Take me to the vineyards, and give me wine!

Chile is a country of vast diversity; the slender strip of land stretching from one of the driest deserts in the world, all the way down the western edge of the continent to the spectacular yet potentially hostile landscapes of Patagonia. We’d arrived in San Pedro de Atacama at the end of our three day 4×4 trip through Bolivia, and were happy to find a quaint little oasis of a town that thrives almost solely on its high tourist traffic. Yes, so its streets are lined with guest houses, hotels and hostels, with myriad tour companies offering essentially the same trips as every other tour company in town, but it still somehow manages to retain its charm. More to the point, it was warm!!! We’d woken up to a freezing morning in Bolivia, and yet here we now were, having descended over 2000m from the altiplano, completely over dressed and sweating into our backpacks!

Reaching Chile was also significant for a number of other reasons: 1 -we were now going to diverge for a while from places that I’d been to before, so we were back into exploration; 2 – it’s a much more developed economy and infrastructure than you find in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia; and 3 – we were now half way through our time in South America and only six weeks from the end of our trip.

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There’s not a great deal out here!   San Pedro is the sliver of green that you can see; the volcanoes on the horizon had the distinct feel of The Truman Show about them.

I think I have already mentioned that before we left home, I had the entirely unsubstantiated and utterly naive notion that with a ‘whole year to travel the world’, we could not only go anywhere and do anything, we could indeed go everywhere and do, yes you’ve guessed it, everything. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In terms of South America in particular, I was certain that we’d take a long sweeping journey down to the far south of the continent to explore the incredible landscape and the famous glaciers. Right now, in San Pedro, was where we had to start to figure out if that was both a possibility, and something that we still actually wanted to do.

You see, as I alluded to in our last couple of blog posts, we were beginning to struggle a bit. Initially it was a bit of home sickness, then Bolivia came along and compounded it with actual sickness. If you multiply that with altitude sickness … well, you start to feel a little under the weather.

And then you meet all of these people who ask you if you’re going to Patagonia, and you look at them with what you hope is enthusiasm and say, ‘Well, yeah. That was the plan,’ trying not to emphasise the past tense too much. And they get all wild eyed and dreamy and say, ‘Oh yes, you have to. You must go. You’ll regret it if you don’t.’ And you look at a map and think, well, it’s not that far… because that’s what you thought when you looked at the distance between Quito and Cusco, and only found out later that it would take you three days to make the trip. On decent roads. With established bus routes. And comfortable  buses. And obvious places to stop en route.

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We were just pleased to be back in the sun and very reluctant to leave it!

Going to the south of the continent, you’re going into the wilds, literally to the ends of the earth. To places where roads just run out, and you’re faced with complex journeys involving numerous boats and jeeps and all sorts of other things. And then there’s the weather of course, that could delay any means of transport indefinitely, and in an exponentially increasing scale of liklihood, the further south you go.

So yes, we had the conversations with other people willingly. We smiled, nodded, made enthusiastic noises, while all the time knowing that it was unlikely that we’d ever make it past Santiago. We did consider it for a while – we even made numerous attempts to hire a camper van or car to go exploring – but when it was all booked up, we weren’t too devastated, and therein was the ultimate truth about our mindset: we wouldn’t be going to Patagonia.

I don’t feel bad about that either, for the very simple reason that we were exhausted. If we’d made the trek down there, we’d either have been stuck in some accommodation somewhere too ill to venture out, or we’d make it onto a mountain trek and immediately wonder what on earth we were doing there, question why we were putting ourselves through it, and risk not even seeing the beauty of the world around us anymore. If we do ever venture to that region, it will have to be fresh, with energy and vigour. It would be foolhardy to make the trip otherwise.

San Pedro de Atacama
So what were we going to do?? Well, the answer to that was easy – it was time to drink some more wine! Yes, we had finally made it to the epicentre of South America’s wine production industry, and we were going to make the most of it.

But first, San Pedro – they don’t grow wine in the desert…but they do sell it! We only stayed a few nights in the town, which in hindsight may have been an error, but we still had the sense that there was quite a long way to go, and we shouldn’t be hanging around too long. We did have enough time to enjoy a couple of excellent restaurants though, sharing a meal with Andrew to celebrate the end of our salt flats tour and discovering Carménère in the process (more on that in a minute).

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In our excitement, we made the monumental error of forgetting to take water!  (To the desert, I know!)

Valle de la Luna
You also have a chance to explore some pretty other-worldly landscapes in order to work up a thirst! The impressive Valle de la Luna – the Valley of the Moon – is not named, as I thought, for something to do with moonlight, or a nocturnal occurrence, but rather because the landscape itself has a rather lunar-esque appearance.

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Time for the GoPro!

We decided to get a bit active, hiring mountain bikes to cover the ten mile journey to the valley. Leaving at 3pm, we’d have enough time to explore a bit, before climbing up to one of the high ridges to watch the sunset. It is a stunning place, especially the salt caves. There is a section of what looks like a small mountain range that is made up of mineral and salt deposits, rather than rock. Then, on the occasions when the desert receives rain (which is clearly not that often), the resulting streams dissolve the rocks (for want of a better word) and create spectacular, sweeping and sprawling underground cave systems that you can crawl through, with a little squeeze.

The sunset across the valley is also fantastic, and you get a lot of people up on the high ridges, finding a little spot of their own from which to survey the scene. With the sun setting in front of you, and the panorama of volcanoes behind you, merging and blending their palette in the falling light, it is hard to know which way to look! Since we got up there on bikes though, we couldn’t hang around after the sun had set because in the desert, it gets very dark, very quickly!

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We were joined for part of the afternoon by a friendly travelling companion.

 

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I’m rarely happier than when enjoying a glass (or six…!) of wine in the dappled sunlight of a vineyard.

Take me to the vineyards!
Catching yet another overnight bus (this was our fifth in South America so far), we headed to the capital, Santiago, to be greeted by a vibrant, modern city.   Notably, it’s also a place where the cyclist thrives, with thousands people dodging the gridlocked traffic on their two-wheeled machines.  As much as it is a good place to explore for a few days though, let’s not pretend that we were there purely for cultural reasons; our main motivation was the world famous Chilean wine industry! We had such an amazing time in the Hunter Valley in Australia, that we were very excited to see what Chile had to offer.

Within striking distance of Santiago, you have three of the main wine producing regions: Maipo Valley, Colchagua Valley and Casablanca Valley. With a little research, we liked the look of Colchagua, but it was proving to be logistically difficult; either we’d have to book a wine tour, that was going to be expensive by anybody’s standards, or we’d have to try and hire a car and take ourselves around. Now, I don’t know about you, but for us, the merry bonus of a day out wine tasting, is returning home happily pissed. Hiring a vehicle for one of us to drive then, was ruled out. As were the all-in tour packages. In fact, Colchagua as a whole, seemed to be turning out to be a lot of faff.

Our other option, was to visit the Maipo Valley, which sits very close to the south of the city, and to which you can take much more reasonably priced bike tours: bikes and wine, a perfect day, surely? Well, despite being a better price, it still seemed a lot for what you were getting (especially since we still had vivid memories of the free tastings offered by all the vineyards in the Hunter Valley), and the brutal honesty of it was that we were not really that interested in a tour of the vineyard, and an explanation of the wine-making process … we just wanted to taste the wine! So, when we found that we could get to two of the largest vineyards in the region for about £2 on the metro, it was decision made!

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Despite not really wanting to tour the vineyard, we’d have to admit that the Cousiño Macul cellar was pretty cool.

We hopped on to the tube, and forty minutes later, arrived at Cousiño Macul, a vineyard we’ve never heard of but is reputably a local favourite. We used the money we’d saved by not booking a tour … to book a tour! I know that sounds backwards, but if you get yourself to the vineyard, you can take their premium tour for less than the price of the bike/wine combo package. And it’s exactly the same except that you don’t ride a bike anywhere, but you do get to taste more wines, and they are combined with cheeses too. Saying no more about money, the premium tour at Cousiño Macul was well worth it: six beautiful wines, well explained by the guide, along with a cheese for each. Fabulous!

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A lovely little selection of cheeses and wines.

Perhaps here is the point to bring up the Carménère. We had never even heard of this wine, and I’m guessing most of you haven’t either. Well, that’s not surprising, as although it was once a big grape in Europe, the entire variety was wiped out by a plague in 1867 and was presumed extinct. Over to my good friend Wikipedia for a moment:

Far from being extinct, in recent years the Carménère grape has been discovered to be thriving in several areas outside of France. In Chile, growers almost inadvertently preserved the grape variety during the last 150 years, due largely to its similarity to Merlot.  In 1994, a researcher at Montpellier’s school of Oenology found that “an earlier-ripening vine was Bordeaux Carménère, not Merlot”. The Chilean Department of Agriculture officially recognized Carménère as a distinct variety in 1998.

Put simply, the Chileans had imported Carménère vines, got them mixed up with Merlot and been selling the wine made from them as such for a hundred and fifty years – which I think is brilliant! Now, Chile produces the vast majority of the Carménère on the market, and you find it in on the wine list in almost every restaurant. Having discovered it, we also discovered a taste for it, going on to select it numerous times over the rest of our stay in Chile – a stay which, as I’m sure you’re beginning to realise, was heavily characterised by the consumption of red wine!

The Devil’s Cellar
After finishing the Cousiño Macul tour, we realised that we could reach Concha y Toro in the same afternoon – also on the metro! And since the only thing better than a trip to a vineyard, is a trip to two vineyards, we went for it. You’ll most probably recognise the name as their wines line the shelves of many a UK supermarket, particularly their brand Casillero del Diablo.

Once again, with little inclination to visit the vineyard itself and much more interest in tasting their produce, we managed to talk our way around the offers of a tour and into their wine bar, which is set in a beautiful paved courtyard.

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The brownie we ordered for dessert was sublime; accompanied by a chilled late harvest Sauvignon Blanc of course.

Once there, you can order from their lunch menu and their extensive wine list. Putting the emphasis firmly on ‘tasting’ rather than ‘drinking’, we ordered their flight of premium red wines – which gifted us with a Merlot, a Syrah, a Cabernet Sauvignon and, of course, a Carménère – and a pair of Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon, one 2009 vintage and the other a 1991, reputedly ‘the best Cabernet in the continent’. Well, that was some claim!

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Some may say that we’d ordered too much wine at this point, but I’d be inclined to disagree!   (Incidentally, this is the last sighting of my iPod.)

As it happens, it turns out our palettes aren’t quite ready for wines that are almost as old as we are, not really enjoying the super soft tones of the 24 year old wine. We much preferred the brighter, more robust, younger wines, the pick of which was probably the Carménère. I have to say, though, that the Concha y Toro experience was superb. We would usually be a little skeptical about such a large place, often preferring the smaller boutique wineries, but the people in the wine bar were so welcoming, so knowledgeable, so giving of their time, despite clearly being very busy, that we left feeling that we’d had an excellent lunch and a very genuine experience.

Then on the way home on the metro, a pickpocket stole my iPhone and my iPod. Damn. There’s no point in writing anymore about it, but it did leave a sour taste in our mouths.

An unexpected meeting
Keen to round out our experience of Chile a bit, and armed with three bottles of wine from Concha y Toro, we headed towards the coast to the chaotic but artsy Valparaiso. Checking into a bizarre little hostel, we wandered round the corner to a restaurant that had been recommended in the guide book. It was a bustling little place full of retro decor, but there was a table free by the window. As soon as we sat down, Helena, looking over my shoulder, said, ‘That’s Rob Mundy!’

Rob is a friend from the triathlon club back in Birmingham and he too had been travelling around with his fiancé, Jen. As they were just finishing their meal, and we’d only just arrived, we quickly said hello and shared a few, ‘Oh wow, that’s so random’ kind of sentiments, before arranging to meet up the following evening for drinks.

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Sorry about the quality of the pic – the little pisco bar was a lot of fun though!

Which we did, in a pisco bar just up the road, where we proceeded to drink quite a lot of pisco before heading down into the town in a futile attempt to alleviate the impending drunkenness. It was a lot of fun, and we decided to go for dinner the following evening, which we did. We shared pizza and yet more Carménère, and chatted about travels, and home, and everything else.

It was such a good feeling to be with people that we actually knew! I mean, we love meeting new people, and we’d been meeting more and more as we got further into our travels, but there comes a point in every trip where the standard set of questions – ‘Where are you from? How long have you been travelling? Where are you going next?’ – get met with less enthusiastic answers than they deserve.

So our Valparaiso time was enhanced hugely by spending a lot of time with Rob and Jen, which was great. We did also do a fabulous cooking course, which involved a trip around the market, selecting produce, before returning to the kitchen to cook a selection of Chilean dishes, including an excellent Ceviche, a fantastic Pebre and some classic empanadas.  You can look forward to a recreation of some of these when we get home!

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This pisco sour is not from Chile at all; it’s from Puno, in Peru.   But it was particularly lovely and it highlights what we were doing in Chile admirably.

This course also had a heavy influence on drinking, with Pisco accompanying the starter, white wine the ceviche and red the main course.

I wish I could share some pictures with you, but all of our stuff from Valparaiso and the cooking class were on the camera that we were to lose three days later. We do luckily have some excellent shots shamelessly stolen from Rob’s selection though, so I’ll share those below. As for our feelings about Chile … well, I’m not sure I’ve quite forgiven the pickpocket yet, and we know we barely scraped the surface in terms of the diverse experiences you can enjoy in the country, but we did enjoy it, and I should probably forgive and forget as, after all, they do make some amazing wine!

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I have ‘borrowed’ this, and the four shots below, from Rob’s album – thanks mate, I owe you!

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Hels and I share a pisco sour – again, this was Puru, not Chile, but the effect was the same!
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Bolivia: dangerous descents and fascinating flats!

If we thought the altitude in Quito was a shock, La Paz was to be yet another step up – literally. Ranging from 3100m at its extreme lowest to 4058m at the airport, La Paz is widely recognised as the highest capital city in the world. The fact that it’s technically not the capital of Bolivia, doesn’t seem to matter of course! Flying into La Paz is renowned to be an assault on the senses, especially if you come from sea level (from home, or Lima for example), but luckily, we were coming from Lake Titicaca on a bus. We were fully acclimatised, battle hardened, mountain ready … or so we thought.

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La Paz – a city in favour of huge flags!

Stepping off the bus, lifting our packs, realising that our guest house was a fifteen minute walk back up the hill we had just driven down, we set off, in a kind of baby step trudge that saw us arrive exhausted. We were grateful though; the place was lovely and we now had a few days to explore La Paz and sort out our two priority experiences for Bolivia: a tour across the Salar de Uyuni, and a trip down the World’s Most Dangerous Road.

Having been through Bolivia before in 2009, I had already done both of these trips once, but had no reservations about doing them again as they were both huge highlights of the previous trip for me.

But first, time to explore the city. Everything about your experience in La Paz is dominated by the altitude – you never walk anywhere very quickly, you often take breaks in cafés to rejuvenate, you seem to sit for a long time at any given attraction having a constant battle of wills, the voices in your head arguing between themselves: ‘We should probably go,’ vs. ‘Just give me one more second.’

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The ubiquitous ‘minivan taxi’ that squeals around, with someone hanging out of the half open door, touting for fares.   They carry, oh, about 20 or more people at a time…

Mixed in with this you have huge volumes of chaotic traffic filling the streets and beeping in a way that is reminiscent of northern Indian cities, the pavements are filled with street vendors selling everything you can imagine, and no matter what time of the day or night it is, the place is always heaving with people going about their business.

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Helena actually took this photo in Quito, but the women in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia all seem to look decidedly similar.

One of the most interesting sights is the women: dressed in tens of layers of clothing, often carrying a baby or small child wrapped in a colourful sheet that has been tied over one shoulder, with long black hair that has been centre parted and tied into two plaits, and almost without exception, wearing a small, bowler hat, perched on top of their head. They are an incredible sight and more often than not, they’ll stride past you uphill, carrying a full load while you are struggling to move just yourself and your camera.

So, after a day spent exploring the city, we booked our mountain biking trip with Gravity Mountain Biking.  We didn’t shop around on this occasion, despite knowing that Gravity were not the cheapest option out there, for two reasons: 1 – I’d been with them before and they were excellent, and 2 – You probably don’t want to go with ‘Cheapy Mcnasty Rip Roarin’ Death Road Bikin’ tours’ with the strap line ‘Look at me, hands free!‘ when the trip includes the words ‘dangerous road‘ and ‘world’s most‘!

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It’s generally not recommended to ride off the edge…

Anyone for a ride down the death road..?

Gravity lived up to my memory of them being awesome – good equipment, good guide, safety a primary concern, and the best bikes on the mountain (with the best brakes, which is important!) The thing is, despite its billing, the ride isn’t actually that dangerous – the whole of the first part is on tarmac for a start, then once you hit the gravel road, it’s quite wide in bike terms (wide enough for a bus all the way down), and it’s not really that steep either.

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High quality, well maintained bikes.

The only things that are dangerous are the surface on the gravel road, which is scattered with melon sized rocks that will throw you off the bike if you hit them head on, and, of course, the up to 600m drop that persists on your left hand side all of the way down. You really don’t want to ride off of it, given the chance.

It’s a spectacular experience though, and so varied. From La Paz, you drive for about an hour uphill to the starting point at La Cumbre pass, a mere 4650m (or 15260ft – yes, higher than the Salkantay pass!) where you put on all of the clothes you brought and an extra set of over clothes that Gravity provide. Believe me, at that height, you need it all, especially the gloves.

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The view from the top – you can just see the beginning of the tarmac road curving off to the left.

After a briefing, and a quick ritual offering to Pacha Mama (which involved blessing the ground and your front wheel with near enough neat alcohol before taking a sip..!), we were off. The tarmac section gives each rider the chance to get used to the bike, while enjoying the sweeping bends and the changing views of the mountains as you drop into the valley. Soon enough, though, you enter the gravel road – the death road proper – where the instructions remain the same apart from one key difference. ‘On this road,’ said Kieran, our guide, ‘you ride on the left, not the right. It’s the only road in South America where that’s the case. Can anyone guess why?’ Having done it before, I knew the answer, and seeing as nobody else was forthcoming, I ventured forth with, ‘It’s because the road is so narrow, that when vehicles pass each other, the driver on the outside needs to be able to see how close his wheels are to the edge, so they swap so that the descending driver is sat on the edge side of the road. They can then lean out of their window and see exactly where they are.’

That any road ever constructed needs this kind of provision is a little baffling, nonetheless it not only exists, but is still in use as a public highway. Ironically, though, the new road that was built to replace death road actually sees way more deaths nowadays; not because it’s more dangerous, more that the crazy drivers just favour that route. It’s all statistics, you see.

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All kitted out and ready to ride!

Back to the bikes – we had made it down the first section of the road unscathed, stopping at a mirador (viewpoint) to survey the valley ahead. Unfortunately for us, it was cloudy, and beginning to rain, so we couldn’t see a thing! You may think that this would make the experience more dangerous, but in actual fact, being completely oblivious of the sheer drop just to your left actually makes you feel safer; ignorance is indeed bliss, it seems.

And so we carried on, stopping at regular intervals for briefings of what was coming up, and chances to check all the bikes and riders were still all functioning correctly, but other than that, just riding. It is such a superb ride, a gravelly, sometimes rocky, perpetual downhill, that offers you enough cornering to be exhilarating, and enough gradient to keep your speed up to ‘oh man, I’m going to have to brake anytime soon’ levels throughout.

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It gets a bit tropical towards the bottom!

When you hit the bottom, you’ve descended a jaw-dropping 3450m (11360ft) to a balmy, tropical jungle near the town of Corioco, where the layers are shed, high fives are offered and beers are shared. After lunch, you take on probably the scariest part of the whole day: driving back up the death road in the bus!

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A bit wet and muddy, but that’s what mountain biking is all about, right?

Feeling a bit under the weather 

What I didn’t tell you, though, was that we had to delay the ride by a day. We’d booked it and gone to bed, but half way through the night I woke up to enjoy a pretty severe bout of vomiting followed up by regular toilet trips – that’s as graphic as I’m getting, honest! Despite trying desperately to get up and go on the ride, just the act of getting dressed left me exhausted. We resolved that Helena would go, explain the situation, transfer the ride if possible, but if not, she’d go on it alone (seeing as I had done it before). Luckily, we were able to push it back a day, which made me very happy indeed!

This theme of illness, though, seemed to have crept up on us. Hels wasn’t feeling good when we had got to Copacabana, now it was my turn. In the days that followed, we effectively tag-teamed which of us was being the most ill (I don’t think either of us were 100% at any point), and which was doing the looking after. The worst example of this was the 12 hour overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni, which we managed to catch despite Helena descending rapidly into weariness on the way to the station and eventual vomiting soon after the bus left. I looked after her at the start of the trip, but by the end, the situation had reversed and I was back to my regular toilet visits leaving me little energy to even carry my bags.

So when we made it to Uyuni, to start our three day tour across the salt flats, we were once again wondering whether to try to put it back a few days. Cutting a long story short, Fanta saved me. Yes, Fanta. And yes, I know; as much as Coca Cola, the company, the drink, and everything else that they make is probably an example of global industry at its worst, its sugar rich products are life savers when it comes to diarrhoea.

Time to tackle the salt flats 

So, we went for it. Two litre bottle of Fanta in hand, I clambered into the front seat of the Toyota Land Cruiser that was effectively to be our home for the next three days. I couldn’t remember who we had done this trip with in 2009, so after some research Helena and I chose Quechua Connection. Again, not necessarily the cheapest option out there, but there’s no point scrimping cash on a three day adventure, it’ll only ruin the experience.

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Our first stop was a train ‘graveyard’ that was kind of like a playground for grown-ups!

As it was, we were a group of three 4x4s, which were almost entirely full of Brits: A group of 9 travelling together, me and Hels, a friendly chap named Andrew, and a couple from Romania. The three drivers (our was called Franz) added to the party and the final member was Nadia, the super conscientious, super enthusiastic, super knowledgeable guide who enhanced every aspect of our trip, despite worrying herself silly about the state of my health.

The thing I love about this trip, is that as soon as you leave Uyuni, you are off-road for three days. Not a hint of tarmac anywhere; at best, trails or tracks, but more often than not, the open salt plain or the desert. The drivers pick their way through the terrain, constantly trying to find the most solid ground, often inexplicably choosing a different route to the vehicle in front, regularly (at the encouragement of the passengers) gunning the throttle to stay ahead of the other jeeps. It’s not a race, of course … but then, when has driving off-road ever not been a race?!

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I can offer no words for this one…

The other amazing thing about this trip, is the variety of landscapes you get to see. It’s not purely about the salt flats, although the Salar de Uyuni – or the Salar de Tunupa, as Nadia informed us it is more accurately called – is one of the most magical places we have ever visited. Stretching for miles, reaching out endlessly to the horizon, with only occasional floating islands and the backdrop of volcanoes punctuating the panoramic white, you can’t help but feel that Mother Nature had a very special day when she thought up this one.

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Nadia demonstrates that although the salt flats have ‘dried out’, there is still a lot of water to be found!

It was actually formed as the continent rose out of the sea initially forming a lake before drying out, crystallising the salt into the perfectly flat crust.  It is the largest one of many salt flats in the area that actually have a geographical link back to Lake Titicaca.  But yes, in addition to the mystical Salar, you also get to explore the expanse of the desert, the superb lagoons in varied colours, green, red, white, often full of foraging flamingoes, the weather shaped rocks, the millennia old stone army that is actually coral, geysers that bubble like cauldrons in the earth and a fabulous hot spring, that remains hot despite the earth around it being well below freezing.

We stayed at two hostels in the middle of nowhere, the first a lovely set up where we had a double en-suite room with hot water (yes, it was worth the extra money!), and the second which was much more rough and ready, with simple dorms and shared facilities.

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The second hostel was a pretty basic affair.   And yes, Helena’s wearing all of her clothes because it was freezing in the morning!

The second night saw another bout of dodgy tummy for me so I was up and down throughout, desperately trying not to wake the others.

One of the other reasons people love the salt flats, is that the white background creates the perfect setting to take ‘perspective’ photographs, where the creative minded come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for shots mixing the sixes of people and objects that have been brought along specifically for this purpose.

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The old ‘Oh no, it’s a massive dinosaur’ shot; a salt flats classic!

Nadia was well versed in where to put the people and how to take the photos, so we spent quite a while in a sort of ‘photo shoot’ mode, stepping forwards, backwards, this way and that, to create the shots.

Camera disaster!

Our biggest problem right now – which didn’t happen until over a week after this – is that we lost our main camera on the bus from Santiago to Mendoza. As much as it’s heart-breaking, as it was a gift to Helena from her parents, the object loss is not the biggest thing; it’s the fact that we had a load of photos on there that we cannot replace. This doesn’t mean every photo from the whole trip, as thankfully we’ve been uploading as we go to a
Flickr site (highly recommended practice), it’s just that we could only back them up when we had decent wi-fi, so when we lost the camera we had uploaded everything except the second part of the salt flats, and anything we took in Chile. It’s a nightmare, but, as we’ve been telling ourselves, we could have lost a lot more. For now, I’ll leave you with a selection of photos we do still have, and a huge recommendation for visiting the Salar de Uyuni – it really is a spectacular place.

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We quite like this one!
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One of the first lagoons we saw, stunning (but smelly!)
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I love this shot – the panorama is the only way to photograph the desert!
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One of the downhill team on ‘postcard corner’.
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At the end of our trip, with Franz in the centre, Nadia and Andrew.   Good times!
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One of my favourites of our entire trip: the steam rising above the hot springs in the early morning sun. 

 

It’s all about the altitude!

A week after leaving Cusco, we’d made it to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca – via a stop-over in Arequipa to visit the Colca Canyon – and it was hailing.

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There really was a lot of hail!

I’d come out in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops and was now sat with Helena, huddling for warmth around a heater in a cafe, clutching a hot chocolate.  We were wet, cold, and wondering what the hell we were doing. ‘Is it time to go home yet?’ one of us said (although I genuinely can’t remember who).

So, in those situations, there is only one course of action: drink! Firstly hot chocolate, (which Helena has just reminded me actually had Bailey’s in it) but soon thereafter, Pisco – a grape based spirit enjoyed by Peruvians across the country.

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Helena loving life in Puno…

Despite Puno being our last stop in Peru, we hadn’t actually had a proper Pisco Sour up until that point; a situation that was quickly, and repeatedly, rectified.

Colca Canyon
Before Puno though, we went to Arequipa, a city dwarved by the huge volcanoes, El Misti and Chachani.  We had neither a hostel nor any activity booked but we’d heard that the Colca Canyon was well worth a visit, and managed to find a tour agency that were doing trips every day. We could have done a single day excursion, getting a bus to the canyon, visiting all of the key points, and returning the same day. Tempting as that sounds, we were keen to avoid a repeat performance of our Grand Canyon experience (10 hours on a bus for 90 mins of frantic and crowded photo taking), so went for a two-day option where you trek down into the canyon on the first day, before climbing back out again on the second.

Now, we assumed that having done quite a lot of hiking by this point, that the canyon experience would be somewhat of a breeze. However, we totally underestimated the difficulties involved by inverting the gradients, i.e. by climbing down into the canyon and then having to climb back out again. Not only does the walk down dig into your legs way more than you think it would (or should), the next morning you get the joy of climbing back out of the depths to your start point.  Also, significantly, on this particular hike, the journey down is about 16km whereas the path back up is 6km. That means only one thing – it’s steep!

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Despite all of this, we really enjoyed the canyon. We met an American couple, Mike and Ishel, who were great fun and the scenery was pretty stunning too. It was definitely worth taking the hiking option as we felt like we’d connected our experience of the canyon together with a more substantial amount of time and of course energy. Plus, the changing views were awesome.

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Team Canyon Trek – it was a short-lived adventure but fun nonetheless!

Arequipa
Back in Arequipa, after a 5am hike up the canyon wall and a trip over a 4875 metre mountain pass in the minibus, we treated ourselves to a celebratory craft beer and hot chocolate (no Bailey’s this time) before heading back to our guesthouse.

The next morning, we decided to do something we very rarely do, despite often having the opportunity. Yes, that’s right, historical culture fans – we went to a museum.

This is significant, you see, as museums aren’t really our thing. At one time, I would have apologised for not wanting to visit some cultural artefacts, lovingly preserved in glass cases in hushed rooms across the world. The more we travel, however, the more we realise that you have to do what you want to do; not what the lonely planet tells you you should do, nor necessarily what another traveller recommends as a ‘you can’t possibly miss it’ kind of thing. And importantly, don’t apologise for doing (or not doing) whatever it may be!

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They call Arequipa ‘The White City’ as all of the main buildings are covered in volcanic white ‘sillar’.

This particular museum, however, had an exhibit that Helena in particular, really wanted to see: the preserved frozen body of a sacrificed Incan girl. They have named her ‘Juanita: The Ice Princess’. A 20 minute introductory video tells of a girl who was effectively born and raised to be sacrificed. From a good family, virtuous, a virgin, she would (maybe?) have felt it a privilege to have been chosen as an offering to the gods in exchange for their mercy: which would come in the form of peace from the active volcano, Ampato. For me though, the most significant thing was that this girl was not only sacrificed, but she also had to hike her way to the summit of the 6310 metre summit in order to be so; in simple clothes and sandals. She would have been freezing, exhausted and possibly suffering from the effects of the altitude. A really inconceivable feat in many ways.

The idea was made even more impressive, if that’s the right word, when you consider what it would take to get up to that height. When we were talking with the tour guide about booking the Colca trek, I noticed that they offered trips to climb Chachani which, at 6075 metres, is apparently one of the world’s ‘easiest’ 6000m peaks. Tempted with the opportunity, and feeling rather confident having just been over the 4600m Salkantay pass with minimal issues, I rather nonchalantly asked about the price for the trek.

‘What kind of acclimatisation do you have?’ asked the lady. It was an interesting response, seeing as I’d asked about money. Nevertheless, I replied confidently, ‘Well, we’ve just spent about a week in Cusco and done the Salkantay trail. It goes to 4600m you know…’
‘It is not enough,’ she said, dismissing the request instantly, ‘You will not be able to climb Chachani.’ To be fair, she went on to explain that you really need to stay at or above 4000m for numerous days, taking in regular hikes even to be considered to start that sort of trek. It is good that the company take the issues of altitude seriously – but it made me think that poor old Juanita, who was actually pretty young, must have found it hard too.

Lake Titicaca
Back in Puno then, during the breaks in the weather, we did a little exploring, mainly to see Lake Titicaca the world’s largest high altitude lake. It seems like everything in this region is at altitude! Although we’d been given recommendations about visiting the famous floating islands, we just didn’t fancy it, so we relaxed in the town and planned our onwards travel.

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The deep blue of Lake Titicaca was spectacular, but the weather above Isla del Sol looked rather ominous!

It was time to cross into Bolivia. We could have taken a direct bus to La Paz, but we felt that Titicaca deserves a little time so we hopped over the border to Copacabana instead. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, Helena was feeling pretty rough, and the concept of trudging around the town, carrying all of our stuff, looking for a place to stay was a non-starter.

So, depositing Hels in a comfortable cafe with a cup of tea, I headed out to find some accommodation. It is a testament to the learning that comes with immersion in a language that I was able to visit four separate places, check if they had available rooms, ask to see the rooms, discuss prices and even negotiate a discount at one – using exceptional Spanish along the lines of: ‘¿Cien treinta Bolivianos para noche? ¡Nooo! ¡Este muy caro! ¿Habla … er … discount?’

Surprising as it may seem, I actually located a decent room in a hotel just around the corner from the cafe and we chilled out there while Helena recovered.

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The ladies sit on the grass in traditional dress, listening to the men.  Everyone is in a hat!

As she was feeling much better the next day, we hopped on a boat to Isla del Sol – the Island of the Sun – on which, ironically, the weather was horrendous! Definitely more of an Isla del rainingcloudyandprettydamnchillyifwe’rehonest!  We set off on a hike, not really knowing where we were going, and ended up having a lovely day. The weather brightened up; the island offered spectacular views of the lake from its spine ridge path; and we came across local town meetings where men and women were congregated in traditional dress talking through the issues affecting the community. Reaching Yumani at the southern tip of the island, we stopped for lunch overlooking the lake, before catching the boat back to Copacabana.

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The ridge path offers great views out across the lake.

So that’s it for now – a short update as part of my attempt to get as much as possible written before we get home. We’re actually in Rio right now – crazy hey! – but you can look forward to blogs about La Paz, cycling down the World’s Most Dangerous Road, spending three days in a 4×4 crossing the salt flats, wine tasting and cooking courses in Chile, even more wine in Mendoza along with the friendliest hostel we’ve found since Thailand, the bright lights of Buenos Aires, the awesome natural energy of Iguazu Falls and the fun we had in Floreanopolis. I had better get writing!

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Ready to go at 5am – breakfast is at the top of the canyon!
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Such an incredible landscape.
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The Incan Cross hung above the entrance to the town.
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Hats, hats and more hats!
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One of the awesome Condors you can see cruising around in the Colca Canyon.
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We couldn’t leave the Peru blogs without a picture of a Llama.