A Travellerspoint blog

San Pedro de Atacama

Desert Oasis

sunny 20 °C
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After an uneventful 24hr bus we pulled into the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. A tiny tourist town in the middle of nowhere, all made out of mudbrick and rock. This place is a huge drawcard though for seeing some amazing scenery. Our hostel had us sleeping in rooms like little caves made from rock walls and unfortunetely having cold showers. The little town is filled with tour agencies, so we spent the day enjoying the sunshine and getting ideas for all the tours possible.

The first tour we signed up for was an astronomy tour. San Pedro is nearly 3000m above sea level and combined with being a desert and thus very little moisture in the air, it makes it an ideal place to see the stars and galaxies beyond. There are many huge telescopes in the Atacama desert doing research up in space. We went to a place set up for tourists, where first a guide explained in depth about the different stars, constellations, the milky way and planets, using the most powerful and awesome laser pointer! Some of the constellations are very very hard to work out! There were 10 or so big telescopes set up outside that were all pointed on different things that we got to look at. We saw some stars, looked into the milky way, saw a constellation called the jewellery box and most excitingly saw Saturn. It looked exactly like you would expect with the rings around it!
Afterwards we all went inside to warm up (as its a desert it is freezing at night) with hot chocolate and listen to an astronomer from the nearby observatory. The astronomer was this hilarious and highly cynical frenchman who spent a long time explaining the story of why Pluto was not a planet anymore but just a large asteroid. Check out the pictures by Jimmy McIntyre http://www.throughstrangelenses.com

The next morning we sadly had to rise before 4am as we had booked to go on a sunrise geyser tour. At nearly 5000m above sea level and over an hour away from San Pedro in the Andes is an enormous geyser field. It was incredibly remote and very strange. Hot steam and water is spewing from the earth. We spent a while walking around the geysers before I unfortunetely started to feel sick from the altitude and had to sit back in the bus with a cup of coca tea which is great for curing altitude sickness. After a basic breakfast we then headed to another part of the geyser field to go in the thermal pool. The scenery was spectacular and this was such a unique thing to do, so we reluctantly took off our clothes and stood in the freezing air in our swimmers to then hop into the thermal pool. Sadly it was only luke warm and felt a little silly, but we sat there for a while taking it all in! The water was luke warm but then you would move and find a water source in the ground and it would be burning!
After getting out and warming up, we walked around a few other geysers before making the slow journey back to San Pedro. On the way back we stopped many times to see the animals, such as the alpacas, llamas and picunas and many birds and also to look at the amazing scenery. We also stopped at a little village to try some llama skewers. llama is quite tender and gamey. reminds me of goat.

In the afternoon we slept for many hours before going for another walk around San Pedro.

The next day was highlighted by a trip to the Valle de la Luna - Valley of the Moon. The tour invovled visiting 3 very beautiful valleys. We first visited Death Valley, so named by a mistranslation and understanding of accents. A belgian man had named it Valley of Mars, but in French mars and death are very similiar and the locals then called it Valley of Death. Next was a high lookout over Man valley. It was spectacular with the Andes in the distance. Lastly and the highlight was the Moon Valley. We had to rush on foot up a hill to make the sunset but it was absolutely spectacular with so many colours from the golden rock, which really looks like the moon to the pink clouds, it was beautiful.

At night we spent time with Jimmy and Rachel and another dutch couple, Simone and Sjorg (George) at the hostel watching hilarious youtube videos as tomorrow we were off on our Atacama adventure to Bolivia.

The Milky Way - taken by Jimmy McIntyre

The Milky Way - taken by Jimmy McIntyre

The town of San Pedro de Atacama

The town of San Pedro de Atacama

the geysers

the geysers

At the geysers

At the geysers

Anna in the thermal baths at the geysers

Anna in the thermal baths at the geysers

Death Valley

Death Valley

Christian standing out over Man Valley

Christian standing out over Man Valley

Salt cover in the Moon Valley

Salt cover in the Moon Valley

Christian over the colourful andes

Christian over the colourful andes

Sunset on the andes

Sunset on the andes

A skyfull of coloured clouds

A skyfull of coloured clouds

Anna and the sunset

Anna and the sunset

Posted by awowchuk 09:13 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Santiago

And a side trip to Valparaiso

sunny 22 °C
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Our plan had always been to go Mendoza and from there to head across into Chile. Unfortunately the week we arrived in Mendoza, there had been heavy snow in the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago and as a result the border crossing was closed. This meant a lot of people were stuck in Mendoza waiting to cross and as is often the case in South America, noone really had any idea when the border would open or what was going on. The day before we were meant to leave, we went to the bus station to enquire about buses, but the news wasn't good. None of the bus companies knew when the border was going to open and they told us that in any case even if the border did open we wouldn't be able to get across because all the buses were already full, even though they were not taking bookings. Very helpful indeed! We wandered around for a while wondering what to do, but all the bus companies told us the same thing. Eventually we found a smaller travel agency and luckily, Jimmy, one of the friends we'd met from the hostel was able to talk (in Spanish) to the guy there who put us in touch with a "man with a van". He agreed to take Anna, Jimmy, Jimmy's wife Rachel, Marissa (another friend we'd made in the hostel) and I across the border in his van, as soon as the border opened. The only downside was that he wanted twice the amount of money that a bus would have cost and we all had to squeeze into his little van. Nethertheless it didnt seem like we had any other option, so we agreed.

The following morning we awoke to news that the border had opened. Hayden and Mandy, the friends we'd met in Rio, had sent us a message over facebook saying that they were already at the bus station and miraculously had managed to get seats on a bus to Santiago. After calling the bus company to check there were still seats, we sent Anna and Rachel down to the bus station, and amazingly they came back with tickets for all of us. So, we hurriedly packed our bags and headed down to the bus station where we told our "man with a van" that we no longer needed his services. We needn't have felt too bad, we saw him later at the border with another van-load of passengers anyway!

The bus to Santiago was meant to take 8 hours, however we were warned when we got on that it could take a lot longer as there were thousands of trucks already stuck at the border. Netherless we set off and began the gradual climb up through the mountains. Along the route we passed many gorges, rivers, spectacular mountains and an abandoned railway. We even saw a couple of people skiing high up on the mountains. When we reached the border, we bypassed all the trucks and then had to get off the bus and go through immigration inside. The immigration guards were particularly slow. We waited in a huge long line for the argentinian border guard to stamp our passports. He spent ages leafing through my passport like it was going to say terrorist or drug dealer inside it, but didn't even glance at Anna's, before we were sent to the back of the Chilean line. As we neared the front of the Chilean line, our bus driver moved us over to another line and so we waited again to reach the front of the queue where we then found out we couldn't queue there and so were sent to the back of the original Chilean queue. Eventually after 3 hours of queuing our passports were stamped and we were able to enter Chile.

The bus took a further three hours after we had crossed the border, the first of which was spent negotiating the 26 hairpin turns down the mountain. We arrived at Santiago in the dark and got a taxi to our hostel which managed to get lost. In Chile street numbers work a bit differently. 269 Bellavista St is not the same as 0269 Bellavista street. Eventually after a bit of wandering around, we jumped back in our same taxi and managed to find the hostel. In the morning, after one night in a wonderful room with a great shower, we had to move to another hostel because it was full, so we moved to the same place as where Jimmy, Rachel and Marissa were staying. After a quick turn around we caught the subway into the centre of town and spent the afternoon wandering around Santiago's main buildings and sights. The highlight was Cerro Lucia - a large landscaped park hill in the middle of the city. The view from the top was amazing - you could see all of Santiago and the snowy capped Andes beyond. After the Cerro Lucia our walk took us through the more arty areas and a large park on the way back to the hostel. That night we went out for drinks with Jimmy and Rachel and two friends they had met further south in Chile. Topics of conversation varied wildly but also included the fact that Rachel's half brother is also her cousin... Work that one out!

The following day we went on a day trip to a nearby coastal town called Valparaiso. The town has received Unesco World Heritage status, for its elevators (a cross between cable cars and elevators) that connect the upper and lower levels of the town. The town is set on a number of hills next to the sea, with the lower land taken up by the port and less pretty areas, while the upper areas are home to many colourful streets and old colonial buildings. We spent the morning walking through the lower areas before catching an elevator up to one of the main hills. We wandered around the cobbled streets, looking at all the rainbow-painted houses and grafitti on the walls before grabbing a bite to eat. After lunch we went wandering further and spent a while taking action pose photos against the grafitti-coloured walls before returning to the lower areas of the town. Valparaiso was interesting enough but certainly not our favourite place. The low area felt very dirty and unsafe and we were happy to head back to Santiago for one last night.

Leaving mendoza and heading to the andes

Leaving mendoza and heading to the andes

Hair pin turns down the Chilean Andes

Hair pin turns down the Chilean Andes

Historic buildings in Santiago - some old bank

Historic buildings in Santiago - some old bank

Overlooking the andes

Overlooking the andes

Skyscrappers and mountains

Skyscrappers and mountains

overlooking the Pacific Ocean

overlooking the Pacific Ocean

Colours of Valparaiso

Colours of Valparaiso

Streets and Grafitti of Valparaiso

Streets and Grafitti of Valparaiso

Graffiti poses

Graffiti poses

Stairs and elevators

Stairs and elevators

On the stairs

On the stairs

Posted by awowchuk 19:26 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Mendoza

Bikes and wine

sunny 23 °C
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Mendoza is the Malbec capital of the world. Once settled into our hostel we headed out on a mini-van wine tour. The vineyards and wineries are scattered around Mendoza with the most accessible ones being in the suburbs of Maipu, Chacras and Luhan. The van tour took us to Maipu where we firstly visited the Vistantes winery, a large winery with a beautiful view over the snow-capped Andes mountains, but fairly average wines. At the wineries we got a short tour about their process of making the wine and a tasting. Secondly we visited Vino el Cerno, a small organic winery dating from 1912. It was in a lovely old building with an underground cellar for all the wine barrels. Third was an olive oil factory where we got to see them during the production of the olive oil where they grind the olives into a paste and then simply squish all the oil out of the paste. Then they distille the pressed liquid till it is pure olive oil. We also got a tasting where as the backpackers of the group we devoured all the bread and olive oil. Our last stop was a shop where they make all their own chocolate, jams and liquers including absinth. Since it was only 6pm at night we decided to skip the absinth and stick with wine.

Back at the hostel in Mendoza we joined in on an Empanada cooking class. Empanadas are basically Argentian pasties or pies with all sorts of savoury fillings inside. With a glass of free wine we watched as the old Argentian lady made the mince filling and then the pastry. We then got to put them together and make the pastries with their decorative edges. We then all sat around chatting and drinking the wine until they were cooked and deliciously devoured. Afterwards we just kept on chatting with everyone. It was a very social hostel.

Our second day was something we had been looking forward to for a long time - Bikes and Wine. The thing to do here is to hire bicycles and ride around from vineyard to vineyard doing tours and tastings. We made our way to Chacras, a cute little village by bus, hired our bikes and headed off. The first place of the day was called Lagarde. An amazing winery that we were very impressed with. The winery tour was fantastic, where we learned some much about the wine process in Mendoza:

Wine guide for dummies by Christian:

1) The most important ingredients for winemaking are the grapes. We visited wineries of different ages. No wine can be produced in the first 4-6yrs after the vines are planted. After that, the older the vines are, the better the grapes. However as the vines start to get much older, say 80+ years old their yield decreases, so less wine can be made per plant. The main grapes grown in Mendoza are Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz and Torrentes (white).

2) There are two types of irrigation - flood and drip feed. The better wineries seemed to favour the flooding method where a whole river was diverted and used to flood the fields. This is because it encourages the plants roots to grow deeper in search of better nutrients rather than staying near the service as occurs when they are drip fed. The winemakers also like to stress their vines by not giving them any water or nutrients, in turn forcing them to develop better root systems to find water and nutrients themselves.
3) Mendoza is prone to hail storms so many of the winemakers use nets to protect the vines. This technique can not be used on the older, lower yielding vines or by winemakers who want to get the DOC certification because the nets block out 35% of the sunshine.

4) The first step in the winemaking process after the grapes are harvested, is destemming. The grapes are then moved into a hydraulic press. It is important to use a hydraulic press because this prevents the seeds from being cracked. If you crack the seeds it can lead to a bitter taste in the wine.

5) Once the grapes have been pressed the mixture of juice, pulp and skins is moved into a fermentation tank. Some wineries add yeast, some just let the natural sugars in the grapes start the fermentation process. The fermentation process historically took place in large cement tanks, but now is very careful carried out in either epoxied tanks or stainless steel tanks with proper temperature control.

6) After about a month in the fermentation tanks and once the winemakers are happy the wine has fermented enough (it can't ferment too much because if it goes over 16% alc it can not be sold as wine), they have a choice. It can either be bottled and sold then as table wine (it'll be very sweet and fruity) or it can be moved to barrels to begin the aging process. This is normally the case for the higher end wines.

7) The wine is typically left in the barrels for 6-24 months. Anything less than 12 months is known as reserva wine in Argentina and is sort of an intermediate wine. Anything aged for more than 12 months is typically known as grand reserva and is the higher end wine. The amount of time for which the wine is aged in barrels is directly proportional the amount of time the wine can be aged in the bottle - 12 months : 10 years in the bottle, 24 months : 20 years bottle. Two different types of barrels are used - French oak and American oak. The barrels provide many of the flavours that you can taste in the wine such as chocolate, vanilla, oak etc. French oak leaves a softer finish, American oak a sharper, more powerful finish. The barrels cost 1000 Euros each, and are used 3-4 times. The top of the range wines use brand new barrels, the next line down use second time barrels and the lower quality line use third or fourth use barrels. The barrels are often then sold to whisky makers, although in argentina the lack of whisky producers means they offload them to whoever they can for about 300 pesos or $60.

8) Once the aging process in the barrels has finished the wine is moved to the bottle. The wine is typically aged in the bottle for 1-3 years. This is because the wine straight out of the barrel can be quite strong and sharp, but as it ages in the bottle is becomes smoother and more rounded. The really high end wines can be aged in the bottle for a very long time, and as they do so they will get better and become more complex. They will however lose some of their fruitiness and flavours at the same time.

After the tour we had the tasting where all 9 of us on the tour sat down and enjoyed multiple glasses of wine. We started with the white and then moved through their range of reds and champagnes finishing with a wine called Henry that was a blend of 5 different red grape varieties.
After 3 hours at Lagarde we cycled back to the little village to get lunch and then onto the next winery. Clos de Chacras was a gorgeous winery hidden amongst the village where we sat by a beautiful pond and did a tasting of 3 reds. It wasn't the most amazing wine but the setting made it an absolutely lovely way to spend the afternoon.
Our last winery was just around the corner in the village. It was an organic winery called Pulmery. We did the tour with the winemaker and he let us try the wines at different stages of the wine making process. We first tried a malbec that had been in the fermentation tank for 4 weeks - it was very sweet; and then a cabernet sauvignon that had been ageing in the barrel for a year - it was quite strong but a little bit sharp. Then we got to sit down and taste quite a few of the finished wines they made including port and several glasses of each. We sat there with 3 bogan aussie women chatting to the winemaker for a few hours. That night we caught up with Hayden and Mandy again who were also in Mendoza and had a nice meal where none of us drank any wine!

Day 3 in Mendoza was a very restful day where we didn't even leave the hostel! It was nice not to rush around doing anything.

Our last day in Mendoza and we did MORE wine tastings. This time we hired bikes in Maipu and visited 2 wineries. The first was the largest winery in Argentina - Trapiche. It was a stunning winery, with beautiful architecture and a very long history. It was big, shiny and mass producing. The wines were nice but definitely not our favourites.
Then we rode many kilometres to Carinae, a lovely little winery where we got a great private tour of their process and then tasted 5 lovely wines. The cute thing about this winery was the owners love of astronomy and everything was named after constellations and stars! We had a quick wine-free lunch at a third winery as dare I say it, we were wined out. Back at the hostel we sat around drinking wine and had an argentian bbq with people before heading off to bed to hopefully cross the border the next day.

At our first winery

At our first winery

Vines in the sun at Vistandes

Vines in the sun at Vistandes

Barrels at Vino el Cerno

Barrels at Vino el Cerno

Olive oil production

Olive oil production

Fermentation tanks at Lagarde

Fermentation tanks at Lagarde

Stacked up bottles of wine

Stacked up bottles of wine

The oldest vines at Lagarde

The oldest vines at Lagarde

Wine tasting at Lagarde

Wine tasting at Lagarde

Henry

Henry

Christian enjoying the wine at Lagarde

Christian enjoying the wine at Lagarde

Anna on her bike

Anna on her bike

More wine...

More wine...

Clos de Chacras winery

Clos de Chacras winery

Trapiche winery

Trapiche winery

Our view as we cycled along

Our view as we cycled along

Carinae winery

Carinae winery

Posted by awowchuk 15:45 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Bariloche

rain rain go away, come again another day

rain 14 °C
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We had a pleasant enough overnight bus ride through to Bariloche from Puerto Madryn, but arrived into Bariloche in the pouring rain. We had hoped to do some hikes and see what is meant to be some beautiful mountain scenery but it just rained the whole time we were there so we only stayed one night. Spending our time walking around the little town, visiting the chocolate shops that are famous in this (supposed) German influenced town to have some hot chocolate and then swimming in the hotel pool. It was kind of a relax we needed to have. Our highlight of Bariloche was a Argentian steak dinner we had. At the restaurant the steak chef's come out and take your order, prepare your steaks on the bbq in the restaurant and bring it to your table.
The next afternoon it was off on an 18hr bus to Mendoza with coincidently the american couple we had met in El Calafate. The bus went through some beautiful landscapes and progressively got drier as we went. The best part about the bus was bus bingo. The bus host gave everyone a bingo card and then numbers were read out (in spanish, but translated for us by the bus host) until someone called BINGO. Hilariously Christian won the bingo and thus scored himself a bottle of white wine from Mendoza.

town square bariloche

town square bariloche

Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate

Scenery on the way to Mendoza

Scenery on the way to Mendoza

Bingo wine

Bingo wine

Posted by awowchuk 14:06 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Puerto Madryn

Animals and cynics

sunny 20 °C
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Our flight from El Calafate took off at its newly scheduled time and as it did on the way down began its hops back up the coast. 40mins later we arrived at the first stop. After about 20mins of faffing around we were told that we were 50mins early (how this was possible, considering the flying time between the two airports was only 40mins, I don't know!), and because of this we had to get off the plane and wait in the terminal. We got off the plane, got a transit token, walked round to waiting area, only to be called for boarding about 10mins later. So we went back through security, queued up to board again, walked back to the plane and not even half an hour after we had left our seats, were sitting snuggly back in them... Argentinian efficiency for you - no wonder their country is doing so brilliantly! When we finally arrived in the city of Trelew, which wasn't where we'd booked to stay, we were crammed into a taxi to drive us to Puerto Madryn with a couple of other people, who it later turned out shouldn't have even been in our taxi. The taxi driver told us to put our massive bags across our laps, which we flatly refused to do, so they were all squeezed into the boot. The taxi dropped us in the middle of town, quite a long way from the bus station and our hostel. When we asked why we were being booted out where we were, we were told it was too far for him to take us. No sooner had we all got out of the car the fat Argentinian lady sitting in the front seat, jumped back into the back seat and the taxi drove off. Presumably she'd negotiated for the taxi driver to take her all the way home at the airlines expense rather than dropping all of us somewhere convenient... or she'd decided the back seat was more accommodating for her large frame... either way we were out. We ended up walking to our hostel where we dumped our stuff before heading out for a quick mexican dinner.

Before arriving in Puerto Madryn, we'd booked ourselves on to a yacht day trip through our hostel, so the following morning we were picked up in a little car and driven down to the beach. Once on our yacht, we motored out into the middle of the bay. Puerto Madryn sits in the middle of a large deep bay, that is very popular with whales from June - December. The depth of the bay makes it easy for the whales to feed and they come to the bay to breed and give birth every year. The whales are predominantly southern right whales, but in October orcas are also often seen near the two headlands. The bay is also home to dolphins, sea lions, elephant seals and penquins. Once we were out in the middle of the bay, the captain switched off the motor and served us pastries and drinks. We then waited with great anticipation for the captain to swing into gear and sail the yacht to the sea lion colonies or headlands as advertised, but instead he sat back and let the boat drift aimlessly upwind. We drifted past penguins but our hopes of finding whales now seemed rather farfetched! It was however quite relaxing, which was lovely after our active days in El Calafate. After an hour or so of drifting, lunch was served and we enjoyed a pork and corn broth with malbec. After lunch we proceeded to drift further upwind, it seemed like the captain either couldn't be bothered or had no idea how to sail his yacht which was quite frustrating considering we'd paid for the trip. Then in the distance we saw what looked like whales. The captain finally pulled the sails in and we sailed slowly toward them. As we got closer we were able to see that it was an adult whale and a calf. We sailed up and down a couple of times to watch the whale before the captain decided enough was enough and that his day's work was effectively done. He turned the boat round, let his sails out and pointed the yacht back to the port, using the excuse that there was no wind. We then drifted very very very slowly back towards the port. By this point everyone on the boat was pretty frustrated, but the captain did not speak English and the only guy on the boat who spoke both, was very meek and did not seem comfortable expressing our disappointment to the captain. Then, by pure chance, a large whale popped up right in front of the yacht. At first all we could see was its tail as it dived down, but a few seconds later it burst up out of the water. It proceeded to dive down and then burst out of the water a few times right in front of the boat. We presumed it was feeding, because it was being followed by seagulls that were feeding on the fish that had been pushed to the surface by the whale. The whale then swam right past the boat and headed out to sea. We then continued our drifting back to the port, with mixed emotions - thrilled that we'd seen the whales but somewhat disappointed with the day as a whole.

The next day we'd booked to go snorkelling with the sea lions and after the previous day's disappointment, we were really hoping it was going to be good. We needn't have worried, from the second we got to the divecenter the whole experience was absolutely brilliant. We met at the divecenter at 7.30am because the sea lions were most active in the mornings and because we needed high tide. Francisco, our instructor gave us a quick training session on how to behave in the water, basically not to use our arms to swim because it would scare away the sea lions. We got kitted out in our gear - full wetsuits with boots and hats and set off on their little boat to the sea lion colony. The sun rise on the boat was beautiful. On the way Francisco spotted some dolphins and before we knew it he had dived into the water and was swimming along with them. The video footage was amazing, there were over 20 dolphins! When we reached the sea lion colony we stopped about 100m from the shore and the instructors got into the water first. I was the first newbie into the water and as soon as I got in I was surrounded by sea lions. Once everyone was in we swam closer to the shore and practised some of the movements we had been taught. It was crazy, the sea lions were so inquisitive and playful. They would swim along with you, they'd come up and nudge you when you weren't looking, they'd even try and chew your flippers. At times they tried to steal Francisco's camera and they kept swimming right up to Anna's mask and giving her kisses. They were mainly sea lion pups, because the adult males were not there and the adult females were resting on the shore. There were however a few younger adults around, which were absolutely massive. The whole experience was amazing, we completely forgot that the water was freezing because we were in such thick wetsuits. We spent nearly an hour in the water with them before we had to leave. There were wardens on the cliffs that make sure humans don't spend too much time with the animals, but we were all sad when we had to get back on the boat. On the way back to the town we also saw a whale, which rounded off what Anna describes as "possibly the most amazing experience everr".

(note the sea lion pictures are taken on an underwater camera so aren't the clearest)

drifting out towards the horizon

drifting out towards the horizon

Penguins

Penguins

Whale and calf

Whale and calf

Whale jumping!

Whale jumping!

Whale tail

Whale tail

Sunrise

Sunrise

Sunrise while getting on the boat

Sunrise while getting on the boat

Sea Lions up close

Sea Lions up close

snorkelling amongst the sea lions

snorkelling amongst the sea lions

Us snorkelling

Us snorkelling

Underwater with the sea lions

Underwater with the sea lions

It's amazing!

It's amazing!

Sea lions up close!

Sea lions up close!

Posted by awowchuk 11:27 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

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