Saturday, 14 December 2013

Bus travel in South America

A Cruz Del Sur bus (from their site)
We felt we should add a post purely about bus travel in South America and share some of our experiences. Generally it is very safe and the companies are great. This goes for all countries except Bolivia, where many companies are dodgy (generally) and the buses are not of a very good standard. We had a theory that Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile sell their old buses to Bolivia when they are run down and looking pretty tired.

In Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile the buses are like being in business class on a flight. They have Semi-Cama (almost flat seats, with a leg-rest) and Cama (fully –reclining beds, totally horizontal – amazing).

We had great buses in Brazil, we also used a couple of private transfer companies (listed in the links on the left), but also used Catarinense & 1001. Both fine.

In Argentina we used a small company (sorry can't remember their name) where our bus was severely delayed but the company bought a ticket with an affiliated company for us and we were fine. It was lucky we spoke some Spanish as all announcements of the cancellation (a bloke walking along the platform, shouting) were in Spanish.

Peru was probably the best for buses in the countries we went to. We mostly used Cruz del Sur. They are more expensive but very good, efficient and great staff (apart from the surly woman we came across in Paracus). There is a watch out in Puno; we did some research and found the best company to book from Puno to Lima was a company called TourPeru, so we went to their ticket office at the bus terminal in Puno and booked 2 tickets for the next day, they told us their system was down and issued us a receipt for the tickets and asked us to come back the next morning an hour before our bus and collect the tickets – basically the bloke who sold us the tickets was moonlighting for another company and gave us tickets for this other, cheaper bus company (to be fair it was to the correct destination). It was all very dodgy and we were not impressed with the company he put us on. So always check this.

Bolivia was by far the worst country for buses. As a rule they do not have functioning toilets and even on 10-12 hour journeys they do not stop for the toilet. We saw men peeing in plastic bottles and dirty nappies being thrown out the window. Pretty much the only thing missing from Bolivian buses was livestock. We learnt to dehydrate ourselves for several hours (longer on longer journeys) so we did not need the toilet.  
In Bolivia you can only purchase bus tickets on the day of travel, not in advance like you can in Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. None of the buses we travelled on in Bolivia were clean or comfortable, but if you are prepared for this you will be fine.

Chile is like Peru with regards to it’s buses. They are very efficient and clean and comfortable. We used  Tur-Bus and Pullman, both were great.

Full Cama
Semi Cama

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Sadly the adventure ends.

Angel & Ellen Lewis
It's been an adventure!
After 3 months travelling through this gorgeous continent we have come to the end of our adventure.
No more buses, no more flights. It's been an amazing trip which we know we have been extremely fortunate to do. We have met some amazing people along the way, done some crazy things and seen some of the most wonderful places on earth.
It's now time to get back to the real world and get jobs, buy a house and settle down in our new home town of Melbourne, but first we have another 5 weeks of 'holiday' spending time with Angel's family in Sydney, celebrating his first Christmas and New Year with his family in 11 years. To say his mother is excited would be an understatement. 

Thanks for reading and we hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as we have had seeing and doing these things. 

Angel & Ellen x

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Us vs The Volcano

We got off the bus in Pucon in the wee hours of the morning after the 12 hour journey from Valparaiso, we had taken posh semi-cama seats. We arrived into bus station which is not far out of town and then walked a little down the street towards the small village and looked to our left and... wow, there breaking out of the landscape is the magnificent active volcano Villarrica (2860m). Covered in snow (it's a glacier) the volcano dominates the entire landscape.

Volcano climb
At the beginning of the climb
We had met a bloke in Valparaiso and got chatting and said our next stop was Pucon, 'There's nothing there but a volcano which you can climb' he said, Ellen looked and Angel and said that's what we were going for. Needless to say Angel was not aware of this volcano climbing decision, until now.
So we had come here to attempt to climb an active volcano. Nice. We checked into our hostel, it was just before 9am but Emma (the hostel owner) let us into the room anyway and we cleaned ourselves up and headed out to the Main Street, 'O'Higgins' to find somewhere for breakfast. As Pucon is one of those towns where early (like 5am) departures for adventure sports are the main attractions, hostels and hotels do not usually include breakfast, so we hoped to find a cafe open, but after all this is Sunday and this is South America (ie, very few things are open on Sundays). We did manage to find a cafe and had eggs and toast with more bad coffee (again, we do not understand the South American obsession with instant Nescafé). We then set out to find the volcano hiking company we (Ellen) had researched about. As in most tourist towns around the world, many companies in Pucon just want your money, they tell you that you will get to the summit and give you average quality gear, we went with Aquaventura, they have a very good safety record, they don't guarantee you will make it to the top and you do not actually pay for the adventure until you get back from the hike. They give several opportunities to back out with it costing you either nothing or just the cost of the transfer to the base of the volcano. 

We woke at 5am to get to the hiking office by 5.30 (it was 2 blocks away), the weather was good, a nice clear day. We were told the chairlift was not working the day we went up as it was too windy, so this added another hour onto the 4 hour hike to the top. At the top of the chairlift, after hiking an hour, single-file, up the volcanic shale we all sat down to put on our crampons, hard hats, gloves and ice picks. We then headed up the glacier.  It's a hard slog, not flat at any stage, you just put your head down, watch where you put your feet, single-file hiking. At approximately each hour of hiking they stop you for a rest, you carve out a seat in the snow and ice, sit down and have a snack and get up again, after 4 and a half hours of continuous 60-90 degree angle hiking we unfortunately reluctantly gave up. We were 3/4 of the way up the volcano but the remaining quarter was to take another 2 hours and it was about a 90 degree incline, Ellen's legs had given up and Angel's feet were macerated and blistered in the rented boots you have to wear (think rigid ski boots, and try hiking in them!), our guide had told us that walking down is harder as you have to concentrate more and this when a lot of accidents happen due to fatigue (a lot of hikers have died doing this trek) so we made the sensible decision to slowly walk back. We were disappointed with ourselves but there was no way we could have made it to the top in the condition we were in, if the chairlift had have been working there may have been a possibility that we might have made it further as it would have cut out the initial hour of hiking. We'll just need to come back another time and try again! The good thing about giving up was we were able to take our time and appreciate the view, it was magnificent, and as our guide said, the views from the top were the same view as where we'd got to. We sat and ate the empanadas we had brought along for our snack and took in the breathlessly beautiful view.

The next day we decided to stay in Pucon another day, mainly because we were so tired,and Angel could barely walk with the blisters and damaged feet from the boots so we took it easy, enquired about either going rafting or to the hot springs for the additional day and strolled around the town to the 2 lakes and had lunch (an awesome breakfast burrito!) and a siesta (when in Rome) and then dinner at the best steakhouse in town, La Maga. The steak was great, Angel had a 500g bife de chorizo and Ellen had the 350g one. 
We also did our laundry for probably the last time as we only have 5 days left!
We had dinner with Sarah and Brian, an Australian couple who were staying in the same hostel and Brian had done the volcano hike with us, but he had made it to the top. 

The following day we went rafting! It was brilliant fun, there were some straight sections of water but the guide made it interesting but either pushing us in the water or getting us to play games so we would fall in. We had wetsuits and helmets, gloves and special shoes but the water was still cold but so clear! The group was great and the Brazilian girls are going to send us photos they took with their waterproof camera. 

Our temporary dog
While we were in Pucon we adopted a stray dog, well she adopted us. She appeared on our first day, followed us around for a couple of hours so we bought her some dog food and she loved us more. The following day we could not find her in the evening after our hike, and the next day she found us near the market and then followed us the entire day, waiting outside stores we were in, sitting beside us when we had lunch outside, took us to the beach (she looked like she wanted to show us something and it ended up that she wanted to go for a swim), in the evening when we went back to the hostel to change for dinner she was not waiting for us when we came out, but we headed up to the Main Street and there she was, waiting at the end of our street and was so excited to see us, we walked to the restaurant and she waited outside while we had our steak, we cut the small bits of fat off and kept them for her, and she was there waiting for us when we came out. 
We hope someone else sees her sweet nature and takes her in, or other travellers feed her. None of the strays look starving, they are all in quite good condition, but the problem here in Pucon according to the owner of the place we had lunch is that everyone wants puppies so around Christmas there is a new wave of puppies and then by late summer they are dumped. It's very sad. If we had been locals we would have kept her. Angel really does not like dogs and this one he really liked and grew attached to. Such a sweet natured dog. We called her Bob, like our cat. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Valparaiso, a city of dogs and graffiti

The first thing you notice about Valparaiso is the fresh sea air, the next is all the stray dogs! We thought there were a lot in San Pedro de Atacama, but here, they are everywhere.
Dogs & Graffiti
After checking into our B&B we took a 'free' 3 hour walking tour of the city and at each point there was another pack of dogs ready to follow us. The tour was great, it was the same company as the one we did in Santiago, tips4tours, you pay what you think the tour was worth. We began the tour in the old town, which is UNESCO listed, it's beautiful , if a bit run down and due to it's heritage listing it's difficult and expensive to renovate the buildings so many at left to deteriorate.
We then headed up one of the amazing old funiculars to one of Valaparaiso's many hills to see the magnificent views of the port town (the dogs didn't come up with us in the funicular - there was the next pack waiting for us at the top). Due to the nature of the hills, the economy and the poverty (Valparaiso has the highest unemployment rate in all of Chile) the houses are built with an eclectic mix of materials and designs which makes for a very interesting landscape, also the colours are a highlight as most houses are made of corrugated iron they paint with bright colours, a bit like La Boca in Buenos Aires. We headed down many narrow cobbled streets their walls covered in graffiti, apparently it originated during the Pinochet dictatorship as a form of protest but it has turned Valpo (as the locals call it) into an open air art gallery. In fact, so many of the worlds graffiti artists are drawn to the city and some house owners to prevent horrible 'tagging' on their properties either commission artists to paint murals on their facades or they give artists carte blanche to paint what they want if the owner can't afford to pay.
Piano Stairs, Valparaiso
Piano stairs, Valparaiso
Apparently there is a code within the graffiti world where you don't mess with a other artists canvas, though there are always exceptions to this as you see around the city. 
The town is beautiful and while on the walking tour we met one American guy who arrived in the town 2 years ago planning to stay a couple of days and he has never left, you can see why as the city really does grow on you.
There are some brilliant restaurants in the city including Cocina Puerto, and some pretty good ice cream shops.
The B&B we stayed was called La Nona, a cozy, family-run place managed by a couple who own the house which was owned by Rene's grandfather, a immigrant from England. It's always been a B&B, Rene's grandmother ran it up until a couple of years ago when she died. Rene was really helpful in telling us what to do and where do go, and he laid out a pretty mean breakfast too!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Ah, Mendoza. Wine, beef, wine, beef...oh and some pasta.

Wine tasting
Wine tasting
We had planned on popping back into Argentina to come to Mendoza all along, initially it was for 2 days but we stayed another we loved it so much.
With its wide avenues and boulevards, pretty parks and many restaurants, it is hard not to love Mendoza. Our B&B is near the centre, it's run by an older couple who treat you like one of theirs, they organise breakfast around you, give you a key if you will be out late (1am, latest of put whole trip! rock on!) and want to make sure you have a great time.

Wine tasting glasses
More Wine Tasting
We booked a full day wine tour for our first day with Kahuak, pricey but it took us on a private (no one else booked so it was just us) tour of 3 wineries; Navarro Correas, Trapiche and Familia Zuccardi. All big wineries but the latter is a bit more touristy with 2 restaurants. The best tour by far was the Navarro Correas, our guide was great - the tour we booked was a driver to take us to the wineries where we would have tours with the winery staff - it was just us and her and she showed us around the place and then sat with us and poured 3 large glasses of wine. 2 red and 1 white; Chardonnay, reserve Cab Sav and a Gran Reserve Cab Sav which was awesome, definitely our favourite, and hers too. The next 2 wineries were not as intimate, big flashy entrances and impersonal tour (felt a bit like going through the motions, but the wine was good).

We finished the day with a lunch at the pasta restaurant at Familia Zuccardi. It was good but not as good as we had hoped, the wine was great, the starters great but the pasta was a little tasteless. But after all we were there for the wine!

Bife de Chorizo
Abi & Kayleigh with bife de chorizo
The following day we decided to stay another day and just walked around the town, went to the markets and visited each of the 5 plazas in the city, interestingly built as evacuation points for earthquakes. (Plazas Chile, Italia, Espana, San Martin and the big one in the middle of town, independecia).
Bife de Chorizo
Bife de Chorizo

A couple of months ago back in in Brazil we had met Abi and Kayleigh who we noticed on Facebook were also going to be in town for a couple of days so we met up with them for dinners 2 of the 3 nights we spent here, it was great catching up on what each of us had done, we had similar routes and travel dates and had missed them a couple of places by a day or so. One of the places we ate was La Lucia (pic right and above) AMAZING. I dreamt about this steak for days afterwards and expect to for a very long time.

We really enjoyed Mendoza. The wide boulevards and beautiful buildings - the reason the streets are so wide is due to Earthquakes - back in 1861 they had a massive one which killed thousands and most  were killed by the falling rubble, so when they re-built they did so with wider streets for the people to escape into during earthquakes.

The squares are a beautiful place to sit and people watch while eating some snacks or your lunch.

The people were lovely, the wine was great and the steak was out of this world, cutting it was like cutting through butter, perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked. 

36 hairpin turns!
The border crossing back to Chile was a little crap though, and all Chile's fault. 
When your bus arrives at the border, you get off the bus and queue at an Argentinian desk and get your exit stamp, then queue up at a desk beside this to get your Chilean entry stamp, then back on the bus and wait for the bus to move into the border building where your bags are removed from the bus to go through an x-ray. We had arrived at the border at lunchtime, rather than having shifts, the Chilean border staff stop for lunch. The minibus in front of us still had 5 bags on the belt to be checked, the border staff stopped, had lunch while the mini bus people had to wait. About 45 minutes later they continued checking the bags, then everyone from the minibus had to queue up to put their hand luggage through the X-ray machine. Then it was our turn. It has to be the most disorganised border entry we have been at, all in, including the bus queuing it took us about an hour and a half to get across the border. Chile is as strict as Australia in what it lets you bring into the country food wise. The main things are no fresh produce and no honey.

In San Pedro de Atacama we had the same process (though remember there was a strike of these border staff) but there was a French lady who's boyfriend had his bag searched for a garlic which he had forgot in his bag and they saw it on the scanner, but during the search, while she stood beside him during the search she had an apple in her hand and the border staff did not notice. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Santiago, the first time.

Main Plaza, Santiago
Main plaza, Santiago
We decided to spend 3 nights in Santiago as we had come from San Pedro de Atacama on a 24 hour bus journey and we thought we deserved a few days of rest and hoping for some brilliant food.

The city is improving according to our guidebook. It's a pretty standard big non-coastal city. Big, dirty, hectic and people hassling you (dirty mainly because there is a strike by the municipal workers, yes a strike in South America, you would never believe it!).

Our hostel, Happy House, is brilliant. It's a gorgeous old converted house with high decorative ceilings, polished wood floors, a pool, massive comfortable rooms, and a pool. Did we mention they have a pool? It's located in Barrio Brazil, about 20 minutes walk from the main part of town, there are cool cafes and restaurants nearby, including an ice creamery. It's great. 

We ate at a local restaurant which was recommended by the guy on reception at the hotel, it's called  Varcas Gordas (the fat cow) and had the most amazing bife de chorizo and lomo steaks, with chips and salad, and wine, and cocktails. So amazing after so many weeks in Bolivia where pretty much the only option is pizza. We could hardly contain our excitement. 

There is a great ice cream place around the corner from the hostel, very cheap with great ice cream and it's right across the street from a park where you can watch the local teenagers ride skateboards. 

Santiago Markets
Santiago Markets
We bought empanadas on the street for lunch on our first day. The money in Chile is like Australian money (plastic) and when we got the change from the vendor we thought nothing of the ripped $2,000 note (£2 approx).  We discovered that ripped notes in Chile are not accepted ...anywhere (not even the banks), so we threw it on the floor and within seconds it was gone - not that whoever picked it up could use it either. Lesson learned. Don't accept damaged notes in Chile. 

We did an interesting free alternative walking tour of Santiago (with tips), the guide, Matthew, was really informative and walked us around the several markets and some of the old areas of Santiago finishing in the cemetery where he explained animitas. These are a bit of a cultural/religious phenomenon where an 'innocent' is killed in a tragic way and as they were 'pure' and taken in such a way they are considered kind of like saints (note: the catholic religion does not accept these 'saints' nor condone them), people prey to them and ask for things like jobs, health, money. It's quite widespread in South America.

We have booked to come back to the same hostel for a couple of nights before we leave for Australia. All set. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

San Pedro de Atacama

This place has to be the most expensive place in South America. Don't get me wrong it is a great place and there are some amazing things to see, but when you can get a very basic double room with shared bathroom for £58 here and a more superior room in the nations capital for £28 a night, something is very wrong. We had to watch our spending carefully here as everything is almost twice the price of Santiago, and about triple the price of Bolivia (water is £1 for 1.5 litres whereas in Bolivia it is 30 pence for the same size bottle). The restaurants are about £8 for a sandwich, compared to spending £8 on a full steak dinner for the two of us, with beer in Sucre. The food is of better quality than Bolivia though.

We arrived after a 2 day transfer from Uyuni in Bolivia, up at 4.30 am with probably the grumpiest driver in all of South America, and then arriving at the Chilean border to find (surprise, surprise) the border staff were on strike. A strike in South America? Unheard of! (Please excuse our sarcasm).

San Pedro (or San Perro as one of our tour guides called it, due to the high number of stray dogs in the town) is a small border town at the north east of Chile. It is the main base of tours to the Atacama desert. We took 2 tours, one to the salt pools and another to the luna valley. Both tours were with Cosmo Andino tours and were very good. Interestingly the first tour with our brilliant guide who did not speak English was a more enjoyable tour than then one with the English speaking guide!

Running the dunes
We spent 2 nights in San Pedro, our hostel was great, a little place with 5 rooms 15 minutes walk from downtown, with free bikes and a brilliant breakfast - with home made bread, it was a bit like soda bread with grains through it. The cleaner/cook Elizabeth was lovely and helpful and carried her English/Spanish dictionary around which was sweet, she wanted to learn more English, so our conversations were with broken Spanish and English.

The first tour was out to the salt springs, where you really struggle to get your body down into the water, you practically float on the top! We spent about an hour in the water but as the salt gets into wounds, and we still had mosquito bite marks it was a bit stingy, but good fun trying all the different positions to float in.
Our guide Ivan then drove us to the 'eyes' of the Atacama - 2 very deep fresh, but salty, water pools in the desert which are about 600m deep. Then he took us to a salt lake, one with water, and we drank Pisco Sours while watching the amazing sunset.
Amazing Sunset

The next day we had an afternoon tour of Dead Valley and the Luna Valley. This was a larger tour group in a bigger bus. The guide was great, but just didn't have the personality like Ivan had. We did a lot more walking on this one, but it was nice to walk through the rock formations and sandy valleys - you could hear the sand cracking with movement, one section was a very steep sand dune we had to run down - Angel did it at such speed he was really enjoying himself, straight down with the sand coming up to the knees with each step. Brilliant fun.