Argentina: Patagonia, penguins and Puerto iguazu

Overall we spent a month in Argentina and in true Trent and Jacqui style we covered significant ground on our favourite mode of transport: the bus. We spent a few days in tree filled Mendoza biking around the botanic gardens, sampling red wine in the famous Maipu valley and chasing criminals barefoot down the street. That is a blog post on it’s own. We had noticed that even though we were in what seemed to be a wealthy and flourishing country it was all a bit of a front for the gritty reality beneath the surface. We had discussed and learnt from many locals that as the economy drops the divide between the haves and the have nots was ever increasing, something we experienced first hand with our park robbery. Everything may be fixed at European prices but workers are still paid South American rate so how can they survive? Crime was skyrocketing as the division grew wider more people were forced to do what they had to, just to survive. We weren’t mad at the underweight teen that had stolen Trent’s phone but at the country that was leaving people like him behind.

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From Mendoza we headed 20 hours south to post card perfect Patagonian town of Bariloche. Beautifully located amongst crystal blue lakes, green mountains, alpine forests, wooden lodges and spas and wealthy holiday makers. It was here we spent a pretty uneventful New Years Eve, after being transported from our pre-booked ‘party’ hostel to a room in an industrial apartment complex we were quite isolated from the all of the ‘buzz’. Personally, the lack of fresh produce was playing havock on my digestive system and I fell asleep at 9pm whilst Trent drank red wine and watched The Rolling Stones in concert. Woo! We well and truly made up for it the next day as we bused out of town and cycled around the surrounding mountains. A challenging 30kms up and around the lakes was a perfect way to bring in the New Year and the alpine air was just the ticket. From Bariloche we were drawn to El Bolson, an apparent Mecca for hippies. Serves us right really , who would actually right that sentence down and put it in a guidebook (Lonely Planet of course). We were dreaming of farm stop cafes, camp fires and homemade jams but instead were greeted by busy streets and many tourists. A slight let down as we did spend a fare bit of cash (thank you MasterCard) to get there and had put all our hope on the idea of spending our time in Argentina working on an organic farm. Sadly after a few days of waiting, we had to move on as we couldn’t afford to bum around and stay in pricey dorm rooms and also feed ourselves at the same time. The surrounds were incredible however and not to be forgotten.

We next cut across the country on a 22 hours bus to Puerto Madryn in hope of spotting some Patagonian animals migrating from the South and stopping at Punto Valdes to breed. The tours to head out to the National Reserve on the coast were ridiculous, so along with two Israelis and a Frenchie we hired a Japanese car and headed out to see some Antarctic animals. Wow – wee how’s that for multi cultural? We spent hours driving along the coast and stopping to view colonies down below of Elephant Seals, Sea Lions and my personal highlight tiny men in tuxedos aka Magalanic Penguins. It was just coming out of breeding season and we were able to watch the Penguin babies make their way out of the burrowed nests for the first time. The little black and white fluff balls taking their first steps into the world was what dreams are made of. Can not describe how mesmerising it was to watch them waddle metres away. The rest of our car pool wondered how many photos Trent had to take of the Penguins and the answer was a whole lot. Could watch them for hours!

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Another 24 hours bus ride and we arrive in the extravagant and elegant Buenos Aires. A mix of many different cultures with an undeniable French and Italian influence (classic port city) and we soaked in the beautiful architecture, myriad of art galleries and exhibits, artisenal markets, cemetery city and squeaky clean green spaces. We made the most of the cities bus system and was able to see a lot of the city – including the other side of the aristocracy. It was in BA that we truly couldn’t ignore the great divide between the rich and poor. The side of Ba not listed in the guide books. They do really love the Pope though.

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24 hours later on a $150 bus that flooded and soaked our backpacks (thanks Andesmar), we arrived in Puerto Igazu in 100% humidity and 40 degree heat. Minusing the heat, our rebooked hostel no longer being in operation, the blackouts and the Israeli backpacker (fresh from compulsory military service) takeover – this was to be our Argentinian highlight. Parque Nacional Iguazu was stunning and for the first time we could see where our park fee was going. An informative visitors centre, well detailed map, brand new signs, helpful and friendly Rangers and staff, well maintained paths not covered in rubbish. We could tell that the park was deeply respected. There was also a train running throughout the park for those too lazy to walk the few kms to the different spots as well as many other tourist opportunities like boat rides and jeep rides to take advantage of the surroundings. The heat that day was like a sauna which made the mist from the falls even more special to embrace as you got closer. You start to hear the roar from the falls from kilometres away and as you get closer something inside you starts to bubble up like a little kid waiting for Christmas Day. Seeing them, standing under them was pure magic. We spent the day walking the upper and lower trails, wandering off on different tracks, spotting wild coatis, monkeys and beautiful birds and soaking in the awe of the Worlds Biggest Waterfall. The highlight of the day was walking to the Devils Nose, the falls epicentre. You can only access this point by train and walking a series of rails that float over the river. Words can’t express the sheer size of the falls, the amount of water plummeting down and the reaction of your heart with the sound of the water. Just go see it.

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Chile: welcome to the first world

When looking at a map of South America, you can see that the shape of Chile is geographically likened to a bean pole, very long and very skinny. Chileans refer to it as an ‘inland island’ as the country is totally surrounded by natural extremes. To the North, the driest place on earth lies the Atacama desert, to the East the Andes, the South is Tierra Del Fuego or ‘the end of the world’ and the West runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean. Totally surrounded. This explains Chiles pretty strict customs procedures. Due to the sheer size of the place and us not being millionaires we get didn’t get to see all that much. Maybe if Chile had Peru’s bus system or Bolivia’s economy we would have but unfortunately it was simply too expensive to venture far on cash. We hope to return someday with more pesos in our pocket and most likely a car – maybe even a trip to Antartica on assignment for Nat Geo and or Sea shepherd ? We can dream. But what little we saw of the country in our brief 2 and a bit week stint was beautiful and incredibly different to what we had so far experienced. We had definitely crossed over to a new South America.

After our crazy time in the Bolivian desert, Chile was a significant culture shock.When we crossed the border from Bolivia into Chile there was a noticeable change. This was the 4th time that we had crossed a border via land and usually you don’t start to see differences for a few hundred kilometres. But this change was immediate. Accent, cars, attitude, technology.. height. At the San Pedro de Atacama border the customs officials looked and spoke a lot different to their neighbours in the north. As we drove into town we passed classic adobe brick buildings which we had seen many times before, an ancient way of constructing bricks with mud and straw. But instead of unfinished housing for the poor, these adobes were filled with organic markets, gift shops, cafes and restaurants and had brand new Land Cruisers parked outside. What? Where are we? We had just come from the poorest country in South America and in a matter of hours had entered into a new world, a first world?

In 2012 Chilean Presidente Sebastian Pinera said: We will be able to show to the Chilean people that Chile’s a country which is absolutely able to defeat poverty, to overcome underdevelopment, and to join the First World… Chile will be a First World country by 2020.

So the big man has a plan, and from where we were standing Chile is certainly on its way into the first world. Paved roads, gourmet food, shopping centres, potable water the list goes on. My strongest memory of the Chile however will be the produce, being the best we had in any country most specially the FRUIT! Walking to the market one morning in San Pedro I noticed my favourite variety was everywhere so I stocked up on peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines and almost cried from happiness. I hadn’t had such amazing stone fruit in years and these were incredible. Trying to ignore the fact that everything was triple the price of what we had been use to and oh we hadn’t budgeted for this and oh had we made the right decision.. I ate my fruit in the desert sunshine, flesh dripping down my hand and thanked Pacha Mama. Whilst in SPDA we headed out, just for something completely different, to a salt lagoon. Ah but this time we could swim in it! It was the strangest feeling, swimming out to the centre lying on your back, or front and bobbing along like a duck. No matter how hard we tried you couldn’t sink or push your body down – the salt made you completely weightless. It was a very strange feeling, especially when we came out of water and noticed our whole body was covered in clusters of pure salt. As our bodies dried the salt hardened and tightened our skin and hair. Luckily we headed to a fresh water swimming hole where we could wash off our salt scrub. The next day our skin was muy suave (very smooth).

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From SPDA we headed 18 hours south to La Serena, a modern city located right on the coast. We walked through handmade Christmas markets, battled shopping crowds, ate cheese and drank Chilean wine on the beach unbothered by anyone. All firsts for this trip. Trent even had a Cappuccino made on a coffee machine served by an Italian. The European influence was very strong here especially evident in the accent. Apparently the Chileanos were speaking Spanish but not the Spanish we had come to pretend to kind of understand. It was Chilean Spanish, yup Chileans have their own language even their own language book! They talk a mile a minute, fill their sentences with informal slang and when asked to slow down and repeat they would just talk louder and faster which was a bit trying. We weren’t sure if it was all of the European influence or the impending first world status but Chile seemed to be a bit of a confusion and we were bit lost in this new place. Bright neon lights of shopping centres, expensive cars, the latest clothing and electronics, modern food you name it. The influence of other cultures meant it was proving difficult for us to feel like we were in South America until we realised something. We think Chile and Argentina are baby steps into Latin America for those a bit skittish. Countries where people feel safe, many people speak a bit of English and the food is the same as home. Where was the rich culture of the North, the indigenous people, the dress, the markets, chaotic transport and traditions we had come to love? We were feeling a little confused but decided to embrace the idea that we were now in the ‘Europe of South America’ and we had to dig a little deeper to find the real Chile.

So from La Serena we headed a few hours inland to the stunning Pisco Elqui Valley, famous for its production of the distilled wine alcohol ‘Pisco’. Desert and a grassy oasis meet and the sunshines til 11pm, pure bliss. We wondered around markets, people watched in the town plaza (one of our favourite South American pastimes) and went for walks in and around the valley. Some would say we were too young and too poor to be ‘relaxing’ in a winery region but we rocked it anyway. We went on a tour of one of the oldest Pisco Distillerys in Chile, made use of the free samples and finished off with a Pisco Sour in the vine draped courtyard with couples celebrating anniversaries and weddings – we were simply celebrating life it was all incredibly civilised. Whilst we were there we stayed in a little garden shed converted into a dorm at a fancy lodge filled with Chilean weekenders and beautiful German families. We lived off the most incredible avocados, beefsteak tomatoes and ate sun ripened apricots straight from the tree. Chile was when we really committed to our consumption of the ‘included breakfast’ as we would try and eat as much as we could for the entire day. It was generally unsuccessful as it would render us requiring a 10am nap. Our 4 days in the valley ended with a Christmas parade around the town as Spanish Santa yelled ‘Feliz Navidad’ from the back of a moving ute as he and other Disney characters pelted soccer balls and boiled lollies at the children in the crowd. A bit of a weapon once airborne yet incredibly entertaining and nice to have a touch of christmas whilst abroad.

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We kept moving and ended our time in Chile with 5 days over Christmas in Valparaiso. We managed to find a very cute and colourful studio apartment located half way up a hill in a great neighbourhood (barrio). We were yet to visit a South American city we truly loved and we had found it in sunny, port side Valpa. Valpa is like I mentioned a port city and along with Buenos Aires and Puerto Igauzu(other ports), locals refer to themselves as porteñas and believe they are a bit different – more relaxed, friendly and full of culture. This was definitely true as the porteñas we met were all incredibly lovely, chatty and welcoming. Valpa and also much of Chile has a very strong European influence and it was on our walking tour that we found out the reason. Before the Panama Canal was created and in turn establishing a pass between Central and South America, travellers by boat had to navigate themselves all around the base of the continent to come back up and around to North America. Many sailors didn’t make it as far as the California Goldrush and instead set up shop in sunny Valpa. They brought with them the music, art, dress, colour and music of their countries and a very multicultural and artistic city was created. Built on a series of cerros(hills) facing down towards the port means any height affords beautiful views of the mural soaked city tucked upon the hill side. The city has also been a popular destination for international and national street artists and anywhere you walk you can find hidden gems, big and small on streets, doors, houses and buildings covered in art. This was heaven and we spent hours walking around the free ‘street galleries’ taking photos and appreciating the work of the faceless artists. Valpo is a beautiful city and we truly fell in love. We spent our days enjoying our own space which was finally bigger then a dorm bunk: cooking, drinking, exploring the city and discovering its hidden secrets. Sadly due to funds and we can now say a lack of hindsight (not realising how expensive our next country would be) we made the decision to head to Argentina and bid farewell. But as we say in Espanol ‘Hasta luego Chile’ we will see you soon. Xx

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