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Colombia: The Fiesta

It’s been a while since I last posted a blog, and while I am sorry, I’m pleased to say that we have been enjoying the fiesta life of Colombia…maybe a little too much!

After travelling through Peru and Bolivia, it was refreshing to arrive in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. While we did not have any luck with the weather (terrential rains in the dry season) we had great experiences with the people and the city. The second of December kicks off Christmas season down here with the turning on of the lights. Justin and I strolled through the elite section of Bogota called Zona Rosa. The modern buildings are filled with trendy clothes stores, restaurants offering high end cuisine and bars packed with Colombians ready for a party. The vibe here, and in all of Colombia is so alive and exciting to be a part of. The people are friendly and have a sincere interest in other travellers. Tourism is still new so they are not sick of us yet! That night we got right into the swing of things and headed on out meeting up with a friend, Alan, who we met in Cusco. He was staying with his friend Fabiano, a Colombian, who, along with his friend Lina ended up being our tour guides while we were in Bogota. They took us to the amazingly colourful eight story salsa club called Andres! This was a melting pot of different generations just having a good time and doing what they do best, Salsa!

As I mentioned above, Fabiano and Lina became our tour guides taking us to see the different Christmas lights in a small town called Usaquen, which has now been swallowed by Bogota’s urban sprawl. The Colombians go all out with the festive decorations, and parks all over the country are full of Alice in Wonderland multicolored lights. They even have fake snow that is sprayed every now and then which both children and adults alike go crazy for. Fabiano also invited us over to his Uncle and Aunt’s house where we enjoyed Onces. Onces happens every Sunday. Family and friends get together and enjoy hot chocolate, cheese and bread. They even enjoy dipping their cheese in the hot chcoloate as we would dunk biscuits. As with all Colombians, the family welcomed us in and we spent the evening chatting away.

While we were in Bogota we also visited Monserat, a cathedral over looking the city.Unfortunately we chose to visit on a Sunday, along with 90% of Bogota. We could only stand the crownds for 15 minutes. We also visited the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira. The cathedral is in a mine which is still functioning today and was initially built as a pilgrimage. The new cathedral was built in 1995 and has an artsy feel to it with well designed lighting. Now the cathderal is mainly a tourist attraction and is part of the Salt Theme Park.

Leaving Bogota we headed north to hit the colonial towns of Bogota.  First stop was Sogamoso, not really a tourist town, but was worth checking out for Lago Tato, the biggest lake in Colombia. The bus route from Sogamoso around the lake takes you out into the country and through all of the onion fields. We stopped at Aquitania, which is full of the pungent smell of onions and men in ponchos and cowboy hats riding around on motobikes. After checking out the lake for a few minutes before the rain hit us again, we headed to Iza the sleepier, prim and proper cousin to Aquitania.

Carrying on the Christmas celebrations the seventh of December was Dia de Las Velitas where families line up little candles in the street and light them at dark. In true Colombian style there is a fiesta consisting of fireworks, a salsa band, aguilla beer and dancing. The larger fiesta is in Villa de Leyva, however we stayed in Sogomoso for the more intimate version.

Our next colonial town was San Gil, further north halfway between Bogota and the coast. To get here we decided to take a day bus, which we regretted after the first ten minutes. I’ve complained about the driving before but Colombia takes it to a whole new level. They really do not care about overtaking on blind bends, overtaking when a semi truck is blundering down the road towards them, or driving right up behind another car or bus so close that they could almost touch. I think I’ve probably grown about another 10 grey hairs in the past month. We have now decided that we will just try and do night buses so you can’t see what is going on. However the night busses are freezing and you typically will need a jumper, a coat, a rain coat and a wooly hat to stay warm.

San Gil is set on a hill meaning the streets are steeper than those of San Francisco. I didn’t think that would be posible! While this is the adventure capital of Colombia we chose to chill out and enjoy some sun! Here, surprisingly, they were fiesta’ing as well . Justin and I shared a few beers with some local linemen (Justin couldn’t help himself) and watched the festivities in the park and across the way in a packed corner shop while the crowd was watching a tense football game.

Finishing off our tour of the Colonial towns we headed to Barichara, a very artsy town a day trip away from San Gil. Here the buildings are a brilliant white, the flowers are stunningly pink, the streets a intricately cobbled. You can tell that the people take pride in their pueblo. We wandered round here for a few hours then headed back to San Gil to get the night bus north. We were heading to the coast!

The next part of our journey were the beaches of Colombia’s carribean coast. We first stopped in Taganga, a growing fishing village. Here life is more tranquilo. Walking down the main strip you see the locals hanging out on the corner chatting with a bottle of Aguila and the beats of salsa music flowing through the air. The beaches here are OK (unfortunately the tranquilo goes a little too far and the beaches and water do have the odd bit of rubbish floating in them), but you really come here to either do the Ciudad Perdida trek  or to go to the beaches of Parque Tayrona. We decided to do the latter option because of time (Ciudad Perdida takes 6 days) and because the idea of more mozzie bites scared us. We joined a couple from San Francisco, Dallas and Peter and headed to the park. They told us it take 2 hours to get to the beach you can camp at, but as usual it took longer. We weren’t complaining as the views of the dense forest, the golden sand and the blue wáter was a nice change to being inland. The easy trail took us through the forest, along the beaches and through the mud pits which I loved! You would probably have top ay $200 for that mud back home. There were ladies selling orange juice and arepas (arepas are like a small corn tortilla and are widely used for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Colombia. I’m now over them!) which curbed our thirst and hunger after the hike. After 4 hours we made it to the Cabo San Juan. We took in the views of the cove, but our dreams of a nice refreshing dip were quickly taken away when the rain started pouring down. We settled in our tents (you can also rent hammocks, but they aren’t such a great idea in the rain) and then went and played cards while we were entertained by the thunderstorm over the ocean.

The next morning was picture perfect and we spent our day swimming in the wáter and sunbathing, well Dallas and I did, while Justin and Peter went on an adventure. Rather than hiking out we decided to get the boat back, which was an adventure in itself. I think we almost tipped it a couple of times!

After roughing it in Parque Tayrona, we were ready for Cartegena, the famous walled city of Colombia. Unfortunately again the rain was on the same itinerary and welcomed us on arrival and was still hanging around to wave us off when we left four days later. Sadly too tourism is a well established industry here and the people are either not so friendly or love to hassle you on the streets trying to sell coral necklaces or the product of the other well established industry. We still made the most of our time walking round the colorful streets, sunbathing over on Isla Pirata, a part of Isla Rosarios, (we only had 40 minutes of rain that day!) and eating some delicious food at a french bakery and La Cevicheria which Anthony Bourdain visited.  We also tried out Vulcan Totumo, a mud volcano. This was a strange but fun experience. The volcano is more of a mound shaped hill. They are very organized and have someone to take your photos while you wallow in the mud, men to give you a rub down and women in the lagoon to wash you off if you so desire. We just went for the photographer. As soon as you arrive, you are told to strip off down to your bathing suits and climb up the wooden stairs to the top of the volcano. At the top there is a pit just a bit bigger than a hot tub, and when we arrived it was filled with giggling geriatrics. After waiting for a while in our swimming cozzies, shivvering as the rain decided to sprinkle again, they were all pulled out and it was our turn to glide in. It was a very weird feeling as you can’t touch the bottom and the staff literally push you around. After twenty minutes, and maybe feeling a few years younger, we headed down to the lagoon for a quick wash off before heading for lunch.

Our last beach stop was in Tulu, a town full of loud Colombian tourists. Fortunaly our hostel was quiet and we were able to make the most of the hammocks. The beaches in Tulu are tiny and are backed up to a road, so we headed to El Calao Beach in Covenas.  To get here, we needed to take a local bus and then a moto-taxi. When we arrived in Tulu we were picked up by a pedicab, so I figured that a moto-taxi was the term they used for a car. Nope…it was a motorbike. I’ve never been on a bike before and here I am clutching on to my driver along the roads with no helmet and wearing only a top and shorts. I mean really, leathers are so last year. Fortunately we made it safe and sound arriving at the beach with no one else in sight. It was a nice change to the beaches of Taganga and Isla Pirata where every 5 minutes you are being bothered about something. We spent a few hours there and then hopped on the bikes back to town.

Next we were off to Medellin, well after a long night bus that broke down for 4 hours and was like the antartic! The city was big, yellow bumper car taxis honked away in the streets, the center was crowded with people getting ready for Christmas. It was all a little overwhelming for us. So we headed to Poblado, again the more upscale side of town and enjoyed some relaxing beers with a couple of other travellers we met in Bolivia. This side of town though may be chill in the day, but at night the bars and clubs are pumping.

In Medellin the big tourist attraction is the Pablo Escobar tour. Pablo Escobar was a famous drug lord and now his family do tours of his house and where he was killed. We decided against it since the money goes to his family, and they probably have enough funding from his drug habit. The other backpackers who have done it have said it was really interesting and worthwhile.

Christmas was drawing close so we decided to head down south. Fabiano and Lina, our friends from Lima had invited us to spend Christmas with their families in Ibague. Fabiano’s family welcomed us with open arms during their traditional celebrations. They celebrate Christmas more so on Christmas eve, going round to see different friends, and practicing Novenas. Novenas are prayers that they read every evening the nine days before Christmas. The Novena we were a part of lasted for about 45 minutes. Afterwards they serve dinner at midnight, which is meats, potato salad and little desserts with peach, and then they open their presents. On Christmas morning we had tamales for breakfast, which are slightly different to the mexican kind and then went to church. It was striking to me how casual the church ceremony felt, probably because they go more than once a year unlike most of us. They didn’t even have a hymn book and everyone knew what was going on. Later on in the day we went round to Linas for lunch and then took a drive out of Ibague where the locals were all partying in the streets and bars. It was a very different experience to our traditions at home and we feel very lucky to have had a real Colombian Christmas.

After Christmas, we decided to head for the Zona del Cafe! We had already experienced the Coffee park, which is a small theme park mainly for kids, but Justin and I enjoyed the rollercoaster and racing each other round in karts. But we were ready for the real coffee park, so we headed to Salento, a beautiful small town right in the heart of it all. The hills here are illuminous green, and the town is decorated with funky coloured buildings. The coffee, they argue here, is the best in the world, and while I am not a major coffee connoisseur it did the trick for me. We did a couple of coffee tours here and watched how they make the coffee by hand from start to finish. Unfortunately for the colombians, while the coffee is produced here the good stuff gets exported, while they are left with the leftover beans that have been damaged in some way. However, in Salento you can find a good cup at a local café.

We also did the hike to Valle De Corcora to see the tallest wax palm trees scattered through the valley. The hike also takes you up to a hummingbird reserve, where you can watch the birds zoom around and listen to their wings beating over a hot chocolate and cheese.

The nightlife in Salento is quite lively despite the size of the town. We were staying at Casona de Lili, along with Lili’s daughter and her friends. One night we bumped into them at a bar and joined in with shots of aguardiente and salsa lessons.

Our last stop in Colombia was Cali, the salsa capital. We arrived to catch the tail end of the salsa festival and for New Year.  We only booked our hostel two days before arriving, not normally a good idea when it’s new years, but lucked out and got a superior suite and an amazing hostel, which is more like a mansión with a pool, sauna and steam room. The owner is also a michelen star chef so we enjoyed a very nice meal the day we arrived for his birthday (we gave him the bumps in return). I think the owner before hand had some dealings with the white stuff based on the black and gold decor choices in our bathroom.

We had three awesome nights out in Cali. The first was a mix of our friend Carmel (who we did the Pampas in Bolivia with) and I in a dressing room trying on salsa costumes, a petrol station with fast and the furious style cars and a random bar. The second we were on a Chiva, which is a Colombian party bus, and then ended up at a bar dancing with a guy and a girl who compete in Salsa until 5 am. And the third was New Years. Again it’s different here, where most people enjoy New Years with their family and then go out after. Everyone at our hostel grouped together and headed on a missión to try and find something open. First we found the Intercontinental, and were tempted but then opted for the tienda on the side of a main street with patio chairs, bottles of Andres champagne and make shift fireworks. It was a hilarious way to ring in the new year and was then followed by, what more than a salsa club till 4 am. As you can imagine we were all wrecked yesterday but fortunately we had a pool to chill out by.

Tonight we head down towards the equator for some fun in Equador! Hope everyone had a great time over the holidays and Happy New Year!

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Flashpacking in the Land of the Inca’s

The Inca’s were the largest civilization in South America, their territory spanning 4000 miles along the Pacific coast of South America starting in Columbia and finishing close to what is now Santiago, Chile. What is amazing about this tribe is how much they accomplished in such a short amount of time. The civilization began in the 1300’s however their peak lasted less than 100 years from 1435 to 1531 AD. The first Incas were formed in Lake Titicaca on Isla del Sol (which I briefly wrote about in the last blog). Legend has it that the Incas began with Mama Ocllo (a woman) and Manco Capac (the first king of the Incas) rising up from Lake Titicaca with a golden spear. With their spear they travelled north to find the best land to call home. When they arrived in Cusco, they stuck their spear in the ground and named it the capital of the Incas. Mama Oclla taught the native women about sewing and weaving, while Manco Capac taught the men how to cultivate the land and build infrastructure and houses. They also formed the language Quechua, which is still spoken today in Peru and Bolivia.

After Manco Capac (also named the Sun God), there were nine official kings of the Incas. The incredibly rapid expansion of the Inca Empire began with Viracocha’s son Pachacuti (king number eight), who was one of the greatest conquerors. His son Topa Inca was also a powerful ruler conquering many lands as he built his kingdom. The last four kings were influenced by the Spanish and so are not regarded as worthy kings. Tupac Amaru was the last indigenous leader of the Incas and died in 1572. You may be interested to know that 2Pac (the rapper) was named after this Inca leader.

We left Lake Titicaca and headed to Arequipa, Peru, although we nearly lost our lives on the way there. Stupidly we took the ‘local’ bus, which turned out to be the fishmongers and sales bus. As the workers opened up the bottom of the bus to store our luggage the stench of fish that came out nearly made me sick. Then we had to endure 6 hours of salesmen nattering away in Spanish trying to sell the next moisturizer that will rid you of those annoying wrinkles. No thank you Senor! To top it off, the driver thought he was part of Formula 1 and we nearly had a head on collision with a truck since all of the drivers love to overtake going at top speeds, around bends, with steep cliffs on the side of the road. Fortunately everyone stopped when this truck decided to overtake on a bend and no one went over the edge, however our nerves were tested to the max. As you can imagine we were relieved when we arrived in Arequipa with all limbs attached. We spent four days in the white city calming our nerves, relaxing in the garden of our hotel, eating some delicious food (Alpaca!) and drinking some good coffee! We even found Starbucks! So we have decided that we are now flashpackers! We are travellers that would not dream of doing dorms, we now travel in luxury busses, we eat good food (well when we can) and when we camp we have room service! We saw the flashpacking phrase in a brochure talking about the hotel we were staying at and it kind of stuck…well for Peru anyway.

Arequipa was known as the White City originally for the Spanish white men that lived there. After a while the meaning switched over to the white buildings made of volcanic rock that decorate the plaza and its surroundings. The city is also home to Huanita, the famous Ice Queen. Typically the Incas did not sacrifice humans, normally choosing black llamas as the victim, however they did sacrifice about ten children that were the ‘chosen ones’. The most famous, the Ice Queen, was marched (not unwillingly) from Cusco to Arequipa and sent into the volcano to protect the communities from the Volcano Gods. She is special because when she was discovered her body was still fully intact with skin and hair because she was frozen. She is now on display in Arequipa. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see her.

After four days we decided we were ready to hit the road again and headed to Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world at 3269 meters (the deepest is close by Cotahuasi at 3535 meters, and Grand Canyon is 1800 meters). The tour took us through the antiplano which is surrounded by the three important volcanoes; Chachani, the largest, Misti, which is active (although the locals don’t like to acknowledge that fact), and Pichu Pichu. After a few hours we arrived in Colca Valley, a vast valley layered in terraces. We dropped some of the group off in the little town of Chivay, which to be honest I’m glad we weren’t staying in. It was all dusty streets and run down buildings. Because of our new flashpacker status and feeling like we needed some luxury, we had decided to stay at Colca Lodge and it was beautiful! We had a beautiful room with views of the valley, private hot springs overlooking the river, and a spa! I was in my element. I was almost tempted to skip the early pick up at 6am to see condors and just enjoy the hotel. Justin and I enjoyed the hotel for the afternoon, chatted with some fun Canadians and relaxed with a good glass of wine and some alpaca for dinner. After some convincing by Justin, we did decide to get up at 5 the next morning and headed on with the tour to see the condors soar down in the canyon and over us on the cliff side. If you’ve seen Grand Canyon then you need to wipe the meaning of canyon from your brain for about 30 minutes while looking over the edge of the cliff. It’s pretty yes, but stunning? Not really. To be honest I think the hotel experience really made our trip.

After having a taste of luxury we weren’t going back to the crappy busses and chose to travel with Cruz del Sur, a more expensive but less risky option. One that is less likely to turn you into a statistic (however we did break down for ten hours the other day on our 20 hour journey from Cusco to Lima; you do the math!). The busses are very nice and spacious, play good movies and the food isn’t half bad either. From Arequipa we headed to Huacachina, a small oasis town in the middle of the humongous sand dunes. The town itself is a cool little chill out spot for travellers, however the oasis has some pretty dodgy water and only the locals were splashing around in it. The reason to come here: Sandboarding and Dune Buggying. We signed up right away and were told we were going with the craziest dune buggy driver out there. I don’t think we got the craziest since I’ve had hairier experiences with my Dad doing the classic car trials. But I won’t say it wasn’t fun shooting over the dunes and doing a few jumps here and there. Sandboarding is very different to snowboarding. For one it is very sticky and hard to make turns. Justin took to it well, but I made a fool of myself face planting in the sand straight after I stood up. We started off on the equivalent of bunny hills and then by the end we were doing blacks! When signing up you can either choose the regular board or get the snowboard and boots. As we knew how to board we went with the snowboard, but it looked more fun and faster going down on your belly. Great experience, but I won’t be swapping it for snowboarding.

Next stop….Cusco! As mentioned above this was the capital of the Incas, however like much of South America, the Spaniards took over and it has a colonial feel with many churches. We spent five days in Cusco acclimatizing to the altitude and for me the food, or the pisco sours. After the second day I had a case of the Montezumas, which was three days before we started the Inca Trail so unfortunately I wasn’t able to explore as much as I’d hoped. Thankfully I was back to, well almost normal when Thanksgiving rolled around and we started the Inca Trail. However using the hole in the ground loos was an experience. Lets just say that you really have to make sure you’re aim is good.

So as not to be disappointed Justin and I decided to not read up much about the trail, nor had we looked at many photos. And we were not disappointed! The bus picked us up at 6:00 am and we headed for the town of Ollantaytambo. Here we ate breakfast and got pestered by the local women until we bought ponchos and sticks. Then we continued in the bus for another 30 minutes until we came to Km 82, the start of the Inca Trail. Packing up our things there was a sense of anxiousness, yet excitement in the air. The Inca Trail is the top activity to do in South America and you have to book it at least two months in advance, so this was a big moment for everyone. We were also walking the trail in the rainy season, but luck was in our favour and the day we started there were bright blue skies and the sun was shining down. After about 15 minutes the group was ready and the porters (chaskeys, which means messenger in Quechua) had loaded themselves up like donkeys. They are truly amazing. You read reviews about how strong they are, but it´s not till you see them carry a load probably as heavy as person and literally run by you do you realize their strength. There are actually three different trails to Machu Picchu; The sacred trail for the pilgrims, the commercial trail to transport food and other goods, and the military trail to transport messages between the rulers. We were walking on the sacred trail.

The first day winds you through the valley, by the river and by ruins. The first ruins we saw were Q’entimarka, which is shaped like a puma’s foot. All of the settlements built by the Incas were built in the shape of an animal. Machu Picchu is actually shaped like a condor. After a few hours of walking we enjoyed lunch in a small community. The chaskeys had set up a tent for us to eat in and cooked a four course lunch. They were so organized that we even had our own little bucket of warm water to wash our hands in. After lunch we worked our way up through the valley finishing at a campsite with views of Mount Veronica, a snow capped mountain sacred to the Incas. Machu Picchu itself was built with four sacred mountains in mind surrounding the settlement to protect the people; Mount Veronica, Machu Picchu, Yananti, and Pumasiyu. That night at camp we all got to know each other a bit more chatting over a beer. We had 15 in our group, four Columbians, two from Australia, six Americans and three from England. Amazingly we all got on very well and were laughing and joking the whole way. Our guides were great too, Percy the main guy who was very informational and Marcos who was there for you if you were ill. After another three course dinner we got ourselves into bed and just like it was timed the rain started to pour down.

The next morning we woke to cockerels and ducks walking around our tents, and to the beautiful view of Mount Veronica breaking through the clouds. Oh and don’t let me forget room service! Yes we were woken up with a choice of tea or coffee to be taken in our tent. Talk about service! The chaskeys had it all under control. Some of them have been working on the trail for 20 years and still continue to work at 67 years old! The second day of the trail was all up hill, ascending 1200 meters from 3000 to 4200 meters. We wound up from the valley to the cloud forest and then to the top of the mountains to Dead Woman’s Pass. Fortunately for us again the weather was perfect and we were able to siesta after lunch. Thank goodness as we needed all the energy we could get to hike to the top of the mountain. That night we celebrated Jami’s birthday and amazingly the chef was able to bake a cake for her. We have no idea how he did it other than the possibility that he carries a fridge and an oven on his back. This could be an option based on the size of his pack!

The third day was my favorite. Again waking up to views of snow capped mountains, waterfalls and the beautiful cloud forest below was a winner. This morning we had coffee in our tent. After breakfast we started heading up again. Our first stop for the day was the Runkuraqay ruins, which is a tambo, a resting spot for the messengers. They actually had tambos every seven km so the messengers could quickly relay messages either orally or using a quipu, a type of abacus using colored strings with nots which only royalty could understand. After finding out a little more about the Incas we carried on up to the first pass where we did a ceremony. This was a traditional ceremony that the Incas would do to make wishes and leave all of their bad demons behind. We had to find three perfectly shaped coca leaves and fan them out. We also took little pebbles from the river. Circling around a sacred rock, Percy made a speech and then one by one we all blew on our leaves, made wishes, layed them on the rock and covered them with our pebbles from the river. After the ceremony we carried on down the mountain to the sound of Percy playing his flute. It was such a special moment.

Reaching the bottom of the hill we explored another ruin and then crossed through the cloud forest once again. The cloud forest is so interesting, full of squishy mosses, tiny mushrooms, and colorful flowers. Mike, one of the guys in our group, teaches biology so was able to tell us about the different plants. Well he was able to do this on the second day, unfortunately he was suffering from altitude sickness on the third day and was doing everything he could just to make it through. We had our bought of rain this day too, which actually seemed quite suitable as we were hiking through the forest. And we got to use our colorful ponchos! After descending a while, the rain cleared up and the cloud started to disperse giving us a clear view of Machu Picchu mountain. Carrying on down we had just enough time to make it to the last ruin of the day, which was terraces upon terraces built into the side of the mountain over looking the vast valley and the river below. It was absolutely spectacular. We even saw llamas (apparently the park has pet llamas that can just roam as they please) and a fox roaming around the grounds. I wish we had more time because we really could have done some exploring there. After being called about five times we all came down and practically ran to camp so as not to get stuck in the dark! We made it and settled down to our last dinner with the group.

The fourth day, the final day, the Machu Picchu day. We woke extra early this day to get in line to enter the park. The gates open at 5:30 am but groups start lining up at 4:30. We were actually the last in line, which unless you are super bothered about seeing the sunrise at the Sungate works out because everyone is ready to move on when you get there and there is nobody coming up behind you. I feel like this is the way our trip was organized from the start. On the whole trail we hardly saw anyone and there were many times when it was only Justin and I, or us and a couple of others from our group. 12 years ago, the park was overwhelmed with visitors and the government decided to take it over, only allowing a limited number of people along the trail. Now only 500 people can enter the trail in a day, 200 tourists and 300 porters and guides, making it pretty easy for loosing yourself on the trail. As we were waiting, nervous chatter was in the air, then the gates opened and the nervous chatter changed to excited energy as everyone started hiking along the path. As we were walking the sun came up over the mountains and we had another cloudless sky. I seriously cannot believe our luck on this trip. I think the Inca Gods were looking down on us. I was up behind our guide as we were hiking, and he was unhappy at the pace we were going behind the other groups, trying to get us there before the place was filled with tourists. At one point, one of the other groups pulled over and we were off running along the trail overtaking anyone that had pulled over. We turned a corner and there were a set of steep stairs that you needed your hands to pull yourself up. Even with our backpacks on we flew up the stairs; I seriously thought my heart was going to explode! And then we came to the Sungate. There she was, Machu Picchu, prestigiously mounted on the hillside. We stood a while taking in the view, and taking numerous photos of the same thing trying to get the best shot. After a while we headed down and entered the park. We had completed the Inca Trail. The trail itself was amazing, but seeing Machu Pichu was the cherry on top. We spent the morning walking around the ruins, guided by Percy. It felt kind of funny to be mixed in with the nicely dressed tourists that had just come up for the day on the bus from Aguas Calientes. We almost felt like we deserved more recognition after exerting all of the sweat over the last four days. Maybe they could change their opening time for the other tourists to 11 am and the ones who actually hiked up a mountain to get there could enjoy it alone for an hour or two. But of course that couldn’t happen.

Machu Picchu was made public knowledge by Hiram Bingham, a professor at Yale, back in 1911. I don’t want to say he actually discovered it because of course the locals knew about it, there were even a few families that were living at the ruins when he arrived. Also, in 1902 a local farmer named Agustin Lizarraga also discovered Machu Picchu but kept the information to himself, took some of the treasures and sold them on the black market to an Italian. He even left his name and the date inscribed on a rock at Machu Picchu. The ruins were never found by the Spaniards during Spain’s conquest of South America since the kings led them along other paths.

In December 1908, Bingham attended the First Panamerican Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile. It was there that he decided to follow the old Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima. Inspired by 17th century chronicles about the lost cities, Bingham headed to Cusco. In Cusco, Bingham made the acquaintance of J.J. Nunez, then prefect of the Apurimac region, who invited him on the arduous trip to the ruins of Choquekirau, thought at the time to be the site of Vilcabamba, the much sought after “last resting place of the Incas.” Bingham went back to the US and decided to organize another expedition to Peru in 1911. Interestingly he bought all of his equipment from Abercrombie and Fitch who sold him chocolate bars, leather straps to close chests and other interesting things. In agreement to the expedition, the Peruvian government elected Sergeant Carrasco as his guide and translator. One night they camped near the Urubamba river and met Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer. Arteaga told them of ruins on top of the mountain above the camp. Bingham paid Arteaga to take him and Carrasco to the ruins. Starting in the morning they climbed the mountain. At midday they rested with campesinos who had been living on the mountain for four years. They also knew about the ruins and elected Pablito Alverez, an 11 year old boy, to lead Bingham and crew there. They came upon the ruins almost immediately and were amazed at what they saw. Theories are still being found out about Machu Picchu to this day. The thought is that the city was a second capital. The people that lived their were royalty and metal workers. Vilcabamba has still not been uncovered and is located somewhere in the jungle.

After exploring Machu Picchu we headed down the mountain, had lunch in Aguas Calientes and enjoyed one or ten beers with the group before heading back to Cusco on the train. We were there for another day, then headed to Lima for our flight to Columbia. We are now in Bogota, where we are not having so much luck with the weather (there are constant torrential downpours), but we are enjoying the partying!


Bolivia

Bolivia, rich with culture, history, landscapes and colour, but unfortunately the poorest country in South America. Arriving at the border we immediately felt the difference between Bolivia and Argentina. To cross borders you have to exit out of one country and then enter the next. The border patrol on the Argentinian side while still fairly flexible in terms of what we´re used still had an official feel (however I think they are only official with tourists because you see Bolivians and Argentinians just scurrying across without even stopping). When we arrived at the Bolivian border, the guards were jovial (much like the rest of the Bolivian people), joking with us and random people kept coming in to chat. Justin, because he is a US citizen, had to pay an entry fee and get a visa. Fortunately we had looked into this the day before and he had purchased his mug shots for the visa. He also needed $135US in crisp notes, however the casa de cambio was shut in Salta and he was planning on figuring it all out at the border. This would have been fine if we weren´t delayed for three hours on the way there because of picketers and arrived at 8:00pm. At first, one of the guards said we could pay in Argentinian Pesos, then the next said no it needed to be dollars. Then the other agreed and told Justin that there was a casa de cambio open 2 blocks up the street (I swear you get the same answer when you ask for any direction. It´s always 2 blocks that way, or 1 block then 1 block to the left. I rarely bother asking for directions anymore). As you can probably guess the casa de cambio didn´t exist or was shut. When Justin returned the guards had decided that he could pay in Argentinian Pesos but it would be $50 more! Joke city! Finally after much deliberation and going back and forth, one of the guards conveniently remembered that there was an ATM 4 blocks up the street that dispensed US $$. It was now 9pm and the one dark alley way we could see just kept looking dodgier and dodgier. Justin fortunately got the money, got a ride back on a scooter from one of the nicer guards and then we were out of there. The border town was called Villazon and was not exactly the nicest place to be so we took a cab straight to Tupiza. This may sound a little extravagent but it only cost $25 for a 2 hour journey! Not to bad…although I did have visions of the taxi drivers stopping halfway, letting us out in the middle of nowhere and telling us we had to pay more if we wanted to carry on. All worked out though and we finally arrived to the very comfortable hostal Salares at 11:30pm.

The next day was a our first real sighting of Bolivia and it was a pleasant surprise. Tupiza is a hot spot for starting the Antiplano and Uyuni Salt Flat tour, however still doesn´t feel too touristy (this will probably change soon as an international road is being built straight through the town). The town is described in Lonely Planet as a cowboy town, not sure if I would call it that but it definately has a wild west feel with the red rock canyons and formations serving as a fortress around the town. It´s also on the route of Butch Cassidy and the Sundace Kid. Walking through the streets, it feels like you have been transported back in time a hundred years. The women still wear traditional Bolivian dress with what look like bowler hats, long dark braided pig tails and pleated knee length skirts. They usually have a brightly coloured blanket filled with either goods or a child slung over their back. While you see men working in some of the stores, it´s normally the women who have the street side tiendas selling snacks like chocolate bars or something indiginous to the area. We spent the day trying to figure out our tour. A five day tour including a volcano climb was our goal, however most people wanted to do a four day tour. We could have gone solo, however it would have been ridiculously expensive. In reality you need four or five people to make it economically feasible on a travellers budget. After 4 hours of searching and not really finding anyone we reserted to going to the bus station and bombarding the people coming off the bus. In the end we found three french girls who wanted to do the same as us. As much as I hate saying this because we have met a couple of cool French people along the way, it was a bad idea to go with the french!

Unfortunately the night before our tour Justin ate something bad and got food poisoning. Thats one area you have to be really careful with in Bolivia…the lack of hygiene. In the smaller towns they rarely wash their hands and god knows what they cook your food in. He pretty much spent that morning on the loo and we nearly didn´t go. The owner of the hostal made him some coca tea with papousa and it seemed to help his stomach a bit. With his chin up we decided to carry on with the tour and we all piled into our tight but trusty jeep. The jeeps the tour companies use are hardly spacious and really only fit 5 people, however we had 5 in our group, a driver and a chef; or so we thought until the chef never showed up. It actually worked out best and Justin could sit in the front. Plus the guide seemed happy to cook for us. As Justin was in the front, it meant I was stuck in the back with the three french girls! We had agreed beforehand that we would speak in Spanish as we all pretty much could converse in the language, however they seemed happy to just carry on chattering in French. I tried speaking to them in Spanish…they answered my question and then kept talking in bloody French. Things were even worse at dinner that evening. Justin was in bed and so I was sat with the three of them. There were two other groups staying at our…well…shack, one of which was English. Not only did the French carry on chattering between each other but they blocked me from the English group. After about half an hour of  ‘cava…j´mapelle annoying (that´s the extent of my french) etc etc’…I decided to just talk across the table to the English.  Things did kind of get a bit better after 3 days however I wouldn´t call it fun. The accomodations we were staying in..well they did have running water so I can´t call it basic, although one night we were eating in a room that had a curiously hung curtain to the side of the room. Justin pulled back the curtain just to see what interesting things were behind it and a dead pig was just hanging out on a sofa! Great! We were eating and a sleeping in a meat house! The hostal on the third night however, was very comfortable and Justin and I even had our own bedroom and bathroom. The hostal was made out of the salt right from the lake.

The sights (which we reallywent for) on the tour were amazing. Travelling through Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve we saw Valle de los Rocas, which is a sandy valley scattered with big rocks that came from the volcanoes, salado petrificados, and Lagunas Verde, Negra and Colorada. Laguna Colorada had to be the most amazing for me as the water changes to a purple color in the afternoon because the pink flamingos disturb the minerals in the bottom of the lake which change its color. At Laguna Negra it was also fun to watch the different birds dabbling around the lake and making laughing sounds. We also saw geysers, bathed in a thermal spring and gazed up at the star filled night sky. It´s funny that even though we obviously don´t know all of the constallations of the northern hempishere the night sky down here definately looks different. The fourth day was the piéce de résistance (oh look there goes my french again). We woke up early and drove for half an hour along the salt flats to catch the sunrise. Driving over the flats was ridiculous…one minute you’re driving on land and then the next your on a salt lake and it´s white as far as the eye can see. Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat at 4,086 sq miles and was formed by prehistoric lakes. It is made up of layers of salt and water, but it is still tough enough to drive on. We spent the day hiking up the islas and taking funny illusional photos. Our last day we hiked up Vulcan Tunupa which was at 5300 meters. The hike was not easy, half of the hike had a trail and the latter half we were treading on loose rocks. Our guide kept yelling back ‘peligroso!’ (danger), just what you want to hear when you´re climbing up a volcano. I have to say the last bit up to the top was a bit frightening as were were walking on a path about two foot wide with steep drops either side. However suffering through the climb (and for Justin, altitude sickness…poor guy thought his head was going to explode) rewarded us with a 360 degree view of the salt lake and the volcano. The colors of the volcano were incredible, a mixture of different shades reds and a bit of green. After a little while, we headed down, ate lunch and headed to Uyuni and the end of our tour.

As tourists, Uyuni really is only a pit stop to either start or finish the Salt Flat tour. The main business here is farming the salt as well as extracting the lithium. 50-70% of the worlds lithium is found here. Being tourists, we finished the tour at 5pm, saw the town and decided to get the 7pm bus to Potosi and then continue on to Sucre in a taxi. This was our first experience of busses in Bolivia. At first everything seemed great; bus was clean (even still had the plactic wrappers on the seats), and we even had semi cama. Just before we set off Justin asked me ‘Who do you think we´re going to get stuck next to on this journey? The snorer, the whiny kid or the person on their mobile that doesn’t know how to put it on silent.’ Not only did we get stuck next to two of the above, fortunately we dodged the snorer, but the bloody bus driver thought he was a DJ at a disco and kept blaring the Bolivian music at high volume for 2 thirds of the 6 hour journey. We were relieved to finally arrive in Potosi, and hopped straight into a cab which drove us to Sucre. At this point it was 1:30 in the morning, freezing cold and raining, AND we had climbed a volcano that morning. There was one other person in the cab, which was good to begin with because he would help us with the cost, but Justin sat in the back with him and after about half an hour the guy was alseep and almost falling in Justin´s lap. The taxi driver kept his window open the whole way, proceeded to chew coca leaves (we had them on our tour and the rank smell almost makes me vomit) and then chain smoked for the majority of the 3 hour journey. The music wasn´t too bad, basically top ballads from the States or England translated into Spanish. Can you tell we are becoming weary travellers yet? We decided to get some relaxation and take some time out of the hostel world, so when we arrived in Sucre we wanted to get a hotel. Unfortunately the one we wanted was full (at 4am) so the cabby drove us around the block to another. We couldn´t see what it was like because the power had gone out after a little bit of rain. However, finally some luck…we got to our room saw a big fluffy bed and passed out.

We´ve now been in Sucre for the past week and a half, the old capital of Bolivia (however the locals will tell you it still is the capital), which is a lovely city full of beautiful colonial architecture. We’ve been taking more spanish lessons at Me Gusta Spanish School, getting into the culture with cooking lessons (we had tongue the other night, see photos), visited a Fexpo showcasing local artesans and went to the Tarabuco Market this past Sunday. The market, a long 2 hour bus ride away from Sucre, is one of the most famous in Bolivia held by the Yampara culture, and was quite a colorful site to see. The plaza is surrounded by artesans selling their blankets and artisanal pieces, and parades fill the streets. The Bolivians do love their parades, I think we´ve seen one almost every day that we´ve been in Sucre. Unfortunately the town of Tarabuco is less to be desired with the side roads smelling of urine. I think we even caught one women peeing in the road!

Tonight we head to La Paz, the highest capital in the world, for some halloween fun!!


Ruta de Pinguinos, Vino y Artesanos

Ruta de Pinguinos:

Our last stop in Patagonia took us to Puerto Madryn, a seaside town abundant with wildlife, just south of famous Peninsula Valdez. We went in search of penguins!!! Fortunately we arrived at the same time as the male penguins. You can sign on to different tours around either Peninsula Valdez or Punta Tomba, but like with many other things you get charged a rather hefty tourist price which can be 40% more than the locals. Luckily Justin bumped into two girls from Alaska, Jesse and Heather, and a guy from Holland, Ruben who were on the lookout for ways to save cash too. We all rented a car, a Ford Ka, and the next day went on our wildlife adventure. We were told that only 20 penguins had arrived at Peninsula Valdez so we headed for Punta Tomba, about 200 km south of Puerto Madryn. Driving along the dry, desert, highway you would hardly believe that penguins were making their nests 5 km away. Unfortunately too, it is not unfamiliar to see piles and piles of plastic bags and bottles next to the freeway. The locals are starting to become more consious of the fact that this is damaging the environment and have banned plastic bags at the supermarkets. The national parks however, are very well designed and modern. The Punto Tomba park had clearly marked paths and informational signs about the wildlife.

After our long drive and the final 5km of unpaved bumpy road in our little Ford Ka we were ready for some fresh seaside air. Our first wildlife spotting was the quanacas, a type of llama. Justin and I had seen plenty from the bus, but finally I could actually get a photo of them without being behind glass. Then we followed the path to see the penguins. As soon as we entered the park we saw the first little penguin hiding in it´s nest, then we turned a corner and there was another, then following the path a bit further we could see hundreds of them dotted around. It was an amazing sight. Surprisingly they weren´t really close to the beach and preferred to be a little further up on shore. The females were just starting to arrive and we actually saw them swimming in from the ocean. The males were making an incredible sound, trying to find their mates. They would suck in air to blow themselves up like a balloon and then deflate themselves letting out squeeking sounds. They were  not at all scared of humans and freely waddled over the path in front of us without even a care. One even waddled straight up in front of me, took a big stare and then carried on its merry way. Quite an experience for us all, especially Heather from Alaska who is going to do her major in ornithology.

Next we headed north to find the famous Welsh villiage, Gaiman, that apparently Princess Di went to. After yet another 40 minutes along a dirt road we came to a town that did not resemble Wales at all. The ´thing to do´ here is take afternoon tea. We found the gaudy tea house, with its tourist sized tea pot, but they wouldn´t serve us tea and wanted us to eat a full 10 course meal. After a few broken words in Spanish from me telling them that a 10 course meal with Milanesa wasn´t afternoon tea, we headed back up north to Peninsula Valdez to see the other type of whales. The best time to see the ´real´whales is a couple of hours before high tide. We arrived right on time and were delighted to see a Right Whale just off shore. We waited for a while and saw another spraying water. Finally, after all the times I have been whale watching, I have seen a whale. Perfect end to our wildlife tour.

Ruta de Vino:

There are two main places in Argentina to go wine tasting; Mendoza and Cafayate. Now, this may sound a bit dim, but I didn´t realize that Mendoza was a big city and had images of the countryside and vineyards as far as the eye could see. This was not the case. We arrived to a hustling, bustling city which at first was refreshing after all of the little towns. However the hostal we stayed in the first night was kind of gross (when Justin took a shower water poured though the bathroom, through our room and out into the hallway), we got insulted by some clerk in a supermarket, charged the tourist price for a cab, heckled by some kids, and the streets are filled with endless shoebox shops selling the same market quality goods. Our experience did get a little better after we met Eduardo at hostal Trilogia. This guy was so full of energy and enthusiasm and went out of his way to help us get organized for wine tasting. After two nights in Mendoza we headed out to Maipu, where the vineyards are actually located, and stayed in a bodega at the Cecchin Winery. As soon as we arrived we were greated by Senor Cecchin, a ninety year old man who has owned the winery for the last 50 years. He still gets up at five in the morning and helps out in the field. One of his employees told us he still has the energy since he never married! We decided to rent bikes from Mr. Hugo to visit the wineries as we thought this would be relaxing and fun. Ummm well after a few glasses of wine it was, but we definately got off to a shaky start cycling along the small roads with trucks blaring past us. It definately wasn´t Sonoma. We visited four wineries, drank a lot of wine and then headed to Club Tapiz, a schwanky restaurant for some good grub, before heading back to our comfy bodega.

Cafayate up north, is definately more picturesque, a small town in the Quebrada red rock mountains surrounded by vineyards. The grape to drink here is Torrontes, and is a perfectly refreshing drink after a long hike in the mountains. This place is a must see for anyone visiting Argentina. The drive north to the town is spectacular, going from a green valley, to a vast dessert speckled with cacti, and then finishing with red rock mountains and canyons with green vineyards. Our hostal was comfy too, more or less, although the owner seemed to want to party more than the people staying there which was kind of annoying. We met a couple from France and ended up hanging out with them for the three days we were there. Our first night a large festival was taking place, people were all gathered in the plaza, vendors were selling tasty treats, and a procession with fireworks filled the main street. It was so fun to see so much energy and excitement.  The next day we rented bikes with the French and cycled up to the cascades trail. We rented a guide, Franco, who showed us the trail, clambering over the rocks, through caves, and under waterfalls. Franco, a native of the area, was brilliant, telling us facts about the region, the natives and even acted as our photographer. We finished the day with wine tasting, although it was difficult to find bodegas open on a Saturday afternoon (silly really) and the ones we found had big school groups going through them. Still, a glass of Torrontes was perfect after a day of hiking in the sun.

Ruta de Artesanos:

Cordoba, the second biggest city in Argentina, and for once, I think the Lonely Planet got it bang on. The city is full of universities so has a very young hip feel, paired with a rich history stemming from the Jesuits, so amazingly architected churches are pretty much on every corner. There are an abundance of museums, and the main park is full of many artsy sculptures. We stayed in Justin´s friends hostal which is located in the art district, the equivalent of a Soho. We arrived on a Sunday and an Art market was in full swing. The food here is also pretty good offering more of a selection than just Milanesa and Lomitos. This is probably my favorite city I have seen so far. We didn´t do too much while we were there, and pretty much relaxed on the porch of the hostal people watching, and walked around. We did a day trip with Mike, Justin´s friend out to a National Park, went to some creeks and a funky little museum in the middle of nowhere. A French guy had spent his life collecting items from mummies to type writers and decided to build a museum out of it. It was actually really interesting and amazing that this one guy had collected so much stuff.

In contrast to Cordoba, Taffi de Valle, a small town 8 hours north, was our next stop, famous for it´s artesanal beers, cheeses, and potteries. The drive here was stunning winding up through a forest. We were sat right at the front of the bus and could see the 100ft drops right in front of us as the bus was charging up the road. I definately had a few gasps!! The valley is beautiful and we spent our time hiking, renting bikes, and tasting the locals goods.

We said goodbye to Argentina in Salta, a city in the North, and arrived in Bolivia last night. From our experience so far I think we will have some interesting stories to tell. But fow now…Ciao!


Challenge in Patagonia

“Romantic visions of glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauchos and condors.” (Patagonia, 2011) We have admired the enormous mountains, marveled at the never-ending glaciers, gazed up at the star filled skies and been stunned by avalanches. No wonder why the founder of Patagonia Outdoor Clothing, Yvon Chouinard, chose this special place as the name for his company.

We left the comforts of our home in Bariloche and took a 30 hour (yes 30!) bus ride down south into the heart of Patagonia. I have to say that the bus ride, as terrible as it sounds, wasn´t too bad and they even served us meals. Our first stop was El Calafate, a small town originally for wool traders, now exists because of the Los Glaciares National Park and the Perito Moreno Glacier visited by an abundance of tourists each year. Fortunately we went in the low season and almost had the place to ourselves. However we were happy that our hostel, America del Sur, had a good vibe and was full of fellow backpackers coming and going with eventful stories. We took a tour to go and see the glacier which is considered the eighth wonder of the world spanning five km wide and 35km long. The size of this thing is incomprehensible and spans for as far as the eye can see. We met a friendly ozzie bloke (Ash) on the tour and spent the day walking the maze of balconies they have built in front of the glacier and trying to catch a glimpse of a piece of the glacier breaking off. If you didn´t see a piece break off, you definitely heard the thundering noise. It was stunning. That night we met up with Ash, had a couple very large beers and shared notes about our trips.

After touching the surface of Patagonia, it was time to get deeper into the wilderness so we headed to El Chalten, an even smaller town literally in the middle of nowhere. This pueblo was mainly built for climbers and hikers to explore Cerro Torre, Cerro Fitz Roy and the numerous glaciers. Or if you´re crazy, like one guy we met on the bus, you can do back country skiing and ice climbing. He ventured out there on his own and we found out later that he nearly got stuck in an avalanche! The area and especially Cerro Fitz Roy is so formidable that only two climbing trips actually summit the mountain each year. Fortunately for us we arrived on a picture perfect day (many others at the hostel in El Calafate had returned from El Chalten without even a peek at these majestic mountains) without a cloud in the sky and were welcomed with more glaciers, fresh air and the beautiful mountains. The town however, was like arriving into a ghost town, hardly anything was open because of the time of year and hardly a soul around. Perfect for us…we would have the trails to ourselves! We checked into our lovely little cabana atAnita´s Place, grabbed some grub at a very tasty rotiseria (so good we even went back for dinner) and headed for the Lago Torre trail. This was our favorite hike so far, winding by the river, up hills, through little groves and finally to the magnificent finish. Iced over Lago Torre, Cerro Torre standing tall and Glaciar Grande. It was a sight we will never forget and literally took my breath away. The next day was pretty cloudy so we hiked to a waterfall and then ventured to Lago Capri to get the tourist photo of Fitz Roy, however it was too cloudy so we headed back down to try to find some lunch. When we reached the bottom everything was closed except for the main hostel. We went in with our hungry stomachs but after watching the waitresses continue to clean glasses and talk to each other for about 15 minutes without even bringing our water we left and headed further down the street and found a gem of a place called La Lucinda´s, a grandma, mum and daughter outfit serving the most delicious food. The sandwiches were delicious and when we had dessert it came with two different liquors. With our stomachs full, feeling very satisfied with our trip to El Chalten, we headed for the bus station. Next stop Puerto Natales.

Puerto Natales is again another small town on the Chilean Border that serves as a base for tourists heading to Torres Del Paine National Park. Our original thought was to just do day trips into the park, however after our experience in El Chalten and speaking to other travelers we decided to be a little adventurous and do the famous ´W´ hike. The hike is meant to take 4 days in the best weather, leading you by glaciers, lakes, mountains and vast lands. Along the way you can either stay at refugios or camp. We opted to camp since we weren´t sure if the refugios would be open and it costs $40 per bed in the refugios.  Daylight robbery! We met another guy in the hostel, George from Brazil, who decided to join us…perfect someone else to help carry the bloody food. Our journey started bright and early with a two hour bus journey to the park. Well it was meant to be two hours but the drivers kept stopping to have breakfast or sip mate with the park rangers. Our plan was to start on the east side of the park and head west as we were told that none of the boats taking you to the start of the trail were operating. Fortunately we met some Germans who told us that one of the boats was working and so we could probably get that back otherwise we would have to walk for an extra day to even get out of the park. We checked times at the ranger station and they didn´t even know what was going on. This seemed to be the theme of the employees working within the park; we would get one answer from one employee and then get the complete opposite from the next. Always a reassuring feeling when you´re going into the wilderness. We decided to just follow the Germans and continued with them along the windy road to the visitor center. This took about an hour and within that time we saw about 3 other people. The land was covered in a fresh blanket of snow and the sky was thick with clouds, not exactly welcoming. When we were finally dropped off at the visitor center I think we were all feeling like we had been abandoned in the freezing cold. It was an exciting but weird feeling…that feeling would get worse. We took a transfer to the hotel where we could get the boat giving us a chance to warm up once more until finally it was time. We hiked out to a small dingy which then took us across to a larger boat. The views on the journey were beautiful with a glacier in the distance and icebergs floating all around. When we arrived at our destination we were dropped off on the side of the lake and had to clamber up rocks to get onto shore. Then they left us and this was the weirdest feeling ever. I don´t think I have ever been in that situation before where if you can´t hike out you are pretty much screwed. It seriously felt like we were the only people in the park, well we kind of were. Waving the boat good-bye and realizing our situation we decided to get a bit of food in us before heading for the trail; a lovely lunch of salami and cheese sandwiches. The trail was covered in snow so our feet were pretty cold and wet straight away. Along the way we could see the glacier and small lakes that were almost black. We made it to the first refugio just after dark and what a relief it was to see ¨civilization¨ in front of us. We were welcomed with a lovely fire and a huge kitchen to cook in. We put up our tents, made some tasty cheese quesadillas, and joined the 4 others warming their feet by the fire. We met another German who has been travelling for the past 5 years and has 4 years to go with the aim of visiting every country in the world. Sounds interesting but he was quite defensive in everything he said so he just became annoying. Loved Justin´s line of ‘So you´re just doing this just to say you´ve been to every country then’. After a while he left and we decided to make the most of a golden opportunity and camp in the dining room by the fire rather than head out to -7 degree temperatures!

 The next day was beautiful without a cloud in the sky and I think we were all feeling a little more motivated. We headed for the middle of the ´W’ called  Valle Frances. We set up camp at Chileno had an interesting lunch of tuna, wraps, mustard and raisins (it wasn´t too bad). George decided to stay behind as Justin and I headed up the valley. It was hard to see the trail as it was covered in snow and we had to climb over huge boulders. Looking across the valley we noticed that the snow was piled very high above the cliffs and we both even mentioned that it looked like it would avalanche. Right on cue, well five minutes later we heard a loud crack, then a thunder and then the snow started pouring down. A few seconds later an even bigger avalanche started pouring down the mountain. (See the photos above.) It literally took my breath away, and my hiking spirit. A little freaked out we decided to head back down to camp, pack up the tent and move on to the next refugio. So glad we did as we were welcomed by another toasty fire and showers. This night we camped and it wasn´t so bad, except when I had to pee.

 Our third and what turned out to be our final day, was a day of morals and ethics. It started off well. We got up early and Justin even saw a fox. Our aim was to try to make it up to the needles or at least a camp site just below them, however George, the guy from Brazil, was walking slower and just couldn´t keep up. We tried helping him out by carrying his tent but his legs were two tired. After about an hour we had to confront him and decided to leave him behind. We felt like crap and for the next hour and half kept trying to reason as to why it was OK and that he should be fine on his own. Further down the trail we ran into some other Germans (so many German´s in this park) who said the trail up to the needles was extremely difficult to finish with the time we had. So, along with the fact that we had left George and the news from the Germans made us realize we shouldn´t be rushing to do the needles and we should finish this thing as a team. George caught up to us after a little and then we carried on the trail, although this time funnily enough he had picked up the pace a little. We amazingly reached the last refugio 2 minutes before the shuttle and then headed home with a stunning view of the needles standing tall. That night Justin and I toasted our experience with the ‘W’ pizza at Mesita Grande. We never really saw George again. I guess we deserved that.

P.S. We decided against going to Ushuaia since we were ready for summer.