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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Peru: which way to Machu Picchu?

Since brought to the attention of the Western World by John Birmingham in 1911 – Machu Picchu has been a site of international pilgrimage and for many it is the highlight/climax/pinnacle of their South American adventure. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of 7 Modern Wonders of the World and one of the most famous Peruvian icons is visited every year by thousands upon thousands of people from all walks of life and there is no question why. It is magical. The site is breathtaking and incredible and if you are lucky enough to find a moment of solitude whilst up there you can take a deep breath in, close your eyes and imagine Incan mountain life in 1450 surrounded by Llamas and Alpacas and breathtaking (have I said that one already?) Pacha Mamma (mother nature).

Often, just getting to MP is half of the adventure. Not just arriving on the other side of the world, getting to Peru and making your way to Cusco then choosing how you will get to the site. Arriving without breaking the bank was our aim and ultimate challenge and writing this blog to share that there are alternative ways, the cheap way. The most popular way to arrive is by train (half American owned Peru Rail), whilst apparently being beautiful at $320 for two people return from Cusco (2 hours one way) was WAY!! out of the budget. Numero dos, the ‘ultimate adventure’ option is to trek. Inca Trail or not, these can set you back anywhere between $300-$500 – depending on number of days etc. having heard lots of people doing both options and have heard great feedback – except for the cost. So, if you are on a budget and are visiting the continent on a long haul trip – spending big chunks in one go isn’t what you want. Having met many people on just add water diets (packet noodles) we knew we weren’t the poorest people in Peru so surely, there had to be another way! After a little research the real backpacker option was found. Although it seemed a lot more outlaw, which was to be part of the excitement, we found out you could simply walk the train tracks right into the town. Not from Cusco, that would have taken days and probably quite dangerous but from a train station 3 hours walk from the town of Machu Picchu. To us this sounded very exciting and like a fantastic adventure movie – which is how I base most life decisions, so we decided to go for it! After catching up with a family friend who was volunteering an hour outside of Cusco in Urabamba (Hey Andrew!) we caught a bus to the town of Santa maria (4.5 hrs $14 for 2) then hopped into a collectivo taxi (1 hr $10 for two) and arrived at the Hydro Electrico Train Station and began our O brother Where Art Thou montage as we walked the tracks. We stopped frequently along the way to take photos and soak in the magnificent scenery and I loved every moment of it. Even waving to the passengers on the train as it chugged passed I never once thought ‘shit, we are poor’ but ‘hell yeah this is incredible! And it’s free!’. The whole walk we were surrouned by the jungle and imposing mountains with the remains of Incan buildings scattered on top. We walked past train workers, little shops set up along the tracks offering drinks and snacks to the walkers and ofcourse other backpackers and Peruvians. Because the reality is there is no way a Peruvian can afford Peru Rail – it’s simply for cashed up tourists which makes sense once you find out that PERU Rail is half owned by an American company. Shocker! Our only wish is that it was completely Peruvian, the ride would have cost a dollar and they would have squeezed hundreds on including Llamas and Alpacas which would have been amazing. A couple of hours later, feeling energised from our walk and quite happy with our budgeting selves, we arrived into town as it was getting dark and set off to pre buy our entry tickets for the next day. The town is a product of fast tourism: expensive ski type lodges to the front and food, drinks and hostels to the back. Our tickets were $50 each and only included Machu Picchu city and the mountain. We ended up bartering for a private room at a Hospedaje (a low budget hotel – $11 together) and scored cheap set menu for dinner (3 course $12 together). If I said ‘winning’ this would be an appropriate time to put that in! Simply choosing the long way round had save us over over $130 yay- look at us go Mumma – we are budgeting!

The next morning we caught the bus ($20 each – VERY steep but we were exhausted) up to the Mp entrance and spent a couple of hours wandering around. We didn’t opt for a guide as our time in the North had prepped us to self guide – ‘Yes so that must be where they put the sacrifices, that would have been for the high priest, that was farming terraces’ etc. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about this postcard perfect national geographic place? It is epic, just it’s size alone is wow plus the backdrop of surrounding mountains leaves you with an unforgettable and memorable experience. And also very surreal after thinking you were never really the type to head to Peru and now I was standing on top of Machu Picchu. It was a cool moment. After walking around for a couple of hours and exploring the adobe city maize, we skipped the bus back down to save money and walked to the bottom by way of 45minutes worth of steps. Knees. Calves. Yep, they were feeling it. Feeling a little pooped, we decided to check out trains back to Cusco that afternoon to see if we could maybe, possibly, somehow snatch a deal. No luck – one way tickets were going for $80 each – WHAT! So we booked another night in the Hospedaje (bartered an even lower price) and followed our same route by the train tracks the next day. That day was Trent’s 25th birthday and we spent it doing what he loves – on an adventure. A beautiful morning walk, collectivo, bus and 10 hours later we were back in Cusco. It was definitely an adventure!

At the end of the few days we had definitely put in the extra effort to save the extra pennies and it had paid off. Our journey to and from Machu Picchu was special and felt as if we had undergone our own little pilgrimage. It wasn’t the Inca Trail but it was the Jacqui and Trent trail and it felt special and magical. In terms of money, if we had taken the train it would have cost at least $320 for the both of us. Our way had ended up setting us back $45 return meaning we had saved $275! That’s a lotta empanadas!

To anyone that may be reading this I highly recommend walking the train tracks if you are looking for another option – choose your own adventure, it’s definitely worth it! X

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Ecuador: A month in the jungle at Merazonia

One thing that we really wanted to do whilst in South America was volunteer with native animals and thanks to Merazonia, we were able to spend a month doing so. Merazonia is a rescue and rehabilitation centre for trafficked and/or abused Amazonian animals located just 15 minutes from the tiny town of Mera. Mera, which you have probably never ever heard of as it minuscule is situated in an area where the Andes meets the Amazon and as you can imagine when mountains and jungle collide you get stunning mountainous jungle.

It was slightly stressful choosing where we would volunteer as there are many options with a limited number of those looking reputable. We had heard/read cases of centres with no plan at all to rehabilitate and release and solely used the animals as a source of tourism and revenue – yuk! Places that cuddled monkeys all day and housed animals in tiny enclosures whilst treating volunteers poorly – not fun. So by the time we had stumbled upon Merazonia we had done a lot and I mean a lot of research on animal centres and had our wits about us. We had a lot of questions, all of which were answered in a first email back highlighting what volunteering would entail. Long days, community living, no electricity, compost toilets and a ‘hands off approach’ to the animals in their care. We were sold – strongly due to the last part and set our arrival date and off we headed to the jungle.

Merazonia at first, seemed like a bit of a mission to get to. From Mindo we headed back on a 2 hour bus to Quito and then a 6 hour bus to the touristy ‘adventure oasis’ town of Banos. After spending a couple of days in Banos (Quad biking through the Andes, jumping off bridges etc) we followed instructions to board ‘any bus heading to the jungle and get off in the town square of Mera’. Having no freaking idea where Mera was located and a little too focused on not throwing up as our bus driver rallied around the mountain side (I get very dizzy if I am not in the front seat of a car) I wasn’t exactly looking out the window. Hence why we were a bit shocked as suddenly the bus driver shouts repeatedly from the front ‘MERA MERA MERA!!!!’ Shit – this is us! I look out the window and see what must be Meras famous town square disappear as we drive past. As we run to the front of the bus to jump off I notice our backpacks have already been hauled from the undercarriage and onto the road, meanwhile the bus didn’t even stop as we jumped off. Picking all our belongings up from the gravel we re-group and quote our next instruction ‘get a transmera (aka jungle cab) to Merazonia – they are white pick ups with green stripes’. As we look around the secluded bus stop on the main road 20 long minutes go past and all we see are buses heading back to Banos. Deciding we should walk back into town and by the looks and smiles the locals were use to the constant flux of Gringos – we find a Transmera and 15 bumpy minutes later arrive.

The next month we worked 6 consecutive days for four weeks, from 7.30am – 5pm. For two of those we lived in the volunteer house with 11 others. It was damp, dark and smelly but the beds were comfy and thats all that mattered. We struck gold at the end of our first two weeks when capacity was maxed and we were given the opportunity to move to Frank and Louisa’s (founder/vet) to the downstairs of their brand new cabin! Incredibly beautiful and we more then appreciated the privacy, I already miss the chorus of frogs at night. After our first week of introductory rounds – learning to feed and clean the cages of Capuchin and Woolly Monkeys, Parrots and various Macaws, we wanted to do more. We had noticed that the Capuchin enclosures needed a lot of love.The enclosures had turned into mudslides and mudpits and over our time were slowly transformed and filled with steps, retaining walls, rocks and many, many bags of sand. Whilst myself and other vollies assisted, Trent did much of the work on his own and I am incredibly proud. All construction materials were (painstakingly) sourced from the river, sides of the mountain and fallen down trees. We spent a lot of time up at the Capuchins and we fell in love with these incredible creatures as we were able to observe them out of their hyperactive feeding times. I’m going to miss them the most and primates are truly incredible mini humans. Meeting and interacting with the non-animal part of the refuge was also a joy and the communal dinners by candlelight were definitely a highlight. I also had the opportunity to teach two early morning yoga classes in the new long term volunteer cabin which was an incredibly memorable experience.

I learnt a lot from our month in the jungle and if I were to write everything down this post would be ridiculously long. But most importantly to summarise:
•Woolly monkey poo smells like human poo and 2 hours of picking it up in torrential rain, by hand, with a holey glove is real character building.
•We consume an unecessary amount of electricity as humans and I can easily (and romantically) live with candle light. And come to think of it, I wasn’t at all phased being so called ‘disconnected’ from social media.
*Re-introducing yourself to new volunteers can be exhausting and we often thought about making up new life stories – mainly that Trent was a woman.
*Water, lime and rum can be mixed to make a delicious and hydrating cocktail at the end of the day.
*Cooking for 17 people, without electricity and a fridge isn’t as difficult as it sounds.
*A Merazonia experience isn’t complete without March fly bites on the ass and doing a jungle poop.
*Riding in the back of a ute, wasted, through the jungle will always be amazing.

Thanks to Merazonia for letting us be apart of your project, maybe someday in the future we will return to see what you are up to. Please check out http://www.merazonia.org to read and learn more!

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The photo you will see of a monkey on my shoulder is Ollie the Tamarin (not being pat) currently there is no way to trap him whilst cleaning his enclosure so he jumps on you as a tree – this is one of the treats of doing the solo animals. Also the other baby monkey (Seamus the Howler) is currently undergoing quarantine and received daily sunlight on the back of a long term volunteer or Louisa/Frank. Louisa and Frank are very passionate about the correct rehabilitation and release of the animals in their care: for example many of the Macaws are imprinted and have had their wings clipped – meaning their odds of survival in the wild would be low – so the refuge focuses on creating and maintaining a natural and comfortable enclosure. The similar rule applies for releasing monkeys in the areas, packs must be bonded in order to survive life in the jungle – a process that is long and often difficult. We admire all the work that has been put into the refuge and are proud to have spent a short time contributing. Currently the refuge was caring for a troop of Capuchin and Woolly monkeys, two Tamarin monkeys, 2 Howler monkeys, a variety of parrots and Macaws, a Guatin (adorable rodent type thing), a group of Kinkajus that were being soft released and a Puma.

Xx

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