Friday 16 May 2014

Don't cry for me Argentina

The end of the trip was nearing, we waved goodbye to beautiful, breathtaking Bolivia and hopped across the border to Awesome Argentina, the land where the trip had begun. It was a slow process, Argentina is a country that does nothing quickly, usually stopping to have a BBQ for a few hours in between, but eventually we were in and the change was immediate. From the chaos of Bolivia we got to the peace and tranquility of the Argentinean siesta, from a country that often felt 3rd world to one that felt like Southern Europe.

Ithaca goes back to Argentina
Si and Em have fun with Argentinian bureaucracy
Forget Tipperary - it's a long way to Ushuaia!
This part of Argentina is very different from the South we had travelled through before, this is the land of canyons, red rock, big blue skies and vast valleys. We travelled down with a brief couple of nights in the beautiful city of Salta (where a few of us found the best steak in Argentina - as rated by Odyssey South American Explorer 2013-14!) and Southward through the stunning Quebrada de las Conchas valley.

Quebrada de las Conchas

Devil's throat

Our drives were leisurely and we made a few very pleasant stops en route, we even found time to head to a vinyard just outside Cafeyate for a spot of wine tasting!

Wine tasting
We were in the Calchaquies Valley now, a large wide plain surrounded by mountains, and very pretty it is too! What it is most famous for is its wine, the area is second only to Mendoza as Argentina’s biggest wine producing area and up this way it mostly produces Torrontes wine, a lovely white wine perfect for drinking in the sunshine! We drove through fields and fields of vines which were beautiful shades of autumnal colours interspersed with huge areas of chillies drying in the sunshine while the sky was full of parrots swooping around and making a racket.

Autumn vines
Parrot plague
San Carlos chillies
Our destination was an Estancia (Ranch) just North of the little town of San Carlos called La Vaca Tranquila (The Quiet Cow) a beautiful hotel on a working dairy farm run by Belgian couple Anne and Alain who welcomed us warmly and it was a very happy group who checked in to their beautiful rooms. With the stunning scenery, horses wandering around in the fields, homemade yogurt, bread and jams for breakfast and the peace and tranquility of the countryside it was as near to Argentinean perfection as we could have hoped. Add to that the fact that our Belgian hosts also happened to brew their own beer on site, well, it wasn’t a bad spot really!

Enjoying the beer
Kitchen with a view

Ann relaxes at the ranch
The owners had their own breeding of beautiful horses and many of the group went out on a ride around the valley, Toby’s horse briefly decided it must be time for a nap and had a sit down, but the break for beer halfway around soon made up for that!

Got to catch the horse first
Ellie gets on her horse

Siesta time for Toby's horse

Beer break
Just when we thought our stay couldn’t get any more lovely Anne and Alain put on an asado for us (Argentinean BBQ) with a sheep they’d sacrificed for us from the farm which they baked in a traditional round oven, followed by homemade tarts and all washed down with their own beer, their homemade wine and even a beer/wine concoction which was 40% alcohol and Alain claimed, with a glint in his eye, it had mostly been snapped up by the Rothschilds!

Alain prepares the sheep

Asado time - Belgian style
Lamb chops for a starter
Simon, AJ and Em enjoy the beer
There was also time to head back to Cafeyate down the road to try some more wine, relax in the laid back little town and even have a taste of the local wine ice cream - MUCH better than it sounds, it is amazing!

Meanwhile back at the ranch on our final evening Wayne and Danielle along with Ellie and Johnny offered to repeat their hugely sucessful pizzas with the help of a giant pizza oven.

Pizza Cook Group
Wayne and Johnny supervise the fire
Anne and Alain join us for pizzas

It was a wonderful few days and we really had to drag ourselves away at the end of it!

It was time to continue our journey South, we were heading down to La Rioja province to visit a high altitude lake called Laguna Brava just outside of the town of Villa Union. We drove South down Route 40, a road we had got to know well down in the Western parts of Patagonia many months before which took us through tiny towns complete with Gauchos in berets and dust and roadside BBQ grills - it was about as Argentinean as you can imagine!

We bushcamped en route in a big plain with, lo and behold, lots of bushes! Which our regular readers will know are not easy to find in Argentinean bushcamps, the fact that they were rather spiky bushes just added to the fun of wild toilets! It was our final bushcamp of the trip and with the fire going we sat around full of tasty sausages and made the most of the bushcamping experience, something everyone in the group had learned to love over the 6 months.

Last bushcamp
Cook group
Steve & Mike (or is it Mike & Steve?)
The trip was winding down and Emma and Simon had begun to relax and think that with so few days left what could possibly go wrong, but South America is always full of surprises, we turned on to the Cuesta de Miranda, a beautiful mountain pass through red rock, the rain was spitting down and we were driving in and out of patches of cloud hoping that the other side of the mountains would be blue skies, the road got worse and worse, from gravel to mud to water, until we suddenly realised that the road was in fact shut for resurfacing (apparently putting a sign up to tell anyone the road was shut didn’t cross anybody’s mind!) So rather than going on a 300km detour we cut our losses and headed East instead to the city of Cordoba for a couple of nights.


Steve has an ice-cream - a pretty regular occurrence 
We were definitely on the final leg now as signs to Buenos Aires, our final destination, began to appear with smaller and smaller numbers of kilometers next to them. But we had one final stop to make and that was for our last night together under canvas in a small municipal campsite in Rosario on the shores of the Parana River.

It wouldn’t be right to camp our last night in Argentina without cooking up some steak so we whipped up a final camp feast of chunky Chorizo Steaks over the BBQ before tucking up in our tents for the last time.

Last cook group dinner

Steak time!
The next day we had what is known as a truck cleaning party to get everything all spick and span for the next lucky people who will head off on Ithaca - it was truly a thing of beauty and the group worked tirelessly to scrub and soak off every last bit of dust from Bolivia, sand from Peru and mud from Brazil that told a story in themselves.

Emma cleaning - it's a big job on your own!  Thankfully we had a group to help!
Cleaning tents
Tee does a wonderful job of cleaning out the boxes
Then we trundled on back down to where the whole adventure had begun, Buenos Aires. It was hard to believe that 6 months had passed and even harder to get our heads around everything we had seen and done.

We went out for a meal at the same restaurant we had been to our very first night and reminisced about our highlights and less than perfect moments, there were plenty of the former and not so many of the latter, some of the group’s favourite moments were some of the hardest times, slogging to the top of a mountain or camping in 120kmph winds, getting rained on, being tired, none of it seemed to matter anymore. Overlanding is an adventure shared with other likeminded people and everyone agreed that it had been the people that had made it, we have had the honour to travel with some wonderful people and experience and see things we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. We have survived the winds of Patagonia, ants of Brazil, dust of Peru and altitude of Bolivia. We have danced and drunk with the Colombians, hiked through Chile and Argentina and marvelled at the wonderful creatures of Ecuador. It has been an adventure for everyone and we will have lots of stories to tell back at home to all our loved ones waiting for us. But for now it’s don’t cry for me Argentina, adios South America and on to the next adventure!

Thankyou to everyone who joined us on the trip and all of you who have been keeping up with the blog, South America has shown us its warm heart and opened our eyes to this fascinating part of the world. It has truly been an epic adventure!

I’ll let Danielle have the last word with another fantastic poem...

It's been 27 weeks,
Precisely 189 days,
That we've travelled together,
Putting up with each other's ways.

From sunny Argentina
The land of steak and red wine,
To chaotic Bolivia,
We've survived just fine!

From the picturesque mountains
Of Torres del Paine,
To the Brazilian Pantanal
And buckets of rain!

As Ithaca clocked up the miles,
And our passport got more stamps,
We've enjoyed sunsets and salsa,
And learnt the art of a bush camp!

To the top of Villarrica,
An achievement for all.
To the 'end of the world' in Ushuaia,
Where snow began to fall.

Setting up the tent,
On Patagonia's cold, windswept plains,
There were times when we grumbled,
But it was all fun and games!

From Carnival fever
With foam, frills and feathers,
To throwing on the back pack,
And hiking in all kinds of weathers!

We've indulged on Patagonian lamb,
And Colombian chicken and chips,
Not forgetting Christmas dinner
From 'Cook Group 6'!

Pizzas, empanadas, sausages too,
As well as ice cream,
We've had more than a few!

From riding dune buggies in the desert,
To getting soaked under Iguacu Falls,
To drinking and dancing with the locals
On many a bar crawl!

We've fell in love with llamas
And the simplicity of Peru,
We've shopped out in Ecuador,
And now have an extra bag or two!

From ruins to waterfalls,
We've experienced it all,
But which one was the best?
It's a tough one to call.

We've shared laughter and tears,
Future dreams and hopes,
As well as many a late night,
Getting to know the ropes.

If we weren't 'overlanders' at the start,
We certainly are now,
We can cope without a shower,
But Wi-Fi, we're still not sure how!

Alas, 'All good things
Must come to an end'
But what we take with us
Are treasured memories...
And new friends.

Farewell Odyssey Group 2013-14!!!

Sunday 11 May 2014

Mighty Machu Picchu and Unboliviable Bolivia

We left our group safe in the cradle of indigenous culture in Raqchi, but it was time to run for the hills (or walk slowly, running at altitude is even less fun than at sea level) and to head back to Cusco which we had visited a few months before but this time it was with the aim of getting to probably its biggest attraction - Machu Picchu, just a train ride away for some, or a 3-4 day hike for others.

A sizeable proportion of the group opted for the hiking option which meant following the paths that had been used for centuries by the Inca people to move from place to place. Some opted for the Classic Inca trail which ends up at Machu Picchu itself and others for the Lares trek, a less popular and less crowded hike through the same spectacular scenery.

Team Lares
Wayne, Hannah, Danielle, Joanna & Guide
Ann catches a lift
Joanna and her birthday cake
Relaxing in the Lares hot pools
Inca Trailers
Le, Tee, Kelly, Johnny & Mike
It was a tough but massively rewarding few days for all the hikers, camping out under the stars, hiking in the dark and rain and struggling for breath from the thin air, but the edge was taken off it by the porters who carried their bags and the fantastic cooks who whipped up unbelievable food after hiking all day too and even threw together a birthday cake for Joanna. It was generally agreed to be one of the best hikes anyone had ever done and was worth every gasping breath and ride on the emergency donkey!

Of course the hike was rewarding in itself but finishing off at Machu Picchu is quite an experience, voted the newest ‘wonder of the world’ it sits in the jungle completely inaccessible by road, which is one of the reasons why it stayed hidden from the Spanish conquistadors and untouched by humans from the fall of the Incas until just over 100 years ago when it was rediscovered. There is some debate about what it actually was, a temple, a university or something else entirely, but there’s no denying its impact when you first spot it in the distance.

Triona enjoys the less stressful way to get to Machu Picchu
Dawn at Machu Picchu
Guided tour
Meanwhile back in Cusco it was Easter which meant party time for the Peruvians - any excuse! It was also a sad goodbye to Hannah and Andrew, Hannah had a new exciting job to go back to and Andrew had a broken ankle to attend to.

Easter celebrations in Cusco
The crowds enjoy the Easter parade
Goodbye Andrew
Goodbye Hannah
Onwards and upwards was to be the theme of the next couple of weeks as we headed to the ‘Altiplano’ the flat high plains that stretch from Lake Titicaca in Peru through to the border between Argentina and Bolivia, high altitude became a way of life for everyone. Puno was to be our next stop, a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca and stopping off point to visit the Floating Islands. Made of local Totara reeds they are home to a sizeable population who build and rebuild the squishy ground beneath their feet and welcome tourists in to experience life on the lake.

Floating islands
Local ladies
Group floating around
Danielle & Wayne try the reeds - they're edible too!
Johnny & Mike in local dress
Demonstrating how to build an island
Reed boat

We also visited the Sillustani ruins just outside Puno, they are a series of tombs in the form of towers which were built around the time of the Incas with ingenious stonework and provided some good photo opportunities.

Ann celebrates our time in Peru
Beautiful scenery around Sillustani
Steve at Sillustani
Steve checks for bodies in the towers
We were definitely on the downhill stretch back towards Argentina and the end of the trip but first we had to get over a small hillock known as Bolivia. It is a completely unique country, it’s the poorest country in South America yet it has vast reserves of silver, gold, zinc, tin etc, it has lost every war it has taken part in - even to Paraguay, which is a source of great embarrassment. The majority of its land seems completely inhospitable, either too steep, too much jungle, too high or too salty and yet it is dotted with villages in completely improbable places. Because of that it has probably the toughest population in the world, the indigenous ladies are called Cholitas, wear bowler hats, smuggle televisions and are absolutely terrifying (see Cholita Wrestling below).  All in all it is a recipe for a brilliant travel destination and it is a huge shame that it only gets 120,000 visitors a year (compare that to Machu Picchu and Cusco next door which get 1,000,000!

As soon as we reached the border the difference was clear, Peru is a country with a growing economy, impressive infrastructure and a population of entrepreneurs. In Bolivia we were greeted by a sign that said ‘it is illegal to enter Bolivia with carrots’ and as we tried to leave the border we got stuck in what can only be described as a complete and total shambles of closed roads. After getting some of the market sellers to move their stalls out the way we were finally on the move!

Border crossing
Ithaca waiting patiently at the border
Effigy hung enroute to La Paz as a warning to would-be criminals
Our first stop was La Paz, actually not the capital of Bolivia as many believe, despite being the seat of Government and largest city by a long way (hopefully you’re getting a sense of Bolivian logic here.) La Paz is brilliant, you come across the flat high plains at 4000m above sea level, through the sprawling suburb of El Alto and then like a massive waterfall of ramshackle half-finished buildings La Paz suddenly cascades down a huge canyon in front of you, it’s up there with Rio de Janeiro as the most impressive setting for a city in South America.

La Paz
Cholita with bowler hat in La Paz
The wonderful Julius took us on a city tour where we walked through the weird rock formations of the Valley of the Moon, ate SalteƱas - a Bolivian speciality that will now make Cornish pasties seem a bit of a let down, visited the old town and listened to stories of the President Evo Morales, who, according to our guide, was second only to George W Bush in stupidity. He told us tales of his beloved country with a fantastic sense of humour, including how for nearly 100 years Britain refused to acknowledge Bolivia’s existence after they chopped the ears off the British ambassador and paraded him on a donkey - Queen Victoria was so incensed that she drew a cross through Bolivia on the map and until the 1960s it didn’t exist! As Julius said: “Bolivia: it’s a bit like Game of Thrones.”

Valley of the Moon

Trying Saltenas
La Paz
Colonial Jaen Street in the old town
Julius tells us about Evo Morales
La Paz also offered us the opportunity to do some truly ridiculous things: 

A) Buying a llama foetus from the witches market for luck

B) Cycling down the world’s most dangerous road ‘Death Road’

C) Watching the local indigenous ladies wrestling WWF style

This resulted in
  1. A)  Johnny’s bag developing a distinct llama feotus aroma and alot of discussion about British customs feelings on unborn preserved animals
  2. B)  Bartley getting up close and personal with the world’s most dangerous road and looking like he’d been beaten up by a Cholita
  3. C)  Walking out of the wrestling stadium thoroughly confused about the mayhem we had just witnessed
La Paz was greatly enjoyed by everyone, particularly when our hotel put on a wonderful meal for us with views across the city, despite its complete lack of reputation we were thoroughly won over by Bolivian wine that night too!

A formal dinner just for Ellie?
It was time to head South so we wound our way out of La Paz and across the vast deserts and plains of Central Bolivia. Our destination was Potosi, somewhere not many people have heard of but historically it has played a huge role in the building of modern South America. It is home to the Cerro Rico mountain and the silver and tin mine within. The Spanish Conquistadors set about mining the minerals here in a BIG way, with no qualms about working standards they slowly worked their way through the Indigenous population then when they ran out of those they imported African slaves, sending them down in to the mine, where tragically they rarely saw the light of day again, it is said that 8,000,000 people have died down there over the past 500 years. Well with a sales pitch like that who could refuse a visit! A group of us headed down in to the mine where they encountered real working conditions that make any other job seem pretty cushy. Their guides were ex miners who know the mountain well and took the group through low, winding tunnels that made for uncomfortable walking for a few taller members of the Odyssey family - Bolivians are a fairly small race. They also visited a shrine to ‘Tio’ the god of the miners who they leave offerings to (cigarettes, 96% alcohol and llama foetuses though Johnny couldn’t be persuaded to part with his.) It was a very interesting, tough and humbling excursion for everyone.

Dynamite costs US$3 in the market

Not designed for tall people
Miners setting dynamite charges
AJ leaving offerings of 96% alcohol to Tio
Meanwhile Emma had got the exciting news that, continuing the Game of Thrones theme, Uyuni, our next destination, was actually under siege by upset locals protesting about a new bus station, the roads, railway and airport were shut and didn’t look to open for the rest of the week. After a bit of muttering along the lines of “unboliviable” she made some phone calls and rearranged the rest of the Bolivian itinerary.

The group had the surprise news that evening that they would in fact be going to the Bolivian Altiplano on a 4 day off-road jeep trip which would take us through the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, to red lakes, green lakes, trees made of stone and lakes made of salt. Funnily enough everyone was quite excited about it, and packing up our warmest clothes (we would reach 5000m above sea level at one point - it can get a little chilly up there) we got a few hours sleep before setting off at an hour of the morning no one really wanted to see to head to Tupiza with an extended fuel station cake stop for Ellie’s birthday!

Happy birthday Ellie!
Then we were off, on a fantastic adventure with the good people at Tupiza Tours. We made for quite a convoy with 4 jeeps, 4 drivers, 2 cooks and a guide we drove through beautiful canyons, red valleys, dried up river beds dotted with llamas and ice-capped marshes, all the time climbing higher and higher in to the most remote corners of the altiplano.

Thermal mud pools

Johnny & Mike


Getting some more altitude
Emma tries to jump over the volcano
Tee & Le
By night we would stop in tiny villages and sleep in refugios (refuges) wrapped up in sleeping bags and a big pile of blankets after a tasty meal whipped up by our lovely cooks.

Setting up lunch
The scenery was spectacular, every turn brought another amazing view and we lost count of the photo stops. The nights were cold but up that high there is no pollution and looking up at the stars you could really believe you were on top of the world. I’ll let the photos tell most of the story here.

Deserted haunted village
Viscacha (Andean rabbit)
Bartley warms his hands on the jeep engine
Simon on his moss seat
Laguna Verde
Group up high
Ann and Ellie make friends
Triona and Bartley at the Stone Tree
Simon goes climbing
More flamingoes
Relaxing in the hot pools
Spectacular altiplano sky
Our last night was spent in a rather lovely hotel made entirely of salt, which might seem strange except for the fact that we were next to the world’s largest Salt Flat ‘The Salar de Uyuni.’ We had another painfully early start the final day but again it was more than worth it. We drove out on to the salt in the pitch black, our drivers turned their lights off to navigate by the slowly emerging outlines of mountains in the inky dawn sky across the vast expanse of white nothingness. Just before sunrise we walked up one of the rocky islands that dot the salt just in time to catch the beautiful dawn.

Dawn on the salt
Ellie finds a dog anywhere!
Then it was down to the salt and time to lose all sense of perspective with some silly photos! A salt flat right of passage!

Triona disposes of Bartley
Danielle & Waynette
Ann prepares a photo
Traversing the salt
Janet, our guide, with Toby
Triona and our cooks

Team Altiplano
Our final stop took us to a train graveyard just outside of Uyuni (the blockade had lifted for the weekend) where British-built trains had been left to rot when they couldn’t be repaired.

Hide and seek
Johnny train surfing (or possibly trying to get down)
Odyssey saves another car from soft sand on the way back - all part of the service!
Sunset near Tupiza
It was an amazing 4 days and thoroughly enjoyed by all, despite the cold and all piling in to shared rooms and putting up with each other snoring no one had a bad word to say about our trip up to the Altiplano and everyone agreed the end of the trip was shaping up to be a real highlight.

As we dropped down to Tupiza on our long downhill route South we had time to reflect on the country. Bolivia is a slice of a side of South America that is disappearing rapidly as the continent gets richer and more developed, it’s the wild west, it’s a law unto itself, it’s not for the faint of heart but it is worth every gasping breath and cold night, go in with a sense of humour, a love of the wilderness and a love of the ridiculous, it’s breathtaking, (literally it’s really hard to breath there!) It’s beautiful, it’s brilliant, it’s bizarre, it’s completely unboliviable!