Thursday, January 31, 2008

taking the paine ...

We've spent the last few days back in Chile in Torres del Paine National Park.

Armed with tents, stoves and enough food to sink a small cargo ship, I joined part of our group in heading out into the wilderness to attempt the parks classic W Trail. Having twice completed the leg of the "W" which provides the classic view of the towers only to find them in cloud, our driver Rhys had been keen from day one to recruit us for the challenge.

It was a slow start with my legs incredibly stiff from a 24km trek from El Chalten just two days before, but after four hours we reached the summit of the first leg to enjoy excellent cloud-free views of the Torres (above) where we celebrated with a rum coke. Purely for medicinal purposes of course.

It was all downhill from there. Or at least that was the plan.

After the four hour return hike we collected about 150kg of camping equipment from the base of the trail for the promised "flat" walk to the campsite at the beginning of the second leg. In fact Rhys had promised it was so flat that it would take us just 3-4 hours to complete, rather than the recommended six on the official map.

Ten minutes in as we began staggering up a steep rocky incline the gravity of our predicament revealed itself and it wasn't long before the trek descended into something closer to an army training exercise than a scenic hike. Four and a half hours and an icy cold river crossing later, sheer exhaustion forced us to make camp several kilometers short of our intended destination. I don't think dehydrated meals have ever tasted so good.

Had it not been for an entertaining encounter with a Pygmy Owl en-route I probably wouldn't even have made it that far.
The trek ended with the majority of us missing the second leg of the "W" to complete a rather more leisurely "U" over the following two days. An altogether more enjoyable experience that concluded with us enjoying panoramic views of the Grey Glacier. I think I'm done with glaciers now.

Despite the rather testing nature of the first day we all managed to have a great time - although I suspect I will continue to find it hard to mention Rhys' name without the temptation to add the prefix "That lying b*****d".

After carrying enough weight to sink a small cargo ship for 3 days, it's now time to board one as we spend the next 4 days sailing Northward through the Chilean fijords ...

Friday, January 25, 2008

keeping Enda up ...

Here we are on the roof of our truck "Kinda" just outside El Chalten in Patagonia with Mt. Fitzroy in the background.

Since the last post, aside from driving (which there has been an awful lot of) we visited the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier with it's 60m high, 5km wide face spilling into Lake Argentina.

It was absolutely mesmerising just to watch chunks of ice calving off the front into the water, varying in size from "small", about the size of a portable TV, to "large", about the size of a HGV - all to the sound of thunderous cracks.

We've just spent the afternoon riding (and not falling off) horses here in El Chalten - due to a slight miscommunication with our horse guide aboput my experience level I have been full on galloping for the first time today - a bit scary, but brilliant fun.

And I'm sure it gets even better if you know what you're supposed to be doing.

As always the human element provides the greatest fun - the party atmosphere is continuing unabated. It is virtually guaranteed that a contingent of our group with be in a bar at 5am every morning, along with the ever-present Enda - a man whose inability to say no to "just one more ..." is becoming legendary.

Despite averaging just 2 hours sleep over the previous two nights, we managed to persaude him to stay in the bar until 5.15am this morning - even though he had booked a 28km guided glacier walk starting at 7am. What a trooper.

Of course it remains to be seen what state he will return in this evening, and whether we will be able to persaude him to take part in the Australia Day party our driver has planned for this evening.

If we can just keep him awake something tells me he'll be there ...

Monday, January 21, 2008

things that go bump in the night ...

So, this is where we slept last night.

After our first driving day (a mere 12 hours) in the truck we arrived at a "ghost town" just over the border into Chile, camping for the night in and around these deserted buildings just off the shoreline highway.

As we pitched camp a Chilean guy pulled over in his car and helpfully informed us that he remembered eating at the restaurant here - before Pinochet decided the have the whole town shot. Such a jolly location.

It wasn't so much the location that aided our sleep last night, more likely the consecutive 3am drinking sessions of the previous evenings as we have been "getting to know" the ten people we're travelling with. Two days in and they all seem like a good bunch, hopefully we'll be able to maintain the general spirit of bonhomie as we hit more challenging conditions over the coming three weeks.

Tomorrow we have another lovely land border crossing back into Argentina. If it's anything like the last one, the trickiest bit will be where our driver swears blind the 10 cartons of cigarettes he has in the cab are "for the whole group". Despite the fact that none of us smoke.

After a visit to the duty free shopping area in Punta Arenas this afternoon, we have a similar strategy in mind for 2 cases of Orangeboom, two bottles of Malbec and a litre of Stoli ...

More news when I can.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

the end of the world ...

Not quite the travel mishap that so nearly was, but rather Ushuaia, the worlds most southerly city.

After making our plans to join an overland expedition from the tip of South America, we spent the week beforehand watching stories like this one making headline news on Argentinian TV.

Scenes of angry mobs of stranded travellers chanting protests (they like a good demonstration here) and shots of departure boards with 90% of flights cancelled or delayed, well, let's just say it didn't fill us with confidence that we'd actually make it here on time. In the end our airport experience wasn't very pleasant, but we at least made it away just 3 hours after the scheduled departure time. In the general scheme of things I guess we were the lucky ones.

Set against a backdrop of stunning mountains, during the summer time Ushuaia is the gateway port for boat trips to the Antarctic Peninsula (which is what first brought me here 3 years ago). The rest of the year its primary function is as the administrative centre for the region of Tierra del Fuego, and as a containship port for goods headed to this remote part of the world.

After hunting out some extra gear in readiness for cold weather camping (why are we doing this?) we were left with a couple of days to relax before meeting up the rest of our fellow travellers. It gave us enough time to sample the local speciality of King Crab (fresh from a starring role in Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch") and also for some suprisingly challenging horse trekking in the surrounding mountains. It had all been going so smoothly up to that point.

I'm not sure which was the scariest moment - fording the fast flowing river on horseback with water up to my ankles, or when I turned around half way down a steep rocky ravine to see the riderless horse trotting along behind me and no sign of Mel.

Initially I felt rather guilty for not having noticed, but as she put it herself afterwards, she doesn't tend to make a lot of noise when she falls off a horse - and it's true, she didn't last time either.

I would have preferred to have fallen off myself, at least then I wouldn't have had to scare myself silly reading up on the potential symtoms of concussion on the internet as I kept the patient under observation.

Then of course there is the nagging concern that having not yet taken a tumble myself, it can only be a matter of time. Thankfully there seems to be no lasting damage beyond a broken fingernail and a sore back and neck.

So we may not be going to see Antarctica on this occasion, but the bruise on Mel's bum looks as though it could easily develop into a similar shape and size ...

As we're on "expedition" for the next 3 weeks I'm not too sure whether I'll have the opportunity to update the blog - let's see what happens. Back soon ...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

grave tales from Buenos Aries ...

I first visited Buenos Aries as part of the trip that took me to Antarctica.

Having discovered then that two days was not nearly long enough to fully appreciate this city of 13 million people I've been looking forward to coming back ever since.

After deciding to take a little longer here than the usual couple of nights we rented a swanky loft apartment in San Telmo for the week. With the cafes, bars and restaurants of the famous Plaza Dorrego just 2 blocks away we have found ourselves slipping into the cities late night cafe culture with consumate ease.

In all honesty we haven't really done anything touristy all week, except for making the obligatory visit to Recoleta Cemetary and the grave of Eva "Evita" Peron - complete with "guard cat".

The grave itself is actually one of the more modest in the cemetary and I found it more interesting exploring the labyrinth of lavishly gothic creations, where, if you take a peek through the window you can sometimes see generations of coffins stacked in racks descending downwards. Creepy stuff indeed.

Of course if you head out to the cemetary its a good idea to prepare yourself for a sombre afternoon, but I still found myself a little disturbed by the ajar coffin lid I discovered lurking behind one of a series of square doors in huge marble "wall of death".

Sleep well tonight folks. I recommend leaving the light on.

Of course I'm not saying the people here are vain, but the apparent need for immortalisation in ostentatious marble mauseleums seems to coincide neatly with some of the other information in our guidebook. Consider the fact that Argentines make more use of more psychoanalysis and cosmetic surgery than other nation on the planet and it starts to build an interesting picture of the national pscyhe.

As if further proof were needed, our taxi driver from the airport was the double of Pierluigi Collina. I guess I shouldn't really find this suprising as the other Argentine obsession is football - I mean, where else would make use of your local plastic surgeon to imitate the worlds most famous football referee?

Its a heady mix that makes hanging around this amazing city of 13 million people a pretty entertaining pastime. However none of this information prepared me adequately for what I saw out of the window of our local cafe as we sat down for a late lunch yesterday afternoon.

As I looked up I saw a hunchbacked old lady in a black hooded cape, lurching along the pavement at suprising speed. As she looked up she had an enormous grin and an unsettling glare in her eyes which had other pedestrians scattering to give her a wide berth. I had one of those moments where I instantly just knew something was very wrong and felt a chill run down my spine.

The moment of realisation came a few seconds later as I spotted the Adam's apple of a man in drag. Quite what he was trying to acheive I can't say, but he looked like he was having incredibly good fun scaring the life out of the passers by - from the looks on their faces they were every bit as disturbed as I had been.

Even after a week there is a lot I still can't explain about Buenos Aries, it just seems to get under your skin - so we've decided to return for an even longer stay in March. For now though it's time to pack up, buy sleeping bags and insect repellent as we fly south to meet up with the rest of our expedition crew for another trip into the wilderness ...

The other thing I can't fathom is the ATM system here.

After the initial shock of only being permitted a US$100 maximum withdrawal sent me scurrying to my emergency money in order to pay the rent, I have since learned that you just need to insert your card again for another series of transactions until you reach your own banks daily limit. Pointless? I think so.

Thankfully there is solace to be found in the national brew of Quilmes - thanks to the 2002 meltdown of the Argentine economy it's just 45p a litre - almost as cheap as China and in such a great location. Who could ask for anything more?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

beetlemania and last orders from mexico ...

Once we'd completed our recovery from New Year we continued the journey back to Mexico City with a 12 hour overnight bus journey to the city of Oaxaca.

One thing I noticed straightaway in Mexico is the number of "old" VW Beetles still on the road - in fact production of the original shape continued here well into the 1990's, long after they ceased to be available in Europe.

The overall impression is one of streets full of restored classic cars driving around with excellent paintwork.

Just walking down the street in Oaxaca I almost managed to fill the viewfinder (above) at a road junction near our hotel with just VW beetles - including a solitary example of the new-shape. I didn't see too many of those, so it would seem they aren't a big hit here either.

Perhaps it's a worrying trend, but every one of my recent blog posts seems to contain some element beer related information. But why change a winning formula now?

It was here in Oaxaca that I tried my first Mexican beer cocktail - the Michelada.

Here's how you make one.

1. dip the rim of a tumbler in lime juice

2. dip in chilli powder - margherita-style

3. add a cocktail of lime, salt, chilli and worcester sauce to bottom of glass

4. add ice cubes

5. pour a fresh bottle of cerveza into your glass

6. Enjoy. Or at least try to.

This is probably where I should add the disclaimer not to try this at home - my experiment was conducted under the close supervision of a trained professional. Bartender.

In fairness I must say it wasn't quite as bad as you're probably imagining, but after I'd finished the glass it continued delivering a warming sensation which I had to extinguish with a further ice-cold beer. This time unadulterated.

We took yet another bus ride to finally arrive back in Mexico City where we spent the night before flying onward to our next destination. It provided just enough time for us to enjoy a few last Modelo Especial's before flagging down one of the capital's iconic VW Beetle taxi's for the ride home (see below).

In most countries the lack of rear doors in a taxi would be a problem. Here they just remove the passenger seat and attach a piece of string to the door so the driver can pull it shut by remote control. For once the legroom was brilliant.

Vorsprung durch Technic eh?

seeing in new year with the zapatista's ...

On New Years Eve we left the sweltering heat of Palenque for the 5 hours bus ride to San Cristobal de la Casas in the highlands of Chiapas.

Famous for being the city captured by Zapatista rebels in Mexico's failed 1994 revolution, San Cristobal is a perfectly preserved example of colonial architecture and boasts a vibrant bar and restaurant scene. A fine location for seeing in 2008.

Back in Guadalajara we had learnt a useful lesson - if you start drinking early enough then most bars in Mexico will provide you with complimentary tapas style snacks, thus removing the need to go out for dinner.

So it was that at 4pm we found ourselves settling in at the wine bar which would be our home for the next few hours, and as the evening progressed we found ourselves in the company of two recent graduates from Leeds University and a French girl who had recently been studying in Coleraine in Northern Ireland.

It was almost like a taste of home.

At midnight we enjoyed fireworks in the cities main plaza before I escorted a rather excitable Melanie (above) back to our guest house where following a ten minute struggle lining our key up with the lock on the front door we were eventually rewarded with sleep.

And a two-day hangover.

Happy New Year.

Friday, January 04, 2008

I did it Maya way ...

My Christmas break from the blog seems to have coincided with our busiest week so far, so let me whip through it for you in a rather longer post than usual;

The day after Boxing Day we set out on the five day overland route back into Mexico that would take us through the jungle of Northern Guatemala, providing opportunities visit some of the best Mayan ruins in the region.

After an impossibly overcrowded water-taxi ride to Belize City I was treated to a display of taxi-touting of unbridled enthusiasm. Whilst waiting outside the water taxi terminal for Mel to return from the post office our conversations went a little like this;

Taxi driver :"Need a taxi brother?"
Me: "No thanks, I'm just waiting for someone"
Taxi driver: "He's not coming"
Me: "Eh?"
Taxi driver: "He's gone on a trip"
Me: "Who do you think I'm waiting for?"
Taxi driver: "Erm ..."

You've got to admire them for trying.

Eventually we did take a cab to the bus station where we hopped on a similarly overcrowded bright yellow ex-US School Bus for the three hour ride to the border town of San Ignacio. Our fellow passengers included an elderly quaker couple in traditional plain dress and a retired Scottish chap who set out on a six-month trip and is still travelling. Five years later.

San Ignacio was really just a place to break the trip before heading over the border into Guatemala, but it did provide the opportunity to the watch the local sport of swimming in the river with your horse, and for a visit the Mayan ruins at Cahel Pech (above) on the Belizean side of the border.

Early the following morning and we followed our "travel agent" (I use the term loosely as his premises consisted of nothing more than a wooden hut with a pedestal fan and some plastic patio furniture) to meet the minibus that would take us over the border. Guatemalan immigration formalities aren't exactly the worlds strictest - we waited outside in the van while our driver went to get our passports stamped for us.

Guatemala's failing justice system has in recent years sent the country sprialling into chaos with gang violence, lynch mobs and armed holdups commonplace. It all made for a fairly nervous drive in from the border, our only reassurance coming from increasingly frequent encounters with pickups full of soldiers armed with assualt rifles as we neared town.

Flores sits on a small island in the middle of a lake and can only be reached by a causeway from the nearby town of Santa Elena. It's a pictureseque town of cobbled streets where the restaurants compete for business with decks on the lakeside where you can enjoy a cold beer as you watch the sun go down.

We devoted the following day to visiting the ruins of Tikal (below) deep in the rainforest. Impressive for both it's architecture and abundance of wildlife, we spotted Toucans and a monkey during our visit. Howler Monkeys were often heard in the forest canopy, although I was left wondering just how many were genuine after we discovered a group of local children producing suprisingly effective impersonations on one of the jungle trails.

For all it's reputation we didn't have a spot of bother during our stay in Guatemala, but we got regular reminders of the potential for trouble by the security guards armed with pump action shotguns pacing up and down in strategic locations throughout town. Let's hope things improve sometime soon.

We fully expected the crossing back into Mexico to be the most remote of our trip so far and it didn't dissapoint. The unpaved road to the border stretched for three very bumpy hours along a narrow strip of cultivation deep in the jungle. After a visit to the immigration office to get stamped out of Guatemala we were taken to the river in a nearby village and loaded onto narrow motor launches for a 20 minute ride through no-mans land up the river through deep jungle to reach the small town on the Mexican side.

A further two hour minibus ride and we reached impressive Mayan ruins at Palenque (top) where we explored the complex in sweltering tropical heat - probably losing a few litres of fluid in the process as we scampered up and down the staircases. Then when the sun went down, we set to work replacing what we'd lost with an equal quantity of Modelo Especial.

As the exhuastion of our 4am start began kicking in, we began to contemplate the prospect of yet another bus ride at 9.30am the next morning ...

Guatemala may not be great at administering a democracy, but they do know a thing or two about brewing beer.

All three beers I sampled during our short visit we're better than average, with the most popular Gallo being a cut above. Its the country's number one beer and they seem to sponsor absoutely everything - you can see all my photos from Guatemala by clicking on the flickr badge - including Flores' Gallo sponsored Christmas tree.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

our totally tropical christmas ...

As soon as we arrived at the Mexico-Belize border we could tell we'd reached the Carribean.

Rather than the usual stony give-nothing-away expression perfected by immigration officials the world over, we were greeted by a huge grin and a Creole accented "Alright guy´s, ow long you stayin' in Belize then?" and with little more than an absent glance at our passports we were stamped in.

It was like an instant dose of relaxation after a fairly tense morning involving a myriad of transport connections, of which the failure of any one would almost certainly have resulted in the minor disaster of us missing the last boat of the day to our Christmas getaway of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye - famed for being the "La Isla Bonita" of the Madonna song.

No sooner had we stepped of the boat than Mel cried out "Look - it´s SC!" and pointed to the Toyota waiting at the jetty - it was the spitting image of our much loved van from New Zealand. We felt instantly at home. In fact we would soon discover that 95% of the vehicles on Ambergris fall into one of two categories - the Toyota Liteace vans that form the islands taxi fleet, or the electric golf carts that are available to rent everywhere.

Of course we couldn't resist the temptation to take one for a spin round town on Boxing Day (above) - but in the main on the rare occasions when we felt inclined to leave our sun loungers beside the pool we generally favoured the leisurely stroll into town.

It would be hard to say whether our transport decision was born out of our desire to avoid looking like lazy American tourists, save ourselves the (seemingly excessive) $65 daily rental fee or simply out of dedication to researching new candidates for the beer league.

One thing is for certain though - when you throw in a ride in a classic Toyota Liteace van at the end of the evening it all makes for a pretty compelling package ...

In fact during our time on Ambergris I was only able to add a couple of new entrants to the league - Belikin and Lighthouse Lager. Both perfectly drinkable albeit nothing special.

I've posted a few photos from San Pedro - just click through on the flickr badge on the right hand side. I´ve also added a new Youtube badge for anyone who wants to see the videos that haven't made the blog - including my attempt at simulated skydiving in New Zealand if anyone fancies a laugh at my expense.