Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Monday 28th December

The observatory tour was good fun last night. The moon's fairly close to full and is incredibly bright so quite a lot was masked by its light. Even so we were lucky to be in a small group and so got plenty of time on the five telescopes. Even if it was amateur it's considerably more than either of us has used before, we saw nebulae, globular & open clusters of stars and also red & blue stars. Amusement was provided by the owner who was obviously far more into the kit than the astronomy.

We spent last night at a small hostel run by a very nice German lady - the only chance Olly has had to use language skills. The resident dog was ridiculously fluffy.

This morning we headed up into the Elqui Valley, firstly to a tiny vineyard Cavas del Valle (annual production 25,000 bottles) where we were shown around by the owner followed by the obligatory tasting. Their red (Sryah Gran Reserva) was rather tasty so we decided to get a bottle for later consumption. Sorry Christopher - I don't think it's going to make it home...

Afterwards we headed further up the valley to a Piscoe distillery, and then on to lunch.

In the afternoon we headed north, we're now about 800km north of Santiago in Copiapo, finally into the Atacama desert. On the way there was a convoy of lorries with big CATERPILLAR mining trucks on board. Since we had to pull over photos were obviously in order! Sunset was quite beautiful, even though only glimpsed from the car. Another small guesthouse for tonight, then we'll be headed further north into the great dryness tomorrow. Reading about it today there are some weather stations on the coast that have never recorded any rainfall.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Sunday 27th December

We managed to find a strange little oasis campsite in the middle of the scrubby desert last night - surrounded by full grown trees and grass it must be a natural spring of some sort. Really good facilities (apart from the table football - it was just too difficult to play on the uphill team) and some rather over-enthusiastic dogs.

Got up reasonably early this morning and headed into Playa los Choros. We're about 550km north of Santiago - Playa los Choros is about 20km from the Pan American highway right on the Pacific coast. The reason for the visit is that there's an offshore nature reserve with penguins (Caroline's favouritist) just off the coast here and tours are run out to the reserve.

We get on the first boat of the day and set out over a remarkably calm sea. Part way out to the islands we see our first dolphins - an entire pod complete with young all frolicking about right next to the boat. It looks like they've just been fishing.

Further into the islands are rocks covered in basking sealions and even the occasional sea otter (though the little beggars won't stay still for the camera). An then... PENGUINS! Apparently there are only 12,000 pairs of Humbolt penguins left - most of them seem to be here. They're cute little things and quite incredibly agile working their way up and down the cliffs. There are also cormorants, gannets, guillemots, pelicans and other assorted - a veritable fauna bonanza. But not so cute as the penguins according to Caroline.

After recovering our land legs we make our way back to Vicuña and book into an amateur observatory tour for tonight. We'll do one of the professional ones when we're further north.

Saturday 26th December

Not a good day - so we're not going to talk about it.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Friday 25th December

Happy Christmas everybody. Sorry about the rather short note previously - we had a very slow connection so were struggling to do anything useful.

We set out reasonably early this morning, via Vicuna, for La Serena - the largest town in this part of the world - to find that absolutely nothing was open. In Vicuna he entire place was pretty much deserted and the office for arranging observatory tours had a fantastic sign outside (see picture).

We were hoping to find an internet café or equivalent for a late breakfast and to catch up with home. Instead we found ourselves walking through a ghost town - the only other occupants of which were other tourists vainly looking for an establishment displaying that good old consumerist urge that we've all come to know and love. By noon, rather than consumerism, it was starvation calling the shots.

Eventually in desperation we try La Serena's biggest hotel (not actually all that big) where we check in and have Christmas dinner - an artichoke-based starter, beef (for Caroline) or salmon (for Olly) main course and strange junket-like dessert, washed down with pisco sours.

After lunch a bit of sunbathing followed by a dip in the pool. Not a bad way to spend Christmas! Went for a walk down the beach (seems to be the Chilean way to spend the afternoon), the weather took a turn for the worse and it was rather more Skegness than St Tropez - though we did see Chile's equivalent of Baywatch... though not so easy on the eyes. Where's the Hoff when you need him? (eurghh says Caroline)

Nice to talk to those who were on Skype and thank you to everyone for the Christmas emails and best wishes.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Thursday 24th December

First stop of the day: Valle del Encantom, to hunt some thousand year old petrogliphs. After several hours of clambering over rocks accompanied by comments such as "Is it?" "That might be one!" "Inca's Toilet...are you sure that's what it means?" we finally stumbled onto an area containing some recognisable figures; funky little stick men with antennae (obviously Martians), shooting stars, swastikas and space rockets (no only kidding on the last one).

The heat is fierce during the day - there is a strange discontinuity between the incredibly lush green valley floor where vines are irrigated and the arid slopes above which struggle to support the odd cactus or stunted bush.

Happened upon a weird geological phenome; a long since dry river which had swept clean the bedrock down the side of a mountain leaving the phantom footprint of a cascade of waterfalls. At the foot of each drop was an eroded bowl in the rock.

Our VW Gol (yes I have spelt that right - I think it's one model down...) has had its first off-roading test. It was almost new when we received it and definitely isn't now. It actually behaved remarkably well, but you can't really tell that it's white anymore.

Ordered something random off the Spanish menu for dinner - bit of a mistake - looked like spatulated dog. Not that I've had spatulated dog, but I think that's what it would look like...

Have just had an evening swim before bed.

Only one more sleep to Christmas!!!!!

Wednesday 23rd December

Yet more Avianca woes - they really are useless. Apparently the bag won't now be here until Friday, despite being told yesterday that it would be here today. Happily the hotel has said it will receive the bag in our absence and store it for us - there's nothing crucial in there so we picked up the hire car, packed up our kit and headed north.

The scenery changed from scrubby grassland to cactus-dotted desert. Some southern slopes covered in vines. Note to self: must get around to quaffing some Chilean wine. Only interest on the Pan-American north-bound was a flaming barricade across the carriageway manned by circa 100 gesticulating protestors. Not entirely sure what they were gesticulating about - but the right to self expression is clearly a little more active here. Sorry, no piccies, we preferred to remain unstoned.

Pull in for the night at small campsite toute seule apart from the tumbleweed. Local truckstop for dinner also toute seule, sang along to eighties pop compilation for entertainment. (never done that in a restaurant before).

Are given the keys to the campsite to lock up, clearly one of the benefits of advanced maturity.

Sleep tight!

Only 2 more days to Christmas.

Happy Christmas!

We hope everyone has a very happy and safe Christmas.

Running over a rather slow connection - we're aiming to update fully later.

Lots of love
Caroline & Olly

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Tuesday 22nd December

A frustrating morning chasing Avianca for our luggage. This airline is so bad, not only do they not answer the phone, they have even hidden their head office so no one can complain in person. (FYI there is an "I hate Avianca" website where one can vent one's spleen.) After a morning walking backwards and forwards along a street where number 3655 just did not exist
we gave up.

An unexpected outcome of our wandering was the purchase of a painting ...see piccie... by an English artist John Wright.

One area where Chile definitely scores is on the food front. We are both feeling a little skinny after Ecuador and, knowing you are all tucking into mincepies at home, we took the opportunity to stock up.

Only 3 days to Christmas. Looking at the news it appears that wolves will soon be crossing the Thames.... :-)

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Monday 21st December

No word about the luggage yet. Another game of wait and see.

After a long lazy snooze in bed we walked into Santiago, getting some lunch from a local supermarket on the way. Part way through the day we discover that the non-functional clock in immigration first thing this morning did us no favours - we've effectively shifted two time zones thanks to daylight savings - so were two hours out from when we had thought.

Having read rather disparaging things in the Lonely Plant guide about Santiago, we are generally pleasantly surprised. Much of the initial area that we walked through on the way to the centre reminds of the newly developed area around Canary Wharf. The centre itself isn't particularly noteworthy, but equally not objectionable.

The weather is very nice - not a cloud in the sky for most of the day and temperatures well up in the high 20's / low 30's and a light breeze. One of the parks we walked through had a fantastic dancing fountain. The spray was being blown by the breeze over quite an area in which people were just lying around to keep cool.

On the way back we managed to figure out the Metro system so saved ourselves half of the walk. Looks like we'll be here tomorrow as well waiting for bags, so we'll probably head back into the centre for some more exploration.

Only 4 days to Christmas!

Sunday 20th December

Before the flight out of Quito we walked through town to one of the parks where numerous local artists display their wares every weekend. After a quick lunch near the park we wandered through the somewhat disorganised collection of canvases. Whilst some of it was truly awful, there were one or two pieces with some merit (i.e. the artist knows what perspective is). There are a couple of quite bizarre styles that are obviously very famous in this part of the world . Nothing new for the walls I'm afraid, unless you like caricatures of mad, greedy, salivating Oppressors of the People (look up the work of Oswaldo Guayasamin to see what we mean)!

We were safely packed and at the airport well in time for the flight, via Bogota, to Santiago. All went smoothly (very happy we didn't have to get through immigration at Bogota, the queues were horrific; about 400 people long) right up until Monday morning when we picked up bags in Santiago... It looks like Avianca has taken a leaf out of Copa's book because only 2/3 of our luggage arrived. Apparently the next flight isn't until Wednesday, which is rather annoying because we were meant to be leaving Santiago on Tuesday. Oh well, these things happen.

We'll let you know about Santiago tomorrow. Right now, off to bed.

Only 5 days to Christmas.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Saturday 19th December

After a reasonably early start we took another trip out to Otavalo (nearby market town) today to pick up a couple of purchases to send home for Xmas presents ..... not going to divulge what they are.

Comedy moment in the local pizzeria (yes, we are still refusing to "Eat Ecuadorian"); an American family of 6 ordered a "family-size" pizza. Twenty minutes later they were presented with a square pizza literally 3 feet on a side... served on a large piece of plywood. The really amusing thing was they had ordered 2!

Only 6 DAYS to Christmas!

Off to Chile tomorrow....via Bogota.

Hope everyone is okay in the snow; drive safely!

Friday 18th December

Flight back to Quito was only slightly delayed and went smoothly. Caroline has managed to find a fantastic little hotel in the new town called "Sol de Quito" where we have been given the honeymoon suite (!?). Rather than try to cram rooms into every square inch of space, each floor has an area set aside as a "museum" with old furniture and curios. The doors are thick, heavily carved wood and it's obvious someone has put lots of effort into finishing things off - not a common sight in Ecuador.

We went back down into old town to see whether we could remember where a shop was that we had seen previously (successfully accomplished) and also to have a look at some things we'd glimpsed on our last visit. A sudden downpour makes us retreat into a nearby shop to discover that it is the elusive tourist information office (mostly shop). We while away half an hour reading about some of the indigenous jungle tribes.

In the evening a unilateral decision is made that there will be no "typical Ecuadorian" food (i.e. fried chicken) tonight. Not far from the hotel we discover a small Chinese restaurant. Yey!

Only 7 days to Christmas! There are Santa's of all shapes and sizes roaming the streets and the shops have snow scenes everywhere despite the distinct lack of temperatures below 20degC.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Thursday 17th December

Lazy morning at the hostel; breakfast followed by some table tennis and pool. We then found the steam room, and of course it would be rude not to use the facilities provided wouldn't it? After a little more lazing in the swimming pool and table tennis we packed up and got ready for the drive, via Vilcabamba for lunch, back to Loja where we will be staying tonight.

Whilst in Vilcabamba we had time for a stroll around the streets with an ice-cream. Something of a one-horse town - only the central square and maybe one street in each direction are brick paved, the rest just dirt roads. It is however a bit of a hippy-back-packers venue with a retired American contingent. The town alledges to have the longest life-expectancy in America (north & south).

After dinner we realise that it's 8:50 and the lights are all going to go out at 9:00, so it's a sprint back to the hotel to find a torch.

Will be packing for the flight back to Quito tomorrow morning.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Wednesday 16th December

Quite a bit of driving today from Cuenca with a brief stop in Saraguro down to Loja where we had lunch, then via the Cloud Forest to Vilcabamba.

Saraguro is a small town which was in the middle of a nativity celebration when we got there - the entire community gathered in the town square in front of the main church which was undergoing restoration; the occasional cloud of dust issuing forth as workmen dropped bags of cement etc. (HSE does not exist here) There was lots of traditional dress in evidence - the children were obviously enjoying themselves, even if Mary was rather serious.

Loja is really not worth talking about; nothing of note in the city. I think the guide book was a little optimistic when saying you would be bored after 1/2 a day.

We trekked through the cloud forest during the afternoon. To start with it more than lived up to its name, raining non-stop. Just before we reached the peak we were heading for at about 3200m it stopped raining and then the sun came out. It was spectacular - some of the pictures have come out well, but you still don't get the sense of the cloud swirling over the forest in the up-drafts. Ecuador is home to well over 3600 species of orchid & bromeliad - they litter every tree you walk past; Caroline is loving it, even if only a few of the small ones are in flower at the moment. On the way back down the mountain - having had a definite deficit of birds on the climb - we suddenly have a whole raft of them; toucans, penelopes, orracas (which are an incredible electric blue colour) & tangers. Really must get that telephoto lens.

We get to the hostel for the night to find that we are in the middle of the latest power outage, and we're the only people here; a little spooky. It's a really nice setting, complete with big room and swimming pool. Hopefully we'll get some photos when it's light tomorrow.

Tuesday 15th December

Another success: we took clothes to the laundry this morning and, more importantly, got them back again, CLEAN, this afternoon.

First thing we went on a brief tour of the city, saw a few areas that we had not got to on our walk yesterday afternoon. Cuenca is a pretty (in places) French colonial city which makes abundant use of the nearby marble mines. We went into the new cathedral, again heavily marblised. It is interesting to see how Catholicism has fused with native sun worship to make some quite bizarre and remarkable religious constructions. As we draw nearer to Christmas, the scale and tastelessness of nativity scenes is increasing daily.

Next we jumped into the car for a quick spin through the reckless traffic to a Panama hat factory. There was a really well executed history / museum as part of the factory which incorporated parts of the production process. It culminated in the inevitable shop which had wares ranging from about $25 to well in excess of $1,000. With the news that Sam and Ruth have just got engaged (Yey, many congratulations and lots of love), Caroline was on a mission for a wedding suitable hat.

We have included some piccies of Cuenca and also a scary one of the lighting in our room for anyone who has experienced Part P.

Power is off from 7pm to 10pm today so we departed the hotel by torchlight at around 7 aiming to find somewhere for dinner. A local cafe proves a good choice, though the candlelit experience is a little surreal (Caroline says "romantic") and the waitress' smile disappears every time you mention something hot from the menu. It's about 9:30 when we scrounge a candle to light our way to bed.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Saturday 12th - Monday 14th December

Inca Trail

1/2 day getting provisions, picking up cook (!) and getting to start of trail to meet donkey team of 3 (!!) and donketeer (!!!).
Guide: Miguel
Cook: Pablo
Donketeer: Secundo (yes, that does mean what you think it does)
(This is an embarrassingly large support party...but apparently everything is "essential". We resign ourselves to camping luxury.)

The rest of the day consisted of a relatively short hike (~8 km) to a set of exceedingly decrepit Inca ruins. Not much to see of the Inca Trail itself in most places, it's almost non-existent. The ruins are surprisingly large for a way post. Trail has upper (for normal people) and lower (for postal runners) routes. We've been taking the lower route.

Set up camp (~3700m); our little tent is rather dwarfed by its companions all of which are pitched in what was probably the courtyard of the ruins. The cooking / dining tent is enormous and Miguel seems intent on running the rather dodgy three-ring gas stove continually because the gas bottle doesn't have a regulator. It gets rather hot inside as a result. We go fishing in the stream running alongside the campsite. After an hour in the increasingly low temperature we give it up as a lost cause and hope that Pablo isn't relying on fish for supper. Luckily he's not and the three course supper is remarkably good.

After a surprisingly good night's sleep we discovered that Miguel has been listening to Caroline's comments about breakfast. American-style pancakes and syrup appear and are greedily consumed; it's the first time that Secundo has had pancakes. He seemed to approve.

The second day is a fairly hard 20ish km including the high point of the trek somewhere in excess of 4200m. The views are spectacular, again difficult to capture on camera. Camp overnight is next to some slightly more intact ruins which we reach feeling quite tired from the reasonably high altitude climbs. According to popular myth, the last inhabitants lured, killed and cooked passing travellers. Our tent is pitched on the burial site.

The cook tent is even hotter than before, due to some injudicious setting of the gas valve, and whilst the soup is superb, the main course has gone slightly wrong. Smash "potato" needs to be handled with care at the best of times. When it ends up the consistency of single cream you know it's not a good start. When it is subsequently boiled vigorously in an attempt to reduce it somewhat you suspect that it won't be a good end. Pork chop with Smash sauce it is then...

There is no nearby stream so washing is a non-event & we don't sleep quite so well, camp is at 3800m and we've had quite a dose of sun during the day. But we catch a few hours and are up early for more pancakes before the final day.

The final day's trekking covers about 12 km, mostly downhill, to Ingapirca; the most well preserved set of Inca ruins in Ecuador. The site is actually a bit of a mish-mash of construction from different cultures, some of which date back to around 500AD, but much of which is Incan from around 500 years ago. The fit of the stones on the Inca parts is really impressive. An area rebuilt following the collapse of a wall a few years ago is not done nearly as well.

And finally to Cuenca - the home of Panama hats, but more importantly a hostel room with a shower and bed. Sadly Cuenca's electricity is currently rationed so at 7pm we find ourselves stumbling around the room with a mag-light...somewhat like camping me-thinks.

PS: Emergency kit is now in full use.