Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Karaoke en Español? Hmmm...

Having been blissfully undisturbed by my non-existent room-mates, I had my first real proper lie-in for a while, before heading back into town. Like many of the micro drivers, this one had customised his vehicle somewhat, in this case by having 13 different stuffed-toy birds (mostly parrots) across the top of his windscreen! I had lunch at one of the rough-and-ready food stalls in the central market, which was as noisy and disorientating at times as you might expect, before heading on towards the plaza again. My initial plan had been to look around some of the colonial centre of town, maybe going to the Casa de la Libertad (Liberty House), the museum in the building where the declaration of independence was signed, but the onset of a crazy thunder- and hail-storm drove me into the shelter of an internet cafe, which I was delighted to discover possessed a DVD drive, allowing me to upload some of my second disc of backed-up photos to Facebook. The storm kept going for a while, but it turned out I needed most of the afternoon to upload those photos I managed anyway, as the stupid site decided to hang twice whilst uploading large numbers of pictures, forcing me to start those from scratch again.

Since it was now too late to go see the museum, I checked around some of the agencies in town about possible tours for the next day. I had been thinking of maybe going horse-riding or something, but as there were no other riders lined up, this turned out to be going to cost a lot more than I had thought, and so I gave up the idea as a bad thing. Instead I went back to Florin for dinner, where I ended up chatting for a little while with a Welsh couple, Hefin and Emma, who were headed south, trading tales and recommendations. I then headed over to the Joy Ride, where I had a beer, read back through my notebook starting in Brasil (actually quite an interesting exercise, reminding myself of quite how much I've seen and done on this trip so far!) and then got chatting with some of the other gringos in there.

The first were three fellow Brits, Trif, Cecily and Pete, with whom I arranged to meet up the next afternoon and watch the England football game which Florin was going to show. Then there were a couple of Irish lads, Donheh and Eoin, who'd been in the previous night and regaled me with stories of quite how crazy it had all got after I left. They were both quite determined not to have a repeat performance, as they were planning to go to Potosi the next day - in fact, they had been planning to go for the last four days, and, for reasons largely due to alcohol, had mysteriously failed to do so on each occasion. We were then joined by two Irish girls, Nadia and Jenny, who had also been central participants in the previous night's high-jinks (with Nadia reportedly dancing on tables at one point...) and were even more determined to have a quiet night. In fact, they weren't even going to have a drink. Oh, all right then, just one. You can probably guess roughly how this all ended. We were politely ejected from Joy Ride at 2am when it closed, and then ended up in a little grotto of a subterranean bar and club (with cave-like alcoves for tables) where the activities included Karaoke (mostly in Spanish) and dancing, much of it of the salsa variety. I finally got a cab back to the hostel at 5:30am. Oops. Though I did at least wait at the correct door this time....

Monday, March 30, 2009

La Ciudad Blanca

My attempts to catch up on sleep in Potosi were again thwarted by the fact that pretty much every traveller there seems to be headed out on the tours to the mines, which inevitably means there's lots of people bumping around about 7:30 in the morning. Still, in this case being awoken for this wasn't such a bad thing, as it meant I had a chance to say goodbye properly to Julien and Stine. After that, I spent much of the morning reading. A little too much, in fact, as when I went to get a cab over to the bus station, I found that the centre of town had totally snarled up, so I ended up walking there. Luckily this was pretty much all downhill, but I was stressed and somewhat warmed up by the time I arrived at the bus station, with only 5 minutes before my bus was due to go. The bus itself was again not great, but at least was better than the one from Uyuni had been, although as I was squeezed in by the window I unfortunately didn't have the option this time of putting my legs into the aisle to stretch out. There was some more amazing mountain scenery as the road, luckily paved this time, switchbacked its way over to La Ciudad Blanca, the "White City" as Sucre is known.

Sucre also has the distinction of being Bolivia's capital. Or one of them, depending on your interpretation of events. You see, the city is technically the judicial capital, being host to the Supreme Court, and is also the birthplace of Bolivian independence. However, the government and legislature are both based up in La Paz, which is also the main centre for businesses and the international travel gateway. This is slightly similar to South Africa, where the parliament sits in Cape Town, the legislative capital, the civil service of the government is based in Pretoria, the executive capital, and the Supreme Court is based in Bloemfontein, the judicial capital. In practice, pretty much everything of importance politically in Bolivia happens in La Paz, but sniffy residents of Sucre still refer to their city as the capital, dismissing La Paz as "the seat of government". Ok, Civics lesson for the day over.

My mild disgruntlement at the bus company increased somewhat when I discovered that the bus had reached its final destination, and it wasn't the bus terminal! Annoyingly, somewhat like what happens in Chile, the bus had finished its journey at the offices of the company instead. This was particularly annoying as one of my reasons for picking my hostel in Sucre, the HI, was that it was only a few minutes' walk from said station. Nothing to be done about it, though, except to get a cab across town, in the company of a Canadian who was aiming to get a connecting bus out of town that night. Arrival at the hostel also soothed my slightly irate mood, as the guy on the front desk was very polite and helpful (albeit once again all in Spanish, a situation to which I am now getting used and beginning to appreciate, as my language skills are improving slightly) and it turned out I had room 24 (a 4-bed dorm) all to myself, and it opened out directly onto the balcony at the rear of the house, overlooking the garden. Nice.

Next task was to head back to the bus station, running the usual gauntlet of exhuast fumes, honking taxis and rumbling micro-buses when crossing the main road, and sort out my bus ticket out of town for Thursday. I was determined to do this in plenty of time so as to make sure (a) I got a cama (sleeper) service and (b) I got one of the seats on their own that I liked. In the latter case, I was to fare even better than hoped, as I managed to get the seat right at the front, so nobody would be lowering their seat-back into my personal space. Mission accomplished. This done, I got myself cleaned up back at the hostel, and then headed into town in search of some dinner. I was slightly delayed once again by traffic, in this case a near-solid file of micros grinding their way down the hill into the centre of town, but made it to within a couple of blocks of the central plaza by around 7:30, and started having a look at some of the restaurants Stine had helpfuly recommended.

At this point, I got the first of what have been many frequent recent demonstrations of how the Gringo Trail keeps bringing you back into contact with the same people over and over, when I walked past the window of a pizzeria and did a double-take as I saw Mark and Katie, from the salt flats trip, sitting there. I popped in and had a chat with them, during which it turned out that Jun, Miriam and Robin from the trip were also in town. I then headed on to have my dinner at a nice little bar/restaurant called Florin, one of a bafflingly large number of such in town under Dutch ownership. One pleasant chicken shoarma later (I was in the mood for something other than typical Bolivian food at this point), I ambled out and nearly bumped straight into Jun, and ended up staying and having a couple of Happy Hour drinks with him, Robin and Miriam. Once they headed for bed, I popped into the Joy Ride, reportedly the busiest hotbed of Gringo nightlife in town, for a swift beer, but tiredness and the fact that, for the first time in the city, I didn't see anyone I knew meant I headed back to the hostel by midnight, where I then embarrassed myself by standing outside the wrong door to the hostel, getting upset that nobody had answered the bell, when the one I actually needed to use was a couple of metres away and unlocked. Oops.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

An even quieter day

Woke up at the unearthly hour of 8:30am on a Sunday. I blame the altitude - when you even half-wake short of breath, you tend to wake up fully pretty quickly. Plus, the door to my dorm creaked like something from a Hammer horror movie whenever people went in or out, and everyone heading out on the mine tours tended to be up and moving by about 8. I made the surprising discovery that the hostel actually did breakfast, and then the less-surprising one that this consisted of bread and jam. And tea or coffee, but I don't really drink either of them, a fact which seemed to unnerve the ladies serving from the kitchen.

After a quick burst of internet during which I sorted out my hostel for La Paz and my flight from there to Rurrenabaque, the jungle town from which I am planning to visit the Madidi National Park, part of the Bolivian section of the Amazon basin, I went off to explore around town and see some of the remainder of the town's colonial architecture - although Potosí became a virtual ghost town by the start of the 20th Century, a fair amount of it has survived in one form or the other, although often in a different use from that for which it was originall built. After working up an appetite (and a slight shortness of breath) looking around the old town, I had the almuerzo, the set lunch at one of the restuarants in the town centre, which got me a massive bowl of soup with some bread, pique lo macho (beef and sausages, on chips, onions and peppers, in a spicy sauce) that was hot enough for me to really notice it, and then a little cup of lemon-flavoured ice, with a drink, for the sum of around 3 pounds. If you haven't got the point yet, Bolivia is very pleasantly cheap!

In the afternoon, I wrote up a bit more of my journal, then headed back to the hostel, where I bunked down with a book for a little while (thanks to the hostel's book exchange, I was comfortably stocked with reading material again) until I eventually got chatting with a new occupant of the dorm, a Norwegian lass from right up above the Arctic circle in Kirkenes called Stine. After getting all kinds of hints from her about where to go in Sucre, that being both my next stop and where she had spent the last 3 months as an exchange student, and passing on some about Uyuni and down into Argentina, we ended up joining up with Julien, a French guy from the dorm, and heading out for some food. After a bit of a wild goose chase, caused partly by it being Sunday night and mainly places being closed, and partly by both Stine and I forgetting our guidebooks, we ended up back at the Torre de Pizza, where I had a fairly underwhelming lemon chicken but the others both seemed to enjoy their pizzas. After finishing our accompanying drinks, we decided that an early night wouldn't be such a bad thing (Stine wasn't actually drinking, as she was still recovering somewhat from her leaving party from Sucre the previous night!) and headed back to the hostel.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A quiet day in the World's Highest City

I treated myself to breakfast out for once, going to the Cafe La Plata on the cental square and having their desayuno Americano, which translated to toast and jam, orange juice and huevos revueltos, a kind of scrambled egg with ham in it. After that, I prowled the local internet cafes to find one that would let me Skype home - unfortunately, the connection was so slow that I was speaking to my Dad with about a 10-second lag on the line, which isn't really conducive to conversation, so I headed back to the hostel and gave myself one of my occasional strimmings (I hadn't clippered my hair for about 2 weeks, which is quite a long time for me these days...). Then I headed into reception, and pleaded (successfully) for them to put the TV on on ESPN so that I could watch the England-Slovakia friendly game - I know, I'm travelling, I ought to have better things to do with my time than watching football, but it was an England game after all!

Feeling suitably gleeful after England's 4-0 triumph, I headed off for a late lunch, ending up at the execrably-named "La Torre de Pizza". The food wasn't bad, though, a quite pleasant dish of home-made gnocchi with Bolognese sauce. After this, I got myself onto the last tour for the day around La Casa Nacional de la Moneda, the old Mint. This is described in certain guidebooks as "one of the most important examples of Spanish colonial civic architecture" and is notable both for its size (covering a whole city block) and its intact 18th-Century metal mills, used for converting the silver into coin-thickness plates. The tour itself was in Spanish, which annoyingly started out relatively slow and comprehensible and seemed to get faster as the guide went on. There was a certain amount of information on posters in English, though, and the written Spanish stuff was easier to understand than our guide, so I managed to get most of what was happening.

After this, I wrote up a bit more of my journals, and then went into the Plaza, where there appeared to be an impromptu fiesta going on, with a marching brass band and its accompanying dancers making its way around the square to the steps of the Cathedral, many of said dancers in traditional dress, which is most noticeable for the Andean peoples by the women's baffling fondness for bowler hats - the rumour is that this came about in the late 19th Century, when British traders came to some of the tribes and offered their hats as part of the trade for the local weavings and the like. The men weren't impressed with this headgear, but the women were, and the bowler has now become effectively part of the tribal dress of these groups, usually in black, brown or dark green!

Dinner that evening was again at the La Casona pub, and consisted of a different spicy beef-based dish, whose name unfortunately escapes me, but it was again good. And again, they had live music there, though in this case a somewhat less elaborate set-up, with the group called Enharmonia consisting of a guy with an acoustic guitar and a girl singing. She did have a beautful voice, though, so the music was almost as spellbinding as the previous night's had been. I also had the chance to sample some of the local beer, Potosina - the landlady had been very apologetic the previous night that their stock wasn't refrigerated, but this time it was. However, one unexpected side-effect of brewing at these kinds of altitudes appears to be that the bottle is very prone to fizzing over when opened, and it continued fizzing for about half an hour after opening! Actually tastes quite good, though.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The joys of Bolivian buses...

Get up, check out, off to the bus station, the usual routine. No hostel breakfast this time, but I managed to get a couple of deep-fried potato-cake type things from a little old lady at the side of the road for the princely sum of 2 Bs each, so I was at least slightly prepared for what the day might bring. Most of our group reassembled (10 of the 11 on our tour were on the same bus!), and were less than 100% pleased when we found that the bus company had swapped the new, shiny bus we hd been shown the previous day for a little minibus, on whose roof all our packs were going to be travelling. I was even less impressed when I discovered that, following Murphy's Law, I, the largest person on the bus, was in the seat with the least legroom on the bus. So I would be spending the best part of 6 hours either killing my knees or swivelled around into the aisle. Lovely.

Still, the drive itself was pretty spectacular. If only the same could have been said for the road. The panormaic vistas of mountains along the side of which we snaked as we headed up towards Potosí were matched in size only by the size of some of the potholes in the road. Or at least it felt that way. I immersed myself in Lauren and Ness's Lonely Planet Bolivia for some of the trip, seeing what else it had to offer beyond what my trusty Footprint provided, and then curled up as best I could with my iPod to last out some of the rest of the trip (I was all out of books at this point, thwarted by the power-cut in San Pedro from hitting the book exchanges there). I awoke to our lunch stop, a proper little middle-of-nowhere with few options for food. I ended up getting a crushed corn cake known as a humita, as this was all the sole Boliviano I still had in small change would buy me - foolishly, I had used all my smaller notes and coins, and there was no way I was going to be able to get change for a 50 or 100 Bs note there! I then attempted to doze off again.

This time, I was awoken by us grinding to a halt. Turns out a bus in front of us had gone off the side of the road (luckily the rockface side, not the cliff-edge side) on a narrow climbing section, and everything was backed up behind it - both of its rock-side wheels had left the road and gone into the gully by the rock edge, so it was hanging diagonally across its suspension with no traction to get it out of there. All its passengers had disembarked and people were largely standing around trying to work out what might be done to get it out of there. In relatively short order, there were 4 minibuses all queued up behind it, and some of the Bolivian equivalent of the Highways Agency had turned up in a road-grader (it's a dirt/gravel road rather than tarmac on that route). We all seemed likely to be there for the duration until the driver of one of the trailing minibuses, whom I judged at the time to have more cojones than sense, decided to try and squeeze through the narrow gap on the cliff side of the grounded bus. And, against all expectations, and with someone hanging out the front door to tell him if his wheels were about to go over the edge, made it through. Obviously, as soon as it was shown that one bus could make it, all the others did so as well, including ours, so we were on our way for the loss of a bit under an hour, which wasn't too bad considering.

Hence, it was late afternoon when we arrived into Potosí, the highest city of its size in the world - 160,000 or so people at over 4,000m altitude. The reason for this is the mines of Cerro Rico, the "rich hill" whose silver mines effectively funded the Spanish Empire for 2 centuries or more. In fact, it had a similar population at the end of the 16th century, making it one of the largest cities in the world at that time. However, these riches were extracted at the cost of the misery, and indeed the lives, of around 8 million indigenous Andeans and African slaves who worked the mines over those years. After independence, the mines remained open and under state ownership until the 1980s, although the silver had largely gone by the latter parts of the 19th century, and their continued operation was largely due to demand for tin, which the Spanish had never been that bothered with. These days, the mines are still operated by Miners' Co-operatives, but they struggle to make a living, and work in conditions that, but for the use of dynamite for blasting, have scarcely changed from the Middle Ages. Tours to the mines are actually Potosí's biggest tourist attraction, but, given my claustrophobia when underground, one which I declined to partake in.

At any rate, on arrival, I was again to suffer for my having foolishly used up all my change and small notes, as I was unable to secure transport to my lodgings. Luckily, Jerome and Estelle let me share their taxi to their hostel, which brought me about halfway to mine and did quite a bit of the climb from the bus station to the town centre, but still left me gasping my way for another 10 minutes or so across town fully laden with my packs and wondering where all the oxygen had gotten to. Still, I made it, and checked into the La Casona hostel, which was handily only a block and a half away from the central Plaza. I had a brief initial wander around town before the restaurants started opening for the evening, at which point I went to the La Casona Pub (no relation to the hostel) where I tried some beautiful microbrewed beer from Ted's Cerveceria in Sucre and had pique de lengua (spicy tongue, with a salsa and some chuños, a local variety of freeze-dried potatoes!). After this, I caught up on more of my internet needs (as your Inboses can probably attest) before heading back to the pub for their live music that evening.

This turned out to be a local folclore group of 8 musicians called Waira, playing the classic Andean instruments (including the tiny guitar that's a bit like a ukelele and the ubiquitous pipes and flute). For a cover charge of around 1 pound, they played a couple of sets of great music, and I had a very pleasant time, chatting with the bar staff (who all appeared to be from the same family, apart perhaps from one of the waiters who easily wins the prize of the campest Latin American I have yet met) and later with another English lad called Andy (from Hull) and a French lad called Marceau - they were heading on to Uyuni the next day, so I sang the praises of Estrella del Sur (whilst warning they could be tricky to get hold of!). And then it was time to go back to the hostel and sleep.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sunrise, Salt Flats and Silly Photos

4:30am is not generally a nice time of night. Even approaching it from earlier in the evening, it tends to be a time for exhaustion to raise its ugly head, but when it's a time to awaken, it is just plain horrible. Still, spurred on by the prospect of sunrise on the world's biggest salt flats, we managed to get up and loaded onto the vehicles and headed out into the darkness. Again I was glad of Carlos' experience in the job, as the route we took was totally unmarked and frequently seemed to involve random turns off the track we'd been following. It was over an hour's transit through the dark before we took up station on the salt flats, dug out our cameras, wrapped up as warm as we could manage and watched the slow arrival of dawn. Again, we appeared to have beaten the competition to the punch, as numerous other vehicles roared past us as the light gradually crept onto the eastern horizon. Suffice to say that the sunrise was gorgeous, and I won't try and describe it - you can make your own minds up when the photos are eventually online.

Once we'd taken ou fill of sunrise pictures, we packed back into the Land Cruisers and carried on to the Isla Incahuasi, where we climbed up to the mirador to take in the view across the salt flats whilst the drivers got breakfast ready. Breakfast in this case turned out to contain pancakes, which had presumably been cooked back at our accommodation, and after a couple of these and some hot chocolate, I was ready to take more photos, in this case concentrating on the kind of "comedy" perspective pictures for which the salt flats are brilliant (e.g. people apparently falling into a glass of orange juice, or a bunch of us apparently marching into a Pringles tube). After that, we had another brief photo stop out in the middle of the flats, and another at the only salt hotel still operating on the Salar (and that one has been asked to close for environmental reasons), before we hit solid ground again on our way into Uyuni.

Back on solid ground turned out to mean a souvenir-shopping stop as soon as we hit the town of Colchani - I haven't yet worked out what, if anything, I want to get from here in Bolivia, and I hardly had any local currency at this point anyway, so no purchases for Pat, but Lauren in our jeep decided to buy a wollie hat with little "llama ears" on the top. It kind of suits her, but I wouldn't be seen dead wearing one! After this, the jeeps split for a bit, with Emilio's crew having lunch in Colchani and the rest of us heading on to one of Uyuni's slightly weirder attractions, the Train Cemetery. This consists basically of a whole bunch of rusting, collapsing old steam locomotives and rolling stock, taken onto a branch line outside the city and basically left there to collapse. The old Engineering student in me found this kind of sad, and I was sorried enough about scratches and tetanus etc (despite having the jab) that I didn't really feel like scrambling around on the old rust-buckets and getting my photo taken, which was the principal activity there.

After our dead trains, we headed into Uyuni city centre, where Carlos pointed us in the direction of markets, ATMs etc whilst he got our lunch cooked up. In the company's offices, but there you go. I was overjoyed, having heard rumours the ATM was out of order, to find the thing working, and also to be able to check my e-mails quickly (for someone like me, 3 days away from my mails feels like a loooong time!). We then had a final filling lunch before bidding farewell to Estrella del Sur, and checking in to our various accommodations - I, along with the majority of the group, was in the HI in town, which was reasonably well-priced (45 Bs, about 4 pounds fifity, for a single room) and not too far to walk back to the bus offices, given I had already decided there was no real reason to spend more than a night in Uyuni itself (from what I've seen, just about the only reaction most other Bolivians have to mentioning the town of Uyuni is to mention quite how cold it is - that's it, that's apparently all it's famous for in its own country). Unfortunately, one of the other things Uyuni is known for internationally is its dryness, which equates to the hostel enforcing a "one shower per night, maximum seven minutes per shower" rule, with an attendant lady with the keys controlling access to the shower-rooms! Still, this was enough to get the dust and stench of the trail off me, and after having a shave as well I felt slightly more human when I met up with the others again in the evening to go for dinner. As luck would have it, our first choice place was closed, but we found another one, and had a nice meal before collapsing as one might expect of a group that had been up since 4:30am...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Across the Puna

Turns out that even 3 or 4 blankets aren't always sufficient at altitude, and it also doesn't help when the other jeep crews at the refugio leave at around 5:30am, an hour or so before we were due to, making a great deal of noise in the process. We got our packs stowed again and ready to load the vehicles, and we were glad to see that Carlos had reappeared in the morning (he had apparently been down with something flu-lke the previous night, prompting various of the ladies on the trip to seach their pharmaceutical hoardes for potential cures). We had a slightly surreal breakfast of cake followed by bread and jam, then loaded up and set off to the north again. Our first stop for the day was the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), a natural rock sculpture amongst a whole field of other wind- and water-eroded boulders and, whilst we weren't allowed to climb the "tree", we could and did scramble around on various of the others, to the usual accompaniment of the snaps and whirrs and beeps of digital cameras.

Having snapped to our hearts' content, we piled back into our trusty steeds and rolled on further north, taking in some of the longest drives of the trip on the way to the Lagunas Altiplanicas (high-altitude lakes) - it was at this point that we started counting our lucky stars that Carlos' vehicle had the MP3 cable, as we could iPod our way across the miles whereas Emilio's group aparrently spent quite a lot of the time with a CD of Andean music on repeat! The first of the lakes was Laguna Honda (meaning Deep Lake, nothing to do with the car manufacturer!), then there was one whose name I didn't write down but was actually from Quechua rather than Spanish, and then Laguna Hedionda (literally, Stinky Lake), which had quite large deposits of borax and supur around the edge, hence the well-deserved name. And this was where we broke for lunch.

After our feed, we carried on north, stopping to admire the view of Volcan Ollague, apparently one of the most active in South America, and also to goggle at the bizarre sight of two Swiss cyclists, who had apparently started down at Ushuaia and were making their way up to La Paz, Bolivia's capital. So there we are, transported by 4WD vehicles and with all our supplies and baggage on the roofs, and there they are, with only what they can carry in their panniers. Bit of a contrast. I was defnitely glad to be doing things our way, though! We kept on northwards, crossing the Salar de Chiguana, a smaller set of salt flats just to the south of the main Uyuni ones, and made one of our occasional supply- and toilet-stops in the village of San Juan. One of the features of crossing such a forbidding landscape as southwest Bolivia, somewhat similar to my times in Africa, is that the need to go to the loo becomes quite a driving thing, and travellers (especially guys, for whom the great outdoors makes for easier territory) tend to take the chance to go whenever the opportunity occurs. And when you're traveling through a landscape largely devoid of any trees or other large plant cover, then rocks become your friend. Once there aren't any rocks to hand either, the guys at least have the option of just going a ways away from the vehicle and facing downwind. Ahem.

After San Martin, it was only a relatively short drive, albeit one which took us past an army settlement where the troops were giving each other piggie-backs across a football pitch, to get us to Villa Martin, the little place which was our stop for the night. Some of the companies stop at one of the salt hotels (thus named due to their construction from salt blocks) near the flats, but Estrella actually stays in a little local guesthouse (which we later found out is actually owned by Carlos' parents!) which I reckon scores higher on the comfort front. We had a little time after dumping our bags to explore what little there was of the village, taking in the quinoa fields outside town, before heading back for the usual warming drinks and biscuits before dinner. However, our peace and serenity at this time were tested somewhat by one of the kids of the household, who kept hassling us about whether we wanted to take a shower (it was an extra 5 Bs charge to do so, albeit with hot water), to the point where some of us decided not to just because he was being irritating. Once dinner was out of the way, we all headed to bed pretty early, as we needed to be up and ready to leave by 5am the next morning to go and catch the sunset.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Into Bolivia

The early night was probably somewhat of a help, as I had to be at the office for my tour at 8am. Although, again, the company's timekeeping turned out to be somewhat more flexible than ours, so it was at least half past before we actually got on the minibus that ould take us to the border. We first of all cleared Chilean emigration at the edge of town, then drove on for about an hou or so to the Bolivian frontier, where we were met by the Land Cruisers (not actual jeeps, but more comfortable) which would be our steeds for the next few days to Uyuni. The border formalities were relatively rapid for those of us not from the US - our American cousins unfortunately suffer once again in Bolivia from their nation's aggressive aproach to border control, in that they must pay a fee of US$135, equivalent to that which the US charges Bolivians applying to go Stateside. They don't have the facilities to do this at the border for everyone, so their passports are put (safely wrapped up in cardboard and duct tape!) into the care of the tour company until they reac uyuni, where they have to pay at the immigration office. Thus, Ness, Lauren, Mark and Katie were spending 3 days passport-less, whilst Philip (German), Jerome and Estelle (French), Miriam (Dutch) Robin (Canadian) and Jun and myself (British) just had to pay the 21 Bolivianos (just over 2 quid) border tax.

With the formalities out of the way, we got down to breakfast, which consisyed of (surprise, surprise!) ham and cheese sandwiches, though bolstered by apple juice and yoghurts. The latter caused no end of amusement, as they reacted to the 4,500m altitude of the border by exploding somewhat whenever they were opened. Once we had been fed and watered, we split between the two vehicles, with Mark, Katie, Robin and Jun )who had been travelling together for about a week already) joined by Miriam in one Land Cruiser, driven by Emilio, whilst Ness, Lauren, Philip, Jerome, Estelle and I wee chauffeured around by Carlos. My initial reaction was annoyance at being in the more crowded vehicle, but ours was actually a newer model, with slightly more space, and had things like an MP3 interface for music, which Emilio's lacked. And we had Carlos, who was brilliant. He didn't really speak English, but was practiced at dealing with Gringoes with minimal Spanish and spoke slowly and deliberately, making things clear to all of us what was happening. And if there was anything complicated, we had the advantage of Ness, who is dual-national US-Spanish (unfortunately for her currently with a lapsed Spanish passport, so she got caught by the US restrictions) and thus fluent in both languages.

Thus began our little Odyssey across the Puna, through the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Eduardo Avaroa and up across the Salar de Uyuni. Our first stop was Laguna Blanca (White Lagoon), which served as a mirror for the surrounding countryside. Just a few minutes' drive further on from this was Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), which was coloured a startling blue-green due to the mineral content (particularly a high content of arsenic - not somewhere to think about refilling water bottles or anything!) and also exposed to a vicious wind that whipped across the plains, still basically treeless at this altitude. Moving on from Laguna Verde we stopped at the Termas de Polques, some hot springs where an enterprising soul had built a shallow swimming pool to enjoy the 38-degree water. This was absolutely heavenly to be in, given the chill at altitude outside, but getting out and getting changed back into dry clothes was a brief ordeal at the end of it - 20 minutes' comfort for around 2 minutes' discomfort seemed a fiar trade off to me, though!

After our impromptu hot bath (which we had been recommended to take advantage of as there were no hot showers at the night's accommodation...), we drove onward to the Sol de Mañana (Morning Sun) geysers, which weren't spouting but were giving off clouds of steam and the inevitable sulfurous rotten-egg smell that always takes me back to Rotorua in New Zealand. I should note here that none of this driving was on roads - there aren't any through the park, and even the tracks there are are poorl defined and frequently ignored. Carlos frequently went off-piste, but on that first day, despite being one of the last groups to leave the border post, we were one of the first to arrive at our refugio for the night. After the usual questioning, I found out that he's been driving tours in the region for 16 years, the last 5 of them with Estrella del Sur, so it's not exactly surprising that he knows a lot of the quicker routes. In any case, we made it over the saddle at 5,000m (the highest point of the trip) and back down to around 4,300m, where out refugio at Huaylla Jara was located, near the shores of Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon - can you see the pattern here?). There we had a late lunch before going out to take in the red colour of the lake (actually more of a kind of dark orange, but still not normal for water - it's caused by micro-organisms) and the many flamingoes who call it home. Unfortunately, this was also when the wind really picked up, just as I'd left my beanie back at the refugio, so I had to botch together a combination of my bush-hat and bandana to try and keep from getting ear-ache. I did get some reasonable photos, though.

Having surived the arctic blasts down by the lake, we headed back to the refugio, initially for tea and biscuits (I know, how English??) and then later on for dinner. In the gap between these, we did the classic backpacker thing and got a running game of Shithead going. Some of us also went to investigate the little store at the refugio, where we got hold of some beer, albeit at prices that seemed somewhat expensive for what we'd heard about Bolivia. But when you're miles from anywhere in the middle of a national park, that's not exactly a huge surprise. After dinner we stayed up for a while longer, reading, writing journals and chatting, until the freezing cold and lights-out drove us to our beds, where we buried ourselves in the multiple blankets provided.

Valle de la Luna

Another to be added to the list of "things I've learnt on this trip" - San Pedro de Atacama is utterly dead on a Monday morning, at least before 10am. Normally, this wouldn't bother me, as that's about when I would get up, but I had actually made an effort to be out and about a bt earlier to try and sort out getting myself on a jeep to Bolivia the following day with the company I had had recommended, Estrella del Sur. Unfortunately, as well as the quality of their tours, the other thing they appeared famous for was the fact that their office was never open when you expected or wanted it to be. After finding it closed again in the morning, I headed to the Tourist Information office, where they keep a book of comments by tourists on any of the companies in San Pedro, and after leafing through the descriptions of the companies (one had a history of occasional breakdowns and poor accommodation, another had a history of drunken drivers...), I felt reassured that my determination to go with Estrella del Sur (which, incidentally, means Southern Star) was the correct one. So I did the only thing I could think of - I set up on their office's doorstep and waited for someone to appear.

Amusingly, I wasn't the only one in this situation - there were two American girls, another couple from the States and an Anglo-Canadian couple all also waiting for the appearance of the elusive man from the company. And eventually he did appear, an hour or so after the office was supposed to open at 10, at which point we all took the oportunity to get ourselves booked, confirmed and paid for. The next challenge for the morning was to get hold of some Bolivianos, the Bolivian currency that is nigh-on impossible to find outside its native country. After being turned back by around half a dozen places loudly advertising "Cambio - Bolivianos" with the dreaded No hay (literally "there isn't any"), I finally managed to get some. After that, I booked myself onto a tour to the nearby Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) for the afternoon, and then bought myself a new towel to replace the lost sarong that may well still be decorating the end of a bunk in Jujuy, before going and having a sandwich for lunch at the Coyote Bike cafe (anywhere that advertises itself using Wile E Coyote is good in my books...).

Having taken advantage of the surprisingly rapid internet in San Pedro (albeit at high cost) to upload a bunch of my photos to Facebook, I headed off on my Moon Valley tour. I was joined on this by the two American girls, Ness and Lauren, who were also on the Estrella jeep to Bolivia, and there was a further North American presence in the form of a Californian by the name of Brandon and a Jamaican-Canadian named Tania. Our guide for the afternoon was a very garrulous Chileño by the name of Dani, who helpfully did all his commentary in both Spanish (and at a comprehensible speed rather than the machine-gun babble for which Chile is renowned) then in English, giving those of us with some Spanish a good chance to brush up a bit without missing out on any of the info. Our trip took in a mirador (viewpoint) over the Montañes del Sal (a range of low depressions rather than mountains, with heavy salt content), followed by a trip to the Valle de la Muerte (the Valley of Death - a rather melodramatic name for a relatively pretty bi of the landscape) and then the Valle de la Luna itself.

The valley gets its name not for any astronomical reasons but because the terrain there is believed to be similar to that on the moon, though I don't know if that was ever checked with Messrs Armstrong, Aldrin et al who could have actually told them. We saw a rock formation known as the "3 Marias", although to be honest I agreed with Brandon that the 1st Maria looked more like a rabbit than anything else, and then took a quick walk over to a small old salt working and the ruins of the accommodation in which the miners stayed. Dani also informed us at this point that the Atacama, as well as being one of the driest places on the planet (no rain ever recorded in some places), has the biggest thermal differential in the world - it can go from around 40 Celsius in the heat of the day to around -15 in the middle of the night in the space of less than 24 hours. After this, we took a walk through a canyon in the valley and then, as sunset approached, joined all the other tour groups in the park by climbing up a convenient dune to catch the sunset and, more importantly, the lighting effects thereof on the Andean range in the background. It was here that I caught up with Simone, my German companion from the bus in the previous day, who was with a New Zealand lass who caused much hilarity for the rest of us and howls of indignation amongst our Yank contingent by voicing the generally-held belief that American tourists are grand exponents of the "fanny pack" (better known our side of the pond as the bum bag).

Still, we all remained on speaking terms on our return to town, where Ness, Lauren, Tania and I went to the Empanada stall in the local market - I've been to a few places with quite a wide range of the pastries before, but this one had a book of over 200 different options, which they cooked to order. I had a Pato Picante (spicy duck) and the classic Piño (beef, egg, olive and onion), both of which were very pleasant. After this, Ness and Lauren went back to finish re-packing, and I went to grab a beer with Brandon and Tania. It was over this refreshment that I found that Brandon had even more aggressive views on Islam than my old flatmate Tristan (who at least was often starting arguments just to wind me up), and the combination of this and my need to stock up on essentials (bottled water and loo roll) and grab a shower before the hot water at my hostel went off meant I said my goodbyes after just one beer. I had also been planning to pop online again for a bit, and maybe swap some books, but unfortunately I was thwarted in this by a power-cut. It seems these happen frequently enough that many of the restuarants and more upmarket accommodation places have emergency generators, but alas this does not apply to the internet centres, so I had an earlier night than I'd planned.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Back to Chile

Another morning departure, another slightly rushed exodus from my hostel, and annoyingly this time I forgot the sarong which serves as my travel towel. Whoops. Just to improve my mild irritation, the bus was then late, and when it came time to get on, it turned out that the person supposed to be in the seat next to me had passed out on the floor in front of our seats and was sticking out into the aisle. After poking in the shoulders and knees, and stepping several times on his feet, I eventually practically shouted in the man's face. At which point he finally awoke somewhat, looked around in confusion, responded to my suggestion that he get off the floor and pick which seat he would occupy by rolling into the seat by the window, put his seat back as far as it would go, threw a towel over his head, and went back to sleep. This would be the state in which he would remain for pretty much the whole trip, apart from when the staff woke him up for the border crossings. Worryingly, I realised during one of these stops that I had actually met him before - he'd been in my hostel in Bariloche, but showed no signs of recognising me.

At any rate, having proved thus unable to converse with my neighbour, I ended up chatting with a German lass from a row in front called Simone, as well as enduring a certain amount of teasing from most of the rest of the bus, all of whom found the initial way I'd found him incredibly funny. At any rate, we went back over some of the ground from my day-trip out of Salta, before carrying on to the far side of the salt flats and thus on up towards the Jama Pass itself, providing yet further opportunities for me to attempt landscape photography from the window of a speeding coach. Our passage through Argentine border control was pretty straightforward, and from there we actually carried on right through to San Pedro de Atacama, as the Chileans had (relatively sensibly) decided that there was no point in having a border post out in the desert in the middle of nowhere when you can instead just put it on the edge of the first town you come to, especially as this allows you to use the same post for the Bolivian border as well.

Chilean immigration unsurprisingly took a bit longer, with the usual searches for any foodstuffs we might be illicitly importing, though I was lucky enough to be near the front of the queue due to being near the front of the bus. Hence, when I came out of the immigration centre with my bags, the driver happily informed those of us who'd made it that far that we could wait about 45 minutes or so for the whole bus's baggage to be checked if we wanted, or we could walk into town, which was only about 5 or 10 minutes. Given I was supposed to be meeting a friend from earlier in my travels that evening, I opted for taking Shanks' Pony into town, and so set out in the company of Simone, who'd also decided that exercise beat boredom at this stage.

Once we reached town, Simone and I went our separate ways as I got checked into the Residencial Vilacoyo, where I had the unfamiliar luxury of a room with a single bed, for less than I'd been paying for some of my dorm beds down south in Chile. I took the time to explore town a little bit (it doesn't take long in San Pedro!), getting some information from a few of the companies that run the trips across the salt flats into Bolivia, before going over to the square to meet up with Molly, my friend from Valparaiso, who was in town before heading north on one of said trips the next morning. We had dinner at a little local place where I indulged my liking for chacareros (Chilean beef sandwiches with tomatoes, green beans and chilli), before walking back across town to meet up with Hubert, a Frenchman Molly had met the previous day and agreed to have a drink with that evening. And a pleasant evening it was, fuelled principally by Pisco Sours and Caipirinhas (San Pedro is not a cheap place, but most of the restaurant/bars have a 2-for-1 Happy Hour promotion for much of the evening on some of the more popular cocktails....), before it was time to bid Molly farewell and bon voyage.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A happy ending to the 6 Nations

Another early departure, though for once prompted not by the bus timetables but by my determination to get back to the relatively large city of San Salvador de Jujuy in time for lunchtime so as to watch the final matches of the 6 Nations Rugby. The trip back down the gorge gave me various opportunities for further photo-taking, although trying to do so out of the window of a bus never gives the best results. We arrived in Jujuy without any problems, and I made my way over to my home for the night, the rather bizarrely-named Yok Wahi hostel. Once checked in there, I headed off into town and, although the first place the hostel receptionist had suggested wasn't showing anything beyond CNN when I got there, I found a little restaurant a few doors down where I persuaded them to set up the rugby on the screen, in exchange for which I had myself a final Argentine steak lunch and settled in to drink beer until I ran out of rugby.

Having cheered myself up immensely by watching England take the Calcutta Cup off Scotland (only mildly spoiled by the restaurant occasionally losing reception, the first time coinciding with England's opening try), I then got the extra delights of Wales v Ireland, and the last-minute drama that saw our cousins in green taking the Grand Slam for the first time in over 60 years. However, by this point I had also been drinking beer for around 4 hours in the middle of the day, so the next order of business was a much-needed siesta back at the hostel. Fortified with sleep, I headed back into the town centre to stock up on a few things like toiletries which I figured I might not have such a wide choice of up in the Andean countries, then spent a bit longer writing up these diaries before heading back for yet another early night - re-reading this, it's almost like I overcompensated for my exertions in Mendoza and Salta by going into my shell for a while.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A brief interlude in Tilcara

A very cold awakening - the first time this trip that I had not wanted to get out of my bed due to the conditions outside of it rather than those inside. I was up earlier than normal for me again, this time in an attempt to get a bus to the little mountain village of Iruya, which I had been informed was exceedingly pretty. Unfortunately, it appeared this opinion was shared by a certain number of other travellers and a lot of locals, as the buses were full. Time for Plan B. On the recommendation of other friends who'd been to the region I headed back down the gorge a little way to the village of Tilcara.

Tilcara is slightly bigger than my base in Humahuaca, and is notable for the ruins of a large pre-Conquest (mostly Incan) fortress on the outskirts, the Pucara (this apparently is just the word for "fortress" in Quechua, the Inca language), which I promptly climbed up to on arrival, having fortified myself with water and prepared to run the gauntlet of the dust and the village's pack of stray dogs (everywhere here seems to have them, generally harmless but enough to make me nervous given that the Rabies jab is one of the group I've never had). To be honest, the actual remnants are just baselines of walls and the like of dry-stone construction, and everything that can actually be looked around to give a proper impression is 20th-Century reconstruction, mostly from the 30s and 50s. It does give a great view over the valley, though, and is free to visit.

Having worked up a bit of an appetite, I headed back into the village and made my way to a little restaurant called Patio de Comida, where I gorged myself on llama schnitzel and potato salad. Thus sated, I explored the local craft market for a bit, finding numerous things that would potentially be quite pretty back home, but none of them that I wanted enough to actually buy them and then carry them halfway around the continent. By around mid-afternoon it was time to head back to Humahuaca, where I racked up a bit more internet time (there honestly isn't that much to see or do in the village). Dinner was then at a little place my Footprint guide had recommended called El Portillo (nothing to do with Michael, before anyone from back home decides to try and be funny), where I had a traditional local stew called locro and some salad, along with some more of Argentina's ridiculously cheap line in house red wines. And then I went back to the hostel and had another early night.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Llama stew - actually quite tasty

In a fit of occasional masochism, I decided to try the hostel breakfast again before departing Salta. Unfortunately, it was still bloody awful. So I wasn't feeling terribly full when I got my taxi to the bus station, but better on time and slightly peckish than stuffed and cursing at a departing bus. In fact, in this case I ended up sitting out near the platforms chatting with yet another in the seemingly inexhaustible stream of Danish girls I've met on this trip, this one by the name of Lotte, until our bus arrived. Turns out we were actually in adjacent seats as well, though conversation was not what it might have been due to her having had only about 3 hours' sleep and then spent several hours at the bus station due to bus-related (and possibly driunk-influenced) confusion, such that she conked out shortly after getting her seat.

At any rate, after about 4.5 hours on the bus, having my eardrums assaulted by overly loud films, I arrived in Humahuaca, one of the various villages that occupy the Humahuaca gorge which leads up to the border with Bolivia. There I was due to stay a couple of nights at a little guesthouse/hostel called the Posada El Sol. Normally they apparently do a free pickup from the bus station, but the vehicle involved was "unavailable" so I had to walk there. In the heat, at around 3,000m altitude, with a series of signs in which the last, possibly critical one, was missing, so I missed my turn and carried on up the hill, cursing loudly under my breath, before finally doubling back and finding the place at a second attempt. The place itself is nice if you're in the "getting away from it all" mood, but can be chilly at night (largely due to the altitude) and the manager was my second example of the non-English-speaking staff member on the trip so far - good practice for my Spanish, but occasionally a bit wearing.

So, I got myself settled in, then headed into town, where, after climbing the hill to look at the memorial to the heroes of the War of Independence, I was surprised to find that this little village actually has quite reasonable internet connections considering, and about half a dozen cyber-cafes, before searching out some food. I hadn't had lunch, so was trying to eat at the very unArgentine time of about 6pm, which somewhat restricted my options, but in the end I found a little place called Casa Vieja (the Old House) where I had some quite pleasant llama stew and some fairly average (but, more importantly, very cheap!) house wine. I then headed back to the hostel, racked up a bit more typing time on its temperamental web connection and headed to my bed, making use of every available blanket and amusing myself listening to the German girls downstairs in the dorm splatting mosquitoes.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The "Amazing Attractions" of Salta

No prizes for guessing which out of "up and about early" and "what do you mean it's the afternoon already?" sums up my start to the day after the St Patrick's celebrations in Salta. I didn't have anything planned anyway, although it was faintly spooky that all the other people in my dorm (including Ben and Dee) had checked out in the morning, so I awoke to an empty room. Surprisingly, though, I awoke in pretty good health, and I was to discover that Lisa was also feeling no ill effects from our green-tinged binge the previous night - in the end, we headed off to grab some lunch and get various bits of admin done (I needed to get laundry done, she needed to sort out a bus ticket, I wanted to back up my pictures, etc etc) before taking the teleferico (cable-car) up Cerro San Bernardo, the large hill overlooking Salta's city centre. There was some giggling on the way up, though, when the recorded message announced that the Teleferico Complex was "another amazing attraction for Salta". The actual attraction up there consisted principally of the great views out over town, no matter how much they might try to sell the merits of the artificial concrete waterfall or the (currently closed) "Ecological trail".

Back at ground level, I headed internet-wards while Lisa went off to get some shopping done. With my mind set at ease by having all my pictures backed up again (after all, how could I possibly survive without at least 20 comedy shamrock-related photos...?), I headed back to the hostel to find that I am perhaps developing some kind of new remote-acting travellers' curse, in that Lisa had now managed to lose her wallet. Luckily, the damage for her was somewhat less than it had been for Pete (largely due to having an alternative card), but the lesson appears to be "don't travel for any period of time with Pat in northern Argentina if you value your bank-card". Whilst I waited for my laundry to turn up, I took the opportunity with an empty bag to sew on the Chilean flag patch I had acquired, and then once my delightfully clean clothes made an appearance, I got down to the important if rather dull business of repacking my bags before going to the Asado night. Yes, another one. Only this one with added folclorico music and dancing. Which goes to show that, amazingly, it is possible as a male to dance around waving a hankie without it impinging even slightly on your perceived masculinity.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Busy Paddy's Day

Very early (for me) start, as Lisa and I had to be ready to leave by 7:15am. The breakfast at Backpackers' Home in Salta turned out to be even worse than most others, as the bread was scarcely edible, although there were some pastries and cheap & nasty cornflakes as if to try and make up for this. Good thing I wasn't in the mood for too much breakfast, as our guide for the day, Federico, actually turned up a little early so I was flapping around, brushing my teeth and putting the last few things in my daypack, when he turned up. Life was very comfortable for the first part of the trip, as it turned out we were only picking up the other two people taking part after a couple of hours, as they were staying further up towards the border. So I blagged the front seat, and Lisa got to stretch out across the back for a while. Unfortunately, the weather did not look so obliging, with a low cloud ceiling, and the unmistakeable signs of rain to come. However, Federico assured us that we would be fine as soon as we got above 2,000m altitude, and offered to buy us mojitos that evening if it stayed rainy all day! So, after a brief stop near Jujuy to get coffee and more breakfast (a decision which probably saved the rest of the vehicle from a symphony of my stomach rumbles for the morning), we started up the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Now, I'll write a bit more about Humahuaca Gorge when I get to the bit where I stay there, but suffice to say, very pretty rocks and the like. We, however, turned off right near the beginning of the gorge and took the road that leads up to the Jama Pass into Chile. One consequence of the proximity of this border, and more particularly of that with Bolivia, is the large number of police checkpoints, manned by the Gendarmeria, who apparently serve largely as border police, rather than by the local state/provincial police or the Policia Federal Argentina. We were lucky enough not to be stopped on our way up, though it was noticeable that Federico, who looked as though he had some indígena blood (this is the accepted term for those of native South American descent - they don't appreciate being called indio), took care to take off his sunglasses before approaching any of the checkpoints. Our initial destination, and the place to pick up our other travelling companions for the day, was the village of Purmamurca.

The principal reason for visiting Purmamurca is the surrounding hills, which, due to their varied mineral content, are in various different shades, and one particular area is known as the Hill of Seven Colours. Some of them are more obvious than others, but you can easily pick out red, green, yellow and black. At this point, Federico offered Lisa and me the opportunity to ride in the back try of the pickup as we drove through by the rocks, which we gleefully accepted. And very good it was, too, giving uninterrupted views to all the surrounding hills and getting a wee bit of the wind in our hair and a chance to soak up a bit of sun, for indeed Federico had been correct, and as soon as we'd popped through the ceiling at around 2,000m, the sky was clear and the views were great. After driving (and walking) around the rocks for bit, we headed down into Purmamurca town, where we had 20 minutes or so to look around the market in the town square (the first stereotypically Andean market I'd encountered) while he went and got our travelling companions for the day, who turned out to be two middle-aged Swiss ladies. Bizarrely, though, one of them was Swiss-Argentinian, so spoke the local dialect easily but hardly any English, whilst the other was Swiss-German, spoke reasonable English but hardly any Spanish, and the two of them conversed with each other principally in French!

After leaving Purmamurca town, we carried on with our steady ascent, headed for the pass (not the Jama pass itself, but the precursor, over the pre-Andean range and onto the high plateau known as the altiplano or Puna, which was still at a dizzying 4,170m). To aid in combatting the effects of altitude (given that we'd ascended almost 3,500m!), Federico offered us some coca leaves. Now, some of the more streetwise or chemically-minded amongst you may be aware that coca is the precursor product for cocaine, however (worry not, Mother!) it takes about 40kg of leaves, and extensive processing featuring acid, to make even a gram or so of cocaine. The leaves are used frequently, though, in the Andean countries, either as a tea or chewed up and held in the cheek, for their effects in counteracting altitude sickness. So I tried chewing coca leaves. And it wasn't too bad, until the taste of the damned things started coming through, which was pretty vile, so I got rid of mine and resolved to handle the height by myself. The net result of which was that I got quite light-headed and kept dozing off for the next hour or so, though I did manage to wake up and stagger up to the marker showing the high point of the pass for a photo.

Once we cleared the pass, we descended back to the depths of around 3,700m and continued over to the Salinas Grandes, the salt flats which are one of the few distinctive features of the otherwise fairly barren Puna. These are a sizeable area where the water coming down from the Andes on one side and the pre-Andean cordillera on the other got trapped and as water evaporated, a crust of minerals formed, which is now thick enough to drive on. And the most common mineral is good old Sodium Chloride, meaning the flats are a massive white sheet, very bright on the eyes when you are driving across them up in the back tray of a pickup, as we were once again. The flats are actually exploited for purposes other than tourism, and we could see where sections of the flats had been dug out to form pools, which, via evaporation, became salt pans, allowing salt mining to take place. There was also a store (with that Godsend of travel on the altiplano, toilets) made entirely of salt blocks used as bricks. It seems to work as a relatively substantial building material, but the whiteness doesn't last long as it rapidly soaks up pollution from the air and becomes a murky grey.

After our salty experience, we headed out across the Puna, leaving behind the paved highway and heading along gravel roads as we drove towards the top end of the famous Tren a las Nubes train line. Along the way, we stopped at a local restaurant, run by several indígena families, where we had a very pleasant stew, soup and home-made bread for lunch. Slightly less pleasant than the food was the CD of 80s music to which Federico subjected us, although there was the odd tune I grinned and bellowed along to. We didn't stop in the town of San Antonio de los Cobres itself, the end of the tourist train line, as it is, to be frank, a bit of a hole, but instead started alongside the tracks across the Puna, headed back towards Salta. It is unfortunate that many of the most spectacular parts of the railway, engineering-wise, are remote enough that the road cannot reach them, but the road is also quite impressive as it switch-backs down the mountainside, and it rejoins the railway for the passage through the Quebrada del Toro (Bull Gorge), where we stopped and had a walk on one of the longest viaducts (no trains to run us over, thankfully). And soon after this, we popped back under the cloud-cover and the rain started up again in earnest, so we snoozed a bit on the way back into town.

And snoozing was required, as Lisa and I had an appointment with the Goblin, the local Irish pub in Salta, where we were planning on celebrating St Patrick's Day properly. We grabbed some food first, then got a cab into town (for the princely sum of 3 pesos, about 60p...) and settled into the green-tinged warmth of the Goblin. There we discovered about half-a-dozen Irish, mostly merry and heading towards drunk, and about 10 Aussies and Kiwis, already near-enough paralytic after drinking since around lunchtime. There were also a fair smattering of locals, some of them getting into the spirit and one or two looking confused and horrified. Most notable of those getting into the spirit of things was one middle-aged local guy who was a bit of a rugby fanatic, and thus ended up doing the haka, quite convincingly, with the Kiwis and singing the Fields of Athenry with the Irish (with which I also joined in). Although he also started teaching some of the young locals in the bar the Yogi Bear drinking song, which should really never be sung in polite company (especially if there is something of a fixation on the verses featuring Booboo and Susie...).

Amusingly, though not terribly surprisingly, there was also a small reunion for me, as two of the Irish in the bar were Grainne and Kate, the girls who'd been staying at my hostel in Pucón and had gone up the volcano there. What with them and Roisín and Pete, a very nice couple the latter of whom was resonspible for the first of my shamrock cheek decorations for the evening, and me and Lisa, and Ben and Dee a bit later on, and another English girl called Jen and a New Yorker by the name of Jim, we had quite a pleasant little party, which rolled on satisfyingly into the wee hours, fuelled in my case by caipirinhas and in Lisa's by caipiroskas, until around 4am Lisa suddenly hit a wall, and she, Jen, Jim and I hopped a cab back to the hostel, where I was only too glad to collapse once again in my bed.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Settling in in Salta

After two nights with minmal sleep, including 18 hours cooped up on a bus, I arrived in Salta in a mildly zombie-like state, and was relieved that my hostel for the next few nights had a nice gentleman to meet people off the buses and chuck them in a taxi, at the princely sum of around one pound, to the hostel. Worked for me. Whilst waiting to check in, I got chatting with another lass from the bus, who'd been sitting a few rows forward and was also staying there, an Irish physiotherapist by the name of Lisa, and she joined Ben, Dee and myself for some lunch at a little cafe/restaurant called Alvarez that the guy on reception had recommended. And a good recommendation it turned out to be, being cheap, filling and conveniently on the way into town. After food, Ben and Dee headed back into town to crash out, whilst Lisa and I went to check out some of the various travel agencies in town, all offering pretty similar tours of the surrounding area. We had been thinking just to check prices, but ended up being persuaded by an offer at one place and signed up for a trip the next day up to the Altiplano, the high plateau near the border, taking in multi-coloured hills, salt-flats and part of the route of the Tren A Las Nubes (Train To The Clouds).

We couldn't take the train itself - it doesn't run in the summer, due to weather issues - but this offered us the chance to see some of the route as well as other sights in the area, and it was with an English-speaking guide in a double-cab pick-up truck rather than the usual minibuses, so I swallowed my slight misgivings about prices (I know, that'd be my slight Scots heritage coming out again) and went for it. With plans thus made, I detoured to the bus station again on the way back to sort out my ticket to Chile - the buses only run 3 times a week, so they can get filled up if you leave it to the last minute. Having set this for Sunday, I meandered back to the hostel to partake of the free dinner provided, which was Arroz con Pollo, rice with chicken. To be honest, it was a long way from the best meal I've had, but as it was free there wasn't really anything to complain about. Given the early start the next day and my ongoing lack of sleep, I called it a night around midnight and went to the welcome embrace of my bunk.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Yet Another Day In Transit

I overslept. Not exactly a surprise, but it got me a mild ticking off from the staff. I just looked shame-faced and shattered, and apologised profusely. Checkout times are one of the things some people actually use to help them pick where to stay, as if you've been out and about on the town, you really don't want to be having to get up and cart all your stuff out of your room early the next day. Independencia's time of 10am is slightly earlier than average, and unfortunately I slept straight through the alarm I had put on (that or did my old trick of turning it off and going back to sleep without remembering). The rest of the day passed fairly quietly, being concerned principally with feeding my hangover, getting online to print my bus ticket for the evening (and write up more of these tales), and a bit of reading. Then it was time to do my best "little donkey" impression and head back across town to the bus Terminal. There I arrived, slightly hot and bothered because I thought I was cutting things fine, to find the bus was late, but never mind. I chatted with Ben and Dee until the vehicle made its belated appearance, then settled in for the long overnight run to Salta. Movie choices this time were as eclectic as ever, being Rendition (rather too much torture and screaming for my liking) and Codename: The Cleaner (another entry in the Really Silly canon), and the food was about halfway to edible. And as per usual for me, I drifted in and out of really light sleep without ever actually feeling all that rested.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

St Patrick's Eve Eve Eve

Unsurprisingly, given the previous day's bike- and alcohol-related exertions, I slept in late and wasn't planning on doing much. I got my admin done for my planned next stop, Salta, thanks to Pete's laptop and yet another of the seemingly omni-present WiFi links in hostels in Argentina - it's one of the abiding differences of my travel this time that so many people seem to have laptops, something that would have been unthinkable a few years back due to the expense. Now it seems like about 1 in 3 of the people you meet have the bloody things. Still, it made my life easier, by not having to queue for the couple of free access machines in the hostel or go out and find an internet cafe. After that, I went out to hunt for some kind of snack to eat, conveniently forgetting that many Argentine cities are damned near closed mid-afternoon, what with weekend trading and siesta (yes, whole cities here do basically close down between about 1pm and 4pm), so I ended up getting some empanadas and stuff to make sandwiches with from the supermarket and heading back to the hostel. There I found Pete in a flap, as he'd mislaid his bank card.

Now this has to be one of the more unfortunate things that can happen to you whilst travelling without involving actual bodily harm. Particularly if you're traveling with only one card, as unfortunately Pete was. Immediate reaction is to try and track down places you could have lost it. Kind of pointless when these include four wineries, at least 3 bars and a good deal of the Mendoza countryside. Pete actually still had the details of the card, so next thing was to work out what he could pay for, mostly online, before contacting the bank to declare it lost. Finally, we had to work out how he could get money sent to him while the new card gets sent out. In this, at least, I was able to help a little bit by buying up his remaining Chilean currency and his stash of US Dollars with Argentine cash, thus giving him a bit more liquidity on which to survive. As I said, it's one of the more irritating things to happen, particularly if you then end up stuck on the phone from another continent back to the UK, being told to "If you want to report a stolen card, please press 1..." and the like, and then when you do get through, you're fighting the effects of the Data Protection Act sometimes. Even getting a replacement passport can be easier than having to cancel and get replacements for your bank card, at least if you're within striking distance of an embassy or consulate.

At any rate, what with all of this going on, it was early evening before I headed over to Break Point to meet up with Dee and Ben as I'd said I would. We'd been planning on liaising as we were all headed up to Salta around the same time, so were going to try and get on the same bus and be in the same hostel. As it was, we'd organised our bus tickets separately, but had still managed to end up on the same bus, and they hadn't booked their hostel yet, so we managed to get that lined up as well. They were heading out for Mexican food with another lad from their hostel, but I'd already arranged with Pete to go out for more steak of some kind, so I agreed to try and meet up again later. Back at the hostel, Pete was still ringing the UK, struggling with someone from Visa on a bad line who didn't understand the phonetic alphabet, and had linked up with Evangelina, his new Argentine friend from two nights ago, again. In the end, once he had finished banging his head on a telephonic brick wall, Evangelina and Noelle joined us for food, along with our new room-mate, a Bolivian guy called Evo who was another of the crazy people cycling large chunks of South America.

Evo was actually an interesting antidote to most of the stereotypes people have about Bolivians, being visibly mostly of European rather than Andean descent and damned-near bilingual (to the point of having a fair smattering of British slang). And it was partly at his instigation that, having fed and then returned to the hostel (Ben and Dee had retired early pleading exhaustion), we joined some others in heading back to Believe yet once more, as they were holding a St Patrick's party. Now, yes, I know, St Patrick's Day is the 17th, but the pragmatic approach of the Argentines was that this being midweek would be damned inconvenient for a party, so they'd celebrate it on Saturday. And on Tuesday as well. And some of the other bars in town were planning parties for Monday night as well (on the basis that people here don't usually go out until after midnight, this does actually make sense). Thus, my supposedly relatively quiet final night turned, by the usual Sod's Law that applies, into quite a long and messy evening, resulting in getting home around 6am, having been conversing variously in English, Spanish, French and German with different people outside the pub, and had the almost-obligatory photo taken wearing a silly hat.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday 13th doesn't have to be bad!

In contravention of all superstitions, this was one of the best days of my trip so far. Once Pete and I had dragged ourselves back into the land of the living, we headed off for the bus-stop to get down to the little town of Maipu, about 40km from Mendoza which is where a lot of the wineries in the area are based, and, more importantly, where the companies renting bikes to go around and visit said wineries are based. Now, I know what you're thinking. Wine-tasting and cycling. Two activities which do not necessarily seem like obvious partners. Particularly when coupled with a region where pretty much all roads are flanked by irrigation ditches and a country where the drivers are certifiably crazy. Surprisingly, though, it does work rather well. There's a few companies that offer bike hire in the area (it's a self-guided type of trip, rather than an organised "follow-the-bloke/girl-with-the-flag/umbrella" kind of affair) - Bikes & Wines appear to have most of the hostels signed into promoting them, but the more popular, largely on the basis of word of mouth, appears now to be Mr Hugo's.

Now, Mr Hugo's bikes maybe aren't quite so fancy. You don't get brain-buckets (yes, sorry Mum, I went for the company without safety helmets...). The flyers and maps and the like look less swish. However, it is a small, family business (the first person you meet on arriving is Mr Hugo himself), and at the end of the day, everyone who's been out cycling sits down and has another glass or two of complimentary wine back at his place, and there's no stress about having to be back on time or you get fined, etc etc. Just nice and casual. So, with this being the reputation, it isn't too surprising that Pete and I met three other backpackers headed down that way whilst we were at the bus stop - Ben and Dee, a couple from Herefordshire, and a Kiwi lass called Marissa. They became our companions for the rest of the day, and what a fun day it was.

Acting on advice from Ross, my companion earlier on on my travels, we cycled down to the farthest winery on the route to begin with, getting half the cycling out of the way whilst we were still energetic and fully sober, then made our way back from place to place. Hence, our first stop was the delightful little CarinaE winery, where we got given the tour (and met the one-woman bottle-labelling operation! - it's a small operation), tasted 3 of the wines, and liked them so much that we bought a bottle of a fourth (a Torrontes that they bring in from Cafayate - it was mid-30s, so refreshing white wine is a good thing!) to share (and at this point Pete and I demolished the sandwiches we'd made). After that we went to the Familia di Tomaso place, which is also described as a small place, and in terms of output it is, but it's become such a fixture on the tourist circuit that it's very busy, and we felt somewhat like we were being put through on a conveyor belt for the tastings there. So we moved along to the La Serna vineyard, where we had gourmet sausage sandwiches or steak sandwiches, and a nice bottle of Malbec. And then we moved on to Tempus Alba.

Now, we hadn't planned for this to be our last stop. But we hadn't planned on Maverick. That obviously wasn't his real name, the bartender at Tempus Alba was actually called Cristian, but the nickname stuck. Our first experience of him was his determination to kiss everybody when we arrived. Though he told me I was too hot and pushed me under the air-conditioning. Then he advised us, if we had any idea which wines we liked, not to bother with the tasting and just get a bottle or two. We did the maths on some of the bottles and decided this made sense, selecting a bottle of Malbec Rosado, similar to what we had tried first, and a bottle of Tempranillo, on the basis that we hadn't tried that yet, and adjourned to the sun-deck where most of the tables were set. And there we met two English lads whom Marissa had met before. And found out that they'd been there for about 45 minutes, supposedly doing a wine-tasting, but largely being ignored. Cristian had apparently been very friendly, got them set up, then spent much of his time polishing the bar or sitting talking with some friends of his and smoking. So they nicknamed him Maverick, and we adopted it.

To give you a flavour of Maverick, here's a few examples. The lads who'd given him the name decided to move on.
"How much do we owe you?" they ask.
"I don't know, what did you have?" comes the response.
"Well, we were sort of doing the wine-tasting..." is the slightly sheepish answer.
"Oh. well, what do you think it cost?" he came back.
"About 8 pesos...?" one of the lads suggests hopefully.
"Sounds about right" comes the response.
The tastings are supposed to cost 20 pesos. In another exchange, he invited us all to a party at "a friend's house" that night. We discussed it a little, and Pete quite liked the idea. At this point Maverick asked Marissa:
"So, do you party all night, then?"
"Sure, I'm a Kiwi, we all do. Do you?" came the game reply
"Oh no, not me. Well, not without help anyway..." was the slightly worrying response.
Other memorable moments included walking up and caressing the shoulders of both Pete and Ben (at this point, I thanked my lucky stars that I had been sent to the air-con on arrival!), and when he decided that he wanted to go home and informed us that the police were here to escort us home for our safety...!

Still, we'd spent over an hour up on Maverick's terrace, so we had to abort the possible visit to a chocolate and licquers place (given that the latter has absinthe as a speciality, probably a good thing!) and just power on back to Mr Hugo's, much of the time on the dirt hard shoulder as it appeared to be rush hour for all the buses and lorries in the area. Although slightly later than the 7pm suggested, we were still in time for some of the post-wine-tour-wine, as well as conversing with our fellow intrepid explorers from the day and ooh-ing and aaah-ing at the most gorgeous little kitten. It was around 8pm and getting dark by the time we headed out onto the road to flag down a bus back to Mendoza (for which Mr Hugo basically paid for the tickets, earning him a standing ovation from us all for not forcing us to try and dig out change for the damned ticket machine). Heaven knows what the regular users of the bus thought of about 20 crazy, half-cut gringos and gringas sitting on their bus giggling their way back to the city.

Still, this was only the daytime portion of the celebration, as we'd decided to meet up for drinks later, once we were all cleaned up, at Break Point, the place where Ben, Dee and Marissa were staying, handily situated right on the bar strip on Villanueva. Back at our hostel, Pete and I discovered we had two new room-mates, a pair of Swedish girls called Linda and Sofia (no, I'm not making this up), who decided to tag along with us. So we all headed over to Break Point, where we managed to nab an outside table to have a few al fresco beers. Unfortunately, we left it a bit late to move on, and everywhere was rammed (certainly not with outside table space for a party of 7!) when we tried to find a new perch, so we ended up indoors. At this point, people slowly started to drop away from the group, first Marissa, then Ben (who was nearly falling asleep in his chair) and Dee. Our Swedish room-mates wanted to find somewhere to go salsa dancing, a prospect which I, with my utter lack of any latin dancing experience, viewed with mild horror, but we got suggested places from the bar staff and headed off across town.

Disappointment was to greet us, though, when we found they'd actually pointed us to a regular dance club, playing loud doof-doof music. After much discussion outside the entrance to a couple of places, I indicated that this was not my preferred way to spend the night, and that I would head home, leaving them to enjoy the dancing. And then they decided they didn't really feel like it anyway. So we ended up back in the Irish pub, Believe. Aaah well. A slight anticlimax to a great day, but probably for the best.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why you should not pick your drink based on your drinking partner's name

Another in the growing list of lazy days. Spent some of the time watching TV down in the common area (as a result of which, I can now add "XXX", that Vin Diesel masterpiece, to my list of "Really Really Silly Films"), went on the net for a bit, partly to Skype home and say Happy Birthday to my little brother Alex, and then went for a late lunch at a little place just across from the hostel with Pete and Lev. The latter had to get his stuff in order for his bus that evening, so Pete and I then headed off across town to the gigantic Parque San Martin, where we wandered for a bit before realising it was so big we actually needed some kind of a map. We were hoping to get to Cerro Gloria, where there's apparently a monument to the troops of the Army of the Andes who crossed over to fight the Spanish in the wars of independence, but by the time I swallowed my pride and let Pete ask for directions, it was getting late and we were advised by the locals not to go up there.

On the way back across town, we went down Avenida Villanueva, where many of the bar/restaurants are, getting an idea of the feel of the place, as we were thinking of heading out the following night. We then swung by one of the ubiquitous Carrefour supermarkets (the first time I saw one of them in South America was weird, like when I saw Tesco's in Thailand) to get some supplies for lunch for the wine tour we were planning the next day and for having a few drinks at the hostel that evening. The initial plan was to get some cachaca and make caipirinhas, but we couldn't find either limes or bagged crushed ice, which rendered this rather less of a good idea, so just settled on getting some vodka. Pete was somewhere between elated and horrified that you can get a litre of vodka for less than 2 quid in the supermarket here, and in the end we decided that it was fated to be when we found one of the brands of vodka was called "Peters".
Back at the hostel, after we'd got cleaned up, we started on the vodka, initially with some of the "Paso de los Toros" grapefruit drink I'd gotten somewhat hooked on, and then with apple juice (Pete's favourite way of consuming it, and one I'd gotten to like whilst in Krakow). Alcohol being the social lubricant it is, we started chatting rather more with our fellow hostellers, including Australians, Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch and French, before eventually getting chatting to three Argentine girls. You could tell we were a little drunk by this point, as Pete scarcely spoke a word of the language, and my Spanish is rudimentary, and at least initially it appeared none of them spoke English. We managed to gather that they were two sisters, Noelline and Evangelina, the former studying in Mendoza, and Noelle, a colleague of the latter, before it turned out that Noelle spoke pretty good English, so I was spared some of the ongoing challenge of translating for Pete whilst he tried to chat up Evangelina. I've been a translator for people a few times before, and a wingman when out with other lads on the town, but not normally both at once!

After realising that we'd finished off the vodka, the girls suggested going to a bar they had had recommended, which was called something like "Iris". We obviously thought this was a fantastic idea, and wandered off across town, following the directions they'd been given. Amusingly it turned out that the bar wasn't Iris, it was Irish - they'd brought us to Believe, the local "Irish pub"! There we settled in for a little while, but tiredness, budget, the need to be up and about in the morning, and the fact that Pete was visibly rather drunk at this point (I might well have been as well, but I couldn't see me...!) conspired to send us home relatively early (i.e. only about 3am or so...)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crossing the Andes. Neither Hannibal nor any elephants in sight...

Another day, another border crossing. I've had that feeling a few times on my travels, but just occasionally, the cross-border schlep is actually really worth it. When you're going through one of the highest passes in the Andes would be one of those times. The first couple of hours or so were pretty uneventful, the usual greenery of the Chilean countryside whizzing by with the mountains just about visible in the distance in the haze. Then we started up the valley towards the pass. At this point, my memory took me back to the approach to Milford Sound in New Zealand, where it all starts with the valley narrowing in a bit, and then gets closer and closer. In this case, the mountains get up above the treeline before things start getting close around the road, and there's a long series of switchbacks back and forth across the mountain, including several tunnels and avalanche shelters (if the producers of the next Bond film are looking for a good road to chase down, I reckon this'd be pretty solid at keeping people's attention!) before the final tunnel (about 2 miles or so long) through the mountains - it used to go over the very top of the pass, by a statue of Christ the Redeemer (he gets in everywhere!), but they cut the journey time down a fiar old bit when they built the tunnel. Pete and I spent a good part of the valley approach and the climb up the switchbacks frantically trying to snap the scenery through the bus windows, with mixed results (stupidly, we'd got seats on the sunny side of the bus, so a lot of my pictures have reflections of the bus's horrible orange curtains somewhere in them...).

The border post itself is on the Argentine side of the pass, where officials from both countries stamp your respectively in and out, and the scans for fruit, vegetables, dairy etc are made. This would be one of the times that the Force was with me travelling-wise, as we got to the border with a couple of small minibuses in front of us, whereas by the time we had all been processed and our bus was ready to leave, there were 5 double-decker coaches queued up for the crossing - I would probably have done my nut if I'd been on one of them! After the formalities were out of the way, it was a pretty straightforward onward run into Mendoza itself, though the scenery is also beautiful on the Argentine side of the pass, just not quite so steep and twisty. Once we got to the bus station, owing to a lack of local cash and the non-functional state of the only ATM we could find in the terminal, we ended up walking across town to our hostel. This was really only tolerable thanks to the way Mendoza is set out - it's technically a desert city, but thanks to the irrigation canals (some of them dating back before the Spanish invasion) which supply the surrounding vineyards and the city itself from the Andes, there are trees all along the roadsides, with water usually bubbling along. Given the temperature was in the 30s for most of our stay there, the shade and the moisture were much needed!

Our home for the next few days was the Hostel Independencia, just off the north side of the Plaza of the same name. One of the bigger places I've been in recently, and consequently maybe not quite as easy to meet people as it might have been, although having someone you're already hanging around with affects that as well, obviously. The staff were generally pretty cool, although they did seem occasionally to have a wee bit too much of a sense of humour. That evening, I welcomed Pete to Argentina by dragging him out to go get giant bife de chorizo steaks - unfortunately, he couldn't finish his, so I had to. Ahh, the things we do for our friends when travelling. After that, we got chatting back at the hostel with an American lad called Lev, who was hobbling somewhat after doing his leg in earlier in his trip, and ended up going for a quick beer with him, but it had been a long day so we turned in pretty early.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Open Skies

Morning brought a rather abbreviated goodbye to Mollie who, despite our entreaties to also head over to Mendoza and keep our little band of musketeers intact, was heading down south through Chile for a while. After goodbyes and breakfast, I caught up on a bit more internet time on Pete's laptop and read for a while, before we headed into town to get him a ticket to Mendoza the next day (I had already got mine the day I arrived). On the way there, we had a nice set-lunch deal at a little bar-restaurant called Palta's, and afterwards we headed up to Cerro Bellavista, to see the Museo de Cielo Abierto.

Now, Valpo is known as the artistic capital of Chile, and quite a bit of this is visible around town in the form of street art - some of this graffiti is spectacular, and some of it is the usual mindless vandalism that comes to the fore when certain people get their hands on a spray-can, and some of it, in the form of the "Open Air Museum" is done by recognised artists on a trail around one of the more central hills. To be honest, by the time Pete and I had finished the trail around the hill, we were both of the opinion that much of the amateur stuff is better than the stuff done by these professionals.

Still having some time left that afternoon, we headed over to Cerro Artilleria which, as the name might suggest, has something of a military connection, being home to what was once a military college and is now the Naval Museum. Unfortunately, we were a bit too late to see around the museum, but we could still enjoy some of the best views we'd had out over Valpo, as the haze and mist which had blighted much of our time there had now cleared off somewhat. For our evening meal we paid another visit to Mastodonte, where I had chicken in a pepper sauce and Pete broke the habit of a lifetime by getting fish and finding he actually quite liked it, then we went back to the hostel where we sat around in the yard chatting to Nadja and 2 French ladies, Sylvaine and Clemence.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Premier beach resort, my a*$e

After a surprisingly good breakfast, featuring more good brown bread along with ham and some fruit, Pete, Mollie and I went out to explore the city a little bit more and then head over to Valparaiso's sister city just up the coast, Viña del Mar. Our principal objective in town was the Museo Almirante Cochrane, celebrating Chile's favourite adopted Scottish naval hero, which was at the top of Cerro Cordillera. The plan was to get the ascensor up there, look around the museum, then head back down to the town centre and the railway station. Unfortunately, this failed to take into account two things - firstly, the ascensor wasn't operating, so we had the best part of 200 stairs to climb (you can all imagine my joy at that...); and secondly, the museum appeared to be somewhat less than we had had indicated to us - my generous spin was that perhaps they were refurbishing the place, but basically there was nothing to see as most of the house was closed off, and all you could do was go out on the back terrace and take in more views of the city.

So we swallowed our slight disappointment, and headed for Viña, reputedly Chile's main beach resort town. The first surprise was quite how close the two cities are - the connecting train only took about 15 minutes or so. The second was how unlike any of our idea's of a beach town the place looked once we got out of the train/metro station. The third was the discovery that said beach resort had built a municipal carpark on what appeared to be a mass of reclaimed land in the estuary of the town's river, taking up about 3/4 of the potential channel. When we then discovered that much of the seafront was a jumble of rocks that wouldn't have looked out of place on the British coastline, liberally festooned with rubbish, and that when you did get to the sand, the vista was dominated by probably one of the world's ugliest piers, we came to the universal conclusion that Viña del Mar is actually a bit of a hole. And an expensive hole at that, judging by the cost of food.

Back in Valpo, we headed back to the hostel to freshen up, then went out to investigate one of the food places recommended by my Footprint guide, called Mastodonte. The book describes fairly kitsch interior - what this actually means is that, on the Mastodon/Mammoth theme, there are large, colourful murals of jungle scenes and the like, and fake stuffed heads on the walls in the ground floor part, whilst the basement section is more like a prehistoric cave. On the bright side, it does very good traditional (i.e. fairly unhealthy) Chilean food, in massive portions, and has beers from the local El Puerto brewery (including Redbeard red ale, and Blackbeard black ale - can you see what they did there?). I had a chacarero, a Chilean slant on the "massive beef sandwich" theme, containing lots of green beans though not, as far as I could tell, any sauerkraut this time. Oh yeah, and about half of Mollie's salmon, as the portions were a bit big. Yum.

After that, we went back to the hostel, where Pete and I, who had been tormenting Mollie for much of the last day with our mass of shared cultural references which meant nothing to her (Mysterious Cities of Gold is one that comes up a lot here, for obvious reasons), introduced her to the wonder of the BBC Comedy department which is Coupling, which Pete helpfully had the first couple of series of on his laptop. She lasted a couple of episodes before crashing out, whilst we hung on for a couple more, glorying in the comedic genius that is Jeff, and giggling along to the classic episode "Inferno". And then it was time for bed again.