was a person with a backpack. How mad can you get! Either on a personal mission of endurance or desperate enough for a not been done yet book subject we decided - "I walked the Uyuni desert" - but we all wondered where he got his water supply topped up and he would have to be carrying huge amount of kit in the blazing sun. In the night of course it gets really really cold - down to minus 20 degrees in winter.
Some of the rock formations are really strange - they look man made - towers and even whole citadels in the distance.
We were driving along on the 4th day over pretty much sand when Orlando suddenly stopped and put the jeep into reverse. We all wondered why. Marlene got out and picked up something the colour of sand - it was a .......................... a relative of the armadillo and it was dead with a big ugly blood wound - poor little thing. Although Orlando denied it the others in my group ( four Brits and one Yank) all think we actually were the ones to run over it - Marlene was a bit tearful about it too apparently which suprised me. I had seen the same small animals trussed up on a top shelf in a shop in Villa Mar ( which is 100's of miles from the coast) with fake paper notes tied to their shells I suppose as good luck talismans.
Villa Mar was a very strange place - but intriguing. Built in the valley sided by a red rock plateau it has an ambitous town square - they are currently constructing a fountain and they have a giant condor staute and a concrete boat too.
On one of the rock outcrops overlooking the town is perched the rear end of a light aircraft- who knows for what reason. The houses are low adobe , thatched with ichu grass and painted soft natural colours of red and green and blue derived from the minerals in the nearby rocks. Not many people in evedence and they were definitly shy of us but the three shops in town were well prepared for the likes of the average westerner and had supplies of pringles wine and beer.
I walked up to the rock plateau with Zoe to take photos - as I approached a stone structure a bit like an Incan grave- with slabs of rock over an underground pit - something shot out at top speed - it was a wild cat! Much bigger than ordinary cat with thicker tail - almost like a fox!

The flamingos are amazing - three different types feed in the lakes against backdrops of snowcapped volcanoes - not what comes to mind when picturing the usual habitat of flamingoes. They feed raising their necks in unison.

We saw lakes both red and green from the minerals found in them.

The Picture of the sun was taken because of the corona which appeared round it- no idea what casues this but it was striking. Page down to see more photos.

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon
After a huge icecream blow out in a parlour in Arequipa with 3 different flavours for around 3 soles ( the ice cream in South America has been consistently good) I felt motivated enough to sign up for a 3 day( well one and half nights and 2 days really) trip to the bottom of the Colca Canyon and back. Only three of us on the trip, a delightful young German couple Sven and Britta from Bonn, Germany, and of course the guide - Remi .
A 6 hour bus ride to the top of the canyon at Cabnaconde where we were going to miss a fiesta as we set off that same morning to reach the bottom. people were busy erecting giant firework catherine wheels. Remi met us at the bus stop and took us to his house where we met his wife ( very quiet) and young son. I think he must make good money relatively for Peru as the floor was concrete and the house brick not adobe.
Hot hot hot - glad of my new hat having junked the orange Cusco one for a more sober looking cotton one .
Britta spotted a condor wheeling above us only about an hours into our descent down the small stone strewn switchback path . We had to jump to side of the path as we met trails of burros carrying bundles of wood and their arrieros with radios strapped round them, coming up from the valley. Remi was a cocky chap, very sure of himself and his guiding skills but friendly though rather over attentive to me for my taste! I started asking about plant names, medicinal uses etc and shortly after Sven slipped on the extermely loose gravel and badly grazed his arm. Remi found some tarasako plant ( the lifesaver of Sven he called it) which is an natural antiseptic and broke off a stem from the plant and applied the inner green juice to the wound - this did work - the wound healed up nicely the green turning the wound black.
Remi pointed out Hartopia which is a leafless shrub - don't use that - planta de muerte! It's highly toxic and will kill you if ingested
Also big green pods hanging from a tree- you eat only the white lining part - "pacay" - black pods can be used as a laxative .
Other plants ( this list is a mix of native Quechuan names and common names):

Pie de pacayo literally " little birds foot" with a purple flower
Palma real - good for stomach ache
Tarasako - antiseptic juice in stalk - Remi put this on Sven's wounded leg after he slipped on the gravelly path
Lupin bushes - familiar violet flowers on this shrub which grows all over the Andes
Agave- the huge cactus with central stem shooting up to phenomenal heights
manca paci - for diaorrhea
molle schinus- the tree of the incas- can be used as a tea
Chullmar - looks like marijuana
Chinchiacoma - orange flower - good as back remedy and for sciatica
Liga liga - red flowers - used for cancer
Cantutu - Inca flower and national flower of Peru
Chirra - leaf used for wrapping tamales
Hartopa - toxic - looks like a dead fig with no leaves - deadly poisonous
Chilca - looks like thistle
Manca paci - for diaorrhea.

The valley sides are dry and rocky with shrubs and cacutus from and to which the picaflors ( hummingbirds) flit - patrolling their own territory. We saw a picaflor gigante (which happily thrives bewteen 2500-4000m asl) - and nests in the cactus as well. We walked through little villages as we hit flat stretches of the path - Malata - with an old whitewashed chrurch with belltower , empty or locked up houses eveince of the migration of the village youth to Arequipa or towns where they can find work other than the farming . Also passed through Coshnirhua on way down to floor of valley from where we climbed back up on other side to village of San Juan where we spent the night. By contrast to the descent we had walked into a lush Eden - fruit trees of all descriptions grow here - avocado, chirrimoya , nut trees, apples, pears. citrus etc lemon grass grew in the garden of the little smallholding where we stayed in huts of bamboo.Chickens dogs sheep pigs adn cats and small children shared a yard whilst on the path outside an irrigation channel carried water to the orchards.
Adobe houses have cacutus growing on top of walls as natural barbed wire.
In the evening after rice, papas fritas and pollo Remi was keen to talk and joke but we were pretty tired and went to bed but Remi insisted on giving me a personal demonstation of "massage with coca leaves" -which against my better judgement I acccepted as he insisted how good it was for aching muscles and although I had most of my clothes on he was a bit too thorough and I had to politely bring my massage to an end . Hmmm- never heard of coca massage since - definitelty a Remi invention for relaxing female touristas!

Day 2 we walked well worn route from San Juan to the "Oasis" . Oasis because there are tourist set ups here though pretty simple - bamboo huts etc but with swimming pools - wonderful cool water to swim in against a dramatic background of canyon surrounded by exotic flowers.
On the way to the Oasis climbing up a steep cactus hill we passed an old man picking something off the cactus leaves into a tin can - I was intrigued what on earth was he harvesting? It turned out to be cochineal beetles - they eat the cactus leaf and excrete a white liquid which hardens on the leaf so ou can tell where they are. Remi scrapped some of the beetles of a leaf and smeared them on my face - bright red. Poor beetles. But now I know where the food colouring comes from. They are really tiny little things. See photo of leaf which is covered in cochineal beetles.
To get to the Oasis we had to cross the river over a bridge. As we approached it we could see some workmen sitting by it on a pile of gravel with bags of concrete near by. On nearing the bridge we realised that half of the slats were m issing meaning that we we would have to tightrope across a huge ravine with roaring river many many feet below. I couldnt understand what was going on nor could the others. The workmen just sat there. Actually no, one got up and started sawing at one of the restraining wires of the bridge ! Were they going to completely demolsih it?? Remi to the rescue - he quickly located the missing slats - hidden in a pile behind the gravel - and laid them roughly across the two wires forming the bridge so we could just about make it to the intact side over half way across without doing a balancing act! The workmen just sat there impassive as we bypassed the one still sawing away.

Later on we found out that they were charging walkers to replace the slats - a nice little earner!

Day 3
Up at 2am to climb the 1,300 metres back up to the top of the canyon avoiding the heat of the sun - well that's the only reason I can think of that would possibly expalin why we started so early.
So we set off in the dark perhaps psychologically this made it easier too as we couldn't see just how far we had to climb.
Other groups were ahead and behind us and we could see little lights working their way upwards.
We reached the top in three hours - a relief - to the just breaking dawn.

Bus to Mirador de Condor
Our bus at 9am was full to the gills of exhausted festival revellers from night before. We joined the huge queue to get on - the bus was already packed - but there was a determined push from behind us and the constant refrain "pocito mas por favor pocito mas!" inch by painful inch we made it from the ground to the first step pressed nose to back with Andeans coming up to our shoulders and children slipping between our legs. I have never been in such a crush and I thought we would never last the hour to the mirador where we were going to jump the bus - we'd expire from lack of oxygen surely!Or body odour! And still hte refrain from the back of the queue "Pocito mas pocito mas ! "Eventually we did set off wedged in place by all hte bodies and disgorged at athe Mirador where we saw quite a few condors rather distant but some right beneath where we were standing - seemingly oblivious to the multiudes gathered to watch them. Fantastic birds- almost an emotional experience to see them so close - but I didn't as friends Martin and Gary did , hear the sound of the wings as they soared by and photos show only very distant specks.