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How do you wrap up 9 months of travel??

Us at Lunch
Us at Lunch in Ollantaytambo

In less than 2 weeks time, we return to our homeland after 9 months of travel in South America. I have been reflecting on this and thinking of how I can distill this amazing time into one blog post and its really not easy. Just scroll down and go back to each month since December 2009 and you will see that we have seen and done and experienced so much.

It has been an amazing privilege to have been able to do this at this time in our lives….to coin a cliché, it has been life changing and I really mean that. South America has been an amazing place to explore, we have travelled through Argentina, Chile, Peru and were fortunate enough to go to Antarctica for 11 days. These experiences have shaped our thinking, moulded our ideas and brought us to the cliff edge of things that we never thought we would experience in our lifetime, let alone in 9 months.

We have been to one of Earths Last Edens…Antarctica. A place that truly embodies everything it is made out to be and so much more. It is almost like landing on another planet, a planet untouched by human habitation, unblemished by mans greed and materialism, a place of audible silence and silent magnificence. It is a place unlike any other I have visited and probably will remain so. To say that Antarctica is breathtaking is an understatement, to say it is majestic, does it no justice, you simply have to see it to believe it…and I believe that I will go back and see it again. The reason for this lengthy discourse is because on our way to Antarctica was one of my first crazy experiences that defined part of this trip. Our experience happened in the Drake Passage, the foreboding, treacherous stretch of sea from Ushuaia in Argentina to Antarctica. It was here, while “crossing the Drake” as it is known, that we experienced one of the most frightening experiences on this trip. On the morning of the second day we hit a gale force storm at sea that lasted for 2 and a half days. Massive 15 meter swells threatened to rupture our vessel, the sea angrily frothed and battered our ship. Fortunately it was a former Chilean navel ship and was built to cross the Drake Passage and was designed for precisely those conditions, but still, the water was a dark inky colour and ferociously smashed against the ship as if trying to expel us from the passage. There was a snowstorm at sea, a horizontal snow storm, that iced the ship up, making it look like a white phantom on the black sea. The windspeed was 100km per hour which pushed our ship around like a toy boat and made the 15 m swells even more ferocious and in my opinion more spectacular. In spite of this, we landed in Antarctica, much to the joy of 90% of the passengers who had been able to keep little food and liquid down as the ship was violently tossed to and fro for 2 and a half days, an amazing experience, one not easily forgotten.

Another memorable experience was seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. Before this trip, glaciers held no particular fascination for me, in fact I never really thought much about glaciers. So we left the partly frozen town of El Calafate and drove off to the National Park of the Glaciers. When you enter the park, you can’t see the glaciers, but once you round a particular bend, you get a glimpse of the massive monolithic bulk of the glacier called Perito Moreno. It is a sight that I will never forget, it was astounding, bigger than I ever imagined and more spectacular than any photo could ever convey. Once we got to the top of the hill where visitors can walk on a boardwalk to get a closer view of the glacier, you realize that we are very small beings in comparison to the sheer size of a force of nature that is a glacier. Perito Moreno Glacier towers 75 m above the water surface, its front wall is 5 km long and the whole glacier stretches for 30 km up the mountain valley. It is basically a moving city. It seems as if the glacier itself is alive, glaciers move as a result of pressure from ice forming high up in the valley. So when you stand in front of the glacier, it creaks, crack, groans and sounds like gunshots go off occasionally and this is because this massive ice city is edging ever closer to where we were standing. Millimeter by millimeter, this glacier moves, occasionally visitors are fortunate to witness a calving, this is when a chunk of the front wall of the glacier breaks off and a magnificent display of ice hitting water is seen. It was incredible to be standing before such a gigantic natural phenomenon and to be honest, I never wanted to leave.

Just in case we were short of experiencing natures power, we had the most terrifying experience yet, in Santiago, the capital city of Chile. We were there when an 8.8 earthquake shook half of Chile, the fifth largest earthquake on earth in the past 100 years. You can read about my remembrance of the quake here, but suffice to say that it was only the second time in my life that I truly believed that I was about to die. It is a sobering thought when you are faced with imminent death, I didn’t experience the “life flashing before me” thing, all I remember is that I was praying that it would stop. It didn’t….it went on for 2 and a half minutes, it felt like half an hour. I was genuinely surprised when it did stop and we were not dead, quite a surreal feeling of relief  and then the realization that once again, our lives had been spared, but to what end?

We moved on from Chile to Peru and in many ways Peru has been the highlight of our trip. We have loved it here and it really is an amazing place to visit. The Inca ruins and the pre Columbian civilizations remain a mystery. Machu Picchu is a site that still confounds most experts with its architecture, water systems and positioning, but Machu Picchu is only one of many such sites, some still to be discovered, Inca sites. There is a new site that has been opened up in the past few years called Choquequirao. This site, it is said, is bigger than Machu Picchu and in many cases even more spectacular if that were possible…having visited Machu Picchu, that statement amazes me and excites me.

So as we come to an end of nine months, it is impossible to summarise what we have seen, felt, done and experienced on this continent known simply as South America. We have learnt to speak a new language, even though we are not proficient, we can be understood, we have eaten unusual foods, sometimes we have not been sure what it is, but it tasted good, other times we have known what it is and it has been great (delicacies like Cuy, or guinea pig, and Anticucho, cow heart, cooked on a skewer, to name but a few)

Of course the best thing that has happened is that we have met amazing people on this trip, from university professors to cab drivers, you name them, we have met them. People from diverse backgrounds like a polish woman who escaped from Poland and sought refuge in Canada, Russian Jews who fled from Communism and rebuilt their lives in the USA, A Dutch man and his family who live in the Carribbean and are involved in helping the government of Bonaire integrate into the Dutch system. We have met Australians, New Zealanders, Orientals, Asians, Russians, Europeans from just about every country in Europe, Americans and of course Canadians. We have been astounded at how many new friends we have made and how many of them we are sure we will see again.

So at the penultimate leg of this incredible journey, we know we have managed to capture many images photographically, we have tasted new flavours physically, we have felt the violent shakes of an earthquake under our feet, but more than all of that, we have grown richer in this time. We have memories that will last as long as the rest of our lives.

We have seen things that in many cases seem unbelievable, but only when you emerge on the other side do you look back and see just what has happened. It has been an honour and a privilege, “once in a lifetime” cannot encapsulate the true meaning. Either way, we are greatly blessed to have done this and that the next leg of our journey will begin again shortly… we hope that you will travel with us again!

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Ushuaia – Antarctica’s waiting room

Ushuaia has been our home for the last few days. We have had to stay longer than expected because of our trip to Antarctica. In the process we have been really just relaxing and as a result, both Francis and I have been a bit sick with a cough and a sore throat, basically a head cold. The weather here hasn’t been helping much either, in the morning, you can go out and it will be sunny and warmish (Ushuaia never really gets very warm, it is a sub polar climate…) and within 20 minutes, the clouds descend over the mountains and it will be drizzling a fine icy rain. When the clouds lift, you notice that there is more snow on the mountains and then the wind blows off the snowy mountains into the city, can be a bit nippy then…Having said all that, Ushuaia is set in a beautiful setting. The city is down on the harbour and once you go three streets up you begin to climb some steep stairs as the mountains are literally just out of town, they are huge and beautiful and can be seen from anywhere in the city. So, this has been our home for the past few days and will be until the 8th Feb (only 4 days away) when we leave for the White Continent.

Ushuaia Harbour

Two nights ago the clouds lifted for a few hours and Ushuaia revealed her true beauty, so I quickly put on my camera backpack and went out and caught some of the last light of the evening. It was fun and I had a photography buddy with me. We met a Canadian couple in El Calafate called Paul and Sandra and they were coming down to Ushuaia too, so we got here before them and we booked some place in the hostel we were staying for them. Paul is a keen photographer and shoots weddings in Canada and was very keen to get some shots too. So, the light looked good and Paul and I went out and captured some of it.

From the boardwalk

The images you see in this post are the ones done on that evening, the big ship you see in the harbour is a cruise ship, the ship we will be going to Antarctica on will be smaller than that and we are going on an expedition trip. The cruise ships go down to Antarctica too, but they generally don’t to landings i.e. they don’t take the passengers onto the actual continent. Expedition ships do anything up to 3 landings a day and because they are smaller, they can fit into tighter spaces than the big cruise ships. So we are off soon, the countdown is on!!

Harbour Scene
Creative shot of the sunset at the end of the world!

Land of the Ice Giants

Panoramic of Perito Moreno

El Calafate is home to the National Park of the glaciers. Located just 80km out of El Calafate, this park is home to 47 glaciers, but only  3 of them are accessible, either by boat or land. The most famous of these glaciers is the Perito Moreno glacier. We were driven up there by bus and went into the park. When we arrived, it was raining, so we couldn’t get onto the mountainside to see the glacier, but when we did, we could not believe our eyes. This may sound contrived, but the sight of that glacier was the most amazing and spectacular natural phenomenon I have ever seen.

Full length of Perito Moreno
Perito Moreno - HDR shot
Francis as we enter the walkway to Perito Moreno
Big Blue

The Perito Moreno glacier is 30 km long and in total is 250km square of ice and rock. The front face of the glacier is 5km long and on average it is 74m tall (above the water) To say that it is majestic is a gross understatement, this glacier is nothing short of breathtaking. Firstly, when you stand in front of it, you realise that it is not static, it groans and creaks, sometimes it sounds like rolling thunder as it heaves forward. The glacier is constantly moving, but it is not noticeable, but you can hear it. Every now and then you hear a loud crack, similar to a gunshot, as it moves…occasionally pieces of ice from the front wall will fall off, this is called calving. Calving happens on a regular basis, but it is totally unpredictable, so you will be looking in one direction and hear shouts from the other direction, you swing around quickly and will see only the last pieces as they fall into the water below. It is spectacular to see it, there is a sharp crack, a deep rumble and then a roar as a piece of ice, the size of a few small houses, comes crashing into the water. I managed to catch one calving, you can see the pic with the 3 shots of it happening.We spent a few hours just looking at the glacier and it was mesmerizing, it was as if you couldn’t stop looking.

Perito Moreno Calving

The next day we went on a boat trip to see Glacier Spegazzini and Glacier Upsala and then to see Perito Moreno, from the water level. This too was completely amazing. We came up close to an iceberg in Lake Argentino, there are plenty of them floating around, and lots of amazing sights to see.

Up close with an Iceberg in Lake Argentino
Francis view the iceberg
Up close to the Blue Giant
The Blue Giant, from a distance...

Glaciers Spegazzini’s front wall is over 100m tall above the water, but not as wide as Perito Moreno, but still impressive. We could not get close to the front wall of Upsala Glacier. In recent time, because of the increasing temperatures, Upsala is calving much more often and when it calves, the whole front wall comes off. This is now happening once ever 20 days or so, therefore the bay in front of it is packed with icebergs and pieces of ice. This debris is 3km long, so the closest we could get to Upsala was 3km away.

Glacier Spegazinni - full front wall

By far, the trip to the glaciers was the highlight of our trip so far, these Ice Giants are something quite spectacular and no photo can do them justice, to see, hear and almost feel them is what makes a visit to them so worthwhile…a once in a lifetime experience.

Some images from Chacra Millalen

We had a really good time at Chacra Millalen. The setting was absolutely beautiful, we were surrounded on three sides by some amazing mountains each of which was 2km high or taller. On our first night there, snow fell on the mountains overnight, so here are some of the images I captured on the days after that.

Chacra Millalen Snowfall
Chacra Millalen Snowfall
Mountain at Millalen
Sunset at Millalen

Please be patient…we have..no access

We have been working on a farm in El Hoyo for the past week and they don’t have any internet access on the farm for us to use. So, today we came into the town of El Bolson (15 Jan) to book our bus tickets to Calafate and check emails etc. We are leaving El Hoyo on the 21 Jan 10 and will probably only be back online by the 23rd. The bus trip to Calafate is 26 hours and once we are there we will be online again. We are doing well, working in the sun and roughing it a bit, to see where we are staying, check out the farms blog (mostly in Spanish , some English) http://www.chacramillalen.blogspot.com

Will post as soon as possible!

Bosque Arrayanes and Isla Victoria

Bariloche has some amazing attractions and if the weather is good,  you have to get out there and see them. Bariloche’s climate can change rapidly in a day from being reasonably warm and calm in the morning to winds so strong in the afternoon that the lake is whipped up into sea sized waves and the foreboding clouds all but cover the surrounding mountains. So, when we saw it was going to be a good day we opted to go on a boat trip on the lake and visit Bosque de Arrayanes (Forest of Arrayanes) and Isla Victoria (Victoria Island) We set off and caught the bus to the jetty where the boat leaves from, which is set in one of the most picturesque areas in Bariloche. It is so picturesque that Bariloche’s premier hotel, Llao Llao Hotel perches on a nearby hill overlooking the mountains and lake, absolutely stunning…

Boat Ride on the lake

When we booked out boat trip, there were two choices of boat, we could have booked on the modern catamaran or the older schooner type boat. We opted for the older boat, it had much more character and from what we could understand, had been running these trips since the 1940’s. The boat was beautiful, it was a true old maiden of the sea (or lake) she was brassed up and shiny and pretty much in excellent condition. She was slow, but you were able to really take in your surroundings while she took you to the destination.

Docked on the lakeside

The boat trip is beautiful, the lake water is amazingly blue and clear and you are completely surrounded by huge snow capped mountains, in the lake are the small islands which are covered in pine forests and we couldn’t help thinking of Canada. The boat trip was so reminiscent of taking the ferry from Victoria to Vancouver that for a minute we had to remind ourselves we were in South America.

Our first stop was Bosque de Arrayanes or Forest of Arrayanes. The Arrayanes is a shrub, although it looks like a tree. It has a reddish brown bark and it grows tall and thick, giving it a fairy tale effect. It is believed that Walt Disney wrote Bambi after visiting Bosque Arrayanes, being inspired by its absolute beauty and uniqueness. The forest is a natural forest and is unique to Bariloche, these bushes and forests don’t occur anywhere else in the world. It was amazing to spend some time walking through the forest. The park is protected, so you walk on a raised wooden deck and it is serene and inviting. We only were able to spend 45 minutes in the forest but we could have spent much more time there.

Bosque Arrayanes
Bosque Walkway

Next stop was Victoria Island. This is a large island in the middle of Lago Nahuel Huapi (Lake Nahuel Huapi) and has a few walking trails, a restaurant and a hotel on it. It is a large island, but very natural and very beautiful too. We got off and spent almost 3 hours on the island. We were a bit disappointed to not be able to do 2 of the 3 walks as they were closed off for some repairs or something, so we walked the only open route. This route took us through the natural pine forests and along the peninsula of the island which gave some great views of the surrounding islands and the lake. We then were back on our boat, really tired by now, and back to Bariloche. We had a long day, but stopped off at a coffee shop for something to eat and that is where we met Walter, Deborah and Matteo. We became instant friends and in fact, they live in Seattle in the USA, Walter is Argentinian and Deborah is American. They were on holiday in Bariloche and were having something to eat. So we chatted for a while and then swopped email addresses and said goodbye and hoped to visit them in Seattle one day. The next day we got an email from them inviting us to dinner with them and Walters family at their holiday place. So, we went, but that is a story for the next blog…

Disembarking

Bariloche – The Switzerland of Argentina

We arrived in Bariloche and were amazed at its incredible beauty. After being in the semi – desert area of Mendoza, Bariloche was the complete opposite. Officially known as San Carlos de Bariloche, it is a true gem in the Patagonia region of South America. It is a magnificent region and the town itself is nestled into the mountainside overlooking Lago Nahuel Huapi (Lake Nahuel Huapi) This lake is so big, that it actually looks like the sea, but of course it isn’t, it is fresh, clean and very clear mountain water. The lake itself is 529km square, so it’s a large lake and has been measured as 438m deep, but no sign of Nessie here, maybe it would have to be Jorge. Bariloche has an interesting history and even some Nazis were found to be hiding here as recently as 1995, so its an interesting place. The town is clean and the air is fresh. Right now, its summer, but its not warm (just ask Francis) and if the wind blows, woohoo, it is really cold. The wind blows off the mountains and across the lake and up into the town, if you happen to be in the crossfire when it hits the town, you freeze, good practice for Canada….

The buildings here in Bariloche seem to be influenced by European Alpine villages and look very much like Swiss or Austrian log homes. In many ways, Bariloche reminds us of Canada, on the west coast with the high mountains, huge lakes and stunning alpine scenery.

Civic Centre in Downtown Bariloche
Swiss Home in Bariloche
Swiss Influence

So, to make sure could see the view properly, Francis and I went up Cerro Otto, or Mount Otto. We had to go up via cableway, so once again Francis had to face her fear of heights and this one was quite steep and high. Once at the top though, the view was amazing. You could see a 360 degree view of the whole town and surrounding mountains. The larger mountains are still snow capped, but in winter, the whole area would be white and snow covered. We spent an hour at the top (there is a revolving restaurant there too) and then came down.

Cable Car
Francis taking in the view
View from Cerro Otto
Surrounding Mountains - Cerro Otto

Bariloche is famous for its chocolate. There is a chocolate shop literally on ever block of the main streets and each one of them MAKES their own chocolate. No Cadburys here…only hand made stuff. So we visited the chocolate museum and it was really fantastic to see how it gets made, we wanted to buy some there, but it was really expensive. We walked a bit further down the road and went into another shop and you could see them making it there too, so we watched, caved in and bought some there, a little cheaper, but wow, really tasty stuff and very fresh. The amazing thing is, every chocolate shop is full of people, the Argentinians certainly have a sweet tooth and so each chocolate shop seems to be really busy. So we bought our first chocolate and we were hooked, each day since, we now go for a choccie run at about 4pm in the afternoon.

Chocolate Museum
Chocolate Mixer
Cherries dipped in Chocolate

Also, on this same evening, we went to dinner at a local couchsurfer called Julie (pronounced Hoo – lee) She made a traditional Asado (similar to a braai) for us and prepared us some food. It was great, the meat, of course, was amazing. Argentinian beef is really good and she was a very interesting person. She is a scientist and is involved in researching the wildlife in Baricloche…so she was very interesting company to say the least.

Julie and Francis
Asado - yes, thats meat..

After dinner we headed back to our Hosteria, but here is the interesting thing. We walked down about 500m of dirt road from her house at about 11:15pm and then got to a main road where we stood for about 10 minutes and waited for a bus back to town. We then got on that bus and were dropped off safely in town about 20 meters from out Hosteria. It is incredible to think that we could never attempt this in SA and that the infrastructure here works so well…buses here, even in a small place like Bariloche, run until midnight. The next day, we went out on a boat trip, but that will be my next post, so keep on looking…should go up soon.